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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: Death in Heaven (Review)

Welcome to the only planet in the universe where we get to say this. “He’s on the payroll.”

Am I?

Well, technically.

How much?

Shush.

Death in Heaven doesn’t work quite as well as Dark Water. Then again, it has a lot more to do.

After all, Dark Water was a sublimely extended joke – a forty-five minute gag. It is easier to affectionately parody the excess of the Davies-era finalés in the first part than it is to offer a straight-up imitation of those same finalés in the second. This simply isn’t the sort of season finalé to which Moffat’s style lends itself. This is very much a return to the scale and mood of The Parting of the Ways, Doomsday, The Last of the Time Lords or Journey’s End – the type of big emotive farewell season-ender that the show hasn’t done in quite a while.

"Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul's Cathedral..."

“Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul’s Cathedral…”

This is a different beast than The Name of the Doctor, The Wedding of River Song or even The Big Bang. After all, although The Big Bang was the second part of a season finalé with the entire universe at stake, the bulk of the story featured familiar characters in a relatively confined space. In contrast, Death in Heaven is very much structured as an “event” story built around an iconic adversary and teasing the departure of a long-term companion. It is full of big emotional beats and stunning set-pieces, placing the entire Earth at the mercy of a massive extraterrestrial threat.

Most of Death in Heaven feels like Moffat is writing in a strange language; he knows the words, but the grammar does not entirely fit. And yet, despite that, Death in Heaven mostly works. It doesn’t work as well as it might; it isn’t the strongest script of the season by any stretch; it is a little disjointed, a little all over the place, a little too giddy with itself in places. However, it is as clever as viewers have come to expect from the show and the writer, remaining in tune with the season’s core themes and putting an impressive capstone in Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor.

Psycho selfie!

Psycho selfie!

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Doctor Who: Listen (Review)

Are you making conversation?

I thought I might give it a try.

Listen is an episode important in its unimportance.

It is the first non “event” episode credited to Moffat as a solo writer since The Beast Below. Every episode credited exclusively to Moffat since The Beast Below has been a premiere or a finalé or two-parter or a special of some description. Listen is the fourth episode of Peter Capaldi’s first season, following a celebrity pseudo-historical written by Mark Gatiss. It is an episode that is about very little. There is a lot of talking, and a lot of sitting, and – as the title implies – a lot of listening. It is utterly unlike any other episode of Doctor Who ever produced.

doctorwho-listen17

Midnight in the TARDIS…

Listen has a central mystery that it refuses to resolve, a wealth of lovely character moments, and just the faintest trace of Moffat’s “timey-wimey” stuff. As with a lot of Moffat’s writing for the show, Listen is packed with little details that seem to exist to drive fans wild, but which make a lot of sense for those willing to relax and go with it. It is fascinated with negative space, with the characters ruminating on how questions are more important than answers, and how nothing can be more defining or revealing than something.

It is an episode that feels very much in touch with the mood and themes Moffat era. In keeping with Moffat’s style since he took over the show, Listen is a lesson in the art of misdirection.

doctorwho-listen6

Chalking it up to a title drop…

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Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor (Review)

It’s okay, Barnable, don’t worry. I have got a plan. Off you pop.

[beat]

I haven’t got a plan, but people love it when I say that.

Doctor, what are you going to do?

I don’t know. Talk very fast. Hope something good happens. Take the credit. That’s generally how it works.

– the Doctor and Clara discuss standard operating procedure

An epic struggle for universal peace lasting centuries on a back water world; a conflict spanning generations; the potential to re-spark the Time War; the possibility of burning the turkey. The epic and intimate co-mingle in The Time of the Doctor.

In many respects, The Time of the Doctor serves as an effective counterpoint to The End of Time. Even the title seems to allude towards the Tenth Doctor’s final episode, as if to suggest that “time” is a thing that passes naturally rather than ending brutally. “I don’t want to go,” the Tenth Doctor pleaded in his final moments, a line that Moffat gently tried to re-write at the end of The Day of the Doctor. The Eleventh Doctor is more even-handed. “But you, you are the Doctor,” Clara assures him. “Yep, and I always will be,” he replies. “But times change, and so must I.”

This is when the magic happens...

