The Long Way Round: Hell Bent

“Nothing’s sad ’til it’s over, then everything is.”  While the Doctor delivers these lines to Clara early in “Hell Bent,” I can’t help but feel that these lines express Steven Moffat’s feelings (and I would assume RTD’s feelings) about endings as well.  Every parting in the new series of Doctor Who is an emotional, heart-wrenching goodbye.  Endings are filled with sadness.  However, this episode is a bit less bleak of an ending than some; it puts a bittersweet coda on the exit of Clara Oswald.  Don’t worry though, there was still plenty of sadness to go around.

The Doctor says his goodbye to Clara

The Doctor says his goodbye to Clara

Overall, I found the episode a bit uneven, but what I found really stuck with me was the dialogue.  Therefore, I’ve decided to approach this episode through a series of memorable and/or important quotes.

“I heard the Doctor had come home. One so loves fireworks!”

Honestly, except for the parts with the Doctor and Clara in the diner, which I’ll get to later, the first 20 or so minutes dragged for me.  Maybe that’s because I just kept wondering why the Doctor seemed to grow up in the Dust Bowl.  Who is the woman in the barn (which makes its third appearance on the show, after “Day of the Doctor” and “Listen”)?  If the Doctor is a high-born Gallifrean, than why does his childhood home feel like an orphanage?

I did enjoy the touch of the Doctor dropping his spoon when told to put down any weapons (nice callback to “Robot of Sherwood”). It was a bit amusing to see how the Doctor just utterly ignored everyone until the president himself came (and interesting to see him draw a literal line in the sand), but overall it felt like filler.  Why did the Doctor have to wait too long for everyone to turn on Rassilon?  Was it just to have that old west showdown kind of feel to their meeting? The powerful Rassilon comes across more like a petulant child, which doesn’t make him seem like the best leader.  How did he get everyone to listen to his idea to trap the Doctor in his confession dial?  The door is clearly left wide open for a possible return of Rassilon, but I won’t be waiting with bated breath.

I did however, enjoy the return of Ohila.  I’m not clear how she got there, but it was kind of amusing to see her and the Sisterhood just barge in on the Gallifrey high command and make snarky comments. Apparently  at the end of things one should expect immortals there to heckle you.  Of course, she is also there to let the Doctor know that he is going too far.  She accuses him of being cruel or cowardly by banishing Rassilon and the rest of the High Council, which is basically saying that he has stopped being the Doctor again.  I’d love to see the Sisterhood used in a more meaningful way again, but I enjoyed their appearance here.

Everyone finally turns on Rassilon

Everyone finally turns on Rassilon

“Stories are where memories go when they’re gone.”

As I mentioned previously, the part of the beginning that I did enjoy was the scenes in the diner between the Doctor and Clara.  I enjoyed the way that those scenes played with my expectations.  It began and I thought the Doctor was checking on Clara who no longer remembered their experiences.  However, right from the start Moffat put in clues that Clara knew more than she was letting on; the example that jumps to mind is when the Doctor’s guitar starts to play (a guitar version of Clara’s theme, no less) on the diner’s speakers.  Clara doesn’t even react, which immediately made me start to suspect that she knew exactly who the Doctor was.

“You like a cliffhanger, don’t you?”

Another quote from the scenes in the diner, but I just had to include it because it made me chuckle.   I do love the meta-commentary on the shows abundant use of cliffhangers.

“Back to normal, am I? Only time I’ve been a man, that last body.  Dear lord, how do you cope with all that ego”

At this point the story picks up a bit, although, let’s face it, this episode isn’t really a terribly plot-heavy episode.  The Doctor learns what the Time Lords know about the hybrid from the General before demanding the use of the extraction chamber to save Clara.  The scene between the Doctor, Clara, and the General was where the episode began to pick up for me.  Clara remains Clara, observant and clever even though she is terribly confused and I really enjoyed Peter Capaldi’s performance.  The look on his face as he let the General offer Clara explanations made it clear that he was about to do something that he knew he really shouldn’t.

