• 3rd December 2015 • Review by Seb Patrick •
Put a group of Doctor Who fans in a room and ask them why they love the show, and you’ll likely as not get a wide range of different answers. But it’s equally likely that at least one answer will be fairly prevalent: the character of the Doctor.
The Doctor is a hero unlike any other, and one of the reasons for that is that he’s a hero who does things that basically no other character anywhere else in fiction can (or, sometimes, will) do. Like changing his face (and personality) when it’s time for the actor in the role to move on. Or solving problems not with might and power, but with intellect and empathy. Or going and having an adventure with multiple previous versions of himself. Or managing to find a way to save both his own entire species and his own conscience and soul from a terrifying event that had already happened in his own past.
Or be the star of what is essentially a fifty-odd-minute one-hander of an episode, in which he spends two billion years allowing himself to die over and over again so that he can break through an impenetrable wall.
It’s a bit of a jump to immediately start talking about the end of the episode – particularly as it’s not the first time we’ve done it this series – but really, it hangs so heavily over everything else that it’s impossible not to. Just the very idea of what the Doctor does in this episode is so unlike anything we could have ever imagined we’d see this programme do – and that’s even before getting to the way it’s executed. The montage showing the Doctor’s escape is a staggering piece of television, one that starts in a pretty overwhelming place (“He’s already been there seven thousand years? That’s several times his existing lifespan over!”) and then simply ratchets up the existential dread to an unbearable degree with each exponential increase. A masterpiece of editing and performance, it’s a sequence that I want to watch over and over again; and I feel like crying every time I do.
“The Doctor Always Wins” is a mantra we’ve heard throughout Moffat’s era, but this is the first episode to truly explore what that actually means. And it’s not some “right makes might”, brash American heroism kind of thing. It simply means that the Doctor will not, can not, ever countenance the idea of there not being a solution. He will always find a way to carry on saving people. And while it’s true that there’s something potentially un-Doctor-ish about the fact that he succeeds in this story by, essentially, punching his way through a wall, it’s hardly done in the manner of Superman. Rather, it’s a tired, worn out old man summoning every ounce of his strength into a single blow that barely makes a dent – and which needs to be repeated an unfathomable number of times in order to succeed.
What’s more, the sacrifice he makes in order to escape isn’t even really the punching. It’s the death. A painful, horrible death (twice over each time, in fact – once burned by the Veil, and once self-inflicted electrocution), repeated countless millions of times (the precise number, of course, depending on how long each cycle actually takes to happen). And while it’s true that the “reset” nature of the story means he won’t actually carry the memory of each death (we’re not actually looking at a two-billion-year-old Doctor at the conclusion of this episode), each time he realises what he must do he must also therefore realise how many times he’s already done it.
It’s intense stuff, and coming at the end of a delightful puzzle-box of an episode (I clamped my hand over my jaw when he walked into the room with his own clothes drying in front of the fire) it also represents the show at probably its most impenetrable-to-casual-viewers even since “The Wedding of River Song”. There’s also an argument to be made that the dread and horror of this episode is the first time the show has justified its increasingly-irritating later-on-a-Saturday timeslot (and personally, I’m still of a mind it should be bumped to Sundays now anyway) – and the question of whether that should ever be appropriate for this show. But Doctor Who never stays the same for long – this is another thing that we love about it – and if the era of the light Saturday teatime family fest is over for now, then as long as the show doesn’t alienate the younger viewer entirely (and I really don’t think this series will have done, not to the extent that some are claiming) I think it’s a tone and style that’s worth striking for at least a little while. Especially when it gives us episodes like this, and “The Zygon Inversion”, and “The Witch’s Familiar”.
It’s actually remarkable just how this episode manages to be the standout in a series where almost every episode (sorry, “Sleep No More”) has been a standout in its own way. When the Doctor had his episode-long conversation with Davros, it felt like that was the moment the whole Moffat/Capaldi run had been leading up to. Except it wasn’t, because then we had the speech at the end of “Zygon”. And then that wasn’t, because then we had “Face the Raven”. But we should have known that there was still something else to come: because we’ve got the only person yet to write the show, and the only actor yet to play the role, who could possibly have pulled off an episode that featured (brief moments aside) literally nobody else except the Doctor. And it somehow manages to match every possible expectation we could have had of both of them.
Fifty-two years after it debuted, and ten years after it returned, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Doctor Who could do nothing new or surprising any more. In fact, it’s still capable of some of the most inventive, bravura, jaw-dropping television produced by anyone, anywhere. It’s capable of doing something that could only ever be this show. It is Doctor Who, it is as good as it has ever been, and we should cherish it for as long as it lasts.
“Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”