Review by Martin Odoni

Let’s start at the beginning shall we? They could hardly have made Matt Smith’s double more obvious, during the moment when the ‘Ganger Doctor is grabbing the original Doctor by the lapels, without dying his hair bright ginger. The back of the double’s head is almost completely different from Smith’s. For heaven’s sake, BBC Wales, try a bit harder will you?

To the episode itself, hmm hmm. I was extremely impressed with it on first viewing, and indeed on subsequent sittings it still has points going for it. But I have to say that the flaws in it become a lot more noticeable too. In particular, The Almost People displays an occasional tendency to throw in a sudden plot-twist, as if to say, “Hah! Bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?” No, we certainly weren’t, chiefly because one or two of the twists stop the story making any sense.

The main one is the revelation that the Doctor and his duplicate swapped places. It shames Amy for her prejudices in a delicious manner, but it also suddenly makes the prior behaviour of the other ‘Gangers very difficult to fathom. They invite what they think is the Doctor’s ‘Ganger to join them. They weren’t there when the Doctor’s duplicate first showed up, so the only way they could realise he might have been a ‘Ganger is if they could in some way ‘sense’ something about him, almost on a genetic level. But if it then turns out that he isn’t the ‘Ganger after all, but the original, well where did they get the idea from? And how do they manage to make exactly the same mistake Amy was making all along? And how can the original Doctor sense the torment of the Flesh more keenly than the ‘Ganger can?

I know he’s never going to challenge the leader-board on Mastermind, but this episode really does Rory no favours at all. It’s nice to see him getting a pro-active role for the first time in a long while, but in the event, the activities he gets make him look like a love-sick cretin. How much of a fool does he have to be to go along with everything Jennifer’s ‘Ganger tells him? Providing muscle to help turn the wheel is one thing, but does it really never cross his mind to ask why she needs him to place his hand on the palm-reader? Not realising how easy it would be for the Flesh to emulate a burn is also pretty thick. I’m sorry, like I say, Rory’s no intellectual heavyweight, but he’s not that stupid.

Some of the guest-acting is, again, terrible. Sarah Smart in particular, who was dodgy enough in the first episode, is just awful when playing Jennifer’s ‘Ganger. The face she pulls before she attacks Buzzer looks so over-the-top it’s embarrassing, while the moment when she snaps her fingers, points, and tells the Doctor to “Join the Revolution” is so corny and stagey I winced. Her whole ‘descent-into-revenge-driven-psycho’ arc is not at all believable. Raquel Cassidy is again wooden as both incarnations of Cleaves, although her performance is mitigated somewhat by how inconsistently her role is characterised in the script. She was a cold-blooded murderer at the end of the previous episode, ruthlessly gunning down one of the ‘Gangers for no reason at all bar her own paranoia. This detail seems to be totally overlooked and forgotten in episode 2, as she and her ‘Ganger almost take on the role of reluctant warriors trying to keep the conflict from getting any further out of hand. But then the original still instructs Buzzer to attack (what she thinks is) the Doctor’s ‘Ganger, and the duplicate still invites the Doctor to change sides with talk of “you’re one of us”. Indeed, the script can never make up its mind whether Cleaves is supposed to be sympathetic or cynical. The male guests are also uninspired – Marshall Lancaster is a complete plank as Buzzer – except again Mark Bonnar is quite impressive when he has fatherly moments to act out.

The regulars on the other hand produce perhaps their best work of the year to date. Matt Smith is tremendous in a dual role that calls on him to portray many characteristics. The torment of the Doctor’s ‘Ganger as it struggles with past-regenerations interfering with his present form is superb. Look closely at his eyes while he’s at the throat of the original, and the anguish and terror will make you flinch, right up there with the very best eye-work that Karen Gillan has done. Smith does the quirky, wittering eccentricity of the Doctor with his usual aplomb, and it makes appearing alongside himself very engaging where it might easily have been irritating. He also shows great hurt and resentment at Amy’s apparent rejection of the ‘Ganger, and desperation and anger in the scene when he nearly attacks her; a moment disturbingly reminiscent of the Sixth Doctor trying to throttle Peri. At the end, when ordering Rory to stand away from Amy, his authority is both fierce and sinister. Time and again, Karen Gillan once more shows her great talent for portraying fear, but reveals equal skill for playing a stubborn bigot. Arthur Darvill maintains his usual fine standard, especially in the scene when he confronts Jennifer’s ‘Ganger about tricking him, though by now he may be forgiven if he feels his efforts are wasted on scripts that give him so little reward.

This episode really is swimming in superfluous backward references. “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” from Jon Pertwee. “Would you like a jelly baby?” from Tom Baker (that scene is very reminiscent of Peter Davison’s debut in Castrovalva, when the Fifth Doctor went around impersonating his earlier selves). “No let it go, we’ve-we’ve moved on!!!” he screams in a noticeable parody of David Tennant. “Where’s my Daddy?” asks Adam, loudly echoing, “Are you my mummy?” The Doctor is “John Smith”. The TARDIS is “reliable” and “sexy” once more. Yes, I share the continuity thrill other long-time viewers get, but I still don’t think it’s a good idea for the series to play that card so strongly. The more continuity-dependent the series becomes, the more danger there is of it alienating people who have never seen older stories. (Should just mention that at a lot of moments in this episode, Matt Smith really does look like Peter Davison at his dazed best. Keep an eye out for them.)

The ending is not too clever. Cleaves again has a fundamental personality change and turns into a hardcore pacifist again to scupper Jennifer-‘Ganger’s plans. Exactly how Jennifer-‘Ganger turns into the giant animal isn’t very clear; if she’s able to do that, why didn’t she just do so hours earlier? The TARDIS’ energy ‘just happens’ to be exactly what is needed to make the ‘Gangers become real people, and the Doctor ‘just happens’ to have a cure for blood-clots on the brain tucked away in the TARDIS console? Handy. (Not that the blood clot really has any significant role to play in the story.)

