August 17: "The Eaters of Light"

Promo pic for "The Eaters of Light" (from BBC One - Doctor Who, Series
10, The Eaters of Light) ©BBC
Now this is something special: for the first time, a writer from the original run has written a story for the BBC Wales run.  Award-winning writer Rona Munro wrote the very last serial of the original run, Survival, and now she's returned, to give us a tale of Romans and Picts and the Pictish Beast.

The fact that Munro had written for the show in the previous century seemed to have biased some reviewers, with comments about how "retro" this episode felt, but I have to say that I can't really see what they were getting at.  It's not about modern concerns, I suppose, and there's no effort to make the Romans or the Picts seem "just like us" (which is frankly welcome), but it's not like this episode is particularly out of step with the rest of series 10.  I mean, we could make comparisons with Survival if we really wanted to (for instance, both feature gateways between worlds, sort of), but it doesn't really seem necessary -- particularly since Munro has given us such a strong episode.

The inspiration for this story seems to have been a desire to explain both the fate of the Ninth Roman Legion, which was stationed in Britain in the 2nd century but then disappeared from Roman records, and the Pictish Beast, a drawing of a strange-looking animal on various Pictish monuments that no one's quite sure what it's meant to represent (a lot of commentators seem to have overlooked this second inspiration, mind).  And so we're told about a creature from another dimension that's made its way through an "interdimensional temporal rift" and which feeds on sunlight (and people too, by absorbing all the sunlight inside them?  This part's not super clear), and which single-handedly wiped out the Ninth Legion, barring those who ran away.  And it's actually a fun idea to tie these two things together, and it's done in a very Doctor Who manner, with time running at different speeds and an isolated area for the creature to stalk around in.

The beast is restrained and driven toward the gateway. ("The Eaters of
Light") ©BBC
But the best moments are the smaller ones: the idea that crows can talk and just choose not to is the sort of offhand magical idea that Doctor Who does well.  The way the Doctor is completely unawed by the Picts ("Shh!  Did anybody hear that?  Do you know what that sound was? ... That was the sound of my patience shattering into a billion little pieces"), and the way Nardole has completely ingratiated himself into the Pict tribe in two days (complete with face paint) are both lovely and completely in character for them, while Bill's interactions with the remnants of the Romans are really something special.  Pearl Mackie continues to be outstanding, and the way she discusses sexuality with the Romans, the way she works out how she can understand Latin, and her general bravery are all portrayed so well.  Other actresses might struggle with this material and the different skills required, but it's no problem for her.  And these little moments of characterization are particularly noticeable after "Empress of Mars" -- here they feel like natural extensions of the characters we've already seen throughout the series, rather than traits grafted on.  And it's because of a character moment that we get the resolution, as Bill uses her new-found knowledge regarding the TARDIS translation circuits to bring the Romans and the Picts together, to help fight the beast hunting them both.  It's a delight, watching Mackie watch the two groups slowly figure out what's going on, with the Doctor there to spur them into action. "She slaughtered your legion," he tells them.  "You slaughtered everything that she loves.  Now, you all have a choice.  You can carry on slaughtering each other till no one is left standing, or you grow the hell up!  Because there's a new war now.  I think these creatures are light-eating locusts, looking for rents and cracks between worlds to let themselves into dimensions of light.  Once they break through, they eat.  They will eat the sun, and then they will eat the stars.  And they will keep eating until there are no stars left.  So, whose side are you on now?  Because as far as I can see, there's only one side left."

In some respects the ending is obvious.  Time passes differently in the gateway, and while the Doctor decides to fend off the Eaters of Light until the end of time, the Romans and some of the Picts decide to do it instead of him, seeing it as their duty (er, except even with the time flow difference they'll still die out a lot sooner than the Doctor would... the script rather glosses over this).  But because the episode opened with the girl listening for the music, this takes on the air of an inevitability rather than a plot twist everyone saw coming.  And the idea that the crows (which can talk, don't forget) say "caw" because they're remembering Kar, the Pictish gatekeeper who went into the gate with the Romans, is quite lovely too.

