I really, really wanted to love this episode. It’s credited as written by Neil Gaiman, a tremendous author and the man responsible for the excellent Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Wife”!
Sadly, this installment did not impress me so much as it exasperated me with character missteps, plot holes, questionable direction, and erratic pacing. SPOILERS GALORE! SO MANY SPOILERS! SPILLY-SPOTTY SUPER SPOILY STUFF!
At the end of the previous episode, The Crimson Horror, there was an Absurd Contrivance: the two children for whom the most recent iteration of Clara works as a nanny managed to find photos of Clara through time, on her travels with the Doctor and one photo of the Victorian governess version of Clara*, then blackmailed her to take them on TARDIS trips to avoid them telling their parents that she’s a time-traveller.
That’s such a bullshit story development that I could probably spend an entire blogpost on it, but I’ll try to summarize the crap of it: they posed for photos? somehow the children found the photos of Clara among the billions of photographs since the invention of the camera? nobody’s seen people with strong family resemblances before? why would it matter if the kids told their parents this ludicrous story? why does Clara have to stay with them, if they respect her so little that they’d blackmail her? There. That’s just off the top of my head.
So this episode starts off with the TARDIS appearing on “Hedgewicks World” [sic] and the Doctor, Clara, girl, and boy popping their heads out. Because, apparently, a 1000-yr-old Time Lord can’t help but go along with the impotent blackmail threats of bratty Earth children. And the bratty Earth children are wholly unmoved by the fact that they just teleported through space. The girl is aggressively unimpressed and makes me wish she’d “accidentally” fall into a dying star. Compare them to the children in The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe: those previous youngsters accepted time and space travel readily, yes, but were also amazed by it.
Then a Mad Hatter character appears. No explanation of why or how he came to be here, save a passing comment about his needing a lift to get off world. Nearly as soon as he appears, he’s chased off by the Emperor’s soldiers, who turn out to be as frightening and capable as a deck of cards. But they do considerately provide exposition that the Emperor is gone somewhere. But characterization suffers again as this Doctor doesn’t seem to mind working with soldiers, being around weapons, nor tossing off salutes.
Mad Hatter reappears and gloms onto The Doctor’s group for little apparent reason, but perhaps in hopes of getting some money off of them? And yet, he’s been there for six months or more without starving to death. How? If he merely wanted them to transport him to another world and offered his tour guide services in exchange, that would at least make sense toward his motivations. If he mentioned that the soldiers gave him rations to live, that also would’ve helped. Anyway, he shows the group to an opening out to the grounds of the amusement park “world”.
And then we come to a frequent flaw in space travel stories: this “world” appears to be no bigger than Disneyland. What about the rest of the planet? What about areas you can’t walk to in a few minutes? What’s going on in all those sections? Quick comments about how the world was 99% water and only this part had ground to walk on, plus previous rides being geared to the water but long since being shut down, would have fixed that weird gap of information.
Then there is a bit of editing peculiarity, when the Mad Hatter says, “Welcome to my sh–” and then continues, “Webbly’s World of Wonders!” Is it a ship? A shoppe? A shed? I feel like there may have been a cut scene where he shows them his SHIP, indicates that it no longer flies, and explains that he converted it into a museum in hopes that some passersby would pay him enough so that he could hire transport off the planet. Instead we just see a room full of junk with no real explanation of why it’s there or what Webbly does with it all.
It’s apparently full of waxworks of people and things. Why? How? People are still impressed by that in some future where a planet can be an amusement park? Once again, it feels like there’s a cut scene where there might have been more explanation and then, with no segue, Webbly asks for a chess player. Then there’s another strange part where he throws his hat onto a bit of kitsch and it falls right off and disappears. Why was that part kept in? Why have him remove his hat at all? He leads the group to a chessboard with prepared pieces and one side adjacent to something covered in a cloth. Easily deducible that this will be some chess-playing-device. The sound editing is poor as Webbly goes for the reveal and it’s hard to hear what he says over the score. “Behold, the enemy”? Did an amateur edit this episode?
