Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Series Nine


The Magician's Apprentice written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie Macdonald

Result: Impressive moments scattered around a terribly indulgent episode, The Magician's Apprentice is possibly the ultimate expression of all of Moffat's strengths and weaknesses as a writer of Doctor Who. Huge creative ideas, individual scenes that take your breath away, a vivid Doctor and villain and moments that make you scream 'why didn't they do that before?' (especially the twist in the pre-titles sequence). Countering that you have some over generous humour (that pointless medieval sequence), few concessions to a non-fan audience (perhaps justifying the appalling overnight rating) and an episode that schizophrenically shifts tone and pace with alarming inconsistency. Moffat is one of the most fascinating writers to have ever written for the show, capable of refining what this show is all about with absolute clarity and delivering it to perfection but also capable of taking the show to places that where it cannot sustain itself and filling episodes with some of the most appalling scenes and blandest characters imaginable. He reminds me of Chris Carter over at The X-Files, both the best and the worst writer of the show he is writing for. Essentially what you have with The Magician's Apprentice is a morality tale about whether Doctor could kill Davros as a child - a bold way to open the season. The trouble is that this is only dealt with for about fifteen minutes and the slack is taken up with some of the most indulgent padding imaginable bringing our heroes (and anti-heroes) together. The plot kicks in around the 30 minute mark...and that should never be the case. This might be the first of the two parters this year but that doesn't mean you should waste the extra time that you have and still have to rush things. I don't want to be too critical though, especially when Hettie MacDonald is on board to paper over most of the cracks with her avant garde direction. She makes Missy's introduction in the square palatable despite the fact that it is completely unnecessary and if it does have some horribly unfunny moments there is a energy to the medieval scenes. However she does her best work on Skaro, giving the actors appropriate exposure and letting Capaldi, Bleach and Gomez flaunt their talents. There is certainly a confidence to how this story is presented and the second episode promises to be a fine companion piece to Genesis of the Daleks. Who would have ever thought that would come to be. The Magician's Apprentice is basically Attack of the Cybermen all over again; the opener of a season comprised of 45 minute two part stories, loaded with continuity and a little distracted in it's first episode, albeit with some tasty moments. Let's see if it dive-bombs in episode two in the same way. We're almost back where we were in the eighties, the show being made for fans: 7/10

Full Review Here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-magicians-apprentice-written-by.html

The Witch's Familiar written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie Macdonald

Result: Proper old school Who done to perfection. I don't know what the wider audience will think of The Witch's Familiar but I cannot imagine a long term fan of the show not getting a great deal of satisfaction from this smart and emotional slice of classic Who. For Moffat, it is his finest stab at an episode since the anniversary, perhaps since the beginning of the Matt Smith era. I'm not blind to the talents of Hettie Macdonald's efforts, she does a lot to make the script look as impressive as possible, delivering some awesome set pieces and dialogue scenes that literally had me holding my breath. In stark contrast to last week this is a story that barely wastes a moment and plays games with the audience throughout. Clara is the only character that fails to make much of an impression but with the vivid completion of Capaldi's Doctor, a sexy and sassy Master and Davros playing mind games I am not at all surprised. And between her appalling mistreatment by Missy and her nightmare inside the Dalek casing, Moffat tortures her enough to make up for any blandest in her characterisation. I can't remember the last time I spent this much time discussing the characters in a Moffat script rather than the ideas, for once he scales back on trying to write a huge sprawling epic and focuses on the people involved and the result is an intense, disquieting and moving piece of work. The scenes between the Doctor and Davros are exactly the sort of thing I thought we would be getting on a regular basis when he took over as showrunner and it's a shame it has taken four series to get there. But now we are...more please. Don't get me wrong there is the usual Moffat trickery in here where pretty much everything is a con but on this occasion that is precisely why this all works so well...because the performances are so powerful you can believe what you are being told only to have that turning point in these characters lives snatched away. It's an extraordinary sleight of hand. Looking at the two part story as a whole I think this is overstuffed, particularly in the first episode (although the pre-titles sequences here was just as pointless) and it would have made a near-perfect 60 minute story had we reached Skaro a lot sooner. Most of the second episode is extraordinary though, and for the conclusion to top the set up is the rarest of things in any show. 8/10 for the whole piece but top notch marks for the concluding part: 9/10




