Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Husbands of River Song


The Husbands of River Song was basically Steven Moffat doing Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It certainly makes a nice change of pace from his usual approach to the Christmas specials, where he gives a standard episode plot or idea some generic Christmas lip service. It also makes a nice change of pace from his general approach of either writing about time travel or aping Robert Holmes (or both, of course). It was Moffat's best Christmas special1. He kept things simple, aimed for fun (he even managed to hit it a few times), and didn't shy away from mentioning Christmas.

Although that's not to say it some sort of flawless masterpiece. It wasn't. This paled in comparison to even the worst RTD era Crimbo spectacular. For my money that's The Next Doctor, though whichever one you pick as least good it's going to be better than this. Even if you're really into Douglas Adams this episode probably wasn't better than Insert-Name-of-Your-Least-Favourite-Davies-Era-Special-Here because it wasn't enough like Hitchhikers Guide to be satisfying.

The other thing that could save this episode for some people is the presence of River Song. The thing is, most people aren't going to be into River Song to that extent. She's a recurring character whose last appearance came two and a half years ago, in The Name of the Doctor. The show should hopefully have attracted a few new viewers by then, but no concessions were made to them. There was no explanation for who River was or why we should care about her. Even people who follow the show enough to remember her could probably have done with a refresher on her history2.

The episode's central problem is that it assumes everyone's familiar with River's convoluted character arc and is happy to see her back. Which isn't true. I've nothing against the character or Alex Kingston but I'd be perfectly happy if neither appeared in the show again. Self aware jokes about flow charts are fine and fun. The final scenes all revolving around things not mentioned since Silence in the Library (seven years ago), with no explanations on offer for anyone who didn't follow the references, was too much.

In fact I don't think it would be a stretch to say that anyone who's come to the show since Capaldi joined, and there have to be some people who that's true for, would have been nothing but confused for large chunks of this story. Even when her relationship to the Doctor was revealed there was still a that stuff with the sonic screwdriver, and the Doctor's haircut and suit setting up Silence in the Library to contend with. This sort of approach is the reason Moffat needs to leave the show. He's a fine writer when he's producing one story a year but his approach to running the show is close to being actively harmful at this point. Give it to Mark Gatiss or Jamie Mathieson or Chris 'Chibbers' Chibnall or Sarah Dollard. The next series really needs to see Moffat bowing out gracefully.

Dragging things back to The Husbands of River Song... the show's other main guest stars were Greg Davies, best known as angry teacher Mr Gilbert on The Inbetweeners, and Matt Lucas, best known as one of the lads off Little Britain. Greg Davies played a megalomaniac king detached from his body for the first half of the episode and was very good. In fact Hydroflax could have been a really bad character had they not had someone as good at producing the yucks as Davies. Matt Lucas wasn't afforded such a memorable role. He wasn't especially good, but nor was he especially bad. He was simply there. His part could have gone to a compete unknown and no one would have batted an eyelid.

As I said in pretty much every review of series nine, Capaldi and the set design team were very good. Capaldi did a great job, elevating generic lines about River Song continuity into something watchable. Not for the first time I'm pleased we had him in the show over Matt Smith (although this is one of the few examples of an episode of Doctor Who that could not be rework to feature any other Doctor). The design team gave us a nice model shot towards the start (Hydroflax's spaceship), subtly reused Trap Street from Face the Raven as an alien world, and did a pair of nice spaceship interiors (although technically one may well have been a location shoot). They made it easier to gloss over the fact that this was an excuse for Moffat to revisit River Song as a concept again, something he swore he assured us he was going to stop doing after her previous appearance in 2013 (see here for one of many possible examples of that). Didn't stick to that, did he?

***

1 I'd like to point out it had staggeringly low expectations to meet though, so this shouldn't be taken as any sort of worthwhile achievement.

2 Here I'm taking about people who watch every week, or most weeks, but don't obsess every details of the show. Despite Moff's assertions to the contrary they still make up the bulk of the programme's viewership.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Hell Bent


I'm not going to say this was the worst season finale Steven Moffat's ever written but that's mostly because The Name of the Doctor exists. This was not a suitable end for what's been a pretty good season overall. It wasn't that it was badly made or acted, or badly written for that matter. It's that it was trying too hard to hard to be a big, epic story and in doing so it got too wrapped up in its own self-importance.

This was Big Steve's first proper go at tinkering with Gallifrey, something that was always going to end badly. Because Gallifrey stories can't be done without heavy use of continuity and Moffat doesn't really do well with that. He makes continuity the focus instead of using it sparingly to embellish his stories. The answer, generally speaking, is not to do Gallifrey stories in the first place unless under very specific circumstances. The lone Gallifrey story of the Davies era (The End of Time) worked because we'd have five years to build up to it and it was used as the backdrop for the exit of arguably the most popular lead actor in the show's history in David Tennant1.

Moffat played all the expected cards: Rassilon, the Matrix, Ohila, Ashildr, Clara not being dead, soldiers siding with the Doctor, lines of dialogue echoing the show's past. The only real surprise was the omission of Missy. He threw in everything he could to make this a "classic" story. In doing so he made it too busy and ensured that it could only ever be seen in the light he wanted by people who adore continuity references above anything else (and it's worth pointing out he frequently makes out in interviews that those are the kinds of people the show should not be aimed at). He also made a hash of explaining what the plot was. Even if you got all of the references to the programme's past such a bad job was done of explaining what exactly was going on that I'm convinced nobody could have watched this and understood it on a single viewing. The Time Lords wanted information on the hybrid, but we didn't learn why it had suddenly become important. We didn't really get a satisfactory answer on why Clara had to die as scheduled, which hasn't exactly been an issue at any other time during the Moffat era.

Maybe the intention is for this to work with repeated viewings. Maybe this is designed as something that's watched over and over again, likely in conjunction with Face the Raven and Heaven Sent. To an extent that's okay. That's how a lot of people watch television now. On Demand services and DVD boxed sets being what they are it's actually sensible to take this approach on occasion. But it shouldn't be done at the expense of people who are going to watch once on a Saturday evening. Doing so is alienating. It's that approach that saw the show falter under JNT in the 80's.

Hell Bent was intended as Moffat's Deadly Assassin. His definitive take on the grandest aspects of the show's continuity and mythology, Gallifrey and the Time Lords. He's entirely missed that the reason The Deadly Assassin works as well as it does is because Robert Holmes was trying to avoid playing on mythology and continuity, playing against what they'd been up until that point and using them as the basis for something completely new. The lone new bit of lore we got here, the Cloister Wraiths (dead Time Lords used as anti-virus technology to protect the Matrix against people poking around inside it), were a nice idea and worthy of being the focus of their own story as opposed to a throwaway aspect of something larger. They weren't enough to justify the episode as a whole though.

I know what the argument will be in favour of Moffat using Gallifrey here: it was the backdrop for the exit of Clara. But the thing with Clara is, no matter how much you may like her and feel that she's a great character and that Jenna Coleman is very good, she isn't the Doctor. Gallifrey being brought back to bring about the exit of any character except the Doctor will always feel too much, because the Doctor, as the one constant throughout the show's ongoing narrative, is the show's most important character and as such the only one who truly warrants such high stakes for an exit. And even then it should be a rarity.

