Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Doctor Who: Series 7 (Season 33)

The Doctor realises that his travels with his companions Amy and Rory are drawing to an end, as they become more settled in their "normal" everyday lives. However, a few last hurrahs may prove to be a step too far for them. The solitary Doctor is soon consumed by a new mystery when he meets what appears to be the exact same woman living in three completely different time periods. What is the secret of the Impossible Girl?

The seventh series of the relaunched Doctor Who, acting as the swansong of Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, was reminiscent of the earlier fourth series which similarly acted as the departure season for David Tennant. Like that season, it was divided between a run of ordinary episodes and several specials. Unlike that season, it was also split into two "mini-seasons" airing in successive years, resulting in an extremely elongated season (ultimately spanning three years) which ended up frustrating fans on release, who ended up having to wait almost a full year for the Impossible Girl/Clara Oswald mystery to be solved. This season also had the unenviable task of also having to celebrate the show's 50th anniversary with an effects-driven 3D extravaganza featuring multiple Doctors.

Things kick off, as normal, with a Christmas special. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is arguably the slightest of all the Christmas specials, focusing on a vaguely Narnia-influenced story (given away by the title) as a bereaved WWII mother, trying to hide the reported death of her husband in combat from their two children, tries to give them a happy Christmas. A well-meaning Doctor tries to help but inevitably goes overboard, leading to Shenanigans. It's a fun story, if lightweight, and Claire Skinner gives a fine guest performance, but it wastes several high-profile guest stars (Alexander Armstrong, Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir) in under-developed roles.

The season itself kicks off with the splendid Asylum of the Daleks, in which the Daleks face a problem so daunting that the only person who can deal with it is the Doctor, who is reluctantly recruited to help his old foes. It's a fun episode that will have fans of the classic series cooing at the guest appearance of various Dalek models from the original series (especially glimpses of the iconic Special Weapons Dalek). The episode is buoyed by the first appearance of the irrepressible Jenna Coleman as Oswin, a comic-tragic figure played alternately for laughs and hubris and sets up the Impossible Girl arc (though, at this stage, this is not known). The episode's key weakness is that it presents Rory and Amy as their relationship is apparently in severe trouble. The setup and resolution of their relationship crisis, and the lack of fallout through the rest of the season, happens so fast that it feels like it really shouldn't have been included in the first place (contributing to the feeling that Moffat is great at coming up with ideas, middling on follow-through and often poor on the resolution).

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a fun episode, although it's a little bit too obviously trying to be zany and mad, which risks becoming grating. It does have the nice idea of the Doctor recruiting a gang of various people he's met over the years, including Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele) and Victorian big game hunter John Riddell (Rupert Graves), alongside Rory, Amy and, slightly randomly, Rory's dad Brian (Harry Potter and The Fast Show's Mark Williams). An absolutely terrific villain performance by David Bradley (also Harry Potter and, at the time, Game of Thrones, and the future, recast First Doctor) feels a bit incongruous in an episode that's otherwise a knockabout lark. The CG dinosaurs are, for Doctor Who's budget, exceptional.

A Town Called Mercy is stronger, a Western which sees the Doctor have to help an American town besieged by a killer cyborg. The plot has several interesting twists, Andrew Brooke is a solid apparent villain (despite a dodgy voice distortion effect) and guest stars Adrian Scarborough and Ben Browder (Stargate, Farscape) are superb. The location filming in Spain also feels more Western than maybe shooting in the actual United States would have been, given how many Westerns were shot for real in Spain in the 1950s and 1960s to save money. The episode has a larger and more epic feeling than most, despite the constrained nature of the story.

