In Need of Nepenthe: Face the Raven

After last week’s “Sleep No More” a Macbeth reference, this week’s episode title, “Face the Raven,” calls to mind “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. As I suspected, it is an appropriate poem for this episode. “The Raven” is about grief and loss; a nameless narrator grieves over his lost Lenore. After this episode (and possibly in the episodes before due that Doctor Who timey-wimey storytelling), the Doctor will grieve over the loss of Clara.  While I was not looking forward to Clara’s departure, I have to say that I loved this episode.

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Clara faces the raven, but not without the Doctor standing behind her.

This was Sarah Dollard’s first story for Doctor Who, but I certainly hope that it won’t be her last.  This story grabbed me from the beginning.  Rigsy’s return meant that we didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining how the Doctor gets involved in the situation or why Clara cares so much about him.  The focus gets to remain where it should be: on the Doctor and Clara in what seems to be their final adventure.  It was also a nice touch to bring back Clara’s “companion,” to remind us of how like the Doctor she has become.

The episode begins with a very light, humorous tone, a perfect beginning because it reminds us of why Clara enjoys traveling with the Doctor: it’s fun.  It all seems like business as usual as the Doctor decides that he will save Rigsy and it feels as though the episode is going in the direction of a fun romp.  As the episode progresses, however, it very subtly shifts its tone and Dollard very gradually raises the episode’s stakes until Clara’s death feels like the natural consequence of the events of the episode.

The plot sucked me in as well.  The countdown tattoo was an intriguing hook to get us to the trap street. Additionally, the refugee camp with a perception filter was a clever idea, and it’s an idea I almost wish could have been explored more.  I found myself wondering how some of the street’s denziens wound up there: what exactly does a Cyberman do to need to seek asylum?  The introduction of the Janus species was an intriguing one as well.  I know a lot of people felt the trap street was a rip-off of Harry Potter‘s Diagon Alley, but I enjoyed it.  I also liked the idea of Ashildr/ Mayor Me running a refugee camp.  It showed how much she has learned over the years that she was able to set up the camp, while her use of the quantum shade shows that empathy is still not one of her dominant characteristics.

An episode like this really benefits from having Maisie Williams playing the role of Mayor Me. While it’s still a bit ambiguous just whose side she’s on, Maisie’s performance at the end made it clear, without saying much, that she was horrified that she couldn’t help Clara.  I don’t think she means to do the Doctor any harm, but she will do what she has to do to protect her refugees. We still don’t know who it is that wants the Doctor (the logical bet would be Missy, but that may be too obvious), and in this episode she says that she made a deal with “them.” I guess we’ll find out soon.

Peter Capaldi turns in yet another great performance in this episode.  He obviously takes a bit of a backseat to Clara, but he is fascinating to watch.  He never upstages Clara during her death scene, but he is always reacting to what she is saying. He manages to hold his emotions in (as this Doctor would), but his face shows all the various emotions he is feeling. He shifts from rage to sorrow to love all without needing to say a word. Unlike the Doctor, I was moved to tears by his and Clara’s parting moments, and no small part of it was because of the heartbreak the Doctor was experiencing.

 

FACE THE RAVEN (By Sarah Dollard)

The Doctor attempts to threaten Me into saving Clara from the quantum shade.

All this leads me to the reason this episode worked so well: Jenna Coleman. Clara experiences almost every possible emotion in this episode and Jenna Coleman is fantastic at portraying them all. I can’t be the only one who’d love to see those encounters between Clara and Jane Austen, right? The opening of the episode showed Clara’s love of excitement (my one bone to pick would be that the scene of her dangling out of the TARDIS was a bit unnecessary and over-the-top since the opening moments already made that clear) and the consequences in this episode flowed quite naturally from her established personality traits and the choices she made.

This episode played almost as a Greek tragedy. Clara’s hamartia was what brought her down in the end. She was full of hubris, but also compassion. She wanted to help Rigsy so much that she did something foolish, without having all of the information. This is not unlike the Doctor, always putting himself in danger for the sake of others, sometimes without really knowing all the facts yet. Unfortunately, as he points out, he is less breakable that Clara, a point that she lost sight of in her overconfidence.  In this episode, Clara’s transformation into the Doctor seems complete. Ultimately though, what brought about Clara’s death in this episode was her belief not in her own cleverness, but in the Doctor’s. She believed that there was no problem that he couldn’t solve, which is why she could be reckless.