But when the cloth is pulled away, The Doctor panics that it’s a Cyberman and… makes Clara and the kids duck down? That makes no sense. If he were really afraid it were dangerous, wouldn’t he pull out his sonic screwdriver or make everyone run or both? But I guess that takes us into the title sequence.
Webbly pops up behind the Cyberman bust to tell us that there are no more living Cybermen. Instead this is an empty shell that can destroy you at chess. How? Annoying girl eyerolls, “Magic!” Because that’s what a 21st century girl would guess instead of “remote control” or “it’s a trick”? Really?
We see a couple of cybermites blinking a bright cyan blue on one of the waxwork figures, somehow close enough to get a good view of the visitors but also far enough away that nobody notices the bright blue blinking lights?
Then Artie tries to play the CyberOpponent and immediately falls for Fool’s Mate. That was literally the first gambit I was taught in chess club, but this kid who’s being painted as a nerdy type who competes at chess missed it? Then Annoying Girl guess this “trick” is done with mirrors. Not wifi or wires, but mirrors. That’s supposed to be clever and not idiotic? But we discover that Porridge (the wonderful Warwick Davis) is playing the Cyberman via a simple remote control device, yet has to hide inside a mirrored compartment under the chess table instead of, for example, ANYWHERE ELSE. Really?
As everyone leaves the chess room by unspoken agreement, the video cuts make it seem like a bunch of brightly blinking cybermites just passed on the wall by The Doctor’s face and yet nothing is said about it. Sigh. Webbly tells us he has three Cybermen and they all have that Iron Man Drone look that we saw on their last Doctor Who appearance. While the Doctor sonics one, the others look at a wax figure of the Emperor and Porridge tells them about him. At this point, nobody asks Porridge where he came from, why he’s agreed to remotely play chess for Webbly, nor how he knows so much about stuff. And, in fact, nobody ever asks any of those questions throughout the episode (though the last question is implicitly answered by the reveal at the end).
Porridge guides the group back to the landing area where he could run The Spacey Zoomer “ride” for them. Before they leave the World of Wonders, Angie compares the Imperial Shilling to the Emperor. Not sure why that’s necessary as they’re _supposed_ to look the same. Then there’s an ominous cut to the two full-sized immobile Cybermen who… do nothing. No cybermite activity, no turning of a head or flickering of a light — nothing.
Porridge turns on antigrav and the kids float around for a moment and I guess that’s the Spacey Zoomer ride. Clara attempts to take photos of them with her phone, holding it like she’s never done such a thing before. Do they even HAVE a director for this episode?
Then, Clara does the most intelligent thing anybody does in this episode. She tries to take the kids home. The Doctor denies them their escape for NO GOOD REASON! I get that he wants to investigate cyber-activity, if he’s picked up on it. And kudos to him for that. But he has a TIME MACHINE. He can take Clara and the kids to safety and then come back on his own to defeat the Cybermen! It would literally take him no time at all to do it! Instead, he leaves these helpless, stupid humans within range of evidence of one of his greatest enemies? Arrest that Gallifreyan for Endangering Minors and Incompetent Negligence. Ugh.
But that’s okay, right? He’ll leave the kids in the universe’s safest guest bedroom, namely any room of the TARDIS — an artificially intelligent weapon of mass destruction that we’ve been shown can protect itself from harm, even from intruders. Right? Nope. He’ll leave them in an unfamiliar and unsecured room that contains two Cybermen and a Cyberman torso. And Clara will have no problems with that, either. But he’ll tell the bratty children not to wander off, because of course that’s the smartest thing to tell bratty children you want to stay in place. Ugh.
Back in the chess room, which seems like it’s really close to the other room, but I guess it must not be, Webbly resets the chess board only to be grabbed by the thing that shouldn’t move unless Porridge moves it. But he yells for help, right? Nope. How about when the scary cybermites appear? He’s going to yell for help, then, and hope The Doctor and Porridge come running, yes? Nope. But surely when they crawl on him, he’ll yell! Nuh-uh. Not until a disembodied voice says “Upgrade in progress” does he finally cry out — but apparently not loudly enough for the kids IN THE OTHER ROOM to hear him. Sure.
