So… what did I think of Sleep no Morezzzz….

Posted on November 16th, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments »


2.5 Stars

I rather like formal games. Movies like Rope (all shot in one take – supposedly) or Interview (with essentially a speaking cast of two) excite me immediately. The best of them make a virtue of the formal constraint, telling a story which wouldn’t make sense without it. Some of them make the constraint into more of a gimmick, which might still be admirably clever but is less likely to quite so thrilling. Sometimes, it’s just an annoying distraction.

Doctor Who stories with this kind of constraint are rare and usually the product of a last-minute scramble to get a script ready. The Edge of Destruction, a faintly demented psychodrama set entirely inside the TARDIS and featuring only the regular cast was an act of desperation on the part of the first script editor David Whitaker when not only the TARDIS set but also the Dalek seven-parter had proved far more expensive than anticipated and two more cheapie episodes had to be magicked out of nowhere to keep the show on the road. Similarly, when Derrick Sherwin cut The Dominators from six episodes to five, The Mind Robber had to gain an episode which would only the regular cast and some standing sets (plus some left-over robot costumes from another series).

In the modern era, despite both show-runner’s zeal for headlines, most of the attention-grabbing aspects of the stories have come from their content rather than their form. Sometimes just their titles: The Next Doctor, The Doctor’s Daughter, The Doctor’s Wife etc. Midnight has something of this quality, but the prologue and coda and the overall large size of the cast mean that it doesn’t have quite the same feel. 42 has a very clear constraint – played out in real-time in exactly 42 minutes, but otherwise feels like quite an ordinary slab of mid-Russell Who.

So because of its found-footage gimmick Sleep No More already feels like something a bit out of the ordinary, and it’s not clear (even less so than with The Girl Who Died) whether it is part one of a two parter, contributing to the overall season arc, a true stand-alone story, or some other kind of narrative hybrid. The question will be – does the gimmick satisfyingly integrate itself into the story, is it an unwanted distraction, or is a nice addition but scarcely essential?

From the opening minutes, it’s clear that writer Mark Gatiss and the rest of the production team are doubling-down on the found-footage gimmick. There is no opening title sequence (a first in the show’s 52 year history), just a sort of space word-search (sorry, Doctor), and a dire warning from Reece Shearsmith, finally completing the League of Gentlemen guest star box set. We are introduced to yet another set of hard-to-differentiate cannon fodder, and then we meet the Doctor and Clara.

What follows is rather disappointing. Firstly, the found footage camera style largely just makes the action hard to follow. Secondly, surely someone at some point must have noticed how similar this is to Under the Lake? I don’t just mean they are both base-under-siege stories. They are both base-under-siege stories in which a largely deserted base is set upon by faceless and not entirely corporeal monsters with whom they struggle to communicate and from whom they must hide in special rooms. And this isn’t just linguistic trickery, pulling out the bits which sound the same and ignoring the rest. The two shows feel very much the same, even down to the use of closed-circuit camera footage, except that Sleep No More doesn’t have the time travel element to keep the narrative going.

When it doesn’t feel almost the same as Under the Lake, it has another problem. In the excellent book The Making of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry recalls a studio exec coming to see the filming of a scene from The Devil in the Dark. One of the more highly-regarded episodes of the series, turning a science fiction cliché on its head, the monster which is attacking innocent people turns out to be a mother protecting its young. However, on the day that the studio exec is present, Spock is being treated for his injuries and has the rather graceless line: “Captain, the monster attacked me!” So what the exec sees is a pointy-eared alien bleeding green blood attacked by a monster – pure sci-fi pulp nonsense!

Imagine turning on Sleep No More about half way through and seeing Peter Capaldi running away from those lumbering foam-rubber sleep monsters babbling about sentient mucus, or rolling around on the floor while they shake the cameras because of a “gravity shield failure”. It just looks and sounds like complete drivel. It doesn’t help that as the basically indistinguishable crew get gobbled up, and the explanations are slowly forthcoming, less and less makes any real sense, to the point where the Doctor himself is forced to conclude that the episode is basically nonsense.

And then, there’s that coda where Rasmussen admits that, rather too much like the Angels in The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, the speck of magic sand dust sleep mucus is embedded in the video rather than a physical item, and that the whole thing was just intended to make us watch so as to infect us. So – wait, does that mean that what we were watching didn’t really happen? If so, why not create a story which did make sense? Or at least not include a character who complains that it didn’t make sense. If it did really happen then how did Rasmussen avoid death? And it’s very out-of-character for the Doctor to leave with so many unanswered questions (or maybe he will continue his investigations next week). And if he has left (assuming he was there at all) and permitted this lethal message to be transmitted back to Earth, does that mean that in the 38th Century, humans on Earth were wiped out by the Sandmen? Bluntly, this is a total mess and none of it makes any real sense at all.

All of which would be much more forgivable – the slightly pointless experimentation with form, the pick-and-mix supporting cast, the aching familiarity, the gibberish ending – if the whole thing had been even a little bit less dull. But this was probably the most boring episode of Doctor Who I’ve sat through in quite a long time. Bland characters in stock situations, a real dearth of good jokes and no spark of imagination.

Well, Shearsmith I suppose was good value and the notion of the Morpheus chamber, if not hugely original, is at least a compelling science-fiction hook. The “no helmet cams” reveal is quite nice – although what was that heads-up display stuff in the first five minutes in that case? – and Capaldi and Coleman continue to do good work with the very little which is available to them.

So, a major misstep in what has been quite a strong season so far. It’s hard to say whether I would have liked this more if it had been transmitted before Under the Lake rather than after, so I’m disinclined to mark it down too harshly for being repetitive, but for being nonsensical and especially for being boring, I have to deduct quite a lot of points. It’s better than the total nonsense of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, the wholly unsatisfactory In the Forest of the Night or the complete gibberish of The Wedding of River Song, but not nearly as interesting as good-but-not-great episodes like The God Complex or The Lodger. Let’s say two-and-a-half stars, whether or not any of these questions get answered in later episodes.

So… what did I think of The Zygon Inversion?

Posted on November 12th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »


5 Stars

Another hugely promising opening episode. Could it be that we were finally about to… invert the trend?

