Revisiting Doctor Who: Series 7, Part 2

Episode 6: The Bells of Saint John

The mid-season Christmas Special apparently doesn’t count as “Episode 6”, but following straight on from The Snowmen the Doctor is searching for the mysterious Clara Oswald who he has so far met twice in far-flung locations in time and space. On both occasions, she has died. This is a mystery the Doctor cannot resist and indeed which proved compelling enough to drag him out of his self-imposed “retirement” in Victorian London following the loss of Amy and Rory.

In contemporary London, human souls are being uploaded to a central database via the Wi-Fi network. One Clara Oswald, experiencing internet connection issues, somehow manages to get put through to the “fake” telephone receiver on the exterior of the TARDIS. The Doctor – who is contemplating the mystery of the Soufflé Girl in a 13th Century monastery – attempts bemusedly to assist his caller, but when Clara uses the phrase “Run you clever boy, and remember” as a mnemonic for her password, the Doctor’s light bulb ignites.

Enter scooters, the Shard, UNIT, purple suits, Spoonheads and two mischievous children in an episode which adds up to a big ball of intelligent, madcap fun. The pacing is frenetic, the humour well played, the chemistry between Smith and Coleman is instantly present and fizzing. Celia Imrie plays the second-tier bad guy as a cool, efficient corporate executive. The revelation that it is the Great intelligence (using Doctor Simeon’s image to communicate) who is the mastermind behind the evil scheme is gleefully entertaining.  From the Intelligence’s perspective, more than a century has elapsed since it first encountered the Doctor (The Snowmen), but since then it has encountered the Second Doctor twice: once in 1930’s Tibet (The Abominable Snowmen, 1967) and again in late 1960’s London (The Web of Fear, 1968). Now the Great Intelligence is using the psychic energy of the uploaded souls to “charge up”, but the episode ends with it sated and ready to embark on its next plot.

Episode 7: The Rings of Akhaten

To learn more about Clara, the Doctor travels into her past. He discovers that her parents met by a chance encounter caused by a gust of wind blowing a leaf into her father’s face (a leaf seen in the last episode, sandwiched between the pages of Clara’s diary) and then later learns that her mother died while Clara was a teenager. The Doctor returns to the present for his pre-arranged rendezvous with Clara and whisks her off on an adventure as promised.

The TARDIS materialises at the Rings of Akhaten, a spectacular place of pilgrimage for beings from across the universe entranced by the legend that all life began there (the Doctor mentions in passing that he once visited with his granddaughter). Since the Rings were settled there has been a constant song sung to keep an angry god asleep. The people fear that the god, which they call Grandfather, will awaken and consume the entire universe if the song is ever interrupted. Unfortunately, the alien “god” awakens and is revealed to be the planet Akhaten itself, a Solaris-like living world which feeds on psychic energy. The Doctor tries to “overfeed” the entity with the sum total of his Time Lord memories, but in the end Clara must offer up the leaf that blew into her father’s face on the day he met her mother, which contains an infinite amount of untold potential never realised because of her mother’s early death. The creature, overwhelmed by the infinite potential it has consumed, implodes on itself and the planet and the Rings are saved.

The Doctor and Clara’s exploration of the Rings’ marketplace is a wonderful excercise in creative excess, redolent of the Star Wars cantina scene. One can imagine the glee with which the makeup and set design teams set to work with this one. Indeed, few episodes have so showcased the quality, production values and budgets which now attach to Doctor Who, a new reality which, for those who grew up with the cardboard-and-plywood sets and rubber suits of the Classic series, is sweetly ironic. It is truly spectacular; indeed, this is the overwhelming value of this episode, as the story is relatively scant and resorts once again to denouement by overdose of sentimentality, a deus ex machina to which Doctor Who is often prone. Still, the emotional relationship between the Doctor and Clara is further established and groundwork for what is to come continues to be laid…

Episode 8: Cold War
 

This Mark Gatiss-scripted episode is a fanboy treat for one reason: Ice Warriors. One of fandom’s favourite, yet least featured, enemies (and occasional allies) of the Doctor, these Martian monsters have been in deep freeze since 1974’s Third Doctor adventure, The Monster of Peladon (aside from spin-off media). They were granted an affectionate, dignified name-check in the Tenth Doctor’s The Waters of Mars (2009), but this is their true restoration to the Doctor Who canon.

The TARDIS materialises inside a Soviet submarine sailing near the North Pole in 1983 (during the Cold War). The crew have recovered a large block of ice that appears to contain the remains of an animal – assumed to be a baby mammoth – but it rapidly thaws out as the Ice Warrior within awakens from hibernation.

The episode is structured as your typical base-under-siege story, the Ice Warrior’s bulk adding nicely to the claustrophobic interior of the sub. What elevates the episode well beyond its fairly pedestrian plot are excellent performances from stalwart Brit actors Liam Cunningham and David Warner, and an interesting portrayal of the Ice Warrior, Grand Marshall Skaldak. The updating of the Ice Warrior design is well executed, remaining extremely faithful to the original, and we are treated to a rather exciting evolution of the concept when Skaldak abandons his armour to attack the crew from the shadows far more stealthily than his full bulk would have allowed. (As a trade off, we only see a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of the Ice Warriors’ trademark sonic weapon in action.)

