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10 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 830: The Rings of Akhaten

Dear diary,

In the last few weeks, The Rings of Akhaten has been included in a bundle of episodes designed to represent the ten years that Doctor Who has been back on screens, and everywhere I’ve seen people discussing said bundle, I’ve seem them completely confused as to why this - of all episodes - was deemed suitable to include. Which I don’t quite get, because I’ve always rather liked this one! This was the first episode for which I wrote a brief spoiler-free preview for Doctor Who Online, and I was pretty positive about it there, too.

Looking back at that preview now, I’m pleased to see that I was already commenting on something which I’ve been noticing again in the programme over the last week-or-so of the Diary;

There’s something of a vibe of the Russell T. Davies era present here, with our brand new companion out on her first adventure. The story serves the same purpose as The End of the World or The Fires of Pompeii, and there are elements of both those stories echoed here, opening Clara’s eyes to the wonder of the TARDIS.

This latter half of Series Seven really does feel like it’s reverting to the RTD staple for introducing a new companion. They get the modern-day story which opens their eyes to the wider world that’s all around them. We then take a trip forward in time to explore lots of the weird and wonderful aliens that are out there, and in tomorrow’s episode we’ll venture back into history, and see how that works, too. There’s certainly a reason for doing this - it works (and they did the same thing with Amy’s introduction, too, but it’s been so long that it feels like an absolute lifetime since we last had this set-up).

This really is perhaps most like The End of the World, because we’ve got a real parade of weird and wonderful aliens, which the Doctor is fairly clued in about, while the companion is less sure. There’s some great designs in here, too, and I’m somewhat surprised that none of them have since cropped up for return appearances. It does feel like a bit of a shame that we don’t have any of the old favourites, though. Would be nice to have an Ood wandering the streets, or maybe a Slitheen. I still hold out hope they’ll turn up again one day.

Where this differs from The End of the World is that Clara doesn’t really find herself overwhelmed by the prospect of all this. Instead, the Doctor actively vanishes from the story for a little while, and we get to watch through Clara’s eyes, as she introduces herself to all of this. She makes the decision to get involved - not because the Doctor guides her to, but because it’s naturally her.

But the real highlight of this story has to be those final speeches when the Doctor and Clara put an end to the ‘God’ at the heart of the Akhaten system. Matt Smith has continued to grow and develop in this role (in my preview for this episode, I commented ‘Matt Smith continues to - impossibly - keep getting better at simply being the Doctor’), and his monologue here must surely rank as one of his finest moments. As if that wasn’t enough, Jenna Coleman then shows up and continues that skill into her own performance. She really shows you why she won the role during these moments.

I also feel the need to make a rare point of praising the soundtrack here - an area which I sadly tend to overlook when writing this Diary. The music to this episode, and again especially during those final scenes, is so beautiful and well done - it’s no wonder that they reused several cues from this one to underscore the Doctor’s regeneration several months later; there’s a really hauntingly beautiful quality to it all, and it really does pull at your emotions in just the right way…

 

 
9 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 829: The Bells of Saint John

Dear diary,

I mused the other day that the arrival of Kate Stewart in the programme was sort of the first ring of the Cloister Bell as far as The 50 Year Diary was concerned - a character being introduced to the programme who is still an active part of it now. Today’s episode brings that realisation even closer to home, because not only do we have the first appearance of the ‘prime’ Clara - who’s still the main companion in the programme at the time of writing - but The Bells of Saint John was the first ‘new’ episode of Doctor Who to air once I’d embarked on this project.

Specifically, it was broadcast on March 30th 2013, making that the first day that I watched more than one episode of the programme on the same day during the course of this marathon - watching The Bells of Saint John simply because it was brand new Doctor Who on the telly, having already watched Trap of Steel, the second episode of Galaxy 4. I gave it a 5/10. Trap of Steel, that is, not this one. (Actually, I watched three episodes that day, because I followed the broadcast of Bells with the preview tape for The Rings of Akhaten, making something of a ‘new Doctor Who double bill’ that evening). It meant it was also the first time that I realised this marathon could and would be affected by what was happening in the continuing world of the programme, and it meant a few weeks later that I spent much of my write up for The War Machines comparing that story to this one.

Why do I bring it up again here? Well, because, while I was watching this one I made a note that the story bore several similarities to The War Machines, and it was only when I mentioned that to a friend that he pointed out to me that I’d already made that connection, two years ago. To be fair, that was around Day 130, so I’ve been through a fair bit of Doctor Who since then…

Specifically, I noted that The War Machines felt like a real breath of fresh air to a programme that had started feeling increasingly stale, despite one or two recent gems, and that the fresh air is provided by new companions (Ben and Polly / Clara) being introduced in a story that’s set firmly in ‘present day’ London, utilising ‘modern’ technology that’s being controlled from the city’s newest landmark (The Post Office Tower / The Shard).

After all this time, I’m somewhat pleased to see that The Bells of Saint John can still feel like such a fresh start for the programme. As I seem to have said a lot over the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying this era far more than I did first time around, but several of the faults that irked me in the past are still present - and this story really does feel like it’s casting off the shadow of the last few years and striding towards the anniversary with a renewed spring in its step.

I don’t know if I really appreciated before just how much the Doctor’s new purple costume helps to define the change - it’s such a different look to the tweed that matt Smith has sported up until now, and really does carve his era into two distinct phases - the ‘Pond’ Era, and the ‘Clara’ era. Everything feels new and exciting again, and that’s always the best thing that Doctor Who can be.

