...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, November 30, 2015

Alex & Richard's Doctor Who 52: 02. Inside the Spaceship


A story set entirely within, as you might guess, the TARDIS. Ideas about conceptual space, non-human intelligence, alienation… and the dangers of running with scissors. An exploration of the dynamics that take place within the TARDIS crew. Or possibly, how to pad for two episodes when you thought your contract was going to be up after 13 weeks before anyone had seen Dalekmania…

Ten Reasons To Watch "Inside the Spaceship" (warning: spoilers lower down the list)

1. The original TARDIS crew. In spite of being called "Doctor Who", the Doctor is not – solely – the central character of the series when it begins. Instead it is a team affair, with our human viewpoint characters of Barbara and Ian supplying the heart and logic (as well as handy factoids from history or science in keeping with the series' original "educational" remit). The Doctor's importance is more in the way his chaotic behaviour drives the plot: he causes things to happen, rather than resolves them. Never more than here, where it takes the humans to work out that the ship has something it is trying to say.

2. In particular, Barbara. Jacqueline Hill is magnificent, playing Barbara on a knife edge of losing it, as the Doctor and his timeship appear to be conspiring to drive everyone aboard insane. The scene where she tears him a new one for his unjust accusations (which, handily, plays over the DVD menu so you don't even need to find it) is one of the series' great moments, especially since it's a celebration of the ordinary human over the alien genius.

3. And the fact that she's still simmering with hurt and anger at him at the end of the adventure, even as the wily old bird tries to charm her – and at the same time slyly tries to steal some of the credit for their survival, by saying (lampshading the metatext) that his accusations were the spur that drove her to find the real cause of the disaster – is very human. It's for scenes like this that people think it's from his companions that the Doctor learned his humanity.

4. And speaking of his humanity, the Doctor's character does get a bit of reboot here. With their memories taken away and returned seemingly at random (and apparently the ship's first attempt at communication – a white out "explosion" that post-facto we might call shouting through the telepathic circuits – knocking them all out and leaving their empathy fritzed) the first episode has the crew take turns in rediscovering their character. This leads to the Doctor becoming the most alarmingly paranoid and hostile that he's been since the pilot (where he was so scary they redid the whole episode). Notice though, that this is now allowed to be him "out of character" so that when the 'fluence leaves him, he can be a kinder, gentler travelling companion.

5. Mind you, quite a lot of this plays out as Brechtian experimental theatre. In fact, it's probably the most theatrical Doctor Who story of all time, with one set and four characters.

6. Except there's something in the box with them. The particular paranoia that takes hold of everyone is that they are not alone in the ship. Susan seems particularlyaffected; which will tie in later with more hints of her a-bit-more-telepathic nature (it's a great turn from Carole Ann Ford, channelling her inner Carrie). And of course they turn out to be correct, because the ship itself is the intelligence.

7. The fifth member of the crew – because in fact there is another character her here, though she does tend to be gendered that way, in the shape of the space of the Doctor's timeship. We explore the inner spaces in new detail, with its bedrooms and food machine and talk of its power under the console. The idea that the TARDIS is a space for living in then translates into it being a living space.

8. and magical since you mention it: David Whitaker who wrote this was never much of a scientist, but he loved the ideas of alchemy. That's why mercury – quicksilver – is so important to the function of the TARDIS. You can construct, if you like, a system where the four companions are not just a family-friendly non-traditional family unit, but a table of the classical alchemical elements: the combustible Doctor is Fire; mysterious Susan is Air; emollient Barbara is Water and dependable Ian is Earth – which makes the TARDIS the quintessence, the hidden "fifth" element that brings the other four together.

9. The fact that the TARDIS is alive, even if only in a sense that we don't properly understand, will inform and subtly alter the entire trajectory of the series. I'm not talking about the Time War era Human-form TARDISes that appear in the books, or even the events of Neil Gaiman's wonderful "The Doctor's Wife"; but the fact is that the Doctor has to travel by co-operation, not just mechanical correctness. The wonders of the Universe necessarily have to be shared.Without this essential symbiosis, would the creators have even thought of doing something as radical as regeneration?

10. And is the fault locator actually a part of the standard TARDIS kit, or is it something that has been installed because the Doctor nicked the old girl from the TARDIS repair bays?

What Else Should I Tell You About "Inside the Spaceship"?

Ah yes, those story names.