Rather than being a story of two halves like basically everything else so far this season, Peter Harness’s script for part two (like The Woman Who Lived, co-written with the show-runner) keeps up the momentum inherited from the opener, only letting up just before the end in a scene which many are already calling a highlight of the revived series. And I agree!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The opening scenes with Jenna Coleman in a bafflingly generic flat are very Steven Moffat (think Last Christmas or Forest of the Dead) but none the worse for that, and it’s a great way of keeping Clara “alive” and active while Bonnie gets all the best lines. The Doctor’s escape from the plane is absurd, but no more absurd than the Bond film that the Doctor’s Union Jack parachute is surely a nod to – and the Doctor and Kate Stewart are reunited.

Obviously Kate’s resurrection is a bit of a cheat too, but the lovely wink to the fans helps this potentially bitter pill slip down beautifully – the Harry Sullivan references were great as well. Along the way, the Zygons use some social media to spread fear and uncertainty among humans and invaders alike, in a scene which was maybe the only one to strike a wrong note. The make-up job seemed to keep coming and going and I struggled to care about the plight of this guy we’d barely even met.

But anyway, we’re all set for the grand show-down. It’s entirely appropriate that the Doctor impersonates Hughie Green early in the proceedings. This is the world’s deadliest game-show and the careful pacing which allows this scene to play out for (I haven’t timed it, sorry) something like 6-7 minutes is just one of the many things to admire about the writing and production of this fantastic two-parter.

I rewatched Day of the Doctor recently and pretty much stand by my review, although it seemed a little less frantic on second viewing. Clearly the Zygon accord and the methods by which it was achieved warranted a little more time however, and to be able to unpack all the intricacies of this peace-keeping was marvellous.

Pitting Kate Stewart against Bonnie and also the Doctor is particularly interesting. Daughter of a solider, but UNIT’s scientific advisor – inheriting the Doctor’s role, not her old dad’s – which side will she fall on? It seems more interesting somehow that she should continue to believe that offence is the best defence, but equally that leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth when I think of noble Nick Courtney. It’s a bit humiliating that she ends the scene collapsed and brain-wiped, but that’s better I think than the lie of her becoming a peace-loving hippie or the unpleasantness of portraying her as a warmongering psychopath.

Bonnie and Clara form a fantastic pair here, with Jenna Coleman doing her best-ever work in the series, and the details of the two boxes with their two buttons manage to be a genuinely interesting and credible bluff (as opposed to something which seems cool at first but then turns out to be utter nonsense – Doctor Who has always had a weakness for these).

But this would count for nothing if it was a mere logic problem, and exercise in game theory, a crossword puzzle. Having a mystery to solve elevates proceedings, keeping all the players off-balance as well as keeping the audience guessing, but the point – the real point – is that maintaining a peace means that those with the power to wage war have to actually want peace, really want it. The Doctor doesn’t need to outsmart Bonnie and her gang of murderous blobby things. He needs to change their minds. And Peter Capaldi relishes every glorious word of this magnificent scene. There have been quite a few climactic scenes like this is Doctor Who from Tom Baker’s impassioned appeal to Magnus Greel, to Sylvester McCoy’s infamous “CND speech” in Battlefield but this one might just be the best of them all.

Finally, Bonnie is reborn as Osgood 3.0 in a coda which strikes a suitably hopeful note, while never forgetting just how fucking difficult this kind of peace is to create and to maintain. It’s lovely stuff throughout, making hugely effective use of the series recent and more distant past, while creating a ripped-from-the-headlines adventure which doesn’t feel like it will date. Daniel Nettheim directs with the vigour the series is now known for and the rest of the production team is on top form.

So, as we pass the half-way point, this is the first cast-iron classic of Series Nine. I have no hesitation in awarding this episode and the two-parter as a whole five stars. Peter Harness for show-runner? He’s run Wallander. Just sayin…

So… what did I think of The Zygon Invasion?

Posted on November 5th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »


4.5 Stars

In only the third story of the new run, Doctor Who presented one of its famous “romps” – a jaunt around Victorian Cardiff with Charles Dickens, undertakers and ghosts who turned out to be aliens trying to come and live on Earth. These aliens professed to be benign, but actually proved to be malevolent. Elder fans might have recognised this plot-line from The Claws of Axos among others. Some less nerdy viewers wondered if author Mark Gatiss was trying to say something rather Daily Mail-ish about immigration.

Then, last year, writer Peter Harness gave us the hugely divisive Kill the Moon which some chose to interpret as an anti-abortion tirade. Neither of these readings seems remotely plausible to me. And yet, here is that same writer, apparently wading into the same treacherous waters as The Unquiet Dead all over again.

Okay, let’s start with the null hypothesis. Let’s assume that the point of the story is not “No blacks, no Irish” and see where that leads us. I remarked at the time of transmission of Day of the Doctor that the Zygon plot-line deserved more room and probably fewer Doctors to explore it. Strikingly, the Big Finish range of audio plays has already explored the notion of Zygons who just want to live among humans peacefully, and Steven Moffat’s notion that a peace can be best negotiated by people who genuinely can’t be sure which side they are on is rather brilliant.

But, because this is storytelling, a peace like this can’t last – the Gelth must be up to no good, the Axons must be out for themselves, otherwise what we have is a sermon, not an adventure. Exactly how and why the peace has collapsed has not yet been made clear. What we do have are some classic science-fiction tropes assembled with a tremendous amount of style and care. This is Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Thing with a hefty dose of UNIT and Quatermass.

Then there’s Osgood. Far from being a cheat, the revelation that only one half of an Osgood-Zygon symbiotic pair was vaporised by Missy gives genuine emotional weight to the hijinks which follow. The early part of the story is largely concerned with back-story and exposition, but this is doled out with enough grace that it goes down easily enough. When Kate Stewart arrives in Truth or Consequences, the Doctor arrives in Turmezistan and Clara discovers what’s weird about the lifts in London, then the story really starts to accelerate. And there are a couple of quick references to immigration to reassure you that – yes, it is okay if that crossed your mind, and no, that’s not intended to actually be the moral of the story.

The Zygons’ shapeshifting ability creates two different narrative games for the script to play. As noted, neither is new, but both are well-used here. The first is to manipulate aggressors by pretending to be loved ones. The drone operator calling off the strike is a little thin, but undeterred, Harness tries the same trick again in Turmezistan and here it works wonderfully well – provided you don’t stop and think about what the Doctor and Walsh were doing while all this was going on. Wasn’t this long conversation exactly the diversion they needed to slip in the back way?

