Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Curse Of Fatal Davros

Doctor Who
The Magician's Apprentice and The Witch's Familiar
Series Nine, Episodes One and Two

I wasn't going to bother this year.

I haven't retreated to a monastery to ignore Doctor Who or anything, but I am marginally busier these days and I don't feel much urge to review it any more.  Shrug; plenty of other people do it.  But then I realised I was still watching it and spending just as much time griping about it as ever, so what the hell, eh?  It'll keep my committed band of followers (a dozen people still desperately trying to Google their friend Neil) happy.  You're welcome.

So, as we're all here and Doctor Who is back on, let's pick it to bits.  The Magician's Apprentice.  Grand title, great big plotty ideas, first part of two.  How does it fare?  Short, charitable answer: it's all build up.  Slightly longer and more honest answer: it's a lot of waiting for Part Two to happen.

It begins on a mysterious battlefield.  The Doctor sees a small boy in peril.  What else does he do but try to rescue him?  There's just one snag: his name's Davros.  So, naturally assuming there's only one Davros on the entire planet, the Doctor tucks his tail between his legs and leaves him to the mercy of the handmines (alas, not a typo).  Ages later, apparently in his death throes, Davros (for some reason) suddenly remembers that time the Doctor stitched him up and understandably wants a word.  Cue the Doctor dragging his feet en route to his last meeting with Davros – and apparently, his own death.

"My name's Davros!  Wait, come back!  Dave Ross, I said!"
It's big stuff all right, apart from the handmines, which are as stupid as they are incongruous.  (They don't even work.  Stand absolutely still or they'll get you?  They don't seem to mind Davros shifting his weight, or people talking, or a sonic screwdriver landing with a "plop" next to them.)  But as is often the way with Doctor Who, especially finales which is oddly what this one feels like, even the other comparatively shiny bits don't bear thinking about.

Big Idea #1: the Doctor is sure he's going to die.  This again, though?  The Doctor thought he was going to die in The End Of Time, then he thought he was going to die in The Wedding Of River Song, then he thought he was going to die in The Time Of The DoctorWe know it's never going to happen, especially in Episode One of twelve, so it's about as dramatic as dropping a balloon to keep doing it.  Even if you fell for it last time, you'd need the wherewithal of a concussed bee to think it might stick this time.  (And if you're not really meant to think it might happen, which would explain how utterly half-hearted it is here, well, why the zarking farktwaddle are they doing it again?)

Big Idea #2: the Doctor is missing.  (On account of not wanting to die, which he totally might.)  This is actually quite impressive for a man who's probably everywhere in the universe simultaneously, but then Missy, Clara and UNIT do a quick timey-wimey Google search and find him instantly.  Phew.  Remind me what all the fuss was about?  (Turns out he was nowhere in time and space, unless you remembered to check Medieval England.  Good old Clara, checking the one bit no one else had looked in for no reason!)

Quick sidenote: there's a noticeable dearth of forward-moving plot in this episode.  It's really just getting us from Point A, he doesn't want to go to Point B, he goes.  But things really grind to a halt in Ye Olde Land.  Here, the Doctor drops some hideous anachronisms and makes some terrible jokes, and Peter Capaldi plays some riffs.  The axe-man cometh and all that (ho ho), but come on, why's this scene actually here, besides meeting the requisite two-part minute count?  Charitable hat on: we're probably meant to look at the Doctor's bizarre behavior and think "Ooh look, he really has lost it, maybe he is going to die this time"?  Clara certainly thinks so, clumsily pointing out how out of character this is for him.  I suppose anything's worth a try with The Most Not Going To Happen Thing Ever, but that still doesn't justify five minutes of crap jokes even the other characters don't laugh at.  The whole thing is just awkwardly weird.

