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Right. Haven’t even looked at Twitter or e-mail, because they’re both slightly overwhelming, but GallifreyBase, well after both UK and US airings, is 82.66% in the 8-10 range, with 9 being the most popular pick, so this is apparently a popular one. To me, it is, in many regards, something of a baseline episode. It’s not a season highlight, largely because nothing in it ever soars to outright greatness. But it keeps things lively and never screws up. It’s the sort of episode that’s why I ultimately opted against letter grades – because any season of television is going to have a few like this.
What’s interesting to me, though, is that there’s been virtually nothing this season that seems to set out to be baseline. There are things that work better than others, but everything has at least tried to do something new. The only episode you can really accuse of trying to be ultra-traditional is Robot of Sherwood, and it came early enough in the running order that it was innovative in the way that turning a new actor loose on old standards can be in Doctor Who. Other than that, though, the M.O of this season has been trying to find something fresh. Whether it be a new twist on an old standard (The Caretaker, Listen) or something that Doctor Who’s just never really done before (Time Heist, Kill the Moon), the idea has been a real return to Doctor Who being a show that does things that haven’t been done before.
Not everything can be the best. But one really doesn’t get the sense that anything this season has been content to give up trying to be the best at the outset. Everything is trying its damnedest to be the shock favorite. It’s why I’m so inclined to call this my favorite season ever. For the first time since 2005, every episode has felt like it’s written with a hunger and a desperate desire to prove itself. And what that means is that even a baseline episode like this sparkles.
The device of the sixty-six second countdown, forcing the episode into real-time for a sequence, is marvelous. It’s set up and clearly established in the cold open, and then explored meticulously. Crucially, every iteration of it changes the approach or the rules slightly. It’s a fairly high-death episode, but every single death shifts the balance of power or the nature of the problem slightly. We learn new things about the rules of the mummy each time. The episode works like many of the best video games do – it introduces a mechanic and then explores progressive iterations of it. (And the on-screen clock owes no small debt to the visual grammar of the HUD) The fact that the series is now bold enough to casually introduce entirely new visual techniques each week and to take on a new philosophy of what the camera and the screen means is a massive leap forward, and will hopefully be the enduring legacy of the Moffat era.
Also notable and fresh is the train, even if it’s not used quite as extensively as it could be. There’s never a sequence involving chasing through multiple train cars. Nor is there the obligatory “exit the train and ride on top” bit. But there are lots of shots that do pan along the outside of the train, giving a sense of shape and scale of the space. It’s clear someone saw Snowpiercer and went “ooh, that’s shiny,” and they were right. And it’s another great example of Doctor Who nicking things from the surrounding culture.
Under the hood, as with everything else this season, there’s a clear logic of taking things that have worked well on Doctor Who and doing them again. Doing the future as historical costume drama to play to BBC strengths? Check. A traditional base under siege crew? Check. You can point pretty clearly to the specific stories this is borrowing from – Robots of Death would be the most obvious, given the debt to Agatha Christie and the “1920s IN SPACE” approach. But as with previous stories, it’s not a remake so much as a recollection of specific things that worked and a decision to try them again in new contexts.
And then there’s the real story, which is, of course, Clara responding to the end of Kill the Moon. Which, again, has some great highlights – the way in which the episode takes a short while to explain the status quo, letting there be a mystery as to why Clara is traveling with the Doctor. “Can I talk about my planets now?” And the Doctor’s eventual, pragmatic explanation of his reasoning – that he was going to try to save her, but he didn’t know if it would work, and if it hadn’t, he’d have moved on.
So, yes, none of that quite feels as brilliant as Kill the Moon’s interpolation of the audience’s affect to provide a moral justification for Clara’s dismissal of humanity’s vote, or as a remake of The Lodger suddenly giving way to “An Unearthly Child,” or as the end of Listen. And there are some things that let the episode down – as understandable as separating Clara and the Doctor is, it means there’s not a ton of room for her arc to actually develop, and her decision to stay on the TARDIS feels slightly unearned as a result. It’s clear that it’s what the episode is building towards, and yet the moment it happens feels slightly swallowed.
In particular, there’s an ambiguity I think doesn’t help this episode, which is whether or not Clara is lying when she says Danny is fine with her traveling with the Doctor. Because he really never has said anything that’s an objection. Indeed, he pointedly declined to criticize the Doctor last episode, and talked Clara out of leaving forever. And her phone call with him at the end could well be a perfectly reasonable move to talk about it later, since that was obviously not the time to tell him that she’d changed her mind. Equally, if Flatline starts up and it turns out she’s lying to Danny about having stopped traveling with the Doctor, it’ll hardly be a surprise. And while I’m fine with that ambiguity in terms of the season arc and season structure, I think the ambiguity undermines the end of this episode in a big way.
I’m also not quite thrilled with the resolution of the sixty-six seconds plot point, which is squared away with some intensely meaningless technobabble that renders the specificity of sixty-six seconds a non-clue (since the audience could not possibly know that it’s the amount of time needed to take something out of phase). There’s not quite enough there, and it ends up as a slightly unsatisfying plot point.
But these are minor quibbles in amongst an episode that’s mostly fresh and exciting and something we’ve not seen before. As perfectly ordinary episodes of Doctor Who go, this was extraordinary.
- The breadth of Clara as a character pays off interestingly in the costuming choices. I love that her hair obeys no laws of reality, growing longer and shorter by the episode to compliment whatever outfit she’s wearing in a given week. The Impossible Girl indeed.
- So. Why is he called Gus? And how is he going to feed back into the arc eventually? I mean, he obviously will, right? Also, the CGI shot of the city at the end looked an awful lot like the usual Gallifreyan city only edited down a bit. Deliberate, reuse of art assets, or do CGI cityscapes all just look the same?
- There’s a bit of a disjunct in how this episode was sold and what it actually was. The insistence that it’s not a silly one is warranted, certainly, but it’s still much lighter than the hype would suggest, and while the mummy was a great effect, I wonder if they didn’t overhype that a bit too. Won’t affect the reception for this episode among anyone but the hardcore, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this gets a rougher ride in fandom than with the general public, not least because of fandom’s pathological aversion to silliness.
- So, the broken down machinery/soldiers theme is getting hit quite hard this season. This isn’t just recycling the same idea at this point, it’s massive thematic emphasis. And yet despite having two broken down soldiers in three stories, I’m still not quite sure how these two threads are going to connect. It’s fascinating, because it’s clear in so many ways what the components of the finale are going to be, and yet the shape of it remains so beautifully elusive.
- Kill the Moon
- Deep Breath
- The Caretaker
- Mummy on the Orient Express
- Time Heist
- Into the Dalek
- Robot of Sherwood