Reviewed By: TCar96
Review Date: 12/19/16 9:49 pm
0 out of 0 found this review helpful.
It's hard to think that Ian Briggs wrote both this and Dragonfire - it's the antipode of that serial in almost every respect: dynamic, exciting, mature and engaging.
A well textured period piece, the Doctor and Ace finding themselves amidst WWII fall into (problematic, given 'fall' implying a degree of chance - not the cunning foresight of 7!) a trap several millennia in the making...
There's a Norse mystery; military spying; multiple fulfilling character arcs and a spectacular monster invasion with the awesomely executed Haemovores. To cap it all off there's the culmination of a range of thematic and plot elements surrounding Ace. It's hard to place all of this at the pen of Briggs: Ace's maturity in particular and the weight of thematic elements all suggest a great deal of influence from Cartmel. His other trademarks: mystery, machinations and memorable moments all come to the forefront.
Unfortunately so do Cartmel's negative traits. One of by major issues (and font of praise!) of Cartmel's tenure is the political dimension of the show. Whilst a welcome addition bringing depth and some meatier sci-fi to the programme, occasionally pushing the envelope too far introduces an irritating preachy-ness that is counter-productive at best, jarring and quarrelsome at worst. Fenric really illustrates both. Reverend Wainwright is a George Bell archetype and successfully weaves in the philosophical and ethically quandary of allied carpet bombing during the war. Done with aplomb its there for us internet dwellers to sink our teeth into - but light enough to sail over the heads of those simply wanted a pacy mystery and alien invasion. The quandary is posited by one character, opposed by another. No caricature is used (ala the infamous 'no coloureds' of Remembrance). Such tact is wholly ignored however when the Red Army are introduced on screen. Thankfully, the audience is reminded that Hitler was a "dreadful man" as if we're all drooling canvasses - meanwhile we're treated to a wholly benign view of the Red Army!
This, for me, is the issue when Doctor Who gets explicitly political rather than illustrating ethical dilemmas with tact. It is the difference between political commentary and instruction. The latter, in a time-travelling drama for family audiences leads to big issues. The Red Army breaks into a British military installation - with the script and direction telling us the latter are the antagonists. British soldiers graphically murder Red Army soldiers whilst we cheer along as Ace is handed the Hammer and Sickle. For a programme that revolves around a principled hero tearing down autocracies - this is problematic, big time. The grass is only just growing over Katyn; the toll of Holodomor only just being taken into account - broadcast in October 1989 only half a year had passed since the brutal Tbilisi massacre. Having our British reverend killed in his lack of faith in Christianity - before having our Red Army soldier heroically survive through his faith in the revolution - is again, really problematic. The Doctor wouldn't, in my view at least, be 'in character' if happily allowing an einsatzgruppen to pin a swastika onto Ace. He oughtn't be accepting to happily allow a Hammer and Sickle to be pinned onto a companion either.
Besides the politics there's another Cartmel gripe to boot, namely that there's a fine line between complexity and mystery.. and just simply poor explanation. There's a repeat of my Ghost Light problem - namely to what extent do I just 'not get it'; to what extent am I expected to do the donkey work (not necessarily a bad thing!) and to what extent is the script just not cutting it. Other areas of pedantry would include the one poor effect: the chemical shells clearly some partially vacuum formed wall and that heartwretching ending - which is brushed off far too easily. After shattering Ace's faith in him, there ought to have been a monster of a credit cut with ramifications well into the next serial. A real missed opportunity.
It can't be emphasised enough however that these gripes, despite my excessively long elucidation, detract very little from what is a superb little serial. Great location work; snappy editing; a great score and some fantastic action too - with the Church fight in particular up there with the Dalek assault on Coal Hill school as one of my favourite action set-pieces. It certainly misfires on the odd occasion, but is doing so because it's really raising the bar of what Doctor Who is expected to do. A fine illustration of why the old mantra of Season 26 is wholly true. Following Remembrance, Ghost Light and Greatest Show within a matter of months - Doctor Who wasn't just finding its feet, but was embarking on a golden age tragically cut short.