Doctor Who Review: Into the Dalek

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All those years ago, when I began, I was just running. I called myself the Doctor, but it was just a name. But then I went to Skaro. And then I met you lot. And I understood who I was. The Doctor was not the Daleks.

Daleks are pretty amazing really, aren’t they?

They’re one of the most enduring concepts in fiction of the 20th Century – there aren’t a great many things which could claim to have had such an impact upon the zeitgeist, or such an impact to their presence. They started out as Nazi metaphors, but they’ve outlived that. They have a new relevance. Daleks are creatures of hatred; they’re twisted mirrors which show our own propensity for cruelty and evil. Daleks are far more than just another Doctor Who monster. They’re the perennial threat, there since the start, all those years ago, when it began. To use them simply as monsters shooting and killing, whilst a lot of fun, is something of a waste. They can be a lot more – they are a lot more.

Into the Dalek is a lot more.

At its heart, Into the Dalek has a fascinating, complex moral dimension to it. It’s the question of whether or not you can have a good Dalek; whether it can overcome what is it’s basic nature. The Doctor is, of course, dubious. Why wouldn’t he be? Same goes for the audience. Everyone knows how a Dalek works, everyone knows what a Dalek is. And it’s not like we haven’t seen the idea of a good Dalek before; similar ground has been covered, though not quite dealing with the same aspects.

The episode deliberately plays off parts of the Dalek iconography from across fifty years, to really cement the idea that we don’t have a good Dalek. There’s some subtle symbolism, like the parallels to Dalekand there’s proper, classic scenes – “This door won’t hold forever, but I’ll be damned if I make it easy for them!”. It’s Daleks 101, all serving to reinforce the idea that there isn’t a good Dalek. Everyone expects the inevitable turn around – and there it was. It was even earlier than I expected actually, by a good 5 minutes or so – there isn’t a good Dalek.

But Into the Dalek is smarter than that. “Good” isn’t a matter of what side you’re on, it’s who you are. A Dalek isn’t something that kills and hates the good guys, it’s a thing that kills and hates. The big point of the Dalek is hatred. And they couldn’t take that away. They tried so hard but they couldn’t. The Dalek was still full of hatred – it was pointed in a different direction, sure, but it was still a Dalek. Everything else? It’s as Dalek as they come.

It’s the hatred that makes a Dalek, it’s the hatred that makes something evil. And it’s whether you rise above it that counts.

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Which brings us quite neatly onto the Doctor. Is he a good man? I don’t know. But I do know that Peter Capaldi is one hell of a Doctor.

I’m on the record as having said that my favourite Doctor is the Sixth. He’s still the Doctor, he’s still compassionate, he’s still a hero – but he’s an alien hero. He’s different, and he’s not all that easy to understand. Sometimes it won’t be clear what he’s doing or why, but he will always come through. Yes, he might be abrasive, but he’s saving your life. If your feelings get a little hurt, well, better sad than dead. And that applies very much to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. (6 x 2 = 12, after all.)

Peter Capaldi acts this fantastically. He is very, very good. I’d give a standout scene, but frankly I’d just end up listing them. The opening, where he forces Journey Blue to put down her gun, stop threatening him, and say please. All the brilliant one liners, the pithy humour, the sarcasm.

But he’s more than just that. There’s some real poignant and introspective moments here, which really make the story worth its salt.

“You are a good Dalek.”

Peter Capaldi really, really sells this part of the plot. The sheer contempt in his voice when talking about the “Good Dalek”, which begins hope and wonder when he thinks it’s possible… and the quiet, introspective sadness and revulsion when a Dalek looks into his soul and sees hatred.

That’s how you do a new and interesting take on the Daleks. By looking at them, and looking at what they mean. That’s when you find ways to make them continually relevant. And that gives us brilliant, brilliant stories like Into the Dalek.

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Clara is continuing to soar to new heights as well. When I first watched Jenna Coleman in the role (in another Dalek episode, no less) I thought that she might eventually become my favourite companion of the new series. In series 7B, however, Clara didn’t really get the focus she deserved, for one reason or another, which was something of a shame.

