Tag Archives: series 9

Davros, Missy and The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar (2015)

magwitch

Have you caught that clip from Gogglebox Australia, where the resident group of couch potatoes are invited to watch The Witch’s Familiar? (“You know who likes these sort of shows?” says one of the watching bogans. “Nerds!”). In bad news for nerds everywhere, it goes down very badly.

There’s general grumpiness about the pace, the special effects, the dialogue… and some particularly filthy humour about what the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is about to do for Davros (Julian Bleach) when he starts limbering up his regenerative wrist. It doesn’t really matter if we give a toss (ahem) about the opinions of these Who-hating boxheads. But what it shows is that a general audience found this particular episode incomprehensible.

I’ve occasionally voiced skepticism about whether too much indulgence in continuity really does alienate a general audience. In fact, I alluded to it last post when talking about Attack of the Cybermen. But that much maligned nostalgia fest is no contest for this other two-part series opener when it comes to over reliance on references to the show’s past. (Sure, I was going to say “fanwank,” but that would have been three references to masturbation in two paragraphs of a normally G rated blog, so let’s not go there.)

At times, it seems this story can’t go 30 seconds without a reference to what happened last year, what happened last regeneration or how there are three versions of Atlantis. It contains a cavalcade of Daleks from every era of the program… which only excites if you’ve actually noticed that there have been different Dalek designs over the years.

And it not just referencing past stories, it’s embedded in them. Its very premise is based on that famous line of dialogue from 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, which posed a moral dilemma about murdering a child who would, if allowed to live, grow up to be a dictator. After visits to Karn, the Maldovarium and the Shadow Proclamation, eventually the story seems ill at ease with the extent of its own self referencing. Witness the torturous build up to the reveal of the invisible planet as Skaro, and how it forces a rare moment of over acting from Capaldi (“Skaro! You’ve brought me to Skaro!”). You sense the desperation inherent in trying to make an audience realise why they should care about a place they’ve probably never heard of.

So no wonder those Goggleboxers can’t get a grip on this story. (No, that’s not another reference to… quiet up the back, please.) But all these shoutouts to the past are just symptoms of a more fundamental affliction: the show’s deep fascination with itself and some of its long standing characters.

***

This story brings together two super villains, Missy (Michelle Gomez) and Davros, and not just for a 2 for the price of 1, season opening spectacle. It brings them together to ask, can either of these infamous badasses be redeemed?

Redemption will turn out to be the dominant theme of the Capaldi era. The Doctor spent the whole of Series 8 wondering if he was a good man. Series 10 will devote much time to rehabilitating Missy. And in between, there’s this story, where Missy is pressed into service to help the Doctor and thus be uncharacteristically altruistic and Davros appears to be having an end of life epiphany. The question this era is constantly asking is, can people change for the better?

In Davros’s case, the answer is no. It’s a ruse. But to generate any tension out of this “has he/hasn’t he turned good” scenario, there has to be a slow, gradual exploration of his apparent change of heart. Played out over the majority of The Witch’s Familiar as a discussion between Doctor and Davros, it’s a deeply portentous debate. It’s what our impatient Goggleboxers objected to the most, and on rewatching, it’s hard to disagree with them.

Missy’s situation is different. She comes to the Doctor’s aid, thinking he’s about to die. She does this under a claim to being the Doctor’s oldest friend, the Time Lord definition of which is large enough to encompass being long-term enemies as well.

On Doctor Who Extra, writer Steven Moffat claimed that a friendship between the two is more interesting than an ongoing feud. I think he’s only half right. What’s interesting about that scenario, and has been for 40 years, is the story of a friendship lost, which has mutated into hatred. The version presented here, that Time Lord friendship can exist in tandem with deadly rivalry, is just confusing.

Back when she was the Master, of course, Missy did come to the aid of four Doctors and one stuck in wavy video effect. On that occasion, his motivation was clear: the promised reward of a new regeneration cycle. It’s not at all clear what Missy’s getting out of helping the Doctor out now. Nothing, it seems. So in fact, it appears that she is indeed acting altruistically, which is a big character U-turn. It’s only her last minute decision, seemingly on impulse, to try and manipulate the Doctor into shooting a Dalek-encased Clara (Jenna Coleman), which reminds us that she is actually wanting to harm, nor help, our hero.

Again, all this requires a deep commitment to Doctor Who to give even the scantest of figs about.

***

The difference between the redemptive stories of Davros and Missy is that at least Missy’s is fun. I suspect that for an audience which has never heard of Skaro!You’veTakenMeToSkaro! it’s hard to get anything out of Davros’s story, no matter how adorable he looked as an 8 year old.

But Missy can at least be relied upon to crack a few jokes, be deliciously sneaky and mistreat Clara to comic effect. And as long as she’s being the most interesting thing in the story, I’ll bet no one’s in any hurry to find out whether or not she sorts herself out. (I’m sorry. I promise that’s the last one.)

