Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light – TV Review

One of the most enjoyable features of Doctor Who’s tenth series has been the old-school vibe brought to many of its episodes – see last week’s 60s-tinged Empress of Mars. It feels fitting, then, that the final standalone adventure of the Capaldi – not to mention Moffat – era should welcome the return of ‘classic’ Who writer Rona Munro, who penned the final episode of the original series. It turns out to be a mixed blessing, however. Though it possesses some intriguing mysteries, breathtaking visuals and a promising monster, The Eaters of Light lacks much of the high stakes energy we’ve come to expect of modern Who and it feels lacklustre as a result.

This week’s reason for the Doctor abandoning his guard of Missy’s vault is the need to settle a history-based spat with Bill. Both have their own theories as to what really happened to the Roman Ninth Legion, who historically disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and so they naturally hop in the TARDIS for a quick trip to second century Scotland to find out who is right. Of course, it’s not long before the time-travelling team find themselves getting involved in the usual interdimensional scrapes. As the Doctor and Nardole find themselves captured by a tribe of hostile Pictish warriors, Bill falls down yet another hole and uncovers a band of surviving Roman soldiers who are hiding from a strange creature that only comes out at night.

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On the surface, at least, the Eaters of Light has all the makings of an entertaining Who episode. It’s a fun, light-hearted and slightly-strange adventure, featuring an enticing conundrum that blends folkloric mysticism with a timey-wimey plot device (the story revolves around a set of Cairn stones that encase a temporal rift). There’s also plenty of sweeping landscapes, with director Charles Palmer (Oxygen) making excellent use of real locations as opposed to the creaky set work we suffered through last week. The themes, too, will be strongly strongly evocative for fans: the futility of battle, the power of fear, and the benefits of working together for a greater good.

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The only trouble is, the story doesn’t pull you to the edge of your seat and get under your skin in the way it should. As with many episodes this series, the Eaters of Light is more than happy to take its time, allowing the mystery to unfold gradually while it digs deeper into the lives of its main characters. The difference this time is that the characters are not particularly interesting. Bill, the Doctor and Nardole aren’t asked to do much beyond their usual roles – although Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas do get to exchange some superb banter, mostly at the expense of the Highland setting (“It’s Scotland, it’s supposed to be damp!”).

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Meanwhile, newcomers Rebecca Benson and Brian Vernel don’t fair much better, with the latter’s Roman solider Lucius only required to pointlessly lust after Bill in another needless reminder of her sexual preference. Benson, in particular, feels like a missed opportunity. Her character Kar, the spirited leader of a Pictish tribe, is put at the centre of an interesting moral quandary, having allowed the monster out of the rift in the hope it would kill the advancing Roman army and save her people. Yet this plot point feels completely underfed because Munro never explores the pressures Kar feels in trying to protect her people or the guilt that is caused by instigating the monster’s mass slaughter.

Apart from a few instances of people poking pointy objects at each other, the episode is also lacking in action to help move the plot along, and it drags as a result. Part of the problem is that the monster is barely a part of the action. A glow in the dark dragon with sentient tentacles, the monster has an impressive, and no doubt expensive, CGI realisation, which perhaps explains its long absences from proceedings. That leaves it feeling somewhat peripheral to the plot, however, and severely diminishes its impact as an enemy to the human race, especially given its motivation seems sketchy at best (apparently it needs to kill all humans so that it can eat stars, or something). Without this basic threat level, there’s a noticeable lack of tension in the plot which is desperately needed to propel proceedings forward.

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Overall, the Eaters of Light offers some intriguing concepts, beautiful exteriors and a few fun character exchanges to enjoy, but it suffers due to an undercooked script that would’ve been greatly aided by fleshing out it’s core characters. Instead, it remains a solid but unspectacular episode that will be swiftly forgotten come the first instalment of series 10’s two-part finale next week.

