6 September 2014

The Zero Room #15- Wheatley Wipe

"I'm Scottish. I am Scottish. I can complain about things. I can really complain about things now."

In retrospect, the wait doesn't seem that long, but bah, it was interminable between Christmas and last bank holiday weekend. Nevertheless, Peter Capaldi's Doctor has landed in a double bill of episodes directed by Ben Wheatley, (A Field In England, Sightseers, Kill List) titled Deep Breath and Into The Dalek. The movie connection is as good an excuse as any to pick up the reviews again, but by this point, you already know how I do when it comes to Who.

Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.

One of the first images of the Capaldi era is a tyrannosaurus rex in the Thames, belching the TARDIS into Victorian London right in front of a Silurian, her wife and their Sontaran butler. In some regards, Deep Breath feels like a collection of the wackier tropes of Steven Moffat's era. His last run at introducing a new Doctor, The Eleventh Hour, was a story in which the TARDIS was the only familiar element to be carried over from anything that had gone before, but this is tonally closer to a story like Robot, surrounding a very new Doctor with lots of familiar elements.

Clara has just witnessed her fanciable drunk giraffe of a mate turn into Malcolm Tucker and she's understandably perturbed when she takes him to Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax to recover. Elsewhere in London, a cyborg is repairing himself and his ship with human parts in a plot that directly echoes the Tennant-era story The Girl in the Fireplace and the Doctor is plunged straight into a macabre conspiracy, even as he struggles to recover his sense of identity.

Is it enough plot to fill out 75 minutes? Perhaps not- unlike previous extended episodes, this feels a lot slower and padded out, especially with Moffat's go-to comic relief characters milling around while the plot is parked. At the same time though, the episode plays out the new mission statement of this era in great big letters, right there in the opening credits. Gone is the breathless pacing that has characterised new Who to date, in favour of more measured character-led scenes, meaning that Jenna Coleman finally has a chance to actually establish who Clara is outside of that Impossible Girl gubbins from the previous series.

After 12 months of hype, Capaldi immediately inhabits the role. He's perhaps more prolific and recognisable at the time of taking the role than any other Doctor, but you stop seeing him as soon as he really gets a good scene, harrassing Brian Miller's tramp in a back alley. It makes his utter disorientation in this story all the more effective, because he is the Doctor so immediately, even if it's a more acerbic Doctor than we've seen since 2005. His look down the camera in the climactic scene is a spine-chilling moment.

It's also, unfortunately, one of the few moments of directorial flair to be had in this one. Ben Wheatley's involvement got a fair few of us film buffs excited, but television's authorial emphasis lies with writers more than directors, and even more so in Doctor Who. The scene in which Clara has to hold her breath and pass through a legion of robotic zombies is a nerve-jangling horror sequence, but a subsequent fight scene shows how Wheatley's style isn't exactly supported by strong choreography. Still, the following episode immediately shows how much better he manages a regular-length episode, working from a script that isn't trying to cram so much into a new format.

Deep Breath is a thorough reshuffle of Doctor Who, delineating between things which will change and other things which will probably stay the same. In the former camp, there's a very different Doctor, a more rounded companion and lots more room for reflection for the characters and the monsters. In the latter, we still have the Paternoster gang and intrusive flash-forwards that will make sense in the series finale. A villain who is kit-bashed from various bits of what has gone before is interesting in a story that cribs from various "Doctor's first stories" from the past, but works even better as a binary opposite to Capaldi's Doctor; even with 2000 years and 13 faces behind him, things are going to be very different here on out.

The same tone is taken up by Into The Dalek, a story which takes Fantastic Voyage inside one of the metal bastards. Wary of putting himself into such a dangerous environment without a moral compass, the Doctor enlists Clara to help. He's been press-ganged into a medical expedition by a bunch of rebels in the dying days of a war with the Daleks. The rebels have a captive who is protesting that its kind must be destroyed, and they're shrunk down to find the source of the malfunction inside the Dalek mutant's armour.

That's the immediate, almost fatal flaw with the story- there is no earthly reason why the rebels would want to fix a Dalek that has turned good. "Morality as malfunction" is a cracking idea, but there's no real explanation as to why the rebels, led by guest stars Zawe Ashton and Michael Smiley, would want to repair that malfunction and let it get back to exterminating them all. If it was to discover if they can break other Daleks in the same way, then that's never made clear, but the opportunity to throw a new Doctor into this scenario clearly overrules the in-story justification.

To some, it may have seemed a bit soon to roll out the Daleks, but months and months of "Malcolm meets a Dalek" memes have precipitated this. Aside from that, most Doctors can be defined by how they interact with his arch-enemies, going all the way back to Patrick Troughton's first story, Power of the Daleks. It's strange to think of how influential that story and its immediate follow-up, Evil of the Daleks, have been in the new series, because it's tough to think of a single Dalek episode since 2005 which doesn't take some influence from one or both of those stories.

As it turns out, Phil Ford's script actually takes time to define how every Doctor interacts with them, contextualising The Daleks (William Hartnell's second story marked the debut of the most iconic monsters) as the moment when he became who he was; "The Doctor is not the Daleks." What it means for the Twelfth Doctor is a seeming realisation of the prophecy made to the Ninth in 2005's Dalek- "you would make a good Dalek." With his callous disregard for the soldier who winds up as a protein shake and his ingrained hatred of anything from Skaro, this Doctor has apparently made it there. Like his confrontation with the Half-Face Man in the previous episode, the downer ending leaves more ambiguity than we're used to in the new series.

On the other hand, there are a couple of other cracks in the new format. The introduction of Danny Pink, a colleague and love interest for Clara, is well wrangled, but again, it parks the story in favour of a cutaway and shows the downside of having to pick up the companion each week instead of arriving in the story as the TARDIS does. Also, once the standard Dalek shootout flares up, it feels like a diversion from the meat of the plot. There are positives on both counts, however- Samuel Anderson is the most immediately likeable potential companion in ages and Wheatley revels in shooting the hands-down best exploding Dalek moments in the series' history.

Into The Dalek continues in series 8's line of converting "slutty movie title" concepts (cite: Moffat, 2012) into more thoughtful and character-led stories, even if we're watching a show that is still finding its new rhythm. The Doctor has seen everything the abyss has to throw at him, so nobody's really discomfited by it staring back, but after rote cameos in The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor, this gets back to finding new things to do with the Daleks and adds more nuance to Capaldi's portrayal of the Doctor.

Tonight's episode, Robot of Sherwood airs on BBC One and BBC One HD at 7.30pm and I'll be reviewing the Mark Gatiss historical alongside Steven Moffat's Listen and Steven Thompson's Time Heist next time we do this Zero Room thing. In the meantime, what do you think of the new Doctor? Isn't Clara better now? And wouldn't it be nice if Ben Wheatley got to come back and do whatever the fuck he wanted? Keep the comments coming below.

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