The Doctor and Fam meet with the Man Who Invented the 20th Century.
Nikola Tesla (Goran Višnjić) and his aide Dorothy Skerritt (Haley McGee) are attempting to gain funding for a new project, but is interrupted by reports of a problem at the Niagara plant. After finding out that parts are missing, Tesla finds a small glowing orb and sees a humanoid figure attack him. He, along with Ms. Skerritt, are rescued by the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), who reveals that the orb is an alien device. The Doctor, Tesla, Skerritt, and the Fam (Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill), get attacked by the same figure, but they manage to escape. Following Tesla to his New York office, they find that Tesla is being protested by many people and spied upon by agents of Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister).
The Doctor confronts Edison, only for the same mysterious figure to appear and kill everyone in Edison’s lab except the man himself. They manage to trap the figure, who is revealed to be a giant scorpion in a bodysuit. The Doctor tries to warn Yaz and Tesla of the threat, but they’re abducted. The scorpion creatures are revealed to be a race of interstellar thieves known as the Skithra, ruled over by a queen (Aniji Mohindra). They’ve been tracking Tesla to try and have him repair their ship, choosing him because he was the only scientist able to detect their signal. The Doctor pulls Tesla and Yaz back from the ship and uses Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower to shoot beams of electricity to drive off the Skithra’s ship. Yaz is saddened to learn that Tesla’s future is unchanged by the events of the episode, and that he still died penniless and mostly unappreciated.
Much as how the last episode felt like a poorer version of “Voyage of the Damned,” this episode feels like a poorer version of one of the figure-centric episodes like “Vincent and the Doctor” or “The Girl in the Fireplace” and suffers from the exact same problem as the last one: Nothing ever makes the impact it should. The episode constantly feels like the team is running from place to place only for the Doctor to deliver a short exposition about its importance or the importance of the people in it. While the Doctor usually explains things to companions, this episode felt a lot like overkill in that department, mostly because she was talking AT the listeners like they were audience surrogates, rather than WITH them like they were characters in the same scene.
What may upset me the most is that I was seriously anticipating this episode. Nikola Tesla was an underappreciated genius who either did, or was rumored to have done, some of the craziest stuff in the history of science. There is so much you could work with in an episode like this that would be both interesting and potentially scientifically accurate, but this time they focused instead on his relationship with Thomas Edison. Now, it’s hard to talk about Tesla without bringing up Edison, due to the confirmed occasions in which Edison screwed Tesla over, the most famous of which was not giving him a promised $50,000 reward mentioned in this episode. But it would have been so much more interesting to just focus on the mind of a mad genius, rather than have to bring up and explain an already-existing conflict and try to show it and also the alien plotline. Instead, we basically just get a pair of half-portraits of the good parts of Tesla and the bad parts of Edison. Rather than seeing them as people in the episode, they’re both just the archetypes the writers wanted to associate with them.
Now, Thomas Edison, while a giant d*ck, was not a total villain. He got his start in technology by rescuing a small child from a runaway train, leading the boy’s father to give him a job at the telegraph office, which allowed him to fund independent experiments in chemistry and electricity. He invented a ton of devices and was one of the first people to encourage funding of science for the sake of science. Unlike Tesla, Edison vowed never to make weapons or sell them, believing that non-violence was the only correct way to resolve conflict (something this episode directly contradicts). Tesla, while he did have much more noble goals in regards to helping the world through his research, also believed in some less-progressive ideas, like eugenics. They both are extremely interesting people because they were so complicated.
This episode just feels like another missed opportunity. I like the message that the episode takes against people like the Skithra who just use the work of others rather than producing themselves, but it gets muddled when you have to exposit it, rather than let us feel it. Despite the fact that Tesla was, in many ways, a sympathetic character, I don’t think they ever do more than have him try to get “genius” or “impressed” moments. You know, some people who were important also had things they liked outside of those things, guys, or they talked about them with passion and dedication. This episode just felt flat on that account.
The Doctor and the Fam take a relaxing vacation that of course goes off the rails because it’d be boring otherwise.
Graham (Bradley Walsh) assembles six coupons he’s collected into a transport cube to an all-inclusive stay at Tranquility Spa. Graham, Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill) all hope that this will lighten the Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) mood after the destruction of Gallifrey in “Spyfall.” Ryan quickly gets infected by a “Hopper” virus that the Doctor cures just as the Spa declares an emergency. The Doctor goes to investigate why people are carrying guns, leaving Ryan behind to meet another guest named Bella (Gia Ré) who goes with him to investigate on their own. Graham meets with the Spa’s mechanic Nevi (James Buckley) and his son Sylas (Lewin Lloyd) while Yaz joins them with elderly couple Vilma and Benni (Julia Foster and Col Farrel).