Re-set button city. Give me a break…

But the story is not a write-off by any means. It has many good and valid things to say about the twin follies of prejudice and paranoia, as well as their causes and how inseparable they are. And the startling ending has more than a tinge of clever irony to it, given that Amy, who has spent most of the episode giving one of the Doctors the cold shoulder for supposedly being a ‘Ganger, turns out herself to be a ‘Ganger. When exactly did Amy become duplicated? Where is the original and when did she become cut off from Rory and the Doctor? Might it even have been before she met the Doctor? (It must have been before meeting the Silence as that was when she first saw the Eye-patch lady.) The ominous, bleak tones of the season are again sustained and enhanced by the gloomy, cold visuals, and the chilling atmosphere of danger and unsure perceptions started in The Doctor’s Wife has been carried over. The setting of a castle for a factory is very neat for adding to the ‘haunted house’ scenario, and there is a consistent undercurrent of foreboding. In short, even if it’s not all that intelligent, it remains genuinely dark and scary, and it always resists the option to be wilfully silly. Its most powerful redeeming feature is that it tries to be a drama, and largely succeeds in doing so. A flawed drama, perhaps, but exciting and never a farce.

The episode also gets fresh points for demonstrating this season’s willingness to break formula. In previous seasons of NuWho, the story arc, such as it is, has usually been made up of a long string of repeated references thrown into most episodes, none of which have ever actually developed or explored the idea at its heart in any detail. Furthermore, the string has only ever culminated at the end of the season. In this case, the string of hints has culminated at the midway point of the season instead, which is another breath of fresh air.

In the end unfortunately, a little like The Doctor’s Wife, the episode is far too deeply flawed for me to rate it higher than a 6 out of 10, even though I can’t deny that I would have liked to. The two-parter averages out at a respectable 7.

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A decent return to form to open the mid-season two-parter, after Neil Gaiman’s brave-but-clumsy attempt at psycho-surrealism. Although it had a few moments that caused me to roll my eyes, the prevailing attitude in this old-skool base-under-siege storyline was thankfully not silliness. To its credit, the current season has had the courage to stick to its guns and continue its dark vein, and with The Rebel Flesh, we have a tale that focuses on the themes of paranoia, terror, prejudice and arrogance. It doesn’t handle any of them with ground-breaking sophistication or depth, but it resists most of the opportunities to lodge the tongue in the cheek, and so sudden ill-timed moments of twee ‘humour’ are in a tiny minority here.

The only one that really jarred was the Doctor’s bloody awful pretence of doing a northern accent. It was ill-timed, served no purpose other than to slow down the storyline at a critical moment, and stands at stark odds with the Tenth Doctor’s equally tiresome “Don’t-do-that-no-seriously-don’t-do-that!” stance when his companions tried to mimic other accents. This is a shame, as it completely ruined a well-developed moment of friction and confrontation between the humans and their doppelgangers.

The scenario is not madly interesting in itself. Duplicate people wanting their freedom, and even to replace the originals, has been a staple of sci-fi and horror for so long it amounts to a cliché. Even the considerable effort that the script goes to to make the ‘Gangers sympathetic victims rather than insidious monsters is hardly new. But it all happens in such a well-cooked atmosphere of unease and mutual suspicion that it seems not to matter very much.

Jennifer introduces an angle that had genuinely not occurred to me until this point, which is that a threat to Amy and Rory’s marriage might come from the opposite direction to the ones that have emerged to this point. Up until now, Rory has been the one feeling threatened, inadequate, fighting a torrid but successful battle to keep the heart of the girl of his dreams, whose head had been turned more than once. Now Rory is the one who finds a new object of affection in the shape of a vulnerable girl who takes an immediate shine to him. Although Amy makes commendable efforts not to become jealous when she sees him comforting Jennifer, she is still visibly shaken and hurt by the sight. That Rory quickly becomes very protective toward the replicate-Jennifer, and even taking enormous risks to help her, suggests that his head has now been turned as well.

None of this is to say that Jennifer is an interesting character. On the contrary, she is the kind of dreary, helpless-female-Dr-Who-character that Jo Grant and Peri Brown used to epitomise in different ways; confused by everything around her, sporadically inassertive, all wrapped up in whiny self-pity, and always in need of help and comfort from the big male. Given her greater drive and authority, I’d argue the duplicate Jennifer is more interesting and worthy of greater respect.

The duplicates might show evidence of sharing the memories of the originals, but it’s noticeable that they don’t necessarily share all the same personality traits. As  I say, Jennifer’s duplicate is more assertive and aggressive, more authoritative. Cleaves’ duplicate appears more peaceable and less bigoted or arrogant than the original. Buzzer’s duplicate seems less clumsy but more emotionally vulnerable. With this in mind, while the ‘Gangers can fairly claim they have a right to life, their claim to being the people they are duplicated from is not true. Biologically and genetically they may make such a claim, but philosophically they are different people.

This episode reverses the trend of The Doctor’s Wife, in that the performances from the regulars are largely excellent, whereas the guest actors are a bit too soap-ish and folksy. Sarah Smart, who seems to have a resemblance to Janet Ellis, starts poorly, but improves without ever rising to real heights. Raquel Cassidy is a bit too self-consciously stony-hearted as Cleaves, perhaps underlining that the character isn’t anything very meaty (the stereotype of the arrogant, reckless, “no-one-may-question-me” corporate-scientist-leader), and Marshall Lancaster seems unsure about how to play Buzzer, as his sneezing fits appear to be the only characteristic to get hold of. Mark Bonnar is predictably good as Jimmy, but then he also has a stronger role to play i.e. his characters are the ones who find a bond of common ground.

Matt Smith is much better here than in his misfortunate detour into emo-ham in The Doctor’s Wife. His acting as the ‘Ganger Doctor seemed exceptionally sinister without being in any way different from the Doctor’s usual behaviour, which is a neat trick if you can do it. Karen Gillan does what she does best (facial acting to die for), and Arthur Darvill once again shows his real versatility, varying between the clumsy, inassertive follower and a protective, confident near-rebel, without any impression of inconsistency.

It’s an interesting rather than thrilling cliffhanger, but it’s certainly engaging enough to demand the audience keep watching. But at the same time, I do get the worrying impression that most of the plot-life has already been used up, and so there’s a real danger that part two will be yet another let-down. I hope not of course, but I fear there’ll be a lot of treading-of-water in part 2.

