Thoughts on: The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Oh, Moffat. Miffie. Stevie-babes. Why do we let you out? You’ve just gone and created the ultimate fan-pleasing story. Did you hear that strange high-pitched wailing noise as you were watching this? That was the sound of fans everywhere squeeing for dear life in perfect unison. We knew this would happen one day. Ever since we saw William Hartnell’s mug five times over the course of Series 5. Steven Moffat is an über-fan, and this is a script only an über-fan could have written. And it’s magnificent. As a series opener, it’s perfection; exactly the way to start a new, hotly-anticipated series of Doctor Who (and a late one, no less) — not with a pathetic whimper, as we were too often offered in Russell T Davies’ era (*cough* New Earth *cough* Partners in Crime *cough*), but with a resounding, earth-shaking roar, the roar of an electric guitar being rocked by—who else?—the Doctor.

We’re hit with a pretty huge bombshell within minutes of the episode’s opening as the Doctor discovers a little boy trapped on a battlefield amidst a field of hand mines, who, we learn shortly, is a young Davros. The Doctor helpfully conveys how thunderstruck we feel in his own stunned expression. It’s a staggering way to begin this opening two-parter; the breath has been wrenched from our lungs before the thing has even got started. It couldn’t portend more effectively that this series opener is going to be big. And this is really well conveyed by the following sequences. A shadowy, hissing figure who refers to himself in the plural searches the universe for the Doctor. Missy, who makes an absolutely brilliant entrance, freezes the skies of Earth just to get Clara’s attention because she can’t find the Doctor either. “Where is the Doctor?” the episode asks. What could possibly make the Doctor hide himself away like this? And why has the Doctor made a Time Lord will and testament?

It all very effectively conveys the impression of there being a greater narrative at work here, lending the episode a sense of scale and moment that makes it feel more like an epic series finale than an opener. The impression is, if anything, reinforced by the, frankly awesome, scenes of the Doctor throwing himself an outrageous party in medieval England. The Doctor’s entrance was jaw-droppingly amazing (the message: “Doctor Who is BACK, baby!”), but the sight of the Doctor acting so preposterously out-of-character makes acute the feeling that something is very wrong. Indeed, the whole thing feels very different from what we’re used to in Doctor Who, even for a two-parter. The weight of a large-scale narrative lends, at least to the first part, a flow and form that almost makes it feel like long-form serialised drama, like Game of Thrones. The very heavy invocation of the show’s continuity and history, the sense of strong connection to past events, and progression of an ongoing story, only reinforces that impression. Those who’ve commented that this story, The Magician’s Apprentice in particular, doesn’t feel like a Doctor Who story are right — it’s composed very differently from what we’re used to. Some don’t like that, but I really do. I think it’s at least good that the show is experimenting and trying to break out of the standard, tried-and-tested formulas it’s employed since 2005, and doing something different.

As an indication of the sweeping scale of this story, it churns through so many compelling and brilliant ideas, one after another, many of which could easily be the seeds of potentially fantastic stories of their own. The disappearance of the Doctor, for example. The story had great fun while it was playing with that particularly gripping idea. The hand mines — a wonderfully scary, well-conceived new monster. The relationship between the Doctor and the Master, “A friendship older than your civilisation, and infinitely more complex.” The question the Doctor posed to himself, “Who made Davros?” The apparent extermination of Clara and Missy at the mid-point cliffhanger, and the terrifying lengths to which the Doctor would go, either to bring them back, or to exact revenge. I could go on. This all sounds very messy, but the writing is tight. The script indulges itself momentarily in the various ideas it brims with, but doesn’t get sidetracked. It all forms a very coherent and engaging whole, as a story, apparently, about the Doctor and Davros’s final meeting.

Davros has called the Doctor to his side on the eve of his death, for reasons that don’t become clear until the second episode. Steven Moffat has said that part of the inspiration for this story was his desire to write a prolonged “face-off” between the Doctor and Davros, lamenting that all the scenes between the two over the show’s history have been electric, but that all were far too brief and cursory. Accordingly, the Doctor and Davros duly receive a proper chance to talk, for once, and Davros is served better than he’s ever been. It’s not just that the character is profoundly chilling and macabre, even at the point of death (my highest praise to Julian Bleach), the character of Davros is taken to entirely new territory. It’s captivating watching Davros weeping over the news of the salvation of Gallifrey, doubting his own life and morality, coming very close, like a dying penitent to a priest, to asking the Doctor for absolution, even sharing a joke with the Doctor. In short, Davros totally convinced as an ancient creature near death. Sensitive, emotionally intelligent and bewitching, as it was, it was some of the best writing Steven Moffat has ever produced for the show. And both Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi gave utterly magisterial, mesmerising performances.

