Doctor Who Empress of Mars Review

Well that was a surprise. I actually kinda enjoyed that. I’ve said before on numerous occasions that Gatiss isn’t my cup of tea on Who every time. For every Crimson Horror, there is a Victory of the Daleks and I’m never sure from season to season what I’m going to get from him.

What happened this week? The Doctor and Bill end up on Mars and improbably find themselves with some Victorians and a lone ice warrior. Nardole gets trapped in a rebounding TARDIS and asks Missy for help (take note kids: This is never a good idea). The lone ice warrior is trying to awaken his Queen and a clash of civilisations happens on Mars.

“God save the Queen”

NASA uncover God save the Queen written on the surface of Mars in a nifty flashback to the series 2 Ten episode featuring Queen Victoria and Torchwood (Queen Vic even gets a photo reference when the camera pans to a picture of s2 Vic on the wall of a cavern in Mars). The Doctor, Bill and Nardole, immediately need to hop into the TARDIS to investigate.

The Victorians

Ah, and there we have it, a welcome return to the anti-neoliberal theme of earlier s10. The Victorians see Mars as theirs to obtain. Because they are Victorians and they have ‘discovered’ this new planet, it and its resources are theirs. I quite liked the characterisation of the cowardly Victorian soldier who saw through the hubris for what it was and elected to try to make peace with the Ice Warriors and their Queen.

The Ice Warriors

Though their Queen is a little hissy, I liked that she looked to Bill for an opinion on what she should do and how she should assess the Victorians and The Doctor’s request for peace. I also liked that the lone ice warrior who had joined forces with the Victorians acted as a mirror to the cowardly soldier. I liked that the actor playing the Ice Warrior sounded grave and sad and wise, even underneath all of the costume and makeup. The reference to Alpha Centauri was confusing for my partner and I, as we’d never seen the original classic episode Alpha came from before, but once we’d looked it up, we both conceded it was a nice nod back to the past.

Missy

Nardole managed to get back to Bill and The Doctor, but not without help from an unexpected and dangerous quarter. I am fast running out of superlatives to describe the multi faceted character study that is Michelle Gomez as Missy. Her reply to Nardole as he begs for her help through the box that constrains her is chilling because it is delivered in such an understated fashion. And I loved the visuals and Gold’s music working together with Gomez when The Doctor looks horrified as he sees Missy’s reflection in the TARDIS console and Missy’s Theme plays. Then dreadful silence followed by, ‘are you alright?’ Absolutely terrifying.

The Empress of Mars: 6/10 inky stars

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Doctor Who: The Lie of The Land Review

This week is a Toby Whithouse oddity. I mostly enjoy his work on Who. I’ve enjoyed every episode he’s written with the exception of Under the Lake/Before the Flood, and even then I thought they were average Who episodes rather than terrible ones. I had high hopes he’d end the monks trilogy with a bang. Alas, it was not to be…

Orwellian Nightmare

So what happens? The story kicks off a little after we left off last week, with Bill and Nardole trying to find The Doctor to end the monks totalitarian rule of earth. The opening fifteen to twenty minutes reminded me of a combination of the superior Turn Left (one of the best episodes in Donna Noble’s run) and The Last of The Time Lords with Martha’s quest to stop a mad Master plot. The monks show humanity over and over via ‘truth’ sound bites aided by a captured Doctor who speaks live into people’s minds about the benevolence of the monks who have aided human development and history so altruistically. Up until his companions find The Doctor, I really dug the episode.

The Doctor and his Companion

What went wrong? The Doctor’s explanation of why he’d choose to help the monks makes sense, but it felt off that a) Bill shot The Doctor and that b) The Doctor would devise such a cruel test to check in on Bill’s independance from the monk’s. It’s not that it’s a bad idea on Whithouse’s part, it’s that it doesn’t really have enough character basis from previous episode’s or this one to help the audience to agree that both Bill and The Doctor’s actions are reasonable.