In that room, the horrible girl seems to have gotten over her fear of whatever she’d need to be rescued from, complains about her phone not getting a signal IN A DISTANT TIME AND PLACE, then makes the insanely stupid comment that she was told not to wander off by someone who wandered off. As if no other adult warning to children ever precludes the adult being able to do something children can’t or shouldn’t. Like driving, drinking, smoking, having sex, or using any complicated equipment. Nope, she’s never heard such hypocrisy before. At least I got hopeful that cybermites scurried over her phone! Maybe one will jump from her phone into her head and make her stop being a moron? Nope. She even makes the overused and trite, “She’s not my mum,” comment. Ugh.
Finally, there’s a pleasant scene. Porridge eloquently answers Clara’s questions about this planet and the Cybermen and the horrible actions that had to be taken to defeat them previously. Admittedly, the foreshadowing of Porridge’s reveal in his own remarks is a little clunky, but it’s delivered so well that I don’t mind it one bit.
Then we cut to the barracks where Angie apparently wandered in. The set looks very similar to the analogous set in The Doctor’s Daughter, like a church that’s underground. These incompetent soldiers demonstrate some of their incompetence in not questioning that electromechanical parts have gone missing. Really? Nobody says, “Let’s track down the thief!”? Nope. Just, “You must have replacement parts!” And then there’s a soldier who says the weather controller is malfunctioning and causing storms, heatwaves, and snow. What? Where? Is this ever referenced again? Ugh.
Angie walks in and says she’s bored. And nobody shoots her. To be fair, it would be unreasonable to shoot a random girl, but it’s also unreasonable for that girl to walk into a military barracks and say, “Hello? I’m bored!” I really wish someone had shot her in the face. I may not be good with kids, I dunno. And then referring to Porridge as “that little bloke” is enough to tell the soldier in charge that it’s the missing emperor? Because in the entire universe, there’s only one little person?
There’s a reasonable scene in which Artie is afraid of being in the dark with wax monsters, turns on the light, and then gets caught by a cyberman.
Back to worst girl in history, the soldier in charge asks Angie for information about the little bloke and before Angie can describe Porridge, Clara and the Doctor walk in. Then, for no discernible reason, Angie protests that “she always has to turn up and spoil everything!” What? Spoil what? Nothing’s happened! Did Angie hate Clara back on earth? Why does The Worst Girl hate Clara so much? Angie also says, “Why can’t you just leave me alone?” which I would have taken as a request to leave her behind on A DIFFERENT FREAKING PLANET when everyone else leaves because what a little shit.
But then a new-and-improved Cyberman appears, now with superspeed! How does this one have superspeed? No explanation or reason is given. So, they’re all going to have superspeed? Nope. So, this one’s going to keep using superspeed to destroy every opponent on the planet? Nope, we’ll never see it again after this incomprehensible scene. What? It takes Angie. Nobody says “Good riddance” which strikes me as a missed opportunity. Despite the Cyberman appearing to move at light speed (the laser bolts are stuck in midair as it goes), Clara knows where it’s gone and tries to chase after Angie. Meanwhile, The Doctor is still pointing his sonic screwdriver where the Cyberman used to be, for several beats. But seriously, Directors are totally useful, you guys.
The Doctor asks the Captain of the soldiers why they suck and the Captain says they were sent to this dead planet because they suck, so they wouldn’t get into trouble. The Doctor somehow is disappointed despite NOT LIKING SOLDIERS.
Doctor puts Clara in charge of the soldiers and tells them not to blow up the planet. Turns out, that was their actual plan. Despite them only appearing to occupy about 0.00001% of even the smallest planet, that’s their go-to move. Okay.
Angie’s protest to superspeed Cyberman? “Put me down, I hate you.” Ugh.
