Monday 8 May 2017

Knock, Knock.. Who’s There?

Season 10 has already set a high bar with its first three episodes, establishing a strong dynamic between new companion, Bill, and the soon to depart, Twelfth Doctor. So, with the fourth episode of the season upon us, does the trend continue, or does it fall flat on its face? Well..

Bill is on the move, searching for shared student accommodation. With her group of friends finding nothing within their price range, they are approached by an elderly gentleman outside of an estate agency. His presence, as we come to discover is no accident, and with him offering them a place to stay, the group enter into a contract with the mysterious Landlord, and move into his large, old house, which holds a dark secret.

The Doctor helps Bill move house, using the Tardis as a “removal van”, something which Bill suggests he could hire out. Questioning whether the Doctor sleeps in the Tardis, an old Fourth Doctor line is neatly resurrected, as he points out that “sleep is for tortoises”.  Rebutting the suggestion that he become a removal service. he comments upon his age, and that he is a Timelord, much to the amusement of Bill. Having mentioned regeneration, there is a swift diversion by the Doctor from the subject, and a contemplative look, suggesting some foreknowledge that his time in his present incarnation is almost over.


Before the opening credits roll, housemate Pavel disappears, and the mystery begins.

The large, draughty house fascinates the Doctor, and he soon makes himself at home; introduced by Bill to her roommates as her Grandad, or “Grandfather” harking back to the Hartnell era.

Housemate, Harry reveals his grandfather went hiking along the Great Wall of China, even attempting to steal a piece. In a deleted scene, we would have learned that his other grandparent was Harry Sullivan, after whom he is named.

Another of the students, Paul, attempts to make a pass at Bill, and again, her sexuality is brought to light, tactfully and respectfully, with the almost casual nature with which one would hope the LGBT community would be afforded by now. In fact, Paul is positively delighted to learn he never stood a chance!

With the house offering some suitably creepy creaking and groaning sounds, the group of friends speculate on whether it is the central heating, or, more wildly, a little doll that's come to life, or giant spider, both, perhaps, references to earlier stories.

Whilst the students are all well cast, Harry, in particularly, is an intensely likeable character, with a wide-eyed curiosity and a clear admiration of the Doctor. Perhaps it is the echoes of his grandfather upon whom the character is very loosely based, but I cannot help but feel Colin Ryan would make a magnificent addition to the Tardis crew.

2017-05-06 21.36.32After Bill and co discover the Doctor in a cupboard, we get a proper introduction to the Landlord, adeptly played by David Suchet, who exudes an unsettling, and often sinister calmness.

The Doctor is terrible with names, but reveals himself to be a fan of Little Mix, as, apparently, is Bill. The aspect of Bill’s life which the Doctor isn't a part of, is handled much more expertly than Clara’s casual blending of home life, teaching and occasional bouts of time travel when convenient.

It has a much more natural, refreshing quality,and with the Doctor effectively confined to Earth to guard the Vault, Bill having a life away from the Tardis is much more logical and credible.

Within no time, the wooden house begins to reveal its secrets, with roach-like creatures manipulating, and emerging from, the walls.

Bill and Shireen discover Pavel trapped within the wooden wall of the house, in a not too dissimilar pose from the unfortunate Cyberman in Earthshock, or Star Wars’ Han Solo, encased in Carbonite.

Meanwhile, the Doctor, Harry and Felicity find themselves trapped as the window shutters slam shut around them. Felicity manages to escape, however her fate is sealed outside the house. Pontificating on the origin of the creatures. The Doctor names them “Dryads”, a reference to Greek mythology surrounding tree dwelling nymphs.


Exterior scenes of the house bear strong resemblance to Gabriel Chase, from Ghostlight.

As they investigate further, Harry and the Doctor discover tenancy agreements dating back seventy years.  The Landlord explains his “daughter” Eliza, was dying, and must survive. Every twenty years, he takes in new “tenants”, which the house absorbs.

In the tower, Eliza is revealed to be made of wood, which is a rather disappointing explanation, although this is somewhat mitigated by Bill's astute observations, which lead to the revelation that Eliza is, in fact, not the Landlord’s daughter, but that he is her son. This is a nice twist, pointed with tragedy and poignancy.

