I have actually had complaints on Facebook about the lack of Doctor Who reviews on here. And quite right too. There won’t be time (or recall) for any in-depth analysis of the first four stories – sorry – but here are some capsule reviews to stave off the pangs.

The Bells of St John

bellsAn evocative title which turns out to be essentially irrelevant to the story, being simply the ringing of the TARDIS telephone. Following in the footsteps of RTD new companion stories Smith and Jones and Partners in Crime, this is a very silly but hugely enjoyable story. Had this been mid-way through the season, or – god forbid – the finale, I would have been rather harder on it, but as a “welcome back” it functions beautifully, even if it does feel like a Moffat spoof of RTD’s style at times – London landmark, check; vertical chase sequence, check; evil matriarch, check…

Jenna Louise-Coleman makes an instant impression as new/old companion Clara and the story is rather better than the one-line pitch sounds. “Ghosts in the Wi-Fi” really didn’t fill me with enthusiasm, but in fact this is perfectly fine possess-the-mortals stuff with some whizzy visuals in the shape of the spoon-heads and the Doctor’s demented motorcycle ride up the side of the gherkin.

Moffat’s script manages to be clever without being clever-clever which is a huge relief. The Doctor’s neat trick of skipping ahead a few hours is very nice and gives rise to one of the best jokes in the show – Earl’s Court. It’s not all fizz and sparks and fun and games though. The final fate of Celia Imrie’s Miss Kizlet is genuinely shocking.

Aiming low but hitting a bullseye, I will happily give this four-and-half stars.

Stray observations

The Doctor’s new togs are fine, but threatening to go a bit “fancy dress” as a BBC big-wig described Paul McGann’s outfit during RTD’s interview for the show-runner job. They look like the kind of thing Doctor Who used to wear as opposed to defining a new iconic appearance as David Tennant’s stripy suit did so brilliantly.

Was there any particular reason to wheel out Richard E Grant again? I suppose this is the 7b arc story gearing up, but really The Great Intelligence is just fanservicing without the Yeti (or arguably even with).

That book written by Amelia Williams (aka Amy Pond) is also presumably significant in some way.

The Rings of Akhaten

ringsThe 21st century formula dictates that having met a new companion in contemporary Earth, their first trip in the TARDIS should be as outlandish as possible. Generally speaking, this means an all-pile-on alien extravaganza (although celebrity historicals are also permissible). But whereas Bells felt like a David Tennant episode at its best, this felt like all the least interesting bits of The End of the World and The Beast Below put into a blender with an overdose of Love Conquers All.

The opening segments with the Doctor creepily spying on young Clara have next-to-nothing to do with the main plot, except to delay its arrival. Neither Neil Cross’s script nor the production design can summon up a proper sense of time, space or urgency. From the early shot of the pyramid… thing… I was almost permanently confused about who was sitting where or where things were in relation to other things, and that’s after a second viewing.

Time and again, we are told in dialogue that terrible things are happening now or soon, but people just wander about unconcerned. The Doctor vanishes early on for no discernible reason, except to give Clara a chance to give unwise advice to a moppety singer, and plays almost no part in the resolution of the plot.

Technical standards are very poor – an all-time low for the revised series. Compared to the motor-cycle in the previous episode the space bike… thing… is amazingly unconvincing, and the poor director is constantly forced to cut away from it landing or taking off. Took me right back to the 1970s that did. The plot meanwhile lurches from supposed crisis to supposed crisis until Clara gives the planet-killing god a leaf and suddenly that’s that.

Genuinely poor stuff, hugely disappointing, easily the worst story since Victory of the Daleks or The Soggy Pirate Rubbish. Two stars. One for Matt Smith, spouting the most appalling rubbish with complete conviction and one because, you know, it’s Doctor Who.

Stray observations

Apparently, Neil Cross got the gig for this one because the producers liked his script for Hide so much. Doesn’t bode well…

Just how long was that black… thing… pawing at that glass? I’m surprised everyone didn’t pop off for a cup of tea and come back when it had finally decided to pose a legitimate threat.

Is it me or do no-one’s reactions in this story make the slightest bit of sense?

Cold War

coldHaving been burned by Akhaten, I turned on the TV with not a little trepidation. Immediately, a turn for the better – as the sub starts to sink, there is a feeling of genuine urgency. People in this story do seem to have reactions to events. Basic narrative cause-and-effect is present in the script and the director seems capable of distinguishing dialogue scenes from suspense scenes. So far so good.

The pitch for this one is instantly compelling – Ice Warriors on a submarine. But the Ice Warriors are not the most well-defined of foes. In their first two appearances, The Ice Warriors and The Seeds of Death they are pretty much indistinguishable from any number of Troughton-era lumbering baddies who put bases of various kinds under siege. Their popularity probably stems from the fact that the in first of the stories, everything else was so well done. When they returned for the two Peladon stories with Jon Pertwee, their individuality as a race was subsumed by the script’s need to satirise the then EEC and so some business about “honour” was grafted on, which the Sontarans later adopted to rather better effect.