Promising, if not madly deep or original, and full of dark atmosphere and refreshingly little silliness.  I’ll give it an 8 out of 10, though not by much.

Review by Martin Odoni

Well. Given how twee the title sounds, this episode was incredibly dark at times. The premise was completely bananas of course, in fact one of the more fairy-tale-like episodes in feel and tone since the production changeover, and it still had its share of too-pleased-with-itself dialogue. But in any case, it was dark, dark, dark! We should expect no different from Neil Gaiman, the man who gave us the Sandman comic series. But, given his impressive CV, should we have expected something better? Despite enjoying the episode, I’d have to say the answer to that is yes.

It’s by no means a terrible episode. It’s frequently chilling, imaginative and thought-provoking. But it’s also drearily sentimental, continuity-dependent (albeit in a subtle manner), pseudo-scientific in a very “there’s-no-difference-between-technobabble-and-real-science” kind of way, clumsily-articulated, and sporadically silly. In other words, it’s custom-built NuWho. And just like last year’s misfire by RIchard Curtis, it seems an odd description to apply to it, given that we’re talking about a script by a world-class guest-writer. Shouldn’t formula be the first thing that gets abandoned in those circumstances?

The story idea is a good one, but the execution is wobbly. For a start, the idea of the TARDIS actually possessing an immortal soul of some kind is an unwanted revisit to the messianic/sorcery buggerations of the RT Davies era. For another thing, the technobabble, used as a substitute for an explanation of how the TARDIS was transferred into Idris, is some of the most appalling, meaningless waffle that the series has ever been guilty of, worse even than the Doctor’s pseudo-mathematical gibberish to Adric when trying to repair the chameleon circuit in Logopolis. (And on that occasion, at least the babble wasn’t something that the plot was dependent on.)

The continuity references are not exactly hammered over our heads, and crucially the audience probably doesn’t need to recognise them to understand the story. But even so there are quite a few in there. Mentions of different control rooms aboard the TARDIS (firmly established by the Fourth Doctor during his times with Sarah Jane and Leela), and actual portrayals of older control rooms (the walls of a 70’s-style TARDIS surrounding the Doctor’s makeshift console, as well as a brief return to the control room of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors) might have been confusing to younger viewers, while a not-altogether-necessary appearance by an Ood, and witterings about getting rid of the swimming pool (another link back to the Fourth Doctor’s time, as well as Matt Smith’s debut) seem a little forced as well. Also referencing Smith’s debut is another mention of fish fingers.

Performances are notably better from the guests than the regulars. Suranne Jones is absolutely excellent, her performance as Idris suspiciously reminiscent of (the almost-identically-named) Sidriss from Knightmare. She also has very similar eyes. But original or not, the confused, alarming eccentricities of the character are portrayed with exactly the kind of nervous energy needed. Michael Sheen as the House, sounding and acting much like the Justice Computer in the Red Dwarf episode Justice, manages to be both sinister and threatening, yet uncertain of himself and feckless, a difficult trick. Auntie and Uncle are half-amusing bit-parts, competently performed. By contrast, this is one of Matt Smith’s worst performances so far. Very stagey, over-excited, much too loud over and over, and shedding gratuitous tears aplenty at the end. With his repeated compulsion early on to declare that, “That’s impossible!!!!” it really does feel like the episode was written for David Tennant, and Smith appears to give in to that. Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan do rather better, largely because Rory and Amy aren’t given much opportunity to be silly, seeing all the really scary stuff in the story happens to them, but even so, they do get a bit stagey and ‘lay-it-on-with-a-trowel’ sentimental in the later stages as well.

Rory really is being reduced to the Arthur Dent of the series. His main role seems to have become standing around and letting bad things happen to him, so that Amy has something to burst into tears about. The proactive, assertive version who had been emerging recently didn’t last. Although he did well with his, “Killing us quickly wouldn’t be any fun” line. Pity about the follow-up PE teacher reference. Silly and ill-timed.

Indeed, ill-timed silliness gets in the way quite a bit, which is another same-old-story. “Look at that! What could possibly go wrong?” *A PIECE OF THE MACHINE FALLS OFF WITH A PATHETIC CLUUNKING NOISE* is an ancient joke that could’ve been written in HG Wells’ time. It’s also silly. “Actually… I feel fine…” *DROPS DEAD* is a joke from the Palaeolithic era of comedy, painfully similar to Sir Talbot Buxomley’s death in Blackadder The Third. Even if it wasn’t familiar, it’s silly. “I think you call me… sexy,” irritates. Because it’s silly. The Doctor and Idris bickering like a married couple as they try to build a new TARDIS could have been lifted from a number of the Doctor’s conversations with River Song, or even from Mr & Mrs Smith. And again, it’s just silly. Standing around applauding the worthy opponent is silly. “I’ve got mail!!!” Silly, silly, SILLY!

STOP I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-IIIIITTTTTTTTT!!!!!

When is the modern series going to learn to stop ruining the drama of a story with badly-timed set-piece gags or self-conscious quips? Some stories do not need, or benefit from, being zany or whacky, and this was one of them.

And so much sorcery-babble is needed to carry the plot; the makeshift console powered by a kiss from Idris, and able to keep her and the Doctor breathing in space, despite the mini-TARDIS lacking a couple of walls. Telepathic security systems. The soul of the TARDIS just ‘phases’ back into the console, and the House is invisibly ‘dispersed’. Magic re-set button time again.

The plot resolution is not well-written at all in fact. At a crucial stage of the story, we have a familiar moment of the villain stopping to talk to the Doctor when he’s perfectly placed just to kill him. “Why should it matter to me where you die?” Why should you stop to ask that question at all? Why not just kill him and speculate about the options some other time? No? You want to carry on talking to him. To learn… what? Um, not much it seems. “Enough!” thunders the House. “That is enough!” Oh, so you don’t want to talk to the Doctor after all? Well why don’t you silence him by killing him then? Nope, you’re going to carry on talking to him anyway. O-… kaaaay… But I thought you just said that was enough?

