This is more like it. A historical setting, an unusual premise, some creepy monsters and some effective performances.
From the setting to the characters to the music this is every inch a familiar tale told through familiar reference points. We know the giggly maid, the obnoxious boarding school pupil, the vague teacher, the bookish nurse. We know that the year before World War I was a moment of innocence poised on the threshold of horror and inhumanity. We even understand sinister scarecrows in rustic England, and strange lights in the forest. It’s safe–unremarkable, even–but it just works, and works well. A few rushed moments aside the story is executed to perfection, and moreover it’s a particular combination of these well-worn elements that we haven’t quite seen before–not even on Doctor Who (surely the only programme ever likely to combine them).
David Tennant is, as ever this season, on good form. Pleasingly this week’s slightly more vague, slightly more upper class version of his familiar Doctor persona gives him the opportunity to play some quieter notes, and his budding relationship with Nurse Redfern is all the right kinds of charming. It’s a nice change of pace after last week’s celebration of the art of manic shouting.
The pre-World War One setting is a perfect mixture of rural idyll and impending modernity. Doctor Who‘s historical recreations can sometimes tend towards caricature, but this world feels very real, buoyed by characters who are uniformly well-cast and well-played. I’m particularly impressed by Harry Lloyd as Baines, giving a deeply sinister performance that should be all kinds of over-the-top, but isn’t. I gather he’s Will Scarlet in the BBC’s current Robin Hood series but since I gave up on that series very early on I can’t really comment. Thomas Sangster as Latimer is another standout. Latimer’s precognisance is very interesting, and I’m beginning to wonder just how profoundly his encounter with Time Lord knowledge may be affecting him. Good stuff.
Even the score by Murray Gold is bordering on the competent, although I really dislike the obvious sweet-little-tune-gone-sour used for the girl being ‘got’. The scarecrows are marginally less creepy than I expected from the trailers, despite an excellent design. I’m sure they’ll be giving children nightmares for years (this is a good thing, by the way), but I think they could be shot in a slightly more creepy way. I do wish monsters wouldn’t do that thing where they rear up in front of someone with their arms raised but fail to actually grab them.
My other minor disappointment is the inside of the alien ship which is a little by-the-numbers, and some of the interaction between the alien “family” which feels slightly too smug. No alien should ever remind me of the Slitheen if they know what’s good for them.
I have no hesitation in ranking this episode as the best of the season so far, and the first to show signs of genuine greatness. I’ll withhold final judgement until I’ve seen part two. I haven’t read the novel on which this two-parter is based, but it’s easy to see this working in novel form. (If I had to guess I’d suspect that the novel may preserve the mystery of why and how the Doctor has arrived in this setting for longer, whereas in TV form the story is given an immediate hook). I’m sure pikelet will be along shortly to squee/tell me it’s not a patch on the book.