Sunday, 22 November 2015


Doctor Who
Sleep No More
Series Nine, Episode Nine

Hark at this – it's a Mark Gatiss episode!  What a totally unexpected pleasure, in that parallel universe where the quality of previous episodes has anything to do with the commissioning of new ones.

Steady on, Captain Sassypants: this time it'll be different.  Sleep No More is a Mark Gatiss episode in space, so at least there won't be any clumsy (or bafflingly justified) historical stereotypes.  Okay, there will probably be just as many clichés, if not more, but... it's also a found footage episode!  Something that's never been done in Doctor Who before!  All right, so it has been done in an awful lot of horror films, some of which have been pillars of pop culture for almost twenty years, and it's been the go-to template for horror and action video games for ages, but "It's Already Been Done" shouldn't bar you from having another go.  You just put a new spin on it.  And this one does: as well as being found footage, it's narrated!  Like Love And Monsters!  Except that means you don't actually have to piece together the narrative for yourself, which renders the whole "found footage" thing obsolete.

Oh no, we forgot to say she's a Geordie!
Quick, end every other sentence with "pet"!

Okay, the script does get something out of the format eventually, but you'll have to slog through The Overly Familiar Episode In Space to get there.  We have an abandoned space station, irritable space marines, strange noises just out of shot, the Doctor and his +1 showing up... not only is this boringly reminiscent of sci-fi-action movies, it's boringly reminiscent of other Doctor Who episodes that are boringly reminiscent of sci-fi-action movies.  What is there to even say about this stuff?  You'd be massively better off watching Alien or Aliens instead?  Well, yuh.

The narrator tells us not to get too attached to the characters.  Not for the first or last time, he needn't have bothered: they hover between "nonentity", "really annoying" and "are they dead yet".  And heaven help the cast with dialogue like this: "Morpheus, Mopheus, Morpheus!  Sleep's the one thing left to us.  The one thing they couldn't get their filthy mitts on.  Now they're even grabbing that – colonising it!"  "Spoken like a true Rip!"  Not quite Alien-esque banter, is it?  Then there's "May the gods look favourably upon you", which they irritatingly staple onto every other radio call.  And one of them's a clone soldier, meaning Gatiss can write deliberately annoying dialogue and then point out how annoying it is, which just make it even more annoying.  "Maybe they play Hide Seek."  "It's hide and seek.  Why do they miss out words?"  "Chopra!  Don't be anger!"  "DON'T BE ANGRY!"  DEAR GOD!  Time out, both of you!

You can see Gatiss trying to give this world a flavour of its own, and that's admirable in itself.  Unfortunately all he's really done is sprinkle some weird and annoying bits on some bog standard space shite.  Like Mr Sandman: yes, it's appropriate in an episode about sleep, but that doesn't mean we want to hear it half a dozen bloody times, or have the characters roll their eyes when it comes on again.  Being annoying isn't funny.  It's just annoying.

So, this particular (annoying) abandoned space station houses Gagan Rasmussen, aka Reese Shearsmith.  Our narrator is the lone survivor of The Horrible Thing That Happened, and he invented Morpheus, a thing that lets you get a whole night's sleep in five minutes.  This is apparently controversial (see that incredibly complex dialogue above), and the Doctor and Clara are disappointingly quick to judge as well: she calls it "insane" and "horrible", while the Doctor complains that us "filthy" humans have gone and tampered with the natural order of things.  Simplifying the issue isn't new for Doctor Who, but it's wincefully obvious with such clumsy dialogue.  Filthy?  The Doctor called us filthy?  Seems legit.  (The script also has him portentously quoting Shakespeare and awkwardly doing bits from Oliver! songs.  Random Doctorly quirks are a fine art; this is more like "I am the Doctor and this is my spoon" all over again.)

"She's a grunt, Clara.  They're bred in hatcheries."
"That's disgusting."
Ahh, lazy moral indignation.
It's Bog Standard Companion 101!
Yes, Morpheus is being used for monetary reasons – boo, hiss, obviously – but the technology could be used for anything.  Think of what you could do with your time.  Think of all the people who haven't got time to sleep, and could really benefit from an accelerated snooze pod.  You miss out on dreams, but then do you, since time moves differently in dreams?  Maybe you can have just as much dream-filled rest in five minutes as you would in a night?  Would that be okay, Doctor High And Mighty?  I mean, there's more to discuss here, right?  Ahem, no, because this ain't a think piece; the real problem is that some of the pods turn your sleepy eye crud into monsters.  Which is one of those sentences that ought to ring alarm bells, isn't it?  Sleep crud?  Was there an earlier version about murderous toilets?

The whole thing's just frown-inducing.  "The longer you're in Morpheus, the more the dust builds up."  Eh?  Why would that matter if you're only in the pods for five minutes?  When people get out, can't they just poke the crud out of their eyes before it grows arms and legs?  Even the other characters think this is a bit random – there's that "point out your own annoying bits" thing again – and the script covers itself by suggesting the Doctor's just taking a wild guess anyway, but then he goes the whole hog and assumes they eat people as well.  It's a monster story, why not?  I mean, apart from the total lack of evidence.  The Doctor just assumes things all over the place here, and then he's invariably right.  That's a lazy way to progress a plot, but it may have been the only way to progress this plot.

If it all seems suspiciously shoddy, hold that thought: in the closing moments, just after the Doctor heroically points out that "None of this makes any sense!" (ahem), Reese Shearsmith takes a mighty info-dump to tell us this whole ordeal has been a trap for you, the viewer.  All those little bits of video static you took for granted were sending a Morpheus signal to your brain and turning you into a sand monster.  (Although he kind of suggests the monsters were fictitious, so... maybe the rest of it is?)  He then suggests you show this video to your family and friends, which is one way to boost ratings I suppose, and incidentally is that sleep crud I spy in thy eye?

For a lot of kids, this will be their first unreliable narrator.  That's pretty cool, but a few things prevent it from being a good one.  One, it's massively corny.  Like popping a sheet over Reese's head and making him go "WoooOOOOoooo!"  I know it's predominantly a kids' show, but jeez.  Two, the narrator is so unreliable that you've just wasted forty minutes on a story that is deliberately less than airtight.  Is it his fault the characters are so flat, then?  Three, the twist is not well expressed.  Maybe it's the stupor of sitting through Monsters In Space, Volume: Infinity, but I barely followed what he was blethering about, especially his reference to "a proper climax with a really big [monster] at the end".  (Was it hiding behind all the normal-sized ones?  Deleted ending, I guess.)  Four, so much of this episode is dull or clumsy that I just couldn't shake the thought of Mark Gatiss writing a boring, spacey episode and hitting the It Was All A Dream button out of desperation.  Together with the coy "I'm warning you not to watch this" at the start, it's like he's trying to make a Steven Moffat episode.  Good luck: I suspect even Moffat might shy away from a script that purports to be "found footage", and then has a narrator clumsily tell you what you're looking at.

"Good luck mum and dad, getting the kids to bed tonight."
Wouldn't a good night's sleep keep the bloody things from appearing?
Oh right, the found footage thing.  I kept forgetting it was there until the characters looked at the camera.  Another twist incoming: there are no cameras on board, so this "footage" is all being recorded by sleep crud as part of Rasmussen's nefarious plan!  Dun-dun-DUN!  It takes the Doctor ages to spot this, and almost as long to laboriously spell it out to the others.  And he fails to ask why, on finding out that they have crud-cameras in their eyes, they do not simply poke it out like we all do with sleep crud every day.  Gah!  Again we have an idea that could make a clever point about clichés and narrative expectations, but it's mired in a confused, dull-witted episode about walking porridge.  If this is clever, it is wearing a very good disguise.

Unfortunately for Sleep No More, subverting clichés is about more than doing them all over again and saying "I meant to do that" afterwards.  Unfortunately for us, if Marky G wants a sequel, he will probably get one.

Friday, 20 November 2015

"Subtext" Of The "Zygons"

Doctor Who
The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion
Series Nine, Episodes Seven and Eight

Well, no prizes for guessing what this is about.