The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar mini quiz

  1. Where did the Doctor get his cup of tea?
  2. Where did the Doctor get his tank?
  3. Where did Missy get the rope she uses to tie up Clara?
  4. Where did Davros get those clips from past Dalek stories? (Did he buy the Davros collection DVD box set?)
  5. Where did Colony Scarf get their Segway?

NEXT TIME… here’s Marco Polo. Come for it!

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Unanswered questions, unreliable memories and Hell Bent (2015)

hellbent

Part 1: The Barn of Mystery

In recent years, we’ve learned a little more about our mysterious, powerful Doctor (Peter Capaldi). Specifically, that when he was a young boy, he used to cry himself to sleep in a barn. Now, in big moments in his life, such as in Hell Bent, after he’s just spent four and a half billion years in an ashtray, he returns to said barn.

But here’s the thing: where’s the farm which utilises this barn? In fact, what could you farm in the desolate orange wasteland of Gallifrey? What gets stored in this barn anyway? Perigosto sticks? Shaboogan toboggans? What’s going on here?

Then, when the Doctor has returned to the barn, he’s greeted by a group of locals. Not Time Lords (no fancy robes, you see). Instead, they dress like extras from a spaghetti western. The gather in a clump to stare silently at the Doctor. Then they offer him one bowl of tomato soup. Which they insist he eats outside his barn. Well, you don’t want to risk spilling soup on your perigosto stick.

Again, just like there’s no farm, there’s no visible township from where these soup offerers have emerged. Where have they all come from? Why have they come at all? Where’s the bread roll? What’s for main?

Here’s my explanation. The Doctor’s barn is actually in a small but tightknit farming community. But the Doctor’s family farm, and all the other farms and buildings, have their chameleon circuits switched on so we can’t see them. The townsfolk have all taken a vow of silence until someone gives them all big collars. Their tradition is to offer newcomers one bowl of al fresco gazpacho. That’s my head canon and you can’t take it away from me.

Part 2: The Chamber of Dubious Utility

Having scared off an army and a despot with only his reputation and an entree, the Doctor heads off to the Capitol to kick some scarlet robed ass. There he demands access to an extraction chamber, so he can (he claims) consult dead companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) about the legendary Hybrid. In fact, he snatches Clara away from the point of her death and abducts her to freedom.

But, um, why do Time Lords need extraction chambers in order to whisk people away from death for a quick natter? Don’t they have complete mastery over time? If they wanted to talk to, well, anyone at any point of their lives, they can do so whenever they like. We might as well call it a plot advancement chamber.

Once the Doctor has successfully extracted Clara, punched a guy in the face and then shot him, he demands a “neural block, human compatible,” and a flunky grabs one from a nearby time/space cupboard. If they have “human compatible” ones on hand, how many other varieties to they have to keep in stock? And why do they keep these nifty little memory wipes in the plot advancement chamber? (Perhaps I’ve answered my own question there).

Part 3:  The Monsters who don’t.

Gallifrey, you would have noticed, is back. Although until recently, it was lost. Frozen in another dimension. This was a big ‘ol thing. Tom Baker came back especially to tell Matt Smith to go search for it. Consoles were punched and tears were shed when Doctor Capaldi couldn’t find it. How did it get back into our universe? “They must have unfrozen it and come back,” shrugs the Doctor. Well, that clears that up then.

While we’re talking unanswered questions, let’s slip from the fictional to the real world: why create a monster you never use? Guarding the subterranean Matrix, are the spooky Cloister Wraiths. They glide around like Georgian state dancers and their faces are transfixed in eerie static filled screams. They can best Daleks, Cybermen and the Weeping Angels. They are a worthy addition to the Doctor Who Monster Book. And they do… precisely nothing. They don’t threaten the Doctor. In fact, they don’t do anything. They might at least have offered our heroes more soup.

Part 4: The Hybrid of Obscurity

It’s Orpheus in the Underworld, isn’t it? The Doctor descends into forbidden worlds to rescue his love from death, only to lose her again on the climb out. In doing so, he realises there are some things you can’t fight. It’s a great plot, the basis for many a retread. And that’s probably all an episode like this needs.

So given that Hell Bent has a perfectly serviceable plot, why clutter it with so much else? Why, for instance, do we care about the Hybrid? The Hybrid, it transpires, is not some big bad monster, ready to wreak havoc on Gallifrey. It’s far more theoretical than that. It’s the combination of the Doctor and Clara which causes them both to go to such extremes that the universe might end up as collateral damage.

