The Zygon InvasionBookmark and Share

Saturday, 31 October 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman,
Ingrid Oliver and Jemma Redgrave,

WITH Jaye Griffiths, Cleopatra Dickens, Sasha Dickens, Rebecca Front, Jill Winternitz, Gretchen Egoif, Todd Kramer, Karen Mann, Aidan Cook, and Tom Wilton

Written by Peter Harness,
Directed by Daniel Nettheim,

Executive Producers: Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin
Transmitted BBC 1 on 31st October 2015

"The Zygons are a peaceful race. Their shape-shifting abilities should not be considered a weapon". Osgood speaking on a video recording.

 

At long last, after a brief stopover in episode one of this present Series, we return to Earth in the 'present' and get to see UNIT in proper action. They however have a real situation on their hands, as some of the Zygons who were supposed to have reached a truce have become a dangerous and unpredictable splinter group. Abductions and terrorist plots are coming to the fore, and the group of aliens with both sucker pads and digits used in combination to manipulate objects and pizza-like control panels are showing they are truly something to contend with.

From the 45 odd minutes of evidence we get this week, the decision to bring back the Zygons after a lone TV outing in the Tom Baker era Terror of the Zygons was a great decision by the higher-ups that work so hard on making new Doctor Who in the 21st century. A secondary role in The Day of The Doctor was welcome, but these alien creatures deserve to be the focus once again. There are a lot of storytelling avenues that can be explored by having a race that can replicate another species to perfection, and which can use the trust and connection of memories and sentiment against those it wishes to conquer or overthrow.

There has been some good action at times in Series 9, with episode five perhaps being the most frenetic. However the talky and character focused episodes need some more pacey and bloodthirsty fare alongside them. Doctor Who is all about variety as much as the window dressing of time zone and location as the actual manner of storytelling.

Everything here feels big. The episode title promises an invasion, and the audience is left under no illusions that that is what could well happen if the TARDIS crew and their UNIT allies do not come up with something smart and realistic. Opening with one of the surviving Osgood twins mourning 'her twin sister' at her gravestone, this episode still does brings a commendable amount of emotional weight to balance out some of the more full-on and intense action set pieces.

This is not an episode that casual viewers may be able to fully appreciate at times, even with an opening recap that tries to get the key status quo  about the Zygons on Earth across. But this does not become a chronic issue, and soon the story takes on an identity and life of its own as it introduces a scenario and premise that will be of real interest to kids and grown-ups alike. The Zygons who want to co-exist peacefully on this small blue-green world of ours are under just as much threat from their kin who cannot accept the same pacifist point of view. And Osgood has been kidnapped and may now have been replaced with  a malicious doppelganger that is leading the Doctor and his complement of soldiers into a trap...

The Zygons are brilliantly designed creatures, and have a memorable super-power of replication and substitution. But this story looks into that more deeply than Terror of the Zygons ever really did. The way that the surviving Osgood has now become far more than either just a normal human or an alien posing as a human, and the manner in which she avoids confirming the Doctor's speculations about a 'hybrid' is a great idea and acted to perfection by fan favourite Ingrid Oliver. And on a side note, this is a case of showrunner Moffat not lying when he said Osgood was 'dead' in an interview.

Newly introduced characters are all more than serviceable. The American cop - the lone survivor that Kate encounters - is portrayed such that we believe her distress and outrage at the Zygons. And yet, we are fully aware that just the one survivor may be a ploy by the splinter group who can very convincingly replicate someone. Her apparent fear and disbelief over the slaughter of her team is still moving.. Even a replicated emotion can hit hard.

UNIT Soldier Hitchley and his 'mother' are both well acted and make a tense scene touching at the same. The audiences' head is going "This is a trap!", but the heart is saying 'He should make sure she is safe!". Such believable portrayals are the vital ingredient of realising a great concept properly once again in a modern contemporary time setting.

Even the child actors are pretty good on this week's instalment. We have a couple of twin school-children (Cleopatra and Sasha Dickens) that we assume are threatening Zygons, but instead they get kidnapped in drastic style. Consequently the new terms of this latest story become clear: there are markedly separate Zygons with very different intentions for the Earth and its dominant indigenous species.

Particularly engaging is UNIT scientist Jac; a woman with good intentions and loyalty. She sadly is lead down the wrong path by the fake Clara and dies in the worst fashion begging for her life. Even with a complement of well-armed UNIT soldiers she knows her pleas are meaningless when caught in the fortress of a ruthless cast-iron rebel faction. Sometimes low cunning can trump intellect, sophistication and good intentions, and this is one such instance. As a result we are made to really hate this imposter Clara, and the conventions of the show dictate she gets a comeuppance that is truly fitting in the following week's conclusion.

But does Jac's ignominious fate befall Kate Stewart? We hear that UNIT is neutralised once a call back has been made to the wrong Clara, but however we are not too sure which we can believe. As much as it would appear that Kate made a fatal error trusting the 'lone survivor' she encounters in the field, she has proven resilient and resourceful before. Perhaps in this story she will show more initiative to save herself and indeed those she was charged to protect, than was the case in last year's finale.

Due to that wonderfully well-done (and in a way that it is not too blatantly telegraphed) twist with Clara at the end, we get for the second episode in a row a very limited amount for the Doctor's stalwart companion. But that is not an issue when Jenna Coleman really gets to flex her acting muscles and show just what a great villainess she can be. In the original 1975 Zygons TV story we had a finely done 'evil Harry Sullivan' by the late great Ian Marter. This particular Zygon in sheep's clothing would appear to have both the malice and menace, and a cold calculating manner where it cannot be wrongfooted so easily into its oblivion. With a potentially confusing array of friends and foes, it was vital we had Clara substituted and acting in a truly monstrous manner despite looking and sounding like a normal effeminate woman. Peter Capaldi is as good as ever too, but perhaps this episode is less a showcase for him than episodes two, four and six of this 2015 series. Episode Eight may well give him truly something special once again, however.

The Zygon Invasion (Credit: BBC / Simon Ridgway)Production values are as competent and professional as we have come to rightfully expect during the last few years of Moffat overseeing this long-running, reborn show. The Zygons look great, especially in the gloominess of the underground settings or the semi-lit council flat, and are able to complement UNIT's military precision and serious mannerisms. The transmogrification effect is also well-done, if perhaps only marginally better than the one that the far less well-funded crew were able to conjure up in Terror. However the effect used for the Zygons reducing enemies to a puddle of radioactive waste is truly inspired and will make its ways into many a youthful viewers' less welcome dreams.

Direction, cinematography and editing are all in the top tier of Doctor Who and help make a confident script inspire confidence in the viewer that this 4th straight multi-parter is worth investing in on all fronts. And another solid score from Murray Gold accentuates all the hard-hitting scenes that this thriller of a story has to offer. There is a good ratio of action, suspense and expository dialogue, and the music never tries to do more than it should.