We’re told the castle where the soldiers and Clara will defend themselves is ‘comical’. I don’t recall anything comical about it! Porridge comes in and his presence seems to convince the Captain to go along with Clara’s commands as her superior as decreed by The Doctor. It’s pretty sexist that a man has to tell one woman to listen to another and then the problems go away, but that’s a pretty tiny problem in the grand scheme of this episode, so let’s go on. Besides, Warwick Davis comes across as intelligent, brave, commanding, and compassionate here, so I had no head of steam over this bit in any case.
The Doctor returns to the waxworks room, sees no children, spots a tiny cybermite and immediately goes to it, the cybermite does not scurry away, and he talks to it. A still cybermite? Ridiculous. He should’ve sonic’d it first so it wouldn’t move and then maybe talk to it. Or just skip the talking part and use its transmat link to teleport to wherever the kids and Webbly are hiding. Webbly says they needed children.
Clara and troops stomp over to the Not-comical Castle, because this “world” can be traversed by foot, apparently. And tall, ginger fellows in spectacles are apparently still goofy in a future universe where a galaxy was blown up by humans. Sure. Clara makes a straight-faced joke that she doesn’t think the Doctor knows what he’s doing. Okay, that was good.
Webbly explains that during the war, before the galaxy full of Cybermen was blown up, damaged Cybermen were brought… to Hedgewicks World?… for repairs. The Doctor jumps to a conclusion that people routinely disappeared from the amusement park for their repairs. Okay. Webbly says children’s “infinite potential minds” are perfect for rebuilding a Cyberman planet. What? But The Doctor’s single brain is apparently all they need, so Webbly throws some cybermites at him to upgrade him (they can do that to non-humans now).
As The Doctor gets borgified by the cybermites, his Cyber personality acts and sounds all nefarious, like a comic-book villain. This despite every other Cyber personality being calm and, well, robotic. I am skepticalpants. But the Doctor’s personality fights back and thus begins an internal battle in his mind.
The artwork and effects used to show us this internal battle is quite lovely. I liked the sepiatone Gallifreyan text in particular. It was also nice to see the organic brown tones behind The Doctor’s internal image versus the blue geometrical lattice designs behind The CyberDoctor’s internal image. But, sadly, the peculiar behavior of the latter leads him to eschew the traditional label of CyberPlanner in favor of… Mr. Clever. Really? I did like the visuals of The Doctor’s various incarnations. Yay, Eccleston! And then The Doctor and Mr. Clever make a deal for control of The Doctor’s brain via a chess game’s outcome.
One of the pathetically awful soldiers comes across a Cyberman and yells, “Don’t move! I’m in the army!” I guess that was supposed to be funny, but it’s just painful. Does the bad guy superspeed after her? Nope. That apparently was a one-time thing. Instead, it detaches a hand and sends it after her. Because that’s somehow more efficient than just catching the soldier without self-disassembly? Absurd Contrivance.
Captain of the soldiers says Cybermen have been extinct for a thousand years. But apparently, human technology still isn’t advanced enough to be able to take them out with standard weapons? That’s like a 2013 soldier being unprepared to fight a hun or a gladiator. Except that a 2013 soldier could EASILY take out a hun or a gladiator. Come on!
Anyway, they have one anti-Cyberiad gun and a few hand-pulsers. Never mind that Cybermen tend to travel in packs and can shoot you faster than you can sneak up on its head. Ugh. There’s a tiny briefcase thing that can blow up a planet, mind you. No standard weapons good enough to take out Cybermen, but a laptop case that can destroy A PLANET. WTF? And it can be triggered by voice command or a remote detonator. That remote detonator seems insanely unsafe. Come on. Then Porridge takes a hand pulser (sure, why not, they only have six but okay) and the Captain angrily bosses him around, despite thinking he’s her emperor. What.
The Doctor uses gold to silence Mr. Clever (really, a thousand plus years of upgrades and they haven’t fixed that problem?) and commands CyberWebbly and CyberKids to come with him and his chess set as they escape the mysterious blue room of Cyberness.