But that’s very clearly changing now. The writing is really concentrating on her now; it’s focusing on character traits she already had, but changing the way they look at them, and making them more central to her. She feels a lot more distinctive now, and it’s really encouraging. Seeing her hold her own with the Doctor, and making him re-evaluate his decisions and what he knows in a way that’s unique to her as a character? That’s brilliant.

Plus, Clara is a lot more fun to watch now. That sequence at the start with Danny Pink? Wonderful stuff, and very funny too. Samuel Anderson played the part really well, and there’s a lot of promise to the character, I’m interested to see where it goes. Loved his lines about the reading. I feel a kindred spirit.

Finally, the direction. It was really wonderful here. I loved the way they’d intercut scenes with flashbacks – it made Clara and Danny’s conversation a lot funnier, and gave quite a bit of impact to the Doctor meeting the Dalek by holding it off a little longer. The whole thing looked amazing throughout. Spaceship battles at the start? Fantastic. Inside of a Dalek? Brilliant. Exploding Daleks? Wonderful. It was probably the best set of Dalek fight scenes across the past ten years.

As you can tell, I really, really enjoyed this episode. Bar the 50th, it’s probably the best Doctor Who episode since 2012. Now, it wasn’t perfect, no – the scene with Missy in the middle jars a little, for example – but it’s pretty bloody good.

I’m going to give it a 9/10. In part, that’s because I’m saving the 10 – I’m confident that this series is going to keep getting better…

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On The Fault in Our Stars, jokes, and tone

the fault in our stars john green tone okay okay wallpaper review you put the killing thing in your mouth but you don't give it the power to do the killing

I read The Fault in Our Stars recently (quite enjoyed it, very well written, would recommend) and something that struck me about it was that it was actually quite funny.

I found that a little bit odd, because I wasn’t really expecting that. From what I’d heard about it, I was expecting it to err a little bit more towards the bleak and depressing. (When I mentioned to my friends that I’d read it, the first question was “Is it as depressing as it looks?”)

But it’s not. I mean, yes, there is obviously an ever pervasive sense of… tragedy, I suppose, with regards to their situations, but it’s rarely at the forefront of things. Which I suppose is part of the point – dealing with cancer isn’t a collection of moments, it’s a long process of dealing with cancer. Despite that though, it’s honestly really funny. A lot of the humour is in the dialogue, where there’s a lot of jokes, and a lot of witty banter.

I suppose what it comes down to really is something Joss Whedon once said. “Make it dark, make it grim, but for the love of god, tell a joke.” And he’s right, really. For one thing it can make it a bit more palatable (I’m not sure the book would be quite so popular if it was dark and grim the whole time; stories should be enjoyable on some levels at least), but I think it also works as a juxtaposition, and can make things more tragic. To say “Look at these happy, funny teenagers, and how they’re cut down in the prime of their life” seems a little bit more sad, to me, than “These people are in a miserable place and will only get worse”. Contrast provides emphasis.

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Doctor Who Review: Deep Breath

doctor who review deep breath peter capaldi twelfth doctor jenna coleman clara oswald vastra strax jenny steven moffat

You have replaced every piece of yourself, mechanical and organic, time and time again. There’s not a trace of the original you left. You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from.

Regeneration is a tricky old thing, isn’t it? It’s all well and good to say that life depends upon change and renewal, but it can be pretty weird to see a new Doctor in the role.

When Christopher Eccleston regenerated, I had only been watching the show for about two episodes, so I didn’t really get what was going on. When David Tennant regenerated, I was generally okay with it; I got the concept, and I thought he’d had a good run. With Matt Smith, it’d been quite a surprise, and I thought it was a bit of a shame – I think his last year wasn’t really as good as it could have been.

I like the fact that the show changes. I like that every few years, Doctor Who completely reinvents itself, and you end up with something new. I think it’s brilliant – it’s how it’s lasted 50 years, after all. So I’m never going to begrudge the show a change, though I might be a bit trepidant about it.

But there was no need for any trepidance here, was there? It was fantastic.

The most important thing about this episode was, obviously, to introduce Peter Capaldi. That’s the real job of it. And I think, on the whole, it did pretty well. The opening with the addled, confused Doctor was quite funny; I think maybe it was extended for a little too long (it’s about 25 minutes before he starts to settle down) but as a sort of tradition, it’s quite nice. And then after that, you’ve just got so many quality scenes with Capaldi – there’s the one with the tramp (it’s the next pigbin Josh!), his bantering with Clara in the restaurant, and the moment where they meet the robots (“Dormant. Hopefully.”) Loved that.