Compared to earlier episodes there is perhaps less character development, and what there is is less efficient. However this story has a set of goals, and one of them is creeping out unsuspecting youngsters. Were it to focus too long on making really deep characters and not having shock twists, and changes of scenery that bring the global catastrophe stakes to the fore, than it would certainly not work quite as well as it does. The 'scariness factor', something Doctor Who has so long been notorious for, is in good abundance here and played out without ever going too far over the top. It really is fitting that we have this story originally transmitted in the UK on Halloween.

Ending on probably one of the finest cliff-hangers one could have hoped for, with the Doctor's presidential plane once again looking in bad shape (thanks to an anti-aircraft rocket), this story is great fun and has some commendable depth to it as well.

 





The Woman Who LivedBookmark and Share

Saturday, 24 October 2015 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Maisie Williams in The Woman Who Lived (Credit: BBC)
starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams, Rufus Hound, Ariyon Bakare, Struan Rodger, John Voce. Elisabeth Hopper, Gruffudd Glyn, Reuben Johnson
Written by Catherine Tregenna
Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Transmitted on 24 October 2015

This review contains plot spoilers

Humanity weighs heavily on the twenty-first century Doctor. The relationship between the Doctor and our species was never taken for granted, but the issues raised by the affiliation of a hundreds-or-thousands-year-old Time Lord to human beings who live a few decades were usually sidestepped except on special self-referential occasions. Now almost all of Doctor Who revels in being self-referential and asks questions about how the Doctor works as a character which weren’t asked very loudly in its twentieth-century version. This year there’s been a greater shift than before to exploring the Doctor’s perspective on events rather than seeing him through the experiences of a companion. The Woman Who Lived finds the Doctor recast as sidekick to someone he thought of as a protegée but with whom – apart from one admittedly rather crucial moment – he has taken no effort.

Caring so someone else doesn’t have to

The plot gives Jenna Coleman an episode off, apart from an epilogue; this episode presents Peter Capaldi’s Doctor for the first time without his midwife, muse and manager. The exercise works: the Doctor can look after himself. In case one still had doubts, the episode sets out to demonstrate that the twelfth Doctor knows how to care, and suggests why he has to. The lasting impression of much of the episode is of a series of two-handed discussions between the Doctor and the sometime Ashildr, who far from being the smiling doer of good works the Doctor has constructed from his glimpse of her in a leper colony (an unsubtle metaphor), Ashildr’s identity is eroded, wounded, and bandaged, a self wrapped up in costume and performativity who only identifies herself, underneath, as ‘Me’. The Doctor has looked in on her from a distance – elevating her to the status of companion given the mention of this practice in The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Death of the Doctor – but he says that this encounter is an accident. Performance and composition ensure that Ashildr’s disappointment when she realises the Doctor hasn’t come to take her away is crushing.

It’s a sign of how far this episode made me feel for the Doctor and hold on to his point of view that I want to continue to call Ashildr by that name rather than as Me. Doctor and audience are looking for points of continuity with the girl we met the previous week. Nevertheless, however alienated she seems, Ashildr is often a character where performance, camera and composition force the audience to consider her as our identification figure. This is a thought experiment in which the audience is made to wonder how they would cope if they became immortal. Given how thoroughly The Girl Who Died established the Viking village as a community, and how rooted Ashildr was within it, it’s a blow to find Ashildr doesn’t remember them, let alone the name she had there. Indeed, here Ashildr has become a pioneer of political economy, a generation before the discipline emerged, talking about the average lifespan with a lack of involvement which presages the revelation of her co-operation with Leandro. She doesn’t appear to be someone who, if a Time Lord, would need to be reminded of her training in detachment, unlike the Doctor.

Nightmare Fair

Before developing the crisis of Ashildr, the episode reels in viewers with a hook which suggests a more swashbuckling episode than one actually gets, but which rapidly builds the period setting as well as undermining its conventions. The ingredients of the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century criminal romance are there, moonlight, horses and mystery. A young woman (whose positioning is misleading - we never see her again, though we hear of her) is threatened in such a way that she seems by her expression to regard it as a possibility of release from imprisonment in social structures by a free spirit. Assumptions about genre are punctured by the disjuncture between Maisie Williams’s diminutive female figure and the deep masculine voice of the Knightmare, and by the glowing eyes of her feline friend in the undergrowth, an enigma parked until later. The Doctor exits from a TARDIS positioned heroically amid trees in a similar environment to the one in which it was left in The Girl Who Died, before undermining the generic situation with actions and prop and comedically defusing the threat of the Knightmare, restoring the social status quo by mistake and undermining both his goal and Ashildr’s.

The episode depicts the struggle for the Doctor to associate Me with the Ashildr he remembers and idealised, while at the same time coming to terms with the consequences of his own actions. It’s not for nothing that he accepts towards the end of the episode that he is a tidal wave in human history. We (and it seems particularly the inhabitants of a particular corner of north-west Europe) are to a great extent his creations, perhaps and more specifically even unwitting players in a tale the Doctor has us act out for his own reassurance. The Doctor is caught in as painful a struggle for self-realisation as the series can manage at this point. The depiction is helped by Maisie Williams’s detached delivery of Ashildr. The marvellous storyteller has gone; her shelves of books aren’t her imaginings but an account of her life which she keeps because otherwise she won’t remember enough to maintain not only knowledge of her experiences but her identity. She defies the conventions of society in speech, denying the statuses of daughter, wife and mother, but she has tried being all these and more. The comedy of Ashildr’s escaping being a queen – paperwork and backgammon - by faking her own death and running round the back of her own funeral leads to Agincourt – but did Ashildr really wait six hundred years for her first stint as a man? – and the implausible claim (unless she was at Castillon in 1453) that she ended the Hundred Years’ War. It’s bravado, and not just for the Doctor’s benefit. Unable to help the people she has lost, all she thinks she can do is endure; this being Doctor Who, and one under the guardianship of Steven Moffat at that, the most destructive loss experienced by Ashildr is the loss of her children, babies in cribs who succumb (but when?) to the Black Death. The Doctor, for the central section of the episode, helps Ashildr because he wants his friend back; he’s rather like Missy in Dark Water/Death In Heaven, constructing or participating in plans which they hope will reverse personal relationship-time.

We – and perhaps the Doctor – are already suspicious of Ashildr. She knows that the Doctor has a ship; her hard shell is prone to crack, leaving her to beg the Doctor to take her with him. She thinks that people are like smoke, but there’s a shot where she’s seated and the Doctor comes into focus as if solidifying from smoke; her ideal of him as rescuer is similarly fragile, just as the Doctor’s reassessment of her and his own errors is starting to take shape. The Doctor needs to overcompensate for his neglect while Ashildr needs to control and even humiliate him. The quest for the Eyes of Hades juxtaposes farce with Ashildr’s embittered contempt for human life, while the Doctor, apparently vainly, tries to encourage her to find human company and ‘shared experiences’. Although in Last Christmas he rebuked Clara for expecting that he would seek out the dream crabs on Earth with the words ‘I’m not your mam,’ here he does seek a role as parental advisor to Ashildr; as the engineer of her immortality, he is. Of course, she has rejected him for a more glamorous alternative.