Mercifully, the one Davrossy minion actually out looking for the Doctor (a man made of snakes, because why not) finally checks the one bit of the universe left on his list and whisks our heroes to Skaro.  Skaro is invisible now, which seems terribly important until everybody can see it and then nobody mentions the invisible thing again.  Okay, spotting a pattern yet?  They come up with big or kooky stuff – invisible planet, mines that look like hands – and they just go pfft.  Wouldn't it be nice to take an interesting idea and actually get something out of it?

"We have acquired the TARDIS."
"Good work!  Pity you couldn't have told us sooner.
You could have saved Snakey a lot of bother."
And oh bother, I've skipped a few.  Backing up to Big Idea #3, then: on Earth, planes are stopping in the sky.  Wow!  What's that got to do with Davros?  Answer: nowt, it's just so Missy can get UNIT (and Clara's) attention.  Oh.  This feels like a random idea from Steven Moffat's bag of leftovers, but they at least get an eyebrow-raise out of it before glibly consigning it to the dustbin.  UNIT, too, as all any of this is for is bundling Missy into the story.  So long, Kate.  Nice to see you, Roz from Bugs.  Totally worth filming those scenes.

Oh, and Missy's back.  Woo.  Nope, still don't have a problem with a female Master (although I do have a problem with giving her a special "female" name), and yep, Michelle Gomez can be hugely entertaining, but the character's still written with such drunkenly broad strokes that she'd slot right into Moffat's ever-more-prophetic Who spoof, The Curse Of Fatal DeathEvery line is aimed directly at Tumblr.  "Traps are my flirting."  "He keeps trying to kill me, it's sort of our texting."  "I'm murdering a Dalek, I'm a Time Lady, it's our golf."  Ehhhh.

Look, we all know Moffat needs to fire a wisecrack every other second or we might not love him any more, but it's just so wearying to be relentlessly quirked and funnied at for forty minutes.  Missy pretty much exists just for teh proverbial lols.  The only thing that makes her interesting is the love/hate relationship with the Doctor – and be fair, this was already trope-tastic when Roger Delgado first started shrinking people – but in Moffat's hands that's as much of a dog's dinner as the plot.  Last time we saw Missy, she was a psycho and the Doctor hated her.  This time, she's still a psycho and the Doctor likes her.  Even Clara seemingly gets over the you-killed-my-boyfriend bit well enough to exchange witty banter, because nothing must stand in the way of banter.  It's all very zingy, but it isn't really character development.  It's ping-pong.

Oh, and I've missed another bit: Clara's here too, if it isn't too much bloody trouble for her to actually join the Doctor sometimes, and she pulls all the right companion-y expressions and does banter – but mostly she just helps Missy to be in the story as well.  They're both just... in it as well.  Neither of them makes a meaningful dent until the cliff-hanger, where they're (apparently) killed off, along with the TARDIS.  (!)  But even Moffat knows you won't swallow that one, so the real cliff-hanger is something else entirely: the Doctor rushing back in time in the TARDIS (*cough* TARDIS?!  You had one job, Steven!) to (apparently) kill Davros as a child.  Which is about as likely as the Doctor dropping dead of a heart attack, and is confusingly kind of like the nasty thing he already did at the start, but at least it gets us back to what these episodes are about.  Cue The Witch's Familiar, or Part Two, or The One Where They Get On With It.

The Doctor abandoned Davros, ergo he's guilty.  And hey, remember Genesis Of The Daleks?  Don't worry, there's a clip: Tom Baker says if you knew a child would grow up to do terrible things, could you kill him?  And if you did, are you any better than the monster he became?  It's not really something that needed exploring literally, as that's already what Genesis was about, but fair enough, let's go there.  And I tend to think it's a waste of time pointing an accusing finger at the Doctor, especially if the person doing the pointing is a genocidal nutbag with absolutely no moral high-ground, but we're trying to find something new to say about said nutbag, so that's good.  Is Davros really all that bad?  Is the Doctor, given all that he's done, a saint?  It's kind of amazing we're still going there after last year's "Am I a good man" conundrum (yes he is, what do I win?  Oh you're going to keep asking), but maybe these episodes will put a new spin on it.