Doctor Who: Empress of Mars – TV Review

With the Earth now safe from a zombified dictator-led alternate reality following last week’s conclusion to the Monks trilogy, series 10 of Doctor Who gets back to basics with a largely standalone adventure, Empress of Mars. Featuring rickety sets, a bizarre story involving Victorian soldiers camped on an alien planet, and the return of a classic foe, there’s a charmingly old-school feeling to Mark Gatiss’ latest (and possibly final) Who tale. Fleeting waves of nostalgia aside, though, Empress of Mars is a fairly uneventful episode that tells us very little that we didn’t already know.

A lively opening sequence sees the Doctor and Bill sneak into a NASA control room at the very moment a team of flummoxed scientists are expecting to receive the first communication from a new space probe orbiting Mars. When the images finally download – evidently BT is yet to roll out 4G to neighbouring planets – they discover the message God Save the Queen spelt out in rocks on the planet’s surface. Naturally, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole (who’s presumably given up on trying to keep Twelve within the vicinity of Missy’s vault) hightail it straight the Mars in 1881, the year the rocky SOS first appeared. Upon their arrival, they find things are not quite as they expected: oxygen is freely available, there’s a roaring camp fire and a squad of Victorian soldiers are using a giant space cannon to blast the Red Planet’s innards in search of precious minerals.

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Earlier this week Gatiss described the episode as the kind of thing he’d like to watch on a bank holiday Monday, and there’s certainly something about the Victorians on Mars set-up that feels quintessentially Whovian, almost like it could’ve fallen straight out of the Hartnell or Troughton eras. The retro feel is most definitely felt in the special effects work, which often feels like it was made in the 1960s. Some fancy CGI shots of the Red Planet aside, much of the episode supposedly takes place in a cramped cave below Mars’ north pole, but there’s no escaping the knowing feeling that it’s really just a sound stage in Cardiff. That’s not intended as a criticism of director Wayne Yip, who does an able job with the budget available. A sequence where the Ice Warriors rise up out of the dirt is particularly effective.

Where the dodgy effects work does cause problems, though, is in the design of the Ice Warriors. Cold War wisely took the Jaws approach to making a monster scary in spite of a lacklustre budget, keeping a lone Warrior off screen for as long as possible as he slaughtered the crew of a nuclear submarine from the shadows. Empress of Mars makes the mistake of bringing back the enemy in its full, lumbering glory, and the results are hardly intimidating. Rather than an advanced race of highly skilled invaders, the Warriors look more like someone has slapped a waste paper basket on an extra’s head and told him to walk like he’s got a pole shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. And their new method of offing their enemies, which involves turning their target into a bundle of dirty laundry, looks a lot sillier on screen than Gatiss and Yip probably envisioned.

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Even the introduction of the queen of the species, Adele Lynch’s titular Empress Iraxxa, does little to offset the naffness of the story. Lynch brings an entertaining mix of grace and venom to the role, but the opportunity to bring a female perspective to the species is sadly squandered – she’s really just another war-hungry commander who’s more concerned with swinging her military might around than working towards a peaceful resolution.

The crux of the plot sees the Doctor trying to broker peace between the Victorian army, who are seeking to claim Mars in the name of Queen Victoria, and the Ice Warriors, who had been hibernating on the planet for millennia until the meddling Red Coats rudely woke them from their slumber. There’s potential here to explore the Doctor’s split loyalties between the human invaders and the indigenous species. Yet, much like last week’s episode, which rushed a chance to examine Twelve’s darker side, Gatiss only gives this tension surface-level attention in what feels like a largely weightless adventure.

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It does, however, give Gatiss a chance to take pot shots at Britain’s empirical past. This largely achieved through Ferdinand Kingsley’s delightfully unctuous Catchlove, a smug Victorian solider who appears completely oblivious to the fact that he’s in the wrong and who bellows things like “Don’t belong here? We’re British!” with enough righteous indignation to make Nigel Farage leap to his feet to salute.

After the grand scale and high-stakes drama of the last three episode, Empress of Mars feels like a huge dip in quality, disappointing with its unimpressive special effects, harmless villains and an undercooked script that lets down its main players. This is yet another Gatiss-penned episode that fails to deliver the goods.

Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World

After last week’s mind-bending head-scratcher of an episode, which seemed to turn off viewers with its multiple timelines, ‘false’ realities and muddled plot resolutions, The Pyramid at the End of the World is a much tighter, more contained affair that feels all the more effective for it. Having set up the sinister Monks’ evil plan for world domination, this week’s episode sees the creepy foes set their scheme into motion. It’s a gripping invasion thriller with a conscience, offering plenty of twists and turns alongside some biting social commentary, and it all builds to a devastatingly emotional climax that feels all the more poignant in light of the horrific Manchester attack.

When last we saw the Monks they were preparing to launch a full scale invasion of Earth and we pick up the action with our fabulously robed enemies having taken up residence in a huge ancient pyramid where they are patiently waiting for their plan to take effect. Meanwhile, in a lab in Yorkshire, two scientists are testing a deadly bacteria that, if it became airborne, has the potential to wipe out all life on Earth. Don’t worry though, these scientists (played by Rachel Denning and Tony Gardner) seem like dependable professionals. Except one of them has broken her glasses and doesn’t have a spare pair (has she never heard of Specsavers?). Oh, and the other one is nursing an epic hangover. On second thought, it might be best to keep your windows and doors shut…

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Despite the potentially world-ending events at stake, the episode is surprisingly slow-paced and contemplative, inviting the audience to gradually piece together how these two initially separate plots intersect. It’s by no means an uninteresting watch, though, partly thanks to some snappy editing and camera work by Daniel Nettheim, who ensures a steady momentum is kept throughout. He also manages to retain the epic scope and feel of last week’s episode. The arial shots of the pyramid are particularly majestic, while its interiors are suitably spooky and surprising – even if the presence of the Monks makes it feel a bit like an episode of The Crystal Maze: Zombie Edition.

Co-written by Peter Harness and showrunner Steven Moffat, who last teamed-up for series nine’s politically-charged Zygon two-parter, The Pyramid unsurprisingly shares similar themes, even if the social commentary isn’t quite as overt this time around. The Monks haven’t plonked their pyramid just anywhere, they’ve chosen a point of strategic importance for the world’s three biggest armies – America, China and Russia – in the hope of provoking a diplomatic incident between these world powers. This clever set up raises the issue of whether these powerful nations can work together in order to resolve a crisis in the middle east, but it also takes some surprising turns.

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The Monks, unexpectedly, don’t launch any attack, nor do they retaliate to Earth’s show of military aggression; instead they invite each country’s representatives to take a glimpse into a future where humanity is on the brink of extinction before offering to rescue mankind. The catch? The human race must submit totally to the Monks and agree to live under their rule forever. It’s an intriguing premise, exploring how fear can drive people to side with dangerous individuals and also how a feeling of desperation to can see people make reckless decisions.

Such desperate situations are where the Doctor shines, and it’s a delight to see Peter Capaldi’s Twelve getting back to his usual eccentric, slightly bolshy self after last week’s more vulnerable appearance. Though he’s still suffering the effects of blindness, he refuses to let a little thing like a lack of sight hold him back, enlisting the help of his trusty sonic sunglasses and Matt Lucas’ Nardole to guide him through the mission. It’s always thrilling to watch the Doctor in his element – saving the human race from an alien foe – and he’s in full flow this week, charging down hallways, making smart people feel stupid and conjuring up completely mad schemes in order to save the day.

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All of which makes those dramatic final scenes all the more devastating. Having successfully outmanoeuvred the Monks by plotting to blow up the Yorkshire lab in order to sterilise the bacteria, the Doctor finds himself trapped in the quarantine bay unable to unlock the doors as he’s too blind to punch the code into the keypad. The moment where the Doctor confesses to Bill that he’s been keeping his loss of sight a secret, which prompts Bill to consent to the Monks’ demands in order to save him, is truly heart-wrenching and emotionally wrought. Capaldi and Pearl Mackie play the scene superbly – you really do feel the anguish and desperation of Bill’s choice and totally believe the Doctor’s despair that the human race has been sacrificed to save his life.

