Thoughts. We have them. So many. So let’s get to it.
As well as the presence of the Doctor et al and hordes of aliens, what do you expect from a Russell T Davies Doctor Who season ender?
Global carnage. Actiony stuff. A theme and a message stated out loud and punctuated with a sledgehammer. And for ever and always, the triumph of ordinary people living ordinary lives over the glamour of travel in time and space.
Do we get all of the RTD greatest hits in The Giggle? More or less. Do we enjoy all that stuff? Actually, it makes us groan and pull the sofa cushions over our heads.
And yet. While not everything in The Giggle works, we think that overall it’s very successful.
Why? When we riffle through our pages and pages of wildly scribbled notes, it’s clear: mostly, it’s the Doctor.
We don’t even have words for how good David Tennant is in this episode. Every word, every expression, is absolutely flawless. A lot of that’s due to his acting chops, but as well as that, in the main RTD has given him a pretty carefully crafted script to play with.
Getting into the feels with the Doctor is always a tightrope. If they were a complete enigma, they’d be boring. But on the other hand, peer too deeply into their soul and the mystique and intrigue starts to dissipate like vape smoke out a car window.
In The Giggle, we get deeper into the Doctor’s head than we usually do, so alarm bells started shrieking, but you know what? We’ll allow it. This character has been go-go-going for sixty years now: we think a breather and a chance for a reckoning are earned. Especially when it’s done with Tennant’s skill. His expression when Donna tells him “You’re staggering”, followed by him quickly moving on. His ability to deliver the line “A mental force with the power of a God and he’s driven the human race mad with a puppet” and make it deadly serious instead of making the audience snortgiggle. The savagery of his self-mocking slip back into Tenth Doctor days with “Cause I’m always so certain!”.
We also love the way the Fourteenth Doctor has here taken the development away from the Tenth Doctor we saw in Wild Blue Yonder and run like hell with it. His bitterness, his weariness, his desperation: the face is the same, the Doctor is far from it. Even his puffing up of the human race at every turn has given way to a much more clear-eyed (and fact-based) evaluation with “It’s also savage and venal and relentless”.
And his evaluation of himself is no less ferocious. Generally, the Doctor isn’t given, at least not visibly, to self-blame. But they’ve been around a long time now and the consequences of their actions are more and more difficult to miss. Part of the Doctor’s ability to be successful at saving situations and doing the all-around hero thing comes from their confidence at striding into a situation on the assumption that they’re capable of fixing it. But that confidence is a two-edged sword that’s often had disastrous consequences, and it’s clear here that the Doctor can’t hide that from himself any longer. If he ever did. It’s not that we’ve never seen the Doctor regret anything. Recent Doctors have waded through torrents of dark angst on a regular basis, but regret also goes back to the classic series too in stories like The Face Of Evil (“And I thought I was helping them”). This, though, has got to be the most powerful and affecting display of remorse yet.
This thread also has an agreeable offshoot: his regret shows the Doctor is no longer omnipotent and omniscient. They’ve been going further and further down this track in recent years, with whole species cringing in fear at the very mention of his name, and no sir, we did not like it. Where’s the fun in somebody who can do pretty much anything at all?
Bitter he may have become, but the Doctor’s essential nature, although battered by experience, is still there. We love his anguished question to the Toymaker that encapsulates his entire worldview: “I don’t understand why you’re so small?...Think of the good you could do! So tell me why you don’t?”. And his offer to the Toymaker to spend the rest of time, or whatever else exists in the Toymaker’s dimension, playing games with him in order to save the universe is the Doctor to the core.
Of course, when we’re talking about the Doctor in The Giggle, we can’t miss out the other one. Ncuti Gatwa makes his debut as the Fifteenth Doctor in a “bigeneration”, and RTD doesn’t exactly give him an easy slide into home base. (That’s a sportsball thing, right?)
Stepping, often literally, into the shoes of a previous Doctor must be a nerve-racking experience. If the previous Doctor was a fan favourite, you’re replacing someone the audiences loves and doesn’t want to see leave. Also, they know them and they don’t know you: the job of winning their hearts is in front of you. Oh, and you’ll be starring in the BBC’s longest-running scripted show and one of their highest earners. No pressure.
So that’s just the standard stuff that any new Doctor has to deal with. But the Fifteenth Doctor has even more hurdles in his way. He’s following a revival of one of the most popular Doctors ever. Even worse, that Doctor ain’t going anywhere.
Yes, it’s a two popes situation. One’s just not quite as important as usual, because the other one’s still hanging around. What is RTD's obsession with giving all his favourite companions their own Doctor? No, really, why are they doing this? If anyone knows, please tell us. Whatever the reason, it’s not going to make it easier for Ncuti Gatwa to make his mark.
Having said that, so far none of that seems to be slowing him down. He’s funny, he’s charismatic, and the look he gives David Tennant when they’re hugging made us cry. We’re looking forward to getting to know him.
So that’s the Doctor. What else in here is good?
Needless to say, Catherine Tate is terrific as Donna. In sixty years the companion has come from being someone to scream at the monsters and ask the Doctor to tell them what’s happening in words of one syllable, to a genuine friend who doesn’t have the Doctor’s skills and experience but who’s useful all the same. Her story about dice not having a memory is just what the Doctor needs to hear. And her lines “Well, maybe I’ll save you. You big idiot” encapsulates their entire relationship in a few syllables.