Doctor Who is often allegorical, because it's sci-fi and that's a handy way to show real world issues from a different angle.  See 1950s B-Movies, Cold War paranoia, Star Trek in general.  But Doctor Who isn't all that subtle.  It can be painfully obvious when it's telling you Drugs Are Bad or War Is Bad or Slavery Is Bad.

Above: no prizes, etc.
Part of the problem is telling you something that's completely obvious in the first place.  Slavery Is Bad?  Well, paint me pink and call me Percy – why didn't anyone say anything sooner?  The rest of the problem is taking said obvious thing and smashing you round the head with it, like in Midnight, when the Doctor's fellow passengers decide he's an outsider, "like an immigrant".  Would you like a crash helmet with that?

Well, these episodes are allegorical.  And they are blatant.  Check out the dialogue – you won't need to be a Where's Wally champion to spot the subtext.

*  "We can't tell who the enemy is any more, we can't count them and we can't track them."
*  "We will die in the fire, instead of living in chains!"  "Most of your own kind don't want that!"
*  "Isn't there a solution that doesn't involve bombing anyone?  This is a splinter group.  The rest of the Zygons, the vast majority, they want to live in peace.  You start bombing them, you'll radicalise the lot.  It's exactly what the splinter group wants."

It's a bit of a stretch to even call that subtext, what with the cast all but making quotation marks every time they say "Zygon", barely restraining a lean-in and a wink.  And yet to my surprise, I don't hate this.  Yes, it's blatantly Doctor Who does ISIS, terrorism in general, the xenophobic fallout from all of the above.  But this particular blatant thing hasn't been done in Doctor Who before.  (You might call that semantics and you might be right.  Shrug.)  It's also not a subject, or rather a viewpoint, that's already been tiresomely drummed into us.  Millions of people are worried about it right now, and many are very vocally small-minded about it on a daily basis.  Both points deserve recognition.  I honestly felt more impressed that they were going there than annoyed that it was obvious.  It's topical.  They-wouldn't-have-got-it-on-the-air-if-it-had-gone-out-one-week-later topical.

Ahem.  Sounds like a different show, doesn't it?  And there are times when these episodes feel more like Spooks, although they feature aliens and time travel so are marginally more plausible.  But ultimately, Peter Harness and Steven Moffat simplify the issues.  Of course they do – it's Doctor bleedin' Who, not Panorama, so the "bad" Zygons (aka terrorists) are equated with troublesome children.  Their victims are killed in the time-honoured (and all-importantly bloodless) sci-fi means of disintegration.  Into straw blobs.  (Okay, how far down the list did they get before straw?  Perhaps the chance to make tumbleweeds look scary, or even noteworthy was too good to ignore.)  In the end, when the episode reaches its potentially embarrassing goal of Arguing Against Terrorism, it does so in a quintessentially Doctor Who way.  I was... quite impressed, actually.

What's this?  More clips?  It's The Clips Agenda!
And I'm getting ahead of myself.  There's plenty of other stuff in here for the less allegorically minded.  Scary bits, funny bits, a doozie of a cliff-hanger... in a series not already stuffed with two-parters, this would be an easy win for the once traditional, middle-of-the-series, actually quite good one.  It's certainly the pick of Series Nine thus far.

Right, time for the plot: following on from The Day Of The Doctor, humanity (or more specifically, UNIT) is housing 20 million Zygons in disguise.  Despite the plots of previous Doctor Who episodes (like, for example, The Day Of The Doctor), they're not all bad.  "Subtext" incoming: "Every race is peaceful and warlike, good and evil.  My race is no exception."  The whole shape-shifting thing is a survival mechanism, not an invasion tactic – that is until some Zygons get angry at having to live in secret and launch an attack.  Cue ominous talk of the ceasefire breaking down, the one remaining Osgood (yay, we get to keep her!) being kidnapped, and the Doctor being summoned.  He's desperate to keep this from escalating.  With ominous kidnap videos sent to UNIT and small towns taken hostage, war seems inevitable.  Not to mention we already lost Osgood once.

First off, it's always a pleasure to drop in on Kate Stewart's increasingly-female-led UNIT, especially when you actually give them something to do.  Jemma Redgrave is crushing it here, as the generally peace-loving Kate inches closer to her father's legacy.  (They even throw in a "Five rounds rapid".)  She's keen to avoid a war but intends to win it if necessary.  The expression she pulls when she thinks Osgood #2 might have been killed... well, I wouldn't mess with her.  For me, it's a rare pleasure to see a recurring female character in the Moffat era who doesn't make me want to bash my head against a wall.  I'd even, dare I say it, support a spin-off.  (And she's got one, so I can!)

She's not the only example of wow-isn't-she-great in this.  Ingrid Oliver has some lovely material as Osgood, who may or may not be a Zygon.  (Don't bother thinking about it – there is no answer, that's the point.)  She's a very good actor, heightening what began as an affectionate sketch of a Doctor Who fan into, well, an adult, who cares passionately about her job and grieves deeply for her "sister".  (A death which, though sneakily cheated because Ingrid's still in it, also still resonates.)  She's great when she's with the Doctor, sometimes gazing at him with quiet awe, or asking him simple-yet-practical questions about his silly outfits and daft gadgets, or firmly putting him in his place when he asks The Zygon Question.  When he (inevitably) offers her a place on the TARDIS, it feels less like ticking The Obvious Box than simply and adroitly putting two brilliant people together.  (Of course she's too busy so she stays behind.  Boo!  She might be a cosplaying fangirl or a Zygon or both, but she's still more of a rounded person than Clara.  And hey, we all know there's a vacancy coming up.)

"Of course we greenlit a spin-off!  She did the look!
You don't say no to the look!"
So UNIT are compelling, although they're not actually doing very much even with ISIS – er, the Zygons wreaking havoc.  Kate investigates the abandoned town of Truth Or Consequences (that's what the terrorist group is called), Osgood waits for the Doctor to rescue her (but that doesn't mean she's a useless waif – she was out there doing important work in the first place), and Walsh, a no-nonsense army figure, just waits for an excuse to bomb the bad guys.  In spite of that she's refreshingly not painted as a villain, in that now traditional boo-sucks-the-military style of Who.  "Any living thing in this world, including my family and friends, could turn into a Zygon and kill me any second now.  It's not paranoia when it's real."  Well, fair enough.  Rebecca Front fills her scenes with weary determination.  (Also it's nice to watch her roll her eyes at Malcolm Tucker, since he was very rude to her in The Thick Of It.)

Okay, the scene where she tragically fails to talk her troops out of going to their deaths (as the Zygons have taken the forms of their loved ones) is almost disturbing enough to overcome how ninny-headed they're all being... but not quite.  Even Walsh sheds IQ points on the spot: "Ask her questions only your mother would know."  Duh!  They read your mind when they copy you!  Somehow, they still fail to answer any questions.  Bit of a giveaway, innit?  And not one of those army dudes thinks this is a little bit fishy?  Or opts to keep the doors open while they go in and investigate?  So long, then, Sergeant Wally-Brain.  Where's Admiral Ackbar when you need him?

Bringing up the rear UNIT-wise is Jac (aka Roz from Bugs, glimpsed in the season-opener).  It's a perfectly adequate performance but, eh, she's just filling in for Osgood.  Specifically, she's investigating a series of disappearances with Clara, who finally shows up after a mysterious delay.  There's almost a really cool reason for this except – huge spoiler incoming!  Seriously, spoilerspoilerspoiler!  This is your last chance!  SPOILER.!... – her Zygon body-snatching doesn't happen until after she gets 127 missed calls from the Doctor.  I mean, dude, pick up your phone already.  I think the twist would work better (and make a smidge more sense) if Clara was just a Zygon from the start.  But then, I'd happily keep Zygon Jenna instead.

