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Saturday, 3 October 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

 

Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Colin McFarlane,
Sophie Stone, Zaqi Ismail, Morven Christie, Arsher Ali,
Steven Robertson, and Paul Kaye 

Written by: Toby Whithouse,
Directed by: Daniel O'Hara
 Transmitted on 3rd October 2015 

This Review Contains Plot Spoilers

"You can get killed or drowned .. but my first priority is to protect my crew"

A group of accomplished scientific researchers investigate a buried spaceship in watery depths somewhere in Scotland. Soon they realise it contains an unusual sarcophagus. In so doing, they find themselves in the middle of a truly terrifying crisis.

Former allies become ghostly cadavers with no eyes; black pits of non-expression. And they mean to do terrible things that threaten the safety of the underwater base and quite possibly the outside world too. The TARDIS lands after this disaster has begun, so idle chat and introductions are not required, but problem solving under the most pressing of time constraints..

 

As a piece of scary, spooky suspense this episode stands up to any of the showrunner's prior output, and is being shown at just the right time of year as the days draw shorter and the clocks go back. A balance is struck between a rollicking pace and allowing images and concepts to sink into the audience's consciousness. The design of the ghosts is inspired, and takes the idea of a dehumanised but recognisable former ally and do effective things with it. The ability of these apparitions to have both traditional 'walk-through-walls' powers and an ability to manipulate objects and devices physically means the group of marines/scientists and the time-travel duo are really made to run for their money. There is an attempted use of a high-tech cage to deal with the ghosts but it may only offer borrowed time, that even a Time Lord cannot make optimum use of.

However as good as they are, having the ghosts silent we have a flat-out monster and no immoral or amoral personality opposing the protagonists. However this might change with part two, as we do not know if an entity in the suspended animation box may be behind the turn of events.

Of course after a typically creative and experimental opening to this new series, most other stories would feel comparatively safe. It has that overall feeling of being a base under siege, or a base breached but with ways to try and escape which may or may not prove effective. And if you are a committed follower of the show, there are plenty of echoes of stories not that long back in time, such as The Rebel Flesh, The Impossible Planet, 42, or The Waters Of Mars.

Any long-running show will most likely play out some of the same story beats and concepts, and a loyal audience almost cherishes elements that play to the show's strengths, provided a new variant is clear enough. Some subtle throwbacks to considerably older stories, such as the Orion system are also sprinkled in, and is another confirmation of the show wanting to please those of any age, background and level of connection with this very British show. Besides, no returning support characters feature and would only confuse things as we have a sizeable enough group to try and get to know.

 

Whereas the last two-parter we just had took its time to involve the Doctor and did not always seem him with the greatest overall agency, this is a much more front-and-centre affair. It is very pleasing to have gravitas from this 'reborn' incarnation, something that perhaps has not been as consistent since the one-series run of the Ninth Doctor. He capably holds the floor as he speaks to those still alive, and does not mince his words but shows his determination to make things right. He also appears to relish the challenges, perhaps due to returning to the country where his accent hails from. Clara has a middling outing in terms of influence but a typically good portrayal from Jenna Coleman, who now shows her character to be seasoned and able to accept that bad things will often happen despite the Doctor's best efforts.

Other acting chops are perhaps not as evidently on display as the previous escapade with the Daleks and Missy. Colin McFarlane's Captain is effectively killed off in the pre-titles and we lack a strong enough presence to rival Peter Capaldi, which was certainly not the case the prior two episodes. However there is still a decent cast of believable humans who all excel in their field, and who possess very authentic strengths and weaknesses. Most are likable with just Pritchard (Steven Robertson), dismissed in hilarious fashion by the Doctor for his monetary outlook. maybe being rather worthy of his watery grave. I would highlight Sophie Stone as the best turn outside of the regulars. Being actually deaf in real life she employs her face and body language to make the audience really care for her individual's plight as much as anyone, and really makes a firm impression as a talented member of the scientific team. Paul Kaye is credited and appears simply as a ghost of a semi-humanoid alien. Given his considerable range, we must expect more from him next week where he should have more to say and do.

Come the cliffhanger and preview for next time, it may turn out that the overall story is a lot more complex and clever than originally presented. Also notable is how the TARDIS is used not as a gateway to a new adventure, but a definite part of what affects going on, and thus the first scene with the doctor caressing his blue box and looking concerned is as integral as any.

The soundtracks for Doctor Who rarely disappoint me, usually being at worst just OK. But this one is a particularly fine effort from the now-veteran Murray Gold so as to fully complement and enhance the on-screen presentation. We never are given a chance to relax and feel that people are just interacting and making small talk. A real emergency has occurred and everyone has to respond if they are to survive.

But ultimately I want to judge the effectiveness of this opening salvo by the efforts of scribe Toby Whithouse. He has come a long way since the days of School Reunion, and his early comedy series No Angels, and is continuing to show initiative and flair as a writer. Now his major breakthrough creation Being Human has come to its close, he has contributed a longer individual story than before for Doctor Who. And while he knows the show very well and opts for tropes that have been used many times, he still has a strong voice and effortlessly mixes laughs with chills. My only quibble is that some of the characters show less depth than others, and those who perished already look unlikely to get a second chance to shine, unless a full 'reset button' is employed (and which often feels a cheat anyway).

As my first bonding with Doctor Who was during classic era repeats and VHS releases, I will always welcome something that takes a page or two out of that book which enabled new TV outings to be around in the first place. The loyal audience, be they streaming on a trusted device or watching the TV, should ideally enjoy a bit more time for the plot to unfold and characters to show different strengths and  flaws. Reserving some judgement till next week's conclusion, I had my expectations met, and feel this holds up as another clear hit in the Capaldi era.