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Right. Top-line assessment is that this one’s a bit more polarizing than the last two, which seemed to be widely liked with an inevitable pool of detractors. The first comment on the episode to come through declared it to basically be the worst thing ever, and GallifreyBase currently has it at 55.48% in the 8-10 range. Which is on the whole still pretty good, but clearly the most mixed reception of the season to date.
For my part… well, look, this was never going to be my favorite episode. I’m not a huge fan of Gatiss, the celebrity historical is not my favorite Doctor Who subgenre, and I’ve seen enough Doctor Who at this point in my life that the business as usual/meat and potatoes episodes, while often enjoyable, aren’t exactly highlights. And this was, at the end of the day, a meat and potatoes celebrity historical written by Mark Gatiss.
But none of those are reasonable things to hold against the episode on any level other than ranking it in the list at the end of the review. One can’t critique a beach for not being a paperclip. Instead, what jumps out is that everyone involved knows exactly what they’re doing. This alone puts it ahead of Gatiss’s previous swing at a celebrity historical, in which nobody quite seemed to know what tone to go for at any given moment. Here, everybody from Gatiss on down understands that they’re doing a fluffy one.
Perhaps more to the point, however, everybody gets how best to approach one of these. Gatiss is at his best when he’s taking an old and well-worn structure and giving it a spit and polish to modern tastes (The Unquiet Dead, Cold War, The Crimson Horror), and so this is firmly in his wheelhouse. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about the script (indeed, when the first five scripts leaked, more than a few people proclaimed four of them good and this one to suck), but it moves through its set pieces and knows what it’s doing at any given moment.
But this isn’t a story about the clever script. It’s a story about dancing merrily through the obligatory set pieces. Gatiss holds up his end of the bargain by getting them all in and keeping the pace up. But the heart of this one is the execution, and it’s there that this does sparkle. It’s pure melodrama, and everybody gets that. The episode would be completely derailed if either of the two major guest roles (Robin and the Sheriff) pulled a Graham Crowden (or, if you want a more recent option, a Roger Lloyd-Pack). Instead it’s elevated by two performances that on a fundamental level get how to play a story like this.
The casting of Tom Riley, the lead in one of Doctor Who’s at this point legion of cultural descendants, namely BBC co-production Da Vinci’s Demons, was a solid choice. Robin needs to feel like a leading man in his own right, since this is as straightforward an execution of “Doctor Who crashes into another show” as exists, and so casting someone who actually is the leading man of a period-based science fantasy show is at once obvious and very, very savvy. Riley plays the part as it needs to be played – with a sort of recklessly simple charm that is entertaining while still basically explaining why the Doctor immediately wants to punch him in the face. He’s a cardboard cutout, but the cutting is precise and meticulous.
Similarly, the Sheriff would have been easy to play as ludicrously over the top. Instead he’s played with exactly the steely camp that a cybernetic Sheriff of Nottingham requires. Of particular joy is the “first Nottingham, then Derby, then Lincoln, then THE WORLD!” scene, which will land comfortably on the list with “nothing in ze world can stop me now,” “my dreams of conquest,” and “next time I will not be so lenient” for those who think this is a list of sublime and wonderful moments in Doctor Who, while managing to avoid said list for anybody who hates them.
Past that the roles do fall into over the top caricatures, but crucially, that’s what the Merry Men are scripted to be – single line gags that fit into the story’s larger and slyer joke about how its setting feels like the artifice of a film and not like actual history. It’s a story where the entire point is that it’s taking place in Heritage Theme Park Britain, a fact that exists primarily to set up the final scene, in which it’s pointed out that, well yes, but that’s because the Doctor himself clearly hails from Heritage Theme Park Britain, or, at least, from the logic of storybook heroes that underpins it.
Ah, yes. The Doctor himself. Clearly one of the basic points of this story is to reiterate that this is still Doctor Who and to resist the temptation to conclude that this is the Dark Doctor in some sort of broad and polemical way. Much of Deep Breath was concerned with precisely this point as well, hence the more or less plotless first half hour, but here we get an episode that seems to exist mainly to shout very, very loudly and emphatically that this is not a dark show, but rather one that, in amongst the many other things it does, sometimes does darkness. Similarly, it’s clear that the point of the first couple stories is to do familiar sorts of adventures so that Capaldi can make them his own.
Actually, let’s pause for a moment and tackle one of the most common complaints I’ve seen going around over Season Eight so far, which is that it’s “derivative,” because it’s absolutely idiotic and anyone making it should pretty much just be ignored because it’s clear that they have pudding for brains and are incapable of intelligent or useful thought about Doctor Who.
Seriously, as a thought experiment, imagine the reaction to almost any other Doctor introduction being held to the standards here. “Ugh, more Daleks and historicals. This show is just recycling ideas from the Hartnell era.” “Ugh, an entire season of remakes of The Invasion.” “Ugh, three returning monsters in a row, and the fourth Dalek story in four seasons.” “Ugh, another weird story about computers and the Master.” “Ugh, another action-packed Cybermen story.” “Ugh, the Rani again.” “Ugh, a remake of Spearhead From Space, a base under siege by a villain with an over-elaborate plot, and a story in the Victorian era.” “Ugh, the Victorian era and the second alien invasion of Earth in four stories.” “Ugh, the same past/present/future setup of every other season.”