I really enjoyed the General throughout the episode.  While Ken Bones played the General, he was almost the lone voice of reason among the Time Lords, proof that they were not all corrupted.  I was enjoying his performance so much that I was a bit disappointed when he started to regenerate (I did like that the Doctor checked to make sure that the General wasn’t out of regenerations before shooting.  I guess that’s Time Lord courtesy).  However, I was pleasantly surprised to see the General regenerate into T’Nia Miller, a black woman.  First, I liked that the show was taking the traditionally male role of a general and suggesting that it was traditionally held by a woman.  Plus, let’s face it, most Time Lords that we see on screen are male.  I enjoyed the fact that Steven Moffat clearly wanted to depict on-screen that Time Lords can change their race and gender at any time.  The quote above even shows that he was specifically making the point that a Time Lord can be one gender for all of his or her regenerations and then suddenly be regenerated as the other gender.

On a side note, when I was double checking the names of the actors who played the General, I was very disappointed to see that the credits bill Ken Bones as the General and T’Nia Miller as the female General, as if normal is male and female is an exception.  I’m a bit disappointed that the show would label the characters in such a carelessly sexist way, especially after what seemed to be a move against sexism.

The General, Gastron, and Ohila try to figure out what is the Doctor's plan.

The General, Gastron, and Ohila try to figure out what is the Doctor’s plan.

“The Time Lords have a got a big computer made of ghosts in a crypt guarded by more ghosts.”

Trying to figure out exactly what was going on in the cloisters was enough to make my head spin.  I remember the matrix from the classic series, but it has clearly been majorly upgraded since then. I could have used a bit less of the slightly confusing cloisters in this episode as well. The random Dalek, Cyberman, and Weeping Angels didn’t really seem necessary, and I’m a bit fuzzy on what the Cloister Wraiths were protecting (since all we really saw were corridor-like rooms, but the Cloister Wraiths looked cool.  They were a striking visual as they glided around with their flickering screen, screaming faces.  As for the rest of it, I’m going with the Doctor’s handy cheat sheet for Clara and the audience before I develop a headache.

One of the creepy Cloister Wraiths.

One of the creepy Cloister Wraiths.

“My time is up, Doctor. Between one heartbeat and the last is all the time I’ve got.”

The heart of the episode was the relationship between the Doctor and Clara.  This being Jenna Coleman’s final episode, Clara does get her share of moments, even though her role in the beginning of the episode was limited to her scenes in the diner.  I was happy to see that this episode did not deminish Clara’s bravery in “Face the Raven.”  She continues to accept that it is her time to go, trying to convince the Doctor that her life wasn’t worth fracturing all of time.  And I loved seeing her face off against Ohila and the General, distracting them while the Doctor stole another TARDIS.  I also can’t let that pass without mentioning how excited I was to see the original console room.

The moment that really stuck with me however, was the conversation between Clara and the Doctor in the cloister.  It’s played perfectly by both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman.  Without even saying a world, it’s clear how well these two characters know each other.  Clara sees a change in the Doctor and realizes that he has been through a lot since she last saw him.  He knows that if he looks at her she will read the pain in his eyes, so he tries to look away, to not let her see.  Once again they are both trying to look out for the other.  Clara’s reaction when she learns that the Doctor spent 4 1/2 billion years trapped in his confession dial solely to bring her back from the dead shows that she is both incredibly moved and angry at the same time.  And somewhere Adric just cried.

“Even the other immortals are gone, it’s just Me.”

It’s not until the final third of the story that Me enters the episode.  Once again Maisie Williams does a great job of giving Me a slightly different, almost wiser air as she can appreciate the beauty in sad events, something the Doctor seems incapable of doing.  She’s a bit underused in this episode, basically popping up to become Clara’s companion in the end, but she makes the most of her limited screen time, even if she does essentially disappear during the Doctor and Clara’s farewell in the TARDIS.

I’m also going to admit that Steven Moffat got me again when the Doctor said it was “me” knocking.  The Doctor has been to the end of the universe several times; it seems impossible that he wouldn’t run into himself there.  I held out hope for a moment that maybe, just maybe, it was Orson Pink and Moffat had found a way to explain his existence, but no such luck.