The Power of Three is one of the most divisive episodes of Nu-Who. It starts off excellently, with the Doctor encountering an almost Arthur C. Clarke-style inexplicable mystery as millions of blank cubes show up all over the Earth and proceed to do absolutely nothing for a year. The Doctor moves in with Amy and Rory to monitor the phenomenon and recruits Brian to help him out, leading to some great comedic scenes, although ones that risk feeling like a reprise of The Lodger and Closing Time. The episode also reintroduces UNIT and sets up their new scientific advisor (and later commander) Kate Stewart, played with tremendous charisma by Jemma Redgrave. There's a nice throwback feel in the episode to the Russell T. Davies era, with the contemporary setting and the focus on the strange amidst the mundane (also a callback to the Third Doctor era, as Jon Pertwee liked to say Doctor Who was at its best contrasting the weird with the ordinary, like a "Yeti in Tooting Bec"). The absolutely superb setup crashes headfirst into a horrible ending, though, apparently the result of guest villain Steven Berkoff behaving like an arsehole on set and his scenes being cut and a finale having to be reshot without him present (leading to one of the most deus-ex-screwdriver endings in Doctor Who history). The production difficulties help mitigate what would otherwise feel like the most schizophrenic episode of the show in some years.

The Angels Take Manhattan is an impressive episode for its scale and scope, being set in New York City and, unlike previous ventures to the Big Apple, the episode is actually partially shot in the city. It's a Steve Moffat extravaganza, with a time-tangling, twisty narrative unfolding in multiple temporal locations featuring the Weeping Angels and the inevitable return of River Song, whose once season-defining appearances have risked becoming stale. However, Alex Kingston is on excellent form and the story is extremely well-constructed, with a nice sense of epicness despite it only being a single-parter. The ending does feel highly contrived, though. Even if the Doctor can't take the TARDIS back to New York City ever again, there's no logical reason whatsoever why the Doctor can't materialise in, say, Westchester and catch a train into the city, or Rory and Amy could just...move? It also feels very odd to have set up Rory's father as a character and then not have him appear in this episode where it feels appropriate.

The Snowmen was the 2012 Christmas special, splitting the two halves of Series 7, and feels like a refresh of the premise following Amy and Rory's departure. The Doctor is travelling alone and getting grumpy as a result (which feels like an over-explored idea at this stage, but okay) until he joins a group of his allies in Victorian London: the Silurian Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her human maid/wife Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and Sontaran medic/butler Strax (Dan Starkey), the "Paternoster Gang" who formed after they joined forces in the previous season's A Good Man Goes to War. They quickly find themselves coming into conflict with the Great Intelligence (the voice of Ian McKellan!) and its human stooge Dr. Simeon (the always-outstanding Richard E. Grant). The stacked guest cast is augmented by the return of Jenna Coleman, playing a character very similar to the one she did in Asylum of the Daleks but with more wit and charm. The episode emerges as one of the very best Christmas specials, thanks to Coleman's outstanding performance, the witty banter of the Paternoster Gang (which soon establishes them as firm fan favourites) and Richard E. Grant giving it 200% to make Dr. Simeon one of the most compelling villains in the new show's history. There's also some excellent fairy tale imagery in the episode, like the Doctor living in his TARDIS on top of a cloud that can only be reached by an invisible stair, which is very effective.

The second half of the season itself is consumed by the mystery of the Impossible Girl, as the Doctor locates a third iteration of Clara Oswald/Oswin living on contemporary Earth and recruits her as his new companion. This is an interesting twist, as the Doctor either allows people he's met in his adventures to join him once they've proven themselves worthy or has people forced on him for varying reasons. This is the first time he's deliberately set out to "recruit" a companion for other reasons (she's a puzzle he wants to solve) and there's something cruelly manipulative about that which the show never really gets to grips with (a side-effect, probably, of Smith's impending departure).

The Bells of Saint John is a solid if unspectacular story, another Russell T. Davies-esque throwback being mostly set in London and seeing the Doctor recruit a contemporary young female companion whilst fighting an alien threat. It's pretty rote, as things go, but also inoffensive (though there's the feeling that Celia Imrie is wasted here). The Rings of Akhaten is another episode of two halves, the sequences where Clara meets a lot of aliens for the first time and helps out a young girl being intriguing but the resolution feeling rather undercooked.