The Pyramid at the End of the World might not boast the bangs and whistles you might expect of an alien invasion thriller, but it’s an intelligent and enthralling sci-fi story all the same, posing plenty of big, challenging questions about the world today while offering an epic scale and scope that wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen. And that emotionally-charged finale leaves things perfectly poised for next week’s concluding chapter to the Monks Trilogy.

Doctor Who: Extremis – TV Review

Up to this point, series 10 of Doctor Who has been largely focused on gently sketching out the burgeoning relationship between the Doctor and his new companion Bill. Minds have been blown, bonds formed and relationships tested as the new TARDIS duo embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the Time Lord’s favourite adventure spots – present day England, period-era London, the distant future and deep space. Extremis marks the moment series 10 steps up a notch, boldly unveiling some of the mysteries that have been teased throughout previous episodes and posing plenty of new ones to chew over for the remaining four episodes.

The action picks up in the aftermath of Oxygen, with the Doctor still blind and somehow concealing the fact from an incomprehensibly oblivious Bill. There’s little time for the Doctor to adjust to his new situation, though, as a surprise visit from the Pope himself pulls him into an ancient mystery. The Vatican has long been the protector of an age-old book, the Veritas, which, as the title suggests, promises to reveal the ultimate truth to anyone who reads it. The only problem is, once someone has learned its secrets they’re immediately driven to kill themselves. With Tom Hanks seemingly unavailable to tackle this particular Catholic conspiracy, it’s left to the Doctor, Bill and Nardole to unravel the truth before anyone else loses their life.

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Extremis certainly feels more epic in scope and feel than any previous episode this series. From the opening scenes, which see Capaldi’s Doctor sailing towards a Hogwarts-esque castle, to a trip to the hauntingly surreal Vatican library, it’s clear director Daniel Nettheim has been given plenty of license to create the most bold, cinematic visuals possible. We’re even treated to a fantastically sinister monster in the form of the Monks. The sinewy, vampiricly decrepit sect of ancient beings are absolutely terrifying, especially during one nightmarish sequence in which a discombobulated Doctor is pursued through the Vatican. Crucially, they’re not some misunderstood alien with a forgivable motive for their actions – they simply want to takeover the world and have a frightening plan to do it.

That’s not to say that writer Stephen Moffat completely abandons the more unhurried, contemplative approach to storytelling that has defined series 10. Despite the dramatic stakes, there’s very little of the hurtling down corridors, fiery confrontations or zippy special effects you might expect from the Doctor when the freedom of the world is on the line. Instead, Moffat is more than happy to let the mysteries unfold at their own pace, gradually raising the tension as the Doctor and his companions slowly piece together the secrets of the Veritas and uncover the Monks’ sinister plot. And it still leaves plenty of new mysteries for next week’s follow-up episode to explore.

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Still, he can’t resist a little bit of timey-wimey narrative play, cutting between the action in the Vatican and those earlier scene of the Doctor paying a visit to an alien civilisation, led by Ivanno Jeremiah’s (Humans) Rafando, tasked with maintaining population levels throughout the universe. These scenes feel largely like an unwanted diversion from the main plot, often sapping momentum and tension away from the Doctor’s immediate plight, but they come with a delightful payoff when we discover the castle is essentially a rather swanky death row prison for Michelle Gomez’s Missy.

Yes, the unhinged Time Lady is back, but in a much more different form than we’ve seen her before. She might still be cheekily defiant at times, but Missy’s appearance is dishevelled and she’s clearly in a much more vulnerable state as she awaits execution by the Doctor himself. Gomez, of course, plays this broken crackpot persona beautifully. While the revelation that Missy is indeed the person hidden in vault, the Doctor having agreed to stand guard over her body for 1000 years, is perhaps underwhelming, the scenes between the two are powerfully and emotionally charged as Missy begs the Doctor for help, reminding him that of their long, enduring ‘friendship’. Of course he would help her. Whether Missy actually appreciates being locked in a box is another matter entirely…

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Missy isn’t the only weakened Time Lord, of course, with the Doctor still suffering the effects of the blindness caused in last week’s episode. It’s fascinating to see Capaldi playing a damaged Doctor. He’s less sure of himself, and more reliant on the support of others than we’re used to seeing from him – even if he refuses to let his disability slow him down in the face of a deadly enemy. Capaldi sells every step of this struggle spectacularly, and he even gets to deliver a couple of defiant speeches as he outsmarts both the Monks and Rafando. Not bad for an old bloke with dodgy eyesight.