Under the Lake written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O'Hara

Result: Derivative, but pacy and full of mysteries and realised within an inch of it's life. Whilst I was watching Under the Lake I was fully aware that we had seen all of this done before (the recipe is basically every base under siege story ever told with extra lashings of The Impossible Planet, The Waters of Mars and Cold War) but that didn't stop me enjoying what was essentially a firm meat and potatoes slice of Doctor Who that doesn't really put a foot wrong in its realisation. Simon made me realise something whilst we were watching together - this is essentially an extremely long winded way of putting across a piece of information that could have been dealt with in the pre-titles sequence (that the ghosts are a distress call for whatever is trapped on the sea bed) but the extra time allows us to build up some atmosphere, get to know the crew, let Capaldi do his thing and enjoy some spooky moments. Us Doctor Who fans like nothing more than a lot of exciting running around, a few mysteries and a good, creepy cliffhanger. What Under the Lake has in spades is a great deal of potential to wind up being a hugely satisfying two part story, all the elements are in place for the second episode to deliver a massive punch. More than ever since the show returned to our screens in 2005 the show is being made for it's fans, which is why you can hear the cry of delight from that quarter whilst the viewing figures from the abandoning audience at large are at an all time low. Whithouse's strongest? Let's wait until next weeks episode to determine that (the trailer looks awesome, it reminded me of the outstanding Doctor Who novel City of the Dead in some ways) but at the moment it sits way above The Vampires of Venice and but below School Reunion (which still makes me cry), The God Complex (which is one of my favourites from series six) and A Town Called Mercy (despite its reputation I still love it). What all these episodes prove is that Whithouse is an extremely versatile writer within the Doctor Who format and is foremost in my mind as a possibility for showrunner. His understanding of nuts and bolts Doctor Who with a little extra spice in Under the Lake is another notch on his belt: 7/10


Before the Flood written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O'Hara

Result: Too much blabber, not enough bollocks. A portent of the Doctor's death that leads to a discussion of him accepting the inevitable...haven't we been here before? Wouldn't it have been more dramatic to have made Clara the ghost given this episode was released around the time of the news that Jenna Coleman is leaving the show? I can sit and watch Peter Capaldi agonise over the fate of the Doctor until I petrify but if it turns out that the Doctor was the architect of this personal quandary in the first place it leaves the emotional core of the episode hollow. The sin that this episode commits is that it becomes more about the mechanics of the plot than the emotions of the characters within it. That means the plot has to be intricate and smart, not over explanatory, swindling and centred around a concept that cannot deliver a satisfactory conclusion. The bootstrap paradox by it's very nature leaves us questioning when the solution of this plot was set in motion. Aside from one death that is mildly affecting, everybody walks away from this episode unscathed and the plot ties itself up a little too tidily. My main reaction was after all the budding potential of Under the Lake was 'is that it?' And that's a shame because there are plenty of peripheral elements that do work within Before the Flood. The guest cast acquit themselves beautifully (although they are given less time to impress this week), the faux-Russian setting is original and visually stunning, the impact of the destruction of the Dam can be felt through the screen it is delivered with such drama and Capaldi once again proves that he has the nuts to be the finest Doctor since the show returned. And the ghosts continue to be a gloriously frightening prospect, even if their presence is never adequately explained. But it's all for nought if the they are hung on a narrative that sags and boughs and refuses to hold those elements aloft. This could have been a rule breaker but instead it refuses to take any real risks. Like the Davros two parter, this could easily be a gripping one hour show and with some tinkering with the latter half be a much more mesmerizing experience. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather have this story told with too much time rather than too little but the length is still not quite right. As a whole, it's okay but I was expecting a lot more. As an individual episode, Before the Flood scores points for atmosphere and individual moments but concludes this story in a limp fashion: I honestly cannot choose between 5/10 or 6/10 so you can make up your mind for me...