The other game is to manipulate the audience by revealing that such-and-such is actually a Zygon. A made a mental note of a particularly awkward line from Clara when she sees the Doctor off on his Presidential Plane. Why would she suddenly announce she has to go back to her flat? Ugh. Of course, by the episode’s end, the reason is obvious – she’s already been replaced by a Zygon copy. I thought it would be Jac, but how marvellous to see Jenna Coleman given the chance to play a baddie before she goes – even shooting down the Doctor’s plane with a motherfucking rocket launcher.

The supporting cast are all great too with regular UNIT stalwarts Jemma Redgrave, Ingrid Oliver and Jaye Griffiths now joined by Peter Capaldi’s The Thick of It mucker Rebecca Front as Walsh, but it’s impossible for me to see them as Malcolm Tucker and Nicola Murray. And Capaldi is still having a ball, even though the Doctor is a little on the back foot, a little passive so far.

So, how to rate this? I really wish I’d let myself suspend judgement as this is hugely promising stuff, but this season has generally been a story of awesome take-offs and disappointing landings. This is certainly every bit as good as Under the Lake, and far better paced than The Magician’s Apprentice but giving five stars to part one of two just doesn’t feel right. Four-and-a-half then.

Now – don’t screw up the conclusion!

So… what did I think of The Woman Who Lived?

Posted on October 29th, 2015 in Culture | 1 Comment »

3.0 Stars

Some wise soul, I forget who, (Tat Wood possibly?) observed that a great many problems with the production of Classic Who could have been solved with one modern-style “tone meeting”. At these august gatherings, department heads go through the script together, with the executive producer guiding the conversations, and duties are assigned not simply as a matter of avoiding doubling-up, but to ensure that the production is united by a common vision. Thus one avoids Johnny Byrne’s script describing a gloomy, claustrophobic undersea environment being shot with every single studio light turned up to maximum.

This excellent process should not be confused with creativity by committee. What’s key is that the executive producer (or show-runner) is the last voice that matters. Everyone else can have opinions, but Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat will make the final decision. With too many people having what they imagine is the last say, a production – or even a script – can end up trying to serve too many masters and end up a porridge of ideas.

Now, singularity of vision is no guarantee of quality. I didn’t like Vincent and the Doctor but I appreciated it as a singular vision of Doctor Who from a top writer. I absolutely hated The Trees Are Everywhere La Di Da or whatever it was called, but even I must grudgingly admit that I hope the series still has the balls to experiment with new styles, whether or not I happen to think the results are worthwhile.

The Woman Who Lived has quite a serious problem in this regard. Just what kind of story was it trying to be? It felt somewhat as if Catherine Tregenna had written two different scripts – one a deep and rather sad philosophical meditation on the nature of longevity, the other a childish romp full of dick jokes and prat falls – and then due to some sort of Jeff Goldblum-style transporter accident with Final Draft, the two scripts ended up fused together into some sort of ghastly hybrid. Now a mix of styles can be bracing and fun, but it needs to be handled with a great deal of care, and both styles have to be worth doing and appropriate. My problem is that I adored one of Tregenna’s scripts and hated the other.

This episode and its predecessor are clearly the odd ones out in Series 9. Yes, they represent the two halves of a two-part story but there’s far less connective tissue between the two episodes than is usually the case, and there are different writers for each half. It’s odd then The Woman Who Lived directly followed The Girl Who Spoilered in the running order when there was no need for this. Sure, it’s pretty obvious that we would be seeing Maisie Williams again, but it also seemed obvious we’d be seeing Georgia Moffett again at the end of The Doctor’s Daughter but that was seven years ago and we’re still waiting.

Having the Doctor turn up after only a week of viewer-time and immediately be tracking the same gee-gaw as Maisie was clunky and unnecessary. Far more interesting to let us forget about Arya Stark for a few weeks, and then play the first meeting from the Doctor’s point of view. Anyway, once they get together and start talking, much of what they have to say to each other is rather striking. Tiny details like the endless shelves of journals, Lady Me describing the lives of mortals like mayflies of like smoke, the pain she feels from having outlived her own children – it all works brilliantly and Maisie Williams sells it like a pro.

When the Cowardly Lion turns up and starts breathing fire, I can’t quite connect this to the rather wonderful adult science fiction I’ve just been watching. And during the Doctor and Lady Me’s break-in, where apparently the entire household has been struck with hysterical blindness and deafness, I began to wonder if I’d fallen asleep and woken up during a repeat of Rent-a-Ghost. (Hat tip to my mate John Voce however, making much of very little as Mr Fanshaw).

Rufus Hound is a good and likeable actor, and was well cast as a swaggering highwayman, but having him cracker-joke his way off the gallows was just ghastly. The solution to the crisis was neatly hidden in plain sight, and I don’t mind the Doctor Fendahling his way out of a proper explanation, but even Maisie Williams can’t pull off the ludicrously sudden volte-face which Lady Me is now expected to experience.

And the climax sets up an ending which is off-kilter in at least two different ways. Firstly, the Doctor has left Me in a worse position than he found her. Now she is still cursed with immortality but with no prospect of being able to bring someone else along for the ride. Secondly and more seriously, the notion that she is hanging around looking over the Doctor’s shoulder for every Earthbound story post 1651 is rather odd and presumably it also means that she will be bumping into Clara The Impossible Girl quite a lot. Just how many magical guardian angels does one Time Lord need?

So, for all the sensitive and detailed exploration of the pros and cons of Me’s situation, it’s a clear four. It can’t be more than that because it didn’t have time to go anywhere. For all the willy jokes and falling over, it’s a two and so that’s a three for the latest episode I’m afraid, and there’s no need for a score for the two parter because each half was very much its own thing.

Whether or not we see any more of Maisie Williams and whether or not that retcons this review into a more (or less!) favourable one remains to be seen…


Posted on October 27th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | 2 Comments »


Note – this review will contain spoilers. Proceed at your own risk!

Production of James Bond films has slowed since the 1960s. When the series began, Sean Connery knocked out five in as many years. Roger Moore couldn’t quite keep up that pace, but still managed seven in 12 years. Pierce Brosnan largely managed to evade the legal difficulties which kept Bond off our screens for six years prior to GoldenEye and so starred in four films over a seven year period. Poor old Daniel Craig has taken eleven years to create as many adventures – so each one needs to be worth waiting for.