The operative word being “might”. I mean, I can see an ending where the Doctor finds himself burning up whole star systems in order to keep Clara alive and realises that he has become the thing he always feared. But what terrible consequences have come about this episode from this dangerous combination? Well, one Time Lord was forced to regenerate and one TARDIS was stolen. Hardly apocalyptic stuff.

Also, why do we need that side trip to the Universe’s end to collect Ashildr (Maisie Williams)? Other than, of course, to collect Ashildr so that she can be Clara’s new companion. And I suppose, to resolve her relationship with the Doctor post her actions in Face the Raven, which this doesn’t really do. It’s at this point in the episode you sense events and characters moving into place, not in a natural way which sets up an inevitable conclusion, but instead in a contrived way to facilitate a pre-determined conclusion.

That pre-determined conclusion is the Doctor having his memory of Clara wiped (a fate some of her fannish critics may have welcomed). As heart-rending as this is, only a couple of seconds pass before the whole conceit falls apart. The Doctor can recall his experiences with Clara but not what she looks like… so this whole Hybrid threat might be back on again, if he happened to come across a picture of her, like, oh I don’t know, the one painted on the outside of his TARDIS?  In any rate the whole problem is fixed in Twice Upon a Time and the new Doctor, I boldly predict, will resist the temptation to track down Clara and form a universe-ending partnership.

By which I mean, she’ll just forget about it. And the barn, the wraiths, the soup and the whole bewildering affair. Must have taken one hell of a neural block.

FOREHEAD SLAP MOMENT. The General has just regenerated from male to female in front of us. The Time Lords’ gender fluidity finally and incontrovertibly proven! And then in the very next scene she says, “We need to block every exit from the Cloisters. Every available man.” Ah well.

LINK TO… Midnight. Both directed by women.

NEXT TIME… Eldrad must live as we’re offered The Hand of Fear.

Cryptic, caustic and Under the Lake/Before the Flood (2015)

flood

Let’s say you’re a wounded alien warlord stranded in an ersatz Soviet training camp in Scotland in 1980. (I know. That old story, right?) You need to send a message to your homeys to come and pick you up and heal you. So you can set up a rescue beacon. Or call a space Uber or something right?

Sure, you could do that… if you’re from Planet Mundane! But the Fisher King (Neil Fingleton, and the voice of Peter Serafinowicz) is not. Nowhere near. No, he prefers a more ingenious method. He scratches some alien symbols on the wall of a spaceship. These symbols have the power to embed themselves in your subconscious without you knowing or wanting them to. Y’know, like dialogue by Eric Saward.

The symbols are actually the directions needed to find the Fisher King, but this is no simple set of galactic coordinates. Nothing so helpful. These directions are in the form of a particularly oblique brain teaser. The instructions in question are “the darkness, the sword, the foresaken, the temple,” which is a bit like giving the ambulance a cryptic crossword puzzle to solve in order to find your house so they can stop you from dying.

So anyway, the directions you so desperately need to get to your would-be rescuers are lying dormant in the minds of unsuspecting graffiti readers. To transmit those directions, the folks with the quizzical message embedded in their brains, have to die. Then they (somehow) turn into spectral beings with murderous intent, all the better to bolster their numbers and boost the signal and get His Majesty of the Fishers home and hosed.

Who said writer Toby Whithouse likes to over complicate his underlying concepts? Oh that’s right, it was me. Here. And here.

Now let’s say you’re a caustic old Time Lord whose accent makes him sound right at home in 1980s Scotland (Peter Capaldi). You need to find out how this whole “ghosts in the Drum” thing started, so you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.

(The Drum being the name of the underwater base which is housing all the action. Its main feature is lots of lovely corridors to run down. The lake it’s submerged in never gets a name, but I like to think of it as Lake Siege. Then it could literally be a base under siege. Well, I’d laugh.)

Anyway, you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.  There you discover the Fisher King and work out his nefarious, if overcomplicated, scheme. Easy enough to stop that – just blow up the dam wall and drown the sucker.

Thing is, you need to send a message to yourself from the future to spur you into action. So probably the easiest thing to do is write yourself a note. Maybe on the side of the spaceship, seeing as that’s where everyone goes for some light reading.

Doctor. The thing causing all the ghosts is a big alien nasty called the Fisher King and Clara’s next on his hit list. Go back in time and blow up the dam. Record the roar of the Fisher King as you do, so you can trap the ghosts in the Faraday cage. Also, never wear that jumper with the holes in it again, you look a right berk. Love, the Doctor.

Simple, right? But we don’t do “simple” around here, oh no. So what you do is write a piece of sentient software (in the TARDIS, I suppose) which creates a hologram (somehow. Not sure how it gets projected) that can walk and talk around everyone else. It will look like one of the ghosts and activate at a pre-determined time once you’ve left the base. You know, just to freak everyone out.