(I should note, I’ve not touched in the last couple of days on the return of the Great Intelligence and how it impacts the timeline for the character that I’ve been drawing up in the Diary since The Abominable Snowmen - I’m saving that for The Name of the Doctor next week…)

 

 
8 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 828: The Snowmen

Dear diary,

What a difference a year makes! Sitting down to watch this one, Christmas day 2012, was akin to some kind of religious experience. The Ponds were gone, the Doctor was about to get a whole new costume (it wouldn’t debut until the next episode, but the tweed was gone, and with it the weight of the entire era up to this point), there was a new companion about to debut, along with a new TARDIS, the return of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, who’d been rather fun during their brief appearance eighteen months earlier… 

And as if all that excitement wasn’t enough, the episode was bloody brilliant! Haha! Oh, I mean, come on, watching this less than a week after the last Christmas special really does serve to highlight how much better this one is. Watching it today has been one of my absolute favourite parts of this entire marathon, and it easily slides into the ’10/10’ bracket.

I’ve got simply loads of notes for today’s episode, but I’m going to try and refrain from turning this entry into some kind of gushing list of everything I like about this one. Instead, I’m going to try and focus in on a few things that stand out as particularly brilliant.

First of all - the pacing of the episode. It’s another one of those stories that plays out with no real desire to rush. The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe crashes onto Christmas Day screens with an exploding spaceship and the Doctor plummeting to Earth, whereas this is an altogether more measured affair. It’s very talky, as episodes go, and despite the odd menacing snowman popping up from time-to-time to give us a bit of action, not a lot really happens in that regard until the Ice Nanny arrives on the scene. It’s never boring though. There’s no danger of my attention wandering off this Christmas, because every scene is so perfectly crafted, and it all sweeps you along with the story.

That’s likely my second point, actually - how well crafted the whole piece is. Take a scene like Clara’s first meeting with Vastra, for example, and just watch how it’s constructed. The one word test is so clever, and the exchange of information handled so well between the pair. We could have done with something like this when Dodo was introduced. That careful back-and-forth of information between characters allows the story to play out in its own way, allowing the audience to work it out as we go, as opposed to trying to shove it down our throats and explain everything as it drudges along.

All of that makes it sound a little bit dry - especially for post-Christmas Dinner - but that’s not the case at all, because Strax has been turned up to eleven, and works as simply brilliant comic relief throughout the story. Oh, I hooted along as I quoted all his lines back at the screen today. Frankly, it was all a bit pants in here at some points, but I don’t care because it was brilliant.

And then there’s the reveal of the big bad villain behind it all - and it’s only the Great bloody Intelligence! Haha! Oh, that shocked me first time around. I worked it out fairly early on while watching first time around, but then decided that I was probably wrong, and it was only there to wrong-foot us fanboys who’d be giddy at the thought of the Intelligence making a return. But then it is him! Oh, I should have guessed with a title like this, frankly, but it’s such a brilliant reveal. And voiced by Sir Ian McKellen of all people! I can bang on about the scope of the programme increasing in terms of its visuals, but when you can lure stars like this for what’s seemingly quite a small part, that’s when you know how big Doctor Who has gotten…

In case you can’t tell, I’m just rambling now. This always happens when an episode comes along that I don’t just enjoy but actively love, and The Snowmen is certainly in that top tier. I’ll stop now otherwise today’s entry will just become unbearable, but I think this has to be by far my favourite of the Christmas specials, and the perfect way to begin a big new chapter in the programme’s life.

 

 
7 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 827: The Angels Take Manhattan

Dear Diary,

I mentioned a few days ago that one of the most exciting aspects of moving to Cardiff was getting the chance to see bits of Doctor Who 'live' as filming went on. This episode was the first time I encountered the 'dark' side of all that. I'd been invited along to a local pub to meet with other fans who enjoyed seeing the filming in action. Upon arrival, I was handed a bundle of papers - about half the script for this episode. Upon wondering where they'd managed to get a hold of such a thing (several months before it was due to air), I was told that a member of the crew had left it on the seat of a car and 'not locked the door'. Suffice to say I didn't bother going back to that particular grouping again and the idea of watching filming suddenly lost its appeal pretty sharpish. I've seen a fair bit since then, but usually only when I happen to be walking past as it's happening.

Even standing there with part of the script in my hand, I can't say I was particularly enthused about this episode. I'd worried that the Weeping Angels making a return in Series Five would only serve to lessen their previous impact and had been thrilled to see how well they were handled upon their return. A third outing was simply another chance for them to lose their appeal. I wasn't even that bothered by finding out how Amy and Rory were going to be departing the TARDIS - as far as I was concerned, they were somewhere well past their optimum 'use by' date, and I was more excited to see how the new companion was going to arrive in the Doctor's life. This episode was simply the final hurdle in moving on to the new era. Watching through the Eleventh Doctor's life again for this marathon, I have to admit that I've actually enjoyed the presence of Amy and Rory far more than I have done in the past, but I still can't help but feel that the time really is right for them to go - having been teetering so closely on a great goodbye towards the end of Series Six, it doesn't matter how much I've enjoyed these final few adventures with them - they feel a bit out of place.

So how does this episode stack up? Well, on the whole I think I like it. Far from reducing the stature of the Angels, it manages to take their original concept from Blink and expand greatly upon it, really using the ideas to their full extent and making something truly creepy with it. The idea of the Angels 'setting up shop' and creating some kind of battery farm for time energy is wonderful, and it's nicely explored here (even if poor Rory has to die a few more times before he's allowed to say goodbye to the programme…)

But I really can only say that I think I like it, because I'm really not sure. For all that it's a creepy and effective use of the modern programme's most famous villains, it also doesn't feel like an awful lot actually happens. They chase after Rory for a bit, and then the Ponds are gone. Game over. That's probably me being a bit disingenuous (I'm sure you could wittle most Doctor Who stories down to make them sound that simple - 'The Doctor opens the Cybermen's tomb, and they attack…', 'The Doctor gets sent back to the creation of the Daleks. He doesn't stop them…', etc), but it really does seem to stand out with this episode for me. Perhaps because it's such a big event in this Doctor's life, and it means he can never go back and see the Ponds again, it feels as though it should somehow be more?