Skaldak’s portrayal as an honourable war hero stripped of his purpose by the supposed loss of his people is sympathetic, though some of the motivations behind his actions come across as more than a little irrational. Nevertheless, a fun episode particularly enjoyed by The Lad, who immediately began to pester me for an Ice Warrior action figure.
 
Episode 9: Hide
 

1974, a haunted English mansion, emotionally-repressed parapsychologist, fragile psychic woman, terrifying ghost, space-time portals, unrequited love, hideous demonic monster, convoluted timelines, old-fashioned behind-the-sofa moments and a blue crystal from Metebelis III.

What’s not to like?
 
Episode 10: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
 

You thought my review for Hide was lazy? How about this: The TARDIS is accidentally trapped by a space salvage ship, leading to a surreal but fan-pleasing chase through phantom-haunted corridors and mind-bending chambers as the Doctor and Clara fight to prevent the TARDIS’ self-destruction.

OMG, I just did a word and character-count and both “reviews” are exactly the same length! How freaky is that? Ah, I’m cheating anyway, as there is a little more to say about this one. Visually spectacular, an exploration of parts of the TARDIS beyond the console room was always going to get the fans salivating as it has never been done in great depth before (1978’s The Invasion of Time featured a great deal of the TARDIS’ interior, but it was awful; the 1997 TV movie made a decent attempt at revealing a little more; both 2010’s Amy’s Choice and 2011’s The Doctor’s Wife feature plenty of corridor action). The problem is that the episode is really quite hard to follow, features loads of timey-wimey stuff, cracks in time (echoing the major story arc of Series 5) and a whopping great deus ex machina. The Lad found it engaging enough, but didn’t really have a clue what was going on. Sometimes I think a bonus feature or special featuring a straight guided tour of the TARDIS by the Doctor would do the job better. In the mean time, there’s always Buzzfeed
 
Episode 11: The Crimson Horror
 

The “Great Detective” Madame Vastra – along with her wife Jenny and their butler Strax – investigate the mystery of the “Crimson Horror”. Many bodies have been found completely red, with a substance on them Vastra recognises from before the Silurians went into hibernation; it’s the venom of an ancient leech, one that petrifies the victim, but they’ve been exposed to a highly diluted version. An investigator shows Vastra photographs, one of which shocks her and Jenny: it shows the Doctor, screaming. Jenny is sent to investigate the mysterious Sweetville, run by Mrs. Gillyflower (Diana Rigg), and find the Doctor.

Another Mark Gatiss-scripted episode, it is told largely from the Paternoster Gang’s perspective. It is hugely successful: a Victorian ripping yarn with plenty of scares and a totally macabre plot, with great performances from real-life mother and daughter Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling.
 
Episode 12: Nightmare in Silver
 

Once Clara is back home, she finds that the Maitland children, Artie and Angie, have found photos of her from Hide and Cold War, along with a picture of Victorian Clara; they threaten to tell their father unless they get a chance at time travel. the Doctor decides to take the children to Hedgewick’s World Of Wonders, an extraterrestrial theme park of the distant future. However, the Doctor and crew find Hedgewick’s has long been abandoned since the Cyber-wars, and is now under military occupation.

Unfortunately, the park is crawling with Cybermites (upgraded Cybermats) and home to a museum collection of deactivated Cybermen.  The Cybermites reactivate the Cybermen and even partially upgrade the Doctor himself: sharing the Cyberman über-consciousness, the “Cyberiad”. This gives him a split personality as both the Doctor and the “Cyber-Planner”, who names himself Mr Clever, share the same body and each control almost half of the brain. The Doctor and Mr Clever agree to play chess for the complete control of the body. Meanwhile, the reactivated Cybermen storm Hedgewick’s and engage the occupying troops – led by Clara – in pitched battle.

Scripted by Neil Gaiman, with a cast including Jason Watkins, Warwick Davis and Tamzin Outhwaite, this is a mixed bag of an episode: stacks of action, some genuine tension and Cybermen who’ve rediscovered their scare mojo. Still, the episode is not entirely successful, with a generous scattering of plot holes, some dodgy child acting and a little too much borrowing from Star Trek‘s “Borg” for my liking. The scenes where the Doctor flip-flops between his own persona and that of Mr. Clever are not entirely successful; indeed, a lot of the pacing and direction is flawed.

To answer my eternal question: Are they Mondasian Cybermen or “Pete’s World” refugees? These Cybermen appear to be a mixture of both. Gaiman’s rationalisation was that the Cybus Cybermen who were “zapped off into time and space” at the end of The Next Doctor eventually met the Mondas Cybermen; cross-breeding and exchange of technology resulted in the new variety. Mmmmmm… not too sure that works, boyo.
 