I think he really comes into his own though towards the end, especially where he offers the robot a drink. That moment I loved, and I felt like the new Doctor was really here. There he is; calm, collected, and with a cold, steely ruthlessness to him. And then the ambiguity surrounding the robots death, and just how involved the Doctor was with it. Did he intimidate the robot into committing suicide, or actually push him out himself?

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Companions! Clara, Vastra, Jenny and Strax. Clara was excellent here. Generally, I liked her over the last year, but I would certainly concede that she wasn’t the most well used or characterised. It’s really nice to see that changing here, and letting her come into her own a bit more. I’ve already said how I enjoyed her scene with the Doctor in the restaurant, but I think if I had to choose her best moment of the episode, it was where she was talking to the robot. Clara really held her own there; it was a well-written scene, with some pretty good acting to hold it up.

And Vastra and Jenny! Wow. I must admit, I am not normally a fan. I’m on the record as being totally bewildered by why they’re so popular, but I really, really liked them here. They were fantastic, as was the relationship between them. This was the first time, to me, it actually felt like a real relationship, as opposed to just the subject of a joke. In fact, this was their first appearance without a joke about their relationship – it’s finally grown beyond that. I’d be a lot more open to a spin off with them now. (With regards to the kiss, I did like it, but it might have been nicer if it wasn’t under those circumstances. Or better yet, they did that, and then again afterwards to celebrate or somesuch similar.)

Strax, still not such a fan. A lot of his humour just doesn’t wash with me. Bits of it were funny, but I think the comedy Sontaran is being pushed far too much now. It’d be better if he were played absolutely straight, and the jokes around him came from how serious he was. That’d be better I think. The bit where he was about to kill himself, to stop breathing – that’s the Strax I want to see more of. (Mind you, that was pretty dark, wasn’t it? Quite shocking even.)

The plot held up quite well too I think. In episodes like this, where you’re introducing the new Doctor, you don’t want to overdo it with something particularly complex. It’s best to just let the Doctor deal with something simple, and use the time to focus on characterisation. Still, it was pretty good, wasn’t it? Loved the return of the robots from The Girl in the Fireplace. It’s things like that that make me smile when I’m watching the episodes. Nice little callback.

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It wasn’t perfect though, to be fair. There were some jokes that just weren’t funny – some of the Strax jokes grated, like I already mentioned. The scenes with Clara and Vastra at the beginning, all of that veil stuff… it was just nonsense, wasn’t it? Trying to imply that Clara was an impostor, but really it’s about how much they trust her, and… nah, load of old nonsense really. I just don’t get how that’s meant to fit into things at all. Well acted though, from all involved.

But, on the topic of perfect, there was one thing in the episode which damn near was. That phone call, at the end. I knew it was coming – I’d read about it months ago, and I remembered about it half way through. When I first found out about it, I was ready to come along and whinge about it on tumblr, but I’m glad I didn’t. I hate being wrong in public, after all. It was really nice, and lovely to see Matt there. It felt like a passing of the baton in a way his regeneration didn’t exactly. It’s the same sort of thing as in The Eleventh Hour, when the Atraxi roll through holograms of the different incarnations. Except this goes one better. It really emphasises he’s the same man. And it was really sweet, too.

So overall, that’s a really good episode. It did brilliantly setting up Peter Capaldi, though it did have some faults. I think I’ll give it an 8/10 – it gets better with rewatches.

Note: Despite being very specific about leaving these old reviews mostly unedited, in terms of their content at least, there were a couple of lines in here that really grated with me when re-reading this piece in 2018 that I removed. 

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Doctor Who series 8 reviews

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In anticipation of Doctor Who Series Eight

doctor who series 8 peter capaldi twelfth doctor jenna coleman clara oswald london world tour steven moffat

With Series Eight broadcasting in a few days time, I wanted to collect together everything that I’d written on it into one place.

Starting with the Doctor, there’s my initial hopes for the Doctor, as well as my initial thoughts on his outfit (which has grown on me since writing that; it looks a lot nicer in recent photos than in the original one.)

