This review is spoiler-free. Read on below for additional, spoilery viewing notes.
“Space. The final frontier. Final, because it wants to kill us.” If you’ve just recently got on board with Doctor Who, in its superb 10th season, here comes the tricky part. While the show has a dab hand at escapades with weird monsters and science gone wrong, this week’s episode is an altogether creepier proposition. It’s not all larks in time and space.
Since meeting Bill, the Doctor has been impatient with his vow to stay on Earth, guarding the vault beneath St. Luke’s University. This week, although Nardole implores him not to take the TARDIS for any more off-world adventures with Bill, he whisks them all away to Chasm Forge, a space station where 36 people have died, and one vital amenity is only available “for personal use, at competitive prices”.
Without telling you anything else, it’s important to say that this is an instant classic episode, whose survival horror is creepier and ultimately more mortifying than almost anything else Doctor Who has ever done. Its surprises are best discovered from watching the episode, so you’ll get no spoilers from us until after transmission.
While Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie are in fine fettle as always, the unexpected highlight here is Matt Lucas. We noted last week that Nardole has felt tacked on in the last few episodes, but he’s at the heart of the action here, and Lucas finally gets the opportunity to show off his acting range, throwing out quips, cowardice and righteous indignation all over the place. Here, he fulfils his promise and brings contrast to Team TARDIS. Meanwhile, Capaldi is on season-best form, and it’s extremely satisfying to see him still being challenged by stories in his last year in the role.
Writer Jamie Mathieson has been one of the truly great discoveries of the Capaldi era, starting with his Season 8 double whammy of sci-fi horror, Mummy On The Orient Express and Flatline. Last season’s outing, The Girl Who Died, was co-written with Steven Moffat and was a much lighter outing that took an important place in the season’s ongoing arc. Now, he’s back in horror mode, and his dark sense of humour delights and shocks once again.
For the episode isn’t so scary that the jokes aren’t also really funny, from an early TripAdvisor gag to a show-stopping inversion of a theme from two weeks ago, as Bill comes face to face with an alien called Dahh-ren (Peter Caulfield). On the darker side, Mathieson revisits a trope from his first episode to much greater effect, by having a friendly computer personality commentate on the terror, and the satire is so brutal that it pulverises target and agents alike.
Director Charles Palmer (who last directed the Human Nature two-parter for Who way back in Season 3) deserves kudos in this regard too, for executing the full potential of the story and delivering some heart-stopping horror. In another director’s hands, it might easily have looked like another corridor runaround, especially as the set design and art direction of Chasm Forge looks a little more like Red Dwarf than usual, right down to the font on the signage.
The result is a breathtaking episode of Doctor Who, with higher, more personal stakes than any other episode in recent memory. Although not entirely in keeping with the welcome lightness of recent outings, it’s so impeccably executed from script to screen that it fits right into a run that’s somehow getting better and better every week.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– “Capitalism in space!” Mathieson’s spin on space zombies ingeniously goes back to the original playbook for the undead, using the monsters of the week as satirically as George A. Romero does. The suits destroy their “organic components” to enhance productivity and cut costs, and then pilot the corpses around like Wallace & Gromit’s Even Wronger Trousers. That gives a spine-chilling extra dimension to what could have been a generic threat, and suit AI Velma’s chirpy demeanour is extra creepy.
– On top of all of that, Bill winds up wearing a suit that doesn’t work properly. Its murderous malfunction keeps immobilising her arms and worse, taking her helmet off. At a certain point in the episode, I was urgently trying to think of any trailer moments after this episode featuring Pearl Mackie, because it seemed she had genuinely suffocated. However, she’s saved by the Doctor twice, and he’s the one who winds up paying a price…
– The Doctor has no TARDIS, no sonic screwdriver and ultimately, loses his sight as well. Capaldi’s incarnation has often faced dire consequences for his recklessness. Here, his thirst for adventure puts him and his companion in a position where he suffers a very serious injury to keep her safe. We’re assured that it’s only temporary, but the cliffhanger, and the knowledge that the 12th Doctor is on his way out, points to a very interesting development of the character over the rest of the season, if he remains blind…
– If I have a nitpick here, there’s a litmus test in which you test the strength of a story’s ending by imagining what happens 10 minutes after it’s over. Given how Ivan (Kieran Bew) and Abby (Mimi Ndiweni) were disposable in the name of protecting profits (“business as usual”), I’m a little worried about how their complaint is gonna go down with their employers. Is Chasm Forge perpetually linked to their life signs now? Even if there’s “a successful rebellion six months later”, I can’t see how else they’re insured against their murderous capitalist overlords…
– To finish, a little speculation. The ‘next time’ trailer, nestled away at the end of the credits, shows that Michelle Gomez returns as Missy in Episode 6. Nardole worries that the vault’s occupant will sense the Doctor’s blindness, and it looks as if he feels more vulnerable as a result of his condition – if we put two and two together, is she about to pop out of the vault?