Clara and her companion head off to Gallifrey, the long way round

Clara and her companion head off to Gallifrey, the long way round

“By your own reasoning, why couldn’t the hybrid be half Time Lord, half human?”

The other reason Me seemed to exist in this episode was to troll the audience.  As she started this speech, I was thinking, he’s not actually going there, is he?  And of course, he didn’t, not really.  Moffat actually leaves the whole hybrid thing a bit unclear although it does seem that the prophecy must refer to the Doctor since he is the one willing to destroy a billion hearts to heal his own.  Still all three of the possibly hybrids are, at that moment, standing in the ruins of Gallifrey, so there really isn’t a definitive answer.

“Nobody’s ever safe.  I never asked you for that, ever…These have been the best years of my life and they are mine.  Tomorrow’s promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past.  I am entitled to that.”

This was my favorite moment of the episode.  I loved seeing Clara stand up to the Doctor and tell him that he did not have the right to take away her memories.  It felt like a bit of a redemption for the horrible ending that RTD gave Donna (I really, really, really hated that memory wipe).  And considering that Clara was willing to face her death and put an end to all of this, it was clear that it was the Doctor who really needed the memory wipe.  I think he realized this as well.  I’m pretty sure that he knew that Clara had managed to reverse the polarity, and he accepted it as a consequence of his going too far this time.

He and Clara’s final moments were touching, as he basically told her how to be a Doctor, which seemed to indicate that he had some idea of what she might do.  I happen to love pears, so I’m disregarding that part of his advice, but the rest of it was sound.  I will admit that I love the idea of Clara and Me traveling around the universe, even though it once again allows a death to not really be a death on Doctor Who.

“When something goes missing, you can always recreate it by the hole it left.”

I’ve heard many interpretations of the final scene in the diner.  Personally, I think the Doctor really doesn’t know that it is Clara to whom he’s speaking.  At first I wasn’t sure why Clara wanted him to know that it was her, but I think I’ve figured out an explanation that works for me.  Time and time again we’ve seen Clara looking out for others; I think this was her final act of looking out for the Doctor.  One of the last things she asks him is if he’s going to look for Clara, and he seems to want to find her again.  I think Clara wanted to plug up the hole a bit, so that he wouldn’t waste time trying to find her or wondering about her.  By making her TARDIS dematerialize around him, she let him know that he had been talking to Clara and that she was okay.  This was so he wouldn’t feel the need to search for her.

Clara takes a final look back at the Doctor (as Elvis watches)

Clara takes a final look back at the Doctor (as Elvis watches)

Overall, while this episode didn’t quite live up to the promise of “Heaven Sent,” it had a lot of good points.  Despite this being a rather dark season, it ended on a positive note.  The Doctor puts on the maroon velvet coat and become “the Doctor” again. Clara still has to go back and “face the raven,” but she has all the time in the world for adventures until that moment.  What better ending could there be than to see their TARDISs pass each other in the vortex, each off on a new adventure.  While I was sad to see Clara go, I think she got a good exit.  For a while, at least, she gets to essentially be her own Doctor, which was no less than this strong character deserved.

 

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Happy Endings: The Husbands of River Song

I’ve never been a big fan of River Song. There, I’ve said it. She’s a very popular character, but I’ve always been rather…indifferent to her appearances. I don’t dislike her, but the news that she was returning for the Christmas special didn’t fill me with anticipation. I have to admit, however, that “The Husbands of River Song” was a pleasant surprise.  The key to getting this non-fan of River engaged with her was apparently placing her in her proper genre.

The Doctor and River find their happy ending (and, for the first time ever, I kind of want to cosplay River).

It’s difficult for me to put my feelings about River Song into words; to fully explain them would require an entire post. However, thanks to this episode, I realized what might be my fundamental problem with River: I have never found her to be a particularly believable character. I find her lacking in character development. She is a very competent character, but her relationship to the Doctor defines her identity. Without the Doctor, who is River? It’s impossible to know. Plus, with the timey-wimey-ness of their meetings, it’s difficult to get a handle on how River has grown or changed as a character.