At first I wasn’t sure I would be satisfied by this episode’s conclusion because it was looking like Clara would die because of her recklessness and I wanted Clara to have a heroic death. However, she faces death as only Clara Oswald could, bravely and still thinking of others. She uses her final moments to first ease Rigsy’s guilt and then to help the Doctor.  She accepts that she is the one responsible for her predicament and does not want anyone else to share in any part of the blame.  Clara doesn’t waste any time bemoaning her upcoming death or feeling sorry for herself; instead, she takes charge of the situation and uses her final moments as best she can.  She knows the Doctor so well that she knows what he needs to hear. She takes on a very maternal role at the end, comforting the Doctor and ordering him to not seek revenge for her death.  She knows that losing her will hurt him deeply, and she doesn’t want her ultimate legacy with the Doctor to be a negative one. The last we see of Clara, she bravely faces the raven, not running away from it as others do.

 

RigsyTARDISGraffitti

Rigsy paints the TARDIS in tribute to Clara.

Still, I find it hard to believe that this will truly be the last we see of Clara. I will be very surprised if she doesn’t turn up in some way in the finale. Generally, the showrunner writes the exit for the companion, and I can’t imagine that Moffat would let somebody give Clara her final words. Whether it will be in a dream, a flashback, a point earlier in her timeline, or one of the Clara splinters I have no idea.  Even if she does get resurrected (as it seems to be one of the recurring themes), I don’t think it can diminish the power of her exit here. Currently, this episode is my pick for the best of the season.  Clara’s departure was very moving and a fitting exit for one of my favorite companions. Now I just need this Raven to take thy beak from out my heart…

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Enter the Sandmen: Sleep No More

I  generally enjoy Mark Gatiss’ episodes of Doctor Who.  I’m not arguing that they are always great episodes (yes, I’m looking at you “Victory of the Daleks”), but I think most of his episodes have interesting characters and situations.  Therefore, I was looking forward to “Sleep No More,” his episode for this season.  After viewing it, I admire the attempt to try something new, but I don’t think it succeeded.

Doctor_ClaraSleepNoMore

The Doctor and Clara, recorded by some dust.

There was much ado about the lack of opening credits in this episode (the first time in the history of Doctor Who).  This is because the entire episode plays as found footage, put together by Professor Rassmussen.  While I am not a huge fan of the found footage horror genre, I didn’t mind it so much in this case.  At least we didn’t get that shaky, hand-held effect that sometimes makes me feel nauseated.

What did disturb me about the found footage idea was that the dust was recording the events.  This fact was just thrown in there, but it made no sense (like many ideas in this episode).  Let me see if I’ve got this straight, the sleep dust from our eyes has not only achieved sentience (I’ll get to that in a moment), but it has developed the capability to record?  It is rather a stretch.  I think I would have preferred it if the base had had cameras and the team had helmet cams. And why was the Sandmen’s eyesight hijacked? Only some dust had the ability to see and record?

I found the message of this episode interesting and I wish it could have been developed further. It’s an intriguing idea that society split into two types of people: the ambitious people who are willing use Morpheus to trade their sleep for the opportunity to work more and those who see Morpheus as an assault on one of the last areas that belongs completely to the individual. This episode could have been a satire on our culture’s value of productivity above all else, as Mark Gatiss has mentioned he wants it to be. Unfortunately, the story veers from this idea pretty quickly.  Even the idea about the cloned grunts is casually tossed aside, when it feels like the Doctor should maybe have a bit more of a opinion about something like that.

Reflecting on the episode, I’ve come to realize that logic is…not this story’s strong point.  Rassmussen is another in a long tradition of Doctor Who villains with a rather complicated plan. After seeing the episode twice, I’m still not completely sure why he did everything that he did. What was up with “patient zero?” Did that actually mean anything at all? What on earth would cause dust to become sentient?  Does all dust have this capability, or is it just eye dust? What exactly did Morpheus have to do with the sentient dust?  Why did the machine pull Clara in?  The episode left me with a whole lot more questions than answers.

