Timestamp #282: Twice Upon a Time

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time
(1 episode, Christmas Special, 2017)

Timestamp 282 Twice Upon a Time

The (other) two Doctors.

709 episodes ago, the First Doctor faced the Cybermen. After the threat was over, the Doctor walked through the snow storms of the South Pole to his TARDIS. There he found someone claiming to be the Doctor.

He found the Twelfth Doctor.

The First Doctor is obviously confused by the new Time Lord and the confusing proportions of the TARDIS. The Twelfth Doctor realizes that the First Doctor is refusing to regenerate, and as he outlines the problems with that idea, time stops around them. They are soon greeted by a British soldier from World War I.

This soldier comes from Ypres 1914 where he was engaged in a standoff with a German soldier. Both hold the other at gunpoint inside a bomb crater and the British captain is startled when time freezes. He takes in the bizarre battlefield before encountering a glass avatar that deposits him half a world away with the two Doctors. When he greets them, the glass avatar appears and the Doctors approach it. When the Twelfth Doctor declares that the planet is protected, the avatar disappears and the First Doctor invites everyone inside the TARDIS for protection.

The First Doctor is astounded because he thought that this TARDIS was his TARDIS. Meanwhile, the Twelfth Doctor mentions that the British captain is from the First World War, which shocks him since he only knows of the War to End All Wars (which it obviously did not). As the captain tries to understand the wonders around him, the two Doctors come to terms with their mutual situation. The Doctors offer the captain some brandy to calm his nerves and the Twelfth is astounded by the First’s lack of decorum toward gender roles.

The discussions all halt when the TARDIS is pulled into an overhead spacecraft that holds the Chamber of the Dead. The First Doctor exits the TARDIS to face the chamber as the captain and the Twelfth Doctor watch from the console. The First Doctor doesn’t understand being called the “Doctor of War.” Meanwhile, when Bill Potts arrives from a portal, the Twelfth Doctor rushes to meet her before realizing that this being is not the Bill that he knew. In fact, she is a duplicate and his Bill is dead.

The Doctors wonder who has been stealing the faces of the dead and investigate the chamber. They find the glass avatar who explains that they chronicle the lives of beings in the moments before their deaths, becoming a living testimony. They explain that they tried to capture the captain’s testimony but a timeline error caused him to become misplaced. The captain offers to take Bill’s place, but the Twelfth Doctor proposes taking both Bill and the captain. The First Doctor demands to know who the Twelfth thinks he is, and the First is astounded to find out just how his future will play out as the avatar reveals his legacy. It is recorded as one of battles and bloodshed.

Technically, what the Testimony shows him is accurate. It’s just missing context.

The Twelfth Doctor opens the airlock and everyone jumps, holding onto the chains restraining the TARDIS as it drops to the surface. The Testimony retrieves the Twelfth Doctor’s TARDIS and the four travelers escape Earth in the First Doctor’s ship instead. As they run, Bill figures out how the two Time Lords are related.

The Doctors realize that the glass avatar’s face is asymmetrical, and they decide that they need to find a database to figure out who she represents. The Twelfth Doctor considers the Matrix on Gallifrey, but instead decides to visit Villengard at the center of the universe. There is a database there, but it wants to kill him. Unfortunately, the area is swarming with Kaled mutants.

The Twelfth Doctor insists that Bill wait in the TARDIS with the captain and the First Doctor, but Bill stands defiant as her Doctor considers her nothing more than a doppelgänger. The tension is broken when the First Doctor chastises her for bad language. With a laugh and the hope that she and the Twelfth Doctor can joke about this for years, she joins the captain while the First Doctor explores the surface with his future self.

They discuss their mutual decision not to regenerate. The First Doctor admits his fear of the future, but when he asks about the Twelfth’s rationale, the answer is pre-empted by weapons fire. The Twelfth Doctor stands in the open and demands that their assailant scan him. When the truth of the Doctor’s pending doom is revealed, the sniper allows the Time Lords to enter the tower.

In the meantime, Bill and the captain talk about his fate. The captain recognizes that he must die, but he’s no longer ready to do so. He’s shocked when Bill reveals herself as a glass avatar.

The First Doctor remains at the tower entrance for his safety as the Twelfth Doctor climbs to meet his assailant. The shooter is revealed to be the Dalek named Rusty. They come to a truce as Rusty tears off his own gunstick, and the Twelfth Doctor finds out that the glass avatars and their ship, the Testimony, were created on New Earth. This comes from the Dalek programmed to hate Daleks and his connection to the Dalek hive mind. Rusty agrees to provide the information since helping the Doctor harms the Daleks.

Bill’s glass avatar meets up with the First Doctor as he finds Dalek parts nearby. She talks to the Doctor, probing his past and his motivations, asking what he’s running toward. She declares that the Doctor is amazing and thanks him for his efforts. When he realizes that she’s a glass avatar, he comes to understand her motives as an agent of Testimony.

Bill and the First Doctor ascend the tower and time stops again. The Doctors realize that there is no evil to fight, and while Bill is an avatar, she reminds the Doctor that reality is merely a function of memories. The Twelfth Doctor tells her that he’s tired of losing people, hence the reason why he doesn’t want to regenerate. He decides to return the captain to his proper time as he considers how their decisions not to regenerate caused the timeline error that displaced the officer.

En route, he has a revelation and changes course, dropping the captain at the start of the famous Christmas Truce, ensuring that his life will be spared. The captain will not be able to remember his adventure and won’t be able to see the Doctors or Bill once his timeline restarts. He asks them to check on his family from time to time, introducing himself as Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart, an ancestor of the Brigadier. The Doctor is overjoyed at the prospect.

When time starts again, Captain Lethbridge-Stewart and the German soldier nearly pull their triggers, but they stop as both sides begin to sing Christmas carols. The truce was a miracle, a one-of-a-kind, but one that allowed everyone to stop fighting and be kind for a short time.

The First Doctor is happy to see how the “Doctor of War” solved the problem, to which the Twelfth responds that their place is to help when the universe isn’t a fairy tale. The Doctors decide that they are both ready to go on living and they part ways.

The First Doctor returns to the South Pole as the Twelfth bids farewell to Captain Lethbridge-Stewart. Ben and Polly find their Doctor on the TARDIS floor as he regenerates into the Second Doctor. Meanwhile, the Twelfth Doctor asks Bill if she’d like to take one last trip in the TARDIS. She tells him that the hardest thing about knowing him is letting him go then gives him a goodbye present as she kisses his cheek and turns into Clara.

The Doctor is overjoyed to remember her, as is the memory of his former companion. He also gets to say goodbye to Nardole, who encourages him not to die since it would mean that the universe would go cold. The Doctor refuses to offer his testimony to the avatars, stating that he must be left alone to face his fate. He thanks them for what they have offered and they agree with a hug.

The Doctor boards the TARDIS again, ready to leave the battlefield. As he engages the TARDIS, he gazes upon the universe and concedes that one more lifetime won’t kill anyone. Well, except him. He relays some advice to his future self in a powerful speech before falling to the floor. He picks himself up and utters his final words: “Doctor… I let you go.”

The regeneration process is so violent that it rips into every corner of the console room. As smoke fills the room, his ring falls from his hand and his face transforms into a younger version. As the smoke clears, the Doctor’s new face is visible in a reflection.

The Thirteenth Doctor is a woman. Oh, brilliant.

She smiles broadly for just a moment until the TARDIS suffers a catastrophic systems failure. The ship tilts to one side as the console room explodes around her. The doors fly open, and even though she holds on as tight as she can, she eventually falls out of the TARDIS as it hovers thousands of feet above Earth.

The Doctor can only watch in horror as the TARDIS is engulfed in flames and dematerializes, leaving her to plummet toward the planet below.

Starting with the good stuff, I adore this multi-Doctor special because the threat isn’t really a threat at all. Fans have been conditioned since 2005 to expect a monster of some sort each week, and this fake-out driven by that assumption is a nice change of pace. I also like how the story was carved out of a space in The Tenth Planet‘s finale, drawing a parallel between the two Doctors as they ponder their futures. The classical romanticism and vulnerability are touching.

The setup also ties off a narrative thread started in The Pilot, which showed us a Doctor fresh off losing two people close to him. The thread has run across this series and comes to a beautiful conclusion here as the Doctor faces the loss of three people in The Doctor Falls. In a sense, both Doctors share a fear of the future.

It doesn’t hurt that I have a soft spot for the Christmas Truce. The truce was not unique in general – World War I had quite a few “live and let live” moments like this where soldiers would stop hostilities and fraternize – but this was one of the largest and most memorable.

The biggest failing of this adventure was the writing for the First Doctor. This story treats the character as a sexist dinosaur, but it seems like Steven Moffat’s target was the 1960s in general and he used the First Doctor as an avatar for his grievances. Certainly, the era didn’t treat women fairly, but Doctor Who stood apart with more well-rounded characters in comparison to some of the portrayals and dialogue found in later decades. Yes, the First Doctor was the character who let a caveman die until Ian stepped in, threatened a “jolly good smacked bottom” for Susan after her clumsiness inconvenienced him, was generally irascible and cranky, and even said a few things in The Five Doctors that made his successors squeamish, but this representation betrays the progressive heart that this show has had since birth.

Don’t get me wrong: David Bradley’s performance is amazing. It’s Steven Moffat and his meta-commentary that failed here because his research into the character seems to have stopped at the First Doctor’s first adventure, which is a far cry from the character’s nature in his final adventure.

That huge downside is unfortunate because there’s so much to love here, from the regeneration being a good narrative cover for the change in actors, the First Doctor’s treatment of sonic technology, the transitions from 1966 archive footage to modern imagery and back, and the fantastic rebuild of the First Doctor’s TARDIS. I also didn’t notice that Bill’s wardrobe constantly changes throughout the episode, perhaps as a tip of the hand to her true nature.