One last thing I wanted to touch on, because it always seems to come up in discussions of this story - the Weeping Statue of Liberty. When it first happened, I thought it was an awful idea. Largely because it was the first joke everyone made when they announced a New York-set story that featured the Angels and that seemed too obvious to actually make it into the episode. Oh, I had so many issues with it, though. The statue isn't made of stone, for a start, and there's no way that it could actually make it across the city without being seen by someone. If the Angels freeze the second living eyes fall on them, then this one wouldn't make it two feet from its plinth! Watching it back today, though, none of that actually bothers me. It's a great visual image, and I think if you're a kid then it's just the image you want to see from this story. The most famous statue in the world is actually a Weeping Angel! There's plenty of ways to justify all my concerns from before, but I'm glad to see that I don't even need them - it just goes along with the story being told.

 

 
6 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 826: The Power of Three

Dear diary,

For all that I’d been enjoying this new series, I have to admit that I didn’t really pay much attention to this episode. I was visiting family back home when it aired, and know I watched it with my grandmother, who isn’t a big fan of Doctor Who, and spent must of the episode asking me what I could possibly find to enjoy about it (after this, the next episode she watched was Deep Breath, after which she proceeded to tell me that she wasn’t overly keen on the ‘fat one’ - Strax, as best I can tell - or the ‘green one’ - Vastra, I presume - because ‘they’re a funny looking lot’). What I did see of the episode, though, I didn’t really enjoy, so once I was back home to Cardiff I didn’t have any pressing desire to catch up and see what I’d missed.

It’s meant that ever since, there’s been quite a few question marks about this one in my mind. I knew that it was about a load of little black boxes which suddenly appear one day and take a year to activate, with disastrous consequences… and that’s about it. Couldn’t tell you what the little girl in the hospital was all about, or who the cracked-face-man at the end was. Having now actually watched the episode properly… nope, still couldn’t tell you what the little girl was about (or, for that matter, why the spaceship opened up into the hospital?), but I do quite like the idea of a race from another dimension seeing humans as some great virus that spreads out across the universe. I can’t help but think that there’s more to that idea which means it’s a bit wasted on this episode.

The highlights of The Power of Three are, I think, in the guest cast. Obviously, we’ve got the return of Brian again (and once more I can’t help but wish we’d had a bit more of him. I’ll never forgive the BBC for not making ‘Brian’s Log’ a daily web series on YouTube. I’m calculating how to hire Mark Williams myself as I type), but we’ve also got the first appearance in actual, real, official Doctor Who of Kate Stewart! I’ve been trying to think all day, but I’m fairly sure it’s safe to say that this is the only example of a character first appearing in a fan-made spin off production making the leap to actual Doctor Who on the telly?

There’s something a little bit wonderful about that, and I can’t help but love Jemma Redgrave in the role. I’m so pleased that she’s gone on to become a recurring part of the programme, because I’ve really missed having some kind of consistent UNIT presence, and the character is just right for heading up this new ‘science leads’ version of the organisation. The only thing that troubles me slightly is that this is entirely not the character we had in Downtime. In fairness, I’ve not watched the follow up video (Dæmos Rising?) in which she makes her second appearance, but something does feel a bit off about suddenly picking up with her here not only a part of UNIT, but actually in charge of the UK version! Oh, I can’t complain, because I do love her, but her arrival on the scene marks the first piece being put in place for the end of this marathon for me! All the threads are drawing together now, and I’m closing in on the finishing line. Now that’s been a ‘slow invasion’ (I’m sorry. No, really, I am sorry).

 

 
5 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 825: A Town Called Mercy

Dear diary,

I seem to be saying it over and over again (which, really, translates to ‘I seem to be rediscovering over and over again’) just how much the 21st century series expands in size as the years go on. It’s been particularly noticeable of late, what with all the attention being turned over to Rose in the wake of the 10th anniversary week, but when you look at an episode like this one next to an episode like that, it’s amazing to think that such little time passed between them. The 2005 series looked massive in scale compared to the stuff that had come before it (the ‘classic’ series evolved massively over time, but it largely shared a very similar overall look, give or take the few seismic shifts you experience when moving from 1969/70 or 1979/80), but this episode, for example, is in a whole new league. Quite simply by this point in time the series really is producing a Hollywood film every week and on a budget which was - I think - actually down from 2005!

The split in Series Seven hugely benefits these opening five episodes, which feature the snowcapped mountains of the Dalek Asylum, the Wild West as depicted here, and scenes filmed in New York for the Pond’s farewell adventure. Quite simply, the programme has never had a visual style as broad as this, and I don’t think it’s really managed to achieve it again since, even though it’s continued to alter and expand its scope in different areas. It means that these Series Seven-A episodes really highlight that wonderful ability of Doctor Who to be different every week. The tone of the programme shifts hugely across this batch of episodes, and it’s almost as though the programme is returning from that big nine-month break in transmission by reminding you just how wild, and brilliant, and - frankly - sexy it can be.

For me, the location filming (actually, the overall design of this entire serial, if I’m honest - it’s telling that I often can’t tell here where location ends and studio begins) has to be the real highlight of this one. The story itself is alright, I suppose, but I can’t really claim that it’s grabbed my attention in the same way that the headline Dinosaurs on a Spaceship did. Once again, this is an excursus in creating a bit of a blockbuster, and it’s got everything I’d expect to have in a Western. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination an expert in the genre, but I’m versed enough in simple popular culture to know some of the key features (and of course the Doctor was going to end up Sheriff). Frankly, the only thing missing is a homage to The Ballard of the Last Chance Saloon

A few days before reaching this block of stories, I was pointed towards a theory online that the episodes from The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe to The Angels Take Manhattan are happening in reverse order for the Doctor, compared to the Ponds. The idea - in a nutshell - is that Amy’s letter in the Angels story, telling him to go back to her as a little girl, gives him the idea to work his way back through their time stream, and enjoy as many adventures with them as he can, knowing that he’ll not be able to see them again once they’ve reached New York. I’ve been watching with this in mind up until now, but I think I’m actually just finding it more distracting than anything. The idea sounded quite good on paper, but I’m finding lots f little things which seem to contradict it while I’m going through. Today’s episode is the only time that something seemingly more concrete crops up - there’s reference to an adventure with Henry the Eighth which won’t take place until the next episode, but I think that’s easily chalked up to them visiting that time period twice…