In some ways this isn't an overly ambitious story, but it's definitely a confident one, and the way the episode weaves a quiet sense of wonder and magic through everything (no doubt helped by the gorgeous location, sets, and costuming) makes this something special.  Yes, there are a couple logical oddities, but everything else works so well, and nothing hinges on these things, that they're easy to overlook.  It's a really lovely script, with some excellent characterization for everyone on board, and it provides nice Doctor Who-style explanations for old mysteries too.  If this is the quality that Rona Munro can still deliver (she's two for two right now) then I hope she comes back under Chris Chibnall. In short, I rather adore this story.

(Ooh, and that ending with Missy!  Has she changed her ways for real, or is it all a trick?  They've been spending quite a bit of time trying to make it look like she has indeed had a change of heart(s), but with just enough doubt left to make you wonder. But I guess we'll find out soon...)

August 16: "Empress of Mars"

(Who, working at BBC America, thought it was a good idea to put scenes -- not trailers, actual scenes -- that haven't actually aired in the episode yet as mid-commercial teases?  What on Earth is this even for, other than to potentially spoil the episode for the viewers?)

This opens with a frankly pointless scene at NASA (and that shot of the building is very cheap-looking) to establish that there were humans on Mars in 1881 -- rather than just having the TARDIS show up on Mars in 1881.  This leads to a story involving British troops on Mars, dealing with Ice Warriors who've been hibernating.  In theory this should be a bit daft but also exciting, the sort of juxtaposition that Doctor Who is fond of doing.  But it just never really gels.

Iraxxa in front of her hibernation device. ("Empress of Mars") ©BBC
Part of the problem is that it's a pretty shallow script that Mark Gatiss has given us.  On its surface level, "Empress of Mars" is admittedly a lot of fun.  We get Ice Warriors actually on Mars, for the first time ever on TV, and we get an entertaining clash with Victorian troops, with Victorian ideals (although, somewhat surprisingly, we also get a black soldier -- something even Gatiss commented on, although it seems there were a couple).  The new way the Ice Warriors kill people, by basically crushing them into small, twisted balls, is suitably horrific.  There's a noble leader in Godsacre and a slimy one in Catchlove, and since this is the Ice Warriors we're dealing with, the script takes some pains to establish that even though they're currently killing soldiers, they're not an evil species, not really.  (And they do get provoked by the incredibly stupid Catchlove, so their aggressive response is sort of justified.)  We even get a brand-new Martian design, in the form of the Ice Queen Iraxxa.  (Not sure about the hair-like tendrils though.)  And Alpha Centauri!  And Ysanne Churchman doing its voice again, even! That's a genuinely thrilling moment for any old-school fans.

So the initial, undemanding watch of "Empress of Mars" works, just about.  But that's the only level on which this works; there's no substance behind this story, no themes you can grapple with -- not even straightforward ones like "imperialism is bad", or "jingoistic arrogance only leads to destruction" (which is right there to take up, with Catchlove's comments about up-right crocodiles, but is cheerfully ignored), or even a token effort to compare Victorian and Martian philosophies, which seems like it would have been a pretty easy scene to do.  The closest the story gets is the way Iraxxa spares Godsacre's love, but that's only because of the Martian code of honor, rather than because any characters have experienced any real growth.

Actually, that's another problem with "Empress of Mars".  Gatiss hasn't provided us with characters, but rather with caricatures.  Everyone's defined by a broad stroke or two and nothing more: Catchlove is impulsive, Godascre is a noble coward, Iraxxa is imperious, Jackdaw is your standard conniving selfish soldier, Vincey is a bit scared and misses his girl and home...  None of these characters have any hidden depth to them.  And not even the regulars are spared; they'd mentioned in interviews before the series began that Bill might be more into pop culture than other companions, and so that's pretty much her only defining characteristic here, while the Doctor is just your standard Doctor, rather than anything that marks him out as the twelfth Doctor.  (Although, admirably, Peter Capaldi does a good job of playing against this somewhat; I particularly like the moment where he tosses off the "too soon" line with a quick little grin, undercutting what could have been a rather groan-inducing line.)  And Nardole gets shunted off into the TARDIS, which is misbehaving for reasons that are never explained, other than that Gatiss doesn't want to deal with a third companion.  (Actually, given that Nardole wasn't initially intended to be a regular, this could just be Gatiss's way of handling suddenly having a third TARDIS person to worry about.)  All this means that it's difficult to really get a grasp on any of the characters beyond those broad strokes, and so it's subsequently hard to care about their fate -- certainly the deaths of some of them don't really elicit any reactions from the audience.

