‘This is the story of how I died.’ The pre-credits sequence is among the best ever: a potted history of the show since Rose, and a promise that this is not going to end well. And all the way through the episode there’s a sense of the Doctor and Rose having to pay, in some way, for their carefree adventuring. Torchwood was set up because Queen Victoria was not amused by their blasé attitude towards the supernatural threats to her realm: ‘You’re actually named in the Torchwood foundation charter of 1879 as an enemy of the Crown.’ In contrast to the Doctor’s improvised approach, Torchwood is a slick and professional operation highly proficient at reengineering alien technology for the benefit of the Crown (as Yvonne is keen to point out, ‘not the general public’s’).
And elsewhere, there are an army of ghosts coming back to haunt the Doctor and Rose. The Cybermen from the parallel Earth – because the Doctor didn’t defeat them all and left the job half done. The Daleks – more unfinished business from the Time War. Even Jackie and Mickey, the ones Rose and the Doctor left behind, are back. Jackie’s concern for Rose’s future, even as Rose becomes ever more Doctor-like and dismissive of her ordinary life (the disdain she has for working in a shop), doesn’t seem like sour grapes but the genuine concern of a mother for her daughter’s rootless existence. And Rose’s general attitude of superiority smacks of a metropolitan university student deigning to visit her relatives back in a provincial shire. For better or worse, a lot of this series has been setting Rose and the Doctor up for a fall, and now it’s come, suddenly they both seem a lot more vulnerable and likeable (except for the Ghostbusters bit, that’s really annoying).
The best thing about this episode is that without The Impossible Planet’s spooky setting and visuals, this manages to be even more ominous. The ghosts are unsettling, even as they’ve been reduced to pop culture comedy figures, partly because we see almost immediately that they’re connected to whatever is going on at Torchwood, and partly because the Doctor is clearly disturbed by them. The mysterious sphere, hanging in mid air and waiting to crack open like an egg, is curious because it’s a piece of the jigsaw that doesn’t fit. On a first watch, this moved fast enough that the audience is likely to accept Mickey’s supposition that it contains the CyberLeader, but subconsciously we already know that doesn’t make sense, because some of the Cybermen have already managed to make it through into Torchwood so why would others be inside the sphere? The Doctor plants the idea that you could escape the end of the universe inside a void ship, and so more thoughtful viewers might be expecting the Time Lords (interesting that the Doctor’s ‘Send it back into hell’ is echoed in his last words to Rassilon), or they might just have noticed an extermination effect in Fear Her’s next time trailer, or read some spoilers, and already know what’s likely to pop out at the cliffhanger.
But I think regardless of that, the last ten minutes of this are an astonishing crescendo of action and reveals – the unplanned 100% ghost shift; Cybermen in Canary Wharf; the return of Mickey; the truth about the army of ghosts; the activation of the sphere; the CyberLeader admitting it is not a Cyberman ship, and the final arrival of the Daleks – heralded by that Omen style music. RTD is very good at misdirection (he’ll repeat the trick perhaps even more impressively in the next series finale), and it builds to the best-ever Dalek reveal cliffhanger (even better than World’s End’s).
Around this, everything in the episode works even better than in the twin Rise of the Cybermen episodes. The supporting cast are mostly brilliant: Tracy-Ann Oberman has just the right balance of steely determination and leadership-course insincerity, but the moment when she tries to stare out the Doctor and blinks first is a brilliant acting moment, a real glimpse of vulnerability and uncertainty from a character who is usually certain about everything she does. Also, Yvonne Hartman is a reference to Spare Part’s Yvonne Hartley. It’s obvious why Freema Agyeman became frontrunner to play the next companion: her role is fairly brief, but she’s instantly likeable and sympathetic and makes us feel her character’s death without the kind of lead-up Lynda got in The Parting of the Ways. She has to play flirty, vulnerable, scared and controlled by aliens and nails it.
With glimpses of the global scale of the threat, with Cybermen in India and Paris as well as in suburban homes just like yours, returning heroes and villains and an apocalyptic threat this is as close as Doctor Who gets to Marvel. There’s still a real buzz around this.
A freelance journalist threatens to expose the truth about Torchwood and the ghosts – until his Rebekah Brooks-a-like editor alerts Torchwood and he’s caged in an asylum. Very effective conspiracy thriller for kids.
Next Time: Doomsday