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I think it’s probably best to say everything in the form of the big, ultimate point of the exercise, which is a Top Twelve Doctor Who Stories of 2014 list. Here it is, with changes relative to my post-Death in Heaven list indicated and letter grades. This is based on having done a rewatch between Death in Heaven and Last Christmas, except for Last Christmas itself, which I rewatched tonight.
#12: Time Heist (-2, C)
Let me start by reiterating that 2014 was, for my money, the best year of Doctor Who I’ve been active for. I think it was better than 2005. Not more historically important or culturally impactful, but better. It’s the first year since 1989 you can credibly argue had no bad stories. And there aren’t a lot of years before 1989 you can really say that about either. Still, something has to be last.
Ultimately, the slight complaints I made about the direction in my initial review, on a rewatch, proved bigger than I thought. The Teller looks marvelous, but the lengthy section in the cement vaults with sets blatantly redressed with nothing but lighting gels looks cheap and tawdry. It’s worth going back and watching that leaked workprint, just for informational purposes. It is a much, much better episode in black and white. Mackinnon is, as I said in my Cold War Eruditorum post, kind of the Mark Gatiss of directors. He’s functional, but the direction is never the highlight of one of his stories. Here he’s given a script that’s functional, and nobody manages to raise it above that.
I observed early on that the first half of the season was all “let’s redo standards with a new Doctor, but with old Doctor Who veterans doing the scripts,” while the back half was very “let’s try something new.” That was the right way to structure a season that had a new Doctor to introduce, but I suspect nothing would have been harmed by having the transition to “let’s try something new” come with the sixth episode instead of the seventh. This, ultimately, is the skippable episode. Best damned with faint praise: it’s astonishingly good for a team-up of director of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky and the writer of Curse of the Black Spot.
#11: Robot of Sherwood (+1, B-)
At the time, I described it as unambitious but well executed. That basically still applies. It’s damning with faint praise again, but the nice thing about Mark Gatiss is he doesn’t generate undue expectations. You don’t put Robot of Sherwood on looking for an all-time classic, and frankly, nobody ever has. But it knows how to do everything it tries to do. This is one of the places where the ranking is deceptive. When Gatiss was this good in Season 7, he produced arguable highlights of the season. It’s a testament to how good the rest of Season 8 is that this is in eleventh. It pulls up the rear with honor, in a way that, say, Evolution of the Daleks, The Long Game, or The Hungry Earth do not.
Also, I completely reject all criticism of the silliness of shooting a golden arrow into the spaceship to give it a boost. That’s a highlight of the episode, that is. That’s as funny as Derby, Lincoln, ZE WORLD!
#10: Into the Dalek (+1, B)
Rewatching this, the rawness of Peter Capaldi’s performance really stands out. He’s still figuring out how to play the Doctor, and he’s not confident in the role yet. Dalek spectacle goes a non-trivial way towards covering that, and the script is a flavor of Daleks we’ve not really seen in the new series before. When this aired, everyone praised how well Ben Wheatley did Terry Nation/Eric Saward-style Dalek space war stuff. In hindsight, it’s worth pointing out that the new series basically hasn’t done anything remotely like that since Parting of the Ways. There’s more innovation here than it gets credit for, in other words. It doesn’t help this story to point it out, but if this had been given to Jamie Mathieson, whose skill at coming up with strong visuals is a major selling point, and put later in the season, after Capaldi had a more assured performance, it would be at least five places higher. Whereas I don’t think you can say that there were many ways to dramatically improve Time Heist or Robot of Sherwood.
#9: In the Forest of the Night (-5, B)
As the fall shows, this really was disappointing on a rewatch, although the scene where Maebh reaches the heart of the forest remains a season highlight. I admit that part of it is simply that I have unusually high expectations for an episode with this title. But on a more basic level, rewatching it, I feel like the decision to try to do “a forest consumes London” was a mistake. It’s beyond what the production team can actually accomplish, and they should have known that. It’s trying to sell “this is the primordial forest representing the very soul of life on Earth,” and it can’t really get past “we went to a forest in Wales and hung some traffic lights.” The script’s brilliant, but it’s just not well enough realized. I love what it’s trying to do, and there’s plenty of moments where its ambition shines through despite its flaws, but there are too many where its flaws are obscuring its ambitions. This is going to be really fun to write up for TARDIS Eruditorum, but it’s got some serious problems as television.