Episode 13: The Name of the Doctor
 

This is the one everyone has been waiting for since the Christmas  Special: who is Clara? Why does she crop up in different space-time locations, only to die? Why doesn’t the TARDIS like her? Unexpectedly – because Moffat is notorious for leaving unresolved plot threads to dangle for eternity (we still don’t know why the TARDIS blew up in Series 5 and why the Silence hate the Doctor so much) – we also find out the meaning of the prophecy from The Wedding of River Song: “On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer a question will be asked—one that must never be answered. And Silence must fall when the question is asked.”

The episode opens on Gallifrey, as the First Doctor steals an obsolete TARDIS (revealed in its default form to resemble a featureless metallic cylinder) with his granddaughter. Meanwhile, in 1893, the Paternoster Gang are given information concerning the Doctor by a condemned murderer:  “It is a secret he will take to the grave, and it is discovered.” They use psychotropic drugs to astrally project themselves and Clara Oswald across space and time to a dream realm as a “conference call”, hosted by none other than River Song. But it isn’t the living River Song, rather a projection of her consciousness from within the computer system on the Library planet, some time after her death in Forest of the Dead. During their conference, strange faceless humanoids called Whisper Men attack the Gang where their bodies sleep; River shocks Clara awake to save her.

Clara awakes in contemporary London to find the Doctor visiting her for their weekly outing. Deeply shocked by what Clara tells him, the Doctor reveals that Trenzalore is the site of his tomb, the place he is destined to die his final death. Nevertheless, he resolves to go to Trenzalore to save his friends, even though visiting the location of his own grave is dangerous for a time traveller. Indeed, even the TARDIS resists the Doctor’s efforts to land on Trenzalore, eventually crash landing. There they find a future version of the TARDIS looming gigantically over a vast, desolate war cemetery, gradually expanding as its transdimensional systems decay. The Doctor, Clara, Vastra, Jenny and Strax (plus an invisible psychic projection of River) are brought together before the TARDIS’ colossal doors, surrounded by Whisper Men and confronted by the Great Intelligence (in the form of Dr Simeon).

The Great Intelligence threatens to kill the Doctor’s allies unless he speaks his true name to open the TARDIS doors. The Doctor refuses, but River – still only visible to Clara – says the Doctor’s name (unheard by the viewer) and the doors swing open. Inside, a pulsating column of light representing the Doctor’s maze of journeys across time and space sits where the console would usually be. The Great Intelligence sees the light as a wound in the fabric of space and time, and enters it in order to undo the Doctor’s past as revenge for all the defeats it has been dealt. The Doctor warns that this will prove fatal to the Intelligence, but it sees its own death as a peaceful release, while the Doctor will be forced to suffer. The Great Intelligence and its Whisper Men disappear into the timeline, and Vastra notices that the stars in the sky are going out as the Doctor’s past victories are undone, even as Jenny and Strax fade from existence.

Clara, slowly realising that she has helped the Doctor in other places in time and space, decides to enter the column of light to restore the Doctor’s timeline by preventing all the damage the Great Intelligence is trying to wreak. The Doctor and River try to stop her, but she calls back “run, you clever boy, and remember me” before disappearing into the light. Clara is seen falling through space and time, and appearing throughout the Doctor’s past incarnations in a brilliantly conceived and executed montage (even steering the First Doctor towards the particular TARDIS he must “borrow” from the museum on Gallifrey). She saves the various incarnations of the Doctor (precisely how she counters the actions of the Great Intelligence is left intentionally vague) but most of them did not notice her – save for the 11th Doctor himself. (And this is why the TARDIS doesn’t like her: fragmented throughout time and space, she is a temporal anomaly, as offensive to the TARDIS as Captain Jack Harkness.)

The universe is restored to normal, but the Doctor prepares to save Clara, instructing the others to get away in the TARDIS in case he fails to return. It is at this point that we learn that the Doctor could see River’s astral presence all along, but he was ignoring her to avoid suffering the emotional pain (is this River Song’s swan song? Alex Kingston’s last hurrah?). Still, the Doctor grants her the parting she seeks, and as River fades, the Doctor enters the column of light to save Clara.

In a cavernous place, surrounded by ghostly images of the Doctor’s previous incarnations, Clara is guided to safety by the Eleventh Doctor. However the two spot another figure in the shadows which Clara does not recognise from the Doctor’s past. The Doctor tells her that it is yet another version of himself, but not as “The Doctor”; he explains that his chosen name is a promise he made to himself, and that the stranger is his secret: “the one who broke the promise”. The stranger addresses the Doctor saying, “What I did, I did without choice… in the name of peace and sanity,” to which the Doctor replies, “But not in the name of ‘The Doctor'”. As the Doctor carries Clara away, the stranger turns around and an onscreen caption appears: “Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor”.

Wow.
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About Mark Winter

Dark Fantasy novelist (INFERNAL PREY). Blogging on politics and current affairs (GibberLog), science and history (BlatherLog), sci-fi, fantasy & horror (WittlerLog), business, product development & start-ups (MutterLog). View all posts by Mark Winter

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