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.

 

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…

Going with the Vikings: The Girl Who Died

When looking back on my favorite episodes of last season, I realized that they were almost all written by either Jamie Mathieson or Steven Moffat. Needless to say, I had high hopes for “The Girl Who Died,” a story written by both Mathieson and Moffat. While I enjoyed “The Girl Who Died,” it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I felt that I was slow to engage with the story and I missed the luxury of time that the two-part episodes provided for setting up the story. However, once I got into the story, I found many ideas to explore in an episode that could have been just a romp.

FacingtheMire

Clara faces off against the Mire while Ashidr watches.

The story contains the strengths of both Mathieson and Moffat. Mathieson has traditionally brought a great deal of humor to his episodes and this was no exception. From the Monty Python-esque Odin to the Doctor’s interactions with the Viking men, there were plenty of lighthearted moments. Moffat, I’m assuming, brought the emotional heft to the episode, i.e. the quieter moments between the Doctor and Clara or Ashildr’s death.

Doesn't everybody see the similarities?

Doesn’t everybody see the similarities?

The main aspect that kept me from ranking this episode among the best had to do with the pacing. After several two-parters in a row, the story felt rushed.  The beginning flew through things so quickly that I didn’t really fully engage with the episode until Clara was confronting the Mire.  Additionally, the beginning of the episode felt a bit disjointed as it shifted tones quickly.

However, this episode had a great deal to recommend it as well. It continued to develop the characters of the Doctor and Clara, as well as some of the themes of the season so far.

This episode catches the Doctor at an interesting moment. He discusses the idea of a time traveler making ripples, not tidal waves as how he judges what he can and can’t do. He has lost a great deal of the edge that he had last season without really changing his attitude. He still clearly thinks that humans are pudding brains, but now his approach is more blunt than cruel. Even so, he manages to find a very Doctor-ish solution to the problem of the small Viking town going against one of the greatest warrior races in the universe; instead of fighting them, he finds a way to outwit them without causing harm to anyone.

Apparently, the Doctor had some kind of sense that this incarnation would need a little help finding his way because we finally learn the reason that the Doctor chose this particular face for himself. He chose this face to remind himself that the Doctor saves people whenever he can.  Pompeii’s destruction was a fixed point that he could not change, but Donna reminded him that he could still save someone from the tragedy.  He rescued Caecilius and his family proving that even if he couldn’t change the event, he could still make a difference, no matter how small in the grand scheme of things.

This revelation, along with, perhaps, confronting the limitations of his abilities in the previous episode, leads the Doctor into a moment that feels a bit reminiscent of the “Time Lord victorious” arc during David Tennant’s tenure.  He brings Ashildr back from the dead and possibly grants her immortality.  It is entirely possible that he has once again overstepped his bounds as a Time Lord and created a ripple that turns into a tidal wave.

TheDoctor_Odin

The Doctor outwits the false Odin

The episode also continues to deepen the relationship between the Doctor and Clara.  Once again we see how distraught the Doctor is at the thought of losing Clara; he mentions his duty of care and tries to get her to leave before the battle so that nothing happens to her.  This is the most preoccupied I’ve ever seen the Doctor with the thought of losing a companion, which makes me wonder if he knows something that we have yet to find out.

Of course the episode also continues to focus on how traveling with the Doctor has changed Clara.  When the Mire brings her to “Valhalla,” she witnesses the death of all the Viking warriors without even batting an eye.  She tries to save them, but she has no trouble accepting their death when she can’t help them.  She has clearly taken on the Doctor’s morality here, in that she sees the bigger picture and is willing to accept some casualties along the way.  She also functions almost as a Time Lord in her own right as she negotiates with the Mire.  Furthermore, she shows that she has the utmost faith in the Doctor as she tells everyone that he will come up with a plan to save them and even tells him to “start winning, Doctor.  It’s what you’re good at.”  As opposed to previous seasons, where Clara tried to keep the Doctor as her “hobby” (a fact she mentions in this episode), it’s clear that he is much more than that to her. We see very little of her life outside the TARDIS anymore.