The Doctor bluffs her way into a security room and finds out that there are a number of creatures invading the compound. Kane (Laura Fraser), the security chief, tries to kick the Doctor out, but the Doctor manages to build an “ionic membrane” which kicks the creatures out. They’re revealed to be Xenomorph-esque creatures called “Dregs.” It turns out that the Spa was built on a desolate planet, Orphan 55, which is populated by the monsters who view the Spa guests as intruders. The area outside of the spa is uninhabitable to most life. It turns out that Benni has been abducted, so most of the characters we’ve named so far all go out after him (despite the fact that many of them are civilians, because narrative gotta play out). The Dregs set a trap for the group, disabling their vehicle. It turns out that the monsters’ strength is their adaptability, allowing them to survive Nuclear Winter, lack of oxygen, and even gunfire. It’s revealed that the Dregs are using Benni as a hostage. The Dregs attack, killing Hyph3n and Kane kills Benni to spare him an agonizing death.
The group makes it to a maintenance tunnel where Bella steals a gun and reveals that she’s Kane’s daughter. Kane, it turns out, owns the Spa and is planning to terraform Orphan 55 so that she can own the planet. Bella, who was essentially abandoned by her mother, wants to destroy everything her mother owns as revenge. The Dregs attack and Ryan teleports with Bella back to the Spa, leaving the rest behind to run. The Doctor finds a sign in Russian, confirming that Orphan 55 is just Earth in the future. The Dregs are the people who got left behind when the elites abandoned the planet due to climate change, horribly mutated by the subsequent nuclear war. Vilma sacrifices herself to save the group, who make it back to the Spa. The Dregs surround the facility, but the Doctor captures the lead Dreg and appeals it to change. It buys the group enough time to fix the teleport and all of the survivors return to safety except for Kane and Bella, who remain on Orphan 55. The Fam is depressed by the fact that Earth is doomed, but the Doctor reminds them that all of them have the power to help change the world.
Last week, I said that I thought “Spyfall” allowed the show to finally find the balance between getting the message across and telling a complete story. This week that fell to sh*t. This story felt more rushed than almost any Doctor Who story I’ve seen in a long time and that should have been completely avoidable. Part of it is that they attempted to introduce a large number of characters so that there could be a larger bodycount in the episode. Unfortunately, that’s not how you properly raise stakes in this kind of series. We need strong emotional connections to the people that we’re losing if their deaths are to mean anything, and adding more characters inherently dilutes those connections. Now, you can pull off a large number of quick emotional connections to characters using strong visual storytelling or some very, very skilled dialogue combined with the proper framing, but that’s not this episode.
Instead, the bulk of the work seemed to go into figuring out what cliche the characters were going to indulge in. We have the vengeful daughter, the greedy developer, the loving old couple, the repressive father and the brilliant son, and a bunch of other characters who were more likely to have weird names than any actual character traits. There are a ton of Doctor Who episodes that have pulled off similar structures better, but they always used the right balance of archetypal and more original characters to make sure that the deaths had more impact. “Voyage of the Damned” comes to mind, but even that episode had difficulties making all of the deaths feel meaningful. Here, many of them just feel empty.
The message that “Climate change is bad” is undercut a bit by the fact that it’s represented by the monsters from Feast blended with Pumpkinhead. We aren’t seeing the suffering, we’re just seeing the sci-fi remains. It so far removes the effect from the cause that it really doesn’t give us any kind of actual connection. Even though I believe the point of the episode is right, it’s still just a bad story to use for it.
The companions were pretty much scattered throughout the episode, much like everyone else. The dialogue wasn’t particularly notable. The monster designs were pretty good, but the CGI was shoddy in places. The performances were fine, but they didn’t have much to work with.
Overall, this feels less like Doctor Who and more like someone who doesn’t understand the nature of effective storytelling using the character.
The Doctor returns, fam in tow, to deal with a global spy crisis and an old enemy.
All around the globe spies are suddenly being killed. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill) are summoned to MI-6 by C (Stephen Fry), the head of the clandestine organization. C is quickly killed, but after telling the Doctor and the Tardis Trio to find O (Sacha Dhawan), the spy tasked with monitoring aliens, and to look into Tech CEO Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry). Yaz and Ryan discover that Barton is partially alien while the Doctor and Graham find O. Yaz is pulled into another dimension by aliens called the Kasaavin, only to pop back out after exchanging places with another alien. The group, including O, follow Barton onto a plane, only for the Doctor to realize that O is not who he seems. It turns out that he is actually the latest incarnation of the Master. He abducts the Doctor via the Kasaavin and leaves the rest in a crashing plane.