More to see than can ever be seen. More to do than. No, hold on…

Leandro is a majestic creation; his mask makes a virtue of its limited movement, a great sculpted head and regal mane recalling (as Patrick Mulkern in Radio Times and others have pointed out) the beast of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and its Disney sequel. Perhaps just as relevant is that Leandro’s leonine appearance also draws from Narnia’s Aslan. Where the Beast is a prince-lover, Aslan lives within and through the wardrobe; he can be misunderstood as a personification of escape. As such, Leandro is a shadow of the Doctor and his ‘dear old magic door’.

This lion king also has something to say about this episode’s historical setting. The Doctor tells the soldiers who come to arrest him that he fought at the battle of Dunbar (in 1650) and publicity dates this story to the year after Dunbar, 1651. Realisation of the period through costume and settings aside (and more of that shortly), the figure of a monarch exiled from his home and seeking support would have made anyone in England in 1651 think of Charles II. The exiled son of Charles I (beheaded in 1649), after just over a year in Britain, had won and lost the Scottish throne, failed to gain the English crown, lost the battle of Worcester to the forces of the English republic in August 1651 and fled to France at the start of October. Nevertheless his evasion of capture became to royalists a tale as romantic as that of any highwayman. To the authorities (of whom the leading personality was Oliver Cromwell) he was a sinister figure determined to overturn liberty and replace it by tyranny – moving England from one political dimension to another. An exiled king who seeks to deceive and kill the people of England, Leandro might have delighted the imagination of Cromwellian propagandists.

Space helmets for cows

The setting is confused, though, by anachronisms. Most obvious is the need to make Ashildr as the Nightmare conform to an eighteenth-century idea of the highwayman, complete with tricorn hat, not known in England in the 1650s. The century-slippage is assisted by the execution of Sam Swift drawing more from eighteenth-century sources than seventeenth-century ones, though the former are more frequent (compare William Hogarth’s The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn to what we see on screen).The gentry we see might dress a little too finely for puritan England, although this was as much a matter of convention as law, bills enforcing modest dress in the period never being enacted. Ashildr’s own low-cut dress can be allowed both as a statement of her indifference to the rules governing ‘mayflies’ and her alignment with the regal Leandro.

However, Doctor Who’s sense of the historical is a playful one, drawing from other fictional sources. Those complaining that the Vikings in The Girl Who Died wore horned helmets when scholarship now believes that they did not, or at least only wore them for ceremonial purposes, would set aside the horned helmet seen in The Time Meddler as well as those of nineteenth- and twentieth-century adventure stories. On inspiration for Ashildr’s mid-seventeenth century identity was the anti-heroine of The Wicked Lady and the look of some costumes owes a little to both the 1945 and 1983 film versions, though not too much. While neither of these episodes seek to turn historicism on its head in the way that series 8’s Robot of Sherwood did, they grant that the Doctor’s historical journeys are now moulded by the weight of audience expectation and rarely challenge them. Where the series is changing settings every week, audience preconceptions need to be co-opted rather than thrown out.

The friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend

Ashildr’s awakening from death towards the close of The Girl Who Died seemed to deliberately recall the resurrections of Captain Jack Harkness. In the hands of Catherine Tregenna, three of whose contributions to Torchwood dwelt on Captain Jack’s immortality and his identity, Captain Jack’s character arc is further invoked, as well as the language of Torchwood and its Rift. The Doctor’s wish to prevent Ashildr from travelling with him bears comparison with (though it isn’t the same) as his resistance to travelling with the immortal Jack. There’s allusion in casting, too: Struan Rodger plays the devoted servant Clayton, whom Ashildr intends to kill in order to enable her escape from this reality; but Rodger’s first role in Doctor Who was the voice of the Face of Boe, the end point of the immortal Harkness. It should have been no surprise, in this digital age where the television past is a constant present, for the Doctor to specifically mention Jack and that he will ‘get round’ to Ashildr ‘eventually’, even though he has been missing from Doctor Who for nearly six years.

The episode hinges on the Doctor’s belief in Ashildr’s redemption. The climactic scene by the gallows as Leandro’s forces begin their elimination of humanity is well-played, but where Ashildr is concerned her epiphany seemed sudden and not especially earned. More pleasing was the way in which the second Mire healing device was deployed; having been primed for a naïve and slushy love story by the Doctor’s expectations and prejudices about humanity’s need for shared experiences, Sam Swift is saved in order that Ashildr can rescue humanity and make some amends for her own mistake. People have died as a result of her alliance with Leandro; but like the Doctor in The Fires of Pompeii, she can at least save someone. Sam might yet get that kiss, but there’s no promise that the relationship is going in that direction.

The Woman Who Lived remains strongest with its two-hander scenes, and weakest when it strays out of them. The final conversation in the tavern between Ashildr and the Doctor shows both his uncertainty – ‘Are we enemies now?’ – and her renewed sense of purpose. Her plan to tidy up after the Doctor’s damage is reminiscent (though again not identical) to the mission of Torchwood, reinforcing the homage to Jack Harkness. The Doctor’s ‘People like us’ both accepts Ashildr into his small fold and reminds the viewer that she wasn’t brought into this extended existence by her own consent. Paul McGann’s early interviews about playing the Doctor likened the character to a vampire and there’s something of that figure in this script and in Peter Capaldi’s interpretation too, based on an acceptance and sharing of sorrow and an emotional dependence on those with short lives. It’s right that the tavern is The Swan with Two Necks, as not only does this recall a heroine from the end of England’s Viking age, Harold II’s lover Edith the Swan-necked, an age prolonged through Ashildr, but the practice of swan-upping where the officers of the Crown and of two City of London livery companies ring or mark the necks of the swans on the Thames as they claim their shares. The Doctor and Ashildr are both well and truly nicked or necked by each other and by circumstance here. Or perhaps it’s just the name of a pub Catherine Tregenna likes.

‘She’ll see me often enough once she understands.’

Was the Doctor’s meeting with Ashildr in this time period entirely an accident? The programme’s recent understanding of the development of the Doctor’s character emphasises his first visit to Skaro as his moment of self-discovery: ‘The Doctor was not the Daleks’, he tells Rusty in Into the Dalek. He was probably of a comparable age then to Ashildr now. They both seem to have regained a little swagger – and certainly Ashildr has. Instead of wanting to take a lead from or dominate the Doctor, she’s willing to face the challenge of being his equal.