Back at the Castle-that’s-still-not-comical, Captain reveals to Porridge that she recognized his imperiousness, then the two of them reiterate to Clara that imploding a planet is the only consistent way to eliminate Cyberiad threats, which apparently gives Captain the courage to set off the bomb by voice. Except, for no discernible reason, she starts moving with the bomb before she finishes reciting the detonation command. It can blow up a planet; where you’re holding it couldn’t possibly make a difference. But conveniently, she carries it past a window that a Cyberman with perfect aim happens to be staring at, and he kills her with one shot. Absurd Contrivance.
A stupid soldier attempts to hand-pulse a Cyberman’s head, but it was sitting removed from its body and the body kills the soldier before putting the head back on. Then another (or the same?) Cyberman takes out two more soldiers before chubby soldier shouts at it. For some reason, Clara needed him to do that before shooting the bad guy with the anti-cyber gun instead of… just shooting it? Maybe she assumed it had superspeed, not knowing the effects budget for this episode was already used up?
The downed soldiers pop back up as Cyber-controlled soldiers and chubby soldier tells Clara to save her shots since these idiots can be taken down by some previously unseen soldiers with hand pulsers. Clara asks chubby if he thinks there are more Cybermen and he smiles because he’s apparently both prescient and insane.
The Doctor is walking around because this planet is tiny and runs into the soldiers and Clara because this planet is miniscule, but he quotes Rory as he says, “Don’t shoot! I’m nice!” He asks to be immobilized with some very clunky dialog, but to be left with his hands (and arms) free to finish his chess game with Mr. Clever. Really? Tying him to a chair? Ugh.
Anyway, The Doctor tears off the gold patch and Mr. Clever regains control of his mouth and tells Clara she’s the impossible girl. Meanwhile, a pencil and pad of paper have magically appeared at The Doctor’s right hand and he writes Clara to hit him so he can take control of the mouth back. Sure, why not.
Clara thinks to drop a main power cable into the moat surrounding the Completely-Serious Castle so as to electrify it. A soldier turns a wheel to pull up the drawbridge that we’ve never seen. Mr. Clever mentally commands a very large number of Cybermen to awake and attack. But not in superspeed. Just forget the superspeed, okay?
The emperor of the universe has found a hot pot of soup and ladles some out for Clara, but The Doctor calls to her before she can have any. So. Not sure why this scene is here at all.
Mr. Clever is very obviously in charge of The Doctor’s body, but Clara still trusts him a bit because she hasn’t been paying attention for five episodes, I guess. He wants the remote detonator. Clara’s braincells spark up enough that she doesn’t immediately hand it over, but die down again as she leans really close to him so he could kill her with his bare hands if he chose (or at least could grab the detonator). But somehow she figures out that The Doctor would never say affectionate things to her. What. It doesn’t matter because Mr. Clever still uses the left arm to destroy the remote detonator. There is a bureaucratic joke about Clara losing the detonator despite having signed for it. It is kinda funny.
The electrified moat turns out to be pointless. Despite the anti-cyber gun only having a dozen rounds versus the hundreds of visible Cybermen, chubby soldier is given it and told to shoot them. Sure.
Mr. Clever emotionally rails out loud against emotions when The Doctor trades his queen (yeah, they’re still kinda playing chess) for the release of the CyberKids. Mr. Clever does release them, but then directs CyberWebbly to kill them. Fortunately Emperor Porridge comes in and smacks Webbly with a handpulser before he’s kicked over to land near the Doctor’s right hand. Webbly wobbles but he doesn’t fall down. The Doctor tells Angie to look after Artie.
A stupid soldier attempts to sneak up on a Cyberman who’s leveled up and gained Owl Head Turn, so gets spotted and then the soldier makes a ridiculous face as she’s caught. Are all the soldiers who fail turning out to be female? It feels like it, Moffat you pig.
Chubby tries to shoot a Cyberman again, but they’ve now upgraded past the point where the gun can hurt them, so basically everyone’s totally fucked now.
