Before he took over the reins as head writer and executive producer, there was a time when Steven Moffat wrote fantastic episodes that didn’t hinge on bizarre coincidences or plot revelations spewed out at the last moment, when his female characters weren’t just pretty plot devices, and when he could really stir up some evocative imagery and create iconic foes. His first story is the perfect example and still remains one of the best.
What Moffat does brilliantly is make monsters out of ordinary things and wrap them up in mystery. Creatures dressed as clowns, disguised as statues, hidden in space suits or, in this case, wearing gas masks. These aren’t snarling monsters, they aren’t scary in a conventional sense. If anything, they kill with love. A small boy who just wants his mummy, but his touch will turn you into an empty shell just like him. It’s terrifying, and being set against a backdrop of the blitz adds so much to the atmosphere.
Like any good mystery, the clues are there to pick up on, and the conclusion actually makes sense. The medical ship, the nanogenes, the crash, the girl and her “brother”. The mystery unravels with excellent pace and suspense, too, and still has time for some genuinely funny lines between the characters. This is of course the first appearance of Captain Jack, the fast and easy ex-Time Agent turned con artist. Say what you will about him, but he absolutely lights up this story, adding a new dynamic to both Rose and the Doctor. Normally, a complicated plot like this would sideline the characters, but not here. Being a two-part story gives it the space it needs, and for once, next week’s preview comes AFTER the credits, preserving the suspense for those who choose to switch off before. Of course, I watched them back to back, because it was so bloomin’ gripping.
This is probably the first Doctor Who story since its revival that is properly scary (The Unquiet Dead was relatively tame and the Slitheen are just too silly). Doctor Who should be scary now and again, and this has some spine-tingling moments throughout – the hospital full of masked bodies that all sit up at the same time, the ringing phones, and of course several instances of “you didn’t notice that he wasn’t at the typewriter anymore” / “we didn’t notice the tape deck had finished” and you’re still hearing the thing happening and everybody stops talking to look at it. Yeah, it’s a little clichéd, but it’s brilliant and still got to me.
It’s not just the scares, but this is everything a Doctor Who story should be. It’s got creepy monsters that aren’t really monsters, a science-fiction element within a historical setting, dripping with atmosphere and mystery, really good writing, humour, and developed characters, and an ending it thoroughly earns. It won’t be the last time Steven Moffat knocks it out of the park either – his upcoming stories have remained my favourites – but it shows that he was at his best when he didn’t have to run the whole show too.