The underemployment of Rufus Hound in this episode – he’s really cast for the stand-up antics at the gallows, which leads to a sense of imbalance in his character – and the absence of any closure to Ashildr’s story suggest that there is a chance we will see one or both of these two again. The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived seeks to add to Doctor Who’s mythology rather than exclusively feed from it. Nevertheless, as someone involved but detached from the Doctor’s adventures, visible in the distance on mobile phone shots or presumably glimpsed by the Doctor on various occasions in his past, Ashildr immediately recalls the flourishing of Clara as Impossible Girl in the pre-credits sequence of The Name of the Doctor. While Ashildr seems to have come to terms with her forever spring, the relationship between the Doctor and Clara is now suffused in the golden glow of autumn; the break, Peter Capaldi’s expression tells us as Clara wraps her arms around the Doctor’s neck, is coming soon within the Doctor’s perspective.

The Woman Who Lived is a little uneven but densely packed and still one of the more successful and enjoyable episodes this season. Maisie Williams demonstrates in these two episodes a commanding range which stand her in good stead for the future; on the design side, Michael Pickwoad, Barbara Southcott and Ray Holman show that they can play with historical elements to effect. It’s a successful rearrangement of old themes, appropriate for this reflective guitar-playing Doctor, and pushes the audience forward into contemplations of mortality while emphasising the costs the Doctor pays to be both hero (the Doctor’s horse-gallop to Tyburn has a suitably epic and genre-pinching quality) and hero-maker. This series increasingly demonstrates its thematic resilience, pondering questions of identity, origins, love and friendship with optimism and foreboding by turns. It’s entirely appropriate that next week concerns the fate of a character a large sector of fandom took to its collective heart, and the fragility of a settlement which relied on the theft and suppression of identity to maintain a peace. We are moved from one person who hides her difference from humanity in plain sight – the highwayman mask is a misdirection – to an entire species. In this series of Doctor Who, the Zygons were always waiting.

 





The Girl Who DiedBookmark and Share

Saturday, 17 October 2015 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Girl Who Died (Credit: BBC /Simon Ridgway)
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams,
David Schofield, Simon Lipkin, Ian Cunningham,
Tom Stourton, Alastair Parker,
Murray McArthur, Barnaby Kay

Written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat
Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Transmitted on 17 October 2015

This review contains plot spoilers

2015 is the year of prologues. There is no lecture about Beethoven and the bootstrap paradox in The Girl Who Died, no captive audience for tales of the incorrigible creativity of the Doctor, no stark moral dilemma with a vulnerable child who will become or has been an old enemy. We are, though, launched into the middle of a story which we haven’t seen begin, and which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the events trailed at the end of Before the Flood. The iconography is familiar, though: eyes, windows and isolation beyond rescue and a remorseless threat which is not quite visible all recall elements of the previous two-parter. So, too, does Clara’s discussion with the Doctor inside the TARDIS where, following on from Bennett last week but with more experience and consequent perception, she questions the ‘rules’ of time travel, where the Doctor’s explanation isn’t supported by her own knowledge that the Doctor, far from being a ripple, is like a tidal wave. For those inclined to seek remote precedents, this scene functions much as the prologue to the novelisation Doctor Who and the Crusaders does. The Doctor’s anxiety about ripples is counterpointed by his apparent carelessness in wiping the remains of Clara’s spacesuit’s spider (very satisfyingly squelched) on the grass of an unknown world, but works as a statement of intent. The Doctor and Clara are then separated from the TARDIS much as the Doctor and his then-companions were regularly in the mid-1960s. The pre-credits sequence is energetic and thoughtful and painted with fine and broad brushes by turns. The Vikings seem to be harmless comedic figures, prone to shouting that they are Vikings to convince themselves as much as the audience, but this will turn out to be a plot point. By the end of the pre-credits sequence the Doctor’s witticisms have been mocked themselves by simple force in the way which so many spectacle-wearers have feared. Intellectual pretensions have their limits.

Culture warriors

The post-credits opening allows something of a directorial signature. Ed Bazalgette gained attention for his telling stories through landscape with his handling of the first four episodes of the 2015 series of Poldark and while there are no galloping horses there is an aerial view which combines associations with recent television drama with the conventions of televised historical reconstruction. The man entering the screen bottom right and blowing the horn to announce the arrival of the raiders’ ship in the bay, with people then running across the screen to become part of the welcoming party, suggests not only place but culture. The camera soon settles on Maisie Williams with a deliberation that says to the viewer that you might or ought to recognise her; this is our guest star. Einar and Lofty are also recognised as significant, Lofty working at his forge, marking him as the smith, a figure recognised in Norse mythology but also the nearest thing the village has to a technologist, something the viewer might remember for later. The Doctor’s remark about remembering people and things backwards suggests Ashildr’s specialness and flirts with premonition in a fashion rare for televised Doctor Who; in an episode where publicity has emphasised its use of references to previous stories, the remark recalls the Moment’s non-linear relationship with time in The Day of the Doctor, even the personal timeline of a Time Lord; and going further back the games with causality in Logopolis, especially as personalised in the novelisation.

Meanwhile, Ashildr is presented as rooted in time and place; her conversations sketch in details of the village, her father and her neighbours, and a personality with tendencies to apprehension and fatalism, while teasing with her fears that her dream could have prevented the raiding party from returning. The Doctor’s science-fictional – postmodern? – openness to multiple linearities of causality is compared with Ashildr’s premodern understanding of the universe while establishing her fears about herself and encouraging speculation in the viewer.

For the next few minutes camera angles and sound levels vary between whether the viewer is with the Doctor and Clara bickering over their chained predicament, or with Ashildr trying to work out who or what these people are. There’s a sense of how otherly the Doctor and Clara are here, while building up the mystery of Ashildr who might at this stage be a possible non-human challenge to the Doctor.

‘You might as well be a god.’

Just as one is lulled into thinking that the problem the Doctor and Clara will face is within the Viking village, divine intervention from without provides the common threat to time travellers and villagers. Odin’s first appearance is almost a direct lift from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a nod to the connection between Earth and Asgard seen in the Marvel Thor films, both drawing on imagery stretching back at least to Renaissance art, albeit depicting the Christian God. (Peter Capaldi's Odin voice has more than a little of an emergency Anthony Hopkins impersonation about it.) This manifestation is seen by the villagers as confirmation that the Doctor is a false Odin, but arguably the Vikings have already recognised the Doctor as Odin by removing two of his four eyes. Where the face in the sky is Odin as war deity and protector of peoples, the Doctor is another facet of Odin, the blue-clad wandering Trickster who both seeks wisdom and has wisdom sought from him, upsetting the established order as he goes.

The third figure to give up half her sight, however briefly is Ashildr. Clara places one half of the sonic sunglasses over Ashildr’s right eye and asks that she think ‘open’ – a direct reference to Clara’s own course in self-liberation from the Dalek casing in The Witch’s Familiar – but instead of just freeing Clara from her chains Ashildr is liberated from the pattern of her life and the two are sent to Odin’s vessel. Clara (by following her own initiative and not doing what the Doctor says) and Ashildr are both disruptive figures, but Clara has learned to embrace and develop this part of her character, while Ashildr fears it. This provides the foundation for a successful sequence where Clara and Ashildr have a Doctor-companion relationship, enduring the horror of the halls of Valhalla being a food processing centre, existing so a predator can enjoy mechanically recovered testosterone and adrenaline cocktails.

