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Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar (Review)

“Of course, the real question is where I got the cup of tea. Answer: I’m the Doctor, just accept it.”

– the Doctor tells it how it is

As is the norm for Moffat-era Dalek episodes, The Witch’s Familiar is a mess… but it is an interesting mess.

The Witch’s Familiar works best as a collection of intersecting character moments than a narrative in its own right. In some respects, The Witch’s Familiar feels like a season premiere in the same way that The Magician’s Apprentice did; it is light and breezy, with more energy devoted to character dynamics than to dramatic stakes. The Witch’s Familiar is quite blatantly set-up; it is all about establishing things that might possibly become more important later on. Davros is revived; the Hybrid is mentioned; Skaro is back in play.

Destiny of the Davros...

Destiny of the Davros…

The plot is all over the place, with Moffat’s script avoiding retreading old thematic ground about “the Oncoming Storm” and justifiable genocide by barely alluding to the moral quandaries that The Magician’s Apprentice set-up. When Davros alludes to the idea of the Doctor wiping out the Daleks through a single act of murder, or harnessing all that power for his own ends, it feels like Davros is just barreling through a check list of cheap shots that any major adversary is expected to land when facing the Doctor. The Dalek Emperor did it more convincingly in The Parting of the Ways.

Still, this familiarity does allow The Witch’s Familiar to lock the Doctor and Davros in a room together for an extended period of time. It affords the pair the chance to trade barbs and to understand one another in a way that no previous story has attempted. One of the more interesting aspects of a season of ninety-minute stories told across multiple episodes in 2015 is that the format is remarkably different than a season of ninety-minute stories told across multiple episodes in 1989. This is a season of serialised stories, but it is not a return to the classic model.

Exterma- wait a minute!

Exterma- wait a minute!

The classic series would never have been able to pull off this sort of quiet and understated interaction between the Doctor and Davros. The nature of a classic Dalek story was to build to a climax of the Doctor and Davros screaming at each other across the room; the pleasure of The Witch’s Familiar is the space that it affords both characters to move past the shouting and to something towards mutual comprehension. It helps that The Witch’s Familiar has two fantastic central performers in Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach.

The Witch’s Familiar might be yet another example of the Moffat era trying and failing to construct an entirely functional Dalek story, but it is quite possibly the single best Davros story ever told. (Give or take a Revelation of the Daleks.)

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

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Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice (Review)

“The TARDIS will not be entered. The TARDIS will be destroyed.

“Good luck with that. She’s indestructible.”

“Did the Doctor tell you that? Because you should never believe a man about a vehicle.”

 – The Daleks, Clara and Missy share some truths

The ninth season is certainly ambitious.

The idea of building an entire season around a series of interconnected two-parters is a departure from the show’s traditional format. It certainly makes it a lot harder to review the show on a week-by-week basis, if only because it means that reviewers are talking about each episode having only seen around half the story. That is not the way that people typically consume Doctor Who. Even modern DVD releases of the classic series package whole series together so it is not so much a four- (or six-) part episode as a single story.

Battlefield.

Battlefield.

Since it returned to television in 2005, Doctor Who has adopted an approach to narrative driven by the single episode as the default narrative unit. Sure, there were multi-part stories; but they were the exception rather than the rule. Sure, there were season long arcs; but they were largely driven by arc words and core themes as much as plot. This was, after all, the big controversy over Moffat’s “Impossible Girl” arc, which was presented as a plot mystery only to be revealed as a clever thematic point.

During the Davies era, the two-parters were typically allocated for big “event” episodes. There were roughly three in a season, and they allowed the show to adopt a bigger sense of scale and spectacle. The first two-parter was typically lighter and little bit toyetic (the “toy monster” two-parter) and the second was a lot darker and ominous (the “highlight of the season” two-parter). Davies would then use a two-parter to provide a suitably bombastic conclusion to the season, offering “blockbuster” family entertainment at the height of summer.

An axe to grind...

An axe to grind…

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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Genesis of the Daleks originally aired in 1975.

Genesis of the Daleks is a great little story, and a strong contender for the title of “best Dalek story ever.” It works because Terry Nation takes his creations “back to basics” – not only in terms of time period, but also in terms of basic principles. If the Daleks are the embodiment of total warfare, it makes perfect sense to return to the war that spawned them, giving us an insight into their creation, and the philosophy that launched these deadly xenophobes into the wider universe.

Face of evil...

