Something old (the Ice Warriors), something new (the Whispermen), something borrowed (several scripts’ plot elements), something blue (fans must wait until November for the series 50th anniversary celebration).
The seventh season of venerable Doctor Who offers an astounding range among its eight episodes – from perhaps the best season finalé ever to a few disappointingly derivative or simply silly plots. Guest stars like Diana Rigg (exceptional as the wicked Mrs. Gillyflower in “The Crimson Horror”) and David Warner (“Cold War”) continue the trend toward big-name actors taking a supporting role in the long-running series. Even Gandalf, or rather Ian McKellen, lent intelligent snow his voice during the Christmas special (which also arrives this week as a separate DVD/Blu-ray).
The writing talent is first rate with, for example, episodes by Mark Gatiss (“Cold War” and “The Crimson Horror”) and Neil Gaiman (“Nightmare in Silver”), even if their latest efforts might not quite have stood up to fan expectations. But it is Steven Moffat who ended up surprising fans – in a good way – with “The Name of the Doctor”. That episode alone is worth the two-disc DVD set.
Even within an uneven season seven, Doctor Who still provides plenty of entertainment. “The Bells of Saint John” starts off the second block of eight episodes with a surprising visit to a monastery. Soon, however, the Doctor (Matt Smith) meets (again) Clara Oswin Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman), and the pair show off London’s landmarks. The Doctor later takes a memorable motorcycle ride up the Shard.
More seriously, this episode’s threat suggests that the Internet and our obsession with being connected at all times can be our downfall; unsuspecting people clicking an alien WiFi connection have their souls uploaded and, Matrix like, kept prisoner in a virtual reality. The theme of ghosts, mirrored images, disembodied souls, and echoes – that is, fragments of a complete person – is explored from a variety of perspectives beginning with this episode and continuing in “Hide”, “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS”, and “The Name of the Doctor”.
Although 21st century Clara is being introduced as a full-fledged companion, audiences who have seen her in previous stories (“Asylum of the Daleks”, “The Snowmen”) may find the current incarnation to be more bland than expected. At first, she seems only a pretty nanny to her friend’s children, but little of barmaid/governess Clara’s feisty personality seems to have survived to this century. Nevertheless, “The Bells of Saint John” has great moments, even if it's not a completely satisfying episode.
If there's a pattern to this set of eight, it often seems that a weaker episode follows one or two with a stronger narrative structure. One of the weaker episodes is “The Rings of Akhaten”, which seems largely derivative of companion Rose’s first trip in the TARDIS with the Ninth Doctor to “The End of the World”. In both episodes, the new companion gets an eye-opening look at, for her, alien cultures and customs.
“The Rings of Akhaten” offers a rich vision of a multicultural world, one that Clara embraces; the special effects, however, only emphasize a weak plot involving the ritual of singing the god back to sleep, because legend has it he can be very grumpy (as in world destroying) if awakened. Despite Clara telling her parents’ love story, which links her strongest memory to the leaf that brought her parents together, the use of that leaf to solve one world’s (and the plot’s climactic) problem is hardly a dynamic conclusion. It does provide a tender moment as the Doctor and Clara learn more about each other. Sometimes, as with aspects of the first two episodes, it seems like Doctor Who audiences have seen it all before. Individual effects or scenes, or the presence of strong sentiment, may deliver memorable highlights, but most often a complete episode is, at best, good but not great.
A link with the past can offer a big payoff to long-time Doctor Who fans and signal a crowd-pleasing episode, especially when an old favorite is reimagined. Mark Gatiss’ script for “Cold War” brings back aliens last seen on television a few decades ago, the Ice Warriors. It also reintroduces the TARDIS’ hostile action displacement system, which, in this story, effectively strands the Doctor and Clara on a Russian submarine with Skaldak, an Ice Warrior unfortunately thawed on board.
The sub’s claustrophobic atmosphere ratchets up the tension in the same way as Alien, by allowing the monster to run free and attack at will. As other critics have noted, Gatiss often sets up a story in loving detail, only to rush toward the plot’s resolution. “Cold War” has highly entertaining moments, but its deus ex machina ending feels forced. Better is Gatiss’ second script, “The Crimson Horror”, which returns the Doctor to Victorian London.