This isn't to knock Coleman, Clara or the exit. I liked all three. Coleman left showing what a versatile performance she can give, with only Peter Capaldi matching her (obviously). Clara got to leave to a greatest hits performance, grounding the Doctor, being noble, and demonstrating her yearning for adventure. She's never felt especially developed as a character but everything we've learn about her was used and tied up nicely here.

The nature of her exit was an example of Moffat's keenness to evoke the shows early years (something we've seen many times, from the understandable inclusion of the Hartnell Doctor in The Day of the Doctor to his less understandable inclusion on a library card in Vampires of Venice). Clara left her home planet in a TARDIS (which was for some reason trapped in the shape of an American diner), in the company of an immortal, and ostensibly on the run from the Time Lords. The mirroring with An Unearthly Child is infuriating in its obviousness but it carries its own kind of charm. I'm sure there are kids who would have watched this and enjoyed that farewell for Clara and (presumably) Ashildr). The real strength was her finally getting a successful Doctor-ish moment, surviving a memory wipe where the Doctor didn't and having one final conversation in which she knew more than him before leaving. It worked all the better for the initial framing of her being the one who couldn't remember, a rare example of Moffat's tricksiness being a worthwhile endeavour.

There were other performances worth mentioning. Donald Sumpter was perfectly cast as Rassilon, power mad and desperate to retain control. If you can't get a "big" name like Timothy Dalton casting a man in his seventies is the next best thing. The silent woman who attended to the Doctor while he stayed at the barn was good too, showing good comedy  timing and giving character to an otherwise forgettable part. But it was the Female General who I liked the most. She seemed like a promising new character in her post-regeneration scene but was presented as glorified muscle for Ohila for the rest of her time on screen. It's a shame she wasn't given more to do. She'd make a good semi-regular villain based on what we saw here.

Speaking of Ohila, Clare Higgins gave one of the worst performances in New Who's ten year history. It's easy to see why she's previously been relegated to pre-credits sequences, webisodes and YouTube uploads. She is not good at acting. Had she not happened to be cast in The Brain of Morbius she would not be lucky enough to be in this position now. She's getting work because of the showrunner's love of pointless continuity references. Although, to be fair, she was playing a character who became a villain for absolutely no discernible reason halfway through the episode.

Hell Bent is a needlessly complicated episode that focuses far too much on continuity and far too little on plot. It ends series nine on a bad note but it gets the departure of Clara right and as that's the central purpose of it it's hard to deem it a complete failure.

***

1 If you're of a certain age you're going to be thinking that Tom Baker was more popular. I'm not saying he wasn't but Tennant is easily his counterpart in the rebooted series, the guy who helped the show attain the international appeal that's so integral to its continued existence now.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Heaven Sent


The most obvious thing to note about Heaven Sent is that it's the first time ever the lead actor has had the entire show to themselves (minus a brief appearance from Jenna Coleman and a child actor at the end). It's the sort of thing that can be done every so often, a tweak to the format to keep things interesting. It doesn't hurt to alter the audience's expectations either1.

It worked largely because of Peter Capaldi. Chris Eccleston could have done this but there was no way the programme could have been so experimental in its first series. David Tennant could have done this too, although his Doctor was written more to bounce off of other people and to enjoy showing off. And even his time on the show may have felt a little early to try it. Matt Smith could not have handled this, which makes me think that Moffat's had this story in his head for a while but waited until he had a lead actor who could do it justice2. I'm finding myself thinking that more the more I watch Capaldi and see the things he's given to do.

The episode ended up as a fifty-five minute example of why Peter Capaldi was cast as the Twelfth Doctor. He showed his impressive range. He showed his instinct for making interesting choices for how to play things. He showed his expressive body language and facial movements. Whether he was stepping out of the teleporter at the start (and the end) of the episode and placing his feet to suggest frailty and innocence or giving a knowing glance to the camera as he delivered the line "I'm nothing without an audience" he was pitching things perfectly. He gave a performance that was so nuanced and focused that he pretty much made it so that he has to be considered the best actor to have taken the lead role of New Who. Because nobody else has had the chance to show their ability in this way before.

Steven Moffat deserves credit too. Because he provided Capaldi with a script that let him be intelligent, funny, scared, angry and a bunch of other things. He also gave us his best new monster for a while, the originally-unnamed shuffling presence (later disappointingly named as the Veil) that hounded the Doctor through an otherwise empty castle. A faceless, unstoppable horror that can only be stopped with fresh truths is a very clever, very Doctor Who, very Steven Moffat idea. The same goes for the setting of a castle which can rearrange itself. That's not a new idea, of course, but it's something that's a good fit for this show and feels like it should have been seen more. It was the setting and the constant threat of the Veil that gave the episode a sense of urgency, something for Capaldi to react against in the absence of a proper supporting cast.

Moffat's other triumph was explaining how the Doctor copes with dangerous situations. He stays calm and imagines himself in the safety of the TARDIS, slowing things down and letting himself concentrate and think. It gave us a glimpse inside the Doctor's head but in a way that didn't reveal too much of the character and retained some of his much-needed mystery. It also made good use of the TARDIS set, an enormous expense that hasn't had much screen time this series.

Speaking of which, the production team deserve a mention at this point. They found a great location for the castle, created some good props to make it seem appropriately unknowable3,  and put together an effective costume for the Veil. Interesting things were done with the lighting as the TARDIS "came back online" too. Everyone seemed to be working towards making this a memorable episode and they accomplished that goal.

The episode wasn't without its faults though. At the same time as he was doing his best writing yet for Capaldi's Doctor Moffat was also pumping out another looped timeline plot. These and the not dissimilar time paradoxes are amongst his most overused tropes. He's been using them since Blink and hasn't been sparing about it. Series six was bookended by this approach for example. It's reached the point now where it's to be expected. The moment I saw a gnarled, bloody hand pulling a lever at the beginning of the episode I knew it would turn out to be Capaldi because that's precisely the sort of thing Moffat does.

The other failure4 was that it was the Time Lords behind it all. On one hand, that's okay. The Time Lords have been built up since the reboot as an unknowable, god-like race whom the Doctor both misses and never wants to see return. They're an interesting concept to introduce to New Who5 for these reasons and it feels appropriate for them to return ten years on from the revival. And the reveal that the castle was inside the confession dial was a very nice touch, being unexpected and a nod towards the race's knack for bigger-on-the-inside technology.

On the other hand it was always going to be the Time Lords and Moffat didn't even try to hide it. A token attempt at not making it obvious would have been nice. Their return has been inevitable since they were brought back in The Day of the Doctor and it's an ill-fated decision. The Time Lords have always worked best when presented as a corrupt society of paranoid schemers desperate to cling to life and left mostly off-screen. The majority of JNT's term as producer bears me out on this.  The trailer shows that we're going to see guns and armour. Lots of guns and armour. Using the Time Lords as Imperial storm trooper surrogates does them no favours but it's not a part of this episode, so it's not the problem that another time loop plot is.

