(Doctor Who logo, all images – BBC)
And so it begins, another season of Doctor Who hits our screens and Nerdlocker will be here, each week, giving you our thoughts on the latest episode.
As a rule we won’t mention anything beyond rumour, speculation and what’s already been officially announced. In short, spoilers will be kept to the absolute minimum, if not avoided completely.
THE HUSBANDS OF RIVER SONG (S09_E13)
How’s that for a change of pace?! The last time we saw The Doctor he was partially wiped, oddly bereft and more than a little down in the dumps. Cue the Harry Potter landscape shot, 1950s flying saucer and the sound of tongues being placed firmly in cheeks.
A snow-drenched set of opening titles (complete with baubles in place of planets) and things were off to a bright, breezy, Christmassy start!
“You’re overthinking!” exclaims River Song, ‘you’re overacting’ I thought. This wasn’t, however, a bad thing. Sure, the setup was clearly bonkers but it was 5:15pm on Christmas Day and the interplay between Kingston and Capaldi really was a joy to behold.
Before the fifteen minute mark ticked over, it was clear where this silly little tale sits in the story of this particular Doctor. Closer than ever in age, sharper than what has come before in rapport, this husband and wife team provide a very obvious reason for some cheer to re-enter a life we last saw torn apart. Capaldi and Kingston sparkle in a way that makes it very easy to see why The Doctor has a reason to laugh again.
Of course, by this point in the episode, River Song didn’t even know who this Doctor was.
This was also an episode of jarring ups and downs. The nonsense of Matt Lucas’s head being grafted onto a giant, red robot and going Full Bargain Basement Baxmax was a chore, but when followed by Capaldi hamming it up, play-acting his perfect First Time in the TARDIS reaction, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
By the hour’s end, The Husbands of River Song had given us a great deal more nonsense. Frenetic and lightweight in the same way Voyage of the Damned was eight Christmasses ago. This isn’t a classic, nor as good as last year or even a story worth remembering (giant, Steampunk Cyberman anyone?) but, as River finally realised Who she was standing next to a wonderful reminder crept back into the episode.
These are two wonderful actors, standing toe to toe, embarking on a date that has been foretold since River‘s first appearance some seven years ago. The love felt between these two characters has often been spoken of but never quite shown until now. This year’s Christmas Special ended lyrically, romantically and with final moments worth holding dear. A reminder that amongst all the, admittedly imaginative, silliness and throwaway banter, Doctor Who still beats with two huge, optimistic, infectious hearts.
HELL BENT (S09_E12)
And so ended Season Nine. I realised, as the credits rolled, that I’d stopped making notes halfway through the episode. Instead, it had dawned on me that I needed to pay as much attention as possible, as The Doctor’s posing was replaced by prose.
Here’s another review, I’m afraid, where I’m going to have to delve into SPOILER territory.
There was something, dare I say it, a little David Lynch about this week’s opening. The generous slice of Americana, the ill-fitting suit jacket and the layers of limping regret. The ever so slightly eerie return to that Diner, playing that piece of music through every available speaker. All of this and, well, Capaldi’s hair.
Then we were back, as had been teased, in The Barn. Nice set, good to get your money’s worth BBC. Swiftly whistled into the middle of a spaghetti western, with a bloody great gunship in the middle of it, one could almost hear El Guapo bragging about his “plethora” around some unseen corner.
That’s as far as I got with my notes, at least in full sentences. After that, I simply wrote “Old TARDIS, Spike Milligan.”
Was this episode as good as last week? No, but then I really do think Heaven Sent will live on as one of the VERY best episodes there has ever been of Doctor Who.
Was this episode a satisfying end to a terrific season? Not entirely, but there was much to cherish.
As I suspected a couple of weeks ago, we hadn’t seen the last of Clara. In fact, Moffat’s insistence that she would appear in the entire season turned out to be quite right. Then again, he also claimed she would never return to the show. Given that the episode ended with her, presumably, eternally trapped in the final seconds of her existence taking flight to Who Knows Where with her own immortal companion (and indirect, would-be executioner) Ashildr, that would be one hell of a loose end to leave dangling forever. Or perhaps there’s something perfect inside that notion; the companion who grew so close to actually becoming The Doctor, flying off on her own potentially endless adventures in time and space. Adventures, this time around, we don’t get to see. Nah, I’m still not sure I like it.
