5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
Want us to let you know when we post a new review? Click here to join our mailing list.
THE NEXT DOCTOR
When The Next Doctor ended, there was a silence. We looked at each other. Then one of us shrugged. "I suppose it wasn't too bad," she said. Hesitantly, we nodded. No. Probably not too bad. Apart from that bit, of course. And that bit. And that bit was really crap.
That's when we realised we've started applying a very different standard to Russell T Davies-authored stories. Does every single thing about it fill us with violent loathing and despair? No? Success! We find ourselves scrabbling around for the frayed scraps of good stuff amongst the dross and waving them around triumphantly.
And that's about the size of it with The Next Doctor. Bad stuff, but the odd shining jewel too. OK, some of these are entirely accidental and succeed in the exact opposite direction the story was attempting to go, and most of the rest of them are completely unrelated to the writing, but there you go. It's something, isn't it?
So what's it about? The Doctor lands in the middle of a Dickensian Christmas. Carol singers. Adorable urchins. Lashings and lashings of snow. Is it supposed to be hilariously ironic or something? But things soon perk up when the Doctor finds he has serious competition on the Time Lord front.
This, it has to be said, is a really excellent wheeze. It's a genuinely intriguing situation and, for a little while at least, all bets are off. We haven't a clue who this guy is and neither has the Doctor. Brilliant.
The trouble is, though, that they're in way too much of a hurry to chuck this away. Not only do they speedily start scattering clues like crumbs of stuffing and with an increasingly generous hand, culminating in the you're-dead-if-you-miss-this scene with the stethoscope, they decide to wrap it up less than halfway through. Seen a second time, the way this fits into the overall story makes a little more sense, given that having solved the mystery they then have to get in all the fugue and my-child my-child stuff, but on an initial viewing the plot thread seems to limp awkwardly to a premature halt. Oh. Is it over? This is really too big a story to be stuffed into half an episode, especially when the only way to get it over with quickly is via a giant infodump.
There's another problem, too. We certainly rate David Morrissey as an actor, and as Jackson Lake he's very good, especially in the parts where he's confused, uncertain and vulnerable. He gets genuine pathos out of scenes that could have been 100-proof melodrama. However, given how good he is elsewhere at swaggering braggadocio, we're surprised at what a poor fist he makes of playing the Doctor. It doesn't help that his accent wanders all over the map and up and down the class structure, and a script that makes him spout lines like "I'm the Doctor. Simply the Doctor. The one, the only and the best" is not on his side either.
That's not all of it, though: despite an embarrassingly desperate reach for Doctor-style joie de vivre, he always seems a bit uncomfortable. As a result, it never crossed our minds that he would turn out to be a real Time Lord (despite the mitigating factor of Velile Tshabalala's Rosita, who is wonderful but who seems very anachronistic to us and so seems like a "real" companion).
Once they told us who he really was, we decided that what we'd thought was an off performance was actually a subtle piece of deception, calculated perfectly to mislead the audience while still hinting at the Next Doctor's true identity. It works perfectly both to bring up the question of what makes the Doctor the Doctor and to answer it by showing there's more to it than a certain way of behaving and speaking - while at the same time demonstrating, in a Buffyesque kinda way, that even if humans can't aspire to be the Doctor, they can use the Doctor's example to become better people. On further reflection, however, we decided we were just fooling ourselves. The intention clearly seems to be that the Next Doctor, at least in the first action sequences, is supposed to be as convincing as an ark salesman in the middle of a flood. Ah, well. It could be worse. He might have been the next Doctor for realz.
It's not just that that sinks those opening scenes, either. Multi-Doctor stories seem like a great idea but rarely work, and these scenes are no exception. We suspect that since, like styrofoam, the Doctor's personality expands to fill all available space, it's simply impossible to cram more than one of them into a scene and still make it work. That would certainly explain why Tennant and Morrissey have precisely zero chemistry when they're both derring the do. (It's not that they can't do it: in their tango in Blackpool they're positively electrifying.)
And it also explains why although their Two Doctors scenes are awkward, their scenes once Jackson Lake figures out who he is are fantastic. Although it's infodumpy, the scene with the timestamps, before the dull chasing and deleting kicks in, is genuinely affecting. (Of course, the footage of the previous Doctors helps. We cried. Cried! Hopefully it will open some new fans' eyes to the concept that he's called the Tenth Doctor because there are more of 'em.)
Onward and upward. We've seen the Cybershades in the opening sequences (lucky us. What were they thinking? With all their resources, why are they churning out a monster made out of a furry rug? It's far worse than many in the classic series), so we know this is going to be (yet) another Cyberman story. Oh, goody.
