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.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce. That sounds familiar. What did he…oh. That episode. The horrifyingly inept one with the trees. Why on (a future devastated) earth did he get asked back? Why? Why?
Oh well, he's here now. And things actually get off to quite a nice start. The scene with the Doctor and Bill (Moffat-penned?) is simply enchanting to watch: we applaud the new twists on a dusty scenario as newbie Bill asks the questions that would never occur to the rest of us in a thousand regenerations. "How much did it cost?" Brilliant. Just like Nardole, who is underused here but again earns every nanosecond of his screen time. What's more, in his little throwaway moan about not being a slave to humans, they manage to sneak in the theme of the episode right under our noses. Well played.
And then we're at Valencia's City Of Arts And Sciences (how excruciatingly appropriate), which has been magically plonked down in a wheatfield in the middle of the future. There's a good case to be made that the location is the actual star of this episode: we're not sure we've ever seen a more breathtaking futurey setting. And the scene with the workers struggling to keep smiling in the face of horror is equally breathtaking. We found ourselves wondering why, if it could get this good, why they hadn't been doing it all along.
The goodness continues as the Doctor and Bill explore. Two-hander stuff needs some very good actors, and whaddayaknow, we have 'em, so it's blistering. We take it back about the City of Arts And Etc being the star (sorry, Valencia): the real jewel of this episode is the relationship between Bill and the Doctor. Bill's grabbing the novelty of the experience with both hands, while the Doctor's in puzzle-solving mode, and the two play off each other perfectly.
And then, just a teeny bit at first, then gathering speed, it all starts to fall apart.
One of the problems with the trees episode was, as well as the utterly shit science (trees giving the earth an airbag, chortle chortle), the wild leaps of logic. Things happened either for no discernable reason or for reasons that seemed directly lifted from an acid trip. We liketh it not. It doesn't have to be ultra-rigorous: the molten core of handwavium is, after all, what's been powering Doctor Who all these years. However, the S in SF does inescapably stand for science, and we contend that means they have to at least have a stab at making it sound plausible, both on the science and the logic levels. Here, as with the trees, not so much.
The Doctor in particular leaps to so many conclusions he's in danger of spraining something. Why does he assume that it was the robots who stuffed the humans in the crusher? (OK, he's right, but there are dozens of other potential scenarios.) And how does he get from there to deciding that the robots got the wrong end of the stick about making humans happy? The Doctor would be the first to tell us how brilliant he is, but even he would have trouble drawing this conclusion on basically no evidence. Especially as when the robots have them surrounded in the corridors, the Doctor's disc shows a puzzled face (which caused no problems before) and Bill's shows a happy face, yet the robots don't stand down.
Apparently things aren't as scary as they thought, as the Doctor brushes a robot off Bill's arm with a wave of the sonic. They get back to the TARDIS, and the Doctor tries to dump Bill in there for safety. Oh, for the good old days when dodging all the action wasn’t an option. Since when did a bulletproof escape route do anything for dramatic tension?
The Doctor then confesses his urge to blow up Valencia's finest. Now hang on just a wheat-picking minute. Buildings, gardens, wheatfields: using his amazing deductive skills, the Doctor concludes that this is a setup for colonists, said colonists expecting a functioning city awash with cabbage sandwiches. We're not sure why this is more likely than the colonists all having moved somewhere else or gone on an away day or whatever, but never mind about that now. What does he think will happen when instead of all this cabbagey splendour the colonists are greeted by a scorched wasteland? Maybe he's magic(haddock)ally intuited that they've brought enough fuel to get home. Because colonists always do that. Right? What’s more, waltzing back inside to blow everything to smithereens without even having a bash at trying to fix the problem isn't the Doctor at all. Frankly, it's just dumb.
However, back the Doctor goes, deftly fooling a Vardy by chucking in a line from Ashes To Ashes (you know the one, and considering what happened to the gardeners, the whole Ashes To Ashes reference is a bit on the black comedy side). His disc changes to a smiley face and the Vardy follows suit. So how exactly does this system work again? The Vardy can't see the device as it's facing the Doctor. Since the Vardy's clearly therefore linked to the device in some way, why does the device have to be displayed on the person at all?
There then follows an astonishingly pointless sequence in which the Doctor starts to blow up random machinery, complete with steam, overloading dials, crossing the streams etc, then changes his mind. It even involves a sequence with a Vardy clutching the Doctor's foot, which is a tad lacking in suspense after we've seen him repel one with the sonic screwdriver only a few minutes earlier. As you were, then.
And then, the major reveal: the ship's stuffed with snoozing colonists. Colour us astonished. It was pretty hard to miss this given the heavy-handed fuss they made about where the colonists were: they even dubbed in an extra clue after the fact, having Bill say off-camera "Cause they're all still in bed?" after the Doctor says "We're just too early". (If you thought her next line, in which she suddenly switches back to quizzing him about his heart total, seemed a bit random, that's why.) The Doctor reflects that he nearly destroyed 'em all: ya don't say. Dumb, we say. Dumb.