And what’s worse, the script makes the mistake of not giving people consequences for their actions. True: this is something New Who has never been good at (Look no further than the selective forgetting that was Ten from Waters of Mars to End of Time or Kill The Moon Clara to Mummy on the Orient Express Clara). In general, I find that script writers for drama shows are terrible at committing to character consequences they themselves have set up. And this sort of shoddy writing was just as annoying in this week’s episode of Who as it is when I find it elsewhere in drama. Surely Bill should be proper traumatised by The Doctor’s actions. Surely she should be pretty angry at him, if not immediately given the monk invasion problem, by episode’s end. She’d be feeling betrayed, a lack of trust, rage, hurt, confusion. Shed be questioning the morality of the Time Lord she finds herself travelling with.

And then we get to the second annoying writer trope I always see in TV drama, which annoys me every time I see it: raise the stakes by claiming someone important to the viewer has to die, and then come up with hand wavey nonsense to justify why said person makes it to live to another broadcast date. Sometimes narratively a character has to say goodbye, and if, as a writer, you don’t want that character to die, don’t set up a story scenario which relies on the character dying for full emotional and dramatic satisfaction. Missy is truly wonderful when she tells Bill, Nardole and The Doctor that Bill needs to die to stop the monks, but it all feels wasted in the end.

The Power of Love

The ability for love to conquer evil has long been a preferred Moffat theme. As a viewer, I am generally in the group of people who doesn’t have much of a problem with this particular theme, especially in the Smith era, which was told through the prism of a fairy story structure anyway making the love theme easier to swallow. However, I don’t think it has as much place in Twelve’s era. It came up in the series 8 finale with Danny and Clara, and was mildly annoying then, though at least the love theme made sense in terms of deleted emotions and cybermen. This time around, I have absolutely no idea how Bill’s memory’s of her mother damaged the monks. I am not quite sure how Bill isn’t dead.

Missy

At least the episode ends on a high with Missy. I could watch Michelle Gomez as Missy, especially a more muted Gomez as she is in this series, forever. My partner and I would both be happy campers at the Missy o’clock spin off show, comprised entirely of Missy messing with everyone she ever meets and killing off a lot of her temporary companions in nefarious plots geared at either saving her own skin or world domination of some kind.

Surely no one thinks Missy has reformed. Surely The Doctor doesn’t believe it. Though oh how much he wishes it might be so. Missy is the scorpion stinging the frog even as it float’s on the frog’s back. Missy is putting your hand into a jar of poisonous, hungry spiders. Missy is snake venom dialled up to eleven on the pain scale as it works through the bloodstream. And this end scene just makes her all the more chilling. Crocodile tears or the real deal. Somehow I don’t think it matters much either way…

The Lie of the Land: 5/10 inky stars for the weakest episode of the series so far…

Next episode is Gatiss. Yawn. Moving right along.

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Doctor Who The Pyramid at the End of the World Review

…Or that was a bit disappointing after last week’s strange confection. I loved Peter Harness’ series 9 Zygon two parter and loathed his abortion metaphor in Kill The Moon (not to mention the waste of a particularly strong guest star in Hermione Norris). A writer known for his political undertones, this episode is no different (Russia, the USA and China put aside their differences to face an alien threat together), but it suffers from being the middle episode in a three parter.

Back in real time, Bill is telling her would be girlfriend, Penny, about the mad cap adventures of her and The Doctor in last week’s Extremis. Last week she was interrupted by The Pope and this time, in what appears to be a running gag, she is interrupted by the UN’s head. Why? A mysterious pyramid has set itself up at the locus of contested earth territory. It’s up to The Doctor and his companion to find out the reason for its sudden appearance…

The Guest Stars

This series hasn’t been as strong on guest stars as others have been in my opinion (series 8 takes the cake for the longest list of companions who never were). However, I quite enjoyed the scientist plot. I liked that the female scientist was the smart one, the one who could follow The Doctor and keep up with his thought leaps, the one who doesn’t die, who doesn’t do something stupid. Erica (played by a quietly brilliant Rachel Denning) is compassionate, intelligent and values life.

The fact that The Doctor doesn’t trust her enough to tell her about his blindness is telling. The last few years have seen some interesting episodes which feature actors with disability. Last year’s two parter Under the Lake/Before the Flood is the first time I’ve seen a prime time drama feature signing by a hearing impaired actor. This time round, it was nice that the story didn’t comment on Erica’s height. I hope Erica is back in the next episode and makes it to the other side alive.