Doctor Who is a series of stories in 4, 7, or 2, or going forwards in 1, 3, 6, 8 or 10 or even 14 episodes. But the first 118 episodes of Doctor Who (and all the ones from 2005 onwards), although they have individual titles, have no on-screen story title. So someone had to make them up. Terrance Dicks, fan-favourite author of the The Making of Doctor Who and a huge chunk of Doctor Who novelizations, was the first to have a go in a widely circulated "official" way no, in fact, but the first to have a go in book form, and mostly used the title of the first episode ("An Unearthly Child" / "The Dead Planet"), or occasionally the last("The Keys of Marinus").

But then, sometime in the Nineteen Eighties, Doctor Who magazine researcher xx was going through the BBC's paper archive examining old scripts and production notes and from those constructed or reconstructed the "proper" names for the early serials. They were, it was announced, "100,000 B.C.", "The Mutants" and "Inside the Spaceship".

Now, anyone with a passing knowledge of the series, in particular what Jon Pertwee was doing on Solos in 1972, will spot a problem with one of these. And insisting on that title in the face of the flagrantly obvious is rather daft. But more than that, "An Unearthly Child" "The Dead Planet" (or even just the descriptive "The Daleks") and "The Edge of Destruction" are not just better titles, more exciting more evocative, they're the ones you will find on the DVD shelf.

Which makes it even more annoying that Panini are putting out their Complete and Utter History of Doctor Who using those titles which potential viewers will then not be able to find. Sigh. (Count the number of times they use the titles just on the introductory page if you doubt how defensive they are about this.)

So why do I use "Inside the Spaceship"? Well, wilful perversity springs to mind. I tend to call the first story "An Unearthly Child" (though I might be persuadable that episode one is "An Unearthly Child" and episodes 2, 3 and 4 are "100,000 B.C."; or I might not, as they do form a stronger tale as part of the story that begins in Coal Hill) and the second story "The Daleks" (or occasionally "The Daleks: The Dead Planet"). But, being in two parts and both parts being well balanced in the story, "The Edge of Destruction"/"The Brink of Disaster" (to give its name Twenty-First Century style) is… just too long.

If you need one, my score:

Interesting as the ideas are, it is quite slow. We're being led rather gently by the hand through the process, in a way like teaching us the etiquette of television that the modern series just takes for granted. Oh, and the cause of it all is infamously bathetic.

If You Like "Inside the Spaceship", Why Not Try…

"The Mind Robber" – the acme of the "weird sh**" episodes, the TARDIS explodes and leaves us adrift in the text. Literally.

"The Doctor's Wife" – "this was the time when we talked"; beautiful and elegiac, capturing Neil Gaiman's touch with magic and the perfect sense of why Doctor Who does what it does.

Meanwhile on the other side…

Alex is watching "An Unearthly Child".

The first episode is pure television magic: a mystery wrapped in an enigma stuck inside a police box.

But don't be put off the rest of the story: stagey cavemen they may be, but think about how it's a comparison of the Tribe to Ian and Barbara as Ian and Barbara are to the Doctor and Susan and see how that rounds out and explores the Doctor's reactions and actions in the first episode.

Next Time…

Before Cybermen, Doctor. Ever since Skaro, where you first met the…

Monday, November 23, 2015

Alex & Richard's Doctor Who 52: 01. The Ark in Space


In the latter half of the Twentieth Century, humankind discovered a machine that could take them anywhere and anywhen. It was called the BBC television series "Doctor Who".

"Doctor Who" began in 1963 with "An Unearthly Child". And in 1970 with "Spearhead from Space". And in 1980 with "The Leisure Hive". And in 2005 with "Rose.

But Russell Davies, who wrote "Rose" and was the mad genius architect of the series' triumphant Twenty-First Century return, said that every episode can be someone's first episode.

So we can start… anywhere.

Sit back (behind your sofa) and let Delia Derbyshire's arrangement of the greatest theme tune in television history send shivers up your spine as we take you… somewhere… out… there…

Ext: Space. Darkness. The Earth, a lone beacon of light. Something is coming…

Ten Reasons To Watch "The Ark in Space" (warning: spoilers)

1. This is where "Doctor Who" really begins. That might seem a really odd statement about a series already four weeks into its twelfth year but… "Doctor Who's" twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth seasons are widely considered to be a golden age of the show, massively influential on everything that follows, establishing or overturning the series "lore" about the Doctor, his home planet Gallifrey, the nature of the Universe and his powers of regeneration. And in a lot of ways that change begins here. Where Tom Baker's first episode, "Robot" is a gentle easing in to the character – or a hangover from the departing regime – here he transitions from comedic to alien completely seamlessly, literally and metaphorically leaving the Earth behind. The Doctor evolves from a kind of eccentric English inventor-cum-action hero into an almost elemental force of the universe, a Time Lord in actions as well as name, who walks in eternity and can sometimes be very alien and sometimes very childish, but whose best friends are human beings. And that is the show that survived fire and cancellation and returned stronger than ever.

