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.