Category Archives: Doctor Who

Doctor Who: “Extremis” isn’t nearly as interesting an experiment as Steven Moffat thinks it is

**This is a spoilery review.**

You can tell, watching “Extremis,” that Steven Moffat thinks he’s very clever. It’s a Moffat episode through and through, with all the self-satisfied smugness and overwrought convolutions that come along with that. The thing is, “Extremis” isn’t experimental or groundbreaking or particularly intriguing. It’s what amounts to a dream sequence mashed together with an extended flashback. Which is fine. But there’s not much actual story here, just exposition about the past and set-up for the future, none of which is nearly as compelling as Steven Moffat seems to think it is.

Perhaps the most significant part of the episode, if only because it’s the part of the episode that’s easiest to make good sense of, is the flashbacks that work on multiple levels. Most viewers have been saying for weeks that the vault under the university must contain Missy, and this is confirmed in “Extremis.”  While it’s not clear what for (and it could be any number of things, really), sometime shortly after the end of the Doctor’s time on Darillium Missy is sentenced to death, and the Doctor is summoned to be her executioner. While the Doctor hems and haws about whether he should pull the kill lever and Missy begs for her life, Nardole shows up and reads to the Doctor from River Song’s diary. He’s been sent by River to take care of the Doctor, which explains why he’s been lurking around all season, just waiting for this episode to have something important to do.

The other half of the episode finds the Doctor (seemingly) called upon by no less personage than the Pope himself to help translate an important religious text. It’s this part of the episode that is most frustratingly Moffat-eque, falling apart to a large degree if you think about it for more than a minute. There are some great moments, both humorous and dramatic, and we’re introduced to a menacing new enemy of humanity, but the truth is that the Veritas and the Doctor’s quest to understand it just doesn’t add up to anything that makes much sense at all. In the end, we learn that what we’ve been watching is simply a simulation being run by an invading species of aliens to work through how they’re going to get past Earth’s defenses. As other characters commit suicide in droves at their realization of their own unreality and his friends simply dissolve into pixels, the AI Doctor inside the simulation puts it all together and turns out to be so lifelike that his own way of dealing with unreality is to send an email to the real Doctor and let him know what’s going on, setting up what seems to be the big bad of the season.

Unfortunately, none of this holds up to much scrutiny. The biggest unanswered question, though, is a simple one, and the lack of an answer undermines the whole premise of the episode: If what we are watching, for most of the episode, is a simulation put on by aliens with a plan to invade Earth, and the real Doctor doesn’t find out about any of this until the end of the episode when the simulation Doctor contacts him, where did the invading aliens get the data for their simulation? And if they can either access data (such as the Doctor’s blindness) that only the Doctor and Nardole know about and they can build a meticulously lifelike simulation for their purposes, are they seriously still limited by a quirk of random number generation? Also, they can’t lock down their network so that their own AIs can’t become self-aware and contact real people outside the simulation? It’s such a common Moffat-era Who problem that complaints about it are frankly just banal at this point.

In the end, “Extremis” isn’t nearly as profound or experimental as Steven Moffat intends it to be, but it nonetheless manages to be entertaining. The Pope and several Cardinals pouring out of Bill’s bedroom to interrupt her date is legit hilarious, even if it does happen in the simulation. The Doctor’s suggestion to Bill that she go for it with real life Penny, even though Bill thinks Penny is out of her league, is sweet. Michelle Gomez is a constant delight as Missy. There are some interesting ideas about religion and faith being explored, even if only in the most facile manner. Like many a Moffat-penned episode, “Extremis” is fine as long as one doesn’t think too hard about it.