Ashildr is here Clara’s apprentice, a kid getting into trouble and making mistakes. Her declamation of her name to Odin and his Mire lackeys seems to emphasise that her name sounds like ‘shielder’, encouraging associations with the mythological figure of the shield-maiden, and with the comparably (but more different than the same) tomboyish figure of Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. However, it means (as far as I can tell from a quick internet search) ‘God-Battle’, which summarises how Ashildr presents herself in her challenge to Odin on board his ship and the role pressed upon her in the final battle between the villagers and the Mire. If one wishes to extend the parallels, the name is cognate to that of the two other female Doctor-analogues in the current series, (Clara) Oswald and Osgood, the gods of power and good respectively.

Making a very bad god

Something Doctor Who can do very well, but seemed to have lost of late, was the taking of characters established as unsympathetically comedic and then repositioning them so their deaths are shockingly tragic. Such is the fate of Hasten, the Viking war-leader; his wearing of one half of the Doctor’s glasses in imitation of Odin as he entered the village was his choice rather than something forced upon him, a jovial statement of faith and confidence in his effectiveness as a war leader. Here, his belief in Valhalla and the generosity of the gods is met by the callous crossfire of lightning bolts. The juxtaposition of imagery drawing from Norse myth – or what the audience remembers of Norse myth – in the form of shield-like projections from the walls and lightning, and the bare impersonal industrial context of the harvesting chamber Is in itself great storytelling and another example of Michael Pickwoad’s considered deployment of his architectural and engineering sensibilities.

This story, much as this season has done so far, dramatises a debate about the Doctor’s authority – is he a gadget-wielding warrior, or an improviser who leads by inspiration, often by bluster? He is both godlike and just a bloke in a box. Having played god in an attempt to awe the villagers into freeing him, he then turns arch-rationalist and makes a statement which is bound to provoke several religious viewers, that one knows the gods because they don’t come and visit. The intent is to shock the villagers into a form of modernity because only by challenging their impressions of the world will they understand it and become who the Doctor needs them to be. Otherwise the Doctor is stuck with his own rhetoric, not too far from Missy’s dismissal of human obsession with sex and reproduction in The Magician’s Apprentice – humanity can go back to making puddings and babies, and continue to be harvested. There are definite echoes of another series which included harvesters of humanity who manipulated mythology and faith, the final (Euston Films) Quatermass.

Some of the central section of the episode was lost on me at first viewing. The air of classic sitcom was present, but seemed underpowered; and surely naming the tallest of the villagers Lofty showed that the Doctor takes service nicknames too literally. Perhaps he’s more of a soaps man, and has watched more early EastEnders than It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. Until Blogtor Who’s preview of the episode mentioned that one of the episode’s working titles had been The All-Father’s Army, I’d managed to miss that Dad’s Army was being referenced. At the time the Doctor’s accusation that the Vikings might survive by raising crops at the Mire didn’t seem too far-fetched; the Mire seem neither adapted to organic methods nor to vegetarianism. However, this was not where the episode was going. The Doctor’s ‘officerness’, the object of jibes from Danny last year, comes to the fore despite his world- and war-weariness.

The Doctor also experiences a crisis of faith. His preferred strategy would be to hide the villagers and avoid a confrontation with the Mire. This seems to conflict with his usual practice. His defeat of the alien forces seen at the start of The Girl Who Died is presented as final because they are too frightened or depleted to come back to oppress the Velosians, the rationalisations which viewers have been invited to make since The Dalek Invasion of Earth here being made concrete. At the same time, the Doctor’s belief that the Mire could be avoided and the villagers saved without humanity as a whole being imperilled seems to be wishful thinking. While our Vikings are peaceful farmers and fishermen, the Mire seem to be patterned after a popular image of the Viking as dedicated to plunder and pillage. There’s an ambiguity in the writing of the episode which shows the Doctor hoping that the Mire don’t need to be challenged when they’ve been established as a destruction-happy threat The Doctor says that the Mire are practical, that they leave when they get what they want; but what they want is to wipe out the villagers. If they didn’t find these particular villagers, perhaps they would pursue others, and others still. The villagers and the Doctor, like the baby, need to sing, but also to find the right song; and the baby is right, as the right song turns out to be welcome laughter.

Before then the grimness and frustration of the twelfth Doctor still has to be faced. The Doctor’s misanthropy is comparable to that demonstrated by the ninth Doctor, but is detached from the broad satire and faith in human relationships which flavoured the 2005 series. Over ten years later, his summary of the history of an Earth-centred universe as ‘Big bang. Dinosaurs. Bipeds. A mounting sense of futility’ is more depressing than amusing. The programme’s longevity and the renewal of its eponymous hero means that the Doctor needs to face the same questions again and again and again, but on first viewing there was something particularly hopeless about that line, though it seemed lighter on a revisit.

A game where only you know the rules

The episode also sees the Doctor most in danger of ceasing to be the person celebrated by Missy and Clara in the pre-credits sequence of The Witch’s Familiar – someone who thinks he will always win. To its credit, this series is taking further some of the questions left at the end of the David Tennant period concerning the way the Doctor, who professes to be a man of peace, turns his companions into his soldiers. The Doctor ponders guiltily what he has made Clara into; he is aware not only of ripples through depersonalised timelines, but the transformations he wreaks on people. Perhaps more than ever before here Clara is his manager, who reminds him of what needs to be done. Clara claims that the Doctor is her hobby, but here he seems more like her career. This episode gives Jenna Coleman a lot to do and demands that she is quick and authoritative and cutting, especially with the Doctor; and she gives an accomplished performance which is less about being placed in peril, as in the previous episodes this season, than in articulating the common predicament and how the Doctor should be able to resolve it.

It’s perhaps because Clara has become too involved with the Doctor’s life that it’s Ashildr who actually makes him want to win. This is practically a negotiation of reconciliation of the Doctor with humanity, and with himself. Ashildr has always been seen as odd by her neighbours, growing up rejected by both girls and boys, never conforming to gender expectations. Yet at the same time she protests that her people are kind and brave and strong and she loves them. The force of her imagination is something we have to take on trust beyond that she and others find her dreams disturbing; she is someone who sees reality at a different angle from others and has enough about her to recall the Doctor to himself and lay the foundation for victory. Ashildr moves from Clara-companion to Doctor-companion; it’s a graduation which gives Maisie Williams the chance to project Ashildr’s heartfelt humanity but also shows how removed from representing human beings to the Doctor Clara has become. It’s a familiar story, but told through different examples and at a slower and more enthralling pace than, say, the dissociation of Rose from her old life, and is the better for it.

