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So! A new season of Doctor Who, then! I missed the first episode because I was in Bournemouth for Lib Dem Conference, and although I did catch up with it last Saturday (effectively watching both as a two-parter that evening), I haven't had time to write about them until now because I wanted to get conference written up first, and have then had a busy week.

I really liked these two episodes, though. I went into them with fairly low expectations, after a week of reading various comments around the internet to the effect that The Magician's Apprentice was not that great. So it may be that the low expectations in themselves helped me enjoy both episodes more than I might have done otherwise. But certainly, watched together, they seemed pretty strong to me.

The basic set-up and central drama, revisiting the Genesis of the Daleks dilemma by giving the Doctor the power of life and death over a being whom he knows will kill billions but right now is powerless and innocent, is sound enough and professionally handled. OK, you could argue it's a lazy re-hash of Doctor Who's back catalogue, but I liked the structuring principle which meant that we kept getting new takes on how the Doctor had actually responded to that dilemma right up until the end of the two-parter, even while the consequences (and causes) of his actions played out in another time-line.

The real star of this story for me, though, was Missy. Looking back at my reviews for the last two stories of last season, I didn't have terribly much to say about her beyond the gender-switch thing, but this story really let her blossom into a fully-developed character, so that she has officially become loads of fun. In particular, she is far more interesting here than she ever was in the last series for the ambiguity around whether she is temporarily collaborating with the Doctor and Clara purely out of expedience, or out of some kind of respect for her history with the Doctor. This really broadened her out from a fairly one-dimensional villain into a fully-fledged incarnation of the Master, whose relationship with the Doctor always was shot through with the ongoing reverberations of their childhood friendship / rivalry. As others have said, Michelle Gomez's performance very much rose to meet the new opportunities, replete with echoes of Masters past along the way. So I am now really looking forward to seeing more of her (and her gorgeous purple Victorian outfit!) in the future, and fervently hope that she will displace River Bloody Song as Doctor Who's resident mysterious recurring female character. I'm also looking forward to meeting her daughter (or son by this time, of course) - though in grand Whovian tradition, it could literally be decades before we do.

Missy wouldn't have worked anything like as well as she did, though, without Clara to play up against - and torment a bit. I thought Clara's side of the dynamic worked particularly well during their first encounter, when she was able to pin Missy down to business and stop her from randomly killing people because she could by insisting that Missy 'make [her] believe' that there really was something serious going on relating to the Doctor. That is the same self-assured, experienced Clara that she had grown into by the end of last season, and whom I like very much.

Clara's moments trapped within the Dalek shell, unable to communicate her human emotions and even frighteningly unable to convey her identity to the Doctor were excellent too. They were stronger for recalling the life of Oswin Oswald her fellow-inmates in Asylum of the Daleks, but would have been good anyway for giving us a new level of insight into the horror of what Daleks are - not to mention an explanation for why they shout 'exterminate' all the time! Fine achievements after over fifty years of them.

Then there were the scenes between the Doctor and Davros - also good, and for much the same reasons of ambiguity as those involving Missy. Probably Davros is just Evil, and tricked the Doctor into coming to Skaro so that he could harness his regeneration energy. And probably the Doctor, for all his compassion, knew full well that he could turn Davros' plans against him by activating the gloopy dead sewer-Daleks, so was never really in Davros' emotional grasp. But maybe, just maybe, on some level they do actually also like and respect one another. Certainly, it was compelling to see these two ancient enemies recognising each other for the two sides of the same coin they have always been, even if it was only a temporary and somewhat illusory truce.

In general, then, excellent character-led drama, with just enough new twists on the familiar staples of the format to make the story seem new. On the other hand, though, I could really have done without yet another fake companion death, and particularly one used so overtly as a fridging device to push the Doctor into doing (plot-necessary) crazy things in the Dalek city. And while I appreciate the attempt at representing racial diversity by putting black faces in the crowd in AD 1138, still in this story a black character (young Davros' companion in the hand-mine field) was the first person to die on screen yet again. Doesn't anybody explicitly double-check scripts for this, given how a) common and b) fucking racist it is?

Finally, two things in this episode reminded me strongly of The Fires of Pompeii - 1) the hand-mines with eyes in the palms of their hands, much like the Soothsayers of the Sibylline Sisterhood, and 2) the Doctor and Clara standing on a hill-side, watching the destruction of the Dalek city. This is what I mean on the latter point - the composition of the shots is never quite the same, but the general feeling is very, very similar:

Pompeii watching destruction.jpg

Dalek city destruction.jpg

So Caecilius in Fires of Pompeii and the Doctor in The Witch's Familiar have now stood in similar settings, watching cities being destroyed, while wearing the same face. And since the Doctor said himself at the beginning of last season that he must have been trying to tell himself something by choosing it, I feel like we should pay attention to that.

A few smaller, random thoughts to finish us off:
  • Missy's static planes reminded me really strongly of the various examples of planes caught mid-flight by Google mapping satellites.
  • Davros being referred to as a Dark Lord and being served by an intelligent snake all seemed very Harry Potter.
  • But there was also something very Darth Vader-ish about Davros having once been a round-faced little boy on a desert planet, becoming dependent on a life-support system later in his life, and wanting to see the Doctor with his own eyes in his final moments.
  • Davros' supposedly-dying speech rang some strong Augustan bells for me. Compare and contrast: "Did I do right? Tell me, was I right? I need to know before the end - was I a good man?" and "Did I play my part well in this comedy called life?" It is classic Great Man / Strong Leader stuff - the iconic historical agent with power over millions revealing his inner humanity just before the end.
  • There was a strong set-up for a scene in which the Doctor would have to pull the Dalek wires out of Clara's head, causing her significant pain in the cause of restoring her humanity, but in the end we didn't get it, and skipped straight to her being fine and running along a corridor again. Looks like shoddy editing, I would guess because the story as initially planned turned out to over-run.