Miscellany:

  • One Moffat-era trope I wish would disappear forever is people all over the universe being absolutely terrified of the Doctor’s wrath after basically reading the first page of his Google search results. It’s tiresome and patronizing, and the Doctor isn’t actually that dangerous unless you’re a Dalek.
  • I hope we get to see more of Bill with Penny, who seems nice.
  • The visual comparison of River Song’s diary to a Bible is potentially interesting, but it’s pretty much left at that.
  • After last week’s episode using zombie imagery of a kind, it seemed redundant to have this one do the same, even if it was a different take on the zombie look and especially if these zombie aliens are going to make another appearance or two.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen” is a good episode that could have used a bit more room to breathe

**Spoilers abound.**

“Oxygen” is another solid Doctor Who adventure, for all that it retreads some of the same thematic ground that was already covered in “Smile” and “Thin Ice” just a couple weeks ago, specifically regarding the dangers of robots (of a sort) executing their programming in a more extremely literal fashion than is strictly healthy for humans and the dangers of unfettered capitalism, which is also not particularly healthy for humans. It’s an ambitious enough episode in that it takes a strong stand and conveys a coherent progressive message, but it suffers from being a bit overstuffed and at times feels distracted as it tries to touch on more topics than can reasonably be done justice in just forty-five minutes. It’s an episode that, while overall well-done, could have benefited from some tighter editing and spending a little more time on the central thesis instead of getting sidetracked with ideas and asides that never quite fit within the main narrative.

The episode begins with two events. First, a nice-seeming couple is working on a space station when they are attacked by what appear to be some kind of space zombies. Meanwhile, the Doctor is pining for space and feeling cooped up being stuck on Earth to guard whatever (whoever, really) is in the secret vault that he and Nardole have secreted under the university. While Nardole does his best to keep the Doctor on Earth, Bill is game for a space jaunt, and soon enough the three of them are answering a distress beacon on the now seemingly abandoned space station. The bare bones of the rest of the story is that there are no space zombies (a disappointment, to be honest); just a bunch of company-owned space suits designed to sell oxygen to workers on a mining station in an especially evil take on the idea of a company town; the station itself is kept empty of air, and all air needed by the workers is metered out through the suits. At some point, either someone at the company or the AI technology in the suits themselves realized that it was cheaper for the company to not have human workers at all, and the suits have been systematically killing their occupants as a cost-cutting measure.

For an episode of Doctor Who, it’s surprisingly dark, and perhaps the most interesting thing about this story is that there are some real consequences for the characters in the end. Bill gets another glimpse of a future that isn’t, at least in some ways, as optimistic as she might prefer. More importantly, she is not only in real danger; she has a serious brush with death that must highlight just how dangerous her travels with the Doctor can be. The deaths of most of the workers on the space station are permanent, however, and the Doctor is only able to rescue two out of forty of them, which gives “Oxygen” a staggeringly high body count, even compared to similar episodes. That the news of the event leads to the eventual downfall of capitalism as humanity’s economic system of choice is cold comfort, especially when the Doctor adds to that bit of information that humans still find new and different mistakes to make after capitalism. Surely this will be true if humanity survives long enough to spread to the stars, but still. This is a family show.

What’s most surprising and compelling about this episode, however, is that it’s the Doctor himself who faces perhaps the most significant and transformative change of the episode. When Bill’s space suit malfunctions right as they’re about to go into the vacuum of space, the Doctor gives her his own helmet to save her life. It works, but though the Doctor’s tolerances to space are greater than any human’s, he’s still injured, left blinded until they can return to the Tardis, where he expects to be healed (or at least says so). In the end, however, we learn that the Doctor is still blind, which may well be a permanent state of affairs, at least until his next regeneration. Going forward, it puts him at a decided disadvantage for future adventures—offering an unprecedented chance for the show to explore disability in a thoughtful manner—and gives him a secret that he’s keeping from Bill, who has no idea that the treatment the Doctor underwent on the Tardis didn’t work. The Doctor is a character who’s defined by periodic major changes, but there’s never been a time in the rebooted show where the Doctor experienced this type of potentially profound change. It will be interesting to see how the show handles it in the weeks to come.