The Girl Who Died written by Jamie Mathieson & Steven Moffat and directed by Ed Bazalgette

Result: I haven't supped down on a crisp and sweet glass of lemonade in a while when it comes to Doctor Who, it's been all full bodied wines and black coffee. Actually with all the thigh slapping, sweat and cheering going on I guess this is more like a glass of frosty beer, straight from the fridge. For the first time ever I watched an episode with a friend, 12 hours flight time away and 9 hours apart and I'm really pleased that it was this episode because more than any other this season The Girl Who Died is the kind of sunny and witty piece of fluff where it is better to share the laughter. Our consensus was that it was the most enjoyable the series had been for some time. The new series of Doctor Who has taken on a bit of a Friends approach, where you can sum it up with a casual description. This was the one with the Vikings and robots. To describe it like that is to do the script a disservice though, which throws in some interesting curveballs and remains unpredictable and entertaining throughout. It's not often that I don't have a clue where a story is heading for it's entire length. The mood shifts in the flash of a rapier too, from comedy to drama and back again, exuding the sort of confidence I don't often see on television these days. Interesting that by ejecting all the timey wimey clever cleverness from the series for one week allows for more time for the show to breathe, for the people to come to life and for the Doctor and Clara to engage in real conversation. Factually inaccurate they may be but the Vikings were a likeable bunch and I genuinely cared about their fate. I really like the nature of this episode as well, a one part adventure with consequences that spill off into another individual piece next week. When Steven Moffat said he was going to mess about with the nature of the two part story he wasn't kidding. Some of the elements didn't come off; the Doctor's plan is genuinely naff and the chief villain of the piece is so forgettable I don't think I will remember him beyond the length of this sentence and the CGI snake isn't a patch on the one we witnessed a few episodes back. But The Girl Who Died rises above those problems by remaining so damn sunny throughout, putting a great big smile on my face and giving me moments to consider too. There's nothing quite like it in Doctor Who, which is something of a rarity these days and for that alone it should be celebrated. Especially the Benny Hill sequence. The bulk of this episode deserves a solid 7/10 but thanks to the additional weight of the last ten minutes: 8/10


The Woman Who Lived written by Catherine Treganna and directed by Ed Bazalgette

Result: 'You know what they say, big nose...' '...big handkerchief!' Noel Coward, eat your heart out. It's an observation that has been made before by myself and others - Doctor Who can survive anything (even being totally crud to the point of b-movie entertainment) but being boring. Even In the Forest of the Night wasn't dull, even if it was frequently excretal to the point of Simon and I reaching for the pause button to let off another string of expletives. And to be honest Doctor Who by it's very nature of shifting moods and genres, countless settings and times and transferable guest characters, monsters and villains is one of the few shows that rarely settles down for long enough to become dreary. So when I spend an entire episode wondering when it is going to move into first gear, I am genuinely surprised. I can see the intention of what is being attempted here, capturing the tragedy and horror of immortality in a child but something fell way short of that in the execution. Thanks to a half-arsed science fiction plot that might just count as the least substantial since the show returned in 2005, it is clear that Catherine Treganna has much more interest in writing a character piece than a Doctor Who story. What baffles me is why she didn't stick to her guns and jettison the pointless alien threat and do just that, write the equivalent of a romantic novel about a girl trapped in amber whilst time moves all around her and truly engage with the heartbreak of that theme. I'm not sure that I would find it any more appealing (because there are also huge performance and direction problems within the sequences that give Ashildr focus) but at least it would be a less schizophrenic and awkward piece. Heartless comedy in one direction, ponderous musings on the nature of an eternal life in another with the faint whiff of science fantasy drifting in under your nose, that's the essentials of The Woman Who Lived. Confident direction might have papered over some cracks but instead the inconsistent tone and uncomfortable comedy is compounded by a director who cannot bring together so many tonally jarring and disparate elements into a coherent whole. The biggest shock for me was Maisie Williams, her inability to convince in the titular role was the greatest barrier to the episodes success. Occasionally making me feel something but more often giving the impression of a child trying to play an adult, I was struck (like slap to the jaw with a wet fish) at how little chemistry she shared with Peter Capaldi. They are both strong performers so technically this should have been a recipe for gold but for the most part it felt as though they were acting against stand-ins because they couldn't both be there at the same time, when clearly that wasn't the case. The extended dialogue scenes might be well written (if sporadically a little florid) but with actors that mix like oil and water they do not play out at all smoothly. And with no atmosphere to them they fall horribly flat. Like I said, I was bored. And that was before reaching the appalling conclusion at the stocks with some crass jokes and a blink an you'll miss it attack by aliens. The rarest of things, a Doctor Who story where practically nothing worked for me at all. It's trying to be emotional but the approach is more intellectual, which doesn't surprise me in this era. Most damning of all, this was so vanilla that the appearance of Clara at the climax actually raised the quality of the piece. Utopia summed up everything this episode is trying to say in a five minute two hander between the Doctor and Jack except it was better written, better performed and far more assured. I defy you to find something new this has to say on the theme of immortality. Even Ashildr's new role as the clean up agent after the Doctor is essentially what Jack and Sarah Jane were doing in their respective series for years: 3/10