Publicity has included a video where Maisie Williams considers her casting as a fandom crossover. Fans, fandom and fanhood are part of the mainstream presentation of Doctor Who and other series in a way that they weren’t when the series was revived in 2005. Publicity is still working out how to deal with this. Ashildr is arguably a fan fiction writer – though not of Doctor Who – let loose in the narrative, her imagined worlds of sea voyages and martial epics a long way from the somewhat ragged Vikings we see. Her fate should not be regarded as a cautionary tale for her, but for the Doctor who fails to make adequate preparations.

Leaving the tourists a bit of glamorous illusion

The battle with the Mire is played against a final move from reconstruction history, to history as the present or recent past with odd clothes and a low level of technology, to pageant history as the Doctor and Clara enlist the villagers in a mediaeval banquet not too far from the one Sarah Jane Smith imagines Irongron and his men are part of in The Time Warrior. The Mire are exposed as pretenders – we never see the implied horror that is Odin’s real face – and so they are defeated by a theatricality which casts doubt on some of the Doctor’s recent utterances. Should he be allowing the universe to see him as ‘just a bloke in a box’? Or is this the best form of defence for someone of his power?

The use of the closing theme from The Benny Hill Show as the accompaniment to the retreat of Odin from the ship’s very wooden prow (but not much less impressive as a threat than Ashildr’s imagined and CGId serpent) could remind one of the status of women in this episode. It would have disturbed the parallel with Dad’s Army, but it’s remarkable that there are no women conscripted into the Doctor’s norm-disrupting village home guard. There is an observation of what we assume to have been traditional gender roles. Women are spoken of, bringing up children; while both men and women are seen serving at table. This is used to emphasise Ashildr’s uniqueness; but her own assessment of herself will probably intrigue and exercise those who write about depictions of gender identities in popular television.

Previewers were requested not to reveal details of what the Mire looked like without their helmets. Their heads are something between a shark and an eel, aquatic creatures out of their element, but effective counterparts to the CGI serpent and the eels whose electricity is being used against them. All three seem vaguely Norse too, perhaps like the wyrm which gnaws at the world-tree. They move very quickly and are seen only for fractions of second, never allowing the viewer to recover from the shock and think that they are not so awful after all. It’s an effective technique, both powerful and disempowering because the Mire are never fully personified; all they can do is writhe and shriek before they scarper.

Lily-white hands

We were promised that The Girl Who Died would reveal why the Doctor has the face he has. There’s no obvious link to Russell T Davies’s overarching theory as to why Caecilius and Frobisher (from Torchwood: Children of Earth) look the same, but instead there are warm flashbacks to a hot city as the Doctor remembers being told that he could save people by Donna. Having had the responsibility and the characteristics of a god, the Doctor apostrophises the heavens in a fashion which recalls the fourth Doctor’s abuse of the (absent) Time Lords in part one of The Brain of Morbius and in its mention of Hell remembers where the Doctor sent Rassilon and the Time Lords at the end of The End of Time. This is the more powerful moment, not only because of the way the camera settles on Peter Capaldi’s face and the absolute identification with the Doctor which Capaldi for that moment demands, but because the stakes are more real; the Doctor has taken a life he did not intend to take, and it is in his gift to restore it; he might be breaking laws, but he will not be damned for doing so. The moment has echoes, certainly, of that oldest (well, almost) of Moffat tales, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, where the Doctor, hoping that his theory is correct and the nanogenes will be able to restore Jamie’s humanity and those of the other gas mask people, pleads for ‘a day like this’. Here, he asserts his right to compassion and the right to act on it. This isn’t a Time Lord Victorious moment, but a relief that the seeming inevitability of ‘everybody dies’ has been averted and that if one life is owed it is surely Ashildr’s.

The Doctor’s moment of self-realisation is fleeting; once passion subsides the consequences to making Ashildr immortal become apparent. The Doctor’s own uncertainty about his own mortality has been an understated theme of this season and his description of the resurrected Ashildr’s new condition recalls, surely deliberately, the second Doctor’s explanation of the Time Lords in episode ten of The War Games. Living forever, barring accidents, isn’t something which Doctor Who has presented as a desirable condition, particularly in the programme’s twenty-first century versions where saving people has often included letting them reconcile themselves to the death of others. In this case this is a death for which the Doctor bears responsibility; but the audience is directed carefully to wonder whether he has made the right choice, and the Doctor himself is not convinced. The return to the theme of the hybrid intrigues and unsettles because it points towards a particular hybrid, of incompatible elements. Being a hybrid in itself should not be a bad thing; the suggestion that it might be leads one to consider the programme’s own values.

The Girl Who Died ends with what students of the Doctor Who cliffhanger have called the ‘suspended enigma’; a cinematically visual realisation of Ashildr as a person now existing detached from the rhythm of the ages. One can imagine her learning to feel the turn of the earth, the spinning of the world and the entire planet hurting round the sun, her face first full of content and satisfaction with living, her face then clouding with something not quite determinable, but reminiscent of the burden of eternity which weighs heavily on the Doctor.

The Girl Who Died manages to maintain a sense of danger while keeping a colossal sense of fun, something which so far this series has had difficulty doing, switching codes while brooding throughout The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar and choosing a cold twilight intensity for Under the Lake/Before the Flood. Capaldi’s Doctor conveys his most engaging range of emotion yet, his expressions adopting at times a wryly amused distance from affairs while never losing sight of each crisis. One feels one shouldn’t remark upon the 2000-Year Diary turning up, because the prop seemed to naturally belong there; yet ‘When I say run, run!’ has become ‘When I say move, you move.’ A longer life has made it more difficult for the Doctor to hide his awareness of his responsibilities. There is a sense of being involved in a Viking epic, amplified through the intimate poetry of the crying baby, translated through the Doctor’s grief for events which seem not to have happened or which can be prevented from happening; but perhaps we are mistaken, and the Doctor is aware of another narrative entirely, presently outside our perception. The episode is confirmation that Jamie Mathieson knows how to blend setting and character to create a strong Doctor Who broth, with one presumes more than just a few chosen croutons from Steven Moffat. Happiness, somewhere along the way, is rediscovered in a fashion missing from Doctor Who since Peter Capaldi took over the role. It has been too long.

There have been moments in recent Doctor Who which seemed as if the programme had lost part of its soul, something present in the original plan but easily lost amidst space-time travels and periodically rediscovered. In part Doctor Who was about ordinary people in extraordinary situations doing extraordinary things because circumstances made them. Ian and Barbara are both the ancestors (within the narrative of Doctor Who) and the descendants (within human chronology) of the Viking villagers. Yet alongside this part of the format has always walked a question, acknowledged sparingly until this century: how far does the experience of the extraordinary necessarily remove one from the everyday? The Girl Who Died leaves this question hanging over the audience as perhaps never before.