2. The light in the darkness. At times, "Doctor Who" is apt to portray a Universe generally under the benign control of the Time Lords where evil occasionally breaks in, or as a Manichean battleground between forces of good (the Time Lords, the White Guardian) and evil (the Daleks, the Black Guardian) that are evenly balanced. However, the early Tom Baker era, when Philip Hinchcliffe is producer and Robert Holmes script editor is a much much darker place, a Universe where evil flourishes everywhere and there are only a few places where there is light and good and safety, constantly under attack. Grimdark has nothing on this!

3. Tom Baker is the Doctor. Every Doctor is someone's favourite. Sylvester McCoy is mine. But Tom Baker is, as his own incarnation would say without trace of modesty, the definite article. It's not just because he served seven years, longer than any other Doctor (Paul McGann doesn't, in this instance, count), more than twice as long as the typical three-year term – this is only his second story but already his charisma has stamped him indelibly on the role. Later, future Doctors will claim that their performance is inspired by the mercurial Troughton. But only because they cannot be Tom.

4. Elisabeth Sladen is Sarah Jane Smith. At one point Sarah Jane is trapped in the piping surrounded by monsters and the Doctor tells her how useless she is. Outraged she struggles through, intent on biffing him on the supercilious nose. Of course, he knew that that would be her response and it was the best way to inspire her. This speaks to the closeness of their relationship, their mutual trust and affection, and also to how human Sarah Jane is, fallible, foolable, and how "indomitable".

5. Ah yes, "Indomitable". Every so often, the Doctor delivers a speech that comes to define him, his attitude, his era and his place in time and space. Here, Tom Baker gets a really cracking one very early on that sets the tone for his first three years when he discovers the survivors of the human race "ready to outsit eternity" and goes into a soliloquy about his favourite species.

6. Robert Holmes does minimalist world-building. This is a classic Bob Holmes tale: his usual trick being – as it is here – to set a story in the aftermath (or many years after) enormous universe-shifting events, which the small cast of survivors can look back and comment upon. Here we are introduced to a "highly compartmentalised" future (actually way later than the thirtieth century space station that they've retro-fitted as their life boat) through the survivors of a cosmic cataclysm that has rendered the Earth first barren and then reborn as a new Eden for these Adams and Eves (if only there wasn't a space-age serpent grub in their nest, stealing rather than tempting them with their apples of knowledge). The sterile whites of their suits and their quarters and the formal language they use tell us all about this culture in very tiny glimpses. There was very little "joke" in the end times. Except for the working-class guy. He's totally out of place.

7. It's basically "Alien" four years early. For all its terrifying reputation, the titular "alien" is a man in a rubber suit with a funny head on; for all that it's made of papier mâché, the Wirrrn (the monster of "The Ark in Space") are terrifying space insects. What they have in common is that they both invade futuristic human settings, hiding themselves in the machinery down below, and adapt themselves by consuming the humans from the inside, starting with the engineer before taking out the rest of the crew including the captain, leaving a woman in charge. And (spoilers) get killed by a rocket at the end. But otherwise, not at all similar.

8. Women's Lib had, ahem, featured in the series before notably – or notoriously depending on your point of view – during Jon Pertwee's run when Terrance Dicks had, shall we say, old fashioned ideas of gallantry. Sarah Jane was explicitly brought in to talk up "Women's Lib" in often rather crushingly patronising ways. And even as early as the immediately preceding story, the powerful woman must be an evil ballbreaker (and quite possibly a lesbian) trope is played as hard as it can be. So it's quite refreshing that Vira (Wendy Williams) is accepted as leader without anyone hanging a lantern on it. (And even Harry's "fair sex on top" remarks about the (female) high minister are more lampshading his own dinosaur tendencies than patronising the successful woman.)

9. In another sign that this is like we are beginning all over again, the Doctor and his friends leave for their next adventure by transmat rather than the TARDIS. Back in the (real) beginning, the stories would run into one another, with cliffhangers between stories as well as at the end of the episodes within them, and with no overall onscreen titles (more on that story later) often there was no way to tell where one story ended and the next began. That's not quite true here, each block of episodes has one story title, but the season's stories do run one into the next in a continuous what might almost be called "story arc". Making it both 1963 and 2005.