This is followed by one of those verbose, unnatural info-dump speeches by the Doctor for the benefit of the audience. Very clumsy.

But it’s by no means all bad news. The darker, scarier edge introduced this season is maintained, in fact enhanced, with the sequences when Amy and Rory are trapped by time anomalies in the TARDIS corridors being unusually brutal and chilling for 6:30 on a Saturday night – all the more so, given all they’re doing for the most part is the timeless exercise of “running down corridors that all look the same”. (By the way, aren’t the hexagonal corridors of the TARDIS very reminiscent of the interior of the Liberator in Blake’s 7?) The mind-warping tricks the House plays on them are very surreal and unsettling, The Game Of Rassilon from The Five Doctors, only done right. The ‘Kill Amy’ graffiti on the walls is startling, and the sequences are filmed with real skill and flair. In style and impact, the story has strong tones of the no-holds-barred approach to horror that the series had back when Bob Holmes was script editor.

The plot may be disjointed and poorly-connected, but as a scenario, it is one of the more sophisticated ideas we’ve seen in some time, at least psychologically. Entertainment for the House only ever takes the form of ‘it’s-nothing-personal’ cruelty, hence the fear and torment Amy and Rory experience being little different to the agonies of Auntie and Uncle. The notion of people being assembled from the body parts of dismembered Time-Lords is enough to make the audience’s skin crawl – yes, that’s definitely an endorsement. And the TARDIS being given an outlet for its persona has considerable charm. It might have been more interesting if the story had kept us guessing a little longer before revealing to us who Idris really is.

The actual personality of Idris makes for easily one of the most interesting and sympathetic guests the series has had in years; quirky, jumpy, almost multiple personalities constantly catching each other by surprise with jumbled, confused words of wisdom. “Biting’s… like kissing, only there’s a winner” is a nice line, quirky and slightly macabre rather than whacky. “Are all people like this… so much bigger on the inside?” is one of the best self-referencing ironies Doctor Who has managed in a long while.

The Doctor’s decision to send Amy and Rory back to the TARDIS on a wild goose chase says a lot about his superiority complex. He clearly feels as keenly as ever that humans are beneath the business of Time-Lords. How arrogant he remains.

Some of the sets and effects are outstanding. The griminess, the broken landscape, the wreckage, and the overpowering, dark gloominess of the environment all really contribute to the sinister, doom-laden atmosphere. Also, fairness to Murray Gold, his music score was generally less over-cooked than usual, but I still think he would have been better-advised to keep the music quieter and more sombre for longer.

The Doctor’s Wife is therefore one of those episodes where, when it’s good, it’s very good, but when it’s not, it’s very much not. It is perhaps the most original and imaginative episode of the current season, and as chilling as any of them. The potential in it is there for all to see. However, the suffocating sentimentality of the ending does it no favours, the clumsy methods of conveying information are jarring, the occasional silliness undermines the main strengths on offer i.e. the dark atmosphere and an intriguing guest character, and the plot is incoherent and advanced mainly by contrivance. These are all weaknesses that it is very difficult to see past, and that is why ultimately the episode promises more than it delivers. Given who wrote it, it has to be seen as a disappointment, albeit a worthy one.

Bottom line, 6 out of 10. I wouldn’t say yet that we’re in another slump as we head into mid-season, but the standard is gradually and recognisably declining.

Review by Martin Odoni

Okay, fair’s fair. Given I feared this would be a shabby retread of Pirates Of The Caribbean, this wasn’t too similar at all. It was still not quite up to the standard of last week’s fare, but the series has at least managed to keep itself in the same kind of street, in sharp contrast with the same stage a year ago (the childish nonsense of Victory Of The Daleks).

Having said that, there still was a substantial amount that was lifted from Walt Disney. Amy was shamelessly dressed up as Elizabeth-Swann-as-Pirate-King, and the opening shot of the pirates in the jollyboat was an exact clone of a shot in The Curse Of The Black Pearl, just before the pirates’ closing battle with the Royal Navy. Also, the son who idolises his mariner-father and then finds great trouble accepting the reality of him being a pirate, is almost a carbon-copy lift from Will Turner’s early story.

There are other details that feel a bit too familiar for comfort, but borrowed from elsewhere. The siren is an exotic, beautiful apparition that sings hollering, echoey songs across the sky, which gives it a more-than-passing resemblance to Abigail – Kathryn Jenkins – in A Christmas Carol. The Medic-as-hologram is a very similar idea to the bald, griping character from Star Trek. (No I don’t mean Picard.) And even the idea of the siren gathering up injured people because of its simple-minded AI innocence does have a faint echo of the androids trying to repair their ship in The Girl In The Fireplace.

One or two details perhaps could do with clearing up too. In particular, how exactly do reflective surfaces constitute a gateway between dimensions? How is the siren able to sense injuries suffered by people in another dimension? Why does a black spot appear on people’s hands when they suffer a wound? Especially if it doesn’t appear on them when they get ill, but the siren still collects them?

So it’s an episode with stolen ideas and plot-holes, but even so, it’s good stuff. Avoiding the cliché of making a pirate story all about hunting for buried treasure was a good move (although treasure did still play a small but key role in the plot), and the discovery that the siren was benign all along was a nice twist, even though I did have my suspicions quite early on that everyone had been wrongly prejudging it.

Apart from the aforementioned resemblance Toby had to Orlando Bloom’s naive William, the characterisation turned out not to be derived from Pirates Of The Caribbean much at all, with Henry Avery quite an interesting, if under-explored, personality. He appeared exhausted with his life as a pirate, and torn by, on the one hand, the demands of his own avarice, and on the other, concerns for his estranged family. The story really could, and perhaps should, have given him more to do than just blunder around following the Doctor most of the time. The nasty moment when he learned that his insistence on retaining the crown may have cost him his son was quite affecting, but this only underlines the point.

