Doctor Who - Series Seven Review

So as we approach the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, let's take a look back at this last run of stories (especially now that the "Complete Seventh Series" box-set has been released):

1. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe by Steven Moffat
"Because what's the point in them being happy now if they're going to be sad later? The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later." Having pastiched Dickens for his last Christmas special, Moffat here seems to be paying homage to Narnia by way of 1980s fantasy films, with children, magical places, and strange puppet-like creatures. There are moments that feel cinematic, with a proper feeling of space. It's not perfect -- in this context the Androzani Major workers jar, and the ending with the plane is awfully saccharine, even for Christmas -- but it's not terrible. It's also one of the last times we really get to see the Eleventh Doctor as a big kid, so it should be treasured for that, if nothing else.

2. Asylum of the Daleks by Steven Moffat
"Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you." On first viewing this was impressive, constantly keeping us guessing and wowing us with the sheer number of Daleks on screen. Now though it's a little clunkier, with the gaps in logic and the slightly botched continuity references more noticeable. The main plot is still actually quite good (even if it doesn't hang together as well as it initially seemed to) and the complete surprise introduction of Jenna-Louise Coleman is still effective, but contrasting with this is Rory and Amy's split -- a huge misstep which feels out of character and completely unforeshadowed (one minute of "Pond Life" hardly counts), and therefore tends to cheapen the final product. Therefore, this is, in many ways, the 2010s version of "Earthshock".

[This next bit is for the hardcore fans: everyone else can safely move on to "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship."

[So at one point the Doctor passes through the intensive care part of the Asylum, encountering all the damaged Daleks who've survived an encounter with him, including Daleks from Spiridon, Kembel, Aridius, Vulcan, and Exxilon. Setting aside the fact that none of the Daleks shown in that scene resemble the Daleks from those stories (and they had 20th-century props on set, so it's not like they couldn't have used them if they'd wanted), it's a nice little line, but there are some problems with it: namely, some of the events referenced shouldn't have had Dalek survivors in the first place.

[Ok, so Spiridon ("Planet of the Daleks") makes sense, given that the Daleks at the end were entombed in ice rather than outright killed, so survivors should be easy enough to find (or it could be one of the Daleks trapped in that little room with the plague). Only one Dalek seems to suffer any ill effects on Aridius ("The Chase"), and all it does is fall down a hole -- so the thought of a Dalek needing to go to Intensive Care for that is silly (albeit worryingly in keeping with the tone of that particular story...).

[Exxilon ("Death to the Daleks") and Vulcan ("The Power of the Daleks") are a lot harder to explain. It sure looks like any remaining Daleks on Exxilon went up with the spaceship that Galloway blew up, but perhaps one of the Daleks in the City managed to survive, so we can just about accept this. The end of "Power" does have the eye-stalk twitching up at the end (reportedly -- this episode doesn't actually exist to verify), so that would seem to be a survivor too. Fine, although that does suggest that the Daleks returned for their comrade and presumably exterminated the remaining members of the colony.

[But this still leaves Kembel ("The Daleks' Master Plan"), where all the Daleks are unequivocally wiped out at the end, along with all life on the entire planet (and Sara Kingdom). So how could there possibly be any survivors? Even if, let's say, a Dalek left before the Time Destructor did its work, there'd be no reason for it to end up in intensive care since nothing bad had happened to it. Unless the knowledge that it only just escaped death at the hands of the Doctor was enough to drive it insane. Which is stupid, but it seems to be the best explanation we have.


3. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship by Chris Chibnall
"Dinosaurs! On a spaceship!" An unexpected delight -- well-acted, -written, and -directed all around, with some of the more convincing dinosaurs around (and leagues ahead of "Invasion of the Dinosaurs"). Solomon's fate remains somewhat controversial, but that seems to be a theme they're developing this year, and the script goes to great lengths to attempt to justify the Doctor's actions; whether Chibnall actually succeeds is probably up to personal taste.