10. Harry Sullivan is basically wearing socks in space for the whole adventure.

What Else Should I Tell You About "The Ark in Space"?


In an era when CGI makes almost anything possible for the series on television… millions of Daleks attacking the Capitol on Gallifrey – check; UNIT's London-based Death Star shooting down a rogue spaceship – check; ageing David Tennant a thousand years into a shrivelled neonate – I said possible, not sensible… it can be hard to remember that Doctor Who was famously (infamously) the sci-fi series known for the not so specialness of its special effects.

There are worse examples than "The Ark in Space" (most egregiously being "The Invisible Enemy" which really should have remained invisible.)

But here you have to put up with a visual representation of the Ark as seen from, well, space that is straight out of Herge's Adventures of Tintin; a horde of rubber Wirrrn; and one of the classic "washing up bottle" spaceships.

But no longer. Thanks to the aforementioned CG… hindered only by the cheapness of the BBC Worldwide budget for value added material… you can from the comfort of your DVD you have the option to watch replacement CGI for the exteriors of the Ark.

This was done for a number of the DVD releases, ranging from on the one hand the shonky ("Enlightenment" has some nice images but the story is poorer for editing down the running time) to the totally berserk ("Planet of Fire" has literally almost everything literally on fire. Plus, there's an am-dram teaser scene added that start that… just… no…) to on the other some actually quite decent work in the Extended Edition "The Curse of Fenric" (though again the story suffers from the curse of editing it into a "movie-length" cut which does not suit the pacing of the script at all) and the Special Edition "Day of the Daleks" (mainly a vehicle to get Nick Briggs to redub the Dalek voices "properly", but there's some nice effects dropped in too and for once they keep the four episodes as four episodes).

The very best of the bunch, though, are the Daleks' spectacular sixties-looking saucers rendered into "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", which are so good that they've clearly kept them for the new series.

You can watch this…

On DVD or on Thursday 26th and Friday 27th on the Horror Channel.

If you need one, my score:


A cracking, terrifying way to begin. Sets out a whole new agenda for the series: the coldness of space, and the coldness of science, tempered by only the human warmth of the Doctor and his friends.

If You Like "The Ark in Space", Why Not Try…

"The Caves of Androzani" – Robert Holmes's brilliant future-noir, another minimalist sketch of a universe, but so much more bleak about human nature. Could almost be the anti-"Ark".

"The Beast Below" – a Steven Moffat story set in the aftermath of the Solar Flares, with another woman on top and another "something" lurking in the pipes. And it's nearly a Bob Holmes political satire (like "Caves…" although "Ark…" is not.).

But it's a much more lived-in future and optimism at the end is dangerously close to schmaltz.

Meanwhile on the other side…

Alex is watching "Robot". Of course.

Next Time…

Back, back, back to the very beginning. Of something. The TARDIS can go forwards in time, backwards in time and sideways in time.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Day 5417: DOCTOR WHO: Invasion of the Blobby Snatchers


Last year, we loved Peter Harness's "Kill the Moon". This was, er, a controversial opinion. (No, that's not an invitation to tell me again why I am wrong.) Perhaps, having everyone read an allegory that wasn't there into his previous work, you might think he'd be more cautious. Not a bit. This year, we're putting the subtext into the text so blatantly that nobody's going to get the wrong message. (I bet they do get the wrong message.)

But it's always a relief to be able to give an honest review to people you know. And this was terrific.

In fact, at the risk of offending Millennium, this was as globetrotting as SpECTRE – from London's London (Cardiff) to American New Mexico to vaguely Middle-Eastern Walesistan (Snowdon) – but with actual plot twists and character development.

With is extra-pressing to get my guesses for "Next Time" in before the sequel airs tonight, I'll be cutting this sort and may repost with more thoughts later…

This has a longer-ago "Previously on Doctor Who" than most, which makes you worry that Mr The Hurt Doctor is going to turn up at the end and have a Zygon burst out of his chest. Anyway, the Prologue: Previously in "Batman the Movie" (Made From the TV Series for Movie Theatres), at the United World Organisation (not the United Nations for legal reasons), the hostile territorial powers all mixed up who they were and so performed unprecedentedly perfect peace negotiations, summed up by Batman with, “Who… knows, Robin? This strange mixing of minds may be the greatest single service ever performed for humanity.” No, sorry, I’ll start that again. Previously in Doctor Who the (not the) TV Movie (Available At Limited Movie Theatres), at the Unified Intelligence Taskforce (not the United Nations for legal reasons), the hostile space powers all mixed up who they were and so performed unprecedentedly perfect peace negotiations, summed up by a man we all recognise despite his assuming a secret identity with, “Who… knows…?” Er…

So, did I say Agincourt was topical for "The Woman Who Lived"? Let's talk terrorism while the UK celebrates Guy Fawkes. And a Happy Homeland Security Day to all of you at home.