So by the bare minimum standards, this works: it looks gorgeous, it's exciting if undemanding fare, and if you just let it all wash past you the story's all right.  As a pastiche of silly B-movie SF fare with some Mummy archetypes thrown in, this is OK.  But the minute you try to sink your teeth any deeper into "Empress of Mars", the whole thing collapses like spun sugar: pretty to look at, but ultimately unsatisfying.

(And what the hell is going on with the ending?  Why does Missy ask the Doctor if he's all right with such gravity, given that what's he's just experienced is pretty much a walk in the park by his standards?  If she's referring to something deeper (which is probably what we're meant to think) we never find out, as this is never brought up again.  It's heavy foreshadowing for something nonexistent, which is really weird.)

August 15: "The Lie of the Land"

The Monks are in control, having convinced the population of the planet that they've always been there (because "however bad a situation is, if people think that's how it's always been, they'll put up with it," as Nardole points out), and the Doctor is apparently their figurehead, broadcasting to the world how good the Monks are (despite the fact that they have Memory Police who arrest and kill people who remember that the Monks have only been around six months or who own comic books (i.e., proof the Monks weren't always here)).  Bill is one of the people who remembers the old days, although she has to fight every day to keep it that way (mainly by talking to an imaginary version of her mother), and once Nardole gives her the chance to rescue the Doctor she takes it.

The third part of this story is by Toby Whithouse, who's usually a fairly solid writer.  So that's why it's a bit disappointing to find that "The Lie of the Land" is rather unfortunately mediocre.  I'm wondering if that's because he's essentially been brought in to wrap up this three-parter (and it really does feel like a three-parter, despite what the production team said), rather than conceiving of a complete story from scratch.

Honestly, the production team on this show continues to be so good at what they do that even lesser efforts like this can still boast of solid production values and interesting direction.  (The way the Monks' reality keeps threatening to break through the characters' resolve, with the symbol and the word TRUTH flashing up every so often, is a particularly nice touch.  And there's that homage to the McGann movie, with the Master's eyes superimposed over another image.)  So it definitely helps that the whole thing looks great.  It's just a bit of a shame that the storyline is so standard-issue.  Having rebels break into a secret base to locate a figurehead just isn't that exciting, and while they do a good job with it, it suffers from that feeling of familiarity.

The best part of the episode, though, is Bill's confrontation with the Doctor.  Her growing disillusionment is pitched perfectly, and Capaldi makes us initially believe that he really does want to help the Monks -- no knowing winks or sly smiles or anything that might give the game away.  "What about free will?" Bill demands.  "Yes, well, I mean, you had free will, and look at what you did with it," the Doctor replies.  "Worse than that, you had history.  History was saying to you, look, I've got some examples of fascism here for you to look at.  No?  Fundamentalism?  No?  Oh, okay, you carry on.  I had to stop you, or at least not stand in the way of someone else who wanted to, because the guns were getting bigger, the stakes were getting higher, and any minute now it was going to be goodnight, Vienna. ... All I can say is that we are lucky it was a benevolent race like the Monks, not the Daleks.  Yes, I know the Monks are ruthless.  I get that.  Yes, they play with history and I'm not exactly thrilled about that.  But they bring peace and order."  Capaldi makes it seem like he agrees with the Monks, like he's tired of having to save humanity from itself, in such a way that even we the audience aren't certain if he's really on their side, and if Bill is going to have find a way to stop the Doctor as well as the Monks.  And honestly, that might have made for a far more interesting back half -- perhaps with Bill and Nardole having to go to Missy to get her help to stop the Doctor.