The dilemma of taking Rory off the life-support and then racing to resuscitate him was also good stuff. I don’t think any of us were in the slightest doubt really that we were going to hear the sound of him coughing water out of his lungs soon enough, but the director did a clever job of keeping us on tenterhooks a good five seconds after it seemed possible for him to wake up, so it did get scary for just the briefest of brief instances. Really wish Murray Gold hadn’t insisted on punctuating the moment Rory woke up with that ridiculous, over-the-top chord of music though. When will he learn to stop beating us over the head with “destruction-of-the-Death-Star” tunes during moments that would be better served by a soft, sigh-of-relief sound?

The episode also looked superb. Given the first half hour was set almost exclusively on a deck of an early-modern galleon, the visuals avoided feeling samey or monotonous, and some of the effects for the siren were a cut above the usual standard, especially when it turned bright red. The sets were very authentic, even if the sickbay aboard the spacecraft was a bit bereft.

Didn’t really need the crude reference to “alien bogeys”, that really did belong alongside the repetitive and puerile flatulent aliens gags from Aliens Of London.

Performances were fine. Karen Gillan seems largely to have dropped the cocky strutting routine from last season, to her eternal credit, Arthur Darvill was a bit of a fifth wheel at times, but what he had to do he did well, and Matt Smith was at his impressive best again. I don’t wish to repeat myself, but his careful, restrained, softly-spoken delivery of most of his lines is such a breath of fresh air after five years of David Tennant’s forced yelling and weeping. The guest cast were generally okay. Hugh Bonneville’s performance veered between worthy gravitas and wooden boredom. Can’t really blame him there. When he had something to do other than chase after the Doctor he was very good, at all other times he didn’t really get much opportunity. Lily Cole did about the best she could with a voiceless part, but it’s hard to say she was really acting. Oscar Lloyd impressed for his age as Toby, while the rest of the pirates were just bit-parts, again not much the actors could do with what they were given.

COMPLICATED THEORY TIME: The quandary about Amy’s possible pregnancy is, I suspect, another lift from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Early in the second season of Hitch Hiker on radio, Arthur and Ford are stranded on Prehistoric Earth and encounter a rescue ship from the far future that keeps vanishing and reappearing in front of their eyes. They soon realise they are in a time paradox in which they have to send an SOS into the future to summon the ship. Until they do so, the ship will keep vanishing. In the same way, my suspicion here is that Amy is potentially pregnant, but only if certain events in the TARDIS crew’s future come to pass, and due to time-travel, those events will affect Amy’s recent past. If she becomes pregnant for real, things will carry on as we generally see them, but if the course of events alters, Amy will enter an alternative reality. This is where the lady with the eye-patch enters the equation; I think she is an intern at an asylum, and in this alternative reality, Amy is a patient there. Amy will have memories of events aboard the TARDIS that suddenly haven’t happened, and her ravings about it lead to a diagnosis of madness and she is committed.

Yes, that’s an awful lot of information to work out from so few hints, but speculation-for-its-own-sake is fun.

Bottom line. It’s flawed, not got much originality, and lacks depth, but at the same time it’s fun, beautifully-shot, and has a nice plot that thankfully doesn’t involve an army of aliens trying to take over the world. It’s nice to get a simple mystery story that doesn’t require a bloody/inexplicable/contrived resolution every once in a while. I also appreciate that, while not taking itself too seriously, it again resists the temptation to be silly.

Not great, but far from bad. 7/10. Generally an impressively strong start to the new season, and signs are it’s holding up better than last year too. Here’s hoping that’s not an illusion.

Review by Martin Odoni

It’s not often that someone as difficult to please as me will say this, so enjoy it while it lasts…

This was terrific. No I mean it, it was fabulous stuff, best I’ve seen in years.

All the good qualities about the The Impossible Astronaut are retained, while its handful of flaws was mercifully absent. I’m quite serious when I say it’s one of the best Dr. Who stories since the revival. It was a packed plot, full of mystery, real terror, interesting character development, exciting moments, poignancy that was moving but wasn’t laid on with a trowel, a remarkable resolution, and an enthralling, dark edge that the modern series rarely manages to pull off successfully. It’s the best story, in my mind, since Blink at the very least, and possibly even going back to Dalek in the Eccleston season.

The dark edge made it feel like it could have been written by Bob Holmes at the peak of his powers in the mid-1970’s. Canton, as established in the first part, is a ruthless, harsh character, and yet one who has a very courageous sense of right and wrong. Those with such a strong idealism tend to be all the more ruthless. Therefore, his apparent slaughter of Amy, Rory and River at the beginning seemed scarily convincing. And that was just the prologue! Three central characters supposedly dead two minutes before we’ve even reached the titles, and the story gets darker and scarier from there.

I still think the Silence are somewhat derivative – the way the creature growls, “Silence, Doctor!” mid-way through the story could have been lifted from any of a dozen Tom Baker stories – but at the same time they are one of the best variations on the idea so far, and another example of Steven Moffat’s amazing capacity for making the audience paranoid. We could have encountered these creatures a thousand times in our lives and we’d never know. You could have been confronted by one just seconds ago, and as soon as you turned back to face the screen once more, you wouldn’t be aware any more. Indeed, they might be standing behind you right now…

Hell, maybe they are from the Baker era, in a sense. I mean, the Doctor might have encountered them a thousand times before, and he wouldn’t know. What planets might they be in control of? They might be what gave Davros the idea for the Daleks, they might have given Omega and the Time-Lords the secrets of travelling through time. And no one would ever know. The more you think of it, the more possibilities there are. This really has the potential to reimagine and rewrite the series history in a completely legitimate way. Their relationship with humans and their ability to control human minds is very reminiscent of the Kromaggs from Sliders, which again makes them seem derivative, but they’re far more effective. The notion that they’ve been secretly running the world for thousands of years, like some kind of extra-terrestrial Illuminati, makes them far more frightening, even if I still don’t find their appearance particularly scary. One sticking point is that this does seem rather to contradict City Of Death, where it was suggested that the Jagaroth was the alien entity that was guiding the advancement of human science and technology. (I suppose it’s entirely possible that the Jagaroth was made forcibly unaware of the Silence when it encountered them as well…)

Either way, the scenes where Amy is captured are as chilling as the ones when she was nearly killed by an Angel in The Time Of Angels. The way the tallies on her skin keep increasing in number shows that the scenes last a lot longer than we see, potentially days. This is underlined by the intern’s belief that the year is 1967, and not 1969. So much of his memory is being cut away from him that he has fallen two years behind everyone else.