If you've made it this far, you've probably guessed it's a "no" from me.  And right you are.

Okay, Daleks – time for the 2010-redesign ultra blurry cameo!
The Doctor's done questionable things.  He blows up armies of Daleks all the time, and sometimes he's just flat-out mean.  But there's still a fat stack of difference between that and Davros.  Daleks as well: they love to wave an accusing tentacle and say "You would make a good Dalek" or somesuch, but he just wouldn't, okay?  When he blows stuff up and kills things, it's always because the stuff and the things want to blow up everything else.  Do you have any better ideas?  And if he's grown to hate Daleks and Davros after all that, well, he's got a pretty good reason to feel that way, hasn't he?  With the exterminating and the absolutely-nothing-else they get up to?  It's like Jaws.  Brodie, Quint and Hooper aren't just some jerks picking on an innocent fish.  The fish keeps eating people.

Nevertheless, Dalek Hitler asks "Am I a good man?"  I don't even.  I mean the answer would be a resounding "no", wouldn't it, even if there wasn't a line of dialogue expressly telling us this whole routine, with the moral tirade and the change of heart and the I-want-to-feel-the-sun-on-my-face-one-last-time, is a load of bobbins.  "Be subtle, Colony Sarff.  Tonight we entrap the Time Lord."  All the confessions, all the tears – don't worry about it.  Why put that in there?  Yes, Davros turning over a new leaf is the mother of hard sells, but if you're going to sidle up to the camera and say "Psst, not really!" beforehand, why even bother?

So Davros is as much of a nutbag post-episode as he was before.  Quelle surprise.  What of the Doctor?  I mean, how could he abandon a child on a battlefield?  What a bastard, right?  Well, the more you think about it, the more complicated it is.  The Doctor is on Skaro by accident.  (Dum de dum, trying not to question that...)  His first instinct is to help the child, of course.  But then he finds out it's Davros, an enemy whose personal history he doesn't know.  What does he do?  Wade in and rescue him?  If it goes wrong, Davros might die and change history.  If it works, perhaps it'll turn out the deadly handmines are what crippled him, and not leaving him there will change history.  Perhaps Davros was always meant to struggle out of there alone – in at least one version of the timeline, he must have done.  (And if the Doctor always rescued him, as he inevitably does in the end, Davros wouldn't be mad at him.)  On the face of it, it's shameful, but when you try to apply a little Time Lord logic it's nowhere near as clear cut.  Walking away is cruel, but it might be right.  This, by the way, was exactly why Tom Baker was asking "Do I have the right" in the first place – because time is complex.  In any case, Davros survived, and he's done a lot worse to others since then.  It's a pot-kettle-palooza. 

Still, perhaps the Doctor isn't as fussed as he makes out.  He's quite hysterical to begin with, begging Davros to spare his friends, but once Clara and Missy are zapped he's more than happy to turf him out of his chair.  Where's all this enormous guilt, and this apparent certainty of death?  Is one reminder of what Davros and Daleks are actually like – Surprise!  They'll kill your friends! – enough to get rid of all that?  And when he triumphantly pulls a Curse Of Fatal Death-esque "Naturally I anticipated" on Davros's plan, switching it around to blow the Daleks up yet again (and probably take out Davros as well), it becomes alarmingly possible that both the Doctor and Davros have been trolling each other the whole time.  At which point these episodes are saying nothing substantial about anything.  Davros?  Hates everyone, exterminate.  The Doctor?  Hates Daleks, tick, boom.  Yes, it's wonderful that he goes back and rescues Lil' Davros after all, teaching him about mercy and affecting him even minutely for the better.  He's still going to blow up his house with him and all his kids in it.

