It must be noted, before I continue, that I have long been an ardent admirer of Neil Gaiman’s work. That’s not because I’m worried about the Johnny-Come-Latelies hijacking the Gaiman bandwagon. He’s too big for this to be a break out piece of work. Instead, I need to say that because this review will be so gushing, so enthusiastic and so pro-Gaiman that anyone would think I had gone into this with low expectations and been surprised by an unknown and unexpected quantity.
So let it be noted that this is not the case. I am well aware of Neil Gaiman’s talent. He can be directly credited with my love of comics (in the same way that without A New Hope I wouldn’t love Film, without Sandman I would never have discovered, or grown to love, comics). His writing, especially his children’s books and short story collections, is wonderful and his blog is brilliant. I love the films he has been involved with, whether as writer (Mirrormask), translator (Princess Mononoke) or as creator (Coraline, Stardust). He is one of my favourite authors, and I would purchase anything and everything he puts out.
So way back when it was first announced that he was to write an episode of Doctor Who, my interest levels were high and have been steadily building which each slow drip of teaser and drop of rumour. As the pools of story built, and broke and drained last season, and his episode was pushed back, I have steadily grown more and more excited. Where Stephen Fry was told his episode was unfilmable lest it break the budget, Gaiman was told his story was unfilmable so they would wait until they had the money.
And boy was it worth that wait.
Gaiman thrives on a heady blend of pop-culture pathos, semi-Burtonesque gothic whimsy and an unerringly sharp imagination. That his gags are as good as his story is unsurprising, that he has nailed the tone and voice of the show is more so. As much as I love Gaiman, his strength is in writing his own characters. His work on Eternals and Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader showed how even he can struggle when he has to turn his hand to writing a character outside of his usual reality. It’s fitting that he strikes the tone of Doctor Who right then, as this is a universe under Steven Moffat that has crept ever closer to that same darkness.
It’s actually been reminding me of the change in Batman over the years, especially the trajectory followed by the live action offerings from TV to cinema. If you will, let me serve you Doctor Who reduced to a misplaced comparison…
Doctor Who was once sixties Batman. It was (in popular opinion at least) cheap, and campy and silly. Frequently it was more tongue in cheek than serious, and eventually it was reduced to a parody of itself. At this point there was a gap before a new direction took hold, and with the reboot we found ourselves in Tim Burton’s Batman era. The campiness remained, it was still frequently ridiculous and over the top and no one took it too seriously, but it was a lot of fun. The themes (and sets) were darker and more ambitiously constructed, the stakes were higher and it was going well, until it reached the Schummacherian age. This was a dark time. Not in the sense that the show was dark, but in the sense that it was effortlessly disappointing. Eventually, the show showed signs of collapse. It was unsustainable.
And so we came to a relaunch phase. Gone was the camp. In was a more realistic tone, a grittier, smarter setting. Batman was no longer a glamorous playboy spending his nights pratfalling around Gotham, always arriving just in time. He was a man with a tortured past, with real motivations and desires.
This is the Moffat and Nolan stage. Moffat has dropped the arch-campiness. Even last week’s pirates episode, a chance to camp it up if ever there was one, managed to avoid this*. We’ve veered into smart storytelling, where the characters are what drives the plot.
Like Batman, Doctor Who can work in many forms. Just as all these versions of Batman can exist together, and all truly be called Batman, so all of these versions of Doctor Who are correct**. Batman is a character who can truly be above and beyond the law. A madman fighting against forces greater than himself, prepared to endanger anyone or anything in his war on crime. Or he can be the ultimate Knight Paladin, a virtuous hero who seeks only a better, more just world. He can be a fat man in spandex, a thug in armoured Kevlar, or a playboy in rubber. And all of these can be true.
But where they work best is away from the extremes. Stories like Batman: Year One or The Dark Knight Returns – the archetypal Frank Miller stories – are great because they show us a darkened Batman who is unstoppable and bitter. Seeing him at war with the police or Superman – conventional forces of justice, law and order – is great. But if he were the only Batman you ever saw again you would be disappointed, because we also know that Batman’s best friends are Commissioner Jim Gordon and Superman, that he will never take a life or use a gun. Through all that, certain truths hold firm; he fights crime because he once lost his parents, he’s the peak of humanity but has no powers. Where Batman works best is when these combine; when you have a middle ground between the sociopath and the noble warrior, the dark knight and the world’s greatest detective.
What Neil Gaiman does here is combine the early years of the reboot under RTD where there was place for free wheeling comedy, overblown emotion and manic explosions of characterisation and fuse it with Moffat’s new, more cautiously considered Doctor Who. We still have the same sense of where in the series we are – this is not an episode that would have worked under Tennant or Eccleston – whilst reminding us of the strengths of the past seasons.