Come back Jenna, all is forgiven?  Kind of.  As the fundamentalist Zygon leader – curiously and adorably named Bonnie – she reveals acting reserves she's presumably been using as paperweights since 2013.  Bonnie's interesting, and Jenna does loads with a sinister turn of the head, a furious dip in the voice, and that determined Terminator-ey stalk of hers.  Much of the performance is even more enjoyable the second time around, as you notice big stuff you may have missed ("Clara" deliberately operating the Zygon lift controls), or little stuff like her curious apathy in the face of danger and death.  You might point out that this is how Clara always reacts to danger and death, because she's a vacuous composite of Doctor Who companions with a load of other characters telling us how awesome she is instead of ever actually proving it, but that would be very mean of you, you mean old so-and-so!  (Don't feel bad if you didn't spot the difference at first.  Weirdly, neither does the Doctor.)  In any case, Clara's usual blasé-ness works wonders for Bonnie.

Huh.  I kind of want her to play other roles now.
Wait, I mean it in the nice way!
Coleman's perfectly okay as Clara too – it's not exactly a stretch, but then that's sort of the problem.  Bright, plucky, little bit witty: tick, tick, yawn.  Her highlight comes after the cliff-hanger, when Bonnie (now unmasked, so to speak) blows up the Presidential plane with the Doctor and Osgood in it.

As Part Two (The Zygon Inversion – I am loving the Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee titles this year) begins, we cut straight to Clara in her bedroom.  This one's co-written by Steven Moffat, so it's business as usual to subvert your cliff-hangery expectations: Clara bumbles around and notices something off about her surroundings, and we're treated to some rather slick continuity as she falls back on her Last Christmas Inceptioning.  She looks for dream clues, figures out she's not in Kansas any more and quickly learns to affect Bonnie's movements from within the dream world.  This is a neat little revamp of that unnerving dream stuff Steven Moffat loves so much.  I mean if they have to repeat themselves (see also: Forest Of The Dead), thank goodness there's a few new spins left.  And it keeps Clara neatly in the loop, although I still don't think she's barnstorming enough to deserve all the credit at the end.  Why yes, it's Clara what solved terrorism, although the Doctor technically did all the work.  I mean, if you want to be picky about it.

With Jenna providing the human face of the Zygons, and Zygons looking like humans wherever possible, it's strangely easy to forget there are Zygons in this.  (To be fair, the sledge-hammering allegory does a lot of the work.)  It's ostensibly a good story for them, as it shows them as being not-all-violent-all-the-time – kind of like some people in the real world, now that you mention it – but most of the actual Zygons on display are the "bad" ones.  With the possible exception of Osgood (I told you not to think about it!) and a couple who cark it at the beginning, there's approximately one harmless blobby alien in this, and he does not get a happy ending.  It's a shame there isn't more diversity here, which seems ironic when you consider what the story is about (heads up, it's topical), and that it's a two-parter.

Looking at them more as cool Doctor Who aliens than as people, since it was their scary blobbiness that has made fans go on and on about Zygons since 1975, this one's all about moving the goalposts.  The Zygons have developed fatal hand-lightning (I forget, they may have had that in The Day Of The Doctor – they weren't exactly the memorable bit!) and the ability to pluck body-prints out of your memory, apparently across great distances.  (Don't ask.)  They also don't need to keep you alive unless they want information, which the Doctor cleverly uses to keep Clara alive.  As for the Loch Ness Monster, which is totally a thing they came up with, there's no sign of that whatsoever.  Boo!  ("But we can do it on a proper budget and everything!", says Peter Harness.  "Okay, but it means cutting a whole episode," says Moffat.  Guys, there's a Mark Gatiss one coming up.  Let's do this.)

What could have been.  :'(
Apart from the monsters, what you're really here for is the answer at the end.  This is an especially big deal when the whole thing is a sock puppet for a real world problem we haven't solved yet, and tellingly there's not a huge amount of plot besides.  Kate spends a suspicious amount of time waiting in an abandoned town; the Doctor and Osgood run about; all that business with people disappearing in lifts goes half-unexplained.  (What about all the places without lifts?)  I guess it's a tension builder, and oh well, we're there now: how does the Doctor make it all go away?

He's been in similar situations with Silurians, who were doing the whole not-all-of-us-are-monsters bit long before there were even Zygons.  And it usually comes down to killing them off and uttering a sheepish "There should have been another way", avec shrug.  Well, you can't have aliens sticking around, can you?  Think of all the extra prosthetics.  But these are Zygons, and they can roam all over the place without affecting the budget, so we can have our cake and eat it!  Huzzah!  (Hardly anyone knows the Zygons are there, but that's a point for another time.  At least, it had better be.)

As for how the Doctor achieves all this, simply enough: he talks.  Okay, he speechifies, raging about the horrors of war and having to live with the consequences.  It teeters on the melodramatic, but it's perfectly in character so it flies.  Remember that line from The Girl Who Died: "Do babies die with honour?"  And, uh, the Doctor's entire stance on war over the years.  This is absolutely a logical progression of blowing up bad guys and feeling terrible afterwards.  And yes, it's enormously optimistic and romantic in-the-broader-meaning-of-the-word to suggest that talking to a terrorist will change anything, but that's largely what science fiction is for, isn't it?  Presenting a version of the world in which we can solve that problem we've been having?  (Okay, That Problem usually gets radioactive and smashes all the skyscrapers, but not always.)  It is pleasingly like Doctor Who to suggest that in the end, talk is the instrument of change.

And this isn't even my favourite bit.  Presenting the villain with exactly the sort of Impossible Choice he's had in the past (usually with a disappointing cheat for a solution), he asks Bonnie a simple question: what do you actually want?  And that's something I always want the heroes to ask the villains.  Look at Sauron or Voldemort: yes, they have a short-term goal to accomplish, next stop, Ze Vorld, but then what?  Paint everything grey and cackle loads?  It often seems as if villains want to burn things and pinch people because deep down, they're just really mean.  Feh.  Picking up on that kind of narrative lameness to de-construct the vicious circle of terrorism is dangerously close to inspired.  It's clever without getting smug – apart from the Doctor saying "Gotcha", which is a rather rubbish coda to all that "when I close my eyes I can still hear their screams" stuff.  Niggle aside though, it's a neat piece of writing and it's worth the wait.

Yay optimism and everything, but... really?
Bonnie completely reformed before the end credits?
In the middle of all this is Peter Capaldi, who is so utterly, Doctorishly adept that he can randomly call himself "Doctor Disco" or "Doctor Funkenstein" for no reason and still... well, no, those bits do stick out actually, along with the horrifying (for all the wrong reasons) American accent he does at one point.  A friend of mine wondered if the Doctor was a Zygon all along (hey Alex!), and even I wonder why he's suddenly so keen to "ponce about on a big plane" when last year he unequivocally wasn't.  Isn't this all a bit... Matt?  The grouchy misanthrope from Series Eight certainly feels further and further away.  Is it the hair?  No, wait, the guitar!  There, he got a guitar and instantly became The Cool Doctor.  (No need to tell us Guitars Are Cool, because duh.)  I honestly think he's better this way, so never mind, but Series Eight is looking more and more like an awkward false start next to it.

Anyway.  Zygons standing in for Muslims, Zygons standing in for ISIS, the Doctor standing in for the magical peace fairy that irritatingly does not exist.  It's about as subtle as writing "ISIS" on some knickers and pulling them over the actors' heads, but I still felt like they accomplished something meaningful here, and kept it firmly within the bounds of Doctor Who.  Well, apart from Nessie.  Boo!

Friday, 13 November 2015

Live Long And Fester

Doctor Who
The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived
Series Nine, Episodes Five and Six

Deja vu!  I was only saying in my previous review that some two-parters are more like cousins than siblings, and then along comes a prime example of what I was jabbering on about.

The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived are undoubtedly connected, since there is a To Be Continued between them and, well, look at those titles.  But they are also two wholly separate stories, a one-parter and its sequel.  This might take place days or even months later, but we're skipping straight from one to the other, and why not?  It's a novel way of doing things.  For a show that's been on ten years now (sweet horse god, how long?), "novel" is a very welcome approach, even if it doesn't apply to every single thing on the screen.  (We'll get to that in a minute.)

The Girl Who Died is small-scale, which throws you right off during what's supposed to be a two-parter.  Throwing you off = novel, novel = good.  The world is not in danger this week, just a half-empty village of Vikings – and not particularly capable Vikings at that.