Rory’s insecurities about Amy and the Doctor are still there, although his insistence that Amy knows that he is always coming for her shows that he is becoming a good deal more assertive. It is somewhat forced possibly, and it has very little to do with the story itself, but Arthur Darvill once again plays the vulnerable side of the character so well that you almost fail to notice how crowbarred-in the lines are. And River’s despair at realising that her days with the Doctor, just under way from his point of view, are nearing their end for her, was really saddening. Alex Kingston’s broken expression as the Doctor departs in the TARDIS is some of the best facial acting she’s ever done in the role – for just a moment I really believed it. That she and the Doctor are living their relationship in reverse is something of a side-scraping retcon – it was previously established that they were encountering each other in a jumbled-up order, not in reverse – but it does in fact make it easier to ‘anchor’ their relationship in our thoughts better, and it seems that Kingston’s own performances are benefiting from that as well; she now has a clear idea of what stage of River’s life she is meant to be portraying. Matt Smith also again demonstrates why he’s so much better at the part of the Doctor than David Tennant – if DT was still there, can you imagine the bellowing, eye-watering roar of self-righteous outrage with which he’d have delivered the line, “And it still wont be enough…” The gentle, soft whisper with which Smith delivers it instead is so much more subtle, although it might have been even more effective if he’d delivered it in a slightly gruffer pitch. But not loud, that’s what matters. Sinister menace is not directly proportional to number of decibels. Also, another honourable mention for Stuart Milligan who again portrays the insecure, ingratiating quality of Richard Nixon really well. He gets the toothy grin of Nixon absolutely spot-on.

The writing is as sharp as Moffat can get, and this means the tone of the episode is refreshingly non-zany. There are still some funny lines in there, but for the most part they’re gritty, which is how they should be, rather than smug or screwball, which too often is how they turn out in other stories. Especially punchy examples of one-liners-to-relish are in Canton’s more ruthless moments, such as, “It’ll look better if I shot you while you’re running… then again, looks aren’t everything!” and *BANG!* “Welcome to America.” (Appropriate dig at the National Rifle Association.) Other gems in the script include, “These [body-bags] could really do with air-holes!” – “Never had a complaint before”, “Rome fell.” – “I know, I was there.” – “So was I.”, “I think quite possibly the word you’re looking for right now is, ‘Oops.’”, and  “Love a tomb!” (which would explain why River seems to enjoy increasing the number of potential occupants rather too much).  “Is this really important flirting, because I think I should be higher on the list right now?” was perhaps a little too close to the self-conscious sarcasm the modern series is prone to, but it was still amusing instead of smug. The Doctor’s non-reassuring attempt to reassure Nixon at the end was truly hilarious. Hasn’t quite mastered how this ‘bedside manner’ thing is meant to work, has he?

The resolution is absolutely brilliant. It’s another huge-scale, the-whole-population-of-the-Earth-does-the-same-thing-at-the-same-time idea, but it works because it’s not something they do consciously. It’s a fabulous idea of using the rise of television, the enormity of the moon-landing in the history of the human race, and also the hypnotic powers of the Silence against themselves, to give the humans the power to eliminate masters they aren’t even conscious of. There are a couple of flaws in the idea though; surely when the humans gun down the Silence, the dead bodies would still be there afterwards. And yet there’s never any sign of them. Do people forget the creatures are there even when they’re dead? Also, didn’t the creature Canton shot down survive? So can we be sure that human weapons are actually capable of killing the Silence? Still a great idea though.

Only downsides to the story are that the implants in the hand are a bit deus ex (forgivably so though, as their abilities aren’t exactly overblown), and River gunning the creatures down by just turning round and round on the spot while pulling the trigger was a bit Flash Gordon. It certainly makes the Silence look a bit rubbish if they can get blown away so easily, especially as they appear unable to hit a barn-door with their own powers.

There are several mysteries that the episode doesn’t explain, but we’ll probably get there later in the season. Why did the Silence need a spacesuit? Who was the woman with the eye-patch whom Amy briefly saw through the door? How come Amy appears to be both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time? Who is the girl in the spacesuit, and how does she have the power to regenerate? If the girl is a Time Lord, can she be the off-spring of the Doctor’s and Amy’s future selves? In which case what will happen to Amy’s marriage to Rory? And to River’s romance with the Doctor? Getting quite soap opera-ish again in fact, but at least it’s in an interesting way rather than in the soppy gushing way it did when Rose Tyler was around.

Anyway, let’s have more of Canton! He’d make a great addition to the TARDIS crew.

All-in-all, an absolute feast of class, showing that the modern series has the potential to be the best thing on TV, if it can just reach this standard more consistently. It’s certainly a terrific confirmation that both darkening the tone, and altering the running order by allowing the season to open with a two-parter, was the ideal way to freshen things up a bit. It’s also one of those rarities in that part two really improved on part one – no sign of the old ‘Episode 3 syndrome’ here. This episode on its own gets a 9 out of 10. And in fact so does the two-parter as a whole, as it rises above the sum of its parts.

So the mighty Moffat is back on form with a triumphant flourish, and the new season has made an even more promising start than the previous one. Now, here’s hoping it doesn’t fall away like last year. For instance, I’d be quite grateful if next week’s offering isn’t just a lazy attempt to cash in on the hype of the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean movie…

Review by Martin Odoni

Seconds out, round two….

The second blessedly non-RTD-led series is up and running with a fairly interesting starter. First thing I should say is congratulations to Steven Moffat for finally giving the series the courage to shake up its own running format, and dare to open a season with a two-parter. One of the tiresome, formulaic qualities of NuWho so far has been that it always seems to follow the same order every year i.e. three single-episode stories to get started, a two-parter for episodes four and five, another run of single episodes for the mid-to-late stages etc. Breaking this needless and highly restrictive format is a simple act that could do a lot to keep the series fresh.