And then it was revealed to be all a trick. All a ruse, exploiting the Doctor’s compassion to deceive him into employing his regeneration energy into reviving Davros and “renewing” the Daleks on Skaro (whatever that entails). I hate to say it, but I was a bit annoyed when this happened. I so, so wanted Davros’s apparent catharsis to be genuine, even if Davros ultimately lived. It would have made us see the character in a radically different light, a creature we once thought to be irredeemably evil, perhaps at least capable of redemption after all. And maybe it was time that something radically different was done with the character of Davros? If Davros were ultimately to repent for his own creations, it would open up exciting narrative possibilities for the future. That was ultimately what I was hoping for when I saw the “next-time” trailer in which the footage of Davros apparently offering the Doctor the opportunity to commit genocide against the Daleks was deceptively shown. I thought The Witch’s Familiar would involve Davros finally seeing the Daleks for the evil creations they are, and allying with the Doctor to destroy them. That would have been so much more bold and exciting than what we got, i.e. just Davros, the psychopathic evil scientist, up to his old tricks again. Nothing new to see here.

But I have to be fair. What we did get was still superb and amazing. Maybe I’m disappointed that the story squandered an exciting opportunity to do something truly audacious and interesting. Maybe I regret, in the spirit of the Tenth Doctor, that this story could have been so much more. But, considering the story on its own merits, for what it was rather than for what it could have been, it’s still the best thing Steven Moffat has written since the Series 5 finale in 2010. It’s still, to my mind, an instant classic, and one of the best Dalek stories ever; certainly the best Davros story ever. And considering the story in context, as a series opener, raises it even higher. It’s just the perfect story to usher in a new series of Doctor Who: grand, bold, extravagant, visually stunning, with an irresistibly seductive swagger. It makes you excited about Doctor Who again, and excited to see what the rest of the new series brings. Like The Eleventh Hour, this story is ideal for what it’s trying to do. The Eleventh Hour involved a fairly insubstantial plot, but, for an episode introducing a whole new era of Doctor Who, it was perfection. Likewise, this episode is just the perfect way to kick off a new year of Doctor Who, and I can forgive it its shortcomings to that end.

Some final thoughts. As good as this story was as a whole, I think my favourite thing about it was Missy (and Clara). I have to admit that I was somewhat ambivalent towards Missy in Series 8, but, after watching this story, I think I’m in love (figuratively speaking). Missy absolutely steals the show; it’s obvious Michelle Gomez is having delightful fun playing the bonkers, unhinged, comical she-Master, and it genuinely shows. There are so many brilliant scenes. Missy’s entrance alone was a total hoot, and the budding (and more than a little abusive) relationship between Missy and Clara was just a joy to watch. Gomez completely nails every line, from “No, I’ve not turned good!” to “Get in” (which was just pure comic genius). At the same time, Missy retains all the unsettling psychopathy and unpredictability of the character, as when she vaporises two soldiers in the plaza in response to a casual remark from Clara about her turning “good”, and when she attempts to trick the Doctor into killing Clara. She’s great fun, Missy, but she’s definitely not to be trusted. In any case, she’s firmly established herself as my favourite Master, surpassing John Simm by bounds. She can’t return soon enough.

Finally, I love this story as a Dalek story, as much as a Davros story. There were chilling sequences that made the Daleks a genuinely scary villain again. The cliffhanger scene, where the Daleks’ primal urge to kill was, if possible, palpably visible, was as suspenseful and frightening as anything in a Dalek story. Portraying the Daleks as predators, driven by an overpowering animalistic urge to hunt and kill, really injected, I think, the fear factor back into the Daleks. As well as this, the portrayal of the Daleks as channelling emotion through their guns was a fascinating, and chilling, insight into the way the Daleks work. It’s fascinating, albeit horrifying, to realise that emotion, any emotion, even love, is ammunition for the Daleks’ gun, is converted into lethal energy harnessed to kill. It’s a gruesome, horrific thought that, as much as it repulses me, actually also makes me feel for the Daleks as well.

Overall, an exceptional start to Series 9, and an undoubted classic to boot.

Rating: 9/10.