Not bad at all for an episode that was supposed to be Jodie Whittaker’s first adventure. That would have been a sight to see.

Finally, the regeneration is probably one of my favorites of the modern era. I was visiting family on the other side of the country when this episode first aired and I stayed up late at my brother-in-law’s house after everyone else had gone to bed. Peter Capaldi’s final speech was perfect and brought me to tears then, as it still does today.

Even with the imperfect writing, this story still does it for me.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”

UP NEXT – Series Ten Summary


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.


Timestamp #281: World Enough and Time & The Doctor Falls

Doctor Who: World Enough and Time
Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls
(2 episodes, s10e11-12, 2017)

Timestamp 281 World Enough and Time Doctor Falls

Powerful, surprising, and heartbreaking: A Doctor Who triple threat.

World Enough and Time

Upon a snowy landscape, the Doctor stumbles from the TARDIS and repeats the word “no” as he begins to regenerate. He falls to his knees as the energy overtakes him…

…and we flash back to a long cylindrical spaceship hovering at the edge of a black hole’s event horizon. The TARDIS materializes in the control room at the closest point to the phenomenon and Missy emerges. She describes herself as “Doctor Who” and introduces her companions. As alarms sound, we find out that this is a test of Missy’s resolve to be good. The Doctor watches from the TARDIS as Missy, Bill, and Nardole work through the puzzle and make contact with a blue-skinned humanoid named Jorj.

Jorj arrives at the control room with a gun and demands to know which of them is human. As three lifts race toward the control room, the Doctor emerges from the TARDIS and Bill admits to being human. Jorj declares that she is why the lifts are coming and shoots Bill, mortally wounding her. Figures with bandaged faces emerge from the lifts and take Bill, claiming they will fix her but will not return. The Doctor decides to trust them and leaves a psychic message for Bill to wait for him when she wakes.

Before the trip, Bill had disagreed with the Doctor about the rehabilitation test. The Doctor wanted Missy to be good, but Bill didn’t know if it was possible. They later had a discussion about the Doctor, the Master, and Time Lords and their flexible approaches to gender. Bill confided that Missy scared her, and the Doctor told Bill that he would do his best to not let her die.

This pressure now weighs on the Doctor. He let his companion die on his watch.

The Doctor tries to scan the lift with his sonic screwdriver, and when Jorj threatens him, he warns Jorj not to make him angry. The Doctor is borderline furious. Nardole finds thousands of life signs in the lower levels of the ship, leading the Doctor to understand that the different levels of the ship are moving at different times due to relativity.

On one of those lower levels, Bill wakes up in a medical facility with a cybernetic heart in her chest. She gets the message from the Doctor and meets a caretaker named Mr. Razor. She also hears a cybernetic voice calling out in pain. She finds the patient as screens show the time differential between Floor 0000 and Floor 1056. She can’t stop the voice from chanting “pain” over and over, and a nurse merely mutes the voice instead of tending to the pain. Bill finds that the others are also chanting about their pain but their voices are also muted.

Mr. Razor finds Bill and takes her to his room for tea. He explains that they are curing the people in the surgical  (conversion theater) suites and that she was saved from death with her new “shiny” cybernetic heart. She’s been on this level for months and passes the time watching the live feed of Level 0000. The Doctor literally takes a week to raise his eyebrow. Bill eventually recovers enough to work as a cleaner as she continues to wait. Meanwhile, the Doctor uses Venusian aikido to knock out Jorj and make his way to Bill.

Bill also cannot leave the hospital. Her heart will supposedly cease to function and the patients will raise the alarm. Mr. Razor explains that the people are being converted to survive Operation Exodus, a necessity since the human lifespan cannot survive the trip back to the top of the ship. Mr. Razor takes Bill outside one day, and sure enough, after a brief walk, her heart begins to fail.

The years pass and Bill continues to wait. She watches as the Doctor, Missy, and Nardole board a lift. They cannot take the TARDIS because the black hole with mess with navigation. Mr. Razor tricks Bill into one of the conversion theaters and condemns her to a full conversion. After all, people usually scream when they find out the real reason for surgery. They fit her for a headpiece that will inhibit emotion.

When the Doctor, Missy, and Nardole arrive on the bottom floor, Missy is left to explore the ship’s computer history. She soon meets Mr. Razor who is enamored with her and seems to know who she is. On separate paths, the travelers learn the truth: The ship’s origin was Mondas, the twin planet of Earth, and the conversions are the genesis of the Cybermen.

More shocking, Mr. Razor reveals that he is Missy’s predecessor, the Saxon Master. With that revelation in mind, Missy reverts to her cruel nature.

Even more shocking, this trip has turned upside down. The Cyberman standing before the Doctor is Bill Potts, and the former companion cries beneath the mask as she tells the Doctor that she waited for him.

The Doctor Falls

On Floor 0507, farmers and families face off against the scarecrows – the prototype Cybermen from Floor 1056 – shooting them at night and restraining them on wooden crosses by the light of day. One of those days, the relative peace is broken when a shuttle crashes through the ground near a girl named Alit. From the wreckage emerges a Cyberman carrying the unconscious form of the Doctor.

We flash back to the Doctor restrained to a wheelchair on the roof of the hospital on 1056. He was subdued by Missy and the Master, dancing and flirting as they discuss the Doctor’s deaths and how many regenerations he has left to spend. Notably, Missy cannot remember what happened that forced her regeneration. The Doctor ponders what happened in the Master’s life since he vanished while blasting Rassilon with his life energy.

Upon returning to Gallifrey, the Time Lords showed their gratitude for the Master’s help in preventing Rassilon from executing the Ultimate Sanction by restoring his body and kicking him off the planet. The Master stole a TARDIS and landed on the Mondasian colony ship where he lived like a king and killed at his leisure. When the colonist overthrew him and he attempted to run, he found that his TARDIS was burned out from being too close to the event horizon.

While they gloat, the Masters are shocked to find that the Cybermen are advancing on them. When the Masters attacked the Doctor, he was able to change the coding for humanity to read two hearts instead of one. With the Cybermen marching to convert the Time Lords, Missy knocks the Master unconscious and rescues the Doctor. She frees the Doctor and he calls for Nardole, who has successfully stolen a shuttle.

As the Masters and the Doctor try to board the shuttle, a Cyberman attacks the Doctor with an electrical shock. Bill kills the Cyberman but the Masters take over the shuttle as the Doctor falls. Bill stops the craft from taking off and ensures that the Doctor boards the shuttle.

That same shuttle has since crashed into 0507, leaving the entire group stranded. Two weeks pass as the Doctor recovers and Nardole prepares the families for war. Bill has been resigned to the barn since she frightens the children, and while she believes that she is still human, everyone else sees her as a Cyberman. Alit comes to her side with a mirror and Bill is shocked to see her true self. When the Doctor arrives, he rewards Alit for being kind to Bill. They have a brief discussion about Cybermen and what she’s become, Bill’s anger and grief boil over as she accidentally destroys the barn’s door.

The Doctor is amazed by Bill’s resiliency against the Cyberman programming. When Bill sheds a tear because everyone is afraid of her, he wipes it away and notes that she shouldn’t be able to cry. They meet with the Master, who mocks Bill and tells the Doctor about a plan that he and Missy have been working on. As they all walk across the farmland, the Doctor limps and stifles regeneration energy in his hand, revealing that his electrocution was fatal. When Bill worries about him and her future, he tells her that “where there’s tears, there’s hope.”

They reach the forest where the Master and Missy theorize that they’re out of temporal sync so they can’t retain their memories of these events. Missy reveals that the forest around them is a holographic wall disguising the lifts. Missy calls for one, not remembering that it is coming from the bottom floor and not empty. The lift reveals an evolved Cyberman, and despite killing it, the trio of Time Lords knows that the Cybermen now know where they are.

They cannot run because time is running faster on the lower levels. The Cyberman invasion would easily catch up to them. They have no choice but to fight as the Cybermen begin punching through the various floors. Nardole uses the fuel piping on Floor 0508 as weaponry and the Doctor finds a service duct that can be used to evacuate the children. Meanwhile, the Masters discuss running for their TARDIS on the bottom floor. After all, Missy once (now) threatened her former self into carrying a spare dematerialization circuit.

As night falls, the first wave of Cybermen appears. Nardole tricks them into believing that a single apple can destroy them all. When the Masters decide to leave, the Doctor delivers an emotional and passionate speech on why he helps people. It’s not easy and doesn’t always work, but it’s the right and kind thing to do. The Master ridicules the Doctor and continues on, but Missy is somewhat moved. She agrees that being the Doctor’s friend was what she always wanted, but she goes with her predecessor anyway. Within minutes, the two Masters arrive at the lift where the younger tricks the elder by fatally stabbing him and leaving just enough time to reach his TARDIS before regenerating. Unfortunately, the Master fires his laser screwdriver at Missy and mortally wounds her.

By all appearances, Missy dies. Her last intention was to return to the Doctor’s side.

The next wave of Cybermen arrives and Nardole’s tricks force them to retreat and develop a new plan. The Doctor downloads the plans for the floor into his sonic screwdriver and sends Nardole to escort the children to the service ducts. The Doctor convinces Nardole to leave despite the latter’s protests. After all, the Doctor is treating this like a suicide mission and Nardole owes him too much. The Doctor convinces Nardole that this will be penance for his crimes from before the Doctor rescued him. Bill stands beside the Doctor and Nardole admits that he’ll never be able to find the words for their sacrifice.