This isn't the sort of episode that could be done every series, or even with every Doctor, but as a one off it absolutely works. The right actor got to do it.

***

1 By "the audience" I mean the portion of people who watch Doctor Who without gorging themselves on previews and spoilers first, because they're the ones who (probably) didn't' know this single-hander was coming, and I imagine it would have worked better without that foreknowledge.

2 Although I may be giving Moffles too much credit. Maybe Smith's era was shaped the way it was because he simply couldn't wait to write all those "clever" time travel plots and explain The Mystery of River Song™.

3 Yeah it was mostly big clockwork cogs, but what big clockwork cogs!

4 Aside from the script raising questions like "Why did the Veil touching the Doctor's face burn one side of the face but not the other, and why did it scorch the Doctor's clothes?"

5 Well, reintroduce, technically. RTD beat Moffat to it by several years, although it feels like Moffat intends to have the Time Lords return on a more permanent basis where Davies was happy to use them as a one-off, the ultimate threat in his Buffy-inspired Ever Bigger and Badder Big Bads approach to series finales.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Face the Raven


This episode feels like it should have come about a lot sooner. Not because of the series arc stuff it included but because of its urban fantasy trappings. It's a genre that's been growing in popularity since before the show was revived in 2005, making it something the show was always going to touch on. More importantly it feels like a natural fit for Doctor Who. It's not a coincidence that former Who writers Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell have found success in this genre or that one of its most prominent figures in Neil Gaiman has been brought in to write for the show. It's trappings and tropes are a good fit for a programme that can lends itself to magical realism.

It's possible I liked the episode disproportionately because of its use of urban fantasy. Not that the writing was bad. It wasn't. In fact I felt that the pre-credits teaser scene was one of the best we've had this season, the regulars were written impeccably, and the opening stretch in which we were introduced to trap streets and the concept of aliens using them as hiding places was excellent. The idea of a raven that flew into people branded with a tattoo that counted down to zero was a good one and the returning Ashildr was written the same sort of moral greyness and magnetism that made her stand out in The Woman Who Lived. Rigsy was better here than in Flatline, for the record, although he's a far less important or interesting character.

It was the world building that I liked. Because that's what I always like, in anything. But that doesn't necessarily make a good episode of Doctor Who and I'm having trouble picking out anything before the climax scenes that stood out to the same degree. I think the episode got an easier ride from me than most because it was doing something different to the rest of the Moffat era and making use of something obvious. And because it had a fantastic set that perfectly fit the tone of the genre and the needs of the episode. It felt like what it was meant to be, a magical Victorian street squirreled away in the middle of London.

But ultimately it's not any of this that this episode will be remembered for, no matter how worthwhile it may have been. This episode will be remembered for the death of Clara. And, in fairness, it is a good death scene. Clara has been written as becoming increasingly Doctor-esque across her time on the show. It's not always worked and it's sometimes outright misfired but there's enough material of Clara emulating the Doctor's behaviour and behaving as he would (or thinks he would) that you can take her actions here, thinking she's found a workaround for the rules of the raven always killing its victims by taking the tattoo target from Rigsy, as completely in character. And it's a fitting end, a companion who's overestimated their own ability and similarity (or lack thereof) to the show's lead character and paid the price for it. If only Earthshock had included as much thought as this Adric may be better remembered.

Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi handle what we were are left to assume was their final scene together as those characters well. Capaldi went from snarling rage with Ashildr to sorrow and awkwardness when saying goodbye to Clara. It demonstrated the range the man has, something which could be made use of far more often. Meanwhile Coleman played Clara coming to terms with her impending death and the Doctor's inability to help her with dignified acceptance and bravery, giving the character the ending I imagine most viewers will feel she absolutely deserved. For what it's worth I've never felt that engaged by Clara. Her origin as a Big Mystery™ and relationship with the boring Danny Pink left me cold. But she's worked this series and this was a memorable exit.

Assuming of course that it is an exit from the show. There are two episodes left to air. Next week's has been announced as a solo outing for Peter Capaldi, which should shut up my requests to give him more to do. You can't ask for more than giving him an entire episode to himself. But Coleman has been confirmed for the following week. There's also the fact that Steven Moffat has never been shy about bringing back characters that are absolutely-definitely-positively-dead-totally-forever. It happened several times with Rory, it was Amy's final send-off, and we have River Song coming back at Christmas in a story set after her death and upload to a magical super computer on the planet Library. That we know characters can so easily return after death under Moffat does blunt the loss of Clara slightly, but we can still enjoy her death scene in isolation. I suspect it will be easier to accept when we know how her time on the show plays out in Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. I suspect the Doctor will track down one of the "splinters" Clara created in The Name of the Doctor (my views on that episode here) and have a somewhat one-sided chat with them before a final reveal that those splinters can all remember being Clara (or something equally daft and underwhelming). And on the subject of predictions I'll be amazed if we don't find out that Missy and the Daleks (and possibly Davros) is (are) behind the trap sprung on the Doctor in this episode.

Sarah Dollard is welcome back any time.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Sleep No More


In promotional material for Sleep No More writer Mark Gatiss talked about how he'd had the idea for years and felt it was one of the better things he'd ever written. Steven Moffat opted for his typical approach of understatement and merely opined that it was Gatiss's Best Episode of Anything Ever. This meant that expectations were pretty high. In an unusual twist they were met. Well, mostly.

Gatiss's usual method is to ape the Pertwee era. It's easy to see the stylistic influence in all of his previous Doctor Who scripts. A fair number of them, more than is comfortable really, are all too easy to imagine with Jon Pertwee in the starring role. The only change you'd really need to make for that would be more mentions of polarity and greater frequency of the phrase "my dear."

Sleep No More broke from this tradition, with Gatiss tackling a future setting for the first time (worth mentioning this was relatively uncommon for Pertwee), aiming for the Creepy, Scary Episode, and writing a script that was far from the technical norm for the show. It was a welcome and successful change and shows that Gatiss can write interesting scripts when he's given the chance. And when he has an idea that lends itself to it.

The episode was very, very good for the first half an hour or so. Gatiss presented us with a varied cast and dropped in plenty of hints about the wider world they inhabited (something I always appreciate in Doctor Who). The central conceit of the Morpehus pods, machines which allow you sleep for just a few seconds and exit feeling completely refreshed, were introduced naturally and explained well. What easily have been a boring scene was kept lively and engaging, not something we should necessarily have expected from Gatiss given his track record.

His greatest achievement was writing the entire episode to be filmed from POV and security footage. The real work here would have been done by the crew actually making the episode of course, but it all started with Gatiss getting it right with his writing. It was something that could have gone very wrong. He writes a mean bit of Victoriana and can drop a Silurians reference like nobody's business but this script was more adventurous than anything else he's contributed to the programme before, or anything else I've seen him credited with. Overall it was probably his best script for Doctor Who.

This is not to say Sleep No More is flawless. It isn't. The final fifteen minutes are filled with twists, so much so that it's not entirely clear on a first viewing what lead baddie Rassmussen's motivations are by the end, or how he's set about trying to achieve them. Or, for that matter, what monsters of the week the Sandmen want beyond mindless destruction (and really, if you're going to have your monsters speak and have motivations to begin with more is required than this). The fact that Rassmussen is written as a gloating madman by the end can be overlooked, because it's not like the show has ever shied away from them before and Reece Shearsmith is good (though not mindblowing) with the role, but his devolution into a man who wants to unleash a plague of sentient dust on the world for no reason can't be.