The worst part is this was a story
about historical anachronisms.
(A few words on historical accuracy: pointy helmets?  I'm no expert, but I know a few people well-versed in the subject and they were apoplectic about the Vikings in this.  To them I say, well, The Time Meddler already did all this stuff wrong fifty years ago, plus there's a setting to establish, and it's what people expect to see... but you could just ditch the helmets, have Clara say "Didn't Vikings have pointy helmets?" and the Doctor say "No, duh" and bob's your uncle, misnomer: nomered.  It's tricky.  I can see why they did it and I can see how they could fix it without breaking a sweat.)

Where was I?  Ah yes, village in danger.  That's after a really fun teaser scene with Clara drifting in space, and the Doctor – having just sorted something else out – struggling to locate her.  (He gets her to describe her spacey surroundings.  "Great.  I've seen it too.  I wonder where it was!")  I love starting at a point other than the beginning, and giving us a glimpse into unseen adventures.  (Novel!  Good!)  Then, after the TARDIS rings the Cloister Bell for no reason (hmm), it lands in Vikingsville where the Doctor and Clara have a quick chat about the rules of time travel, which Clara has apparently never heard.

Side-note: uh... really?  Super duper Clara, who knows everything and has been here seemingly forever, hasn't had the Fixed Points lecture yet?  How has that not come up?  Let's just clamber over that hunk of probable BS and get to this week's theme: the Doctor can't change big stuff.  Which is a big old Here We Go Again, but it's Capaldi this time, so... it'll be compelling anyway?  Wait and see.

So the Doctor tries to dazzle the How To Train Your Dragon-ers with some magic technology (sonic sunglasses) and fails completely.  (As he should!)  Then he tries again (with a yoyo and a booming voice), and fails again because someone else pulls the same trick, only more convincingly.  Big, actual Odin turns up in the sky, bellowing commands. This bit's a hoot.  "He's not a god!  He hasn't even got a yoyo!"

"Hooray!", said the audience.
"Excellent," said Moffat.  "You will want the screwdriver back."
On the one hand it's annoying for the Doctor to fail at stuff he's usually good at.  But on the other hand it's fun to invert things, and this is a valid way to show him up.  (Plus it's wrong to trick people, or why else would the baddies be doing it?)  Odin isn't Odin, obviously, but the leader of the Mire, bloodthirsty warriors who mulch up other warriors for... testosterone juice, apparently.  (Hmm.)  They're practical and they leave when they've got what they want.  Unfortunately Clara stuck her oar in and war was declared.  The Doctor must now school a bunch of mediocre Vikings in war, or think of something else to save them in little under 24 hours.  Cheers, Clara.

On hearing the Doctor's command not to get noticed, Clara suddenly races to use the sonic sunglasses, which gets her (and a bright young girl called Ashildr) needlessly captured.  If this sounds contrived, it's because there's another theme at work, this one of the "running" variety: "Clara Oswald, what have I made of you?"  All very ominous, but then the answer is probably just "a Doctor Who companion", is it not?  Headstrong, tick, does a passable Doctor impression, tick, seems to enjoy it all a bit too much, sometimes makes mistakes, tick, tick... see also Rose, River, Amy.  It's not as if Clara's only just started behaving as monotonously confident as the prince in a panto; it's just modern Doctor Who companions, always telling us how awesome they are.  The only genuine worry is that Jenna Coleman isn't coming back next year, but unless the Doctor has somehow been reading our news sites, I'm not sure what's got him so spooked.

It was around here that I figured out why the episode is so "small".  It's really just a flimsy thing to hang themes on.  And that's okay – why, it's that N word again!  No, wait, I meant novel, dear god I meant novel – so long as the flimsy thing is fun.  Which it is!

The opening is snazzy as hell.  The Doctor's "I am Odin, and I am very cross with you!" routine is hilarious.  The quest to train a bunch of naff Vikings involves a lot of sparkling dialogue.  ("Heidi faints at the mention of blood.  Not just the sight any more, he's actually upgraded his phobia.")  It also has its dramatic moments, as the Doctor explains that they're all doomed and would be better off hiding until the battle's over.  I admire his practicality, and I can believe he's sick enough of people getting killed to go straight for Get Everyone In The TARDIS, or thereabouts.  (As for translating a baby, that's over-egging it by miles.  Also, "I am afraid"?  Who needs a translator to tell you a baby is afraid?  And when did babies get so eloquent?)

"She's saying 'Mother, mine botty doth need a change, for I hath made poop.'
This... isn't helping."
What he eventually comes up with is suitably quaint and Doctorish, and wraps up the over-confident Mire by way of the episode's other theme (!), the power of storytelling.  Ashildr's imagination saves the day, which is all very sweet, but somewhat underdeveloped.  Sadly, so is Ashildr.  Maisie Williams is compelling as the doe-eyed innocent with-just-a-hint-of-steel, but her character is like a list other people are reeling off.  She sees visions of doom and blames herself, apparently; she has a vivid imagination and loves making up stories, so she tells us; she's so fond of the Doctor that Clara joshes "I'll fight you for her" – but Capaldi and Williams have barely met at this point.  Her (major) part in the finale feels like setup for another episode, which of course it is, but I just didn't know her well enough to be truly crushed when she SPOILER ALERT OH HANG ON IT'S IN THE TITLE dies.

And, phew, we're back to the main theme.  The Doctor can bring her back, but should he break the laws of time – and human nature – to do so?  There are clips from The Fires Of Pompeii and Deep Breath, in case this wasn't familiar enough already, and boy, we're all about the clips these days, aren't we?  (Strangely no clip of The Waters Of Mars, where he got into the Pompeii situation all over again and had exactly this week's reaction.)  But it's not just barefaced repetition, as we're finally answering the question of why the Twelfth Doctor looks like that bloke in The Fires Of Pompeii.  It's because Peter Capaldi's awesome.  All right, fine, it's because the Doctor always saves someone and he needed reminding of that.

Skipping over the why-does-he-suddenly-need-reminding bit, I don't mind this.  You don't actually have to explain it, any more than you should waste your time pondering the Doctor's name, but as explanations go it's harmless.  It's a bit odd that he's reminding himself to break the rules of time and nature – which he knows is Not A Good Thing, see Waters Of Mars – and it might have more impact if Ashildr was in the episode more, but that's what Part 2 is for.  Peter Capaldi makes it awesome all the same, just like he does with everything else.

He's bloody good, isn't he?  More and more the quintessential Doctor, whether he's chucking in a Tom Baker inflection ("and it is a dooziiiie") or sitting just how William Hartnell would sit (!) or hitting all the right notes of anger, comedy, grief, mystery – he's absolutely your-eyes-are-stuck-to-the-screen brilliant.  And he does wonders for what is, when you stand back and glare at it, not an amazing episode.

Moves Like Jagger?  Pfft.  I prefer Sitting Like Hartnell.
In other news, I don't get out much.
Sure, there's a bouncy script, some juicy character moments and a wee plot that isn't too hard to follow.  But there's also some pretty weird stuff, like why the Mire are bothering to steal testosterone juice when they've got a thing that makes them immortal (WTF?); why they sneak around pretending to be Viking gods when they can just as easily teleport you straight into the juicing machine (or come and raid you like, y'know, warriors?); and just how plugging Ashildr into a Mire helmet sends her imagination into all the other Mire helmets.  "That's the trouble with viewing reality through technology.  It's all too easy to feed in a new reality!"  Oh, silly me, that makes perfect sense.

All in all, it's a lot flimsier than Jamie Mathieson's last one.  Maybe it's just the Capaldi Factor, but I had a grand time anyway.


Funnily enough, that last bit sort of goes for The Woman Who Lived as well.  A completely different story by a different writer, with a different setting and Maisie Williams playing almost a different character, it's similarly big on theme, little on plot, and gosh-isn't-Peter-Capaldi-marvellous?

