Doctor Who Review: Under the Lake

doctor who review under the lake toby whithouse daniel o hara peter capaldi jenna coleman clara oswald twelfth doctor

They walk through walls, they only come out at night, and they’re see-through. They’re ghosts!

Reaction has been quite positive to this one, hasn’t it? People really seem to have enjoyed it.

I, however, was not so enamoured by it. Certainly, the episode did a lot of things right, but it felt a little sub-par to me, in comparison to previous weeks, and in comparison to the previous variations upon this theme that we’ve seen in the past – the base under siege is a staple of Doctor Who, and it didn’t feel like there was much else on offer here.

But! We will start with the positives, because like I said, there was a lot to enjoy here, and it would be remiss of me not to give the episode due credit for it’s many noticeable strengths.

First off is, obviously, the cast. A lot has been said on the topic of the casting, but it’s worth stating again: It’s brilliant that the characters were so diverse. Representation is important, and Doctor Who did really well on it this week. A particular stand out was Sophie Stone, who played Cass – the deaf woman in charge of the base. Personally speaking, I think her best scene was when she stood up to the Doctor (”you can do the whole ‘cabin in the woods’ thing if you want”…) with regards to evacuating the base; you can see a lot going on with her body language, in the way she gets very forceful and aggressive, to convey her point. It works quite well, I think, and it’s worth noting that this a scene that would typically go to a male commander of the base; the fact that if was given by a woman, in sign language, is a great forward step.

Next up would be the direction. It’s a very stylish looking episode; the base looks great, and it’s shot extremely well. The entire episode is very atmospheric, and can be quite tense at times; it’s heightened by Murray Gold’s score, who again did a very good job here.

But…

doctor who review under the lake cass sophie stone lunn interpreter sign language deaf character toby whithouse daniel o hara representation

Well, that’s it?

I mean, there really is very little about this episode that can be commented on, because it’s really just half a story. I’d actually assumed that this week we would have seen a full story, and then next week coincidentally ended up seeing the episode before hand – a two parter in the same way The Ark works as two connected stories, or The Long Game and Bad Wolf. Two separate stories, in essence, linked by shared consequences and a shared setting.

But that’s not the case, because in actual fact, we have another episode which acts simply as set up for the next part. At least with The Magician’s Apprentice there was a fair amount of spectacle to act as, essentially, a diverting sleight of hand, to distract from the fact that there’s nothing really happening – here there’s nothing, really. I am now starting to question the wisdom of a series full of two parters, given the difficult with first parts that seems to be beginning to arise.

A few moments ago, I was talking about the characters, and how it was great that they were so diverse… but that’s all that can really be said about them, to be honest. One would have hoped that the extra run time would be used to flesh out the characters, develop them more, and so on and so forth – but that’s not the case. They’re essentially short hand; we even have the stock greedy corporate character, an entirely one dimensional insert, who even has a freudian slip between “valuable” and “powerful”.

You get interesting moments because the clichés are subverted (rather than an angry male commander shouting, it’s an angry female commander signing) and the actors all bring moments of charm in their own way (O’Donnell punching Bennett on the arm, for example) but that’s about it. All of the guest cast are served poorly by the writing.

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Same goes for Clara, actually, and to a lesser extent the Doctor. I wasn’t so impressed by the handling of their scene in the TARDIS, wherein Clara’s character arc was signposted in the most blatant way possible. There was a lack of subtlety to that throughout, actually; Clara’s excitement at the abandoned base felt far too on the nose, and the high five bit was a little tasteless. It’s hard to articulate what I mean here; essentially, I’d expected the basic character arc to be written far more deftly. Implicit details rather than explicit ones, and any confrontations over the issue should really have been saved until we’ve actually seen the issue built to over a few weeks.

And… well, that’s all I have to say, actually, because there’s really not a lot to say. This is just half a story. It’s an introduction of the premise, before they change the premise, because they want each half of the story to feel unique.