Which is to say that the way you introduce a new Doctor has always been to put him in familiar iconography and watch the actor define the ways in which he’s going to be different from everyone else who has done this. And Season Eight seems consciously structured that way, with the first half of the season being two Moffat episodes and four by writers who have done Doctor Who before, and the second half being two Moffat episodes and four by writers who haven’t. In other words, start by letting Capaldi have a familiar backdrop to define himself against, then once he’s clearly defined himself as playing the same part that Smith, Tennant, Eccleston, et al played, move him to bold new stuff. If you start off with changing everything at once, you never get the moments where your new actor fits into the grand tradition of the series.
But what’s interesting, given all of this, is the way Capaldi recognizes that one of the things this story requires of him is stepping into the background for substantial stretches of it. He has to fundamentally misunderstand the plot for a hugely long time, spend a sizable chunk locked up doing comedy scenes while Clara actually gets the plot (and if I have one concrete criticism of the episode, it’s spending around an eighth of the episode on prison banter was probably a bit much), and, most notably, have an extended section (another eighth of the episode, in fact) in which he flits around the background of a scene. For all that this is (being a Gatiss episode) drenched in Pertwee jokes, it’s written as an almost Davison-style Doctor, providing essential motivation and insight within a story in which the plot is actually resolved by other characters. (And of course, along with the Pertwee references, it is The King’s Demons that this most resembles, plotwise.) And Capaldi adapts to it smoothly, hitting his comedy beats impeccably and understanding that this week, at least, it isn’t entirely his show.
In doing so, he goes a long way towards developing his take on the Doctor, showing how he can handle a story in which he doesn’t get any big, stormy, and “dark” set pieces, and thus showing how his ability to do scenes like the restaurant confrontation in Deep Breath or the sacrifice of Ross in Into the Dalek – scenes that it’s difficult to imagine most other Doctors doing – are one arrow in his quiver, as it were, and not the whole of his take. Which is obvious enough to anyone who’s followed the variety of Capaldi’s career, but still important inasmuch as it tempers and shapes the reaction to the character. With the chatter still oddly obsessed with whatever “darkness” means in this context, this is savvy and in keeping with the pulse of the moment.
So sure, when the DVD set comes this will undoubtedly be one of the filler episodes. When and if there’s a Capaldi volume of TARDIS Eruditorum, I’ll surely be left either cheating and writing a review or waffling about the comments on the nature of fiction at slightly longer length than is justifiable given their obviousness. But in the context of September 6th, 2014, as summer winds down and the time of mists and harvest approaches, it’s exactly what the series needed in its dialogue with the public, and it’s well-executed to boot.
- It was terribly nice of them to clone Anthony Ainley to play a supporting role, but what on Earth is Ben Miller an anagram of?
- Similarly, Troughton. Lovely. I’m so glad he’s canon now.
- Several people have already pointed out that this has the same underlying plot of Deep Breath. It’s entirely possible nobody noticed this during production, but given the focus on gold here, it also makes the second time that the iconography of the Cybermen has haunted a story. “The Promised Land” obviously, as a concept, evokes some of the original mythology of Mondas and the spiritual dimension of the Cybermen’s journey through the stars. Obviously, having written on these themes somewhat extensively, I’m rooting hard for a finale that will just be a massive pile of thematic toys for me to play with.
- Despite my ambivalence about many of his episodes, I really do think the venom that characterizes Gatiss critique in fandom is a bit over the top. I mean, yes, at its best Doctor Who is the Joan Rivers of fandom, and bitchy humor is part of its identity, and yes, I hope the next showrunner is someone other than Gatiss, but good lord, the man doesn’t drown kittens or anything. All of which said, his near complete disinterest in creating female characters who aren’t going to be played by 60s style icons and his steadfast refusal to even think about passing the Bechdel test is a real problem. Just think how many interesting nuances could have been added if Marian were used for a plot line instead of an end-of-episode reveal.
- There’s been several criticisms of the “shoot the golden arrow at the departing ship” scene. While I will readily grant that this is more or less at the limit of how threadbare the plot logic can get away with being, I would suggest that the entire thing is redeemed by the fact that the spaceship has a bullseye on it. It’s not even, like, a bullseye-shaped vent that the gold might enter the engines through. No, it’s just a piece of metal with a bullseye embossed on it. I think that may be the most Doctor Who moment of the season so far. Possibly of the entire new series.
- Blimey, over 2000 words of review on this one. And here I was thinking I’d struggle to find anything to say. I think this is actually far longer than Into the Dalek was. Weird.
- And, of course, the episode ranking thus far. Which looks conspicuously like the episode order so far, though I suspect that Moffat will change that next week. And in any case, last place is still an episode I quite enjoyed. (And I really did have to pause to finish laughing at the Derby/Lincoln/THE WORLD joke.) Odds on the trailer being a substantial feint, by the way?
- Deep Breath
- Into the Dalek
- Robot of Sherwood