Rassmussen

Rassmussen, perhaps as he’s about to explain his crazy plan.

I know this episode was supposed to be scary, but I just didn’t think it was. Aside from the completely bonkers origin of the monsters, I wasn’t invested in any of the characters.  None of the characters really made an impression; I can’t even remember any of their names. I even had to look up Rassmussen’s name for this post, and he was the most memorable new character we meet. One of the strengths of a Matk Gatiss episode is usually the memorable characters; unfortunately, the crew of the mission felt completely disposable to me, and that takes away from the scariness of the episode. You need to care about a character to be concerned for her or his safety.  All we really learned about the new characters we were told in the beginning (by an unreliable narrator, no less).

The “twist” ending was a clever way to end the story, it just, like much of this episode, ended up confusing me.  It wasn’t shocking to learn that Russmussen was, in fact, working with the Sandmen (if anything, this season has taught that you should never trust anyone who claims to be the sole survivor of an alien attack).  It was surprising to learn that Rassmussen was one of the Sandmen.  And it was just kind of cool to watch his head dissolve.  That part of the ending worked for me, although I’ve seen many different opinions about it online.  I think the varying opinions largely revolves around the fact that when you have a narrator as unreliable as Rassmussen, how do you know what’s real and what isn’t?  Personally, I think it’s clear that everything that we saw actually did happen, we just didn’t see everything that happened because Rassmussen had the power to edit.

What did confuse me was the idea that this was a film with a signal hidden in it that would “infect” whoever watched it.  This episode had an ending much like the horror movies it’s referencing, and that didn’t bother me. Much like The Ring, where the video is still circulating, the Doctor does not appear to have actually stopped the spread of the Sandmen. I was okay with that ambiguous, slightly disturbing ending; this is the second time in a Gatiss episode that the Doctor hasn’t really won (The Daleks really come out on top in “Victory of the Daleks”) and it can be an interesting change of pace.  What bothered me was the fact that the signal transmission idea came out of nowhere. So Morpheus had nothing to do with the spread of the Sandmen?  It made the entire story feel like a waste of time. Ultimately the ending undermines the story that precedes it, when it should cause you to reevaluate everything you thought you knew.

That being said, I did enjoy the humor in the episode. As usual, the Doctor/Clara banter was a high point; it even addresses more of those nitpicky fan things like how the Silurians got their name. The “space” discussion in their first scene was one of my favorite parts of the episode (and I couldn’t help but think of Troughton at the mention of space pirates). I would have liked to have seen a bit more of it in this story.

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Clara after she has been seized by the Morpheus machine. Maybe she’s ready to join Tron 2?

Overall, I can’t really say that I enjoyed this episode, but I can’t say that I have a strong feeling one way or another about it. It doesn’t really tie into any of the reoccurring themes of the season and I’m curious to see how it relates to “Face the Raven,” but as of right now, it doesn’t feel connected to the rest of the season so far. Despite all its flaws, it doesn’t really stir up much dislike in me, but it feels like the forgettable episode of the season. I have a feeling that when I look back on season 9, this will be the episode that I have the hardest time remembering. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking, because just trying to make sense of it for this post is giving me a headache. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Doctor Who should need to be taken with an aspirin.

The Zygon Inversion

It’s common for the second episode of a two-part episode to make me reevaluate my opinion of the first half.  Last week, when I wrote about “The Zygon Invasion,” I knew that I couldn’t really judge the episode without seeing its second half.  However, “The Zygon Inversion” was not at all what I was anticipating. Aside from my own wild speculations being wrong, “The Zygon Inversion” leaves most of the lingering questions I had about the first half unanswered, making me think even less of “The Zygon Invasion.”  Nevertheless, “The Zygon Inversion” is, in my opinion, the better of the two episodes; despite its flaws it has some great moments.

Bonnie becomes the new Osgood, so we still have two. I didn't really see that one coming...