Then your Doctor Ghost will start to mouth a sequence of names, in order of who’s going to die (again, it might be simpler for him to just say what’s going on, but a silent list of names is much more complex). Including Clara in this list will be the catalyst for you to act, but if you throw in one of the crew members’ names before hers, that crew member will needlessly die, so watch out for that.

(To make matter worse, that crew member is the glorious Alice O’Donnell (Morven Christie), one half of my new favourite twin set of would-be companions, O’Donnell and Bennett (Arsher Ali). She’s full of fangirl enthusiasm, he’s all caution mixed with scientific curiosity. Plus both have practical skills from working in a military base and they have unresolved sexual tension between them. Perfect! When they board the TARDIS for our quick trip back to 1980, they look absolutely right beside Capaldi’s spiky Doctor. They could have been the Barbara and Ian of our times. Ah well.)

So your holographic ghost will be mouthing names spookily but also wandering about the place. In this way, your ghost can also pointlessly menace the remaining crew members by, say, helpfully letting all the ghosts out of the Faraday cage and letting them continue their killing spree. This isn’t strictly necessary but it extends the terrifying ordeal a bit longer for everyone and keep them on their toes.

I shouldn’t moan. I genuinely like this story with its creepy setting and its likable characters. I’d say it’s Whithouse’s best work for the show, though there’s a lot to be said for the old adage, “keep it simple.”

But why characters who want to communicate with their future selves insist on leaving cryptic messages all over the place instead of just writing a note always baffles me. I call it the Bad Wolf paradox and it’s far more prevalent than the “bootstrap paradox.” I wish the Doctor would spend a pre-credits sequence explaining that one.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: when Prentis suggests the Doctor could “oppress him” the subtitles suggest “appraise him” like he’s on Antiques Roadshow.

LINK TO The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: each feature avatars of Doctor Who fans – O’Donnell and the Whizz Kid.

NEXT TIME… You stupid butcher! It’s time to embark on The Crusade.

Underdogs, overlords and The Girl Who Died (2015)

girlwhodied

Of all the Doctors to star in a Doctor Who version of The Mighty Ducks, Peter Capaldi’s acerbic version seems one of the most unlikely. (Not the most unlikely, which would surely be Hartnell. “What, dear boy? I prefer walking to skating any day.”) Still, that’s what happens in The Girl Who Died, as he becomes responsible for training a group of hopeless Vikings for a fight against a group of relentless alien brutes, the Mire. It’s your classic underdog story, played pretty much for laughs, with Vikings too clumsy, too uncoordinated or too afraid of blood to be of any use.

The laughs can’t last for long though. The stakes are much higher than for a hockey match, football game or Jamaican bobsled team. If the Mire win, everyone in this village dies. The weight of that rests heavily on the Doctor’s shoulders.

This is a great episode for Capaldi, who gets to show that responsibility on every square inch of that deeply lined face. But he also gets to be funny and soulful. My favourite aspect is his ability to hear and translate the cries of a baby. P-Cap sells it. You really believe that he can speak baby and that his outlook on the fate of this ragtag bunch is changed irrevocably because of it.

On top of that, he gets to play out the Doctor’s grief and anger when his new friend Ashildr (Maisie Williams) is killed in battle, his furious determination to bring her back to life and the slow, hangover of a realisation that he may have sentenced this young girl to immortality. For a jokey script, it ends on a note of foreboding. In fact, it’s not miles away from the feel of Donald Cotton’s Hartnell stories, with historical settings full of gags which turn serious in the final reel.

But there’s something great about how the Doctor manages to beat the Mire. As Clara (Jenna Coleman) points out to him, teaching people to fight is not his style and she knows he’s not going to win until he comes up with a more Doctorly plan. This he eventually does, and as he says, it’s a doozy, complete with subterfuge, a dance, an elaborate pulley system, space YouTube and a tub of electric eels. Even by the Doctor’s standards, it’s mental. But he proves once again that the bullies and the warmongers can be overcome by using your brain. As essentially Doctor Who as that message is, it can never be said enough.

Then there’s Clara, who’s continuing on her journey to would-be Doctordom. She gets herself transported to the Mire’s spacecraft and straight into a conversation with Odin (David Schofield, who’s fine but oh, it woulda coulda shoulda been BRIAN BLESSED!) in which she very nearly manages to end the story 30 minutes early by scaring him off, with threats of advanced technology and half a pair of sonic sunglasses. And Coleman carries it brilliantly with exactly the sort poise that infuriates fans who hate her getting more screen time than the Doctor.

The other side of Clara shown here is her indispensability in getting the Doctor to win through. She is not so much his teacher, as shown in Into the Dalek, but a sort of motivational coach. When he’s ready to abandon the Vikings because they haven’t had the common sense to take his suggestion about fleeing, she gently questions him until he decides to save them – a decision she knows he’ll make, with some prodding from her. Later, when he’s despairing about the general rubbishness of his fighting force, she presses him to change tactics. She’s a prompt for his actions. Almost his manipulator.

