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A Christmas Carol

Once upon a time, Doctor Who was a science fiction show. Oh, it was never a dryly accurate thesis on the mechanics of time travel, but nowadays (and particularly around Christmas), Doctor Who becomes little more than fairytale magic. With A Christmas Carol, any semblance of scientific plausibility went out of the window the moment a flying shark came in through it.

G'day, my name's Bruce.

G’day, my name’s Bruce.

I recall enjoying this episode when it was first shown, and even thinking it was the best Christmas special they’d yet done. Well, it’s certainly the most Christmassy, but it hasn’t held up very well on a second viewing. In fact, I was distinctly bored for much of the second half. Around the time when the Doctor visits Scroo-… er… Kazran as a boy, the plot loses any sense of urgency and lumbers along for twenty minutes or so, while the young lad develops a relationship with Abigail, the least-developed character ever, who does little more than come out of a box every so often and sing to some fish.

Young Kazran takes the Doctor to the freezer vault.

Young Kazran takes the Doctor to the freezer vault.

On the plus side, the story is occasionally rather clever and, frankly, makes me wonder why it took five years before A Christmas Carol was adapted for Doctor Who. The moment when the Doctor appears in the video that Kazran made as a boy is sheer genius, as is later using his present (old) self as the boy’s “Christmas future”. Michael Gambon is naturally rather good as Kazran (and his bearded father), and a pleasure to watch even though the character is thinly-written. The love story doesn’t have much substance but it’s nevertheless heartwarming.

One last day together because Abigail has a meticulously punctual terminal illness that doesn't manifest itself physically in any way whatsoever.

One last day together because Abigail has a meticulously punctual terminal illness that doesn’t manifest itself physically in any way whatsoever.

The Doctor’s plan is as contrived as the situation itself, but his goal is as noble as ever and he shows how he can see the good in everybody, even seemingly ‘evil’ people. But, my goodness, he doesn’t half ramble on, blurting out technobabble, talking to himself and spewing out as many words per minute as somebody hearing pips on a payphone. I’ve never really had a problem with Matt Smith before but he starts to grate here. Gillan and Darvill, meanwhile, are practically guest stars for all the screen time they get.

The visual design of the episode is excellent. A little bit Dickensian London, a little bit steampunk.

The visual design of the episode is excellent. A little bit Dickensian London, a little bit steampunk.

This may be a retelling of Dickens classic, but it doesn’t have half as good pacing or structure. I was probably more forgiving of its shortcomings at Christmas, but it’s far too early for that right now. Bah, humbug!

The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang

Epic finales have capped the past four and a bit seasons, so it was no surprise that season 5 went all out. In a scene reminiscent of what Russell T Davies probably intended in The Stolen Earth, every single available alien, robot and creature from the past five years gathers together at Stonehenge 102 AD (including, bizarrely, the Silurians, who shouldn’t even be awake at this point) to trap the Doctor in a giant box, thus stopping him from destroying the Universe when his Tardis explodes in the future.

The Universe's largest recorded INTERVENTION meeting.

The Universe’s largest recorded INTERVENTION meeting.

It’s a good twist, because you spend most of the first episode thinking there’s a monster inside the Pandorica, but in fact the monster is the Doctor and all the bad guys are there to save the Universe for a change. It must have taken an incredible amount of planning on their part, though. They had to read a psychic imprint of Amy’s mind to create the trap, ensure the coordinates were written on a painting that would get passed down to River Song, who would find a way to escape prison and bring the Doctor to the right place. Convoluted isn’t the word! You also have to wonder, if keeping the Doctor sealed away for eternity is so important, why make the Pandorica so easy to open again from the outside?

Auton-duplicate Roman Rory, now with sonic screwdriver action.

Auton-duplicate Roman Rory, now with sonic screwdriver action.

The Doctor tells the alien spaceships over Stonehenge to bugger off for a while.