With the Doctor spending most of the episode isolated by his own problems, Bill and Nardole are left to form their own unexpected double act as they uncover the Monks’ Earth invasion simulation before anyone else. While their scenes end up feeling superfluous to the plot and their relationship never quite gels as well as we’d hope, it at least gives Matt Lucas the opportunity to explore a different side of his character. It turns out that, far from the comedy butler he appears to be, Nardole is actually a bit of a badass and it’s fun to see him take the lead this week, keeping both the Doctor and Bill in check as he delves deeper in the series overarching conspiracy. We also finally learn how Nardole ended up becoming the Doctor’s chaperone – he was sent by an ailing River Song shortly before her death. The betting for a surprise River cameo in the series finale start here.

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As the first of what’s being called the Monk trilogy, the episode understandably feels incomplete. Nevertheless, Extremis is a promising and intriguing start, gently unravelling the mysteries at the heart of the series while expertly ratcheting up the tension in a way that leaves things perfectly poised for next week’s instalment. Saturday evening can’t come soon enough.

Doctor Who: Thin Ice – TV Review

The first episodes of Doctor Who’s tenth series have been very companion focused. The Pilot introduced us to Pearl Mackie’s refreshingly ordinary cafeteria worker, Bill, before Smile whisked her away on her first voyage to the far future. Thin Ice is the complete opposite of those episodes in every sense. Hurtling back in time to Regency era London, this period-set adventure is the episode that finally puts Peter Capaldi’s Doctor front and centre.

We re-join the Doctor and Bill immediately after last week’s bonkers dropping off point, with a massive elephant roaming across a frozen river Thames during a bustling frost fair. Far more worrying, though, is the giant creature that seems to be lurking beneath the ice and the floating, bioluminescent lights that are luring unsuspecting punters to their frosty deaths.

As is befitting a flagship show on the Beeb, Doctor Who has always excelled at aping period dramas and this episode is no exception. Director Bill Anderson faithfully recreates Regency era London in all it’s showy glory, and while the special effects don’t always convince – at one point Capaldi’s Doctor tries to make a serious point while waving a rubber fish around – Anderson injects plenty of fun into proceedings, particularly as the Doctor and Bill explore the various attractions at the fair. Encountering such odd delights as sword swallowers, street magicians, bare-chested wrestlers, and poor street urchins, the overall effect is wonderfully trippy, like a Dickensian Christmas tale mixed into a fever dream.

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It’s not all fun and games, of course. Written by Sarah Dallard, who previously penned the Clara-killing Face the Raven, Thin Ice sees Doctor Who stepping onto its soapbox to touch upon such weighty themes as animal cruelty, the class system, sexism and racism. It’s the latter that’s given the most focus here with 17th Century London refreshingly depicted as a combustible melting pot of different cultures, a fact which is often overlooked by the media (as Bill sharply points out).

That’s not to say the Regency era was some sort of utopian society where all creeds lived peacefully as equals, far from it. Bill’s initial reaction upon stepping out of the TARDIS is one of fear (“slavery is still totally a thing!”) and she’s forced to suffer through her fair share of nasty individuals spitting racist insults to her face (an incident which leads to a genuine punch-the-air act of heroism from the Doctor). There’s perhaps a case to be made for not giving such distasteful opinions the oxygen of publicity, but surely it’s important for a show ostensibly aimed at children to challenge such hateful views head on? And if that annoys the Daily Mail too, well that’s just an added bonus.

