Series 10 feels like an event for all sorts of reasons. Twelve years after the triumphant return of Doctor Who, we finally reach our tenth set of episodes, with Capaldi following the now-established pattern of lead actors doing three-seasons-over-four-years in the part. So, it’s the last set of episodes with Malcolm Tucker at the helm of the TARDIS, and it’s the last set of episodes with Steven Moffat at the reins behind the scenes.

And despite, or maybe because of that, the avowed intention for the first episode is to provide a new jumping-on point for new viewers, with the cheeky title given to the season opener making this even more obvious.

In keeping with his notion of the War Doctor being a Doctor we, the viewers, somehow missed in 1996-2005, Moffat allows that more time has passed since Christmas 2016 than was seen during The Return of Doctor Mysterio. So, while we’ve been away, the Time Lord has stopped his wandering, taken up residence as a university don, and taken to guarding a mysterious vault. Only Matt Lucas’s Nardole represents an explicit link to episodes past.

So we get the repeated pleasure of seeing the Doctor through fresh eyes, those eyes this time belonging to Pearl Mackie’s amazingly winning Bill. To be sure, the companion part is fast becoming one of BBC television’s plumb roles and the producers no doubt had their pick of fresh young British talent, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they have come up with an immensely charming and skilled performer here, who will brighten the TARDIS considerably for at least these twelve episodes (rumours are that incoming show-runner Chris Chibnall wants to cast his own companion as well as his own Doctor).

That’s despite the fact that the writing is by-and-large twisting itself into absurd pretzels to make her as appealing across the board as possible. After Billie Piper’s defiantly chavvy Rose and Catherine Tate’s abrasive Donna, the TARDIS was subsequently inhabited by the rather more middle class Karen Gillian and the very plummy Clara The Impossible Girl. Where to put Bill on the social spectrum? Her speech is highly articulate and yet her accent contains frequent glottal stops and rough edges. She’s serving chips, so she’s common, but she’s attending lectures so she’s upwardly mobile. She’s upper lower working middle class and it’s a testament largely to Mackie that she emerges as a person and not as a bundle of unrelated characteristics.

The story meanwhile is largely a remix of familiar elements, including such old favorites as the possessed body, the pool of alien goo, the remnants of alien visitors and – a peculiarly Moffat one this – the inconsequential tour of the universe. In the context of the episode, this last one works fine (it’s partly there to show Bill and therefore the new viewers what the TARDIS is capable of) but it’s symptomatic of a nasty habit of the outgoing head writer – taking gigantic ideas and treating them trivially. The TARDIS’s ability to flit across all of time and space is utterly remarkable. Any opponent which can match it point-for-point should be an absolutely colossal threat. But here it just gets talked to death as if it were barely even a problem. Still, nice to see the Movellans again.

Still as remixes go, this was well enough-paced and witty enough to keep me happy. It’s worth three-and-a-half stars, but I’ll give it four because it’s the season opener and I think the rules are a little different for first episodes – but I’ll need next week to considerably up the stakes.

4 Stars

 

Of course, next week has already been-and-gone and rather than taking the ground-work laid by The Pilot and building on it, Smile simply repeated achingly familiar tropes from Doctor Who and other series past, while committing many of the same rookie mistakes as Frank Cottrell Boyce’s previously limp offering.

Some writers just aren’t suited to Doctor Who. Now, I’m fine with people like Richard Curtis and Simon Nye being given the chance to try their hand because one of the advantages of the anthology nature of the series is that it can effectively reinvent itself every week if it chooses. But once someone has shat the bed as comprehensively as the writer of In The Forest of the Night then there’s simply no need to give them another go, regardless of how much the show-runner likes them personally, or how heavily-laden their awards shelf is.

To be fair, this isn’t quite as bad as the previous offering, but it’s pretty soggy, generic stuff, suffering from poor pacing, rotten characterisation, a lack of new ideas and stupid costumes. The earlier scenes with the colonists set up both the problem and its solution too clearly for the Doctor’s laborious discovery of the same to hold any interest at all. And it really doesn’t help that while Mina Anwar is remixing – of all classic era stories – The Happiness Patrol, she appears to be wearing a costume made out of bubble wrap. For a moment I thought I was watching a Victoria Wood or French and Saunders spoof of the unloved and under-budgeted 80s programme, with ludicrous technobabble and silly plastic robots, not the BBC’s now much-feted and well-loved flagship family export.

Then the script can’t make up its mind whether there are colonists here or not. Instead of the Doctor arriving in time to save the last remaining embattled survivors, when he and Bill show up, the place is deserted. Now it can be argued that deserted corridors are spookier or more atmospheric, but it makes it much harder to establish a world, or a society when there are no other people around. Either way, it’s undeniably cheaper to do it this way, and that’s what these early scenes looked like – done on the cheap.

The Doctor first deduces that the colonists are on-their-way, then that the advance guard has already been killed, then that the colonists are here but in suspended animation – and then he decides to wake them up first and solve the lethal problem later. That’s after he’s decided not to blow the place up of course – a spectacularly stupid and reckless plan for the world’s smartest man, which sits very poorly with the overall morality of the series. The sense of a script desperately spinning its wheels isn’t helped by the Doctor repeatedly trying and failing to leave Bill behind, which is fair enough as the story would have unfolded in exactly the same way if she’d never set foot in the TARDIS at all.

And as well as being over-familiar, the central idea doesn’t really makes sense either – in two different ways. The silly plastic robots (hereafter referred to as SPRs) are so keen to make the humans happy that they murder anyone who is miserable. Surely this is a glitch which a) can be corrected by their human masters who – as the teaser makes perfectly clear – know precisely why the robots are killing them all; and b) which could have been found during early field trials and corrected then?

But let’s not forget that the whole complex, including the SPRs, has actually been constructed from swarms of nano-bots. This tedious science-fiction cliché seems to be everywhere at the moment, from Disney’s Big Hero Six, to this week’s episode of Supergirl, to – let’s not forget – Doctor Who’s own The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. The nano-bots can construct anything – walls, floors, ceilings, kitchens. So, why do they need SPRs at all? What can a SPR possibly do that that nano-bots couldn’t do far more easily and conveniently without assuming that clumsy form?

And when the generic band of colonists are inexplicably defrosted at the least convenient time, not one of them can summon up an ounce of characterization or interest. Instead, the Doctor actually literally pushes the reset button to solve the problem.

This is very, very thin stuff, which fails to play to any of its writer’s strengths, gives two brilliant lead actors almost nothing to do and fails to add anything at all to the body of Doctor Who ideas. I can only assume it was commissioned a very long time ago, before Nardole was added to the TARDIS crew, because the solution to the problem of how you stop Matt Lucas being so annoying was solved this time by leaving him behind. A better solution might be to give his character an actual stake in the narrative.

So, far from my favorite, but not quite as suffocatingly poor as Forest. I’ll scrape together two stars for it, and then knock half a star off again for this being yet another Automated System Gone Awry. It even looks like The Girl Who Waited. Was it shot in the same location?

1.5 Stars

 

Next week, we complete the new companion trifecta of Earth-bound adventure, far future space fantasy, and creepy historical. Hopefully, these two episodes represent a slightly wobbly take-off and not a fatal collapse of the whole infra-structure.