Now alone on Floor 0507, the Doctor and Bill prepare for a last stand by saying their farewells. They move to opposite sides of the floor and engage the Cybermen. The Doctor cites his numerous victories over them – Mondas, Telos, Earth, Planet 14, Marinus, Voga, Canary Wharf, and the Moon – before falling to several laser blasts. He nearly regenerates, but holds it back as he ignites the piping below the floor and engulfs the forest in fiery destruction. The Cybermen are destroyed.

As Nardole and his charges reach Floor 0502, he holds out hope that Bill and the Doctor will return. Alit convinces him to move on and focus on living with them instead.

Amongst the wasteland that is Floor 0507, Bill finds the wounded Doctor. She’s barely functioning, but her personality is nearly restored, and she mourns over the Time Lord’s body. She is surprised to find Heather emerging from a nearby puddle and learns that she’s real through a passionate kiss. Heather changed Bill into a being like her, and together they take the Doctor’s body back to the TARDIS. Heather sets the controls for a new location and offers Bill the choice to return to her old life or live a new one at her side as she travels the universe.

Bill chooses the latter, shedding a tear over her friend and telling him that “where there’s tears, there’s hope.” The two women depart as the TARDIS flies on and the Doctor heals, dreaming of Bill, Nardole, Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Captain Jack, Donna Noble, Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, Sarah Jane, Amy Pond, Clara Oswald, and River Song as they each call his name. The last voice is Missy’s, one which awakens the Doctor as he mutters some words of his former lives. He yells that he can’t keep being someone else and suppresses his regeneration as the TARDIS lands.

The Doctor is defiant, telling the TARDIS that he would listen to the lesson it’s trying to teach him, and steps into an arctic landscape. He screams into the snow and stifles his regeneration, pledging not to change as he hears a voice that echoes his concerns. When he demands to know who the other person is, he’s surprised to find the Doctor in the snowstorm. The original, you might say.

He finds the First Doctor.

Before this point, the televised history of the Cybermen was pretty simple: There were the Mondasian Cybermen from this universe and the Cybus Cybermen from Pete’s World. This pair of episodes complicate the evolution by introducing various origins for the Cybermen of this universe.

After Mondas was ejected from Earth’s orbit, the Mondasians were split into two groups based on the desire to fully embrace cyber conversion. The so-called Faction left Mondas to find their destiny in The Wheel in SpaceThe Invasion, and The War Games (with a cameo in Carnival of Monsters and brief nods in Dalek and Death in Heaven). The remaining Mondans would evolve into Cybermen in this episode – and in the audio drama Spare Parts and the comics The World Shapers and The Cybermen, if you count those – before proceeding to The Tenth Planet. It’s worth noting that the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet arrived with their rogue planet, so these Cybermen might not be those Cybermen.

Apparently, every other version of the Cybermen evolved independently and on parallel trajectories across time and space. At least, that’s how the story goes as of right now since Doctor Who‘s continuity is perpetually fluid.

As if that wasn’t enough, we get a quasi-confirmation that “Doctor Who” is a legitimate variation of the Doctor’s name. These days, fans will point to all sorts of sources to justify the character’s moniker of “The Doctor,” but there are several sources that also make “Doctor Who” just as legitimate: The computer WOTAN repeatedly called for “Doctor Who” in The War Machines; The Second Doctor used the alias “Doktor von Wer” – literally, “Doctor [of] Who” – in The Highlanders; The Second Doctor signed a note as “Dr W” in The Underwater Menace; Bessie’s license plate was WHO 1 and WHO 7; and Miss Hawthorne referred to him as “the great wizard Qui Quae Quod” – literally “Who Who Who” in Latin – in The Dæmons.

What about the show’s credits, you might ask. The character was credited as “Doctor Who” from An Unearthly Child all the way through Logopolis, spanning 18 seasons of stories. Starting with Castrovalva and the Fifth Doctor’s run, the character was credited as “The Doctor” through the TV movie (which also credited the Seventh Doctor as “The Old Doctor”). The name changed again to “Doctor Who” for the Ninth Doctor‘s run before returning to “The Doctor” in The Christmas Invasion. Rose also featured a website entitled “Doctor Who?”.

All that to say that either name is legitimate, really. Sure, Missy lies… a lot… but her lies always have a kernel of truth within. In recent years, the title has referred more to an ethos and mission statement rather than an actual name.

Considering the stories at hand, the horror film feeling of these episodes is amazing. The first half is edge-of-your-seat tension mixed with copious amounts of body horror, and the second half blunts the body horror for more battlefield tension. The tension follows the lighting, leading to more empathic storytelling in daylight and ratcheting tension during the night. The Doctor’s impassioned speech is truly a last-stand Hail Mary pass, and it serves up more tension before the final battle. The moment that truly sent shivers down my spine was “pain, pain, pain,” cueing the audience to just how monstrous the Mondasians were.

Another shocker was the identity of Mr. Razor, but this is only because I didn’t the “coming soon” teaser at the end of The Eaters of Light when this series was in first-run. If I had known that John Simm was returning, I probably would have seen right through the Mr. Razor disguise. Since I didn’t know at the time, it blew me away back in 2017.

As someone who earned a degree in physics, I love when science fiction shows play around with the subject and can explain it to the home audience. Gravitational time dilation is a real phenomenon related to special relativity that has been observed on Earth. Scientists placed identical atomic clocks at different altitudes (which relates to the pull of gravity) and noted significant differences in time between them. In this case, “significant” is on the order of nanoseconds, but imagine scaling that up beyond the fragile envelope of our atmosphere to a really long spaceship parked longitudinally on the event horizon of a black hole. That difference in gravity is pretty big.

I did have a question about fridging the black woman in this story – a terrible trio of tropes! – but Bill doesn’t really die and she’s not put in peril by the villain simply as a means to motivate the hero, so I dismissed the idea.

The video of Level 0000 looks like a paused classic black-and-white episode of the show. It added to the feeling of tension and was a nice callback to the era that this story and its cliffhanger were meant to evoke.

The two Masters working side-by-side in this story was pure joy. Notably, this is the first televised story to feature multiple Masters. It was also the third finale of the three in Capaldi’s run to feature the Cybermen.

In the end, I’m left in awe of the Twelfth Doctor’s resolve and strength. He survived all of that and still had the fortitude to hold back one of the character’s most primal forces, setting the stage for Peter Capaldi’s swan song in the next adventure.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #280: The Eaters of Light

Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light
(1 episode, s10e10, 2017)

Timestamp 280 Eaters of Light

Last stand in Scotland.

In the present day near Devil’s Cairn, Scotland, little Judy tells her brother that she wants to hear the ghosts. Her brother warns that there are ghosts, but Judy hears music and defies his request for her to leave. A crow lands nearby a carving of the TARDIS on the stones, calling “Doc-tor!” into the cloudy day.

In Aberdeen, Scotland, circa 2nd century AD, the TARDIS materializes with the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole as they ponder the disappearance of the lost Ninth Roman Legion. The Doctor touts his experience amongst the Romans, including his credentials as a Vestal Virgin Second Class. Eager to prove herself and her research, Bill splits off and encounters a Pictish girl. She falls into an underground pit and (at swordpoint) finds a Roman soldier.

The Doctor and Nardole find a crow that says “dark” repeatedly, which the Doctor explains away as that crows can speak in the future, but humans are too daft to understand it. The crow is warning them of danger as the sun goes down, a fact reinforced by the discovery of the dead Ninth Legion, slain by extraterrestrial means that looks like a complete lack of sunlight. The pair is soon taken hostage by a group of Picts.

Bill introduces herself to the soldier and is amazed that the TARDIS is able to translate her words into Latin. The soldier she found is from the missing legion, and together they escape the pit. They encounter a being that attacks the soldier, but he is able to tell her where the Roman survivors are hiding. She races to the cave and narrowly escapes the monster, though not before the creature attacks her. Bill passes out amongst a group of Ninth Legion Romans.

The Doctor and Nardole meet the Keeper of the Gate, a woman named Kar. Nardole attempts to charm the Picts with popcorn but the Doctor loses his patience with the group. He is soon introduced to Kar, the woman who attacked Bill and claims that she defeated the Roman legion. Kar considers the Romans imperial plunderers who will steal and slaughter across the land. The Doctor is skeptical that Kar could kill 5,000 soldiers and points to the gatekeeper’s gateway weaponry. Using the popcorn, the Doctor stages a diversion, and he and Nardole escape.

The Doctor and Nardole return to the cairn while looking for Bill. The Doctor watches as a gate opens and reveals several hostile creatures. As he recoils, the gate closes, and Nardole tells him that he was away for two days. The cairn is an interdimensional temporal rift. Nardole also reports that he was unable to find Bill.

In the cave, Bill is awakened by a soldier named Lucius. He moves her into a beam of sunlight to burn off the creature’s slime and has a bite to eat. Bill decides to leave and find the Doctor, but Lucius asks her to stay. They have a frank discussion about sexuality, to which Bill is surprised by Roman progressiveness.

The Doctor and Nardole find Kar and ask if she knows what’s inside the portal. She calls the creature the “eater of light” and says that each generation elects a warrior to hold it back. The battle takes decades in the real world. Unfortunately, it got out and killed the Ninth Legion, but Kar thinks that it will die soon. The Doctor argues with her, but they both turn as a scream cuts the air. They find a slain Pict girl and the Doctor explains that the monster won’t stop until it decimates the world.

Bill tells the Romans about the Doctor. She also explains that being scared is human, but it isn’t cowardice. They develop a plan to find the Doctor. They use a passage to sneak past the beast and find a ladder. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Kar devise a plan of their own based on the mirrors that the Picts carry. They consider how the portal periodically opens, likening it to an oil gush that relieves pressure periodically. The Doctor does what he can to rally Kar and her people to action.