However, in this episode, Steven Moffat discovered a genre in which River could flourish: the screwball comedy. River almost perfectly fulfills the requirements of the heroine of a screwball comedy. She’s witty, eccentric, assertive, and an agent of chaos. Most screwball heroines aren’t quite as ruthless as she is, but, then again, most heroines don’t find themselves in a sci-fi/screwball mashup.

Screwball comedies also feature a switch in traditional gender roles, with the heroine controlling the action and pulling the man along. In a traditional screwball comedy, a woman, who is a force of nature, enters the man’s life through unusual circumstances and proceeds to turn his life upside down, until they reach their “happy ending.” If that doesn’t describe the relationship between River and the Doctor, then I’m not sure what would.

I’ll admit that the first time through, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the episode. I was focused on trying to make sense of the plot (I mean, just what is River’s plan to get rid of the diamond, really?). However, the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated how cleverly Steven Moffat had actually written a true screwball comedy; in a screwball comedy, you generally don’t have a terribly believable or realistic situation. You might end up with two people taking care of a leopard or a wife returning on the very day a judge declares her legally dead and her husband remarries. When I considered it as an example of a screwball comedy, it worked for me. The chemistry and interaction between the leads is the most important aspect, not the logic of the plot.

The supporting cast is truly just there to move the plot along and not take too much focus from the leads, and they succeed in that. As is typical of a screwball comedy, the leads meet an eccentric cast of characters during their journey. Despite rather limited roles, both Matt Lucas as Nardole and Greg Davies as King Hydroflax make an impression and seem to thoroughly relish the absurdities of their characters.

 

King Hydroflax and a character who was visually striking yet I completely forgot he existed until I saw this picture.

The cruise of only horrible people was an interesting touch (and a way to make the death of a cruise ship full of people something that doesn’t put a damper on the fun of the episode), even if that was, perhaps, my least favorite section of the episode. Nevertheless, I did enjoy watching the Doctor and River try to improvise a way to make the sale of the head of King Hydroflax into something that would work for the buyers.

The most inventive aspect of the story, however, was the cyborg body in search of a human head. As long as you don’t think about it too hard, it is a fairly successful comedic antagonist suited to the tone of the episode. It’s dangerous, but doesn’t kill its victims; that’s good because killing off the only redeemable members of the supporting cast wouldn’t keep the breezy tone required of a screwball comedy.

Additionally, all of the absurdities of the episode stemmed from taking the most common elements of screwball comedies and adding them into the Doctor Who universe. Many of the original screwball comedies dealt with love triangles and the idea of remarriage; hence the many bizarre marriages of River: King Hydroflax/the diamond, Ramone, her second wife… Having River not recognize the Doctor was also another classic trope of the screwball comedy: mistaken identity. Overall, this was a good blend of screwball and science fiction. It’s far more effective than some of the previous attempts at combining genres in Doctor Who (yes, I’m talking about you, “A Town Called Mercy” and “The Angels Take Manhattan).

Just about the only element that isn’t at the forefront are the class issues at the heart of many screwball comedies (their heyday was in the 1930’s, after all), but it is set in the right kind of ambiance; there’s plenty of luxury and opulence on display and Alex Kingston gets to wear all those gowns.

A still from one of my favorite screwball comedies, Libeled Lady. Why, you might ask? Just because I can.

A still from one of my favorite screwball comedies, Libeled Lady. Why, you might ask? Just because I can.

Which leads me to another important reason that I preferred River’s appearance this episode to most of her previous ones: chemistry. Screwball comedies can only succeed if you have great chemistry between your leads. I never really cared for River’s chemistry with Matt Smith’s Doctor (although I did think she worked well with the tenth Doctor). The whole “Mrs. Robinson” gag wore a bit thin for me and it never really felt like Smith’s Doctor could keep up with her. The chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston is better. Exactly why they have chemistry together is difficult to say. It could have to do with age, but I think a lot of it has to do with the subtlety of Capaldi’s acting; he can say so much in just a few words, or, sometimes, no words at all. For most of the epusode, the Doctor and River interact in the traditional screwball comedy manner; there is lots of witty repartee, fast paced banter, and sarcasm. Yet as the episode progresses, they both sincerely reveal how much they care about each other in a very in-screwball way.