#8: Deep Breath (-2, B+)
Post-regeneration stories are generally, at best, functional but not spectacular. This is no exception. Moffat keeps the pacing under good control, and manages to make this feel like the event it had to be, but this is blatantly a story where he focused on the details and decided nobody was going to remember the big picture anyway. It’s more about completing the ritual throwing of the past onto a funeral pyre that Moffat began with Name of the Doctor than it is about 2014. Here, in other words, it’s worth talking about what, for me, was the real and biggest pleasure of Doctor Who in 2014, which is that it more often than not felt new and exciting. Part of this is that I’ve been writing about Doctor Who for nearly four years straight now, and to be honest, the number one thing I want from a new episode is simply “something I haven’t seen before.” And so this really marks the cut-off point for me. Everything that goes above this on the list does so because it felt fresh and new. This goes where it does because “all it did” was effectively launch a new season of Doctor Who.
#7: Flatline (+2, B+)
Mathieson gives Harness a good run for his money at “most exciting debut,” simply because he turned in two enormously effective episodes that on the one hand seem to define a style and approach (strong visuals, and an interesting take on the Doctor as someone who is drawn to putting himself in the position to make impossible choices, but who kind of hates himself for how much he likes it), and on the other are quite distinct in tone and feel. That’s a big accomplishment, especially when the episodes air back to back. And many of my mild frustrations with this episode come from slightly unfair positions. I’ll admit that I tried to read too much into the ending, and that I didn’t give enough credit to “the monsters in the walls come out of the walls” as a mid-episode twist.
It still feels, pardon the pun, flatter than other episodes. I’m tempted to blame Mackinnon, although he actually does quite well with large swaths of this, although it’s not quite clear how the “the Doctor Things it away from the train” sequence is intended to strike the reader. As with In the Forest of the Night, there are moments where they clearly know they can’t actually get away with what they’re trying, but are hoping they’ll get points for believing their bubble wrap. It’s a grand Doctor Who tradition, yes, but in a season where they confidently demonstrate they can do Into the Dalek and Listen and Mummy on the Orient Express and Dark Water, one does start to feel like “they went for more than they could possibly achieve.” To quote a drunken fan almost exactly twenty years ago today, about another era’s decision to try to accomplish things they should have known they couldn’t in an otherwise strong story, “How could a good hack think that the BBC could make a giant rat? If he’d come to my house when I was 14 and said ‘Can BBC Special Effects do a giant rat?’ I’d have said no. I’d rather see them do something limited than something crap. What I resented was having to go to school two days later, and my friends knew I watched this show. They’d go ‘Did you see the giant rat?!’ and I’d have to say I thought there was dramatic integrity elsewhere.”
Still, it deserves major credit – in hindsight, this is the episode where you kind of start hoping Clara will stay. Coleman is phenomenal in it.
#6: The Caretaker (+1, A-)
This only rose one in the rankings, but it is, I think, the one that rose most in my esteem when rewatching it. I’ve seen this episode get a lot of stick for being a throwback to Smith, and it’s true that there are moments where Capaldi is awkward delivering Roberts’s jokes. But the way the episode turns on its head at the halfway point and becomes about the Doctor and Danny meeting instead of about the farce of keeping them apart is very, very clever and smart. It really works as the transition between the familiar first part of the season and the innovative second, starting as a repetition of the Smith era and ending as something unlike anything in the Smith era.
Ultimately, the reason I really want to praise this It sets up the second half of the season, with all its boldness and swagger, incredibly well. Kill the Moon, Flatline, and Dark Water/Death in Heaven are all greatly helped by the fact that this exists. Sometimes straight-forwardly – Gareth Roberts created Courtney Wood, and Peter Harness decided to use her too. Introducing Courtney Wood alone justifies this episode ranking highly. This is, I think, the most currently underrated episode of the season.
#5: Last Christmas (N/A, all other positions calculated without considering this, A)
Obviously the speculative one of the pack, but watched for a third time in a week, I’m really struck by how many little details and gems there are. The beginning really does rewatch well once you know the final twists, with the cold open being chilling in a way you miss on the first pass. Wilmhurst gets to direct a moment more bonkers than “the moon’s an egg,” and he nails it. Redressing the Kill the Moon set with the light bulbs from Mummy on the Orient Express. Jenna Coleman in the background of Michael Troughton’s reaction shot to the “there’s a horror movie called Alien” joke, giggling. Wilmhurst’s decision to shoot the dance sequence in middle distance, subverting the expected sequence where the camera focuses on Shona’s interiority. Wilmhurst’s direction in general – God I hope we get him again in 2015. There are so many little treats in this, just like his other two episodes, of which, note, this thing I’m raving about is actually the weakest. (It really is padded to an hour, although that’s probably the price of doing an Inception pastiche on Christmas after everybody’s already a bit drunk. You have to give Moffat credit, he always paces for the day of transmission, even when he’s pacing for rewatches as well.)