4. A Town Called Mercy by Toby Whithouse
"We all carry our prisons with us." A bit of a mixed bag, this. There's an effort to demonstrate that the two centrepieces of this episode -- the Doctor and Kahler-Jex -- are significantly more nuanced than we might otherwise believe: the Doctor is willing to hand Jex over to his fate, while Jex himself has attempted to atone for his actions in a nowhere town by helping the populace. This isn't exactly a new theme for Whithouse, but the Western backdrop and its evoking of Sergio Leone films helps sell the audience on the idea of the complex morality at play here; unfortunately, the central dilemma isn't really enough to sustain the episode, which does lead to some sagging. And someone should have cut the opening and closing voiceovers. But at least it looks fabulous.

5. The Power of Three by Chris Chibnall
"Invasion of the very small cubes. That's new." The first half is wonderful, full of gorgeous character moments and genuine wit -- Mark Williams continues to be lovely as Brian, while Jemma Redgrave makes a great debut as Kate Stewart. It does go a bit pear-shaped when the cubes activate and it has to become a standard Doctor Who story with, it must be said, a deeply unsatisfying (indeed unresolved) ending, but the goodwill that the first half engenders is enough to carry things through.

6. The Angels Take Manhattan by Steven Moffat
"Never let him see the damage. And never, ever let him see you age. He doesn't like endings." There are some logical flaws, especially regarding the ending, but it's still an emotional ride. Matt Smith is particularly impressive in this, a man who knows he's going to lose his best friends and has no way of stopping it. And the use of the book is inspired.

7. The Snowmen by Steven Moffat
"The Great Intelligence. Rings a bell..." Inspired by an unused Douglas Adams idea, "The Snowmen" succeeds through its excellent performances and the self-assured nature of the script, confident that viewers will follow along. Coming as it does in the middle of the season rather than at the top (whatever Doctor Who Magazine might argue about the number of seasons here), this Christmas special is much more concerned with being about Doctor Who than being about Christmas, and that is definitely in its favor. The decision to bring back an old enemy that had only 1/6 of its episodes surviving seemed faintly mad at the time. Now, with the return of the majority of "The Web of Fear", it oddly looks like Moffat knew about the recovery ahead of time (even though he certainly didn't). Oh, and the new title sequence is fab.

8. The Bells of Saint John by Steven Moffat
"There's something in the WiFi." The confidence on display in "The Snowmen" continues here. "The Bells of Saint John" is a rollercoaster of a ride, effortlessly moving from 13th-century Cumbria to a London suburb to inside a plane to up the side of the Shard. As always, there are a few unanswered questions and plot holes, but the whole thing moves at such a clip that you don't notice unless you really start thinking about it.

9. The Rings of Akhaten by Neil Cross
"Okay, then. That's what I'll do. I'll tell you a story." It's not an "important" story, and there are a few flaws, but "The Rings of Akhaten" is a story so unabashedly about beauty and wonder, with hardly a cynical bone in its body, that it seems faintly churlish to do more than gently criticize it. It's a gorgeous tale, albeit one that will probably undeservedly be overlooked in years to come.

10. Cold War by Mark Gatiss
"You speak excellent Russian, my dear, but sometimes I don't understand a word you're talking about." Having lifted elements from "The Power of the Daleks" for his own "Victory of the Daleks", Mark Gatiss here borrows from another Troughton to reintroduce the Ice Warriors. But once Skaldak is captured, things shift to trying to remake Alien, and here's where the problems set in. There's no way to successfully replicate Alien without showing the brutal results of the deaths, and given that there's no way they can be that explicit at Saturday teatime, the question has to be asked: why bother? It also doesn't help that there isn't much here to justify reintroducing the Ice Warriors, given that much of what we do get is invented for this episode and so could have been any monster (well, except then it would be harder to justify Gatiss's homage to "The Ice Warriors").
     Some of this is admittedly a bit nitpicky, but that's only because the finished episode is so frustrating. There's a lot going on here that's right, particularly when it comes to the direction and the acting, but it's constantly being thwarted by odd scripting choices and trying to do body horror without the horror. Ultimately, "Cold War" is the first real letdown of this season.