The ending is where the episode shifts gears, yet it didn’t feel disjointed from the rest of the episode. The shift from banter to sincerity happens subtly; more madcap action follows River’s heartfelt speech about the Doctor before the episode settles into its more serious final scene. The setting is perfect for a screwball comedy, even if the events are not. The suit, the evening gown, the nice restaurant…all of these things keep the glamour that one might find in a screwball comedy and visually connects the scene to the rest of the episode, despite the shift in tone.

The ending is where the episode deviates a bit from a screwball comedy. The fact that the ending has a few important purposes means that it becomes a bit more sincere than the story that preceded it. I always felt that we could not be done with River Song after “The Name of the Doctor” because there was still one scene that I didn’t feel that Steven Moffat could leave unwritten: the Doctor and River’s final night at the singing towers. Since Moffat loves to make the viewers feel, I couldn’t imagine that he would not want to write the scene in which the Doctor must send River off to her death and is powerless to stop it. I also can’t help but feel that Steven Moffat is doing his best to ensure that no other writer can ever use River, since he made a point of saying that River has not seen any faces beyond his first 12, but that’s another story. However, the scene does not play out as high drama, as I thought it might. It’s a very understated and quiet scene that would be a perfect farewell to River, if this is, in fact, her final appearance.

The ending also shows that forgetting Clara has brought the Doctor to a better headspace. He accepts that since he has already seen River die he can’t do anything to change it, something that the Doctor would most likely not have been able to do just a few episodes ago. Instead, both he and River focus on having a good time while they still have time, thus living happily ever after.

 

River threatens the head of King Hydroflax with her sonic trowel.

“The Husbands of River Song” is about ninety percent fluff, but it was the perfect episode to cap off what has been a rather brutally dark season. It’s not going to be one of my favorite episodes of all-time, but I think it is one of the better Christmas specials. It sets out to be a fun romp and it succeeds. It’s a strange thing to say about an episode that ends with the Doctor and River’s final night together (although said night is 24 years long), but yet it’s true. Even though the audience, the Doctor, and even River herself know what’s coming next for her, the episode ends happily. I guess it proves that Orson Welles was correct when he said, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

One Hell of a Story: Heaven Sent

To call “Heaven Sent” an unusual episode of Doctor Who is a bit of an understatement. It is not only completely unique in the 52 year history of the show, but it is also unusual for any major television show.  It is an episode with, essentially, a cast of one; it truly is the Doctor on his own. We’ve seen the Doctor without a companion before, but we’ve never spent an entire episode with just the Doctor. It was a risky episode, but one that succeeded exceptionally well.

transportedDoctor

I wouldn’t want to make him angry…

“Heaven Sent” is essentially the third part of a loose season ending trilogy, much like the “Utopia/Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords” trilogy that ended season three. Therefore, some of the ultimate success of the episode will depend on its conclusion. No matter what happens in the next episode, however, this was one of the most compelling episodes of Doctor Who in a long time.

When Steven Moffat is at his best, he creates intricately plotted scripts with an emotional core. I’m thinking in particular of “Blink,” which is a complex “timey-wimey” puzzle of a story, yet it manages to hit strong emotional beats as well, running the gamut from funny to moving, all without a false step.

“Heaven Sent” is another one of those scripts.  It is a puzzle box of a story, an intriguing mystery for the Doctor to solve. I can’t say that I completely understand everything at this point, but when you write stories as complex as Steven Moffat does, there tend to be a few things that you just have to accept without explanation. For instance, at this point, I can’t say that I understand exactly why the Doctor had to dig to find the “I am in room 12” message, and I may never know. But I’m willing to accept that as just part of the overall eccentricity of the clockwork castle (Moffat does love his clockwork, doesn’t he?).  I’ve heard several people asking why the “diamond” wall didn’t reset, which is a valid question that is never directly answered in the story. I just assumed that breaking through the wall was the whole point of the experience, so that is why it didn’t reset.  Overall, all the pieces are there to figure out what is going on, it just takes the audience (and the Doctor) a while to put it all together.

