Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Knock Knock

Who’s there?

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.


Anyway, Knock Knock is the fourth story of Series Ten. It’s written by Mike Bartlett and is directed by Bill Anderson. It’s got David Suchet in it as The Landlord, which I was so tempted to assume was a renegade Time Lord with low ambitions. It’s a creepy house mystery. And it doesn’t quite do it for me. It’s not a bad story by any stretch of the imagination. It’s entertaining enough, but it never quite gets let off the scary lease enough to be a classic.

Indeed, it reminded me a little of ‘The Horror of Fang Rock’, which terrified me as a child. Perhaps forty years later – and we’re talking 1977 to 2017 here – there’s a six-year-old pretending they need to go to the loo in order to escape the scary telly they’re watching, but who isn’t scared enough not to still want to watch it through the crack in the door. To the amusement of their Mum and Dad who saw through this transparent tactic rather quickly. Perhaps that six-year-old will be reassured, like I was, by their Mum saying ‘it’s not real, it’s just a TV programme.’ So, judging the scariness levels of Doctor Who is probably not particularly objective.

I did feel that the young people in this story were portrayed as a bit dense, which I suppose is a horror trope when you think about it, and Bill was made a little less interesting. You know what would have been good? This as a Doctor lite story. A story where Bill gets to be the Doctor without making a Claraesque song and dance about it. Where – perhaps – she takes the loss of her mother and reaches out The Landlord through that shared loss? Everything has its time.

There are some nice things in this story though. The fact that the Landlord was just a small boy when all this began and that in the end, he crumbles back into that state. It’s a little heartbreaking. I love David Suchet’s performance in this. Yes, there are moments where he skates close to the line between nicely arch and ham, but he never steps over it entirely and the last scenes were – for me – genuinely upsetting. That poor little boy trying to avoid losing his Mum. Instead, he’s made her a prisoner. Mariah Gale* does a rather fine job of making Eliza more than just a monster of the week. There’s a real tenderness to the end of their story. Everything ends. And that’s sad.

But I don’t know I’ve got a lot more to say about this. I do like Capaldi – as usual. The insect things look great but are a bit obviously CGI for my liking. Sometimes – and again perhaps this is because I am an old man – I would like more practical effects. But, for a one-off episode of Doctor Who perhaps that is asking too much.

I sometimes wonder if when I review a Doctor Who story, I end up reviewing it based more on what I would like to have seen rather than the actual episode itself. That I’m not being fair because I’ve got an idea of what Doctor Who should be and that when the story doesn’t quite fit that it rubs against my critical faculties (which is less painful than it sounds.) I try not to do that, but I think that the paragraph above on ‘The Horror of Fang Rock’ is a bit of a giveaway. I wanted The Horror of Fang Rock. This isn’t it. But it is a reasonably effective, well-acted and well-directed tea-time horror story. And that’s not too bad, is it? Not every Doctor Who story can be a classic after all.

 *Mariah Gale was a rather fine Ophelia to David Tennant’s Hamlet. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Thin Ice

Thin Ice is set on, under or about the River Thames in 1814. There is a Frost Fair taking place. These were an actual thing back when the Little Ice Age meant that British winters were a little more severe than they are now, so the Thames froze over solidly enough to allow a fair to set up on its surface.  
This being Doctor Who there is more to it than just weather. Things are going on. People are being swallowed. This we see illustrated when a Dickensian street urchin – is 1814 too early for Dickensian? It’s more Austen, isn’t it? Anyway, I ramble – steals the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. The chase ends with the recovery of the screwdriver, but the death of the street urchin. The Doctor’s apparent lack of remorse at this death leads to a rather well-acted and written confrontation with Bill who has realized that perhaps the person she is traveling with isn’t quite what he might appear to be. 

It’s one of the two best scenes in the story. It’s played superbly by Capaldi and Mackie. She’s in shock. She’s never seen anyone die before and her pain morphs to anger. She asks about numbers. How many people has the Doctor seen die? How many has he killed? And, of course, he doesn’t know. And even if he did, I suspect he wouldn’t tell her because he’s effectively a mass murderer. Even if those he kills deserve to die. And even that might be moot in some cases. The Doctor’s response is to say that if he didn’t get involved more people would die and that he doesn’t ‘have the luxury of outrage.’

Let’s skip for the moment that he has shown his outrage before. I immediately thought of the Fourth Doctor’s ‘But what’s it for!’ in ‘The Pirate Planet.’ However, the Doctor’s outrage – and anger – I think is a colder thing than most. It’s displayed by the way he will take apart the plans of the people that have driven him to outrage. Indeed, I might argue that outrage is often the Doctor’s motivating force. It’s just he doesn’t often need to express it out loud. For the Doctor outrage is action.
The moment is broken though and instead of this conversation being taken further we get back to investigating what’s going on. And this it will turn out is exploitative capitalism. Bill has flagged up earlier that slavery is still a thing in 1814 – which it is in the British Empire but not in Britain itself at this point. And it turns out that this is the story of slavery. Except instead of human slaves we have one big fish whose poo turns out to be a rather useful fuel for the factories of Lord Sutcliffe. The side effect of this is that the big fish needs to be fed. And it hasn’t eaten enough for a while. Hence the people disappearing.

Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns) is both the ugly face of capitalism and a racist. His response to Bill is ugly in the extreme. And the Doctor punches him. Hard. I must admit that I cheered at that point on the original watch. A Doctor who punches racists is my kind of Doctor. I’m sure others feel it is yet another example of Doctor Who being overwhelmed by political correctness. The thing is the punch is followed by a short and rather lovely speech, which even Sutcliffe comments on revealing his utter lack of compassion. Yes, Sutcliffe is a bit of a two-dimensional baddie, but it is nice for the Doctor to come up against one of those every so often. You know that he’s irredeemable and is doomed to an unpleasant end from that moment. Nicholas Burns does a lovely job of making him feel like a sneer in human form.

Sutcliffe’s plan is to basically blow up a load of dynamite, shatter the ice and feed his incredible pooing fish a massive meal, which will keep him and his factories in fuel for the foreseeable future. It’s a novel if unsubtle, plan. It fails. Naturally.

There’s a moment, like that between the Doctor and Clara in ‘Kill the Moon’, where the Doctor asks Bill to make the decision on what they do next and I’m not sure this is something I like. He doesn’t do it all the time. It just seems to be something he does when writers feel the need to ratchet up the tension a bit. Either the Doctor serves at the pleasure of humanity all the time or he’s doing his own thing. Now, I admit in both these cases he’s had time to think before deciding but still, it just seems to go against the grain for me.

It’s a nice little story this. The setting is fun. There are some meaty scenes about big issues and Capaldi and Mackie are rather brilliant. Again. Honestly, what my re-watch has done is remind me how brilliant Pearl Mackie and Bill Potts is. After Donna I think she’s the best companion of the ‘new’ Doctor Who era. Pearl Mackie’s doing a great job too.

So, this I think is my favourite story of Series 10 so far. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020


I might struggle to say much about Smile. That’s not because I didn’t enjoy it. I did. It just felt a little lacking in something. But I am a man who likes to look for the positive in all Doctor Who. If you want to find people who dislike Doctor Who episodes with a passion that I admire in a strange self-harming way, then the internet is your oyster. Here at Patient Centurion Towers, we like to enjoy the things we enjoy.

Let’s begin with the most obvious thing: Bill Potts is a wonderful addition to Doctor Who. She’s quick-witted, funny and good-hearted and she’s an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. She isn’t a mystery to be solved. There’s a lot of Bill Potts’s out there but alas not many Doctors to help them see the universe.

And isn’t that part of the appeal of Doctor Who? The thought that one day someone will appear and take us out of our mundane lives and take us out there to see the universe in all its glory. Except, as this episode demonstrates, the universe is a dangerous place and there’s an awful lot of running. I’d be dead in a week, especially as one of the first places I’d want the Doctor to take me would be Berlin in the 20s/30s. I’d love a trip to Weimar Germany. I’d be happy with exploring the nightlife and getting my hands on some fantastic art to take home with me. Or late 19th century/early 20th century Vienna where I could hang about in the caf├ęs and get myself some Schiele paintings. Or Mexico and meet Freida Kahlo in person. I suspect I’d be an art junkie or an event junkie. Persuading the Doctor to let me see Shakespeare plays or those opera first night’s where audiences booed and rioted. All that would be great. It would be the monsters that would be the problem.

But that was a whacking great digression. There is something wonderfully creepy about how this episode starts and that the villains aren’t really villains but nanobots taking their programming far too literally. In this story, the nanobots are called Vardy, which kept making me think of Jamie Vardy, which I suspect wasn’t the intention of Frank Cotterall-Boyce (or perhaps it was.)

How the Doctor sorts out of the problem, which involves making landlord-capitalism an actual victor, is fine. It’s just not the most exciting of adventures. That’s not quite what he did. He freed a set of slaves by re-booting them and effectively got their former slave masters to pay them reparations in the form of rent. Then he leaves. This is one of those Doctor Who stories where I wonder what the hell happens a couple of years after he’s gone and the rent increases start coming in. There is an interesting philosophical question here, which is how do you free someone who doesn’t know they’re a slave because they don’t have free will?

It’s nice to see The Doctor almost making a terrible mistake too. Occasionally The Doctor’s decisiveness is a problem and this was one of those situations. He rushes in where angels fear to tread. And then has to sort out his own mess before it is too late.

Once again Capaldi and Mackie (or the Doctor and Bill if you prefer) bounce off each other beautifully. Even after only two stories, I’m starting to think that Bill was the companion the Twelfth Doctor was waiting for.

This is also, another of those new Doctor Who stories that has well-known performers in tiny parts and that makes you think…oh, can’t we have a bit more of this person/these people? In this case Mina Anwar and Ralf Little.