It felt as though Gatiss had worked very hard on that first half an hour and struggled to tie everything together in a satisfying, logical manner. What the episode needed was a final draft to tighten it up and an editor (that would be Steven Moffat) good enough to give Gatiss a bit of help. A proper reason for Rassmussen to behave as he did, a better explanation for the Sandmen (and specifically an explanation for how they were blind when being made out of bits of dust we'd been told could all see), and a cleverer reveal regarding the dust watching and recording everything we were seeing and this could have been in contention for the highly valued title of A Classic Story. But extra drafts and editorial aid are things that just don't happen much in the Moffat era. His bad time management, something the show's erratic schedule and his work on spiritual sister show Sherlock demonstrate to be an issue, is the cause here. Sleep No More is just the latest victim.

All of which means this episode sits somewhere around the middle on the ranking list of this series. It was better than the Flood and Zygon two-parters but not as good as the opening Dalek story or The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived. I suppose it's a good thing we had Capaldi in the lead role. Had Matt Smith gurned his way through this I think I'd feel differently how good it is.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Zygon Inversion


The Zygon Inversion was about as good as it was going to be considering it had such a weak opening half (last week's Zygon Invasion). That is to say it was not very good at all. The desire to create a tense, creeping atmosphere misfired. This was likely attributable either to Peter Harness not being a good enough writer or the show simply not lending itself well to the thriller genre. Or, very possibly, both.

The whole thing felt off. It was slow to get going and chugged towards an obvious and clich├ęd climax in which the Doctor talked Kate Stewart (representing humanity) and Bonnie the Zygon (representing the rebel Zygons) into calming down and seeking peace over war and destruction. This was a fine message and obviously one that the character and the show should be seeking and propagating but the scene fell flat. Capaldi and Coleman (who was pulling double duty as Bonnie) were both very good while Jemma Redgrave (Stewart) was a little bland, but performances weren't the problem.

The problem was the Doctor's speech. It was very clearly written as the centrepiece of the episode and a Big Character Moment, something that was meant to make people take notice and add to lists of Capaldi's greatest moments in the role. I didn't think it was very good. I thought it was trite and forced and had very little substance to it. It was written less as a man trying to kep control of a dangerous situation and more as a speech we should be impressed by. And when you have a scene like that, that's very much the crux of the episode, having it fall flat and feel lightweight obviously reflects badly on the entire thing.

On top of this the episode just didn't feel very good. Too much time was dedicated to resolving (and partially rewriting, never a good thing) the cliffhanger and establishing the rules of the Zygon-human link that were "needed" for the plot's resolution. Effort that should have gone into giving people interesting lines or understandable motives (the rebel Zygons wanted a war just because, is that really the best that could be dreamt up?) instead went into tricking the audience into Moffat-esque alleged cleverness. Things happened rarely and didn't amount to much when they did. What we got in between were dry attempts at humour, character and mystery. We also saw Mysterious Boxes make a return to the show after previously featuring heavily in The Power of Three and The Day of the Doctor, establishing themselves on the Moffat Tropes List. And the Black Archive was a huge wasted opportunity. It could have been packed with background props. The closest we got was the head of one of the robot warriors from The Girl Who Died.

There was nothing to like here. Not even Evil Clara was fun. Last week's brief appearance was exciting. Given more time she quickly degenerated into a generic baddie. And to make things worse she simply turned good at the end of the episode and was accepted as the new secondary Osgood, with nobody batting an eye even though she had been a rebel leader trying to start a war. Ingrid Oliver was good at least, but that's not much consolation.

This was the worst episode of the current series.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Zygon Invasion


The Zygon Invasion was poorly paced, had an uninspiring guest cast, and failed in its attempt to be a gritty thriller. It featured allusions to asylum seekers and terrorism which seem out of place in Doctor Who. It's a show with a broad scope and I think it probably could, at a push, tackle these themes, but it didn't manage it here. At least not well. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers premise was overly familiar and nothing new was done with it. The sets were surprisingly lifeless. No, not even the needless portrait of William Hartnell in the UNIT safe house could help.

I didn't like this episode. I wanted to, because I think this series has been an improvement of Capaldi's first. I want him to have a good tenure with the role. I wanted to see his reunion with Rebecca Front play out in a knowing, entertaining fashion. I wanted to enjoy the Zygons. For the first ten or fifteen minutes I thought I was going to like it. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction with the Mysterious Kidnap™ of Osgood, the subplot of Cara helping a kid whose parents were clearly Zygons, the Doctor doing some detective work (something Capaldi should get to do more of, perhaps instead of being written as a man having a mid-life crisis with a guitar), and things happening in places that weren't Britain.

But then it all became dull and tedious and any sense of humour that had been present evaporated. The most positive things I can say are that Peter Capaldi was good (and deserves better), the location used for Turmezistan was very nice (particularly the church doors), and Evil Clara is my Favourite Clara. That's really all I have to say on the episode.

But I'm not going to end there. Because this episode was broadcast on October 31st. That's Halloween, just to be clear. That a show that prominently features aliens and monsters and strange goings on on a weekly basis did not make use of an episode falling on Halloween seems strange. Especially when you consider than after fifty-two years of existence we've yet to get a Doctor Who take on the holiday. And we get an annual Christmas-themed episode, something which is far harder to wrap Doctor Who around.

It doesn't matter that this season is all about two parters. The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived showed better than perhaps any other two part story that episodes can be linked yet have entirely different settings. We could have had a Halloween themed episode followed by something more normal next week. Or, y'know, they could have simply kept the spookiness floating about for a week. It would 't have hurt. It's not as if three years of scarier than average stories did Tom Baker any harm.

That's my biggest complaint about this episode really: that it exists instead of something that would have made far more sense.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Woman Who Lived


Back in The Witch's Familiar Davros talked about a Gallifreyan legend of a hybrid. The Doctor did not react well to this. This was in an episode in which Davros had tried to create half-Dalek, half-Time Lord hybrids (y'know, because Davros's defining characteristic in the new series is that he comes up with this kind of mental plans). That didn't work, so we were left to mull over the topic of the hybrid.

Thankfully it's not Steven Moffat's take on the half human nonsense from McGann's TV Movie. That's something that seemed like a worrying possibility for a while. It would have been spectacularly poor. I mean season twenty-two levels of poor. Thankfully The Woman Who Lived seemed to make it clear that the hybrid in question was not, in fact, the Doctor or a new breed of Dalek or something else based on years-old continuity. It was Ashildr from The Girl Who Died.

At the end of The Girl Who Died Ashildr was made immortal using a modified bit of tech from enemies of the week the Mire. That made her a human-Mire hybrid. This episode made it clear that she is to be taken as A Problem™ for the Doctor. Which could have been boring. Thanks to an engaging script from Catherine Tregenna, excellent work from Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams (as well as, perhaps bizarrely, Rufus Hound), and the decision not to try and squeeze Clara into the episode it wasn't. It was a well-judged piece of writing that included just enough of a plot (an invasion orchestrated by a duplicitous, fire-breathing space lion wearing a metal headband) to keep things interesting in between stretches of what the episode was really about, the Doctor confronting his decision to make someone immortal.

