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SEASON REVIEW: ‘DOCTOR WHO’ TAKES CARE OF ITS NEW ASSISTANT BUT STILL TESTS OUR PATIENCE

There is now just one remaining Doctor Who episode -this year’s Christmas special- for both Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and showrunner Steven Moffat as their final season came to a close on Saturday. The finale gave us some welcome glimpses of what could have been with Capaldi in the role, who once again demonstrated he is still the best actor the BBC have ever secured for the iconic role but said episode’s lapses in logic and the mediocre run mid-season preceding it also showed why it’s probably for the best that Moffat is moving on.

CHECKING THE BILL

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Doctor Who’s 10th season (since the show’s ‘regeneration’ in 2005) was certainly an improvement overall after the previous two seasons suggested that the show was incurably ailing. This season saw the introduction of a new assistant in the form of Bill Potts, a student at the university where the Doctor has taken residency as a lecturer. A new assistant post-2005 is nearly as significant as a new Doctor, and while Pearl Mackie’s debut as Bill was a little heavy handed when it came to her sexuality and she lacked the immediacy of Amy Pond or Donna Noble, by the end of her first season she had proved herself to be the most empathetic companion since Billie Piper’s Rose (no mean feat).

Bill was refreshingly fresh-faced and naive as the Doctor’s companion after the cock-sure Clara Oswald, who was so enabled via Moffat’s convolutions (I warn you now that word is going to come up a lot in this review) you constantly wondered why the Doctor still needed to be on the show. Season 10’s first part, “The Pilot”, was mainly the mandatory orientation for a new companion set against the backdrop of a new water-based alien inspired by the J-horror movie, Dark Water. While Bill’s big heart and self-effacing humor was relayed with conviction in the opening episode, the liquid alien abductor was given a shorter shrift, seemingly inconsequentially at first.

What was clear in the season’s premiere was that the show was returning to basics and was bringing back the “hide behind the sofa” scares that made show famous over 50 years ago. Having a companion who was less capable than her predecessor was a massive boon to these objectives and Pearl Mackie’s performances were convincingly natural and expressive, free of the acting school pretense that had persistently marred Jenna-Louise Coleman’s efforts as Clara. Through the next 11 episodes, Mackie created a warm and wry companion that provided a far more effective counterpoint to Capaldi’s cantankerous Doctor than Clara’s whiny self-righteousness ever achieved.

Special mention is also due to Matt Lucas’ comforting presence as Nardole. At first, the character seemed to be little more than a nagging comic relief but the River Swan surrogate endeared himself and proved his worth far more than the Aspergers slap-stick of the Sontaran Strax, who blighted several episodes during Capaldi’s time.

THE MONK’S VOW OF SILENCE

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As much goodwill as a new and worthy companion generated, it was quickly squandered by the script and structural problems that have plagued Moffat’s time in charge. The first half of the season was dominated by so-so “monster of the week” stories that consisted of murderous Emoji’s and a sinister alien force that could control wood (yes, really), giving us a whole new reason to fear visiting IKEA.

We also got a rather on-the-nose treatise of the perils of capitalism in space in ‘Oxygen’ and a serpentine monster hiding under the full length of the Thames in Victorian London during a cold snap in ‘Thin Ice’. The only continuity between these episodes was Nardole persistently mentioning something about an “oath” (by God, does Moffat love to play hide and seek with exposition) and the closing scene of each focusing on a mysterious vault under the university that the Doctor kept talking to. And it didn’t take long to figure out who was contained within.

Once we came to ‘Extremis’ in the season’s mid-point, Moffat once again flexed his convolutions in a three-part story arc that saw the re-introduction of Michelle Gomez’s Missy (a.k.a. – The Master). Turns out that the Doctor saved the latest incarnation of his Gallifreyan nemesis from execution but undertook a solemn oath to show her the error of her ways in the process. Missy is reluctantly released from her vault by the Doctor with humanity on verge of total extinction.

After a series of very unfortunate events and some virtual reality malarkey that made one wonder if Moffat had been rummaging around in Rick & Morty‘s trashcans, military leaders are forced to give consent to the newly arrived Monks to invade Earth and prevent the catastrophe. Once the Monks are in charge they begin wiping humanity’s memory to make them believe the Monks have always been here, which is an apt metaphor for Moffat making us think that Doctor Who has always been this maddeningly contrived. Not that such an approach has always been to the showrunner’s detriment since this three episode stretch had all the hallmarks of the last time the show hit top form in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ when Matt Smith took on the Silence but, sadly, this was a poor imitation of Moffat’s last true triumph.