It’s a co-dependent relationship. The Doctor needs Clara in order to function like a hero. Clara needs the Doctor to show her how to become a hero. It’s not exactly a cozy relationship, but between them, they are a functioning team, each making up for the other’s shortcomings. So it makes dramatic sense to throw in a third character to shake them up.

And so to Ashildr, the village’s storyteller and feisty teenage girl. Despite her young age, she’s a catalyst for the story’s big events. It’s her recklessness which leads to the Mire deciding to stay and fight and gives us the Mighty Ducks. It’s her puppetry hobby that inspires the Doctor’s wacky plan with the fake dragon. And it’s her imagination which feeds the illusion of the mighty beast into the Mire’s helmets. In many ways, it’s her story, not just because it’s named after her.

Both the Doctor and Clara are strangely drawn to her. The Doctor, as he explains, is haunted by a kind of future memory of her. Clara seems to have a crush on her (“Fight you for her,” she offers the Doctor at one stage). Both treat her as a potential protégé. In other circumstances, she might have been asked to board the TARDIS as a new companion.

Instead, she becomes the focus of the Doctor’s tempestuous grief, when she dies through a miscalculation in his plan. He breaks his own rules, lets her absorb some Mire technology, resurrects her and makes her immortal. But this tells us nothing new about the Doctor. That he’s a man of great power, that he’ll break his own rules when pushed, that he can take an ordinary person and turn them into a being of universal significance… all this we knew before The Girl Who Died.

But we didn’t know this vengeful god of a Doctor would turn up in the middle of what has been, up to that point, a jaunty historical comedy. After all, this is a story with Odin appearing in the sky straight from Monty Python and comic antics accompanied by the Benny Hill theme. It’s not where you expect to find a portentous immortal being created by an act of Doctorly rage.

That’s OK. This show’s frequently been about contrasting light and dark. And if it’s an uncomfortable mix in this episode, then The Time Meddler, Delta and the Bannermen and The Fires of Pompeii all have something to say about that. The only surprise is that a story-bending character like Ashildr, who will go on to be an ongoing force in the Doctor’s life, and who will eventually split our cozy couple apart, should emerge from such jolly hijinks as this.

Anyway, I best get on with my pitch to Big Finish. It’s called The Mighty Duxatrons. It stars David Bradley as the first Doctor. Emilio Estevez is going to co star. Underdogs as far as the eye can see.

LINK TO The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End: in flashback, we see the tenth Doctor and Donna again.

NEXT TIME: What a stupid fool you are! Let’s play The War Games.

 

 

Secrets, separation and The Husbands of River Song (2015)

riversong

There’s a disquieting undertone to this episode, despite it being a big, bold Chrismassy romcom. Yes, it’s the episode that wraps up the relationship between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi, relishing the comic moments) and River Song (Alex Kingston, relishing every bit of it), and it does so in a festive melange of romance and continuity references. Yes, it’s a genuinely funny knockabout caper which celebrates the bond between two fascinating characters. But there’s a nagging concern I’ve been unable to shake. Here it is:

This is the story where River’s true self is revealed to the Doctor. And then he dumps her.

Much was made in this story’s pre-publicity of the comedy value of the Doctor seeing what River does when he’s not around. Due to an unlikely combination of contrivances (River’s convinced the Doctor has a limit of 12 faces, he’s been introduced as ‘the surgeon’), she doesn’t twig who he is, and so she lets the veil drop a little.

We meet a far naughtier character that we’ve seen her be before. We see that she has multiple husbands and multiple wives. That she’s prepare to marry a villain in order to steal from him and kill him. That she borrows the TARDIS when the Doctor’s not looking and stores hooch in a handy roundel. That she’s welcomed onto a spaceship full of mass murderers.

The Doctor looks suitably bemused at all these revelations. But it’s a short exchange with River over dinner that really seems to rock him. She talks about how she got King Hydroflax (Greg Davies) to fall in love with her.

RIVER: It’s the easiest lie you can tell a man. They’ll automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.

And she holds up her TARDIS diary to emphasize the point. Later…

DOCTOR: …you look sad.

RIVER: It’s nearly full.

DOCTOR: So?

RIVER: The man who gave me this was the sort of man who’d know exactly how long a diary you were going to need.

DOCTOR: He sounds awful.

RIVER: I suppose he is. I’ve never really thought about it.

DOCTOR: Not somebody special then?

RIVER: No. But terribly useful every now and then.

Of course, she’s shielding her true feelings, but still, it’s clear that these words sting the Doctor. Later on, in a more honest and revealing moment, River explains that while she loves the Doctor, he doesn’t love her in return.