It’s also an interesting idea to have the Doctor tormented by his own nightmares. The only familiar object in the castle seems to be the portrait of Clara, which keeps her loss fresh in his mind. It’s a small detail, but one that would ensure that he doesn’t forget his grief. And would serve to keep him a bit on edge.

More important is the relentless creature, The Veil, which pursues him around the castle, ensuring that he can never rest. The flies that always announced its presence were a nice touch. It made The Veil even more synonymous with death in both the Doctor and the audience’s minds. The monitors showing you the creature’s point of view were a clever idea as well; constantly seeing it coming adds to the feeling of dread.

The Veil reminded me of the somewhat similar creature in the recent movie It Follows. Both involve “monsters” that you can easily outrun, but who never give up their pursuit. Both show that a creature doesn’t have to be fast to be deadly. In fact, both creatures exemplify the idea that slow and steady wins the race; thus, the relentlessness of the creature is a frightening concept. As the Doctor states in the opening of the episode, if you are being pursued by an entity that never stops, even if you can outrun it, it will eventually catch you. It forces an exhausting state of hyperawareness, and at some point your guard will drop and it will be there ready for you.

ClaraPortraitandDoctor

The Doctor sits with Clara…I love the shot composition here.

Rather than hell, which, the Doctor tells us, is just “heaven for bad people,” this episode made me think of Dante’s purgatory. The repetitiveness of events, the punishments, the very gradual progress, and the reference to the mountain in the fairy tale all made me feel like the Doctor was on Mount Purgatory, earning his way into heaven. Although “heaven” in this case would be Gallifrey, which might be a bit higher praise than it deserves…

However, this being a Steven Moffat script, the puzzle isn’t the only thing going on and the journey through purgatory is an emotional one as well. The episode begins as an emotionally grueling experience for the Doctor. He is trapped in a seemingly endless loop in which, even though millions of years have passed, the loss of Clara is still fresh. The reset of the loop also resets his grief each time. His recent loss has made him so weary that we see the Doctor flirt with the idea of just giving up and losing.  Once he decides to fight, however, he begins his captivity somewhat delighted by the challenge (much like Clara, the Doctor wants to keep busy in his grief), but as the time passes (we never know exactly how much time comprises the loop) he begins to wear down and lose hope. To escape, he must not only put the pieces together, but he also has to suffer tremendous physical pain as well.

This is the point where it becomes an emotionally grueling experience for the audience as well. That montage of scenes towards the conclusion of the episode makes the viewer feel the weight of the Doctor’s seemingly endless suffering. The audience watches him die over and over again (another part of the resurrection theme this season) as he very slowly punches his way through the wall. The main sign of progress that we get is his ability to gradually get through more of the fairy tale as he breaks through the wall and is slightly further away from the creature (which I thought was a brilliant choice). That’s why, when the Doctor finally breaks through the wall and finds that he is on Gallifrey, it feels like an earned payoff. Both the Doctor and the audience have gone through a lot to finally return to Gallifrey.

DoctorGardener

The Doctor has a close call.

However, Steven Moffat does not deserve all the credit for the success of this episode. Rachel Talalay is an excellent director who sets the perfect tone for the episode (with help from all the behind the camera staff, of course). The colors are very dark and subdued and there is a general air of menace throughout. Visually, the castle is quite fascinating and the creature is always shrouded in enough shadow and filmed from angles that keep it mysterious and creepy. The idea that the TARDIS also exists in the Doctor’s head, as his storm room, is also well realized visually. The lighting in TARDIS, for instance, gives us information about the Doctor’s mental state that he himself cannot. I’d have to say the most striking image, however, were all of the skulls piling up on the ocean floor. Once the meaning of them became clear, each skull drives home just how many times the Doctor has died.