TIMEY-WIMEY 

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(Mild Spoilers Ahead)

After yet two more meandering stand alone episodes, one set in Roman-era Scotland with a monster that looked like it had escaped from Playstation’s Horizon Zero Dawn and yet another Ice Warrior episode from Mark Gatiss proving once again that the Sherlock actor and writer is the only person who still finds the walking cacti to be in any way compelling, we settled in for the show’s closing two-parter: ‘World Enough and Time’ and ‘The Doctor Falls’.

Firstly, those two titles felt like they came out of a Doctor Who Episode Name Generator (patent pending) and, to some degree, there was a similar synthetic quality to the content of these episodes. We started off in prime Moffat territory with a huge spaceship hundreds of miles long perched on the event horizon of a black hole. As anyone with a basic grasp of astrophysics or has seen Interstellar can tell you, time slows down dramatically the closer you inch towards the center of a black hole meaning that time takes place at different rates depending where you are on the ship.

This alone was a fantastic idea and ripe for a classic tale from the writer of the one true Whovian masterpiece, ‘Blink’. Unfortunately, as has become so common during Moffat’s time in charge of Who, he just doesn’t know when to quit and over-seasons the dish with an origin story for not only the very first Cybermen (as in the version of the metal menace from Hartnell’s time in ‘The Tenth Planet’) but also the return of John Simms’ Master to joust both with the Doctor and his later feminine incarnation, Missy.

Without going into too much detail (because, seriously, who has the time), Simms’ Master has been converting the last remnants of humanity into these proto-cybermen with Bill being the first one to roll off the production line fully formed (the revelation of which is actually quite touching). Our heroes and villains then transfer to another floor on the ship where humans are living in a replica of the English countryside because that was useful for budgetary reasons and must fend off the rapidly evolving cyberman (time moves a lot faster on their production floor, you see).

Cue lots of guilt trips for the Doctor who failed to stop Bill’s conversion while Nardole prepares the humans to fight the Cybermen through the cunning means of huge explosions. This is all while the Master and Missy get tangled up in a battle of wits and the id as they squabble about whether to assist the Doctor or not, as both Gomez and Simms take great delight in chewing out the scenery and each other. Actually, the over-cooked contrivances aside, the acting is top of the line in this episode from all involved. The winner is inevitably Peter Capaldi, who has seemingly saved the best til last with a series of soliloquies as the Doctor is left on the verge of another regeneration before a very familiar face calls out to him. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Steven Moffat.

CHEWING THE MOFFAT

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While these concluding episodes are an upturn in form for the season and Capaldi’s era as a whole, the show is still far adrift from its Russel T. Davis heydays. No better is Moffat’s tedious tendency towards contrivance demonstrated than by Bill’s resolution where the showrunner pulled his usual trick of “remember that thing I told you about 10 episodes ago but haven’t mentioned it at all since? No? Well, here you go anyway”. It’s such a shame that a writer who is possibly the only person alive more fond of twists than M. Night Shyamalan is also addicted to withholding exposition until the twist has taken place.

It cannot be denied that Moffat plays to the fans and he more often than not, gives them plenty to play with as the bold decision to use the original yet archaic Cybermen shows. However, it would be easy to argue that the fans would be far better serviced with episodes that were of the highest caliber such as his early Who efforts during Davis’ reign, which included such gems as ‘The Library’ and ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’. With the exception of a small handful of Matt Smith episodes that matched his early work on the show, he has been found wanting throughout most of his time thanks to his love of convoluted over-arching plot lines that crash land under their sheer weight of contrivance. While ‘Blink’ remains his unquestioned high point as a writer for Who, it was always a bad idea to take the delicate intricacy of that perfectly structured episode and try to spin out the same approach over 10 hours of television.

In Moffat’s final season, he has gone some way to amending the crime of wasting the formidable talents of Peter Capaldi in the title role in the two previous seasons but his time as showrunner looks set only to end as a louder whimper than expected, rather the roar we wanted from a writer who promised so much seven years ago when he took over the show left in good shape by his predecessor. His replacement, Chris Chibnall, will be faced with a very different prospect when he takes the reins next year and his new direction must find a new simplicity to the travels of a new Doctor to untangle this show from Moffat’s love of convoluted complexity.

GRADE:

C+

CAPALDI’S LAST STRETCH AS THE DOCTOR PROVES ONCE AGAIN THAT ITS SHOWRUNNER IS FAR BETTER AT SPRINTING THAN A MARATHON. SEASON 10 MANAGES SOME CLASSIC WHO IN FITS AND STARTS BUT THE SHOW OVERALL STILL FEELS TIRED AND OVERWROUGHT.

 

 

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