The Companion and The Doctor

The monks have some truly creepy glowing strands in their pyramid which show strands of humanity’s future. They claim that humanity will surrender to them voluntarily when they see the emptiness of this future. They even put the pressure on with a countdown. The Doctor foolishly runs off to try and figure out the source of earth’s empty future and tells Bill not to cave in to the monk’s ongoing demands for a human with authority.

The Doctor: You could take this planet in a heartbeat. Why do you need consent?
Monk: We must be wanted. We must be loved. To rule through fear is inefficient.
The Doctor: Of course… fear is temporary, love is… slavery.

This concept is of course interesting, but hardly developed in a 45 minute run time. I didn’t really buy The Doctor leaving Bill to resist the monks, especially after the soldier representatives of three nations are disintegrated because they speak out of fear and obligation, not out of love.

However, the last ten minutes of this episode are five out of five star brilliant. The Doctor hasn’t admitted to anyone but Nardole that he is blind and so he is his own worst enemy. He cannot see the keypad to unlock the deadlock despite Erica giving the codes to him over and over. And Bill sees this and thinks he is going to die, so out of love for The Doctor, she gives up earth to the monks.

Bill: You can have the world, just let him see again!

Shit Bill. This is definitely not good news. Next week looks set to be a rollercoaster with the return of Missy added to the mix. Why does this feel so much like a finale just over midway through a series run?

Great Quote

Another Capaldi monologue:

The Doctor: The end of your life is already begun. There is a last place you will ever go, a last door you will ever walk through, a last sight you will ever see. And every step you ever take is moving you closer. The end of the world is a billion, billion tiny moments. And somewhere, unnoticed, in silence or in darkness, it has already begun.

The Pyramid at the End of the World: 7/10 inky stars for a muddled episode with a brilliant ending

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Doctor Who Extremis Review

Ah this episode was more like the old school Santa Moff penned script I know and love. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Pilot. I did, but I have always enjoyed the way Moffat does outlandish experimentation in directions you never expect on Doctor Who, and this is what happens again with Extremis.

Like the openers to series 6 and 9, this mid series episode felt like part one of a finale two parter. Aside from some jokes at the Catholic Church’s expense via Bill and her prospective girlfriend, Penny’s shock at the TARDIS materializing and bringing The Pope to say hi, the whole episode feels dark, foreboding and like the stakes are getting ramped up in a big way.

Missy and The Doctor

The episode opens sometime after The Husbands of River Song and the singing towers and The Doctor finding Bill we presume. We aren’t given a lot of background on why Missy is about to be executed (is it something to do with her escape with the daleks at the start of series 9? Will this story strand come up again in the s10 finale?), but the way Moffat weaves how The Doctor came to be minding the box at university actually works quite well alongside the second story strand of the episode, which is basically The Name of the Rose meets The Matrix alien invasion story.

I have always found the relationship between The Master and The Doctor to be interesting. They are both Time Lord renegades, and therefore, in some sense bound by mutual understanding of what it is to be alone, to be an outcast from kin. They are both brilliant geniuses, even if they choose to use that genius to different ends. They both play games with each other, to test that intellect, and to make sure both can still play the game.

Though Missy was understated in this episode, Michelle Gomez is as brilliant as ever, and I am heartbroken that she is set to leave alongside Capaldi. Though I still enjoyed Simm Master, he has nothing on the cold, intelligent, brutal mania of Missy. I couldn’t quite tell, as Missy knelt before her executioner, if she meant every word she said or she was just trying to save her own skin.

I have also often said in these recap reviews that Moffat has a way of verbalising via his scripts key qualities of The Doctor, the qualities which make him loved, respected and famed throughout the galaxy. This time Moff does this via Nardole, River Song and her blue TARDIS diary. If The Doctor killed Missy in cold blood, he would no longer be The Doctor (the name you choose. It’s like a promise you keep). He would take responsibility for her, he would watch over her for a thousand years because she is a Time Lord following horribly wrong paths, but he cannot kill her without destroying the part of himself that people love most. River’s diary quote felt like something out of a philosophy text rather than a TV episode, and it is no less beautiful for that.