The Doctor tells the alien spaceships over Stonehenge to bugger off for a while.

Okay kid, this is where it gets complicated. With the first episode ending on the most extreme of cliffhangers, the Tardis exploding, the Doctor trapped forever, and the lights in the Universe blinking out of existence, it takes a hell of a job to undo it, but this is one of those occasions where it mostly works satisfyingly, thanks to Steven Moffat’s knack for planning out long-winded and complex plots and believing in the audience enough to keep up with it. Through a series of time jumps, the Doctor sets into motion an elaborate plan to rescue himself and works out how to undo the erasure of the Universe. These sequences are both amusing and clever, not to mention logically consistent (a rarity in a show that supposedly deals with time travel), so it’s a shame that a large part of the climax revolves around, basically, magic.

I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.

I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.

This annoys me, because the story could rely on its use of hard temporal mechanics to sort itself out, but instead descends into wishy-washy metaphor. Erased from existence, the Doctor is brought back into the Universe by the power of memories or love or some such nonsense. How does that make any sense? The mind is not some magical thing that can overcome the laws of physics – either somebody exists in spacetime or they don’t. So now we have a situation where the Tardis was actually blown up, but now it wasn’t because it was undone, except that it still did happen because they remember it and still need to work out who was responsible for it, even though it quite obviously didn’t happen because the Tardis still exists. The Doctor was at the heart of the Big Bang version 2, except he clearly wasn’t because he still exists, and he only exists because Amy and Rory remember him… and so on, and so forth.

It's not quite as bad as "the whole world prays for the Doctor" but it's the same sort of thing.

It’s not quite as bad as “the whole world prays for the Doctor” but it’s the same sort of thing.

Well, whatever issues there are with the plot, I can’t deny that it’s bloody ambitious. I also love how the previous episodes from the season are incorporated into it, with Vincent’s painting passed down through history, and then later with the Doctor revisiting Amy in their previous adventures and finally explaining that weird scene from Flesh and Stone. Amy’s story arc also reaches a conclusion, with the mystery of her vanishing parents solved, the crack in her room being sealed, and Rory coming back into existence in time for their wedding day.

It's hard not to feel a twinge of emotion as the Tardis materialises during the reception, to the words "something old, something new, something borrowed... something blue". Yes, very clever, Steven. How long had you been waiting to write that?

It’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotion as the Tardis materialises during the reception, to the words “something old, something new, something borrowed… something blue”. Yes, very clever, Steven. How long had you been waiting to write that?

I suppose what I liked most about this finale is that all the overblown threat is contained with a minimum of bluster within part 1. After the big incident, the second part is relatively low-key. There’s this wonderful mix of the utterly bleak (all the stars have gone out, the Tardis is burning in the sky for two millennia, and the Earth will soon disappear), the heartwarmingly lovely (Auton-duplicate Rory standing guard over Amy for 2000 years) and the bloody funny (the stuff with the mop and the fez). There was never any doubt that everything would turn out fine in the end, but getting there is a fascinating journey. For that reason, it’s the best season finale of the new series, despite the problems I had with it.

The exploding Tardis painting makes for a lovely piece of wall art.

The exploding Tardis painting makes for a lovely piece of wall art.

I was hoping to have revisited Matt Smith’s entire run before season 8 begins, but as I type this, Peter Capaldi’s debut is just days away, so I’m going to take this opportunity to take a ‘deep breath’, enjoy the new series and come back to this in a little while.

The Lodger

I enjoy these “fish out of water” stories. There’s tons of potential for the Doctor to find himself lost among humans, struggling to fit in and understand their ways, but it’s not something that has been done very often, probably because the Doctor has never before been quite so… alien. I can’t imagine this story working with any previous Doctor like it does with Matt Smith (which is odd, because it’s based on a story written for the tenth Doctor).

The fifth Doctor was good at cricket; the eleventh is good at football. Apparently.