RIVER: When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!

Penny in the air. She turns to look at the Doctor. Penny drops.

DOCTOR: Hello, sweetie.

It’s a moment of reaffirmation. But the damage appears to be done. This relationship is toast. And River won’t get a say in how it ends.

Consider what happens next. The spaceship, under assault from a meteor storm, dive bombs into a planet. River recognizes the planet immediately as Darillium. We fans know what happens on Darillium. It’s the site of her final meeting with the Doctor before she dies. To escape the crash, the Doctor and River take shelter in the TARDIS. It survives the crash and is planted on Darillium. River is unconscious. The Doctor is awake. And now he has choices.

He could take off again. He and River could go off adventuring anew. No need to stop the fun. Another great escape.

But he doesn’t do that. He makes a conscious decision to engineer the building of a restaurant of Darillium so that he can take River for dinner there, and spend their last night together. He knows this will precipitate the end of their relationship. He does it anyway. It his opinion, it’s time.

Two things bug me about this:

He does it without consulting River. There are two people in this relationship but the Doctor is the one who decides to end it. Why doesn’t he discuss it with her? Presumably because he knows she won’t want to go, but everything has its time and every Christmas is last Christmas or something. Imagine if your partner took an action he/she knew was going to end your relationship, but didn’t discuss it with you. Or did it while you were unconscious! It’s pretty appalling.

He does this after she revealed her true self to him. There have been no end of opportunities for the Doctor to take River to Darillium. He chose this time. What’s different about this time? It’s all as exciting and wisecracking as usual, except this time, River has displayed some habits he doesn’t like. There is air of punishment about this, which is, well, icky. If you don’t like her stealing your TARDIS and murdering despots for jewels, then say something. Don’t just unilaterally decide to end the relationship.

When River works out what’s going on, she naturally protests. She begs for a loophole, for another chance. But the Doctor’s mind is made up. The silver lining? One night on Darillium lasts twenty-four years.

Well that sounds alright in theory, but have these two met each other? Neither of them can stand still for a minute and they’re proposing to spend nearly a quarter of a century in a restaurant? Personally I don’t think it will last twenty-four hours, let alone years.

Perhaps that’s River’s revenge. Perhaps while he’s off to the loo, she steals his TARDIS and pilots it twenty-three-and-three-quarters years into the future. That’ll serve the manipulative old git right!

LINK TO The Three Doctors: “remember that time when there was two of you?” says River. She wasn’t talking about The Three Doctors, but still.

NEXT TIME… As my random who generator’s will, so mote it be! It’s time to summon up The Dæmons.

 

Capaldi, Moffat and Heaven Sent (2015)

heavensent

Tom Baker, at the height of his Doctordom, used to advocate for a Doctor Who which he starred in solo, with no need for a companion. He saw, I think it’s fair to say, the potential for him to hold an audience’s attention solo. Probably through the force of his own personality, but it’s not an unreasonable proposition – as The Deadly Assassin proved – that the Doctor as a dominant central character can hold a story’s narrative together on his own.

And since then, we’ve seen Doctors Tennant and Smith in companion-lite stories, and the model has worked just fine. But always these have remained ensemble pieces, with our solitary Doctor interacting with a guest cast . It’s not until Heaven Sent we get a story which is not just companion-lite, but everything-but-the-Doctor-lite. It’s the sort of episode Tom Baker must have dreamt of, back in day.

Heaven Sent is many things, not least of which an extraordinary vote of confidence in Peter Capaldi. Never before has one actor been entrusted with keeping a Doctor Who audience captivated all by himself. But it’s also a case of showrunner Steven Moffat continuing to experiment with the show’s form. He’s also, I suspect, keeping himself interested, even challenging himself with episodes like this one and Listen which in essence ask the same question that The Deadly Assassin did… Which is, can we pull this radical idea off?

So Heaven Sent is about those two men, as much as it’s about the Doctor deducing his way out of his own bespoke torture chamber. Let’s start with…

Capaldi

Of all the actors to play the Doctor, Capaldi comes to it with the most distinguished resume. Only Eccleston I think could challenge him for pre-Who actorly kudos. Capaldi’s experience is written all over that well lined face of his and he brings all of that to bear on his performance of the Doctor.

He can be the subtlest of Doctors; I remember watching Deep Breath  for the first time and being impressed with what he could do with the slightest gesture or the smallest flick of an eye. If his performance has been painted with ever broader brushstrokes since then, we might put this down to the need to develop a bigger performance to match Doctor Who’s pace; eyes become wider, laughs more extravagant, snarls more ferocious.

Capaldi is also an actor who moves with precision. In Heaven Sent, look at the considered way he picks up a spade or lets sand run though his fingers. Compare this to the brio of David Tennant, sailing into a scene, coat billowing. Or the teeter totter movement Matt Smith made his signature move. Capaldi’s careful choice of gesture and gait is an important character note; his is a Doctor who considers, who internalises and who wastes no energy on wild flailing about.

