Far from being a romp of multiple Doctors, companions, villains or anything else, this story was as close to a two-hander as we’ve had in a good long while. Perhaps Scott Handcock (welcome!) is already showing his Big Finish pedigree, since he served as script editor there for many years, but despite the truly lavish sets (and… well we’ll get to the VFX) this is very much a tale exploring how the Doctor and Donna relate to one another, in isolation, during their post ‘Doctor-Donna’ entanglement.
Let’s rewind a bit. The Isaac Newton pre-title sequence is cute, lifted slightly by the fact they change history and then keep saying “mavity” for the rest of the episode. (It’ll throw off every “Where to start with Doctor Who” video if that quirk sticks for the next 60 years.) Next, the Doctor and Donna arrive – well, smash themselves into – something that’s probably a spaceship, and an entity is clearly watching them while an emotionless, computerised voice says… “Fenslaw.” Fenslore? Trenzalore? Coleslaw? I dunno.
The TARDIS is gone, perhaps removed by the reactivation of its Hostile Activation Displacement System. (I could rant at length about the wisdom of this ‘feature’ even existing, but we’re on a ticking clock here. What is Den of Geek without its Doctor Who review?)
Whenever the voice speaks, the physical layout of the ship shifts. Panels turn, lights flicker, and it’s all a bit Event Horizon. This isn’t stopping the Doctor and Donna from summoning a tuk-tuk and heading down the Very Long Corridor, though, passing a Very Old Robot as they do until they get to the control room (for a life-form with a bum) and confirming that they are indeed on a spaceship. Not a starship, though, for there’s an astonishing lack of stars…
So. The tone of this episode, if we’re replaying the Tennant/Tate hits, is “Midnight”. It’s the unknowable, inscrutable aliens who function on blue-and-orange morality, and just like “Midnight”, they’re copycats. Unlike that episode, the fact that they can and will communicate, if only to predate and hasten their own agenda, somewhat robs them of their scary-factor.
This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t genuine chills to be had when we, gentle viewers, first realise that the Doctor and Donna aren’t really talking to one another as they start to fix the ship. But by the third-such encounter the conceit is starting to wear thin. You can only riff on “But only I would know, except then only YOU would know…” for so long.