Aside from the theme of Clara in danger, we also touch on several other reoccurring themes of the season.  First, we have another episode centered around death and/or cheating death.  From “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar” we had Missy returned from the dead, Davros cheating death and decaying Daleks regenerated.  In “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood” we had the ghosts who were another way of returning from the dead.  In this episode we have our most blatant resurrection: the Doctor uses alien technology to bring Ashildr back from the dead.  Rather than suffer a devastating loss in the middle of his triumph, the Doctor chooses to do what he can to save her, even if that might mean that she is now immortal. Maisie Williams does a great job of conveying, simply through the expression on her face in the final scene that this immortality might be more of a burden than a blessing; her expression changes from happy to sad to just cold and hard.  After all the Doctor was speaking from experience when he said, “immortality isn’t living forever…immortality is everyone else dying.”

Besides the resurrection theme, this episode brings back the idea of a hybrid, except this time it is Ashildr who has become a human-alien hybrid.  We last heard about a hybrid in relation to the “prophecy” of which Davros spoke: the Doctor’s role in the coming of the Time Lord-Dalek hybrid.  While Ashildr is not a Time Lord-Dalek hybrid, it doesn’t seem coincidental that she is the second hybrid we’ve encountered in the season so far.

I also noticed one of Moffat’s favorite themes at work in this story: the power of storytelling.  It’s not surprising that a writer would prize storytelling, but Moffat often makes use of themes in his episodes. From the eleventh Doctor’s famous quote about how we’re all stories in the end to all River’s detective novel in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” he loves to explore the power of storytelling.  Therefore, it seemed appropriate that the Doctor is able to defeat one of the most fearsome alien races by having a girl tell a story.  Once again the story is more powerful than the sword…or laser gun as the case may be.

Ashidr is no longer happy

Ashidr is no longer happy

Overall, I enjoyed the episode, it just fell a bit short of my expectations.  As I mentioned before, I found the beginning a bit choppy, but there’s something else.  This episode makes use of my least favorite of the Doctor’s skills: his ability to speak baby.  I can accept a lot of ridiculous things, but this is just too much.  It was okay as a throwaway gag, but it just keeps coming back.  In this episode, it’s not even played for laughs. Instead, the Doctor meets the most soulful and profound baby ever.  “Beyond the unfolding of your smile, is there other kindness?” Really? A baby said that? I think I preferred the Doctor speaking horse.

Thoughts on The Witch’s Familiar

Once upon a time, Steven Moffat wrote self-contained episodes of Doctor Who, and they were often among my favorite episodes of the season. One episode could flow effortlessly between being scary, humorous, and moving, all the while telling a story that left the viewer satisfied at its conclusion. Since he became the showrunner, however, Moffat is usually writing series openers and finales, episodes that need to set up season arcs and have implications far beyond the conclusion of the episode itself. The stakes are usually so high and far-reaching that it is almost impossible for the episodes to reach a satisfying conclusion. This is what happens in “The Witch’s Familiar,” an episode that I enjoyed, but it ultimately left me a bit unsatisfied.

Doctor_Davros

The basic plot of this episode is fairly simple. Clara and Missy have to work their way back to the Doctor after teleporting away at the end of “The Magician’s Apprentice.”  The Doctor, of course, must continue his confrontation with Davros.

One problem I had was that I didn’t feel that the two halves of this two-part episode fit together well.  The previous episode was framed by the question of what you would do if confronted with a child who you knew was going to grow up to do horrible things.  That question isn’t really a question anymore in this episode.  I always knew that the Doctor would not end up murdering the young Davros, but that whole moral dilemma is pretty much ignored. The whole Missy-as-the-Doctor’s-best-friend idea is pretty much scrapped as well, replaced with a more general idea the difference between friends and enemies. 

However, the issue that rises to the forefront in this episode is another interesting idea: what separates the Doctor from his archenemies?  In this episode we have not only Davros, but Missy for comparison as well.  The episode does a good job of bringing out some of their similarities.  They’re all clever, intelligent individuals.  Missy is just about as good as the Doctor at thinking on her feet and anticipating her opponents’ moves.  The parallels with Davros are a bit more direct, as Davros seems to be trying to convince the Doctor that they are not that different; they’re both individuals trying to save their own race by any means necessary.

The key difference, it becomes apparent, is compassion and/or mercy.  Missy is willing to help the Doctor (mainly for her own selfish reasons), but both parts of the episode make it clear that she has no compassion for others.  Humans are nothing more than inanimate objects (she even humorously uses Clara as a rock at one point in the episode, making her feelings about humans completely clear).