His voice is also distinctive, and crucial to the foreboding atmosphere of Heaven Sent, much of which is told in voice over. The decision to keep his Scots accent (don’t send him to that Chameleon spaceship!) is an interesting one, and one which, along with his initially close cropped hair, tied him closely to his other famous TV role, Malcolm Tucker. Luckily though, it’s a terrific voice, loaded with gravitas and it adds to the doom laden feeling of this episode.

These days, the ghost of Malcolm Tucker has faded almost entirely. Capaldi’s new, more Doctorly, costume has helped that. At the beginning of his second season, he was wearing check trousers like Troughton, and how he has a burgundy frock coat ala Tom Baker. All this, plus his hair has now grown into a Pertwee-esque bouffant. He now not only looks like a classic Doctor, he’s deliberately imitating them, right down to his (thankfully unseen) question mark underwear.

All this gushing is just to point out that Capaldi’s Doctor has developed into someone really interesting. Still spikily bad tempered, but with a growing sense of wry humour. A Doctor who looks and sounds the part. Played by an actor with care and precision. It’s why there was no doubt he could hold our attention solo for 45 minutes, because he’s utterly compelling.

Moffat

To make a Doctor solo episode work, Moffat pulls a range of narrative tricks. The problem he faces is that the Doctor has to have some dialogue to explain what’s going on, but he has no one to speak to. As noted, there’s the voice over, turning the Doctor into a commentator on his own story and giving the impression that the viewer’s allowed access to his innermost thoughts.

Moffat also gives the Doctor two people to talk to while he’s alone. The first is his unseen imprisoner, at whom he rails and shouts threats. But soon his attention switches to the monstrous Veil (Jamie Reid Quarrel), a creature plucked from his own childhood fears. Either way, the Doctor now has someone to speculate about the plot in front of. This exposition doesn’t lack an audience; in effect the viewer takes the place of the absent companion.

Then there’s the ‘storm room’, a mental stronghold which sounds suspiciously like Sherlock’s mind palace, and which enables the Doctor to talk to an hallucination of Clara. The storm room is where he retreats to at moments of mortal peril, which is very handy. It gets Moffat out of the need for a companion to ask, ‘how did you get out of that one?’ So between these three tricks – talking to himself (through voiceover), talking to the monster and talking in a dream sequence, Moffat deftly manouevers around the lack of supporting characters.

Heaven Sent is more than just Moffat pulling off some impressive narrative tricks, though. It’s also about finding new things to do with this show, in his sixth year of running it. He wants to keep the show fresh, of course, but I think it’s also about his own need to remain challenged and engaged by the show. There’s a sense, in the later years of his reign, of Moffat needing to stretch the show’s format further and further in order to keep himself amused. Luckily, I think the show’s the stronger for it.

There’s still some familiar Moffat tropes: hard drives that save people, an entire ‘bespoke’ situation designed around the Doctor, a twist in the final reel (and what a twist. When that remarkable closing sequence showing multiple subsequent repetitions of the Doctor’s quest from beginning to end, and the penny dropped as to what the long term effect was, I must confess to giving the Moff a quiet round of applause for the sheer cleverness of it).

Still, this feels startlingly new, while still managing to recall that Deadly Assassin by placing a solo Doctor in a trippy, dream world trap of Time Lord making. Plus there’s the added layer of meaning now that we know that Moffat was attempting to leave Doctor Who at the end of this season, that the Doctor himself stands as an avatar for the writer, trapped in a puzzle box of a TV series desperately trying to escape.

That’s what Heaven Sent says to me. One man liberated from the series’ standard format, seizing the opportunity to show how extraordinary he and his Doctor can be. And another man fighting against that format, to keep himself motivated and his writing vital, all the time with one eye on the exit, even if he has to bash his way through a wall of stone to get to it, one punch at a time.

LINK TO The Faceless Ones: duplication processes.

NEXT TIME: Which one was your favourite? The Giant Robot? Or was it Planet of the Dead?

Terror, Zygons and The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (2015)

zygon2

As series 9 loomed, this story as described by its pre-publicity, didn’t seem to be one which would offer too many shocks. After all, it’s a UNIT story, usually a signal to expect a standard aliens vs army runaround. What’s more, it’s got a return appearance from old favourites the Zygons, who may have been sinister, bloated foetuses on 70s debut Terror of the Zygons but who had become slightly comical sidebar villains in The Day of the Doctor. By rights we should know what to expect from this story, and it should be action packed, light hearted fun.