11. Hide by Neil Cross
"So where's the ghost? Show me the ghost. It's ghost time." An effective ghost story with a pleasing twist halfway. There's a lot to enjoy, with the direction and lighting really helping the mood. The bit with Clara about how "we're all ghosts to you" is a bit bizarre though; you can see what Cross was getting at, but it doesn't quite come off. Still, that's a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent story.

12. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS by Stephen Thompson
"Don't get into a spaceship with a madman. Didn't anyone ever teach you that?" Yes, the ending is a major cop-out and the brothers leave something to be desired, but there's more than a little fun to be had here. Although we don't see a ton of new areas in the TARDIS, what we do see is quite nice -- the Eye of Harmony is cool (and solidifies that part of the TV Movie as unimpeachably canon), and the exploding engine is gorgeous. It probably won't be anyone's favorite episode, but can we at least agree it's streets ahead of "The Curse of the Black Spot"?

13. The Crimson Horror by Mark Gatiss
"Ooh, the Repulsive Red Leech! ...Nah, on balance I think I prefer the Crimson Horror." It took a while, but we finally got the story we all knew Mark Gatiss was capable of. "The Crimson Horror" is a delight, a glorious Victorian pastiche mixed with modern sensibilities. It's designed to not be taken too seriously, and it straddles that line impeccably well, resulting in one of the most charming episodes of the season.

14. Nightmare in Silver by Neil Gaiman
"I don't get it. Why would you blow up a whole planet and everybody on it just to get rid of one Cyberman?" This was supposed to be the episode which made the Cybermen scary again. It tries, but the end result is a muddle. You get the sense, watching this, that the original storyline was much different before numerous rewrites diluted it down to what we finally got -- what other possible reason is there for the children to be present other than as an artifact of an earlier draft where they mattered to the storyline? (And the fact that Angie is throat-punchingly annoying doesn't help matters any.) Some of it isn't too bad (and the Cybermites are inspired), and though it look like they're lifting things from Star Trek's Borg, it looks more like a debt being repaid than simple theft. But part of the issue is that "upgrading" is less scary than conversion -- there's a little of that here, but more is made of the fact that the Cybermen are unstoppable rather than "You shall be like us", and frankly, conversion's the more visceral threat. The other concern is that, for the talk of upgrading, we don't really see it matter much; it only comes up a couple times. It's not a disaster, but it's nowhere near as good as it should have been.

15. The Name of the Doctor by Steven Moffat
"The Doctor has a secret, you know. He has one he will take to the grave. And it is discovered." It's difficult to discuss this episode, since it's far more concerned with answering questions and raising new ones regarding the overarching eleventh Doctor storyline than about telling a story in its own right. What we get is well done (with some marvelous acting, writing, and direction), but it depends so much on previous and future episodes that it really feels like it should be evaluated in the context of Matt Smith's entire tenure -- something that can't be done at time of writing. That said, the resolution of the impossible girl storyline is pretty good, the clips and such from previous Doctors are nice (but did they have to use the cliffhanger from "Dragonfire" again?), and the surprise reveal at the end is still great.

General thoughts:

And so Matt Smith's final series ends on a huge cliffhanger. Unlike the previous two series, which largely wrapped up their ongoing storylines in the final episode (while leaving a few unresolved strands here and there to be picked up later), series 7 is content to explain Clara's thread but then leave viewers wanting more, forcing them to wait until November.

