After the longest continued series break since it returned in 2005, Doctor Who finally returned for another split series. Five episodes were broadcast in September 2012, a Christmas special (as is the standard), and then a further eight episodes in Spring 2013. Head writer Steven Moffat promised a bit of change coming off of the arc-heavy sixth series; every episode in Series 7 was to be a standalone, complete with a movie-inspired poster, and longtime companions to the Eleventh Doctor, Amy Pond and Rory Williams, would be leaving after the initial five episodes. We knew that actress Jenna-Louise Coleman would be coming on as the new companion, but we didn’t know who she’d be. Everyone in the world was surprised by what happened in the premiere.
Series 7 – 1 September 2012 – 18 May 2013
Beginning the series with a bang, and the first Dalek story that was actually good since Series 1’s “Dalek,” Asylum of the Daleks brought people back into the Whoniverse by bringing the Doctor’s most consistent nemeses back to the fore and cementing the notion that the Doctor was no longer well-known throughout the galaxy. When we start the episode, Amy and Rory are split up, signing the divorce papers. We have no idea what happened in the interim since the (rather thin) “Pond Life” shorts. They’re each pulled out of time by the Daleks and brought aboard a massive Dalek ship and find the Doctor already there. It seems the Daleks need the Doctor’s help. A-wha?!? They have a planet where they keep all the most insane and dangerous Daleks; a luxury spaceliner has crash-landed there, and they have been receiving distress signals from a woman claiming to be the ship’s junior entertainment manager, Oswin Oswald, who has been trapped on this planet and been fighting off Daleks for a year, occupying her downtime by making soufflés.
The ship’s crashing has caused the force field around the planet to rupture, and the insaner Daleks might be able to escape. The Daleks can’t destroy the planet themselves, since obliterating such unbridled hatred would contravene their prime directive. Now, the Doctor has to save Oswin and destroy this planet while weaving through a half-dead Dalek graveyard full of crazies and helping to repair Amy and Rory’s relationship. Lots on his plate, this Doctor. The Ponds eventually have it out, saying that Amy knows she can’t have more children and she doesn’t want Rory to be without them (which is nice, but a bit out of nowhere), and of course he says he’d rather be with her than not. Aww. We also find out that Oswin’s consciousness has been trapped inside an insane Dalek this whole time, and that she as a human no longer exists.
Here’s why this is awesome: Oswin Oswald is played by Jenna-Louise Coleman! Yeah, I had to do a double take when I saw this initially. “Was that…? Could that be…?” Yes and yes, the answers were. That her being in this episode was kept a secret is a testament to the DW team, but moreso, it hides the reveal at the end that she’s a Dalek. The audience knows the actress is playing the new companion, so our initial thought isn’t that, “oh, this is her playing a different character”; we think that we’re seeing the new companion. The Doctor never sees her in human form, only we do, so Oswin being JLC is for our benefit alone. THAT is awesome.
Not to mention the fact that it’s one of the scariest and most tense episodes we’ve seen in awhile, and certainly the first Dalek story in ages that doesn’t depend on universal destruction and instead goes for scares and dark corridors, not unlike the original series. It also sets up this series’ theme of having the companions dropped off at home in between missions, giving the illusion of individual, separate stories. It’s a gorgeous looking episode too, direction by Nick Hurran, and it began the month of episodes in real style.
Now, when we heard the second episode was called Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and that it was written by Chris Chibnall, most people expected that this would be the worst episode of the year, or maybe even of all time. I mean, it’s just such a silly title and concept. However, much to my surprise, Chibnall delivers a really fun and weird space adventure that knows how silly the title is and runs with it. The Doctor is in 1334 BC Egypt with Queen Nefertiti when he gets a call from the Indian Space Agency in 2367 AD that a spaceship is going to crash into Earth and the ISA will shoot it down with missiles in six hours unless the Doctor can stop it. This is going to take some help, so he picks up Edwardian adventurer John Riddell (Sherlock’s Rupert Graves) and materializes around Amy and Rory, not realizing that Rory’s father, Brian (Mark Williams), was visiting.
