"The Scottish and the English got to see Episode 1. We saved Episode 2 for the Welsh."
Steven Moffat, playing shamelessly to the crowd before the screening of the episodes.
We were in two minds here at WarpedFactor, going into this. Would we do one spoiler-free review, encompassing both episodes, or split it into two separate reviews, run on two different days.
But firstly, we’re absolutely shameless suckers for something only one roomful of people has seen, secondly, stitch this, sites that can only run the first-episode review, and thirdly, how would you feel if we did a review of the first half of Blade Runner, or Apocalypse Now, or Bambi for that matter?
This is a two part story, but unlike some others in recent years, where the tone is noticeably different from part to part, here, they work intrinsically as two halves of the same long story.
"Don’t tell people that [Spoiler], or that [Spoiler], or that [Big, Whacking Great Spoiler] or that you saw Doctor Who tonight. Don’t tell your friends, and don’t go home."
Steven Moffat, making it insanely difficult to review these episodes. Thanks a lot, Moff.
What can we say about the episodes?
First, the titles are not rife with significance. They’re the opposite of that, they’re rife with ‘Who the hell cares? Did my eyes just freakin’ see that?’ All the palaver and time we spent working out what the titles meant was largely time we’ll never get back, spent to no great purpose whatsoever. Unless there’s some late-series malarkey that gives them additional meaning, they mean very little, beyond being a valiant attempt to get away from the staggering literalism of episodes like “Vincent and the Doctor” and “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.” Again, you could hardly run further away from that literalism than they’ve managed here. If you thought Earthshock was an obscure title for the story that unfolded, buckle up kiddies, cos you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
During the pre-credits sequence of Episode 1, longstanding fans will get a tingle. Even fans that haven’t been glued to the rumour mill will get a tingle if they know their Who. And as the pre-credits sequence goes on, you begin to get a creeping fizz of joy as the notion of the story they’re going to try and tell you sinks in. And when that’s confirmed for you as you head into the credits, you settle back and think ‘OK. Big one. Takes courage. For the love of fifty years of heritage, don’t mess this one up. Impress me.’
And yes, they do, very much – the style here is magnificent and epic. These two episodes have the scope of a big, big event, and a plot to match. This year, we’re looking at the new Star Wars, and soon there’s the Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman movie. These two episodes together have a cinematic quality that’s well and truly up there - and might yet prove themselves to be better than either of the other two.
Part of the reason this works so well is that within its own Doctor Who terms, this is two big deals, meshed – not smashed, meshed - together. Two really, really big deals. In fact, the more we think about it, the more it feels like the Doctor Who version of the Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman confrontation – only, we’re betting, Who does it darker, and brighter and grimmer and more glorious and stealing with more abandon from the recent Mad Max, or from a comic-book regularly reviewed here at WarpedFactor.
In terms of the Doctor’s character, there’s a sense of a much greater balance between the adamantine blackness and the bright, funny wonder of Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor in this year’s opener than there was in Deep Breath. There are fans – apparently, somewhere – who thought Series 8 was dominated by a grouchy grandpa. This year, right from the off, there’s no doubt that Capaldi makes this look goooood. He might still be grandpa, but he’s grandpa like Keith freakin’ Richards is your grandpa. There’s still an old Time Lord in there, and in several key scenes here we see him – heartbroken, bitter, railing against evil. But there’s also a Time Lord doing what the Eleventh Doctor talked about – running to the universe, before it flares and dies, and embracing it – even hugging it. And there’s a Time Lord too who’s embracing his own darkness as a force for good, in himself and in the world, as a spur to make him fight to be a better man than the bad man he could be. We need that balance and that brightness because some of this episode’s action is darker than anything we saw in Series 8 – in terms of the old creative mantra, in Series 8 there was a lot of ‘telling’ of the Doctor’s darkness and self-doubt. These two episodes ‘show’ it in action, and show the terrifying price of it. So we need that lightness, that energy and enthusiasm. Capaldi brings it, and knocks it out of the park.