The Doctor leaves a message from the past in the plane that saves the group and emerges from the Kasaavin’s dimension in 1834 along with Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs), the first computer programmer. The Master attacks the Doctor at an inventor’s convention, only for Ada to shoot him. The Doctor and Ada meet with Charles Babbage (Mark Dexter), who inadvertently gives the Doctor a way to travel in time through the Kasaavin. Ada grabs her, throwing off the trip and bringing them to 1943 in Paris, where the Master is commanding the Nazis. The Doctor and Ada are saved by spy Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion).
The Master reveals that he had the Kasaavin kill spies to draw out the Doctor. He also reveals that Gallifrey, the Time Lords’ home planet, was destroyed, before the Doctor reveals his non-Aryan nature to the Nazis and frames him as a spy. The Doctor, Ada, and Khan all return to the present using the Master’s own TARDIS. Barton reveals that he made a deal with the Kasaavin to rewrite humanity’s DNA to use as data drives. The Master, having lived through the 77 years since the Nazis, helps set the plan in motion until the Doctor arrives and reveals, in the nick of time, that she used his TARDIS to create a failsafe. The Kasaavin, now aware that the Master was planning on betraying them, abduct him. The Doctor returns Ada and Khan to their times and visits Gallifrey, finding that the Master destroyed it. He left a confession saying that all of Time Lord history is a lie, citing something called the “Timeless Child.”
Upside, this was a well-done episode that managed to feel a lot more like an old Doctor Who episode that still has the updated sensibilities and motivations of the more recent series. Downside, Gallifrey is dead again for reasons that are not yet revealed and the “does it, doesn’t it” nature of the planet is starting to get old for me. Still, this was the most I’ve just enjoyed the show in a while.
The spy aspect of the episode, while ultimately mostly only the inciting incident, does provide an excuse for both a wardrobe change (which everyone rocks) and also a reason for Graham, Ryan, and Yaz to have high-tech gadgets independent of the Doctor. I also would be lying if I said I didn’t relish any opportunity for a few James Bond references. Stephen Fry’s appearance as C, though brief, was a nice throwback to the original M from the Bond series. It’s made only a little more meta if you know that M was a position named for Mycroft Holmes, the supposed original spymaster for England, who was portrayed in Sherlock Holmes by… Stephen Fry.
The main improvement in this episode was how seamlessly it worked in the themes that Chris Chibnail seems to be trying to put out there with the narrative. It celebrated the achievements of women while also never coming off as “preachy” or aggressive with it. The narrative was also paced much better than most of the previous series, where there often was a feeling of rushing to the conclusion.
The return of the Master was pretty much inevitable, but I admit that I thought he/she would stay dead longer this time, particularly since the Master was not present for either of the previous odd-numbered Doctors. This incarnation, though, appears to be able to blend together all of the best aspects of previous Masters/Mistress, with elements of humor, madness, and ruthlessness, but also adding an amount of seeming introspection that he only showed at the end of his last run as Missy. Having him destroy Gallifrey for apparently moral reasons is a good way to set up what I assume will be the central story of the season, because what could be so bad that the Master finds it morally reprehensible?
Overall, I thought this was a good return to the series. I look forward to seeing if the show has really now found a way to be different enough while also still the same.
Before we start: I am only going by the Marvel Cinematic Universe Captain America and Iron Man so that you don’t have to read 70 years of comics to understand this article and I don’t have to deal with all the people pulling counter-examples from stupid crap writers have done to the characters, like building an extrajudicial prison which basically trapped people in a perpetual nightmare (Iron Man) or accidentally taking a ton of meth and pretending to be a chicken (Captain America). I’m mostly going to be focused on the film Captain America: Civil War, but, I’m also going to have to address the Endgame in the room, meaning spoilers for the MCU through that. If you haven’t seen any of them, you’re okay, I’m gonna summarize the important parts.
Sometimes the movie poster says it all. (Insert poster image underneath. Remember to delete this reminder before posting. Remember this commentary is not funny no matter how meta.)