Moffat does seem to be developing some more unfortunate traits in his writing though. One of them is by-the-numbers hackery. The aliens in this are an example. The Silence look quite similar to the Ood, so they get no points for originality on the visual front, and also their powers have a very familiar echo to them. If we consider the Weeping Angels, they’re creatures that only move when our heroes’ backs are turned. These new aliens are creatures that no one remembers… as soon as our heroes’ backs are turned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad idea, it’s just it does sound a bit too similar to ground the series has already been over in the recent past, and it does lead me to question whether Moffat has any really new ideas left in the locker.

This question is reinforced by his insistence on once again having a story about events happening out of sequence (the Doctor of the future sending a message to the Doctor of the ‘present’ – such as there is one), more talk about ‘spoilers’ (a joke that was quite engaging on River Song’s first couple of appearances, but nowadays I can imagine most of the audience singing along to a slow hand-clap, so predictable has it become), the Doctor hanging out with black-and-white-era movie stars (Marilyn Monroe in A Christmas Carol, now Laurel & Hardy), Amy again being pregnant (please don’t let us have another round of her wandering about with a balloon stuffed up her shirt, a la Amy’s Choice), a guest appearance by a prominent world leader, admittedly superbly played on this occasion (see Victory Of The Daleks), and yet another mysterious child figure making lots of arcane remarks, sometimes through electrical apparatus (remember the gas-masked kid in The Doctor Dances, and the computer in Silence In The Library, among others). Even the title sounds almost identical to The Impossible Planet.

The episode doesn’t start too well. In fact, the scenes with the Doctor showing off by deliberately leaving a trail through recorded Earth history are silly and self-indulgent. Some of the dialogue in those first few minutes is also typical of the rebooted series in being smug and far too quip-heavy.

But once it stops trying too hard to be clever and punchy, it settles down a bit and actually starts being clever, and packs a really solid punch. The moment the ‘old’ Doctor is assassinated is quite a shock, and suddenly all the silly, forced light-heartedness is thankfully swept away. We have a story in progress at last. How about that?

It’s quite easy to figure out, of course, that we would see the Doctor again very quickly. His declaration that he was two hundred years older than he was last time we saw him, coupled with experience of Moffat’s constant ‘timey-wimey’ ideas, leaves us plenty of chance to predict the impending arrival of a younger incarnation. (The Doctor’s slightly bitchy remark about Amy looking a bit heavier these days immediately makes her condition very clear too.) This scene is quite a bold risk on the part of the Mighty Moffat though, as it appears to discount the possibility of future regenerations. So if Matt Smith does choose to leave the series in the near future…

Get out of that one, Doctor Who. (Could’ve done without those uses of the series title in the dialogue, by the way, it’s needlessly demonstrative when the show does that.)

The friction aboard the TARDIS is fascinating, especially the Doctor making plain how little he trusts River. After all, what reason does he have to trust her really? The difficulty the other three have over whether to tell the Doctor about seeing his future self die leads to some real antagonism. At its core, I suspect, is the Doctor, usually the one who knows everything, suddenly being the only one aboard the TARDIS who isn’t in on the secret. Usually the others all have to trust him, now he is being asked to trust them, and it’s clear that his intellectual pride is bruised by the experience.

The character of Delaware is what really makes the episode for me. He’s potentially an excellent foil for the Doctor, in that he shares the same boundless, open-minded sense of curiosity for the unknown (the wonder in his eyes when he enters the TARDIS is startlingly innocent given how cynical he is about individuals), but he also has a very grisly air of ruthlessness to him, that is clearly just below the surface. This paradoxical mix of cynicism and boyish enthusiasm somehow works, making him unpredictable, and therefore intriguing. He is also terrifically played by Mark Sheppard.

That the story is turning out not to be a Western after all is perhaps a shame, as the ground it is instead covering is, as I’ve already stated, somewhat derivative. It does allow it to have Richard Nixon in it though, which is kind of amusing, especially hearing all the hints at his arrogant paranoia littering his speech. Really, some of the people who’ve been elected to the Oval Office down the years. They’ll be voting for some right-wing, alcoholic, draft-dodging, Texan born-again next.

No wait…

Never mind.

Somehow there’s something just not scary enough about aliens in a dinner suit. Maybe they just remind me of how silly the Jagaroth looked in City Of Death, but so far, the Silence ain’t doing it for me, just as the Human Dalek failed to affect my bladder-control in Daleks In Manhattan. It was very lurid the way the creature annihilated that woman in the lavatory though, and oddly chilling how even that sight just vanished from Amy’s memory as soon as she was out of the door. The ending, with Amy apparently shooting a little girl in a spacesuit (possibly the future self of her unborn child? Perhaps) was rather shocking as well. I guess this episode certainly delivers in terms of startle-value, so we can’t complain it’s ever dull. Does it count as a cliffhanger though, seeing none of the regulars are definitively in danger? Yeah I’d say so. A moral cliffhanger is as valid as a physical one.

Possible bloopers; this incarnation of River appears, from what she says to Rory, to be younger than the one at the end of the last season, and yet she also seems to remember the business with the Pandorica. Also, she discusses the business of the Doctor’s regeneration being interrupted. Amy and Rory seem to know what she’s talking about, but they’ve never seen the Doctor regenerate before. Not necessarily a contradiction, but it does rather go against the grain; in the past, the Doctor has never really talked to companions about his power to regenerate unless they’ve seen it happening.

To sum up; not brilliant, but very, very absorbing, and as I say, it earns a bonus point for finally plucking up the courage to break series formula. In its own right, 7 out of 10. In this context, it just barely scrapes an 8.

Review by Martin Odoni

Was it hot or cold? Lukewarm I think. I’m sure there are going to be some “Meh, does nothing ever please this guy?” eye-rolls on reading that, but yes, I found a number of things that didn’t quite work in the series finale.

Let’s start with the rather obvious riff of the Bill & Ted movies. (It also resembles the “Enig-…!” scene in the Red Dwarf episode, The Inquisitor.) I suppose it’s only right that Dr. Who should lift ideas from those films, seeing how many ideas they stole from Who in the first place (time-travel in a phone box being only the most obvious example), but the repeated use of the timey-wimey “future-self-saves-the-past-self” plot routine is now starting to gall. I’m afraid this is another way of resolving a cliff-hanger without actually coming up with a plan for it. Nobody within the storyline ever thought up how to get the Doctor out of the Pandorica. It simply happened because the Doctor himself found he had been freed and became aware that he was going to make it happen in the very near future. So the plan has no origin, and the basis on which it is written into the story is entirely and consciously, “It happens because the writer says it does.”

