Blimey. Around again. By the time I’d get to the end of reviewing the 2015 run of Doctor Who, I’d be going slightly insane, continually editing my own prose, in the hope of eradicating phrases I was relying on too much, and searching out synonyms for those that have been killed, now, by their repetition in so much online discourse (I skip any paragraph of anything that talks about ‘memes’ or a character having ‘agency’). Why so agitated? I guess it’s good to keep challenging oneself, but I’m not sure anyone notices.Which is genuinely fine. I’ve always thought it’s stupid to expect any reaction to what I write. So when I do get some – even a caustic remark on a forum – it’s a bonus.
Also, see below, how I get in yet another dig about ‘spoiler-free reviews’ – journalism’s newest and most redundant form. I need to get over it. It’s not going anywhere, and it doesn’t really matter.
This review first appeared in DWM #492.
On the planet Karn, hiding in shadows, there’s the Doctor. And on Skaro, draped in darkness: Davros. As the opening scenes of this year’s series prowl through the universe, it’s that juxtaposition which tells us the most.
But let’s get to the admin first, and make it clear that The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar represent the strongest, most exciting Doctor Who adventure for a good while. It’s a ceaselessly inventive, scary, thrilling and silly 90 minutes – the show rattling around spectacularly as if it has nothing to lose. The best way for Doctor Who to be. It’s also one of the most successful two-parters the series has given us. The first episode is packed with spectacle, but doesn’t make unrealistic promises for the second, which then lasers in on the story’s themes, finding a steady focus.
Better yet, it’s got the Doctor in it.
“I think all Doctors when they come along in their first year probably react against the Doctor who was before them. So obviously, because Matt was very friendly and open, I maybe felt it was important to not be like that.” That’s something Peter Capaldi told the press during one of the many interviews he undertook in promotion of this year’s run. This approach – let’s be clear – was also adopted in the writing. That Capaldi instantly owned the part upon his arrival is without question, but his incarnation has spent a lot of time out there on an emotional outcrop, distanced from the loveable fuzziness of his eleventh persona, and from us too. Ironically, it was only at Christmas he began to thaw.
But now? The Doctor really is back. Contrasted against the man we’ve recently come to know, it feels an equally bold move to re-inject some of the daftness into the Time Lord, even to the point where he’s using ‘party’ as a verb – something that would surely cause his sixth incarnation to totally lose his spats. He is a Doctor who’s bravely gamboling into Embarrassing Dad territory, which the script isn’t ignorant of (a line cut from transmission had Clara mocking him: “Sunglasses, an electric guitar, and a tank. You realise this is a mid-life crisis?”). That smile looks easier on Capaldi’s face this year.
Granted, many of Steven Moffat’s stories have displayed a fascination with the Doctor’s own myth, and there’s the suggestion this run will be looking into the reason he originally fled Gallifrey, but it’s actually the nonsense that defines him. The incessant cocking about is what makes him greater than any other fictional hero ever. Everyone else does angst – even James Bond, nowadays.
Chiming in with this more cheerful approach is the way the story investigates different aspects of friendship. When Clara finally catches up with the Doctor, he greets her with a hug, and it feels that there’s now a nice simplicity to their association. It’s no longer toxic, meaning that when she appears in mortal danger at the end of the first episode, his pleading with Davros – “Please! Save Clara! I’m begging you!” – is all the more affecting for the viewer… and given an extra twist of pathos by the BBC’s announcement the day before the episode screened that Jenna Coleman is to leave the show.
Yet, it’s Missy who is positioned as the Doctor’s most intimate associate, with the confession dial being delivered to her in the understanding that she’s his “closest friend”. Close, how? Maybe in that she’s experienced an aspect of him that will always be denied anyone else. “Since always,” she tells Clara, when asked how long they’ve known each other. “Since the Academy, since the Cloister Wars. Since the night he stole the moon and the President’s wife. Since he was a little girl.” Later, when referring to her (deadly, natch) brooch, Missy gets out half a thought: “The Doctor gave it to me when my daughter…” There it tails off, but it indicates their early lives weren’t just in parallel. They actually crossed over, he gifting her the item to mark some familial celebration. Or perhaps a tragedy. Or maybe as a token that, yes, he would take ‘Susan’ in as his own…
But while the Master/Missy is popularly seen as the Doctor’s antithesis, Moffat’s script suggests something different – that it’s always been Davros. The Doctor and Davros.
