Series 2 (Jan 11 - Jan 24)

January 11: Children in Need Special / "The Christmas Invasion" / "Attack of the Graske"
January 12: "New Earth"
January 13: "Tooth and Claw"
January 14: "School Reunion"
January 15: "The Girl in the Fireplace"
January 16: "Rise of the Cybermen"
January 17: "The Age of Steel"
January 18: "The Idiot's Lantern"
January 19: "The Impossible Planet"
January 20: "The Satan Pit"
January 21: "Love & Monsters"
January 22: "Fear Her"
January 23: "Army of Ghosts"
January 24: "Doomsday"



January 11: Children in Need Special / "The Christmas Invasion" / "Attack of the Graske"

A brand-new Doctor for a brand-new series...well, sort of.  Strictly speaking, the series doesn't begin until "New Earth" -- but the Christmas special is included with the series 2 boxset, so I'll count it as part of the series.  And before we even get there, there's a quick little scene to view -- officially known as the Children in Need Special, although it also goes by other names.169  Other than giving us our first mini-look at new tenth Doctor David Tennant, there's not much of note here -- Rose wants the Doctor to change back, and the regeneration is causing the Doctor to become increasingly erratic and dangerous as he causes the TARDIS to go out of control.  Oh, and, oddly, he seems to know that Captain Jack is alive back in 200,100.  But that's about it.

No, the main event is "The Christmas Invasion" -- Doctor Who's first Christmas special.  (Not its first Christmas episode, as you may recall -- but "The Feast of Steven" wasn't a standalone special.)  We get our first real look at David Tennant as the Doctor, still dealing with the effects of the regeneration.  And, in a canny move, Davies sidelines the Doctor for much of this story, leaving Rose feeling helpless and Jackie and Mickey trying to help pick up the pieces.  The result is a planet on the brink of disaster, ready to be enslaved by an alien race.

The Martian probe is a nice idea (although why would you put an extrasolar friendship package on something heading to Mars?), even if it seems to suggest that mankind hasn't actually been to Mars yet -- true for the real world, but not for the Doctor Who universe, if The Ambassadors of Death is to be believed.  (Then again, we've sent people to the moon and still get interested when probes are sent there, so maybe we can let this slide -- but the Ambassadors of Death problem will rear its head again later.)  The way the crisis evolves is really well done -- having a third of the population under control and heading to the roof is a neat trick that helps provide a genuine sense of worry and tension.  (Incidentally, Wikipedia suggests it's roughly 28% of the world's population with A+ blood -- closer to a fourth than a third, but still within the ballpark.)  Plus we get to see UNIT back in action and the return of Harriet Jones, now the Prime Minister of the UK.  She gets a running joke of introducing herself to everyone, which is either amusing or tiresome, depending on your mood.  And another mention of something called Torchwood (after a fleeting mention in "Bad Wolf").

"Did you miss me?" ("The Christmas Invasion") ©BBC
But this episode is ultimately about providing a huge threat to the world that only the Doctor can fix and then leaving him out of the action.  The others try to cope in his absence (with some nice set pieces, like the robot Santa "pilot fish" and the surprisingly impressive spinning killer Christmas tree), and while the new Doctor regains consciousness from time to time to remind us he's still around, essentially the humans are left on their own -- despite Harriet Jones's on-air pleas for the Doctor to help deal with the Sycorax.  (Which leads to Rose breaking down and sobbing, "He's left me, mum."  Nice of her to have a sense of perspective.)  This seems to be demonstrating one thing: that Rose, despite traveling with the Doctor and having her horizons expanded as a result, cannot do what the Doctor does -- no better illustrated than in the scene where the Sycorax laugh at her after her attempt to posture the way the Doctor would.  And so it's up to the Doctor to step in, with that great reveal of the TARDIS translation circuit beginning to work again, as he swoops in and easily saves the day -- breaking the blood control over the A+ people ("That's all blood control is, a cheap bit of voodoo," the Doctor says afterwards.  "Scares the pants off you, but that's as far as it goes.  It's like hypnosis.  You can hypnotise someone to walk like a chicken or sing like Elvis.  You can't hypnotise them to death; survival instinct's too strong") and standing as the Earth's champion against the Sycorax.  This sequence is overflowing with great lines from the Doctor, from being disappointed in not being ginger to accidentally quoting The Lion King to fighting the Sycorax leader in a swordfight -- one where he gets his hand chopped off and grows another one back.  Tennant is really wonderful in this sequence -- I don't even mind "This new hand?  It's a fightin' hand!" -- and it's easy to believe that he really is the Doctor, just the way Davies presumably intended.

Great ending, too; it's nice to have a bit of a "down" ending, with the destruction of the Sycorax ship by Torchwood more than a little reminiscent of the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano by a British submarine during the Falklands War.  We get a great speech from the Doctor ("I gave them the wrong warning.  I should've told them to run as fast as they can, run and hide because the monsters are coming.  The human race") and the bit about six words to bring down Harriet Jones is really good too.  And I love how the snowfall on Christmas turns out to be ash from the Sycorax ship burning up in the atmosphere -- a wonderful subversion of the cliché.

It's got a compelling story, a great new Doctor, and some really clever writing.  It looks good and is suitably Christmas-y without being overly saccharine or sentimental.  It's even got a nice weighty storyline, instead of a throwaway plot.  "The Christmas Invasion" is one of the best Christmas specials they've done yet -- it's just a bit of a shame it came first, because you know it's not going to be quite as good as this at Christmas again.

And one last little treat: an interactive adventure (originally on BBC Red Button but also available online if you're interested) called "Attack of the Graske".  It's essentially a simple "choose your own adventure" game with specially filmed footage of the Doctor guiding you through the events.  It's rather cute (although I think they missed a trick by not having the word YOU showing up in the credits after David Tennant's name), but the thing that's most striking about it is how comfortable David Tennant is addressing the camera directly; he seems very committed, and it's easy to become a part of the Doctor's adventure.  The only main quibble is that the very last scene with the Doctor is the same no matter how you did -- although some of the earlier "bad" outcomes, where the Doctor is increasingly exasperated at you, are awfully amusing (and the "bad" ending with the family is way more entertaining than the good one -- I love the way the girl causes the Christmas tree to fall over).  Frankly, even though it's ultimately a bit of fluff, "Attack of the Graske" is far better than it really has any right to be.

(Oh, and my friend Charlie finds the line "Got as many doors as Jim Morrison" (so, three) incredibly funny for some reason.)



January 12: "New Earth"

Series 2 gets to its real start here with "New Earth", our first trip beyond the solar system this century -- but before we get there, there's a quick teaser.  Each episode this series has a quick scene called a TARDISode, designed for mobile phones -- the one for "New Earth" is an infomercial for the hospital we see in the episode.  (And for some reason these short scenes weren't released on the DVD...)

But yes, it's our first extra-Solar trip, with a "new new Doctor".  They don't want to go too far afield and scare off the casual viewers though, so we get another sequel story -- this time it's a sequel to "The End of the World", set about twenty years in the future (I think?  Comparing the dates given in the two stories is slightly hazy...), with the Face of Boe and Cassandra both returning, even though Cassandra appeared to be dead at the end of it.  And really, the only alien-looking creature on display, other than the Face of Boe, is the cat nurses running the hospital -- everyone else is either human or humanoid with a different color of skin.  It's even explicitly a planet called New Earth, rather than anything more exotic.  They're making this first alien planet as safe and accessible as possible.

It's not a terrible story, though -- don't misunderstand me.  It's got a lot of great moments, and David Tennant is clearly having a grand time in his first regular story as the Doctor (as opposed to being sidelined and then rediscovering himself in "The Christmas Invasion").  The joy in which he experiences the disinfecting process in the elevator is gorgeous (and Rose's initial shock at the same thing makes it even better), and the life and energy he puts into his scenes makes him incredibly watchable.  It's also interesting how much of a contrast he makes from the ninth Doctor; there was a core of steel in Eccleston's performance, as if he was afraid of letting people in too much, but Tennant's Doctor seems to be putting it all out there.  Really, the only misstep is when he's possessed by Cassandra, which strays a little too far to the camp side of things.