And, did I say they were doing "big ideas" this year?

From the earliest "scientific romances" of Mr H G Wells, science fiction has been about things, in fact about the present much more than the future. ("The Time Machine" is about the class struggle; "War of the Worlds" is "How would Britain like it if someone did Imperialism to them?")

And it couldn't be more topical. The Zygons are refugees. Their homeworld (I call it "Zygospore", 'cos that's the way I like to roll) was known to have been blown up as early as 1975's "Terror of the Zygons", but we were told in "The Day of the Doctor" that it was in the early days of the Time War – which of course began, if you think about it, two stories earlier in "Genesis of the Daleks".

So, in a time when some parts of Europe are greeting people fleeing conflict and destruction with "Refugees Welcome" banners while other parts (Britain, shamefully) are grudgingly suggesting they will take the bare minimum people they can, we see an Earth that agreed to take twenty million refugee Zygons.

But, as in the best of sci-fi, the baddies here have something of a point: the Zygons haven't been welcomed to Earth; they're only allowed to live here so long as they integrate. Their own culture has been suppressed and they themselves are forced to adopt human form if they want to live here. They are tolerated so long as they are "passing", as the old phrase would go – when the only "good" homosexuals were the ones you couldn't tell, not like those dreadful camp gays and drag queens(!).

And the response of the "heroes" – all guns and drone strikes – is not coming down on the side of "heroic". I loved the Zygons being their own human shields (even if all the UNIT soldiers falling for the Zygon gambit is excessively dumb, even for UNIT). Even the Doctor is saying "try not to kill too many". Unless that's a clue for next week (see speculation).

Does any of that excuse the "radicalised" faction going all ISIS on UNIT? Well, today we celebrate the Stonewall riots – though in fact today's self-styled "Stonewall" are the most "moderate" (read milksop) face of LGBT rights movement – and we sometimes only think of the more spiritual Martin Luther King's side of the civil rights movement in America.

ISIS are evil. But they aren't just evil. Likewise, the Zygon revolutionaries are not black and white baddies. (No, they're sort of orange… sorry!)

…anyway, time to skip to the speculation on how this might turn out!

Next Time… No next time trailer at all, which suggests spoilers, but it's called the Zygon Inversion so… They're ALL Zygons, aren’t they? All the UNIT people, anyway – hence operating out of a UNIT safe house instead of the Tower of London; hence evil-Clara saying "kill the traitors" rather than "kill the humans" – and maybe even the Doctor after doing a deal with the Zygon High Command – hence travelling by plane rather than TARDIS (isomorphic – one-to-one; or just not wanting a Zygon to be titivating the console). The importance of this would be to make the entire point of the episode: you didn't even notice the "good" Zygons, only the "evil" ones.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Day 5410: DOCTOR WHO: …the Lion Was Flawed


I wanted to call this "outstanding and delivering", but in fairness, it wasn't quite as amazing as part one. The plot was more… generic: Leo the Lion and his "surprise" invasion twist, leaning heavily on 2005's "The Unquiet Dead", which also features a rift opened by death. But that wasn't the point.

This was all about why Maisie Williams was essential to the role of Ashildr/Lady Me. You might have thought that that Viking maid was familiar from "Game of Thrones"; but here we see the range of her talent as she evolves from Arya Stark to Cersei Lannister.

We've met a race of extra-dimensional leonids before in "Doctor Who": the Tharils of E-Space in Season Eighteen, and so it was a shame that "Leandro" didn't turn out to be a Tharil from their early buccaneering, slaving days. And surely "Leandro" (Lion Man) is just Lady Me coming up with a suitable Anglicised (or Latinised) name for him – surely she's not dumb enough to fall for it if it's his own made-up name for himself. Plus it was jolly nice of his fellows to blow him up at the end, especially after missing so many of the locals. (Who, in fact, are Londoners – does no one remember that Tyburn Tree is at Marble Arch? Which in fairness would have been fields at the time, but it does seem no one remembers the "town" nearby is London.)