Prior to sitting down to watch Spectre (at the BFI IMAX at midnight!) I rewatched the previous three movies. Briefly, Casino Royale was slightly better than I remembered – the double-crossing at the end isn’t as confusing as I thought and the mix of human drama and bonkers action works brilliantly. It’s still a shame that the goons who retrieve the cash at the end are so anonymous, and we never meet Vesper’s boyfriend, but it’s basically brilliant. Quantum of Solace was even worse than I remembered – an unfunny, frantic, borderline nonsensical mess of a movie. And Skyfall was every bit as good as I remembered – astonishing action sequences, nifty plotting and fabulous performances. So Spectre had a lot to live up to.

One of the pleasures of Skyfall was the way in which it reassembled the Bond “family” – installing a new more traditionally avuncular M, casting fresh young faces as Q and Moneypenny and returning rogue agent 007 to the fold. Whereas the first two Daniel Craig movies were about the new rookie finding his feet and the third was about a damaged agent returning to the fold, Spectre just has to be business-as-usual, which is potentially slightly trickier to make interesting, although it should make it easier to get straight on with the thrill-ride. It’s disappointing then that early on, we spend so much time replaying tropes from the earlier Daniel Craig movies, Skyfall in particular. Bond is going rogue, again. Bond’s bosses are unable to track his movements, again. The double-0 programme is under bureaucratic threat, again. A shadowy organisation has people “everywhere”, again and so on.

The other major feature of Spectre is its desire to turn the four Daniel Craig movies so far into a coherent saga. Quite why this was felt necessary is not clear to me. Casino wiped the slate clean and started from scratch and everybody loved it. Quantum attempted to turn the Casino villain’s plan into part of a grander conspiracy and everybody hated it. Skyfall totally ignored the previous two films and everybody loved it. How Michael G Wilson and co. drew from this the lesson that what the public wants is for the films to all connect up is anyone’s guess.

The plan starts early with glimpses of Eva Green, Mads Mikkelson, Judi Dench and Javier Bardem floating past in the opening titles – which, by the way, are spectacular, rendering even Sam Smith’s wailing dirge of a theme song acceptable, which is quite a feat. The problem is that reminding us of characters from past adventures is all the movie ever really does to build its multi-part saga. We are apparently meant to think that if Christoph Waltz only mentions Raoul Silva then we will forget that every single thing Javier Bardem does in Skyfall is connected with his being an embittered ex-secret service agent with a personal grudge against M, and we will instead start to remember that his actions were a carefully calculated part of a masterplan being developed by a vast international conspiracy. Sorry, movie. No dice.

The problem is even more significant when it comes to Dominic Greene and the already fairly muddled events of Quantum of Solace. Possibly the Eon team attempted to get back the rights to the name “Spectre” in 2008 so that they could identify the villain’s organisation with that moniker, and when that failed, they used the word “Quantum” instead, tying it in with one of the few remaining Fleming story titles. But we are now meant to believe that the all-powerful, all-encompassing Quantum is itself a mere subsidiary of the even more all-powerful and even more all-encompassing Spectre – Google to the new film’s Alphabet Inc. I for one don’t buy it.

And in fact the problem is even worse because we also have Andrew Scott running around trying to create his own all-powerful and all-encompassing secret organisation – so we have three independent grand conspiracies, all of which overlap and intersect in poorly-defined ways. I long for the days when all we had was one mad man who wanted to blow up the world.

The general feeling that the people trying to stitch these films together haven’t actually watched them recently is compounded when Q makes a tart reference to the mess 007 made of his Aston Martin DB5 in the previous movie, and the beaten-up vehicle is shown undergoing renovations in his workshop. But the point of Bond switching to the DB5 in Skyfall was that it wasn’t a “company car” and therefore MI6 couldn’t track him. And again, when Christoph Waltz chortles that every one of Bond’s women has died – he is apparently forgetting Camille who walks off at the end of Quantum perfectly intact.

So let’s talk about Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser John Harrison Ernst Stavro Blofeld – complete with white cat! Waltz is marvellous in the part, and most of his evil plan makes some sort of sense, although it’s a lot of bother to go to to make one already fairly gloomy agent a bit frowny. But I didn’t really buy his back-story at all. When we can’t see the young James and Franz (and, to be clear, I wouldn’t want to), the notion that they were briefly step-brothers doesn’t really resonate. He’s just another cackling maniac, which is fine – just what a film like this needs in fact – and even better if he can be played by a two-time Oscar winner. So why bother with all this psychodrama if the film isn’t prepared to really commit to it?

But to be honest, as unsatisfactory as all this stuff is, it’s in the margins. When the film concentrates on the present-day storyline instead of dwelling in the past, and when the action starts, it works brilliantly well. The opening sequence, if not quite topping the extraordinary car, train, foot chase in Skyfall, is very rewarding, beginning with a gorgeous long tracking shot – which was no doubt stitched together from half-a-dozen-or-more set-ups, Birdman­­-style, but is still a very, very stylish way to open the movie. Daniel Craig is on blistering form throughout, his wry grimace as the ledge he’s scrambled on to starts to give way beneath him is just perfect, and he continues to absolutely nail the part to the wall. If he does bow out before his fifth contracted film, he will be an amazingly hard act to follow.

Other action sequences also meet if never quite exceeding the high bar set by recent outings. The car chase in Rome, where 007 discovers that not all of the gadgets in the new DB10 are quite up to scratch is very funny and exciting, the plane/car chase in Austria is novel and works very well indeed, and the bone-crunching train fight tops even From Russia with Love. Some of the quieter moments work well too. What a pleasure to see a new version of the Spectre boardroom, also from Russia and others, and – look! – a bonkers villain’s lair in the depths of a crater which blows up absolutely spectacularly towards the end. Monica Bellucci is criminally underused but makes the most of her seven or so minutes of screen time, and Lea Seydoux works miracles with a very thinly drawn character, fleshing out Madelaine Swann into something approximating a real human woman.

The only real disappointment, apart from all my grousing about saga-building above, is the final show-down in London. The chase through the wrecked MI6 works well, but as nice as it is giving Bond a family again, what Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear and Andrew Scott are up to is just far, far less interesting than Bond vs Blofeld. Even the movie seems to lose faith or interest (or both) in the frankly rather artificial count-down associated with the Nine Eyes system, and Rory Kinnear seems to run out of lines entirely about half-an-hour before the end, so he just stands around looking concerned. And it does suggest that not everyone is paying very close attention when the opening action sequence and the closing action sequence both require an out-of-control helicopter, but nobody ever mentions this fact to make it seem deliberate.