The ladder from the cave system leads into the space where the Doctor, Nardole, and the Picts are hiding. After some tense moments, Bill and the Doctor are able to negotiate a truce based on the TARDIS’s translation circuits. The Doctor chides the lot, demanding that they “grow the hell up” and stop the beast before it consumes the entire universe.

The plan is to use the creature’s desires against it. They lure it with light and music, then use mirrors (which poison the light) to hold it at bay and push it back into the portal. The gate has to be guarded, and the Doctor volunteers to guard it with his relatively infinite lifespan. Bill and Kar disagree, telling him that he has gates of his own to guard. Kar and the Ninth Legion survivors stand before him as Nardole knocks him on the head. Kar and the soldiers advance into the gate and the cairn begins to fall apart due to the strain. When the cairn collapses, the portal is closed forever.

Nardole urges the Doctor to not hold a grudge as Kar’s brother tells the crows to spread the word about who saved the world. A crow flies off screaming “KAR” into the cloudy sky. The Doctor admits that he was wrong about the Ninth Legion, and Bill does as well. They weren’t missing or killed but instead were always here.

As the trio enters the TARDIS, Nardole is surprised to find Missy in the TARDIS. The Doctor let her out to do maintenance on the engines, but he’s locked her out of every major function on the time capsule. She can’t even leave the ship. Later, she cries as she hears bagpipe music, presumably from the warriors in the cairn, and suggests that it’s time to rebuild their relationship. The Doctor remains skeptical, stating that it’s not the right time during her rehabilitation.

The writer of this phenomenal tale was Rona Munro. She was also responsible for Survival, which she also novelized, and therefore took the record for the longest gap between two Doctor Who television stories by the same writer. That gap was approximately 27 and a half years.

It’s understandable why this episode has the lowest ratings (to date) of the revival era. It is a dark episode, both in content and overall lighting. So much of the story is portrayed by firelight or in dark woods, and even the daylight scenes end up shadowed by mostly cloudy skies. But, it also helps to drive the claustrophobic and defeated mood that permeates the plot, and I think it adds quite a bit overall.

Missy’s redemption(?) arc remains shrouded in mystery, but the ongoing thread of human sexuality continues with better, more respectful discussions about the topic through history. There’s a nod to a “long story” about the Doctor being a Vestal Virgin Second Class – ‘twould be an interesting story to see since the Vestal Virgins were priestesses who vowed to remain virginal between the ages of 10 and 40, which makes me wonder how the Doctor pulled this off in a world (spoilers) pre-Thirteenth and pre-Timeless Child – and I smiled about Lucius being called “granddad” since he was the oldest soldier in the legion. That’s quite the thumb at the confluence of youth and war.

It may not be a popular episode, but I really enjoyed it.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: World Enough and Time & Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Schedule Update: The Timestamps Project (May 2023)

Schedule Update: The Timestamps Project
May 2023


The Timestamps Project will continue through the summer with Series Ten and Series Eleven. This will finish Peter Capaldi’s run as the Twelfth Doctor and begin Jodie Whittaker’s run as the Thirteenth Doctor.

After that, the series will continue until it catches up to the first-run episodes around the first quarter of 2024.

As always, the schedule is tentative. Thanks for your continued support.cc-break

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #279: Empress of Mars

Doctor Who: Empress of Mars
(1 episode, s10e09, 2017)

Timestamp 279 Empress of Mars

Long live the ice queen.

In 2017, the controllers at NASA are watching with bated breath as the space probe Valkyrie approaches Mars. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole appear in Mission Control as the countdown ends and the first images return. Everyone is perplexed when the first sight of Mars is a message: “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.”

The Doctor tracks the message’s origins to 1881 and takes the TARDIS to Mars to find out how it happened. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole explore the Martian underground and discover a campfire. Where there’s fire, there’s typically oxygen, so the trio removes their helmets. Bill accidentally falls down a hole to a lower level so the Doctor sends Nardole back to the TARDIS for climbing gear, but the TARDIS inexplicably dematerializes with him onboard.

As the Doctor rushes toward the sound of the departing TARDIS, Bill encounters a man in a primitive spacesuit and the Doctor encounters an Ice Warrior. The Doctor tries a ritual greeting – which seems to work – but is interrupted by a Victorian-era soldier who threatens the Doctor and calls the Ice Warrior Friday. The Doctor and Bill are treated to tea with Colonel Godsacre, Mr. Catchlove, and Friday. There they learn that the humans found the Ice Warrior’s ship in South Africa where they exchanged help in repairing Friday’s ship for rare gems. the Ice Warrior is named in honor of Robinson Crusoe, in which the title character rescues a native man who takes the name and becomes his servant.

The soldiers are mining with a Martian laser, but their efforts have borne no fruit. After tea, the Doctor relates his knowledge of the Ice Warriors to Bill – “They could build a city under the sand, yet drench the snows of Mars with innocent blood. They could slaughter whole civilizations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower.” – and Friday breaks his silence by telling them that he is old and wishes to die in peace. His statement is contrasted by his dexterity as he catches a falling plate with ease.

Nardole tries to pilot the TARDIS back to Mars, but the capsule refuses to budge. Reluctantly, Nardole releases Missy from the vault to help.

The mining crew bickers amongst themselves before finally breaking through to an ornate chamber. Inside lies the tomb of an Ice Warrior queen, and even though the Doctor wants to investigate, the soldiers are blinded by the riches within. They consider Mars part of the British Empire but the Doctor points out that they are the invaders here.

Sure enough, the sentries standing watch at the tomb are assaulted by the queen after they try to plunder the tomb. When they attack her, she dispatches them with ease. Friday arrives as a soldier named Vincey flees, and the Ice Warrior servant reveals that his people have slumbered too long. Mars is dead.

Vincey sounds the alarm and the troops rush into the tomb. The Doctor asks to speak, and Godsacre allows it despite Catchlove’s protests. The Doctor backs Friday’s claims as Queen Iraxxa asks Bill for her opinion. She and the Doctor explain how the humans saved Friday’s life, and even though she wants to fight for honor, the Doctor requests mercy. When one of the soldiers accidentally fires his rifle, the queen says that she’ll show mercy by way of their swift deaths.

The soldiers flee to the Ice Warrior superlaser that they used for mining, but only after Bill’s intervention does a fatal shot end up merely collapsing the tomb entrance. Catchlove takes command from Godsacre, revealing that the colonel suffered a failed execution for desertion and ordering Godsacre, the Doctor, and Bill to be imprisoned in the brig.

While the Doctor and Bill plan their escape from the brig, they obliquely explain themselves to Godsacre. Meanwhile, Catchlove plots an attack but is routed after the Ice Warriors emerge from the soil behind them. Catchlove uses Vincey as a human shield to escape. Friday burrows into the brig and asks the Doctor for help in ending Iraxxa’s madness as she awakens the sleeping warriors at her command.

Now free from the brig, Bill requests to speak to the queen as a distraction while the Doctor implements a plan. Bill pleads with the queen to stay her hand, but Iraxxa refuses. The Doctor aims the superlaser cannon at the cavern roof and threatens to entomb them all in the polar ice above. Catchlove interferes by taking the queen hostage so he can escape the planet. His cowardice is ended by Godsacre when the colonel shoots him.

Godsacre relates his story to the queen and is willing to sacrifice himself to save everyone else. She decides that he will die with honor in battle, but only at her side should he swear allegiance to Mars until his final days. When he does, the battle is done.

The Doctor hotwires the communication system to send a distress call to evacuate the Ice Warriors to a new planet. He is surprised to see that his old friend Alpha Centauri responds to help. The Doctor, Bill, and Godsacre return to the surface and leave the message on the Martian surface as a beacon for the incoming fleet. After that, the Doctor and Bill find the TARDIS as it materializes.

The Doctor is stunned to find Missy and Nardole inside. He’s even more stunned when Missy is compliant instead of defiant.

With the return of the Ice Warriors and the debut of the first female Ice Warrior on screen, we get far more connective tissue to the classic era than we did in Cold War. For one, the Doctor declares that he is an Honorary Guardian of the Tythonian Hive. For another, the Doctor finds yet another group of British explorers on Mars. Finally, we get the return of Alpha Centauri.

The amazing part about this very short character reprisal is that the producers were able to get Ysanne Churchman to voice her again. At the age of 92, she became the oldest actor to appear in the revival era, and her return was kept a secret until the episode’s premiere. In the age of the internet and fans who seek out filming locations to spoil casting and plot elements, I love it when Doctor Who can still keep secrets.

The story itself is a pretty standard exercise in the follies of imperialism and the stereotypical military mindset, both being mainstays of the franchise over the years. It’s not surprising considering that Mark Gatiss wrote this story as well as Victory of the Daleks and Cold War. This marks his final script (to date) for the franchise, but not his final appearance. The episode carries itself well with tense drama and excellent performances. It is a joy to watch.

I’m still curious about the TARDIS and her recent bout of autonomy. I wonder what she’s up to.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #278: Extremis, The Pyramid at the End of the World, & The Lie of the Land

Doctor Who: Extremis
Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World
Doctor Who: The Lie of the Land
(3 episodes, s10e06-08, 2017)

Timestamp 278 Monk Trilogy

All shall love and despair.


A long time ago, the Doctor confers with an executioner named Rafando about a method for destroying a Time Lord. After the execution is completed – a process that stops both hearts, all three brain stems, and the ability to regenerate – the body will be placed in a quantum fold chamber for a millennium to prevent “relapses“. The process also requires that a Time Lord be the one to pull the lever.

The prisoner slated for execution is Missy. The Doctor has been selected to kill her. Missy begs for her life, promising to do anything in return.

In the present day, the Doctor confides in Missy about his blindness through the vault door. His discussion is cut short by an email, sent via the sonic sunglasses that he uses to get around, with the subject line of Extremis. Always curious, the Doctor opens the message.

