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Doctor Who Series 7B – The Sherlock Related Review * 19 May 2013

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As we promised at the end of September 2012, we're back in Time Lord mode with the second half of our Sherlock related review of Doctor Who Series 7, examining the episodes that crossover with our favourite detective through their writers and directors (and on occasion, cast members). The latter section of the seventh series features work from the three writers of Sherlock, with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss handling two episodes apiece and Steve Thompson scripting a single instalment. As before, this isn't an all encompassing review of the entire series, just these five episodes - The Bells of Saint John, Cold War, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, The Crimson Horror and The Name of the Doctor. Please note though we'll be discussing some spoilers in detail throughout as we examine how these episodes function individually and as contributions to the final episode.

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The mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald is now firmly established. And so Steven Moffat brings us back to the present day in a returning episode of Doctor Who that drops breadcrumbs to her identity, while also deploying huge thriller elements with almost casual abandon. The Bells of Saint John is marked by its huge ambition and scale - the central airliner-based sequence for example is large enough to form the focus of the finale of any other episode, but here drops in at the mid-point. It's very much indicative of the rollercoaster pace of the entire episode, as well as its twisting nature. Director Colm McCarthy, also in charge of Sherlock S3E2: The Sign of Three, shoots London brilliantly, with iconic locations used as both backdrop and necessary plot device, the great visual and historical mix of the capital put to great use.  

Coupled with the blockbuster trappings is a rich vein of humour and wit, with some rather knowing digs at social media tying nicely into the internet rich storyline. The final reveal of the entity behind events is logical, but there is an element of clandestine horror to the manner in which The Great Intelligence has evolved since The Snowmen, and used unwilling humans to do his bidding. That he doesn't appear again until the last episode though possibly slightly undermines Richard E Grant's role as this almost omnipotent threat, reinforcing the slightly looser feel to the series in its second half.  

 As you would expect, Steven Moffat begins to drop in material that feeds directly into the finale, but to which we are not meant to initially pay much mind. The leaf in Clara's scrapbook is of course the most important - and we are led to disregard it due to the events of S7E8:The Rings of Akhaten - but as we shall see by the close of the series it is a visual metaphor for the very nature and mystery of her character. A leaf on the wind can end up anywhere, and everywhere, landing with limitless possibilities.  

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Mark Gatiss returns for the first of his two episodes in Doctor Who Series Seven, and it's a beauty, fulfilling the pure terminology of 'high concept' plotting while also dropping in nods to multiple other genres, and history itself. Taking an established and effective period setting marked by its genuine paranoia, the addition of a classic Who monster sees the episode reconfigured as a homage to a Saturday tea-time version of Alien - the dank, claustrophobic interior of the Russian Submarine becoming home to an unseen creature.  Despite this explicit reference to more adult material, the episode is astutely and extremely cleverly conceived, never losing sight of the target audience.

There are numerous benefits from the 1980s setting that do nothing but heighten the drama. The constant threat of nuclear war is brilliantly coupled with the classic notion of 'invader paranoia', and in many ways makes Cold War a 50s B-Movie throwback. This is aided by a genuinely creepy reworking of the Ice Warriors, with the use of some brilliant, slightly shonky creature puppetry that harks back to classic Doctor Who. The fully unmasked appearance of the creature at the close in CGI form, though inevitable, feels slightly unnecessary - while we never see Grand Marshall Skaldak in his full physical form, it carries the same problem as Ridley Scott's 1979 film. Showing us such a dangerous creature in stark relief is never as effective as our own imagination.

Cold War also features perhaps the starriest collective cast of the entire seventh series, with Liam Cunningham, Tobias Menzies and David Warner all turning in effective performances. It's possibly slightly odd to meet everyone on the Russian submarine already talking in individually accented English before the TARDIS and the ever handy translation circuit arrives, but at the very least it manages to steer clear of 'Hunt for Red October accent syndrome' as result. Despite tiny niggles, it is a vastly satisfying instalment of the series, harking back to genuine scares of the past through its claustrophobic setting and inventive creature, while benefitting from assured writing and direction that manages to overcome the unavoidable resolution that is the hallmark of a siege like story.

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The latter half of series seven has seen a greater focus on the intergalactic possibilities of Doctor Who, and Steve Thompson's Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS continues this trend. While much of the episode is indeed set inside the titular interior, we're very much in the future and it makes a welcome change of pace from more common earthbound adventures.  

That said, this is weakest of the five episodes we'll be looking at here. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS suffers from the same major issue the previous episode (S7E10: Hide, by Neil Cross) was beset by - a brilliant concept let down by a constrained runtime. The episode is so filled with incident and new characters in its forty five minutes, as well as the need to quickly wrap everything up by the close, that it lacks genuine impact. In many ways, this is an episode of two halves, intentionally resetting while filling itself with information that the audience needs to remember going forwards. It is populated with genuinely odd, unpleasant and unsettling monsters, but whose identity is ultimately a bit of a shoulder shrug. The interior of the TARDIS herself is surprisingly moribund and dull, aside from the striking visuals found in the frozen, detonated engine room. Initial viewing thus makes the episode feel distinctly average, but in the context of the entire series it is actually far greater.

