I never did finish reviewing the most recent half-season of Doctor Who
at the time, so here I am belatedly catching up with the final two episodes.
This was Neil Gaiman's second Who
story (after The Doctor's Wife
), and it's fair to say that it wasn't as good as the first. There were a lot of good elements in there, but they didn't manage to add up to the sum of their parts - a lot like many other Doctor Who
stories over the last couple of years.
The re-imagining of the Cybermen was definitely one of the good bits. They now look genuinely technological, rather than like men in suits, and it occurred to me that this change was deliberately referenced in what happened to Angie's phone in the story - a chunky old thing deemed by Cyber technology early on in the story to be in need of an upgrade, which is replaced with a shiny new model by the TARDIS at the end. Yes, these are definitely iCybermen to Cybus industries' old Nokia jobs. The way they constantly upgraded themselves, using software patches as much as hardware, and could move with supernatural speed lent them a new scariness which they always ought to have had, but have never been allowed before, while the scuttling cybermites were genuinely scary - especially when they came out of the chess-playing automaton. I still wish the Cybermen would rediscover their creepy inhuman speech patterns from The Tenth Planet
, but I can now see good things being done with them in the future.
Obviously I also liked the Romanesque Imperium, what with its emperor, the Doctor pretending to be a proconsul, the eagle wings and laurel wreath on Clara's badge of command, and the (obliterated) Tiberian spiral galaxy. This was mainly just about conveying the workings of a galactic empire efficiently by using signifiers taken from a familiar real-world equivalent. But having done that smoothly and swiftly it bought space for a nice exploration of what it means to be the single individual with ultimate responsibility for the safety of an empire, who, even with the best of intentions, still sometimes has to do dreadful things for the sake of the majority. Porridge is explicitly coded as a 'good' emperor, and of course as several people pointed out when this episode aired there are certain parallels between his story and Gaiman's stand-alone Sandman comic August
, which follows Augustus as he spends a day disguised as a beggar on the streets of Rome, and accompanied by a dwarf actor. But the influence of the 'bad' emperor stereotype (think Caligula, Nero, Commodus) on contemporary popular notions about (Roman) emperors is still clear from his line, "I could have you all executed, which is what a proper emperor would do".
We got some brief glimpses into the dark side of the Doctor, which I usually like, but which here mainly left me with a sense of how much further they could have been taken. I liked seeing him unable to help admiring the cybermites, actually telling one of them 'you are beautiful!' even when he has just warned whoever might be watching him through it that the children are under his protection. And I liked that the Cyber Planner was also able to take control of nearly half of his brain awfully easily, almost as though there's a big part of him which is pretty open to megalomaniacal plans to take over the universe. But on the whole the good Doctor, bad Doctor struggle fell flat for me.
In fairness, psychological battles are not very easy to portray on screen. You can either
depict a clear good vs. evil battle or
paint a convincing portrayal of a character genuinely torn between two options who might go either way, but not both. This story went for clarity, but in the process it ditched a lot of the potential horror and tension which could have come out of the situation. The 'bad' Doctor was really just the Cyber Planner, while the 'good' Doctor remained himself, always distinct and articulate throughout the struggle. So we never really saw 'our' Doctor being drawn towards evil, or feared that he might succumb to it. And that's before even getting into the awkward shifts between portraying the struggle as seen to external observers and the struggle playing out within his head.
I also didn't think that what I understood to be the moral issue at the core of the story was well enough articulated or worked through on screen. OK, so there's quite a lot of set-up about how the human empire has got into the habit of destroying whole planets in order to contain the Cybermen. This potentially has a lot of resonances for the Doctor, who apparently faced a similar issue himself in the Time War, not to mention with the Daleks in Bad Wolf
/ The Parting of the Ways
and the Pyroviles in The Fires of Pompeii
. But when the issued is raised directly at the end of the story he sounds very casual about it. He's encouraging the emperor to detonate the bomb, saying that surely that's a price worth paying to stop the Cybermen. And that would be fine if we knew that he knew it wouldn't actually kill everyone with him on the planet (including Clara and the children), but merely prompt the Imperium to locate the emperor and pull him (and everyone else) back to his ship. I'm prepared to believe that that was
something the Doctor knew all along and was part of his plan, but there should have been at least a hint to that effect on screen at some stage for the moral arc of the story to work properly.
And it's a much more minor issue, but why make a big thing of the Comical Castle being comical, when it fact it wasn't - not even slightly. Just one scene in which a Cyberman came perilously close but then fell foul of a distorted mirror, automated mannequin or false floor would have been enough pay-off from that set-up, but we didn't get it - which looks like poor script-editing to me.
Finally, I was so sure, along with the rest of fandom, that we were getting a sequence of themed references to previous Doctors in each episode of this half-season. But this one, where we should have expected a Sixth Doctor reference, is where the theory fell down. It's not that there weren't any. This is a season working hard to remind us of the programme's past, in keeping with other strategies for the anniversary year like the monthly short stories
and BFI screenings
. So the Sixth Doctor appeared directly in the montage of past incarnations that the Cyber Planner flicks through within the Doctor's head. But so did all the others, while there was no line or setting with the same ostentatious feel as the references to previous Doctors in the other stories to foreground Six particularly. So I guess that was either wishful thinking from fandom or a genuine intention on Moffat's part which he only half carried through. Like so much else in Doctor Who
these days, it's difficult to be sure.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.