Even Missy knows it. “Davros is your arch enemy now? I’ll scratch his eye out,” she hisses. It’s notable, isn’t it, that while the Doctor entrusts Missy to hold onto his past sins, he feels a real impetus to correct the one he visited upon Davros. While she is the childhood friend who resents the fact that he’s grown up, the Dalek creator is our hero’s peer. She longs to lure her playmate back into mischief; he engages with the man as he is now, and dares him to face up to his responsibilities. The relationship was perhaps founded aeons ago, but it’s always in the present tense. What to do now.
It’s why, whenever they come into orbit, the Doctor and Davros talk. They really talk, they get into ideas and morality. It may seem as if the half-trolley tyrant’s discussion topics are on rails – he’s always imagining scenarios for genocide or divinity (“Imagine, to hold in your hand the heartbeat of every Dalek on Skaro… Are you ready to be a god?”) – but, let’s face it, he can’t really get onto those hobbyhorses with the Daleks, so we can’t begrudge him for seizing the opportunity when it presents itself. In truth, there is a lot of common ground between the two, particularly with the Time Lord in this current persona. “I approve of your new face, Doctor,” purrs Davros. “So much more like mine.” The flipside to that is the sequence where the Gallifreyan commandeers the chair. He wheels around, spitting orders, scaring up everyone as if he were a crippled Kaled despot on a sugar rush. And drinking tea. He’s almost the Time Lord-Dalek hybrid of dark legend.
Most pertinent of all is Davros’ spate of quasi-soul searching. However much of a gambit it might be, the fact he asks his old enemy, “Am I good man?” binds their two moralities together. And so they laugh, in weird recognition of each other. It’s a terrific moment, one that feels well-earned by the story – which thankfully stops short of pulling that hoary Hollywood stroke of conferring a supposed elegance on their relationship. “Davros made the Daleks, but who made Davros?” asks the Doctor, throwing up a question that has never needed to be answered, and still isn’t. It’s a fine touch of restraint, and the kind of thing that probably wouldn’t have made it out of a writers’ room, where the communal consensus would surely be to make it work harder. To have the Doctor bring about Davros’ disfigurement.
Instead, this semi-sequel to Genesis of the Daleks sees our hero face up to his own hypothetical from that story: 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? How that dilemma is resolved here is superb. It’s not that the Doctor ‘makes’ Davros, it’s that the Doctor makes Davros redeemable – the kind of man who can look out onto his new dead planet and see it as beautiful.
In all of this, Missy remains outside the discourse – because she has nothing to add. She never even really addresses the Dalek creator, other than to childishly poke him in the eye. But in the way it befalls the fool to deliver the homily, she manages to do that, talking about “the friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend.”
Also on the outside are the Daleks themselves. Although abundant and wonderfully realised in this adventure (they and their environs hailing from a best-case imagining of a third Dr Who movie) they have no real engagement with it. They don’t even really fulfil the usual function as Davros’ strong-arm. Instead, they’re the story’s collateral. They’re up for grabs in those arguments between their father and the Time Lord. But where, last year, this reviewer mithered about how the Cybermen were downgraded to spear-carriers in Dark Water/Death In Heaven, the peripheral presence of the Daleks is actually no bad thing. That Doctor-Davros-Missy axis provides more than enough meat to be going on with. Instead, the pepper pots give us spectacle and quick thrills. “This is the planet of the Daleks!” declares Missy as a delightful 1960s blue and silver model emerges to greet them. “CORR-ECT!” it barks, a herald from, well, everything that’s great about Doctor Who.