Billie Piper, on the other hand, is clearly having a great time playing Cassandra-in-Rose, with a posher accent and a more overtly sexualized performance.  She's almost note-perfect, and scenes like her kiss of the Doctor (which half looks like an effort to distract the Doctor and half like she just really wants to kiss him) are handled really well.  (And the Doctor's reaction is priceless: initial bemusement giving way to a sort of pride -- "Yep, still got it," he says in a pleased tone.)  The farcical body swap moments are handled very well.

The infected new humans crave physical contact. ("New Earth")
©BBC
Unfortunately, they're unwilling to make an all-out comedy, and the ostensible main "serious" plot is just a little too generic to really shine.  The basic idea is intriguing (breeding human tissue and infecting it to study it and thus create a cure), but this essentially turns into a cut-rate zombie film -- but there's little of the sheer terror and intensity needed to make this aspect truly effective.   We get a handful of shots that suggest what they could have done if they'd really gone for it, but they're really few and far between.  The gas-mask plague victims in "The Empty Child" / "The Doctor Dances" were more effective than this -- heck, the Lazars in Terminus felt more worrying than this.

And if we're going to bring up last series's standout story, it's hard to escape the feeling that the resolution here is awfully similar to the one there.  Here it's a cocktail of different disease cures (um, how would that work exactly?) instead of reprogrammed nanogenes, but the Doctor passing the cure to the new humans feels awfully derivative of that earlier tale.  It's not exactly "Everybody lives!", but it clearly wants to be (note how triumphant the Doctor is -- although "I'm the Doctor, and I cured them!" doesn't have quite the same ring).

It has a lot of problems, but "New Earth" just about manages to pull it off.  The "zombie" plot threatens to make this story collapse, but the Cassandra interplay elevates this enough to make it worth watching -- and the final scene, where the dying Cassandra goes back to see herself when she was younger and still beautiful, works far better than it has any right to: Zoë Wanamaker and Sean Gallagher (as Cassandra-in-Chip) really sell it.  It's got some fabulous make-up (the cat masks here are light years ahead of the last time they tried this, in Survival) and some impressive setpieces (like the bit where they zoom down the elevator cable) -- if the rest of the episode had been up to the caliber of these moments, this would have been a knockout.  But as it is, our first trip to an alien planet is decidedly average.



January 13: "Tooth and Claw"

This episode's TARDISode: a meteor crashes to Earth, and then 300 years later someone's attacked by a giant wolf in Scotland...

The actual episode proper opens with an incredibly stylistic, heavily choreographed fight scene, as orange-clad Scottish monks perform kung fu (er...) as they flip and fly around a courtyard.  It's an extremely frenetic sequence that promises an action-packed story.

Unfortunately, the rest of "Tooth and Claw" doesn't quite deliver on that particular promise.  There's a lot of action to be sure, as characters run up and down corridors in fine Doctor Who tradition, but none of it seems quite as energetic as that opening sequence.  There's also the problem that, after their balletic moves, the Brethren don't do much beyond shoot at anyone trying to open a window of the house -- they're there to keep people in, not to kick ass in excitingly visual ways.  It's therefore to the story's benefit that the primary threat of the werewolf is realized convincingly enough to help carry the day.  ("Finally, a werewolf story!" they proclaimed at the time, ignoring things like Mindwarp and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.)  It often feels like Russell T Davies is attempting to recapture the feel of a Hinchcliffe-era story, with a small group of people under threat from a single creature.  (Actually, it's most like Horror of Fang Rock, which is technically the first Graham Williams story.)  And to his credit and that of the people making this, they just about pull it off.

The Doctor and the werewolf, separated by a mistletoe-infused
door. ("Tooth and Claw") ©BBC
One drawback to this approach, though, is that owing to the comparatively short running time, "Tooth and Claw" can't spend much time slowly building up the werewolf as a threat or giving our heroes much time to come up with a defense against it.  Instead we get a story that, once it gets going, moves at full pelt the whole time.  So you sort of wonder why, given the time constraints, Davies wastes it with the "We are not amused" bit, which is incredibly unfunny and makes Rose seem extremely callous.  (In fact, "Tooth and Claw" marks the clear start of the degradation of Rose's character -- sadly, she'll become increasingly shallow and unlikeable as the series progresses.)  I understand that he needs a reason for Queen Victoria to banish the Doctor and Rose from the Empire (yeah, that worked) and set up Torchwood, but making Rose (and the Doctor, to some extent) seem like unfeeling gits feels like the wrong way to go about it.  And while we're at it, the resolution of this story is awfully bizarre -- it hinges on some major implausible coincidences (the Brethren just happened to choose Torchwood House, the place where Prince Albert and Sir Robert's father spent their last few years creating an elaborate trap to destroy a werewolf, and Victoria just happened to have the Koh-i-noor on her when she was there, allowing Albert's trap to be sprung), as if Davies is in such a rush to get to the conclusion and the subsequent denouement and founding of Torchwood as an anti-Doctor agency that he stops worrying about plausibility.  (Oh, and the color grading they've applied to make that first windswept meeting with Queen Victoria look like a bright sunny day, despite the clouds looming overhead, has the side-effect of making David Tennant's skin look incredibly blotchy.)

Fortunately, there are enough positives going on to outweigh the plotting concerns.  It's really lovely to hear David Tennant use his natural Scottish accent (and the little in-joke of calling himself "Doctor James McCrimmon" is a nice touch), and most everyone in front of the camera is doing a great job --  Pauline Collins (who you might remember as Samantha Briggs from The Faceless Ones) is incredibly good as Queen Victoria, giving the sense of a somewhat overwhelmed but extremely resolute woman, and Derek Riddell is great as Sir Robert, conflicted between loyalty to the queen and love for his wife.  And while we're here, can we just note that Michelle Duncan (playing Sir Robert's wife Lady Isobel) has incredibly beautiful blue eyes?

It has some odd moments and some questionable script decisions, but "Tooth and Claw" ultimately succeeds, thanks to the cast's performances and some assured directions from Euros Lyn, as an entertaining return to the style of some of the more claustrophobic stories of Doctor Who's past.  It's really not trying to do much more than provide some tense and exciting moments for 45 minutes, and so while there are those missteps, they ultimately don't significantly sully the final product.



January 14: "School Reunion"

The TARDISode: Mickey does some investigations online into UFO sightings and comes across a large flashing sign saying, "TORCHWOOD ACCESS DENIED", which lets him know he's on the right track.  Nice job keeping secret the top-secret organization that not even the Prime Minister is supposed to know about, guys.

This is an episode where the script seems to be working at cross-purposes with the actual filming and direction.  On paper "School Reunion" is meant to be an examination of how the Doctor enters people's lives and leaves them behind, and why Rose is different from the others -- and if you're coming to this episode as someone who started watching in 2005, you might get that feeling.  But you'd probably notice that something about that feels off, because the story they're actually telling on screen has a different emphasis.  The version we actually see is about the Doctor meeting back up with a friend from long ago -- one Sarah Jane Smith -- and working through some things so that everything is patched up by the end, while it becomes less and less obvious why we should be rooting for his current companion.

The Doctor, Rose, Mickey, and Sarah Jane wait for K-9's analysis.
("School Reunion") ©BBC
It's certainly clear which side David Tennant falls on.  A lifelong Who fan himself (Doctor Who was what made Tennant want to be an actor in the first place), you can see how thrilled he is to be working with Elisabeth Sladen, and the chemistry they have is quite impressive -- Tennant is incredibly enthusiastic, and that translates to the Doctor himself, who seems genuinely pleased as punch to see Sarah again.  Sladen herself is fabulous as Sarah Jane, still full of the same energy and presence that she had in the '70s.  The only real problem is that the script requires her to play her relationship with the Doctor as like that between Rose and the Doctor, with Sarah having been hopelessly in love with the Doctor -- when a quick look at any of her stories would show that that's just about the least likely interpretation of their friendship.  It's frankly a bit insulting to Sarah to reinterpret her relationship that way, but to her credit Elisabeth Sladen pulls it off.  This is a Sarah who's slightly bitter about the Doctor leaving her at the end of The Hand of Fear and has just been spinning her wheels since the Doctor left (another insult, as Sarah seemed just about the most independent companion the Doctor had, with her own life outside the TARDIS and everything, and thus the least likely to be pining after him -- and besides, what about The Five Doctors?170).

