Wednesday, 30 September 2015


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 26 September 2015.

Doctor Who: Saturday, BBC One

Midwinter of the Spirit: Wednesday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

Those moments when we shout at the television, not in anger but with thrilled surprise, are a rare and precious commodity. Breaking Bad is one of the few recent shows I can think of where audacious twists caused me to grin and gasp with pleasure.

So, Steven Moffat, the brains behind the last five years of Doctor Who, deserves bounteous plaudits for pulling off that feat in – how's this for chutzpah? - the first five minutes of the latest series.

On a war-torn alien wasteland, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) tried to rescue a boy trapped within a quagmire of killer hand mines (literally hands with an eye embedded in the palm). The, if you must, OMG moment came when the boy revealed his name: Davros.

Cut to the Doctor looking horrified. Cue opening credits. Bang! That's how to kick-start a series. Thankfully, the rest of the episode lived up to its fan-baiting intro.

In terms of scope and intensity, it felt more like the first part of a series finale than a series opener. Dramatic stakes were ramped skywards as the Doctor wrestled with the moral dilemma of whether to save Davros – essentially the 'Would you kill baby Hitler?' conundrum on an intergalactic scale – while intimating that, for reasons yet unknown, his Time Lord days are numbered.

Meanwhile, his other arch-enemy, Missy/The Master (a wonderfully bananas turn from Michelle Gomez), formed an unlikely alliance with Clara (Jenna Coleman, competent as always) in a bid to rescue him from Davros' clutches in the Dalek city on Skaro. The arresting conceit of the devious Time Lord/Lady seeking to assist the Doctor, however ambiguously, is something we haven't seen in Doctor Who since the saturnine reign of Roger Delgado in the 1970s.

Some critics have complained that the episode, titled The Magician's Apprentice, was far too continuity-heavy for the casual viewer, but I'd argue that all the essential information and backstory they needed – Davros is the creator of the Daleks and, well, that's it really – was clearly explained within.

It was inward-looking in the sense that it's essentially an exploration of the complex relationship between the Doctor and one of his oldest, deadliest enemies, but it was hardly a self-indulgent odyssey aimed squarely at hardcore fans. On the contrary, there was plenty here for children, those most important viewers of all, to enjoy. 

They must have surely been delighted by the spectacle of millions of Daleks buzzing around their spectacular home turf, plus the creepy presence of Davros, his snake-shifting henchman Colony Saarf, and the supremely entertaining hat-stand villainy of Missy.

As for the Doctor himself, Capaldi achieved the impossible feat of nailing an extended comic set-piece that, in theory, should've been excruciating.

As it turned out, a shades-wearing Doctor rocking out on electric guitar atop an armoured tank while delivering bad jokes was actually very enjoyable. As great though David Tennant could be in the role, just imagine him hamming the life out of that scene. You'd cringe yourself a hernia. It's a mark of Capaldi's authority that he can nail this 'wacky' business without making a fool of himself.

Though still spiky, the acerbic, antisocial misanthrope who replaced Matt Smith last year has gradually softened to reveal more warmth and charm, a development neatly illustrated by that sweet little moment when, upon meeting up with Clara again, he strummed a few bars of Roy Orbison's Oh, Pretty Woman on his guitar. He's almost, almost cuddly now. I don't see that as a cop-out, but rather an organic evolution of his character.

The best and boldest season opener since The Impossible Astronaut back in 2011, The Magician's Apprentice suggests that Moffat, who must be nearing the end of his tenure on the show, is attempting to shake up the formula somewhat. Doctor Who has survived, off and on, for over 50 years due to its willingness to change and adapt like the ancient Time Lord himself. As ever, I hope he succeeds in his fiendish goal.

From the writer behind notorious Halloween “hoax” Ghostwatch, Midwinter of the Spirit is an enjoyably creepy supernatural drama starring Anna Maxwell Martin as a village vicar with an unusual sideline: she's a trained exorcist.

When a man is found crucified in the woods, the police request her assistance. Meanwhile, she becomes “infected” by the evil spirit of a dead sex offender and animal-torturing sadist. It's like The Vicar of Dibley gone drastically awry.

By treating this subject matter in a fairly low-key way, its scares become more potent. This aura of authenticity may be due in part to the advisory involvement of an actual CoE exorcist. Yes, such people really do exist. By the power of Christ, what a strange world we live in.

1 comment:

  1. I thought all priests were exorcists... I remember being told it's one of the first skills they have to learn.