But cursory as these lion/invasion plot elements were, though, they were key to Lady Me's story: as she's become more and more like the Doctor she just wants to run away. (And one of the best lines of the episode is: "I'm not looking for a husband, you oaf. I'm looking for a horse to get me out of town.")

A life of centuries rather than being full, has become empty. That's not particularly an original observation, and the lesson that the Doctor gives to Me – that immortals need the "mayflies" – is all very "Interview with the Vampire", but that's perfectly appropriate for the gothic romance of a tale like this.

There's a wonderfully playful way that the episode toys with non-binary gender in Maisie Williams' character. In part one, we had already heard her as Ashildr talk about how she was too boyish for the girls and too much a girl for the boys, but still found acceptance in her village. But now we see her switching comfortably between roles as the (male – in presentation, particularly doing the voice) highwayman "The Knightmare"* and the (female – in presentation, particularly the very-off-the-shoulder dress) "Lady Me". Delightfully, the Doctor doesn't appear to see anything at all odd about this. This idea of gender as fluid, optional, as performance even, is very Seventeenth Century, all rakish and Restoration (perhaps a little late, timewise for here, but very in with the romances of the era) but also brings us back to the idea of "gods" and "immortals" choosing to grace us in human form.

(*Yes, apparently K is for Kow in any language; it really is spelled with a "K")

And, just as Lady Me switches from one persona to another, so the episode flips between "highwayman as latter-day Robin Hood or carousing adventurer" larks and "melancholic contemplation of a life not even remembered".

The triumphs and tragedies of her life, from Agincourt (broadcast a day before the 600th anniversary of St Crispin's Day 1415!) to Plague, that we glimpse as the Doctor literally rummages through the pages of her memories are all the more poignant because she herself no longer has them, none more so than the pages ripped out – an extreme version of Bernice Summerfield (from the "New Adventures") and her post-it note bedecked diaries.

(Not quite sure how she lugs them all from place to place every time she fakes her own death, though. And, in "Castrovalva" fashion, the earliest volumes, with uncertain handwriting, are still as beautifully bound as the most recent, which takes quite some doing.)

Not all of the comedy works. The comedy guards come to arrest the Doctor don't half feel like a Shakespearean walk-on gag. The house-breaking goes on perhaps just a bit too long. But it's not just comic relief. It's as vital to the story as the silly lion invasion plot, the idea that life has this vital spark. Sam Swift's desperate gag-cracking, the very (I'm sure deliberately acted) imperfections of the delivery adding to the feel he is cracking jokes as though his life depends on it, convincingly sells the premise of the story.

The contrast is between Lady Me's ennui – epitomised by the way Leandro is just using people; a trap she too falls into until she's turned around – and Rufus Hound's charmingly rough-edged rogue Sam Swift the Quick (not just overcompensating: his name puns on "Quick" as opposed to "Dead", and his swift, brief life). Sam cracks puns on the scaffold literally buying himself more seconds of life with his words because life is so important to him. Lady Me just saw him as a resource not to let go to waste: he was going to die anyway, so why not use him? The fact that the failure of her plans sees her rediscover that she cares, and that she saves Sam to set things right is a little vindication of the Doctor's position.

Of course it's more complicated than that. The Doctor knows that on the most superficial level he did a good thing in saving Ashildr as a girl. He also knows that, given human nature, it had the potential to turn to a really bad thing. But, on an even deeper level, that simply taking her off in the TARDIS and going adventuring with her might lead to an even worse thing, for both of them. And indeed the Universe. While the Doctor makes a number of arguments to Lady Me, Capaldi conveys all this deeper knowledge with a series of looks and postures and an air of "I've been here before and tried all the ways out of this conundrum", until only at the end is Me in a position to understand the lesson properly.

If you've seen Season Two of Game of Thrones you know already that Maisie Williams can hold her own in a scene with Charles Dance. The power relationship between Doctor and Lady Me is more evenly balanced here – indeed, who has the upper hand and who is sidekick is another thread running through the story – but it still takes some mighty acting chops to go head to head with Capaldi in these long often brutal conversation scenes.

And while it's clear that he's been "dropping in" to check up on here – much as the tenth Doctor did his tour of all his past companions – it's clearly not enough to see what it is she's been losing along the way.

