Doctor Who

Review: Face the Raven November 27, 2015 20:20 - Philip Bates

End of the line. Here we are again, saying goodbye.

It seems only yesterday that we were bidding Amy and Rory a fond farewell, and even though Clara's been travelling in the TARDIS for a long time, it's still just as tough. Is she properly gone? We'll find out over the next couple of episodes, but for now, this is it.

We'll get it out of the way: it was immensely sad. A little odd, too.

Face the Raven is the first Doctor Who by Sarah Dollard (Being Human; The Game) and what a way to debut! Not only does she bring back two supporting characters, she also gets rid of a main companion and throws in as many aliens as possible. And all brought together thanks to the neat concept of trap streets.

They're real. Well, not entirely, but Clara's tale of cartographers including a fake street so they'd know if their work had been copied by others is entirely true – it's one of those interesting nuggets of information Doctor Who frequently unearths. With a whole world available to us online, maps on our phones and courtesy of Google, the idea of hidden streets is fascinating.

It's realised as a typical magical location, cobbles and olde worlde houses, shadows and the alien. Having an unknown landscape potentially around each corner once again harks back to those early First Doctor days when the otherworldly could be found anywhere.

A stark contrast to the futuristic visuals of last week's Sleep No More, the trap street gives director, Justin Molotnikov something new to explore. It's not as impressive as his work in the La Verrier Space Station but that's to be expected; Sleep No More reveled in its directorial brilliance, its whole premise hinging on how well it was framed.

Nevertheless, Molotnikov impresses. The trap street is bookended by bright explorations of the modern world, with echoes of The Day of the Doctor (with Clara hanging from the TARDIS, just as the Eleventh Doctor did in the 50th anniversary special), and her first 'proper' adventure, The Bells of St. John in its vibrancy.

Whether it's intentional or not, an alien mask used in The Rings of Akhaten and Nightmare in Silver also turns out to be the true face of Kabel (Simon Manyonda). Maybe there's also a bit of the town called Christmas (The Time of the Doctor) in the trap street too: regardless, with aliens cropping up left, right, and centre, viewers are reminded of the recent past with startling regularity. Judoon, Sontarans, Ood, and Cybermen turn up: Clara might not have met all of those aliens on-screen but it does round off her adventures well.

Her send-off doesn't feel entirely perfect, however. For someone so intrinsic to the Doctor – scattering herself through his time stream, talking him out of destroying Gallifrey, helping him come to terms with his new incarnation – her death is shockingly pointless.

Why does she die? Because she messes up.

She's fashioned herself in the Doctor's shadow and has been heroic through and through. Her love of life aboard the TARDIS has consumed her absolutely, but not in the same way Donna, for example, was captivated by it. Donna wanted to stay to see the universe. Clara, it seems, wanted to stay so she could save the universe.

Her final act, then, is to save as many as she can from the Doctor's revenge. She sacrificed herself for a friend she'd seemingly only met once before. Ultimately, her death comes as a result of two supporting characters, Rigsy (Joivan Wade) and Ashildr (Maisie Williams) – or Me or Mayor Me, if we must.

You can't dislike Rigsy for it, though. He was great in Flatline, and he was great here as well. Sadly, he's not given an awful lot to do: Rigsy's merely a means to an end, caught up in something out of his control.

It's Ashildr who will take much of the blame from fans, I'm sure. Williams was superb in The Girl Who Died, but she was an entirely different person in The Woman Who Lived – and not a nice one. She might've carried out her plan for altruistic reasons, to save the street, but she remains far from likeable. What's more, her final scene in The Woman Who Lived, in retrospect, seems a missed opportunity. Maybe she'll return and there'll be a narrative reason for her essentially threatening the Doctor, but for now, it falls flat.

Her promise to the Doctor that humans in general (but Clara specifically) "blow away like smoke", though, is beautifully literal.

The Quantum Shade is one of the most successful aspects of the tale. The Raven is a great presence, a truly effective piece of symbolism, as is the chronolock, hanging around the necks of Clara, Ashildr, and Rigsy. The notion isn't properly explored; that's actually a good thing, adding to this almost mythical idea of a creature intent on delivering death, no matter what.

Honestly? I never suspected Clara would be killed. Not properly, and not so violently. It was a painful death. Many notable deaths of previous companions have been off-screen – yes, even Amy and Rory's living-to-death demise – but this was presented with horrific honesty.

There was nothing timey-wimey about this. Her splinters weren't involved. She didn't save the Doctor. She just died.

It's an extraordinarily brave move. We saw the Quantum Shade take her, and we saw her fall to the ground. So did the Doctor. There's something anti-climatic about it, but certainly not in a bad way. If anything, that made it even more touching.

The intimate conversation, and the words that were never said, exposed the leads' admirably. Clara was strong until the end. She was selfless and accepting. The Doctor fell apart so subtly. His rage caved in as he asked her to stay by his side. "Don't run," he says, pained. "Stay with me."

Next week, it's the Doctor's time to run. But for now...

Goodbye, our Impossible Girl. We'll always remember you.


Review: Sleep No More November 20, 2015 18:33 - Philip Bates

"You must not watch this."

That's a deceptively clever opening line. Because whenever someone says that, the thing they're trying to warn you off suddenly becomes immediately compelling, certainly to the point where you have to watch it. In fact, Sleep No More relies heavily on you keeping your eyes wide open and paying close attention.

Yep, that's just what everyone wants.

It's a major bug-bear of mine that people complain they don't understand what's going on, but don't actually pay attention. They're too distracted by social media or the phone going off. Doctor Who, however, is something that you really need to keep an eye on; dedicated fans especially won't turn away from the screen. Gagan Rassmussen (Reece Shearsmith) – and thus writer, Mark Gatiss – is betting on this.

Sleep No More is a whole different layer of 'meta,' not content with blurting out "Doctor Who?" at given opportunities or wishing all of us at home a very merry Christmas. Because the whole point of this episode is... the episode. That, in itself, is the monster, and on repeat viewings, we're still not party to what's 'real' and what's not.

That's a fascinating conceit, giving a solid reason for the experimental nature of the story's presentation. Why is it a found footage serial? Because that's the whole point.

Thanks to a lack of proper titles and soundtrack, you really feel like this was salvaged and immediately aired. The makeshift title was a welcome one-off change, smartly executed, while the absence of Murray Gold's typically-wonderful tracks puts you on the backfoot. Gold's greatly experienced with adding layers of tension to tales, but here, you still get that effect because it feels more true to life.

It's not entirely without music, of course, and Mr. Sandman is a useful plot point throughout. Actually, it's a great representative of the Morpheus creature: you'll be singing this infectious song long after the credits roll. There's also something eerie about the rendition – that only an earworm like that, first recorded in 1954, could still crop up in the 38th Century and so completely at odds with the environment. The La Verrier Space Station is now a dark, grim place to be and those cheery pop singers juxtapose with that and the supposedly cosy Morpheus Machine. It blurs the definition of dreams and nightmares.