The Doctor seemingly regenerates. ("The Lie of the Land") ©BBC
But that's not what we get.  Instead we're told this was all an elaborate set up to verify that Bill wasn't a Monk plant (complete with the Doctor faking a regeneration, most likely so they could include bits of it in the series trailers (the more cynical side of me says)) and then it's more business as usual, with the freedom fighters infiltrating the Monks' base to shut off their broadcast.  Even the appearance of Missy, telling the Doctor that the easiest way to break the Monks' control would be to kill Bill (since she's the one who invited them in in the first place), doesn't do too much to liven things up.  The best bits are Missy being snarky to the Doctor: "I've had adventures too," she tells the Doctor in one instance, after he asks if she's met the Monks before.  "My whole life doesn't revolve around you, you know."  (And they do explain a couple of the questions I posed last time after all -- though not the "why are they here at all?" one -- so that's a good thing at least.)  But no, most of this is, in many ways, just Who by numbers, right down to the final solution to the Monk problem being love (in this case, Bill's pure love for her mother).  Ho, as they say, hum.

So as I said, the production values are excellent, and that goes a long way in making this palatable.  But as a story, "The Lie of the Land" feels just a bit tired, almost going through the motions rather than trying to push the envelope.  Considering we started this three-parter with "Extremis", it's perhaps inevitable that the wrap-up wouldn't be as exciting as the beginning.  But nevertheless it's unfortunate that a storyline that started so adventurously ended by playing it so safe, but that's how "The Lie of the Land" feels: safe.  And in some regards safe is fine; it's not the worst sin to shoot for that, but it does mean that it's all too easy to feel let down by the result.

August 14: "The Pyramid at the End of the World"

Promo pic for "The Pyramid at the End of the World" (from BBC One -
Doctor Who, Series 10, The Pyramid at the End of the World) ©BBC
Interesting that they brought back the blue berets, now that this is ostensibly the actual UN and not UNIT...

Last time around we got a fresh, interesting take on a conspiracy thriller, which got to actually pull the trigger on killing people because it was actually a computer simulation.  This time around, we get the people who set up that computer simulation, arriving in a giant pyramid for some reason (effect, I guess) and telling humanity that they're doomed unless they let the Monks rule over them.  Their simulations pointed to this moment, and it's up to the Doctor to work out why and then stop it.

This episode is co-written by Peter Harness, who wrote last series' Zygon two-parter, which is probably why this episode has a similar feel.  There's a sense of international danger presented that's rather nice, although it does require the Doctor being President of Earth again.  I dunno; the first time it was a fun gag, the second time it was like, "Yeah, OK", and this time around it's starting to get tiresome.  That might be because now that it keeps showing up we have to actually consider what it means, rather than just letting it be a throwaway joke.  Is it really likely that Earth would readily give up sovereignty to an alien?  Or even to a single person?  This is one of those things that seems less and less likely the more you look at it.  (That said, I'm fully in favor of them bringing this back next series, now that we know the thirteenth Doctor will be female.)

And speaking of weird things...  What exactly is the Monks' goal here?  We get told that they can't just invade the planet, but they have to be invited in.  This is presumably because it would be a real drag, having to deal with the population resisting them, and it would be way easier to be asked nicely to take over the planet, even though they've clearly got a lot of power and can bring down planes and subs without damaging either the vehicles or the crew.  (Maybe they only have enough power for one show of strength like this.)  This plan involves frightening the hell out of the populace, by the way, with sending everyone a Doomsday Clock notification telling them they're at 3 minutes to midnight278, but then informing the representatives of humanity that consent must be given but not out of fear.  So maybe not your best plan, guys.  (Also, so long as one person consents out of love, that takes care of everyone else who maybe wouldn't have agreed with that decision (such as the Doctor)?  How does that work?)  And then when they get the planet, what do they get out of it?  Is there some natural resource they need?  Do they just enjoy bossing people around?  Or do they just like the adulation from convincing the populace it loves them?  (These questions don't really get answered here or in the follow-up next time, in case you were wondering.)