This is actually an indication of a larger change going on in Doctor Who. We've now reached the point where some of the ongoing plotlines are meant to last more than one series, where everything isn't wrapped up during that year's finale. Under Russell T Davies, the overarching storyline was meant to reward regular viewers, but it wasn't necessary to understanding what was going on, and it was all more or less finished at the end of the series (with maybe a subtle hint or two for the next year's storyline, but nothing beyond that). But under Steven Moffat, that storyline (what Buffy the Vampire Slayer called the Big Bad, or Babylon 5, the Arc) has grown in importance, such that for many viewers it's become the entire point. I know at least one person who was annoyed by episodes like "The Rings of Akhaten" and "Cold War" because they didn't add any information about the Big Bad. This attitude would have seemed incredibly strange even 4 years ago, but it doesn't seem out of keeping now. In other words, Doctor Who has started to look like its contemporaries.

The main issue this brings up is that it's led to an awkward combination of styles. In something like Lost or other J.J. Abrams-produced shows and the like, the Big Bad is the point of the exercise, and everything should tie in in some way, either by advancing that plot or filling in some of the details. Doctor Who is, in a way, a weird sort of anthology show that happens to have the same main characters each time. One week they might be on a spaceship in the far future, the next they're in a 1970s ghost story. The point of the exercise here is to explore a world (be that a literal world or something like the conventions of a certain genre). So when these two styles are synthesized, the mix can be clumsy. Something like "The Rings of Akhaten" is designed to do what Doctor Who has done for the past 50 years: show us something that we've never seen before, either at all or in this combination. Yet some will grumble because there's nothing adding to the mystery of the Impossible Girl.

This is all a long way of saying that there's a tension in the show that's been building since series 5, and by series 7 we've started to reach the point where the Big Bad really becomes the focus. And to its credit, "The Name of the Doctor" manages to pull a fast one by explaining what's up with Clara but then doing a sharp left turn in its closing moments by saying "that wasn't the important bit, this was" and getting everyone excited all over again. It manages to shift from one Big Bad to the next virtually seamlessly, thus allowing said tension to continue without snapping. But it'll be hard to keep doing that all the time, and generally in these types of shows something eventually has to give (as fans of Lost can no doubt tell you). The one saving grace that Moffat has is that this is, as said before, Matt Smith's final full series, and so he can tie up the ongoing plot strands in the next two specials and wipe the slate clean for Peter Capaldi, allowing him to start the Big Bad process all over again.

But enough about larger trends. What about this series as a whole?

Series 6 was a darker, more claustrophobic affair than series 5. The death of the Doctor loomed large over the whole run, even if we knew he was going to get out of it somehow. There was also the fact that a number of the episodes seemed oddly similar to each other (and moving "Night Terrors" to later in the year just highlighted how the three episodes after "Let's Kill Hitler" were about our heroes being trapped in a building while monsters hunted them down -- and two of those three threw in tearing down the Doctor's image to boot), which led to a general sense of weariness. Series 7, by contrast, feels much more open and inviting. That's not to say there aren't some dark moments, but here they're better tempered by moments of light, so that things like "The Angels Take Manhattan" or "The Snowmen" are matched by episodes like "The Power of Three" or "The Crimson Horror". The palette of Series 7 is more varied and thus ultimately more satisfying.

It doesn't hurt that Jenna-Louise Coleman is excellent as Clara, or that Karen Gillan has reined in some of the more brash moments to give us the best portrayal of Amy since the beginning, or that Arthur Darvill is so consistently on his game as Rory. It doesn't hurt that Matt Smith's portrayal of the Doctor has evolved to encompass both the childlike recklessness of series 5 and the more brooding portrayal of series 6 into a cohesive characterization. It certainly doesn't hurt that they've found some fantastic guest actors to work with, from Mark Williams to Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine to Richard E. Grant and beyond. And if the occasional script lets things down, you wouldn't know it from the direction and the acting.

When it comes down to it, this series was a success, a generally above-average run of stories (with nothing that can really be pointed to as bad) that demonstrated that Doctor Who still has the ability to surprise and entertain us. As we head toward the 50th anniversary celebrations, series 7 shows that, even fifty years later, there's still plenty of life and surprises left in this show.

Page last updated: November 18, 2013

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