The Doctor stands in a darkened lecture hall as fifteen men enter. They claim to be from the Vatican, and a cardinal named Angelo asks for the Doctor’s help after a series of suicides. The Pope descends the stairs and personally asks the Doctor for help. In his office, the Doctor is given a parchment that reads Veritas – literally, and not subtly, truth – but the resulting text is in a language lost to time. A later translation contains a secret that drives the reader to suicide. All of the bodies have been recovered except for one.

The Pope asks the Doctor to read Veritas to help. Because he has lives to spare?

Bill brings a girlfriend named Penny to Moira’s home, but the romantic interlude is interrupted by the TARDIS and the Pope. Penny runs out in fear as Bill chastises the Doctor for dropping the Pope and his assembly in her bedroom. As Nardole briefs Bill on the task, Cardinal Angelo offers a friendly ear for the Doctor.

Back at Missy’s execution, Nardole arrives dressed as a monk with orders from River Song to stay the execution. After the conference, Missy begs for mercy with tears in her eyes.

In the present, the TARDIS materializes in Vatican City. Nardole confers with the Doctor about the secret of his blindness before the Pope bids farewell. Cardinal Angelo shows the travelers to the Haereticum, a labyrinthine library that reminds Bill of a fictional wizarding school. Angelo leads the group to the heart of the library where a bright light shines through a portal with a man inside.

The portal vanishes and Angelo checks the security while the travelers proceed to the cage where Veritas is kept. Angelo is soon abducted by a mysterious claw-like hand. A priest scares the group and reveals that he sent the email before running off. While the Doctor investigates the Veritas, the mysterious priest commits suicide. When Bill and Nardole investigate the body, they find another mysterious portal and take a look.

I realize that I said mysterious a lot. This whole story is full of it.

As the Doctor begins scanning Veritas with a device that will temporarily fix his eyesight, he is approached by a mysterious peculiar figure.

Back at the execution, the Doctor pulls the lever and activates the machine. He promises to guard Missy’s corpse for one thousand years.

In modern day, Bill and Nardole emerge from a closet into a Pentagon operations center. They climb back through the portal into a strange hub. They walk through another portal to CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and meet a scientist.

The Doctor finishes his work and tries to read the book as the mysterious curious figure with a zombie-like face locks him to the chair. The figure takes Veritas but the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to turn off the lights and escape with a laptop containing a translation. He later tries to read the screen but is interrupted by more of the figures and his failing eyesight. He runs off and finds another portal.

At CERN, the scientist leads Bill and Nardole to the cafeteria where a five-minute countdown has started. The countdown is leading to a mass suicide explosion. The scientist explains that the explosion will release them from this world, a world that doesn’t truly exist. He tests Bill and Nardole by having them pick a series of random numbers. When each choice matches exactly, they both run and dive through the portal at the last second.

Bill and Nardole find a trail of blood in the hub as Nardole realizes that each portal leads to a holographic simulation. He soon realizes that they are also part of the simulation and he steps outside of the projectors, thereby vanishing. Bill follows the blood trail to the White House and finds the Doctor and the President of the United States in the Oval Office. They both have read the Veritas and the President has committed suicide. The Doctor explains that a demon is trying to conquer the world but has created a “shadow world” to practice. This simulation assesses the abilities of the human race throughout history. The key to understanding that one is in the program is a string of numbers, the same ones that Bill and Nardole recited.

Once a simulant understands their role in the program, they escape back to reality by ending their program.

With that, Bill disappears, leaving one of the mysterious strange figures behind. It tells him that they have killed many times before, but the Doctor replies that they have fallen into their own trap because the simulation is too good. Since he is linked to the sonic sunglasses, they are a recording of the last few hours. Before he vanishes, the Doctor emails the recording to the Doctor in the real world.

The Extremis email was that recording. The Doctor finishes watching it and then calls Bill. He tells her to call Penny and ask her on a date.

In the last flashback to Missy’s execution, the Doctor reveals that he sabotaged the machine to knock her out instead of killing her. The Doctor scares the executioners away by asking them to look up his list of fatalities, then he and Nardole load Missy into the vault.

Outside of that vault, the Doctor asks Missy through the door how he can save his friends when he is blind.

The Pyramid at the End of the World

Following the Doctor’s recommendation, Bill takes Penny back to her home. During the date and walk home, Bill relays her experience in the alien computer simulation. Once they reach Bill’s home, the United Nations Secretary-General arrives and demands that Bill take them to the President. Bill denies knowing the President of the United States – she wouldn’t have voted for the “orange” man anyway – but the Secretary-General clarifies his request. Because the world is in danger, he’s looking for the President of the World.

He’s looking for the Doctor.

The Secretary-General takes Bill to an airplane while explaining their interest in a 5,000-year-old pyramid in Turmezistan. It’s a fascinating site because the pyramid literally appeared overnight. Meanwhile, the Doctor meditates with his guitar while he monologues about how each person’s death is predestined and each step takes them closer to the event. To punctuate it, a woman named Erica breaks her reading glasses as she leaves home, suggesting that a minor event can lead to a series of larger ones.

The Doctor is surprised to find that his TARDIS has been hijacked by the secretary-general’s plane. His university office apparently has much larger windows now as well. As the Secretary-General explains what he needs, Erica delivers coffee to her lab partner at Agrofuel Research Operations. The lab partner, Douglas, is hung over, but since Erica can’t see without her glasses, she asks him to mix the next stage of their experiment. As they work, the mysterious aliens Monks watch through a lab camera.

The travelers arrive and meet United States Army Colonel Babbit – a man who is out of uniform since he’s wearing the rank insignia of a four-star general – before investigating the pyramid. The structure opens for the Doctor and he is greeted by a Monk. After a brief interaction, the Monk retreats and everyone’s clocks around the world are set to 23:57:00.

Three minutes to midnight. Three minutes left on the Doomsday Clock.

Sure enough, Douglas miskeys a value in the experiment. Not recognizing the mistake, the scientists leave for lunch and let the computer take control.

The Doctor assembles Ilya Svyatoslavovich (the leader of the Russian military in Turmezistan), Xiaolian (the leader of the Chinese military in Turmezistan), General-Colonel Babbit, the Secretary-General, Bill, and Nardole in the UN base. They discuss the reasons for the Monks’ arrival, settling on the relative weakness of humanity at this time. Despite his companions’ objections, the Doctor recommends a coordinated attack to demonstrate strength.

The Doomsday Clock advances to 23:58:00. Nardole and Bill become concerned for the Doctor.

Bill later asks the Doctor what’s bothering him, but he says that fear rules him to the extent that he cannot even reveal what scares him. As they speak, the pyramid emits a bright orange beam into the sky that consumes the bomber en route to the pyramid. The crew are replaced by Monks and the plane is gently deposited on the desert floor. Several members of the coalition military emerge from the pyramid as a Russian submarine lands in the desert. The Monks have stopped all of the attacks against them, but they are ready to talk now.

The world leaders join the Doctor and his companions in the pyramid. The Doctor tells Bill that traps provide a chance to learn about their enemies. The assembly meets with a Monk who explains that the chain of events is in progress that will destroy the planet at humanity’s hands. They witness the Monks working on the simulation from the outside, weaving strands in a tapestry. The Monk shows the group a vision of the future, then offers to help humanity survive, but to do so will enslave the human race.

The Doomsday Clock advances to 23:59:00.

The Monks must be wanted and loved because ruling through fear is inefficient. With the vision of the future in his mind, the Secretary-General consents to help, but since his consent was based on fear, he is immediately destroyed. The rest of the group leaves the pyramid.

At Agrofuel, the experiment goes awry. Erica and Douglas begin analyzing the problem, but Douglas breaches containment in the process. In Turmezistan, the world leaders consider their position and decide on peace. But since they are not the source of the end of the world, the Doomsday Clock doesn’t budge. Sure enough, the experiment at Agrofuel is the source and creates a deadly microorganism. The world leaders come to the same conclusion, and the Doctor responds by placing every top secret document online so that they can all start searching. Meanwhile, Douglas collapses from exposure to the virus and immediately decomposes into a puddle of goo.

General-Colonel Babbit wants to negotiate terms with the Monks, but the Doctor suggests that the price is way too high. Bill agrees with them because she sees no other choice, and the military leaders decide to surrender. As they leave, the Doctor almost reveals his secret to Bill but then decides on a different course of action.

Leaving Bill to watch the military leaders, the Doctor and Nardole use a list of biochemical labs on the UNIT watchlist to narrow the possible targets. They turn all of the CCTV cameras off, and when the Monks restore the feed, the Doctor takes the TARDIS to Agrofuel. The Doctor asks Nardole to monitor him from the TARDIS but Nardole has already been exposed. Meanwhile, the Doctor briefs Bill and the military leaders on the situation.

The Doomsday Clock advances to 23:59:40.

Since the lab’s filtration system has been compromised, the Doctor decides to incinerate the microorganisms. While he works, the military leaders are killed since their consent is based on strategy, not love. The Monks offer the deal to Bill since she is the representative of the Doctor. She must truly want their help in light of the consequences.

The Doctor sets the incendiary device and the Doomsday Clock begins to reverse. As the Monks panic, Bill leaves the pyramid. Unfortunately, since the lab is locked down, the airlock is secured by a combination lock. Since the Doctor is blind, he cannot see the numbers and therefore is trapped with the bomb.

He tells Bill about this problem and she decides to save his life by asking for help. She asks the Monks to restore the Doctor’s sight by consenting to their rule. Her consent is pure. The Doctor can see again. He spins the numbers and leaves the lab just in time.

As the fires rage, Bill asks the Doctor to get her planet back.