So that's what doesn't work.  What does work are the smaller moments.  Watching Bill's date with Penny go awry a second time, this time due to the appearance of the UN Secretary General instead of the Pope, is still fun, and both actresses sell it really well.  (Ooh, and a quick dig at the US President's Cheeto-like complexion.)  Nardole also gets some fun moments ("Course I can [hack the systems], I'm not just sexy"), and the way he keeps helping the Doctor with his blindness is nicely done as well.  But this episode is primarily the Doctor's, and Capaldi does a great job with it, standing up to the Monks, working out what the problem threatening humanity is and how to track it down, and his interactions with lab scientist Erika (played wonderfully by Rachel Denning) are lovely to behold.  And the other thing that really does work is the doomsday scenario they've concocted, with a killer bacteria being unwittingly unleashed (almost) upon the world through a series of small accidents that compound into one big one.  (This is reminiscent of the genetic alteration of plant bacteria Klebsiella planticola, which was modified to produce alcohol when it broke down crop residue but when introduced into non-sterile soil would have (possibly) killed all plant life due to alcohol poisoning -- and note that the strain used here has a similar name.)  This is played as a simple mistake with horrific consequences for the entire world as it aggressively breaks down organic matter (with Capaldi's one-time Thick of It co-star Tony Gardner being the first victim, as Erika's lab partner Douglas), with the possibility of it being vented into the larger world.  The way the Doctor finds out which lab is having the problem is also clever.  (The geography of the lab and what portions are safe from the bacteria and the Doctor's sterilizing explosion and which are affected is occasionally confusing though.  And so if the Monks had never shown up then the world would have definitely been doomed then, yeah?  So maybe it's a good thing they showed up when they did...)

So in general this is a pretty average episode, with some logical problems but a number of good moments to counterbalance.  But the ending is fantastic, by making it hinge on the Doctor's hubris.  He can't quite bring himself to tell Bill (or anyone besides Nardole, in fact) that he's blind, and while the sonic sunglasses help him with larger shapes they can't help him with images or painted details.  And so he's defeated the Monks and saved the planet from mass extinction, but because he hasn't told anyone (like, say, Erika) that he's blind, he can't open the combination lock to get out of the affected areas.  And so rather than have him die, Bill consents to let the Monks rule Earth, so long as the Doctor gets his sight back and can escape the explosion.  It makes the Doctor pay for his pride in a very significant way, refusing to let him off the hook, and it's incredible to watch it happen, to know what Bill is going to do.  This is one of those quintessential "defeat snatched from the jaws of victory" moments, and is easily the most memorable part of the episode.  That alone helps tip the balance for this episode to the "favorable" side.  "You'd better get my planet back!" Bill tells the Doctor, but we'll have to wait until the conclusion to see what happens.  The "next time" trailer certainly suggests that that might be a problem, what with the Doctor now working for the Monks and all...







278 Three minutes to midnight is where the real Clock was set until January 2017, when the inauguration of the new US President, Donald Trump, helped nudge the clock thirty seconds closer.  But that didn't happen until literally a week after they finished filming this story, which is why there's this slight discrepancy.

August 13: "Extremis"

Interesting; the recap at the start of this episode uses a slightly less hysterical line reading from the Doctor ("I can't look at anything ever again") than at the end of "Oxygen", as if they know that now it's not a cliffhanger any more they can dial it down a bit.  In some ways it's a lot like the classic Who days of providing slightly different reenactments of cliffhangers.

The last couple of series, Steven Moffat has been taking an episode and using it to push the format of the show.  In series 8 it was "Listen" (a bit), last series it was "Heaven Sent" (a lot), and this time it's "Extremis".  The clues are there at the beginning, of course, with the Doctor getting an email called "Extremis", but we don't really remember that as the story progresses.  No, this time around Moffat is going full-blown Dan Brown conspiracy theory thriller, with forbidden texts in the Vatican and suicidal CERN physicists.  (And remember, The Da Vinci Code borrows a lot from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the book that claimed Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had kids who ended up as part of the Merovingian dynasty and which was co-written by Henry Lincoln, who also co-wrote three Troughton stories -- thus bringing the Doctor Who connection around full circle.) Consequently we get lots of clandestine meetings with high-ranking Vatican officials, including the Pope himself (albeit not the real current Pope, Francis, probably because a) it's not great to involve the real Pope in this story, and b) Francis isn't Italian, and they clearly want that European Da Vinci Code vibe) and rumors of a text, the "Veritas", that is so dangerous that everyone who's translated or read it has subsequently committed suicide.  (An idea which unintentionally mirrors Monty Python's "Killer Joke" sketch.)

