In all the general delight that Doctor Who is back (yay!) after eight months off our screens (boo!) and that we are getting an unbroken run of episodes this year (yay!) and in the atmospheric autumn months to boot (yay! yay! yay!), it seems to have gone unremarked upon that we are only getting 12 episodes plus the Christmas special instead of the hither-to traditional 13. Perhaps the sprawling 80 minute run-time of the season opener is to blame? If so, I’m not convinced that it’s a good trade-off.
New Doctor stories break into roughly two types. The first, largely out-of-favour now, shakes the Doc up a bit for the first 20 minutes or so and then plunges him in to an adventure which becomes the real point of the story. See Power of the Daleks, Robot and, if it counts, Rose. The other type makes the Doctor’s regeneration and new persona the main point of the story and although there generally is a threat which must be overcome, it’s usually a fairly minor one. See Spearhead from Space, Castrovalva and The Christmas Invasion. In these stories, the Doctor is off-stage, usually incapacitated, for part of the story, and much of the action deals with the consequences of this violent alteration of his body and mind.
Ever eager to have his intricately decorated cake and greedily devour it too, Steven Moffat has inevitably tried to use the extra running time to do both here, and the result is an episode full of marvellous moments, but with some very strange pacing and a couple of choices that seem rather too forced.
I noted around the time of Tennant’s departure the two very different positions adopted by the outgoing and incoming show-runners. “This is a death. The Tenth Doctor will die,” intoned Russell T Davies as he prepared to clear out his desk. “He’s the same man,” reassured Steven Moffat as he tried Rusty’s boots on for size. Now it’s Moffat’s turn to execute a Doctor and he’s no longer prepared to show the process as consequence free.
Capaldi makes an instant first impression, although he’s given fairly generic Moffat-Doctor stuff at first, when he isn’t being given fairly generic post-regenerative-Doctor stuff. There are some lovely one liners in the mix though, especially the bit about the Doctor taking micro-naps while other people are talking. While learning his lines, Jon Pertwee used to rip out all the pages which didn’t feature the Doctor. On occasion he’d wander into the rehearsal room grumbling “very thin script this week.” Once he decides to leave via the window rather than the door, the character starts to snap into focus. It’s around this time that the main science-fiction mystery plot starts to take over, but it’s also remarkable – almost profligate – that the story is willing to introduce a fully-grown tyrannosaurus rex stomping across Victorian London and then toss it aside as a mere curtain-raiser for the supposedly more interesting tale of alien impersonators. Terror of the Zygons didn’t have Moffat’s budget but at least Robert Banks Stewart had the sense to do those things the other way round.
But the middle part of the episode is largely unconcerned with threats sauropodian or other-wordly. Instead we tackle the question above head-on – is this the same man? Clara’s scene with Madame Vastra and her veil is an arresting, confronting and beautifully written answer to this question, serving both to give fans a new take on what regeneration is as well as gently reassuring the little ones that it’s okay to miss Matt Smith and give this new bloke with the scary eyebrows a chance.
The only thing which spoils this scene is that of all the companions the Doctor has ever had, it’s this one who gets to play this scene. Clara the Impossible Girl who has helped the Doctor in every regeneration he has ever had. Clara, who only two stories ago was hanging out with not two but three Doctors and seemed perfectly happy that they were all the same man. Clara who watched the regeneration happen before her eyes, and told the Paternoster Gang in no uncertain times who this wild Caledonian really was. It’s a nice scene, but it’s absolutely impossible to fit it into Clara’s character development so far.
On which subject, there follows another very nice scene in which the Doctor and Clara meet in that weird restaurant. “Game-playing narcissist” is a pretty odd description of the Doctor. “Game-playing” possibly describes the fourth Doctor, certainly the seventh, but “narcissist” sounds totally wrong. And just what has Clara ever done which earns her either of those titles? Clara still has yet to make any characterisation beyond the incomprehensible Impossible Girl nonsense and Jenna Coleman’s winning smile. But it is a nice scene.
Once the main sci-fi plot takes over, the pacing smoothes out and the threat is vanquished in a suitably satisfying manner, with just two little wrinkles. How striking, how fascinating, in an episode devoted to telling us who this new Doctor is, to end the adventure on such a profound note of ambiguity. Both outcomes seem profoundly unlikely – that the Doctor bodily ejected his clockwork nemesis or that such a single-minded automaton elected to terminate himself. I almost don’t want to know the answer – for once the question might actually be more interesting.
What did give me pause is the very final scene with the first appearance of Michelle Gomez as “Missy” who appears to run a version of heaven populated only by people who have died at the Doctor’s hands. This evidently is our season-runner and so far I’m dubious as to its worth.
I’d rather have had that than the very peculiar and unnecessary Matt Smith cameo. Everything was wrong about this. Just when we’d begun to accept Capaldi, his predecessor shows up, bringing back all those tedious memories. The kids who were so subtly reassured earlier now have the message rammed down their throats and the whole thing smacks of “we can so let’s not ask if we should.”
But I’m sounding awfully grumbly about an episode I did like a lot. Ben Wheatley directs with atmosphere and class, the Paternoster Gang are huge fun as ever, Capaldi nails it right from the off and the new TARDIS and titles are lovely, even if the theme music is a bit Dominic Glynn. 3½ stars sounds about right. A promising beginning.
So, let’s go on to what should be an easier job – Capaldi’s second story. There’s not so much to say about this one – Fantastic Voyage inside a Dalek. This aims pretty low – a rollicking adventure with a thin veneer of moral philosophy – but it hits the bullseye pretty much every time. Twelve’s rescue of Journey Blue and his disregard for the fate of Ross are particularly striking. Some of this is by-the-numbers – she’s a soldier but she’s got a conscience (yawn) – some of it feels a bit over-familiar – a lot is cribbed from the end of Dalek, and visually its reminiscent of the Battle of Canary Wharf – but it’s fast-moving, funny, exciting and novel enough to be a thoroughly entertaining 45 minutes of television. Hardly likely to go down as a cast-iron classic but the kind of high-quality work-a-day story which the production team needs to be able to crank out.
The joint writing credit for Phil Ford and Moffat is interesting too. Is Moffat scaling back or is he doing RTD style rewrites now but taking a bigger credit for them? Only Ford was taking the credit on Doctor Who Extra in any case. I can’t quite bring myself to give a shit about Danny Pink, but I daresay he’ll be given something interesting to do at some point.
So, I’m optimistic at the moment. We haven’t managed a complete break with the past (I really don’t care who that woman in The Bells of St John was) but we’ve so far avoided the tangled continuity webs and nonsensical plotting of Time and Day of the Doctor and Capaldi is marvellous in the part. Four stars for Into the Dalek and away we go…