You're not kidding, Missy. This felt like an episode with some really good ideas at its core, but some really weak pay-offs. The idea of the world waking up to find itself covered with trees was solid, the dialogue was consistently top drawer, and the ecological digs were both amusing and apt. So why did the rest of the episode fail to set my thrill circuits alight?
The Doctor/Clara stuff was as good as it's ever been. Their relationship this season has been a real high point; without it, I suspect we'd be a lot less complimentary of some of this season's offerings. Yet, despite their adventures, they still seem largely unsure of each other. The Doctor still sees Clara in terms of adjectives and geometry, whereas Clara sees the Doctor in terms of who he was, rather than who he is. I understand why people find Capaldi's Doctor so unlikeable, but I've really warmed to his waspishness. When he does land a poignant outburst, it seems all the more touching set against a backdrop of grumpiness.
Doctor Who's had a slightly below par batting average when it comes to the success of its child actors. For every success story, there's been a sea of Nightmare in Silver-esqe abominations, ready to stink up the place with their wooden acting and (more often than not) poorly written lines. So I was pleasantly surprised when Abigail Eames turned in a reasonably credible performance as the troubled Maebh. She reminded me a little of Luna Lovegood, with her semi-confused stare and her willingness to accept even the most preposterous scenario without question. The rest of the young cast were capable without being particularly stand-out, but Frank Cottrell Boyce gifted them with so many funny lines that I didn't care. It's just a shame the ending fell so flat.
The build-up was there. They established early on the fairy-tale nature of the episode, with a red-coated Maebh throwing out 'breadcrumbs', and numerous references to Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, gingerbread cottages, etc. Even the heavily CGIed wildlife looked decidedly surreal. Unfortunately, the plot took surreal and mistook it for unreal. I'm not sure the Tunguska Blast or the Curuçá Event are comparable to the severity of the solar storm which battered the earth at the end—it looked devastating. The Tunguska Blast levelled 80 million trees, not 'tens of thousands', and would have destroyed cities if it'd hit a more densely populated area—trees or not. The fact that tonight's solar catastrophe caused hardly any structural damage at all, with seemingly no fatalities, really did test my suspension of disbelief.
And Annabel's reappearance broke it completely. Apparently, she'd been hiding in next door's hydrangeas all along. Which was a nice thought, but it really didn't have any emotional pay-off. The logic behind it was fine—if you can buy that the British government would heed the message of a young girl telling them all to play nice, and that Annabel just so happened to heed this call (despite a year of presumably ignoring her sister's other phone pleas)—but it simply wasn't earned. It reminded me a little of the Russell T. Davies years, when virtually every other episode had some pseudo-emotional time bomb at its centre, which would eventually explode in our faces with a slightly underwhelming wet 'phut!' Well, we're several season's older and wiser now, and we don't give up our tears so easily.
Would Clara and Danny really have refused the Doctor's offer of safety? Can you think of any circumstance where you'd send a child to certain death rather than try to save them? I get that they'd miss their folks, but given time surely they'd understand? They should at least have had the options explained to them. In fact, I'd even have condoned kidnapping them if it meant saving their lives. You do everything in your power to save the kids, right? Staying behind to die really didn't feel like the right solution to me, and Clara's decision to doom them all without consultation felt more like a plot-serving device than a genuinely thought-out set-piece.
I also spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about the central take-home message of the story. I get that Maebh was hearing real voices, and that stopping her medication so as to hear them more clearly was actually a decent idea. But then the Doctor widened the phenomena beyond Maebh to 'people who've lost someone', and I couldn't help but shake the feeling that children watching the show—children who may be on medication themselves—might take his message the wrong way.
The Danny and Clara storyline, although stunted in terms of forward movement, was probably the most interesting aspect of the episode for me. I still get the feeling that Danny and Clara want different things. Clara wants the excitement of coronal ejections, geomagnetic storms and time travel, whereas Danny's ambitions are far more parochial. After years of being a soldier, the schoolkids have become his life. For Clara, although she finds Danny's attitude appealing, she still seeks wonders outside of her own solar system. Several times tonight she prioritised solving the mystery above the children. I'm not sure what 'truth' Danny's expecting to hear from her next week, but I can't see it being to his liking. Clara is most definitely not done travelling with the Doctor.
I mentioned last week that I sometimes wondered what Capaldi would bring to a bad episode. I suspect tonight's episode was it. It wasn't awful, but in comparison to the bulk of this season's episodes (with the possible exception of 'Time Heist'), it felt decidedly sub-par. Yet Capaldi and Coleman kept me watching to the end. I even enjoyed rewatching it. Which seems to confirm that the show's two main actors are capable of bringing something special to the table when required. I dread to think what'll happen when one of them leaves.
—We always forget, do we? I'd like to see London Council forget the cost of resurfacing the city's roads.
—Where were London's 8,173,941 other inhabitants? Even before they'd been told to stay indoors (and with children missing, who the hell would listen?), the streets were bizarrely empty.
—We were supposed to make the connection that it was Missy who called Maebh, not Clara, right?
—The Danny instilling confidence into his students mini-arc felt a little tenuous. Having them stood behind him while he distracted that tiger with his torch seemed hopelessly irresponsible. Plus, he lost Maebh and didn't even know. Several times! What kind of BS is that?
—I loved that Maebh was totally non-plussed with the TARDIS' interior. When you see your planet instantly covered by trees, I guess 'bigger on the inside' isn't much of a trick.
—The Doctor still seems to think Danny's a PE teacher. Joke which they can't stop milking, or future plot point yet to be explored?
Doctor: 'I'm a Time Lord, not a child minder.'
Doctor: 'Miss Oswald? Dark hair? Highly unpredictable? Surprisingly round face?
Doctor: 'You! Have you got a name at all?'
Doctor: 'There are very good solid scientific reasons for being really quite frightened just now.'
Clara: 'Don't make me say it.'
Doctor: 'Say what?'
Clara: 'I don't want to be the last of my kind.'
Doctor: 'I hope I'm right. It would be slightly awkward if the world was destroyed at this point.'