Two heroes standing in conflict over their deeply-held ideals. A shield for protecting the innocent against a weapon for punishing the guilty. Two hours of fighting and the audience is left with both sides still believing that they’re doing the right thing. Both sides have points that support their opinions and both sides have disadvantages that they know they have to address. Ultimately, they never really determine what the right answer is, as the coming of Thanos renders the whole thing moot and bigger fish had to be fried. So, why did everyone pick the side they did? Well, let’s take a look through the lens and see what the movies tell us up to this point.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the invincible Iron Man, spent three solo movies and one Avengers film proving that he is the absolute last person who should have the ability to act as an international agent of justice. In all three of his movies and Age of Ultron, he either A) creates the villain, B) gives the villain the technology they need to be effective, or C) there is no third option because he’s literally that bad at his job. And that’s completely in line with his character. Tony doesn’t have strong moral principles to shape his actions. Instead, he views everything in terms of solvable problems because, above all things, he’s an engineer. That works fine almost every time, particularly when you’re a super-genius but, like Oppenheimer and Nobel before him, sometimes he doesn’t really consider the possible consequences of his actions. So, after he almost lost the love of his life to a villain he’d empowered and his creation Ultron almost destroyed Earth, Tony was finally ready to accept that, maybe, he needed someone else to watch over his decisions.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans and his muscles) learned the opposite lesson. In the first Captain America movie, he learned that the US was planning on abandoning probable POWs behind enemy lines (which is a thing that happens in war) so he risks his life to rescue them, believing that his way is right above the Army’s. In The Avengers, a shadowy group almost nukes Manhattan as a solution to an alien invasion that the group was, at that point, dealing with pretty successfully. In Winter Soldier, Cap learns that HYDRA, the secret Nazi cabal that he thought he beat in WWII, has actually infiltrated the American secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and all but taken them over. So, the one organization that he trusted to safeguard America and tell him where to go and who to fight was run by the last people who should have been doing that. So, Steve learned a valuable lesson about not giving too much of your own power up to groups.
They’d managed to deal with these differences up until the point where Captain America and his… mini-Avengers? I’m going with mini-Avengers… mini-Avengers went into a sovereign nation and accidentally blew up a building containing a number of humanitarian workers from another country. Was it all their fault? Oh, hell no. Did it save lives? Almost certainly. Was it the right thing to do? Well, that’s what the rest of the movie is about.
If you think what Cap did was absolutely correct, let’s flip the scenario around. Let’s suppose a paramilitary group from Lagos (country picked at random) comes into the United States, armed, and uses military force to stop a robbery but incurs collateral casualties. Was that okay? Well, if not, why not? Oh, right, because every country on Earth has a sovereign right over anything that happens within their borders. That’s literally what they’re there for. However, the Avengers (and S.H.I.E.L.D.) pretty much ignore that all the time because it’s inconvenient for the films… and it would be inconvenient for them to deal with customs.
The movie Civil War has General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) outline that, even between films, going into other countries without permission is exactly what the Avengers do and basically no one on Earth has any control over them. So, the United Nations proposes the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement which would create a branch of the UN to oversee the Avengers. Tony agrees with the Accords, because he believes that the Avengers need to be accountable and have oversight. Steve doesn’t agree with them because he believes that A) they would limit the effectiveness of the team, B) the people above them would also have agendas which would shape how the team is used, and C) that would put his personal actions at the disposal of others. So, we have a huge fight over this which blows up an airport and drags a teenager in as a soldier, with all of this supposedly orchestrated by a pissed-off soldier who lost his family to the Avengers’ actions in Age of Ultron.
Now, consider this for a second: what if all of this was completely f*cking stupid because they both know the other is also right and that there are practical solutions that would address both of their problems? Oh, right, that would have been a boring movie. It would also have been accurate, because the idea of a vigilante group with no accountability acting internationally and leaving huge amounts of collateral damage is not a thing we should debate. It’s fundamentally against the entire concept of national sovereignty, almost every international agreement in history, and, oh yeah, almost every anti-terrorist resolution. How do you think America would feel if a group of Chinese superheroes showed up and blew up a city block in the name of “stopping crime?” Or just one flew in wearing a suit of armor and just killed a bunch of citizens he deemed to be “terrorists.” Hell, how about just trying to bring the firepower equivalent of a small army into another country? Smaller things have started wars, not conversations. (Full credit to the Russo brothers, however, for having both main characters be in emotionally vulnerable states so that the ensuing plot is more justifiable.)
Imagine if everyone thought that it was okay for them to beat the hell out of cops for trying to arrest a suspected terrorist just because they believe their friend is innocent or that it was okay to steal a multi-billion-dollar fighter jet. Because that’s what Cap does in the film. Captain America is absolutely in the wrong not just for doing these things, but even for his assertion that it’s okay for him to do them… except for the part where he’s Captain America. Steve Rogers is a moral juggernaut. He will ALWAYS make the right decision, morally, when he is presented with it. He is accountable to himself, something that is a much higher standard than any law or nation. So, when he decides he has to intervene in a situation, it’s basically a certainty that it is a situation in which he is right to intervene. If everyone held themselves to his standards of personal responsibility and morality, laws would be unnecessary, because people would be answerable to a higher authority. The Doctor from Doctor Who said it in the catchiest way possible “Good men don’t need rules.”