Then we have The Doctor playing Murray Gold’s own, lovely musical motif for the character of Clara. As she put it; some memories become stories, perhaps others become songs. While The Doctor will never entirely remember Clara (until he does) he’ll still, inexplicably to himself, be able to express everything she meant to him through the mournful and beautiful lilt of his guitar. A gorgeous idea, perhaps a little too abstract to feel entirely satisfying but certainly a piece of writing poetic enough to admire.
As for Gallifrey itself, the outskirts of the great, domed city were a pleasing throwback to Sergio Leone, giving The Barn just enough surroundings to feel more than the deserted spot in which The War Doctor thought his darkest thought. A nice touch too, was Rassilon’s line about here being where the unimportant people live. This really punctuated the difference between him and The Doctor, to whom everyone is important. Such shorthand worked well to characterise an entertaining but otherwise underused appearance.
The mid-story demise of The General was fun, if a little thrown in. Still, a pleasure to observe a live, male-to-female regeneration.
A significant gripe, for me, was the weight placed upon The Doctor’s four and a half billion year purgatory from last week. Sure, it took him a long time to punch his way through that wall. Sure, half the lifespan of the universe is quite a lot of time to sacrifice in the hopes of saving someone you love. In “reality”, though, The Doctor reset every few hours/days, coming to the same conclusions over and over, from scratch. He didn’t feel every second of those billions of years, he simply reset, remembering nothing each time. The weight of what he had done would have dawned on his last iteration, but he’d have only lived through the very last part of it. Still, Clara’s reaction was acted wonderfully, every bit of what she means to The Doctor understood in her weeping eyes.
Then, just as we saw in the finale to season seven, an unchanged TARDIS appeared and we were all treated to a great deal of emotion inside its 1963 interior. Creating a stark, bright environment in which to say what could (should?) have been farewell to Clara, Capaldi slipped effortlessly from the manic tones of Spike Milligan (that’s why I wrote it down) to the melancholy of William Hartnell’s final message to his granddaughter.
The mystery of The Hybrid concluded neatly, not a creature in itself but rather the power of The Doctor’s compassion for Clara. Missy, and indeed Ashildr after a great deal more time, proved wise enough to realise that it was The Doctor’s greatest strength that could, one day, risk the destruction of the Universe itself.
It’s arguably a shame, then, that Coleman’s character thread was left dangling. Upon returning to Nevada and an incongruously mundane, Lynchian welcome, perhaps wiping The Doctor’s memory of Clara proved to be a much more fitting, heart-breaking end to the story. Clara’s bravery and curiosity live on, while The Doctor is left with a naggingly incomplete memory and an emotive tune on his guitar.
Once again, the loss is all his.
HEAVEN SENT (S09_E11)
Rachel Talalay, I forgive you for Tank Girl. Between last year’s excellent two-part finale and this week’s efficient, hugely effective opening three minutes (as well as the brilliant fifty-two that followed) you’ve more than made up for past mistakes.
It almost feels like business as usual this season, but it’s still worth mentioning that Capaldi owned every inch of the screen, every second.
He’s the best Doctor, by the way.
There’s something very sad, and a little unhinged, in the way The Doctor continued to talk to Clara this week.
I’d like to believe part of the realisation Moffat had perhaps, that led to him writing an episode like this is that his version of the show and its forty-seven years prior, has never had an actor like Peter Capaldi. Not simply that, though. The show now exists in a world where a single episode can extend over fifty-five minutes, allowing its star to shine brighter than when given less than half that time (Classic Who was around twenty-three minutes each week). It’s an observation I made during The Inversion of the Zygons, this season becoming possibly the first to really use its format to the fullest.
There’s much praise to be given to Murray Gold, too. His score, flitting between the orchestral, sharply electronic and dirtily synthesised, somehow managed to actually sound the way my nostalgia towards 80s fantasy movies feels. It was always fitting, often beautiful.
By the end, subtlety overflowed into ham acting and a central conceit that fell somewhere between Groundhog Day and The Prestige. Fine by me.