I’ve been using the Oblique Strategies deck lately, and really finding it helpful. And part of that has been the respect for doing something that feels new that this series has given me. It’s as though, in place of the tone meetings of old, there’s been an active discussion every week “how do we make this new?” But my favorite card in the entire deck is “change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency,” because I think in its own way it’s the most clever of cards. (My second favorite card is, of course, “honor thy error as hidden intention.”) And the ending of the episode feels like, after a season of variety and pushing things, the gloriously arrogant decision to do just that – give us a Season Nine in the exact same vein as the one they just nailed.
#4: Dark Water/Death in Heaven (Unchanged, A)
An absolutely brilliant finale that was full of surprises and delights. The volcano scene and its immediate aftermath is a strong contender for my favorite scene in Doctor Who, and I feel about “do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make any difference” like I do “Raggedy Man, I remember you.” The UNIT bit of Death in Heaven feels a little like stalling for time, and most of Dark Water was stalling for time. The latter works because it’s having so much fun with tension (the slow, decadent reveal of the Cybermen followed by Missy’s identity is truly a thing of joy), though, and the former is only a problem because of the decision to put UNIT at the end of Flatline. Rewatching it, what really stands out is the way in which every twist and escalation of stakes is really, genuinely surprising and effective, including nuking UNIT halfway through the episode and having it be a showdown in a cemetery with hella crushed blacks.
All in all, this is a superb execution of “season finale” in much the same way that Deep Breath is a superb execution of “launch a new Doctor,” and for that matter like Last Christmas is a superb execution of “Christmas special.” And, in keeping with my general aesthetic for the season, this is right next to Last Christmas and on the opposite end of the chart from Deep Breath because this feels fresh and new, as the season finale of “season one of a new era” should.
In other words, it’s impossible to imagine this with Matt Smith, and that really does feel like it should be the goal of Capaldi’s first season finale. Moffat has managed the impressive feat of reinventing Doctor Who in his fifth year on the job of running it. There’s a confidence and subtlety – a sense of when to put the theme explicitly in dialogue and when to pull back and let people’s performances do the talking. And the performances are so good. Samuel Anderson, Michelle Gomez, Jenna Coleman, and Peter Capaldi all get moments where they take great material and live up to it. After a phenomenal season, it’s incredibly satisfying to see the show stick the landing. Still, there are, for me, slightly more thrilling pleasures.
#3: Mummy on the Orient Express (+2, A+)
I’ll admit it – I completely understand why everyone loved this on rewatch. It’s just a hell of a fun thing to sit down with, in the same way that The Robots of Death is, which is to say, as a sort of impeccable demonstration of everything this era of Doctor Who can do well. It’s a solid script from Mathieson, and an excellent performance from Capaldi, but what really makes this is the director, Paul Wilmhurst, who is absolutely the find of 2014. He’s got a beautiful knack for visual storytelling. If you cut out all the linking material and just watch this in terms of the six Mummy attacks, it still works. Each one both develops the language of the 66 second sequence and advances the plot. The linking sections are still excellent, with each death managing to change the stakes and make everyone behave a little differently, but those 396 seconds are a masterclass in storytelling unto themselves. One of the advantages of Doctor Who is that it can reinvent the wheel and come up with new storytelling techniques and visual language every week. Not since The Caves of Androzani has a technique been this thoroughly explored in its debut story.
On top of that, it’s got a great ending. The scene of the Doctor and Clara on the beach, where he justifies himself, slightly sadly, but confidently all the same, is marvelously well done. Moffat has, for several years, been a master of theme-in-dialogue. But this season really advances that technique, with numerous moments where the theme is bolder and deeper for having been left implicit. The thing this benefits the most is the friendship between Clara and the Doctor, which is endlessly reaffirmed through action, as opposed to through flowery speeches. A lot of why this works is an incredibly savvy sense of when to use theme-in-dialogue. Nowhere is that clearer than the extremely blatant bit about having to choose even when the choices are bad, and the “is it an addiction?” scene from Clara. And yet it pays off with Clara’s decision to keep traveling with the Doctor, lying to Danny and then the Doctor in rapid succession, and telling us so much about who she is in the process, for better and for worse.