The fifth Doctor was good at cricket; the eleventh is good at football. Apparently.

With Amy trapped on a malfunctioning Tardis, the Doctor has to team up with his new flatmate Craig, played by James Corden, in a spin on the classic Odd Couple scenario. The Doctor tries to fit in during his stay but gets things hilariously wrong, and Craig gets increasingly irritated by the Doctor muscling in on his life and causing friction with his potential love interest Sophie. The wider plot is really about a monster living in the upstairs flat, but it’s centred around a sweet love story full of frustration as Craig and Sophie repeatedly shy away from their feelings. Whatever opinions you might have about James Corden, he’s perfectly suited to this sort of awkward character.

The third wheel.

The third wheel.

“Perception filters” play a big role, and the revelation of what’s really upstairs is an excellent twist with a nicely creepy tone. Unfortunately, there’s a lot left unexplained, such as whose ship it was and where it went. Maybe that’s not important, and the ship’s control room does get re-used for the Silence in a later episode, but it’s Steven Moffat’s “mysterious era” where plot threads go annoyingly unresolved for years at a time, so it grates a bit.

It's not every day the second floor of your flat turns into a spaceship and disappears.

It’s not every day the second floor of your flat turns into a spaceship and disappears.

Despite the darker implication of an alien computer frazzling humans in an attempt to find a suitable pilot, the episode is otherwise lighthearted and comedic. Matt Smith is great as, basically, a total weirdo (sorry Matt) and the writing is funny throughout… however, it does border on the wacky for wackiness’s sake at times, with the Doctor’s crazy spinning machine thing and imparting information through psychic headbutts. That was too silly for me and not really needed, particularly when the story has something more meaningful to say about boring ordinary lives and not falling into a rut. It also shows the Doctor is more perceptive than he seems, as he correctly identifies the romantic desire between his new friends, suggesting his wacky routine is more of an act than a nature.

The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood

When I first watched this two-parter in 2010, I was aware that the Silurians had previously featured in Doctor Who, but that was about it. They are not your typical overused villains; in fact, this is only their third appearance, or their fourth if you count their aquatic cousins, the Sea Devils. Mind you, given the physiological differences, these Silurians are pretty much distant cousins too… unless we’re to believe that those old rubber suits were supposed to be masks also.

The Doctor removes Alaya's mask.

The Doctor removes Alaya’s mask.

As the intent here is to sympathetically paint the Silurians as people rather than monsters, they have humanoid faces under those masks, but the de-monsterfying goes further than that. There is discord between the civilian government and the military, who are considered old-fashioned warmongers who need to change their ways. Cold Blood focuses on the attempt to build a peaceful relationship between the Silurians and the human race, amid tension surrounding the death of one of their soldiers, with the Doctor struggling to prove that humans aren’t a threat to them. It’s not dissimilar to his attempts at peaceful negotiation in the first Silurian story, which had a rather unfortunate end for the ‘monsters’. The resolution here is more optimistic, and perhaps another story will revisit the Earth in the year 3010.

The humans and Silurians attempt to arrange peaceful coexistence.

The humans and Silurians attempt to arrange peaceful coexistence.

The Doctor has come a long way since then. His grumpy third persona was dragged into these facilities by UNIT, but Eleven is positively giddy with excitement upon laying eyes on the big drilling thing and wants to get himself involved right away. While Three thought badly of humanity and was proved right, Eleven loves humans and what they can be, but is let down. Additionally, you probably wouldn’t see the third Doctor making jokes in the face of danger or running around using a sonic screwdriver like it’s a gun, which unfortunately happens here, but frankly, I’ll take that over agonisingly drawn-out seven-part serials.

Look, it lights up. Bang, bang!!

Look, it lights up. Bang, bang!!