The notion that the human brain isn't big enough to contain all the memories of an immortal life struck me as novel and tragic (though actually, it occurs to me, there's a bit, also from the early "New Adventures", where the Doctor filters his memories through the TARDIS and edits them down a bit because even his brain – larger on the inside, presumably – can get too full). I wondered subsequently if Captain Jack – assuming he really is the Face of Boe, and it's not just Rusty's little joke – evolved into an enormous head as a different solution to the same problem. (Hilariously, the actual Face of Boe – or the voice of, anyway, is Struan Rodger who also appears in this episode.)

And speaking of Jack – interesting that it takes the former "Torchwood" writer Catherine Tregenna to bring him up again; it would be nice to see Barrowman come back (commitment to "Twang!" "Arrow" allowing) and maybe explore Captain Jack's missing memories after all these years – but was anyone else disappointed that when the Doctor said he'd travelled with another immortal it wasn't Romana he was thinking of (after all, if he can mention the Terileptils in passing…)

Because, oddly enough, even though many would say the Tom Baker/Lalla Ward pairing is one of the finest in the series' history, it's also been observed that the two Time Lords together do rather swan about the Universe with increasing disdain for the mortals through whose lives they career. To the extent that if Season Seventeen is mainly about them gadding about having a really really good time, then Season Eighteen – Tharils and all – is, you might suggest, about the real world slapping the Doctor very firmly in the face as a result.

So is this a two-parter? I'm a little caught by my own rules here. Because I take the "To Be Continued…" at the end of "Utopia" to indicate that that episode is the start of a three-parter, I should, in fairness, concede that this is part two and "The Girl Who Died" is part one. Even though, really, they feel more like one episode and its sequel. On the other hand, Alex's feeling – which I find myself strongly in agreement with – was that this episode developed characters and ideas while leaving many plot threads hanging… in other words it feels much more like "The Sound of Drums", i.e. a part two of three.

Does it not, after all, feel as though some elements here have been set up for future pay-off: the appearance of Ashildr/Me in Clara's present day, could she end up being the Minister of War alluded to in "Before the Flood", or the question of how (or whether) she relates to that prophesied "hybrid".

And looked at the other way, the Doctor wanders into this situation clearly in the middle of other business and after dropping Clara off. Time, for him, as passed too – we don't know how long, but we know he's had time to at least look in on Ashildr's progress (and leper colony-founding activities) – meaning that it is only the audience who perceive these stories as juxtaposed.

It might therefore have been even better if there had been another (pair of) episodes in between. Maybe something with, I don't know, Zygons in it?

Next time… Oh look! Something with Zygons in it! Fair warning: I've met the author. Will he be as controversial as last year's space dragon? Expect double trouble, in "The Zygon Invasion".

Day 5403: DOCTOR WHO: The Mouse that Roared…


We loved this. "Doctor Who" doing all the things right I thought the previous story got wrong: seizing on a "big" idea – here the meaning and consequences of immortality – and exploring it while telling a tale with humour and excitement.

It's the entire Tenth Doctor era in a single episode: from the hubris when the Doctor and companion think they're invincible; to the aching regret for "losing"; to the flashback of Donna reminding the Doctor to save people; to the Doctor's "Time Lord Victorious" moment of defiant anger against "the rules"; to the buyer's regret that followed.

The idea of "immortality" and "gods" was grounded from the very start with a few meditations on Clarke's Law (that's the one about higher science being indistinguishable from magic): first with the Doctor's bragging getting those wretched sonic sunglasses snapped (tragically, it won't last); then contrasting the Doctor's yoyo Odin with the Monty Python-referencing sky hologram; building up to the Doctor's great punchline: "the thing about gods is they never show up!"

(And he's masqueraded as a deity before now, as early as being "Zeus" for "The Myth Makers". They didn't believe him either.)

The uber-macho baddies this week, in their enormously butch armour (but pleasingly "Star Wars" "lived in"), literally live off of testosterone. Obviously subtle they do not do. Though it does make me think someone has been reading Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood's "About Time 3" with its essay on "what does the mind of evil eat" (clue: they guess it's testosterone, because "evil" is a bit too spiritual for them, though nowadays it would be the artron energy/fairy dust that powers everything from the TARDIS to regenerations).

These villains are the Mire, though on first watching – or before seeing it written down anywhere – I heard it as "Maia", as in Tolkien's name for the choirs of angelic or demi-godly being who populate the Undying Lands of Valinor in his Silmarillion /Lord of the Rings "Legendarium" ur-myth cycle. They, in fact, are not real gods either.