Miscellany:

  • I like Matt Lucas quite a bit, and I was happy to see him get some more screen time this week, but I’m still not sold on this weird dynamic between Nardole and the Doctor.
  • This was the most passive I think Bill has been to date, and I’d have loved to see her have a bit more to do, even if the episode was already overstuffed with happenings. This was the first time Bill has felt so purely like a tourist in an episode, and had so little to contribute to the solution of the hour’s problem.
  • The blue guy and every interaction anyone had with him would be my top pick for what to cut to make room for everything else to have a bit more time to shine.
  • Alternatively, just a straight up extra 15 minutes would have done this episode some good.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” is fine, I guess

Doctor Who has always been an inconsistent show, and “Knock, Knock” is the first stumble of this season. It’s not that it’s terrible; it’s just that there’s nothing particularly good about it, either. The story is pedestrian, the special effects are lackluster, the scares aren’t scary enough, and Bill isn’t given nearly enough to do. Your mileage may vary, but I found it to be an overall very “meh” episode that failed to satisfactorily explore its themes.

**Spoilers below.**

The increased focus on showing us some of the companion’s life apart from the Doctor continued this week, with the whole episode’s story built around Bill moving out on her own—into a house with five housemates. They struggle, as many young students do, to find something affordable, but eventually settle on a huge, old house that’s serendipitously offered to them, suspiciously cheap (natch) by a very strange old man. It’s a classic horror movie set-up, and the first half or so of the episode follows the expected horror show formula: Bill and her friends sign an obviously shady contract, move in to their ill-advised lease, and the house eats one of them right away. The Doctor shows up, and hijinks ensue as the solve the mystery of the house and its appetites.

It’s the back third or so of the episode where all the actual Doctor Who happens, but there’s not much depth here. When the Doctor is helping Bill move in, he invites himself into the house and introduces himself to her new housemates, but steamrolls right over Bill’s objections and her attempts to set a totally reasonable boundary. This could, very generously, be interpreted as being in parallel to the toxic relationship between the episode’s antagonist and the wooden woman we come to find out is his mother. Even more tenuously, this theme of relationships needing to have proper boundaries set and respected could be connected to the final scene of the episode where it’s all but revealed that the Doctor’s prisoner is the Master (I mean, obviously it’s the Master, right?), but that’s a real stretch. I suppose the story of the boy who wanted to save his mother is a little sad, but it’s tough to have strong sympathetic feelings for a guy who murdered a couple dozen young people in the last sixty or so years.

All in all, it’s simply not clear what message we’re supposed to take away from any of this. The Doctor oversteps a reasonable boundary with Bill, but the ends here—Bill’s five housemates are all rescued by the end of the episode—seem to justify the means. Bill and her friends really were wrong to rent the house to begin with, the Doctor was right to be suspicious, and through the Doctor’s quick-thinking the day is saved. It’s a facile thesis, and the ending, with the five eaten young people (though, interestingly, only the five, not the eighteen or so others before them) rescued and whole, completely sidesteps having to deal with any permanent consequences for any of the decisions anyone made in this episode. Even the ending of the Landlord and his mother is depicted as more bittersweetly tragic than anything else, and he’s a literal murderer responsible for the deaths of numerous people and who has been keeping his own mother imprisoned and taking advantage of her memory loss for decades. It’s genuinely wild that anyone thought this story was a great idea.

Listen, though. It’s fine. The bar for this show’s success has been set absurdly low for the better part of a decade now, and this episode isn’t without its positives. There’s a genuinely funny moment when Bill breaks the news to one of her boy housemates that she prefers girls, and the boy in question just smiles good-naturedly and responds kindly and with good humor, just like any decent person ought to in that situation. The casting of David Suchet (of Poirot fame) as the Landlord is inspired. We finally do get very close to confirmation of who the Doctor and Nardole have got imprisoned (though Matt Lucas is still shamefully underused in this role). While “Knock, Knock” won’t go down as a standout episode in any aspect, it’s a perfectly serviceable bit of almost-mid-season filler/fluff. I suggest not thinking too hard about it. The folks running the show certainly didn’t.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • Even that episode title was something of a missed opportunity. Was “Knock” not good enough? Or was “Knock on Wood” already taken?
  • Also, maybe it’s just because I recently had to deal with a bug infestation in my own home, but yuck. Also, also, where did all those bugs go at the end?