Before The FloodBookmark and Share

Saturday, 10 October 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Before the Flood (Credit: BBC / Simon Ridgway)
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Colin McFarlane,
Sophie Stone, Zaqi Ismail, Morven Christie, Arsher Ali,
Steven Robertson; With Neil Fingleton, Peter Serafinowicz,
      Corey Taylor and Paul Kaye 
Written by: Toby Whithouse 
Directed by: Daniel O'Hara
Transmitted on 10th October 2015

                                            As inhuman as any visitor to Earth

                                            The Fisher King wants to secure its Berth

                                            Until its kind come back for it

                                            And man is its slave-object

                                            With ghosts here and ghost there

                                            The Fell Alien ruins Nature everywhere

 

                                            Maybe a Time Lord of Gallifrey

                                            Who sounds like a Scot

                                            Could dispel the apparition misery.

                                             (That could be some Plot!)

 

After last week's grim cliffhanger, it appears the Twelfth Doctor will be the final iteration of the up-to-now enduring survivor of the Time War. He has travelled back to before the huge flood, that caused an alien spaceship to become shrouded in the depths of water for many many years. The objective? To try and ensure that Clara and the other survivors of the disaster that gripped the underwater base will end up intact, and to try and exorcise those disturbing ghosts once and for all. But some hard adjustments always are needed when drastic time travel is brought to the fore. Even with his vast experience and intellect, the Doctor may be biting off just a bit more than he can chew..

We have two new speaking roles this time round, with the essentially harmless undertaker alien Prentis (Paul Kaye) , and the utterly malevolent Fisher King (physically performed by Neil Fingleton). The latter sees little issue in enslaving humanity as a way of passing the time before he is 'taxied' home.  Despite this, there are split time zones for much of the running time. This results in many more scenes of small groups of people talking, and I do prefer this focus and urgency to the larger group discussions that had to fill out much preliminary character work in the first instalment.

And thus those still alive from the base crew get to do some fine work that mostly improves on their introductions before. Everyone gives a good account of themselves, but this time I actually found Arsher Ali the stand-out guest from those returning speaking roles. Ali really sells the different emotions his introverted character has, be they the amazing time travel experience, his generous prompting of the repressed romance between his two junior colleagues, and most meaningfully of all his dressing down of the Doctor. Despite the eventual victory, we are made to see how the Doctor is sometimes a little sketchy in his approach to overcoming catastrophe, and yet the loss of O'Donnell lies as much with her own determined choice to risk her life by stepping out of the TARDIS.

Much as I had hoped, Peter Capaldi does not just follow an utterly spellbinding turn in 'Under The Lake' but compounds it with every bit of his range and connection to an acting role that was a childhood dream of his. He breaks the 'Fourth Wall' at the start and finish as he talks classical music and the nature of invention. This is not something easy to do convincingly, but boy does it work a treat. And he manages to make the often complicated plot and exposition roll off as fundamentally believable and enticing. Again this was something that even some of the best Doctors of the past could show inconsistency with, excepting Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker (who always rose to the occasion).

 

Before the Flood (Credit: BBC / Simon Ridgway)If not clear enough from the very first paragraph, I am very impressed by the new alien foe who finally arrives on-screen. He has a truly monstrous effect on the people in his surroundings; be it by his own hand  or by his unique powers that render three   dimensional individuals into rather shapeless ghosts.  And the peril for the wider world is confirmed in this conclusion,   making the Doctor's need to overcome the  Fisher King that bit more urgent. With a wonderfully HR Giger-like design and an expressively imposing voice  (Peter Serafinowicz - who also breathed life into Star War's Darth Maul) this monster overshadows his  ghoulish underlings without making them any less effective. And more importantly he functions also as a terrific foil to the Doctor, forcing our veteran do-gooder to come up with one of his very best ways of  solving a complex problem. It matters little at the end when the Doctor said the alien was always going to  die in that time and place, because what matters is that he carries out a damage limitation exercise to the  best of his ability..

The plan and its implementation comes off as remarkably clever without feeling like a cheat. A Time Lord  really should be able 'reverse engineer' events and circumstances, and also make the course of history  flow. The moment he jumps out of the (previously mysterious) casket with his tech-shades in hand and warns Clara not to come near him due to "morning breath", will surely go down as one of the defining moments of the Twelfth Doctor come Capaldi's relinquishment of the title role.

As for how this story itself develops from last time, I am similarly impressed how a very traditional part one is suddenly enriched far more than most would expect. The basic structure is still there but by the closing sequences this two-parter has got an identity and soul all of its own. The complex plot and storytelling is the catalyst for this change. And indeed viewers are really made to piece a bit of the elaborate jigsaw together, but the great thing about this show in today's times is its instant re-accessibility. The adventure is so rich and well-done from start to finish that re-viewings will be an absolute pleasure, rather than a chore, which I cannot always say with my hand on heart.

Also, editing and direction have been rarely bettered in any TARDIS tale this century. The pace is relentless or ponderous as required, and the sum total is perfectly synchronous. We really want to see how these very human people react to the chaos that has resulted from actions of in turn one ineffectual, one heroic and one despicable alien. There are some tough decisions, and even arguably avoidable losses along the way, but come the end, the living-death fate of the ghosts is conclusively avoided. A neat reference to UNIT, who are going strong in the future, is implemented also - just to remind us of the return to present day material with the Doctor's allies later on this series.

And should you go back to episode three, the line referencing a "minuet" suddenly goes from being a throwaway quirk to a smart tie-in to the Fourth Wall framework, that give this two-parter a whole added layer of meaning. The Doctor's almost boyish exuberance at having master-minded Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony could easily be a bit too conceited. However Capaldi pulls off the balance needed for this to be an alien, with many identifiable human qualities making a positive difference. It also enhances a wonderful pay-off taking place in the TARDIS at the episode's close, as his faithful companion has to take in what all the time-wimey actions that she provided for the Doctor were really about. And the slightly different title sequence to the norm (c.f. the Clara face in the credits for Death In Heaven) further signals that Steven Moffat and his associates are still full of ideas. Long may they remain to keep realising them.

Watch this without interruption, on a dark chilly night, and take pride in being part of the Doctor Who journey.





Under The LakeBookmark and Share

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.





The Magician's Apprentice / The Witch's Familiar - Special OmnibusBookmark and Share

Thursday, 1 October 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Credit: BBC
Written by Steven Moffat, Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez,
Julian Bleach, Jemma Redgrave, Clare Higgins
Transmitted BBC One 27th September 2015

A very enjoyable and assured beginning to the 2015 Doctor Who run hit UK screens in two extra-length instalments earlier this month, but most notably we had a special feature length 'omnibus', which is a rarity for this show on the BBC. Some significant stories of the past have had their edited outings, be they involving Sea Devils, Metabelis Spiders, or Kaleds, Thals and Mutos. 

If you are wondering how different this plays out as an omnibus, the answer is 'not all that much'. The story is strong enough to hold the attention in one sitting, and there is no real need to edit scenes around. Hence we get The Magician's Nephew in the opening credits, and later a caption saying Part 2 - The Witch's Familiar before the next sections play out.