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Doctor Who: Series Four (or Thirty) (Review/Retrospective)

The fourth season of the revived Doctor Who is probably the most consistent of the seasons produced by Russell T. Davies. The first season had a very clear arc running through it, building to a fantastic final run of episodes; the second season had some strong individual elements, but suffered from a lot of behind-the-scenes shuffling; the third season suffered from a shoddy opening stretch, teething difficulties with the show’s first new companion lackluster finalé, despite some great ideas and wonderful experimental plotting.

While the fourth season is far from perfect, it does hang together a lot better than any of the previous three seasons. Watching from Partners in Crime through to Journey’s End, it definitely feels like Russell T. Davies had a stronger sense of where he wanted to go than he had with any of the previous three seasons. It helps that the past three seasons had been spent trying to acclimatise viewers to the workings of Doctor Who. The first season introduced the first Doctor and companion and the Daleks. The second introduced the first new Doctor and the Cybermen. The third introduced the first new companion and the Master.

doctorwho-theunicornandthewasp

So the fourth season is the first time that the show doesn’t really have too much of a mission statement. Unlike the Daleks or the Master or the Cybermen, nobody was really clamouring to see the Sontarans reinvented, let alone to reintroduce Davros. Like a lot of the foruth season, it seems like the show was really enjoying any freedom from a sense of obligation. The public knew what Doctor Who was. The rules and players had been set out, the past had been acknowledged and the show defined.

As such, the fourth season feels a lot more relaxed for everybody involved.

doctorwho-planetoftheood12

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Doctor Who: Journey’s End (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Journey’s End originally aired in 2008.

Stand witness, humans. Your strategies have failed, your weapons are useless, and… oh, the end of the universe has come.

– Davros, master of understatement

Journey’s End covers a lot of ground incredibly quickly. Even running one-and-a-half times the length of a regular episode, Journey’s End feels like it’s ready to burst at any given moment. Those who don’t like Davies’ finalés will find a lot to complain about here. The stakes are raised so high as to become almost abstract. The plot is written into a corner where it takes nothing short of a convenient deus ex machina to resolve it all. The Tenth Doctor and Rose are as annoying together as they have ever been, despite both being quite awesome apart.

However, if you’re looking at The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End as a story, you’re missing the point. The real news is that this was a crowning accomplishment for the series. Not only did The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End both pull a record high Appreciation Index of 91, Journey’s End edged out East Enders and Coronation Street to become the most-watched show on British television that week. This was the first time that Doctor Who had accomplished this since it came back.

The Daleks' master plan...

The Daleks’ master plan…

The only comparable accomplishment in the history of the show is City of Death scoring the show’s highest ever ratings. And that only happened because an ITV strike made it quite difficult for anybody to watch anything else at the time. So, no matter how you cut it, Journey’s End is a phenomenal piece of event television, one that really solidifies the importance of the resurrected Doctor Who in British popular consciousness.

In a very real way, the title feels somewhat apt. The long journey of Doctor Who from a failed science-fiction show in the wilderness to a crown jewel in British television was finally over.

It's been a hell of a ride...

It’s been a hell of a ride…

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Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Stolen Earth originally aired in 2008.

Someone tried to move the Earth once before. Long time ago. Can’t be.

– the Doctor reminds us that just because the Daleks are threatening doesn’t mean they aren’t completely insane

The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End are not, by any stretch of imagination, tightly-constructed episodes. They don’t represent the pinnacle of the Davies era from any technical or production standpoint. The story logic is questionable at best, and Davies’ primary concern seems to be keeping the script moving fast enough that the plot holes and illogical narrative loose ends never overwhelm the production. It is basically the most bombastic and large-scale season finalé of the Davies era. And given that it’s measured against The Parting of the WaysDoomsday and The Last of the Time Lords, that’s really saying something.

And yet, despite that, I have a strange affection for this season finalé. It’s an excuse for Davies to really bask in the success of the revitalised Doctor Who, creating a plot that draws together all manner of disparate elements into one gigantic tribute to the past four years of Doctor Who. It’s hard to hate, on those grounds alone.

An explosive finalé...

An explosive finalé…

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Planet of the Daleks originally aired in 1973.

You know, for a man who abhors violence, I must say I took great satisfaction in doing that.

– The Doctor on demolishing a Dalek

The combined Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks serials were intended to mark the tenth anniversary of Doctor Who with a twelve-part epic that could be measured against the lost Daleks’ Master Plan. I’m quite fond of The Frontier in Space, and I’d argue that it stands as the best space-opera of the Pertwee era, but I’ll concede that the story is severely weakened by the links it shares with this little adventure, which is conclusive proof that Daleks were quite stale long before Davros was invented.

Not all Dalek stories are gold…

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