First thoughts: The Magician’s Apprentice [SPOILERS]

As per my blog policy of reviewing two-part stories together, I’ll wait until The Witch’s Familiar airs next week before doing a full-length review of the whole story. This is just going to be a quick round-up of my initial thoughts after watching the first episode.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

  • I’ll just say that I thought it was absolutely fantastic. If the second half holds up, this will easily be, by a good length, the best series opener so far. More than that, it’ll easily propel itself into the company of the show’s all-time classics if the second half is as good as the first. I think my mouth was stuck in a comical ‘o’ shape for the whole duration of the episode; I literally could not take my eyes off the screen. I’m going to be reeling for a fair while after this (and so you should be, too).
  • Something I really appreciated was that this was a very different kind of storytelling to what Doctor Who has traditionally done. Trust someone who’s gone through and reviewed every episode — this one is going to be somewhat more difficult to analyse and review because it’s so different to what I’m used to. This episode presents Doctor Who more as a serialised drama, with its strong continuity connections and its setting up of arc and narrative threads. It’s not Doctor Who’s traditional “monster of the week” format. There was a sense of scale and overarching magnitude that no Who episode has carried since The Day of the Doctor. The events of this story are definitely not going to be forgotten about any time soon.
  • And so the rumours about the Doctor meeting Davros as a child and being faced with the choice of whether to kill him or not were true. I thought that was an inspired story idea at the time, but seeing it onscreen is exhilarating. I love it when the show presents the Doctor with torturous moral dilemmas. In his decisions we learn something about the Doctor’s character, which can be every bit as exciting as new, scary monsters and alien planets. Here we learn that the Doctor would leave a small child to die in the hope of averting the creation of the Daleks (or, alternatively, since it isn’t explained, as punishment for what Davros would do in the future). “Davros made the Daleks, but who made Davros?” Really meaty, riveting stuff, this.
  • By the way, can I just indulge myself for a moment: OMFG DAVROS IS BACK!!!!!!@@@@ And back in jaw-dropping fashion. Davros’s return was not wasted by any means.
  • Dat cliffhanger tho. That was torturous. That was cruel. The last time we saw a lead character (let alone two) die onscreen was when the Doctor died in the beginning of The Impossible Astronaut, before he came back 5 minutes later. I think these were legitimate deaths, though. Not like Missy’s “death” at the end of Death in Heaven. It’s obvious how the story is going to go about reviving Clara and Missy (i.e. that final scene where the Doctor points a Dalek weapon at little Davros and declares he’s going to kill him to save his friend(s)). Or, at least, that’s how the episode wants us to think it’s going to happen. I sense Moffat deception afoot.
  • Skaro!!! It’s lovely to see the place again, and it looks amazing. It’s nice to see Doctor Who sojourning to legit alien planets again, after a very earth-bound Series 8.
  • I’m really intrigued by the Doctor’s “confession”. This seems like it’s going to be separate from the plot of this story, like it’s going to form part of an overarching narrative of Series 9. Those who’ve read enough spoilers would have a good idea that it has something to do with why the Doctor left Gallifrey in the first place. Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, HUGE.
  • The Doctor rocking out with his guitar and his Ray-Bans and his (fish-)tank in medieval England was possibly the coolest thing ever. I didn’t think old Twelvie had it in him. Although I’m not sure I like the Doctor’s new look — too scruffy. The Doctor has the biggest wardrobe in the universe, surely he could find something with fewer holes in it?
  • Missy’s entrance was probably just as awesome as the Doctor’s. Oh, Missy, you so fine.
  • In a very continuity-dependent episode, I loved all the little touches from the past inserted. Daleks of all shapes and sizes from 1963 to 2015 (thankfully the Tellytubby Daleks weren’t invited). And the playing out of that critical scene from Genesis of the Daleks where the Fourth Doctor agonises over whether to snuff out the Daleks at birth? Pure fanservice.
  • One of the few things that annoyed me was how easily the Tardis was shown to be destroyed. This is supposed to be the most indestructible ship in the universe, and it was disintegrated by a stray Dalek laser. How, exactly, did it survive the Time War?
  • From the “next time” trailer: did…did Davros just offer the Doctor the chance to kill all the Daleks? With his help? How can I be expected to wait a whole week for this? Oh, gosh, how I’ve missed two-parters.

Okay, so I ended up writing a lot more than I anticipated (approximately the length of one of my proper reviews, actually), but meh. There was a lot to talk about.

Thoughts on: Into the Dalek

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that Series 8 is making a very distinctive tonal shift from the Matt Smith era. I didn’t notice it the first time round, perhaps because, aesthetically, it’s all still very similar. But the first two episodes of Series 8 have been heavily thematic in a way Matt Smith episodes generally weren’t. And now that I think about it, the remainder of Series 8 was much the same. In the era of Capaldi, it seems, there’s to be less (gratuitous) explosions and chasing monsters, and more moral debates and journeys of self-discovery; a show that’s more philosophical and contemplative than adrenaline-fuelled (although doubtless there’ll still be more than enough of the latter). I like that. This episode in particular couldn’t have made the point more clearly that it was trying to be philosophical if Peter Capaldi had shown up wearing a cheesy novelty Socrates t-shirt: apart from the fact that it was set on a spaceship called Aristotle, the title, Into the Dalek, was a pretty good indication that it wanted us to prepare ourselves to be philosophised (that’s a word… well, it is now).