But thematically, this goes right back to (ironically, since he was the author of last time's disappointment) Toby Whithouse's "School Reunion", which explored the Doctor's reason's for running away from his past companions, while even earlier "New Earth" had already dubbed the tenth Doctor as "The Lonely God", which in turn foreshadows his shipper-pleasing anguish over losing Rose in "Doomsday".

(I've often felt that Murray Gold's "Song for Ten" from "The Christmas Invasion" fully prefigures the tenth Doctor's life with its refrain of "today has been the best day" – with his first day being his best day and all the days after that just laying more regrets on him.)

Capaldi's twelfth Doctor gets to revisit that with his talk of "losing", itself now foreshadowing Clara's inevitable departure.

And when the Doctor said he would "do what I always do: get in my box and run away", I wondered if this was linking Clara's leaving to another of the themes that seem to be "arcing" though this season – Davros was hinting about the Doctor's reasons for running away from Gallifrey in the first place and Missy underlined it by reminding the Doctor that he was always the one who ran away. Is Steven Moffat suggesting that the Doctor left Gallifrey after a personal loss? Might that be the fate of Susan's parents, perhaps? Or the Master's daughter? Or is that too deep down the fanwank rabbit hole?

Going even further, I did speculate vaguely that we see the villagers, with their electromagnetic anvils, managed to capture three of the Mire helmets – so presumably there are three "medical kits", meaning that the Doctor could have kept a third for himself, or rather for himself to give to Clara. Giving rise to the possibility that the Clara Oswin Oswald in "Asylum of the Daleks" is not another "splinter" but an ontologically paradoxical future version of this Clara. Is Clara's destiny to be this hybrid we seem to be insisting on teeing up as the Season's Big Bad?

Or is that going to be everybody? Clara, Ashildr/Me, [spoilers] Osgood of the Zygons etc… We are all hybrids in a way: an admixture of our mothers and fathers, our friends and our culture; an alchemical combination of beast and angel, dust and stories.

Except, granting Clara immortality too would very much seem to go against the mood in which the Doctor found himself just moments after curing (or cursing) Ashildr.

Ashildr as the "potent storyteller" and the idea of "story" as "lifeforce" (in that it implicitly takes all of hers to defeat the Mire) are threads deeply woven into the Moffat era, reminiscent of Amy "remembering" the Doctor's story back into being in "The Big Bang". I'll talk more about her and Maisie William's performance when I write about the second episode. It's clear that she's being set up as a reflection of the Doctor – an alternative take on the toll of immortality.

And we see the Doctor literally reflecting quite a lot this episode, reflecting on his new face in the eels' water barrels, linking into the flashbacks to "Deep Breath" and to "The Fires of Pompeii".

Incidentally, it's nice that some of the minor call-backs also work with the immortality theme: the use of the third Doctor's "neutron flow" catchphrase (and a fourth Doctor-esque self-parodying deconstruction of it); or the reappearance of the 2000-year (formerly 500-year and 900-year) diary; maybe, if you want to take it that way, even the "space helmet for a cow" Viking outfits… these aren't just fanboy-pleasing nods but reminders of just how long the Doctor has been at this gig.

Equally, contrasting the Doctor's age and knowledge with the insight he gets from listening to a baby – and that it's listening to the baby that inspires him to decide to stay – also works to the theme of immortals needing mortals. After all it was Donna Noble's humanity in "The Runaway Bride" and again in "The Fire of Pompeii", in the very moment that we return to here, that managed to shake the Doctor out of his cosmic detachment and reconnect him to the world. And taking the gag about the Doctor speaking baby from "A Good Man Goes to War" and "Closing Time" and turning it into lyrical poetry was transcendent.

But here is where we get the answer to the question that "Deep Breath" posed – why this face? Or at least we get an answer. It's quite a good answer – quick and tidy with no intrusive timey-wimey arcs. But is it possible that the Doctor takes the wrong lesson from his reflection? After all, Donna's plea was not to save everyone just because he could, but to save someone when he couldn't save everyone; he goes way beyond that here, and seems to realise it.

What really sets "The Girl Who Died" above is the way that it deftly pivots between these deep, even morbid considerations, and outright slapstick comedy – whether it's the Doctor's "it's meant to do that" yoyo-fail, the jump-cut to the burning village, or the yakety-sax footage of the Mire's ignominious flight from Ashildr's puppet. This would be really hard going if it was as "serious" or "grimdark" as some of the fans might prefer. Instead, by leavening it with memorable funnies, Moffat and Mathieson mean it will, I hope, linger longer in the memories.

Next time… Who is that masked, er, person. Oh, you guessed. It's "The Woman Who Lived"