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( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 3rd, 2015 08:35 am (UTC)
'Gloopy dead sewer daleks'? they sound like fun....
Oct. 3rd, 2015 04:59 pm (UTC)
Oh, they were! Basically living brown slime which came alive, crawled up out of the sewers, and destroyed everything it touched. Proper B-Movie horror stuff. :-)
Oct. 3rd, 2015 11:13 am (UTC)
It did feel a bit re-hashed to me, but I agree that Missy stole the show.

Regarding the apparently cut scene, you're probably right, but I wonder if its omission might hint at some part of Clara's story-arc that we'll return to.
Oct. 3rd, 2015 05:05 pm (UTC)
It would be interesting if there is something to return to about it. It reminded me rather of the dream-crabs we saw at Christmas, which also drilled into people's temples. We never did see the injuries Clara's crab left behind after it had been removed, and now here's the same thing happening with the Dalek. Hmmm!
Oct. 3rd, 2015 12:06 pm (UTC)

I didn't hate it.

The low expectations helped.

Oct. 3rd, 2015 05:06 pm (UTC)
They do tend to! I thought I might not be too bothered by this season of Doctor Who, which hasn't happened for a long time - but I'm quite into it again now.
Oct. 5th, 2015 09:46 am (UTC)
Yes, me too.

It helps a lot that the Captain has started watching it with me and seems very enthusiastic. That's making the difference.

I'm also finding it helpful that Moffat doesn't appear to be attempting any long and winding over-arching story arcs. So far just a series of two-parters which are allowing plenty of room for decent characters in each individual story and for some Doctor / Clara stuff. I even find I'm not hating Clara.

But, sadly, it does also help that I'm not expecting any thing that Moffat does to make any sort of sense or be satisfactory as piece of story-telling or a piece of science fiction. I have no hopes left to be dashed.
Oct. 5th, 2015 08:11 pm (UTC)
Yes, you're right that concentrating on each two-parter in its own right, without the frustration of a longer arc that is crow-barred awkwardly into each story and will probably only disappoint in the end, is a definite improvement! It's certainly nice to be pleasantly surprised for the time being.

I'm glad to hear the Captain is enjoying it all too. I sometimes worry that New Who has become rather too complex and scary for small children to enjoy in the way that we enjoyed the Classic series as kids, but I'm glad those things aren't insurmountable barriers for him at least. I imagine Under the Lake was pretty much on the edge of what a child his age can handle, though. Has he seen that one yet, or are you keeping it off his radar?
Oct. 12th, 2015 01:55 pm (UTC)
We watched it on catch up.

Earlier I was in the habit of watching the episode (usually live) and then, if I thought he'd enjoy it / understand it / not be too, too scared by it we'd watch it on catch up. This worked well when Moffat was attempting more complex story arcs as I got to watch the show twice.

Now he's five we're now watching it together mostly and that depends on what mood I'm in and how the timings work out around bedtime and Strictly and so on.

He's actually pretty unflappable. He was busy telling me during the first part the Lake two parter than he wasn't scared because there were no such thing as Go-Hosts and the Doctor couldn't be a Go-Host because they don't exist, so he was okay. Was I okay?

So he's alright, but I'm not sure how his P1 class mates would have coped.

The simple two-parter structure makes it easier to watch with him because I'm not trying to explain longer, more complex stories which a) don't often hang together and b) which I have little confidence will be successfully resolved.

It's the nub of an argument I keep having with a mate of mine about Moffat. He points out that Doctor Who is essentially a children's programme so it doesn't have to have a logical narrative. My response is that is actually a family programme, so it needs to satisfy both adults and children and, in my experience, children are less likely to brush over huge narrative inconsistencies (in story telling or politics) and that learning to shrug one's shoulders and ignore internally inconsistent nonsense is a learned skill. And one I do not want S Moffat to be teaching the Captain right now.
Oct. 12th, 2015 07:04 pm (UTC)
Bless him, asking if you were okay! :-)

And I think you're quite right that it does children a disservice to assume they're oblivious to plot holes. From my experience with my niece (four years old), she's working very hard to understand what she's seeing all through any on-screen story, and is very ready to ask all the questions she needs to make sense of it. Sometimes, she's just confused because she isn't yet familiar with narrative conventions (e.g. she really struggled with flash-backs in the last film we watched together), but sometimes her questions are absolutely spot-on.
Oct. 13th, 2015 01:05 pm (UTC)
I've found both of my children pretty logical about stories. Maybe other children are less fastidious but I don't get that impression.

They were both (at this age) quite happy to accept any set up so long as the story logically flowed from the set up and what they knew about the world. For example, I accidentally persuaded my daughter that I was once turned in to a wtermelon by an Australian wizard. She now tells the Captain to be very sceptical of "Daddies Jokes and Stories, that are Not Real."

The question asking is fun but often I find with the Captain that he asks so many questions that I have no idea what is going on.

What the Captain is finding hardest at the moment is shades of grey in morality. Goodies are goodies and do good things and baddiesare baddiesand do bad things (and badies are usually baddiesbecause their parents didn't love them enough - one of my two stock grundnorms - the other being hydrogen bonds). So he copes well with e.g. the Daleks because they are clearly baddies doing bad things but more ambiguous or conflicted characters are harder to for him to get his head around.

Yeah, flashbacks. I've had some fun with those.
Oct. 3rd, 2015 12:23 pm (UTC)

I didn't hate it.

The low expectations helped.

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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