Bonnie becomes the new Osgood, so we still have two. I didn’t really see that one coming…

As I stated above, this episode is not without its flaws.  Honestly, most of the plot before the great final scenes feels…undeveloped.  I found myself wondering if scenes had been cut from this episode that would have made sense of the somewhat random collection of events that make up the majority of this episode. For instance, creepy, strange acting police menace the Doctor and Osgood.  However, the two of them just hop in a nearby van and drive away and that’s the end of it.  The same is true of the scene in which Bonnie forces the peaceful Zygon to change.  He runs past someone sweeping up human remains.  When he leaves his apartment again, nobody reacts to a man suddenly turning into an alien.  It seems that they must have been Zygons, but why exactly were they all there?  Wouldn’t it produce more panic to have him change surrounded by humans? Basically, with some exceptions, most of the first two-thirds of this episode felt like filler to get us to the memorable final third.

This episode continues the trend of having a second half that feels very different from the first half.  However, this had some negative consequences in this particular narrative.  Once again, except for Osgood, UNIT remains fairly useless.  Just how many UNIT soldiers died in these two episodes?  It doesn’t seem like there could be many left.  Additionally, Walsh, who played an important role in the previous episode has disappeared from the narrative.  While I can sort of understand how she could be dropped from the narrative without any wrap up to her character, I didn’t understand why Jac was likewise dropped from the story.  Presumably Bonnie killed her at the end of the previous episode, but she doesn’t even merit a passing mention in this one.

Kate stands in front of the Osgood box for the sixteenth time.

Kate stands in front of the Osgood box for the sixteenth time.

At least we did get an explanation of how Kate got out of danger (I knew she couldn’t be stupid enough to trust that woman) and a nice reference to her father again. I know she has an important role to play in the conclusion, but I’d like to see her develop into more of an actual character rather than a walking reminder of the Brigadier.  While I have to admit I enjoyed hearing her use the lines “five rounds rapid,” I’d really like to see her step out from her father’s shadow and become a more fully developed individual.  I’m also not sure what it says about her that she has been in that room with the Osgood box 15 times before.  I guess it’s good that she always steps down, but it kind of tarnishes the Doctor’s victory a bit, to know that this probably happens every few months or so.  And how does Kate not notice that she is missing time?  Does she not notice all the dead soldiers, blown up jets, etc…

The other aspect of the story that bothered me were the sudden new powers of the Zygons.  All of the questions that I had about them from the previous episode remained unanswered here.  I won’t go into them again, but I am a bit tired of the writers constantly taking alien races and suddenly giving them whole new sets of powers that they never used to have, always cloaked under the guise of evolution (which doesn’t just magically help you develop brand new powers that quickly, but I digress…).

From my rather lengthy list of criticisms, you might think that I didn’t like the episode.  Well, surprise! I actually did. What it got right, it did very well.  While it did not do Kate any favors, this episode continued to develop Osgood into a complex character, not just a fan stand-in.  While there was a bit of development due to the events of last season’s finale, this episode sees Osgood grow beyond hero-worship of the Doctor.  She still admires him, but she is on more equal footing with him now; after all she is the keeper of the peace between the humans and Zygons.  Despite his constant attempts to wear her down, she stuck by her belief that whether she was human or Zygon shouldn’t matter.  She has grown from the person who had to take a hit off her inhaler every time she spoke to the Doctor to someone who turns down the opportunity to travel with the Doctor because she had greater responsibilities.

Can anyone explain why the revolting Zygons used the same phrase used in the Osgood box?

Can anyone explain why the revolting Zygons used the same phrase used in the Osgood box?

One of the other strengths of this episode builds off of something I wrote about last week: Jenna Coleman’s performance.  The parts dealing with Clara fighting back against Bonnie were some of the best scenes in the first two-thirds of the story.  In particular, the “lie detector” scene was a real highlight.  It was easy to forget at times that both sides of the tense confrontation was the same actress.  It was fun to watch as the balance of power shifted from Clara to Bonnie and back again.  The scene also was perfectly written to stay true to the character of Clara. Just as earlier she was clever enough to figure out a way to communicate with the Doctor from her pod, she is clever enough to figure out a way to “lie” to Bonnie by telling the truth.

