A strange sort of episode from the perspective of what you might think of as the Eruditorum Press aesthetic. On the one hand, an episode in which the Doctor literally brings down capitalism; on the other, the most “gun” story since Resurrection of the Daleks. At the end of the day, my personal taste has always run a bit more “gun” than my ideological taste, so I’m pretty on-board with this, although I’m sure the paragraph that starts “but equally” will end up being interesting.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Mathieson writing this. For one thing, he’s proven himself to be quite good at writing gun. Never in quite so pure and frockless a way as here, but his Series 8 scripts’ reputation rests in part on the fact that they appealed to a particular type of traditionalist fan, and this is hitting many of the same notes. For another thing, he’s very good at developing fairly complex concepts. There’s an awful lot going on in this script, but Mathieson has an extremely deft touch in figuring out how much to develop and explain things. With both the voice controls and the fact that Bill’s suit doesn’t work like anyone else’s he gives himself enough to justify the eventual reveals of “that’s why I couldn’t tell anyone my real plan” and “that’s why Bill survived,” but not so much that either point felt like an obvious Chekov’s Gun hanging over the episode. Pretty much everything fits together save for the basic excessive complexity of the company’s plan, and that gets nicely lost in the mix instead.
On top of that, there’s just a lot to like about the ideas here. My complaint about the way in which scary episodes have become too dominated by haunted houses is nicely handled here with an episode that’s long on scares but is thoroughly sci-fi horror. “Make space scary again” is just a great brief. And the commodification of oxygen / murder of the crew when they become inefficient is great in the way that The Sunmakers was great. The point I’ve made about the Moffat era’s fascination with out of control systems as a strong analogue for anthropocene extinction basically becomes explicit text here, which is very nice.
It also accomplishes exactly what I was hoping for from the move into the season’s second act. Bill is still unmistakably Bill and characterized as such (her “last words” of wondering if it was good or bad that the Doctor wouldn’t tell her a joke were fantastic), but this is the first episode of the season to largely not be about her, instead taking a hard swerve into the dark weird brilliance that’s characterized the Capaldi era at large. The big shift in tone I hoped for is accomplished, and my excitement for the next couple episodes, and really for the rest of the season in general is now high. (The Whithouse episode is the only one I’m kind of dreading; I think the Gatiss one actually sounds quite good.) All in all, it's a compelling mix of ideas executed intelligently.
But equally, there’s just something about this episode that’s hard to quite love. Part of it is simply that it’s so unrelentingly gun that it doesn’t seem to want to be loved. It’s not really trying to be fun. And while I am predisposed to liking a bit of the grimly epic, the sheer level of cold austerity involved in this episode ends up being offputting. It’s almost begging to be the standard “good episode that ends up taking a hit anyway” TARDIS Eruditorum entry for the tail end of any era. Something about its peculiarly joyless leftism seems to tee up a “noble but failed response to the world” critique of the sort I leveled against late Troughton-era stuff. This is great, wonderful, essential, and fundamentally inadequate. Under the “post-Brexit Doctor Who” standard, this feels like a last hurrah of the past more than it feels like the future, in marked contrast to, say, Thin Ice.
How much does that matter? I don’t know. As I’ve said repeatedly, the idea that Doctor Who has some sort of obligation to provide cultural leadership in the wake of Brexit is self-evidently ridiculous and sets the series up to fail. That doesn’t mean it’s not a standard I’m going to hold Doctor Who to - I can’t not, having created comparable standards for every other era of the program. But applying those standards to the program live, on a week-to-week basis, instead of in the historicized context of TARIS Eruditorum isn’t entirely fair. As a thing to torrent and watch in the afternoon with a glass of cider, this was an entirely cromulent way to spend a Saturday, though it rewatched much better later in the night when the sun had gone down (a problem that applied to its UK airing as well, but also one that’s par for the course for Doctor Who). If I want more, that’s only because of how much this offers and the inchoate sense of something greater that it manages to suggest.
All the same, I want more.