There’s also a pitch for an episode with Ian Chesterton, as well as an outline for a short jokey scene.

On the topic of companions, I’ve got a post about Clara’s duplicates, my thoughts on Danny Pink, and how a series with a detective companion might work out. There’s also my thoughts on the Master, and how he might work with the Twelfth Doctor.

Finally, there’s my thoughts on the first full length trailer, the Deep Breath trailer, the Listen trailer, and a recent radio trailer.

Also! Each week I’m going to write a review of the episodes, in the same vein as my recent Nine Years of the Ninth Doctor, which should hopefully be quite detailed and in depth. (I’m also thinking of calling it Twelve Weeks of the Twelfth Doctor, but maybe not.)

Only three days to go!

Note: Some of these posts haven’t yet been reuploaded from tumblr to the new wordpress site – probably they will be eventually, but until then… well, honestly, you’re not missing out that much.

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TV Trailer Thoughts | Doctor Who Series 8: “Who frowned me this face?”

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And now there’s a new radio trailer!

This one focuses, essentially, on the fact that Peter Capaldi has been in Doctor Who before. It questions where the faces of the Doctor actually come from – how he ends up with a face that’s already worn in, with wrinkles and laughter lines. It’s quite similar to something that Moffat discussed in DWM, around the time Capaldi was first cast.

“It’s covered in lines. But I didn’t do the frowning. Who frowned me this face?”

I admit, I’m not entirely sure what to think of this. I’m more or less okay with Capaldi’s previous characters being left unexplained; it never really felt necessary, given all the other occasions things like that have happened across 50 years, and that I was worried about over complicated retcons (Twelve was in Pompeii, using the chameleon arch!) and the frankly quite real possibility that it wouldn’t have a very good payoff and would just be a bit rubbish.

However, having said that… I really do like the dialogue in this trailer, and I feel that it might have the potential for something really pretty interesting, especially, or perhaps inevitably, if tied into the return of Gallifrey. (As a sidenote, I’d rather Gallifrey wasn’t dealt with until series 9 or perhaps even 10. I want Twelve to settle a bit first, for us to get to know him, before we see this potentially massive upheaval and the ramifications. Equally, I would like to see Twelve with the Time Lords, properly, and not just have one episode before regeneration or something similar)

So… thinking about it, this is getting me rather excited. I do love Doctor Who.

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Doctor Who Book Review: Engines of War

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The death of millions is as of nothing to us, Doctor, if it helps defeat the Daleks.

I think the phrase is “poisoned chalice”. I’m not sure where it comes from, it’s probably Hamlet or something similar. Sort of ironic too actually, given how Eight regenerated.

I’m digressing though, heavily. I should backtrack a bit.

Engines of War is The Time War Novel. It’s so important that you capitalise The Time War Novel. It’s the event novel – probably the most important Doctor Who novel since… The Infinity Doctors. No, scratch that. I don’t think there’s a single Doctor Who book which could be said to cover a more important part of the show’s mythos.

The Time War has been the driving force of most of the show since 2005. It’s affected all of the New Who Doctors, and the Eighth Doctor as well. It’s a Very Big Thing. But we’ve never actually seen it. We’ve built up a picture across nearly ten years from the odd line, a few references here or there, occasional glimpses. Mentions of things like “the Nightmare Child”, or “The Could Have Been King and his armies of Meanwhiles and Never-weres”. There’s the “Skaro degradations”, “the Cruciform”, and the “Gates of Elysium”.

All of that evocative imagery coming together to conjure a picture of a horrible, eternal, all-consuming war fought on a thousand fronts, reaching every corner of the cosmos, corrupting and degrading and reducing the Universe. A war that “made the higher beings weep”, and “made the Eternals flee the Universe, never to be seen again”.

Russell T Davies described the Time War as “obscene” once, and that’s always sort of stuck with me since I first read it. Obscene. This dark, endless, hellish war. Obscene.

That is very difficult to put across in a book, or on TV, or in audio. Not impossible mind you, just very difficult. But if you add to the fact that everyone is going to have their own version of the Time War in their heads, it’s more or less inevitable that the book is going to disappoint.