Ah yes, an earworm. An argument could be made that there's a link between this episode and Under the Lake/ Before the Flood, just a few episodes ago. I loved the two-parter, but this arguably handles the notion more deftly. Instead of carving the alien symbols on the minds of the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), and co., the electrical connections are forced onto the viewer.

Although there are many 'firsts' for Doctor Who in this episode, it nonetheless alludes to various other stories and definitely has a similar tone to adventures like The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit, 42, and even Image of the Fendahl. Sleep No More references Frontios (and I love Frontios!) and Doctor Who and the Silurians, once again bringing up Homo Reptilia's naming problem.

I can't help but feel that its close cousins are The Edge of Destruction and Midnight. Both encapsulate the experimental nature of the show, sometimes by necessity and sometimes as the main purpose of the plot. The two stories are poles apart, but the restrictions make them divisive and massively interesting.

That's Doctor Who down to a tee. It's why the show is celebrating its 52nd birthday very soon.

(Similarly, audio adventures like Whispers of Terror and Dead Air also utilise their own format well, both incredibly effectively. If you've not heard them, you need to.)

The Edge of Destruction, Midnight, Sleep No More: these are stories that enrich the series and showcase how malleable the format is; they will never become the norm but they still needed telling. They're important.

All three feel rather restricted – in a positive way. Last series, I got annoyed by Deep Breath and, to a slightly lesser extent, Into the Dalek because they felt like they needed to be widescreen movie-esque pieces but instead their visuals were oddly stunted. In Sleep No More, that's the whole point.

If you're well-versed in Who, you'd have likely picked up the impossible camera angles, particularly those from Clara's POV. Viewer immediately presume the rescue crew have headcams, and it's only when Nagata (Elaine Tan) says they don't have those, that the implications start to sink in.

Director, Justin Molotnikov should be applauded for such a stunningly-realised episode. His work is a real pleasure to behold; every shot has really been agonised over. The bold, striking visuals are reminiscent of Silence in the Library/ The Forest of the Dead, The Bells of St. John, Cold War, and even stories as far back as the first episode of The Sensorites.

Steven Moffat, showrunner, has previously said that every new writer and director needs to mould Doctor Who, to make it their own, and Molotnikov does this expertly. Sleep No More is a masterclass in first-person storytelling.

And yet it's not wholly satisfying. While the rescue crew generally feel real, the nature of 474 (Bethany Black) leaves a lot unexplored. Maybe we'll come back to the Grunts in future – there's definitely something interesting about the concept – but for now, she seems somewhat undercooked. It might've tied into the wider Whoniverse a little better if she were Flesh, for instance...

Another point of confusion is its conclusion. Sometimes, the Doctor loses. Fine. Good, even! We can't have a perfect hero. But the structure does leave something to be desired. Can you imagine the Doctor really just disappearing in the TARDIS and letting the wider issues resolve themselves?

Like so many experimental episodes, I do wonder what the casual viewer would make of it. The show shouldn't shy away from being edgy and decidedly different in favour of a typical Monster of the Week drama simply to satisfy the masses. Still, the narrative would seem awfully segmented if you're not one to rewatch the story in light of Rassmussen's final admission.

These problems make the story extremely divisive: one group will no doubt call it a terrible, dull, and ultimately unenjoyable story, while the others would call it fantastic art. In case you're wondering, I'm part of the latter group.

The biggest shame is that Sleep No More doesn't give Clara enough to do. Seen as it's looking increasingly likely that next week's Face the Raven will see her leave the TARDIS, it really does taint this episode. Even if she stays until Series 9's end, we still don't have much longer with Ms. Oswald.

Please do excuse me. I think I've something in my eye.


Review: The Zygon Inversion November 11, 2015 20:40 - Philip Bates

It's very hard not to be overly enthusiastic once a particularly exciting episode of Doctor Who airs. That adrenaline still courses through you, and you start to use all sorts of superlatives. It's the reason the Internet is often littered with people exclaiming serials to be "best Doctor Who ever!"

Let's not fight over how enjoyable The Zygon Inversion is. It's already seen by many as a 'classic.'

In fact, perhaps the only reason this serial won't be remembered as one of the best is its opening part, The Zygon Invasion which somewhat muddies the water. Quite often, it's the case that the first episode is generally considered far superior to the following parts: namely, these include An Unearthly Child, The Ark in Space, and Utopia. (Let's be clear, though: this is all so subjective because The Ark in Space is a masterpiece in its entirety, and An Unearthly Child just has a bad rep.)

Here though, I can't help but feel that if you could compress the narrative from Invasion into Inversion, this would've been the most successful two-parter of the Twelfth Doctor era.

The Zygon Inversion is very different to its preceding episode and that makes things far more interesting than if writer, Peter Harness delivered just the same. The international scope is missing, as is a main UNIT attack force, Colonel Walsh (Rebecca Front), and the rather irritating "President of the World" strand.

Instead, we get an intense personal piece that makes you genuinely care about the characters involved. And that makes this stand out as an exceptional piece of television.

We'll get it out of the way: there were two incredible performances here, and they're both from the leads. Peter Capaldi is an absolutely brilliant tortured soul, and Jenna Coleman is great, as ever, as Clara Oswald and even more captivating as Bonnie the Zygon.

Without a doubt, the Twelfth Doctor's speech about war will go down as definitive. It ranks amongst the Fourth Doctor's "indomitable" monologue and the Eleventh Doctor's stand at Stonehenge (in The Pandorica Opens) and Akhaten (The Rings of Akhaten). Actually, the Eleventh Doctor had loads of stunning speeches, including pieces in The Eleventh Hour, Vincent and the Doctor, The God Complex, and The Time of the Doctor. Bizarrely, though, we weren't given an iconic Peter Capaldi speech in Series 8 – the closest we came was in Flatline – so frankly, it's about time!

He shows a tempered anger and anguish as he explains that, "When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who's going to die. You don't know whose children are going to scream and burn; how many hearts will be broken; how many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everybody does what they're always going to have to do from the very beginning: sit down and talk."

And finally, we get an allusion to The Day of the Doctor that feels genuinely right. The Doctor was once going to press another button and wipe out all of his own kind. The thing that stopped him then was Clara – and this Zygon now wears her face. In a beautiful inversion of that scene from the 50th anniversary, he has to beg her to change her mind.

Except, if you know Doctor Who at all, you'd have realised very early on that the boxes were always going to be empty. The Doctor would never hand any race the capability to wipe out everything and everyone.

Remarkably, that doesn’t matter: it remains a startlingly intense scene, one with real peril.

Peter Capaldi has spoken in the past about how he initially found acting opposite the Daleks difficult because they don't offer a conventional eyeline. It was, then, a genius move to have him play off Jenna Coleman, who has never been anything less than fantastic.

It's immensely pleasing to see an 'evil' version of Clara. She's unsettling, stunning, and affecting. Jenna really gave this her all – which makes it even sadder to think she'll be leaving imminently.

It's not fair, however, just to highlight these two actors. Let's not forget Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart, who has become such an important part in Doctor Who so easily, it's astonishing. For her, too, the scene in the Black Archive is memorable, one of her best so far. In one episode, she goes from quoting her father – "five rounds rapid" – to apologising to the Doctor.

