- Doctor Who
“Never start with your final sanction”, says Clara in Series 8 opener Deep Breath. “You’ve got nowhere to go.”
Doctor Who has made a habit of nearly always starting with its final sanction. The Doctor’s dying. It’s his darkest hour. Again. Like it has been, on and off, since he looked like Matt Smith. This time though he’s leaving behind a Confession Dial – a last will and testament – that may, or may not, have something to do with the fact that he once abandoned a helpless child on the battlefield of Dalek homeworld Skaro. A helpless child called Davros.
The two part series opener sets itself up as both a prequel and a sequel of sorts to 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, which is generally considered to be one of the best Doctor Who stories of the old series, and introduced Dalek creator Davros. There’s even a clip of it in the show, which an old, dying Davros uses to taunt Peter Capaldi’s Doctor’s cruelty towards his younger self and parrot back to him his dilemma from that episode: if you could kill an evil dictator in their childhood, would you? It’s a neat premise, but it takes a while to get there.
It all looks brilliant, with Skaro being a particular highlight. The mud-slicked ‘handmines’ are a brilliant, typically Moffat-y creation, and eerily recall both Pan’s Labyrinth and horrors of the First World War. The newly rebuilt Dalek city, on the other hand, is an exercise in revisiting the show’s 60s sci-fi roots. Speaking of Daleks, we learn more about them than we have for years in Missy’s slightly torturous demonstration of their controls to Clara. ‘Feelings trigger the gun’ sums them up pretty well, and lends a much more tragic edge to their tale.
There’s a lot of effort spent getting characters into the right place. As ever, the psychotic Missy has survived implausibly and is holding the world to ransom with an unnecessarily complex scheme just so she can get UNIT to bring Clara over for a chat. It’s a bit too knowing, this sequence, but it’s worth it for Michelle Gomez’s brilliantly mercurial performance. She’s hilarious and terrifying in every scene she’s in.
Clara and Missy find the Doctor in some unimportant corner of history, teaching peasants the word ‘dude’ and playing rock music atop a tank, which is one of those moments where you’re extra glad that it’s guitarist Peter Capaldi who’s the Doctor now, and not Sylvester ‘I can play the spoons’ McCoy. It all strays a bit too close to cringe, but Capaldi saves it with a renewed warmth and vulnerability to his Doctor. It’s a softer side to the Timelord that survives even through the cliffhanger ending that sees Missy and Clara seemingly obliterated on Skaro (inevitably, they survive), and generally the Doctor is a whole lot more likeable than he was in Series 8. Funnier, too: his entrance in Davros’s stolen wheelchair in the second episode is hilarious. ‘Admit it – you’ve all had this exact same nightmare.’ As solid as the stories in the last series were, the acerbic 12th Doctor and the increasingly conflicted Clara weren’t always that fun to travel with. These first two episodes suggest that this hopefully won’t be a problem in 2015.
It takes The Witch’s Familiar to justify some of the excesses of The Magician’s Apprentice – they work much better together than they do on their own and I’m glad I waited until I’d seen both before reviewing. The first episode’s service to a 2 and half hour TV serial from the 1970s that most of the audience will never have seen came at the cost of acknowledging the series’s most recent history. Not only does death have no meaning for Missy, but Clara has gone back to teaching in Coal Hill and is fine about her boyfriend dying now. The Doctor, having decided not to let time with Clara slip away in Last Christmas, has abandoned her again. Whilst it was nice to see Karn, the Maldovarium and The Shadow Proclamation again, these fan moments felt like distractions to the big questions about these characters that, thankfully, started to arrive in Episode 2. The flashback explanation for Missy’s survival is a brilliant device, and we get some bonus Hartnell and Baker moments too as well as a reinforced sense of shared history between the Master and the Doctor.
The pairing of Missy and Clara as a sort of twisted Tardis B Team is brilliant, and half the fun is waiting for Michelle Gomez’s impossibly likeable villain to inevitably turn on Clara. As she seals Clara inside a Dalek casing as a ploy to infiltrating their stronghold, there’s a real sense of claustrophobia and dread that the Time Lady can’t be trusted – which of course, proves right by the end of the episode. Trying to get the Doctor to kill the still disguised Clara himself is something so Machiavellian that it’s the perfect scheme for the Master.
The Doctor gets an unlikely assistant himself too, as Davros gives him the puppy dog eye and briefly convinces the hapless Time Lord to part with some of his brand new regenerative energy to keep him alive for one more sunset. It’s great to see these two age-old adversaries talking again, not least because it gives Capaldi even more room to help define his Doctor. ‘I came because you asked.’ says it all. Julian Bleach does an incredible job as Davros beneath the prosthetics, and even manages to steer the moment of improbable laughter between Davros and the Doctor just clear of the ridiculous zone.
Of course, it was all a trap, and the Daleks start to steal the Doctor’s healing powers courtesy of creepy CGI snake man, Colony Sarff. But in typical Moffat style, the Doctor had laid his own trap – and the revitalised living dead Dalek sludge in the catacombs beneath the Skaro city ooze up and devour their younger selves. It’s one of a few moments that only makes sense because the plot requires it to. For instance, it does seem odd that Missy, after bringing the world to the edge of destruction (and, worse, killing poor Osgood – although I’m placing my bet right now that she survived using the same teleport trick from this episode), is suddenly the Doctor’s best friend in the Universe again. He was furious with her at the end of Series 8. Even if he’d forgiven her, it’s still been over a thousand years since they had a conversation that didn’t revolve around not dying. Wouldn’t they have just lost touch?
The Doctor realises that his earlier decision to abandon the young Davros was wrong, and returns to save him and embed the idea of mercy in his – and therefore, the Daleks – consciousness, which is the clue that allows him to realise Clara is hidden in a Dalek and save her life. It’s a convoluted way to get a cliffhanger in between the episodes where it looks like the Doctor might vaporise the child Davros, but it’s a neat resolution. For once, Doctor Who starts with its final sanction, but still manages to find somewhere else to go, and it’s totally in keeping with the emerging Doctor that Capaldi is building: ruthlessly kind.
In amongst all this, there’s plenty of questions being asked that we hopefully will build across the series. How will Missy survive? What became of her daughter? What’s the Doctor’s confession? Why did he leave Gallifrey? What is the legend of the Time Lord/Dalek hybrid? Does Clara have a PGCE? Did Danny have a favourite peg? Who knows…