Once again the Paternoster Gang of Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey) uncover a mystery, this time surrounding Sweetville, a reputed utopia. The reality, of course, is that no one who enters the gated factory town is seen alive again. To help yet another alien prepare to take over the world, employees are dipped into the venomous “crimson horror”. The story is a combination of classic horror and an entertaining Doctor Who romp that has nothing to do with the overarching themes of season seven. Highlights include Diana Rigg’s performance as a deluded, connivingly cruel Mrs. Gillyflower and the leather-clad Jenny effecting the Mrs. Peel look after she infiltrates Sweetville as part of her investigation.
The concept of the Doctor being perceived as a monster occurs in both “The Crimson Horror” and “Hide”. Whereas in “Crimson Horror”, Mrs. Gillyflower’s blind daughter mistakes an injured Doctor for a monster, in “Hide”, the Doctor can be compared with the monstrous presence with which he is entrapped in a pocket universe. The question of what creates a monster – or what humans believe is monstrous – is touched upon but not explored completely in either episode, but it is an interesting theme to tackle, even briefly, during a season that continually questions “Doctor Who?”
Neil Cross’ “Hide” is a good old-fashioned ghost story made better by the twist of the ghost’s identity and the Doctor’s plan to restore a wonky timeline that created a pocket universe. The episode also provides a way for the Doctor and Clara to confront issues like love and death, a subject that becomes the focal point for the much structurally weaker following episode, “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.” In that episode, Clara realizes that, to a Time Lord, everyone else is simply a ghost. At this point in the series, viewers suspect that the Doctor and Clara will not be able to hide their true identities much longer.
Before the season finalé that has generated so much discussion online came the Gaiman-written “Nightmare in Silver”, which brings back the Cybermen with some innovative changes. The episode also rather unfortunately includes Clara’s two youthful charges, making the episode seem as much like a Sarah Jane Adventures episode as Doctor Who.
The season concludes with the much-anticipated “The Name of the Doctor”. Recurring characters [e.g., Strax, Vastra, Jenny, River Song (Alex Kingston)] and themes (e.g., the meaning behind Clara’s lives and deaths) attempt to tie together some individual episodes. The greatest questions posed by stories leading to the finalé are Who/What is Clara? and Doctor Who? The latter has been repeated in several episodes throughout the past year, and audience excitement about possibly learning the Doctor’s name equaled anxiety that it is something less than awesome – and that revealing his name will somehow diminish the series.
Moffat finds a way to make good on the episode's title without spoiling the series but more satisfactorily answers the question of Clara’s identity. Along the way, other big-emotion concepts, including revenge, loss, love, and sacrifice, make the episode’s scenes on Trenzalore moving without becoming maudlin.
More important, however, are the revelations about Clara and the Doctor and the connection that binds them. “The Name of the Doctor” sets up a possibly series-changing scenario. Who is the mysterious, unnamed character in the Doctor’s time stream? What does his presence mean to fans’ understanding of the Doctor? What effect will the forthcoming story arc have on the entire series?
“The Name of the Doctor” shifts viewers’ perspective on the Doctor, but the episode makes a powerful impact not only because of this perceptual realignment, but for some brilliant, if all-too-short sequences. The opening segment before title credits includes previous Doctors, all the way back to the first (William Hartnell). Part of this episode’s enjoyment comes from figuring out which episode is represented by each respective Doctor. In some ways, this seems like the anniversary episode. It is a must-see for anyone who has ever been a fan.
Even a cursory look at fan and critical reviews of each episode in the days (or moments) after a new story is broadcast indicates a wide diversity of opinions. Whereas some viewers love “The Rings of Akhaten”, for example, others complain that it's the worst episode ever. Each episode in this DVD set has its share of devotees or detractors, another reason why it's a good idea to watch these stories again, weeks after the excitement of watching a new Who on a Saturday evening fades. Every episode provides moments of sheer entertainment or an insight into the Doctor-Clara relationship, although some plots stand up to scrutiny better than others.
The bonus features bookend the episodes. “The Bells of Saint John: A Prequel” supplements the second part’s first episode, and “Clarence and the Whispermen” elaborates on the latest monster, introduced in the season finalé. Both “missing scenes” written by Moffat are intriguing in their own right, but Smith’s performance in the “Bells of Saint John” prequel is impressive. At times Smith’s Doctor exceeds the definition of whimsical or quirky and risks becoming cartoonish. This under-three-minute prequel provides a portrait of a Doctor who both acts his age but can be young at heart.
The next time viewers will see the Doctor (or perhaps many Doctors) is during the 50th anniversary celebration in November. Until then, this DVD set should provide at least several hours of analysis to figure out just what Moffat means with that game-changing, possibly series-altering final scene.