Archive for September, 2015

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.