Sure, she'll return to her gun-toting ways, thanks to a handy memory-wipe, but this was a touching nuance to a character that could've just been a mere soldier. It's reminiscent of The Power of Three where she was witty and intelligent. Since that, she's been diminished, but at least there's a glimmer of hope again.

Ingrid Oliver also puts in a solid performance and Osgood's return feels justified now; last week, it simply felt shoe-horned in, but the very idea of the Osgood Box (well, boxes) is smart and feels true to both her and the Doctor.

Osgood will return once more, I'm sure, but fingers crossed it won't be a further opportunity for a Zygon story. I'd like to see her as an active member of UNIT, not just a cosplaying fan of the Doctor.

There's not a huge amount of narrative in The Zygon Inversion, but that's certainly not to say it was an insubstantial story. The dialogue is where this tale excels, and no, not solely in that scene in the Black Archive. That one does tend to swell in your memory to shadow other excellent plot strands, namely the claustrophobic dream sequence with Clara (a la Last Christmas), and that sole Zygon, Etoine (Nicholas Asbury) forcibly being revealed living among his human neighbours.

There's a wonderful juxtaposition there: body horror as the true alien emerges but real sadness in his rhetorical "I never wanted to fight anyone; I just wanted to live here. Why can't I just live?" Still, Bonnie's plan seems half-baked at best: without what the Osgood Box supposedly can do, does she really intend to personally visit 20 million of her own kind in order to force them out into the open?

It's all perfectly lit and the direction by Daniel Nettheim is ideal for this confined story with a huge scale. Nettheim is more than capable of presenting atmospheric scares alongside international environs: he's got a great sense of what Doctor Who actually is and how it can look. Here's hoping he's invited back for Series 10.

Niggles persist – the biggest being that it's the Doctor's former companion, Harry Sullivan (a personal favourite) who created the Z67 gas. It's simply not something you can ever envisage Harry doing.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to be overly enthusiastic about The Zygon Inversion because it has so much going for it. Great performances, great dialogue, great direction: these all combine to make truly great Doctor Who.


Review: The Zygon Invasion November 06, 2015 11:28 - Philip Bates

Once upon a time, there were three Doctors, two Osgoods, and one peace treaty.

The Day of the Doctor seems so long ago now, the show tonally changed, but I'm definitely behind the school of thought that Doctor Who should link to the past, building on that continuity, without leaning too heavily on its history. Series 9 has done this well with nods and allusions to Harold Saxon, Destiny of the Daleks, Journey's End, and Kill the Moon. The Zygon Invasion is the only one so far, however, that directly follows on from a past story.

That might sound a brave move, but the 50th anniversary special was watched by 12.8 million in the UK alone (not including cinema screenings or iPlayer) and this was a dangling plot-thread that needed to be cleared up. It's fair to say the majority who saw The Zygon Invasion recalled the events of The Day of the Doctor.

But was it a wise move? It's an interesting step, almost asking for comparisons between a blockbuster event and this two-parter, nestled near the middle of Series 9.

Just like Day, it changes the pace of the show quite considerably, moulding it into something slightly more akin to Spooks (or MI5 in America) at times – with lashings of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

As a 'sort of' sequel to The Day of the Doctor, Death in Heaven, and even Terror of the Zygons, with political ideals, morality questions, UNIT, and the task of bringing back Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) in a justified way, this episode had a long checklist, and as such, it ends up being a real mixed bag.

Its sombre tone is a good extension of the last episode; fortunately, a lot more happens to keep us interested. Nonetheless, there's something missing. The Zygon Invasion doesn't instantly grab you and refuse to let go. Previous serials like The Caves of Androzani, The Waters of Mars, and The Impossible Astronaut/ Day of the Moon manage to remain brooding but are still fast-paced and engaging. They have a drive and excitement about them that this week's offering simply doesn't.

The story is certainly an interesting one, though. Anyone could be a traitor; anyone could turn out to be someone else. There's suspicion in the air, and indeed, someone everybody trusts turns out to be a Zygon. It was quite obvious, especially after Clara, a responsible teacher, leaves a vulnerable child in a decidedly dodgy situation – not to mention her glee at supposedly despatching Zygons in the underground tunnel.

It doesn't matter: Jenna Coleman is utterly brilliant here. Her reveal is perfectly handled. It looks as if next week's episode will focus largely on Clara/Bonnie, and after her barely being in The Woman Who Lived (and considering she's leaving sometime during this run), this is more than welcome.

In fact, I'm really pleased we get to see an evil take on the character!

Knowing UNIT has been almost completely eliminated is shocking, but this UNIT is far removed from the force we saw in serials like The Daemons, Battlefield, or even The Power of Three. Still, it was surprisingly horrible to know Jac (Jaye Griffiths) had been killed, and so horribly too. After briefly appearing in The Magician's Apprentice, she wasn't afforded great dialogue – "pardon my sci-fi, but this is beyond any human technology" is not a line any member of UNIT should be using – so it's testament to Griffith's performance that she comes across as a warm and smart person.

The most stand-out element of The Zygon Invasion was its direction and location work. This is a stunning-looking story, unlike anything we've seen; the nearest comparison would be the Eleventh Doctor tales set in America, including A Town Called Mercy. The colours and light are stark and rich, the environs immediately beautiful. I'd be more than happy to see Daniel Nettheim return to the show on a regular basis.

So if the plot isn't to blame for its less-than-captivating feeling, it might be the failing of characterisation and individual narrative strands. Frankly, there were too many dumb things crowding an otherwise smart tale. Several things just didn't ring true.

Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) is remarkably slow when confronted with supposedly the only person to survive a Zygon attack on the city of Truth or Consequences. (My money's on her shooting the alien with the gun she had tucked away in her jacket, and impersonating the Zygon.) Similarly, why did the head of UNIT not have any back-up with her at all?

Probably the dumbest scene is at the church in Turmezistan: you can maybe believe one officer falling victim to the pleas of an alien pretending to be his mum... but all of them? Not one soldier kept their wits about them; not one decided not to shoot but nonetheless keep their distance. It's very unlikely.

The attack on the village using the drone was far more realistic. One person's inability to carry out a strike on people who have taken the faces of loved ones is entirely believable.

Elsewhere, however, this was a very clever story, paralleling real-world events and forcing us to confront topics that are permanently in the news. It brings us back to the meaning of the words 'alien' and 'invaders'. The Doctor aptly notes, "This is a splinter group. The rest of the Zygons - the vast majority - they want to live in peace."

The opening gambit from the two Osgoods also hits home the message straight away. Sure, it's a little on-the-nose, but sometimes, we need that. It remains a grey area, with plenty to talk about, and that's what Doctor Who is about a lot of the time – the Third Doctor era most notably!

The message does tend to get in the way, sadly. Its moody tone doesn't really let up: that's fine, except the Twelfth Doctor here is written as if he's in the same mindset as during Series 8. But he's not that man anymore. I've praised the fact that Capaldi's Time Lord has had an extra injection of humour this series, but that's absent throughout The Zygon Invasion (bar one or two lines). Even the scene with the Doctor in the playground lacks anything to raise a smile.