We've said before that the problem with most Cybermen stories is that they have Cybermen in them, and this one is no exception. The Cybermen, poor tin boobs that they are, are horribly misused here. One Cyberman apparently escaped the void, which was clearly rather less voidy than any void we've ever heard of, being full of Daleks' holiday snaps in handy-dandy bandoliers. Somehow, this highly resourceful Cyberman has managed to thief off with bundles of bandoliers (all right, yes, we like saying bandoliers. How did you guess?) on his way back to Earth, hide himself somewhere (very possibly in a cupboard, by the evidence of The Next Doctor), and convert lots more Cybermen without aid of processing plant. Impressive. What's more, the new Cybermen have not only managed to breed some Cybershades and construct a lovely steampunk mecha at the bottom of the Thames, but have also chatted up Miss Hartigan and recruited her to their cause. How did that happen, exactly? Did they lurk around the orphanage door with roses and chocolates?
Very enterprising - but not quite enterprising enough, since despite all these accomplishments they mysteriously can't rev up their mecha without the aid of a bunch of kids. As a result, they're drawn into a Byzantine plot involving a lot of rather undignified skulking in cupboards and, for all we know, pretending to be hatstands, instead of just grabbing the guys in question and popping the earpods in. Or making the mecha work without child labour in the first place. What? OK, use Cybermen if you have to, but at least make it remotely plausible. So many loose ends dissipate dramatic tension and waste whatever potential the mobile sardine cans do have.
It's a shame, because there really is genuine potential here. Dervla Kirwan, one of the luckiest women in the world as she's married to the delectable Rupert Penry-Jones, also happens to be a fantastic actor, and she's the best villain we've seen in a very long time. Her performance is simply spectacular: coolly determined, coldly flirtatious, with a wounded heart covered in steel. She is utterly convincing, and it's just as well, as her story doesn't actually make a lot of sense.
There's her motivation, for a start. Yes, there are dark hints here of sexual abuse (you'd think the line "Yet another man come to assert himself against me in the night" would be undeliverable, but Kirwan manages it), probably dating back to when she was a child (the Cyberleader refers to "anger and abuse and revenge - emotions that have tormented you your entire life", although how he knows this is a mystery) and this is enough to make her want to destroy the world. Can we say, by the way, how much we hate this? First of all, sexual abuse, especially child sexual abuse, has been used so often in the last decade or so as a plot device on television that it's beyond cliché. Second, they draw a direct parallel between her desire for "the one thing I wanted - liberation" and destruction. Women's liberation equals destruction? Fear of castration much? And third, there are only two women in this, yet both are categorised by the sexual aspects of their lives: one a victim of sexual abuse and the other a prostitute. Could do better, guys.
So we're unconvinced by her motivation. Yes, the funeral scene is gorgeous, with the snow and the steel and the red dress and Kirwan's riveting performance, but what's it actually for? Why does she have to get these particular guys together and kill them? It doesn't seem as if they were her abusers (she says she saw the one who knows her name looking at her, implying the others didn't even get that close). And if she wants her revenge on the world in general, why go to a lot of trouble killing these guys first?
We're not convinced by her amazing mind, either. Millions of years and nobody's ever been able to resist Cyberconditioning, and she just happens to be able to? Not only is this eyebrow-raisingly unlikely, it also effectively trashes the menace of the Cybermen. Yep, it's that bastard reset button yet again. What's more, concentrating the Cybermen's story on Miss Hartigan, like they did with Lumic in Rise Of The Cybermen, depowers them even more. Since when are Cybermen only interesting via a human representative?
Then there's the mecha. It looks pretty (as does all the rest of the cool steampunky stuff), but we've seen too much anime to be impressed by the originality, and as it came out of the Thames we couldn't stop laughing. Less Evangelion, more Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, alas. Also, it has the unmistakeable air of how-do-we-get-out-of-this-I-know-a-big-robot-that'll-do about it. Silly and pointless, and unforgivably whisked away by a god leaning out of a machine, but hey, it's a Christmas episode. We'll give them that one pass. Just the one, mind you, and we're already starting to change our minds.
Meanwhile, back with the oh-so-amusingly-named Jackson Lake, that kid-shaped hole in his memory is suddenly overflowing. Argh. Did they have to? Pathos is one thing, and they'd actually done a great job of that, but introducing a tousle-headed cherub on top is way overdoing it. Add that to the Oliver Twist-alike adorable little tykes on the Cybermen's night shift, and If it got any syrupier you'd be able to pour it over pancakes.
So, two plots wedged into the space where one should be, neither of which have room to breathe or even unfold enough to make sense. No, it's not just the Cybes. Why is Rosita still hanging around with the "Doctor" instead of going back to her usual life - or, more to the point, how? Is he bankrolling her? How come she knows he wakes up with nightmares? We hate the possibility that she's working off her debt of gratitude - and we wouldn't have to even entertain the idea if they hadn't made her a prostitute for absolutely no reason at all. Grr.