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world filled with Captain America-level saints. In fact, I’d say that people of his level of personal accountability are like a virgin prostitute. Hypothetically, one exists, but I’d be very surprised if you can find one and if you think you are one, you’ve more likely misunderstood at least one fundamental concept. So, because of that, we have to put rules and systems of enforcement in place to hold people accountable for actions which cannot be allowed in a social setting. These range from things like “you can’t take stuff that isn’t yours” to things like “necessity cannot be a defense for murder.” If you don’t agree with these rules, there are ways to change them within the system, but that doesn’t give you the right to ignore them.
However, sometimes situations aren’t going to fit into the mold that the creators of these rules conceived of, and they’re going to become a hindrance. For example, “don’t kill anyone” becomes a problem when someone else is going to kill your family and you don’t reasonably have the ability to non-lethally prevent them. Sometimes, we craft exceptions directly into the laws (more on that later this week), but sometimes we haven’t thought of those exceptions yet or even putting an exception in fundamentally conflicts with a bigger principle. On those occasions, people are faced with a choice: Break the rule to serve a higher good or follow the rule and allow the bad to happen.
If the Sokovia Accords had been implemented, this would have been the choice Captain America is saying he’d have to make constantly: To hope the UN would allow him to intervene in situations or to ignore the UN and do it anyway and deal with the legal consequences. If only there were some kind of thing that the UN could put into the system which would allow them to deem certain actions worthy of foregoing punishment based on the context in when they were taken. If only some handsome bastard had put that thing in the title to a series whereby he relates it through pop-culture.
While the real UN doesn’t have any actual ability to pardon people (due to the nature of the organization), they also don’t do anything that’s like the Sokovia Accords (though, they could). Additionally, there is nothing preventing a commission or group being able to encourage or force clemency (which, while a little different, is the typical term for a pardon around the globe) within a nation as part of their signature on the Sokovia Accords. Countries routinely give up some of their sovereign authority in exchange for a benefit from the UN. We literally have clemency laws in place in almost every country on Earth already, because we know this is what can happen. So, countries might be giving up a little bit of their ability to enforce their own laws, but, in exchange, they get the benefits of having the Avengers be able to respond to threats. Seems like a reasonable trade in a world of alien gods and killer robots. So, Captain America could, if he disagreed with the UN, still act, with the understanding that, if they agree that it was justified afterwards, he would be able to avoid being punished and NOT have to be a fugitive.
Even simpler, you could just make conditions in which the Avengers could respond and the permission could be decided retroactively after the intervention, without any form of punishment if the action is in good faith. Hell, under certain circumstances, you can ask for a warrant up to 24 hours after you should need it, and that’s NOT dealing with supervillains. And yet, nobody in the movie points out this would be an easy way to both hold the Avengers accountable and also allow Captain America to act when he feels it’s appropriate. This wouldn’t even require extra clemency decisions, though that could also be incorporated into the system.
But all of this is in the world of fantasy, where the point becomes moot when Angry Grimace steals the rocks of plot convenience. When would you ever need to address concepts like this in the real world? Has anything ever actually been brought up like this? Does anyone have a guess about what the next entry is about?
The season finale approaches and the Doctor again faces her first enemy with her new face.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) detects distress calls from planet Ranskoor Av Kolos (translated as “Disintegrator of the Soul”). The Planet contains a field which alters the perceptions of reality for any conscious being, but in practice appears to just cause amnesia. She and the TARDIS Trio head to the planet, with neurobalancers attached to counter the effects of the planet. When they arrive they find an amnesiac pilot named Paltraki (Mark “Robert Baratheon Flintstone” Addy) who threatens them until the Doctor puts a neurobalancer on him. He then receives a call from a woman named Andinio (Phyllis Logan) and Tzim-Sha (Samuel Oatley), the villain from the first episode of the season. He demands the return of an item that Paltraki had recovered from him in exchange for the rest of his crew.
On the way to help find Paltraki’s crew, Graham (Bradley Walsh) informs the Doctor that he wants to kill Tzim-Sha as revenge for the murder of his wife. The Doctor tells him that if he does that, his adventures are over. He and Ryan (Tosin Cole) go to find the crew while the Doctor and Yaz (Mandip Gill) go to meet with Tzim-Sha and Andinio. Andinio is revealed to be part of a race called the Ux who are capable of manipulating reality, however, there are only ever 2 of them alive at a time. The other, Delph (Percelle Ascott), has been held captive by Tzim-Sha, who they obey because they mistake him for their creator god.