That said, however, The Hungry Earth is a little drawn out itself, teasing the reveal of the creatures below the Earth. It’s the schlocky monster movie to Cold Blood’s political drama, and does less to set up the human characters than the second part manages under a tighter time limit. I didn’t really care about any of them in part 1, but by the end of part 2, I found them quite likable and believable. As an ensemble piece, it’s well-balanced and everyone has something to do. Rory is particularly good again.

Amy is pulled into the ground by forces unseen.

Amy is pulled into the ground by forces unseen.

Unfortunately, poor Rory gets a raw deal. It’s not good enough that he gets killed shortly before the story is over, he has to be erased from history and forgotten too. The last few stories have shown that the two companion dynamic works brilliantly, so to see him written out like this is disappointing. He will come back later but, appropriately enough, I’ve forgotten how (sorry, Rory)! The sudden appearance of the crack and the piece of Tardis shrapnel is forcibly squeezed into the closing minutes, killing the pace with a pointless mystery. It’s not the subtlest of season arcs, this crack thing, is it?

Riddle me this. Why couldn't the Doctor throw Restac's gun into the crack, thereby erasing it, and Rory's death, from history?

Riddle me this: Why couldn’t the Doctor throw Restac’s gun into the crack, thereby erasing it, and Rory’s death, from history?

Amy’s Choice

Five years have passed since Amy and Rory travelled with the Doctor, and now they’ve settled down in the sleepy village of Leadworth. Amy is heavily pregnant, Rory has a ridiculous mullet, and life is good for them. But when the Doctor drops in on them again, they keep having dreams that they’re back there with him in the Tardis.

Anyone else think Amy looks good pregnant?

Anyone else think Amy looks good pregnant?

Amy and Rory have recently joined the Doctor and are travelling with him in the Tardis. But when the power fails and the temperature starts dropping, they all start having dreams that they’re five years in the future, settling down to start a family in the sleepy village of Leadworth.

THIS one is reality, definitely. Or maybe the other one was.

THIS one is reality, definitely. Or maybe the other one was.

Naturally, they can’t both be true, and from the audience’s perspective, it seems obvious that the former is a dream. Perhaps if this was a later season (say, the seventh) and the supporting cast were being phased out, the village setting would be equally believable. We’d be as genuinely confused as the characters as to which is reality, but even the first time I watched it, it was obvious that five years weren’t going to pass between episodes in the middle of the first season with a brand new companion. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining to watch the mystery unravel.

The Tardis falls into an impossible "cold star". Or does it?

The Tardis falls into an impossible “cold star”. Or does it?

Amy’s choice is between her fiancé Rory and the Doctor, but she doesn’t really end up making such a choice. Since Rory is killed in the village, she is forced to pick the only reality where he’s still alive, which is so easy a choice that it might as well not exist. The fact that the story then pulls a “it was ALL a dream” ending out of the bag could be seen as a massive waste of time anyway, but actually, I rather like it when an episode breaks out of the standard mould. It also reminded me a little of the very first “in the Tardis” type story, The Edge of Destruction. Weirdness all round.

Toby Jones as the Dream Lord. Or is he?

Toby Jones as the Dream Lord. Or is he?

That the Dream Lord is not some malicious fiend makes a refreshing change. It would have been too easy to bring back one of the many entities encountered over the course of the Doctor’s adventures. It’s more sinister to realise that he’s part of the Doctor’s mind, the darker part of his subconscious. The Dream Lord’s apparent power to put them to sleep is frightening enough that you could do away with the alien-possessed elderly villagers plot, but I like how it almost turns into Hot Fuzz in the second half. Clearly, this was a budget-saving episode but, as I repeatedly like to point out, these are often the best.

Invasion of the pension snatchers.

Invasion of the pension snatchers.

It’s low-key, it’s creepy, it’s different. It puts the characters into an interesting dilemma and it accurately captures the convincing illusion of dreams. The actual choice may not have been the defining moment I would have liked, but the episode’s unique qualities make it a highlight of this season. And I never expected to see Rory whack an old lady with a piece of wood, so that’s something.

