Wednesday, 23 December 2015

"Hell Bent"

The end of the peerless first episode of this story ends with the Doctor, for the first time this century, setting foot on the sands of his home planet. What we expect is a barnstorming homecoming and, indeed, the depiction of Gallifrey is (naturally) the most visually stunning that the programme has ever seen. Steven Moffat complements what we know about the Time Lord home world with his own intriguing additions to the mythos (the Cloister Wraiths or ‘Sliders’ being particularly memorable) and, in a nod to the past, the way in which the Doctor re-enters the higher echelons of Time Lord society has hints of The Invasion of Time. Yet, as the subdued pre-credits sequence shows, this is not the thrust of the story; and, indeed, the barn is literally not stormed.

The one thing that has been driving the Doctor is the loss of Clara, more specifically, his unwillingness to come to terms with it. Using all the power of Gallifrey, he rescues his best friend before the Raven claims her, despite the fact that this is a fixed point and will literally tear the cosmos apart. In order to do this, we see the Doctor act with greater authority – ordering Rassilon himself off Gallifrey, effectively staging a military coup in taking control of the planet and (most troublingly) shooting an ally. It is clear that the Doctor and Clara combined can be devastating. In the past two episodes, we have seen how frightening the Doctor can be when Clara is threatened and here we have its ultimate expression – the Doctor violating all that he has lived by. It could be said that the Doctor’s abandoning his sonic screwdriver in "The Witch's Familiar" means that the Doctor has abandoned his promise and his Name and, that the ‘me’ referred to at the end of "Heaven Sent" is not what the Doctor thought it would be. The Doctor and Clara, the human and the Time Lord have it in them to destroy everything. As Me says, they are the Hybrid.

Rachel Talalay again does stellar work in the director’s chair. The Gallifrey scenes have a hint of Western about them, but the sitcom-esque reactions of the Time Matron (as I am now going to call her) discovering people of greater and greater importance outside the barn work seamlessly with this. The scene where the Gallifreyan military surrender to the unarmed Doctor is brilliantly realised. The Capitol is a masterful combination of brilliant effects, design and great direction and the Cloisters are memorably spooky. We have the welcome return of Ken Bones as the General and Clare Higgins as Ohila. The resurrected Rassilon has regenerated into the less celebrated, but equally authoritative form of Donald Sumpter – less megalomaniacal than his previous form, but equally ruthless. We also have the return of Maisie Williams as Me – a lot wiser, if still not possessed of an infinite memory. Capaldi is his usual brilliant self – utterly commanding, yet making a line like ‘I had a duty of care’ truly heart-breaking.

Which brings us to the impossible girl. With the Doctor off the rails, it is Clara who must take responsibility. Despite her rescue, she is never passive in this story and she makes sure that the Doctor’s usual gambit backfires and it is his memory that is wiped – not just because Clara can keep what Donna could not, but so that the Doctor can finally let go. Jenna gives a stunning performance in her final story as the longest running companion of the revived series. She is left to live out her final seconds in her own time, like Albert in Discworld and like Vince Vega in Pulp Fiction, the fact that we have seen her die does not prevent her from riding off into the sunset – or, in this case, bucketing off into infinity in a TARDIS with a faulty chameleon circuit that has trapped it in the form of an American diner.

This season has mixed the intimate with the epic with even greater effect than before and, as the Doctor brandishes his new sonic screwdriver, it is clear that our never cruel, never cowardly, hero is back in black. Or burgundy.

NEXT: "The Husbands of River Song"

Saturday, 5 December 2015

"Heaven Sent"

Doctor Who in the 21st Century is a very polished product and every story, no matter the quality, has something remarkable about it. It is still rare, however, to find a story in which every single aspect of its conception and execution is first rate and to this elite list must now be added "Heaven Sent". Steven Moffat has crafted a tale that is, at its simplest, the Doctor being chased by a scary monster. It is this that will suck in and keep the terrified attention of the small child that remains (and should always remain) a key part of the programme’s demographic. However, we have musings on facing one’s own death, of facing oneself as a person. It is a story set in a fairy-tale castle and, indeed, can be seen as a Doctor Who version of a fairy-tale as it channels (and acknowledges) the Grimms’ tale of the Shepherd’s boy. It is a time-bending sci-fi tale with a truly shocking twist. It is a way of showing the Doctor being tormented in a truly horrible way, without showing any violence whatsoever. Steven Moffat’s script manages all of this, leavening the grimness with his uniquely pitched humour in one of his best scripts for the programme.