As I said, Sladen manages to make this work, presenting one of the Doctor's former companions in a new light -- but Billie Piper isn't as lucky, as she's been saddled with some frankly petulant and bitchy material.  It's hard to see what they were going for -- clearly they want Rose to be different, to be the one that the Doctor wouldn't leave behind (it even comes up in the dialogue), so why do they try to make her as unlikeable as possible?  She fights with Sarah, she's jealous, she really doesn't seem to want Mickey on board the TARDIS for some reason... and, perhaps most problematically, she doesn't have much to do in this episode; her purpose in this story seems to be to act as a counterpoint to Sarah Jane, but she's the one that ends up looking the worse for the comparison.

And it's really only Rose who fares poorly in this story: Mickey comes across as a dependable and rather fun member of the team, and his realization that he's "the tin dog" makes him step up in a way that causes you to cheer.  And it's a welcome pleasure to see K-9 again after all this time, even if he is the worse for wear here -- and they even got John Leeson back to do the voice.  Meanwhile, Anthony Head is fantastic as the evil leader of the Krillitanes, Mr. Finch -- he underplays everything, which makes him even more menacing, and his confrontation with the Doctor in the school pool is a fabulous dance between the two, beautifully shot by director James Hawes.

In fact, if this story works at all it's largely down to Hawes's direction, with some great visuals and clever shots as the cast interact with each other.  Beyond the reintroduction of Sarah Jane and K-9, the script isn't the most terribly original thing ever (maths will change the universe -- Doctor Who already did that in Logopolis, albeit not with high school kids on computers displaying various permutations of the PC game Quake's logo), and the interesting idea of the Krillitanes is rather squandered.  But Hawes makes these concepts work visually and gives a coherence to everything on screen, giving the impression that this story is better than it probably actually is.

So like "New Earth" and "Tooth and Claw" before it, "School Reunion" is a qualified success.  There are some wasted opportunities here (like the Krillitanes, which to date haven't made a return appearance on screen) and some extremely problematic issues with one of our main identification figures -- as well as a need to grit your teeth and accept the revisionist interpretation of Sarah Jane -- but the confidence of the direction and the happy interplay among the Doctor, Mickey, Sarah Jane, and Rose (at times) makes up for this.  In particular, Tennant and Sladen make this story stand out; their interplay alone makes "School Reunion" worth watching.



January 15: "The Girl in the Fireplace"

This episode's TARDISode shows the ship being damaged by an ion storm, which leads to the repair droids killing the crew so that they can use their bodies as parts to fix the ship...

The episode proper begins after this, with Mickey's first trip in the TARDIS: "It's a spaceship.  Brilliant!  I got a spaceship on my first go!"  And no one seems to have told writer Steven Moffat about Rose's reluctance to have Mickey around (as we saw at the end of "School Reunion"), so consequently she's a lot more likable here -- she and Mickey seem to be having a good time, at least until they're captured by the repair droids.  In fact, this is easily the closest we've gotten to the first series's characterization since "The Christmas Invasion", and it's a welcome return.

A clockwork robot confronts the Doctor in pre-Revolutionary
France. ("The Girl in the Fireplace") ©BBC
But "The Girl in the Fireplace" isn't really about Rose and Mickey; it's about the Doctor and how he keeps popping up into a young girl's life -- a girl who turns out to be Jean Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour.  It's a relationship made possible thanks to some powerful 51st-century technology that's punching holes in time, stalking Madame de Pompadour for a reason left unknown until the closing shot of the episode.  But that reason (the ship is the SS Madame de Pompadour), while useful to know, isn't really germane to the issue -- it's just a way to cap off the events.  The real issue is the Doctor's effect on Reinette, and her effect on him.  Owing to the clever use of "time windows", the Doctor periodically shows up for a bit during moments of Reinette's life, providing an interesting relationship between the two, as Reinette is forced to take "the slow path" while the Doctor flits between moments.  It wants to be a romance, albeit one with clockwork robots, as well as a man who's 900 years old.  But they do manage to pull this aspect off -- Reinette is clearly infatuated with her "fireplace man", and while the Doctor's interest is pitched more as intellectual fascination, there still seems to be a spark there (and he definitely kisses her back during that first kiss).  Plus there's the whole "drunk Doctor" scene, where he swoops in all cheer and goofiness, singing "I Could Have Danced All Night".  He may indeed be playacting (as suggested by his sudden change in demeanor, as he pours "anti-oil" (er...) over the lead clockwork robot), but the choice to play drunk didn't come out of nowhere.171  And there's the heart-breaking finale, as the Doctor learns, after offering to take Reinette along with him to travel in the TARDIS (hey, it could happen; Mary Shelley traveled with the eighth Doctor for a time, if Big Finish is to be believed), that he's come back too late, arriving just after her death.  "I'm always all right," the Doctor tells Rose at the end -- although it's Mickey who's sharp enough to notice that the Doctor needs some time alone.  Really, the only problem is the Doctor's mindlink with Reinette, which looks so much like a Vulcan mind meld that's hard to take it seriously (particularly since it's not an ability he's ever exhibited before; it'll come up again down the line, although the method of thought transference will be different).

It's a story well-suited to Doctor Who, and an idea that hadn't really been explored before this point.  The clockwork robots are a great design, and they give a nice bit of impetus to the story -- and there's something appealing about no one considering the possibility that their repair droids might use people to effect repairs and thus not programming them to not do that.  But this ultimately about getting a number of different looks into someone's life, and everything else is secondary to that.

The last three episodes of this series, we've had to make allowances for a number of questionable choices, and while the finished products might have ultimately come out ahead, it's been with a lot of qualifiers.  There are no such reservations here.  "The Girl in the Fireplace" is a gorgeous tale about history and romance, with some clever SF ideas underpinning them.  Like Moffat's last story, it won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.  It's an honor well-deserved.



January 16: "Rise of the Cybermen"

The TARDISode shows a report about some strange goings-on related to a man named John Lumic, which Noel Clarke (as Ricky) is watching in a blue van...

Our first two-parter of this series takes the TARDIS to a London with zeppelins in the skies and Pete Tyler alive and well and a millionaire, thanks to hawking a drink called Vitex.  (Which you might remember as one of the products in his flat in "Father's Day".)  Yep, nineteen episodes into the revived series and they've decided to do a parallel universe story.  Fortunately we don't see too many duplicates between Pete's World (as it'll be called in "Doomsday") and our regular world, so the actors aren't using this as an opportunity to do something different from normal -- and in fact the two who do show up in both universes (Noel Clarke as Mickey/Ricky and Camille Coduri as Jackie) don't play significantly different versions of themselves: Ricky is more intense than Mickey, and this Jackie seems a lot more stuck-up than "our" Jackie, but that's about it.  (Incidentally, we get confirmation of the "+1" dating, with Mickey commenting that it's right when they left their universe, on 1st February, and that Jackie is claiming that she shares a birthday with Cuba Gooding, Jr., even though she's a year older and is actually turning 40.172)  Rose really wants to find Pete, and when the Doctor is forced to choose between her and Mickey, he chooses Rose.  Even though Mickey has by this point replaced her as the audience identification figure, being a lot more likeable and sympathetic -- check out the scene between the Doctor and Mickey in the darkened TARDIS console room, where they both seem really comfortable with each other, if you need proof.

