‘It’s as if he’s mesmerized the entire world.’ The challenge for RTD after Series One was to up the ante every year, making each finale even more elaborate and expansive. After you’ve had millions of Daleks and Cybermen battling each other across the world, how do you top it? RTD’s answer is to have the Doctor arrive back in 21st Century Britain at the precise moment when the Master has already won, and then to play out the idea of the Doctor having to defeat a global threat with no support structure. Which sounds like it should be par for the course – but normally wherever the Doctor arrives he’s able to find allies, and particularly in the new series’ present day episodes where he’s got psychic paper, his UNIT pass and friends, like Harriet Jones, in high places.
‘‘Not even the Time Lords came this far.’ The first new series three-parter (the proof of the pudding is the placement of the Next Time trailer at the end of the credits, per other multi-part story cliffhangers, rather than at the top) begins with an opening that, like The Seeds of Doom’s, tells an effectively terse and self-contained story that gains greater weight and horror as subsequent events unfold. Like director Graeme Harper’s masterpiece The Caves of Androzani, this is a “spiralling descent” which begins relatively innocuously with the standard Cardiff joke (Martha is horrified to have landed there), and then builds inexorably towards an astonishing, relentless final act which stands even above Earthshock or Army of Ghosts as the greatest returning baddie moment ever. In the process, RTD looks at Moffat’s hidden-in-plain-sight solutions and laughs at them, as he wraps Gridlock and Human Nature into a pay-off that, at the time, was jaw-dropping.
‘There’s something you can do, otherwise what’s the fucking point of you!’ Chibnall’s first series finale gives a few hints of his approach to Doctor Who: a mysterious and knowing villain from earlier in the season pops up to dispense revelations while chaos unfolds around the still point of the lead, plus cameo returns of incidental characters drop cryptic hints – here, a de-CyberWomanned Lisa, Owen’s Out of Time lover Diane, and PC Andy. Then there’s a big, impressive monster, an important death and a heroic sacrifice. The whole thing looks like a series finale is meant to look, without necessarily understanding how one works.
‘That Rift took my lover and my captain. So, if I die trying to beat it, then it will all be in the line of duty.’ The best episode to date focuses on the ideas of duty trumping desire, wrapping it in a love story that’s more romantic than the last several because it doesn’t revolve around sex. It’s also a sequel to what was – at the time – the most beloved episode of new Doctor Who, and finally begins to work out a way to make Jack work outside the parent show.
‘I was getting bored of your fuck-tricks anyway.’ The show woozily refocuses its attention on some of the relationships it’s left simmering in the background (or, less charitably, forgotten about) for the past few episodes, as Gwen’s relationships with both Owen and Rhys suddenly come under pressure. Rhys feels unloved, Owen is smarting from his fling with Diane – which clearly meant more to him than his affair with Gwen. By the end of the episode both have reached a turning point: Gwen’s confessed her sins to Rhys only to retcon his memory of the conversation, and she’s broken up with Owen, who’s personifying the idea articulated by slimy estate agent Mark Lynch (The Boys’ Alex Hassell): ‘what we become when all we have left is our rage.’
‘There’s no puzzle to solve, no enemy to fight. Just three lost people who have somehow become our responsibility.’ Essentially the Star Trek TNG episode The Neutral Zone reimagined with three people brought from the past to their future and trying to make sense of their place in this strange new world. The implications are sensible, the story has some touching moments, but it has the slight whiff of American syndication television.
‘I don’t think I can bend the rules, just cos he’s dead.’ Narrated by a geeky young man, this plays in the same space as Doctor Who: Love & Monsters, to which it inevitably looks like the poor relation. However, the intent is slightly different. While Love & Monsters was about Doctor Who fandom and not losing sight of your childhood dreams in the grind of adult life, Random Shoes is about not wasting your life waiting for something to happen. It occasionally drifts into mawkishness, but not egregiously so. The result is the most touching episode of the show to date.
‘That’s worth coming back for.’ I half wonder whether the impetus behind doing this was that Indira Varma is so good the production team were kicking themselves they’d done away with her in the first episode. She’s spectacularly good in this, lifting the piece beyond some of its cliches, like the “life vampire” plot, the second Hub lockdown this series, and the standard SF “ominous warnings” dialogue about ‘something moving in the dark and it’s coming.’
‘So, I’m shagging a woman and an alien.’ Tosh becomes the last of the regulars to lead an episode, and that becomes almost a statement. Even more than Ianto, she’s the one who’s just there doing technical support – the IT department of Torchwood. I like that the episode plays with this, leaning into the disparaging perception of the rest of the team and notably not concluding with a rousing endorsement of Tosh’s importance to the group (which would have been the Star Trek: TNG Reg Barclay approach), but banishing her again to the margins.
‘When was the last time you came so hard and so long, you forgot where you are?’ Very much The X-Files: Our Town in the style of Dog Soldiers, as cannibalistic hicks pick off visitors. The typical theme of these things is “metropolitan folk” confronted with an older, harder way of life and having to rediscover their own capacity for savagery in the process, and there is a bit of that here, as Owen disparages the countryside and Gwen struggles to comprehend strange, rural rituals. But mostly it’s just running round in the dark shooting guns and screaming.