If last week was an exercise in restraint, this was Moffat screwing it and hitting the button marked “EPIC.” The important difference between this and (my go-to example for misjudged scope over content) The Time of the Doctor is that the story being told here remained concise. While the importance of his escape may have got a little lost as the script drove home the unflinching power of The Doctor‘s persistence, the payoff to this parable concludes a bold, risky episode in a season defined by them. Not every risk has succeeded in the way this episode did, but who cares when the highs have been so lofty?
Loss is, as the memory of Clara stated, “the story of everybody.” The Doctor‘s escape from grief may have seemed overblown to some but may also resonate with anyone who has been unfortunate enough to experience loss, yet strong enough to overcome it.
FACE THE RAVEN (S09_E10)
OK, so here’s a week where I feel forced to ignore what I said above and talk spoilers. We should all, hopefully, be reading this post-broadcast and I’ll place a nice, big warning before I say anything too specific.
What started as a good, solid episode of Who ended as something much more worthy of discussion. Sure, the sets felt a little too “Harry Potter World” than perhaps they should but this was an interesting, self-contained idea that allowed its almost theatrical scope to grow.
Returning to our screens after last year’s Flatline, Rigsy has a mysterious tattoo on his neck that counts down every minute. An early reminder of how increasingly effective Clara has been in humanising this Doctor falters when there is simply no nice way of telling Rigsy he’s about to die.
A pleasingly Pertwee jacket and some traipsing around modern-day London (that reminded me of the Running Around Paris filler in City of Death) led us to an alien refugee camp hidden amongst the everyday. Having been reintroduced to Ashildr (an even more assured performance from Maisie Williams), now “Mayor” of the camp, we quickly understand why Moffat recently said that Clara had become a bit too much like the Doctor and that it would, eventually, catch up with her.
It’s here that I can no longer review spoiler-free, so strong is my desire to dissect how the episode played out. So please, run for the hills if you haven’t yet watched, and kindly return.
As soon as Clara attempts once again, in secret, to think and act like The Doctor it’s obvious things will not end well. Clara’s hubris, as perhaps it always would, proved her undoing. Clara’s (latest) death means something for having been preceded by a reminder of exactly how she has changed The Doctor, and exactly what she means to him.
This week’s final act gave us Capaldi at his most threatening with Coleman proving his perfect foil. As her fatal mistake dawns on Clara, Jenna Coleman conveyed her character’s bravery, grit and morality as her eyes widened, always suggesting emotion may get the better of her. Moments before, Capaldi’s Doctor briefly loses his mind; reversing every sentiment he expressed so powerfully two weeks ago. For me, this drove home just how much Clara means to him, that his moral centre can be tossed aside in order to suitably threaten whomever is responsible. As Capaldi’s eyes grow ever more pink, travelling from enraged to stern to proud, Clara says her goodbye beautifully. It’s a terrific scene in an otherwise solid episode, leaving a remorseful Ashildr and a vengeful Doctor. William’s performance goes full circle from unshakeable, adult leader back to chastised child.
As the TO BE CONTINUED smashes onto the screen, it’s clear we’re in for a treat of a remaining two episodes. Post credits, in an week that returned a few characters to their roots (the angrier Doctor, Ashildr the child and Clara the “Impossible Girl” saving her companion one lifetime at a time), Rigsy devolves back into the graffiti artist we met a year ago. Only this time, he’s adorned the abandoned TARDIS with a mural, a memorial.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Clara reappears in the finale for a few last tears. After all, there are still potentially multiple versions of her out there, all poised to save The Doctor. It’s down to him whether he chooses to save her, by leaving her the hell alone.
Perhaps Moffat realised, at last, that effective farewells don’t need 900 years of exile or grand romantic gestures. Great acting and genuine emotion will do just fine.
SLEEP NO MORE (S09_E09)
Where to begin. Many moons ago, the good ol’ BBC gave precious screen time to three young actors/writers named Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss; The League of Gentleman. The trio swiftly became the new faces of macabre, darker than dark comedy. Years later, Doctor Who returned to our screens and Gatiss wrote one of the best episodes of its first season; The Unquiet Dead. The truth is, while he’s excelled in Sherlock and given us one of the best elements of Who’s 50th Anniversary celebrations (the excellent An Adventure in Space and Time), only one other Gatiss episode has impressed me; last year’s Robots of Sherwood.