They get to the ship and split up into groups, with Amy leading Riddell and Nefertiti and the Doctor bringing the Williamses. It appears that this ship was an ancient Silurian ark containing all manner of lizard species, including dinosaurs, which are now loose. The trouble now is that a wounded and nearly-immobile space pirate named Solomon (David Bradley) and his bickering robots (voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb) are on the ship as well and want all the specimens for themselves.
This ended up being such an enjoyable episode, really and truly. I love the idea of the Doctor creating time teams for certain missions, and having Queen Nefertiti, who historically was a real badass, be one of them is a lot of fun. Solomon is one of the vilest and most evil bad guys the show’s created in a long time; he orders a poor innocent Triceratops be killed, for Pete’s sake! When the Doctor allows him to be blown up by the ISA at the end of the episode, it’s jarring but also fitting. This is a BAD guy and the Doctor’s not going to sweat too much that he was beyond saving. Also, great introduction for Rory’s dad. He returns in an episode, but I wish he’d been in more of them.
An episode that, on paper, I should have loved comes third. A Town Called Mercy by Toby Whithouse is a sci-fi western that was actually shot on location in Almeria, Spain, which was the shooting site for several Spaghetti Westerns, including the work of Sergio Leone. They, in fact, used the existing Old West town facades from those classics. That should be all that’s required for me to have adored it, and yet I didn’t. I think it’s because, while it tries to employ all of the Western’s plot ideas and character archetypes, it revises everything to become rather milquetoast. Nothing wrong with revisionist Westerns, but it didn’t work here.
The Doctor, Amy, and Rory come to the Old West town of Mercy, which has a big line around it. It turns out that they’ve been surrounded by a cybernetic being called the Gunslinger who wants one specific person in town surrendered to him. If anyone else tries to leave, they get blasted. That person happens to be the town’s doctor, Kahler-Jex, an alien who was stranded in town but was able to cure the cholera epidemic there. Naturally, it seems like he’s a good dude, right? Well, no; turns out he’s a war criminal who experimented on a number of soldiers, including the now-Frankenstein’s Monster-like Gunslinger. The Doctor tries to toss him out of town, or kill him himself, but Amy intervenes, saying that’s not what they do. They plan to misdirect the Gunslinger in town until he can escape in his ship.
So we have a showdown-type setup with the Doctor as “The Good,” Kahler-Jex as “the Bad,” and the Gunslinger as “the Ugly.” Or that’s what we should have had; instead it’s more like “The Good, the Not-Nice, and the Justifiably Upset.” Nobody’s a bad guy, and nobody’s prepared to let anyone actually do any action. It’s a narrative killer. Plus, (Spoilers) at the end of the episode, Jex just kills himself. So what was the point of any of it? Oh, also, Ben Browder was in this but got killed right away.
We head to Earth’s present for The Power of Three, again written by Chris Chibnall and again featuring Rory’s dad, Brian. In it, strange black cubes begin appearing everywhere and nobody seems to know what they do. The Doctor is sure they’ll do SOMETHING and is keen to watch them for a minute, until he gets bored. UNIT arrives to seek his advice, led by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and they all retreat to UNIT’s new headquarters in the Tower of London to study more. It’s a “slow invasion,” and Rory and Brian find the source of it in Rory’s hospital, where a service lift transports them aboard an alien craft orbiting the Earth. The ship’s captain is there to wipe out humanity before it spreads. Obviously, the Doctor can’t allow that.
This episode is fun, but mainly because of its comedy aspects. The Doctor getting bored sitting at home is really a delight, and Brian’s continually staring at the cube as per the Doctor’s request is very funny as well. The episode also deals with the Ponds’ dilemma about leading their regular lives or going with the Doctor. At the end of the episode, Rory and Amy decide that they’re young and owe it to themselves to go adventure while they can. It doesn’t last long.
They meet their eventual end (kind of) in The Angels Take Manhattan, in which, while on holiday in New York City, Rory is pulled back in time by the Weeping Angels, wherein there’s a hotel that the Angels use as sort of a farm for potential chronological energy. The episode also deals with inevitability. Rory sees himself as an old man, which means now he can’t ever not become that old man. River arrives to help as well, and she and the Doctor do the weirdest flirty game in the world, but ultimately she’s as helpless as they are to deal with the Weeping Angels, who are back to being the more insidious and creeping threat that they once were.