The thing is that, although the themes themselves were not uninteresting, it’s all been done before. To be sure, the idea of a “good” Dalek was intriguing, and the writing of Rusty’s exposition of how his mind was expanded by witnessing the birth of a star was really compelling. The ideas behind this episode, at least, were the seed of a potentially great story. And, on balance, the script was successful: it was involving, stimulating, intelligent, gripping, even funny. It’s just that its ideas are mostly not its own, they’ve been recycled from previous stories, which generally deployed them more successfully. It’s hard not to see this script as a less impressive remake of Dalek, for example. Resuscitating old ideas like this really isn’t what a “brave new era” of the show should be doing, and it gives the impression the show has run out of ideas before it’s even got started (anyone who’s seen the Series 9 trailer will know that’s rubbish, though).

And the questioning of the Doctor’s morality (Rusty’s being inspired by the Doctor’s hatred) isn’t as potent a theme as it might be, given that the show was doing precisely the same thing at this point in the previous series. Again, Series 7 questioned the Doctor’s morality more effectively than here because it did it by showing, not telling. We saw the Doctor deliberately leave Solomon to die a horrible, fiery death in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship as revenge for his crimes, we saw the Doctor actually kill several Daleks in Asylum of the Daleks, and come very close to sending Jex to his death in A Town Called Mercy. The Doctor’s hand-wringing in this episode is less effective in comparison, and not even Capaldi’s valiant acting made it totally convincing. The exception was the Doctor’s momentarily shocking sacrifice of Ross, which was notable for the comparison it raised with the Doctor’s previous selves: Matt Smith’s and David Tennant’s Doctors would at least have said “I’m sorry” with a genuinely agonised expression before committing the deed.

There was equally a lot in this episode to like, though. The episode felt energetic and exciting. Brimming with recycled ideas as it was, it was at least excited about those ideas, and I will concede that it showed. I didn’t care much for Danny Pink the first time I watched these episodes, but this time I actually thought the scenes between Danny and Clara were some of the episode’s best. The dialogue sparkled, and there’s instant chemistry between Jenna and Samuel Anderson. I’m even becoming somewhat interested in Danny Pink as a character, a sentence I never thought I’d find myself writing, after watching him shed a tear over the evidently unpleasant memory of his wartime exploits. I didn’t particularly like Journey Blue as a character (and I’m glad the Doctor didn’t take her on as a companion — one po-faced miser per Tardis, I think), but Zawe Ashton is a very talented actress. Also, even though I know what it’s all about now, I still find Missy and her “Promised Land”, which keep popping up, really intriguing (maybe because Michelle Gomez is a bewitching presence, even in only ten seconds of screen time).

One more thing. I found, and I’m still finding, the Doctor’s aversion to soldiers introduced in this episode to be baffling. I kind of understand it more after watching this episode again — I realised that the Doctor’s anti-soldier prejudice is related to his prejudice or hatred of the Daleks. But it still really confuses me, given that some of the Doctor’s greatest friends have been soldiers, like Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the other UNIT soldiers. It seems to have come out of nowhere. In any case, the Doctor should be intelligent enough to understand that being a soldier doesn’t make a person the same as a Dalek. It’s not like the Doctor to take such a cynical view of certain members of his favourite species, to write off a whole category of humans as totally flawed and beyond redemption because of their occupation. It’s just clumsy writing, I think, to set up a contrived conflict with Danny Pink.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: Asylum of the Daleks

Steven Moffat has gone for a dazzling blockbuster of an opener to kick off Series 7 featuring the Daleks as we’ve never seen them before. This was the first of the “movie poster” run of Series 7a, i.e. the first five episodes of the series, and it totally looks it. There are imposing scenes of the “Parliament of the Daleks”, spectacular views of the Dalek asylum planet, and every Dalek ever. It was as if the fanboys were put in charge of the show (Oh, wait…).  But one of this episode’s main triumphs was its portrayal of the Daleks. We hadn’t seen the Daleks for a full season, and Steven Moffat, in his first Dalek script, was determined not only to do something different with them, but to attempt that elusive feat of making the Daleks scary again. Given that the Daleks had progressively become less fearful a villain since Robert Shearman’s Dalek, having appeared more or less every year since the revival (sometimes twice), that was always going to be a daunting challenge, but I think Moffat pulled it off.