The real reason, however, that I enjoyed this episode had to do with that final third to which I keep alluding.  Once again, the Doctor uses his wits to prevent a slaughter (well, if you don’t count all the people and Zygons killed leading up to that moment).  I read an interview with Toby Whithouse in which he said that he didn’t want to tell people what to think in his episodes.  That’s fine, but “The Zygon Invasion” was a bit too non-committal for me.  While it is clearly about immigration, it really could be interpreted many ways, by people on either side of the issue.  It doesn’t really say anything.

This episode, on the other hand, is very clearly anti-war, thanks to the Doctor’s sort-of-speech about the reality of war.  He makes the valid point that war just means that people will die before the parties involved get around to doing what they should have done in the first place: sat down and talked.  He also brings up the issue of planning; very few groups actually have a valid system of government in mind when they revolt.

What really makes the speech effective, however, is the way that Peter Capaldi delivers it.  After not quite feeling like the Doctor to me in the previous episode, he comes roaring back with the speech that may be his Doctor’s defining moment, much like “The Pandorica Opens” speech was to Matt Smith’s Doctor.  Capaldi makes you feel the pain behind the Doctor’s words as you realize how clever his Osgood box is: it boils the horrors of war down to the push of a button.  Making this even more of a sequel to “The Day of the Doctor,” it’s clear the events of the Time War still weigh heavily on the Doctor, causing him to try and prevent others from having a burden like his.

I'm assuming that this is the helmet that Ashildr wore, so it can't be an accident that it was basically in a spotlight behind the Doctor during his big moment.

I’m assuming that this is the helmet that Ashildr wore, so it can’t be an accident that it was basically in a spotlight behind the Doctor during his big moment.

I really can’t say that this season has had a bad episode yet.  While this two-part story is my least favorite of the year so far, it is not a bad story.  I’m immensely curious to see where this season is going to end up.  When the Doctor says to Clara that thinking she was dead was the longest month of his life, we get another hint that perhaps the Doctor has already somehow lost Clara.  Plus, this episode continues with the themes that have been reoccurring in the season so far.  While there is no direct mention, we still have the Zygon/human hybrid, resurrected characters, and a look at the consequences of the Doctor’s actions. I still have no idea just where this is leading, but I’m looking forward to next week.

The Zygon Invasion

“The Zygon Invasion” is the first of yet another two-part episode.  It’s a much more traditional two-part episode than the previous pair, ending with every one of our protagonists either seemingly dead or on the verge of becoming so (I think there’s more to Kate’s situation than we saw. She couldn’t possibly have not known that policewoman was a Zygon, right?). While it didn’t  pull me in as quickly as “Magician’s Apprentice” or “Under the Lake,” it still sets up an interesting story that left me eager for next week.

The opening message from both Osgoods (which I'm sure will come into play in "The Zygon Inversion")

The opening message from both Osgoods (which I’m sure will come into play in “The Zygon Inversion”)

The last time Doctor Who used the Zygons, they were basically a subplot in “The Day of the Doctor.”  The real focus was on the three Doctors working together and the Time War. The last time the Zygons were the focus of an episode was in the fourth Doctor story, “The Terror of the Zygons.”  This episode is really the first time in the new series that the Zygons take center stage. Despite their rather cumbersome appearance, the episode does a good job of making them scary and interesting.

The Zygon’s abilities have changed a bit over the years. They no longer need to keep the person they are duplicating alive.  They only need them as long as they need information from them. Additionally, the Zygons have developed the ability to pluck people from your memory to turn into. While this makes them even more dangerous (it’s not hard to understand why the soldiers have so much trouble shooting the Zygons in the village when they look like their loved ones), it does raise some questions. How did the Zygon in the village know Johnny’s name? Walsh (played by Rebecca Front, so it’s another The Thick of It reunion on Doctor Who) seemed to think that the copy wouldn’t know any personal information, but just what are their mind-reading capabilities? They were even able to know who was controlling the drone in an earlier scene, so I’m curious to see if we get any further explanation in the second half.

