Tuesday, 6 October 2015

DOCTOR WHO: THE WITCH'S FAMILIAR/UNDER THE LAKE review


HISTORY REPEATING
The opening stories of Doctor Who's 2015 series have drawn heavily on other sources, with varying results.

'SHH! Don't mention the viewing figures!' (Image copyright: BBC)
THE WITCH’S FAMILIAR
The performances were great, the visual effects impressive, the direction inventive, but

‘The Witch’s Familiar’ didn’t work for me because it focused solely on the fate of the regular/recurring characters. Nine years into 21st century Doctor Who, we know that the Doctor, the companion and the Master aren’t going to die, and that Davros probably won’t, so with the fate of no supporting characters at stake, the inevitable resolution of the regulars surviving wasn’t a surprise. The conclusion of Davros (inevitably) tricking the Doctor and the Doctor (inevitably) anticipating being tricked and outthinking Davros was also predictable and disappointing, too.

I guess that’s a case of being careful what you wish for: two weeks ago, I’d wanted ‘50 minutes of the Doctor debating morality and ethics with the Dalek’s creator,’ and when the script concentrated on that – with Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach at the top of their game – you forgot about the limitations of the set-up, and were swept up in the idea of Davros being given a redemptive death by the Doctor showing him some compassion. That’s a lovely blurring of the moral certainties around the characters that was completely flattened by the clich├ęd ‘I wasn’t fooled for a minute!’ ending.

(Image copyright: DC Comics, 1988)
When ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ established the idea that Davros and the Doctor are in many ways the same, as well as suggested this was because he’d been responsible for the creation of Davros as we’d previously seen him, I was reminded of the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. In that, Batman is shown to have created the Joker when, trying to avoid the caped vigilante, he jumps into a vat of chemicals that transform his appearance and drive him insane. ‘Under the Lake’, the episode following ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, is full of obvious fantasy references, but the latter had a subtler form of homage, confirmed this week when the Doctor and Davros both laugh at the joke ‘You’re not a very good Doctor’; The Killing Joke ends with the Joker and Batman laughing at a joke his nemesis makes (above).

Moffat also snuck in another two pleasing references, one to Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the other to Michael Caine’s ‘60s caper movie The Italian Job. (I’m not going to say what they are: you can have fun working it out). I’d also bet that the Doctor zooming around in Davros’s chair among the Daleks – a great image – was inspired by a 1960s TV Comic strip in which the Second Doctor commandeers the bottom half of a Dalek and does the same.

Those incidental pleasures aside, what concerned me most about the opening Dalek two-parter was the way it recycled a lot of previously used Doctor Who ideas: the Doctor missing/on the verge of death, the impossible girl imprisoned inside a Dalek – even if the psychology behind that was a clever touch – and Daleks turning on Daleks are all ideas that have been done before, some of them very recently. I can’t decide if the decrepit Daleks made of sewage rising up against the Dalek/Time Lord hybrids – the Daleks being defeated by their own crap, effectively – was an inspired concept or the most risible that Doctor Who’s ever come up with. The jokey line ‘Dalek Supreme, your sewers are revolting’ didn’t help.

You can have all the stunning production values and set pieces you want, but ‘Sorcerer’/’Witch’ relied too much on them, at the expense of what Doctor Who’s always done best – tell a good, well thought out story.

Bit to rewind: Missy pushing Clara into the sewer.

UNDER THE LAKE
Not telling a good story isn’t a criticism you could make of Toby Whithouse’s first script for Capaldi. A new take on the classic Doctor Who scenario of an isolated based under siege, it was genuinely creepy, atmospheric and strange. It might have been built from the science fiction films Solaris, Quatermass and the Pit, the Alien movies, The Abyss and Event Horizon, but Doctor Who has always borrowed from other fictions. It’s the flip side to filling a story with predictable series continuity – making something creatively new from external sources.

‘Under the Lake’ has what I like best about Doctor Who: a situation the Doctor hasn’t encountered before, so he has to work it out with the help of the new people he encounters, who in turn gradually come to trust him. That concept never gets old, as you can take it in so many directions. Ghosts under water? Terrific.

OK, there could have been bit more conflict and character among the base crew, but, for the first time in a very long time in Doctor Who, it was great to see someone who was disabled, the deaf Cass (played by the deaf actress Sophie Leigh Stone), in a position of authority. I had hoped she would be there as a virtue of her fitness for the job, so it was slightly disappointing her deafness became a plot point as she was able to lip read what the ghosts were saying. Still, a major step forward.

The pace was slow, but it needed to be, and I enjoyed the long, cerebral dialogue scenes. Sonic sunglasses? Not sure, although Capaldi looks good in them, but what I didn’t like was the cliffhanger that revealed the Doctor had apparently died – again! Is anyone paying attention to the order these stories are shown in?

So far, the opening two stories are the reverse of each other: Moffat’s full of recycled Doctor Who ideas with understated genre allusions, Whithouse’s a new take on a staple Doctor Who format with obvious, but cleverly reinterpreted, cinematic reference points.

I’m really looking forward to next week, but here’s a thing: can we please have a new Doctor Who story that doesn’t owe a huge creative debt to something else? We did last year.

Bit to rewind: The Doctor sorting through his ‘tactful’ prompt cards.

While I was typing this up in the library, a young boy from a visiting class was excitedly telling his teacher about the opening Dalek story.

What do I know?

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