The Doctor deduces that high pitched sound awakes the insects, which, in turn, revitalise Eliza., who, ultimately sacrifices her own life, and that of the Landlord, submitting themselves to the infestation. In a final act of mercy, Eliza restores Bill’s friends.

Whilst I have been critical of lack of death during Moffat’s tenure, it feels appropriate, with the house having not yet “digested” the students.

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No explanation is offered as to why the bugs turn Eliza into wood and eat everybody else or how their somewhat unusual diet sustains her. Similarly, how the Landlord learned that the house needed to be “fed” to keep Eliza alive remains a mystery. Perhaps, most significantly is that Eliza has  forget ton that the Landlord was her own son.

Nevertheless. the flashbacks, and subsequent scenes of the young, and older Landlord with his mother are beautifully realised, and David Suchet positively steals the final scenes. Whilst the “wooden mother” is somewhat unsatisfying, it is more than made up for by a positively stellar performance by Suchet.


To conclude the story, the “something” in the vault is playing the piano, and Nardole’s scenes are brief, but measured. His character has a much more refined quality, particularly with shorter interactions with the Doctor, and there is much less “Little Britain” in Lucas’ portrayal.

The episode is recorded in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and, unusually, 3D binaural stereo. I am a fan of both, so an episode with a three dimensional soundtrack was a tantalising prospect. Surround sound is, of course, used on all recent episodes, however, the use of binaural recording is new. At time it does veer toward “gimmicky”, with some of the “knocking” feeling rather superfluous, but ultimately it is a highly effective presentation. That said, the Dolby 5.1 track is every bit as rich and encompassing. For the technically curious, you can read how binaural recordings works HERE.

Stand out performances by Colin Ryan and seasoned actor and Poirot star, David Suchet, complete the episode. It is a somewhat muddled plot, however succeeds due to the rich blend of characters and tragic denouement.

Episodes with “sentient wood”, with perhaps the exception of The End of the World (The Forest of Cheam), never seem to fare terribly well. From their inception in Mark of the Rani, to wooden Cybermen, and more recently, the interminably tiresome In The Forest of the Night, the concept has never been particularly well realised. This story does fare somewhat better, snf although the revelation is less than satisfying, it can be overlooked by powerful, evocative performances from a superb cast.

Whilst, perhaps, not quite as strong as Thin Ice, Knock Knock is an effective, emotive episode. It does feel somewhat rushed, and the revelations and resolution are a little lacking. Nevertheless, it scores a well deserved 8.5/10. A solid effort!

Monday 1 May 2017

Packing A Punch.. A Review of Thin Ice

Following on from last weeks story, Smile, The Doctor and Bill pick up where we left off, gazing at an elephant cheerily wandering across the River Thames, precisely as elephants aren’t prone to doing. At the end of the previous episode, one could have been forgiven this was merely a cheap “sight gag”, however, as we will discover, it becomes an integral part of the plot.


The Tardis has landed in the middle of Regency London, at the peak of the last great Frost Fair of 1814. As an interesting side note, this is not the first time The Doctor has visited this point in history. Whilst he states this, it is not expanded upon, however those with a good memory may recall his mention of taking River Song there (A Good Man Goes To War).

With Bill and the Doctor leaving the safety of the console room, an ominous warning appears on the Tardis computer,, a “life form has been detected”…

Bill is initially concerned that she would be treated badly due to her skin colour, remarking that slavery was still “totally a thing”.. However, as they observe the festivities in the fair, she remarked that there were more black people present than the movies showed, with the Doctor observing that “so was Jesus.. history is a whitewash”.

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This is the first time that I can recall Doctor Who tackling the subject of race, and particularly racism, head on. It had been touched upon before, notably in Human Nature, with Martha, however was not explored beyond the occasional passing remark (one, if memory serves correctly).

The central plot of the story revolves around a creature held captive at the bottom of the Thames. This is not a new theme, by any stretch of the imagination, having been explored in The Beast Below, and the Torchwood story, Meat, however the utilisation of the creature is somewhat unusual, in as much as it is its excrement which is collected and used as fuel.