In short, it’s a cop-out. It’s perhaps a better cop-out than the ones we had to put up with previously, but it’s still not a very good start.

Other details are hugely questionable.

An alternative Earth still existing more or less as we know it in an otherwise empty universe is impossible. The implication of the ending to The Pandorica Opens was that all the stars of the rest of the universe were nullified by the time cracks, and so in effect never existed. But the Earth’s development is dependent entirely on heat and light from the sun, and from matter falling into the atmosphere from outside. Without these things, life would never evolve. Okay, the destruction of the TARDIS provides an alternative sun, I can just about buy that. But it only detonated around the year 100AD. That leaves a gap of about five billion years in which the Earth had nothing with which to feed its primordial soup. The chances of any multi-cellular life on Earth evolving in less than two thousand years is practically nil, but for a human race to evolve, and to build society exactly as it did in the previous reality – Amelia Pond is there still doing her prayer to Santa, for Pete’s sake – is just so far out of the realms of possibility it seems almost childish to suggest it.

Why did the Doctor not regenerate when blasted by the Dalek? How come Amy could bring the Doctor back into existence simply by remembering him? That was not how Rory came back in the cracked reality; he was revived by the Nestene, merely using Amy’s submerged memories as a blueprint. How come River was able to remember the Doctor?

The whole idea of jump-starting a second Big Bang really was another re-set button moment. One big flash and some prolonged loud noise later, and everything is put back the way it was, with almost everybody oblivious as to anything being wrong in the first place. There was a well-paced, carefully explained build-up towards it that at least spared us the feeling of ‘suddenly-plucking-a-resolution-out-of-your-anus’, which we tended to get under RTD. The poignancy of the Doctor’s voluntary self-annihilation helped too. But it still seemed too neat and tidy, with the two key plot devices cancelling each other out so perfectly that it could only be a blatant contrivance. It also rekindled an unfortunate leaning of the Tenth Doctor’s era; by becoming the creator of the second Universe (do I hear a quote from Red Dwarf: Back To Realty there?), the Doctor’s messianic credentials are back on the agenda, and that’s not a good idea.

But for all these flaws, I couldn’t help but like the episode, at least somewhat, principally because the characterisation was so good. Rory has proven himself to be a very positive character, and it’s impossible not to admire both his loyalty to Amy and his blossoming courage. The Doctor’s ability to take humiliation without developing any corresponding sense of humility remains as strong as ever – see his casual cheeriness as he helps Rory to revive Amy in the immediate aftermath of his total defeat by his enemies (and indeed see his laughably bad dancing at the wedding) – and Amy proves that, when written as a straight-up, serious character, instead of a smart-mouthing-sassy-movement generator, she is one of the best companions the Doctor has ever had. And the dynamic works well as a triumvirate, as Rory and Amy spark well together, and with the Doctor. (And now that Rory and Amy are finally married, perhaps that will end once and for all the revived series’ puerile insistence on having some kind of sexual tension between the Doctor and his always-female companion. Even with Donna, there was a lot of needlessly explicit reference to that.) River was also written well here, with plenty of emotion and turmoil instead of the usual smugness.

Performances were as good as they’ve been at any stage in the season. Matt Smith in particular really excelled himself in the scenes before he disappeared through the time-crack, his tearful goodbyes to little Amelia so convincing, and performed with such impressive restraint that he truly showed David Tennant how it’s done. Karen Gillan and Alex Kingston both had the full gamut of emotions to run here, and really took advantage of the opportunity. And Arthur Darvill was, let’s not mince words, absolutely superb, certainly his best performance yet. He had to portray grief, turmoil, the usual confusion, anger, courage, determination, fear, elation, love… everything. And not once did I think, “Failed his EastEnders exam.” He was absolutely at the top of his game, and I’m genuinely delighted that both Rory and Amy chose to stay with the Doctor at the end. As I mentioned before, it should prevent the sexual tensions betwixt Doctor and companion, but also Rory in his own right is a character well worth the series exploring further. The chemistry between Darvill and Gillan perhaps still needs a bit of work, but it’s already improved enormously on what it was in The Eleventh Hour.

Production was very good, lots of convincing sets, props and CGI, although I must make special mention of Murray Gold. I really want him to work with Gio Compario (you know, the opera singer from the Go Compare insurance adverts), Specifically, I want Gio to sing at a specially-arranged performance with Gold conducting an orchestra composed of Oasis and the England football supporters’ club band. That way, when I plant the bomb under the stage, I can be sure of wiping out the lot of them.

Oh yes, shame the fez got blasted. Yes it looked silly, but when did that ever stop the Doctor? It would’ve helped make the Eleventh Doctor look a bit more distinctive from previous incarnations.

All-in-all, it’s likeable nonsense. I give it a 7 out of 10, more for the later stages than the early ones. The two-parter as a whole is perhaps less than the sum, but I’ll give it a 7 as well.

So it’s all over for another year, and that leaves only the question of the how I view the season in total. It undoubtedly started superbly, with the first two episodes, The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below, particularly worthy additions to the series’ legacy of classic television. But the season did have a realy earthbound-crash with Flesh & Stone, ruining an excellent first part, and from there it never quite got off the ground again (with the possible exception of Amy’s Choice, which I watched again the other day and realised I was probably being a bit unfair on when I reviewed it). It was never sinfully bad again either though, which is an improvement in itself over the last couple of years of RTD. So it was marginally above mediocre, certainly not all it might have been, but a great deal more than it would have been in other hands. And it was largely an excellent first year in narrow terms of establishing a new Doctor. Given the enormous ‘bedding-in’ process that was certain to be required because of the widescale change of personnel, we can give the season the benefit of the doubt and conclude that it was a positive one. But let’s keep in mind that that excuse loses its validity after this.