It’s revealed that the item from the ship is actually a miniaturized planet. Tzim-Sha has been using the Ux to shrink down and imprison planets that have defeated him, with Earth being his next target. However, the Doctor manages to convince the Ux that they’re being deceived before the shrunken planets start to cause breaches in reality from the impossibility of their size. Graham and Ryan find the crew and hold off an army of robots with the help of Paltraki. Graham stands off with Tzim-Sha, but declines to shoot him. Tzim-Sha tries to shoot Ryan, but Graham shoots Tzim-Sha in the foot to stun him and they lock Tzim-Sha in a prison chamber. As the group departs, the Ux ask Paltraki’s help in returning the planets they shrunk to the right places.
So, we had a really solid premise in parts of this episode, plus some great guest stars, but it just didn’t quite build up as well as it should. The planet that disintegrates the soul? Oh, it’s mostly just amnesia and migraines. The race that can bend reality? Oh, they’re tricked easily by a blue guy like they were the Aztecs and he was Cortes. The return of Tzim-Sha? He’s basically an asthmatic a-hole, like Darth Vader but without the powers or gravitas. His army of robots? Basically just cannon fodder for Robert Baratheon off-screen. This episode should have been explosive, but it ended up being more cap-gun than cannon.
Graham’s refusal to kill Tzim-Sha was great, but much of the rest of the episode just didn’t connect with me enough and the stakes, despite being stated as being huge, never FELT huge. It’s like someone saying calmly “this bomb will explode and kill us.” Yeah, it gets the point across, but it doesn’t get the emotions across.
I also have to say, we kind of hit the point where I’m ready for the season to end. Fortunately, it’s the season finale, but this episode kind of exaggerated a few of the flaws of the past year.
First, we are not giving enough character development to Yaz. We have barely given enough to Graham and Ryan, but at least they had an arc that they finished with Ryan finally acknowledging him as a grandfather and Graham forgiving Grace’s killer. What was Yaz’s arc? What changes has she gone through? She’s so well portrayed by Mandip Gill that I almost forget that she is usually ancillary, including in this episode.
A major theme of this season has been trying to condemn hatred and I can’t fault that. It’s an element of the Doctor’s character and it’s a big part of what makes the show amazing. The most famous villains in the series are a species that live solely to hate everything that isn’t them and, aside from their designs, that’s why they’re memorable. However, in this season, they’ve gone out of the way to try and show that hatred is much of what has made everyone miserable throughout history and that a lot of that anger comes out of not understanding the other side. We’ve also had the Doctor going out of her way to try and be more merciful than some of her previous incarnations, particularly against monsters acting on instinct.
The problem with this theme coming from the Doctor kind of comes to a head in this episode: The Doctor is a mass murderer. The Doctor has killed armies and planets and species. Sure, she’s usually only done it when confronted with an unrelenting force that won’t stop, but she still has done it. Yet, her response to Graham wanting to kill Tzim-Sha or King James wanting to kill the queen of the Morax is basically to call them out as being murderers. Now, I’m fine if she was saying something like “I’ve killed a lot of people and it weighs on me” or “you can kill to protect people, but not in vengeance,” but her statement to him basically is “no killing. Ever.” Now, if the Doctor wanted to explain why she’s adopted this position now, that’s great. But that’s going to be really, really hard to deal with if the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Weeping Angels return, species that LITERALLY NEVER STOP TRYING TO KILL YOU.
I get where they’re coming from with this and it’s a great message to try and combat hatred, but even the great pacifists: i.e. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, Mr. Miyagi, all had to acknowledge that without some form of pragmatic violence, then pacifism is just claiming the high ground on a graveyard. Now, the Doctor, much like Batman, can often manage to defend herself non-lethally, which is optimal, but she has often had to cross that line in the past. This show is in one of the best positions to actually start addressing the ramifications of applications of violence, but this season kind of tried and failed in my opinion. Jodie Whittaker has the emotional range to pull that sort of episode off, and I want the show to take that chance.
Overall, this just wasn’t the climax the season needs. We have the universe at stake, but it felt like they were basically delivering a complicated pizza order. Still, it did have some good moments and it’s almost worth it to have Graham whine about only shooting Tzim-Sha in the foot.