This is such a massive shame because Peter commands better than that.

And despite his admittedly blood-soaked hands, the Doctor's care-free "try to kill as few of them as possible; I need to have someone to negotiate with" isn't right at all.

If this all sounds very negative – unfairly so, in fact - it's because the story stumbles under the weight of expectations. The pace isn't break-neck, so it's not engaging enough, despite conveying intriguing notions that really should capture the audience. Although it's been billed as such, it's simply not a thriller. Tonally, too, this isn't a sequel to The Day of the Doctor. It stands as an entirely separate entity, and with expectations altered, and the plot set up, I have every hope that next week's The Zygon Inversion will excel.


Review: The Woman Who Lived October 30, 2015 08:38 - Philip Bates

An immortal girl. An alien artefact called the Eye of Hades. Notorious highwaymen. This had all the ingredients to become an instant classic.

Sadly, there was just something missing and resulted in a story that was – dare I say it? – a little dull.

There were a lot of good things here too, but the pace of the narrative just overshadowed a number of brilliant elements. Let's start with the writing. I like Catherine Tregenna. She wrote some of the most notable episodes of Torchwood, including the vicious Meat, the wonderfully-creepy Adam, and the absolutely beautiful Out of Time, surely a contender for the stand-out story of Series 1. Even though showrunner, Steven Moffat had to coax her into working on Doctor Who, I had high hopes.

The story was fine: not as subtle as I expected but Tregenna adapts well to a character and notion thrust upon her. Nonetheless, she didn't have to study Ashildr (Maisie Williams) in The Girl Who Died – her personality is a stark contrast to the hopeful storyteller of last week. That sounds like a criticism and true, I was initially skeptical of that change.

It makes sense, however. As we briefly glimpse snippets of Ashildr's now-immortal life, you can understand why she's altered so greatly. I prefer the intelligent, bright-eyed girl who stood up to the Mire, but 'Me', as she now calls herself, is nevertheless an intriguing person with plenty of traits and history to explore.

Unfortunately, that's not exactly what we got. Again, we were presented with snippets of life, almost egged on by an oddly-whimsical soundtrack. The tone didn't fit, as if these events – the Black Death in 1348, the Battle of Agincourt, a bout of scarlet fever – were mere comedy sketches, bookended by Me's lamenting her own life and the ignorance of those around her.

It means that while Williams plays the anguish convincingly, the audience feels somewhat removed from the emotion as her character loses her children. (Anyone questioning why she didn't use her spare medical kit to turn one of her babies immortal may not realise they would stay the same age forever, just as Ashildr/Me has, that she'd have to choose which to save, and that she wouldn't wish immortality on anyone, let alone her own kids.)

Still, there's real sadness for her predicament and the Doctor's realisation of the implications of his prior actions. There's a selfishness about him: he saved her life because he was essentially responsible for her death; furthermore, he won't take her with him. Even if the latter is so that they keep a sense of perspective, it's very harsh on Me. Plus, it's clear she does lose perspective, so her presence would only hamper him.

That's not a bad thing: we should be reminded of the Doctor's alienness and his long life becoming a burden. It's a theme we've pondered frequently in the past, but the Doctor's one of the sole characters on television who can properly explore the notion, so of course it's right that there should be a bit of brooding.

The Woman Who Lived, as a whole, is a brooding piece, however. Once the closing credits come, we're left in no doubt that this episode is just a prime example of foreshadowing. We'll see Ashildr again. She'll keep an eye on the Doctor. And Clara will go the same way as all the rest.

Jenna Coleman's absence is an odd move, considering this is the last run of stories to feature the companion. Perhaps it's to give us a taste of the Twelfth Doctor on his own – or at least becoming a sort-of companion himself. However, it doesn't entirely work. Without a secondary lead figure, each scene just plays out, not intersected with any further peril or, indeed, perspective. Splitting the action keeps a piece alive and driving towards a conclusion where different plot strands meet. This was a simple affair – again, not necessarily a negative thing, but the pace suffers considerably.

Rewatching the episode, unburdened by expectation, is a more pleasant experience. You're not waiting for a distraction from the Doctor and Me discussing the duration of their lives. Still, there's not enough incident or horror.

Leandro (Ariyon Bakare) is an old-school antagonist, duping Me into basically giving him the keys to the kingdom. He's not an effective enough threat, though, staying in the shadows for much of the drama and growling, snarling, and presumably prowling – fairly uselessly, it has to be said – in his final scene. This wasn't particularly anyone's fault, but is by necessity of being a sub-plot.

The dynamics between the Doctor and Me were central; there's no doubt about that. Both Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams react to one another perfectly, helped along by the truly sparkling dialogue.

The pair speak with poetic fluidity, their rapport contrasting greatly to the 'dumb' conversation of those around them. No one else is really given enough to do to expand their characters and their motivations, yet it's sufficient in highlighting how the Doctor and Me almost exist on a different plane. Real people might not speak with such elegiac rhythm, but these two aren't like us.

Comparisons to smoke and mayflies are particularly noteworthy for their elegance.

The script wasn't completely without humour though: Sam Swift (Rufus Hound)gets a lot of witty dialogue (and naturally, it's delivered perfectly), and it's pleasing to see that Series 9 writers have remembered that Capaldi made his name on a comedy show, so yes, he can deliver comic material. I especially enjoyed his realising why he had named his curioscanner as such.

Ed Bazalgette, director, has more to work with this week than last: before, he was confined largely to Ashildr's village, but this time, he gets different locales both geologically and in relation to time. Things are grander here, not only in the quarters of Lady Me but also in the house she and the Doctor go to rob.

Nonetheless, there's a homely charm to its limited cast, and pleasing mirroring when a village becomes the harbinger of danger towards the tale's conclusion.

Everything seems a tad too dark, however. Yes, it still looks stunning, but its lack of illumination at times makes for a gloomy story, both physically and figuratively. This is the very essence of a brooding piece.

The Woman Who Lived isn't a success; nor is it a failure. It's simply a story whose parts are better than its sum.

Images: BBC.


Review: The Girl Who Died October 24, 2015 08:42 - Philip Bates

This was the week Doctor Who went bonkers. Again.

This is what our barmy show does with increasing regularity. The whole premise of the series is slightly unhinged. Sometimes, it works; other times it doesn't; and quite often, you're not quite sure what to make of it. That's the case here.

Much of this episode was great, and then it got weird. A couple of weeks ago, I said it would be wrong to judge Under the Lake by how well Before the Flood went, but a lot rests on The Woman Who Lived to put the last ten minutes of The Girl Who Died into context.

But that's the last few scenes, not the entire story. Because there was a lot to enjoy here.

After the success of his efforts in Series 8, Jamie Mathieson had heavy expectations to contend with: indeed, he won awards from Doctor Who Magazine for Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline. With The Girl Who Died, however, he gives us something entirely different.