The Doctor seemingly executes Missy. ("Extremis") ©BBC
Interspersed with the Veritas storyline is the Doctor remembering an encounter with Missy, who'd been captured and was going to be put to death.  It's...actually not quite clear why he's remembering this now.  Certainly the thing River Song said about him that Nardole reads to him ("'Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage.  Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward.  Virtue is only virtue in extremis'") keeps coming to mind, so maybe that's why, but it does feel on some level like Moffat just wanted to get the fact that Missy is the one in the Vault out there now so he didn't have to worry about teasing the viewers the rest of the season -- and, of course, so that he can use Missy later in this three-part story, and it makes more sense to introduce her here than in the next episode.  But it's an interesting storyline, and it makes clear just why Missy is in the Vault (because of that "without witness" stuff), and why Nardole is still around too (because River sent him after the Doctor).  It just doesn't quite gel with the surrounding storyline.

But that's OK.  This is an episode that nevertheless succeeds because it commits to its premise. We get a secret library of heretical books under the Vatican, created by Pope Benedict IX, who was apparently a woman.  (Interesting that Moffat chose a pope considered to be one of the all-time worst to retcon as female.)  There's some creepy decaying monks walking around threatening people, and portals that lead to places all over the world.  Even when things get a bit weird, they still do a great job of having everything slowly unfold, so that by the end, when the Doctor is confronting the Monks in the Oval Office, next to the body of the American president (who isn't orange, interestingly enough -- see next episode for why this matters), it's still a logical progression.  But the best thing is that the only really logical way to end the story Moffat is telling to basically have the Doctor and his friends lose, and so that's what happens.  There's no deus ex machina here, no Missy swooping in at the last minute (say) to fix things.  Instead we learn this world is a simulation, for the Monks to work out their best plan of invasion, but this doesn't feel like a cheat because the whole episode has been building to that moment.  The Veritas and the Shadow Test wouldn't work in the real world, but because they're in a computer simulation it does.277  And the way the characters also discover this -- Nardole by moving outside the limits of the projectors, Bill by being told the truth, the Doctor by reading the Veritas -- is also well done, with no punches pulled.  And finally, because the episode straight up told us about this Extremis email, there's no sense of letdown that, in some ways, it was all a dream, because we knew that going in, even if we didn't necessarily realize it.

It's the first part of a three-part story, so "Extremis" doesn't wrap things up all nice and neat.  But what it does do is mess with our heads, just a bit, but in a way that feels satisfying.  This is an episode that fully commits to its premise, with hardly a foot misplaced.  This is another success in a series filled with successes, but it does leave you wondering: how can the next two parts of this story match this?  I guess we'll have to watch and see...







277 Personal moment of pride: the minute they started doing the Shadow Test I instantly realized it must mean they were in a computer simulation because of pseudorandomness.  It made me feel clever.

August 12: "Oxygen"

Promo pic for "Oxygen" (from BBC One - Doctor Who, Series 10,
Oxygen) ©BBC
It opens, cheekily, by lifting from the famous opening from Star Trek: "Space, the final frontier..."  Except instead of continuing with a stirring, optimistic speech, here the Doctor uses the phrase to illustrate just how deadly space is.  It's a fun little subversion.

"Oxygen" is by Jamie Mathieson, who, after a bit of an uneven entry last series ("The Girl Who Died"), is back on form, with a tense, thrilling affair that's right up there with his series 8 episodes ("Mummy on the Orient Express" and "Flatline").  We get some stuff early on regarding the Vault... oh right!  The Vault!  I haven't even mentioned the Vault yet.  It's the reason the Doctor is staying at the university and lecturing, because it's a safe place to guard this mysterious Vault that Nardole keeps reminding him about.  In some ways the Vault is the overarching plot this series, but as pretty much everyone correctly guessed who was in the Vault, they wisely don't milk it till the end -- in fact, we'll find out who's in it next time around.  But yeah, the Vault comes up basically so that Nardole can chastise the Doctor about it and the Doctor can ignore him, but in a way such that Nardole gets to come along on the adventure this time around, instead of remaining behind like he's done in the last three episodes.