The primary reason, however, that this episode succeeds is Peter Capaldi’s amazing performance. I could probably write an entire post solely about that, but since this is already a long post, I’ll try to condense my enthusiasm into paragraph form. I don’t think any other Doctor could have pulled off this episode. Capaldi is utterly compelling at every turn, whether he is speaking out loud to himself, in voiceover, or to the Clara in his head. It would have been easy to play it safe and have him actually interact with the Clara in his head, allowing for some dialogue. Instead, the Clara in his head remains silent, with her back to him, except for that key moment at the end. This reminds the audience that he is using his memories of Clara to provide himself with an audience and that she is not actually speaking with him. It’s also a good way to see the Doctor dealing with his grief as he “talks” to Clara. I’m not sure any other Doctor could have pulled off the line “that’s what got you killed,” referring to Clara’s answer that she would do the same thing as the Doctor in this situation. Capaldi delivers it with a bit of humor, but yet he doesn’t play it for a laugh.

One of my favorite moments might be the way that Capaldi delivers his lines when he steps out of the transporter. Most actors would probably have more of a tendency to shout them or play them up, but Capaldi delivers them quietly, but with such resolve that you know at that point he would be incapable of holding back his rage against the person or persons responsible for the loss of Clara.

TheDoctorsSkull

How many family shows would have the main character carry around his own skull?

Last week, I thought that “Face the Raven” was the best episode of the season. Well, it looks like I was wrong, because “Heaven Sent” is an utterly unique story that has quickly climbed to the top of my list. It’s a story that perfectly combines the talents of both Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi. The script was unique and incredible, but it needed the right actor to pull it off. I do find myself wondering if Tom Baker is at all envious that not only does Peter Capaldi have no companion for this episode, he has no real supporting cast. He doesn’t even have a cabbage to talk to…

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.

ClaraFacingtheRaven

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…

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.

MorpheusClara

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 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.

The Woman Who Lived…and Lived…and Lived…

“The Woman Who Lived” was the second part of a rather unconventional two-part story. Its first part, “The Girl Who Died,” is basically a self-contained story.  The connection between these two stories is that “The Woman Who Lived” shows the consequences of the Doctor’s actions at the end of “The Girl Who Died.”  However, instead of picking up where the story left off and returning to the village, we follow Ashildr about 800 years after the Doctor saved her life.

Lady Me and Leandro, the space lion

Lady Me and Leandro, the space lion

While I did enjoy this episode, it was not perfect.  My biggest complaint is that the alien plot was not terribly well-defined. It was basically what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as a “MacGuffin,” a plot device that serves to provide motivation for the characters and move the action along.  In that case it served its purpose; the amulet brings the Doctor and Ashildr together and forces them to work together. Similarly, Leandro’s plan is what sparks the conflict between the Doctor and Ashildr and what brings about Ashildr’s change of heart. As you’ll learn in a moment, I didn’t really want more time devoted to the alien subplot, but I wish that it wasn’t so obviously just a plot device.  Similarly, Sam Swift was a rather one-dimensional character.  He served his narrative function, but that was pretty much it.  I didn’t wish him ill, but I didn’t feel like I knew him at all.

The reason however, that I still really enjoyed this episode was the interaction between the Doctor and Ashildr/Me.  Honestly, I could have done without the fire-breathing space lion invasion plot and had an episode that was solely conversations between the Doctor and Ashildr/Me (but, since Doctor Who is not made solely for my enjoyment it’s probably good that they didn’t do that).  Characters with extraordinarily long life-spans are not new to Doctor Who (in this episode alone we have the Doctor and a reference to Captain Jack), but I thought that Catherine Tregenna wrote well about the cost of living so long.  Of course, credit is also due to Maisie Williams for making Lady Me seem like a completely different person from Ashildr: much more self-confident, but also world-weary and emotionally detached.  That transformation, combined with the changes in costuming, make her seem a great deal older than when we last saw her, even though she hasn’t physically aged at all.