The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone

It was only a matter of time before Steven Moffat started filling his new series with his own characters and villains. This two-part story brings back both River Song and the Weeping Angels, each for their second appearance, and starts introducing facets of his ongoing story arc – headless monks, military clerics, the dimensional ‘crack’, a prophecy of an explosion that will cause it (coinciding with the original air date of the finale) and hints about River possibly killing the Doctor in the future. All very intriguing and, I dare say, rather baffling right now. Thankfully, the episodes have the good sense not to dwell on this, instead focusing on the threat of the Angels.

The crack features prominently in part 2, explaining some of Amy's missing memories, but we still don't learn why it's specifically following her.

The crack features prominently in part 2, explaining some of Amy’s missing memories, but we still don’t learn why it’s specifically following her.

This is only their second appearance, but already these perfect adversaries have been practically ruined. The bit I’m referring to is in Flesh and Stone, where we actually see the Angels moving. Yes, seeing them turn their heads like that is creepy, but the whole point of the Weeping Angels is that you can NEVER see them move. If you theoretically could, they wouldn’t look like statues, because they only exist as statues when they are observed. Moreover, the idea that they would have to be consciously aware of somebody watching them is rather less satisfying a concept than observation itself determining their quantum state. It’s as if “don’t blink” wasn’t scary enough, so now “don’t look” had to be awkwardly added in. The scene is ultimately unnecessary to the plot, and if we absolutely had to see them move, they could have done so in between flashes of light like before rather than in full view.

"Agh, not the coat, not the coat!"

“Agh, not the coat, not the coat!”

The other modification to the Angels is that their captured image holds their essence, which can come to life. This is a somewhat implausible concept, because what constitutes an “image”? Would a pencil sketch of an angel come to life? What about a painting? Or a polaroid? Would it contain the soul of the Angel that was copied? And, if so, what if you drew or painted a generic one rather than a specific one? However, the scene where Amy is watching the looped Angel video gradually change every time she looks away is, hands down, one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. It’s magnificent. There’s something about these Weeping Angels that instills such a genuine fear and horror, even when they are humanised somewhat. In this two-parter, their powers are broader. They can absorb energy, get inside your head, regrow their bodies… they are unpredictable, thereby raising the tension.

The fuzzy video makes it even better. Creep factor 10.

The fuzzy video makes it even better. Creep factor 10.

Both episodes are have a cracking pace to them. It’s more action-packed than Blink, but it’s interspersed with quiet, tension-building moments. The direction is wonderful, making use of light and dark in innovative ways. The ‘Aliens’ inspiration is obvious. The sets and visuals are impressive, although the clerics’ military garb is decidedly modern-day for what is supposed to be the far future. The plot has enough shocking twists to stay interesting and frightening all the way through. Grievances aside, it’s a terrific double-bill.

The sudden realisation that they're surrounded entirely by regenerating Angel statues, each and every one turning to face them, is masterfully done.

The sudden realisation that they’re surrounded entirely by regenerating Angel statues, each and every one turning to face them, is masterfully done.

River has changed, though. Perhaps that’s to be expected, as she is younger and more impulsive, but this is where her irritating phase begins. From the opening scene, it’s clear she’s been turned into a sort of sexy secret agent type, with quips and one-liners and an abundance of confidence. “Hello, sweetie” was a nod back to her first appearance, but it’s starting to grate already. River and the Doctor act like an old married couple, which Amy finds very amusing. Both of them like to talk, and talk very fast. More annoying, however, is the Doctor’s “you shouldn’t mess with me” posturing, while Murray Gold blasts out his bombastic Eleventh Doctor theme, which I find very tiresome. No offence to Matt Smith, who I think is fantastic, but I am looking forward to a more subdued Doctor taking over. Someone without verbal diarrhoea, preferably.

Revelation: the Tardis only makes that fwooorrping noise because the Doctor has been leaving the brake on for the past 900 years.