The Lie of the Land

As the Monks take control of humanity, they cultivate the lie that they have always been by humanity’s side. Their propaganda is spread by television broadcast messages delivered by the Doctor. Any dissension is punished by imprisonment and execution.

It’s only been a few months since the Doomsday Clock event at the pyramid but it feels like an eternity.

Bill prepares two mugs and concentrates, apparently summoning another woman to sit across from her. This woman is her mother. Bill reveals that she can’t remember escaping from the pyramid but she can see how the people of Earth have been brainwashed. Every day is harder than the last as the memories threaten to invade, but Bill believes that the Doctor will come back and save the world.

Her monologue is interrupted by Nardole, and after verifying that he is real, she welcomes him. Nardole recovered from the microorganism after six weeks and has done some research. He has traced the broadcasts to their source, a prison ship that is regularly resupplied by small boat. The captain of the supply boat hates the Monks since his son has been imprisoned for possession of comic books.

Nardole also points out that the Monks have altered the perception of human history for a good reason: However bad a situation is, if people think that’s how it has always been, they’ll accept it.

Nardole and Bill access the prison ship and are almost caught immediately, but an appearance by a Monk distracts the guards. They sneak into the bowels of the ship and find the Doctor in a room surrounded by speeches. The Doctor calls for help and the room fills with guards. He places a call to the Monks and then explains that human society is regressing, but Bill argues in favor of free will. They argue philosophy and Bill’s actions with the Monks and his eyesight. Bill tries to use a coded message regarding their trip to the Thames, but the Doctor deflects.

Bill finally breaks, talking about her personal rebellion while waiting for the Doctor’s return, and eventually pulls a gun on the Doctor. Seeing him as the enemy, she shoots him several times. The Doctor stands and appears to regenerate, then reveals the entire thing as a ruse. From sneaking on board to Bill shooting the Doctor (with blank ammunition), the last six months have been a plan by the Doctor. He even de-programmed his own personal guards.

Now he needs an ally nearly as smart as himself. So, the Doctor drives the prison ship to the mainland. They return to the university to find the Monks in wait, so they head to the vault and open it, finally revealing Missy inside. Bill is astounded to see who she thinks is just a woman, but the Doctor reveals her true form.

Missy tries to haggle over her role in the process, then works through the mystery of the Monks with the Doctor. The Doctor eventually comes to the conclusion that they use Bill as a linchpin through a psychic link. To keep themselves in power, the statues around the world act as transmitters to boost the signal. The link would be passed down genetically through millennia, so Missy suggests killing the linchpin and ending the chain.

Bill, obviously, has problems with that proposal.

Of course, Missy’s plan requires ages since the memory of the Monks would fade over time, so the Doctor and Bill offer a counterproposal at resistance headquarters. They decide to break into the Cathedral, the place where the Monks power their transmission, and replace Bill’s brainwaves with his own. Through reconnaissance, they determine that there are only a few Monks on the planet, but the transmissions make people believe that the Monks are everywhere all at once.

Using headphones playing a recording of their mission objectives, the resistance members infiltrate the Cathedral. Two of them are killed and one is turned when his tape player is damaged, but the turncoat is dispatched by Nardole. The team reaches the broadcasting chamber – Fake News Central, the eye of the storm – and finds a Monk wired into the antenna and sending the message. The Doctor attempts to override the transmission but the Monk is too powerful. The Doctor is knocked out.

When the Doctor comes to, Bill has tied him up to a pillar. She says her goodbyes and thanks the Doctor before walking to the antenna. The Doctor breaks free just as Bill places her hands on the Monk’s head. The Monk’s power overwhelms her and starts overwriting her memories, but the one that they cannot touch is that of Bill’s mother.

The Doctor sees this and persuades Bill to fill her mind with images of her mother. The pure, uncorrupted, irresistible image is broadcast to the world and overrides the control signal. The people of Earth are free and the Monks leave the planet in their Cathedral.

Sometime in the future, at the university, Bill and the Doctor muse about how humanity doesn’t even remember the Monks or what they did. The Doctor leaves Bill to her studies and sits with Missy as the prisoner expresses remorse for all of the people whom she has killed.

I mused about it in the slug line, but this story reminds me of Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings. When the elder elf is tempted by the One Ring, she compares herself to various forces of nature and declares that people would love her, fear her, and despair ever having liberty under her rule as a Dark Queen. Her subjects would love their slavery.

Galadriel passes her test by rejecting that vision of the future, but Bill takes an alternate path by accepting the Monks to save the world and her friend.

Episode by episode, this trilogy experiences several ups and downs. I found Extremis to be equal parts confusing and clever, especially how the flashbacks to (re)introduce Missy betrayed the main story’s existence as a virtual reality simulation. It’s a fascinating setup that slowly unravels as plot points don’t quite line up. The whole “practice invasion” scenario is quite reminiscent of The Android Invasion.

The Pyramid at the End of the World starts with a decent mystery surrounding the titular pyramid, but the intrigue is drowned by the snail’s pace of the story. The cardinal sin behind this second part is boredom, broken in parts by gallows humor (as scientists with hangovers create a pathogen that can destroy the world) and the absurdity behind the apparent inability to check United States Army rank insignia when the internet literally sits at the world’s fingertips. The story also returns to the fictional Turmezistan, which I called out not that long ago for Orientalism.

In better news, the Doctor gets his eyesight back, but The Lie of the Land makes me wonder why it was even a plot point at all when he can regenerate at any time. All I can think is that it doesn’t count unless the Time Lord starts healing, like the Eleventh Doctor giving up a small bit of energy to River Song. This episode moves a little better than Pyramid, but it still takes forever to establish a brainwashed world that won’t be remembered. The final solution is touching, but the idea that the world chooses to forget the whole earth-shattering experience is a bit much to swallow. The entire world was under their control for months and people across the globe were subject to horrors during that time.

Of course, the sonic screwdriver was easily fixed before this whole trilogy started. That should have been a clue about consequences and how long they last.

Rating: 2/5 – “Mm? What’s that, my boy?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Empress of Mars


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #277: Oxygen

Doctor Who: Oxygen
(1 episode, s10e05, 2017)

Timestamp 277 Oxygen

Take a deep breath. It might be your last.

On a space station named Chasm Forge, workers Ivan and Ellie spacewalk across the hull to effect repairs. The pair are romantically involved and Ellie tries to tell Ivan that she wants to have children with him. Sadly, she’s running out of oxygen and her comms are malfunctioning. Even more tragic, she’s soon killed by two figures who are obviously dead because they look like zombies, aren’t wearing helmets, and move like Cybermen. As Ellie is killed, Ivan looks on with a scream.

Back on Earth, the Doctor lectures about space, the final frontier. Final because it wants to kill you. Bill watches uncomfortably and another student asks why they’re not discussing crop rotation. Nardole pressures the Doctor about his obvious desire to go off-world again. As the Doctor plots his next trip with Bill, Nardole stops him by stealing a fluid link and preventing the TARDIS from flying. Of course, the Doctor lied about that particular fluid link’s importance – Rule Number One and all that – so he throws the lever and off they go in search of a distress call.

The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole arrive on Chasm Forge and expand the TARDIS’s air bubble to envelop the station. The travelers find a dead man in a spacesuit, propped up by the suit’s systems. His death is perplexing since his suit’s oxygen tank is full and his breathing field is operational. While Bill and Nardole propose a return to the TARDIS, the Doctor presses on to find the source of the distress call.

Deeper in the station, they find an automated spacesuit doing labor. The suit speaks to the travelers in a voice that Nardole recognizes as a former girlfriend, explaining that the station is typically depressurized. Oxygen is only contained in the pressure suits because it is sold at competitive rates, and any unlicensed oxygen is purged into space. Soon enough, the station’s systems blow the oxygen overboard, forcing the travelers to seek refuge in a repair shop. Someone contacts them and warns them that the shop is dangerous. Sure enough, the dead man marches toward them, but the Doctor is able to disable the suit at the expense of his sonic screwdriver.

Upon investigation, it turns out that the suits were commanded to kill their organic components. The station is filtering out the remaining oxygen to sell it back at a premium, so the Doctor recommends that they get into pressure suits that are offline for repairs. They do so, aware that the rest of the station’s dead personnel are in pursuit.

The disembodied voice, which belongs to a man named Tasker, guides the travelers to a room of survivors. Ivan is among the survivors and helps the Doctor to find a station map. They plot a course to the station’s core – going outside is suicide – and discuss what the station is processing. Copper ore isn’t particularly valuable, so a plot to steal the ore is not the motive.

The zombies start repairing the lock to the repair room so the survivors run for the core. Unfortunately, Tasker is killed by an electrical discharge produced by one of them. With all options cut off, the group dons helmets and heads outside, but Bill’s helmet malfunctions. Since the pressure-retaining forcefield isn’t strong enough for the rigors of space, Bill is exposed to extreme cold, but the Doctor gives her his helmet for the trek.

After they return to the station’s interior, Bill is revived and learns that they are in an uncharted area of the station so the zombies can’t find them. The Doctor saved Bill’s life but has been blinded by the vacuum of space. He ensures Bill that the condition is temporary. The crew regroups as the dead figure out how to gain access to the uncharted section. Dahh-Ren is killed and the team runs for the reactor core.

Along the way, Bill’s suit malfunctions again and prevents her from moving. The Doctor has a revelation and decides to leave her behind, and the advancing horde assimilates her. Inside the core, the Doctor enacts a plan that connects the team’s suits to the reactor coolant system. If they die, the station will explode and destroy the suits. The Doctor explains that the suits are doing exactly what the corporation wants them to by eliminating inefficiencies.

Humans are inefficient, thus the endpoint of capitalism demands that they are bypassed.