Much of the credit for this must go to Gaiman for an extraordinarily good episode. But it must also be split amongst two other groups, foremost the people behind the look of the show. It is often easy to forget the impact of a good design department, but whoever is behind putting this episode together has done a fantastic job. It is the most otherworldly setting I can think of, and the idea of an alien junkyard allowed the set dressers, costumers and lighting to go to town.
Props too for making the Ood creepy again. This has easily become one of the most iconic New Who villains, second only to the Weeping Angels maybe, beating inventions like the Slitheen and Judoon into the ground. It helps that it has such a naturally unsettling design, something maximised by the scene of it waiting in the darkness for Amy to reach out.
Everyone this season has raised their game, and this is one of the best directed pieces of television I’ve seen. The interior TARDIS shots at the end are beautifully done, and I really could go on and on about how good this is. The muted Murray Gold score has also done wonders for the show and is as suggestive of the tonal shift as anything onscreen. Listening back to his scores from previous seasons, the change is palpable and welcome. There is a place for overblown, bombastic background music but when it appears every week one has to wonder whether it’s quite as necessary or emotive as the composer obviously thinks. Not every week needs a score set to sink an armada. It is such a vast improvement that the score to Season 5 is well worth listening to outside of the episodes themselves – something you could never do with earlier seasons.
Beyond that however, great credit must go to the cast who seem to have grown stronger each week. Finally Rory gets something to do, and it’s great to see his fear of abandonment played on in this way. The hostile takeover of the TARDIS by House is brilliant and really makes me wish that Gaiman had written last season’s Dream Lord disaster, ‘Amy’s Choice’. What’s nice to see is that the threat House poses is not just of the crush-them-with-gravity, drain-the-oxygen variety, but is more conceptually sadistic. Rory gets another death here; it’s almost becoming a weekly joke how cannon fodder he is. It makes me wonder whether he will make it out of this season alive at all, whether these deaths are actually just a way of anaesthetising us to the shock that Rory is dead for real this time.
But as good as the Ponds are (and they’re very good indeed) Matt Smith has elevated the role of the Doctor far beyond what the Tennant era ever managed. His look of mixed sadness and anger as he finds the boxes containing the voices of his friends is heartbreaking, as is his need for forgiveness from whomever is left. Too often his decision to wipe out his own species to prevent a larger cataclysm isn’t treated with the gravity it deserves and it’s nice to see that this still weighs heavily on the Doctor.
This episode belongs firmly to Idris/‘Sexy’/the TARDIS however. Suranne Jones doesn’t so much steal her scenes as forcibly remove the entire episode from under every other character. When you can reduce the appearance of Michael Sheen to a bit part by sheer force of presence alone you’re doing something right. This is really her story, and it’s suitably epic. Throughout the episode the humour and plot meshed and it had a surprisingly large number of one liners, gags and comedic sparring – especially between the Doctor and his TARDIS, all of which worked.
For what was really a simple story about a man and his time-machine-made-flesh teaming up to fight a sentient asteroid possessing his time machine (okay, so not that simple) this had more depth and character development than most. The TARDIS and Doctor in particular were given a new, stronger connection that adds a new layer to previous episodes, not least the TARDIS empowering Rose as the Bad Wolf way back in Series One.
The evolution of Idris from confused and scatty to on a par with the Doctor was lovely. I was especially impressed by how the relationship with River Song was echoed as Idris, unhinged from time, dropping spoilers*** and reaching conclusions based on what she remembered from the future. It worked really well, especially as it decreased over the episode as control was asserted over her new human body.
Much has been made of how this is an episode that ties heavily into the back story as well as the forward-looking myth arc Moffat has established for the show. In a series based around time travel an episode can surely have no greater praise than that it would work well in any era of the show. Ladies and Gentlemen, you may have just watched Doctor Who distilled to its most sublime.
*An aside. One criticism of last week’s episode from quite a few people was that the pirates weren’t ‘piratey’ enough. If I understand this, the problem was that either the pirates weren’t realistic enough (i.e. murderous, rapacious thieves who would have killed the Doctor and Rory immediately and probably spent their second life amongst the stars killing thousands more innocents) or they weren’t pirate enough in the popular sense of pirates (dashing, growling but ultimately harmless double crossers – with parrots and peglegs). In my mind they were rather too much of the former to end up being the latter, but the problem with the latter is that this is ostensibly not what pirates are. They are the former. Sanitising them to any extent makes the unsanitised areas (the killing of thousands, again) look rather out of place. If you’re worried that the pirates are not ‘piratey’ enough then they can only either be the bad guys, or not really pirates at all.
**Not Batman and Robin, or Doctor Who Series 3.
*** ‘The only water in the Forest is the River’. On first glance, an allusion to River Song, trapped in the Forest of the Dead? But if she’s the only water, what of the Ponds? This week also saw the idea of a sentient TARDIS (as suggested in last week’s speculative imaginings) ramped up, although the idea that somehow she impregnated Amy with a time baby seems less likely now. Of course, some kind of plot to deliberately alter the baby by the TARDIS as a replacement for the Doctor can’t be ruled out …