Doctor Who is back on TV, with series 35 — or, as it's officially known, series 91. I've been a fan since the first episode, back in 1963. I still remember settling down as a nine-year-old to watch the new show with the exceedingly weird title sequence. It's changed almost beyond recognition in nearly 52 years since then, yet managed at the same time to remain exactly the same. It's a rare trick.
The new series (whatever you call it) started with a two-part story, so I thought I'd wait till I'd seen both parts to give a reaction. But, before we start, let's get an extremely subtle warning out of the way:
HERE BE SPOILERS
So, if you haven't had a chance to watch it yet, bookmark this page and come back when you have.
Last year was all about establishing Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor2, and, while the standard of the stories was varied, from the excellent finale down the highly questionable Kill the Moon, Capaldi was extremely impressive in his simultaneously familiar and different interpretation of the character.
This year, he starts as Doctor-in-residence and needs great stories to continue making his mark. The first episode, The Magician's Apprentice3, started with a bang: a young boy caught in a minefield in a long, dirty war is offered help by the Doctor, who's landed by accident and has no idea which planet he's on. When the child gives his name, the Doctor realises this is Davros, who'll go on to create the Daleks.
Thus, before the titles we're plunged straight into the story's main theme, a continuation of a moral dialogue the Doctor's been having on and off since 1975. That year, one of the all-time-great Doctor Who stories, Genesis of the Daleks, chronicled how the Doctor failed to prevent Davros in his creation. Faced with the opportunity of destroying all the embryonic Daleks, he hesitates and asks:
Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?4
Now, with those words come back to haunt him, the Doctor has three options for the child Davros: save him, kill him, or leave him to his fate. It's not till the story's final scene that we find out the choice he'll ultimately makes.
The heart of the story is a series of scenes between the Doctor and the adult Davros, last seen in 2008, in which they continue their debate about the ethics of the Daleks. Davros's position has always been that compassion is weakness and only through strength and ruthlessness can the Daleks survive, while the Doctor continues to argue the case for compassion. Taunted by Davros that "[Compassion] will kill you in the end," he retorts, "I wouldn't die any other way."
Now, though, Davros is dying and seems not only to be questioning his position but even wanting the Doctor's approval. It's all a ruse, of course — this is Davros, after all — and the Doctor seems caught in the snare of his compassion. But this is the Doctor, too, and he's one step ahead.
It's great to see ethical debate at the heart of things, as it was in so many of the great Doctor Who stories of the past, but this is anything but a talky story. Missy is back (and yes, we do find out how she survived her death last year) forming an unlikely alliance with Clara to find and help the Doctor.
In her female form, Missy seems better able to express her very contradictory feelings about the Doctor — constantly trying to kill him, she insists, doesn't alter the fact that he's her best friend and always has been. She talks constantly about memories of their childhood (just as we also get a glimpse of Davros's childhood) although she hints that not everything she tells Clara is true. Certainly referring to when the Doctor was a little girl seems implausible, in the light of last year's Listen.
Of course, Missy too has her own agenda, and in the end she almost succeeds in tricking the Doctor into killing Clara. As in Logopolis, any apparent alliance with the Master/Missy isn't going to last a moment longer than s/he chooses.
There's a lot else packed into the story: planes stuck in the sky, UNIT headquarters, a space bar containing many familiar aliens, a strange mediaeval scene with Doctor playing an electric guitar (the one weak section of the story, in my opinion), Dalek "sewers" containing not-quite-dead Daleks that the Doctor brings to life (setting up my favourite line, when he tells the Supreme Dalek "Your sewers are revolting") and Clara pretending to be a Dalek.
This last is interesting, since the first time we met Clara, in Asylum of the Daleks, she actually was a Dalek, so this brings her full circle. The whole process of pretending to be a Dalek is radically different from when Ian did it in The Daleks or Rebec in Planet of the Daleks, but that makes sense. The Daleks have been upgraded, redesigned and re-bioengineered so often since then, both by Davros and the Emperor5, that I wouldn't expect their mechanisms to be the same.
Clara's "training session" by Missy is fun and makes some intriguing suggestions about the Daleks (their guns are fired by emotion, and shouting exterminate is their way of "reloading) but what we learn from it also turns out to be crucial.
Perhaps the most arresting figure in the story, apart from Davros and Missy, is the wonderfully sinister Colony Sarff, Davros's messenger and bodyguard, whom the Doctor describes as "a nest of snakes in a dress". A scary-looking figure in its assembled form, it can collapse into a mass of individual snakes, each of which appear to have an equal part in the whole ("We are a democracy," it explains at one point). It's regrettable that Colony Sarff is destroyed at the end — but maybe there are more of its kind out there.
The whole story is a an old fan's delight, full of back-references. The ones relating to Davros are the most important, but there are others. When Clara, Missy and Kate Stewart of UNIT are trying to work out where/when the Doctor might be hiding, they identify a whole series of historical locations where he's been. These include San Martino (The Masque of Mandragora), Troy (The Myth Makers), "multiples for New York" (The Chase, Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, The Angels Take Manhattan) and "three possible versions of Atlantis" — presumably those he visited in The Underwater Menace and The Time Monster, together with the Atlantis Azal claimed to have destroyed in The Dæmons.
There's been some criticism of recent Doctor Who that the Doctor has often taken second place in the stories to whoever his companion was at the time. Personally, I don't feel this has gone too far, and anyway it was by no means unknown in the classic series for stories to focus more on the companions. This was especially true in the early days, when we were seeing much more from Ian and Barbara's perspective than from the Doctor's. Still, it's good to have a high-class story where, although Clara has plenty to do, the focus is solidly on the Doctor. And on ethics, which have always been at the heart of Doctor Who.
I'm really looking forward to the rest of series 35.
1 Series 9 of Doctor Who was broadcast in 1972, starting with Day of the Daleks and finishing with The Time Monster. This is the 35th series overall.
2 Again, the numbering is questionable. What about the War Doctor? What about the Tenth Doctor Mark 2? For that matter, what about the Watcher, the Valyard, the Dream Lord…? Still, convention is convention.
3 Maybe it's just me being slow, but I still haven't worked out the rationale for either title in the two-parter. That doesn't spoil anything, though.
4 This and several other clips from past confrontations with Davros are played during the story. Personally, I'd prefer them to be left implicit, but I recognise not all viewers remember the classic stories as well as I do.
5 Assuming they're different, of course. The whole question of the identities of the various Dalek Emperors, of whom Davros was at least one, is rather complex.