So that’s what I was getting at with poisoned chalice. As a book, it’s in a hell of a difficult place. Technically, it was always destined to fail. How awful is that? Very much a poisoned chalice to have been given.

Obviously going in I knew that, and I tried to keep my expectations low…

But… this book is a letdown. There’s no other way to put it really.

It follows a largely generic plot, opening with a Dalek base we’ve seen hundreds of times before, an infiltration we’ve already seen before, a planet we’ve seen before. Nothing new or unique. (Having said that, I think I’m being a bit disingenuous – I really really like the opening part, Moldox. It’s very well written, and it’s actually quite a nice window into how the War has affected people who aren’t actually involved in it. The thing is, it’s just a little bit underwhelming – especially since it’s firmly set at the latter end of the Time War, when things really should be much, much worse.)

Then we move from there to Gallifrey, and it just devolves into the most ridiculous fanfiction ever. There are so many references and callbacks, and you just need it to slow down. That sort of continuity requires both tact and finesse, and neither was on display – it begins to read like a list of Gallifrey’s Greatest Hits. It’s back to the 80s, even, which is hardly lauded as the show’s best decade. Normally I don’t have much trouble with this sort of thing, but it could get very obtrusive here. It’s more subtle in some places, sure – there’s a reference to The End of Time with Rassilon tapping out a certain rhythm – but then on the other hand, you’ve got Zero Rooms, the cast of The Five Doctors, and even the bloody Mind Probe. In some places, it is far, far too much – quite often, less is more. (There was a pretty subtle reference to Sam Jones, the Eighth Doctor’s companion, which I liked, but probably also says a lot about quite how many continuity references there were.)

I don’t want to come across as though I hated this book, because it was certainly an enjoyable book to read. It’s really well written, with an excellent style of prose. The descriptions are fantastic, from the war-ravaged planet of Moldox to the Panopticon on Gallifrey itself. The main characters are excellent as well – John Hurt’s Doctor is a tired, sarcastic old man, grappling with the weight of worlds. George Mann has him pitch perfect to how he was in The Day of the Doctor.

Cinder, the companion, is also pretty damn great. She’s got a pretty good character arc, if, admittedly, a predictable fate, and provides a pretty good outside perspective on events. She’s also one of the first canonically LGBT companions in quite a long time. And, like all the best companions, she brings out the best in her Doctor…

… but that really leads me onto the biggest fault I had with the book. All throughout, John Hurt’s Doctor is called exactly that. He’s referred to as the Doctor by everyone. By the Time Lords, by Cinder, even in the actual prose itself. There’s no delivery on the idea that he’s “the one that broke the promise” – he might as well just be any other incarnation. I know that won’t bother most people, but it really, really irked me. It’s… I mean, you’ve got the toys, you might as well play with them, you know? Use it, have it mean something. For example, there’s a very nice coda at the end, where the Doctor wonders if anyone will ever call him the Doctor again… after three hundred pages of no one calling him anything else!

When the tagline of the book proclaims “WAR CHANGES EVERYONE – EVEN THE DOCTOR” you need to deliver, and show us a Doctor who’s actually different. Reveal to us, through Cinder, a quiet rising malevolence. Have him not only condone, but suggest, the death of thousands, because it would save the lives of billions. Give us a Doctor who’s scarily close to becoming the Valeyard. Give us a man who would make even the Seventh Doctor run away in horror. Up the ante. Change. The. Doctor. Make. It. Count.

Ultimately, it’s a book of wasted potential. That’s a horrible thing to say, and I don’t want to say that, because I did enjoy the book. There’s some fantastic concepts – George Mann’s explanation of the Skaro Degradations was wonderful, and his Possibility Engine was downright horrific. But that’s the sort of tone that should have been prevalent across the whole novel. I wasn’t reading this for a fun adventure with the Daleks, I wanted to see a glimpse into this reality twisting, obscene war.

Whether I would recommend this… I guess it depends on how you responded to this review. If none of my complaints bothered you, then I honestly would recommend it emphatically – it is, for the most part, fantastic. But if you’re the sort of person who’s ever sat and thought about the Time War… give it a miss. This book will just sweep away your version, and won’t have anything satisfactory to replace them with.

So that’s… that’s a mutable five out of ten and eight out of ten. It’s morphing between them, just like the Probability Engine.

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