Tregenna pitched things perfectly. After starting out with an amusing sequence in which the Doctor stumbled into a heist she gave us around fifteen minutes of the Doctor and "Me", the character having abandoned the named Ashildr centuries earlier, discussing their differing experiences of living lives so long that they are forced to watch loved ones grow old and die. Or, perhaps, their ability to forget and repress these experiences. These scenes were deftly handled, avoiding heavy-handedness but carrying the emotional heft required to make them work. It became clear across the course of the episode that Ashildr or Me or The Knightmare (srsly, pick a name, guys) was less unhappy with the "curse of immortality" (good because that trope is played out) and more the fact that the Doctor has lumbered her with the slow path through history, forcing to live every day in full and in order as he grants himself the freedom of time and space. Implicit in this was the unspoken accusation that the Doctor has made it easier for himself and isn't interested in lessening her burden. 'You trapped me in my life!' exclaims Me at one point. It's a good line but it would be more accurate to state that the Doctor's trapped her in history.

Me clearly isn't framed as a baddie in the style of Missy or Davros. She's given a great deal of sympathy. Meanwhile much is made of the Doctor's poor judgment and while it's not dwelt on there's that callous refusal to take her into the future and let her live the life she wants. His inaction is forcing her to lead a life she doesn't want and can't escape and was trapped in by him. But we are also left in no doubt that this is a woman who could become terrifyingly bad. Her willingness to kill is shown several times, most notably when she's keen to shoot her way out of a burglary job and when she sacrifices Sam Swift to open the rift she needs to escape the planet. It's a disregard for life that's a staple of recurring villains in the show.

This is clearly something Moffat has been moving towards for a while, the Doctor creating his own enemy. Had he handled it himself I don't think it would have been as good as it has been across these last two episodes. But in handing the job over to Catherine Tregenna and Jamie Mathieson he's let writers who will focus on the character, rather than the idea of the character, come to the fore. This is how he should run the show all the time. The closing flourish of Clara turning up to show the Doctor a selfie with Me (or whatever modern pseudonym she's taken) looking on pointedly from the background is clearly an addition he would have added or requested but the bulk of the episode feels unlike something he'd have written himself. This is for the better, because Moffat's authorial voice has been oppressive at points over the last five years.

That closing shot gives us a tantalising glimpse of where this series will end up. With Jenna Coleman's departure confirmed it seems safe to assume that the modern day incarnation of Me will be responsible for her death, talking as she did about how she'd keep an eye on the Doctor and exhibiting jealousy at the fact that Clara was taken with him on his continued journey. That would tie into the theme of the Doctor creating his own enemy in The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived and the debate about compassion in the Doctor and Davros scenes from The Witch's Familiar. Everything points towards Clara dying as a result of Me's actions, forcing the Doctor to admit that his act of compassion in saving her was ultimately wrong. There will be more to it than that, of course, but it's looking like the richest season arc of the Moffat era right now, and if it turns out to be true this episode will be a pivotal part of it.

All this plus a reference to the Terileleptils. What's not to like?

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Girl Who Died


The Girl Who Died was the sort of Doctor Who story I like. We were presented with a series of scenes in which the Doctor and Clara were introduced to a world and got some amusing lines to deliver, things got fleshed out, and there was a closing sequence that made sense both on the episode's own terms and in terms of the mechanics of the show at large. When done right that's always a great approach for Doctor Who (though obviously it can work with any companion and not Clara specifically).

It was the series of twists towards the start that really stood out to me. The Doctor pretended to be Odin. A nice little thing in itself because it's the sort of thing many other incarnations of the character may have tried. Then a giant faced appeared in the clouds and claimed to be the real Odin. An amusing, well-placed conceit within the episode which instantly raised questions for the audience. From there the fittest, strongest people in the village (including Clara and Ashildr, played by biggest name guest actor Maisie Williams, because of course) were beamed onto a space ship by some giant alien robots and slaughtered for boring-but-sensible-within-the-confines-of-the-show reasons. Clara and Ashildr escaped because they were always going to and then the second phase of the episode began: the Doctor helping the remaining villagers to prepare for a battle Clara had stupidly (but handily for a TV show that has to feature #conflict) provoked the alien into a battle.

After that it settled down into a well written episode . We got some scenes that were determined to make us care about the guest cast and for the most part they did. Far more impressive was the material given to Capaldi. He got to play everything from courage to angst and was given excellent dialogue to do so, a refreshing change from the by-the-numbers material he's mostly gotten in the part (I think I remember this being a strength in last year's Flatline, also by Jamie Mathieson). Clara being split off for the brief sojourn to the ship made sense too, and gave her something to do after weeks of her being sidelined.

It was also nice to see the design work back on track after a severe wobble with the Fisher King in Before the Flood. Fake Odin was pretty much written and performed as a generic baddie but he was made to look enough like a futuristic Viking that it didn't matter. He looked like what he was meant to be, an alien (or possibly an alien AI, I didn't follow that bit closely enough) trying to pass themselves (or itself) off as a god using a basic understanding of human mythology. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that someone took inspiration from Lost Vikings 2 for that (and I'd be more surprised still if more than one person reading this understood that reference without the assistance of Google). The robot henchmen were better still. They were big and bulky and intimidating with rivets and bolts that you don't see in Doctor Who designs often. They looked convincingly alien and warrant a return. I could have done without the removal of their headpieces to reveal squealing flesh heads though. They were more appealing when they appeared to be some sort of enchanted clay-metal robot warriors.

In fact the episode's only weakness was something that was likely intended to be one of its highlights. The topic of where the Doctor's face came from was tackled more substantially than it has been since Capaldi's debut episode Deep Breath. This is something aimed at people like me, people who know and rewatch and study the show. But I didn't care. I didn't care because it's been handled poorly within the show. I could have been convinced that it mattered pretty easily. It is, after all, famously a theory that Russell T Davies cooked up as his own private fan theory then passed on to Moffat, who decided it was so good he'd include it in the show. That's my kind of thing! But it was so bland, not to mention wholly unnecessary, that I couldn't bring myself care. The Doctor chose the face of Caecilius, the man he saved from a burning Pompeii, to remind himself that he saves people. So what?

It raises more questions than it answers. How did he do this when he's seemingly had no control over his appearance before? How does John Frobisher, also played by Capaldi, factor into this? Why didn't the Doctor do it when he changed from the Tenth Doctor, who saved Caecilius, into the Eleventh? If the Eleventh chose the face to remind himself that he's a good man who saves people because he'd just run into the War Doctor and been reminded of some apparently horrible things he did and was having a crisis of confidence or something  then why didn't he make a more recent or relevant selection? Does Moffat really expect anyone who's not invested in this show more than the average viewer to understand the sudden appearance of David Tennant and Catherine Tate in scenes from an episode that first aired seven years ago? Maybe there's more to come on this. If so, good. Right now it looks like another example of Moffat building something up in interviews that turns out to be wholly underwhelming once it appears in the show.

After the predictable struggle against the bad guy worked out in favour of the overmatched villagers (funny that) we got the episode's final twist, the Doctor saving Ashildr with technomagic and making her immortal. This was a nice final flourish and kept the revelation of how two episodes (this and next week's The Woman Who Lived) written by two different people and not appearing to be a two part tale fit together.

This was easily the best episode since The Magician's Apprentice and possibly the best of the series so far (I'd need rewatches to decide for sure). It featured enough surprises, dealt out its revelations well, and contained enough strong design work that it was a joy to watch. If this was the average level of quality I think the show would be all the better for it.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Before the Flood


Ahhhhhh so it was all about free will versus determinism. How disappointing.

Not that it had to be disappointing (which is in no way a clever, or an attempt at clever, joke). That's actually a rather interesting subject for a programme prominently featuring a time machine to tackle. The trouble is that paradoxes and time travel as plot device have been massively overdone by the show over the last five years, leaving it an all too familiar topic now, and one that a writer like Toby Whithouse doesn't have the chops to broach in interesting enough ways.

But even if Moffat hadn't run those ideas into the ground this episode wouldn't have been great. It dealt with its chosen paradoxes in a convoluted manner, spending too much time trying to be clever than clearly establishing what the paradox was and where the Doctor's ability to change things (or lack of it) lay. Things may have been better had this been a single part story. That would have forced Whithouse to concentrate on the twists he felt compelled to hang his story around and be tighter with what he gave his swollen cast to do.

That said this was an improvement on the story's opening half, last week's Under the Lake. The biggest weaknesses here were the scenes with Clara and the guest stars running around in the base had no point to them. Well, not in terms of plot at least, they existed only to keep Clara in the episode. Ducking in and out of safe zones to rescue phones and guest cast members placed into peril for no reason? That's not something anybody needed.

There's also a rare criticism of the production team (a wonderfully all-encompassing, broad term) to be had. The Fisher King. Despite having one of the richest, most evocative names (which wasn't capitalised on) in the show's history The Fisher King was given possibly the most Power Rangers design in the history of Doctor Who. At first it seemed like the director realised the shortcomings of the suit and wisely decided to shoot it only in shadows. But then we were treated to shots of the thing chatting to the Doctor and wandering about in broad daylight. I accept that bad monster designs happen from time to time but the show should be at a point now where it knows when to cut its losses and work around something that's not turned out well. This was clearly one of those times but nobody seemed to realise it. Also the King's "mouth" had a bit of a Vervoid look to it and we all know what they look like.

There were glimpses of goodness to be had here though. The abandoned Russian town with a big dam sitting ominously on the horizon was a cracking visual (shame they didn't do anything interesting with it). Prentis the Tivolian undertaker was a far more engaging character than I'd expected. It was interesting to see his desire for subjugation played with such open pervertedness, a contrast to the repressed portrayal David Walliams went with when he was cast as a similar character in 2011's God Complex. Even the idea of Doctor Who tackling ghosts remained interesting for part of this episode, until they went with spelling out the nature of them (electromagnetic echoes created by The Fisher King, whatevs) instead of leaving things open ended. A lack of definitive answer can work nicely, as The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit so nicely demonstrated years ago.

In short Toby Whithouse gave us two workmanlike scripts, the production team turned out a shonky monster but did themselves proud on finding a location and creating some (absolutely pointless) Russian trappings, and the episode was ultimately about an argument that's been done to death already and didn't actually play out fully here. There have been better episodes.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Under the Lake


Under the Lake was a more traditional episode of Doctor Who than either The Magician's Apprentice or The Witch's Familiar. With the eye-catching two part opener of series nine out of the way it was free to be, not having the pressure of incorporating returning villains or hooking people in for a twelve week run. This could have been a good thing, a celebration of the show's more successful tropes and storytelling devices. That would have been apt given that it's been ten years since the show's revival. Unfortunately it was given to Toby Whithouse, the writer with perhaps the most alarming hit and miss rate in all of New Who.

Whithouse's previous work on the show has run the gamut on quality and engagement. He started off with the inoffensive but also uninspiring School Reunion. In fairness that was a bit of a JNT-style shopping list in which Whithouse was tasked with reintroducing Sarah Jane Smith and K9 and utilising the then-underdeveloped Mickey in addition to giving us forty-five minutes of thrills 'n' spills but it's still noticeable that Whithouse never wrote for the show again while RTD was in charge.

A fair counter argument to that would be that he had something of a hit on his hands during the Davies eras. Being Human, the dramedy about a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire living together and sharing some good times and lols while also hiding their true nature from Joe Public. And okay, that was a popular series which took up a lot of time and could easily be the only reason he didn't return to Doctor Who sooner. But it was wrapping up when he wrote his first script under Moffat, and the later series of Being Human demonstrate my point as well as looking solely at his Who work does: Whithouse is a writer of inconsistent quality. Seriously, watch the first half of series one and the last half of series five. The difference is astonishing.

Under Moffat Whithosue has penned The Vampires of Venice (better than School Reunion but still a little band), The God Complex (one of the very best episodes Matt Smith's era produced), and A Town Called Mercy (one of the worst). Giving him a two part series was a gamble. His track record indicated that he'd either write something very dull or really quite engaging and good.

It was the former. Tasked with writing a ghost story Whithouse went to great lengths to play to some of the most well established ghost tropes, writing his spectres to phase through (most) solid objects, only come out at night, hover, and be generally inhuman and creepy. None of this was a bad idea. It made sense to write stereotypical ghosts given that this was Doctor Who Does Ghosts but he could, and should, have done unexpected things with our expectations. There were glimpses of something good, the computer controlled day-night mode, the ghosts wanting to kill to "amplify their signal and get attention", and the hints dropped about the spaceship were all very promising, but the episode never really felt that it accomplished anything beyond successfully reaching its cliffhanger and setting up the concluding half. I've discussed before how two part stories have to be viewed as a whole, making opening parts tricky to look at in isolation, but the way they're essentially written to essentially be two single part stories connected by a theme should ensure that each part is satisfying in its own right. This wasn't.

There's also that cliffhanger. The Doctor going back in time to find out what happened when the ship crashed. That's just yet more time travel as a plot device stuff that the Moffat era is already far too heavy on. It's okay occasionally but if the Doctor simply nips off in his time machine o sort things out in every episode then it eventually leaves people asking why he's not doing it in other episodes. And there's no easy answer to that beyond "Well that would make the episode rather boring or short or both."

The cliffhanger also showed as the ghost of the Doctor. Which is just utterly boring because it takes a lot of drama out of the story's central threat and the episode as a whole. We know now that anyone who becomes a ghost can also stop being a ghost, because we know the Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi not in ghost makeup, is fine later in the series. Perhaps Whithouse will find a way to pay off everything he set up, and in fairness I think there's a lot he included that will seem far more obvious come Before the Flood, but it's not a definite thing. And it won't make Under the Lake any more tolerable as a piece of television.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Witch's Familiar


I really wanted to like The Witch's Familiar.