Like Hide, if this had been spread across two parts it's easy to see the elements being given more room to breathe and thus genuinely earn the intentional deus ex machine ending. Those closing minutes of the episode, while abrupt, do of course fulfil an important role in the series finale, and in terms of the ongoing arc actually makes Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS a vital instalment - and perhaps going forward, Clara's discovery of 'The History of the Last Great Time War' in the library may be something of even greater future importance. It is, after all, a book with only one possible author, the sole survivor of that war, who can write that history as he sees fit - and leave out what he likes.

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Arguably the strongest standalone episode of the Seventh Series, The Crimson Horror is also possibly the single best episode of Doctor Who Mark Gatiss has ever written. Combining many of his strengths and interests into a genuinely thrilling brew, this instalment is distinctly his, formed of gothic Victorian horror, steam punk, real comedy, and a touch of whimsy. Perfectly paced and self contained, it never overstays its welcome or loses the audience with a breakneck pace.

This is probably due to the rather daring narrative structure, keeping The Doctor and Clara offscreen for so long in the episode. Instead, we spend much of the early stages in the company of Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax, making the Gatiss the first writer aside from Steven Moffat to be entrusted with these characters - and you'd expect, he carries each of them off with great aplomb, gifting each great moments throughout the episode and fully bedding them into the fabric of the series. Much has been made of the casting of Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs Gillyflower in the episode, and she is of course excellent, both wicked, dark hearted, and terrible, a mask of elderly sweetness hiding her utterly outrageous plan, with the reveal of her compatriot and motivating partner Mr Sweet both truly repulsive yet somehow endearing. In counterpoint, the heart of the episode belongs to her real-life daughter Rachael Stirling, here playing Gillyflower's blinded daughter who finally rails against her mother, saving The Doctor by chance and thus breaking the constraints placed upon her.

This is thus an episode where The Doctor takes a backseat in many ways, and it sees him relying on the actions of his friends. He would never have been able to stop Mrs Gillyflower single handed despite his best efforts. The duration belongs to the companions that he has befriended along the way, as well as those whose lives he touches if only for a moment, empowering them to do things they never thought possible. Ultimately, this is what the character of the Time Lord truly strives to stand for, the great person that makes other people better.

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It is a non-literal title - true, but from a certain point of view.

It is also not actually a lie, but it is still in need of an additional amendment. Combining the title with the episode synopsis, that 'The Doctor's greatest secret will be revealed,' leads the audience to make an assumption, with the expectation that the secret is, of course, The Doctor's name. But thinking on it, it is meaningless. What possible impact could such a revelation hold? A momentary rush, but then, nothing.

Instead, Steven Moffat does something far more daring, finally bringing us to a long suggested reveal that superficially rewrites the mythology of the show - though more likely, it could fill a yawning gap in continuity. The Doctor's greatest secret is actually a literate skeleton in the closet, another Regeneration buried in his timestream. It would be huge fun to speculate - and we're already doing that privately - but it's clear from the sledgehammer final minute that Matt Smith remains the Eleventh Doctor, and it is here that the title of the episode actually makes sense, and not simply as it is uttered aloud in the scene. Whatever this person did, at whatever point in time those actions occurred, they were not worthy of the name of The Doctor, an honourific title that can inspire and terrify in equal measure. The individual played by John Hurt IS the man we know as The Doctor, but as we are reminded by Richard E Grant's embodiment of The Great Intelligence earlier in the episode, the Time Lord is someone who goes by many names in many different cultures.

That's the ending of course, but before that we have a hugely satisfying story that wraps up multiple loose ends. The reveal of the nature of Clara's true identity is actually very simple, a moment that feeds directly into the narrative and makes perfect sense within the rules of the entire series, validating her previous appearances superbly with no leap in narrative logic. That so much attention is paid to the past, with the fun appearances of previous incarnations of The Doctor, is also surprising and a naturally earned fan hat-tip. While the episode does feature plenty of humour, we also have some genuinely moving character performances and interaction, particularly between Matt Smith and Alex Kingston. If this is the final appearance of River Song, in any form, it is a suitable one for a character that has come to form the backbone of Steven Moffat's work on the series.

In summation then, after a promising start this series of Doctor Who has been superficially rather fragmented, flitting from standalone episodes of varying quality to instalments containing vital continuity, often without the viewer even realising that they are watching something truly critical that leads them to the much anticipated true nature of The Name of The Doctor. It's easy to see this as not simply a series finale, but with the revelation of an additional incarnation of The Time Lord it's a chance expand the mythology of the show while taking a fond look back at its entire history. In the case of Doctor Who Series Seven, the ending is more satisfying than much of the journey, but it has been a trip that amplifies anticipation exponentially for when we return in November for the 50th Anniversary Special.

Read Doctor Who Series 7A - The Sherlock Related Review

Read Doctor Who: The Snowmen Review

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