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But while its themes are thoroughly modern, the episode continues to evoke ‘classic’ Who with its unhurried approach to storytelling. One of the most enjoyable elements of series 10 has been the space given to allow the Doctor and Bill’s burgeoning relationship to grow and develop. Thin Ice sees the early cracks begin to show in their friendship as Bill suffers her first brush with death, witnessing a young homeless boy getting swallowed up by the creatures beneath the river. Naturally, she’s horrified, grief-stricken and angry, feelings that are only intensified by the Doctor’s seemingly callous lack of emotion (though we of course know better). The episode is really a test of whether Bill is equipped to cope with the terrors that come with following the Doctor on his wild adventures. Needless to say she passes with flying colours.

There’s also an opportunity for Capaldi to really flex his acting talents for the first time this series. While it’s been fun to watch the Doctor take to his new role as Bill’s time travel tutor, which looks set to be a regular feature of the series, it’s pleasing to see a return of the complex, fully-rounded Twelve we’ve grown to love. Uncovering a sinister plot to keep an alien creature chained beneath the Thames’ icy wonders, Capaldi is clearly in his element, swinging between a full gamut of emotions with his usual ferocious energy as he goes up against the beast’s cruel captors. He even gets to deliver one of his soaringly eloquent speeches, this time deriding the use of oppression in all its forms. Simply put: it’s vintage Doctor Who.

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Sadly, it’s yet another episode in which a capable supporting cast are given very little opportunity to shine. Asiatu Koroma impresses as the savvy and compassionate leader of the pickpocket gang, Kitty, but otherwise there are few characters really worth talking about. Matt Lucas’ Nardole once again makes only a fleeting appearance to advance the series arc – here’s hoping the pay-off is ultimately worth such a frustrating build up.

The only other character worthy of note is Nicholas Burns’ villainous Lord Sutcliffe. Burns is suitably slimy in the role of a ruthless business owner who exploits alien creatures and the poor for his own personal gain, but unlike Capaldi and Mackie, he’s given very little screen time to explore his character in more depth – Sutcliffe apparently acts like an A-hole just for the hell of it. This appears to be the fatal flaw in Steven Moffat’s sedate approach to storytelling this series. While it’s exciting to watch the Doctor and Bill being given more space to explore new worlds and eras in detail, it has a tendency to leave very little time left for the actual plot. As a result, the climax to the episode feels undercooked and completely lacking in tension or suspense as any obstacle is swiftly overcome and Sutcliffe is effortlessly defeated just in time for the start of Casualty.

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Overall, Thin Ice is another enjoyable if slightly unremarkable episode that skimps on the story in order to focus on the intriguing interplay of its central pairing. Still, as long as Capaldi and Mackie continue to push their characters in exciting new directions, there’s every reason to keep on watching.

Doctor Who: Smile – TV Review

If last week’s season opener The Pilot was dedicated to introducing new companion Bill, this week’s episode of Doctor Who is all about fleshing out the burgeoning relationship between Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and his new friend. And like all new couples who’ve survived a few furtive first meetings, they’ve decided to embark on their first trip together as the Doctor whisks Bill on her first proper adventure to a distant planet.

At Bill’s request the TARDIS surges thousands of years into the future to land on the planet Gilese 581D, a brand new human colony that’s worryingly lacking in fleshy, bipedal inhabitants. What it does have, though, is a roving staff of cutesy robots with emoji faces who patrol the gleaming futuristic city to ensure all the humans are perfectly happy at all times. What happens when the smiley face on one of their mood indicators turns upside down? The answer will shake the skeleton from your skin. Literally.

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It’s fair to say Frank Cottrell-Boyce split fan opinion with his previous Who episode, In the Forest of the Night, but the screenwriter can surely look forward to a much warmer reception this time out. Riffing on such dystopian blockbusters as The Martian and Interstellar, Smile boats some intriguing and ingenious sci-fi concepts as it explores the perils of a fully digitised future and the possibilities and complications of colonisation, as well as offering come pretty disturbing proclamations about what may be the ultimate fate of our species on this planet. Cottrell-Boyce also throws in a few clever gags about our current relationship with tech. That the humans on this shiny new colony can only express their feelings via emoji’s feels like a pointed jibe at our over-reliance on smartphones and email to communicate.

