*deep, calming breaths*
OK, so it’s a highlight of the Chibnall era. It features several of Jodie Whittaker’s best moments as the Doctor. It has an effective sense of mood and creepiness throughout. The arrival of the Cyberman at the halfway point effectively turns the entire story on its head. It uses the Cyberman well, drawing more body horror out of the concept than anything since… OK, since the last Cybermen story, but it at least has the decency to acknowledge that the Capaldi era actually happened, and anyway, this is getting an appreciably different sort of body horror off the concept. Despite having the oversized TARDIS crew and a large supporting cast, everyone actually feels like they have a character and gets at least one clear-cut moment to themselves. And there’s a bevy of clever bits—the skull and hand in the cradle is one of the best jump scares in recent Doctor Who memory, and giving Shelley a vision of his death is poetic and unsettling. Oh, and the Cyberman quoting Shelley is magnificently fucked up. Really, this is not merely competent, it’s well-executed. If the show were this well-made every week I wouldn’t be a burnt out and cynical husk of a fan who writes ostentatiously pessimistic parodies of her own work.
Unfortunately, all of this quality is in the service of a fucking “the Cyermen inspire Frankenstein” story. This is not so much bordering on self-parody as the capitol city. This is the sort of thing that when your sixteen-year-old cousin does in a Doctor Who fanfic you go “oh, bless.” It’s an idea that when Big Finish did, everyone went “well that’s a bit obvious, isn’t it?” It’s the most tedious, unimagnative “going with your first idea” bit of bullshit the series has coughed up in recent memory—an idea that is not merely bad but insulting.
It’s ironic that this should air the day that the Dalek Eruditorum post on The Invasion goes up, because it takes the cynicism of that story and dials it up to eleven. Never mind parading the Cybermen around a bunch of London landmarks to trumpet the series—we can take the entire literary tradition from which they originate and go claim that they’re inspired by Doctor Who. The show has flirted with this before, obviously, but always as a textual joke—the Doctor inspires The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Martha is the dark lady in Shakespare—but this is pitched in a largely serious story, as the core concept instead of as a joke at the end. Also, The Shakespeare Code was trash. Doctor Who’s tendency to romanticize great (wo)men of history is routinely annoying, but I’ll take the most mawkish speech about genius that Russell T Davies ever rewrote over the vapid exaltation of Doctor Who as the wellspring for all creativity.
And on top of that we get the deeply fucked up morality of “sure, billions will die, but Percy Shelley is more important.” Never mind the “all of you will cease to exist” bit, which manages to make how time works incoherent in the exact opposite way of Orphan 55, this is a genuinely horrible line of thought, and one that’s only there to force the Doctor’s hand in letting the Cyberium out, which could have been achieved through dozens of other means, several of which would also involve restructuring the scene so that Mary Shelley actually accomplishes anything in it. But more to the point, this scene’s interactions with the “the Cybermen inspired Frankenstein” plot are particularly horrible. Percy Shelley: his poetry is so important that it’s worth a billion lives. Mary Shelley: only important cause she ripped off Kit Pedler.
Other problems prevail. Key beats are unearned, most obviously the Doctor deciding she can’t win and is going to give the Cyberman what it wants. (Seriously, it’s one partially converted Cyberman. The Doctor has routinely fought armies of the things. Hell, Season One Torchwood could handle a partially converted Cyberman; why is the Doctor throwing up her hands in despair and letting it win?) Major revelations generally come ever so slightly before they’re adequately set up. (The Cyberman turning up is trying to mask its suddenness with OMG zeal, for instance.) For all that it manages to balance its cast, it still can’t actually find anything for Ryan to do besides be lame comic relief, and literally has nothing for any of the celebrities to do except have Mary Shelley be around in a scene so she can be inspired to write Frankenstein.
And yet for all of this, from fundamentally bad premise to flawed moments of execution, this is fully functional, quality Doctor Who—a thing we haven’t had in well over a year. It gives the show some real momentum heading into its finale—a thing we haven’t had since Clara died. If you’re capable of foolish and rash optimism, it’s possible to believe that it’s going to go well over the next two weeks and that Series 12 will come out to basically successful.
God I hope I’m pleasantly surprised to be wrong.