One of the neat things about "Oxygen" is how it takes an argument of free, unfettered capitalism and extends it to a logical conclusion: in space, oxygen is a resource just like any other, and corporations charge money for resources, so therefore corporations would charge its employees for oxygen.  So the number of breaths you have left becomes the measurement for everything, and it creates a tension of a constantly ticking clock in the background that the audience is aware of on some level, even if it's not being brought up all the time.  Then there's the reference to the idea that the Doctor and company are from the union, which the others believe to be a myth.  And of course, there's the fact that the life-preserving spacesuits that everyone is required to wear are programmed to start killing all the employees because it would be cheaper to just bring in a brand-new crew than to either fire this crew (and thus have to transport them back from the mining station) or train them to be more efficient or something, which also reads as a critique of capitalism and the focus solely on the bottom line.  (One is reminded of the infamous memo related to the Ford Pinto, where Ford calculated that it was cheaper to just deal with the cost to society of accidents and deaths than to alter every vehicle to be in accordance with higher safety standards.)  But the cool thing about this critique is that it's there in the background, motivating the plot, but Mathieson isn't beating us over the head with it, shouting "Look how terrible capitalism is!" or anything.  It's just a logical extrapolation, like all good allegorical SF.

The cast, of course, is great; Pearl Mackie still excels as Bill, while Matt Lucas gets to slip back into the comic relief role that he had in "The Pilot".  It's a relationship that works really well, and seeing the two of them with the Doctor continues to be a real joy.  (In particular, the bit at the end where Bill hugs the Doctor, and then Nardole hugs them both to be part of the moment, made me laugh out loud.)  There's also the way Bill reacts to being confronted with an alien with bright blue skin, which leads to her being called a racist, which is handled with a nicely light touch.  And it's good that they have these light moments, because the rest of the story is properly scary, with basically zombies trying to kill off the remaining crew.  As I said earlier, the tension doesn't really let up, and the atmosphere (sorry) of the episode is therefore very effective -- certainly, for my money at least, much more effective than last week's episode.  The moment where it looks like Bill might die from vacuum exposure is excellent, and the way that the solution has repercussions for the Doctor, blinding him, is clever.  It makes the Doctor have to rely even more on his wits, now that the TARDIS, his sonic, and even his sight are unavailable to him.  Really, the only thing that doesn't quite work is the idea that Bill is only knocked out by the electrical charge, not killed, and that's probably more an issue with the direction and makeup making her look dead than with the idea itself.

So "Oxygen" is a compelling, scary episode that provides a nice set of thrills, but with a point about capitalism lurking in the background, adding another layer to consider and appreciate.  In fact, it's worth taking a moment to ponder just how good this run of episodes has been so far.  It hasn't been a perfect success, of course, but even the weaker episodes have plenty of moments to make them at least somewhat worth your while.  It's a sign of just how confident and experienced the production team has become: this is a team that knows what works and what doesn't, but critically, this doesn't mean that they've gotten complacent.  Doctor Who is still pushing itself, coming up with new ways to thrill and entertain viewers, all while making it look natural.  Some of this is their excellent casting, of course (seriously, you should just accept that I'm going to be raving about Pearl Mackie for the rest of series 10), but some of it is the way they're still taking risks.  Like that cliffhanger at the end, making the Doctor still be blind.  A less adventurous production team would have made the Doctor better at the end of the episode, and in fact we the audience assume that that's what will happen -- but making his choices have long-term repercussions, even if those choices were the correct ones in that moment, is the sign of a show still pushing itself.   Doctor Who isn't resting on its laurels by any means, and having the Doctor's blindness persist makes you want to know what will happen next.  What more could you want?

August 11: "Knock Knock"

Promo pic for "Knock Knock" (from BBC One - Doctor Who, Series 10,
Knock Knock) ©BBC
A large, old house, a group of students, a creepy landlord... what could possibly go wrong?