#2: Listen (Unchanged, A+)
Steven Moffat hands Douglas Mackinnon a script that really just requires not screwing up, and Mackinnon obliges. I’ve watched this five or six times, and it doesn’t stop being a delight. It’s everything you want a Moffat episode to be, but between Capaldi’s rapidly maturing performance and the freshness of the Clara/Danny scenes, it managed to feel fresh and new even as it used the old, classic tropes. It felt like it was going to be an instant classic. It was.
It is perhaps worth noting that part of why it felt like an instant classic was that people had seen it – it was the script that everyone was buzzing about of the first five, and it was leaked as a workprint and everyone loved it. Actually, there’s a charming detail of the workprint leaks – the hackers staggered them out, dropping the scripts, then Deep Breath and a tiny glimpse of Into the Dalek, confirming that they had it. Then a good bit later, the rest started leaking, accelerating as the premiere of Deep Breath approached. But Listen was held back until last, after Time Heist. Seriously, the hackers sequenced the leaks like an advertising campaign for Deep Breath. It was like the uberfan version of Guardians of the Peace and Lizard Squad.
Which is ultimately the argument for why the workprint leaks did no damage, embarrassing as they might have been. As with Rose, the episodes were good. If you’ve got good material, it’s still good in the early versions, and in the final ones, people appreciate that it’s gone from good to great. And to his credit, actually, Moffat admitted that as a fan, he’d have downloaded the hell out of those workprints.
#1: Kill the Moon (Unchanged, A+)
I committed myself to a critical position with this one, and rewatching it, I stand by that position. I adore this episode. “The moon’s an egg” is brilliant. The first half manages to put pieces on the board while moving along at a nice clip, and every single scene after the line “the moon’s an egg” is a brilliant, punch the air moment. Wilmhurst’s direction is fantastic, Harnesses script is fantastic, Capaldi’s performance makes a staggering leap forward. I honestly cannot think of a single flaw here. Watching this for the first time was a genuine highlight of my 2014. I know there are people who hate this, and it is genuinely my pleasure to tell them I think they’re out of their minds for it.
Really. I will back up the claim that this is flawless against the common objections. It doesn’t matter that the science is rubbish. The entire point of the “the moon’s an egg” line is that it completely, out of left field turns the premise of the episode on its head. It’s delivered with an emphasis on its ludicrousness, with a great reaction shot of Clara wearing an expression of “did you seriously just say that.” And Coleman has the cleverness to play the storming out of the TARDIS scene accordingly, delivering the line “Do you know what? It was, it was cheap, it was pathetic. No, no, no. It was patronising” so that it’s a related line to complaining that good guys not having time zombies was basic storytelling. The bad science is part of the episode’s point, as it turns it’s 1960s-70s near future space sci-fi into fantasy, then plays out the consequences of that.
This does sacrifice the effectiveness of the first half on a rewatch. But I remember my first viewing, and the first half crackled. Moffat told Harness to “Hinchcliffe the shit out of it,” apparently, and he obliged, keeping everything moving at a nice clip with lunar horror while he gets his ducks in a row. But this is how you do setup. There’s a lot, conceptually, going on in this story. It needed the time.
I don’t think a lot of people give enough credit for the trick with the audience’s affect, and the way it used the actual home lighting of millions of British citizens to make a point about ethics and politics and the importance of conscientious but emphatic descent, enough credit. I think that was a sublimely clever (and, yes, lucky) piece of television that happened, and was brilliant and worth doing. It was wonderful to see the physicality of television used for something other than a Big Event Episode. The same way Death in Heaven was elevated by going out the day before Remembrance Sunday, this was elevated by a full, ripe early autumn moon that hung in the early evening sky right as this episode happened.
And it’s not a pro-life allegory, and I’ll tell you how I know. Because when Harness came back to Twitter he answered a question about it, and said that he didn’t want to interfere with audience interpretations. Which is not the thing someone says when they’re doing a big angry allegory about abortion. It would be a bizarrely right-wing viewpoint for a British man who’s emigrated to Sweden to hold, and he just plain doesn’t seem that right-wing. I see how the subtext got in there, but it’s an accidental subtext just as plainly as the “The Ukipquiet Dead” interpretation is.
But, of course, if someone asked Harness on Twitter if he intended it as a magical incantation about the importance of radical direct action in the name of preserving the environment and he said that he didn’t want to interfere with audience interpretations, well, I’d say he’s just being modest.
So, three A+ episodes, nothing below a C. I think that says it all. 2014. Wow. Roll on 2015.