This is when the magic happens…

(In fact, Moffat has a bit of gentle fun at the expense of The End of Time. Whereas the Tenth Doctor reluctantly sacrificed himself to save Wilf, the Eleventh Doctor quite selfless spends his entire life defending the town of Christmas on the planet of Trenzalore. Discussing the fake regeneration at the climax of The Stolen Earth, the Eleventh Doctor quips, I had vanity issues at the time.” He could easily be hinting at the hubris that built up towards the Tennant and Davies era’s swansong.)

In contrast, The Time of the Doctor was relatively low key. Well, as low key as an episode featuring all of the Doctor’s classic adversaries laying siege to one planet across hundreds of years as the threat of a reignited Time War looms large in the horizon. Still, as wonderful as that epic scale might be, The Time of the Doctor feels like a spiritual companion to Moffat’s other Christmas episodes – the story of the loneliest man in the universe saving Christmas (the town and the holiday), on an intimate scale that just happens to be epic; “the man who stayed for Christmas.”

What's cooking?

What’s cooking?

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Doctor Who: The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe (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 Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe originally aired in 2011.

I don’t understand. Is this place real, or is it fairyland?

Fairyland? Oh, grow up, Lily.

Fairyland looks completely different.

– Lilly and the Doctor get their geography straightened out

The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe is, like A Christmas Carol before it, a rather wonderful idea. A Christmas Carol mashed up Doctor Who with one of the best-loved Christmas narratives of all time. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe does something similar, substituting CS Lewis for Charles Dickens. It’s a fantastic idea, given that Doctor Who is the spiritual successor of that peculiarly British thread of childhood fantasy.

The only real problem with The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is that it can’t quite stretch that good idea across an hour of television.

On the run again...

On the run again…

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Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (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.

A Christmas Carol originally aired in 2010.

If you’re my babysitter, why are you climbing in the window?

Because if I was climbing out of the window, I’d be going in the wrong direction. Pay attention.

– Kazran and the Doctor get things straight

A Christmas Carol might just be the best Doctor Who Christmas Special ever produced, if only because it’s such a brilliantly obvious idea, executed with the show’s traditional wit and charm. Russell T. Davies tended to write the Christmas Special in the style of a gigantic blockbuster episode of Doctor Who, but Moffat adopts a slightly different approach to what has quickly become the annual tradition of the Doctor Who Christmas Special.

Davies traditionally had the Doctor collide with genres of Christmas television viewing. The Christmas Invasion was American blockbuster sci-fi, The Runaway Bride was fun odd-couple comedy action film, Voyage of the Damned was a disaster flick in space and The Next Doctor was a celebration of quaint Victoriana. In contrast, Moffat has Doctor Who collide with beloved children’s stories in his first two Christmas Specials. His second two are burdened with dealing with left-over plot threads.

A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most effective distillation of “Doctor Who as a story” that the show has ever managed, on top of being a wonderfully moving piece of Christmas television and hitting on the major themes of the Moffat era as a whole.

Turning back the clock...

Turning back the clock…

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Doctor Who: The Beast Below (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 Beast Below originally aired in 2010.

What are you going to do?

What I always do. Stay out of trouble. Badly.

So is this how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets, unless there’s children crying?

Yes.

– Amy and the Doctor reiterate the way things work

Steven Moffat’s first season producing Doctor Who owes a conscious debt to the rigid structure of the seasons produced by Russell T. Davies. There’s an opening episode in contemporary Britain, followed by one episode visiting the past, one visiting the future. There are three two-parters – the season finalé, a “monster”-driven two-parter and a more atmospheric and moody piece. There’s even a brief spell in the middle of the season where Moffat spices up the TARDIS dynamic by adding in a temporary companion.

This approach worked quite well. It’s worth noting that Moffat’s first season was the only point following the departure of Russell T. Davies that Doctor Who was able to deliver thirteen episodes of the show on thirteen consecutive weeks. It struck something of a happy middle between Davies’ more episodic approach to the show that the more arc-driven storytelling favoured by Moffat. Still, there are moments when it seems like this approach isn’t quite the perfect fit, with Moffat’s voice struggling to fit into the structure established by Davies.

Essentially Steven Moffat’s impression of Russell T. Davies’ update of Andrew Cartmel’s social allegory stories, The Beast Below is an interesting – if slightly unsuccessful – experiment. Moffat’s second season would feature much more effective attempts to evoke the Cartmel era of the classic show, without the sense that Moffat was trying a little too hard to emulate his predecessor.

The space in-between...

The space in-between…

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