Sure, it's his first historical, but the tone of the piece is largely in contrast with his previous stories. You can see why so many previews called this a 'romp' but stayed away from that ominous 'filler' label that carelessly disregards stories just because they're not a series opener, finale, or show great character development for the Doctor and his companions.

'Romp' implies something light, funny, and generally somewhat frivolous. We definitely get this. The humour here works better than last year's 'romp' Robot of Sherwood through no fault of that particular tale. Series 8 set out to prove Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor to be darker. After the intense Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood jarred a little, despite being deftly written with strong characters, solid direction, and great performances.

Fortunately, the production team seems to have realised this year that he may be less user-friendly, but he's still the Doctor. It means that we've had severe stories for the past month, but the Doctor has been undoubtedly the hero we all want him to be. He's more jovial, and that's perfect.

The Time Lord is funny – generally and certainly in The Girl Who Died – without losing his gravitas. That's the beauty of this character.

In fact, he's quite joyous, amid bouts of moodiness and contemplative brooding. His happiness at seeing Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) returned to the village is a stand-out moment. "I'm not a hugger," he announces while giving her a thumbs-up. And then he rushes up and hugs her. That's the enthusiasm the audience likes to see. He's embracing life, not questioning whether he's a good man or not or getting bogged down by his dislike of Danny Pink.

Series 9 is almost giving us a new Doctor and that's exactly the right direction to take this 52-year-old (nearly) show.

The Doctor isn't without the weight that he carries around with him, no matter the incarnation. The Doctor speaking baby was initially a nice bit of comedy in A Good Man Goes To War (2011), added to in the same year's Closing Time. In that episode, though, Matt Smith showed a great sadness and optimism when speaking to Stormageddon/Alfie, mulling over the years that separate the pair. In The Girl Who Died, Capaldi portrays the same aching depth of emotion when translating the crying baby of this Viking village.

These could quite easily be funny scenes, a bit of light relief, but it's played very differently. It's underlined by the Doctor asking if babies die with honour.

Of course, the Doctor then throws this in the opposite direction: a little distraction comes in the form of a party, just as the Mire arrive to attack the town. Naturally, this is just sleight of hand, and there's something very satisfying that the thing that defeats the deadliest mercenaries in the galaxy is a good story.

Well, it's what we're all here for, isn't it?

The strength of a story is a common theme in many serials under Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner: in The Big Bang (2010), Amy brought the TARDIS back in time for her wedding because the Eleventh Doctor told her an old-new-borrowed-blue story; he also planned to defeat the Old God in The Rings of Akhaten (2013) with tales of his losses; and in Into the Dalek (2014), the Twelfth Doctor hoped to redeem the Dalek with a story of the universe's cyclical nature.

It makes Ashildr (Maisie Williams) worth saving. She's brave and strange because she imagines – ultimately, that's what scares the Mire into retreating. That and the Benny Hill theme tune.

Her casting caused a publicity storm, and while Williams gives a great performance, it would likely be an anticlimax if this were it for her. I'm sure The Woman Who Lived will give us plenty more to think about regarding her character and role in the Whoniverse.

The device that brings Ashildr back to life causes a few narrative problems. Notably, it's not actually mentioned before the Doctor uses it: it's almost as if we don't really need to know the specifics of how he can do this – we just have to accept that the Doctor can save anyone if 'The Rules' are ignored. The second Mire medical unit – how might that be utilised next week? – introduces the questions that we'll likely explore in The Woman Who Lived, essentially the meaning of immortality, and by contrast, mortality.

If the Mire had this automatic repair kit, why were they scared by the make-believe dragon? It might tie into the Doctor saying Ashildr will live forever "barring accidents", or maybe recalls the Doctor's own fear of dying (largely focused on in The End of Time) despite his ability to regenerate.

Further plot holes centre on the electric eels, which many have noted wouldn't generate that amount of electricity. And why were they even there? The Vikings may have explored and fished, but not in seas with electric eels in.

In other adventures, you can pass the former off by pointing to the sonic screwdriver, but the Doctor was without both that and the TARDIS.

Nonetheless, the siege on the village is immense fun, at turns touching, hilarious, and exciting.

Sadly, it's those final ten minutes that give the story a slightly uneven feel. A great deal of fuss was given to Peter Capaldi playing the Doctor after previously appearing in The Fires of Pompeii (2008), and Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009), and we were promised an explanation.

Of course, plenty of familiar faces crop up numerous times: companions (Karen Gillan and Freema Agyeman), guest stars (Philip Madoc, Martin Jarvis, Geoffrey Palmer -  I could go on), and yes, even another Doctor (Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker was in 1983's Arc of Infinity). But we've just accepted it. This time, however, there was an in-story reason. Supposedly.

Except it sort of falls flat. Russell T Davies apparently told Moffat he had a reason for the same faces popping up now and again, and you can't help but feel this wasn't it. It feels like a cop-out. It might've worked last year, when the Doctor was trying to come to terms with who he is, but this year, he knows. He's the Doctor and that's all he's ever really needed to know.

What's more, that's all the audience needs to know too.

It might be expanded upon in the future, but here, it makes the tale disjointed. Yes, we need to judge these final scenes on how The Woman Who Lived plays out.

And this fan is looking forward to it...!


Review: Before the Flood October 14, 2015 13:49 - Philip Bates

Hey! You! Yeah, you! I'm talking to you! And so is the Doctor...

The Time Lord doesn't often break the fourth wall: in fact, the only other notable time he did was in The Feast of Steven (1965), at the end of which William Hartnell's First Doctor wished everyone at home a very merry Christmas! To do so is to risk breaking the world's illusion, ie. that the Doctor acknowledges he's a fictional character.

Writer, Toby Whithouse is brave to not only have the Doctor speaking directly to the audience, but to have this as the pre-titles sequence. It'll no doubt split fandom, but very few would argue that the subsequent rock-and-roll version of the theme tune is anything other than fantastic. (After the decidedly dodgy track that's accompanied the titles since Peter Capaldi took over the role, anything would be welcome. We get an instrumental that suits the Twelfth Doctor down to the ground.)

Yep, it's divisive, but it's also exceptional.

It's exciting and captivating, and for anybody who's left with a nasty taste in the mouth, there's an argument to be had that he's not really explaining the bootstrap paradox to us but to Clara Oswald.

This is the perfect introduction to Before the Flood because it gave us a hint about what's to come: timey-wimey elements, explanatory discussions, a slight cheekiness, thought-provoking scenes, and the Doctor on mighty fine form.

Indeed, it's a very exciting and captivating episode as a whole. Sure, it lacks some of the intrigue from last episode and anyone well versed in Doctor Who will already have guessed who is in the stasis chamber and that holograms would be used again. That doesn't entirely matter: there's enough to draw you in and keep you on the edge of your seat.

That's quite an achievement considering the story is packed with exposition-heavy scenes. Someone once said, "show, don't tell", so no doubt Whithouse will get criticism for this. Yet it worked. And what made it work so nicely was the ingenious narrative and engaging character development. (I'm not fond of the "show, don't tell" cliché anyway, but that's beside the point.)

Before the Flood is full of smart ideas, throwing the fairly-standard 'ghost' story in a different direction. That's how you keep a two-parter interesting. Give us something new to look at, some new notions to toy with. This isn't a story about hauntings - it's time travel. It might be set in Scotland, but that doesn't mean we can't have the village, pre-flood, covered in Russian propaganda. And because only a set number of ghosts were in Under the Lake, no one who went back in time could die in Before the Flood, right?

Sadly, we should've known that time is in flux, so of course someone would die in the past, and we're very sad it had to be O'Donnell (Morven Christie), an immediately charismatic, likeable, and intelligent character ideal for travelling in the TARDIS. She had something of Osgood about her, sure, but there was also a hint of Rita, a would-be companion from Whithouse's previous adventure, The God Complex (2011), doomed because the Doctor offered her a place in his space-time ship.

Fortunately, there were proper consequences to her death: added gravitas, sadness, and a further peeling back of the Doctor's motivations.

Arsher Ali showed considerable control as he portrayed Bennett's unspeakable grief and his realisation that the Doctor knew this was going to happen. That was foreshadowed by the electric scene in the TARDIS where the Time Lord asks her to stay there – but knows she won't. He did that to her last episode. He forced all of them to make a choice, to stay and satisfy their own curiosities.

Last series, this alien manner seemed very forced – intended to shock and set Capaldi's Doctor apart from his past regenerations. Yet here it works perfectly. The Doctor has always been like this; the extent to which it shows simply varies depending on incarnation.

It brings to mind further scenes from The God Complex, notably the Eleventh Doctor's seeming manipulation, perhaps unintended, of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). The two adventures share quite a few qualities, despite appearing largely polarised on the surface. Both are important in the evolution of the Doctor-companion relationships (Clara's angry talk with him on the phone is stunningly acted and scripted); both feature large deceptions where the supposed-enemies seem more like victims; both star Tivolians; and both have memorable scenes of the Doctor hiding from a giant, lumbering beast, which ends in death.

Unlike the Minotaur from The God Complex, however, we don't see enough of the Fisher King, played by the tallest man in Europe, Neil Fingleton, and voiced by comedian-actor, Peter Serafinowicz and Slipknot's Corey Taylor. He's certainly a scary creation, beautifully thought-out and realised. His towering over Capaldi makes him seem a genuine threat, while his malicious streak manifests itself in his using of human souls.

There's something of the deep about him, so here's hoping the dam merely put back his plans, that he will return someday...

The Cold War training outpost is a neat idea as well, but one that's also underused. As a backdrop, it does the job and serves the narrative ably. Director, Daniel O'Hara makes it look interesting and gives us fresh new environs for the story to expand, but it did lack something. Nonetheless, it'll remind long-term fans of 1989's The Curse of Fenric, and that's definitely a positive.

The Faraday Cage concept, too, is used deftly in this episode: a place of safety, certainly until the Doctor realises that Clara's phone won't work in there so she'll have to leave it outside the room and fight through the ghosts if it does ring.

Similarly, Cass (Sophie Stone) is excellent, especially in her determination in making sure Lunn (Zaqi Ismail) is safe. Her picking up the vibrations in the floor when the ghost of Moran (Colin McFarlane) is coming for her is very clever, and again acting, direction, and writing all combine to create a tense, absorbing scene.

The really great thing about Before the Flood is that you thoroughly care about each of these characters. You don't want any of them to die. You feel the weight in Bennett's heart as he stares at O'Donnell's ghost then convinces Lunn to admit his feelings for Cass – because he left it too late for himself.

Toby Whithouse has proven again and again that he's a writer you can rely upon. Not one to go through the motions: he delivers vastly enjoyable scripts that play with expectations and make you truly care about the people involved.

There are definitely things to nit-pick about, but the 40-odd minute duration flies by and this two-parter is simply too enjoyable to rip apart. It remains my favourite Twelfth Doctor serial so far.

Images: BBC.


Review: Under the Lake October 06, 2015 23:15 - Philip Bates

Full disclosure: to me, Toby Whithouse is one of Doctor Who's strongest regular writers. I've enjoyed all his Who work, but The God Complex (2011) is a particular favourite. As such, this two-parter has been my most anticipated story of Series 9.

Fortunately, this sole episode lived up to my hopes and continued the run's solid start. Whether it's generally deemed a good episode or not could hinge on how Before the Flood unfolds, but that's wrong. It should be judged on its own merits.

And after doing so, you can only conclude that Under the Lake is a triumph.

You know what we're getting straight away from an engrossing pre-titles sequence. The writing's on the wall. Ghosts and a base under siege. This sounds like standard fare for Doctor Who, but we've not had these tropes since 2013: Cold War was the previous base-under-siege tale – discounting Mummy on the Orient Express (2014) because it doesn't fit easily into that category – and Hide featured the last use of 'ghosts.'

I love both of these concepts though: the base-under-siege idea works particularly well as it hypes up the drama and the horror so core to Doctor Who. But they only work if you do something new with them.

Fortunately, Whithouse does just this. The function of the underwater base means you get a clever design and smart notions of electromagnetic locks and a night-and-day feature that you know immediately will be exploited. The Faraday Cage, too, is a neat way of keeping the crew alive for the three days that pass between Moran's death and the TARDIS' (unhappy) arrival, and containing the threat later on.

The ghosts, too, are presented in a new fashion - as actual ghosts. The Doctor has never believed in them, so previous explanations typically revolve around time travel or impressions on houses (based on the premise of Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape). But no, the Doctor has come round to a new way of thinking. These are actual apparitions of the dead.

It becomes even grimmer when the Time Lord realises that they're not natural phenomena at all; instead, someone is hijacking souls...

Things should get even more interesting when we learn how the ghosts came into being and how the Doctor's actions in the past affect Clara and co. in next week's Before the Flood.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. That's how this episode works: excitement and suspense in equal measure surge the tale on, adding layers of intrigue so you're as interested in these characters and the functions of these ghosts as the Doctor is.

It helps, of course, that you care about these characters. They're all well-realised and fleshed out, despite their back-stories not being explored. You understand their reasoning, their companionship. They're not a slightly-fractured crew like in The Rebel Flesh. The Almost People (2011); they care about each other, right down to Cass (Sophie Stone) telling the Doctor that she won't be held responsible for getting her colleagues killed. More than anything, her closeness to Lunn (Zaqi Ismail) is both endearing and completely understandable. Her concern when he is cornered by a ghost is especially effective, as is Lunn's acceptance that if Cass stays on the base, so must he.

O'Donnell (Morven Christie) is the latest in a long line of fans: she knows and respects the Doctor's work for UNIT, just as Osgood and Malcolm have before. She'll no doubt divide some viewers, but Christie makes sure she's not just a giggling annoyance. She's clever and capable, with a cool persona. Frankly, she's exactly the type of person UNIT would employ!

Bennett (Arsher Ali) is likewise a great character, not as enthusiastic as O'Donnell but nonetheless efficient, dry-witted, and, most prominently, curious. I very much look forward to seeing how he and O'Donnell interact with the Doctor, the past, and the Fisher King next week.

It's a shame we don't get more time with Colin McFarlane's Moran (McFarlane having previously voiced the Heavenly Host in Voyage of the Damned and also starring in shows like Death in Paradise, Dennis the Menace, and The Fast Show), but at least his ghost is wonderfully creepy.

Pritchard, played by Steven Robertson (Luther; Ripper Street) is the most stereotypical, with his underhanded business manner making him an easy candidate to be killed early on. Indeed, his death is especially gruesome, something reminiscent of the classic Robots of Death (1977) cliffhanger in Part One where the Doctor is buried in sand. Similarly, viewing his demise via CCTV (or the 22nd Century equivalent) reminds this viewer of Rita's death in The God Complex.

In fact, there's quite a lot here that stems from the past. The whole 'catching-ghosts' sequence is similar to the gorgeous scenes in The God Complex where the Doctor tricks the Minotaur into explaining why he's trapped in that spaceship-turned-hotel. Then there's the mole-like Prentis (Paul Kaye) from Tivoli, the same planet as Gibbis.

There are further allusions to The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit (2006) and 42 (2007), as well as Sarah Jane, who the Doctor left in Aberdeen instead of Croydon. (Those cue cards for the Doctor are genius, perfect for the Tumblr generation who love to spot easter eggs. The humour in Under the Lake is another marvel: the Doctor especially is hilarious, which is just what we need right now. "Anything else I should know? Someone got a peanut allergy or something?" is a particular favourite line.)

And could Clara's mentioning "that place where the people with the long necks have been celebrating New Year for two centuries" be a hint at the Krillitane, who before taking bat-form apparently looked like us but with really long necks? Furthermore, the mention of synapses in the brain reminds me of The Claws of Axos (1971), although this is likely unintentional.

The weight of these previous adventures doesn't crush Under the Lake. Referencing highly-regarded tales could bury a story under expectations and parallels, but this is an exceptionally clever episode. The blurring between the supernatural and the mechanical (electronics clearly has a lot to do with what's going on) is sublime, as is the tone in general.

And even though the cliffhanger isn't entirely unexpected, it remains an unsettling and enthralling image. More praise must be lavished upon Whithouse and director, Daniel O'Hara for deftly separating the Doctor and Clara, and making an already-cramped space even tighter.

Please excuse such untempered enthusiasm for Under the Lake, but it's already become my favourite Twelfth Doctor story so far. Considering it's got competition from Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline (2014), that's a great feat.

This is a story that proves you don't have to rewrite history or add a new nuance to the Doctor; you don't have to reintroduce classic monsters, or do something hugely controversial. You don't need these things to make a fantastic Doctor Who story.

You simply need to be fantastic, that's all.

Images: BBC.


Review: The Witch's Familiar October 01, 2015 00:08 - Philip Bates

The solution to last week's cliffhanger bookends The Witch's Familiar: it was a two-part cliffhanger, and writer, Steven Moffat knows which one you'll know is a red herring – the deaths of Clara and Missy – and which will keep you hooked, namely the Doctor seemingly threatening to exterminate a young Davros.

That opening is bold and clever, mixing gorgeous visuals with an explanation that should satisfy fans. The scenes on Skaro contrast beautifully with the dark direction of Missy's tale of the Doctor escaping invisible androids. Shot in black and white, featuring brief glimpses of past Doctors, and borrowing something from episodes like Planet of the Daleks and The Androids of Tara, it's a great reminder of Doctor Who's past.

But then, that's what The Witch's Familiar does so well, and this first scene sets the tone well.

Moffat of course should take credit for his allusions to the past – indeed, Peter Capaldi called this serial a tribute to the First Doctor era – but similar praise should be heaped onto Production Designer, Michael Pickwoad, and director, Hettie MacDonald.

The interior of the Dalek city is an obvious nod to the show's second story, 1963/4's The Daleks (sometimes known as The Mutants), with sleek lines and sterile environs, while the sewers of Skaro remind viewers of the grim locales of Genesis of the Daleks (1975). Davros' talk of his final victory is reminiscent of 2008's The Stolen Earth/ Journey's End, and the hybrid idea has been explored (briefly) in 2007's Daleks in Manhattan/ Evolution of the Daleks. Furthermore, the Dalek civil war – given a nod in the rotting Kaled mutants seeping through and attacking the Daleks – has been shown in stories like Evil of the Daleks (1967) and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988).

The HADS (renamed here as the Hostile Action Dispersal System) is another knowing wink to the past, the defence tool first cropping up in The Krotons (1968) and coming back for Cold War (2013).

The shock viewers got at seeing Skaro again (destroyed in Remembrance) in 2011's Asylum of the Daleks is even revisited, last week by Missy's understated surprise to be back on the planet, and this time by the Doctor actually questioning Davros about its return.

Yep, it's rather appropriate that The Magician's Apprentice/ The Witch's Familiar is so steeped in history, and while you can't help but wonder what the casual viewer would make of it all, I very much doubt it genuinely excludes even the newest of viewers (the majority of whom would already know about Davros and the Daleks regardless).

Not knowing, for instance, that the Doctor was previously sent back to the Daleks' origins to destroy the race before they got off the ground doesn't hamper what's a thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing story about the Doctor, stuck in the middle of an army of angry tanks, facing up to his arch-enemy.

It's impossible to isolate a single exemplary scene because seeing Capaldi opposite Julian Bleach's creator of the Daleks is a joy, as is Missy's manipulation of Clara, a companion who is normally more than a match for most of the aliens she comes up against.

In fact, while Jenna is never anything less than brilliant, Clara does seem uncharacteristically useless, and this does sit uneasily with anyone who has seen her strength in tales like The Rings of Akhaten (2013), The Time of the Doctor (2013), and 2014's Flatline. I liked the scared Clara shown in Cold War, but that was a long time ago now, and she's grown into an extraordinarily strong, capable person. Seeing her dumbfounded when questioned by a Dalek is odd. Perhaps Missy really does have her on the back-foot, or maybe she's just terrified of the Daleks. It's interesting territory that's not really explored enough.

Seeing Clara imprisoned in a Dalek is another step into exciting territory, and the parallels with Asylum of the Daleks, in which it's revealed that one of her splinters in time (Oswin Oswald) has been converted, are sublime. Given it's Jenna's final year in the role, it's fitting that her first appearance in the series is at least alluded to.

We even get blasts of the Asylum soundtrack, courtesy of the always-great Murray Gold!

The music, however, is at times overwhelming, never more so than when Missy is destroying the Dalek in the sewers, a satisfying scene that, in retrospect, doesn't entirely make sense. We get an explosion, pre-empting the Doctor's destruction of the Daleks en masse, but when Clara is shoved inside the Dalek, the armour is fine again.

These are the only real missteps in an otherwise excellent story that enlightens and intrigues in equal measure.

There are plenty of unanswered questions – for one, the Confession Dial, which we'll surely get to in the Series 9 finale; and secondly the fates of Davros and Missy. Michelle Gomez is fantastically insane throughout, and Julian Bleach gives a shockingly emotional performance. Most fans presumed that Davros' eyes were burnt out or something similarly grotesque, but Moffat shows us otherwise. We also get to see him out of his chair, replaced by an angry (and thus dangerous) Doctor, wheeling about and threatening the Supreme Dalek.

We also get an insight into the psychology of the Daleks, adding more definition to their understanding of emotion. In the past, they've come worryingly close to becoming emotionless robots, akin to the Cybermen (who, no, aren't robots either). The lines had been blurred. Fortunately, here it's revealed that emotion is how Daleks 'reload.' "You are different from me" translates into "exterminate." That's horribly scary and utterly true of the Daleks.

More Dalek tropes are given greater significance, notably one of the my favourite things about them: the thrumming heartbeat. It was used superbly in Victory of the Daleks (2010), ushering in the new (but sadly forgotten) paradigm, and is of importance in this serial because, quite simply, it's keeping Davros alive.

(Given the stunning acting, you can believe that Davros is at the end of his life, but I'm so, so pleased that he's been regenerated!)

And most importantly - to the Dalek mythos, and as the resolution to the cliffhanger – we learn how the Daleks have a concept of mercy. Fans of the Eleventh Doctor era will recall 2010's The Big Bang in which a stone Dalek begs River Song for mercy, and this episode pays that off perfectly.

The Witch's Familiar is a product of the past and hints at an exciting future, and without doubt my favourite link to Doctor Who's history is seeing the Daleks, in the process of regenerating, seemingly deactivated amongst the long corridors of the city. It reminds me of the First Doctor's victory over them in The Daleks, where we learnt that those early Dalek designs were powered by static generated from the metallic floors.

Indeed, when contrasted with the jumping narrative of The Magician's Apprentice, The Witch's Familiar is quite a static tale, but it's certainly better for it: more coherent, more satisfying, and ultimately more captivating... Exactly what an opening serial needs to be!

Next: Under the Lake.

Images: BBC.


Review: The Magician's Apprentice September 20, 2015 20:57 - Philip Bates

In The Magician's Apprentice, the Doctor has a lot to contend with: Davros, yes; the Daleks, of course; Missy perhaps; the complexities of time travel; his own shame; and a large helping of dramatic irony – in varying degrees.

There's quite a lot the audience knows that the Doctor and co. aren't entirely aware of, and depending on your point-of-view, this either adds to the drama, or utterly diffuses it. Case in point: Clara dies. Despite news that Jenna Coleman is leaving the show, she's already been seen filming for the rest of Series 9 (possibly with the exception of the final two-parter, Heaven Sent/ Hell Bent). When Michelle Gomez's Missy is exterminated, it's surprising yet a bit damp; she died in Death in Heaven, but here she is again. A little thing like death isn't going to stop her.

When Clara dies, you know this can't last.

And then the TARDIS is blown apart, and that's the final confirmation that these things will be undone.

That's the same problem with The Sound of Drums/ Last of the Time Lords (2007): the Master had decimated the Earth, so the only thing the audience expects is a big reset button. Indeed, the Paradox Machine was destroyed and everything wound back one year. But that's how smart Steven Moffat's writing is. Straight after blowing away Missy, Clara, and the TARDIS, he presents to us the means to reset things – only it's by doing something equally dramatic. It's something the Doctor will never do, because it's something he can't do.

He has to kill Davros.

Of course, we know the Doctor won't kill a child and substantially alter time. If he had done so before, the whole Time War could've never happened and Gallifrey would still be in the skies. There are too many subsequent paradoxes – prominently, if he kills Davros, there's no reason he would travel back to kill Davros, that timeline in which Clara is exterminated having been diverted.

(This, too, poses interesting questions: what would the Doctor be like without the Daleks (given his confession in last year's Into the Dalek that he found out who he was when he first landed on Skaro?)

Furthermore, we know the Doctor. We know who he is, and he wouldn't shoot a then-innocent boy. The Doctor, then, wouldn't, and he couldn't.

And yet – and yet...

Dramatic irony heightens/diffuses the suspense in other ways too: if you listened to rumours, you'd know Davros would be back, and that we'd be retreading old ground – both that we'd literally be back on Skaro, and that the Doctor's dilemma would be the same as in Genesis of the Daleks (1975).

Many have called the central concept a great idea, and indeed it is – although it's far from original. The same territory was explored in not just Genesis but also recent episodes like The Beast Below (2010), and to a lesser extent, Let's Kill Hitler (2011).

Additionally, Eleventh Doctor era stories have mulled over the Doctor's last days and what he would do – which is why the three-week party in 1158 doesn't quite ring true. Peter Capaldi's Time Lord is a different incarnation but he's still the same man, so why spend his final hours rocking out instead of spending time with his friends (The Impossible Astronaut), saving as many as he can (The Time of the Doctor), or both (Closing Time).

Capaldi, however, is really nailing the Doctor, and thankfully, much of the burden lumped on his shoulders by Series 8's "am I a good man?" arc has been lifted... or at least seemingly. That question hangs in the air still as he confront his shame at having left a young Davros to die amongst the hand-mines, and no doubt when he returns at the episode's cliffhanger.

Michelle Gomez, too, is great. Although I'm still not comfortable with the idea of a female Master, Missy herself is full of wit and dark charm. Her relationship with Clara is just as interesting as with the Doctor. There's an odd respect between them all, and a kind of trusting. Clara's reaction, while cautionary, isn't quite how you'd predict, especially considering Missy held at least some responsibility for Danny's death last series. Considering this is a companion hooked on danger and fashioning herself like the Doctor, Clara's taking Missy in her stride shouldn't come as too great a shock.

Kate Stewart's reaction, though, is a surprise. It simply doesn't ring true. I know Lethbridge-Stewarts are a strong breed, but she didn't convey much anger at the woman who flung her out of a plane, and killed one of her trusted advisors, Osgood.

That's not Jemma Redgrave's fault – she's always been a fantastic addition to the semi-regular cast – she was simply lacking in that sort of material. It's a shame, really, especially as UNIT was essentially deemed a necessary but inept plot device. I can only hope that it foreshadows events later on in this run of stories, notably The Zygon Invasion/ The Zygon Inversion, and, alongside the Doctor's confession, the finale.

There were so many elements to The Magician's Apprentice that some were bound to be left unexplored. Fortunately, Davros isn't one. He's a joy – always has been.

And thankfully, we have Julian Bleach back as the evil genius. It's been seven years since he last played Davros (in 2008's Journey's End), but he slips back into the role effortlessly. His dialogue with the Doctor is naturally electric, and the two bounce off one another perfectly. He immediately cuts down the Doctor's assertion that the Daleks should never have been created with a simple line, accusing him of being a broken record: "This is the argument we've had since we met."

We're sure to get further chilling exchanges in next week's The Witch's Familiar, and while this opening episode was a mixed bag, it should slot into place much better after we know how this impossible cliffhanger, and the storyline as a whole, is resolved.

I know I speak for fandom as a whole when I say, I can't wait.

Images: BBC.