While Pemberton appeared in a little two-parter entitled Forest of the Dead/Silence in the Library (you may remember it?), he and Shearsmith parted ways with Gatiss, continuing to create their own darkly comic series Psychoville and, in more recent years, Inside No. 9. The latter, a delicious collection of thirty-minute shorts set inside a room, train carriage, apartment…all going by the number nine. Each week, the audience were treated to a fresh, cynical view on the world culminating in some unseen twist or unnerving sting in the tail. It is perhaps, then, no coincidence that the first appearance by Gatiss’ friend Shearsmith should fall within the ninth season of New Who, in its ninth episode and also share the same dismal view of the world.
While Sleep No More built to a truly terrific closing shot, passionately and horrifically delivering its final twist, very little of what had come before made any sense. Jumping straight into the “action” of this episode, carefully presented as found footage while Shearsmith’s central antagonist narrated, there were no opening titles this week. Marines were introduced with onscreen stats like Top Trump Cards, failing to help us invest in these transparently impermanent non-characters.
While some of the dialogue impressed, and our ability to view proceedings through the eyes of the crew (and Clara) was pleasingly explained, the pace and production felt off. Capaldi seemed uneasy staring directly into camera, when normally The Doctor would eagerly stare into Clara‘s eyes without looking away.
A sub-plot featuring an annoying, if sympathetic, genetically engineered “Grunt” soldier felt like wasted time while the rest of the story rushed through unconvincing leaps of logic towards a conclusion that simply didn’t make enough sense.
To me, this either felt like a writer bravely attempting something very different, or unwisely trying to match his former partners’ writing style for the hell of it. Sleep No More feels like Gatiss’ very own Inside No. 9 episode, casting that show’s star and reusing its structure but sitting uncomfortably inside television of a very different kind. Overambitious and illogical, this is Gatiss’ least impressive Who story from a mostly unimpressive bunch. It overcomplicates things in ways Inside No. 9 never has. This was, after such an impressive episode last week, by far the least I’ve enjoyed time spent with The Doctor in nearly two seasons.
THE INVERSION OF THE ZYGONS (S09_E08)
For years to come, arguments will rage over who is the “Best Doctor Ever”. An eight minute segment of the show will be mentioned, played as something of a trump card for Capaldi fans. To my mind, no previous Doctor has been gifted with the chance to shine quite so brightly as Peter Calpaldi did this week.
Recent incarnations have repeatedly alluded to the same weight upon their shoulders, all thanks to the Time War. Yet none have held the screen so heartbreakingly, or as relatably. The Classic Era gave us many defining moments for the character, but no twenty-three minute weekly segment could afford to hand over a third of its runtime to a rant, a plea this brilliantly written. Nor has any previous Doctor quite had the actorly dexterity to pull it off. Of course, Who of old (pre-2005) had no concept of a Time War to repeatedly pluck out of the hat in order to define its central character this tragically.
Here we are then, in the wake of this week’s remarkably adept slice of future Who lore, years of iterative introspection finally counted for something truly affecting. It’s a week that’ll be looked back upon for marking Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as one of the greats, if not The greatest study of what the character had the potential to be.
Or, y’know, not.
Some will scoff that it’s yet another attempt to deepen a template that did just fine for decades without self-consuming sacrifice and regret. For me, though, as even the fluffiest of TV finds itself increasing in sophistication alongside its modern audience, this week’s Who gave us the best version of its sometimes thin central theme. Expectations, along with the Zygons, were impressively inverted.
Elsewhere after a great, nightmarish opening that smartly undermining last week’s cliffhanger we find Bonnie (aka Evil Zygon Clara) with the upper hand. What did Jenna Coleman do whilst her co-star was busy stealing fifty-three years worth of show? She played her duel role perfectly. Reiterating Clara’s importance and capability, while Bonnie played things alluringly dark with Clara watching from the wings, injecting humanity into both the scene and her Zygon counterpart. Exploring the link between original and duplicate was also a great, fresh idea. A lovely splash of body horror provided perhaps the kind of images that can lastingly disturb a young mind or, worse, give it a taste for sci-fi. This was a week that gave us a confident romp in the vain of The Eleventh Hour, while deepening its central character in lasting ways.
