It’s the holiday weekend and I have chocolate to eat, so just a very quick reminder that BBC stalwart Doctor Who returns to UK screens this evening (7:20 PM on BBC1) with a lot going on: not only do we have Pearl Mackie’s debut as new companion Bill, but it’s also Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi’s final season as showrunner and eponymous hero, respectively. All three of them will have to get through the run without me, however as, much as I enjoyed the Christmas special, the show in general lost its spark for me some time ago. If you’re still watching, I’d be interested to hear what you think – comments are welcome as always.
I’ve not been overly impressed with Doctor Who over the past couple of seasons, so I wasn’t expecting much from this Christmas special. At one point, I wasn’t even expecting to watch it. But tradition won out, and I’m glad it did. There may well be complaints that this wasn’t Christmassy enough (or indeed at all), that it was geared to the US market or that there are far too many superhero stories out there already, but I thought Steven Moffat’s The Return of Doctor Mysterio was great fun. A light, clever, witty homage to comic books and superheroes, complete with spectacle-wearing nerd/ supervigilante, plucky girl reporter and alien brain invasion, this wasn’t reinventing the wheel, but it was smart, fast and funny, zipping along at speed with just a tiny little touch of sadness sprinkled lightly on top. No Santa and no snow, but no matter: I thoroughly enjoyed it.
As is traditional for Christmas specials (particularly those set right after the loss of treasured companions) The Doctor’s in a bit of a mood. So, obviously the way to cheer him up is to thrust him into a “zany” intergalactic adventure with River Song, a homicidal head-hunting cyborg and a stolen diamond.
So far, so not my jam.
As is also traditional for Christmas specials, though, there’s some stuff about love and regret and that might have been a bit more my jam except that, frankly, it’s not laid on remotely thickly enough: I like my Christmas specials extra-sentimental and gooey and old-fashioned, and while the last few minutes of this teetered on the edge of giving me something to cry about, they never quite got there. Despite the very grown-up (and completely baffling – even a flowchart wouldn’t be enough for me to understand it) love story at its core, it felt like “The Husbands of River Song,” much like the Professor herself, was too busy being arch and clever to ever really touch the heart. Bah, humbug.
“Ambitious” is a word I’ve already used to describe some of this season, characterised as it has been by a number of episodes which have tried to do big, bold things – some of which worked and some of which didn’t. Fitting then, that they saved the most “ambitious” episode for last, with the Doctor and the show defying the rules of time and space and modern tv audiences, even if, again, some of the big, bold things work beautifully and some don’t.
“Hell Bent” begins with the Doctor and that infernal guitar heading into a diner, where Clara – a character who’s had just as much screen time since she “died” as she did when she was alive – is a waitress, and proceeding to play her a song and tell her a story. Is it a dream? Is it a miracle?
As it turns out, it’s neither, but we have to go “the long way round” to find out, touching on a huge amount of the show’s Time War history as we do. It’s an episode obviously crafted with immense love and respect for Doctor Who lore but it does, I think, require a much longer relationship with the show than I’ve had to fully appreciate and understand much of it. As a relatively late guest to the Gallifrey party, I was more guessing than entirely comprehending two thirds of it.
Still, for all “Hell Bent” is about the Doctor’s earliest history, it’s also about his most recent, specifically his profound connection with Clara – someone so all-consumingly important to him, he’d tear down the universe and everything in it to bring her back.
There are other moments which resonate – the sequence where the firing squad make their stand with the Doctor is glorious – but it’s the last twenty minutes or so which work best; a long, heartbreaking goodbye, with an unexpected but desperately sad sting in the tale. It might not entirely make sense, but it’s still lovely and moving, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are wonderful, throughout, and for all I’m not keen on the 2015 fashion of killing then resurrecting characters (see exhibit 1 and exhibit 2), Clara deserved a much better farewell than “Face the Raven” and this episode gave her one. Even if, to my mind, being stuck in a box with the appalling Ashildr for eternity is worse than anything the Raven could come up with. At least this way, we might see Clara again. And even if we don’t, like she said, we have the songs and the stories. Aw.
“Is it a trap? Is it a prison? Is it a torture chamber?”
No, it’s the Doctor’s own private hell: an endless loop of an episode, where his only company is either in his mind (Hi Angel Clara!) or trying – somewhat half-heartedly – to kill him.
The design of this admirably ambitious episode owes something to Escher, the theory owes much to The God Complex, and the execution owes everything to the supremely talented Peter Capaldi who has to try to keep the audience engaged via running commentary throughout.
It’s a thankless task, however, as, intricate, clever and profound though the whole thing is – Steven Moffatt certainly knows how to plot a puzzle – it also goes on forever. Which, given the big reveal, is obviously the entire point, but is also deeply frustrating to watch despite Capaldi giving it everything possible. I wanted to like “Heaven Sent” but I got fed up with it very early on and only really started to get interested when the Doctor cracked the mystery – it felt like the episode and I both woke up when the Doctor did, and everything suddenly got a lot more gripping. Which made the last ten minutes or so very good indeed, but the rest of it? A swing and a miss.
For reasons best known to itself, the BBC decided to rob tonight’s Doctor Who of much of its potential power by announcing beforehand that it was going to be the end of Clara’s time with the Doctor. Yes, we already knew Jenna Coleman was leaving, but, much like the other death I was spoiled for this week, knowing exactly when it was happening undermined the story somewhat, although, unlike the other big tv death I was spoiled for this week, the story wasn’t too great to begin with: old friend Rigsy is framed for murder by old irritant Ashildr – I despise Ashildr – who is now calling herself “Mayor Me” (just die already) and running an alien refugee camp like a totalitarian state.
It’s all a ruse to trap and punish the Doctor because this whining, wretched ingrate of an immortal still can’t see that the fault is with her not with him, so, as soon as the Girl Who Grumbled appears, everything goes to pot because she annoys me so much I can’t see straight. Which is a shame because “Face the Raven” really could have packed some punch, if I hadn’t been seething my way through it.
On the positive side, though, Jovian Wade’s Rigsy is very sweet and likeable, Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi are their usual excellent selves and there’s some pertinent commentary about not insulting the memory of lost loved ones with mindless revenge – particularly poignant in a week when social and every other kind of media has been awash with vile, vicious bigotry, blaming the most vulnerable for the very horrors they’re fleeing from.
I never liked Clara as the “Impossible Girl” when she was more puzzle than actual person, but, over the last couple of seasons, she became a proper companion and well-developed character in her own right, and I grew to like her very much, so I’m genuinely sorry to see her go. What it will do to a series that’s already struggling, I don’t know. I wish it could have been bloody Ashildr instead.
Found footage, carnivorous monsters and people running screaming round a dark, abandoned space station? Yep, all the ingredients for a scary Doctor Who ep are here, even if Sleep No More does take a while to get going – I was a little bored at first.
Still, Mark Gatiss’s contribution to the season has plenty of eerie atmosphere, some decent shocks and a great, if confusing final scene, although I don’t think I fully understood how the story panned out at the end or the actual mechanics of the Sandmen/Morpheus situation.
I have seen scarier Whos, possibly because I found them a bit less confusing than this one, but this was still a perfectly respectable contribution to the “sleep is even more essential than you think it is” field of science-fiction. One of the better eps in what has turned out to be a patchy season, I think.