The Doctor being clever

The Doctor being clever

For Davros, the Doctor’s compassion is his biggest weakness.  After all, the Doctor has now had more than one chance to wipe out the Daleks, but hasn’t.  He even seems to have compassion for Davros; the Doctor is still able to see the boy/man who was so frightened he placed his entire race in tanks. 

 I loved the heart to heart that Davros and the Doctor had for the bulk of this episode, even though I did suspect a trap.  Both Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach give powerful performances.  This is also probably the best use of Davros since “Genesis of the Daleks.” This episode really adds depth and a bit of pathos to his character.  It also makes him feel like a worthy advisory again, instead of a cartoonish villian.

 I was still, however, disappointed to learn that both the Doctor and Davros were playing each other the entire time, with Davros hoping to use the Doctor’s compassion against him.  I wondered if perhaps a bit of truth had inadvertantly slipped out between them, but basically, it made their entire conversation meaningless.  Still, it served to drive home the point that compassion is what separates them, and that the Doctor’s compassion is not his weakness, but his strength.

I had worried that this confrontation with Davros was going to reveal that the Doctor has been more instrumental in the creation of the Daleks than we thought, so I was relieved that Moffat took the story in a different direction.  The Doctor’s journey to discover what kind of a man he was last season has left him with no doubts on that score this season.  Last year’s Doctor would have been stuck in the moral dilemma that this Doctor manages to rise above.  After running away the first time, he goes back and saves Darvos, planting a seed of mercy in him.  This mercy seeps from their creator into the Daleks themselves, making the Doctor’s influence on Davros and the Daleks a positive one.

While the theme was interesting, I was a bit disappointed in the execution of it.  I enjoyed Missy and Clara’s interactions, but at times they felt like they were a distraction from the Doctor/Davros confrontation that was really at the heart of the episode.  Clara really did not have much to do except be Missy’s canary/rock/Dalek.  I did like the fact that Missy tried to have the Doctor kill Dalek Clara (also clearly a reference back to the time that we first met her in “Asylum”), as it reinforces the idea that Missy is dangerous and not really to be trusted.  It also allowed the Doctor to demonstrate his mercy again as he gives Missy a chance to escape rather than face his wrath.

It was the whole part with the Dalek/Time Lord hybrids that gave me the most trouble.  What exactly was the Doctor’s plan?  The Dalek sludge couldn’t possibly destroy all of the Daleks.  Many of them were in the air.  How would the dying Daleks get to all of the Daleks?  So, are there going to be Dalek/Time Lord hybrids out there?  This whole aspect of the plot felt rather underdeveloped to me.  Plus, some of the revelations about how Daleks worked left me scratching my head, although I may be able to figure out some points if I give them more thought. Why would the Dalek not be able to say what Clara did? Wasn’t her brain controlling it?  I would assume a Dalek wouldn’t need a filter because Daleks presumably wouldn’t be having thoughts that were unbecoming to a Dalek.  Plus, we’ve seen dead Daleks in the past.  Can they just not die a natural death?  And, of course, why is their a perfect space for a human inside a Dalek (but this could be asked on several occasions in the classic series as well)? Some of my questions may be loose ends that are picked up in a later episode. After all, we left Missy with a clever idea, surrounded by Daleks, so we might not have seen the last of this story.

Missy and her "canary."

Missy and her “canary.”

Overall, I enjoyed the episode, I just felt that it could have been executed a bit better.  Once again, a two-parter that started out with great promise fell a bit flat for me in the second half. There were many great parts to this story, I just didn’t feel like they added up to a cohesive whole. I’m hoping the next two-parter manages to deliver on both ends.

Thoughts on The Magician’s Apprentice

Season 9 of Doctor Who opens with a love letter to the series, especially the classic episodes; it seems made to appeal to the long-time fans.  While there are some new inventions, there are more references, homages, and allusions to previous episodes than I could catch in a single viewing.

One of the creepiest additions to "The Magician's Apprentice," the handmine.

One of the creepiest additions to “The Magician’s Apprentice,” the handmine.