THE INVASION OF THE ZYGONS (S09_E07)
This week we have something of a direct sequel to 2013’s 50th Anniversary Special.
Swiftly recapping the peace between human and Zygon, which all occurred off-camera, things deteriorate into a Nightmare Scenario and, it seems, our second (and last remaining) Osgood is in grave danger.
No time is wasted before kids are being carried off and the whole world is in peril! Compared to episodes 1-6, Zygons is a bit of a shock to the system. Things get perhaps a little uncomfortably topical with hostage videos that recall IS, Zygons referred to as Rebels, Splinter Groups and more than a few mentions of “radicalisation.” Perhaps most provocatively of all, a town in New Mexico has turned nastily against an influx of migrating Brits (basically the opposite of recent tabloid headlines). With duplicate parents stashing children in sacks, you may have guessed this is a bit of a dark week in Doctor Who Land.
The more serious tone, while not entirely devoid of humour, also saw a return of last season’s more contemptuous Doctor, nice to see him working, disrespectfully, with U.N.I.T. again.
Frequently adopting a grittier, handheld camera feel the episode managed to conjure up at least one piece of genuinely unpleasant atmosphere as U.N.I.T. soldiers find themselves faced with their own friends and family, or potential foes. That said, such a huge shift in tone did feel a little out of place at times. I’m not convinced Peter Harness is the best writer when it comes to structure, even his hugely enjoyable adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell felt rushed in places. Still, we’re teased with yet another ominous mention of “hybrids” this season and the final act bumps this episode up from a slightly awkward 3.5 to a 4. As the script gives us switcheroo after switcheroo, Jenna Coleman steps up with a surprisingly brilliant shift in performance.
While I’d like perhaps a tighter grip on story next week, I’m eager to see how Invasion turns to Inversion.
THE WOMAN WHO LIVED (S09_E06)
As soon as we were introduced to The Doctor and his Steampunk PKE Meter, we were reintroduced to Maisie Williams’ immortal Highwayperson, both of whom attempt to pilfer an object of great curiosity from a rich gent and his daughter. Quite how an Infinity Stone ended up here, I’ve no idea.
While Capaldi continues to evolve The Doctor into something more loveable and comedic (though it’s worth remembering that every episode this season has still contained a good, exasperated rant or two), this is Williams’ episode. Viewers perhaps disappointed by last week’s use of the Game of Thrones star surely won’t be now? She’s front and centre, on top form and gets to spar with some of the most lyrical dialogue we’ve heard since last year’s much maligned In The Forest of the Night. Centuries of confidence and experience have shaped Ashildr into a formidable character, but she still remains the girl we met at heart. Struggling to account for all she’s done in the past, this character is summed up beautiful with the line “That’s the trouble with an infinite life and a normal sized memory.”
With a much slower pace and sadder tone, this episode takes us on a regretful trip through history, punctuated by pain and loss. There are still moments of humour to be found however. I even enjoyed the silly, extremely literal gallows humour, even if it was horribly anachronistic in places. While the final act’s shift from period drama to scifi (recalling Marvel once again with a hole in the sky reminiscent of The Avenger’s battle in New York) was a little naff, this still proved an interesting, thoughtful episode. Less successful than last week’s juggling of the silly and the serious, there’s enough going on here to make it easy to forget these fifty minutes were almost an entirely Clara-Free-Zone.
As for the ending, we’re given a dash more foreshadowing as to Clara’s exit tinged with the promise of potentially more Maisie in the future. It’s hard to see how that would be a bad thing.
THE GIRL WHO DIED (S09_E05)
That’s more like it! After a funny, fluffily inconsequential opening sequence (and sadly no reprise of last week’s awesome Rock Theme) this episode started to feel very much like a sequel to season eight’s Robots of Sherwood. Introduced as we were to Vikings with the depth and level of hygiene you’d expect from Theme Park actors, surrounded by sunshine and hulking metal beasts. Had this continued, I’d have been a happy man for “Sherwood” became one of the episodes I’ve rewatched most over the past year. Instead, however, I’m writing with even greater enthusiasm for this is a story that has, at its halfway point, given me more chills than I ever expected during its final act.