Catherine Tregenna's episode focuses on the cost of Ashildr's long life, what it could do to even a really nice person, and how the Doctor reacts against that.  Obviously there are parallels between the two, and like a lot of the stuff in The Girl Who Died, it isn't exactly new ground.  The Doctor reflected on a long life in School ReunionThe Lazarus Experiment, Human Nature and Utopia, and he's always espousing the wonderfulness of us short-lived humany-wumanies, especially when he's picking up a new one.  And yet, through the medium of Capaldi and Williams, it's all fascinating again.  When The Woman Who Lived is just the two of them talking, which most of it is, it's gold dust.

Last week, Ashildr was a thing around which the plot revolved.  Add on 800 years and subtract sweetness and she's completely reborn.  She calls herself "me" these days, since her memory isn't immortal and an identity is only worth a damn if there are people in your life – they keep dying, so why bother?  Incredibly, the script doesn't labour the parallel, but if you want an explanation for why the Doctor doesn't require a name, here you go.

Ashildr isn't a hero and she isn't evil.  She's done heroic things and mastered almost every skill you can think of – she's got all the time in the world, after all – but her life is without meaning, so when the Doctor shows up, that seems like the answer.  But he won't take her with him, because immortals need mortals to keep it all in perspective.  (Hence companions.)  It seems perfectly reasonable to me that she'd consider a more destructive way off Earth instead.  Well, she asked nicely and he said no.  Why shouldn't she take up the next best offer?  She's waited long enough.

I can't even take the piss.  She's a strong, complicated, female anti-hero.
Appreciate all her non-Moffat dialogue while it lasts, folks.
Williams plays it beautifully, innocently pleased that the Doctor has come to rescue her one minute, coldly determined to do it without him the next, and ready with a back-up plan in either case.  Without a TARDIS to provide endless distractions, she's had to endure all the sticking around and misery that arguably drives the Doctor on his travels.  Sometimes she's persecuted, she's never loved by anyone for long, and she'll certainly outlive any babies, so of course she's not especially pleasant any more.  The character's really something.  I hope they don't muck it up later.

Aaaand in the other corner we have Peter Capaldi, who is somehow even more mesmerising than last week.  There's some very good material here, like when he reads Ashildr's memoirs of losing her children, and when he tries to dance around saying no to her TARDIS-y request.  It's an intriguing setup: he's basically supportive, because he understands what she's going through; he restrains his anger at her going off the rails, because he made it happen; he's also trying not to snap at a potential enemy in the making.  Sod it: this is a great episode for the Doctor.  It's so on the ball, it even makes me understand why he's always so pleased to see boring old Clara, even if he can't help making misanthopic gags when she finally shows up.  ("I got you a present."  "Why?  Are you never going to travel with me again because I said a thing?")

In The Girl Who Died, I didn't see the point of all that ominous Clara stuff.  In The Woman Who Lived, we're gracefully reminded that the Doctor feels like that a lot of the time, and every day is just another notch closer to Clara getting killed or getting bored.  When she makes her obligatory remark about how she isn't going anywhere (COUGH BYE JENNA COMING SOON), he makes an expression that subtly and silently tells you all you need to know.  Again!  The man is just... you know... words... look, he's vying for second place at this point.  Don't let him leave.  I don't even care if he keeps the stupid glasses.  (All right, no, the glasses are shit.)

Alas, there is more to The Woman Who Lived than some really well articulated stuff (which admittedly you've heard before).  There's a plot... more or less, though with all the effort pumped into the relationship between the Doctor and Ashildr there's barely anything left for a Monster Of The Week.  Here goes: Ashildr is hanging around with a shifty space-cat-person who breathes fire and his eyes light up (moving on); the two of them are looking for an alien gemstone, and with it he promises to take her away when the Doctor won't; however, he's secretly planning to open a portal to another universe full of... evil spaceships, which will zap everything and... maybe land somewhere?  A death is needed to open the portal – oh look, a theme! – so Ashildr offs rival highwayman Sam Swift.  When it becomes obvious that you shouldn't trust angry fire-burping space cats, because spaceships, she instantly regrets what she's done and suddenly feels compassion for all the fleeing peasants, and Smith to boot.  Aaaand that's Ashildr's lack of empathy solved.  You've got to feel for Maisie Williams, trying to convince as a nearly millennium-old character who changes her ways on the spot.  It's her worst scene, and it's not her fault by a long shot.

Sod the plot.  This > plot.
Story and plot aren't always the same thing.  The story here is about immortality, and it's really compelling.  Whereas the plot is a load of balls about glowy space-gems and shooty space-cats.  Plus some generic fluff about highwaymen which recalls – deliberately at one point – Robot Of Sherwood.  (Side-note: Rufus Hound is surprisingly likeable as the gag-spewing Swift, but there's about as much room for him in the episode as there is in this review.)  Wouldn't it be nice if, once in a while, we could just do character-driven stuff without stapling a load of tinsel on top?  Yes, some people would run screaming from Doctor Who if there wasn't a monster or a spaceship in it every week, but this is Doctor Who, so they can just come back next week.  Is this episode better for having lasers in it?  Even The Girl Who Died, which looks increasingly flimsy after this episode tackles its themes with more finesse, managed to do some novel things with its plot.

I'm a picky, list-of-things-I-don't-like type of person (surpriiise!), but even I think The Woman Who Lived is a success.  The best bits all involve Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams being subtle and fascinating, and for me those bits speak louder than the daffy plot, not to mention Murray Gold, who annoyingly almost restrains himself throughout.  (But then Capaldi and Williams have a final, brilliant tête-à-tête and all of a sudden STOP – it's Murray Time.)  Both episodes feel a bit like Horrible Histories with delusions of grandeur, but when they're good, particularly The Woman Who Will Probably Be Back Quite Soon, they're certainly something to write home about.  As far as my list-of-things-I-don't-like-type-self is concerned, it's thumbs (begrudgingly) up for both of them.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Moist Haunted

Doctor Who
Under The Lake and Before The Flood
Series Nine, Episodes Three and Four

At some point in the last few years, Doctor Who seemingly went off the idea of two-parters.  Once a staple ingredient, they only crop up now and then, often with such a tectonic shift in setting that the episodes are more like cousins than siblings.  (Look at The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, or A Good Man Goes To War and Let's Kill Hitler.  Actually, don't look at the last two, they're a load of balls.)  This year, for whatever reason, you can hardly move for two-parters.  Good-oh: change is healthy.

Speaking of change: the rock theme tune.
It... actually works.
Now can we stop moaning at Hartnell for wishing us a Merry Christmas?
And okay, they're already hit and miss.  (The Magician's Apprentice spent 45 minutes just warming the toilet seat for Part 2.)  But in cases like Under The Lake and Before The Flood, it feels like the writer had a reason to take up two episodes.  This isn't just Base Under Siege, Now With 45 More Minutes.  It's two separate things that work together.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  You see that bit up there, about the Base Under Siege?  Uh huh: we're going there again, and buying another T-shirt.  Make room in your wardrobe.

The TARDIS arrives (somewhat reluctantly) in an underwater base.  The crew are missing, but still nearby – the Doctor figures this out by dipping his finger in a cup of lukewarm tea, which is adorable.  They're being pursued by ghosts, who are killing them off and adding them to their ranks.  It all has something to do with an unidentified spaceship, with untranslatable words scrawled on its walls.

Under The Lake divides into two main chunks: ghosts being creepy and characters discussing the problem.  The ghosts are great, walking silently and spryly after the remaining crew.  It's refreshing to have a quiet baddie with no gnashing teeth.  (I also think the Weeping Angels are at their creepiest when they're not pulling their "GRR" faces.)  They follow strict rules, such as they only come out at night, they can only move metal objects, and they only have it in for you if you've read the words on that spaceship.  The Doctor is blissfully stumped, dismissing the whole idea of ghosts to begin with – because they don't exist, duh – but then coming around to it later on, because he's excited by new things and actually it might be ghosts.  (He dismisses the elephant-in-the-room-y idea that they are actually holograms, because um.)

Sadly, good as they are, there's a point where the ghosts aren't frightening any more.  There are just too many loopholes.  If there's nothing metal around them, they can't hurt you.  Even though they can walk through walls, you can lose them around a corner or by walking briskly.  When they're not trying to kill you, they're apt to stand around doing nothing.  If you can switch on the base's Day Mode, they disappear.  And if you lock them in the base's Faraday Cage, or go in and lock them out, you're safe as houses.  Yes, it sucks that the characters keep dying, but the ghosts themselves just become a point of inconvenience, and later, information-gathering.  This is where the episode's other chunk, the heaps and heaps of talking, comes in.

