[Completely new full-length reviews of these episodes (and the rest of Series 7) appear in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
This year’s Doctor Who series was very short: just five episodes (of the usual 45 minutes each, which is about equivalent to one hour of advert-infested American TV). I’ve been too busy to write about each episode separately this year, but as the last episode has just finished, now is a good time to look back over all of them.
1. Asylum of the Daleks
The series started with a bang, using its best writer (showrunner Steven Moffat) and its most iconic bad guys (the Daleks, duh). Plenty to love about this episode, including lots of Doctorish Moments, lots of Daleks-being-Daleks, and the deliciously alien sense at the end of their not knowing any longer who he is. All part of the post-Wedding plan to bring the Doctor down from his mythical stature to something more like the eclectic amateur of the old series.
But the highlight was the brilliant way that Oswin’s part of the story was handled. From the beginning there was something not quite right about her: for someone who’d been holed up alone on a Dalek planet for a year, she looked altogether too clean, neat and glamorous. Of course, TV dramas often portray their heroines in this way in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and this could have been one more instance of that tendency. Despite this clue, and the Doctor’s fixating on the eggs used to make her soufflés, the reveal still caught me completely by surprise — a real shock, and one with a gut-level horror to it that’s rare in TV.
So a very impressive opening — probably my favourite Episode 1 since the series was rebooted in 2005. (For anyone who’s forgotten, the previous contenders were as follows. Doctor Chris: Rose. Doctor David: New Earth, Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime. Doctor Matt: The Eleventh Hour, The Impossible Astronaut, and now Asylum of the Daleks.)
2. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
… and then it all went wrong. On paper, this episode should have been a killer. It had all the ingredients: dinosaurs; spaceships, dinosaurs on spaceships. Problem was, it gave the impression of believing that just throwing dinosaurs and spaceships together was all that was needed, that the episode couldn’t fail. As a result, it sleepwalks a lot of the time, and once you get past the Doctor’s delighted exclamation of the title, there’s not much else to delight.
In particular, Queen Nefertiti was a complete non-event: there was no reason at all for her to be there, and once there she didn’t achieve anything. Same goes for the explorer guy whose name I can’t even remember (which is telling in itself). Hands-down winner in the Guest Cast Stakes was most certainly Arthur Weasley as Rory’s dad, in a role that expressed perfectly appropriate bafflement with just enough bashful heroism to balance it out. I’d be happy to see more of him … but of course that’s not going to happen.
And of course the big homicidal elephant on the spaceship is this: at the end, the Doctor deliberately kills a defenceless person. Wholly out of character, and completely inexplicable. Rotten writing, and I don’t know if I was imagining it but it seemed to me that you could almost read Matt Smith’s lack of conviction as he acted it.
Speaking of Smith, I felt this was his least convincing performance in the role generally. For the first time, his Doctor felt more like a collection of mannerisms than an actual person, a flaw that David Tennant fell into with increasing regularity as his tenure progressed. Again, I am going to attribute this mostly to the writing, which gave the impression of being a collage of superficially Doctorish statements and actions with little coherence.
[In the interests of fairness, I should say that I watched this episode on my laptop, alone in my room late one night at a conference, so it probably didn't get a fair trial. Small screen, tinny audio, and I was mentally and physically exhausted. I'll be interested to see whether it improves when I see it again.]
3. A Town Called Mercy
Much better this time. The setting was a new one for modern Who (and hasn’t featured at all since Old Series 3’s The Gunfighters in 1965 with William Hartnell). A much more convincing and characteristic Doctor, and I could have died laughing at his order in the bar: “Tea. But the strong stuff. Leave the bag in.”
As for the story: it unfortunately made promises that it couldn’t quite keep. The Other Doctor’s secret emerged slowly — that was pretty well handled — and the cyborg assassin came across as pretty sympathetic. But for me, the story was flawed in one crucial respect: the old sheriff, Isaac, sacrificed his own life to save The Other Doctor, but that sacrifice was rendered futile by the Other Doctor’s suicide. Really: if he was prepared to give his own life, he should just have done it right at the beginning: saved everyone a lot of time and trouble, and saved Isaac his life. This kind of plot calculus bothers me profoundly. It makes everything else that happens meaningless.