‘New’ Doctor Who flirts occasionally – see ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ and ‘Sleep’ – with a future in which India (or Indo-Japan) has a large part to play in the space travelling future. I’d like to see more of this. It would be interesting to see that future. I was listening to David Tennant’s podcast interview with Whoopi Goldberg and there’s a discussion there about Uhuru in Star Trek. And Goldberg points out that Uhuru was the first time she’d seen a black person in the future. Until then the future was all white. And I’d never considered that. After all, I’m a white man. I’m always there in the future. Doing pretty much whatever it was white men were doing in the present. Imagine not being represented by a whole genre. Imagine not being expected to exist in the future. And not necessarily because the writers or creators of science-fiction were racists – even though some of them were* - but because they never gave it any thought. Because it didn’t matter.

I’m ranting away again and that’s because I don’t have much to say about this episode as an episode. It looks amazing though. Lawrence Gough directs well enough. The trip to Spain to film in the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia pays off because it looks pretty ‘of the future.’
It’s an OK story that doesn’t necessarily have time to explore all the ideas that are bubbling away underneath it. I’d watch it again now though just for Bill and the Doctor though. I’m loving those two.

*I’m looking at you H.P. Lovecraft

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Pilot

So, we begin Series 10 of ‘new’ Doctor Who with ‘The Pilot’ and Steven Moffat takes the opportunity to re-launch the Capaldi era. With Clara gone and forgotten the Doctor seems to have settled down at a University teaching. What he’s teaching isn’t quite clear, but it gets the students to turn up to his lectures so it must be good.

He’s also, we discover, guarding a vault. What’s in the vault we have yet to discover, but it is an important enough ‘thing’ to have the Doctor effectively exiled to the Earth once again. I’m assuming we’ll find out who or what it is at some suitable future date? *

The Doctor is also joined by Nardole (Matt Lucas). How the Doctor has restored Nardole’s head to his body – or a body. How this has been achieved we don’t know. There’s a hint of robot about it, but also a hint – or should that be a smell – of the organic. Whether we will find out exactly what has happened I’m not sure. I don’t think it really matters. Nardole’s role seems to be part Jiminy Cricket, part Greek chorus, and part just plain snark. Matt Lucas does a good job of seemingly making a slightly awkward toddler feel like it is a little alien. **

Most importantly though we get to meet Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). Bill Potts is the sort of character that brings people who think representation is just ‘political correctness gone mad’ out in a rash. Because Doctor Who can only be Doctor Who when everyone in it is white and straight. This isn’t the time and a place for a political rant but what’s brilliant about Bill Potts (and Pearl Mackie’s performance) is that she feels like the most ‘real’ companion in New Doctor Who since Donna. The fact that she’s a lesbian doesn’t matter. The Doctor doesn’t care – or even know or notice. It’s a part of the story but no one makes a ridiculously big deal out of it. Bill is like a breath of fresh air. I liked her from the off.

Pearl Mackie brings her to life without doing too much in the way of acting. This is a compliment, not an insult. Acting is a difficult thing to do because as soon as you look like your doing it then it seems false. Especially on television or film. Theatre is a slightly different thing, but I’m not Stanislavsky so a long digression on acting technique we can save for another day. But Mackie is natural. It doesn’t feel like a performance. I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops.

There’s definite chemistry between her a Capaldi. Like good double-acts everywhere they seem to complement each other and raise their game a little when together. This gives me a chance to say – once again – how bloody brilliant Peter Capaldi is as Doctor Who. I’d say this was the part he was born to play, but that equally applies to Malcolm Tucker. I get the impression from interviews though that in real life he’s more the Doctor than he is Malcolm Tucker. But I could watch him as the Doctor forever. He’s displaced Tom Baker as my favourite Doctor for quite a long time now, even though Tom Baker will always be THE Doctor to me.

I’ve seen a theory expressed on the internet that Capaldi’s chosen to play his first season (broadly) as Hartnell, his second as Troughton and this one as Pertwee and I can see how that might feel like a sensible suggestion. Whether it is deliberate or whether we’re doing that human thing of seeing patterns when there aren’t any again only a long discussion with Peter Capaldi himself will reveal. His Doctor certainly seems to change over time. I’m interested to see how it all ends.

I’ve not said much about ‘The Pilot’ itself because I don’t think there’s a lot to say. The main purpose of this story is to introduce us to Bill and the Doctor’s new circumstances, which it does rather nicely. The fact that there’s intelligent alien super-petrol copying (and killing?) a beautiful but miserable student with a starry, starry eye is just background. Bill’s feelings for Heather though seem real enough and whatever ‘Heather’ now is she seems to replicate those feelings to some degree. We never find out anything about the origins of this super-petrol, but it doesn’t matter. There’s never a huge feeling of danger, but there is a certain degree of creepiness about her behavior. There’s also a question about how powerful she is. Perhaps one day we will find out. Or perhaps not.

It’s a good start to Series 10. It’s a gentle-ish introduction to the new team and if you were stepping into Doctor Who for the first time this might not be a bad place to start.

*I’m pretending I’ve not seen what follows. Whether this makes me enough of a performer to get a Lorraine Kelly style tax deal we will see.
**I recommend his biography btw. It’s rather good. It manages to be quite heart-breaking and deep whilst pretending to be something else altogether. I suspect Matt Lucas is a clever man.