SO THIS has been a while. The last episode of Doctor Who I watched was the excellent ‘Listen’, an episode that was so good it managed to re-affirm some faith in Steven Moffat’s writing ability. Though I’ve personally lost general interest in the series, I still maintain a weird personal connection to it from the time I watched it in secondary school, slavishly re-iterating the genius of John Simm’s portrayal of The Master and how execrable ‘The End of Time’ was (bar a barnstorming Timothy Dalton).
Of the two episodes I reviewed last series, one was rubbish and one was great. Of the two episodes I’ll likely review for this series, both were… okay? The premise is classic Who, at least: a group of assorted cannon fodder, shacked up in a closed-off facility of some sort (complete with long, run-friendly corridors!), are beset by an unidentified menace that the Doctor and Clara have sort it out.
Part one, ‘Under the Lake’, is pacey but stunted, focused on establishing the problem and presenting a no-win scenario to resolve in part two, as one might expect. The trouble is it’s rather flimsy. Unlike most two-parters in the show, ‘Under the Lake’ is curiously insubstantial, dedicated to ‘fleshing out’ characters that have no real depth to them beyond, “We’d better stay alive.” Fair enough, when the ghosts look as intimidating as they do, mouthing the same few words over and over again. The CG aura around them is rather distracting, but their black-hole eyes and endless mouthing is, honestly, quite unnerving.
Capaldi’s Doctor spends much of this episode fumbling around for something to do and people to play off, only occasionally finding either. Jenna Coleman’s Clara is still spectacularly failing to provide anything other than casual dissent to the Doctor’s indifference, piping up only to lambast him or make a flat quip. Coleman is continually under-served by her material, which is a shame considering how warm her screen presence is and always has been. Clara comes across as a stick-in-the-mud, determined to occupy the moral high ground at all times. Though this is briefly challenged in the second part, there are no consequences.
Of the supporting cast – shared across both parts – the only one to truly stand out is the deaf Cass, played with dignified reserve by Sophie Leigh Stone. Her bickering interplays with bosom buddy/interpreter Lunn (Zaqi Ismail) rank among the two-parter’s highlights, the two playing off each naturally. It’s a fascinating concept that isn’t explored as much as it could have been; a moment when Cass is wandering through the base, trailed by the ghosts, is rendered brilliant by the absence of noise, emulating her deafness. It’s a surprisingly chilling moment that could have been utilised elsewhere, though in fairness it probably would have lost its impact somewhat.
The crew aren’t as cannon-fodder-heavy as other disposable crews in Who, but that doesn’t mean they’re any more developed for it. Morven Christie’s O’Donnell suffers the most for this, acting as the stock, adventurous type whose cavalier attitude to death seems less badass and far more stupid than intended.
Part two, ‘Before the Flood’, opens with a very strange, Scorseseian address to the camera, with the Doctor swanning around the TARDIS babbling about the Bootstrap Paradox and Beethoven’s Fifth, concluding with a power chord rendition of said symphony. It’s a bizarre stylistic choice but a memorable one, and quite unlike anything I’ve seen in Who. Besides which, the more we see of Capaldi wielding an electric guitar, the better.
Albar Prentis (Paul Kaye AKA Mike Strutter), the Tivolian ghost, is a whole lot more threatening when he’s dead. Part two sees him turn into a gurning, snivelling, insufferable little dweeb who introduces the Doctor to the corpse of the Fisher King. Intentionally annoying, no doubt, but still. The Fisher King himself is a curious creature; in principle, he’s a frightening entity with the power to turn the dead into ghostly, unliving transmitters, but in action he’s a rather lumbering, comical-looking thing who resembles a Slitheen on a diet. Imagine the original xenomorph in Alien, if you could see him in broad daylight at all times. At least Peter Serafinowicz lends his beautiful, tenebrous voice to the monster. If there are indeed Arthurian overtones to the Fisher King, they’re lost on me.
Still, for all my griping, both parts were consistent and well-balanced, certainly a far cry from Russell T. Davies’ immediate resolutions to gaping cliffhangers. The lopsided approach to diptychs in Who has gone on for some time, so it’s refreshing to have one which affords its subject matter the right amount of focus and juggles its characters well, allowing each a moment in the sun (even if they’re not too developed). The new format seems to be working, at least for the time being. With any luck, consistency will be the key for Series 9.