The opening of the episode seems as if we are learning about a new place.  We find ourselves jumping into the middle of a battle being fought with technology of different ages, and follow a soldier chasing after a little boy. The scene between the soldier and the boy is very tense, as the boy has stumbled upon a field of handmines, hands with eyeballs in their palms that will pull you underground. The handmines grab the soldier, but the boy remains. The Doctor is ready to help him survive until he learns that the helpless boy is Davros and that we are on Skaro, before it was the planet of the Daleks. Rather than make any kind of decision about what to do, the Doctor flees, leaving his sonic screwdriver behind with the young Davros.

After the opening credits, the episode starts to feel more like a classic Who episode in terms of pacing. Unlike a classic Who episode, however, the first half of the episode is very female dominated with Clara, Kate Stewart, Missy, and another female member of U.N.I.T.  We follow Clara and U.N.I.T. as they investigate why all the planes are suddenly frozen in the sky. (As an aside, Clara is once again teaching her students about Jane Austen, and the implication is that she has met Jane. I hope that’s not true because I still want to see the Doctor and Jane meet.) While I like the character of Kate Stewart, I was a bit disappointed that once again she fades into the background. Clara quickly takes charge, and then Missy shows up, leaving very little for Kate to do. Of course it was Missy who froze the planes in the sky to get their attention; the Master has never been one for understatement or subtlety.

I loved the return of Missy.  She offers no explanation for her survival, but is just as interesting a character as ever. I’m not as big a fan of the explicit discussion of Missy being the Doctor’s best friend (much like the Doctor’s relationship with Delgado’s Master, I think this is better left to the subtext), but the complex relationship between her and the Doctor is still fascinating, and it was enjoyable watching her and Clara each testing the other and attempting to gain the upper hand. Clara and Missy seem to realize that they need each other to find the Doctor, but they are still in competition for the title of the Doctor’s best friend.  The algorithm U.N.I.T. uses to track down the Doctor is another treasure trove of references to past episodes, as references are made to locations from various episodes, all the way from “The Mythmakers” and “The Underwater Menace” to “The Angels Take Manhattan.”

Missy_Clara

Missy and Clara face off in one of our “warmer countries” (probably still Cardiff).

The main new character introduced in this episode is Colony Sarff, a creepy-looking hooded figure who we discover is actually made up of a colony of snakes. Davros has dispatched Colony Sarff to find the Doctor; he visits locations familiar to fans of the show, such as the Shadow Proclamation, not seen or heard of since Davros’ last appearance. He is an interesting character, but he made me feel a bit like he had wandered in from a Harry Potter story. Still, I’ll refrain from judging the character until I see if Moffat had any plans for him in part two.

It’s not until Clara and Missy track down the Doctor that he enters the story again. He believes that he is about to die and had been having a massively anachronistic party in the Middle Ages. Countless gifs will be made of the Doctor’s “axe” wielding entrance, but the arrival of Clara and Missy also brings Colony Sarff to the Doctor, meaning it’s time to face the dying Davros, now that Davros remembers his childhood encounter with the Doctor. I loved Missy’s obvious hurt feelings at the Doctor calling Davros his archenemy, since she thought that title belonged to her.

Soon, however, Colony Sarff takes the three of them to visit Davros in what seems like a floating hospital. The Doctor is taken off to see Davros while Clara and Missy are held captive.  I’ll get to the Doctor’s encounter with Davros, the heart of the episode, in a moment. What Clara and Missy discover is that the “hospital” is not free-floating and is, in fact, a building in the face of an invisible planet. The invisible planet is, of course, Skaro which was either not destroyed by the Seventh Doctor as we thought, or has somehow been rebuilt. The Daleks seize Clara and Missy and the cliffhanger is one in which the Daleks  (from all different eras, including the blue and silver 1960’s Daleks, the Special Weapons Dalek, and modern Daleks) appear to destroy both of them and the TARDIS.

Daleks from all over the Dalek timeline!

Daleks from all over the Dalek timeline!

The most important moments of the episode, however, all deal with the Doctor and Davros.  Why exactly Davros didn’t remember this childhood encounter until now, we are not told, but for the moment I’m willing to let that go.  Another point I’m willing to accept without questioning is the fact that Davros seems to have access to a library of clips of the Doctor; I can actually explain Davros having recordings of the Doctor’s interactions with him (who’s to say Davros doesn’t have the capacity to record what happens around him), but how he has access to that key moment from “Genesis of Daleks” I guess I just have to let slide because I enjoyed it too much.

And, ultimately, it is that moment from “Genesis of the Daleks” that is what this episode is really about.  In “Genesis of the Daleks” the fourth Doctor decided that he could not commit genocide.  Part of his reasoning was the moment featured in the clip, “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?”  This episode forces the Doctor to once again have to decide what type of man he is.  In “Genesis,” he felt that to commit that genocide and wipe out the Daleks would make him no better than the Daleks themselves.  This continues the theme brought out in “Into the Dalek” of the Doctor’s similarity to the Daleks.

A lot has happened to the Doctor since “Genesis of the Daleks” took place.  The seventh Doctor had no problem tricking Davros into blowing up Skaro with the hand of Omega.  The eighth Doctor and the war Doctor watched the Time War rip the universe apart.  The tenth Doctor has seemingly wiped out the Daleks a few times during his time.  I’m not sure that the Doctor in his current state would come to the same conclusion he did when he was holding those wires on Skaro.

Murdering a still innocent child, however, is another story.  Given the parallels between the Daleks and the Nazis, Terry Nation meant for that line to make the viewer think of Hitler: could you murder a child knowing that he would grow up to be Adolph Hitler?  Would the Doctor actually murder a frightened child who has yet to commit or even think of any of his crimes?  He seems poised to do so at the end of this episode.  Is his hatred of the Daleks strong enough now?  I guess we’ll find out in “The Witch’s Familiar.”

Thoughts on Last Christmas

“Last Christmas” was Doctor Who meets Alien and Inception with Santa thrown in for good measure.  Like “A Christmas Carol” and “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” this Steven Moffat penned Christmas episode references stories already familiar to the viewer.  It is also more in line with the aforementioned Christmas specials than with last year’s “The Time of the Doctor” in that Christmas plays a large role in the plot.  While I did have some issues with the special, it was an enjoyable, if not exceptional story.

Santa and the Doctor face off.

Santa and the Doctor face off.

The ultimate purpose of this episode was to bring the Doctor and Clara back together after their goodbye at the end of “Death in Heaven.”  The Christmas theme served that purpose well, since when else are you more likely to reunite with people (in a fictional story, at least) than Christmas?  The plot, in a nutshell, is that Dream Crabs have attached themselves to the Doctor, Clara, and a few other people; these Dream Crabs induce a dream state while they attack, so the challenge is to find a way to wake up…with Santa’s help, of course.

The best parts of the episode were the parts with Santa and his bickering elves. If I were brainstorming a list of people who I thought should play Santa, Nick Frost might not have been the first person to jump into my mind.  That being said, however, I really enjoyed his Santa.  His Santa provided some nice comic relief and kept the episode from ever getting too dark.  He played all the different dream versions of Santa well, from the awkward, slightly bumbling Santa on Clara’s rooftop to the John Wayne-ish western hero when he rescues everyone in the infirmary.  Additionally, although the contrast was less dramatic, I enjoyed the dynamics between the Doctor and a hero with a much sunnier personality, just like I did in this season’s “Robot of Sherwood.”  I also found the scenes with Santa’s two bickering elves very funny.  It seemed appropriate that this version of Santa would travel with sarcastic sidekicks.  Plus, Dan Starkey finally got to show his face on camera and proved that he has good comedic timing, even without being covered in latex.

Santa's "comedy elves" before they arm themselves with  toy and balloon guns respectively.

Santa’s “comedy elves” before they arm themselves with toy and balloon guns respectively.

Another strong aspect of the story was the time at the base.  The characters were developed enough to keep my interest, but I found myself wishing that they could have been on-screen together a bit more.  Once you know that they are all dreaming that they are at the base, it could have been interesting to go back and see more clues to that in their interactions.  This is an interesting episode to view a second time because there are a few clues that something strange is going on (like the random turkey (?) leg that the Professor suddenly starts eating), but there could have been a few more.

In terms of the characters as individuals, Shona was definitely the most developed and memorable character; her dance through the infirmary alone would probably guarantee that.   The other two female characters, Ashley and Fiona, had enough development to keep them interesting, even if they didn’t get as much screen time as Shona.  The only character that I felt wasn’t really developed much was the Professor, which was a bit disappointing.  I loved the appropriateness of having Michael Troughton, Patrick Troughton’s son, involved in a base under siege plot. Unfortunately, he never has much to do, and I can’t say his death bothered me all that much.  In fact, I didn’t even remember that anyone had died the first time I watched this story.

