Okay, I’m a bit late to this party thanks to my time at C2E2. So let’s get into things.
First off, this was a solid enough episode, and it felt like an episode of Doctor Who (which is something that assorted episodes over the past two seasons have occasionally struggled with.) But it’s very much in keeping with the rest of the series, and I think I’ve put my finger on just what the problem is, at least in my estimation: the writing on the show feels sloppy. For every good idea and good moment there seems to be another moment that doesn’t quite add up, doesn’t make sense or which is rushed past to keep you from staring at the awkward cracks and joins. Now, DOCTOR WHO has never really been a font of immaculate plotting, but this feels like a sustained weakness at this point, rather than a quirky aspect of the program.
Let’s talk about the good stuff first. All three companions were in fine form this week and all of them got good material to play with. I’m happy with this new definition of Yaz and also that she was the one who immediately walked up to and stepped through the Boundary. More of this, please. Graham’s heartfelt exultation of Yaz was great, as was his plan of disguising them all in Cyberman armor to get off the ship. And Ryan was great during the Cyberman attack–both about being awkward about using a weapon and his lackluster skills to his sudden joy and overconfidence at having decimated the Cyber-squad. Overall, everybody got their moments and were well-served.
The same can’t really be said of the three human survivors and Ko Sharmus. Because there is only so much screen time, even in an extended episode such as this one, somebody’s always going to draw the short straw and this time it was the supporting players, who were all distilled down to barely a sketch of a character; consequently, it was tough to care whether they lived or died–when the kid was seemingly sot down by the Cybermen off-screen, I kind of mentally shrugged and thought that his demise would at least be a good thing for everybody else’s screen time, which I’m guessing wasn’t the reaction they were trying for.
The weak point here, as usual, was the writing of the Doctor. I kept waiting and waiting for her to have a plan, to do something clever, to turn the situation around through a combination of brains, daring, guile and luck, and I was sadly disappointed. For whatever reason, Chibnall seems to default to writing Jodie as a woman who cannot come up with a plan in a pinch (for all that she talks about it a lot, and other people praise her plan-making abilities.) She spends most of this episode being led around by the nose, unable to save herself or anybody else, and I suspect that you could pull her out of the episode and events would still run the same way. Now, Doctor Jo, SHE’S got a plan, she’s got everything in hand despite not actually being there. I need to see more of that bleeding into the Doctor of today. I understand that the production team is leaning very heavily for inspiration on the Peter Davison era, and yes, e was a relatively ineffectual figure much of the time–but somehow, it’s worse here. Let the hero be the hero, dammit!
And that climax–where the Doctor has her doomsday plan, can’t find the steel in her heart to actually go through with it–and then Ko Sharmus waltzes in while a horde of trigger-happy Cybermen stand around and just let him, carries on a full conversation with the Doctor where he convinces her based on absolutely nothing at all that he should make the sacrifice, all while the Master also watches and does nothing–and rages as the Doctor races off. You’ve got a whole Cybermaster army behind you, bud, stop her! Sloppy and ineffectual. Same thing with the resolution on the extra TARDIS–come on, you just leave it there for anybody to find, tree or not? It feels like hand-waving because you know we need to get back to the status quo.
So let’s talk about the big revelation. I understand that it’s got fans up in a tizzy, but speaking for myself, I didn’t mind it particularly. In a way, it was just stacking more jenga blocks atop an earlier bit that I didn’t like: back during the Moffat era, once we got to the point where the Doctor was thousands of years old rather tan hundreds, it broke my suspension of disbelief. I don’t know why that should be, but 900 years still felt plausible to me whereas 2000 years felt wrong–felt as though the character couldn’t or shouldn’t be so human any longer. So if you want to go ahead and add a few thousand more years to that, no harm on my side. It does funk around with the numbers a little bit, but that’s hardly a new thing anyway in the post-John Hurt world.
That all said, I’m not really sure what we get out of it. That’s going to be for future stories to reveal, and those will ultimately determine whether this was a good idea or not. I can understand the desire to put some mystery back into the Doctor’s past–certainly the best parts of this season have revolved around these mysteries and not knowing where they were all going. On the other hand, it does seem like a long way to go to explain away those half-joke extra faces in The Brain of Morbius.
And it does do some damage to what I like about the Doctor, turning her into another Chosen One, key to everything. I very much liked the proletariat Doctor, who got restless and bored with his isolationist society and struck off on his own as an act of rebellion. So he was a renegade, but he was also an everyman by the standards of his own species. This need to make the Doctor the most important figure in Time Lord history strikes me as a bad instinct. I don’t like the Doctor because she is special, I like her because she is ordinary but manages to do extraordinary things. That’s the lesson, that’s the underpinning–and it applies to the companions as well. Once the Doctor is a quasi-immortal messiah, what tension or suspense is left (apart from sloppy writing that doesn’t allow her to use her great skills to accomplish anything.)
I should also mention that Sacha Dhawan was in fine form this time out. In many ways, he was more like the Doctor than the Doctor herself, gleefully chewing whatever scenery crossed his path. His impromptu plan was sort of ridiculous, though. So he killed everyone on Gallifrey, but in such a manner that you could keep the bodies all frozen, convert them into Cybermen and then they’d be able to regenerate? Doesn’t that seem to imply that none of them were actually really dead in the first place, and one good poke would have caused them all to regenerate back to life? The Cybermen themselves were genuinely pretty scary, which is good, though the Cybermasters looked a bit ridiculous in their capes and collars.
Oh, and while it was a fine Russell T Davies-style cliffhanger into the special, I didn’t like the idea of the Judoon teleporting directly into the TARDIS so readily. People have been doing that more and more over the past few years and it always feels wrong to me. Maybe the Doctor should have kept the tree after all.