“There’s a giant smiley abattoir over there, and I’m having this really childish impulse to blow it up.”
This episode could have been really bad. It is written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce who wrote the pretty rubbish Doctor Who episode, ‘In the Forest of the Night‘. So going into this, I was nervous. There was the emoji-bots too…Doctor Who has always used current trends in a really naff way so that’s nothing new. But everything else I’d seen about this episode looked good; the future setting, the minimalist look, the creepy missing colonists, and the Black Mirror-esque robot bees.
Ok, so the most important thing first – the emoji-bots weren’t too bad. In fact I quite liked them. Plus, they’re called the Vardies so just forget about the whole emoji thing. The opening scene of the show sets them up as actually quite menacing. The colony is crisp and minimalist and looks like something straight from Mass Effect. Something has obviously gone wrong and a lot of colonists are dead. In fact it seems they’ve been completely vaporised so just dusty bones remain. It’s pretty brutal. We know it’s the Vardies doing it, so this episode is less of a mystery and more about finding out why they did it.
One of the best things this episode does is let us get to know Bill. She’s a new companion and we have plenty left to learn about her. So the show has Bill and The Doctor be the only two characters in the episode for a good two thirds of the runtime. This does mean there is a slight lack of Nardole, but I’ll let it slide for good storytelling. The mystery around the colony is there, but it’s mostly in the background for the first part of the episode. And Bill is so far shaping up to be a fan favourite. She carries on her questioning from last episode, asking all the things an ordinary person would ask (“Why two hearts?”) She sort of represents the fanbase, no longer just accepting the crazy ideas Steven Moffat throws at us. Bill’s infectious optimism and sunny disposition has revitalized The Doctor and, in a way, the show.
There’s some great moments with for The Doctor in this episode too, as the show attempts to ask why he does what he does. Why does it have to be him saving the day? We see him almost make a huge mistake in this episode as he very nearly destroys the colony. It was typical Doctor Who, with him fighting to push buttons and rewire the console, only to find that the colonists were there all along.
“But if your city proves anything, it is that granting all your wishes is not a good idea.”
His ‘Magic Haddock’ story is really good too. I was worried when it first came up that it’d be annoying or random for the sake of it, but it felt nicely poetic at the end of the episode. And the way the show presented it, with the 12th Doctor speaking in voiceover, was really effective. It felt like a fable or a fairytale, kind of what Cotrell-Boyce tried but failed to do in ‘In The Forest Of The Night’.
This episode is the kind we’ve seen a few times in the show. The new companion is taken to the far future, finds out the world destroyed itself because humans are bad blah blah. And yeah, this episode does cover those things but it doesn’t get bogged down in it, and I think that’s probably due to Bill just being so cheerful.
The episode touches on some pretty heavy themes, but in a light way. The idea that the humans were wiped out by grief is interesting, and so Doctor Who. Maybe it’s the touch of children’s writer Frank Cotrell-Boyce, but it works. The Vardies are the oppressed slave race and I think it was a really nice twist that the planet is theirs. The human colonists are just living there. I’ve seen a few people saying that The Doctor was a bit callous leaving the humans to sort it out by themselves, but it was the fairest way. The Vardies were legitimate, fully conscious lifeforms. Even if they have an emoji for a face. Plus, I love it when a show like this isn’t black and white. There was no easy answer, now it’s up to them to keep the peace.
What’s in the vault? What’s in the vault?! The Doctor has been left guarding a vault in the basement of the university. Oh, and he’s not technically supposed to leave Earth. What promise did he make? Who’s in the vault? Is it the first Doctor? Or The Master? The show seems to be moving away from being quite so serialized this season (so far at least, it’s still early days) and these questions and mysteries around the vault and its contents feel more like the Bad Wolf or Harold Saxon arcs of the good ol’ days. The only worry is that after building it up like this it absolutely has to deliver.
The cliffhanger at the end was unexpected. And that is how you do a cliffhanger! Leaving the characters on a frozen River Thames with an elephant is one hell of a way to bring people back next week.
Next week – We’re in London in 1814 for the last of the city’s River Thames Frost Fairs. It looks excellent.
Reviewed by Jack