The opening of this, Peter Capaldi’s second season as the titular Time Lord, is telling. Beautifully made, wonderfully shot and an entry by the Doctor that cements him in many ways as the incarnation of the Doctor, he is as commanding as he is eccentric. The authority is back, the severity of the previous season in check. He asks a boy on the minefield his name and he says he’s called Davros.
And if you know who that is, you’re hooked. If you don’t, you’re likely to become a little confused. Davros, creator of the Daleks (for it was he), last appeared in a story some seven years prior to this one, before which he was one of those characters from the original run of Doctor Who. Also in this story is Missy, the current (and female) incarnation of the Master. Beautifully played and indeed Bafta-nominated by Michelle Gomez, her presence, that of UNIT and Skaro makes the opening two-parter very much a tale for the fans.
Which is a shame because it’s brilliant. The Doctor believes he’s about to die so lets his hair down at last, after the rather stiff Capaldi Doctor we had last year; he and Julian Bleach as Davros get to do some actual acting, and the fans’ hearts will have soared when we returned to Skaro, the planet of the dreaded pepperpots. But would anyone else care? It’s great fun with the Doctor strumming away on a guitar driving a tank in medieval England but you do wonder who it’s for.
Things improve a lot in the next two-parter, Under the Lake and Before the Flood, which contains genuine chills, some good gags and finishes in a lovely paradox. Atmospheric, played with conviction and beautifully directed, this might just become one of those “classics” the current generation of 10-year-olds remembers when they’re in their 50s. The season stumbles through the introduction of Masie Williams’ character in The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived which make too much of a fairly average performance at their centre and then we’re into the two-part Zygon story. Again, you’re torn between loving the plotting and the atmosphere – the end of part 1 is one of the best cliff hangers ever – and wondering who’s going to care about a story that follows pretty directly from The Day of the Doctor two years previously.
There’s a bit of a filler in Sleep no More and then Face the Raven looks like more of the same – until Clara dies at the end. The Doctor, mortified, is sent to visit whoever has been manipulating him these last weeks, and we get Heaven Sent. This is a one-person tour de force in which Capaldi has to carry an extended episode almost single handedly. The full horror of what he’s doing only sinks in towards the end: shot for shot, this is the perfect episode.
So the season finale had a lot to carry and it falters. We get Gallifrey. We get Rassilon. We get Time Lords bickering, we get Clara back in a new Tardis, we get Masie Williams again … if you’re not already a convert, this one’s a bit of a mess.
Personally I loved it, but then I’m a fan who knows what all this stuff is about. The inclusion of Williams might be more significant than it first appeared. Her biggest hit, Game of Thrones, is one of those programmes that’s a bit like a club, in which you’re a member or you’re not. And this is Doctor Who for the Game of Thrones generation: beautifully made, wonderfully acted and thoroughly absorbing, but you’d better know what happened in 1976 or it’s not going to make a lot of sense. It would have an even higher rating if my wife hadn’t turned around to me after the last episode and asked exactly what all that was about – and if I hadn’t been able to see exactly where she was coming from.
Extras: The BBC has been more than generous with its extras as always. Two “prequel” featurettes are included, one of which is brilliant fun (look for The Doctor’s Meditation for the exact sequence in which Peter Capaldi sheds his miseryguts persona from the previous season). Each episode has a mini-feature attached; meanwhile aspiring writers can have a look at Writing Who in which Sarah Dollard shares her journey writing for the Time Lord, we have a look at the return of the Daleks, Alex Kingston looks at River Song and inevitably there’s a tribute to Clara. There’s also a look at the Fan Show, an online-only (except when it’s on DVD) celebration of Doctor Who past and present. Put it another way: there’s loads.