Rory decides to throw a quantum wrench in the works by jumping off the building and creating a paradox. Amy decides she’s going to have to jump with him and, despite the Doctor’s pleas that he can fix it, they jump. But it works! Wow, didn’t see that coming. They end up in the present in a graveyard of all places where Rory accidentally sees his own grave, saying he died several years before. Just then, a Weeping Angel transports him back and Amy allows herself to be taken, too.
Why the Doctor couldn’t just go back in time to get them is beyond me, but this is probably the most humane way Moffat could have written out companions. They’re gone for good, sure, but they also didn’t get killed; they both lived a long and, presumably, happy life, unless you’re one of these people who believes they were tortured in the Angels’ tower or whatever. The Doctor is left alone, because even River can’t stay with him. He retreats into sadness.
And for a few months, that’s where we had him, until the 2012 Christmas special, The Snowmen, which reintroduced Jenna Louise Coleman and began a whole different mystery. In 1892 England, the Doctor is living a rather hermetic life as the occasional solver of crimes and things but leaving most of that to Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), and the somehow-alive Commander Strax (Dan Starkey). A young woman named Clara (Coleman), a barmaid in London, sees some weird goings-on with snow and encounters the Doctor, who wants nothing to do with her. In her other life as a governess, Clara sees yet more things weird with the snow, and ice, and pond at her employer’s house. She goes to see Vastra to get the Doctor’s help, who only responds when the word “Pond” is uttered.
The snow, we find out, is being controlled by the Great Intelligence (voiced by Sir Ian McKellen) and his lifelong servant, Dr. Simeon (the iconic Richard E. Grant). The Doctor offers Clara the opportunity to be his new companion, but she is pulled away by the living ice sculpture that once was the former governess and tossed off the TARDIS cloud to her mortal wounding. Whilst dying, she begins to weep and the psychic energy turns the snow back into water, and neutralizes them. While Simeon is defeated, the Intelligence is not and lives to Intelligence another day. Visiting Clara’s grave, he sees that her last name was Oswald and thing she said reminded him of the girl in the Dalek. He realizes that he thinks it might be the same girl. But how? (Really terrific episode. Love the return of the Great Intelligence and the references to Troughton.)
While pondering the Clara problem in 1207 Cumbria, the Doctor gets a phone call on his police box phone. Huh? This begins The Bells of Saint John, and the Doctor is especially surprised when the call turns out to be an IT question, from Clara Oswald. He goes a-running to see her but she is very confused and doesn’t know who he is. She is, however, immediately starting to be uploaded into a mysterious Wi-Fi signal controlled by the Great Intelligence until he fixes it. The Wi-Fi is creating a database of human minds for the Intelligence to control, but the Doctor can’t have that, now can he?
“The Bells of Saint John” is a really enjoyable, London-based adventure, reminiscent of the Pertwee days with the motorcycle riding and the appearance of UNIT toward the end. It also sets up the new mystery of Clara even further, with the Doctor sure something’s up, but not sure whether he can trust this girl or if she truly knows nothing about what he’s already seen. She, also, decides that she can’t go off with the Doctor full time, since she takes care of two kids, but that she’ll happily go with him on adventures on occasion.
Occasion happens fast because she’s soon off with the Doctor to a planetoid in The Rings of Akhaten, by Luther creator Neil Cross. It tells of a society that has to perpetually sing to keep an ancient evil mummy thing in a box from awakening and wreaking something that may or may not be havoc. It turns out, however, that the thing in the box was just an alarm clock for the REAL bad entity, a giant Jack-O-Lantern sun that the Akhaten asteroid orbits. The Doctor feeds it his memories and it somehow goes away. Hmm. Not the best episode, but design-wise, it’s pretty remarkable, as this is the first Who episode that employs the time-tested Space Opera tactic of having a bustling port or marketplace full of various types of weird and awesome-looking aliens. The story might be silly, but it’s a make-up designer’s dream.
Mark Gatiss’ first script of Series 7 is Cold War, a combination submarine movie and Alien-esque haunted house romp. Thinking they’re going to Las Vegas in the ’60s, the TARDIS ends up on a sinking Soviet submarine in the 1980s, in the height of the Cold War. While in the Arctic, the sub found a block of ice that appeared to have a person in it. A dumbass guy decides not to wait to get it back to Moscow and thaws it out, revealing a long-dormant Ice Warrior. The Doctor intervenes, trying to talk this Ice Warrior, Grand Marshall Skaldak, down from killing everybody. The ship’s first mate electrocutes him, though, ruining any chances of peace brokerage. Skaldak absconds from his massive suit and begins slithering through the dark passages of the ship, becoming all the more deadly. Eventually, he decides that if his people are gone (and his daughter is dead since he’s been frozen for thousands of years), that the humans must suffer, and it’s a race against the clock to stop him from setting off the submarine’s nuclear weapons.
This is an episode that really grew on me. At first, I thought it was a bit thin, despite the awesome design and direction by Douglas Mackinnon, but after subsequent viewing, I’ve come to regard it as a minor classic. The Ice Warriors were the last classic monster that had appeared more than twice (they appeared four times) to be used in the new series. In a lot of ways, Ice Warriors are a boring, lumbering threat, but Gatiss is able here to make the Ice Warrior at once terrifying and sympathetic to a degree. I mean, how would you feel if you woke up to find your whole way of life was no more? Pretty crappy, I’d bet. It’s not the best episode of the series, nor is it even Gatiss’ best of the series, but it’s a lot of fun, and David Warner gets to sing Duran Duran, which is awesome.
Probably my favorite episode of the half-series is Hide, by Neil Cross. It’s an old school haunted house story coupled with the Earthbound sci-fi of writer Nigel Kneale, like Quatermass and The Stone Tape. The Doctor and Clara show up at a scary mansion in the 1970s to help Professor Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) and his young assistant, the clairvoyant Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine) collect photographic evidence of a ghost in the house. The Doctor believes the ghost to be some kind of temporal disturbance and he goes with Clara in the TARDIS to test the spot throughout history to see if the anomaly is still there. It is. Clara also sees, as they travel from the beginning to the end of the Earth, that the Doctor truly is without time and has little regard for the fact that millions of people live and die while he’s taking his pictures.
Anyway, the Doctor realizes that the ghost is in another dimension that is breaking through to this one, and that in all of time, the ghost (a woman) is running in the slowest of motion. The Doctor realizes the only way to help is for Emma to use advanced equipment and open a rift for the Doctor to walk through, tethered by a rope. He goes through and finds the girl, a space pilot from the future who’d ended up in this realm through chance, but also a twisted and terrifying fear monster, which we’ve also seen in the house.
I really love the throwback nature of the story, and the genuinely creepy atmosphere set up by director Jamie Payne. As a drawing room ghost story, it works exceedingly well, and the parallel between the Doctor and Professor Palmer, including their involvement in war, is really interesting. The ending gets a bit silly and sentimental, with the realization that the scary fear monster is looking for its mate on the other side, but up to that point, it’s a really excellent story.
Something every Doctor Who fan has wanted since the beginning is an episode that explores the TARDIS and its many rooms that had only been hinted at. We finally got our wish in Stephen Thompson’s Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, in which the ship is targeted by junk dealers and crippled. Clara is lost in the TARDIS somewhere and the Doctor needs to enlist the help of these rather nasty junk dealers to get her back. There’s also scary charred zombie things in the TARDIS that chase everybody around. It’s a really enjoyable episode, if a little dumb in parts, but it’s really cool to see the TARDIS and the scenes between Smith and Coleman here are among their best. They really play off each other well.
Mark Gatiss’ second script for the year is The Crimson Horror, a really well-told penny dreadful-style Victorian adventure in “the North,” in which a religious group, led by the delightfully wicked Mrs. Gillyflower (Dame Diana Rigg), is actually a front for a doomsday cult in which the parasitic creature attached to Gillyflower gives her a grotty elixir that turns people into living statues, or horrible red, misshapen monsters. What makes this story unique is that it starts out as an adventure featuring Vastra, Jenny, and Strax and their investigation into these red-hued deaths. Jenny infiltrates the cult and finds, in a cupboard, the Doctor, who’s turned into a red shambling monster, taken care of by Gillyflower’s kindly blind daughter Ada (Rachel Stirling).