4. The Power of Three
In some ways, the most frustrating of all the episodes — because the premise was so fascinating but the execution so by-the-numbers. Doctor Who doesn’t offer a mystery as often as we might expect, and this was a good one (if a bit reminiscent of Nicholas Fisk’s Trillions). Why is the world suddenly full of small, featureless, black boxes? Where are they from? What do they contain?
Unfortunately, there’s a big credibility gap here that was never addressed. Seriously — not one of seven billion people saw the boxes arrive? None of the 24-hour security cameras caught their arrival? No-one made any attempt to force the boxes open? Cut them open? The Doctor didn’t have any equipment on the TARDIS to examine them with? Even given that the plot demanded the mystery continue, at least some kind of explanation could have been offered.
And then … when they do open … it feels like the writer never really had a plan in mind at all, and just throws everything he can think of at a wall in the hope that some will stick. Inevitably, there are some appealing parts here — when you throw that many dice, some are going to come up sixes. But no sense that there is an actual narrative taking place with a direction and a destination. Stuff just keeps happening, half-arsed idea piled on top of half-arsed idea in the forlorn hope of making a whole arse. Really not good enough at all. And in the end, as so often, it turns out to be a kill-everyone-on-Earth plan, and not even a particularly interesting one and … Well, it could have been so much more.
On the positive side, high marks for how the Doctor/Amy/Rory relationship is played in this episode. That aspect works well. It’s just a shame that there is so little for them to actually do. And so we come to …
5. The Angels Take Manhatten
And here is where it all comes together. Not flawless, but so much more intriguing, coherent, and moving than the three previous episodes. I can forgive the essential impossibility of the Statue of Liberty moving without anyone in New York seeing it, for the sheer crazy-great Stay Puft Marshmallow Madness of it all.
This time, the world is not in any immediate danger; nor even is New York, barring a throwaway comment about the Angels’ future plans. The story is much smaller, and much better for it. Four people who care deeply about each other; and who we care about three of. (Sorry, River.)
The plot makes sense, more or less. The device of the novel — and this is a fairly typical Moffat manoeuvre now I come to think of it — is played more for laughs than as an important plot point. That’s a winning strategy because it means its value to the plot can emerge more organically. I enjoyed the way that only gradually do the Doctor and Amy figure out what is going on — that the Angels want to capture Rory for good, rather than merely pushing him progressively further back in time. And the emotional payoff is pretty well earned, I think: I didn’t blub, but I did have to wipe something away from the corner of my eye. What makes it work is that we’re led to believe that we’ve already had Amy and Rory’s big emotional scene on top of the building. And then comes the delayed punchline.
And everyone plays it absolutely straight, which is as it should be.
Amy gets a big goodbye scene; Rory doesn’t even get that. He’s just gone. I like the reality, and brutality, of that.
I am afraid this series was less than the sum of its parts. And since there were only five parts, that makes it by far the least impressive of Matt Smith’s offerings. The opener and closer were both very good (and both, not coincidentally, written by Moffat himself). In the middle of the run, Mercy was a solid filler episode. But I am afraid that both of the other two were weak (and both, not coincidentally, written by Chris Chibnall).
I can’t for the life of me understand why Chibnall was given 40% of the episodes. His track record is pretty terrible: he’s been responsible for some of the very worst episodes of The Dreadful Torchwood, including Countrycide and the horrifyingly bad End of Days. Maybe Paul Cornell (Father’s Day, Human Nature) wasn’t available, but sure Moffat could have found someone better than Chibnall, and author who has never once given us an episode with a coherent through-line.
Despite my complaints I am very interested to see where Moffat takes us next year. I loved Amy and Rory — although it was Rose that redefined the companion role, A&R are head-and-shoulders my favourites, with Rory’s deadpan dependability a particular highlight. I will miss them terribly.
When I first saw photos of Jenna-Louise Coleman, who is to play the new companion, I was disappointed by how conventionally good-looking she is and worried that Who might be headed down that rabbit-hole. But the great thing about Coleman’s character, Oswin, is that she is a Dalek. And, if I remember right, dead. Now that is going to be interesting. How will it play out? What can it mean?
It’s ambitious, complicated, confusing — a situation that embodies all the best qualities of Doctor Who. So I am keen to see how it works out.
OK, I am done on Series 7. I’ve avoided reading any reviews, discussion or speculation of these episodes until I was able to write my own thoughts. Tomorrow I will go and see whether the world agrees with me.