So then why is this set in a parallel universe?  It's not to destroy it, as in Inferno, and while it's nice to see Shaun Dingwall back as Pete Tyler, it's unlikely that's the main impetus either.  No, it looks like this is designed to jettison all the backhistory of the Cybermen and start afresh.  (And in fact, this story started out as another Big Finish remake, like last year's "Dalek" (which was a remake of Rob Shearman's own Jubilee): this time of Marc Platt's "genesis of the Cybermen" story Spare Parts -- although you can be forgiven for not realizing that, as there's very little overlap between the two.  (Nevertheless, Marc Platt gets a "thanks to" credit during the end titles.))   No one apparently wanted to untangle all the Mondas/Telos stuff, so we get a brand-new beginning here.  Instead of being created on Mondas as a desperate response to deteriorating conditions there (if Spare Parts is to be believed), the Cybermen of Pete's World were created on Earth by a wheelchair-bound genius named John Lumic.  It seems no one mentioned Davros to writer Tom MacRae (and MacRae is on record as having to be brought up to speed on Doctor Who when he wrote this, so he wouldn't have known about Davros on his own).

But that's fine; other than the "it's been done" factor, there's no real reason the Cybermen couldn't have been created by a Davros-like character.  The problem with the episode as broadcast, though, is that Roger Lloyd-Pack is woefully miscast as Lumic.  Lloyd-Pack seems to be taking the opportunity to play Lumic as one-note as possible, with wide staring eyes and a melodramatic tone to every one of his lines (one online commentator -- I don't remember now who -- described the performance as if Lumic is spending the entire time touching cloth, which is as good as a description as you're likely to find).  It's thus incredibly hard to take Lumic seriously, and even when his Cybermen are stomping around he's still essentially a buffoon of a villain.

Lumic's Cybermen stomp around the grounds of Pete Tyler's
mansion. ("Rise of the Cybermen") ©BBC
The redesigned Cybermen, however, fare rather better.  They look pretty good, with some classic bits (the jug handles, the teardrop eyeholes, the external cables running along the arms) mixed up with some brand-new design elements -- most notably the metal plating over semi-exposed bunches of cables.  It also helps that they're all moving as a well-trained single unit, stomping along in unison.  In fact, that's probably my only real complaint: these Cybermen sure are loud, aren't they?  They could hardly sneak up on someone while clomping along like that...

But they still look pretty good (even if I still prefer the Earthshock design), and thanks to some good direction their big reveal is held back until the end, when they burst into Jackie Tyler's birthday party and kill the President of Great Britain (as played by Don Warrington, who Big Finish fans will recognize as Rassilon from various Doctor Who audios).  And look!  It's the return of Graeme Harper, last seen directing Revelation of the Daleks in 1985; there's nothing quite as visually striking as anything in either of Harper's '80s stories (partly because stylistically, the rest of television had caught up with him by 2006), but there are still a lot of nice touches, with a number of blurred shots and out-of-focus elements in the extreme foreground while we concentrate on something further back in the shot.

It's not a perfect first half, but it's got enough to keep us engaged and wondering what will happen next time.  (And there's no "next time" trailer to tease us for this episode either -- apparently because the episode was running long as it was, but it's still a good move to keep us in the dark.)



January 17: "The Age of Steel"

This week's TARDISode:
     All around the woooorrrrld
     Gotta spread the woooorrrrd
     Tell 'em what you've hearrrd
     You're gonna be a Cyberman
 
The main problem with "The Age of Steel" (for me, at least) is that it's really hard to get worked up about the fate of people in a parallel universe.  I'm really not sure why; it's not like Doctor Who is normally a documentary or something, but nevertheless the fact that what we're witnessing doesn't affect "our" universe makes it hard to get really invested in events.  (And unlike, say, Inferno, we're not witnessing a cataclysmic disaster that leads to a breakdown in everything or directly comparing it to "our" world (which is what made that story worthwhile), but rather are simply seeing the sort of event that happens roughly once a year nowadays in the regular Doctor Who universe anyway.)  So even though we see Ricky killed by the Cybermen, it's hard to feel genuinely upset about it because Mickey is standing right there -- and as he was the only one present alongside his double, it felt more like bookkeeping than anything else.  Meanwhile, Jackie's conversion into a Cyberman is presented in a way that looks like we're supposed to be horrifically upset by this, but as it's not "our" Jackie it's hard to muster up the energy to care as much as it seems we're supposed to.

But where this episode (and really, this story) succeeds is in Graeme Harper's direction, which he makes impressively dynamic.  The scene of the Doctor and Mrs. Moore walking through the Cybermen-infested cooling tunnels is really well done, and manages to be tense and suspenseful without seeming too much like the crew of the Enterprise walking through a Borg ship on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  And Mrs. Moore's death actually is genuinely upsetting; she's been one of the best things about this episode, and to see her killed in such a shocking moment has a major impact on the viewer.  (Although how did that Cyberman come up behind her without anyone hearing it stomping?)  And the part right before, where the emotion inhibitor in the Cyberman is deactivated and we get a sense of who the Cyberman used to be, is really good -- it explores the idea of the dehumanization of the Cyber-conversion process in a way we haven't seen before, and the thought that the Cybermen have removed all their emotions not because emotions are "weak" (even though Lumic seems to be suggesting that later) but because it's the only way to stop them from going insane is a fascinating one, and it's a scene enhanced by Harper's direction, with a close-up on the Cyberman's face as "she" wonders what's going on.

Mickey says goodbye to the Doctor as Jake and Rose look on.
("The Age of Steel") ©BBC
But it's still hard to shake the idea, after everything is over, that we're meant to care a lot more than we actually do.  The moments that involve the regulars work way better than most of the ones that don't; we're cheering when Mickey saves the day by tricking the robot Cyberman into smashing the transmitter controls, and when he works out what the Doctor is telling him to put the Cybermen out of action for good.  As such it's genuinely sad to see him go at the end of the episode; Mickey has become the audience identification figure, and he's had a larger and more complete character journey than Rose has -- compare his first appearance in "Rose" to how he is here, and it's clear how much he's grown.  It's genuinely sad to see him go, even when you know he'll be back later.

However, ultimately "Rise of the Cybermen" / "The Age of Steel" is a story that doesn't quite work.  As a straightforward action tale it does a good job; there's enough action here to keep you happy, enhanced (once again) by Harper's direction, and it's probably a good move to have a simplified Cyberman history.  (Although subsequent tales are going to make things even more complicated than they ever were before.)  But you get the feeling that this two-parter wants to be more than that; it wants to examine some familiar characters in a new light and see what comes out.  But no one's different enough for this to work: Ricky is probably the furthest away from his counterpart, but that just makes him angry all the time.  Pete Tyler is still a good man and Jackie is a bit more snobbish, but it's hardly a reach for her character.  What it comes down to is that they don't give us enough of a reason to care about the fate of Pete's World, and so we're distanced from the events we see on screen; it's not affecting "our" Earth, so why should we care?  It's a question that "Rise of the Cybermen" / "The Age of Steel" struggles, and ultimately fails, to answer.



January 18: "The Idiot's Lantern"

The TARDISode for this story is a little unusual; normally these are set before the events we see in the story, but this one seems to be set during the title sequence -- between the cold open and the start of the rest of the episode, as we see Tommy's gran get her face sucked off after the Connollys' television is delivered.

Rose becomes the latest victim of the Wire. ("The Idiot's
Lantern") ©BBC
The actual episode is a bit of an odd beast.  There are moments it does really well and moments that fall flat, and it never quite strikes the right balance between these two things.  It might be worth noting that the episode starts to hit its stride once Rose has become a victim of the Wire, but that perhaps has less to do with Rose and more to do with the structure of the story.

That said, the bits with the Doctor and Rose in the Connollys' house don't come off the way Mark Gatiss presumably intended them to.  Eddie Connolly is a bit of a bully, certainly, but it hardly seems like the best way to deal with a bully is to bully him harder.  The Doctor's response to Eddie's attempts to gain control ("And I'm not LISTENING!!!") feels a bit forced, but Rose's crack about the Union Jack versus the Union Flag feels incredibly mean-spirited (and also isn't actually true).  If this had been an isolated incident they might have gotten away with it -- certainly the rest of Rose's behavior (other than the bit about the Union Flag being upside down) is reasonably sympathetic -- but coming after a long string of other questionable character decisions, it just increases the sense of distaste toward Rose's character.  It becomes so noticeable, in fact, that viewers at the time were wondering if they were setting Rose (and the Doctor, to an extent) up for a fall, so insufferable was their behavior becoming.  Alas, it seems to be more a matter of poor script editing across stories than a concerted effort to give them hubris that they'll pay for; no one appears to have considered the cumulative effect of these more negative aspects.