Having been robbed by a gang of street urchins, the Doctor and Bill track them down, in order to recover the sonic screwdriver, at which point the story takes a more sinister turn, with one of the children, “Spider”, being devoured by the creature. As a side note, it is refreshing to see death return to Doctor Who, where the dead have the courtesy of remaining dead, rather than reappearing at the end of the story to provide a happy resolution.

Spider’s death also gives Mackie an opportunity to further demonstrate her compassionate nature, and her, and the Doctor’s, interaction with the children is a positive joy. Twelve attempting “street talk” continues to show a more playful incarnation of the Doctor.

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There are surprising moments in the story.. The Doctor’s reaction to the delightfully odious Lord Sutcliffe, played by Nicholas Burns is unusual to say the least. Violence from the Doctor has not been seen for some considerable time, so, following a racially charged diatribe by Sutcliffe, a solid punch landed squarely on his face is unexpectedly out of character, and yet, at the same time, perfectly IN character. It’s a highly relevant scene and underscores the Doctor’s abhorrence toward intolerance. In less capable hands it could have made the Doctor appear “thuggish”, and yet walloping a bigot seems to come perfectly naturally to the Twelfth Doctor.

With Sutcliffe regaining consciousness, the Doctor delivers a bold, impassioned speech about the worth of a human life, which, sadly, as is often the case, falls upon deaf ears.

2017-04-30 11.23.44Capaldi is, perhaps, the finest orator since Tom Baker’s incarnation, and his speech about the value of a human progress is poignant, relevant and is, as always, delivered with utter conviction. His speech in The Zygon Inversion may have been have finest moment, however, this brief speech hits all the right notes. Although short, it it quite extraordinary.

The value of life is a strong theme, so far, in Season Ten, and whilst we have seen Bill’s emotions expressed on the subject, this is, perhaps, the most expressively succinct statement by The Doctor on the measure of a single, unremarkable human life.


Similarly, Bill’s discovery of the fuel burning underwater leads to a truncated “oh sh..” line, which gave this viewer a damn good laugh! Perfectly cut away, it seemed precisely in character for Bill, who is literally going from strength to strength in every passing scene. Pearl Mackie is an utterly captivating actor, convicting and is. above all, believable and intensely likeable.

Ultimately, with the aid of some wonderfully authentic diving equipment, the creature is released by the Doctor, doubtless making its way northward, to join the copious other Loch Ness monsters the show has created along the years. In the final scenes, the Tardis returns to the Doctors office, where he is greeted by a Nardole, who, aside from making tea mixed with coffee (for flavour!), is back to guarding the mysterious entity concealed behind the vault. With a whole lot of knocking going on, one cannot help wonder if something, or someone, rather masterful lurks behind the doors. It’s worth noting the Matt Lucas’ portrayal of Nardole is much more tempered and restrained in this episode, provide a pleasing blend of humour and apprehension.

The episode is beautifully directed and both scenery and costumes lend a wonderful authenticity to the Regency atmosphere. Frankly, it is a long time since Doctor Who has looked more splendid. If there is one minor criticism to be had, it is that the CGI is, at times, somewhat questionable, although not sufficiently so as to detract from the story in any way.

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The bottom line? Thin Ice is bloody magnificent! Yes, the plot is somewhat borrowed, and again, a little light, and I am just fine with that. Season Ten is proving that overly complex, convoluted storylines aren't necessary, and that sometimes, good old fashioned, back to basics storytelling can be much more effective. This season has had very strong overtones of the classic era, and Thin Ice is no exception. Writer, Sarah Dollard, whose last outing was Face The Raven, has produced a stellar story, packed with adventure and character exploration, and the episode is beautifully realised by director Bill Anderson.

Thin Ice earns a well deserved 9/10, and is a story which will, I am certain, stand up to repeated viewings.

2017-04-29 20.57.53Bill (Pearl Mackie), Sarah Dollard (writer), Peter Capaldi (The Doctor)

Monday 24 April 2017

Smile.. Your Life Depends On It..!

It was with some trepidation that I approached this episode. Leaving aside the fact the Emoji Robots, shown in the trailer, inspired little confidence, the episode was written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who was responsible for the interminably tiresome In The Forest of the Night. Suffice to say my expectations could not have been much lower.