So, they’re a chilly cross between Cybermen, Yeti and Sontarans, with lately some of the latter’s issues about war being a glorious thing and the nobility of a soldier and so on. Quite a good mix with the setting of Cold War Soviet sub? And look, there’s Tobias Menzies clueing us in what the Cold War was all about. Entertain, educate and inform indeed.

Skaldak’s escape from his armour is a shocking development, and it’s great – in theory – to see new spins on old monsters. But if you are going to bring back an old monster surely they should do at least some of the things they are known for? As soon as Mr Frosty is able to scamper about the ducts of the sub, we are in Alien territory, as the script is at least self-aware enough to acknowledge.  It could have been any old monster. More pointless fanservicing I fear.

And, despite a couple of desperate lines trying to make sense of it, making Ice Warriors able to leave their suits at will is completely idiotic. As depicted, without the armour, they are lithe, deadly, near invisible and not noticeably any more vulnerable. So why would they ever fight with it on?

If you can overlook all that, then the actual sequences are rather fine, neatly balancing suspense with humour, although the shooting of the fates of Stepashin and Piotr is so PG as to be incomprehensible. Where it starts to really come apart at the seams is the very end, where the Doctor’s clever scheme to prevent the Ice Warriors from condemning the world to nuclear armageddon is to, well, hope that they don’t.

Three-and-a-half stars. Good, solid stuff, but too many bumps in the narrative.

Stray observations

David Warner will do just about anything won’t he? It’s a fun part, to be sure, and he does live to the end, but – Christ – how many other past Hamlets would have taken it?

Technical standards still a little ropey. The CG ice warrior’s lip-sync is never convincing and the whole thing looks like a video game. A Neill Gorton rubber suit was definitely the better way to go here.

It’s not really clear what Skaldak thought he was trying to achieve beyond Being Scary. Oh well.

I’m starting to lose track a little bit of just who Clara is. It’s true Doctor Who girls have rarely been all that clearly delineated, but after Rose, Martha, Amy and especially Donna got some actual character development I’ve been a bit spoiled. Clara so far isn’t much more than a very pretty face.

Hide

hideFor the second time in as many weeks, we get a period Doctor Who story set within Doctor Who’s own lifetime – the series has gone all Sam Beckett on us. Oh boy. The set-up is a sort of cross between Quatermass  and Sapphire and Steel and since those are both very fine things, I’ve no objection to dropping Matt Smith into the middle of them. It’s a bit perplexing that the Doctor seems to have a very clear mission in mind from the off, but that we don’t know what it is until very late in the day, but maybe the intention is to play the first half from the point of view of Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling, in which case fair enough.

Although this is miles and miles better than the horrendous Ringpiece of Akhaten, there are still a few oddities. The ghost is clearly manifested as a woman with a distended jaw and one hand raised, although when she is made to manifest, she takes the form of a weird spinning disc thing. We are told again and again that the pocket universe is collapsing, but what we see is it never collapse or shrink or diminish in any way – it’s just a bit blowy in there. And just what is “the crooked man” (only so-named in the titles) and how did it get there?

What elevates this is the elegant way in which the puzzle is solved and the lovely perspective we get of the Doctor, who has to turn all of Earthly (let alone human) history into an enormous cosmic flip-book in order to understand the nature of the apparition and who does so in the manner of a man sorting a hand of cards. A shard of ice in his heart indeed.

It’s a shame the script doesn’t have time to give the rescued Hila Tukurian any characterisation or even any lines to speak of. She’s the answer to a riddle, a macguffin to be acquired, and a means to move on the Alec/Emma story, but I can’t help feeling that with Rusty at the helm she would have been something more. In the more rarified atmosphere of a Moffat-era story, it’s up to the bogeyman to have a more thorough characterisation than might be expected. This is a steal from Encounter at Farpoint (if not earlier) but it’s neatly on theme – as the Doctor says, this wasn’t a ghost story, it was a love story.

Another fair-to-middling effort then. Lots of good atmos, some lively banter and some nice surprises, but not entirely solid. Three-and-a-half stars once more.

Stray observations

The TARDIS locking Clara out feels grafted-on, as does her being presented with a hologram of herself. If that were Tegan, I would be going “oh yes, of course, perfect”, but I simply have no idea of who Clara is, so I wonder if this is just saving on actor fees in a show which already had a very very small cast.

I am prepared to assume that Moffat missed the read-through and wasn’t present on the set on the day Matt Smith said “Meh-TEH-beliss”, but surely he was in the dub or the edit and could have had the actor loop the line? Is he too busy on Sherlock these days? Steven Moffat must go now! Worst show-runner ever! Et cetera and so forth.

The Oscars 2013 – Wrap up
Some bridge hands