Bill shows the Doctor the dead woman and the Doctor laboriously works out that a grief tsunami is what set the Vardys on their deadly track. OK, but tell us this: why the hell hadn't anybody noticed this about the Vardys' programming before? It's really pushing our suspension of disbelief to try and make us believe that colonists would set off, into space yet, with a brand new and untested technology on which they were pinning their entire survival. People just don’t do that.
Then just when you think it's all over, there's a sudden lurch into philosophy. In another wild reach, the Doctor classifies flickering expressions on a Vardy's…er…face… as emotions, then concludes that because they're able to register themselves as being under attack, they're sentient. Wha? By this logic, a car alarm is sentient if it goes off when you lean against the car. Why would he jump to this conclusion, rather than the equally likely alternative that they're programmed with self-defence functions? Meanwhile, the microbots for no obvious reason hover vaguely overhead instead of attacking en masse, offing only one of the colonists, and the Doctor delivers lecture three hundred and forty-three, this time about a magic haddock. Sigh.
And this is the bit we hate the absolute most. Like we said, for whatever reason the Doctor decides the Vardy are sentient. And how does he treat them as a result? He wipes their memories and resets them. Yep, he does this to what he thinks is a sentient species. Sorry, but this is abysmally stupid writing. You can't have it both ways: if they're machines, have at the reset button with impunity, but if they're sentient, you can't just make free with the inside of their heads, completely rewriting who they are, without their permission. We're gobsmacked that the writers cannot see that in categorising the Vardy as sentient they've just made the Doctor commit an atrocity.
But there's more. On top of all of this, the Doctor then makes a speech lumberingly casting the Vardy as the indigenous population. The moralising is strong in this one, but it makes absolutely no sense. For a start, the Vardy are only there before these humans because they've killed all the other humans that were previously there with them. What's more, the only reason the Vardy think it's their city is the Doctor's mindwipe. Despite all the mutterings about slave classes, that's not what happened at all. Even if you accept that the Vardy are sentient now, they weren't then, and they were no more the slaves of humans than a wrench is. Just because the big robots are vaguely human-shaped does not change this in any way.
The humans really haven't done anything wrong here. Having them ignore the Doctor and start shooting at the microbots is designed to cast them in a less than saintly light, but actually their actions, if stupid, are reasonable. As far as they're concerned, the Vardy have slaughtered their people and they're defending themselves from them, which is not a position we can quarrel with. Heaping opprobrium on their heads for being slavers, when at the time the Vardy were nothing more than machines, really is ridiculously on the nose.
Even allowing a bit of leeway for dramatic tension, this is way too bulky a collection of illogic, randomness and guessing. But what's worse is that a lot of it's coming directly from the Doctor. The Doctor is not someone whose first thought is to reach for the stick of dynamite. Nor is he a slouch in the reasoning department. This guy, therefore, is not the Doctor.
We tried smiling. We have it on good authority that psychologically it has a measurable effect on your mood states. (No, we don't know what "psychologically" is doing in that sentence, either. Ask the Doctor.) But all our efforts were for naught. Thumbs down.
GROWN PART I
The Doctor and Bill enter the garden section and, with a Time Lordly wave of his hand, the Doctor mansplains to Bill that these are crops. Well, no shit, dude. There are garden beds with like earth and cabbages and stuff. What else would they be? Pogo sticks?
THERE IS NO TRY
We all loved Blink, right? None of us more than Moffat himself, it seems, since he just can't get over the do/don't do something device. Can we give it a rest now, please?
Bill wears a guitar necklace. Is this meant to be a hint that she's the Doctor's acolyte?
GROWN PART II
"In the future we don't eat living things, we eat algae." Obviously the Doctor hasn't been tutoring Bill in biology.
TWO HEARTS EAT AS ONE
So two hearts equals two cubes, but they’re on one plate. Why? Like so much else, It doesn’t make sense. If they think it's two people, it'd be on two plates. If they think it's one person, it'd be one cube. Also, why is Bill so surprised the Doctor has two hearts? She knows he's an alien, but it's the hearts she has a problem with?
TERMINATION OF LEASE
The Doctor's feeble assurance to the colonists that the Vardy didn't really mean to kill them and won't do it again, probably, falls far short of convincing. Given their ability to effortlessly annihilate humans, we wouldn't be hanging around to find out.
A CLASSIC BLUNDER
Among the grab bag of pompous yet botched themes they're attempting here seems to be one about the irony of forced happiness. Just a shame that Doctor Who's already done that a thousand times better in The Happiness Patrol.