Another strength of this episode was that it was successful in its ultimate purpose, that of reuniting the Doctor and Clara.  The episode featured the usual strong performances from both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman (do I even have to mention that anymore?).  In particular, I enjoyed Jenna’s performance in her dream Christmas with Danny; she had just the right mix of happiness, confusion, and melancholy.  Also, I have to admit that I liked her dream Danny far more than I liked the real Danny.  The scene between the Doctor and the 90-year-old Clara was also touching, as you saw how much Capaldi’s Doctor really does care for Clara; the way that he was so tender with her was a nice way to expose this prickly Doctor’s soft underbelly once again.

The Doctor and Clara celebrate Christmas.

In a reversal of roles from the previous Christmas special, the Doctor helps the elderly Clara pull the Christmas cracker.

The parts that didn’t work as well for me were the “borrowed” aspects, the first of which was the Inception-like second half.  I know Inception isn’t the only movie to deal with dreams versus reality (even Doctor Who has dealt with the topic before in episodes like “Amy’s Choice”), but the dreams within dreams within dreams really had a similar feel to the movie without really adding anything new to it.  Instead of the spinning top to test dream versus reality, we had Santa and the manual test, but other than that I would have liked to have seen Steven Moffat make the idea a bit more his own.

I had less of a problem with the facehugger-like Dream Crabs.  I enjoyed the Professor’s reference to Alien (which is, of course, also Steven Moffat acknowledging the visual similarity between the two creatures), as well as the Doctor’s response, “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”  The idea that they would create a dream-like state to keep you passive while they killed you was definitely a new twist on them (I amuse myself by picturing this story with the War Doctor, instead of Capaldi’s Doctor).  They also were suitably disturbing, especially when attached to people’s faces and opening up (what exactly they were opening up, I’m not sure, but it sure looked creepy, and it was all in a dream anyway).  It just didn’t help a story that already felt a bit derivative to me to have another component that so blatantly referenced to another popular film.

Meet the North Pole base crew.

Meet the North Pole base crew.

Ultimately, I felt that the end, when everybody returned to reality, left more loose ends than it should have.  What happened to the Dream Crab that was on the Professor’s face?  Since he died, is it going to move on to someone else now?  How did the Dream Crabs get to those specific people? The Doctor’s explanation of collateral damage just doesn’t work for me.   Even if it was for a very short time, how had nobody in Fiona’s family noticed that she has a huge scary thing attached to her face?  Why did everybody that woke up react fairly calmly to a thing with wriggling legs that dissolves into a pile of ash in front of them?

On the other hand, the fact that most of the episode is a dream cleared up any questions I had earlier in the episode.  I was wondering why exactly Shona had to go through the infirmary in the first place, other than to do her dance, but then I realized that there was no explanation and there didn’t have to be one.  After all, how many times in dreams do you do something that make no sense at all?  I am not a Moffat hater, as some people I know are, but I have to admit that I was left thinking that dream states might be the perfect forum for Steven Moffat to tell a story; he does have a tendency to leave a lot of loose ends, and loose ends don’t matter in a dream.

The people with "facehuggers" get ready to attack.

The people with “facehuggers” get ready to attack.

Overall, I enjoyed the episode, but I’d file it with many of the other Christmas specials: entertaining, but ultimately forgettable.  However, when I saw that the first thing on Shona’s to-do list was to watch Alien, I wondered if more of that could have been a dream than we were led to believe. Were the Dream Crabs so much like the facehuggers because they were part of the dream as well, a part that Shona contributed?  The fact that they exist when everyone appears to have woken up for real makes this unlikely, but maybe there’s more to this dream state than we know. She also has The Thing from Another World on her list, so that would account for the base in the shared dream.  The tangerine that we see when Clara gets back into the TARDIS at the end could indicate a dream state too, but, logically, I know that’s just there to suggest that maybe Santa is real after all (a nod to Miracle on 34th Street, which was also on Shona’s list).  Maybe that’s how Moffat is going to resolve the Orson Pink dilemma: Danny’s death was all a dream (in which case he’s now borrowing his ideas from Dallas).  Don’t worry, I haven’t actually become lost in elaborate and ridiculous theories; I’m just pushing my random idea as far as I can.  Still, it does leave you with something to think about…