The Doctor deals with a girl’s missing father, only to find out that he’s even more lost than she could have imagined.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and the TARDIS trio of Graham, Yaz, and Ryan (Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole) land in Norway in 2018. They find a cabin nearby that seems abandoned, until they find a blind girl hidden in the house named Hanne (Eleanor Wallwork) who has been terrified by a monster that she hears from the woods. They find out that Hanne’s father Erik (Christian Rubeck) has been missing for a few days. In the attic, they find a mirror that doesn’t reflect people, which the Doctor discovers is a portal to the Anti-zone, the buffer universal material that keeps universes separate. She goes into the portal with Graham and Yaz, while leaving Ryan to watch Hanne.
Inside the portal, they find a terrible alien called “Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs” (Kevin Eldon) who appears to be a scavenger. He tries to trade the Doctor information on Erik in exchange for the sonic, but attempts to backstab her on the way. He is eaten by one of the Anti-Zone’s resident creatures, the Flesh Moths (guess what they eat). Ryan discovers that the “monster” is actually just a speaker system that her father uses to scare her into staying home. He returns to tell Hanne, which she uses as an opportunity to knock him unconscious and follow the group. He wakes up shortly and follows her.
The Doctor, Graham, and Yaz find a mirror copy of Hanne’s home and, inside, Erik. He reveals that he intended to come here because a copy of his deceased wife, Trine (Lisa Stokke), lives there. However, it’s revealed that it can’t be her, because she remembers dying. While the Doctor is still trying to figure out the situation, they run into Graham’s deceased wife Grace (Sharon D. Clarke). Similar to Trine, she remembers dying, insists she knows she isn’t real, but also says that she is real. Graham is tortured by seeing what he knows isn’t his real wife.
The Doctor finally realizes what’s happening: They’re in the Solitract, a sentient universe which was severed from the regular universe because the Solitract interferes with the normal universe’s operations. It set up this “heaven” mirror-world in order to convince people to come to it and stay because it’s lonely. Graham finally manages to accept it and leaves. Erik refuses to leave, but the Doctor tells the Solitract that she’ll stay in his place. Erik is ejected. The mirror universe collapses itself and becomes a white room with a talking frog, the chosen form of the Solitract. However, the Doctor is incompatible with the Solitract, so she leaves, promising to be its friend even if they’re separate. Back in the normal universe, Graham and Ryan finally start to bond over Grace.
I will admit at the beginning of this episode, I thought we were going to hit the final point for me. I thought that this was finally going to be the episode that was just too serious to feel like Doctor Who. See, this entire season, while I have enjoyed it overall has definitely been closer to the original Doctor Who episodes with William Hartnell which, while they were amazing for the time, isn’t quite the feel the show’s had since the reboot. They’re a little more serious, a little less campy, and a little less funny. However, while that’s been refreshing so far (for me at least), it’s bound to hit the point where it just feels not fun enough. With a missing dad, a mysterious monster, and a blind girl, I was about 30 seconds away from going “okay, we’ve hit the wall.” But then the mirror happened and Ryan said what is definitely one of the most “companion” lines ever: “We’d know if we’re vampires, right?” The delivery was flawless and immediately brought me back up a little.
From there, the episode goes through Ribbons and the Anti-Zone, which, if not particularly interesting and probably unnecessary, is at least well-designed and creepy as hell. Next, we get to the Solitract, find out that Erik actually isn’t a great parent, and witness Graham interacting with Grace again, and the episode suddenly has left-turned into super emotional. Bradley Walsh once again gives one hell of a performance as a man who has recently lost the love of his life. Then, we get The Doctor giving one of the better humorous monologues in the season so far when she explains how one of her seven grandmothers told her a fairy tale about the Solitract. The final scenes of Graham and Erik having to give up on their dead wives is another solid emotional scene, which leads into… the Doctor talking to a frog. We end the episode with Ryan finally acknowledging Graham as his grandfather, which, after all the buildup, is a solid tearjerker. Honestly, this episode is all over the place in terms of tone, but the comic scenes are exactly the kind of thing that I felt were missing from the show.
Doctor Who doesn’t have to be comedy sci-fi, of course. Some of the best episodes have horror elements or action, for example, but it always managed to balance that with some solid comic relief. This episode doesn’t quite nail the ratio as well as past ones, but it comes close. In a season filled with much of the darkness in human history, this episode at least was somewhat lighter at points.
Overall, it’s not a bad episode, but it doesn’t have the gravitas of the good episodes of the season. The sequence in the Anti-Zone is basically just filler that amounts to nothing and should have been cut. However, aside from that, this was still pretty enjoyable.
The Doctor and the TARDIS Trio get involved in one of the English Witch Hunts in the early 1600s… WITH ALAN F*CKING CUMMING!!!!