Cold War is a huge improvement, being a tightly-constrained story set on a Soviet submarine in 1983 with an absolutely outstanding guest cast: Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones), Tobias Menzies (Game of Thones, Outlander, Rome) and David Warner (Titanic, Time Bandits, lots of Star Trek). Mark Gatiss writes a story very reminiscent of classic Troughton/Pertwee "base under siege" stories and the return of the Ice Warriors is extremely welcome, especially the acknowledgement of their complexity; unlike the Daleks and Cybermen, and arguably Sontarans (the other three of the "big four" classic series villain races), not counting Strax, the Ice Warriors are a complex society of individuals, some good, some evil and some amoral, and it's good to see that acknowledged here.

Hide is another excellent episode, as the Doctor and Clara investigate a classic haunted house scenario. What could be a slight story is given added weight by outstanding guest performances from Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine, a nice twist in the tale and an atmosphere that recalls 1960s and 1970s BBC ghost stories, as well The Quatermass Experiment.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS scores some kind of record as the episode with the most amount of time spent in the TARDIS itself since the show's return in 2005 (and maybe the most since The Invasion of Time in 1978). Clara being lost in the bowels of the TARDIS and the Doctor who to save her and get his ship working again is a sold premise, but the incidental cast of salvagers don't feel like they add much to the plot. Ashley Walters, Mark Oliver and Jahvel Hall give good performances, but the characters are not fleshed out and their non sequitur "plot twist" can only be greeted by a shrug. However, the trip into the TARDIS, including glimpses of the library and much-discussed swimming pool, is fun and Clara's discovery of why the Doctor recruited her is a well-played scene.

The Crimson Horror is another solid episode, one that doesn't even feature the Doctor until a considerable amount of running time has elapsed. The focus is instead on the Paternoster Gang, who are at their crime-fighting best in this episode. Dame Diana Rigg (The Avengers - not that one - and Game of Thrones) also gives an outstanding and deliciously evil performance. Her daughter Rachael Stirling (Tipping the Velvet) is also superb as Ada, the blind girl who aids the stricken Doctor. It's an effective, Fourth Doctor-ish period piece, though arguably it gives Jenna Coleman almost nothing to do as Clara.

Nightmare in Silver is Neil Gaiman's second script for the series, but in no way is as good as The Doctor's Wife from the previous season. The episode sees the Doctor and a bunch of futuristic soldiers fighting off a Cyberman army in a ruined theme park, a premise which surprisingly generates a lot of potential. Tamzin Outhwaite and Jason Watkins are outstanding guest stars, but it's Warwick Davies who emerges as the episode's MVP, and it's somewhat surprising he hasn't been back as his character would seem to have a lot of unfulfilled story potential. Jenna Coleman also has a great time as Clara is promoted to a military command position and she adapts well to being in that role. The mental struggle between the Doctor and the Cyber-Planner who takes up residence in his cranium is not well-depicted though, with Matt Smith at his most hammy in these scenes. Still, not the disaster it's often presented as.

The Name of the Doctor rounds off the Impossible Girl storyline and also addresses the Doctor's fated death on the planet Trenzalore. The episode has a creepy, horror vibe and air of foreboding which is impressive, though trying to include the Paternoster Gang, River Song and the Great Intelligence (now properly played by Richard E. Grant) does lead it to feeling somewhat overstuffed. It also feels like there should be a nod to the Great Intelligence's intervening battles with the Doctor; chronologically, between The Snowmen and this episode, the Intelligence also fought the Second Doctor in The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear (the missing archival episodes of The Web of Fear were, at the time, in the process of being returned to the BBC), making it a more powerful and capable foe, but this isn't mentioned. It's a solid finale, though the Paternoster Gang are at risk of being overused at this point and the revelation of a mysterious "missing" incarnation of the Doctor between his eighth and ninth lives (played by John Hurt) felt like a stretch at the time.