The team lets the suited zombies into the core room, but the Doctor springs his trap and stops the suits in a logic loop. He also reveals that Bill’s suit battery was too low to deliver a lethal dose, so she’s okay after all. The suits swap the oxygen tanks from the dead people to the living, ensuring their own survival in the process.

The survivors head for the TARDIS and the Doctor sets a course for the company’s head office so they can file a complaint. Meanwhile, Nardole attempts to fix the Doctor’s eyes. Later, at the university, the Doctor reveals that the event precipitated the eventual downfall of space capitalism. As Bill leaves, Nardole chastises the Doctor for leaving the vault unprotected. If the Doctor were to be incapacitated, the vault would be in jeopardy and the occupant would take advantage.

The Doctor refuses to look at Nardole. When Nardole gets angry about that, the Doctor removes his sunglasses and discloses a major secret.

The Doctor is still blind.

This story has a (sadly, continuously) relevant plot, but it’s also wrapped in a very thin run-from-the-monster motif. The franchise has tackled politics and social issues many, many times in the past, and has done better many times along the way.

This story also showcases some really terrible humor moments with racism, and even if they were meant as parodies, their clumsiness sucked out any amount of funniness. Writer Jamie Mathieson has done far better in the past (notably with Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline) and this is his last story in the franchise to date.

The story does play with the franchise mythology a bit: It nods toward the Doctor’s ability to survive the vacuum of space better than humans can (as seen in Four to Doomsday and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe) and the semi-official nature of Star Trek in the Who-niverse (previously alluded in a handful of episodes). It also reinforces the Doctor’s core characteristics, especially the refusal to believe that his companions are lost.

Oh, yeah… it also marks the destruction of the sonic screwdriver. That won’t last long at all.

This story could be more, but it tries to do too much in 45 minutes and falls short in the end.

Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Extremis, Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World, & Doctor Who: The Lie of the Land


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #276: Knock Knock

Doctor Who: Knock Knock
(1 episode, s10e04, 2017)

Timestamp 276 Knock Knock

Who’s there?

Bill, her friend Shireen, and their four new housemates Felicity, Harry, Pavel, and Paul go househunting. Due to their small budget, the available accommodations are sparse, but they find a man named John who has the perfect place for them. The rent is cheap and the tower is off-limits, so Bill overcomes her skepticism and signs the contract.

Pavel moves in first since he lost his student hall space. As he starts up his record player with Bach: Sonata #1 by Itzhak Perlman – specifically, G Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1001 – 1. Adagio – he finds something horrifying.

The next day, Bill moves in by using the TARDIS as a moving van. The TARDIS materializes over her stacked possessions and the Doctor is surprised at how few things she owns. She learns about the Time Lords, their flamboyant collars, and (a hint of) regeneration as the TARDIS moves to the new house. The Doctor is questioning of the house and its draftiness, offering to help her move her stuff inside to get a better look. After meeting the rest of her housemates, Bill passes him off as her grandfather, then shows him out.

As Bill moves up to her room, Pavel’s continuing music is passed off as a personality quirk; he’s known to hole up in his room with his music for days. That night, the housemates (except Pavel, obviously) gather around take-out meals to discuss oddities about their new residence. Felicity doesn’t like the lack of a mobile phone signal and Harry talks about footsteps and tapping. A strange noise summons them to the kitchen where Bill finds the Doctor investigating with his sonic screwdriver. The Doctor notes that nothing has been updated since the 1930s, including the lack of washing and drying machines. The Doctor tells Bill that the trees are screaming but there is no wind to make them creak. The housemates return to the living area and are surprised to find the landlord.

The landlord fields their complaints but seems untroubled by them. He also reacts with a sinister nature to questions about the tower. The Doctor questions the landlord about the Prime Minister and when the landlord cannot answer, the Doctor’s suspicions are raised. The landlord departs and vanishes without a trace.

Bill suggests that the Doctor should leave, but he decides to stay up with Felicity and Harry. As Bill, Shireen, and Paul head to bed, the Doctor recommends checking on Pavel. Paul asks Bill about a date, but Bill lets him down easily by revealing that she’s gay. Paul closes his door and begins to scream. Bill and Shireen laugh this off as another joke, but they soon realize that something more sinister is at work.

The Doctor, Felicity, and Harry discuss music before realizing that the house has trapped them inside by closing the doors and shutters. Felicity panics and grabs the shutters before squeezing out through a window. Once outside, she is attacked by a tree.

Bill and Shireen check on Pavel only to find that he’s been absorbed into the wood paneling. He’s able to warn them against turning off the music, but the landlord appears and stops the record, claiming that “hope is its own form of cruelty.” The wood absorbs Pavel completely, supposedly at peace with the house, and the women run after being told that it’s time for them to pay.

Bill and Shireen find access to the tower while the Doctor and Harry investigate the wood downstairs. The Doctor finds a woodlouse-like creature with glowing antennae, but the single insect leads to a raging infestation. The Doctor and Harry find refuge in a dumbwaiter that takes them to the basement. Meanwhile, Bill and Shireen find a music box and a woman asking about her father. The woman is made of wood and introduces herself as Eliza.

The Doctor and Harry find evidence that past groups have gone missing from the house. In fact, it seems to be once every twenty years. It is evident that the landlord finds groups of young people to feed the insects. When the landlord appears, the Doctor confronts him and learns that the elderly man made a deal with the insects to save his daughter’s life. When Harry tries to run, he is consumed by the insects. The Doctor suggests that he might be able to help Eliza.

In the tower, Bill and Shireen try to leave peacefully, but when Shireen is consumed when she stomps on one of the bugs. The landlord and the Doctor arrive soon after. The Doctor examines Eliza, learning that the landlord had brought the insects to amuse his bedridden daughter. They learn that high-pitched sounds attract the insects, and Eliza’s music box accidentally revived the initial wave that transformed the girl.

But, in a twist, the landlord is revealed as Eliza’s son. The insects were a gift from a curious son and they preserved Eliza’s age as she was transformed. The landlord asks for forgiveness, aware that his attempts to keep the insects (and his mother) alive were wrong, and Eliza decides to release him. She realizes that she can control the insects, and after thanking the Doctor for his help, she allows the insects to devour herself and her son.

With Eliza gone, the house begins to crumble. As Bill and the Doctor run, they find the rest of the housemates alive and well as the house releases them. The Doctor tells the group to return to the estate agents as they gape at the site of the destroyed house.

The Doctor returns to the university with takeout food for Nardole. He takes up guard duty at the vault as the mysterious occupant plays Für Elise on piano. Nardole departs and the Doctor begins to relay the night’s adventures to the prisoner. Upon explaining that people were consumed by a house, the occupant plays Pop Goes the Weasel, and an amused Doctor opens the door to give his prisoner some dinner.

I enjoyed the combination of the haunted house and monster-of-the-week motifs alongside some decent character development for Bill. While we don’t see any time travel in this story, we do get some good suspense and drama coupled with a nice twist in the villain.

Everything in this story points to the landlord being the baddie, and the woman made of wood in the tower isn’t a huge surprise. What I appreciate, though, is the twist that reveals the “creature” as the landlord’s mother. Of course, the landlord’s actions are still bad, but it complicates matters since they are also driven by good intentions.

The road to hell and all that, right?

I’m also a big fan of the minimal body count. It would have been so easy to kill off every one of Bill’s friends, but the story goes the extra step to save Bill from that darkness.

There’s not much more to this story aside from the subtle hints about who is in the vault. We’ll get there soon enough.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Oxygen


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #275: Thin Ice

Doctor Who: Thin Ice
(1 episode, s10e03, 2017)

Timestamp 275 Thin Ice

Going ice skating with monsters.

Picking up immediately after the previous adventure, the Doctor and Bill rush back into the TARDIS to discuss their landing on the frozen Thames. They’ve landed at the site of the last great frost fair on February 4, 1814. The TARDIS is steered by reasoning with her, and she has decided that they are needed here.

The Doctor wants to explore but Bill is afraid that she’ll stick out since slavery is still legal. The Doctor points her to the TARDIS wardrobe as a creature rumbles beneath the ice. The travelers, now appropriately dressed, venture into the frost fair while the Doctor teases Bill about temporal causality. Bill has the time of her life trying (most nearly) everything while remarking that Regency London is a lot more racially diverse than she sees in the movies. The Doctor replies “So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.”

Along the way, Bill notices green lights racing under the ice. To her relief, the Doctor has seen them as well. On the outskirts of the frost fair, those green lights end up leading to the death of a drunk man. Elsewhere, a pickpocket lifts the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and the travelers give chase until the lights break the ice under the kid’s feet. The sonic is left behind as the ice refreezes, leaving Bill beside herself as the Doctor is unable to save the boy.

Later, Bill asks about the Doctor and his history with death. She learns that the Doctor has killed before, but she doesn’t learn how many lives he’s taken. The discussion is interrupted by one of the pickpockets asking about what’s under the ice. The Doctor and Bill eventually learn that someone is paying the orphaned children to work the fair, and the Doctor feeds them with stolen pies before telling them a story beside a warm fire. They soon learn that the man they’re looking for has a tattoo of a ship on his hand.

After dark, the travelers don diving suits and search for the lights beneath the ice. Soon enough, Bill is taken below and the Doctor dives in after her. They find a giant sea creature chained to the river bottom and return to the surface through a fisherman’s hole. The fisherman was the pie maker, and the pies are made from the angler fish that produce the lights. They get another lead from the pie man and use the psychic paper to gain access to a dredging camp. They eventually come to Lord Sutcliffe after learning that he’s in command of the dredging teams who are excavating the sea creature’s very powerful bodily waste. The Doctor notes that it could be used for interstellar travel.