So very good, then, rather than great. Casino and Skyfall are, in my view, stone cold classics up there with From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me and GoldenEye. While Spectre is certainly far from being as awful as Quantum of Solace (or A View to a Kill, or The Man with the Golden Gun), it’s stuck slightly in the good-solid entry stakes, both because there isn’t a single action sequence which completely redefines what’s possible, and because some of the plotting is simultaneously overly complicated and somewhat half-hearted.

What’s really important though is that it starts with the gun barrel (for the first time since Die Another Day) and ends with “James Bond will return”. You betcha.

So… what did I think of The Girl Who Died?

Posted on October 20th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »

Let’s return to that discussion about brilliant execution vs vaulting ambition. If a “perfect” story requires both, but this occurs very rarely, does that mean I will only give five stars to one story every 2-3 years? No, I’m not quite that stingy. A really solid adventure, with strong characters, neat concepts, well-directed and with a couple of exceptional moments will still do me fine. But that also doesn’t mean you get a “pass” because your story was well done, but rather familiar, very simple and far from pushing the envelope, is apologetically backing away from it.

The Girl Who Died – taken as a stand-alone story – does almost nothing wrong. The narrative line is clean and strong, there are no obvious plot holes which I spotted, the threat is real and makes sense and the Doctor’s solution is clever without being incomprehensible. The banter between the Doctor and the Vikings I actually found funny (unlike Rubbish of Sherwood last year) and Clara has a significant stake in the action.

But shorn of part two, it feels a teeny-weeny bit “so what?”

Let’s look at some of the good points in more detail. As other commenters have noted, this is a rather bracing science-fiction, historical splicing together of Dad’s Army and The Seven Samurai, which is not something we’ve seen before in Doctor Who at any rate. Capaldi is the perfect Doctor to train this wet and weedy bunch of Norsemen, barking out caustically hilarious nicknames for them as he frantically scrambles to contrive a strategy which will keep them alive. The Vikings themselves are storybook versions of the real thing, which makes perfect sense. “Real” Vikings are much less fun to look at, and part of the point of the show is that they look like the fearsome warriors of our imaginations, but in fact they can’t hold a sword or swing an axe without mishap.

The Mire are a perfectly serviceable villain of the week, even if “Odin” is little more than a stumpier version of last week’s Fisher King. Masie Williams as Ashildr makes an instant impression and those stupid sonic glasses got snapped in two. Even “I can speak baby” was tolerable this time around.

But, it’s a pretty trivial matter for the Doctor to get involved in really, and without that sting in the tale it amounts to very little. Sadly, the sting in the tale is not without problems of its own. Firstly, I’m not at all clear what Masie Williams has died of. She seems to have come down with a fatal case of wearing a hat, which is not altogether convincing. Secondly, we’ve had this debate before, with rather more piss and vinegar, in The Waters of Mars and this new version didn’t add an awful lot to the pile. Thirdly, it’s not at all clear to me why destroying galactic reputation of a war-mongering race represents a “ripple” in time and giving one girl from 800AD a longer life represents a “tidal wave”.

That having been said, the notion of a precocious Viking girl getting to live forever is rather a beguiling one, with something of a Torchwood feel to it (and not just because it’s about immortality). I am keen to see where this goes next week, and I did enjoy the episode, but it’s a curtain-raiser rather than a completely satisfying story in its own right.

3.0 Stars


So… what did I think of Before the Flood?

Posted on October 17th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »


The Doctor: People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.

Sally: Started well, that sentence.

The Doctor: It got away from me, yeah.

Blink has got a lot to answer for. On balance I’m thoroughly glad it exists, since on its own it’s absolutely marvellous. But in terms of its legacy, it may very well have done more harm than good.

Remember, one of the factors in the creation of Blink was it that was to be that season’s Doctor-light story. With David Tennant and Freema Agyeman filming another episode at the same time, Steven Moffat’s script had to put something else in the place of the quirky hero most were tuning in to see. Blink succeeds in part because the Doctor’s presence is felt throughout, but also because the mind-bending paradoxes fulfil our desire for something otherworldly and strange and so make up for the Doctor’s absence.

Steven Moffat’s insight was that Doctor Who is a series about a time traveller which very rarely tells stories which are about time travel. The TARDIS is frequently used only to deliver the leads to where and when the adventure is taking place. But this was not accidental. 26 years of episodes produced with hardly any time-travel adventures was not coincidence, lack of ambition (time travel paradoxes are very cheap to film), or inattention. It was because most time-travel stories are self-limiting. Time travel turns out to be more of a curse than a blessing, or the use of paradoxes eventually undoes the causality of the story, which is why they are very often mere narrative window dressing. We don’t watch Terminator 2 because it uses time travel to “undo” the first movie. We watch Terminator 2 for the epic life-and-death struggle, the then (heck, now) eye-popping special effects and the thrilling stunt work.

Similarly, Blink doesn’t succeed because of the time travel paradoxes. They are neat solutions to seemingly impossible problems, and they create the mystery which Sally Sparrow is unravelling, but we watch for star-of-tomorrow Carey Mulligan’s luminous performance and the pathos of poor Billy Shipton’s inevitable death. Note also, that the final solution to the threat of the angels has nothing whatever to do with time-travel – it exploits a hitherto unnoticed feature of their biology: they can quantum-lock each other by mistake.

But continuing to write more and more stories in which time paradoxes form the core of the plot, or worse are the means to resolve it, leads to diminishing returns. It leads to stories whose climaxes are not thrilling-escapes-from-death, or brilliant last-minute improvisatons, or moments of emotional catharsis, but instead are unrewardingly clever, like the solution to a crossword puzzle, giving a brief flash of insight but nothing more. And as writers work harder and harder to out-do each other and stay ahead of the audience, the danger becomes greater and greater that climaxes start to tip over into Bill and Ted or The Curse of Fatal Death absurdity.

So I don’t mind the Doctor breaking the fourth wall to give us a little lecture at the top of the episode, it’s fun and so is his penchant for the electric guitar. Maybe it wasn’t strictly needed, except to pad out the running time, but I don’t object in principle. It’s just that what he was saying was a little laboured. You don’t have to have studied science-fiction in depth from H G Wells to the present day to have seen a bootstrap paradox before. You just need to have seen one episode of Doctor Who with Steven Moffat’s name on it somewhere and you’ll probably be fully up-to-speed. So it’s the foregrounding of this element which undoes this episode for me more than anything else.

