For all its desire to bring Classic Doctor Who bang up to date Russell T Davies’ era sometimes did little more than that – put a modern gloss on science fantasy adventures that in many cases could have been produced for the classic show. Sure, he injected a huge dose of pace, richer characterisation (and/or soap), and stronger continuity, but for the most part he didn’t reinvent the wheel1.
After watching this two-parter I’m pretty sure Steven Moffatt is reinventing the wheel.
On the face of is this is a traditional Doctor Who alien-meets-historical, but my overriding impression as the end credits roll is that it feels nothing like Classic Doctor Who. In darkness of tone, in complexity, in games with time and narrative structure and unwillingness to wrap all its threads into a tidy conclusion.
And yet it plainly is Doctor Who. Not just because the Doctor remains the Doctor, but in its big whizz-bang science fantasy, broad brush characterisation, goofy humour and plot holes. And let’s face it: aliens have invaded the Earth (since the dawn of civilisation, no less) and the Doctor is barging around in the past interacting with famous figures and key historical events to defeat them. It couldn’t be more Doctor Who if it tried.
What’s changed then? Perhaps a willingness to take risks with the storytelling. To jump three months forward and not roll it back. To not resolve the cliffhanger until a throwaway line half-way through. To let the vein of story arc run so richly that significant mysteries carry over from episode to episode and season to season. To trust the audience to stick with the story and the characters even while undercutting them both.
At times it has to be said this feels like complexity for its own sake, and the various elements sometimes trip over one another. It doesn’t always work. But that’s risks for you. For every moment of this episode that feels disjointed, or baffling, or anticlimactic there’s one that feels invigorating, that demands your full attention and rewards you with a grin on your face (even while it’s scaring the crap out of you).
By the end of this episode my grin was pretty big.
(…and then I watch the trailer for next week’s romp and it looks like a pastiche of an RTD era potboiler. Go figure.)
1 Yes, yes there are exceptions like Human Nature/The Family of Blood. I’m generalising to make a point, leave me alone.