The Doctor and the Nightmare both have their masks on for their evening of burglary.

The Doctor and the Nightmare both have their masks on for their evening of burglary.

Returning, however to the writing, I loved every moment of the conversations between Ashildr/Me and the Doctor.  Touching on a few key incidents from Ashildr’s past was a great way to show what essentially being immortal had done to her.  Even the idea of calling herself Me, which could have been ridiculous, worked with the explanation that, “all the other names I chose died with whoever knew me. Me is who I am now. No-one’s mother, daughter, wife. My own companion. Singular. Unattached. Alone.” From her first losses of her father and all the villagers she grew up with to her own children dying of the plague, she has lost more people than a normal person would even meet. Regular humans disappear from her life so quickly she can’t even remember them all.

In order to survive, she has had to develop an attitude not dissimilar from the Doctor and Captain Jack.  She knows that human existence is transitory while she endures, so she, unlike the Doctor, has withdrawn from human contact.  This episode explains why the Doctor chooses to travel with mere mortals that he knows he will eventually lose: he needs them to remind him how precious life is and to keep him from becoming too detached.  The woman who the Doctor meets is, in many ways, what he was afraid of becoming.  When he encounters Me at the beginning of the story, she seems to have stopped caring about anyone.  Human life is cheap to her, having seen how quickly people die, so she thinks nothing of killing someone if it serves her purpose.  She is barely human anymore, since she has knowledge and experiences vaster than those of any human (except, of course, the aforementioned Jack).

It’s also interesting that Ashildr/Me never used immortality charge on any of the people she loved and cared about.  She says that she never found anyone good enough, but it’s clear that there is more to it than that.  She admits at the end of the episode that she doesn’t think immortality should be possessed by anyone.  As difficult as it is for her to continue through the centuries alone, she would rather not punish anyone else with her fate.  It’s in choices like this that some of the old Ashildr starts to show in Lady Me.  She was very selfless in her protection of the village, and a bit of that selflessness must have remained, even when she seemed to not care.

Of course, Ashildr is a hybrid of two warrior races (the Vikings and the Mire) just as in the prophecy that Davros mentioned.  I’d also be willing to bet that she is a better warrior than anyone from either race a this point in her life.  Could she be the hybrid of the prophecy or is she just another example of a hybrid on the way to something bigger?  Will she wind up helping the Doctor or will he come to find the enemy in the friend?

This episode was mostly Clara-less, which was a good thing.  As much as I like Clara, the focus needed to be on the Doctor and Ashildr/Me.  However, the scene with Clara was a nice touch at the end.  It was a nice coda on the story because we see Ashildr in the photo outside Coal Hill School; this reinforces the idea that she is still keeping an eye on those who interact with the Doctor.  I also have to admit that I just enjoy the rapport between the Doctor and Clara, which comes through, even in this brief scene.  And, of course, it continues to foreshadow Clara’s imminent departure. Not only does Lady Me mention the fact that eventually Clara will be gone, but it is even brought to mind again in the final scene.  Whenever the last lines of an episode are “don’t worry, daft old man. I’m not going anywhere,” you know trouble is just around the corner.

Clara and the Doctor share an affectionate moment at the end of the episode.

Clara and the Doctor share an affectionate moment at the end of the episode.

Overall, “The Woman Who Lived” is the rare example of the second half of a two-part episode being better than the first.  I liked “The Girl Who Died,” but I really enjoyed “The Woman Who Lived.”  Despite being written by two different writers,  the two parts of this unconventional two-parter fit together surprisingly well; they both mixed lighthearted plot elements with more serious themes.  While I think “The Woman Who Lived” did it a bit more successfully, I think I appreciate the first part more now that I’ve seen the second part.  It actually reminded me a bit of the first Doctor story “The Ark.”  That was the first story to really make the concept of time travel and its consequences the subject of the story.  At least this time the Doctor wasn’t responsible for giving Monoids the upper hand over the last of humanity.  Although Clara did sound a bit hoarse in “The Girl Who Died…”