As I noted last week, the idea of travelling back in time to see how the events of part one were set in motion is one I found very fresh and invigorating, and early signs were good. Although I could probably have done without O’Donnell’s fan-squee over the Doctor’s previous (and future) Earth-bound exploits. We don’t want to return to the days of Eric Saward where the Doctor and the Time Lords were pretty much intergalactic celebrities, do we?

O’Donnell is written like that partly to give her death some added pathos, but it doesn’t really work. She’s too thin of a character, both in the writing and in the playing, and the directing is very weak here, with the camera playing the part of the Fisher King and swooping grimly near her while she just stands and feebly goggles at it, before being discovered dead but apparently uninjured.

The Doctor’s second trip in the TARDIS is also strangely redundant – another narrative loop, like his trip in Davros’s wheelchair, which again suggests that there wasn’t quite enough material to sustain 90 minutes of television. Back on the base, Clara et al are trying to work out what the ghost Doctor is saying – when the ghost O’Donnell turns up. This is very strange. Prentis, who was alive when the Doctor arrived, is seen floating around the Drum right from the start. O’Donnell’s ghost only appears at the Drum after the Doctor witnesses her dead. No explanation for this is ever given.

The Fisher King (strange name) is also rather a blank of a villain. Steven Moffat somewhat pompously opined in the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine that writing a straight-up-and-down Bad Guy is not “proper” writing, but the Fisher King just wants others to die and himself to live, plus a bit of gloating on the side. He cuts an imposing figure and Peter Serafinowicz does a good job on the voice, but he’s a bit ho-hum.

When the solution finally arrives, it’s a bit of a flurry of other-shoes-dropping. The Doctor uses the missing power cell to shatter the dam, flooding the valley. Was that really the only way to deal with the threat of the Fisher King? It’s uncharacteristically brutal, especially given his refusal to even try and save O’Donnell or any of the rest, and the risk of collateral damage seems very high. For reasons which aren’t particularly clear, the Doctor stuffs Bennett in the TARDIS and he takes the trip back to the Drum via the stasis chamber. Finally, the Doctor’s ghost is revealed as a hologram, similar to the illusion of Clara used to mislead the ghosts in part one. That all just about makes sense as far as it goes, and the speed of the execution is thrilling enough, but there’s no catharsis of any kind, not even when that wet and weedy romance between Lunn and Cass finally sparks up.

So, it’s another disappointing denouement I’m afraid. I think three stars is appropriate. Capaldi does very good work, as ever, and Paul Kaye is fun. But I think that drags down the two parter’s overall score to three-and-a-half. A tremendous build-up and a limp finish is so much worse than an early stumble and an amazing climax.

PS: Sorry this was so late, I will try and get a review of tonight’s episode up by tomorrow evening at the latest.

So… what did I think of Under the Lake?

Posted on October 9th, 2015 in Culture | 1 Comment »


When those two Patrick Troughton stories, Web of Evil and Enemy of the World were recovered – the biggest haul of missing episodes to date – I couldn’t wait to watch them and immediately bought them on iTunes. I’ve since rebought them on DVD and watched them both twice. They’re just fantastic. It’s my favourite era of the show and these are two terrific stories that it’s astonishing to have back.

I remember having the same conversation with a couple of other fans. Which do you prefer and why? Both are significant stories in their own way. Web is the debut of Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart, whose influence on the programme is still being felt today. It paved the way for the UNIT era of the 1970s and solidified the appeal of the Yeti (although they would not reappear save for a fleeting guest-appearance in The Five Doctors). Enemy has the thrill of Patrick Troughton’s dual role and represents the first association with the programme of one Barry Letts, who would run the show for five years, return for Season 18 and still be contributing audio stories in the 1990s.

But, in terms of their content, they are wildly different. Web is a base-under-siege story, which had become the go-to template for last-sixties Doctor Who, combining as it did attacking monsters, all the money spent on one big set, and guest stars going happily bonkers as the threat closed in. Depending on exactly how you count, around one half to three quarters of all Patrick Troughton stories adhere to this model. Enemy is one of the exceptions. Possibly the most ambitious second Doctor serial, certainly one of the most “out-there” in terms of its plotting, and that’s even before you factor in the star also playing the villain.

And yet, it’s Web that I preferred – and for this reason. Firstly, I rather like a base-under-siege story. Secondly, and more importantly, Web achieves absolutely everything it sets out to do. The London Underground setting is completely convincing (so much so that the BBC received angry letters about what they hell they had been doing filming down there without permission), the newly redesigned Yeti are utterly terrifying, the supporting cast are wonderful and the set pieces are immaculately staged. For all its imagination and ambition, however, the problem with Enemy is that its reach exceeds its grasp. Too many of the things the story wants to happen, neither the budget nor the detail of the script can actually convince us are real, and so watching it is occasionally awkward when it should be a delight.

Thus, I am unmoved by claims that Under the Lake is a rehash of earlier stories. Yes, it’s a bit of a mash-up of The Impossible Planet and The Waters of Mars with bits of The Unquiet Dead, The Rebel Flesh, The God Complex and even Last Christmas (only two stores ago) stirred in – but it feels completely fresh and the pieces have been assembled with uncommon skill and care.

At first I was a bit concerned, since the gang of undersea explorers seem a bit of a bland bunch, and differentiating a clutch of cannon-fodder has been an issue for more than one episode of the revived series. At a glance Colin McFarlane seemed the most charismatic, which is why it was both a delightful shock and rather a disappointment when he was the first to go. Having a deaf character accompanied by an interpreter is also fresh and managed not to feel like tokenism, although I did wonder exactly what year we were meant to be in, if the best solution to the problem of deafness is the same as it is now – having a hearing person who also understands sign language follow you around. Especially as it turns out she can lip-read.

I was less sorry to see the back of Steven Robertson’s Pritchard who was an entirely standard-issue company man, in the mode of Paul Reiser in Alien and countless other corporate ne-er-do-wells from modern genre fiction, but the remaining crew managed to at least begin to establish roles, relationships and attitudes. What was really rewarding about this episode, however was the carefully paced, very suspenseful and constantly surprising working out of the puzzle. As more and more pieces started to come together, I was more and more captivated, until we were delivered neatly to one of the best cliffhangers the new series has ever done. Far more interesting than Missy and Clara being zapped by Daleks, the suspense here has nothing to do with whether the Doctor will survive and everything to do with how.

