Saturday, 17 October 2015

"Under the Lake"/"Before the Flood"

The basis (under siege) for this story is rooted in several well-worn tropes of science-fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular - indeed, beats are taken from the Tennant classic "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit", most notably the death by airlock with the body floating outside the base window. However, in the very capable hands of Toby Whithouse, we are constantly left scared and surprised at every turn in a story that gives us terrifying underwater hauntings, time-bending paradox crunching, Cold-War era dummy towns, Arthurian legend, and love, both unrequited and requited. The explanation for the ghosts and their motivation is revealed only piecemeal, which makes re-watching the story all the more rewarding and, at no point does it alienate anyone who had given the story their proper attention – the untranslatable characters on the spaceship wall are the seeds of a ghost factory, the TARDIS is wary because the Doctor is already there in the hibernaculum. The Fisher King is a far more malevolent figure than his Arthurian namesake, yet the roots in the myth are present and correct – both require those who venture upon his abode to assist in his return...

The production is flawless in realising Whithouse's vision – the ghosts are designed, realised and filmed to live in the nightmares of many in years to come and Daniel O'Hara makes a stunning début as director crafting each scene with care, an obvious highlight being the ghost of Moran dragging an axe just a few paces behind Cass. The design work is fantastic, from the sets for the Drum, to the dummy town to the memorably crustaceoid (if that's a word) Fisher King.

The characters are somewhat atypical for the base-under-siege formula and the actors do stunning work. Morven Christie manages to be completely convincing both as a hard-as-nails NCO and as an utterly adorable Doctor-fangirl. Whithouse never makes Cass a mere token character and the gutsy performance that Sophie Stone gives in the role only adds to the effectiveness of the character. We also have a nice turn by Paul Kaye as the Tivolian, Prentis. It must be said that it is a pity that Colin McFarlane has so little to do in his non-ghost form, but it is no surprise that this very charismatic actor is the scariest of the ghosts. The imposing size of the Fisher King (courtesy of Neil Fingleton) is matched with a memorable turn by Peter Serafinowicz, one of the most versatile voices in the business.

The Doctor's job is a bit more complicated than in should be. How can a time-traveller defy his own ghost? Very well indeed, if the Doctor is as brilliantly written and performed as he is here. Capaldi portrays the Doctor as being stoic in the face on inevitability, totally in control of the end of the moment, if not it's beginning, yet needing cue-cards to help him console those he is about to help. He is also given the most lengthy piece of fourth-wall breaking in the programme's history, which he pulls off with aplomb. With the characters separated, Jenna is left to be the lead in her segments, which she does magnificently.

So, we are left with the Bootstrap Paradox and a question that is never answered. But don't some of the best stories end with a question mark?

NEXT: "The Girl Who Died"/"The Woman Who Lived"

Sunday, 4 October 2015

"The Magician's Apprentice"/"The Witch's Familiar"

If there has ever been a greater hook for the fans than the pre-titles sequence to "The Magician's Apprentice" I have yet to see it. As written, however, it serves to anchor the purpose of the story, for, before the main course, we are given a sweeping entrée through the known universe as we are used to from a Moffat two parterbefore two random amuse-bouches of Doctor Who story types - the UNIT story that reintroduces Missy and the wacky pseudo-historical that marks the Doctor's re-entry into the story. We are taken further 'into the Dalek' than we have ever been before - free will apparently means nothing inside a Dalek and the reason for the constant repetition of their most notorious chant is that it is the only vocalisation permitted towards any non Dalek - a good way to reload. We are expressly told what happens to senescent Daleks; immortal they may be, but not ageless (it is good, incidentally, that the more cloacal aspects of the Skarosian slime are addressed and the word 'sewer' used, as the intimations would have been there anyway).

However, this is the tale of the Doctor and Davros and the creator and the created. We are taken to earlier in Skaro's history than we have ever been before and to the apparent end of Davros's life. A goodly portion of "The Witch's Familiar" is taken up with a remarkable conversation between Davros and the Doctor. Davros's seeming deathbed repentance is one of the most shocking moments in the programme's history and only someone blindly subservient to the programme's past would deny that Julian Bleach exceeds Michael Wisher's high mark in his performance in the role. He is helped by the best make-up job for the character yet - recognisably the same, but utterly convincing as simply the face of an old man, so the opening of his Kaled eyes (helped by the framing of the shots) doesn't seem jarring. In addition, we finally find out just how much of Davros's Kaled body is left, as the Doctor literally unseats his arch enemy! Hettie Macdonald puts in stellar work and marshals an outstanding job from the production team, such as the retro, but utterly convincing Skaro and the trips to UNIT and mediaeval Essex, which are treated with as much care as if they had been the centre of the story.

It is testament to the skills of Moffat, Bleach and Michelle Gomez that the first story to feature both Davros and the Master doesn't have one swamping the other. Missy is brought back (the method of her survival, lovingly detailed in the pre-credits sequence in "The Witch's Familiar". Gomez's psychopathic flightiness makes Missy genuinely unpredictable and genuinely frightening, notwithstanding the fact that for the vast majority of their screen time together, the Doctor and Missy are allies. Indeed, Clara is pretty much Missy's companion in the story and Missy is quick to make Clara very much the fall guy in their double act. This makes her apparent betrayal of Clara both totally expected and incredibly powerful. Jenna Coleman effortlessly makes Clara noticeably more mature, as she should be, following the loss of Danny. Capaldi is on fire throughout, whether belting out 'Mickey' on his Yamaha SGV800 (with an invisible wah-wah pedal!) pleading for Clara's life or regenerating the Struldbrugs of Skaro.

The dénouement, brings all these strands together. Embodying a Dalek Empire that has literally been reborn, Davros is triumphant - yet he has forgotten that all his children have been renewed; including the abandoned elder ones. The sewers are, indeed, revolting. Most crucially the Doctor saves the young Davros, answering the question 'Who Made Davros?' with the only acceptable answer 'Skaro'. People who have kindness shown to them when they were younger sometimes still become monsters.

The ninth series opener is a storming piece of work that seems contemporary, retro and timeless at the same time thanks to sterling work on all aspects of creation and production. The Doctor and Clara are again free to wander time and space together. We are, however, left with the promise of a horror awaiting our heroes in the future...

NEXT: "Under the Lake"/"Before the Flood"