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) lands the TARDIS in a small English village in the past that is having a festival. It turns out that they have a festival every Sunday… when they do the witch trial under the supervision of Lady Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran). An old grandmother (Tricia Kelly) is ducked into the lake as a witch and, despite the Doctor’s efforts to save her, drowns in front of her granddaughter, Willa (Tilly Steele). The Doctor pretends to be the Witchfinder General to stop the trials, but this ruse falls apart when King James VI and I (Alan “Burns when he’s” Cumming) appears and claims that he never would make a woman Witchfinder General, instead saying it must be Graham (Bradley Walsh). If you’re confused as to why there are two numbers, he was the Sixth James of Scotland but the First of England. If you’re not confused, good for you, have a gold star.
Yaz (Mandip Gill) goes to check on Willa, revealed to be Lady Savage’s cousin, when Willa is suddenly attacked by an alien tendril. The Doctor saves them and discovers that all of the recent victims of the witch trials have been infected by alien mud and are now shambling zombie-esque figures. Seeing Savage’s fervor for hunting down witches, the Doctor believes that she is trying to cover up her own involvement in the alien events. Savage responds by accusing the Doctor of being a witch to King James who has the Doctor arrested. Savage has the Doctor ducked into a pond, but the Doctor reveals she’s mastered the art of holding her breath and escaping loose chains, so she survives.
Savage reveals that she was infected by alien life after cutting down a tree and that all of the witch trials were just to cover this up, believing that she was afflicted by a demonic possession. The victims of the trials all arrive and abduct Savage, who reveals that she is possessed by the queen of the Morax, an alien parasite race. The Doctor realizes that the tree that Savage cut down had actually been an alien prison for the parasites, who have kidnapped King James so that their king can possess him and they can conquer Earth. The Doctor and the TARDIS Trio use the prison tree to recapture the parasites while James kills the Morax queen, claiming he’s vanquishing Satan. King James declares that the events of the episode will be stricken from history while also hitting on Ryan (Tosin Cole). He and Willa then watch as the TARDIS disappears.
First of all, Alan f*cking Cumming. I love him. I will always love him. He’s got the voice of an angel, the acting talent of a Shakespearean thespian, and the name of a successful adult film star. In this episode, he plays King James in the campiest, and most bisexual, way possible. No, those things are not the same, although there is a bit of overlap. His performance is a refreshing element of levity in what would otherwise be a tremendously dark episode, which literally features a character being drowned as part of a historically accurate form of torturous murder. His constant claims of demonic intervention and satanic possession are played for humor, despite the fact that they were used to justify tens of thousands of murders under his rule. However, when confronted over WHY he believes that the devil is everywhere, he starts to recount all of the trauma and loss contained within King James’s life, which quickly turns him from humorous madman to tragic figure. It’s a testament to Cumming’s performance that his delivery of the lines is almost identical in both circumstances.
Second, seriously, this is a dark episode. The premise is that Lady Savage has been murdering women so frequently that there is a weekly festival for it. It’s the middle of a time of mass killing of women that focused mostly on women who dared to study science or speak up in public. Like, say, a woman who often takes the lead, speaks out against injustice no matter who she has to yell at, and has an education beyond that of any other mortal… you get it, I’m talking about the Doctor. Yeah, this is the first episode that really stresses how much different the Doctor’s position is now that she’s a woman. Most of the time, so far, she’s just bluffed her way through any situation, but when the King simply states that a woman can’t be Witchfinder General, that’s the end of it. No amount of cunning, even by the Doctor, can overcome that barrier. The comparison of our main character to the first victim we see is a well-placed analogue to remind us of how bad the world has been to women.
This continues a theme of this season: Discrimination is bad. We’ve had an episode based on America’s racial discrimination, an episode on the religious violence in the partition of India, and now an episode based around that time England killed tens of thousands of people, mostly women, based on false pretenses. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is the first season to come after a wave of nationalism has been sweeping across the world, since nationalism typically involves at least one kind of discrimination against a group. This might date the season later, but… well, actually, let’s just hope this issue isn’t timeless.
The weak point of the episode is the villains, which kind of are secondary. That’s also been a bit of a theme in this season: The alien/time-travel villains haven’t been particularly necessary. The design on the ones in this episode was definitely better than some of the others, but, for the most part, the historical episodes have only included sci-fi villains because it’s still Doctor Who, not because they drive the episode well. Hell, I respected “Demons of the Punjab” for not actually making the aliens the villains.
Overall, this is a pretty solid episode. It’s got a little bit of the camp that’s been missing from the season, some decent commentary, and the villains are fairly creative.