 

 
4 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 824: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Dear diary,

When this episode first aired, I recall simply thinking how much it reminded me of the Doctor Who we used to have in the Russell T Davies era. Watching again today, I’m struck by that same thought. And yet, even having just seen that era again in the last few months, I couldn’t actually put my finger on why it reminds me so much of that phase of the programme’s history. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think that lots of episodes from across Series Seven remind me of those first few seasons, and I’m wondering if I’m alone in that? Is it the colour palette? I’d say it’s the sense of fun in the adventure, but the same could be said of episodes like The Curse of the Black Spot, and that one didn’t feel like a Davies story…

I should clarify that I think this is a good thing! As much as I’ve grown to really appreciate Steven Moffat’s take on the Doctor’s adventures throughout the course of this marathon, I can’t help but innately love the RTD-era. I think it’s because I’d only dabbled with the programme before then, those Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant episodes are what turned me into a full-on, card-carrying fan. When this one went out, fresh on the back of Asylum of the Daleks being rather good, it really felt like Doctor Who had slipped back into my groove again, and this was the series for me once more.

So what’s to like? Well, it would be easier to list the things that I’m not keen on, but let’s stick with the far more positive view of events; first and foremost it has to be the Michell and Webb robots. Oh, I love them for so many reasons. Partly because they’re great-big-live-action-men-in-costumes. When they first turned up in a shot of the trailer, I assumed that they’d have to be some kind of CGI creation simply because of the scale and the practicalities of them… but they’re not! There’s something extra special about that (and the same goes for the front half of the Triceratops being a live-action creation, too). Secondly there’s the personalities of them. Yeah, they might be great big towering-way-over-your-head robots, but they spend much of the episode throwing tantrums, and there’s something inherently funny about that. Thirdly is the fact that those personalities wind up those fans who insist on taking Doctor Who far too seriously! Oh, reading the internet posts complaining about this pair made them all the funnier.

Then you’ve got Brian. Brian may be one of my favourite things to come out of the entire tenure of the Ponds in the programme. He’s a fantastic character, and he’s so perfectly cast, too. I did wonder initially if I’d be able to get Mr Weasly out of my head while watching (as Mark Williams has become so embedded in that role in my mind), but he completely inhabits Brian in these two appearances, and I really wish we could have seen a bit more of him - it’s such a shame that he only crops up during the Pond’s final days in the series.

And then there’s the story itself. I know they were aiming for big blockbuster episodes with ‘slutty’ titles for this half of the series, but Dinosaurs on a Spaceship has to be my favourite of them - it does exactly what it says on the tin and I just know that were I eight years old and watching this, I’d be even more enthralled.

One thing I really can’t forgive, though… that awful postcard from Brian at the end. I love the idea that he sets of travelling, and I like that he seems to have adapted shop-bought postcards for use by simply taping holiday snaps of himself to them, but that one sticks out like a real sore thumb - not just because it’s not particularly well put together, but because the TARDIS is the old David Tennant model, and I simply can’t stop looking at it!

 

 
3 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 823: Asylum of the Daleks

Dear diary,

This episode seems to be at the eye of two storms that continue to rage within fandom. Firstly was the fact that Series Seven didn’t actually start until September, which means that all the talk about ‘never being more than three months away from new Doctor Who went right out the window, and we were actually treated to the longest gap between new episodes since the programme returned in 2005! Oh, the rage that caused at the time. Three years on, and I still see people complaining on the internet (just imagine) that we’re now effectively a series behind, and all because Asylum of the Daleks had the audacity to start late! From my point of view, I rather welcomed the fact that we had such a long break from the programme - If Series Six hadn’t exactly set my world alight, The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe put the nail in the coffin for my interest in ‘current’ Doctor Who. A nine-month gap was long enough for me to forget my apathy and find my love for the programme again, something which was largely helped by…

The second storm that this episode kicks up. It’s something that I suppose I can understand a little easier. It all started when Steven Moffat commented that “every version of the Daleks” would be appearing in Series Seven, and then Doctor Who Magazine did that wonderful wrap-around cover featuring all the different Dalek models. Now, as it happens, the episode does contain a fair few older versions of the Daleks, but they’re buried away in the back of shot somewhere. For a lot of the time it’s a bit of a fun ‘spot the Dalek’ game. The only time it actively bothers me is when the Doctor encounters the Daleks who’ve faced him in a series of name-checks to old Dalek serials… and all the Daleks in that area are the new ones. Surely if there’s any moment to bring in the older props, it would have been there? Even if they were consigned to the background, it was the one glaring omission that took me out of the drama.

That didn’t really matter, though, because it had done the trick. As soon as you drop the hint that there’s going to be some of the older Daleks popping up alongside the new ones, my interest is piqued. It instantly sounds interesting. And then they went and released a photo of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan with an Evil of the Daleks Emperor Guard Dalek (on April Fools Day, of all times!) and my interest in the programme is instantly rekindled. There’s just something so appealing about the idea!

Right from the off, this episode feels so much better than Series Six did to me first time round. It’s fresh, and new. It’s as visually different to Series Six as that one was to Series Five. There’s a shot of adrenalin. The Daleks are opening a series for the first time in almost a quarter of a century. There’s lots of them, and there’s plenty of other stuff to like, too, because…

People who were viewers in the old days, when the ‘classic’ series was first broadcast, often bang on about how great the surprise at the end of Earthshock Part One was, when we find out that the controllers of the androids are none other than the Cybermen. It’s largely impossible to get that kind of shock and awe these days because things get leaked out in advance (intentionally or otherwise), and the whole medium of television operates differently. I’ve spoken before about how great it was to see the return of the Master in Series Three because although there’d been hints and rumours, I wasn’t ever certain that it was going to happen until just before it did. Well, Asylum of the Daleks is my Earthshock Part One. Jenna Coleman had been announced as the new companion months ago. I think by this point there’d even been plenty of pictures flying around of her filming her episodes. And yet here she is! Months before I was expecting her, and without the tiniest hint (that reached me, anyway) that she might be appearing. Oh it was exciting. This episode gains a whole point extra simply because that’s still one of the best moments I’ve ever had watching Doctor Who. The sheer surprise, and bafflement. Oh, Moffat, you’re a clever one.