The “asylum of the Daleks”, where all the most insane Daleks are imprisoned, was a compellingly brilliant concept, and allowed Moffat to show the Daleks at their most terrifying. There were some genuinely scary moments in the asylum, where the Doctor, Amy and Rory encountered damaged and deranged Daleks, all that was left of some of which was their most fundamental, primal instincts: hatred and the urge to kill. I’m thinking of the wonderfully suspenseful “eggs…” moment where Rory clumsily awakens a long-dormant Dalek whose first urge is to “ex…ex…ex…ter…min…ate!” The concept of the planet’s nanogene cloud converting all organisms, living and dead, into Dalek puppets also gave the Daleks another terrifying weapon in their armoury, the sight of a Dalek eyestalk emerging from a human head was particularly gruesome.

It seems we can’t have a story about the Daleks these days that doesn’t also compare the Doctor to the Daleks, and the comparisons came thick and fast here. Well, perhaps not thick, but they were pretty obvious and heavy-handed. I’m not necessarily criticising, I generally find it exhilarating and compelling when the Doctor’s character is questioned by the show, or at least I do when it’s done well. The Dalek Prime Minister (*splutter* Prime Minister !?!) speculates that the Daleks’ adoration of hatred is why they have never been able to kill the Doctor. Thinking about it, that’s actually a very clever way to patch over that particular continuity hole, while also making a profound point about the Doctor’s character. They refer to him as the “Predator of the Daleks”, another cool title to add to the Doctor’s increasingly long list of cool titles, but which builds on a theme first established in Bad Wolf, i.e. that the Daleks, given their collective history with the Doctor, probably fear the Doctor now far more than he fears them. “We have grown stronger in fear of you,” Dalek Oswin pronounces.

Some might scorn the idea that the “mad man with a box” could have had such an intense impact on “the most advanced warrior race the universe has ever seen”, but certainly the Doctor’s triumphs over the Daleks have been so devastating and so traumatising for the Daleks collectively, that it should come as no surprise that the Daleks have developed this primal race memory identifying the Doctor as their eternal enemy and “predator”, and prompting them to instinctively fear the Doctor. It was very telling, after all, that the most “damaged” Daleks were the ones who’d survived the Doctor in previous battles. Who, honestly, seeing the Doctor murder a room full of Daleks without as much as a flinch of mercy, could say they doubt that the Daleks have reason to fear the Doctor, or that the Doctor really does hate the Daleks as much as they think he does.

This episode also boasted a strong character element, both with the melodrama around Amy and Rory’s deteriorating relationship, as well as Oswin’s shocking and confusing appearance. When I first saw this episode, I was genuinely worried that Amy and Rory were going to be separated permanently. I loved their coupling and couldn’t bear to see them apart. Watching Amy and Rory sniping cruelly at each other I just couldn’t stand. I found it excruciating. I should have known, that’s not how it works—Moffat would have had to contend with a lynch mob of angry fans (including this one) if he’d actually ended Amy and Rory that way. In any case, my reaction at least shows that the episode achieved what it set out to in this respect in making the audience care deeply about what happened to Amy and Rory on a personal level. Watching Amy forcefully repudiating Rory’s claim the he loves her more than she does him was really heartwrenching viewing, and simply sublime, powerful acting by Karen Gillan.

Oswin was a captivating, yet suspiciously enigmatic, presence onscreen while we thought she was a human. I was immediately enchanted by her as a potential companion, a girl-genius, with delectable sass and looks. Not to mention she was delightfully wacky enough to give even the Doctor a run for his money. Kind of like a modern Zoe. That made it all the more shocking when the bluff was uncovered and Oswin was revealed to be a Dalek with delusions of humanity. Her story was heartbreaking, and her final words, what would become her eternal words, “Run you clever boy, and remember…” truly make the hair stand on end.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Victory of the Daleks

I enjoyed this episode the first time I saw it. I still quite enjoy it now, but, with the benefit of time and distance, I can’t ignore the very real faults of this episode which compromise what potentially could have been a good story. For one, I was never entirely convinced of the premise. Daleks in wartime London fighting under Winston Churchill for the British war effort. It just seems more than a bit corny to me. As far as ideas go, it’s an eye-roller. It feels like a product of the excesses of an overactive fanboy imagination, as though Mark Gatiss pitched the idea to Moffat with the words “Wouldn’t this be freaking awesome?” and Moffat, the eternal fanboy, nodded his fervent enthusiasm and, before they knew it, they were making a story about Daleks fighting Nazis. I mean, I get that World War II is a very symbolically fitting setting for a Dalek story, given that the Daleks were inspired by the Nazis, but that doesn’t prevent this idea from being cringe-inducingly corny.