Visiting the manor of Lord Sutcliffe, the Doctor recommends that he do the talking since Bill is easily angered. Under the guise of Doctor Disco of the Fairford Club, he confronts Sutcliffe but loses his own temper in the face of sexist, classist, and racist remarks. After sucker-punching Sutcliffe and knocking him out, the Doctor determines that he is indeed human. The travelers are captured by Sutcliffe’s minions and learn that the sea creature is a family secret that can freeze the ice. Sutcliffe lures people to the ensuing frost fairs and propels industry by feeding innocent people to the creature. The Doctor chastizes Sutcliffe for not seeing the value in human life, but Sutcliffe decides to accelerate his plans.

Sutcliffe takes his prisoners to the river where he has explosives planted. He plans to blow the ice and feed the creature a veritable buffet, including the elephant. Once the captors leave the tent, the Doctor and Bill try to use the sonic screwdriver to escape. The sonic draws the lantern fish as one of the guards takes it away. The guard is eaten and the travelers are freed.

The Doctor asks Bill to decide the fate of the creature. Bill eventually settles on saving the creature, enlisting the street urchin gang to help clear the frost fair attendees from the river. The Doctor moves the explosives to the chains holding the creature down, and as Sutcliffe triggers the explosives, he falls into the river and is eaten. The creature, now free, heads toward colder climates.

Later on, the Doctor and Bill welcome the street urchins to Sutcliffe’s manor. Bill feeds the kids while the Doctor alters Sutcliffe’s will to make a boy named Perry the next lord of the manor. The travelers return home to be criticized by Nardole for going off-world as Bill reads about their exploits in the newspaper.

The Doctor and Nardole flip a coin to determine if he can continue going off-world. Nardole sulks over losing the flip by checking on the vault. He’s surprised to hear a knocking from inside, but refuses to let the occupant out.

Here we see an adventure that asks the companion to decide the fate of a creature, but it does a much better job of having the Doctor guide the companion to the right answer than stories like Kill the Moon and Cold Blood did. Along the way, Bill gets to learn more about the Doctor and the choices that he has to make in his lives.

This adventure also doesn’t pull any punches regarding classism, sexism, and racism. In fact, it hangs a lampshade on racism within the first few minutes, and it draws a hard line for the Doctor’s tolerance of such atrocious views.

The Doctor Who universe has been pretty progressive in the fight against human racism over the years, notably in stories like Human Nature & The Family of Blood, The Shakespeare Code, Captain Jack Harkness, Lost in Time, Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield, and Ghost Light. (It’s worth noting that the Doctor was far more dismissive of Martha’s concerns in The Shakespeare Code than he is here.) By nature, the show is inherently progressive when using aliens as metaphors for racism – the Daleks are the most obvious narrative vehicle – but the show has also stumbled a couple of times as well, most notably in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (yellowface and Asian slurs), The Daleks’ Master Plan (in which the Doctor engages in Orientalism), The Tomb of the Cybermen (in which the only Black character is an intellectually-challenged villain who sacrifices himself), The Evil of the Daleks (in which Kemel mirrors the mute strong Black man trope, but in Turkish), and The Celestial Toymaker (in which a racial slur is quoted in a nursery rhyme and the villain is coded in Orientalism).

Sexism plays a lesser role in Doctor Who history, popping up most notably in The Five Doctors and some of the First Doctor’s attitudes towards Tegan. Otherwise, the fights against sexism and classism are spread throughout the franchise’s history.

We get a few callbacks with this adventure. First, Martha was concerned about the butterfly effect in The Shakespeare Code, which was also a trip to London in the past. Second, parallel universes are mentioned again, nodding to their existence in Inferno and Rise of the Cybermen & Age of Steel. Third, the Doctor reminds us that humans are keen to ignore the bizarre happenings around them, such as with Remembrance of the Daleks and In the Forest of the Night. Last but not least, “Doctor Disco” makes a return, dredging up the off-hand joke from The Zygon Invasion.

What I really like about this adventure is the creature feature aspect with the companion saving the monster from torturous captivity. It’s an exercise in finding the best in humanity, giving us hope for the future that is reinforced by themes that (unfortunately) are still relevant today.

That’s the mark of good science fiction.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Knock Knock


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #274: Smile

Doctor Who: Smile
(1 episode, s10e02, 2017)

Timestamp 274 Smile

The importance of understanding emotion.

Bill prepares for her first proper trip in the TARDIS, musing about how the seats are too far from the console and how difficult it seems to drive it. She’s impressed that the Doctor stole the TARDIS instead of buying it, and their back-and-forth is interrupted by Nardole who chastizes the Doctor for considering a trip off-world. The Doctor dismisses him by requesting to put the kettle on for tea.

Between the vault and the Doctor’s office, before the kettle boils, the Doctor takes a trip to the future.

On a planet with vast expanses of wheat, colonists are waging a battle with their robots. If the robots detect emotions other than happiness, they murder the colonists with a wave of tiny drones. Sometime later, the Doctor and Bill arrive and take a self-guided tour of one of Earth’s first off-world colonies. They are fitted with translation devices while the emoji-bots stalk them from the windows above. One of the emoji-bots meets the travelers and offers them badges that reflect the wearer’s emotions. The emotions are not visible to the wearer and are worn on the back to facilitate transparency.

The robot serves Bill a meal of processed algae as she notes how skeptical the Doctor is about the empty city. She’s also amazed by the Doctor’s dual hearts, which he mentions during an excited monologue about how the city was built. He later finds a necklace on the ground and his theory changes regarding the residents of the colony. He verifies it by locating the source of a greenhouse’s calcium-based fertilizer.

The Doctor’s shift in mood is noted by the emoji-bots and they chase the travelers before the Doctor tells Bill to smile. The robots are programmed to ensure the happiness of the colonists and they have done so to a fault. The Doctor and Bill evade the robots and return to the TARDIS. The Doctor plans to leave Bill at the TARDIS while he destroys the death trap that is the city, but she is swayed otherwise by the sign on the TARDIS door: “Advice and assistance obtainable immediately.”

The Doctor is the universe’s helpline.

Bill returns to the Doctor’s side and he explains that the killer insect drones – the Vardy – are the literal bones and flesh of the buildings around them. At its core lies the original ship that the colonists arrived in, just like the Vikings who lived in their ships until they built their cities. As the travelers enter the ship, the Erehwon, the emoji-bots go on alert.

The Doctor navigates to the ship’s engine room with Bill’s help and a good old-fashioned deck plan. As the Doctor enters the engine room, the emoji-bots enter murder mode. Bill remembers that she can photograph the deck plan with her phone before following the Doctor’s path. She moves through stacks of artifacts and finds a room holding the remains of a recently-deceased elderly woman and a digital book filled with images of Earth’s history. She deduces that the colonists were the last humans evacuating from Earth.

Bill decides to rendezvous with the Doctor but finds a human boy. Meanwhile, the Doctor is ambushed by an emoji-bot. The Doctor meets up with Bill and the boy and he decides to disarm his makeshift bomb because the ship is a cryogenic colony ship filled with survivors from Earth. They meet Steadfast, one of the first to awaken, and the Doctor orders him to remain on the ship until told otherwise.

Bill takes the Doctor to the elderly woman whom the Time Lord identifies as a shepherd for this flock. She was the first to die, passing from natural causes, but the grief of her death passed through the colony like a virus. The Vardy identified grief as the enemy of happiness and started a cascade of death to stem the tide. Using the necklace, the Doctor recognizes that the grief cycle will continue, so he assembles the colonists to tell them the story.

The boy has left the ship and the colonists decide to wage war on the Vardy. When they fire on an emoji-bot, it experiences rage, and the Vardy attack the colonists. The Doctor realizes that the Vardy have become self-aware and stuns everyone in the city, effectively resetting the city into a symbiotic relationship where the humans are tenants in the Vardy’s new home.

Bill and the Doctor leave in the TARDIS as she muses about his role as an intergalactic policeman. The Doctor presumes that he can return them to the exact moment that they left, but they materialize in the wrong time as an elephant walks up the frozen Thames.

What starts as a monster-of-the-week story ends up with a Doctor Who twist as the supposed enemy ends up on top because it is simply misunderstood. Couple that with the theme of a new companion’s first real trip in the TARDIS and you have a winner.

The origin of this story makes me laugh: Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat don’t understand emojis, so they often had trouble understanding texts from Jenna Coleman (who uses a lot of them in her communication). Thus was born a story about miscommunication based around emotions.

The story’s moral, of course, orbits the concepts of miscommunication and toxic positivity and emphasizes the need to read and understand emotions in relationships. The Vardy only understand black and white when it comes to emotions – grief is the enemy of happiness – but humanity exists in shades of grey that are wide open to interpretation and analysis. We can make a lot of headway together by simply talking things through with transparency.

Following on from the wave of comic characters that exist in Doctor Who canon from The Return of Doctor Mysterio, Bill lets us know that Mister Fantastic of Marvel’s first family (The Fantastic Four) is another superhero in this continuity.

The show also returns to classic tropes with human colony ships (The Ark and The Beast Below, for example) and cryogenic suspension (The Ark in Space, for example). It’s also the second time that we’ve seen a human colony where unhappiness was a death sentence (The Happiness Patrol was the first).

I enjoyed the story of The Magic Haddock, which is a story about being careful about what you wish for. That in-universe parable is made up of two different stories: The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish is the source of the wishes in the haddock story, and The Monkey’s Paw is about an artifact that grants wishes at a deadly expense.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the colony planet was never named. It’s a literal “nowhere” colonized by people who traveled on a ship called Erewhon (“nowhere” spelled backward). (The planet is later called Gliese 581d and Earth 2.7 in different prose stories, but it is not identified in the course of this televised story.)

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Thin Ice


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.