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” is the best episode of the season yet, but it’s still a mixed bag

In “Thin Ice,” the Doctor and Bill visit the last ever Thames Frost Fair and uncover a mystery, as the Doctor and his companions are always wont to do. It’s highly reminiscent of other Regency-to-Victorian era episodes of the show as well as of the season five adventure, “The Beast Below.” If this season of the show has an overarching theme so far, it seems to be rehashing all the show’s old tropes in new arrangements, and this is both fascinating and frustrating. To be fair, there’s precious little new under the sun, and I don’t expect to be blown away by the originality of the show week after week, but I’m not certain that this most recent iteration of the series is doing enough to set itself apart from previous seasons. There’s some great stuff in “Thin Ice,” but there’s also some tiresomely dull stuff, a tendency to zoom past emotional moments without giving them time to really land, and a sense of self-righteous smugness about some of the episode’s messaging.

Once again, Bill is proving herself to be a great companion to the Doctor, and we’re starting to see more and more of the easy chemistry and nicely accomplished comedic timing between Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi. Bill’s a little bit street wise, and she’s got a sensible level of independence along with a stubborn streak that lets her stand up to the Doctor, who can be a little bit of an intellectual bully at times. Bill’s confidence and cleverness let her adapt to unexpected situations, and the joy she takes in novel experiences is infectious and quite fun to watch. At the same time, this season is continuing very deliberately the themes of the last two seasons relating to the Doctor’s lack of humanity, and like previous companions, Bill is becoming something of a conscience for her mentor. Unlike with the last couple of companions, however, the show is doing a great job of truly showing us why and how Bill is up to that often onerous task.

**Spoilers below.**

This week’s mystery revolves around a great beast chained to the bottom of the Thames, where an unscrupulous nobleman, one Lord Sutcliffe, is feeding it humans in order to extract a valuable and highly efficient fuel that the beast produces as waste. It’s a simple enough plot and a straightforward mystery without any unexpected twists or turns, but that’s fine. There’s something to be said for that kind of comfort television, and “Thin Ice” is definitely in the comfort TV neighborhood. It’s got lighthearted fun, cute kids, and a happy ending where a racist asshole gets what’s coming to him. There’s not much not to like about it. Unfortunately, there’s not much in particular to actively praise about the episode, either.

Perhaps the episode’s biggest problem, though it’s by no means a dealbreaker, is the ease with which it skips from emotional beat to emotional beat without taking time to really examine why these moments are supposed to work. Bill’s concerns about facing racism in Regency England are quickly moved past, as are her concerns about her potential to change the future in unexpected ways. In a show that in general takes a blithe attitude towards its treatment of most of the usual ethical and practical considerations surrounding time travel, it may be best to just leave it alone. I did rather like the Doctor messing with Bill about it, but even that isn’t terribly funny if you think about it; he’s joked around Bill’s concerns rather than actually answering them.

When a little boy dies right in front of Bill’s eyes, she’s outraged at the Doctor’s lack of reaction—and it’s not touched on, but he saves his sonic screwdriver without making a move to save the child—but even this is quickly glossed over. At first Bill seems deeply upset by the experience, and she’s angry with the Doctor for being able to move past it so quickly, but she moves past it fast enough herself. It’s an interesting way that the Doctor seems to corrupt his companions. By removing them so far in space and time from their natural contexts, the companions are often forced to abandon normal human standards of ethics and morality in favor of more broadly logical, but surely less humane, rules for living. For all that the show continues to try and portray the companions as a humanizing force in the Doctor’s life—and the Doctor gives Bill a great deal of power and agency in their partnership this week by treating her as a sort of commander—the ways in which the 2000-year-old Doctor changes his companions tend to never be adequately dealt with, and this episode is no different.