No time is wasted before the excellent Maisie Williams is introduced, her importance stressed to the audience at every opportunity, and Odin appears, Mufasa-style in the clouds above. While David Scofield chews the scenery pleasingly, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more glorious his scenes could have been had Brian Blessed been well enough to take the role as planned.
Jenna Coleman channels Claudia Winkleman, nailing her comic delivery throughout, while Peter Capaldi continues to excel at both the whimsy and the darkness. His pronunciation of “doozy” reminded me, once again, of Tom Baker and his ability to elevate something potentially crass into a nugget of unlikely gravitas. A reprisal of “speaking Baby” even manages to inject something quite poignant and beautiful.
Clara and The Doctor’s relationship here seems bright, affectionate and healthier than ever. Which begs the question, since we know this is Coleman’s final season, what’s about to go wrong? The cracks of Clara’s disapproval are still evident, though the pride she takes in seeing The Doctor’s compassion shines through.
This is an episode that impresses most in that final act, as frivolity turns to consequence, kindness turns to regret. We’re treated to a final image that paints a thousand words of what could await us next week. Or maybe even beyond.
BEFORE THE FLOOD (S09_E04)
After an odd and arresting opening, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by how last week’s expertly set up story played out. From The Doctor talking directly to camera (asking the audience to Google the “Bootstrap Paradox”) to the brilliant guitar-led opening theme (which felt like an extension of Peter Davison and Colin Baker’s harsher toned versions of old) to O’Donnell’s string of Who Lore and geeking out, the episode sadly slackened in pace and felt light on quality dialogue.
More positively, the old school atmosphere introduced so well last week still prevailed. Paul Kaye is given actual lines, delivering a fun performance that felt like a combination between a rodent and Stewie Griffin. Alas, his is simply an extended cameo in an episode devoted to fulfilling the challenge of its opening concept.
As the story progressed, the tone evolved into something more solemn, inconsistently urgent and serious. The much publicised Fisher King was eventually revealed but ultimately proved forgettable. He lacked physical expression and the latex wobbled perhaps a bit too much before, much like Kaye, his screen time was over.
Things wrapped up perhaps too neatly and swiftly. The great advantage of this season’s abundance of two-parters is that it lets stories develop in greater detail, at a slower pace. Before The Flood however still managed to rush toward its conclusion, ending as it began, challenging the audience (and Clara) to unravel quite how The Doctor was able to solve this puzzle of his own creation. Both a playful nod to the kind of time travel tropes that have popped up in Doctor Who for years, but perhaps also displaying an overconfident self-belief in a well-worn concept.
Last week’s first part felt much better constructed, with its conclusion offering only one sequence of genuine invention. Cass’ terrifying ordeal, alone in the corridors of her underwater base while stalked by the ghost of its deceased Captain, brilliantly allowed us to hear danger a mile off while her deafness made her unable to sense just how much danger she was in. Until, of course, this most capable of characters fended for herself through an impressively directed sequence of ingenuity, bravery and intelligence. This was a memorable highlight in an otherwise average episode held together by likeable supporting players and Capaldi’s commanding presence.
Entertaining, confident but ultimately a let down after last week’s perfect understanding of what makes Who tick. Roll on the Vikings and Maisie Williams.
UNDER THE LAKE (S09_E03)
You could, were you feeling less charitable than I am right now, chalk this week’s Doctor Who up as a return to “business as usual”. The opening sets the scene (a craft is discovered and brought inside an underwater base, bad things happen) but offers nothing particularly memorable. As this week’s beasties claw towards the camera things are even a little disappointingly directed, miss-timed. Post opening titles, the sound of the TARDIS materialising somewhere within yet another maze of corridors feels familiar.
It soon dawns however, that all these well-worn tropes add up to something more than average. Sure, the characters here are largely clichéd archetypes (other than Sophie Leigh Stone’s impressive Cass -Ed), the setting is something we’ve seen a hundred times before but there’s a wit to the dialogue, a real understanding of pace and an abundance of actual detective work on display from The Doctor.