The episode is especially unique for its cast. The episode is, for the most part, the Doctor talking to himself and Capaldi tops his considerable best in an unforgettable performance. The Doctor starts off vengeful over the death of Clara, but as time goes on, as well as his own perils, he muses on his sense of bereavement. Capaldi never loses the fire and the feelings of loss, of despair and anger are all combined to devastating effect. We are shown the thought processes of the Doctor in times of peril, so mush faster than a human’s, where the Doctor’s ‘mind palace’ appears to be his perfect display of ‘showing off’ in the TARDIS. As we find out the Doctor is in his own personal Hell, we find the Doctor fighting to turn it into Purgatory, refusing to take the easy way out.

Helming the show, we have the best work Rachel Talalay has done in any medium. Each shot drips with atmosphere and the episode has to be seen more than once to take in all the information fed to the viewer. The Veil is a genuinely terrifying threat and there is more than one genuine ‘jump’ moment. There is a slight disconnect between scenes, which begs the question as to whether we are seeing multiple pecks by the bird on the mountain. The production team make the castle look beautiful, spooky and scary and the cinematography by Stuart Biddlecombe is first rate. A special mention must be made for Murray Gold’s finest score to date, one which has influences ranging from the best of Roger Limb and Paddy Kingsland in the Davison Era to Beethoven.

The first second of eternity passes, though and we find ourselves somewhere where we never thought we would be. The Doctor finally reveals the secret he was hiding for aeons ‘The hybrid is me’. Whether it is ‘me’ or ‘Me’ remains to be seen…

NEXT: "Hell Bent"

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

"Face the Raven"

More than any story than I can think of, "Face the Raven" could exist as a magical fantasy story with only minimal changes to the script. The notions of what secret worlds may lie unseen in a major city is a background to many a genre story and here, the trap street in London forms an irresistible hook for the plot and the hidden community with its rules form a fascinating addition to the corpus of this type of tale. The search for the Street is a puzzle that our heroes have to solve and the rules for the Street are established early on and the Quantum Shade's role as peacekeeper have a real mythic resonance with its form as the titular raven. The way in which events become a puzzle, become a cause, become a trap for the Doctor are expertly woven by writer Sarah Dollard. The realisation of the street owes more than a little to Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter Films and a very confident production is helmed by Justin Molotnikov who makes the aerial survey of London spectacular and the Street sinister and magical.

Supporting the regulars, we have two returnees.¤ Joivan Wade's again gives us his memorable Rigsy. He has clearly matured from the lovable ragamuffin we were introduced to in "Flatline", with a partner and a child, whom even the Doctor finds irresistible. Also returning is Maisie Williams as Me, Mayor Me of the street. Apart from these, the only supporting character of note is Letitia Wright's Janus. However, this story is very much a character story with one in particular taking centre stage – Clara Oswald. The plot tells of a sentence for Rigsy, which is, in reality a trap for the Doctor. The way in which Clara puts herself in harm's way to save the life of a young father is totally believable, as is the way in which she underestimates the nuances of the rules concerning how the Shade takes its prey. Clara is not reckless in taking on Rigsy's sentence, and her naivety in not realising that she has attempted to trick the Shade is understandable. In constructing the events in this way, Sarah Dollard gives Clara's sacrifice a real sense of beauty and dignity and the way in which Jenna Coleman plays it is utterly heartbreaking. Peter Capaldi's portrayal of the Doctor's despair and fury at the death of his best friend is shocking. We have seen him pretend to beg Davros for Clara's life, knowing that she was safe. Now we see what happens when it is real. Not since the Time Lord Victorious have we seen the Doctor more aware of his power and less concerned about how he uses it. Maisie Williams does good work in showing Me's increasing disquiet at the Doctor's anger, but this is Capaldi's show and the line 'the universe is a very small place when I am angry with you' makes the audience feel genuinely afraid about what the Doctor would do if he were to break the promise of his chosen name.

Beautiful, touching and chilling, this story is first-rate Doctor Who, even without the thrill of anticipation over what is to come...

NEXT: "Heaven Sent"