As far as the overall messaging of this episode, it’s a decidedly mixed bag. It’s nice to see fictional whitewashing called out, and I’m always happy to see a racist get punched in the face, but did the Doctor really need to give a long-winded speech about the sanctity of life or whatever? The decision to free the Thames sea serpent thing at the end of the episode is laudable, but it’s done with an awfully self-satisfied tone considering that there’s no assurance that the beast isn’t going to leave to be a human-eating menace elsewhere. As fantastical as the episode was, we also get a reminder that a black girl couldn’t inherit a fortune in 1814, which necessitates it being given to a little white boy with a much smaller role in the episode. It’s fine, I guess. Whatever. But the overall tone of the episode verges on smugness, especially in the delivery of the Doctor’s lines about whitewashing and his speech about what the true measure of humanity’s goodness is.

For all that the folks behind the show do seem to be making an effort to engage with and address common criticisms, they’ve still got a regrettable tendency to always want to prove that the Doctor is the smartest and best person in the room. He might need a human companion to keep him in check and remind him to do the human thing, but that’s not going to stop the Doctor from making self-indulgent pedantic speeches that challenge the humans around him to be better than they are. Yay.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • The episode seems to imply that Frost Fairs were common occurrences on the Thames, but they weren’t. Even during a mini Ice Age that caused more extreme than usual winters in England, the Thames never froze solid enough for this kind of thing more than once every ten years or so.
  • I guess Nardole is part of the overarching plot this season but not adventuring with the Doctor and Bill. Too bad, though. I would like to see Matt Lucas get a bit more to do.

Doctor Who: “Smile” has too many ideas and not much to say about any of them

True to Doctor Who tradition, the second episode of season ten sees the Doctor and Bill Potts traveling far into the future. Usually these far future trips are less plot-focused and more character-driven, often with a commentary about the human condition, and “Smile” is definitely in all of those neighborhoods. If last week’s “The Pilot” was about introducing the show to new viewers and putting the new companion through some of her madcap adventuring paces, “Smile” (like “The End of the World,” “New Earth,” “The Beast Below” and others) is about testing the companion’s limits and challenging her (and the viewer’s) expectations about the future. Unfortunately, not every episode of this type can be a classic like “The End of the World” or “The Beast Below,” and “Smile” isn’t great, mostly because it gets a bit bogged down in being a sort of vaguely anti-technology polemic against emoji.

**Spoilers below.**

Our first glimpse of Gliese 581d is of vast wheat fields and blue skies over a beautiful, albeit stark, white building. It’s not a particularly unique setting for a Doctor Who episode, and it’s the sort of bland sci-fi futurist imagery that just screams dystopia. It’s fine. It is a kind of dystopia, as we’re soon to find out, inhabited by emoji-faced robots, swarms of murderous microbots (Vardies) and a ship full of refugees from a future Earth crisis. The Doctor and Bill arrive right after the robots have murdered the first wave of human colonists who were responsible for preparing the planet to receive the rest of the refugees, who have been kept in stasis. After making a macabre discovery in a greenhouse, the Doctor and Bill have to piece together what happened to the original people before a bunch of very confused robots kill them all.

The emotional core of the episode is Bill coming to terms with a future for humanity that isn’t what she expected or hoped, and Pearl Mackie continues to play Bill with such expressive sensitivity (balanced by heaps of cleverness) that this emotional journey mostly works. There’s some incoherence in the middle as Bill throws herself into uncovering the truth about what’s happened on Gliese, but for the most part it’s easy enough to understand Bill’s feelings. Her sadness and distress as she learns about the future history of Earth are relatable enough, though the episode would have benefited from spending a little more time on Bill’s feelings, just in general. Mackie is such a beautifully emotive actor that it’s a shame to force her to cycle so quickly between feelings-having and doing cleverly competent companion stuff without allowing the feelings to breathe.

One could make the argument that this was intentional and thematically consistent in this episode, what with the enforced cheerfulness that Bill is forced to perform for the emoji-bots, but it’s an episode that is, frankly, full of mixed messaging and missed opportunities for thematic resonance. It touches on several theoretically interesting ideas—the alleged shallowness and limitations of emoji-based communications, the potential for miscommunication when using emoji, and the gendered (and age-dependent) enforcement of public happiness—without managing to have much to say about any of them. As uncomfortable as it is to see an older white man constantly reminding a young woman to “Smile!” the episode has remarkably little to say about the phenomenon, which seems like a huge missed opportunity, and I would love to see this idea tackled by a capable female writer with some awareness of the discourse surrounding this particular patriarchal expectation for women and children.