River: Only in darkness are we revealed. […] Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit, without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.

In the most extreme of circumstances, The Doctor saves The Master in the hopes that someday she will make good on her word and pay The Doctor’s kindness back. By episode’s end, The Doctor must ask one of his oldest enemies for help. The question is, at what price does Missy’s aide come? Does she truly understand the meaning of calling someone friend? Her words as her doom sat high seem to indicate so:

Missy: Without hope. Without witness. Without reward. I am your friend.

The Companions

I am still loving Bill, and this episode continued with building on her relationship with Nardole, which I am a fan of. I love that Nardole can be a ‘badass’ and then two seconds later reveal himself to be a real coward. He is a companion that grows on me more with each passing episode.

I am also enjoying the run of stories in series 10 which see The Doctor and his companions relying less on the sonic and magic Time Lord get out of jail free cards, and more focus on companions and The Doctor resorting to intellect to get out of sticky situations. This episode then is a mixed bag on this front; most of the episode is spent with characters figuring things out, yet The Doctor’s ability to email from the simulation to himself in the real world made no sense.

Extremis: 8/10 inky stars for being a chilling, yet oddly beautiful in parts episode, with some fine performances from everyone, but especially from Capaldi. His gravity when he explains to Bill that they are simulations is grave and sad.

PS: Will The Doctor’s attempt to read The Veritus affect his next regeneration? What price did Twelve pay for the brief use of his vision returned?

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Doctor Who Oxygen Review

YES. Jamie Mathieson episode time. I love this guy writing for Who. What a true find he was. Both Flatline and Mummy on the Orient Express are great episodes in my book and The Girl Who Lived wasn’t half bad either. My money is on him having what it takes to be a show runner one fine day.

Anyway, Oxygen is about The Doctor and Bill doing space adventure. For the first time this series, Nardole comes along for the ride and gets some story beats in his own right. Oxygen is a commodity and suits are the three’s only hope of breathing for sustained periods. Then the suits turn on their human residents…

What I loved about this episode (which was yet another example of Doctor Who in confined space with guest stars getting murdered one by one), was the way it took the time to breathe, the way it let us fear for Bill and then The Doctor and then rage with all three main characters about the way capitalism has screwed us all over.

The Companions

I am still loving Bill. She is fast sky rocketing to one of the better companions in the show’s entire run. I loved her comment that inside the space station she couldn’t tell she was in space, but then she turned to a window and looked out, and the audience, like her, felt the wonder and emptiness of space. “That’s more like it.”

Of course, it’s Bill’s suit which malfunctions and we get to see Mackie’s acting chops on show as she does genuine shit your pants terror. I love that The Doctor gives his helmet to Bill and risks his own life. Even though Twelve is grouchy and sometimes coldly scientific (as his voice over at the start of the episode reminds us), when his companion is in trouble,he risks everything for their safety. Bill and The Doctor have a lovely relationship and I can’t wait to see where it all goes next.

This week as well, Nardole moves beyond mere valet and starts helping The Doctor on an adventure in his own right. I was never a huge fan of Matt Lucas, but this episode he grew on me with his combination of light comedy turn, cowardice and gentle put downs of The Doctor when needed. We also see that he values individual life. It is obvious that he cares for Bill’s safety because she is The Doctor’s friend. What else should the audience expect from an ex colleague of River Song?

The Doctor

Aside from protecting his companions and raging against capitalism (and with good reason in this story), there is another drop the mic Doctor Who moment which I for one did not see coming. The Doctor walks into a vacuum defenseless and seems fine. But this is not the case. His sunglasses shield the truth. That he has been blinded by his choice to spare Bill. I really hope that this story consequence isn’t hand waved away next episode. One of the great things about Capaldi’s Doctor (and I say this as someone who sees Eleven as her Doctor)is that he is a more back to basics kind of guy: less reliance on the sonic and on timey wimey stuff. More reliance on science, rationality and intellect. Series 10 has been a vehicle for great stories which underplay both of the former. Having a blind Doctor only adds to the difficulty of penning a story, but it makes for very interesting Doctor territory.