While this season continues to evolve Capaldi’s take on the character (mixing short tempered exasperation with genuine attempts to improve his people skills, occasionally via cue-cards), there’s a sense that more Tom Baker is creeping into his delivery and tone of voice. The less-than-patient brainstorming sessions with his newfound crew members reminded me of one of last season’s highlights aboard the Orient Express as The Doctor unravelled the mystery of the Mummy. It’s also worth noting that this is a very British episode, referencing the likes of Shirley Bassey and Peter Andre. The latter’s biggest hit song may not be familiar to the masses outside of the UK and, while I cannot in good conscience recommend you look it up, a quick Google will almost certainly have you understanding why The Doctor wished for a swift death.
Tiny moments of shaky exposition are, for me, perfectly forgivable in an episode that has all the trimmings of New Who while recreating the atmosphere of the Classic. Twiddly synth fills and gothic organ work bridge scenes just as they did forty years ago, to great effect.
While the final twist in part one of this tale may have felt predictable in the seconds before its reveal, Toby Whithouse has penned an episode superior to anything he’s brought to Who before and created a story I am very eager to see play out to its conclusion.
THE WITCH’S FAMILIAR (S09_E02)
MILD SPOILERS IN THIS ONE, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ANY PRODUCTION PHOTOS.
Last week I claimed this was a story that would succeed or fail as a whole, across both its halves. Now that we’ve seen this tale in full, it’s a two-parter to sit alongside Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and, potentially a slice of all-time classic Who.
After a fun, beautifully directed opening, showcasing (once again) Missy on great form, what follows is something extremely challenging to review without shouting quotable lines and major spoilers from the rooftops.
The pace is a huge ramp up from part one, the writing is full of invention and imagery that should live on in the same way as any classic monster or moment before it.
Michelle Gomez could well be, after relatively little screen time, my favourite Master. She’s impossible to take your eyes off as she continues to prance around, swap accents and never forget how to be deliciously evil when required. Or maybe just for fun.
The way we efficiently get under the (cold, metal) skin of Dalek kind is brilliant and while the extended screen time between Davros and the Doctor takes a while to get going, it arrives at a truly affecting destination. Toying with potential fan outrage at times, things culminate in a smart turnaround that feels true to character whilst also having shown us something new along the way.
This is an episode and story that builds and builds into, well, something of a rushed finale but still a very satisfying one. More loose ends than perhaps we’re used to are tied up, old foes are re-invigorated and by the virtue of a pointy stick it’s all considerably better than a poke in the blue, cybernetic eye.
THE MAGICIAN’S APPRENTICE (S09_E01)
It strikes me as quite a significant achievement, in this day and age, that a season of a show like Doctor Who can still manage to open with a surprise. Perhaps it’s because they’ve managed to keep things under wraps all year, or maybe they’ve simply been afforded enough distance between long-ago rumoured plot points and the air date that some fans (like me) have collectively forgotten quite what to expect. Either way, the pre-title sequence of season 9 provides not only a wonderful jump back into Baker era Who but a reveal that gave me chills. The spoilers were out there but somehow, against character, I managed to avoid them. I couldn’t be happier that I did.
What follows is the first half of a story that feels packed full of incident while, thankfully, never losing sight of the central idea that has already set this season up as something potentially fascinating. The theme of The Doctor and Arch Nemesis sparring conversationally is what holds this episode together as Clara (ever, endlessly capable), Missy (hilarious, nefarious) and the Daleks (all heavily teased in promotional material) seek out the Doctor as he, seemingly, prepares to atone for a particularly big regret.
Amongst the many nods to Classic Who, a new threat named Colony Sarff treats us to a handful of locales and creatures from more recent years. He’s a sneering, slitheringly well-designed antagonist on his own quest to find The Doctor, providing a couple of his own highlights in this great looking, neatly directed episode.
While these moments and that opening aren’t quite matched by the rest of this fun 50 minutes of TV, we get to sit back and enjoy a Time Lord full of life, good humour but also sadness, regret and anger. Capaldi is, of course, at ease with it all. By episode’s end I was thoroughly entertained, a little perplexed but desperate to see more. With perhaps one layer of “what the” too many at the very end, this is a story that’s started strong but will likely succeed or fail based on how well its second half plays out.
The stakes have rarely been higher and I find myself looking forward to next week more than perhaps any season opener has managed before.
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