5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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INTO THE DALEK
Right. It’s all on now. Enough of this regeneration faffing - time to see the real Doctor. And? Is everybody happy? You bet your life we are.
The stuff we were lukewarm about in Deep Breath has thankfully vanished without a trace. Gone, in particular, is the whimsical humour which Matt Smith delivered with panache but which sat on this Doctor like a party hat on a skeleton. Instead, we’ve got the style of humour we were hoping for: dark, acerbic and as dry as a mouthful of sand. Perfect.
We’re also thrilled by the retrenchment of romance. We weren’t opposed in principle to them sexing up the TARDIS: it all depended on how it was done, and while it had some effective moments (like the Eleventh Doctor’s jealousy of Rory), we never felt they made much of a case for its realism. As they took pains to point out in Deep Breath, no matter how dewy the Doctor’s features appeared to be, the age gap was always absurd. We understand Peter Capaldi insisted on this development over the pouting of the BBC, and we’d like to buy that man a drink.
Not only has removing the romantic element between Doctor and companion swept a refreshing breeze through the TARDIS, it’s also brought the splendid bonus along with it of underlining the Doctor’s alienness. Given that he’s alone in the universe in not thinking Clara’s a stunner, it couldn’t be clearer that he’s not one of us. Which is exactly how it should be.
And so far we’re entranced by the rest of the Doctor’s character, too. He’s been creeping closer and closer to sainthood in recent years, which was always a bit of a yawnarama. We’re loving the relentless logic that sometimes shows as callousness, and just the sheer darkness of it all. It’s not that they’ve never hinted at it before - some of Matt Smith’s and David Tennant’s most effective moments were when they showed the steel beneath the charm - but it’s a lot of fun to see it a bit further up in the mix.
And we love the way they took us by surprise with this. We’d got too used to the saintly Doctor, and when he brandished his screwdriver at the suspiciously familiar crack and turned the Dalek back to the dark side, we were disappointed. We were under the impression that the Doctor was a pretty smart guy. Even around a Dalek you wouldn’t expect him to have lost complete control of his brain, we thought, so why does he never seem to consider for a moment the very real, indeed overwhelmingly likely possibility that it’s this very crack of doom that’s making the Dalek nice? In fact, we expected him by this stage to be halfway down the track of a plan to crack ‘em all in the same place or something sensible like that. It seemed like one of our least favourite scenarios: the plot that depends for advancement on smart people doing stupid things.
But nooooo, we were totally wrong. The Doctor knew all along that the chances were high that fixing the Dalek would make it standard-issue. And despite the opportunity offered by an anti-Dalek Dalek to destroy the Daleks once and for all, liberating the entire universe through space and time, he doesn’t care. His only thought is to find out if he was right. Now that’s the kind of non-saint we like to see, and it’s completely Doctorly to boot.
But it’s not simplistic, either. The Doctor might be all logical and sciency, coolly exploiting the death of somebody he can’t save and putting being right over saving the universe, but he’s also taking steps to put his martial past behind him. The War Doctor is dead and buried in an unmarked grave: the Doctor’s attitude to soldiers makes that very clear. Not only does he not like them, he very clearly no longer considers himself one: he says to Blue ““[Crying’s] how we communicate with you lot.”
Great, complex stuff. Which is not to say, however, that we like everything about the new Doctor’s character development, because we could really do without his brow-furrowing about whether he’s a good man. Sucks to be us, because this is clearly going to be a recurring theme, but we think it’s utterly pointless. The answer is obvious: yes, but not entirely, because that would be not only unrealistic but as boring as being forced to watch Fear Her on an endless loop. In slow motion. He stuffs up on occasion and can be selfish and self-absorbed, but in the end, if he weren’t trying to make a difference none of us would be watching. (And while we’re at it: can we drop the god thing now, please? Divinity, our collective arses.)
So oh yeah, in the main loving the Doctor. It occurs to us that we haven’t said much about why he’s so good, but there’s not a lot to say about perfection. Peter Capaldi is an actor who has few equals, and now things are properly underway, they’re amplifying that by playing to his very considerable strengths. That’s a pretty powerful combination. Simply put, he’s dazzling. It’s going to be quite a ride.