That said, the mystery of why the Daleks were working for Churchill was interesting and made for an intriguing plot. However, I think the answer to this mystery could have been revealed better. In truth, it was actually only upon this rewatch that I understood what the point of it all was, i.e. that the Daleks needed the Doctor’s “testimony” to convince their Progenator device to recognise them as real Daleks (I’m not surprised; the thick pepper pots can’t even spell “progenitor” correctly). It was a slightly convoluted explanation that merited more than the brief attention it got; it was very much a “blink and you miss it” explanation. Then, with much fanfare, we were introduced to the “New Dalek Paradigm”. I think it’s fair to say that time has not been friendly to these redesigned multi-coloured Daleks. Reading contemporary reviews, the reception seemed to have been generally positive at the time, but fan opinion of the new Daleks now tends to be invariably negative; and the producers seem to have got the message: the New Dalek Paradigm haven’t been seen since. When I first saw the redesigned Daleks, I thought they were awesome. But that was when I was fifteen and thought everything Doctor Who did was awesome. I’m less starry-eyed now. Admittedly, the redesigned Daleks do have an enhanced menace due to their intimidating size and their deeper, more guttural tones, but the colours and the softer contours have the opposite effect of making them look comical. They’re Power Ranger Daleks. The old Daleks, with their stark, metallic quality, were action figure Daleks; these are plush toys. They didn’t work, as I think everyone now agrees.

Matt Smith continues to shine in his early days as the Eleventh Doctor. I’ve said this before, but already it feels like Matt wears the role with visible ease and control. He exudes authority and age, and has captured the character of his Doctor masterfully. It generally takes a while for a new actor to establish themselves in the eyes of the audience as the Doctor rather than just an actor trying to play the Doctor—I’ll admit it took me a while to accept Capaldi as the Doctor—but Matt Smith has remarkably quickly made the role entirely his own and entrenched himself as the Doctor. It’s hard to imagine anyone else as the Doctor even after only three episodes. We’re learning more about Matt’s Doctor with every episode. In the last episode we learnt that Eleven is mercurial and moody. Here we see that again in his startling, ferocious outburst against one of the Daleks. We see that Eleven is a man of passion, passion that can very easily get the better of him. We know that Eleven, while most of the time unassuming and placid, is emphatically not a Time Lord you’d want to get on the wrong side of. It’s also very telling that, in trying to convince Bracewell of his humanity, he attempts to summon up Bracewell’s feelings about the death of his loved ones, while Amy knew better to evoke Bracewell’s memories and feelings of love. Although he’ll never let on, the Doctor is a man constantly, inescapably haunted by the spectre of death.

I thought that resolution, by the way, of Amy’s evoking Bracewell’s feelings of love to deactivate the bomb, was very touching and the most satisfying thing about this episode. Amy’s dialogue at that moment was powerful, and very deftly and movingly conveyed by Karen Gillan. It was one of the redeeming aspects of this episode, which, on the whole, was a decent and enjoyable effort despite the very visible faults.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End

What a show. I’d forgotten how incredible the Series 4 finale was, and I’m happy to admit I was thoroughly blown away upon this rewatch. Russell T Davies upped the ante to full blast and delivered the most magnitudinous story yet, the stakes higher than they’ve ever been before or possibly since, and a great, walloping belter of a script to go with it. It was simply epic. This was RTD’s magnum opus, even, I daresay, outshining the magnificent Series 1 finale, or at the very least matching it. It simply had everything: Daleks, Davros, the end of the universe, every possible character from the preceding four years you could ever have wanted brought back, Rose, and two (three?) Doctors. Admittedly, there was a great deal of nonsense in there—something on this scale is bound to have a bit of nonsense—but somehow even the nonsense came together with everything to produce one of RTD’s most memorable stories of all.

The Earth has moved. That was the ingenious and jaw-dropping plot point established at the outset of The Stolen Earth. It wasn’t only the characters who were left in awe as the sky congested with heavenly bodies. It soon becomes clear, of course, that this was the Daleks’ doing. A chill ran down my spine when I heard that Dalek battle cry: “Exterminate!”. The dread and tears in the eyes of Martha, Jack and Sarah-Jane as the Dalek mantra played out over the recording expressed more than words could. We, the viewers, having seen the Doctor defeat the Daleks so many times now have become desensitised to the threat of the Daleks, but the terror the Daleks truly are capable of inducing was so powerfully conveyed in this scene that the threat became real. Say what you want about the Daleks’ being reused too much, but scenes like this show that the producers know how to keep them scary. This was particularly brought home to me when we were shown scenes of the Daleks destroying the city and murdering civilians—perhaps for the first time in the revival we were shown the true, terrible destructive power of the Daleks. And then Davros showed up, as creepy and gruesome as ever, and that’s when it became obvious that sh*t was getting real.