"It's deadlock sealed, I can't open it."
No, a sonic gadget can't open it.
Why is that the limit of his abilities?
What are ghosts?  Can ghosts exist?  What does the writing mean?  Why can't the TARDIS translate it?  Why doesn't the TARDIS want to be here?  What are the ghosts saying?  What does that mean?  How are the ghosts affecting the base?  Yak, yak, yak.  The characters aren't all that interesting, especially the poor bastard with Evil Capitalist written all over him (along with Next To Die).  Perhaps it's for the best that they spend most of their time listening to the Doctor.  One of them is a fan of his, which feels like a repeat of Osgood.  (Sniff.)  Another is deaf, which is really cool for the deaf community and handily enables the others to understand the ghosts (after about twenty-five minutes when they finally cotton on to lip-reading).  They're all well cast, but their sketchy personalities don't go far, as the script is busy justifying the (barmy) notion behind the ghosts.

The words on the spaceship are co-ordinates.  The ghosts (really sort-of-holograms, I think) are transmitting them out into space.  With every new ghost, the signal gets stronger.  So they want to keep killing people (but only the ones who've seen the words) to make more ghosts.  It's all an insidious plan by the original occupant of the spaceship, who's been waiting nearly 150 years for someone to happen along, read the words and die.  (Or however many someones he randomly needs to get enough signal.)  All this because he apparently does not own (and cannot find) any radio or communication equipment, and couldn't be bothered to skip stasis and just get in the spaceship and go home.  Come on.  Even by Doctor Who standards, that's convoluted.

But this is Toby Whithouse, who you may remember is banzai at writing the Doctor and not so hot on plot, so I guess this is Whithouse As Usual.  At its best, with Capaldi selling the hell out of the dialogue and the ghosts creeping along nicely, Under The Lake is traditional enough that you can almost hear Terrance Dicks novelising it.  At its worst, it's a lot of blether stacked on what looks suspiciously like bollocks.  But there are some really great lines, particularly the one about earworms: "Two weeks of Mysterious Girl by Peter Andre.  I was begging for the brush of death's merciful hand."  The music's creepy.  And the set's quite convincing.  There's mould and everything.

Anyway, it does get interesting, just before it ends.  The base starts flooding (because eh, we're bored of ghosts now) and the Doctor and Clara get separated.  The Doctor, in an uncharacteristic move, decides to go back in time to get some answers.  Then a new ghost appears.  It's the Doctor.

I can't lip-read, but he's probably saying:
"No, of course I haven't died.  God, you're gullible.
But I'll tell you my name.  Lean closer.  It's...
Hold that thought about "interesting" for a moment, because oi, you: the Doctor's going to die?  Again?  Cool cliff-hanger and everything, but is anyone going to buy that?  Before The Flood honestly seems to think so, launching into a heated emotional conversation between the Doctor and Clara, and this only two weeks after he thought he was going to cop it in The Witch's Familiar.  Guys, enough is enough; you're just crying wolf (or Bad Wolf) at this point.  Newsflash, he doesn't die.  We're not even talking dies-and-finds-a-way-to-reverse-it here.  He's fine, so all those scenes of Capaldi wrestling with time and mortality... well, they're very good, but they're a waste of time.  Worst of all, you've every reason to guess as much going in.  Keep pulling this nonsense and our expectations will only get lower.

For good measure, the Doctor is spurred into action – and possibly even changing history! – because Clara is due to die before him.  And this might be preferable, if she weren't the only other person in Doctor Who currently holding a No Way I'm Gonna Die Card.  For feck's sake, stop making it all about these two dying, especially while other people are actually copping it.  (They do make a point of how those deaths don't seem to matter as much, which says something about the Doctor's aloofness, but then it tacitly adds to the-show-as-a-whole's wonky sense of perspective.  Whoops.)

Anyway, back to "interesting".  The Doctor goes back in time during an adventure.  Despite owning a time machine, he doesn't do that very often.  It's admittedly a bit odd for that very reason – why doesn't he solve all his riddles that way, and why can't he solve this one the usual way, i.e. forwards?  But Whithouse is the guy who, in A Town Called Mercy, suggested bundling everyone into the TARDIS and getting out of there.  (They didn't do it, but it's what we were all thinking.)  If you can think of a good reason to do the undoable, or at least bring it up, then why not?  It is a really cool idea to set Part 1 in the future, and Part 2 beforehand.  And it's really all about paradoxes, so they don't take it for granted.

Ah yes, paradoxes.  Before The Flood opens with the Doctor explaining (to no one in particular) how the Bootstrap Paradox works.  In a nutshell: go back in time and give yourself an idea, which is what inspired you to go back in time and give yourself the idea.  Who came up with the idea?  This is an interesting puzzle, but it's not a new one for Doctor Who.  The most famous example is in (arguably) the most famous episode: in Blink, all of Sally Sparrow's actions are predetermined and cyclical.  It's a teensy bit weird that they're making a song and dance about it now – it's been Steven Moffat 101 for years.  But there's still a natty paradox underneath the hoopla, and it's satisfying to see Parts 1 and 2 circle each other, particular the second time around.

Sarah Jaaaaane!
Also, his guitar amp is from Magpie Electronics.
I like Doctor Who.
Just to add to the fun, Before The Flood paradoxes itself as well, Back To The Future: Part II style: when the TARDIS refuses to go to Clara's rescue (fair enough, old girl), the Doctor and co. must avoid themselves from an hour or so earlier.  There's a danger of disappearing down the rabbit hole here, but it does allow for a quick repeat of the dangers of changing history.  Which are... still quite muddy actually, since Clara tells the Doctor he's going to die, the Doctor tells an undertaker he's going to send evil messages in the future, he's risking changes in the timeline by cavalierly going back in time in the first place, and he seems to consider chucking the whole timeline in the bin just to save Clara.  (Although he might just be joking to distract the bad guy.)

It's all good fodder for Capaldi, who is generally funny, threatening and out-of-step-with-everyone-else here.  Good Doctoring is practically a Toby Whithouse trope; it's a nice one to have!  I love his attitude to the ghosts, i.e. not assuming they're hostile until they try to kill him.  (I like the way he says "Hello!  Did you want to show us this?  It's very nice!" like he's talking to a couple of toddlers.)  I'm not totally sold on his "emotion" cue cards, which veer closer to mental illness than alienness in my book, but at least he's trying, and he's not telling everyone to shut up any more.  (Apart from the stupid ones, who deserve it.)  In general, the Doctor's eccentricity and coolness came off forced in The Magician's Apprentice, but here, it's really working.  And he's not that nice: he sort of lets someone die just to test a theory – boo, you nasty alien, etc. – but then he obviously tries to get her to stay in the TARDIS first.  It's not his fault she goes, and his emotions are clear when she makes her fateful choice.  It's very Doctorly.  I'm sure McCoy would approve.  (See also, sending the bad guy to his death, apparently guilt-free.)

Jenna Coleman fares less well.  It's obvious they're Doing A Thing by comparing her to the Doctor – oh how terrible she has become by learning from him, etc.  This gives us a great bit where the Doctor has to try to keep her safe, and he hates talking like that so it makes him hilariously uncomfortable.  (Gimme a C!  Gimme an A!  Gimme a P!)  But sometimes she's so generic she might as well be her own hologram.  "I want another adventure.  Come on, you feel the same!  You're itching to save a planet, I know it!"  That's actual dialogue, spoken by a person.  She spends most of Before The Flood hanging by her iPhone waiting for the Doctor to check in.  It's eerily like they were expecting a change of actor and deliberately wrote her as generic as possible.  Jenna nearly left at Christmas, right?  But sadly, it's probably just Clara being Clara.