These events lead into the 50th Anniversary Special, which comprises a mini-episode called The Night of the Doctor and a full-scale extravaganza special, The Day of the Doctor. The Night of the Doctor is short but outstanding, finally giving more screentime to Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and depicting the opening stages of the Time War. The Sisterhood of Karn also returns from the classic serial The Brain of Morbius. It's a lot to pack into eight minutes and the episode does well with it.

The Day of the Doctor itself is rollicking good fun, knowing its job is to be a knockabout silly adventure with nothing more than the bare bones of a reason why multiple Doctors should show up and join forces and it executes that well. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors spark off one another well, although the episode does highlight that there probably haven't been another two sequential Doctors who've been so similar to one another, with the War Doctor (an outstanding performance by the legendary John Hurt) needed to provide more variety to proceedings. The return of the Zygons for the first time since their 1975 debut, the inclusion of Queen Elizabeth I, a visit to Gallifrey during the Time War and the modern-day UNIT storyline add to the epic feel of the episode. The "reversing" of the destruction of Gallifrey manages to avoid feeling like a cop-out, with Moffat doing a good job of explaining its survival in the face of utter annihilation, cheesy as it is. The episode does look amazing (pointless 3D interludes aside), introducing some visual trickery and camera ideas that will continue into subsequent seasons (like seamless exterior-to-interior TARDIS tracking shots, which directors soon become inordinately pleased about).

The Time of the Doctor, the 2013 Christmas Special, dedicates itself to one idea: the fall of the Eleventh Doctor. The Doctor is lured to a remote planet by a mysterious distress signal. He joins forces with his old friend Tasha Lem (a superb Orla Brady) to investigate and inadvertently sets in motion the events that lead to the creation of the Church of the Silence, the attempted destruction of his TARDIS and the cracks in time. These story elements have not been featured strongly this season, so this sudden rush of callbacks to Series 5 and 6 feels abrupt, but Moffat has a good go at explaining the last three seasons of plot (and plot holes) anyway. The idea of the Doctor spending centuries defending one small village from constant attacks is a powerful one, if not particularly plausible (why stay in one spot on one planet that's under siege from the most powerful races in all of space and time when there are other settlements available?). There's a lot of under-explored concepts here, like the Truth Field, and the Christmas setting feels shoehorned into a story that's not really about that. Despite that, Matt Smith gives a superb performance in his swansong.

The seventh series of the resurrected Doctor Who (****) is an improvement over its confused forebear, buoyed by some very good episodes and a strong new companion with Jenna Coleman and an amusing set of supporting characters in the Paternoster Gang (who do risk being overused by the end of the season). However, this is the first series since the 2005 comeback season that doesn't have a hands-down, all-time classic episode. To be fair, it also lacks any real stinkers, with the derided-at-the-time Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Nightmare in Silver both standing up better than expected. The Impossible Girl story arc is much more bearable when it's compressed into a single run-through rather than spread over two and a half years, the 50th Anniversary special is great fun and the season demonstrates how good the show can be when the showrunner is not trying to tell some overwrought story that requires three flowcharts and a spreadsheet to understand. The season is currently available via BBC iPlayer in the UK and HBO Max in the USA.

  • 7X: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe ***½
  • 701: Asylum of the Daleks ****
  • 702: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship ***½
  • 703: A Town Called Mercy ****
  • 704: The Power of Three ***½
  • 705: The Angels Take Manhattan ****
  • 7XX: The Snowmen ****½
  • 706: The Bells of Saint John ***½
  • 707: The Rings of Akhaten ***
  • 708: Cold War ****½
  • 709: Hide ****
  • 710: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS ***½
  • 711: The Crimson Horror ***½
  • 712: Nightmare in Silver ***½
  • 713: The Name of the Doctor ****
  • 714a: The Night of the Doctor ****½
  • 714: The Day of the Doctor ****½
  • 715: The Time of the Doctor ****

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