The Zygon Invasion written by Peter Harness and directed by Daniel Nettheim

Result: Considering the allegory, this lacks urgency and anger and comes across as a half-hearted attempt to make a comment on extremism and immigration. It's occasionally daring in it's hard hitting dialogue but that is never backed up by actions in the script. But what it lacks in gripping political comment it makes up for in entertainment with some nice twists, the delightful return of Osgood (with a built in excuse for her appearance) and some pleasingly scary moments. With it's location hopping and tense action there were moments when this episode reminded me of Homeland and Alias and I mean that as a compliment. It's not a comment that I could make about any other episode so the director certainly generated enough of an authentic international feel. Some of the location work has been extraordinary this year and this episode is no different in that regard. Mind you, the globetrotting does mean that we are not really connecting with this story in an emotional way. The myriad of locations and characters means that we aren't allowed to spend much time with or get close to anybody actually caught up in this struggle on either side and so there is a personal distance between the situation and the audience. But that has often been a problem with Moffat Who and I would rather take the exotic locales if it is going to be quite a inexpressive ride anyway. It starts brilliantly but loses steam before the end and climaxes on a cartoonish cliffhanger that fights the more mature tone it seems to want to engage with. The Zygons are an interesting race but this inverted invasion doesn't really have anything much to say about them beyond their terrorising ability to mimic human beings. I'm hoping for a little more detail about the race in the next episode otherwise the new series has plucked them from classic Who without giving them any kind of modernization. There's a lot I would have done differently (that old chestnut) but it's trying to do something a bit different to the usual alien invasion story (like the Silurians they're already among us) and as set up for a potentially inflammatory second part it certainly provides enough that is different to keep me interested: 6/10


The Zygon Inversion written by Peter Harness & Steven Moffat and directed by Daniel Nettheim

Result: Each Doctor has a scene where they give a performance so raw and mesmerising that it is possible that every other scene during their tenure can be judged by. For Eccleston it was his agonised turn as the war-torn Doctor in Dalek, Tennant arguably delivered his most astonishing work when pushed out of his comfort zone (Human Nature, Midnight and The Waters of Mars), Matt Smith dazzled in the quietly intimate Vincent and the Doctor and John Hurt sparkled throughout Day of the Doctor (I'm frightened at the thought of how good he would have been long term). Now Peter Capaldi has been handed what is essentially a star vehicle in The Zygon Inversion, a ten-minute monologue on the pointlessness of conflict and the need to talk that stripped away all the irritating quirks that have been bolstered on to his character this year and allowed the actor to captivate the audience in the way that only he knows how. It's quite simply astonishing. So astonishing that it rises head and shoulders above much of what the rest of the episode is doing and provides a hugely memorable climax to the piece. Capaldi is so convincing that he hands the story an ending where absolutely nothing happens...and it is all the more powerful for it. Climaxing a potentially catastrophic conflict on an intimate moment of drama is a risky business (Simon was expecting something much more showy and despite the performances couldn't help but feel let down) but for me it pays off in spades here. Which is good because this turns out to be one of the least effective invasions (remember the title of the previous episode) the show has ever presented but I guess they are admitting that ultimately this is nothing of the sort with the title. It's more The Zygon Co-habitation, although I guess that doesn't quite have the same gumption. The Zygons, whilst visually captivating, turn out to be some of the worst tacticians the world has ever seen. There are so many ways they could have caused disruption and devastation on a massive scale aside from searching for the Osgood box that I have to question whether Bonnie was genuinely invested in the idea in the first place. Davies used to stage invasions on an epic scale with flair and colour, this is a much quieter, less showy affair which for much of this episodes running time made me wonder what all the fuss was about. It's the blink and you'll miss it invasion featuring monsters that change their mind at the last minute and achieve very little. And yet within this whispered conflict there are some lovely, subtle touches and visuals and the comment that utopia never lasts forever and somebody will always come along and destroy the vision that you have fought so hard for is so achingly profound I was astonished that I had never had the point elucidated on television before with quite such clarity. What is war really for when nothing last forever? When there will always be another despot unhappy with the status quo. Why not sit down and talk instead of fighting when fighting is ultimately fruitless? A very worthy message, beautifully put across. Invasion/Inversion might just be my favourite of the year so far because despite the fact that the story as a whole is a series of missed opportunities it got me thinking and discussing the show in a brand new way. And that really excites me. What it didn't do got me thinking about a direction the show could take with a braver production team. It sounds like a backhanded compliments to say where this episode failed thrills me and maybe it is. But the fact that it took a risk (even if it didn't push it far enough) planted a real seed of interest. A fresh and original approach that doesn't quite work is still a fresh and original approach. It could be tighter with stronger characterisation and stronger in it's sentiment but it is a stepping stone to a new type of new Doctor Who - one with a political agenda and driven by anger. This is an episode that provokes discussion and gives people, fans and non fans a like, a something inflammatory to talk about and that can only be a good thing, whether you agree with its politics and the conclusions it draws or not. That and the extraordinary ten minute performance-piece from Capaldi is more than enough to weigh against the episodes flaws and deliver a confident: 8/10