Other stuff

Guest stars this week were a mixed bag. The opening woman who is killed in the first five minutes gave a surprising memorable bit part performance. I was genuinely moved by her every time she was on screen. I loved the blue guy and his exchange with Bill on racism. I love that we can now depict racism and discuss racism on Doctor Who and it’s great that stories haven’t ignored Bill’s identity as a black woman. The female leader who distrusts The Doctor? I liked her for the most part (it doesn’t do to have everyone worship the ground The Doctor walks on all of the time) but I didn’t buy her sudden acceptance of The Doctor’s explanations for the oxygen, the suits, and the incoming new human cargo. A small niggle in an otherwise five star episode.

Memorable Quotes

The Doctor: They’re not your rescuers. They’re your replacements. The endpoint of capitalism. Bottom line. Where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm. A spreadsheet. Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits!

The Doctor: The universe shows its true face when it asks for help, we show ours by how we respond.

Oxygen: 9/10 inky stars with another quality Mathieson entry

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Doctor Who Knock Knock Review

I got up early today to get this review done and tonight will be the double bunger on Oxygen followed by Extremis (which I need to re-watch because the episode was so dense, if brilliant). I have to admit I was a wee bit excited for this one. I’ve never heard of Mike Bartlett before, and as far as I know he’s never previously written for New Who, but I was damn keen to see David Suchet in something again. His turn as Poirot was pitch perfect.

So what was Knock Knock all about? Bill is at home on earth while The Doctor finally takes Nardole’s advice and minds the box. She and a bunch of uni friends are moving out and where do they pick? A dilapidated nightmare out of a haunted house film, but hey, the rent is cheap, though the land lord is a creep. Side note: this whole series seems to have a running thread through it about neo-liberalism and its harmful, soul sucking effects. Last week the episode of the week was about a villain who put money over children. This week we have a land lord who seems to genuinely want to give some young people a cheap, convenient deal, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Rent is expensive and a decent house ever more unattainable in UK, as in Australia, so desperate people take shitty options because what else can they do? Anyway, the house starts coming alive, people get offed one by one, The Doctor shows up (which means trouble), and the damn land lord is still hanging around like a bad smell. Why?

The Companions

Nardole is scarcely in this story. Nothing to see here. Move along. Knock Knock is, however, Bill’s story even more so than it is The Doctor’s. We learn a bit about the hodge podge of friends she has decided to keep (and yay BBC for ethnic diversity) and deals well with idiot boys with crushes on her. She is curious and intelligent, but most of all just enormously fun to be around.

Having Peter Capaldi play Twelve makes for a more interesting companion/Doctor dynamic too, with Bill’s way of interacting with The Doctor reflecting Susan in some ways. The Doctor even refers to Bill as his granddaughter when he comes to the house and won’t leave. Bill is rightfully terrified throughout this adventure, and horrified by the death she sees, but she still sticks with The Doctor to sate her curiosity. I loved The Ponds as a family unit group of companions, but Bill may well become one of my favourite companions if she keeps this up.

The guest star

There isn’t all that much to say about The Doctor in this episode, at least until the episode’s denouement. There is plenty to say about the guest stars this week, both of whom were superb.

David Suchet chooses to play his mannered, old fashioned part in a very understated way and this works perfectly. In Suchet’s hands, the land lord is both creepy, cruel and tragic. The ending of this story is perfect. I didn’t see it coming, even when we first met Eliza. Once we know everything the land lord does with his flesh eating alien lice is in the name of preserving his mother, the story shifts into another gear. Suchet had flashes of sadness under the menace, even from the episode’s opening, and flashes of anger masking his ultimate selfishness too. I didn’t want to, but I did sympathize with his desire to keep his Mum alive, whatever the terrible cost.

Eliza, played by actress Mariah Gale, is also a tragic figure. Made of wood and living a half life, Mariah sold to us in a relatively short time period, her emptiness and pain and then, finally, the suffering at the terrible decision she had to make to protect others. Eliza kills her son and commits suicide, yet rather than feel vindicated that the villain of the week and his aliens are conquered, I just felt terribly sad for the waste of the land lord’s life in a false dream.

I thought series 9 was the best series since 5, but 10 could also be another blinder.

Memorable quotes:

The Doctor: What’s the point of surviving if you never see anyone, if you hide yourself away from the world?! When did you last open the shutters?

