With shades of 'The Happiness Patrol' and 'Ark in Space', this felt like an episode from the classic era. Internet consensus seems to be that it was a better episode for Frank Cottrell-Boyce than his earlier effort, 'In the Forest of the Night'. Well, yes it was... but that's hardly a ringing endorsement. It's like saying that nappy rash is better than piles. It's likely true, but you still wouldn't want either infesting your nether regions.
Joshing aside, tonight's story was an enjoyable future jaunt, even if the ending did let it down somewhat. I thought that the Doctor/Bill stuff was particularly strong: just two episodes in, and I'm already liking Bill a lot. Yes, she's a bit of a smart-arse, but so is the Doctor, and the two-hander(ish) format, combined with the slower pacing, really gave Bill and the Doctor the perfect opportunity to bond. Thankfully, Capaldi and Mackie make for a fascinating onscreen pair, so any time the story focuses on them, the show feels like it's cooking on gas. This is a different pairing than we're used to, with no romantic underpinnings to speak of, and Bill the antithesis of a damsel in distress, but that's exactly why it feels so fresh.
The plot itself was bursting with good ideas and felt vaguely reminiscent of Black Mirror. A fleeing mankind escaping annihilation, coupled with the nascent sentience of the Vardy, made for a fine yarn—it's just a shame that the denouement was a bit limp. The paper-thin secondary cast began to act like utter arse-heads, causing the Doctor to literally hit the reset button. Only it didn't really reset anything. Instead the Doctor mind-wiping the Vardy resulted in a completely different problem; a predicament which could have been played to comedic effect had it only been more ironic. (Had they made the exploitation of the Vardy more egregious, for example.) Instead, it just felt like another sonic-screwdriver-saves-the-day escape.
Last week I made the comment that Nardole felt somewhat shoehorned into the story, and this week it happened again. Admittedly, I found his dialogue marginally more amusing, but I still found his presence unnecessary. All he did was reiterate what we already know about the Doctor guarding the vault, and make it clear that he dislikes Bill. In fact, this felt like the week of the underutilised character. The inaccurately named Steadfast contributed little (pun unintended) to the story, and made me wonder why Ralf Little bothered to show up. Even Mina Anwar—Rani Chandra's mum, no less—got just one paltry pre-opening credits scene. What nonsense is this? I hate that I keep bringing it up every week, but I hate that they keep making it necessary. Please use your characters, show. That's what they're there for.
The Vardy were okay. I liked the idea of them being different rather than evil. Writers are usually too quick to imbue non-human beings with human characteristics, so it was encouraging to see the Vardy given a modicum of nuance. I was less jazzed with the ker-ching moment at the end. All that work trying to paint the Vardy in a sympathetic light, undone by one feeble joke. Apparently the Vardy weren't so different after all, they were just as money-grabbing as we are. Bugger! Visually, the Vardy reminded me of less whiny versions of Marvin the Paranoid Android (film version), although in an attempt to stay relevant, this episode does seem to have doomed itself to age horribly. Not only was it a mistake to imagine that emojis will have any currency whatsoever in the distant future, will anyone even know what they are in twenty years time? Technology moves at such a rate, it seems wholly unlikely.
Sadly, the Doctor deeming the utopia that of a 'vacuous teen', seemingly exposed Cottrell-Boyce's attitude towards modern technological mores. Shigetaka Kurita was in his mid-twenties when he invented the emoji. It was an adult who came up with this abomination, so we can't really blame kids for liking them, using them, and lining the pockets of their creator. They're just following our dumb lead. Besides, adults are just as bad. I got a text ten minutes ago that consisted of one word followed by seven smiley faces and a dog turd. From a grown-up! It's like I'm watching civilisation collapse before my very eyes.
On the production front, this was a handsome looking episode: its gleaming exteriors looked magnificent, the CGI was mostly complimentary, and the music was sometimes beautiful. I whined a bit last week about Murray Gold's occasionally over the top score, but this week it was far more restrained, although the story didn't quite reach the emotional heights of 'The Pilot', so maybe the occasionally overly-dramatic racket wasn't necessary. It's just a shame that the episode was so average. I enjoyed parts of it, but in a season destined to see the end of Moffat, Capaldi and seemingly Mackie, I didn't expect to be so nonplussed two episodes in. Next week's trailer does look promising, however. Here's hoping that Sarah Dollard manages to pull something Face the Raven-esque out of the proverbial bag.
—They shouldn't have uncovered the threat so early on in the story as it made the rest of the episode just one big runaround.
—At this particular juncture of the UK's history, with the threat of a 2nd Scottish referendum looming, the Doctor's Scotland quips felt oddly well timed.
—Although I enjoyed Bill's 'bloke utopia' comment, she chose to sit in front of the smaller portion, making the Doctor's deduction that he'd been given two portions due to his two hearts, although possibly correct, completely random.
—I'm really liking the continuity between episodes. This week followed on directly from where 'The Pilot' left off, and 'Thin Ice' looks similarly set to follow on from tonight.
—Apparently the Doctor doesn't like fish. Which probably explains why he dips their fingers in custard.
—'I'm happy, hope you're happy, too.' Nice Bowie reference.
Doctor: 'I’m over 2,000 years old. I don’t always want to take the stairs.'
Bill: 'You are an awesome tutor.'
Bill: 'Why are you Scottish?'
Doctor: 'I'm not Scottish, I'm just cross.
Bill: 'Is there Scotland in space?'
Doctor: 'They’re all over the place, demanding independence from every planet they land on.'
Doctor: 'Who needs loos? There’s probably an app for that.'
Doctor: 'There’s a giant smiley abattoir over there, and I’m having this really childish impulse to blow it up. Be right back.'