Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Reviews


List:
19 Sep 2015The Magician's Apprentice, by Martin Ruddock
26 Sep 2015The Witch's Familiar, by Martin Ruddock
01 Oct 2015The Magician's Apprentice / The Witch's Familiar - Special Omnibus, by Martin Hudecek

Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Michelle Gomez as The Doctor, Clara and Missy in The Magician's Apprentice (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez, Julian Bleach, Jemma Redgrave, Clare Higgins
Transmitted BBC One 19th September 2015

This review contains plot spoilers.

 

And he’s back in the room. After nearly nine months off our screens, here he is, look what the cat dragged in - The Oncoming Storm, currently AWOL, at the end of a three week long, very silly party…

And how he’s changed. Missing in action, once he’s tracked down, the change is startling. He seems to have lightened up somewhat. The dress code has relaxed. The hair’s gone quite, quite mad, he hugs, he cracks bad puns, he’s developed a tendency to rock out, welcoming Clara with the riff from Pretty Woman, he’s taken to wearing ray-bans. The Doctor’s become a sort of funny uncle ……or has he?

The Magician’s Apprentice is startlingly different for a series opener, it’s not for part timers. It’s not a sequel to Deep Breath, to Death in Heaven…..it’s a belated sequel to Genesis of the Daleks. It knows its audience, and dares to open on war-torn Skaro, during that endless war of attrition, as the Doctor bouncily tries to save a child from a grisly end whilst giving a classic cocky-Doctor pep talk. Those hand-mines, reaching gruesomely from the earth are the stuff of nightmares, and the murky battlefield on Skaro is perfectly grim. And then, his world caves in as that child innocently says his name, and the spooked Doctor walks away, leaving young Davros to his terrible fate.

Cut to one Clara Oswald, making teaching look a bit too easy, dropping a saucy reference to Jane Austen, hopping on her motorbike, and breezily heading off to save the day. Planes are hanging, frozen in the sky, and UNIT, in the Doctor’s absence, are on the phone. 

Clara pluckily heads off to deal take care of business, but is soon cut down to size. She's good, but this time, she’s ever so slightly out of her depth - starting off confident but increasingly thrown off and wrong-footed by events that she can't control. Clara's good, but she's not the Doctor. She's learned a lot, but one thing that keeps coming back as that her shared history with the Doctor doesn't mean she can always predict his actions.

The theme of shared history doesn't stop there, or with those moody scenes of Colony Sarff stalking the Doctor through the alien cantina, the HQ of the Shadow Proclamation and the eerie wastes of Karn. It doesn't stop with UNIT and a slightly wasted Kate Stewart, or Missy's parlour trick with the planes where she reprises The Time Monster either.

Ah yes, Missy. Not dead, not sure why. Those planes frozen in the sky are but a calling card, a sample from the Master's Greatest Hits, but they're another layer of references the 'Not-We' are unlikely to clock as they leave the telly on after Strictly Come Dancing. 

Certain quarters of fandom unsure or unhappy about the Master's gender alignment are unlikely to be cheered up by Missy's return. Not this fan. Michelle Gomez takes ownership of this episode the second she arrives. She's brilliant fun, but even more shockingly, casually vicious than before, indiscriminately killing in that Mediterranean square with eight snipers trained on her, without a care in the world. This sets the tone, as she oscillates between sweetly smiling and snarling menace. She's utterly lined up as the other woman against Clara, even if, as Missy points out in one of many memorable barbs, it's nothing so crude as human relationships. No, this is all about friendship. 

Clara's rightly put out that the Confession Dial went to Missy and not her. Even if the Doctor and Missy are frenemies and go way back, it irks Clara that she's not the BFF the Doctor would have her believe she is, just as Missy senses this and milks it. Trying to kill each other is like texting to Missy and the Doctor, and it becomes apparent to Clara trying to save him throughout his entire history clearly doesn't hold a candle to centuries of trying to kill him using increasingly insane schemes. No-one knows the Doctor better, and Missy uses that to taunt Clara. (Just imagine the cut dialogue: "I was turning feral on a Cat Planet when you were potty-training, dear”). They head off to find him together, and it's a bumpy ride. But it's not long before this odd couple is reunited with their man.