Long-term fans will certainly be pleased to hear that Smile feels like an old school Doctor Who episode, whisking us off to a wildly inventive new world and giving us plenty of time to explore the unfamiliar surroundings in detail. The first half is pretty much a two-hander between the Doctor and Bill as they gently dig deeper into the deadly mysteries that lurk beneath Gilese 581D. Not only does this give us ample opportunity to take in the episode’s spectacular production design, it also leaves room for us to take a more in-depth look into the Doctor and Bill’s nascent relationship. Pearl Mackie again steals the show as Bill, delivering many of the episode’s best lines with her open critique of the TARDIS’ interior design (“You can’t reach the controls from the seats!”). There’s an entertaining freshness to their dynamic as they continue to suss each other out. The Doctor has been clearly energised by Bill’s arrival, revelling in the opportunity to be a flashy clever clogs as he schools his new friend in the ways of space and time, while Mackie’s excitable, slightly naive curiosity neatly offsets Capaldi’s immediately suspicious, possibly even cynical, attitude when they arrive on the new planet.

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Once again, this is not an episode in which the supporting cast are afforded a chance to shine, with Ralf Little and Mina Anwar’s talents particularly underused as two of the planet’s human settlers. As with last week’s episode, Matt Lucas’ Nardole struggles to justify his promotion to series regular, appearing in only one short scene at the start of the story. In fairness, this week’s appearance at least offers a hint of greater things to come from the character, with further reference made to the mysterious vault hidden below the university and the doctor’s as-yet-unexplained oath to watch over it.

The monsters, too, are unlikely to join the ranks of the Doctor’s most memorable foes. Apparently called the Vardys, the Wall-E-esque robotic servants seen in the promos are actually just the user-friendly interface for a giant swarm of worker droids who buzz around the city, hiding in the walls ready to pounce should anyone fail to keep their emotions in check. Of course, the emoji faces are inherently goofy, but the bigger problem is that the army of deadly robo-bees the Varyds control are similarly unimposing, even if their favoured method of execution involves chewing human flesh to mulch and grinding the remaining bones into fertiliser (still preferable to Matt Damon’s method of growing crops). Such a lack of menace means any attempts to raise the stakes in the episode’s final third inevitably fall flat. We just never truly believe that the Doctor and Bill are in any real danger when the Varyds are approaching.

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At the very least, the episode looks great. Filmed at the City of Arts and Sciences Museum in Valencia, the architecture is breathtaking. Perhaps taking its lead from The Girl Who Waited, the pristine white aesthetic echoes the glossy, if clinical, minimalist style that’s ever so popular in utopian fantasies right now.

It seems that Smile is another solid, if unspectacular, outing for our new TARDIS duo. The visuals are superbly striking and Cottrell-Boyce explores some intriguing and inventive sci-fi concepts in this futuristic adventure. Yet without a suitably menacing villain or an enticing set of supporting characters, there’s really very little here for fans to sink their teeth into. More than anything, it’s another promising glimpse into new Doctor/companion dynamic that seems to be growing stronger with every episode. Here’s hoping they continue to venture into exciting new directions as series 10 progresses.

Doctor Who: The Pilot – TV Review

The wait is over. After a Doctor Who-less 2016 (minus the now obligatory Christmas special), proper weekly adventures with our favourite curmudgeonly Time Lord have returned.

The fact that the first episode of series 10 is called The Pilot should not be overlooked. Perhaps worried by the show’s slight dip in the ratings during series 9, Steven Moffat has taken the departure of Jenna Colman’s Clara as an opportunity to press the reset button on the 54-year-old show. Exploring afresh the key concepts and joys of Doctor Who, The Pilot is a fun, if unremarkable, re-introduction to the madcap world of a hero who travels through time in a police box and uses a special screwdriver to fix the universe.

Clearly, this episode has its eyes firmly on attracting new fans to the series, which means a lot of time is taken up with explaining how the Tardis works and just exactly who is this hoody-wearing, electric guitar-rocking man who calls himself the Doctor. For long-term fans, that might sound like a lot of raking over old ground, but there are still a few pleasing callbacks and interesting tidbits (we finally learn the location of the Tardis loos, for example) to make it a worthwhile watch.

