Feel the whiplash. It’s less than three weeks since series nine of Doctor Who climaxed in bold, brilliant, bruising style with the two-punch of “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent”. The BBC’s decision to delay this year’s run of episodes means we’ve barely had a chance to breathe after our journey into the darkest corners of the Doctor’s hearts before being plunged into this, the eleventh Christmas special. And let’s be clear – this is Doctor Who set to full-on festive romp mode. It’s a little like stumbling, shell-shocked, out of a trauma recovery centre to find someone raspberrying a party blower in your face.
Clearly the Doctor’s not exactly consumed by the festive spirit either. Post-Clara, Peter Capaldi initially reverts to the austere grump that first defined the Twelfth, grumbling about hologram antlers and dialing down the baggy-jumpered rock dad schtick that’s made him a twinklier, less spiky figure this series. “Carol singers will be criticised,” declares the notice on the TARDIS door, a touch of cosmic Scrooge beyond even William Hartnell’s capacity for grouchiness. Bah and, indeed, humbug.
We’re on Mendorax Dellora, a far-future human colony whose Dickensian streets and snow flurries add a seasonal appeal that’s just the right side of chocolate box cliché. Ultimately, however, it feels like so much set dressing, a frosty, tinsel-and-bauble backdrop rather than a fully realised time and place. There are hints of a wider, more intriguing world here – the warrior monks at the court of King Hydroflax, for instance, or the population numbly watching the whole regal carry-on – but it’s a culture painted in the broadest of strokes and leaves this snowbound colony planet feeling just a little vague around the edges.
Some of the characters feel equally sketchy, for all the coup of casting two of Britain’s top comedy stars. You wish there was rather more for Matt Lucas than what’s essentially a hapless sitcom neighbour turn. And while Inbetweeners star Greg Davies has a nice line in shouty bluster, making King Hydroflax one of the show’s more amusingly useless villains, his talents also feel underserved by a script whose true interest clearly lie elsewhere.
Douglas Mackinnon’s been a busy man this year. He’s also directed the Sherlock Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride”.
Yes, make no mistake – this one’s all about River Song and the Doctor, the culmination of the fourth dimensional romance that’s played out since 2008’s “Silence In The Library”. It’s hard to imagine this story even existing without the itch to push Alex Kingston and Peter Capaldi together in a TV studio and see what kind of chemical reaction results. Thankfully it’s a potent one: there’s a cracking rapport and energy between the pair and their scenes together lift everything around them.
It’s a particular joy to see Capaldi having a ball with the comedy, playing the Doctor’s mock-shock at the TARDIS interior with outsized relish (“Sorry. I’ve always wanted to see that done properly…”). It’s a droll turn that makes an effective contrast to the billion-year angst of the preceding episodes (“I haven’t laughed in a long time”) and there’s something gleefully subversive about the Doctor voicing some pro-proletariat sentiments on the day of the Queen’s speech.
The second half of the story amps up the glam heist caper elements while liberally channeling Douglas Adams. “I’ll have the chef prepare you immediately,” says maitre d’ Flemming (a sardonic turn by Rowan Polonski, wonderfully expressive beneath the blue prosthetics), a line that feels like it’s cueing up the Dish of the Day in the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe. The sight of Hydroflax’s lumbering exo-skeleton stomping into the posh dining room is a memorably incongruous one but this whole starship sequence feels a little too close to 2007 Christmas special “Voyage Of The Damned”, tuxedo-clad alien lifeforms and all. Once again you wish the story could explore its world a little more – the idea of a cruise ship populated by the scum of the universe is a tantalising one and could power an entire episode on its own.
Finally we reach the long-awaited destination of the Singing Towers of Darillium. It’s here, at last, that the story has a welcome chance to breathe, to expose a soul beneath all the brash, frantic larks of the last hour. Capaldi and Kingston play this tonal shift beautifully and while the story denies us a final kiss, the lovely visual of the towers at sunset, with their promise of a 24 year night, wraps up the timeline-twisting River Song saga on a genuinely heartfelt note. “You can’t expect a monolith to love you back,” says River. But sometimes you can see the cracks in the granite.
The Singing Towers of Darillium were first mentioned under David Tennant’s watch, way back in 2008’s “The Forest Of The Dead.” That’s quite the long game from Mr Moffat…
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
River references “the real time envelope” – first mentioned by the Fifth Doctor in 1984’s “Frontios”, though then we assumed that was a bit of technobabble blarney the Time Lord was using to bluff the villainous Gravis.
THE WIVES OF DOCTOR WHO
So we can add Cleopatra to Elizabeth I and Marilyn Monroe to the list of the Doctor’s brides. We like to think this particular nuptial involved an unseen adventure with the ancient Osirian gods from “The Pyramids Of Mars”.
Doctor Who airs on Christmas Day on BBC One in the UK and BBC America in the US.
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