For all my raving here, I can’t say that Asylum of the Daleks is perfect, and there’s one thing at the heart of it which really lets the episode down - the relationship between the Ponds. They’re getting a divorce, we’re told. It transpires that it’s because Amy is no longer able to have a child, and while neither of them wants to split up, they both think that the other would. In all honesty, it’s a great bit of drama, and it’s packed with a lot of the stuff I wanted to see in the latter half of Series Six - the aftermath of the events at Demon’s Run, and the way that it affects these two normal people in their day-to-day lives. But the whole thing rings extremely hollow - it seems to come from nowhere (The 5-mini-episode Pond Life in theory sets it up, but even there it comes from absolutely nowhere in the final minute or so without the tiniest hint of build up), and it’s resolved pretty easily as soon as its served its purpose in the plot. It feels like an incredible waste of what should be some great drama for the characters, and it’s a pity - by far the weakest part of the story.

 

 
2 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 822: The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe

Dear Diary,

Although I’ve never been one for actively seeking out spoilers, there always used to be a little pang of excitement when a photo from filming crossed my path. Oh, it opened up a whole world of possibilities! What was that? And who was she? And why did they have that prop, or that bit of costume? I used to enjoy musing on all the different explanations, and then discovering that I was completely wrong by the time the episode actually made it to the screen. I think the fun in that has been entirely sucked out of the filming, these days, by a number of people who seem to think it’s their mission to gather as much information as possible, and share it far and wide for some kind of status, but that’s a gripe for another time and another place.

But that excitement meant that when I moved to Wales, one of the first things I was desperate to do was to go and see Doctor Who being made. How brilliant must that be? Only problem was that they weren’t filming at that point, because it was between seasons, and the schedule being shifted around meant that they wouldn’t be out and about for a while yet. I carried on, took a job designing people’s kitchens, and put Doctor Who on the back burner. And then the call came. one day, just as I was leaving off work, I had a message to say that Who was setting up for filming just round the corner, and that Matt Smith was due to be there. Oh, I ran to the location, and watched for a few hours as a seemingly drunk Doctor was helped back towards a police box which wasn’t his TARDIS. I’ve seen a few more bits of filming since then (though, it has to be said that the novelty has largely worn off now I’ve been here a few years. I wandered past filming for Deep Breath twice on my walk to Tesco last spring and didn’t pause for more than a cursory glance on either occasion), but this particular night was special, because I’d never been so close to the people making actual brand new episodes of Doctor Who.

Oh, it was a long few months to Christmas, but we settled down to watch this episode (my first Christmas away from home and my own family, spending it instead with my then-partner’s parents), filled with a huge sense of excitement… and was instead presented with this episode. Dear lord, it was just a horrible, horrible hour. I’ve barely cast this one a second thought since transmission (indeed, when I saw a clip of it recently as part of a montage, I couldn’t place what on Earth it was from until it was pointed out to me), and so I’ve not exactly been relishing the thought of watching it for this marathon. As I seem to have said a lot during Series Six, though, I’ve been re-evaluating my previous opinions on lots of stories, and this one perhaps isn’t immune to a bit of a change…

…On the other hand, perhaps it is. Oh, I tried, readers! I promise you I did. I went for my usual trick, there, of writing the opening to this entry while the blu-ray loaded up, and had it safe in my head that I’d be able to come back to this one and say how I’d been filled with festive spirit by how marvellous the episode was, and how I’d been a fool all those years ago to not enjoy such a masterpiece of Doctor Who. But no, sorry. For a pretty large chunk, I completely zoned out and wasn’t even paying attention. I could see the episode playing out on the screen, and I could even sort of hear it, but my mind was somewhere else entirely. When I came round, the mum was flying the Crystal Maze through the Time Vortex. Or something.

For the first time in almost two-and-a-half years of writing The 50 Year Diary, I turned off after the episode, and thought clearly ‘that’s a 1/10’. I’ve had emails complaining about the fact that I’ve never given a 1/10! I sat down, prepared for it and… well, I simply couldn’t do it! Yes, I’ve disliked this one. No, I doubt I’ll be attempting to watch it again at any point in the next decade. And yet… it’s still Doctor Who, and is Doctor Who ever a 1/10 programme? Really?

For all that I’ve not enjoyed the story on the whole, and actively stopped bothering to watch for a while, there’s still things in my nots that I have enjoyed! Some great lines for the Doctor about the door developing faults, and the Doctor not being who they were expecting. Some amusing asides from the crew harvesting the trees. The frankly gorgeous shot of the TARDIS stood in the attic, which might be one of the nicest frames of Doctor Who ever…

So there we have it. I’d quite happily continue to say that The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe is my least favourite episode of Doctor Who. I don’t plan to give it a whirl again if I can avoid it. And yet, still, Doctor Who always has something to redeem it. With that in mind…

 

 
1 April 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 821: The Wedding of River Song

Dear diary,

The Wedding of River Song is quite a bit like Let’s Kill Hitler, in that you sort of get to the end and wonder what you’ve just been watching. As episodes go, this one has something of a difficult job, really, trying to tie up strands of story that have been running for the whole season (and one or two that have been dangling a little longer than that), and to do so in 45 minutes, as opposed to the usual 90-minutes that finales have had since 2005. Does it manage it? Um…

Well, let’s start with the positives. Even if I did come away from this one with a bit of a sense of not knowing what was really happening, I can’t say that I’ve not actually enjoyed it. There’s an awful lot of great imagery in this one, from the way that the ‘all of time happening at once’ scenes are presented (I’d forgotten about the return of Simon Callow as Charles Dickens - there’s something especially magical about that!), to the Silence breaking down the doors of a pyramid and launching an attack. There’s a lot of great lines in here, too, and more than many episodes of late, I found myself quoting along as I watched, which is usually a good sign.