I mean, I’m certainly looking forward to next week, because I did enjoy this episode, and it’s set up some interesting concepts, but there’s not a huge amount that you can talk about within this episode.

Under the Lake is a pleasantly diverting way to spend 45 minutes, but I get the distinct impression that it’s not actually going to be a really compelling story until you get to include part two, Before the Flood.

For now, then, I’ll give it 7/10 – it’s the weakest of the series so far, but by no means a weak episode.

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Doctor Who Review: The Witch’s Familiar

doctor who the witch's familiar review steven moffat hettie macdonald davros peter capaldi twelfth doctor michelle gomez jenna coleman

I didn’t come because I was ashamed. I came because you were sick and you asked. 

To be entirely fair, I don’t think anyone really expected the episode to open the way it did. We’d all believed that we’d see a linear progression from the cliffhanger on to the start of the next episode – I even spent some time proselytising about the morality of it all, and whether or not you really should steal Davros’ favourite teddy.

It was a classic piece of misdirection though, which we really should expect by now, and it allowed Moffat to present us with something that was a little bit different. Rather than a parable about changing time (I was entirely expecting them to just do away with the Daleks completely, to be honest) of the sort we’ve seen before, we saw something that has been rather unique thus far.

A proper conversation between Davros and the Doctor.

That was, I’ve read, the starting point for the episode, when Moffat was working on the idea; we’ve had so many stories with the Doctor and Davros, and their interactions are always stellar, but often so fleeting as well. Here, then, was a chance for us to really examine the relationship between the pair of them, getting to the heart of it, and showing us something we’ve never seen before.

Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi sell it, of course. It’s their performance that captures the essence of the thing, and provides the true highlights of the episode. This is likely to be remembered as the best interaction between the Doctor and Davros ever, and will no doubt inform all future ones as well.

It’s some genuinely compelling writing in those scenes – I’d be prepared to say this is Moffat’s best rendering of a returning villain, but Missy was in this episode too – which gives us a fresh outlook on things, whilst still remaining faithful to what’s gone before. Take, for example, the conversation about Gallifrey; Davros congratulates the Doctor, says that he’s happy for him, and you can believe it, because that’s based on everything we already know about Davros. It builds upon his own jingoism and passion for Skaro, and examines it in a different light.

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Another thing that stood out to me were the moments where Davros was almost like a friend of the Doctor’s; sharing a joke with him, watching a sunset together, and speaking of the admiration he felt for the Doctor. It forms a wonderful set of parallels with Missy, another staple of the programme, who’s both an enemy and a friend to the Doctor.

The difference, of course, was that it was ultimately just a lie – where Missy genuinely does consider the Doctor a friend, albeit it in a complicated fashion, Davros is simply manipulating the Doctor, taking advantage of his compassion. It’s a testament to the strength of both the writing and the acting that Davros’ about turn really did feel like a betrayal; I’d totally bought into the idea that they were going to kill off Davros, because this felt like the absolute right way to handle it. When he did then start to laugh maniacally… well, everything changed.

Something that worked quite well about the Davros and the Doctor scenes were how perverse they were, in a way. A lot of the imagery relied upon twisting what we already knew so well, and presenting it in a very different, much more disturbing light. Davros laughing, for one thing, as well as Davros’ real eyes – there’s a strange, almost uncanny valley effect to it, which really heightens the tension to the scene. Davros quoting the Doctor’s own question – “Am I a good man?” – only added to this, really heightening the intrigue, and investing us in the interaction between the pair.

On the topic of the imagery, and disturbing ideas, it’s worth discussing the Dalek sewers. That was a fantastically macabre concept (that set up a similarly fantastic pun!) which was used quite effectively I think. It’s another aspect to the horror of the Daleks; the screaming sound remains chilling, and the concept of Daleks living on, even after “death”, is one that has a lot of potential, and I really hope it gets mined further.