"Knock Knock" is the debut Doctor Who script from noted playwright Mike Bartlett, and it explicitly wants to be a haunted house horror(ish) story.  And so we get many of the clichés present and correct, including a group of young people who can be picked off one by one and a weird old guy (played wonderfully by David Suchet) who knows more than he's letting on.  And, like Doctor Who does, "Knock Knock" puts the Doctor inside the cliché and consequently distorts the story, sending it in a new direction.  That's probably why the story ends the way it does, an example more of "misguided" than "evil" at the heart.

But before we get to that point, the story does need to go through the motions, which is why we get the setup of six young, attractive people, with some romantic possibilities (such as Paul being into Bill (who obviously isn't interested, being into girls and all), while Shireen is into Paul) and a sense of people being happy and having fun -- which obviously won't go well when a haunted, sort of alive house is involved.  (Although while we're here, it's a bit weird how everyone seems to know who the Doctor is, yet Bill has to spend time explaining who he is.276)  The story doesn't really demand much from the housemates other than to be cheery and then afraid, but to their credit everyone here does really well, even when they don't have a lot to really do -- so, for instance, Felicity is claustrophobic (rather like Charlie from Class) and sells it quite well, even while she demonstrates that it's not any safer outside the house than inside.  But the star of the show is David Suchet, who brings a quiet, matter-of-fact manner to a rather creepy character, which makes him even more creepy as a result.  It's one thing to have a character cackle that you're going to die, and quite another to have a character calmly and cheerfully state it.  I only really know David Suchet as Poirot, and seeing him play such a different character was a bit of a revelation.  The Landlord is quiet, a bit oily, and very self-satisfied, and he's a delight to watch, even as you're rooting against him.  I also really like the way his character almost never tries to hide what's going on, such as when Bill and Shireen find Pavel trapped in the wall.  "Music can be pleasant, but a simple repetition like that [record currently skipping], it's merely a distraction from the inevitable," he comments.  "Hope is its own form of cruelty. ... Oh, look.  He's released.  Mercy at last.  Beautiful, isn't it?  Nature contained.  He's preserved in the walls, in the very fabric of the building forever."  Suchet is so matter-of-fact and pleased as he says this that it's really rather wonderful.

But here's the thing.  The way the story picks the housemates off one by one is well done.  The discovery that this has been happening for years and years is skillfully done.  The living house thing works well, and the woodlice/Dryad bugs are really creepy -- the initial shot of them pouring out of the doorframe in the kitchen as the Doctor and Harry watch is effectively gross, and the way they can just show up out of nowhere is also suitably unpleasant.  The effects in general, in fact, are really good -- seeing Pavel swallowed up by the wall is nicely nasty, and the makeup on Eliza, as she's essentially made of wood, is top-notch.  This should work.  And yet I just didn't find it that engaging.  Maybe it's because I'm not really into horror movies, so I'm not really the target audience?  I dunno; on paper this sounds great, but while it seems like all the individual parts are good, the sum is somehow less.

Is it the ending?  There is a sense, a little bit, that the story is pulling its punches by having the Landlord not be evil but just trying to desperately keep his mother alive, to the exclusion of all else.  They're doing it for a reason, of course -- this is part of the subversion that the Doctor's presence has on events, after all -- but it does come at the cost of not being quite as visceral.  And that feeling is only compounded by the semi-happy ending, with all six housemates being "restored" by Eliza as she ends things -- nice, yeah, but it does neuter the horror rather.  But is that enough to retroactively lessen the impact of everything up to that point?  It doesn't seem like it should, but maybe.

So in the end it's a bit difficult to judge.  Maybe if I were a bigger fan of the genre this would work better for me (so obviously your mileage may vary), but as is, while it's easy enough to admire the care and skill that's gone into everything here, it just doesn't quite do it for me.  Its heart and its brain are both there, but it's like they don't quite click together.  "Knock Knock" is entertaining enough, but it's not as outstanding as it seems like it should be.







276 This might be because Harry was, in initial drafts, supposed to be related to one-time companion Harry Sullivan, so it could have been him who told the others about the Doctor, rather than Bill.  But when they cut the reference to Sullivan they didn't adjust the rest of the script to match -- in other words, draft artifact.