As for wrapping everything up, though… I’m on record a few times over the last fortnight as not really caring for the Series Six arcs. They simply don’t work for me as well as I’d like them to, and while I can bleat on about the split in the series causing problems, or the way that characters react from story to story, or the format of a one-part closing episode, the simple fact is that everything has fallen apart a bit this year. The show looks beautiful - perhaps more so than at any point before now - but the substance is lacking something. At the time I recall wondering if Steven Moffat was struggling with the workload and musing that it could be part of the reason for splitting the run, and watching it again now it’s hard to wonder all that again; there’s certainly something not working.

On the upside, though, I’ve enjoyed this run of episodes far more than I was expecting to, and a whole lot more than I did at the time. Again, I’ve said a lot of late about how much I didn’t enjoy the programme in 2011, but there’s been a lot of merit in this series, and I’m glad to have taken the time to re-evaluate it. Perfect? No, but it’s a hell of a lot better than expected. If we don’t count A Christmas Carol (as it was made separately and isn’t really a part of this run, then Series Six has averaged 6.38/10 across the run - and that’s way more than I’d have guessed a month back! It does make this my lowest-rated season of the ‘revived’ Doctor Who yet, but only by a whisker - Series Two skirts ahead with 6.76/10 - but it’s not a million miles behind the front-runner which is (much to my own surprise, if I’m honest) Series Three with 7.53/10!

Next question, though… will this general feeling of goodwill be enough to save me from an episode that I’d risk calling my least favourite ever, and which I’ll be reaching tomorrow?

 

 
31 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 820: Closing Time

Dear diary,

When this episode first aired, my general ‘meh’-ness about Series Six had reached fever pitch, and I was thoroughly bored by the whole thing. More Cybermen? Yawn. The return of Craig? Unnecessary. The Setting? Rubbish. The Story itself? Didn’t go anywhere. On the whole, I think it’s fair to say that I was a trifle grumpy.

It’s rather nice, therefore, that watching it today, with a wholly more positive outlook on this run of stories has almost been like presenting me with an entirely different story to the one I remember from a few years ago. More Cybermen? Good! They’re my favourite monsters, after all, and they’re really only used as window dressing here, because… The Return of Craig is the big selling point. We’ll come back to this in a moment because for now I need to touch on… The Setting. It’s not ‘rubbish’ at all - it’s just normal, which again, is the whole bloody point. You can tell how much of a funk I must have been in first time around, because there’s lots in here that I simply failed to engage with on any level before.

As I’ve said, the real point of this episode is the return of Craig from the previous year’s The Lodger. When this return was first announced, I don’t think I had any particular reaction beyond a simple ‘oh, right’. By the time the episode aired, though, it almost annoyed me that they’d brought him back. Why? What’s the point? He was a one story character who had no right or need to make a return appearance and certainly not this soon. What I think I totally failed to grasp before now is that Craig is back because of just how brilliant he is. Also, how well James Corden pairs up with Matt Smith. Oh, they went together brilliantly in The Lodger, but that’s notched right up to eleven this time around, and the highlights of this episode - for me - are every moment the two share the screen. They’re a hoot! There’s times where you sort of forget that it’s the Doctor and a human hanging out, and just feel like you’re enjoying Matt and James having a laugh - and you’re actually laughing along with them.

It’s telling that is in total contrast to the thing I enjoyed the least about this one - the cameo appearance of Amy and Rory. I think I knew that The God Complex wasn’t to be their last appearance because they were destined to be in the finale, but it felt like a pointless exercise to have them show up here. I realise that it’s a character moment for the Doctor, but even this time around, having been carried to this point of the episode throughly enjoying it, I suddenly found myself taken right out of the narrative, and making notes about how rubbish the moment is… and it’s all then highlighted by the fact that we’re thrown immediately back into the Doctor and Craig teaming up, and it’s back to being rather fun and enjoyable again!

If anything, it makes me rather sad that we didn’t get to have one final outing for the pair of them before the Eleventh Doctor’s time came to a close. I’m not quite sure where their story needs (or indeed can) go from here, but it seems like a shame to think that there’s a whole further season-and-a-bit of adventures for the Doctor, and that Craig will be absent from them. If nothing else, can we start working out how to get Smith and Corden their own show?

 

 
30 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 819: The God Complex

Der diary,

When Lynda-with-a-‘y’ (I know it’s pointless to type out the full name, because you can see it’s ‘with-a-‘y’’, but somehow it feels wrong not to) turned up in the Series One finale, it seemed so clear to me that she was being introduced as a replacement to Rose, or at least an additional travelling companion, and I wasn’t all that keen on the thought, because she rubbed me up the wrong way, somehow. Then, of course, it turned out that she wasn’t to be the next companion at all, and that we were supposed to fall into the trap of thinking that, because we feel it all them ore keenly when she dies. That’s the kind of trick you can only pull the once, though, so when Astrid asks to go with the Doctor while the Titanic falls from orbit around them, you just know that she;s never making it out of that ship in one piece (and quite besides the face that it’s Kylie-bleedin’-Minogue, and there’s no way they’s get her to Cardiff for a nine month shoot!).

I resolved to never fall for that trap again, and it was working pretty well, on the whole, until this episode came along, and I became convinced that Rita was to be the replacement for Amy and Rory. She had all the hallmarks, and she’s being set up pretty obviously (but not too over-the-top obviously) as perfect companion material, and it seemed to be fairly common knowledge that the Ponds would be departing in this episode (or, at least, I assume it was common knowledge, because I was aware that this was to be their last episode - barring perhaps a cameo in the finale - and I’d not been paying all that much attention). Everything seemed to fit… and then the buggers went and did it again! She loses her faith, and heads off to meet the minotaur. Oh, that stung just as much as Lynda-with-a-‘y’. Perhaps even more so, because for all I said nice things about Amy and Rory yesterday, on first transmission they could have been anyone for all I cared about them, and I rather liked Rita.

