August 19: "The Doctor Falls"

Bill carries the Doctor. ("The Doctor Falls") ©BBC
In the previous episode, the disguised Master mentioned that a group of people had gone up to one of the solar farms on floor 507, but that they were never heard from again (because of that whole relativity thing).  Well, this time we head to those people, to save them from the Cybermen below who want to convert them into fellow Cybermen.

There's definitely a sense of desperation running under this entire episode.  The Cybermen are treated as an implacable force, one that can only be delayed, not defeated -- which, it turns out, is the sort of thing the Cybermen have needed in order to actually be a serious threat.  Lots of other Cyberman stories have claimed this is the case but have never really shown it.  This is probably the closest we've got to actually seeing that threat fully realized.  The Cybermen are, in some ways, essentially a force of nature: "They always get started," the Doctor tells the Masters.  "They happen everywhere there's people.  Mondas, Telos, Earth, Planet 14, Marinus.281  Like sewage and smartphones and Donald Trump, some things are just inevitable."  There's also a suggestion that this might be the Master's fault in some ways, as he arrived on the ship, ruled over the people living on the bottom, and then they overthrew him -- but perhaps he influenced their development into Cybermen along the way.

But yeah, most of this story involves floor 507, and the preparations for the inevitable invasion of the Cybermen, who've already had a huge number of years to advance (leading to the "Nightmare in Silver" et seq version, which suggests that maybe those Cybermen were in fact also Mondasian, rather than something else).  The huge change here, of course, is Bill, who really has been turned into a Cyberman, full stop.  The only reason she's still hanging on at all is because her experiences with the Monks during "The Lie of the Land" mean she's used to holding on to her identity.  This means that Pearl Mackie still gets to play scenes, as when we get moments from her perspective she's still herself, not a Cyberman -- and, touchingly, the Doctor seems to view her the same way, as Bill.  And Mackie absolutely goes for it; the scenes in the barn, where she looks at herself in the mirror and then gets angry, inadvertently activating her headlamp weapon and demolishing the barn door, are really very impressive.

Also, I should take a moment to praise Matt Lucas.  Nardole has frequently been the comic relief this series, which has been quite lovely, but here he finally gets to step up and be the hero.  The computer skills they've kept referencing get used in a big way, and he absolutely saves the day, even if he doesn't want to.  He's sent off to guide the people to a different floor, to become their protector.  It's a really touching farewell between him and the Doctor and Bill, and he's left to defend them against the Cybermen.  It's really quite sad to see him go -- he'd come a long way from a jokey, bit character in "The Husbands of River Song".

The Masters and the Doctor prepare to fend off the Cybermen. ("The
Doctor Falls") ©BBC
And we also get some moments with both Masters (and John Simm's Master is still being written as completely insane and malevolent, which is rather wonderful), as the old Master has no interest in saving anyone other than himself, while Missy seems to have genuinely changed after her time with the Doctor, even if only a little.  It's a lot of fun, honestly, watching Simm and Michelle Gomez inhabit scenes together.  We've never had a multi-Master story on TV before, and it's great to finally see one.  Watching the old Master wonder how he became a woman, and with Missy a bit hazy on how exactly it happened, are lovely (and a bit of foreshadowing, if you've remembered that Time Lords meeting themselves don't retain the memory of events).  We even get some dismissive misogyny from the old Master ("Is the future going to be all girl?" the Master asks snidely.  "We can only hope," the Doctor replies -- again, making it look like they're preparing us for the next Doctor, even though Jodie Whittaker wasn't announced as such until after this episode went out), which is again perfectly in keeping with his character.  But this also means that the Doctor can rail against them both, after they decide that he can't win against the Cybermen and so therefore they're leaving:
DOCTOR: I'm going to be dead in a few hours, so before I go, let's have this out, you and me, once and for all.  Winning?  Is that what you think it's about?  I'm not trying to win.  I'm not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone.  It's not because it's fun and God knows it's not because it's easy.  It's not even because it works, because it hardly ever does.  I do what I do because it's right!  Because it's decent!  And above all, it's kind.  It's just that.  Just kind.  If I run away today, good people will die.  If I stand and fight, some of them might live.  Maybe not many, maybe not for long.  Hey, you know, maybe there's no point in any of this at all, but it's the best I can do, so I'm going to do it.  And I will stand here doing it till it kills me.  You're going to die too, some day.  How will that be?  Have you thought about it?  What would you die for?  Who I am is where I stand.  Where I stand, is where I fall.  Stand with me.  These people are terrified.  Maybe we can help, a little.  Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
And while the old Master remains resolutely unconvinced ("See this face?  Take a good, long look at it.  This is the face that didn't listen to a word you just said"), Missy seems much more uncertain, which shows her character development -- to the point where, although she initially goes along with her other self, she decides she is going to make a stand with the Doctor, even though it means killing her older self in order to do it.  Not that the Master will stand for this ("No.  Never.  Missy!  I will never stand with the Doctor!"), so he kills his future self, claiming that she won't even be able to regenerate (although I guess we'll see in the future if that was true).  This is the end of Missy's arc, one of partial redemption but which was ultimately undone by her own hand (sort of), and it's surprisingly satisfying.  "You see, Missy, this is where we've always been going," the dying Master tells her.  "This is our perfect ending.  We shoot ourselves in the back."

