Call me sentimental or, actually, call me a smidgen under the influence when I watched Doctor Who this week, but this has to be one of the best episodes I’ve seen in a very long time.
To start with it was economical. There was no minute of this episode that wasn’t laced with comedy or pathos, humour or wit and all of it was a tour de force for The Doctor.
From the opening gambit of spiders in a spacesuit – which could well have been the name and plot of a B+ episode – the Doctor was on supercharged form. Eccentric, mad, but compellingly funny, somewhere in some room the decision was made to switch the 80 percent grumpy and 20 percent funny around. And it’s worked, brilliantly.
What is interesting here is this is precisely what they did with the First Doctor, and even if it wasn’t a purposeful move – who cares. This era might just be remembered as having the most accomplished character development for an incarnation that the show has ever seen.
I’m not a Game of Thrones fan (this is usually the point someone throws something, damn you) so the inclusion of Maisie Williams meant as much to me as saying David Beckham was to be in this episode. The plot also sounded decisively silly and like a mid-season filler before we could get to the more interesting, latter season, what-was-the-point-of-it-all plot progression and the finale.
But if the last few weeks have been about discovering your faith in Peter Capalid’s Doctor after an extremely dubious eighth season, this episode was about rediscovering how a silly premise is precisely what makes Doctor Who magnificent if the episode is pulled off with a taut script and executed by a cast at the top of their game.
The Mire, certainly from the trailer, looked like a ridiculous creation of cement mixers slowly marching to slow doom. Fake Odin was comically belligerent but also rather cruel foil. Mix into this Vikings, and the hilarity of Capaldi trying to pull off Odin to his less than persuaded captors and the tone was set for a rollicking hour.
Was it the best Who in a long time? Without question. Capaldi’s ability (or Malcolm Tucker to those who met him first) as an actor has never been questioned, but the moody Doctor was growing wearisome. It is a joy to see him stretch his acting legs and play a mad, an eccentric, a self-effacing, arrogant and in closing a deeply sad man. In 45 minutes he pulls it all together with such energy and gift that for the first time there can be no doubt that this is The Doctor.
The plot as a whole was genius and the scene with the Twelfth Doctor training a group of farmers, with modest success, was highly reminiscent and perhaps a homage to another great Scotsman, Sean Connery, doing the same thing in The Man Who Would Be King.
Of special mention here is The Doctor’s relationship with Clara, played by the continually excellent Jenna Coleman. It is very explicitly confessed that he sees anger and bravery in her eyes and one day will feel so guilty he’ll just leave. More than ever we’re in the new territory of a companion not being a neophyte to the universe any more but a fully fledged convert to the Doctor’s lifestyle. It’s been intimated before and mused on that he would keep regenerating and they would age and that’s why he leaves, notably with Sarah Jane Smith and Rose Tyler, but it’s never been seen on-screen before. It’s a shame Coleman is leaving for we now, for the first time, have a companion that is an equal and partner in crime than a child wandering the universe.
Of course, no review of this episode would be complete without mentioning the brilliant and surprisingly meta addressing of Capaldi’s previous tenure in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ way back in 2008. It wasn’t necessary here, but it was cool and was a bow on an episode that is a series high from start to finish.
Perhaps the only thing missing was a reference to Captain Jack. To do a vignette on Capaldi’s face but not mention the only other instance of making someone immortal is a curious oversight. If not for the dramatic overtones and focus on next week’s episode, I wouldn’t have put it past the show to have had John Barrowman just appear.
What will Maisie Williams’ character be to the show? We know she’s in the second part of this quasi-two-parter next week and if the suggestion by Davros in ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ of a “hybrid” holding special significance to The Doctor, she could be around past next week’s episode.
Last week I argued that writer Toby Whithouse was a natural successor to Steven Moffat because he pulled off playful Whovian references, such as the First Doctor’s library card in the ‘Vampires of Venice’, without it seeming too niche for fans.
This week Moffat is back to form, and whatever the division of labour was with Jamie Mathieson in writing this script – who cares. It works. Keep it. Don’t change a thing because it was an excellent effort.
Of course, hopefully this can be maintained next week.