I’d be lying if I said I liked the name of this episode, but it’s not one of those weirdly spelled alien names as you might expect, but rather it’s a Welsh word for, essentially, a maze. That might not make sense in an alternate universe, but it’s explained away with a wave of the hand that just makes the listener think, “ok, let’s just accept it and move on.” And then it gets really good, really fast. The worst thing about this one is the cover art, in fact. (Typically I love the cover art, but this one left a lot to be desired!) One thing you never expect in a Doctor Who story is for the Doctor to start out with the upper hand, yet episode one basically puts the Doctor in a place to dominate the dominator. The Kro’ka is trapped by the Doctor very early on which is a distinct change; a subversion of the standard expectation. So from the word go, I wasn’t worried about much in the line of Welsh words turning up in the Divergent universe.
Then Doctor Who does more of what it was designed for: it educates the listener without that Jordan Peele Twilight Zone approach of beating you over the head with the lesson. For instance, the oft-used phrase “safe as houses” is explained and I was delighted to finally understand it, as I’ve often thought houses are not always that safe! Just ask Dorothy about that when she gets back to Kansas! Or, did you know that there’s a difference between a maze and a labyrinth? Ok, maybe you did, because I did too, but I wondered if I knew because I’d heard it here on my first listen years ago! Although that would mean I forgot about the phrase “safe as houses” and I’d like to think my memory is at least good enough to recall such a thing.
I do think there are some mistakes. We’ve established that C’rizz is from the timeless Divergent universe, yet it’s C’rizz who tells the Doctor that he was “out for a long time” and later is told to meet back in 3 hours. Um… yeah… about that… Did we forget that whole thing about no-time in this universe? Seems like an odd thing to forget when this story goes to great pains to make sure we remember that, complete with a clock tower with no hands. And I have to say I hate it when a creature is introduced but we’re told “it’s hard to describe”. Isn’t that the point of the writing: to convey the images to our minds eye? Although as a fan of the creatures of Lovecraft, maybe I have no right to complain. On the other hand, there are some fun aspects of this story like breaking the Doctor into three parts so that each is examined under a different lens: there’s the Tigger-like imaginative one (which the Kro’ka thinks is the weak link), the Eeyore-like grumpy, dangerous one and the intellectual Doctor that we know and love. The dangerous one is actually a bit scary and it’s interesting to see how much the other parts would actually be responsible for reeling him in when things go wrong. Think: Kirk in The Enemy Within. Fans of the modern era might consider that when watching The Family of Blood and considering what the Doctor does to them; it’s not pretty. Without the other sides of his personality, the Doctor is dangerous! On the other hand, I love when the Doctor is bubbly and fun, as he is when tricking the Kro’ka with a “will/won’t” discussion. (You’d have to have been there…)
Unfortunately there were elements of this that reminded me of Trial of a Time Lord with the Mr. Popplewick character bring recreated for this story just with a Welsh accent, complete with offices and other supremely mundane things found in our own universe. I think it’s the same mistake Voyager made in the Star Trek universe: promise us something different and give us more of the same. Not good. We’re supposed to be in “wonderland”, as this season has gone out of its way to remind us. Give us something to wonder about, for Rassilon’s sake! And most of this story is about the Doctor getting to the heart of the labyrinth with a lot of running and talking. When he does get there, we finally have the TARDIS back which opens the possibility to new adventures so this story, while good when the Doctor has the upper hand, does suffer from the corridor syndrome: it’s basically a lot of in-between stuff as we get ready for what is sure to be an interesting next chapter. I am especially excited because Rassilon can be heard in this story speaking to the Kro’ka and I always considered him a top-level baddie. Let’s see if they play it out as I’d hope. (I don’t think anyone could ever top Timothy Dalton’s portrayal. At the same time, no one can bring it lower than Donald Sumpter’s Rassilon the Whiney so let’s see where Don Warrington really comes in!)
Definitely not a bad story as part of an overall arc, but as a stand-alone, I think it has moments of greatness and entire swathes of mediocrity. It just manages to save the day by ending on a high note which makes us excited for the next part. ML