When it comes to being critical of emoji, the episode is a little more capable, but it relies on a straw man conception of what emoji are, how they are used and what they might be used for in the future. Rather than making any kind of insightful point, there’s an underlying tone of a middle-aged man grumbling about kids these days. Similarly, the warning tone the episode takes towards human reliance on automated technology in general suggests a, frankly, boring Neo-Luddite alarmism about the dangers of artificial intelligence and the hubris of human ingenuity. This messaging becomes even more muddled when combined with the seemingly agrarian aspirations of the Gliese settlers, which is strongly at odds with the warlike, violent humans that are awoken by the end of the episode, whose first instincts are to defend themselves with force against the confused robots that killed their friends.

There are a whole slew of popular sci-fi concepts and tropes in play here, but “Smile” would have been a stronger episode if it decided to focus on one or two and commit to exploring a strong central thesis. It’s not a terrible episode, and Bill continues to charm (she’s the most promising new companion since Donna, in my opinion), but it’s definitely a case of an episode trying to do both too much and too little, with a lazy premise and overall lack of cogent vision.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” is a reasonably well-done soft reboot for the beginning of the end of the Moffat Era

Last time I reviewed Doctor Who it was the most recent Christmas Special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” which was enjoyable garbage. I haven’t been particularly excited about the show in several years, to be honest. Like many people, especially feminist people, I’ve found the Moffat era, well, trying, to say the least, so I was pretty certain that the best news about series 10 of the rebooted show was that it was Steven Moffat’s last one as showrunner. Then the announcement came that Pearl Mackie would be playing new companion Bill Potts, and she seemed delightful. Then a couple weeks ago the news broke that Bill was to be the show’s first gay companion, which brought a new round of both delight and apprehension. It turns out, however, that the first episode of the new series, “The Pilot” is neither as wonderful as long-time fans might have hoped nor as disastrous as pessimists might have thought a Moffat-penned episode introducing a black gay woman would be.

Peter Capaldi is back as the Doctor, and this time he’s been lecturing, for decades apparently, at St. Luke’s University in Bristol. Bill Potts works at the university canteen, but she also attends as many of the Doctor’s lectures as she can get to. The episode opens with the Doctor wanting to know why. He likes Bill—partly because, he says, when she doesn’t understand something, she smiles, which is a nice bit of characterization that, if it doesn’t set Bill apart from previous companions, is a great memorable line of description that quickly gives us an idea of who Bill is. At any rate, it’s a good sight better than Bill’s rambling story about her crush on a girl who comes into the canteen every day, which is cute—and it’s nice to see Bill’s gayness treated so casually—but also somewhat silly. When the Doctor offers to tutor Bill privately—on “everything”—Bill naturally jumps at the chance, although her emotionally distant foster mother is less than supportive.

The episode’s rather slight plot starts and ends with Bill’s newest crush on Heather, a quietly misanthropic girl with a distinctive star-shaped defect in one eye. Heather shows bill a strange puddle that is surrounded by a circle of scorch marks, and when Heather gets swallowed up by the puddle and then starts chasing Bill around, the Doctor gets involved. Amidst a great deal of the kind of 101 level exposition—TARDIS, cloaking device, chameleon circuit, bigger on the inside, Daleks, etc.—that will be redundant and boring to longtime fans but invaluable to first time watchers, we find out that the puddle is actually a sort of sentient space oil left by a now-departed spaceship. If that seems like pure, nonsensical speculation, just wait until the scene where the Doctor and Bill are talking it through and figuring out how it works by using basically the same kind of deductive reasoning used by Sir Bedivere and a horde of angry peasants to identify a witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This would be funnier if it was obvious that it was an intentional reference, but it’s, frankly, just the kind of low-substance mystical gobbledygook that has characterized many Who episodes during Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner.