Sniff.  It's just like the old days!
The rest of the cast are fine, but there aren't a lot of standout moments, apart from some not-very-convincing romances thrown in at the end.  Some actors – Colin McFarlane and, most egregiously, Paul Kaye – are one-scene-wonders, not including their anonymous ghost stuff.  Cass, the deaf commanding officer, impresses the most with her (necessarily?) quiet intensity.  A Daredevil moment cringily over-compensates for her disability, but otherwise she's fab.  As for the baddie, a hulking monstrosity voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, The Fisher King doesn't really work.  He talks too much, his plan's a load of hogwash and in the end he falls for an obvious lie.  What a plonker!  As for his look, no doubt awesome in the concept art, the actual costume is more like Revenge Of The Wobbly '80s Throwback.  I'm pretty sure he bumps into a door at one point, the poor rubbery bastard.

There's a lot in these episodes that works, and as an overall package it's satisfying.  If all two parters are to be given as much attention as this, great.  At the same time it's not as clever as it thinks, over-explaining paradoxes, talking too much and significantly failing to surprise.  (No, he doesn't die and yes, you did guess who was in the stasis chamber the moment they unveiled it.  Who else?)  Call it a game of two halves, then.  Or to coin a phrase, a two-parter.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Curse Of Fatal Davros

Doctor Who
The Magician's Apprentice and The Witch's Familiar
Series Nine, Episodes One and Two

I wasn't going to bother this year.

I haven't retreated to a monastery to ignore Doctor Who or anything, but I am marginally busier these days and I don't feel much urge to review it any more.  Shrug; plenty of other people do it.  But then I realised I was still watching it and spending just as much time griping about it as ever, so what the hell, eh?  It'll keep my committed band of followers (a dozen people still desperately trying to Google their friend Neil) happy.  You're welcome.

So, as we're all here and Doctor Who is back on, let's pick it to bits.  The Magician's Apprentice.  Grand title, great big plotty ideas, first part of two.  How does it fare?  Short, charitable answer: it's all build up.  Slightly longer and more honest answer: it's a lot of waiting for Part Two to happen.

It begins on a mysterious battlefield.  The Doctor sees a small boy in peril.  What else does he do but try to rescue him?  There's just one snag: his name's Davros.  So, naturally assuming there's only one Davros on the entire planet, the Doctor tucks his tail between his legs and leaves him to the mercy of the handmines (alas, not a typo).  Ages later, apparently in his death throes, Davros remembers that time the Doctor stitched him up and understandably wants a word.  Cue the Doctor dragging his feet en route to his last meeting with Davros – and apparently, his own death.

"My name's Davros!  Wait, come back!  Dave Ross, I said!"
It's big stuff all right, apart from the handmines, which are as stupid as they are incongruous.  (They don't even work.  Stand absolutely still or they'll get you?  They don't seem to mind Davros shifting his weight, or people talking, or a sonic screwdriver landing with a "plop" next to them.)  But as is often the way with Doctor Who, especially finales which is oddly what this one feels like, even the other comparatively shiny bits don't bear thinking about.

Big Idea #1: the Doctor is sure he's going to die.  This again, though?  The Doctor thought he was going to die in The End Of Time, then he thought he was going to die in The Wedding Of River Song, then he thought he was going to die in The Time Of The DoctorWe know it's never going to happen, especially in Episode One of twelve, so it's about as dramatic as dropping a balloon to keep doing it.  Even if you fell for it last time, you'd need the wherewithal of a concussed bee to think it might stick this time.  (And if you're not really meant to think it might happen, which would explain how utterly half-hearted it is here, well, why the zarking farktwaddle are they doing it again?)

Big Idea #2: the Doctor is missing.  (On account of not wanting to die, which he totally might.)  This is actually quite impressive for a man who's probably everywhere in the universe simultaneously, but then Missy, Clara and UNIT do a quick timey-wimey Google search and find him instantly.  Phew.  Remind me what all the fuss was about?  (Turns out he was nowhere in time and space, unless you remembered to check Medieval England.  Good old Clara, checking the one bit no one else had looked in for no reason!)

Quick sidenote: there's a noticeable dearth of forward-moving plot in this episode.  It's really just getting us from Point A, he doesn't want to go to Point B, he goes.  But things really grind to a halt in Ye Olde Land.  Here, the Doctor drops some hideous anachronisms and makes some terrible jokes, and Peter Capaldi plays some riffs.  The axe-man cometh and all that (ho ho), but come on, why's this scene actually here, besides meeting the requisite two-part minute count?  Charitable hat on: we're probably meant to look at the Doctor's bizarre behavior and think "Ooh look, he really has lost it, maybe he is going to die this time"?  Clara certainly thinks so, clumsily pointing out how out of character this is for him.  I suppose anything's worth a try with The Most Not Going To Happen Thing Ever, but that still doesn't justify five minutes of crap jokes even the other characters don't laugh at.  The whole thing is just awkwardly weird.

Mercifully, the one Davrossy minion actually out looking for the Doctor (a man made of snakes, because why not) finally checks the one bit of the universe left on his list and whisks our heroes to Skaro.  Skaro is invisible now, which seems terribly important until everybody can see it and then nobody mentions the invisible thing again.  Okay, spotting a pattern yet?  They come up with big or kooky stuff – invisible planet, mines that look like hands – and they just go pfft.  Wouldn't it be nice to take an interesting idea and actually get something out of it?

"We have acquired the TARDIS."
"Good work!  Pity you couldn't have told us sooner.
You could have saved Snakey a lot of bother."
And oh bother, I've skipped a few.  Backing up to Big Idea #3, then: on Earth, planes are stopping in the sky.  Wow!  What's that got to do with Davros?  Answer: nowt, it's just so Missy can get UNIT (and Clara's) attention.  Oh.  This feels like a random idea from Steven Moffat's bag of leftovers, but they at least get an eyebrow-raise out of it before glibly consigning it to the dustbin.  UNIT, too, as all any of this is for is bundling Missy into the story.  So long, Kate.  Nice to see you, Roz from Bugs.  Totally worth filming those scenes.

Oh, and Missy's back.  Woo.  Nope, still don't have a problem with a female Master (although I do have a problem with giving her a special "female" name), and yep, Michelle Gomez can be hugely entertaining, but the character's still written with such drunkenly broad strokes that she'd slot right into Moffat's ever-more-prophetic Who spoof, The Curse Of Fatal DeathEvery line is aimed directly at Tumblr.  "Traps are my flirting."  "He keeps trying to kill me, it's sort of our texting."  "I'm murdering a Dalek, I'm a Time Lady, it's our golf."  Ehhhh.

Look, we all know Moffat needs to fire a wisecrack every other second or we might not love him any more, but it's just so wearying to be relentlessly quirked and funnied at for forty minutes.  Missy pretty much exists just for teh proverbial lols.  The only thing that makes her interesting is the love/hate relationship with the Doctor – and be fair, this was already trope-tastic when Roger Delgado first started shrinking people – but in Moffat's hands that's as much of a dog's dinner as the plot.  Last time we saw Missy, she was a psycho and the Doctor hated her.  This time, she's still a psycho and the Doctor likes her.  Even Clara seemingly gets over the you-killed-my-boyfriend bit well enough to exchange witty banter, because nothing must stand in the way of banter.  It's all very zingy, but it isn't really character development.  It's ping-pong.

Oh, and I've missed another bit: Clara's here too, if it isn't too much bloody trouble for her to actually join the Doctor sometimes, and she pulls all the right companion-y expressions and does banter – but mostly she just helps Missy to be in the story as well.  They're both just... in it as well.  Neither of them makes a meaningful dent until the cliff-hanger, where they're (apparently) killed off, along with the TARDIS.  (!)  But even Moffat knows you won't swallow that one, so the real cliff-hanger is something else entirely: the Doctor rushing back in time (*cough* TARDIS!  You had one job, Steven!) to (apparently) kill Davros as a child.  Which is about as likely as the Doctor dropping dead of a heart attack, and is confusingly kind of like the nasty thing he already did at the start, but at least it gets us back to what these episodes are about.  Cue The Witch's Familiar, or Part Two, or The One Where They Get On With It.

