Timey Wimey

Doctor Who's New Villains Reveal the Show's Latest Challenge

Even Doctor Who needs to remember when to rein itself in.

Jinkx Monsoon as Maestro in 'The Devil's Chord'
BBC Studios
Doctor Who

Doctor Who returns this week with a pair of promising, if uneven, Russell T. Davies-penned episodes: "Space Babies" and "The Devil's Chord." One is a simple spaceship-set adventure, the other a stylish twist on a standard trip into the past. While "Space Babies" features a fairly straightforward monster in keeping with plenty of Doctor Who's past villains, though, "The Devil's Chord" introduces Maestro (Jinkx Monsoon), a physical embodiment of music itself and one of the "legions" whose arrival was teased by Neil Patrick Harris' Toymaker in "The Giggle."

A transcendental being capable of bending reality to their will, Maestro is one of the most formidable villains that Doctor Who has ever introduced, and Monsoon's charismatic, scenery-chewing performance as the character only makes them seem all the more imposing. However, while Maestro is responsible for all of the most memorable moments in "The Devil's Chord," their presence also results in the episode making what is a pretty rare mistake for Doctor Who.

Jinkx Monsoon’s Maestro is terrifying and commanding, but the character’s powers may be too alluring for a scrappy sci-fi series like Doctor Who.

BBC Studios

Maestro's first scene in "The Devil's Chord," in which they suck all of the musical life out of an unassuming 20th-century composer's soul, is absurd and terrifying in all the right ways. The same goes for the villain's chilling, first quasi-confrontation with The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa). These scenes, notably, mine most of their power out of Monsoon's physicality as Maestro and some uncanny staging techniques. Unfortunately, Maestro's scenes from that point on only become more and more outsized until the sheer spectacle of them overwhelms everything else.

This is due, firstly, to the abstractness of Maestro. Their powers are so strange and seemingly limitless that, as was the case with Harris' Toymaker in "The Giggle," Doctor Who has the freedom to showcase them in some truly surreal ways. On the one hand, this frees Who up to go all-in on some genuinely astonishing stylistic flourishes, as it does when Maestro looks to the camera early in "The Devil's Chord" and starts to play the Doctor Who theme song. On the other hand, the transcendental nature of the Toymaker and Maestro makes it too easy for Who to rely too much on its bigger, partly Disney-backed budget this season.

That's clear in the Doctor's climactic showdown with Maestro at the end of "The Devil's Chord," which is so loud, overlong, and reliant on special effects that it almost feels like it could have been ripped straight out of a modern superhero movie. For most of its time on the air, Doctor Who has been tasked with making a lot out of a little. The sci-fi series has until now been saddled with an infamously small budget. As a result, while Doctor Who has told more than its fair share of apocalyptic stories and introduced plenty of world-ending threats, its budgetary restrictions have always forced it to keep its focus on its characters. A lot of the best Doctor Who stories have done just that. Now that it has more money behind it, though, Who is in constant danger of letting its focus drift away from the characters that actually make it great.

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson’s combined charm gets drowned out by the noise of “The Devil’s Chord.”

BBC Studios

"The Devil's Chord" suffers from the same lack of restraint that most of the Doctor Who specials that premiered late last year did. Current and returning Who showrunner Russell T. Davies has adopted what is — even by his standards — a surprisingly maximalist approach for this new, Gatwa-led era of the show. His desire to test the series’ limits is admirable, but it's worth noting that most of the greatest Who episodes are the ones that rely more on the strength of their characters and the cleverness of their writing than their battles or moments of spectacle.

Unfortunately, as impressive as villains like Maestro and the Toymaker are, they also make it very easy for even an experienced Doctor Who writer like Davies to forget that. Hopefully, he’ll start to exercise a bit more discipline and restraint moving forward. If he doesn't, fans may be in for more visually impressive but otherwise hollow episodes like "The Devil's Chord.”

New episodes of Doctor Who premiere Fridays on Disney+.

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