Clara knows something is off, she brings up the changes in the Doctor as if she’s reviewing this for us. Just what exactly is he running from? What is the Doctor’s confession, if it’s not the revelation that he made Davros, and is therefore responsible for centuries of Dalek slaughter, what is it? It must be pretty awful, whatever he’s confessing. Mysteries for another day, no doubt. 

It’s all beautifully woven together in Steven Moffat’s best script in a long time, epic storytelling, intricately spun, both mythic and character-driven. Visually, it’s stunning, returning Director Hettie MacDonald gives us big, moody, and cinematic. (Where’s she been hiding since Blink?) 

Moffat also gives us his best new villain in some time. Colony Sarff's baleful, hissing presence is a strong hook, and he's a memorable supporting villain. The revelation of his true nature (He's a snake man, made of snakes!) is a masterstroke - but like the planes, UNIT, Kate, and the Doctor's rock-out in Medieval Essex ("Dude!"), he's so much window-dressing. Even the scenes between Clara and Missy are a sideshow to the main event, the reunion of the Doctor and Davros.

It's startling drama, as two men who've been waiting for forty years for a proper reason for a rematch finally get that reason. Julian Bleach, last seen ranting furiously in Journey's End is a quieter, more manipulative presence here - slumped and diminished-looking in his chair, dying, but perking up a little as his arch-enemy is delivered to him on Skaro. These men are most decidedly not friends, but their exchanges take on the air of old men discussing war stories in a private members club.

The squaring of the circle with Genesis is brought home spectacularly, by Davros playing the Doctor their ‘best bits’, unlimited rice pudding and all. The camera lingers on the clip of the Fourth Doctor holding those wires and asking “Have I the right?” just as Davros punctures the Doctor’s whole argument of the last forty years with one devastating bit of logic. Davros knows. And so does the Doctor. And he can’t run from that.

Peter Capaldi is a revelation, playing a Doctor who still hates this man, but now with that added shade of deep shame at actions recent for him, but centuries ago for Davros. He prowls the room and circles his enemy with the absolute conviction of a man who's been waiting for this meeting for decades. Moffat rewards him with the meeting his Doctor deserves. This is arguably the best material Capaldi's had so far, his full range from comic bravado to rage to fear is on show, and his Doctor is beside himself when he sees the full retro glory of Skaro. 

And beautifully done it is too, the faithful update of the Dalek City, those Ray Cusick arches, the array of Daleks of different vintage on show in the TV21-inspired control room - taking the idea of Asylum of the Daleks to its logical conclusion. Ok, the Daleks are relatively static, especially the Supreme, but they look amazing, and when that gleaming Dead Planet model swoops across the sand to capture Clara and Missy, it's joyous.

We leave on a cliffhanger where the Doctor's left trapped, alone, and defenseless, his friends apparently exterminated, and at the end of his rope. He reappears, somehow, on that ancient battlefield - apparently so desperate that he's training a Dalek gun at the child Davros. And with that, Doctor Who brings back two more old friends - the killer cliffhanger, accompanied by the return of the 'sting', leaving you with your heart in your mouth until next week.

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The Witch's Familar: Michelle Gomez as Missy with the Daleks (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez, and Julian Bleach
Transmitted BBC One 26th September 2015

Rule One: The Doctor Lies.

 

Previously on Doctor Who…..

Having met a child Davros on an ancient battlefield, the Doctor is running. His last confession is in the hands of Missy (Not Dead, Big Surprise). His confession may or may not be to do with Davros, he’s not letting on why, but he’s pretty sure he’s going to die. Clara and Missy come looking for him. A Snake Man made of Snakes kidnaps all of them and takes them to see the dying Davros, who wants a word. On Skaro. Cue Dalek Guns and dead friends. Doctor beside himself. Flashback/flashforward, the Doctor aiming a Dalek gun at young Davros. *Cliffhanger Sting*.

 

Rule Two: Steven Moffat loves a wind-up:

Ok, so there was no way that Clara, Missy, and the TARDIS were really toast, was there? Would have made for a very short series, wouldn’t it? Steven Moffat knows this, and really, so do we. We’ve seen the trailer. He also knows that we know. Thus, The Witch’s Familiar opens with a wry reference to those ‘How we did it’ montage scenes from Sherlock, as Missy offers a cheeky explanation of how they survived via a flashback of the Doctor (one of them, anyway) getting out of the same sort of jam. Consequently, Missy and Clara have escaped and are now outside the Dalek City, in Clara’s case - tied up and upside down while Missy contemplates lunch.