If there’s something that bothers me here, then it’s the ending. Not the ending of all the stuff in the ‘hotel', that's all fine, but the actual end of the episode with the Doctor dropping the Ponds off to live a happy life together. In many ways, it’s a great ending for them (and, if I’m honest, i think it might be the best ending for them), being given everything they need to settle down and start living a more ‘normal' life together. You can only run away with your childhood imaginary friend for so long, after all. I think the issue I have is that it’s not quite built up as well as I’d like. We had Rory snapping at the Doctor during the events of The Girl Who Waited, and announcing that he’s had enough, and there's plenty of hints throughout this episode that the time is right for the Ponds to leave, but it feels like it needed a little… more.

The most obvious thing comes from episodes like Night Terrors, where I was very vocal about the irritating way that the episode doesn’t even try to touch on the relationship that Amy and Rory have with parenthood, and so soon after it’s been such a major concern for them. I can’t help but feel that this departure needed to come after a few episodes of the Ponds 'going through the motions’ because the Doctor is there and he’s ready for adventure, but they're ready to move on and grow up. Time to stop running. I’m also slightly unsure about the way that the departure is handled, with it being pitched as though it’s the first time that Amy will have been without the Doctor since he came back for her in Leadworth - although we know they had a break between A Christmas Carol and another one in the gap during Series Six… maybe Amy simply doesn’t think he will come back this time?

That doesn’t stop this from being a rather lovely way for them to say goodbye, and it’s only right that the bulk of the emotion in the scene is pitched over the Doctor and Amy - while Rory has been a vital part of their story together, it started with the scared little girl being rescued by the madman in the box, and it ends with the scared big girl moving on the next stage of her life. First time around, I couldn’t get on board with the idea that they go on to have another half-a-season of travels with the Doctor after such a fitting goodbye, so I’m intrigued now to see how they feel over the next week… 

 

 
29 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 818: The Girl Who Waited

Dear diary,

I try not to quote long passages of dialogue in the Diary if I can avoid it, but I really feel the need to do so today;

AMY

You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful… And then you actually talk to them, and five minutes later they're as dull as a brick? Then there's other people, and you meet them and think, not bad, they're okay. And then you get to know them, and their face just sort of becomes them, like their personality's written all over it. And they just turn into something so beautiful. Rory's the most beautiful man I've ever met. 

This is just a wonderful moment, and the real highlight of the episode for me. Make no mistake that today’s score is a point higher than it ought to be simply because of how moving this scene was. That quote is possibly the most accurate description of love, as I’ve experienced it, ever. Oh, it’s perfect, and it’s just the absolute best way to describe Amy and Rory’s relationship.

Which is good, because make no bones about it - this is their episode. Every season tends to have a ‘Doctor-lite’ story somewhere among its ranks, and this one takes the same approach as Turn Left, in using the opportunity to focus purely on the Doctor’s current travelling companions, and to really explore who they are.

If I’m entirely honest, I never really understood the love for Amy and Rory. I think a lot of that came down to the fact that I’d largely been indifferent to Series Six, and that seemed to coincide with the programme suddenly becoming huge in America, and what seemed to be endless floods of American fans proclaiming that this duo were simply the best companions ever. ‘Sure,’ I thought, assuming that it was simply people who’d not seen any other companions. Actually, though, that wasn’t really fair of me. We’re almost three whole years on, now, from their departure and yet the legacy lives on - somehow, this pair struck a chord.

Watching through over the last three-or-so weeks, I can certainly see a lot of merits to the characters (Rory especially makes me laugh), and despite a bit of a wobble with Amy right at the start of Series Five (where it felt as though she was being set up as some kind of ‘super companion’ by being the only one who could save the day on several consecutive occasions and to a greater extent than usual, to the ultimate effect that the programme seem to be over-selling her to us; ‘no, really, she is a great companion’), I’ve grown to really like her, too. It’s an interesting relationship that she shares with this incarnation of the Doctor, and I like that there’s a love between them, but it’s quite different to the love we had with Rose, Martha, or Donna. It’s a unique way of examining the Doctor-Companion relationship, and I’ve appreciated that all the more this time around.

This episode focussing largely on Amy and Rory doesn’t mean that the Doctor gets sidelined, though: we also get to see another glimpse of this incarnation’s ‘dark side’, which I banged on about so much during the Gangers two-parter last week. Oh, there’s something wonderful about the look he gives the older Amy as he shuts her out of the TARDIS and condemns her to death. Much has been written in the last six months about the way that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor can be so much ‘darker’ and ‘colder’ than many of the other Doctors, but frankly that’s rubbish - here’s that exact same ruthlessness, but we’re seeing it though a momentary lapse in the ‘cover’ the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors try to project. When the real Time Lord breaks through in scenes like this, it’s really wonderful to watch.

28 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 817: Night Terrors

Dear diary,

So. The arrival of the TARDIS is nicely shot, innit?

Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve been sort of dreading this one, because I simply have nothing to say about it. When this episode first went out, I can remember thinking that it was a bit of a rehash of Fear Her (which in my memory had been rubbish in itself), and that I’d not be rushing to revisit it any time soon. In fairness, watching it today I can safely say that it’s not in any way a rehash of Fear Her, but that hasn’t made me love it any more.

This is actually the second entry I’ve written for this episode, because putting together the first version earlier on, I found myself simply typing as I mulled over the episode, and slowly realised exactly what my problem was with it. The closer I came to the conclusion, the more I found myself getting annoyed by it, and consequently the score today is probably lower than it should have been, as marks dropped off it (not many marks, to be fair, but all the same). Does it deserve such a low score? Well, no, probably not. For one thing, the direction really is rather nice in this one, and there’s some especially nice transitions from shot to shot, but even those can’t save it from the big issue at its heart.