And the real Doctor? Well, remember the jewels we mentioned earlier? David Tennant's performance is the sparkliest, most caraty of them all. He's absolutely magnificent here. Some of it's because of his masterly (not Masterly) delivery: simple lines like "Really. Wow" turn out vastly funnier than they look on the page, and when he gets really good stuff like "Can I say I completely disapprove?" and "I'm a dab hand with a cutlass" he turns it effortlessly into comedy gold.
And some of it's because the sometimes irritating mugging has been dialled down. As this Doctor moves towards the end of his tenure, it's clear it's going to be quite the angsty journey. Jackson Lake isn't the only guy here who's now defined by what he's lost. What with the speech about how companions break your heart and his tacit admission that he doesn't have anything left to live for, this Doctor is psychologically broken and he's not coming back. Rose shippers, including Russell T Davies, are no doubt certain that the most significant portion of this woe relates to his having lost Rose, but that idea annoys us so much we refuse to accept it as canon. Instead, we choose to think of it as a cumulative burden that, what with the Time War and the loss of several companions and all, has become too heavy for him to bear.
As you'd expect, David Tennant does the tragic stuff as superbly as the comic. And even though it's retreaded and nonsensical, his "Look what you've become!" speech to Miss Hartigan contains the power we've wanted to see all through his tenure and yet have only occasionally glimpsed. We really, really hope that he gets the opportunity to show more of that before it's all over.
Like we said: silly. But one great idea and some stellar performances mean it's not all bad.
MORAL: Sometimes there really is a monster in the wardrobe.
TIME AND RELATIVE DIMENSIONS IN SPACE
The two Doctors are dragged at speed behind the Cyberrug. So how does Rosita get up there in enough time to cut the rope?
Russell T Davies certainly unleashes his panto side here. "I shall effect an entry from the rear"? '"The Cyberking will rise." "How like a man"'? "I've seen one of these before"? Won't someone please think of the children?
Why does the "Doctor" think Jackson Lake died a terrible death when the body wasn't found?
We like the fob watch reversal, and we particularly like the way they cap it by making the watch important after all.
SAY MY NAME, SAY MY NAME
Miss Hartigan's got quite a thing about her name, hasn't she? First she says the men never once asked her name, then she says "It's funny, in all these years not one of you has asked my first name." Leaving aside the awkward little point that at the time it would have been highly socially inappropriate to have any truck with her first name anyway, if they never had cause to speak to her (which seems to be the case), why would they ask her name?
A LOAD OF HOT AIR
While we love the look of the balloon, Jackson Lake's a bit tardy with it, since the first manned balloon flight was way back in 1783. Also, Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style? Developed In Style? Was that the best they could do? One of us responded: "I feel physically sick".
WE PREFER A PICNIC BASKET
A bandolier? Huh? Mind you, neither the Cybermen nor the Daleks have pockets. Or handbags. So it makes a vague kind of sense. Still, a bandolier (bandolier bandolier bandolier).
Why would the Cybermen bother killing the kids?
Hey, where does the Doctor's sword come from? There's a noise as if he's drawing it from a scabbard but there isn't one. As far as we can see, it seems to come from nowhere. Did we miss something?
OR OTHER APPROPRIATE GENDER-NEUTRAL EPITHET
We've always assumed Star Trek pinched the idea of the Borg from the Cybermen. Here they return the favour with the thinly redressed Borg Queen. Were they trying to throw Paramount's lawyers off the scent by calling her the Cyberking?
I'LL THROW IN A MARS BAR
Yes, we know the Doctor's an idealist. But why does he even bother offering to maroon her on a planet instead of her taking over the Earth? Would you take it?
GOD FROM THE MACHINE
So what is this Cyberking thing, then? They call both the big tin man and Miss Hartigan the Cyberking. And if it's just a factory, why are they worshipping it?
So if the Doctor broke the Cyberconnection how does Miss Hartigan blow herself and the Cybermen up? And if it isn't her, what is it?
You'd think it was obvious enough that the Doctor was a day-saving hero, but apparently not. After his much better and more subtle stuff as the bereaved Jackson Lake, David Morrissey's back to that terrible awkward faux-heartiness with "His name, Sir, is the Doctor!" Argh! And it gets worse, with the truly cringeworthy "That Doctor on high!" Nooooo! (Also, the Doctor's never been thanked? We think not.)
GOING LIKE THE CLAPPERS
We like the turn on the cloister bell as the Doctor rings the handbell in the balloon. Nice.