And the other leads are impressive, too. We started off by loving Clara at first, then got a bit sick of her as the character disappeared under the weight of the over-tricksy Impossible Girl stuff. With the new Doctor, it’s clear just how good at this Jenna-Louise Coleman is. She’s our favourite new series companion by far. And her relationship with this Doctor is turning out to be pretty interesting. Like the Doctor says, she cares so he doesn’t have to: she’s basically his mobile conscience. When he gets hip-deep in Timelordy stuff, it’s up to her to remind him that actions have consequence and it’s a good idea if he interests himself in what those are. This, over time, could get a bit scoldy, but we’re not seeing stasis in this Doctor, so hopefully this won’t turn out to be a problem. We’re looking forward to seeing how things evolve between them.
Then there’s the new guy. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single companion in possession of a TARDIS must be in want of a boyfriend, and if that’s not going to be the Doctor, somebody else had better step up and quick about it. Mr Pink (thanks, Quentin) enters trailing clouds of intrigue, as usual. Sigh. “Remember the days when the Doctor just went places and helped people?” one of us said wistfully. Not now. Now we have to have mystery dripping from every pore, and as soon as one gets cleared up, another one trundles in to fill the gap. We’re trying not to hold this against Danny, though, because it’s not his fault. Samuel Anderson’s doing a good job with him so far: the scenes between him and Clara are obviously Moffat-penned, and they’re really nice. So we’re happy to see more of where this is going.
Yeah. So that’s the good stuff. The rest is about Daleks.
It’s not that we’re opposed to Dalek stories outright. They’re scary beasts, or at least they can be in the right hands. It’s just that they’re so often misused, overused and generally trashed right and left that we don’t exactly greet their appearance with a song in our hearts.
And the appearance of the angry pepperpots this early in Peter Capaldi’s tenure had a thudding inevitability about it. It’s a trick that goes back more than fifty years: if you’re worried about a Doctor taking, put a Dalek on it. It worked a treat for the First Doctor. This time, Auntie Beeb was obviously hoping the audience would be so hopped up on Daleks they wouldn’t notice a horrifyingly grey-haired Doctor: we said last week we thought this was underestimating the audience, and we’re happy to say we were right about that, because the audience appears, quite rightly, to have clasped this Doctor to its bosom. Making the over-hasty appearance of the Daleks a bit of a waste of firepower.
So how did they do this time? Well, we’ve seen worse (Planet Of The Daleks). A lot worse (Victory Of The Daleks). We bet lots of people found it deeply entertaining, and fair enough too. For us, it was a mixed bag.
Some things are good. The entire first thirteen minutes, for example. The character work is exemplary, there’s great direction, pretty lighting, a bit of cutting back and forth in time. Nice. We also like the scale: as with Deep Breath, it's mostly on a canvas manageably sized for 46 minutes. It’s when we get inside the Dalek that it starts to go downhill.
First of all, we’re just not fans of BDA (Big Dumb Action). Partly, this is just a matter of what you like to watch, not an indicator of quality. The number of action movies being made shows that we’re in the minority on this issue. But we will say that when we say dumb, we don’t just mean that all action is dumb. For it to grip the audience, surely it has to make some sense. Why, for example, would you continue to blaze away at Daleks when you know that your firepower has about as much impact as flinging marshmallows at them? (Personally, we‘d throw down our guns, run away and hide. We doubt plungers are particularly well adapted to hunting through cupboards. Then you could sneak out on guerrilla raids rather than going down in a noble yet pointless sacrifice.) Similarly, why does Blue fire at the antibodies when it’s clear that’s the quickest way to get them to kill you?
But what we have against it most of all is that it adds very little to the canon that wasn’t there before. We said about Deep Breath that originality is a struggle in a long-running series, and all the other SF being churned out using up ideas doesn’t help. In other words, we’re trying to be all reasonable and latitude-giving. But to be honest, we’re not actually succeeding. There are a hell of a lot of good ideas in the world, and try though we might to cut slack, in our hearts we actually believe that there’s no excuse for mining the familiar instead of exploring the new.
That they know they’re doing it makes it even worse. The Doctor actually references Fantastic Voyage, as if them pointing out they know it’s been done before makes it OK. It doesn’t. Not to us, anyway. We’d rather you didn’t, but use a previously done idea as a springboard if you must, providing you do something new and interesting with it. But the point is that they don’t. This episode is a cross between The Invisible Enemy and Dalek, and absolutely nothing more. That’s deeply disappointing.