Specifically, the last two stories have been about Amy and Rory suddenly discovering that - shock horror - they’ve got a baby. It’s one that they weren’t really expecting, since Amy hadn’t broached the subject with her husband before being kidnapped and replaced with a living Flesh duplicate. As you do. Just when they think that everything is back to normal and that they can actually come to terms with the sudden arrival of a child in their lives, the kid gets snatched away again, and they have to head back home to await news for their baby’s well being.

Mixed in with all this is the discovery that a woman they’ve shared several adventures with and who their time-travelling best friend has a bit of a thing for has actually been their daughter - albeit grown up - all along. As if all that wasn’t enough, it then turns out that the same woman was also their childhood best friend but in a different body, so they’ve actually been growing up alongside their daughter all this time. I’m sure you’ll admit that it’s quite the roller coaster of emotions for a couple to experience, and it’s probably rather clever that the next story to be broadcast after this little mini-arc is one all about how difficult it can be to act as a parent. There’s so much that you can explore here with Amy and Rory coming to terms with everything that’s just happened.

But that’s not really what happens. In fact, the events of the last couple of episodes don’t even warrant a mention, while Amy and Rory only appear in the same scene as the child of the story briefly towards the end (and Amy’s made of wood by that point). It felt like an odd decision on first glance, but is actively annoying me the more I think about it - why waste such an obvious opportunity to explore the depth of the situation they’ve just been through? Over the next couple of stories, we’re going to be building towards Amy and Rory’s first exit from the TARDIS, and it just feels like this should have been an important step on that journey. A real shame.

27 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 816: Let’s Kill Hitler

Dear diary,

In principle, I think I quite like the idea of splitting a season of Doctor Who into halves. As much as I love having an uninterrupted three month run of the programme (and, it has to be said, returning to that format for Series Eight last year felt wonderful), I can’t help but agree with the argument Steven Moffat made when the split was first announced - that you’re never more than three months away from some new episodes of Doctor Who coming on the telly! Of course, that’s not quite how it worked out in practice (we went on to have a huge break for nine months after the Christmas Special), but in theory, I’m quite keen on the idea.

That said, I still maintain that the first half would have been better had it ended with the reveal that Amy was a Flesh duplicate, and with the Doctor and Rory heading off to find her. Something just doesn’t quite sit right about the fact that A Good Man Goes to War concludes with the Doctor confidently saying that he knows where to find Melody, and then this episode opening with the admission that it’s been several months and he’s still had no luck in tracking her down. Now, I could be generous and say that he’s not actually been trying to find Melody, because he knows that they’ll all bump into her again at some point in the very near future, but that’s not really how it’s presented on screen here.

Oh, but this episode is mental, isn’t it? I mean, there’s so much being thrown at the script that I really don’t quite know where to look. We’ve got a trip to Berlin to meet Hitler, which would be enough for a fair number of stories, but on top of that there’s a shape changing alien justice machine which is operated by the Numbskulls, a half-human-half-Time-Lord hybrid who regenerates into a character we’ve known for several years, the Doctor’s ‘death’, cameos from Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amelia… and all packed into 45 minutes! There were points where I simply didn’t know what was going on, and while it was interesting enough for me to simply go along with, I have to admit that I came out of this episode feeling a little off. I think it was generally a feeling of simply not knowing what I’d just watched…

One thing I can confidently say about it, though, is just how nicely directed it all is. This is the first (and, sadly, only) outing for director Richard Senior on Doctor Who. Even more impressive, it was pointed out to me today that this was the first full television episode of anything that Senior directed! And it’s brilliant! There’s so many really clever transitions (chief among them being the change from a toy TARDIS being thrown onto a bed to the real thing crashing through the skies of Berlin), and some beautiful shots. It’s something of a crime that he’s not come back to the programme, because he’s very quickly notched up towards to top of my ‘favourite Doctor Who directors list…

It’s been a little while since I’ve given you any of my own pet theories, but today’s episode is the perfect opportunity for another one. This one has been superseded by the programme itself (in this very episode, in fact), but it’s something I was quite keen on at the time. River Song. Oh, there were so many theories flying around about her true identity. It always seemed most likely that she was the Doctor’s wife (though, as she herself says in the Angels two-parter, wit the Doctor it’s never that simple), but there were so many other theories floating about. Was she the Doctor’s mum? Susan? Susan’s mum? A future incarnation? A female Master? The Rani?

My own theory was that River Song was simply… well, River Song. Not some old character with a new face, but the Doctor’s biggest fan. She’d dedicated her life to researching the Doctor’s adventures through the history books, and that one day we’d see her younger than ever before, stood in front of a class, giving a lecture about the Doctor and the blue box he travels in. Suddenly, from the back of the room a voice would pipe up; ‘hat’s not quite how it happened…’, and it would be the Doctor himself! Leaning against a pillar, and ready to invite River aboard the TARDIS because he needs her for something.

That wasn’t my favourite bit of the thinking though. I had a theory for how she would go on to become ‘the woman who killed the Doctor’. When Smith’s final episode rolled around, they would be facing down the biggest threat that they’d ever faced. Heck, it could have even been the siege of Trenzalore in retrospect. Either way, they’re there, and the Doctor is woefully out of his depth. He simply doesn’t have what it takes to save the day. ‘I’m sorry,’ River tells him, ‘but you’re not the Doctor I need right now. Your next incarnation would have the strength…’… at which point, she shoots him! A new Doctor born in the terror of the moment, and with the personality to do whatever it was that the Eleventh Doctor couldn’t. She would kill him simply to get to his next incarnation. Okay, it sounds a bit silly when I type it all out on here, but for a few months in my head, I loved that idea. As much as I enjoy now knowing more about River’s story, and being able to piece together her timeline (my own attempt at that can be found HERE, by the way), I do miss the days when it was all still a mystery, and I was able to invent my own River story in my own head…

 

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