Then there’s UNIT. We usually find them just a tiny bit tedious, with their orders and running around and firing their guns that always turn out to be useless. But here we think UNIT’s used pretty effectively. Jemma Redgrave is always a high point, and having Mel there is a delightful touch that subtly acknowledges that this is a sixtieth anniversary episode. (Colour us pathetically grateful that they didn’t go in the direction of the multi-Doctor extravaganza that never works anywhere near as well as you hope it will. We’re also grateful they didn’t do the present companion being jealous of the old one thing because that has been Done. To. Death.) UNIT’s way out in the open now, and given the number of alien incursions they’ve had over the years, that makes total sense. We also like the way RTD uses UNIT to assure us Donna will have a comfy future with a job there. And how cool is that helicopter pad?
What doesn’t work quite so well?
You know that sledgehammer we mentioned? It’s not like RTD has thrown it down a mineshaft. While he generally steps more carefully than usual with the Doctor, he still gives him this to say: “That’s what unravels me. All the laws I cling to. Gone.” One of us shrieked “You said that OUT LOUD?” Back it up there, dude. That’s going way too far into the Doctor’s head.
As for the theme of the show, it’s conveyed with the glancing subtlety RTD has made his trademark.
“Every single person thinks they’re right and won’t be told otherwise.’
“All of the sport, the matches, the medals, the gambling and the anger and the children shackled to their bedrooms with their joysticks and their buttons.”
“That’s the game of the twenty-first century. They shout. And they type. And they cancel”.
We hope you all learned something. (We type.)
How about the villain slash alien? The Toymaker?
The Celestial Toymaker is one of our favourite Doctor Who stories. We love an out-there, completely original story, and The Celestial Toymaker is that in spades. We thought there was room with a modern budget to make something superspectacular out of a return of the Toymaker, but we were also really scared they were going to stuff it up.
Uh. It’s not terrible. It’s just not very successful.
We thought Neil Patrick Harris had a great chance of acing it. The Lemony Snicket series A Series Of Unfortunate Events is one of our favourites, and Neil Patrick Harris is brilliant in it. He’s a magnetic presence that chomps the scenery to massive effect as the evil, multi-accented Count Olaf.
But somehow, here it just doesn’t work. We’re not sure why he’s got the fakey German accent, and his whole performance seems far too reeled in. Maybe they told him to do that because he’s not the lead? Whatever the reason, it’s all a bit underwhelming.
And when he switches to an English accent things get even worse. Despite his demonstrated facility at a whole swathe of cod accents as Count Olaf, this one trips Harris up entirely. It wanders all over the place and the American keeps peeping out. What’s more, the effort of trying to produce it seems to freeze him on the spot. Matthew Rhys once said that when performing in The Americans half of his acting effort had to go on the accent. We’d say that goes double here.
Underwhelming also describes the game of catch at the end. We appreciate the absence of the bog-standard swarms of aliens, we really, really do. But this was going too far in the other direction. We actually got bored during what should have been a nail-biting scene (and Murray Gold’s comedy music didn’t help this at all).
The Toymaker is a terrifying figure, or at least he should be. But we just never felt the menace. The scenes before this with UNIT’s bullets being turned into flowers are pretty, but again, just not chilling enough. It takes Kate Stewart talking about the people who died as a result to bring home the tragedy of it.
Also, the Toymaker makes a big thing about not being a standard evil villain, good and evil apparently being bougie concepts of no interest to someone not from here. No, no, it’s all about the game. The thing is, though, that it isn’t, is it? All the Toymaker’s games are in fact soaked in evil, and the Toymaker’s relishing that to the hilt. It’s actually far more the Master’s schtick than what the Toymaker professes to like. Since we’re bored beyond belief by villains who find evil intensely amusing, being promised something else and not getting it made us seriously huffy.
The other letdown in the evil department is the puppets. Honestly, it’s almost impossible to get creepy puppets wrong. It’s that uncanny valley thing again, with a splodge of evil on top. Yes, Stooky Bill’s head on fire is horrific and then some (John Logie Baird’s first TV images were ventriloquist’s dummies? What a psychopath). But the scenes with Donna flinging away the cute little babies are far more hilarious than they were meant to be.
After the touching and lovely scenes with the double TARDISes, it’s all back to Donna’s for an on-brand RTD coda.The Doctor declares that he’d go insane if he had to stay in one place, rapidly followed by a declaration of how he’s never been happier than living a, you guessed it, ordinary life. OK, the Doctor’s been through a lot. And another one’s been deputed to take care of the time and space part. But come on. A little bit of a rest? Maybe? For a day or two? But you’re not convincing us that after that the Doctor wouldn’t be itching to stir up trouble, we mean save the universe, again.
Yeah, it’s not perfect. But the Doctor is so superlative that it completely overrides all the dodgier stuff. If every RTD episode were like this, we’d never complain again. Much.
TAKE AWAY THE TOYS, WHAT AM I?
Two episodes in a row without the sonic screwdriver. The joy.
HE’S NOT HEAVY
“Just let me... lift you off, and I'll take the weight.” What a nice little metaphor. We wish RTD would trust the audience more. Lines like this get the Doctor’s character across beautifully without having to resort to a Powerpoint presentation.
DO NOT FOLD, SPINDLE OR MUTILATE
We love the origami’d toyshop – and the origami’d Toymaker. It’s what the Tissue Compression Eliminator would have been if only they’d had the tech.
A RUNNING JOKE
“Donna?” “I’m already running.” See, that’s the beauty of Who. It’s been going so long you can make self-referential jokes and totally get away with it.
SORRY, WERE NOT GOING TO PUT A JOKE HERE
As well as underlining the evil of what the Toymaker is doing, Kate's references to the UNIT people who die also fix a longstanding RTD problem: the season-ender mass carnage that's there to look impressive but which has little emotional impact. Kate makes it personal, and so it's personal to us.
Cynical though we may be about the Doctor’s domestic bliss, his alfresco eyebrow exhibition almost makes up for it.