Director Hettie MacDonald did a wonderful job of bringing it all to life. I must admit, I am typically not inclined to comment on direction, because I don’t really know a huge amount about it, and usually can’t distinguish between any particular flourishes or mistakes, but it must be said, this episode was quite well done. The Dalek city is very stylish, the sewers are atmospheric, and the whole episode is wonderfully evocative. So, great job there.

doctor who the witch's familiar review twelfth doctor young davros peter capaldi julian bleach steven moffat hettie macdonald steven moffat

Admittedly, though, the episode was not perfect. I think it’s probably fair to say that, as with last week, the plot was not necessarily the most substantial. Obviously, the sheer quality of the Davros/Doctor scenes more than makes up for a lot of this, but the episode does feel a little empty, in some ways.

Similarly, the subplot with Clara and Missy was lacking too. Lots to appreciate; both Michelle Gomez and Jenna Coleman are exceptionally skilled actresses playing well written characters delivering witty dialogue, and seeing the two play off of one another works very well, but… Clara was disappointingly easily manipulated. She fell for the same tricks just a few too many times, and I feel like she should have been a little more guarded around Missy – particularly given what happened with Danny.

Something that was interesting that came up: all this talk of hybrids and confession dials and why the Doctor left Gallifrey. It looks (though I’m not certain) like they’re trying to set up something of a series arc here. I’m not entirely certain how I feel about that, really – the reason why the Doctor left Gallifrey is something that I’m always cautious about them getting too close to. It’s one of those pieces of the mythos that should really always remain largely open to interpretation; add in bits and bobs, develop certain aspects, but shy away from any explicitly writing big prophecies into the canon. That’s the sort of divisive element that should really remain in headcanon.

But, talking about the character of the Doctor, this lets me swing back round to the start of the episode – and to the end of the episode – to comment on something I really enjoyed: the character of the Doctor put forward.

I loved that line, “I’m here because you’re sick and you asked.” I loved how Capaldi delivered it, and spoke of how ‘the Doctor’ is, essentially, an ideal he aspired towards. The Doctor is someone who’s just passing through, trying his best to help people.

He doesn’t kill Davros, because why would he? If presented with the opportunity to kill Davros, the answer is in fact to try and teach him something better. To help him. To let compassion win out.

And that was brilliant. So, no, the episode wasn’t quite perfect. I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as last week (which I was perhaps a bit kind to), but it’s still a very, very good episode. 9/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Magician’s Apprentice

doctor who the magician's apprentice review steven moffat hettie macdonald daleks davros peter capaldi jenna coleman

If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?

Doctor Who is back! And it’s back with a blast.

I’ve really missed the show, I realised. That wasn’t something I’d been aware of, exactly, in the run up – obviously I was keeping on top of the news about the episodes, watching all the trailers, and blogging about it all… so I suppose that’s why, actually. I didn’t miss the presence of the show because I didn’t feel like it had ever gone away – I’m on the message boards, I entered the Mission Dalek competition (didn’t win, sadly) and I am essentially a massive nerd, I realise, as I type this sentence. Hmm. (But, you know, I am reviewing Doctor Who, so I guess that can be taken as read.)

But, yes. There’s nothing quite like new Doctor Who, is there? And that’s the experience that I missed. That of watching brand new Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat has, I think, explicitly tailored this episode towards capturing that feeling – the sheer excitement of watching new Doctor Who. That’s what The Magician’s Apprentice is all about – it’s buzzing with energy, and there’s a real vibrancy and bombast to all the spectacle involved.

The episode begins with pure, unadulterated, unashamed and unabashed continuity references, which is the sort of thing I love. First, we’re on Skaro, then the Maldovarium; next it’s the Shadow Proclamation, and finally Karn itself, complete with cameos from Ood, Judoon, Sycorax and Hath. Gotta admit, I wonder how that went down with more casual fans – I’d assume that it’d be fine, because they simply see cool looking aliens, but perhaps it was a little… alienating. (Haha, pun!)