The opening half of the story, The Magician's Apprentice, had been a rapidly moving bit of fun that fleshed out Moffat's take on the Doctor Who universe and made good use of both its leading man and its two biggest guest stars. This episode was never going to be that because the modern approach to writing two part stories is (sensibly) to leave the first half with a cliffhanger that changes the way the plot as a whole is approached by the audience, giving the second episode its own identity. That didn't mean it needed to be the frustrating, underwhelming and continuity-happy mess it was.

Which isn't to say there weren't good things in The Witch's Familiar. Julian Bleach and Michelle Gomez were both excellent, as was Peter Capaldi. Jenna Coleman, getting to do more than stride around being the inexplicable uber-boss of UNIT, was good too. The clever use of a limited number of sets1 was impressive if you're into that kind of thing (I am). The emphasis on conversations helped to disguise that we were actually getting a relatively cheap episode only one week into the new series.

Said conversations are actually my biggest gripe about the story. The basic idea, pairing the Doctor with Davros and Clara with Missy, was a good one. It gave the two regular characters new people to play off and the chance to tackle topics and roles they wouldn't get to take on with each other. This also benefited Gomez, who'll presumably be a semi-regular throughout Capaldi's tenure and will get more scenes with him in the future, and Bleach, who, as a character far less likely to return in the foreseeable future, absolutely should have spent the majority of his time on-screen with the show's lead character.

The execution let the idea down. This isn't a complaint about Missy's plan being to trap Clara inside a Dalek and have the Doctor kill her. That fit perfectly with everything we know about her and of her previous incarnations, dating all the way back to Delgado's Master. It's not a complaint about Davros's plan being to steal regeneration energy from the Doctor to revitalise the entire Dalek race either. While that was daft it was no more ridiculous than any of the other plots involving him. Let's not forgot that his last story saw him attempting to bring about "the destruction of REALITY ITSELF-UH!" Davros and Missy are characters that have absurd plans.

Where the pairings failed was in Moffat not doing anything interesting with them. And the worst part here is that he clearly thinks he did do something interesting with them. If he didn't these episodes would have been rewritten until they were better. Coleman and Gomez were landed with a load of expositional tosh about Daleks never dying and being pasted on the walls of sewers and the lengthy sequence of Clara discovering that she couldn't express her personality after she'd been placed into a Dalek. The former took up too much time considering the simplicity of it while the personality stuff felt like a waste. Being denied the right or ability to express will is a big theme and could have been played with far more. Coleman was great with what she was given on this, really getting across her frustration, panic and eventually fear, but it felt like a theme that should have been developed more rather than being a small part of a ninety minute story. The rest of their scenes were mostly about Missy proving she knew the Doctor more than Clara, which had already been sufficiently covered the week before. Jokes about pointy sticks weren't enough to paper over these gaps.

The Doctor and Davros stuff was better but that was at least in part because Moffat was channelling one of the most famous scenes in the show's history, the confrontation between Davros and the Fourth Doctor in Genesis of the Daleks. Steven Moffat is a clever, talented writer (for all my bashing of him I do recognise he's a clever, talented writer) but his strength is not in emotional exchanges like this. Someone like Russell T Davies could have done something marvellous with the Doctor and Davros debating the merits of their respective compassionate and aggressive approaches to dealing with others. Moffat couldn't, because his strength lies in plot twists, disguising exposition and creating cool visuals. Are we really expected to believe that the Doctor, believing Clara to be dead, would share a laugh and a joke with the creator of the most dangerous race in the universe? I can believe he'd have helped cure Davros, because he's a good, kind and compassion man (the point of the scenes) but laughing with him over nothing was too much to accept and a mistake I can't imagine RTD making. Once Davros's plan became apparent and he started ranting things improved (and for the record this was my favourite stuff from Bleach even though I enjoyed his more sombre, restrained performance) but that was only the last ten minutes or so and we'd seen it before.

The last failing the pairings gave us was a lack of a satisfying meeting between Missy and Davros. What could have been a great mad versus mad scene was instead cut down to a couple of lines from Missy in the midst of the episode's action-packed climax. Having seen Bleach's previous performance in the role and writing Missy's introductory story last series it's baffling as to why Moffles didn't capitalise on this meeting and give the two something to do together.

Other complaints are relatively minor. The sonic sunglasses are daft. Moffat's continual hammering at continuity (Missy has a daughter, reminders about Gallifrey returning, all those additions to Dalek lore and all the other extraneous references) were annoying. What I assume were references to the Faction Paradox series that most people reading this won't have ever heard of2, irritating because it's Moffat either being snide or blatantly raiding ideas (again). The Daleks renewal essentially being meaningless, additionally annoying because Moffat has never bothered to pick up on the Progenitor device thread from Victory of the Daleks3. The reduced role of Colony Sarff, the best new element MOffat's given the series in a very long time. Daleks saying "Mercy" being such a big deal when they've said it before. The title making even less sense than last week.

Ultimately the most interesting thing I took from the script was the tease of Missy teaming up with the Daleks in her final line of the episode. Which indicates that, sadly, series nine will be business as usual for Moffat's Who. A great pity after the promise of last week.

***

1 There were three: the Dalek Supreme's control room, Davros's lair, and the sewers.

2 Last week it was the almost too enigmatic line "There's just The War" and this week we had mentions of The Enemy, both in the young Davros scenes.

3 Using the Progenitor device as Davros's way of revitalising the Dalek race would have been far more satisfying than having a talking snake dangling from the roof.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Magician's Apprentice


Last year I wrote a chunk of stuff about two parters in Doctor Who, spurred by the two part story that ended Peter Capaldi's first series (read that here). This year we're getting at least three two part stories and there are hints that the remaining six may be connected pair. This makes writing about each episode trickier because you're looking at half of a story but I'm going to give it a go anyway.

Moffat has done this to spite me by the way. Add it to his list of crimes. 

The Magician's Apprentice was less about plot and more about setting things up for the second part. It kicked off with a pre-credits scene in which the Doctor realised a kid he'd somehow stumbled across on a muddy battlefield would grow up to become celebrated geneticist Davros, creator of the Daleks. After that we were shown the unsubtly villainous Colony Sarff visiting the Maldovarium (sadly there was no cameo from everyone's favourite blue git Dorium Maldovar), the RTD era Shadow Proclmation, and Karn in search of the Doctor. He didn't find him and returned to Davros, his employer, and was told to concentrate on the Doctor's friends. Luckily for Sarff he would end up picking the right friends from the dozens available.  