There was a very bleak, gloomy little sequence where it looked like all had been lost, that everyone had given up without a fight. Sarah-Jane, and Captain Jack and Torchwood were all resigned to the end. “I’m sorry. We’re dead,” said Jack, utterly broken. Sarah-Jane was hugging and weeping for her boy. The United Nations had surrendered Earth to the Daleks. The Doctor stood in grim silence as Donna begged him vainly to do something. It was intense, somber viewing. But then the familiar, irritating voice of Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister (okay, okay, you know…), cut in and an optimistic ray of hope glinted through the black clouds. She began mobilising the Doctor’s old allies and friends, and I felt more affection for her then than ever before. As the Doctor’s allies began moving to get in contact with him, it was obvious what a profound influence the Doctor has had on each of these people. I was somewhat reminded of Dumbledore’s Army from Harry Potter, those loyal to the Doctor holding out and mobilising a resistance in his name, following his example… Needless to say, Harriet Jones went out with nobility when she sacrificed herself to ensure the Subwave signal reached the Doctor. The Doctor would have been proud.

It was painful watching Rose’s frustration that she was unable to speak to the Doctor when the Doctor finally made contact with his Army. Nevertheless, that made their eventual reunion in person all the more moving. Rose and the Doctor’s reunion was truly stirring. I came as close as I ever have to tearing up watching Doctor Who. This being Who, though, there had to be a catch, and that cockblocking Dalek set up one killer of a cliffhanger. A triple-pronger, involving Sarah-Jane and Donna’s parents separately about to be exterminated by Daleks, and the Doctor regenerating, surely that was the best cliffhanger this show has ever done? I remember being in agony after watching that when this episode was first broadcast. I’m sure everyone was. The siphoning of the Doctor’s regeneration energy into his spare hand, his “bio-matching receptacle” was clever, but it was a bit of a waste of a regeneration on the part of RTD, all for a good cliffhanger. But, God, it was a good cliffhanger.

We meet the Daleks and the TARDIS and Donna are deposited into the molten core of the Crucible. Enter the Meta-Crisis Doctor, growing out of the Doctor’s glowing, regeneration energy-saturated hand. I think we were all as shocked as Donna was. Many disparage the Meta-Crisis Doctor as an absurd product of creative excess on RTD’s part, a character dreamed up just to give Rose a happy ending (implicitly spoiling her “perfect” ending in the Series 2 finale), and I can see where such criticisms are coming from, but… yeah, I don’t know how to justify my liking of the creation of the Meta-Doctor and my overlooking all the continuity issues it created other than to say that I just found the Meta-Doctor an awesome plot device in this story. I was grinning from ear to ear when the Meta-Doctor appeared, starkers, and slightly raving, and saved Donna and the TARDIS at the last second. I also thought it was awesome when all seemed lost, the Reality Bomb about to be detonated, and the TARDIS, radiating with celestial light, appeared in the Daleks’ midst. “Brilliant”, as Jack said, about sums it up. RTD, in typical fashion, though, gave us hope and then cruelly snatched it away. Usually this would be the point where the day is saved, but this is RTD we’re talking about, who revels in the cruelly unexpected. This is the man who, in Voyage of the Damned, made the Doctor promise to all the characters that he would save them, and then proceeded to kill off all of them except the most disagreeable one. It was never going to be that predictable.

I want to take a moment to talk about the way this story commented upon the Doctor’s character. Davros observed piercingly that, though the Doctor renounces violence and refuses to carry a weapon, the way he fights is perhaps even more sinister: he conscripts his companions and fashions them into weapons to do the bloody business he won’t do. He keeps his hands clean while his companions, his foot-soldiers, bloody theirs in his name and on his behalf. He changes his companions, makes them into murderers. This is a constant trope running through Doctor Who; it’s one of the integral functions of the companion: the Doctor can’t be seen to be engaging in violence, so the companion carries out what violence needs to be committed. Only now has this pattern ever actually been commented on onscreen and shown to be a reflection of the Doctor’s character, of the sinister effect of the Doctor’s influence and of the genuinely disturbing manipulativeness of the Doctor. That the Doctor manipulates and influences his companions into potentially committing genocide (and actually committing genocide—remember Rose as the Bad Wolf?) perhaps makes him even more sinister than if he were to do it himself. Davros about summed it up: “The Doctor. The man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.” The Doctor’s soul was laid bare, and I, at least, found it captivating and compelling viewing—disturbing, yes, but still captivating.