Mention of the ’60s prompts the further observation that this is not the only way the tale pays its respects to the early Dalek serials. Missy and Clara’s journey into the city – which both in exterior and interior echos back to the one we first saw in ‘The Dead Planet’ – comes complete with sheer ravines and subterranean nasties, calling to mind the kind of situations Terry Nation conjured up to imperil Ian, Barbara and company. Likewise, the unsophisticated process required for the schoolteacher to pilot a Mark III Travel Machine (with no existential call-back to Oswin Oswald – probably for the best). Both developments gladden the heart. Even within the complexities of modern day Doctor Who, there’s room for solid old-fashioned storytelling turns.
As ever, this review has dwelt a lot on the writing, so some words on performance. Michelle Gomez continues to charm as Missy. It’s an interpretation fizzing with unpredictability, a challenge in the edit maybe (one can imagine no two reads being alike) but it results in a character who feels truly alive. Dangerous too. She’s all predator when she and Clara first meet in episode one, bordering on the feral in the second, eyes blazing as she sharpens her weapon. Throughout all of that you get the impression Gomez is enjoying herself, an attribute that wouldn’t be welcome for every performance, but archly appropriate in this instance. Bound together with the Doctor’s companion for most of The Witch’s Familiar, she easily steps up to take the lead, creating a kind of a ‘through a glass, darkly’ take on the man himself. The scene where she bodily protects her new charge as a Dalek explodes is particularly notable, and helps sell the assertion – and there can surely be no dissenters here – that it’s only charisma, and not a specified gender, which is required to embody this children’s own hero.
Our last glimpse of Missy sees her being thoroughly Italian Jobbed. The ground is about to give beneath her feet, there’s no way out, and yet, “I’ve just had a very clever idea.” She’ll be back because she has to be. Michelle Gomez has to be.
Meanwhile, in Julian Bleach, modern day Doctor Who is given a take on Davros which is up above the gods. It’s an incredible turn, completely of a piece with Michael Wisher’s original interpretation, but possessed of its own mobility. He can scale the heights of megalomania, but he finds new places too. Where once, in a more foam-faced incarnation, the scientist screeched, “Have pity on me!”, Bleach’s performance manages to take the character into exactly that terrain. The simple visual of the Dalek creator now unable to raise his own head is an incredibly compelling indication of weakness (as limp, maybe, as a tease in a ‘spoiler-free’ review). It’s entirely believable the Doctor might be duped by his old enemy’s show of remorse… of emotion.
On that point, a side note. A continuing strength of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who is his willingness to reappraise every inch of the show. Genesis of the Daleks‘ guilty pleasure, that oversized Harry Sullivan-chomping mollusc, is revisited with a reference to “clam drones”. The TARDIS’ HADS are upgraded to the Hostile Action Dispersal System in another acronym-tweaking triumph for Cardiff’s very own Working Out The Actual Name department. And the series’ varying explanations for the existence of Atlantis are all folded into the narrative. But, best of all – and far less silly – is the depiction of Davros in tears. It was only last month, when reviewing Resurrection of the Daleks for DWM, that Richard Atkinson made reference to the creature’s ‘eyeless sockets’. Well, not so. Moffat’s thought the thought, and dared to challenge that assumption. It’s a very tangible, prosaically physical bit of re-imagining, and indicative of his approach. He doesn’t disrespect what came before, but he’s not scared to push against it.
Heavens, then. Maybe we are going to discover the real reason the Doctor left Gallifrey. Daunting, isn’t it?
Perhaps it’s something we always say at the start of a series, but this genuinely feels like Doctor Who is on the cusp of something completely new. Maybe bigger than ever before. It’s not just that old icons are being reinvented, it’s that other original creations are also uncoiling in front of our eyes. Colony Sarrf is a magnificent beast, the stuff of nightmares. Okay, the Doctor apparently heading off to meet his certain death isn’t such fresh territory, but it’s an acceptable marker of how gravely he considers Davros and maybe the threats still to come. His confession dial remains in play, meaning Chekov’s gun is most certainly on the table. But none of it appears doomy. This is not another journey into darkness – and that’s even taking into account the fact we now know that somewhere along the way, and somehow, Clara will fall. Instead, it’s a promise of high adventure and thrills to come with a Doctor who’s allowing a little fun back into his life.
Strap on the Strat, and pump up the amps. The future’s so bright…