Clara was introduced being a Capable And Unphasable Teacher™, noticing planes were frozen in the sky and running off to be the boss of UNIT. Yeah seriously, a secondary school teacher is the boss of UNIT now. Clara strutted into UNIT HQ, barked out orders and was obeyed without question. She also made some astonishing leaps of logic to figure out what was going on with the planes. You want an example? She just knew planes being frozen in the sky wasn't an alien invasion because that was "too obvious. "

It turned out Missy was behind the planes and that she was chilling with a coffee in a village square somewhere. Clara was flown to have a chat with her, Missy killed some UNIT lads cplaying as FBI agents and was let off because she's a link to the Doctor or something. They finally located the Doctor in the twelfth century, using UNIT computers (I've no idea how that was meant to make sense) and Missy used a vortex manipulator to travel to him. After the Doctor was introduced in a fashion that people who find the non-word squee to be acceptable probably thought was just about the best thing ever (it involved a tank, an electric guitar and some stand-up comedy) the Colony Sarff turned, revealed himself to be a democratic pile of snakes, and teleported the Doctor, Missy and Clara into a handy spaceship. From there they were flown to a planet, the Doctor was confronted with an apparently dying Davros, and Missy and Clara were both seemingly killed minutes after the utterly unshocking revelation that the planet was Skaro, origin point of the Daleks. 

The episode ended with Missy preparing to betray Clara and the Doctor (natch) before she and Clara were killed (exterminated, if you will) and the Doctor somehow returning to the battlefield from the start of the episode to point a gun at young Davros.

I've been a little sarcastic above but I liked this episode. It felt like the sort of thing Moffat had always wanted to do with Smith's Doctor but hadn't quite worked out how to. He had time to let things develop naturally and made the world (or universe, whatevs) of the show eel bigger than it usually does by taking us on a tour of locations. He did lay it on a bit thick trying to make both the pre-credits and end of episode cliffhangers dramatic, making Missy seem deranged and the Daleks The Biggest Threat Ever but those were minor things. The good outweighed the bad.  

Although he was little more than a generic henchman Colony Sarff was an interesting new villain thanks to his fascinating design and the way he moved. He'd stepped straight out of an episode of Buffy (which is intended as a compliment). Credit to Jami Reid-Quarrell for putting in a performance that stood out despite him being in the same episode as Michelle Gomez's Missya and Julian Bleach's Master.

Missy was as good in this episode as she was in Dark Water and Death in Heaven. In fact she was possibly better. In the series eight finale she was written as mad and convinced that she and the Doctor are best mates, with a standard issue Delgado era crazy plan to her name. Here there was more to her as she actually got to work alongside the Doctor and Clara for a while, something I got the feeling Moffat's wanted to write for a while. It worked nicely thanks to a combination of Moffat's script and the pairing of Gomez and Capaldi. The swerve turn from Missy in the closing moments, which saw try to convince the Daleks to keep her alive so she could help them "burn" the universe before they shot her, would have been irritating applied to any other character but it fit with the Master's history here.

Beyond this the set design was typically on point, Murray Gold's music was as apt as it always is and was less oppressive than it can be, and the supporting cast was inoffensive. Plus we got the return of Julian Bleach as Davros. It's possible that this was something people knew about before the episode aired but I didn't and it was a really nice surprise, an argument in favour of not reading spoiler sites. Bleach made a nice counter to Gomez, playing Davros as contemplative and exhausted while she made Missy eccentric and extroverted. I'd be interested in them sharing a scene in next week's episode, especially if Bleach got to show some of the mania he demonstrated in The Stolen Earth and Journey's End. Y'know, that story where he gleefully ranted about destroying reality itself.

In short I think The Magician's Apprentice was Moffat's best overall script since 2010's The Eleventh Hour. The show finally felt like it was taking the approach people expected from Moffles as executive producer. I hope next week's episode, and the rest of this series, can maintain this standard.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Last Christmas


When I first watched Last Christmas it seemed fairly innocuous. Some stuff happened, there were some laughs, and Clara and the Doctor made friends after having a Grown-Up falling Out at the end of series eight. But after I'd finished watching it I couldn't remember anything specific about it. Since then I've watched it a further two times in an attempt to work out the specifics of the story, the "stuff" that happens.

It's a difficult task. When Christmas specials first hit Doctor Who then-showrunner Russell T Davies made the sensible decision to tailor them to an audience that was not paying attention. Because on Christmas Day kids have new toys to play with, adults have booze to drink, and a fair number of people are being subjected to Doctor Who rather than choosing to watch it. Even when a Christmas special coincided with a Doctor debuting or leaving RTD managed to keep things relatively light. He’d smuggle things in for the fans but the plot was always simple, the threat always obvious and the resolution always happy.

Steven Moffat doesn't use this approach. His Christmas specials are like any other episodes but with festive motifs and framing tossed in where possible. It’s because he and Davies view the programme in completely different ways. RTD wants it to be about people and their relationships. Moffat wants it to be about ideas.

Personally I don't think there are enough things on TV (particularly the publicly funded BBC) that focus on ideas over character. More things like Moffat's Who wouldn't go amiss. But saying that isn't the same as saying Moffat's approach is right for this show. It isn't. It obviously isn't, because a flagship BBC drama is not the place to focus on ideas over characters.

And Moffat just as obviously knows this. That's why he never fully commits to episodes about ideas. But he doesn't move away from his idea focus either. This leaves us with Christmas specials that are an awkward mix of Moffat's preferred approach, Big Ideas™, and what the BBC want from a big budget drama, characterisation. In trying to accomplish two things at once he doesn't manage either to a satisfying degree.

This episode seemed designed to mix the best of Alien and Inception. That’s an odd combination anyway but it’s particularly strange that it was chosen as the basis of a Christmas episode. But then, as I’ve already pointed out, Moffat doesn’t seem particularly bothered with differentiating his Christmas episodes from his regular episodes in anything beyond the most obvious ways possible.

Which neatly brings us to the inclusion of Father Christmas. It’s an obvious idea but that doesn’t make it a bad one. It’s the sort of things Doctor Who can do well: make Santa a living, breathing, real person. It’s surprising that someone as avowedly in favour of Christmas episodes being Charistmassy as Russell T Davies is didn’t get round to the idea when he was in charge. It’s a simple, easy-to-follow concept and it holds a particular interest for kids (of the right age).

Sadly Moffat didn’t really do much with Santa. He made some funnies, revealed a dark edge and then dropped out of the episode, reappearing sporadically whenever a plot device was needed. By the end it was left unclear whether he’d even been real or not. The air of mystery was welcome. The half-hearted way Moffat used the character for the majority of the episode was not. It was a misfire and spectacularly wasted opportunity to explore the modern concept of Christmas using a world renowned, public domain character.

The layered dream sequence approach is what really made this episode feel generic. Had it been stripped of Santa and the vaguely Christmas setting it could have been comfortably moved to the middle of a series without any problems.

This dream sequencing stuff is, of course, what led to one of the most awful scenes of the episode: Clara waking as an old woman and accepting that she was close to death. Except of course she wasn’t: she had a Dream Hugger attached to her face making her think she’d lived a full life without the Doctor and was near death. I suspect the scene was included to play into the rumours (which Moffat had helped fuel) that Jenna Coleman would be leaving the show. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d had two endings in mind, one for Coleman staying and another for her leaving, in which Clara did actually die of old age. The return of the wooden Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink (for the record I think this was his worst ever performance on the series) was practically welcome by comparison.

Basically there were a lot of things that were worth including here. Father Christmas, the dreams within dreams, and the creepy aliens all had something to offer. But, as I’ve written before about Moffat episodes, too much was crammed into too short a time. You have to wonder what exactly was “special” about this Christmas special.