The land lord: Hope is its own form of cruelty.

Knock Knock: 8/10 inky stars for another quiet breathing episode which nonetheless packed emotional punch.

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Doctor Who Thin Ice Review

Wow. That was something. Plain, good old fashioned Who fun penned by Sarah Dollard who wrote Face The Raven last season (which was pretty damn good in its own right). I’m also a sucker for Regency era settings, Dickensian working and living conditions and The Doctor preaching humanism to the villain of the week.

What happens?

Bill and The Doctor travel to the past and discover an unusually cold London winter, a fun fair on the ice, and something odd beneath the water. But is the thing beneath the ice really evil or is the truth far more sinister? What I love about stories like this is that there is space to breathe. Character moments have air time because the alien plot isn’t complex and grandiose. Instead, this story reminded me in terms of set-up of a cross between The Beast Below where the alien of the week wasn’t the big bad at all and was instead a creature who needed freedom to be happy and The Snowman where yes, there were aliens in the story, but they couldn’t have gotten where they did without human fallibility getting thrown into the mix.

thin ice

The Doctor and his companion

Peter Capaldi got more to do this week. I enjoyed his quips to Bill about the TARDIS. Namely:

The Doctor: I told you, you don’t steer the TARDIS, you reason with it.
Bill: How?
The Doctor: Unsuccessfully, most of the time.

I also liked that we saw Bill’s horror at the small thief’s demise and The Doctor’s seemingly callous disregard for his life in favour of saving his sonic screw driver. This Doctor appears to be very focused on reason over heart, but deep down he is still The Doctor and different to the rest of his race because he does feel passion and emotion just as much as he does reason and logic. The Doctor ticks Bill off for stamping her foot instead of doing something about the problem posed to them and he is vehement to Bill when he says that passion fights but reason wins the day. Twelve claims he puts logic and reason over feeling and emotion, but he’s a liar. It’s a front to allow a brave face on the world until something happens… and he snaps. He sees (figuratively) children crying (Moffat really found an essential aspect of all incarnations of The Doctor with Amy’s quote) and has to read them a story, and then get even and get angry, get passionate, to make things better.

You need a bit of reason and logic and a bit of feeling and emotion to succeed at anything in reality. And by the episode’s denouement,this is what has happened, passion and reason in balanced mix. Why else would The Doctor tell the human devil of the story why he has fallen short morally of a brave new world.

The Doctor: I preferred it when you were alien.

Sutcliffe: When I was…

The Doctor: Well, that would explain the lack of humanity. What makes you so sure your life is worth more than those people out there on the ice? Is it the money? The accident of birth, that puts you inside the big, fancy house.

Sutcliffe: I help move this country forward. I move this Empire forward.

The Doctor: Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age, that’s… what defines a species.

God The Doctor must hate austerity measures and the Tories (why has no one made that episode?) But on a more serious note, The Doctor might claim to Bill that he has never had the luxury of outrage, but like Ros Huntley in Line of Duty, it’s a case of ‘watch what I do, don’t listen to what I say.’ The Doctor does get outraged. He gets outraged when the little people are subjugated, exploited, damaged. He gets outraged when people are treated like things. He flies in the face of everything that neoliberalism stands for with its hard line every man for themself, clink of dollar signs the most alluring sound in the world approach. If he ever stops getting outraged and begins to accept these things, accepts that individuals (alien or otherwise) cease to matter in favour of some imagined greater good… well… that is the end of The Doctor. The name you choose, it’s like a promise you keep. The Doctor has made a choice to draw a line in the sand with his name a reminder to never break that promise. Always heal and help. Always kind. Never cruel. Never cowardly. Never give up and never give in.

The mystery of the week

Nardole turns up for a brief cameo (are they ever going to develop Nardole as a character? I don’t dislike Nardole or Matt Lucas as Nardole, but he has zero to work with). Why is Nardole convinced The Doctor shouldn’t time travel? What is inside that damn box? My vote is on someone Gallifreyan. The John Simm Master? More than one Master? Or maybe another Time Lord from classic Who?

Thin Ice: 9/10 inky stars as series 10’s strongest episode yet

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