Thematically too, we’re into what might be considered heavy territory – the price of compassion and the price of losing it, the thin line and complex DNA of friendship, the talk of veterans of many battlefields. There’s one piece of exposition about a prophecy which pops up from abbbbbsolutely nowhere quite late into the second episode and makes you go ‘What? Eh? Well, that’s clearly nonsense.’ And there’s at least one scene that might give fandom absolute apoplexy about numbers, incarnations, and the potential of the future, because we no longer know what we thought we knew. We still think everything’s fine but there’s a scene akin to the cutting off of the Tenth Doctor’s hand. At the time, it was just a thing - but we all know what came from it eventually.
Plotwise there is a lot of ground covered here, from an unending war with the creepiest minefield in history to an attack that isn’t an attack, to an effect that’s effectively a kiss from the CGI gods to two 80s stories that need it, to pick-ups with a handful of other stories and scenes, and a couple of punch-the-air thrill moments of the kind that made you smile during the Fiftieth Anniversary Special. Without being too spoilery, we’ll just say watch the screens.
In an attempt to be as spoiler-free as possible, let’s say that one widely-reported returning character is on much better form than they were in their previous story, showing depth, skill and a mix of characteristics that will win over all but the most hardcore disbelievers in their portrayal.
The plot divides into two threads: Clara and one character fighting impossible odds to achieve a joint goal, while the Doctor has two or three strands of interaction with one other central character – the one from the pre-credits sequence, and the same character in the ‘present.’ That ‘present’ strand delivers a thing that’s been done before on-screen, but never to this extent – they talk about themselves. In fact, that’s really the point of that strand – to lock two big, powerful characters in a room and have them talk about their lives, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses, essentially delivering a gorgeously edgy back and forth interview that reveals new things about both of them. That thread sees Capaldi deliver a charming, dangerous scene that necessitates seeing one character in a way we’ve never seen them before – and that could be quite shocking to some viewers for its real-world analogue. It sees the Doctor on fire with anger and bitterness and that flinty, dangerous quality that exploded out of the Eleventh Doctor sometimes, but which the Twelfth conveys best by an increasing sense of stillness. It’s impossible to turn away from.
The Clara thread is the weaker of the two, dipping back into Steven Moffat’s personal Who history further than any other of his episodes so far. If anywhere, this is where, a year from now, we’ll look back with hindsight and say ‘That could have been better.’ That’s no fault of Jenna Coleman’s though – at the risk of setting the internet on fire, it’s resorting to those dips back into Moffat’s writing history that provide the potential for weakness, especially attempting to take what were once jokes and legitimize them as dramatic solutions to two hours of gritty threat.
The style and mood of the piece is epic, it’s a movie and it sucks you in by the eyeballs and won’t let you go till it’s done. The end of Episode 1 is absolutely shocking, and there are several other moments when you think ‘did they just, really, do that?’ All the first-episode reviews have made that point about the end of the episode, and it’s valid, but where they largely ask whether Episode 2 can keep up the standard, we can offer hope.
Relax, folks. Episode 2 is where some of the meatiest dialogue is, the point and the real power of the piece. You’re gonna love it.
Is The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar two solid hours of perfect Who? No – the dips back, the prophecy, one physical moment that makes you ask ‘How?’ and the slightly weird ultimate solution stop it from being that. But it’s probably closer to perfection than any two-parter has yet come in New Who. Certainly for those looking for a change from last year, if we exclude Deep Breath on the grounds of being a regeneration story, and compare the grimly pointless Into The Dalek and the frothily romping Robot of Sherwood against this two-parter, there’s no contest – Series 9 launches with the kind of cinematic bang that normally you could close a series with. This was dangerous territory for official on-screen Doctor Who to venture into – the cliff-hanger to Episode 1 proves that easily enough. But the prize was huge and irresistible, and this time, they take it home. There are a handful of harmonics that fail to entirely please, but for the most part they’re lost in the sheer beauty of what’s on screen, and the style in which the show takes on its own internal history and makes something wonderful from it. After some back and forth over his character during Series 8, the Twelfth Doctor has really arrived. You’re going to love him. More.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk