Every breath you take, every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take
I’ll be watching you
Oh, can’t you see? You belong to me
My poor heart(s) ache with every step you take…
The Doctor, though fully aware of his Earthly duties concerning the Vault and its occupant, is getting ‘stir-crazy’ and looking for any way to crop-rotate and circumvent the travel-restrictions he insisted Nardole oversee for him… and through sheer force of will and banter, it’s not wholly unexpected that the Tardis takes an unscheduled trip off-world and into the final frontier.
But Nardole’s words of warning should have been listened to and followed more diligently…because on a far flung space-station where most of the crew are dead but still mobile and where oxygen is quite literally charged at a premium, the Time Lord is about to find out that a fun-filled jaunt and his innate arrogance in tempting fate will be more costly than even he could see coming.
In many ways, the stories we’ve seen this season have been absent of a big bad monster as the thing to thwart – many of the antagonists or threats have been driven by more subtle motives of survival or misunderstandings. In some sense that continues here, with a story that feels old-school in tone yet somewhat cold and hard in very modern ways. Certainly there’s obligatory corridor-action and stomping that would put Cybermen to shame and those who will ultimately have to be held accountable for their actions by the end, but the running time is largely an environmental drama.
This is a story initially appear to be a traditional outing – the feel of a space-stationer siege has been a hallmark of some truly great Doctor Who outings over the decades – but one that quickly switches gears to be a little more grounded. James Mathieson previously brought us the likes of Flatline and Mummy on the Orient Express, both of which were strong stories with an interesting skew to them – and he once again delivers a story that seems to be about one thing but becomes something else. About halfway through proceedings there’s a carefully judged moment where the threat isn’t so much the alien monster or malevolent computer we’ve come to expect but the simple, cold hard reality of survival against nature when technology fails. Bill, who has unfortunately drawn the short-straw in quality spacesuit workmanship, is faced with the immediate notion that she’s probably about to die – and in a way that’s been described ( in vivid, if somewhat convenient/inconvenient detail) just a little earlier. The peril feels real and the solution the Doctor chooses – one of several desperate gambits he’s forced into in this story – is never a guaranteed winner in advance.
There’s been rumblings and rumours about one of the key elements that this episode might deliver: the Doctor, no stranger to beating the longest of odds, finally not being able to fully out-run consequences or escape unscathed… and ultimately facing a possibly major personal loss and consequence as a result. Those rumours, in part, are true and it’s an outcome he handles with his trademark lightness of touch and whimsical words of distraction to others, but which is delivered with all the expected subtlety and nuance by Capaldi – proving once again what a shame it is that his time in the Tardis is drawing to a close.
Matt Lucas as Nardole gets his best scenes of the season to date – another example of the show giving us a potentially annoying character for a one-off and then spending worthwhile time fleshing them out. He’s largely manipulated here, but not without some serious and worthy pushback by the time we’re done.
This feels like the necessary pivot that often arrives about halfway through a run… a slate of fairly formula stories that start to give way to elements of the darker and more overt story-arc themes of the season. It’s not entirely clear what comes next and how far-reaching the new status-quo may be – though with the return of Missy teased and the Doctor’s note that ‘in darkness we are revealed’, there’s certainly a sense of foreboding…
An interesting episode, then… and it will be equally interesting to see what comes next…