 

Meanwhile, the Doctor is still in the Dalek City, unwillingly continuing his fireside chat with Davros. This is broken up by a brief escape where the absolutely livid Twelfth Doctor manages what none of his predecessors did. He not only gets Davros out of his chair, but he does a bit of cosplay, and takes the Mark 1 Travel Machine for a spin. It’s a fun moment, but doesn’t last. The Daleks mobilise, in a cool moment they pass through their arches en masse like it’s 1966 - and the Special Weapons Dalek TALKS. 

 

This diversion over, interrupted by Colony Sarff, he’s soon back with Davros (in the only other chair on Skaro), and Davros resumes his spiel. Their conversations in The Magician’s Apprentice were highly reminiscent of their first meeting in Genesis of the Daleks. That story is echoed even more here, Moffat paraphrases Terry Nation, and cleverly turns famous lines on their head, as the Doctor, shamed by his role in the making of his arch-enemy, is on the back foot for a change. Davros plays the Doctor like a stradivarius here, the wily old goat. Yes, he is dying. We learn that his biological link to the Daleks is the reason he can’t die. He lays it on thick, and the Doctor obliges him. 

 

Capaldi continues to be a revelation. He rages and swaggers, yet shows sympathy for his ailing foe, trying to help him in his dying hours, even as confusion and disbelief loop around those eyebrows. Julian Bleach almost has us feeling sorry for Davros, turning Season Eight’s “Am I a good man?” question around on him. We even see his eyes, which we always assumed he didn’t have. They share a laugh together. But, even in an episode of Doctor Who that dares to show us Davros’s eyes, that reinvents the Daleks biology, that casually throws in a reference to a relative we never dreamed of - Moffat doesn’t go that far. Davros is still thoroughly rotten to the core and has been playing him. It’s a trap, Davros never intended to die, and the Doctor ends up giving away regeneration energy to him and his creations.

 

Rule Three: Missy is a compulsive liar.

Meanwhile, outside the walls, the two-hander going on between Clara and Missy is just as central as the one between the Doctor and Davros. The odd couple make their way to the Dalek City through the sewers, where we learn the icky truth of Dalek drainage, which will eventually prove the undoing of the Daleks on the surface. Their exchanges are electric, Clara is smart, but ever so straight-laced, while Missy is freewheeling and more dangerous than ever, as Michelle Gomez, preamble over, really gets going. She can’t be trusted in any way, shape, or form. One of the traits that Moffat has introduced is a tendency, like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight to casually reel off multiple explanations passed off as truth. She tries to kill Clara more than once, then, in an echo of Oswin’s fate in Asylum of the Daleks, locks her inside the casing of one. Here we learn more about what it’s like to be inside one, and this is no Ian Chesterton-hiding-inside-a casing deal. Missy puts her through her paces in the same way Davros puts his prototype through the motions in Genesis. The language of a Dalek is different to ours, it doesn’t translate, certain words will only come out as Exterminate. When Dalek-Clara finally comes face to eye-stalk with the Doctor, she can only, desperately try to say her name - which comes out as “I am a Dalek”. Missy tries to persuade the Doctor to kill her, in-between attempts at cosying up to the Daleks (“The bitch is back”). It’s only Clara’s desperate cry of “Mercy”, that alerts the Doctor to who’s under the hood, and that the word Mercy is even in the Dalek dictionary. And then the Doctor runs again, as Missy smiles sweetly at the Daleks and says that she’s got an idea.

 

This takes us back to that cliffhanger, where the Doctor returns to that battlefield encounter with the child Davros, tooled up. Needless to say, it’s the hand-mines that get it, and he leads the child that will one day grow up as his arch-enemy (don’t tell Missy, she’ll scratch his eye out) by the hand away from his doom, and the word Mercy finds its place in Dalek lore. 

 

Obviously Davros is still going to grow up to be that man. Something awful will happen to him, but something else, and another day. There are still questions to be answered that will probably be answered in about ten weeks time, and Missy will undoubtedly be back at some point, having not been ‘killed off’ for once. Speaking of which.....the Doctor seems pointedly more worried about Clara possibly dying than ever before. Is this the hidden arc of the series? Who knows. Surprises to come no doubt. In the meantime, let’s savour this, the best two part story Doctor Who’s had in years, riffs, silver Daleks, sewers, ray bans and all.

 

 

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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.

 

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