It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise to find myself immersed in an engaging, entertaining story…

The plot borrows heavily from Ark In Space, with underpinnings of The Happiness Patrol thrown in for good measure, however, it manages to remain original, paying homage rather than simply emulating either story.

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Embarking on her first “proper” trip in the Tardis, Bill’s sense of wonder and curiosity are evident from the start. She chooses the destination (the future), and she and the Doctor land on an Earth colony, which seems to have a curious absence of human beings.

The plot itself is fairly basic; the colony is constructed from minuscule robots, and ‘staffed’ by the Emjoibots, with Emojis serving as a part of human language and culture to survive into the distant future.

The concept of ‘nanobots’ attempting to ensure happiness, as a final state of mind prior to death is a solid enough concept, not dissimilar to the Chula Nanogenes from The Empty Child. They take lives inadvertently, in the learned belief that they are enhancing the human beings, and with no concept of death.

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Much of the first 25 minutes of the episode is spent exploring the surroundings, and is fairly light on plot, however, what it lacks in storyline, it more that makes up for in character development.

Bill is shown to be a compassionate, emotional companion, who is clearly affected by the fate of her home planet, and of the colonists. She is bold, inquisitive, and the chemistry between her and the Twelfth Doctor is becoming more and more evident as the series progresses.

The set design is particularly impressive, and there are some nice cultural references; most notably a subtle David Bowie allusion, in which the Doctor states (to an Emojibot), “I’m happy.. hope you're happy too”. It is all the more pleasing as both Capaldi and writer, Cottrell-Boyce are both fans of Bowie, the latter having written a biopic of The Thin White Duke for Danny Boyle, although the film was ultimately shelved at the behest of Bowie himself.

Unfortunately, the story is let down by a weak “deus ex machina” ending, in which the resolution is a quick wave of the oft overused sonic screwdriver. The concept of “rebooting” the robots isn't inherently bad, however, it would have made a refreshing change to see the Doctor use his ingenuity to resolve this, rather than resorting to the increasingly tiresome use of the screwdriver.

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Nevertheless, weak plot and lazy dénouement aside, Smile is a surprisingly good effort. It’s witty, engaging, funny and emotive, in all the right places. The relationship between Bill and the Doctor is developing nicely, and Pearl Mackie is making a strong, decisive departure from her predecessor, establishing herself as an ordinary, but inquisitive and compassionate human being. She is a much needed breath of fresh air to the show.

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It is also worth noting that Capaldi seems to have softened considerably, although still retains a delightful abrasiveness when needed, not dissimilar to the First Doctor’s persona. He clearly has a better understanding of humans, having spent 70+ years squirreled away in a University, and yet he manages to retain his alien qualities perfectly. The scene in which his two hearts are explained is both logical and entertaining.

Whilst Smile is never likely to achieve cult status, due in no small part to the thin plot and cutesy robots, it is a worthy effort, and a throughly engaging episode. Given much of the story is spent exploring the colony, it could have easily been an exercise in boredom, however, the episode succeeds due to the strong character development, subtle humour and reflections of episodes past.

It is far from perfect, however is certainly worthy of the 7.5/10 I am awarding it. A pleasing story, with solid performances from all, and a cliff-hanger that is both intriguing and suitably bizarre. Well worth a watch!

Sunday 16 April 2017

Guess Who’s Back!

After an absence which seems to have lasted an eternity, Doctor Who is back! And so, dear reader, are my reviews. Regular readers may have noticed that the Christmas episode, “The Return of Mysteriously Tiresome” did not get a review. Frankly, I couldn't be bothered. It was turgid rubbish, not worth of wasting time on! So, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business.

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With Clara now departed for good (we hope!), a new season brings a new companion, in the form of Bill Potts, as portrayed by relative newcomer Pearl Mackie, who wastes little time in establishing her character.

In scenes strongly reminiscent of Shada, the sadly broadcast Tom Baker story, Bill is attending the lectures of a mysterious lecturer at Bristol University. He has occupied a room for many years, replete with Police Box in the corner, lecturing on any subject he so desires. He is, of course, the titular Timelord. He is The Doctor!

Taking a shine to Bill, the Doctor takes her under his wing, offering her private tuition, however it isn’t long until the duo are up to their necks in trouble.


From the outset, Bill is firmly established as a lesbian; the first openly gay companion to travel with the Doctor in his on screen adventures. There have, of course, been gay companions, both in print and in Big Finish audios, and established regular gay characters on screen. However as a travelling companion, this is a first for Doctor Who. And the subject is handled remarkably well. Whilst making it abundantly clear that Bill is gay, it isn't forced, nor is it crass. Moffat has a poor track record of writing LGBT content into his stories (Susan the transgendered horse, anyone?), so Bill’s sexuality is handled with refreshing honesty and realism.

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Whilst the first 25 minutes of the story essentially sets up Bill as the new companion, it is a slow and, at times, rather boring start to the season. Beyond her sexuality and curiosity, we learn surprisingly little about Miss Potts, and even less about the plot of the story. Nevertheless, it seems to work, as Mackie captivates the audience with her debut performance. Her interaction with the Doctor is natural, and their own screen chemistry is evident. Capaldi is, as always, on fine form, and presents a softer, more seasoned Doctor, seemingly more empathetic, less abrasive, and more at ease with human beings. Perhaps the seventy years he has spent lecturing at the University have served him well.

It is a shame that we are starting to see such character development in the Twelfth Doctor now, in his final season. It feels as though his character has much more to offer, and certainly, this viewer will miss Capaldi enormously. He has been an extraordinary Doctor, and beyond the screen, a magnificent ambassador for the show.


Back to the episode. The story centres around a mysterious puddle, which, it transpires has a degree of sentience, and seeks a pilot, which it finds in the delightfully named Heather (Heather, of course being the name of Bill Hartnell’s wife). There is clearly more than a frisson of romance between Bill and Heather, however, again, it is handled carefully and respectfully, without resorting to tokenism or crass innuendo. Unfortunately, the plot is the major let down of the episode. Whilst introducing a new companion is important, doing so at the expense of a storyline is never a good idea. The concept of sentient water (or spaceship “oil”) is a reasonable idea, unlike sentient “eye snot”.

Bill’s reaction to the Tardis is beautifully achieved, with the usual blend of comedic reaction and disbelief, however, flitting around the place, and ultimately, the universe, to escape a puddle is a wasted opportunity. It takes what could have been a reasonable episode, and turns it into self indulgent fanwank. Throwing the Tardis into the Dalek-Movellan war is utterly pointless, and wastes the opportunity to explore that period in history.


There are numerous nods to the past, most, thankfully, much more subtle, such as the photos of Susan and River on the Doctor’s desk, the older sonic screwdrivers, and the explanation for the dimensions of the Tardis, which could have been neatly lifted from Robots of Death. And, just in case you thought you were finally rid of Clara, there’s a nod to her, as the Doctor contemplating removing Bill’s memories of their adventure.


Ultimately, the episode thrives on said fanwank, however, due to stellar performances by Capaldi and Mackie, it manages to remain entertaining and largely enjoyable. It isn’t the strongest season opener, by any standard, neither is it the strongest debut for a new companion, yet it works well enough to leave one wanting to see more of the new pairing. The episode also sets out a season arc, with a mysterious panel, seemingly leading to a door, concealed in the basement of the university. The Doctor is keen to protect it, and to ensure that the newly discovered puddle is focussed on them, rather than gaining access to what lurks inside. It’s a pleasingly subtle introduction to the season arc, and unlike the “Impossible Girl” backstory, invites mystery and intrigue rather than tedium and fatigue.

As far as we know, thus far, Bill is an ordinary earth girl, with no remarkable backstory. She is credible, feisty (God, I hate that word, but in her case, it is apt). She is clearly intelligent, curious, compassionate, and above all, believable. Having endured an increasingly tedious relationship with Miss Oswald, I am looking forward to spending time with Bill, and despite the somewhat tepid plot, I believe this has the potential to be a very good season.

Overall, ranking the episode is difficult. Were it not for Mackie and Capaldi’s performances, it would probably garner 3/10. However, their presence elevates it to a sold 7.5/10. It’s an entertaining, if unfulfilling watch.

Oh. And it has Nardole in it. Hmmm…. I’ll close the review by allowing his expression to surmise my thoughts on that!

The Husbands of River Song