We go from there to Missy and Clara, and there’s yet more spectacle on display – not just in terms of the frozen planes (an excellent hook, which was a great way of establishing both Clara and Missy in their element) but also the spectacular acting on display. (Another pun!) It carries forth throughout, really – both Jenna Coleman and Michelle Gomez are excellent in this episode, and it’s brilliant to see the pair of them together, with Missy essentially in the role of the Doctor. Lots of excellent dialogue there; very fond of the references to the Doctor’s friendship with the Master. Like I said in my review of Death in Heaven, way back when, I really do like the Doctor and the Master being depicted as friends – albeit ones with a rather complicated relationship!

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But, in all fairness, the moment of the most impressive spectacle is the entrance of the Doctor. Steven Moffat gave a bit of a talk about it, in this YouTube video here, and you can see that a lot of thought went into the execution of it – it wasn’t just (great) puns! The overall effect, mind, was that the Doctor was acting out of character and over the top because he was ashamed. Self loathing. Off kilter. This is actually subtly different from how death was invoked during the Matt Smith years – the point is not “the Doctor has to face his death”, but rather “the Doctor owes it to Davros to meet him, even though it will likely cause his death, because he is ashamed of what he has done”. Peter Capaldi absolutely sells this, of course, in the same way he does with everything – he’s a fantastic actor, and a really magnificent screen presence. Entering into the second year, I have to say, I’m really hoping he sticks around for a good long while yet.

And of course, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t want to, is there? This must be his childhood dream, because he’s really ticking off all the big icons! Daleks, Cybermen, the Master… and now Davros. That’s the crux of the episode, really. The re-appearance of Davros. Julian Bleach was back again, reprising the role from 2008′s The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and he really is a brilliant actor. His performance is noticeably pitched differently, and we get a really compelling depiction of a dying Davros. It’s very well done – and it was really, wonderfully exciting to see Davros again. I admit, I’d heard rumours of the appearance of young Davros, but never of the return of Davros as we know him.

The interaction between the Doctor and Davros was, as you’d expect, remarkably well done. Moffat wrote some excellent confrontations between the pair – something I thought was rather effective was the Doctor begging with Davros to save Clara – and he’s managed to tell a story which not only references old canon, but builds upon it, and leads us to view the older episodes in a new light. That, I think, is the best approach to take to continuity, and Moffat very clearly has an excellent handle on that.

doctor who the magician's apprentice review peter capaldi davros julian bleach skaro steven moffat hettie macdonald

As ever, there’s a lot of things I’ve not really been able to mention and deal with. One day there’s going to be a review that’s just a list of bullet points, in all likelihood, because that’s the only way I can get through all of these things.

Colony Sarff was a wonderful concept, as were the hand mines. (Were they inspired by a typo, do you think?) I think Sarff is one of Moffat’s best original concepts in a while, actually – the eventual reveal, where the layers of his face split into the different snakes, worked excellently, and it was really well directed – Hettie MacDonald did great work throughout. Set design was fantastic throughout, from 1198 Essex to the Dalek City on Skaro. Really excellent stuff. The stopping of the planes was a really nice concept, which fulfilled just as much of a plot requirement as it needed to, and the appearance of UNIT was a nice touch too. (As was, by the way, Moffat’s repositioning of UNIT as being lead by a team of female scientists. That’s not really something he gets enough credit for, I think.)

The episode worked, then, to do exactly what it needed to do: to provide a spectacle and vibrancy, and remind everyone of the sheer joy of watching Doctor Who. It was, admittedly, very much a “part one” episode; it was doing a lot of heavy lifting for next week, and if The Witch’s Familiar falters at all, then this is retroactively going to suffer, I think.

But so far? I honestly, really enjoyed this episode, and it put me in such a good mood after having watched it. Certainly, I thought it was superior to Deep Breath last year, which, whilst wonderful, felt somewhat lacking. The Magician’s Apprentice was such a confident and strong episode that I’m actually inclined to give it…

… well, I’m inclined to give it a 10/10 actually. (That’s based on two watches, for the record.) Perhaps that one is entirely contextual; maybe it’s simply the buzz of having new Doctor Who on the TV. But for now, I am actually pleased enough with the episode to give it that sort of ranking.

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