But like a vicious alien monster disguised as a beautiful woman, the outward appearances hid something far more frightening. The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion takes the trappings of 70s Who by numbers and anniversary hijinks and makes them the conduits for a Doctor Who take on terrorism and its underlying causes. It’s an uncompromising face slap of a story.

Right from the beginning it’s creating unusually visceral imagery, such as when we see Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) taken hostage, flanked by her captors and their monochrome flags, forced to read a propaganda ridden statement. As if it’s not shocking enough for Who to mimic terrorism onscreen, the tormentee is a scarf-wearing superfan. She’s us, kidnapped by ISIS.

Coming a close second for disturbing imagery is Clara-impersonating Zygon Bonnie (Jenna Coleman) shooting down a plane. At time of broadcast, it was barely a year since Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was brought down over Ukraine by a surface to air missile, killing all on board. To end an episode with a similar incident feels shockingly contemporary, but it’s also very close to tastelessness.

And for a third? How about the moment when Kate Stewart (Gemma Redgrave) on assignment in the New Mexican town of Truth or Consequences is shown a dumpster bin full of buzzing hairballs, the remains of humans fried by Zygon weaponry. Her revolted expression tells us the story, but then we pan over to see a line of other bins, and without seeing any violence, we get an acrid taste of the scale of the atrocities committed in this town. (And it makes us think back to when Kate rode into that town and a couple of random tumbleweeds tumbled through shot. These could so easily be mistaken for cliched indulgences from the art department, but now we wonder if they were in fact human remains).

Grim stuff, but this is meant to shock. It’s meant to provoke. And it does so not just through these big moments, but through a smart script that draws its analogies sharply without them seeming crass. Think how badly talk of radicalising Zygons and splinter groups could have gone. Think of the sledgehammer political commentary of Aliens of London/World War Three, for instance. Successfully avoided by writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat, whose treatment of the subject matter never makes us think equating Zygons with terrorists is dumb; rather that it seems an obvious match. Terror of the Zygons, indeed.

In that original story, the Zygons were just generically evil baddies, blessed with some outstanding design work and some better than average direction. On that occasion, the Doctor saw no shades of grey in these orange suckers; he simply blew them up as soon as was practicable. There was no attempt to uncover a sympathetic edge to this race, as might have been sought during the Pertwee era. The Day of the Doctor added little more to them. But here, we learn more, that there are peaceful and warlike Zygons, but that most want to live out their lives safely undercover. It’s a big change and adds far more depth to this once most generically drawn of species.

This makes the threat that the splinter group Zygons represent far more potent, because we can compare them to the worst of humanity. We know how appalling human terrorists are so we have a sense of how awful Zygon terrorists must be. It’s far more dramatic this way, knowing that you’re dealing with the very worst a race can drag up. And these bad guys are far scarier when they look just like us, not like calamari. The sequence of the UNIT soldier being unable to shoot a Zygon in the shape of his mother is tangibly frightening. And when Bonnie forces a Zygon to unmask in the middle of a shopping mall, she’s enacting the terrorist’s modus operandi of instilling fear of going about your daily business. As the Doctor says, panic and paranoia are their trade.

These episodes give us some of the edgiest material the program has ever served up, so it’s almost a shame when the plot has to reassert itself and move us towards some sort of climax. And that climax, is effectively a repeat of the sequence in The Day of the Doctor where Kate and her Zygon counterpart were forced into negotiation. It’s a small scale end for such an action-packed story, just the two chief protagonists, fingers poised over buttons and the Doctor on hand to referee.

So if you’re going to end a blockbuster with an extended monologue, best get it delivered by Peter Capaldi, who eats it alive with all the hunger of an aging anti-war activist who’s been railing at warmongering plutocrats since he played Amazing Grace on his guitar at Woodstock with Hendrix. It’s a moment which solidifies this Doctor; it’s difficult to imagine Matt Smith delivering this speech to the same effect.

His appeal to the terrified aggressors, both human and Zygon, is to stop and think. That’s the conclusion this episode seems to draw is that terrorism is ultimately an act of stupidity and if its perpetrators just thought logically about their actions, they’d never follow through with them. Who knows whether this is true, but it’s a beautiful hopeful thought. And as the Doctor once said, one solid hope’s worth a cartload of certainties.

In the pre-publicity for this story, co-writer Peter Harness talked about the influence of 50s sci-fi classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers on this story. And true enough, in the eery “can’t tell who’s who” scenes there is a passing resemblance. But actually, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion is cleverer than that film, a one-note screed against communism. This is a nuanced commentary on current affairs and a taut thriller into the bargain. What really makes it exhilarating though, is the realisation that every now and then Doctor Who, that venerable old show, still has the power to shake itself and its viewers out of the comfort zone.

LINK TO: The Chase. Duplicates. But more convincing.

NEXT TIME… It’s a game, within a game. A chance to remeet old friends and The Five Doctors.