The throw-forward, promising a second episode with an entirely new slant on the same events, location and scenario if anything makes this first episode seem even better, so I’m not at all concerned about the fact that some familiar ingredients have been recombined and I’m eagerly looking forward to next week (i.e. tomorrow’s episode).

Capaldi and Coleman did good work as ever, and the ghost effects were very nifty, but I do have a few gripes. I’m not a fan of those cue cards which make the Doctor seem a bit of an idiot, a Faraday cage is not a complex technical device, it simply describes one of properties which a space enclosed in conductive material possesses, and I don’t buy for a second that the TARDIS would refuse to pop over to the other air-lock and pick up Clara, but I suppose the two leads have to be split up somehow.

Four-and-a-half stars. Bring on part two!

So… what did I think of The Witch’s Familiar?

Posted on September 30th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »


Is it about the destination or is it about the journey? As usual, the only accurate answer is “it depends”. A more helpful answer would be at least as long as this blog post.

Early on in the curiously-titled The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor orders Davros out of his chair at gunpoint and sails into the midst of a horde of Daleks, whose weapons are unable to penetrate the chair’s forcefield. Colony Sarff London (I think that’s his name) however, already has his snake-y bits inside the chair and so the Doctor is overpowered and returned to Davros. We go from the Doctor trapped in Davros’s chamber back to the Doctor trapped in Davros’s chamber and in narrative terms nothing whatever has been accomplished. But – the two scenes with the Doctor in Davros’s chair also contain some of the funniest moments of the whole episode. That’s this story all over.

The plot is split roughly in two with the Doctor vs Davros being largely static and Missy and Clara’s journey having a bit more adventure to it. But notice again that all of Missy and Clara’s actions are designed to get them right back where they were at the end of the last episode – in the centre of Dalek mission control. At least here, Clara has been sealed up inside a little tank during the previous thirty minutes.

Let’s take a little step back. Firstly, Moffat clearly does understand that “killing” Clara wasn’t the real cliff-hanger last week and so we open on Jenna Coleman clearly alive if dangling upside down from a convenient rock. The pretitles sequence is fun and reminds of the business of the Doctor’s “will” (which is then ignored until just before the end – I fear it’s this season’s arc-plot) but the story doesn’t start until after the titles. So that’s another scene which could just be cut and no-one would notice. I’m quite tempted to see if I could do a shorter edit of these two episodes. What do you think I could get it down to? 60 minutes? 45?

Let’s look at the Doctor’s side of things first. In interviews, Steven Moffat has opined that Doctor/Davros scenes are always great. That may be true, but they aren’t always this long. True, we have here – maybe for the first time – a pair of actors who could rival Tom Baker and Michael Wisher, but that doesn’t mean that, stripped of any meaningful context, I’m going to be happy to watch them sit and chat for 20 minutes. Don’t misunderstand me – I love it when characters get a chance to express themselves, but it works best when the stakes are really high. Midnight is basically one long dialogue scene, but the Doctor is frantically trying to work out how to save not just himself but a whole bus-load of innocents throughout. Here, not only is the dramatic situation curiously inert – Davros clearly does not wish the Doctor dead, or he could have accomplished that very easily – but no-one seems to be trying to achieve anything either. The Doctor is full of bluster and fury at first, but his murderous rage never materialises – like Clara staring impotently at Missy’s impudently turned back.

So while they blather elegantly on, it’s left to Jenna Coleman and the sublime Michelle Gomez to carry the day, which they do with some style. Clara and Missy’s adventures in the Dalek sewers are funny, exciting and have crackling dialogue and the notion of what happens when one is not only encased in a Dalek shell but (unlike Ian Chesterton in The Daleks) actually wired into its telepathic circuits is Steven Moffat at his absolute best, taking a piece of Doctor Who lore we’ve all just accepted for fifty-plus years and providing an explanation which makes perfect sense and which sets up the only genuinely suspenseful part of the entire episodes – Missy goading the Doctor into exterminating the Dalek which unbeknownst to him houses his best friend.

About the only thing wrong with this scene is that nobody at any point recognises that the Doctor and Clara have been here before. The Doctor’s first encounter with Clara was when she was inside a Dalek and didn’t know it (Asylum of the Daleks) and yet this goes unremarked-upon. It’s one thing to insist that Doctor Who works best as a series of basically unrelated stand-alone tales (a view I’ve expressed more than once). It’s quite another to design an incomprehensibly intricate arc plot spanning several seasons and then just not stop to remember what you’ve already written. There are a few other niggles like this in this episode. “The chamber is sealed,” intones Davros. However, the Doctor, Colony Sarff and later Missy all sail in and out with any trouble at all. “Look at the cables,” the Doctor is told, and we can see that some of them at least are Colony Sarff serpents, but this fact is never mentioned again.

As the two plot-lines converge it transpires that Davros needed the Doctor’s regeneration energy to reinvigorate the Daleks. Why exactly? They don’t look old and clapped out. They swarm and fly and exterminate and generally seem in absolutely tip-top condition – if a bit piebald.

Sidenote: One of Steven Moffat’s absolutely worst decisions as show-runner was certainly that appallingly misguided Dalek redesign we got in the generally fairly rubbish Victory of the Daleks. Since then, in Asylum and now here, he has attempted to conceal the error by surrounding his “Beyonce” Daleks with as many different models as possible. Here, although the Victory models I think are absent, the eighties “special weapons Daleks” makes a cameo appearance as do some sliver and blue chaps from the sixties. “And they look fine together,” proclaims the executive producer. Yeah, but the bronze ones still look the best, striking a perfect balance between the iconic silhouette and the detail required in modern TV production. It’s no coincidence that that’s what Clara gets sealed up in. Anyway…

Once infused with regeneration energy, the not-particularly-enervated Daleks don’t seem suddenly more potent and ferocious either – they seem exactly the same. Hettie MacDonald doesn’t seem to have read the script either. And it’s really, really unusual in this day and age for the effects work to be so poor that it actually gets in the way of the storytelling, but nothing about the revenge of the sludge Daleks is remotely convincing and it’s genuinely hard to understand what the script intended here. The visual cause-and-effect is almost completely absent, and that includes Missy’s execution of the Dalek too. A mid of mud on the floor, a lot of screaming and shouting, a bit more mud on the Dalek’s casing and boom! Excuse me? Did I turn two pages at once?