Moreover, we learn the terms of the peace that the human and Zygons negotiated at the end of “The Day of the Doctor.” Twenty million Zygons have taken human form and now live on the earth. Most are happy with this arrangement, but there is a splinter group that is taking action against this agreement. They want the Zygons to live openly, not live in a disguise, and are willing to destroy all humans and Zygons who stand in their way.

Apparently all the Zygons took the form of British people, so the influx of Zygons meant an influx of "British" immigrants around the world.

Apparently all the Zygons took the form of British people, so the influx of Zygons meant an influx of “British” immigrants around the world.

Peter Harness wrote last year’s divisive “Kill the Moon,” which many saw as being about abortion. I had many issues with that episode, but I have to admit that the abortion aspect didn’t cross my mind until I heard others discussing it. The commentary on current political issues in “The Zygon Invasion,” however, is impossible to miss. One can draw all sorts of parallels between the attitudes towards the Zygons and current attitudes towards immigration (made even clearer by the anti-“British” graffiti and writing found in New Mexico). The focus is on Middle Eastern immigration in particular, with the Zygon splinter group having some parallels to Isis.

This episode also sees the return of Osgood after her death in last year’s finale.  Once again we have a resurrected character, although we learn that there have been two Osgoods ever since the peace negotiations. We also have another hybrid, as we learn that Osgood and her Zygon duplicate have been working together to preserve the peace and no longer consider themselves either Zygon or human, but both.  It was good to see Osgood coming more into her own in this episode. She still wears a tribute to the Doctor, the question marks on her collar, but she is no longer almost solely defined by her admiration for him. The job of being the peace and the death of her sister had clearly made her grow as an individual.

One of the highlights of the episode was Jenna Coleman’s performance as Bonnie. I’m not sure how surprised people were to learn that the Clara we had seen for most of the episode was, in fact, her Zygon double. I thought Jenna Coleman did an excellent job of acting just a bit off. Just from the way she moved when she walked out of the apartment, it was clear that this was not Clara. Jenna Coleman also delivered lines slightly differently than she does as Clara, but not so different that Bonnie wouldn’t have fooled the others.

Even Jenna Coleman's body language and facial expression makes it clear that this is not Clara.

Even Jenna Coleman’s body language and facial expression makes it clear that this is not Clara.

In addition to the performance, Peter Harness wrote Clara’s dialogue well. It was generally what Clara would say, but a few things stuck out as slightly odd. Clara’s continued questions about the weapons against the Zygons, for instance, seemed a bit out of character. As a brief aside, I assume that Harry Sullivan developed the gas after his encounter with the Zygons in the “seventies or eighties” (nothing like catching a reference to the U.N.I.T. dating controversy to reaffirm just how deep your Doctor Who obsession is). Her comments to Jac about being middle-aged also seemed completely out of character for Clara.

I noticed many of these same traits in the Doctor during this episode, so I can’t help but think that he is a Zygon as well. He still seemed like himself when he met with the Zygon leaders on the playground. After that scene, however, we don’t see the TARDIS again and he just seems a bit…off.  He starts referring to himself in the third person and using inflections that he doesn’t usually use.  Why didn’t he use the TARDIS to get to Turmezistan? Why does he now seem to embrace being president of the world?  I suspect it’s because he’s not himself. If he is a Zygon copy, I wonder if this might all be part of his plan; he’s working with the peaceful Zygons and using a copy to make them think they know where he is and what he’s doing.

One of my favorite moments in the episode, the Doctor consulting with the Zygon leaders. Yes, those cute children are, in fact, big blobby things.

One of my favorite moments in the episode, the Doctor consulting with the Zygon leaders. Yes, those cute children are, in fact, big blobby things.

I don’t feel that I can comfortably state my opinion of this episode yet. The first half sets up some interesting conflicts, but much of it depends on the second half. Unlike the other two-part episodes, this one seems to require a second half that will be tonally similar and continue to develop the same ideas.  The title, “The Zygon Inversion” has me intrigued. Does it refer to the shift in power from the peaceful Zygons to the splinter group? Does it refer to a reversal we have yet to see? Or does it refer to the nerve gas that will physically invert the Zygons, turning them inside out? I guess I’ll have to wait for Saturday to find out.