Once the plot gets going, though, things improve.  There are some lovely moments (everyone mentions it, but the part where the Doctor, when asked to tell the police everything he knows, starts with "I know you can't wrap your hand around your elbow and make your fingers meet," and then while DI Bishop is yelling at him the officer behind him is trying to see if the Doctor's right, is a moment of understated joy), and the Doctor is in full righteous mode (even if it seems to be the fact that Rose was affected and then left on the street that ends up being the final straw), challenging the Wire.  The Wire herself is a reasonable villain, travelling along electromagnetic signals and trying to absorb the electrical impulses of the brain (though it's never clear why those signals are preferable to any other electrical signals -- nor why this causes people's faces to disappear), but her cries of "Hungry!" are awfully reminiscent of Paradise Towers (and if you think Mark Gatiss didn't know this you haven't been paying attention).  Still, she provides an interesting villain, and the method of dealing with her is rather clever.  The ending's a bit odd, though; we're supposed to be pleased that Mrs. Connolly has finally gotten rid of the bully in her life, in the form of her over-bearing husband, but then we get a speech from Rose about how families are super-important and Tommy should go to his dad -- even though Eddie is a bully and had earlier jokingly talked about beating the "mummy's boy" out of Tommy (and if you take seriously the subtext that Tommy's gay, this becomes even more worrying -- but as I noted under "The Unquiet Dead", subtexts tend to pass Gatiss by).  It's a bit of a duff note for an ending, and certainly not the one the production team intended.

And then there's the matter of the direction.  Euros Lyn is using an awful lot of low angle shots and skewed shots, trying to convey a sense of things being off-kilter -- but he takes it too far, and once you notice it it's hard to unnotice it, and you find yourself wondering if someone's just neglected to make sure the camera's level.  It's a nice idea, but it's ultimately distracting.  This is a shame, because there are lots of other good shots (such as the climb up the transmitter tower) that do a good job of conveying the action in interesting ways -- but that tilted camera overwhelms everything.

But ultimately "The Idiot's Lantern" isn't a terribly successful episode.  I confess that I have a bit of a soft spot for it, but it's not hard to see why others wouldn't care for it.  I rather like the plot with the Wire, and there are a number of good moments scattered throughout -- but if you're not impressed by the Wire, you might find this all rather tiresome.  It has a few nice moments, but it's not the triumph it could have been.



January 19: "The Impossible Planet"

The TARDISode suggests that someone wanted this impossible planet to be found -- even if the map was found on the other end of the galaxy (although, given it's full of the untranslatable symbols, how did they figure out where the place was?)...

This first episode of the latest two-parter is probably the closest the BBC Wales series has come yet to capturing the spirit of the New Adventures, Virgin's '90s novel series featuring the seventh Doctor which frequently dealt with ancient beings and crazy set-ups.  "The Impossible Planet" has the feel of those books (perhaps not the most surprising thing, given that the author of this, Matt Jones, wrote one of the last NAs, Bad Therapy), with an isolated human base uncovering an ancient force that's gathering its strength.  (It's also rather like a Tom Baker story, but as there's no story or legend being overtly remade, it's not as clear-cut a connection as you might think.)  But while there are lots of hints as to what's going on, we don't really get anything too explicit here; sure, the Ood at the end refer to the Beast as Abaddon, Satan, and Lucifer, but that's not really proof (after all, the Doctor suggests in The Dæmons that it was the titular beings that led to the idea of the "Horned Beast").

But what this episode does really well is create an atmosphere of solitude and tension; the conditions of the planet are such that help isn't coming173, and even the Doctor and Rose are isolated when the part of the base that the TARDIS is parked in disappears down into the depths of the planet.  This means that, as things start to go to hell (sorry), there's no escape for any of them; they have to deal with the events head-on.

They do a really good job of making things feel more dangerous with their throwaway lines.  The way the Ood matter-of-factly say things like, "The Beast and his Armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God," is nicely done, and the whole sequence with Toby and the voice in his quarters is suitably creepy -- and the sight of all the sigils on Toby's hands and face are extremely effective.  (Although the fact that they've cast Gabriel Woolf -- who, you might, recall, was Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars -- as the voice of the Beast looks like a deliberate effort to make long-term fans think something different is coming in the second part from what we actually get.)  The death of Scooti is really distressing, and the discovery of her body, framed against the black hole, is a memorable moment.  (Though as long as we're here, let's note that the black hole shown isn't a very accurate depiction of the genuine object; supposedly they looked into doing a scientifically accurate rendition but decided it wasn't as visually interesting.  Wait, really?  That suggests they were doing it wrong...)

And one of the nicer moments in this episode is the Doctor contemplating life without the TARDIS, having to settle down and do normal things.  It's a quiet interlude, and Rose's awkward fumbling as she tries to suggest living with the Doctor is rather sweet; happily, in fact, "The Impossible Planet"'s characterization of Rose is a lot closer to series 1's than what we've been getting -- other than some painfully forced laughter right at the beginning (oh, and the moment when the Doctor realizes the TARDIS is gone where the script makes her distressingly thick -- but that looks like it's been included for any viewers who haven't cottoned on to the problem, rather than as a character point for Rose), this is a much more pleasant and sympathetic Rose.  And while Rose is doing a lot better, the Doctor is also firing on all cylinders -- he's clever at the right moments, worried when he should be174, and somber when the story needs him to be.  Even his hug of Zach and his little speech about humans (which by all rights should have been an excruciating moment) is passable.

Danny watches as a guard is killed by a possessed Ood. ("The
Impossible Planet") ©BBC
Meanwhile we get a great new alien design in the form of the Ood -- the tentacles hanging from the mouth area are creepy without being terrifying, and the eyes rotated so that they're at a diagonal to the rest of the face is a cool move.  The overall effect is rather pleasing -- alien but not threatening.  Making them a slave race is also rather distressing -- despite any protestations from the Ood themselves -- and this firmly puts us on Rose's side, as well as making them feel unthreatening.  But that makes their possession by the Beast, as they become the Legion of the Beast (complete with red eyes), all the more scary, as these rather benign creatures start killing people, all while they're apparently mentally screaming.  It's a really effective moment.  The only real downside is that they're still slaves -- just to the Beast, rather than humanity.  (To be fair, this aspect will be addressed in series 4, in Planet of the Ood.)

There are other minor problems here and there.  There seems to be some artifacts from earlier drafts that lead to strange moments (most notably, Ida scoffing at the idea that the planet they're on has a name -- "Don't be stupid.  It hasn't got a name.  How could it have a name?" -- and then a few minutes later stating that "in the scriptures of the Veltino, this planet is called Krop Tor"), and while the orange spacesuits look neat, putting lights inside the helmet like that seems really impractical.  Oh, and it's all well and good grabbing public domain files for your sound effects, but maybe don't pick one intimately connected with the sound of a door opening in the one of the most popular and influential PC games of all time (Doom, if you need to be told).

But ultimately "The Impossible Planet" is a huge success -- we get a nice slice of terrifying Who, done through suggestion and the development of tension rather than cheap shock moments.  If they can deliver in the next episode, this story might go down as one of the best ever.



January 20: "The Satan Pit"

Not only is today Tom Baker's birthday, but it's also my brother's 30th!  Happy birthday!  I...have no way to tie that into "The Satan Pit", so let's just move on...

The TARDISode for this episode appears to take place between the last TARDISode and the start of "The Impossible Planet", as someone looks through Captain Walker's effects, sees that book burst into flames, and then is found with sigils all over his face.  This might be fine if these events or either of these two characters were ever seen or even mentioned again.