For over half of the episode’s running time, the Doctor and Clara are nowhere to be seen, but once found, we get a condensed, and awesomely-shot, flashback of how the Doctor ended up where he did. Then the end of the episode plays out in real time, with everybody trying to stop Gillyflower from launching a rocket (!) that will douse the world in the Crimson Horror, leaving only the “pure” alive. There’s some questionable sexual politics in the episode, no question, but it’s a very darkly funny story that might be the most Gatiss-y of Gatiss episodes. This and “The Unquiet Dead” are his two best stories, and I think he does his finest work with period-set horror.
The penultimate episode was written by Neil Gaiman and promised the proper return of the Cybermen, so it should have been awesome, but in a lot of ways Nightmare in Silver is just not as great as the sum of its parts. Taking Clara’s dumb wards to a planet amusement park, the Doctor finds the place all but shut down due to a war with the Cybermen ages ago. There are still shells of them about, but no active ones… until the kids show up and the tiny Cybermites reawaken the dormant Cyber Controller, who begins taking over people, including the Doctor, who has to engage in a battle of wits with himself for most of the episodes.
Clara, meanwhile, is nominally put in charge of a military team of misfits who don’t really know what they’re doing besides the fact that they have to blow up the planet if the Cybermen should ever come back. Warwick Davis guest stars as Porridge, a simple Carny worker who is actually the Emperor of the Universe hiding out. The direction by Stephen Woolfenden is really great, the sets and new Cyber suits look fantastic, and the performances of Coleman, Davis, and especially Smith in the incredibly difficult and taxing double-role are excellent, but the script is just not really there, unfortunately. The inclusion of the children was a bad idea, not because they’re necessarily bad actors, but because when kids are involved, all the drama is taken away, because the show’s never going to kill kids. A lot of good pieces, but doesn’t really amount to a good whole.
And finally, the most recent full episode that we have: The Name of the Doctor. Madame Vastra receives a startling bit of information concerning Clara and the Doctor, and so she sets up a “conference call” using soporific drugs to bring herself, Jenny, Strax, River Song, and Clara to a dream realm to talk across time and space. They discuss the prophecy involving the Doctor’s name, the First Question, and his eventual defeat on the fields of Trenzalore. While in the dream state, they are all attacked by faceless things called Whisper Men and River slaps Clara and Vastra awake but the Silurian warrior is taken as well. Clara tells the Doctor about the conference call, and about Trenzalore, and the Doctor, deeply saddened, knows he must go save his friends. The TARDIS doesn’t want to land on the planet, knowing it’s where the Doctor is supposed to die, and it crash lands. River appears to Clara from the psychic link and says that she’s dead, just an echo from the library computer. She nevertheless helps get them to safety, and to the Doctor’s tomb. Dr. Simeon, the visual representation of the Great Intelligence, says he needs the Doctor’s name to go in and in a yelling match, River says it, which no one else hears.
Inside, there is the Doctor’s timestream, and Simeon jumps in to thwart the Doctor’s very existence. Clara knows the only way he can save him is to jump in herself and set things right, splintering herself across time and space, becoming the various other versions of herself that have helped the Doctor throughout his life. The Doctor speaks to the hologram of River, even though she supposedly isn’t seen to him, and they say their goodbyes before the Doctor jumps in his own timestream to save Clara. When he finally reaches her, they see, to the Doctor’s dismay, the life he’d left behind, the version of himself that forsook the name of the Doctor… It’s John Hurt!
What a great and dark ending to a series, and it spun off in my brain so many amazing ideas and theories and the like. Series 7, apart from one or two episodes, is solid beginning to end and, despite Moffat’s best intentions, actually was more of an arc than we thought it was going to be. Great stuff, and now we have only mere hours to wait before we can see the next chapter of the Doctor’s saga, The Day of the Doctor.
Thank you all so very much for reading these excessively long articles about the history of Doctor Who. It’s been a busy few months, and this is the 33rd such chapter, but they’ve reinforced my love for this program and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to share that with you all. Look for my review of the 50th anniversary special on Saturday and all your other Doctor Who needs whenever some arise.