This is particularly the case when the Doctor starts to debate philosophy with the Dalek. Peter Capaldi’s mesmerising turn can’t conceal the fact that we’ve done this - exactly this - before. In fact, so close is it to what happened in Dalek that when we looked back at our review of Dalek we found that chunks of it sounded like we’d written it for this episode. “Why don’t we just put that stuff in again?” one of us suggested. “It’s not like they’ll have it engraved on their hearts.” She made a powerful case, so here it is again:
What we can't accept is the script's constant shoving at us to condemn the Doctor for his feelings. Daleks. Ahem. Terrifying killing machines, responsible for the deaths of millions? Remember? But just because this one is slightly cuddly, we're supposed to think the Doctor's a Very Bad Person for hating it and wanting it to die. Que? Let's put this in the context Terry Nation was so fond of: the Nazis. Who amongst us if confronted with Hitler would feel any different from the Doctor? We'd be more likely to think there was something wrong with us if we didn't.
But feeling this hate means the Doctor's just as bad as the Dalek, right?
Of course it bloody doesn't. The Dalek hates because that's in its job description. It doesn't discriminate: it's an equal opportunity hater. The hatred the Doctor feels, on the other hand, is a direct response to the evil the Dalek represents, not to mention its track record. Spot the difference. Given that the Doctor hates the Dalek precisely because of the Dalek's evil, we don't think there's much danger of him turning into a Dalek any time soon. And because getting us to condemn him is much of what the episode's about, that takes a lot of the stuffing out of it.
Yeah, like that. The Doctor hates the Daleks. Update: still hates the Daleks. Well, that was interesting, wasn't it? Why are we going through this exact same stuff a second time, even down to the minimal evolution from “You would make a good Dalek” to “You are a good Dalek”?
And as for the Doctor accidentally persuading the Dalek back to his way of thinking: really? One of us said “I can’t imagine why he’d want to mindmeld with a Dalek - it seems like the stupidest move ever.” When we remonstrated that he was desperately trying to turn the Dalek, she said “Yeah, but it’s exposing it to a lot of Time Lord nous. Would you connect this Dalek to your network?” We would not connect this Dalek to our network. We can only hope that Time Lords have really good firewalls, but since the Dalek was seeing into the Doctor’s soul, we doubt it.
It’s a shame. Daleks have got so much potential that it’s sad we automatically assume their episodes are going to be duff ones. But that’s our experience. So it’s actually quite high praise from us when we say that, thanks mostly to a lot of really good character work, for a Dalek episode this could have been a lot worse.
MORAL: All you need is hate.
Of course Clara teaches at Coal Hill School.
They’re very keen for us to appreciate the red lining of the Doctor’s jacket, aren’t they? Well, we do: it’s very pretty.
Uncle Whatsit says they don’t take prisoners. So how come they’ve got the broken Dalek in chains?
How, exactly, are they breathing in there at that size? We had to pause for a very long time to discuss what would happen when a miniaturised human lung met non-miniaturised air, a process which involved not only spirited discussion but the holding up of Dalek models and lengthy calculations to estimate the size of the lungs (and molecules) in question. Just be grateful you don’t work with us.
USE THE FARCE
And the references roll on: that pit of glug couldn’t have been a more obvious Star Wars reference.
DUST TO DUST
“Oh my God, what’s it doing?” “The hoovering.” Killer line.
So the Doctor finds that fixing the Dalek makes it all evil again, right? And he dispatches Clara to crawl through the vents and join wires together in a very possibly have-I-the-right moment? Well, why doesn't he just go back and un-weld the crack? (Thanks to Chris Smowton for pointing out we'd missed this bit.)
The Daleks harvest humans for protein? Really? How does it get in? Through the plunger?
We couldn’t stop laughing as Clara and Blue climbed “up” the “vertical” surface like 1960s TV Batman and Robin. It only needed a string to yank their clothes.
It's way, way past time they canned women slapping men on this show. It's not cute and sexy. It's assault.
SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE EASIEST WORD
First the Doctor was doing all the apologising. Now, with this Doctor, it’s other people: first Blue, then her uncle. What does it all mean?