Revelation: the Tardis only makes that fwooorrping noise because the Doctor hs been leaving the brake on for the past 900 years.

#BAH BAH BAH, BAH BAH BA-BUH!!# Thinly veiled threat. Pause for drama. Bang.

#BAH BAH BAH, BAH BAH BA-BUH!!# Thinly veiled threat. Pause for drama. Bang.

There’s a curious scene in part 2 where the Doctor leaves Amy (with her eyes closed) and then appears to return to tell her something important. I can’t remember at the time whether I twigged the relevance of this scene, but you can see he’s wearing the jacket that he supposedly dropped earlier, and it turns out to be rather important and clever. Amidst all the other cleverness with the magic crack and vanishing clerics, it’s easy to miss. Most likely, it just washed over me as another jarring tone shift that Doctor Who likes to throw in from time to time. Like, for instance, Amy kissing the Doctor on the night before her wedding. Yeah… awkward!

The eleventh Doctor's response of "eurgh, but you're human" shows how different he is from the romantic tenth. Amy, however, ought to know better.

The eleventh Doctor’s response of “eurgh, but you’re human” shows how different he is from the romantic tenth. Amy, however, ought to know better.

Victory of the Daleks

The Daleks have always been a not-so-subtle allegory for Nazi Germany, the “master race” wanting to purify the species and take control of everything, so it was inevitable that they’d feature in an actual WWII episode eventually. Winston Churchill’s war room has supposedly built these new weapons, which Professor Bracewell calls “Ironsides”, but obviously the Daleks have their own plans and their loyal servant routine is just a facade. While the Doctor spends much of the episode trying to persuade Churchill that the Daleks are remorseless creatures with an ulterior motive, I was reminded of the rather excellent Power of the Daleks, in which much the same thing happens. Unfortunately, this episode doesn’t handle it so effectively and the story is pretty much nonsense.

The Doctor, Amy and a not entirely convincing Churchill.

The Doctor, Amy and a not entirely convincing Churchill.

So, the last of the last of the last (really, this time!) of the Daleks, having slipped back through time, have found a special Dalek-growing device that will reboot the entire race, but they’re not pure enough to activate it, so they need to construct an implausible scenario where the Doctor will inadvertently confirm the Daleks’ identity to the Progenator Device, by building an android scientist (Bracewell) and infiltrating the London war room during the blitz. Ooooo—kay. After their plan actually works, they attack London indirectly by turning its lights on during a blackout, but we then learn they could have blown the Earth up with the bomb inside Robo-Bracewell anyway, so what was the point of that? And I don’t care how advanced he is, there’s no way he could have built spaceworthy Spitfires and trained pilots to fly them in ten minutes. That’s just ridiculous.

The bomb is deactivated using the power of love. Sigh.

The bomb is deactivated using the power of love. Sigh.

The episode does have its strengths, however. When the Daleks are playing their role as slaves, they’re arguably more menacing than when they’re being up-front and honest. They certainly get the Doctor nervous. Servant Daleks asking people if they want tea in loud Dalek voices, and, later, the Doctor bluffing his way onto their ship using a jammy dodger, are examples of the British humour that permeates the show in its more whimsical moments. It’s also interesting that the Daleks actually sort of win this time. Finally, there’s the added mystery about the crack, which now appears to have removed memories of the previous Dalek invasions from Amy’s mind, or possibly erased the events themselves. Intriguing.

"WE ARE THE NEW DALEKS. PLEASE TAKE US TO THE CHECKOUT. LIMIT ONE PER CUSTOMER."

“WE ARE THE NEW DALEKS. PLEASE TAKE US TO THE CHECKOUT. LIMIT ONE PER CUSTOMER.”

Ultimately, though, the plot is flimsy, purely a setup for the new Daleks (who were wasted on a mediocre adventure game released around the same time) and, presumably, an excuse to sell a colourful range of toys. Shameless!