When a cold open starts with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall and delivering a causal loop monologue, and ends with him jamming to his own theme music, you just know you're in for a treat. After last week's more linear story, tonight's offering deviated from the template in just about every way imaginable. It moved location, introduced a new villain, separated the Doctor and Clara, turned up the timey-wimey to ten, yet the result was exactly the same—another top class outing from the man touted by many as Moffat's natural successor.
I'm not sure Toby Whithouse is there yet, but this was at least a step in the right direction. I loved virtually everything about this episode. Oddly enough, it wasn't the kind of episode which usually grabs me. I'm normally a sucker for stories with a strong emotional core, yet tonight's episode didn't have me swallowing back the tears. What it did have, however, is characters that felt purposeful, three dimensional, and didn't de-evolve into unthinking baboons every time the plot threw something difficult at them. It also had dialogue which positively effervesced with vigour and wit. Out of all the writers that aren't Steven Moffat, Whithouse must surely write the best dialogue. He just gets the characters.
More importantly, Clara and the Doctor's relationship—after the hiccup of the season opener—feels back on track. Clara's anger at the Doctor's refusal to change history, and her confession that she wasn't ready to lose him yet, all made complete sense in the context of having recently lost Danny and Eleven. And the Doctor throwing caution to the wind to save Clara in response to her 'If you love me in any way, you'll come back' line—despite the TARDIS ultimately thwarting his attempt with its cloister bell tantrum—told us everything we need to know about his feelings for Clara. The Doctor may not be particularly gifted when it comes to expressing his squishier emotions, but tonight his actions spoke volumes. He came back.
Likewise, Clara's 'You've made yourself essential to me, you've given me something else to be' speech was so powerful, so well written, that I found myself already mourning her departure. It was a beautiful moment, passionately delivered by Jenna Coleman. Was Clara wrong to put Lunn at risk to save herself and the Doctor? Maybe. But sometimes you have to take risks in order to do what needs to be done. Cass's question about whether travelling with the Doctor makes it easier to put lives at risk really put into focus how much Clara's changed. Are the changes for the better? When you're busy saving lives, what constitutes 'better' is maybe something best left to the philosophers.
From the way the plot developed, you could tell that Whithouse spent a great deal of time making sure that things were adequately foreshadowed and logically coherent. The Faraday Cage being the only place they could safely hide, and yet the only place Clara's phone wouldn't work, was the perfectly set up plot hurdle. Establishing that ghosts could move physical objects, and then having one steal Clara's phone, was again masterfully initiated and executed. And showing us a hologram of Clara in the first act, only to use the same device to fake the Doctor's death in the second, felt clever, organically generated, and I utterly failed to foresee it. Great writing, or me being a dumb-ass? I tend to favour the former, but then I would, wouldn't I?
Perhaps the biggest pay-off came in the suspense department, when an axe-dragging Moran stalked Cass down the silent corridors of the Drum. Again, kudos to Daniel O'Hara's directing chops. He managed to maintain the movement and atmosphere of last week's episode, whilst keeping up the pace and chills. Cass has actually been something of a revelation. Not only was her solution to dodging Moran's axe quick witted, her lip-reading abilities also proved to be a life saver when it came to the Doctor's plan. Thankfully, these were qualities Whithouse chose to show rather than tell. There's nothing worse than being told that a character is brilliant, only for their actions to suggest otherwise. Cass could easily have become a character incessantly in need of rescuing, but instead proved to be strong, resourceful, and ultimately likeable.
I even enjoyed the romantic mini-plot between her and Lunn, not because it felt particularly earned, but because it told us something about Bennett, which in turn told us something about Clara. When a writer takes the time to make a seemingly minor plot element inform us about the bigger picture, you just have to appreciate the effort. Whithouse used Bennett's pain to reveal Clara's inner turmoil, divulging her struggle to cope with loss, and how she found purpose and solace in a needy universe. It only lasted a brief moment, but it was a timely reminder that despite Clara's chipper exterior, there's still a protracted battle being fought within.
If I had one small criticism, I think they should've kept the Fisher King in the shadows. Having him traipsing around in broad daylight did leech away some of his menace, revealing him to be nothing more than a bloke in a big rubber suit. He worked far better in the shadows, towering above a comparatively diminutive Doctor. But this feels like a minor gripe in what was an otherwise excellent story. With Whithouse's name on the script, I was praying that tonight's episode wouldn't stink. Average would have been acceptable; quite good would have been a triumph; but for Whithouse to almost out-Moffat Moffat in the timey-wimey stakes utterly defied expectation. Can Mark Gatiss—another serial quality-control offender—pull off a similar miracle in five weeks?
—Presumably O'Donnell dropping 'Minister of War' into the conversation was Whithouse sowing a future plot point.
—Would a future ruled by cats really be so bad? I mean, they're cute, right? The wouldn't hurt us, surely?
—I loved the Doctor speaking directly at us. When I saw snippets of it in the season teaser, I imagined it'd been specifically filmed for promotional purposes. I didn't expect to see it in an actual episode.
—Despite this week's episode being less Drum-centric, I still found the ghosts creepy. I held my breath when they gathered around a terrified Lunn.
—I like that Prentis was a deliberately comedic character, and that Whithouse brought attention to the fact in the story. ('My first proper alien and he's an idiot'.) It's always reassuring to know that the writer knows what we're thinking, and that we're right to be thinking the way we are.
Doctor: 'I've met Beethoven. Very intense. Loved an arm wrestle.'
O'Donnell: 'It's bigger on the inside, it's bigger on the inside, it's bigger on the inside! How can it be bigger on the inside, Bennett?'
Doctor: [To himself] 'Finally... someone worth talking to.'
Clara: 'I know that look. I do that look.'
Doctor: 'I've erased the memory of the writing. You might find you've lost a couple of other memories, too: like people you went to school with, or previous addresses, or how to drink liquids.'
Doctor: 'Don't kiss me... morning breath.'