But that speech also reflects the twelfth Doctor's journey.  He started out quite aloof and uncaring of humanity, preferring to take a larger view of things, but as time went on he moved to this, to the point where he's willing to sacrifice himself just to buy others time to escape.  The little speech from "Extremis" ("Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward.  Virtue is only virtue in extremis") kept running through my head through this, and so when it actually came up again at the end of the episode it wasn't a surprise.  This is the Doctor making a stand and falling as a result because that is who he is.  Ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.

The first Doctor talks to the twelfth. ("The Doctor Falls") ©BBC
The ending, of course, means that he blows up all the Cybermen and himself.  And this leads to a bit of deus ex machina, with Bill rescued by Heather, the girl from "The Pilot", but I find I don't mind.  They've been hinting at it a bit with the tears stuff, and Bill is such a great character that I want a happy ending for her, even if it stretches credulity just a bit.  Bill gets the girl and gets to explore the universe with her (so, er, a bit like the ending to Clara's story last series then), off to have her own adventures.  (Although she will be back one last time for the Christmas special.)  And so the Doctor is left alone in the TARDIS (having been transported there by Heather), preparing to regenerate -- although he, like the tenth Doctor, doesn't want to go. " I don't want to change again.  Never again!" he shouts.  "I can't keep on being somebody else."  And so the TARDIS brings him to the end of his very first regeneration (and gloriously, David Bradley makes the transition from playing William Hartnell in the docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time to being an official, canon version of the first Doctor, alongside Hartnell and Five Doctors actor Richard Hurndall) -- and we'll have to wait until Christmas to see what happens next...

This has thus been a great story, with some fantastic characters and a great, clever storyline.  It's a "big" episode, obviously, what with being the series 10 finale and all, but they pull it off with great aplomb.  This is full of memorable moments and great (and sometimes shocking) surprises.  In fact, this might be the finest series finale of Moffat's entire tenure. Definitely a winner.

And yes, there's still the final episode of both the twelfth Doctor and the Steven Moffat eras to go, but this is essentially the end of series 10.  I commented under series 9 how much more accessible and confident that run had been than series 8, but 10 feels as much of an advance over 9 as 9 did over 8.  Part of it is that 10 feels even more easy for the casual audience to watch and enjoy than 9 did, with little in the way of overarching or convoluted storylines.  But this welcoming feeling is also in no small part due to the chemistry between Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, and Matt Lucas.  Capaldi has mellowed into the role and become incredibly comfortable in it, to the point where he just is the Doctor, while Mackie has brought such an energy and affection and naturalness to the role of Bill that she makes just about every scene she's in worth watching.  And Lucas has hit the perfect balance of comedy and seriousness, making him just as excellent.  This TARDIS team is one of the all-time greats, aided by a series of stories that have been generally high-quality -- and even when they're a bit weaker, these three elevate the material.  Series 10 is a definite success, due in no small part to them.

So thanks once again for reading my thoughts on the latest series of Doctor Who.  Hopefully we'll see you again on August 20, 2018, for "Twice Upon a Time", and the final end of the twelfth Doctor and the Moffat years...







281 Planet 14 is a reference to an unseen adventure mentioned in the Troughton story The Invasion, while Marinus is a reference to Grant Morrison's 1987 DWM comic story "The World Shapers", which suggested that the Voord eventually turned into the Cybermen.

August 18: "World Enough and Time"

Promo pic for "World Enough and Time" (from BBC One - Doctor Who,
Series 10, World Enough and Time) ©BBC
The opening of "World Enough and Time"279 (the first of an explicit two-part story), with the Doctor starting to regenerate, makes it very clear: we are reaching the end of Peter Capaldi's tenure as the Doctor.  And so what follows does have a bit of a sense of finality to it, even though we know on an intellectual level that he's got one more story after this one to go.

But after the credit sequence we shift gears a bit.  The back half of this series, they've been teasing whether or not Missy has been reformed, and so here they kick it up a notch, with Missy taking the place of the Doctor for an investigation of a distress call from a massive colony ship, currently trying to avoid falling into a black hole.  "Hello," she announces.  "I'm Doctor Who.  And these are my plucky assistants, Thing One and the Other One."  There's a bit of business about whether his name is actually Doctor Who, with an almost Ford Prefect-like suggestion that he chose the name because he thought he would blend in (although ultimately the evidence seems to suggest against that being his name at all280), and then the huge shocker, with Bill getting a very big hole blasted clean through her chest.