It’s fine, though. Bill’s not-quite-fledgling romance with Heather is sweet, and Pearl Mackie plays Bill with a lovely sensitivity and vulnerability that makes it easy to believe that Bill could be deeply affected by what has been just a fleeting connection with Heather. The scenes of Bill being chased by the drowned Heather from the puddle are suitably frightening in the ordinary PG way one expects of the show, and there are even one or two almost-jump-scares that heighten the sense of fear and urgency. The chase gets Bill onto the Tardis and offers as good an excuse as any for her to get a bit of a tour and for the Doctor to put the Tardis through her paces, again presumably for the benefit of new-to-the-show viewers. It’s a good way for everyone to get the lay of the land after so much time without regular episodes of the show, and it also takes time to introduce the beginning of what seems likely to be the season-long arc: What is the Doctor hiding at St. Luke’s, and why?

It’s not quite as whiz-bang as some other Moffat-penned episodes, but “The Pilot” is quick and snappy, filled with short scenes, fast talking, and lots of running around. It at times feels as if it’s going through a checklist of “Things Steven Moffat Wants Us to Know About the Doctor and His New Companion,” but it’s mostly coherent, albeit sometimes absurd. Increasingly in recent years, I find that the less I think about Doctor Who the more I enjoy it, and that is almost certainly still going to be the case in this new season. “The Pilot” wasn’t as bad as I worried it might be; it’s just exactly what the show has been since Steven Moffat took it over. I’m optimistic about Bill, who I’m already half in love with, but only time will tell if she’s going to get the well-written adventures she deserves. As a soft reboot of a well-loved show, “The Pilot” is a mostly successful, with enough information and thrills to hook new viewers, a promising new companion, and plenty of references to the show’s past to please old-timers.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • It’s good to see another companion with an actual backstory and identity outside of “companion to the Doctor.” Bill already has more depth than Clara was ever given, though it remains to be seen whether Bill will be more consistently written than the Ponds.
  • I like Matt Lucas, but Nardole was utterly forgettable in this episode. It seemed as if they didn’t know quite what to do with him this week, which is too bad.
  • Why didn’t Bill ask the Doctor about his appearance in one of the photos of her mother?

Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is a fun, fast-paced garbage fire

I’d love to say that I loved “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” especially after it’s been such a long time since we last had any Doctor Who at all. It was an enjoyable enough hour, but of the sort that I rather hate to enjoy because as soon as I think about it for more than a minute it all begins to fall apart. This has long been true of Steven Moffat-penned episodes in general, but this one is even worse than usual. Let’s start with some positives, though. Some spoilers ahead.

First, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” has a coherence that has often been lacking in the last couple of seasons of Doctor Who, and it’s refreshing. The episode is internally consistent, makes smart use of time travel, and overall makes good working sense. It also fits nicely within the broader timeline of the show, taking place, for the Doctor, shortly after his last long night with River Song (at the end of last year’s “The Husbands of River Song”) and addressing, sort of, some issues raised in season seven’s “The Angels Take Manhattan.” That said, these previous episodes certainly aren’t required viewing to enjoy this one, which is good. Moffat sometimes tends to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of the show, but there’s nothing too arcane here, just some mostly cleverly-worked-in references for fans who have been paying attention the last few years.

Second, Matt Lucas is back as Nardole, and he’s now the Doctor’s Companion. I’ve liked Matt Lucas for some time and thought it a shame to waste him on a throwaway role in last year’s Christmas special, so I was thrilled to see him get a chance to grow the part again this year. Nardole is excellent as comic relief, but Lucas also injects some much-needed warmth and empathy into an hour that was unexpectedly dark for a Who Christmas special. I understand that Lucas and Nardole will return in season ten as a series regular, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he fits into the Doctor’s adventuring. In this episode, he does spend far too much time on lazily-written expository speeches, but he gets to fly the TARDIS and spend some time ruling 12th century Constantinople (“firmly but wisely”).