So here's the thing about "The Satan Pit": director James Strong almost gets away with it.  His direction is very dynamic, filling the screen with tons of energy as Ood charge down ventilation shafts and the Sanctuary Base crew start to lose it as the pressure on them builds and builds.  But he also gives us quiet moments; Ida's conversation with the Doctor, as he's dangling inside the pit, is really beautiful -- all subtle and calm.  And his (seeming) last words to the outside universe -- "If they get back in touch...  if you talk to Rose... just tell her...  Tell her...  ...Oh, she knows" -- are far more lovely than they have any real right to be.

But the problem lies in the script.  "The Impossible Planet" builds really well, and the cliffhanger, with the Beast escaping and the Ood turning into killers, is very well judged.  But then "The Satan Pit" just sort of...sits there, working through its running time until it gets to the points it wants to explore, which basically starts with the Doctor dangling in the pit.  Try to imagine this as an old-school four-parter, and then picture part three, and you'll see the problem.  As I said, Strong makes all the ventilation shaft sequences look tense and compelling, but they don't really contribute to the plot, and the way in which the Ood are dealt with by the halfway mark only makes this clear.

The Doctor confronts the Beast. ("The Satan Pit") ©BBC
No, Matt Jones is clearly more interested in exploring the nature of the Doctor's beliefs and faith.  It does come across as strange to long-term fans though, as the Doctor struggles with the idea of something existing "before time" (so presumably from before this universe began) -- even though he had no trouble with the concept in Terminus.175  (But hey!  Support for my "previous universe" theory in "The Impossible Planet"!)  Even independent of Terminus, though, it's not clear why the idea of a universe before this one would freak him out -- it's treated as if the idea is enough, without any real exploration of it.  Then there's also the problem with the Doctor's theorizing about the Beast having an influence on all the civilized races in the universe -- no problem with this per se, but one of the planets the Doctor mentions is Dæmos, which only serves to point out the conflict between what this story states and what we hear in The Dæmons.  Did the Beast make the Dæmons look (a bit) like himself?  Did he inspire them to go manipulate other races because he was their devil figure?  Or is it just a coincidence?  And finally, there's the minor issue of how the big climax of the story is that Rose isn't a victim, and that he believes in her.  It's a good moment, but we already saw it in The Curse of Fenric, so it's not the huge revelation the script wants it to be.

In fact, there's more than a little of The Curse of Fenric in this story's genes.  Here it's evil from before the dawn of time instead of the dawn of time itself, but the idea is still the same -- and Fenric as a creation was a lot more subtle than a huge growling dude chained up underground.  We still have the Doctor's belief in his companions as a motivator, and we have the evil being manipulating events to bring about its release, but less interesting discussions about faith here than there.  The idea that the Doctor keeps traveling to be proved wrong is nice, but it's less interesting than Reverend Wainwright confronting the loss of his faith in God, or Captain Sorin's faith in the Russian Revolution.  Instead of evil in human form, with all the guile and cunning that entails, we get a giant mindless shouty thing -- which sums up the two different approaches toward the same basic point, really.

Look, this is another series 2 story that just about works on balance.  "The Impossible Planet" is really really good, and a lot of that goodwill translates over to "The Satan Pit".  That, combined with Strong's direction and some good performances (Billie Piper continues to be a lot more likeable here than she has been, even if this seems to be the story that starts to see her actively transform into the Doctor), makes this worth watching.  The main problem is that "The Satan Pit" is a lopsided episode, exploring questions already examined more intriguingly in earlier stories.  To be honest, it's not clear how they could have done better, other than restructuring/rewriting "The Satan Pit" to ramp up more smoothly -- but the minute they decided to include a huge CGI devil, there was no way this was going to be as interesting as "The Impossible Planet" promised.  As I said, it just about works (and it still carries that New Adventures feeling over both episodes, right down to exploring the idea of ancient gods), but it's James Strong's win, not Matt Jones's.



January 21: "Love & Monsters"

This TARDISode shows something trying to locate the Doctor-hunting group LINDA...

"Love & Monsters" seems to be one of those intensely polarizing stories Doctor Who turns out from time to time -- you either hate it or adore it.  (Other examples of what About Time calls "Marmite stories" -- after the slogan for Marmite, "Love it or hate it" -- include The Web Planet, Ghost Light, and, it seems, "Listen" (based on initial reactions, at least).)  It's certainly an unusual format for the show, being narrated by a guest character who describes the effect the Doctor has had on his life.  As such, it's an "outside looking in" interpretation of the show.

It also happens, I'm told, to be a very accurate portrayal of Doctor Who fandom in the '70s and '80s.

My experience in fandom is rather different from what's shown here, as I'm both a bit too young and from the wrong area -- there weren't many fan groups for kids in late '80s/early '90s Michigan.  My experience as a fan didn't really blossom until the rise of the Internet, but things had changed by that point.  However, the consensus seems to be that "Love & Monsters" -- and LINDA in particular -- is exactly how fan groups were in the '80s: people who were brought together by their love of Doctor Who, but who became friends because of other things.  LINDA develops along exactly the same lines (albeit with the Doctor instead of Doctor Who), and Victor Kennedy is said to be representative of those fans who wanted the others to take the Doctor Who aspect seriously -- when for others that was about the last thing they actually wanted to do.  (Despite how accurately "Love & Monsters" portrays the British fan experience though, Russell T Davies has said he himself was never a member of one of these groups.)

Ursula and Elton. ("Love & Monsters") ©BBC
Now, I can't directly attest to how "Love & Monsters" relates to fandom, but I can tell you how it looks to everyone else.  It's a cool move to show us how the contemporary events of the last couple series have looked to others, and it's rather impressive that Dan Zeff and crew make the recreation of those events look just as good with less time and money as the originals.  But what this episode really hinges on is its main character -- and happily, Marc Warren delivers in spades as Elton Pope.  Elton is endearingly awkward, charming, and generally all-around likeable.  It's quite a burden for a guest star to carry, but Warren pulls it off with ease.  Meanwhile, Peter Kay, as Victor Kennedy/the Abzorbaloff, is on just the right side of creepy, while still being fun -- and the Abzorbaloff is a nice creation, and the tie-in with Blue Peter to make the monster is a really lovely touch.

But what's especially nice about "Love & Monsters" is how it fleshes out the character of Jackie Tyler.  Up to this point, Jackie has been primarily defined in terms of Rose, with little beyond that -- but here, we get to see a more nuanced side to Jackie, as we see that she basically doesn't want to be alone, and that manifests itself in chasing men but also in being fiercely protective of her daughter.  It's really nice to see her interactions with Elton, and it's heartbreaking to see how quickly that turns sour.

It's not perfect (the bit at the end, where the Doctor brings Rose to Elton just so she can chew him out, probably looked funny in an isolated context, but in the scheme of the larger series looks like another incredibly petty move from Rose, making her more and more unlikeable), but "Love & Monsters" succeeds more than just about any other story from this year.  There's no need to make allowances or excuses for this story -- it's a beautiful tale, a love letter to the older fans, and a fascinating perspective on the events we sort of take for granted in the Doctor Who universe.

...yeah, I'm pretty firmly on the "love it" side of things.



January 22: "Fear Her"

The TARDISode shows us a programme called Crime Crackers, investigating missing children in a London close (what Americans would call a cul-de-sac).  Although frankly this looks more like a silly parody than anything of serious intent, which doesn't bode well for the main event...

"Fear Her", for some reason, has become the pariah of 21st-century Who -- the most recent Doctor Who Magazine poll listed it at 240 out of 241 -- just ahead of The Twin Dilemma.  It's frankly hard to see why "Fear Her" evokes such vitriol, as the finished episode is barely worth remembering.

The Isolus encounters Chloe Webber. ("Fear Her") ©BBC
It's not perfect, but it's certainly not appalling -- unlike the aforementioned The Twin Dilemma, which really makes you work to find any nuggets of quality, there are quite a few lovely scenes in "Fear Her".  The Doctor sticking his finger in the marmalade is quietly wonderful.  The idea of the Isolus is interesting (even if, perversely, they've given such an intense family organism a name that looks a lot like "isolated"), and we finally unequivocally get the series 1 Rose back -- she's the most likeable she's been since "The Christmas Invasion", and her efforts to carry on where the Doctor left off (after he was snatched away by Chloe/the Isolus) are very well done.  Plus, the off-hand mention of the Doctor being a dad is great (and was presumably a surprise to new viewers -- though it's been established, more or less, since "An Unearthly Child"), and the gag about how the TARDIS materializes the first time is cute (even if they'd already done that joke in Ghost Light).  It's also clear that someone's put some thought into the fact that they're shooting a story set in July 2012 in January 2006, so we get dialogue about how the Isolus's ship is sucking the heat out of everywhere.