Sleep No More written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Justin Molotnikov


Result: Is it better to try something bold and experimental and fail or to churn out the same old guff that you know you have a chance of getting right? Before watching Sleep Mo More I probably would have gone for the former (indeed The Zygon Inversion was an attempt at something different that only went partway towards succeeding in it's goal) but now I'm starting to wonder if I have had it wrong. Over the past two years it has been the two episodes that pushed the envelope the most that have impressed me the least; In the Forest of the Night and Sleep No More. Gatiss' approach baffles me because he has taken what is essentially a simple story and butchered it with a found footage narrative device and turned it into a frustrating puzzle piece that bewilders and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth when you realise the reality of the nature of the episode. He's forgotten to include characters that might make this a worthwhile experience. He's neglected to include one line of dialogue that might engage with this viewer and bring the shaky premise to life with some significance. I'm a massive fan of the found footage horror genre (when a new movie comes out to employ this technique my friend Kate and I get terribly excited) and was extremely turned on by the premise (as I'm sure Steven Moffat was) and I am baffled how something with so much potential can turn out to be so vacant and devoid of interest. Losing the title sequence and music sounds like a good idea in theory but perhaps I am more of a traditionalist than I previously thought because it felt like a lesser piece for their absence. Sleep No More wants to hit you with a wham bang twist ending but it just leaves you scratching your head and feeling thick as shit as if you've missed something that was never there in the first place. It would be like an Agatha Christie novel climaxing with the reveal of a murderer that hasn't been mentioned or alluded to throughout. I like the idea of the bad guys winning for a change but pulling the rug from under the audience in such a deceptive way is inexcusable. Sleep No More should have been all atmosphere, it should have pushed the horror content of the show to its limit, it should have taken hold of a tired format and revolutionised it in a way only Doctor Who can. It should have been brave. I seem to be saying that a lot this year. Before the Flood could have been tragic, The Woman Who Lived could have been heartbreaking, The Zygon two parter could have been much more daring in it's handling of it's politically inflammatory content and Sleep No More could have been absolutely terrifying. Braver decisions are needed. This is a show that is losing its pulse. Let's not turn this into the season that could have been. Unbelievably almost completely devoid of engaging material, an astonishing admission given the head start this episode had. If this review is full of hyperbole that is because frankly because getting het up about how dull this was is just about the most interesting thing you can say about it. I can't say I wasn't warned not to watch: 2/10

4 comments:

Ed Azad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick said...

In response to Ed, stop watching it then.

Vane said...

I happen to agree with Ed (and with Joe). And why should people who doesn't like the actual state of affairs in their favourite programme should stop watching?

Dean Anthony said...

A ver ordinary episode. Very derivative. We've been here before. Already done that. Characters that mean little and are not cared about. The new series with its large budget and modern technical effects so often falls below the quality of the classic series.