Doctor Who Series 14 Episode 2 Review: The Devil’s Chord

The new era has arrived, bringing with it unforgettable new villain Maestro. SPOILERS.

Jinkx Monsoon as Maestro climbing out of an upright piano in Doctor Who episode "The Devil's Chord"
Photo: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

Warning: this Doctor Who review contains plot spoilers.

To use some technical musical terminology – this one’s a banger.

Like most fans, I was very intrigued when I heard that Russell T Davies would be returning as showrunner. Having decisively brought Doctor Who into the 21st century, remade it in his own image and delivered a bona fide cultural phenomenon, Davies had subsequently gone on to make several other successful shows. It’s not like he needed to come back. He had nothing to prove. So it seemed safe to assume that if he was going return, it was because he had new ideas, new things he wanted to say, new experiments he was hungry to try out.

That was an exciting prospect. The Tennant specials had swagger, but they were something of a victory lap – comfortable 60th anniversary reunions tying up loose ends, though obviously not without surprises (like bi-generation, something this episode suggests we probably won’t be seeing again for a while). Then “The Church on Ruby Road” and “Space Babies” were both preoccupied with setting up the new Doctor and companion, with interesting hints of a new direction.

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But with “The Devil’s Chord”, it feels like the new era has decisively arrived. The swinging 1960s setting is a great choice, and not just because of the fashions (though they are naturally on point). It’s familiar enough to ground us, but not somewhere the show has spent much time since, well, the 1960s. And the focus on music, and its integration into the narrative and visuals, feels fresh and invigorating.

The episode doesn’t do a huge amount to unpack the concept that music is the only thing holding the human race together, but it’s a great concept regardless, and leads to some genuinely innovative places. We’ve seen Doctor Who villains suck the life out of people, but we’ve never seen them suck the music out of them, to be consumed like food, or wielded like a magic spell from a wand. We’ve never seen the Doctor trapped inside a drum, or the companion trapped inside a double bass. We’ve never seen Doctor and companion furiously duetting on a piano imbued with the potential energy of future Beatles albums while a demented god strikes back with vicious counter melodies from a violin.

Honestly, this review could just be a bullet point list of the episode’s cool details. The knocking from inside the piano, so simple yet so effectively creepy. The spine-chilling scene where the Doctor removes all the sound from the area, leaving Maestro silent and intrigued, which again feels like something we’ve never seen in this show before. Maestro using a tuning fork like a sonic screwdriver. The unsettling, fantastically realised flash forward to apocalyptic 2024 – and Millie Gibson’s heartbreaking “Where’s my mum”. The clever use of musical concepts like the titular chord, building on the ongoing theme of superstition intruding on reality, and Aeolian tones – set up as a throwaway, very Doctor-ish explanation (because of course he’d know the proper name for the phenomenon) then paid off with universally destructive consequences. Delightfully cheeky touches like Maestro playing the first notes of the theme tune to lead into the credits, and the Doctor’s “I thought that was non-diegetic” line. I could go on.

It’s a huge relief in some ways, because there were reasons to be apprehensive. Back in February, when it was announced that Sam Mendes would be directing four inter-linked Beatles biopics, it sounded like the toughest casting assignment of all time. There are few other bands where the general public is so intimately familiar with every member – whose voices, mannerisms and interpersonal dynamics are as well-known and beloved as their music. Then we heard that Doctor Who would also be casting versions of the Fab Four, and alarm bells started ringing – casting can be hit and miss, and if the Beatles were going to be a major presence in the episode, a misstep could conceivably have sunk the whole enterprise.

Happily, they pulled it off. George and Ringo have basically no lines – which I guess is appropriate – but Chris Mason and George Caple make a pretty solid John and Paul. While neither looks that much like their respective Mop Top, they capture just enough of their personalities to maintain the illusion, while also bringing a level of nuance that helps sell the quieter, more emotional moments – Mason’s voice cracking on “Why do I wake up crying” is particularly effective. It’s debatable whether the performances could have sustained heftier screen time, but they’re used just enough to resonate.

And ultimately, The Beatles aren’t actually the headline here – that’s Jinkx Monsoon.

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Consistently funny and charming, Monsoon was the underdog winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season five. Her subsequent rise to Drag Race’sQueen of All Queens”, Broadway star and now Doctor Who villain has been gratifying to see, and she is without a doubt the MVP of this episode.

Maestro is a big, meaty role, a showboating, show-stopping antagonist, and a character that could have been completely unbearable in the hands of a performer with less control of tone. But Monsoon knows when to go big and when to dial it back, when to laugh and when to snarl, when to be hilarious and when to be genuinely menacing, and needless to say she has the pipes for the singing. She brings a sardonic, capricious energy reminiscent of Michelle Gomez as Missy – in fact, like many, I wondered at first if the name “Maestro” was a clue that this was a new incarnation – though the character in no way feels like a retread. Connecting her to the Toymaker makes much more sense, and adds nicely to the foreboding sense of forces lurking out there beyond anything we’ve seen before.

All that said, not everything quite worked. Having the Doctor initially running and hiding from Maestro makes sense in context – as he says, his last encounter with a being like her “took everything, it literally tore my soul in half … I can’t survive that again”. However, coming immediately after “Space Babies”, in which the Doctor running and hiding from a monster was used as a plot point specifically because it felt wrong to him, the impact here is somewhat diminished.

Of course, this could just be a consequence of watching these two episodes back to back, and it was compelling to see the Doctor’s fear push him to think on his feet and adapt to the challenge of a villain operating on the level of mythology and metaphor. But when Ruby said “You never hide”, I found myself thinking… he kind of does, actually?

The episode’s continuity references were also hit and miss. While it was nice to have the Doctor point fondly over at Totter’s Lane, Susan – the granddaughter that the Doctor left, against her will, in a war-torn 22nd century – feels like a can of worms best left unopened. Like the genocide of the Time Lords, the weight of the accumulated lore risks being a destabilising force, and while Davies might well be going somewhere with all this, in the context of this particular episode the moment feels too throwaway to satisfy veteran fans, while simultaneously raising a lot of questions that might confuse newer viewers.

And then there’s the twist at the end. Does it make sense to finish this episode, with all its musical references and multiple breakings of the fourth wall, with a big production number? Sure! But while the choreography is impressive, and full of fun little visual references to movies like Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the song itself is a bit lacklustre. As with the musical number from the Christmas special, it’s not really a strong point for Russell T Davies – so while this didn’t fall completely flat for me, like “The Goblin Song” did, it does feel like the show hitting a bit of a ceiling in terms of what it’s able to pull off.

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But honestly, that’s okay. I respect big swings, and it’s great to see the show try new things. And ultimately there is so much to love in this episode – like the Doctor and Ruby taking turns to comfort each other, or little musical references to the likes of “Danse Macabre” and “Rhapsody in Blue”, or  Maestro saying of Ruby that “this creature is very wrong”, or gleefully winking at us before viciously murdering a sweet old lady, or absolutely devouring the line “Lovesick songs for heartbroken lesbians”, or basically anything Maestro does, to be honest – it’s easy to forgive the odd bum note.

The orchestra has finished tuning up. On with the show.

Oh, and “The One Who Waits”? I’m calling it – it’s Rory Pond.

Doctor Who continues next week with “Boom” on BBC iPlayer and BBC One in the UK, and on Disney+ in the US and around the world.