But there are still some major problems with "Fear Her".  A couple of them are production-related (such as how Abisola Agbaje isn't quite up to the task of portraying the possessed Chloe Webber (although, notably, she seems a lot more comfortable when she's playing the Isolus-free version)), but primarily the issues are at the scripting level.  Chloe's powers seem to be inconsistent (so when she draws people they're transported into her pictures, but when she draws something imaginary like the scribble creature it appears in real life (and incidentally, the Doctor's trick with the eraser is strange -- try erasing the tip of a pencil and see how far you get) -- and when she draws someone who was alive but is now dead, he appears to live in a halfway point between the two), and both endings (the nightmare dad one and the Doctor/torch one) are quite painful, albeit for different reasons.  The dad one feels awfully saccharine and twee -- essentially the equivalent of just wishing bad things away -- and the torch one tries so hard to force you to cheer that the natural reaction is to gag instead.

However, the underlying concern with "Fear Her" isn't a matter of a bad plot or an inept production.  No, what ultimately sinks it is a general smug sense of "aren't we clever?"  From the opening TARDIS gag to the Doctor lighting the torch, there's a sense in which the episode is repeatedly yelling at the viewers, "Look!  We're doing fun and interesting new things!"  If they were actually doing fun and interesting new things, it might (might) have been okay, but although they occasionally do slip a moment through, there's not really anything worth engaging with in this story.  It's a lot like a bore at a party telling everyone how interesting they are.  And as with the bore, you might find some things here and there in "Fear Her" worthwhile if you stick around, but it might just be better if you walk away.



January 23: "Army of Ghosts"

This week's TARDISode: a reporter learns about Torchwood, but just as he's about to print the story, Torchwood comes along and takes him away...

Odd opening notwithstanding (the whole "this is the story of how I died" thing, which is a nice hook à la The Lovely Bones but turns out to be something of a cheat -- but we're getting ahead of ourselves), "Army of Ghosts" is a solid, entertaining episode.  It's the start of series 2's season finale, which means we finally see the Doctor meet up with Torchwood, after dropping hints since "Bad Wolf".  This might be slightly more interesting if they hadn't announced the upcoming Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood between series 1 and 2 of Doctor Who, but since they did, it's hard not to be a bit cynical about the whole thing.  (Of course, Torchwood would end up being rather different from what we see under Yvonne Hartman's leadership, but we didn't know that at the time, and that cynical feeling remains.)

But it's interesting to see what "Army of Ghosts" does right.  Somewhat remarkably, we don't waste much time introducing the Doctor and Rose into the main events: once the Doctor's established that the "ghosts" that everyone sees everywhere aren't ghosts at all, but something pushing its way into our world, it's off to Torchwood itself so that the plot can keep moving forward.  And, in a good move, we get a look at a Cyberman quite early on (as it menaces soon-to-be companion actress Freema Agyeman, albeit in a different role here) -- no sudden revelations that it's the Cybermen pushing through.  This does mean that the audience is slightly ahead of the Doctor, but the misdirection regarding the Void Ship ensures that we don't spend a large portion of time just waiting for the Doctor to catch up.  And since Graeme Harper is at the helm again, it's all shot very effectively, so even when it's a lot of exposition (as when Yvonne is explaining things), it never feels like it.

Yvonne Hartman, the Doctor, and Jackie watch as the Cybermen
invade. ("Army of Ghosts") ©BBC
There are some really nice moments here, too: the Doctor's interactions with Jackie are a lot of fun, and his explanation of what happened when the Void Ship entered this dimension, complete with spidering glass, is nifty.  (We also get some wonderful dialogue, as the Doctor sees that the TARDIS is surrounded by troops with guns: "Doctor, they've got guns," Rose warns him.  "And I haven't," the Doctor replies.  "Which makes me the better person, don't you think?  They can shoot me dead, but the moral high ground is mine.")  It's also interesting how the Doctor is ostensibly Torchwood's prisoner, but Yvonne would rather use his knowledge than just lock him up.  And hooray!  Mickey's back!  Ooh, and look, a Pyramids of Mars reference (the sarcophagus next to the TARDIS)!  There are lots of lovely little moments like this, which makes the big moments like the Cybermen's invasion more effective, as the goodwill that's already been engendered carries right on through.  And the big reveal at the end, as it turns out to be not Cybermen but Daleks inside the Void Ship, is a really good one.  So far, "Army of Ghosts" has done just about everything right.  The question, however, is whether they can deliver in the next episode, as they have to deal with both Cybermen and Daleks...



January 24: "Doomsday"

The last TARDISode shows a (frankly strange-looking) broadcast warning people about the Cyberman invasion.  It's also notable for using the name of the episode in the dialogue -- something that doesn't happen in the main event itself.

"Army of Ghosts" was going really well.  So what happened with "Doomsday"?

Actually, to be fair, this is another one of those episodes where the director almost pulls it off.  Graeme Harper fills the screen with lots of dynamic, energetic shots that really keep things moving, and the temptation is definitely there to just sit back and let it all wash past you.  But there are major major problems with "Doomsday" that really stop you from doing this.

The Daleks realize the Doctor is standing behind the Cyberleader.
("Doomsday") ©BBC
The problems start early, with the Daleks and the Cybermen squaring off for a (rather out-of-character) bitch fest, as each snipes at the other.  It really wants to be a huge, epic moment, but it ends up dragging on for far too long as they grate at each other ("It's like Stephen Hawking meets the Speaking Clock," Mickey remarks, rather insensitively) -- and what's worse, we're meant to be paying attention to the Doctor during this scene, so any childhood fantasies this scene evokes end up secondary to that.  Then they end up shooting at each other, while the Doctor gets on with the actual plot.

And the trouble is that it's not a terribly exciting plot, is it?  For all they try to dress it up and distract you with all the action sequences, for all they talk about two unstoppable foes wreaking havoc on the planet... the solution ultimately comes down to pulling a big lever and reversing everything.  It's a nice-looking lever, very solid design and all that, but it's still just a large reset switch.  Nothing exceedingly clever or imaginative, just pull a switch and fix everything.  (It probably also doesn't help that the bit right at the climax, where it looks like Rose is going to be sucked into the Void until Pete pops back and saves her, is mind-bogglingly nonsensical: how did Pete know to come back, and at exactly the right place to catch Rose?  Why wasn't he sucked into the Void as soon as he showed up?  And how did he transport Rose when we were told earlier that the yellow button devices could only take one person?  (All right, maybe he slipped an extra one on her, but it's not remotely obvious.))

As I said, Graeme Harper almost gets away with it, and there's perhaps no better example than the moment immediately after the breach closes, with the Doctor and Rose leaning against the same wall but separated by a universe -- which works far far better than it has any right to be.  (It also helps that composer Murray Gold goes not for a string-filled sappy piece to accompany this, but rather a wordless soprano solo with a constant pulsing bass guitar underneath that gives the scene a real sense of drive.  Gold's instincts are occasionally a little too pedestrian -- for instance, he loves to underline "funny" scenes with "funny" music -- but he's 100% spot-on here.)  Whether you find that final moment between the Doctor and Rose on the beach intensely tragic or incredibly frustrating is probably a matter of opinion.  I'm rather on the "frustrating" side -- just let him say "I love you"!  You've been building two whole series to this moment, just pull the trigger!  Or are they worried that that would really make series 3 feel like a letdown, if the Doctor is undeniably, irretrievably heartbroken over Rose?  At least this way they have a bit of wiggle room.