I loved the Doctor-Donna resolution. I found it really exhilarating and just awesome. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t grin broadly the first time they watched Donna wiggling those controls and prattling off incomprehensible techno-babble to stop the detonation and make sock-puppets of the Daleks. Some hate it. I adore it. I know it’s ridiculous nonsense and a total deus ex machina cop-out if there ever was one—the idea that Donna’s humanity made her even more brilliant than the Doctor when she absorbed the Doctor’s mind was particularly ridiculous—but I just found it a wonderfully ecstatic resolution. I’m more than willing to overlook the admittedly absurd “walking plot resolution created purely by chance” that was Doctor-Donna, as one reviewer described it, because of how much I enjoyed watching that. I found it satisfying and fulfilling, and that scene, more than any other, made me love Donna. Meta-Doctor’s annihilation of the Daleks was also a very confronting moment, and Davros’s hysterical denunciation of the Doctor as “Destroyer of Worlds” was chillingly powerful, an uncharacteristically dark note amidst the jubilant resolution.

The sight of the Doctor(s) and all his companions and friends bringing the Earth back home was ecstatic and heartwarming, a tribute not only to all the characters and actors who contributed to the RTD era, but an exultant tribute to companionship and working together. It was a lovely, beautiful scene, the Doctor surrounded by all the people whose lives he’s touched and who love him. What a striking contrast it was only a short time later, after the Doctor had seen all his companions off, and he stood in the TARDIS, alone again. Saying farewell to Donna must have been particularly agonising for him. It was agonising enough to watch. It was heartbreaking watching Donna plead with the Doctor not to send her back, not to turn her back into how she was. She knew, more than anyone, that she was better for having been with the Doctor, which made it all the more tragic that she had to lose it all, everything she’d been and done, and go back to how she was. Oh, Donna, you didn’t deserve this. RTD really knows how to tug the heartstrings.

To summarise my disjointed review, I thought this finale was spectacular. Absolutely spectacular. I only write this much for a review when I think the story truly merits it—the last time I wrote this much was for Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, which was also an amazing finale. It ended on a poignant note, setting up the “farewell tour” that would be the specials year, culminating in the Tenth Doctor’s magnificent swan song, The End of Time. For now, though, I thought RTD ended his last series as Doctor Who’s showrunner on a lustrous high, this finale the gleaming culmination of a fantastic series in general. Bravo.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks

This one seems to be a controversial story among the fandom, but I don’t share the vitriol directed at it by some quarters. I think it had a really bold and genuinely interesting idea which it carried out for the most part successfully. The Cult of Skaro, for one, is probably the most interesting thing done with the Daleks since Genesis of the Daleks presented their origins story: a faction of Daleks, now the last four Daleks in existence, founded by the Emperor to think as the enemy does and find new ways of surviving, a mission that ultimately led them to fuse human and Dalek DNA to create “human Daleks”. This is a brilliant instance of the writers’ searching for new and interesting things to do with the Daleks, an idea which had a lot of potential and, at least in this story, delivered. Human Daleks are an ingenious, fresh idea which were realised effectively onscreen in the freaky Dalek Sec. Perhaps it’s just me, but I found the phenomenon of a walking, talking Dalek in human form very skin-crawling. However, I’d like to have seen the human Dalek less… er, human. There seemed to be little of the Dalek left in him, while I think it would have been more effective to portray a creature being psychologically tortured as its irreconcilable human and Dalek natures fought for supremacy. This one seemed to be just a malformed human who identified as a Dalek. My other criticism of the plot would be that it probably carried on for too long—it could have been fit into one episode and worked more effectively.

That the Doctor was willing to help the Daleks was evidence of what a bold idea it was. One couldn’t help but sympathise with the Doctor: Sec, the human Dalek, seemed like something totally new and revolutionary. The Doctor may have been naive to believe that the Daleks, even as reduced and wretched as they were then, would ever give up their purity and their belief in the supremacy of pure Daleks. For a time, though, he allowed himself to hope due to the wonder before him: the most extraordinary Dalek that had ever lived, who was willing to abandon everything that made the Daleks what they were, ultimately to end the Dalek race. The Doctor showed how resentful the cruel scuppering of the vain hope he had that the Daleks could change had made him when he confronted the Daleks in the theatre. David Tennant was in luminous form in this story, especially in the most intense moments between the Doctor and the Daleks. Those monologues in which the Doctor is ranting and preaching are where Tennant shines most.

I have yet more words of praise for Martha, who showed brilliant ingenuity and resource again in this story—you know what I’m talking about, the thing on the Empire State Building roof with the lightning conductor to kill the pig slaves. That was brilliant. It’s great having a companion who’s so clever and resourceful. Martha also showed her feisty side as she defied the Doctor when he “ordered” her to flee the theatre and go back to Hooverville: “Who are you, then? Some sort of Dalek?” I’m liking her more and more with every episode. Following the much beloved Billie Piper was going to be a challenging task, but Agyeman is acquitting herself more than admirably here, at least in my opinion. Tallulah was also a great character; she was sweet, likable, brave and kind, showing what a great person she was in accepting Laszlo even as a deformed mutant. She was played very well by Miranda Raison.

Rating: 8/10.