The Doctor abandoned Davros, ergo he's guilty.  And hey, remember Genesis Of The Daleks?  Don't worry, there's a clip: Tom Baker says if you knew a child would grow up to do terrible things, could you kill him?  And if you did, are you any better than the monster he became?  It's not really something that needed exploring literally, as that's already what Genesis was about, but fair enough, let's go there.  And I tend to think it's a waste of time pointing an accusing finger at the Doctor, especially if the person doing the pointing is a genocidal nutbag with absolutely no moral high-ground, but we're trying to find something new to say about said nutbag, so that's good.  Is Davros really all that bad?  Is the Doctor, given all that he's done, a saint?  It's kind of amazing we're still going there after last year's "Am I a good man" conundrum (yes he is, what do I win?  Oh you're going to keep asking), but maybe these episodes will put a new spin on it.

If you've made it this far, you've probably guessed it's a "no" from me.  And right you are.

Okay, Daleks – time for the 2010-redesign ultra blurry cameo!
The Doctor's done questionable things.  He blows up armies of Daleks all the time, and sometimes he's just flat-out mean.  But there's still a fat stack of difference between that and Davros.  Daleks as well: they love to wave an accusing tentacle and say "You would make a good Dalek" or somesuch, but he just wouldn't, okay?  When he blows stuff up and kills things, it's always because the stuff and the things want to blow up everything else.  And if he's grown to hate Daleks and Davros after all that, well, he's got a pretty good reason to feel that way, hasn't he?  With the exterminating and the absolutely-nothing-else they get up to?  It's like Jaws.  Brodie, Quint and Hooper aren't just some jerks picking on an innocent fish.  The fish keeps eating people.

Nevertheless, Dalek Hitler asks "Am I a good man?"  I don't even.  I mean the answer would be a resounding "no", wouldn't it, even if there wasn't a line of dialogue expressly telling us this whole routine, with the moral tirade and the change of heart and the I-want-to-feel-the-sun-on-my-face-one-last-time, is a load of bobbins.  "Be subtle, Colony Sarff.  Tonight we entrap the Time Lord."  All the confessions, all the tears – don't worry about it.  Why put that in there?  Yes, Davros turning over a new leaf is the mother of hard sells, but if you're going to sidle up to the camera and say "Psst, not really!" beforehand, why even bother?

So Davros is as much of a nutbag post-episode as he was before.  Quelle surprise.  What of the Doctor?  I mean, how could he abandon a child on a battlefield?  What a bastard, right?  Well, the more you think about it, the more complicated it is.  The Doctor is on Skaro by accident.  (See me, just going with it?)  His first instinct is to help the child, of course.  But then he finds out it's Davros, an enemy whose personal history he doesn't know.  What does he do?  Wade in and rescue him?  If it goes wrong, Davros might die and change history.  If it works, perhaps it'll turn out the deadly handmines are what crippled him, and not leaving him there will change history.  Perhaps Davros was always meant to struggle out of there alone – in at least one version of these events, he must have done.  (And if the Doctor always rescued him, as he inevitably does in the end, Davros wouldn't be mad at him.)  On the face of it, it's shameful, but when you try to apply a little Time Lord logic it's nowhere near as clear cut.  Walking away is cruel, but it might be right.  This was exactly why Tom Baker was asking "Do I have the right" in the first place – because time is complex.  In any case, Davros survived, and he's done a lot worse to others since then.  It's a pot-kettle-palooza. 

Still, perhaps the Doctor isn't as fussed as he makes out.  He's quite hysterical to begin with, begging Davros to spare his friends, but once Clara and Missy are zapped he's more than happy to turf him out of his chair.  Where's all this enormous guilt, and this apparent certainty of death?  Is one reminder of what Davros and Daleks are actually like – Surprise!  They'll kill your friends! – enough to get rid of all that?  And when he triumphantly pulls a Curse Of Fatal Death-esque "Naturally I anticipated" on Davros's plan, switching it around to blow the Daleks up yet again (and probably take out Davros as well), it becomes alarmingly possible that both the Doctor and Davros have been trolling each other the whole time.  At which point these episodes are saying nothing substantial about anything.  Davros?  Hates everyone, exterminate.  The Doctor?  Hates Daleks, tick, boom.  Yes, it's wonderful that he goes back and rescues Lil' Davros after all, teaching him about mercy and affecting him even minutely for the better.  He's still going to blow up his house with him and all his kids in it.

"Oh, the unbearable guilt!"
*kicks disabled guy out of wheelchair, makes Dodgems joke*
Meanwhile, Missy and Clara survive via some teleport jiggery-pokery, and I'll take a moment to say: glad they explained that.  The little cutaway with Capaldi engineering his own escape in a similar fashion is loadsa fun.  Peter Capaldi is, in general, more to my liking in these episodes than he was last year.  Have I just got used to him, or has there been a retooling?  Hmm.  He's still crotchety, but fundamentally he's a lot sweeter and sillier.  Capaldi from last year wouldn't have given Davros five minutes, let alone a burst of regeneration energy.  Okay, some of this is deliberate out-of-characterness brought on from thinking he's going to die (nope, still don't buy it), and some of it's fake, but whatever it is, it falls within my personal Doctor limits.  He even makes a few of the jokes work.  Even when he can't, it's a pleasure just to listen to Peter Capaldi, his voice lilting between gruff Scots, posh Scots and the occasional funny English accent for no particular reason.  I'll always miss Matt, but I'm happily on the Capaldi Train this year.

I can't seem to focus on Missy or Clara.  Do they really achieve very much?  They mostly loiter in the Dalek sewers (where all the not-dead Daleks end up, because apparently Daleks can't die, which is news to all those dead and self-destructed ones over the years), occasionally commenting on the Doctor's actions (curiously broadcast over a loud speaker) and confirm that he really is acting like he's expecting to die.  (He still might!  Honest!)  Missy is having her own Davros-ish moral back and forth this week, or that's what they seem to be aiming at: a moment where she mentions her daughter, a general attitude of helping the Doctor a bit.  No?  But then she confirms in The Magician's Apprentice that she hasn't "turned good", so it's surely no surprise when she (more than once) betrays Clara and the Doctor, essentially just for the trollols.  It's the Master – what were you expecting?  There's a line about how none of us are really all your friend or all your enemy, but actually, duffers like Missy and Davros are obviously not the Doctor's friends, and Clara is, so... that doesn't really work.  (Mind you, they seem to be hinting at some dreadful hybrid prophecy thingie, and harkening back to when we first met Jenna Coleman in a Dalek casing, so god knows where they're going with that.  Shall we save time and assume nowhere?)

On a first viewing, when it isn't painfully obvious how pointless it all is, these episodes waste about 50% of their time but pick up a bit after that.  Julian Bleach continues his good-but-not-revelatory job with Davros – no offence, Julian, but it's difficult to give proper kudos when we've no reason to buy the mono-optical one's sudden transformation, and as for all the ranting and raving, welcome to every Davros ever.  But his scenes with Capaldi are the obvious highlight, pointless or otherwise.  It's two good actors shooting the breeze.  I'll take it.

Phew – so glad they explained this.
And how Davros survived blowing up in Series Four.
Oh.  Um.  Maybe next time?
Let's see, what else: you get to see loads of old Daleks again, only this time you can actually see them, which is an unfettered delight.  How I've missed the little grey ones!  (We're still ignoring the "new" Daleks from 2010, which is quite the multi-coloured elephant in the room.)  There are some amusing insights into how Daleks work, from the questionably potty (Dalek sewers) to the sort-of-makes-sense-actually (saying "Exterminate" is their way of reloading).  Missy might be a misbegotten waste of effort, but Michelle Gomez still puts the effort in; wouldn't it be nice if she had a really nuanced script that relied less on jokes?  Capaldi we've already covered – take away the crap jokes and he's great – and while I don't feel anything at all for Clara besides "Oh, you're back then", Jenna Coleman certainly does all the requisite companiony stuff.  She even cries.  Good job?

These episodes are big and flashy.  Stick your fingers in your ears and they might appear thoughtful.  Don't do that and, well, they're hollow and worse, they're typical.  Ten to go.  Let's hope they can do better.

PS: Sonic sunglasses.  No comment.