The Doctor claims he can checkmate in 3 moves, taunting Mr. Clever. Clara swings a mace at a Cyberman who pulls it away in laughably easy fashion. As the Cyberman army is mere feet away from Clara and the remaining soldiers, The Doctor verbal pokes at Mr. Clever that he may not have the processing power to WIN A GAME OF CHESS. Obviously, the computer that is Mr. Clever suffers from insecurities, so it makes all the cybermen devote 100% of their processing power to help him WIN A GAME OF CHESS. Seriously.
Mr. Clever claims he’s not cheating by asking for help from millions of other brains to WIN A GAME OF CHESS, just pulling in local resources. Then, The Doctor, who hasn’t been able to manage full control of his body when he wasn’t fighting Mr. Clever + a million backup computers, manages to pull Porridge’s hand-pulser off the ground, pull his sonic screwdriver out of his pocket, amplify the hand-pulser, and then slap it against his own face. That seems like four moves. Five if you could putting the pulser on his hand. But Mr. Clever claims The Doctor cheated anyway, because that’s what’s important when it’s survival on the line: fair play. The Doctor replies that he took advantage of local resources. Those lines were clunky and just put in to mirror the two circumstances and I’m sad about this.
The Doctor insults Clara which makes her trust him and tells us stuff about her psychology and about Moffat’s, too.
Everyone freaks out because the Cybermen will be coming back online shortly and now everybody’s on board with blowing up the planet (of which we’ve still only seen maybe one square kilometer), but how can we set off the bomb when restless Captain got herself killed and foolish Clara let Mr. Clever destroy the remote detonator? Angie’s obviously the only person smart enough to realize that Porridge is the emperor and makes the leap to the conclusion that he could also set off the bomb. And despite Porridge acting brave and noble, he wasn’t going to admit it on his own, despite the impending threat of his worst enemy coming back in force a thousand years after their extinction. Absurd Contrivance.
With reluctance and no good reason given for why he doesn’t want to be Emperor, Porridge declares his identity and tells the bomb to go off. Apparently just doing that is enough to somehow inform a ship to warp to their location and teleport them all out in less than 80 seconds. That’s one hell of an FTL radio transmitter for a briefcase bomb.
When they arrive, The Doctor remarks that it’s a nice ship, albeit a bit big and not blue enough. Then he requests they transmat his TARDIS onboard, too. Then the planet “implodes” though it looks like an explosion. And the emperor is sad that he’ll be lonely again.
But let’s not end this episode without some rampant sexism! The emperor proposes marriage to Clara despite having known her for less than a day and the worst girl in the universe says you should always ignore your ability to be independent and instead commit yourself to a loveless marriage if you can get a regal title out of it.
And despite being absolutely horrible in every way, The Doctor gives that girl a replacement phone from the TARDIS, so basically the best gift anyone in 2013 could probably ever get. Remember, the cybermites crawled all over her old phone and… wait, nothing came of that. Except I guess Angie got a free upgrade.
You know what? Not enough sexism. Let’s make the very last statement from The Doctor include commentary on Clara’s very tight skirts despite the fact that she’s been wearing a flouncy one over black hose this whole episode. Good ol’ boy, Doctor!
And as Warwick the Emperor commands his ship away, we see a bit of Cyber technology floating through space and flashing blue because of course we do.
In conclusion, I hope that the dear and genius Mr. Gaiman only gave over a first draft of this story and that it was mutilated into foolishness by somebody else.
*Not once did Clara ask The Doctor why there was a photo of her in Victorian England when she hadn’t ever been there yet. Sure, he could’ve explained it away with, “Oh, we’ll go there on a future trip!” but it wasn’t even brought up.
EDITED TO ADD: Neil Gaiman’s been answering some questions on twitter about this episode and while Moffat didn’t seem to add much to his story, there were apparently many cuts. I like to think the logical problems would’ve all disappeared if all the original scenes were retained. That is entirely guesswork based on my affection for Mr. Gaiman’s writing.