However, it's hard to not to realize, while watching this sequence, just why Rose had to leave.  It's not so much because of the smug, bitchy characterization they've been giving her this season (for who knows what reason), but because they've turned Rose into the Doctor -- even Jackie comments on it in "Army of Ghosts".  But we already have the Doctor; we don't need another character doing the same things.  The fact is that Rose has long ceased to be the main audience identification figure, and without that her purpose is gone for everyone except the shippers176 -- not that we should discount their opinion, but they don't make up the majority of the audience.  And so it's time for her to leave.

There are other minor nitpicks throughout "Doomsday" that don't help either: the scene between our Jackie and alternate Pete stops the story's momentum dead as they express plot points at each other -- even if Mickey's reaction to Jackie's line about how "there was never anyone else" is priceless.  (Mind you, even Davies himself has commented that this scene is too much.)  And while it's tragic that Yvonne Hartman is turned into a Cyberman, the idea that she can somehow resist the conditioning is not only silly but rather violates one of the main horrors of being turned into a Cyberman, that you can't resist being like them.  And the tear is risible.  And it's things like this that point to the main problem with "Doomsday": despite Graeme Harper's best efforts, it's hard to shake the feeling that Davies included things just because he thought it would be a good or fun idea, with little thought as to how these ideas would connect up with all the other things.  In this respect, somewhat ironically, we're not a million miles away from your standard Eric Saward script -- the sort of thing this incarnation of the show had previously been working to avoid.  The only difference is that the callbacks here are from the last two series, rather than the entire history of the show.  Whether that's a better move is a question for debate.

But then there's a sense in which series 2 has been slapped together in a hurry.  I think it was Noel Gallagher of Oasis who said that you get five years to write your first album, and then six months to write your second.  In many ways that's what series 2 feels like: as if Davies had planned out series 1 long long ago, and then suddenly realized he had to come up with another series when the first one was such a huge success.  (It probably didn't help that the plans for series 2 changed as things went along: "The Runaway Bride" was pulled to become the second Christmas special, while Stephen Fry's 1920's story -- about which almost nothing is known -- fell through and had to be replaced in a hurry with "Fear Her".)  There's a lack of cohesion throughout the main thirteen episodes of series 2, as if Davies is juggling so many things that he's had to take his eye off the ball when it comes to the details.  It's not an appalling mess or anything, but series 2 too often has moments where you have to make allowances, where they only just get away with it.  It's a perfect illustration of the sophomore slump.

But in some ways it doesn't matter: Doctor Who is back and huge.  The show is everywhere in Britain, at the peak of its popularity (much in the same way 2011 would be for the show in the United States).  It doesn't matter what the quality of the actual episodes is -- the overwhelming goodwill and popularity that the show experienced in Britain in 2006 more than overrides any individual story concerns.  For many people David Tennant and Billie Piper are still the quintessential TARDIS team, regardless of what the actual evidence suggests, and nothing will change that.  If you thought the show was big by the end of 2005, that's nothing compared to what 2006 brought: a tremendous wave of popularity that Doctor Who will ride for the next few years.









Footnotes

169 A genuine title controversy!  There's no title given on screen; the DVD release just calls it Children in Need Special, which is usually what it's referred to, but some reference works call it "Born Again" for no clear reason whatsoever.  Russell T Davies referred to it facetiously as "Pudsey Cutaway" (after both the Children in Need's mascot Pudsey, and "Dalek Cutaway" -- which you'll recall is the "technically correct" title (somehow) for "Mission to the Unknown"), which really should be what we're calling it.
170 So not only does Toby Whithouse get the relationship between the Doctor and Sarah Jane wrong, but the basic premise of the story needs Sarah to have never seen the Doctor since she was dropped off -- even though he sent her K-9 in K-9 and Company and saw her again in The Five DoctorsK-9 and Company clearly happened, but for a while it looked like maybe The Five Doctors had been removed from the continuity (the suggestions that The Hand of Fear was their last encounter and that the Doctor has regenerated "half a dozen times" since he last saw her, which, if Tennant is the tenth Doctor, would make Tom Baker the last Doctor to have seen her).  Subsequent events have both addressed the "half a dozen" comment (the inclusion of the War Doctor) and definitively shown that The Five Doctors happened (in "The Time of the Doctor", the Doctor still has the seal of the High Council that he took from the Master in the Death Zone -- an event that Sarah was present for) -- so why doesn't Sarah remember that here?  Well, it's remotely possible that, as she was taken out of time by the Time Scoop, those events were erased from her memory once they were over.  Or maybe Sarah didn't realize that Peter Davison was a later Doctor; after all, Tom Baker wasn't around, and she knew Jon Pertwee was the Doctor from her past, so if she never learned that Peter Davison was the fifth Doctor then she might think he's actually a pre-Pertwee incarnation, and that the events in the Death Zone happened in his personal past and thus didn't really count as him seeing her again.  This would require her to have not really talked to any of the other companions while in Rassilon's tomb and for her to not be paying attention when Troughton calls Davison "the latest model" -- a bit of a stretch, but just about plausible enough to be workable.  Either way, this is more thought than Whithouse appears to have put into things.
171 Given the extra meanings of "dance" floating around Moffat's last script for the show, it might be worth pondering just how far things went between the Doctor and Reinette.  (Though for what it's worth, Moffat has said they didn't get to that stage.)
172 Well, sort of.  Cuba Gooding, Jr. was indeed 39 in 2007, but his birthday is actually January 2nd.  But in American dating, where the month comes first, that's written as 1-2-1968 -- which, if you think it's British dating with the day first, looks like 1st February.  So the question is, is this a mistake made by Jackie/her biographer and included as a (very) subtle character detail, or a genuine one by Doctor Who's production team?
173 Something to note is that no one ever mentions relativity effects, which would probably make help largely useless anyway; possibly this is handled by the gravity funnel that let them get to the planet in the first place, but then that gravity funnel seems to collapse at the end of the episode.  But then, if relativity was a factor, wouldn't it be pointless trying to get the power source from the center of the place?  By the time they were successful the rest of the universe would have long since passed them by, presumably rendering the attempt irrelevant.
174 Namely, at the language so ancient that the TARDIS can't translate it.  But what does that actually mean?  Presumably the written translation function works by the TARDIS scanning the brains of the people in the area (via that telepathic field), working out how their written language works, and then giving that information to the Doctor (and any other relevant people).  So if the the TARDIS can't translate it, that must mean it's never encountered any other speakers of that language.  Of course, given the size of the universe and everyone in it, this perhaps isn't the most surprising thing ever.  Nevertheless, the Doctor treats this as an impossible event, which suggests that this race had already come and gone before the Time Lords came about -- and that they either made no impact on the universe (despite their advanced technology, and the fact that one of their books made it across the galaxy (as seen in the TARDISode)) or they deliberately shielded themselves from the Time Lords (or that the Time Lords never ventured back to the beginning of time, but this seems unlikely); either way, the Time Lords (and, by extension, any TARDISes) never encountered these people.  Odd no matter how you look at it.
     (There's a possible get-out clause: if we assume that this civilization is actually from the universe before our current one -- which seems to have been established as a real thing (in internal continuity terms) in Terminus -- and that they never made it to this universe (perhaps their dying act before our Big Bang was to ensure that the Beast would be imprisoned), this might explain the stuff about the language being unknown by the TARDIS.  This theory comes with its own set of problems, though.  (Such as, for starters, how did the Beast and the planet survive the Big Bang, and why (jumping ahead here) is the Beast found in the legends of so many races?))
175 Well, maybe.  One reading of Terminus suggests that Terminus is from this universe, traveled back in time to the beginning of the universe, jettisoned the fuel that caused the Big Bang, and traveled forward in time as a result of the shockwave (thus creating a paradox).  This rather lessens the impact of Gallagher's ideas (admittedly not well-realized on screen) about the original crew of Terminus being like giants who have been long since gone (except for the Garm) by the time mankind finds the place, though.
176 shipper, n.  Someone whose primary interest in a work of fiction is the (usually romantic) relationship -- hence the term -- between two (or more) characters, whether that's realized within the piece itself or outside it (as in fan fiction, artwork, etc.).