"Oh, the unbearable guilt!"
*kicks disabled guy out of wheelchair, makes Dodgems joke*
Meanwhile, Missy and Clara survive via some teleport jiggery-pokery, and I'll take a moment to say: glad they explained that.  The little cutaway with Capaldi engineering his own escape in a similar fashion is loadsa fun.  Peter Capaldi is, in general, more to my liking in these episodes than he was last year.  Have I just got used to him, or has there been a retooling?  Hmm.  He's still crotchety, but fundamentally he's a lot sweeter and sillier.  Capaldi from last year wouldn't have given Davros five minutes, let alone a burst of regeneration energy.  Okay, some of this is deliberate out-of-characterness brought on from thinking he's going to die (nope, still don't buy it), and some of it's fake, but whatever it is, it falls within my personal Doctor limits.  He even makes a few of the jokes work.  Even when he can't, it's a pleasure just to listen to Peter Capaldi, his voice lilting between gruff Scots, posh Scots and the occasional funny English accent for no particular reason.  I'll always miss Matt, but I'm happily on the Capaldi Train this year.

I can't seem to focus on Missy or Clara.  Do they really achieve very much?  They mostly loiter in the Dalek sewers (where all the not-dead Daleks end up, because apparently Daleks can't die, which is news to all those dead and self-destructed ones over the years), occasionally commenting on the Doctor's actions (curiously broadcast over a loud speaker) and confirm that he really is acting like he's expecting to die.  (He still might!  Honest!)  Missy is having her own Davros-ish moral back and forth this week, or that's what they seem to be aiming at: a moment where she mentions her daughter, a general attitude of helping the Doctor a bit.  No?  But then she confirms in The Magician's Apprentice that she hasn't "turned good", so it's surely no surprise when she (more than once) betrays Clara and the Doctor, essentially just for the trollols.  It's the Master – what were you expecting?  There's a line about how none of us are really all your friend or all your enemy, but actually, Missy and Davros are clearly not the Doctor's friends, and Clara clearly is, so... that doesn't really work.  (Mind you, they seem to be hinting at some dreadful hybrid prophecy thingie, and harkening back to when we first met Jenna Coleman in a Dalek casing, so god knows where they're going with that.  Shall we save time and assume nowhere?)

On a first viewing, when it isn't painfully obvious how pointless it all is, these episodes waste about 50% of their time but pick up a bit after that.  Julian Bleach continues his good-but-not-revelatory job with Davros – no offence, Julian, but it's difficult to give proper kudos when we've no reason to buy the mono-optical one's sudden transformation, and as for all the ranting and raving, welcome to every Davros ever.  But his scenes with Capaldi are the obvious highlight, pointless or otherwise.  It's two good actors shooting the breeze.  I'll take it.

Phew – so glad they explained this.
And how Davros survived blowing up in Series Four.
Oh.  Um.  Maybe next time?
Let's see, what else: you get to see loads of old Daleks again, only this time you can actually see them, which is an unfettered delight.  How I've missed the little grey ones!  (We're still ignoring the "new" Daleks from 2010, which is quite the multi-coloured elephant in the room.)  There are some amusing insights into how Daleks work, from the questionably potty (Dalek sewers) to the sort-of-makes-sense-actually (saying "Exterminate" is their way of reloading).  Missy might be a misbegotten waste of effort, but Michelle Gomez still puts the effort in; wouldn't it be nice if she had a really nuanced script that relied less on jokes?  Capaldi we've already covered – take away the crap jokes and he's great – and while I don't feel anything at all for Clara besides "Oh, you're back then", Jenna Coleman certainly does all the requisite companiony stuff.  She even cries.  Good job?

These episodes are big and flashy.  Stick your fingers in your ears and they might appear thoughtful.  Don't do that and, well, they're hollow and worse, they're typical.  Ten to go.  Let's hope they can do better.

PS: Sonic sunglasses.  No comment.


  1. Yay! You're back! Yup, yup, yup. Also, potty! Sewers! Hur hur.

    1. I couldn't stay away, God 'elp me.

      Quite pleased with the potty line, I won't lie.

      And I really rather hate these eps in hindsight. So big and so, so pointless. I'll stick with Big Finish re Davros.