And how did we get here? Because Davros wanted to see the sunrise. Pardon? This is a ploy so maudlin and so transparent, I would be furious at the Doctor for falling for it, if it were not tediously obvious that he was setting up his own plan. As other commentators have pointed out, this is “I bribed the architect first” from The Curse of Fatal Death only played with a straight face, and as much as it makes the writer feel clever, it makes the audience disengage because the drama evaporates. “I knew what was happening all along and I’ve already put a plan into motion to save the day,” isn’t half as much fun as “I’ve been caught completely by surprise and I just have to hope that this desperate improvisation somehow works!”

Finally, we come back to the real cliff-hanger – not whether Clara will survive (of course she will) but whether the Doctor will be morally compromised. But this too is the writer outsmarting the audience, not the Doctor outsmarting the enemy. Rather like those shocking scenes on the front of sixties superhero comics which seem to show game-changing revelations and then turn out not to be quite so epic as they seemed once you get to that page in the comic itself, the scene we thought we were watching at the end of part one was in fact revealed as a less interesting version wherein the Doctor does the nice thing and shoots the mines, which obediently vanish, unlike less sophisticated twentieth century mines which would have blown up when hit and taken Little Davros with them. Isn’t the progress of weapons technology a marvellous thing.

So, once again, I’m frustrated. Steven Moffat is an immensely clever writer and Doctor Who in theory is an ideal medium for his talents, but this episode contained far too much writer self-indulgence, in the form of narrative loops which fail to advance the plot, repetitive dialogue scenes which tell us the same thing over and over again (no matter how elegantly phrased or beautifully spoken) and “clever” solutions to plot problems which feel like the answers to crossword puzzles rather than the needed dramatic catharsis.

All that having been said, for Clara’s adventures in the Dalek, for Peter Capaldi’s impassioned performance, for the line “anyone for dodgems?”, and especially for the absolutely scintillating Michelle Gomez, I’m not only going to dredge up three stars for this, I’m going to keep the score for the two-parter at four. It may be rather less than the sum of its parts, but many of those parts are awfully good.

Those sonic sunglasses were only for this episode though, right? Right?

So… what did I think of The Magician’s Apprentice?

Posted on September 24th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »

Let’s have a little talk about series structure. When Doctor Who returned in 2005, it was – with the benefit of hindsight – astonishingly surefooted. Yes, it might have taken a few episodes for the tone and the command of resources to settle down (I don’t mind the fact that the bin in Rose was made to burp, but I slightly regret that the CG work was so poor) but the template which Russell T Davies set, although unfamiliar, seemed right, and continued to work for four more seasons. A breezy season opener, a couple of standalone episodes to explore contrasts, a meatier two parter, some quirkier episodes, a “prestige” two parter, a cheapie to save money and then a blood-and-thunder two part finale. Hooray!

As this blog has lovingly chronicled, since Steven Moffat took over, things have been rather less stable. Series Five moreorless followed this template, but Moffat was far more keen than Davies to create an arc which linked the episodes together, a practice which just about succeeded but which rendered the finale a little hard to follow, to say the least.

In Series Six, the wheels started to come off. As part of the planning for the anniversary year, the series was split in two with the first seven episodes airing in the spring, and the remaining six pushed back to the autumn. The insoluble puzzle of the first two episodes proved to be exactly that, with the finale when it eventually arrived amounting to little more than narrative gibberish. Along the way, two parters fell aside. With the sole exception of The Rebel Flesh / The Also People, every other episode of the 2011 series is simply either “arc” or “non-arc” and the collision of these two was sometimes very ugly.

Far from learning the lessons of the previous year, Series Seven was even more violently divided, with a Christmas special separating the two halves but stand-alone adventures also were the order of the day, although Clara’s increasingly incoherent back-story acted as a sort of arc, finally being resolved in the entertaining but rather muddled anniversary show before the Eleventh Doctor himself stood aside in the fatally jumbled Christmas special.

So, last year there was an opportunity to take stock and run a whole twelve episodes (why not thirteen?) in a single calendar year, uninterrupted, with the same lead actors for the first time since 2010 and now in the right season. What was the result? Actually, on the whole, pretty good. The “slutty titles” which dragged down especially the first half of Series Seven seemed to have gone away, and after a slightly bumpy start, we got an incredibly strong run of episodes from about the half way point onwards, so much so that I didn’t miss the two parters at all – especially when episode twelve was such a let-down after episode eleven.

But this year, two parters are the order of the day and so The Magician’s Apprentice must be judged as not only the start of the 2015 season of Doctor Who, not only as the reintroduction of the Peter Capaldi Doctor, but as the first half of a story which will be resolved (I assume! I hope!) next week. I propose therefore to give each episode of this season a score, and also a score for the two-parter as a whole, which may be different from the average of the two scores.

I’m almost tempted to give a separate score to the teaser sequence. It’s an absolute barnstormer. Without trying particularly hard, I had managed to stay spoiler-free as far as the return of Julian Bleach as Davros was concerned (although I was aware that Missy and the Daleks were back) so the last line before the titles crashed in knocked me completely for six, and the further connecting of this story to the Doctor’s idle hypothetical dilemma in Genesis of the Daleks is absolutely fantastic – strong enough not to need any fanwanky familiarity with 1975 episode, but far stronger and more resonant for those who have seen it.

The journey between those two points is a little more pedestrian. We start with some familiar tropes. The “tour of the universe” is a trick Moffat has used several times before, as is the “absent Doctor” and the “weird phenomena which makes UNIT scramble”, although to be fair everyone treats this last as a bit of a cliché too, which I suppose hangs enough of a lantern on it. Missy’s one liners are a treat however, and Capaldi’s eventual entrance, riding a medieval tank while thwanging an axe, is absolutely iconic. The “secret” of Colony Sarff is a bit less interesting, and not quite so well realised.

It’s also a testament to the pace and energy of the direction (Hettie MacDonald, finally making a return to the programme after the success of Blink) that the episode manages to combine UNIT, the Master, Davro and the Daleks in 45 minutes and never once feel like empty fan-servicing.

Once on Skaro, the episode starts to unravel slightly. At the risk of specu-spoilers, Dalek guns don’t vaporise and Missy and Clara are wearing vortex manipulators, so I imagine they’re both fine and it’s somehow less exciting because if I see them killed, then I know they haven’t been, but if they’re merely threatened, then I start to worry that they might be. Which brings us to the real cliff-hanger – “exterminate”. Will he? Won’t he? I genuinely don’t know. Four stars. So far.