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The newest element is of course the arrival of the Doctor’s new companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). Introduced as a lunchlady working in the Bristol University cafeteria, there’s something immediately endearing about Bill. She curious and adventurous, sneaking into lectures at the university even though she isn’t a student, and a hopeless romantic, clumsily infatuated with a student called Heather and forever searching for a connection to the mother she never knew. While some have complained of being put-off by Bill’s lack of Who knowledge and constant questions, her ordinariness is part of her charm. She feels like a new fan of the show, excited, overwhelmed and completely in awe of this boundless new world she’s stumbled upon.

With so much of the focus on Bill’s induction into all things Time Lord, there’s very little room for the actual plot in this opening episode, which is one of the weaker series openers of recent years. New director Lawrence Gough works hard to inject some energetic flair into the visuals, with some strong CGI effects and plenty Sherlock-inspired whooshing camera work as a multitude of images surge across the screen. Sadly, The Pilot also shares some of Sherlock’s biggest narrative flaws.

Moffat once again demonstrates his knack for transforming ordinary things into frightening monsters, this time turning his imaginative eye to puddles. The sudden appearance of a pool of water is what first attracts the attention of the Doctor and his new companion. It hasn’t rained for days and yet the puddle never seems to dry out, even as the weeks and months pass, and when anyone stares into it they can’t help but be unsettled by their own reflection, even if there not quite sure why. Things get even more terrifying when the puddle decides to go all Terminator 2 on the Doctor and Bill, leading to scenes of a watery figure rising up out of plug holes in pursuit of its enemies.

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But while the episode is not short of scares, it’s incredibly light of momentum and impact. Part of problem is that story feels very disjointed, inheriting Sherlock’s scattershot story structure by constantly surging forward in time with endless montages and short scenes that never allow the themes and ideas of the story to gain a foothold.

The impact is most keenly felt with the supporting characters. The much-hyped Daleks are barely worth a mention. Rather than being the primary villain, as you’d expect, their inclusion here is inconsequential to the main plot and feels like nothing more than a fan-pleasing afterthought. Stephanie Hyam’s Heather also feels like wasted opportunity. The literally starry-eyed object of Bill’s affections, Heather initially seems like just another MPDG enticing Bill to seek adventure, only for nascent relationship to be scuppered when she’s dragged into the puddle to become a vessel for its watery fury. The entire episode hinges on romantic connection between these two characters but it’s not given enough time to develop. Consequently, what’s intended to be heart-wrenching finale turns out to be nothing more than a soggy mess.

And then there’s Nardole, the Doctor’s other new recruit. Plenty of fans questioned Matt Lucas’ promotion to series regular and there’s very little here to suggests he’ll break out of his comedy butler routine anytime soon.

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Given this is such a companion-centric story, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Peter Capaldi’s the Doctor doesn’t get much of an opportunity to shine. It’s fun to see the Doctor lark around as a bonkers university lecturer, a role we’re likely to return to given he’s yet to discover the secrets behind the mysterious vault hidden below campus, but here he’s really only required to spout sci-fi mumbo-jumbo to a confused Bill.

More encouragingly, there are already signs of a sparky Doctor/companion dynamic burgeoning between Capaldi and Mackie. As Nardole helpfully points out, there’s some good banter between the two and, more importantly, by the episode’s end Bill has already started to challenge the Doctor by reminding him of his humanity when he attempts to wipe her memory. It’s vital that the companion provides a humanising counterweight to the Doctor’s alien behaviour, and it’s promising to see that Bill already has the measure of her new friend.

The Pilot, then, is an encouraging, if unspectacular start to series 10. While it doesn’t offer the grand spectacle of previous series openers and feels disappointingly light on strong villains and supporting characters, it’s a spry and effective introduction to the Doctor’s new companion. And you never know, it might just welcome a whole new set of fans to the wonderfully strange world of Doctor Who.