But that's OK, since, if you'd been paying attention to the publicity surrounding this episode (and series 10 in general), you'd know this is a Cyberman story, so Bill can be repaired.  And not just any Cyberman story: this features the return of the original design of Cybermen, the ones all the way back from Hartnell's swan song, The Tenth Planet.  (This was reportedly done as a favor to Peter Capaldi, who had maintained that the Tenth Planet Cybermen were one of his favorite monsters.)  And so, after some near misses and almost-rans, we're finally getting a "Genesis of the Cybermen" story.  (Well, sort of; we'll pick this up next time.)  But not before we get a bit of a sad flashback, to the Doctor telling Bill that he wants to believe Missy is still good because she's his oldest friend.  ("She's my man-crush ... Yeah, I think she was a man back then," the Doctor comments, in a way meant to remind viewers that Missy was once male -- but which also, in hindsight, looks like them preparing the way for the thirteenth Doctor, Jodie Whittaker.)

But the other clever thing that "World Enough and Time" does is finally deal with relativity, particularly in relation to black holes.  (See "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit", in case you need a reminder of how far we've come.)  This is therefore a story that actually grapples a bit with the idea that the end of the ship furthest from the event horizon is moving much faster temporally than the end closest.  (Although one can't help but wonder if it was the 2014 film Interstellar, which dealt with relativity in a similar way, that's ultimately responsible for the basic idea here.)  Ultimately, this means that, once Bill is taken down to the bottom of the ship for surgery, time moves much faster for her than for the Doctor, Nardole, and Missy -- and so consequently, this becomes her episode.  She gets to see the slow process by which the Cybermen are created (not that she knows that -- or even that we do, technically, although the clues are all there), and we get to see the subtle ways she's changed as time has passed for her.  She's accompanied by a strange, charming little fellow named Razor, who seems quite kindly and who wiles away the years (because it definitely seems like she's down there for years) with her.  Razor rather reminded me of Zathras from the show Babylon 5, with the slightly silly accent, the hair, and the hunched, shuffling-yet-lilting walk -- which may be why I didn't realize who he really was until he went and found Missy.

Because yes, Razor is in fact John Simm, the Master himself (hence the need to remind the audience about a male Master, near the top of the episode).  Sadly, this surprise was spoiled by last week's "next time" trailer (as well as independent publicity), which showed that he was back (and sporting a fetching goatee, just like the Masters of old (Simm's idea, apparently)).  Because imagine the surprise if we hadn't known.  That's a hell of a reveal, and Simm pulls it off really well, with Missy a bit distracted by the fact that this ship is from Mondas (home of the original Cybermen!) until he removes the mask he's been wearing.  "Hello, Missy," he says.  "I'm the Master, and I'm very worried about my future.  Give us a kiss."  And then combine that with the horrific reveal that Bill (who'd been partially cybernized, thanks to the hole in her chest) has in fact been fully converted into a Cyberman, much to the Doctor's horror.  "I am Bill Potts," we hear in that wonderful weird old-school Cyberman voice, and the camera shows us Bill's eye behind the mask, just in case we thought it might be a trick.  That's awesome.

So this is an incredibly successful first half, one that not only allows Steven Moffat to play with time once more and throw in a creepy Cyberman development story, but also provides an impressive showcase for both Pearl Mackie and John Simm.  This is ultimately their episode, and both of them seize the opportunity eagerly.  I would have happily watched the two of them do an entire episode of just them waiting, that's how good they are here.  And with a hell of a double-cliffhanger, it looks like series 10 is going to go out very firmly on top -- so long as they can keep up the momentum, that is...







279 The title comes from an Andrew Marvell poem, "To His Coy Mistress" ("Had we but world enough, and time,/This coyness, Lady, were no crime"), which is why it tends to pop up in various places, including the third part of Big Finish's second volume of The Diary of River Song, as well as an episode of the fan production Star Trek: New Voyages, which is notable not only for guest-starring George Takei as Sulu, but also for being nominated for a Hugo Award in 2008 -- an award it lost to Steven Moffat's "Blink".  Which means Moffat might have been subconsciously already aware of the title when he named this episode...
280 So yes, obviously there's The War Machines to consider and the various early Troughton episodes where he calls himself some suggestion of this (Dr. W, Dr. von Wer), but even setting that aside and just considering his reaction in this episode, where he decides he likes the idea of being called Doctor Who, the implication is that, yes, Missy is indeed winding Bill and Nardole up.

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.