Finally, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” does, despite its significant flaws (which I’m getting to), manage to be fun to watch. Its pace can only be described as “romping”; the hour absolutely flew by, but without the frenetic quality of many recent Moffat episodes. I’ve often felt that Moffat era Who uses breakneck pacing to cover up hole-filled plotting with a shoddy whiz-bang veneer, but “Doctor Mysterio” avoids that, instead keeping things moving along. No fast-talking deus ex machina shenanigans here. Only sensible progression through the above-mentioned coherent storyline. Even the time travel and flashbacks make perfect sense and work well within the story being told. For Moffat era Who, this is a great episode.

Except.

What the fuck is “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” supposed to be about?

Is it about the Doctor’s irresponsibility with alien technology? Kind of, I guess. Except that said alien technology ends up saving the day in the end.

Is it about the difficulties of being a super-powered human? Not really. Masked vigilante Grant’s (a rather dull Justin Chatwin) point of view is never inhabited by the viewer. Some of his problems and concerns are alluded to, but aside from his puberty-induced x-ray vision, which is played mostly for laughs, his super powers are never an actual problem. Instead, he’s basically invulnerable and his super speed and flying powers make it possible for him to successfully lead a seemingly rich and fulfilling double life. Sure, the Doctor does some handwringing about how hard the double life thing must be, but none of the Doctor’s worries are shown to be well-founded.

Is it about the duality of man (and I do mean man—there’s only a single named, speaking woman in the episode, but more on her later)? Maybe, but if so the messaging here is much less coherent than the surface story being used to communicate it. I mean, something something parallels between the Doctor and Grant and the compartmentalization of their identities as men and as superheroes? It feels as if, by the end of the episode, we’re supposed to feel as if some profound observation has been made and we’ve been given some new insight into the Doctor’s character, but neither of those things have been accomplished.

Is it about poking fun at the absurdity of superhero genre conventions? Only if by “poking fun” one means “playing every trope pretty much completely straight.”

Is it about gender? Could be, but if so it’s a sexist garbage fire of garbled messaging on the issue.

The episode’s singular woman, Lucy (Charity Wakefield, making the most of things), is a sort of Lois Lane character, right down to her apparent inability to recognize the man she has known for over twenty years if he takes his glasses off and does his best Batfleck impression. Lucy starts off promising enough, seeming to be a competent and perceptive investigator, but she’s quickly sidelined once the Doctor arrives, gets sexualized and then damselled in the final act, and ultimately has nothing much to do other than have the wholly unearned epiphany that she was in love with the nanny all along. I’d say that this all amounts to a systemic destruction of the character, but it’s done so casually, with so little appearance of malice and with such an obvious wink and nod from Moffat (as if it’s all a big joke that we’re all supposed to be in on), that I think it’s likely that all these choices are totally intentional. Steven Moffat has always been cavalier in his disregard for Doctor Who’s female characters, with a strong penchant for robbing them of agency and turning them into prize objects to be manipulated by and in service of the always more-important-to-Moffat male characters on the show.

It’s nonetheless perversely impressive to see how efficiently Moffat can squeeze a wildly regressive character “arc” into a single episode. Lucy never does get to fully understand the story that she’s in—indeed, the story that she was actively investigating at the top of the hour. We learn from Grant that Lucy, while married and a new mother, has recently been abandoned by her husband, and this turns out—even though it’s literally never mentioned by Lucy herself—to be the problem in her life that needs solving. Instead of getting satisfactory answers to her questions or succeeding in her investigation of the alien invaders, Lucy’s “happy” ending is a renewed interest in domestic life and faith in monogamous hetero coupledom. Her career isn’t even mentioned in the end, and her emotional energies are directed more towards helping Grant—not to adjust to a new domestic life of his own, though. Rather, she encourages him to at least remain open to the possibility of continuing his super-heroics in the future.

It would be profoundly depressing if Doctor Who still had the power to surprise and dismay me with this crap. As it is, I just found myself sighing and rolling my eyes. Thank goodness, we’ve only got one more year of Steven Moffat to go. And, hey, new companion Bill looks like she has some potential. It’ll be interesting to see how Moffat manages to screw up come April.