As pointed out by my colleague, this new story works a treat as a sequel to the wonderfully composed introduction to Davros (then played by the late Michael Wisher) and his battle of wits with the Fourth Doctor, i.e. Genesis of the Daleks.

As a follow-up, much inspiration is found in the original and compounded. Macabre Imagery and unsettling themes permeate the onscreen-narrative. Once again Steven Moffat comes up with a wonderfully gruesome idea via the hand mines (a literal device that destroys all humanoid life). But the most disturbing image is the idea of the Doctor being visibly ashamed of his decision to abandon an innocent child, because he knows far too much as an unlimited Time traveller.

The Doctor is given a lot of good line - few better than his rousing recommendation to overcome the 1 in 1000 odds by focusing on the 'one'. Yet Missy is still stealing scenes left and right, sometimes with the help of witty lines but not necessarily always - and played just the right side of stagey - by the very assured Michelle Gomez. And surely it would be more fun to have a Time Lady around anyway? I will unequivocally now declare her as the best Master of the last 35 years. It is also pleasing to have an explanation for her survival from last year's finale, even if that undermines the poignancy of a changed Brigadier saving the Doctor from killing his long-lost friend/worst enemy. 

I admire the episodes' intent to give us three key villains/monsters, if perhaps not the most epic or cosmos threatening main story. Of course some upgraded Daleks are no good, but maybe there is a force other than the Time Lords that may arise to oppose Daleks. If we don't see them torture and kill innocents, it becomes somewhat an abstract concept. Yet this two-parter's ability to bring proper exploration of the Doctor/Davros relationship is very good and acted by a par of expert hands to the best of their ability.

            The whole mystery/mystique over what and who made Davros the normal boy into a genocidal maniac is at the heart of this story, inasmuch as the Doctor wonders just what that period was like so as to made a huge change to one individual. Some of us know of the I Davros audio series and I wonder if showrunner Moffat is letting it link in or not, but perhaps that should not be a big issue when we have a Time War and various timelines left, right and centre these days.

There is some irony though with Davros surviving time and again when a sworn enemy of the Doctor, but only now is that precedent set; the eventual rescue of the boy in order to ensure that mercy is indeed part of the Dalek make-up, no matter how deeply hidden in practice.

As to how well he stands up with having the same actor from 7 years ago. I can firmly say that Julian Bleach is even better this time round with a more thoughtful script for him. He could rant jarringly every other screen moment he had in Journey's End. It may also help he has such a chilling henchman in Colony Sarff to do his bidding, and so he feels he has many cards to play apart from his own Dalek creation.

We do have a lot of location hopping, but it's really the combination of two renegade Time Lords and one amoral genius from a brutally war-torn world that really makes this feel justified as an extended pair of episodes. I also think as an adult fan it is a good thing to make children audience  think of character and themes as much as whacky ideas and flashy spectacle.

Sound and repeated words help generate some real atmosphere in this story: the repeated cries of 'Help Me' to a mentally paralysed Doctor, both back then in early Skaro history, and now in the present narrative, and also 'Davros knows, Davros remember'.  Those catchphrases not only resonated with a Doctor who deep down cares despite a brusque exterior, but surely also many sympathetic viewers. The re-use of classic Dalek sound effects is also never a tired thing, as they evoke all sorts of feelings of foreboding and trouble.

There is plenty of continuity with classic and modern Doctor Who, and it is mostly done in an elegant and non-indulgent manner. It is a nice surprise to have the Shadow Proclamation back after so long (if very briefly once more). Elsewhere we see Karn once again and how it is now revisited in a transmitted main channel episode (The Night of the Doctor was a brief return for Paul McGann's incarnation as he regenerated with help from the Sisterhood).

But this paying homage to the past would not count for much if we did not have a reliable strong storytelling process which yields an engaging narrative. There is some clever suspense over how the Tardis has become hidden in both parts of this feature. We worry but know essentially that the Doctor always would know his ship and how to call on it when needing it most. Rather more unexpectedly for our grey-haired hero, the reveal of where exactly he has agreed to meet Davros is done beautifully, with Murray Gold's music really selling the shock for the Doctor.

Using Skaro in both past and present is the main anchor for the very busy first part. Of course lots of galaxy-trotting is nothing new in this era but can still be a jolt, and even more so when including the material of the online prequels. The re-use of old style Dalek arches is such a great idea, and I would think any black and white Dr Who followers - who recall the eerie menace of the original Daleks - will be happy. Less impressive to my mind is the re-occurrence of having seemingly all the Dalek versions without any sense of hierachy and so adds little to that conceit brought in from 'Asylum Of The Daleks'.

Cheeky humour is never far away despite overall dark core to this story. Peter Capaldi on guitar is a wonderful moment, and a nice way for the real-life actor to stamp a bit more of himself on this constantly evolving Doctor. Few past regenerations have been very musical, but the Second Doctor was one type to  play more than a few notes on his recorder.

Also funny and avoiding tastelesness is a brief joke over 'did Clara kiss Jane Austen'. It works as a nicely ambiguous character detail as she has not found another boyfriend, and may still be grieving Danny.  And there is a clever  gimmick with planes stopping and being potential bombs. Rather than played for high stakes, it comes off as amusing and typical of the show's frequent irreverance. It is a neat link into  Missy confirming her return in a laidback and fearless way; much like when she first burst onto screen in early episodes of Series 8.

Some elements of the feature are perhaps more vital than others. I liked having Kate Stewart back on-screen (however minus the presence of the real Osgood, who remains officially dead as of now). But really there  is not much for UNIT to do other than have agents killed off by Missy. Also the limited time means little opportunity for character development for Kate. The upcoming story with the Zygons will be a much better sign of where the show wll take this long-established component of the Doctor Who mythos. 

Michelle Gomez as Missy in The Magician's Apprentice (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)A few other nitpicks must be admitted before I round off. Early on we have the young Davros with no idea as to what his planet called. Maybe he is just too young, or schools are non-existent in this world. But still one would have thought astronomy would exist to a degree given all that we are told in Genesis? Regardless, if Davros had early aspirations to being a great scientist, it certainly didn't happen before he first met the Doctor in his long life.  

As for the withered version of the Dalek creator that we all know (and love to hate), I did not really care much for the way he opens his eyes. For me it seemed a bit of a cheat. It may have been a bold idea on paper, but seems to defy the very clear precedent that he long ago lost his normal vision and so needed an artificial eye-piece. Thus he created the Daleks to have one themselves. Maybe they are fake eyes, as he tampers with himself genetically once again (c.f.The Stolen Earth's display of his body). I just feel, unlike the prolonged laugh with the Doctor, that it was a slightly mistaken breaking of ground.

But overall this is a very strong edition of brand New Who, and a marked improvement both on Series 8's opener. and on its singular story to feature the Daleks. With more multi-parters to come immediately, this could end up being a very different series, but one that consolidates last year's solid return to form for Steven Moffat and all his diligent cast and crew.