Feeling a Glimmer of Purpose – “The Doctor Falls” Review

mastersThese final episodes are always the toughest to write about, as I’m sure they’re the toughest for the production team as well. This one even more than usual as it’s hard to avoid the feeling, justified or not, that the final episodes of an era have to bear an exponential amount of weight, functioning as the summary or concluding argument for everything that’s come before. Although for me “Listen” stands as the most eloquent and concise “thesis statement” of what the Moffat era is about, this two-part finale and the impending Christmas special will inevitably seen as the keystone of his tenure. The pressure of that epochal change from one writer to the next, even more than from one Doctor to another, pushes the writers to go big and sure enough “The Doctor Falls” resembles “The End of Time” in its high emotion and risk-taking as well as in some smaller details, and will no doubt result in mixed reactions from viewers. As my twitter friend @hammard_1987 observed, “One thing you can rely on. At the end of a season of Doctor Who some people claiming it’s perfect, others saying they’ll never watch again,” and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Knowing how to even break it down into digestible chunks for blogging purposes is difficult, and I can feel a larger, more broadly-encompassing Moffat Era post brewing, so perhaps the simplest way is to tackle the different character story-lines within the episode. Pretty much all of the plot and situational set-up was accomplished in the efficient (if predictable) part 1, resulting in a part 2 that spends all of its time on the fates of these characters.

Nardole

Let’s start with that quirky sidekick, Nardole. I feel as though I haven’t talked much about him this season. Like the Paternoster Gang, he’s a character I enjoy watching and don’t find myself thinking about at any depth. He certainly turned into a far less twee presence than the past two Christmas episodes would have suggested, so I think it’s kind of great the way he developed this kind of bitchy, not-quite-antagonistic rapport with the Doctor. There were a few lines that felt a bit unearned (are we sure he’s stronger than the Doctor? what was his thing about setting up a black market, again?) but those are minor complaints in the light of a character who came in with basically no goodwill and ended up carving out a place for himself as a proper companion. The smiley, goofy persona being a thin layer over a more jaded sense of humor works well with Matt Lucas’ delivery, and I kind of liked that the Doctor and Bill had time to focus on the emotional stories given Nardole blowing shit up in the background.

The Masters

Where to start with these two? While I was taken with Michelle Gomez’s Missy from the start, the gradual softening of her incarnation becomes much more apparent when placed alongside John Simm’s Davies-era Master who has never been darker or scarier than in this episode. I say that having quite liked his earlier appearances, but Moffat took the themes and motifs that signified his Master and doubled-down on them here. His cruel misogyny, implicit in his treatment of Chantho and Lucy Saxon, becomes almost unbearable when turned on the sensitive and long-suffering incarnation of sweetness that is Bill. His sneering dismissal of empathy and snarky fear the the future “will be all girl” highlight the ways in which his brutality and his contempt for women (and therefore his underestimating of them) have always been related.

As for Missy, Gomez finally sold me on her redemption arc. I have to put this down to the sheer power of the acting because I’m not sure those weird mid-season episodes featuring Missy ever really conveyed why Missy might change. But here, Gomez’s slightly crazed and desperate performance conveys her misgivings even without writerly motivation. And perhaps we are given an answer after all in the presence of the Master. This in the end is the biggest difference between the two incarnations: the Master wants to dominate the universe, including the Doctor. Everything from his misogyny to his racism to his actions toward the Doctor is about control: putting the Doctor in prison, eating the world, creating the Master Race. Missy doesn’t really want control; she wants chaos. This makes her like the Doctor in a way and allows her motivation to shift toward reclaiming their friendship. In her mind they could BFF TARDIS buddies traveling the universe together: It’s just those pesky companions and that boring morality stuff that get in the way. For all that the Master is consistently arch and villainous and funny (loved the repeated “he told me he always hated you” gag) these really are opposite motivations and so they cancel each other out. The mutual murder/suicide was just brilliant. Missy kills her old being so that a newer, better version of herself can emerge (and how wonderfully alchemical is that?). The Master, nihilistic and suicidal as ever, destroys his future self utterly. I absolutely love the echo with “Last of the Time Lords,” with the Master committing true suicide rather than give the Doctor the satisfaction of being right. “How about that?” he muttered the first time. “I win.” Rachel Talalay directed the bleakness of those moments, with their hysterical laughter and the Master’s oddly-framed descent into the darkness below, exquisitely. In typical Moffat fashion, he gives them perfect endings which are in no way definitive. Is Missy actually the next regeneration after the Simm Master? Is Missy truly and finally dead? Obviously these are questions for someone other than Moffat to answer.

Bill

Part of me wants to end this blog with Bill, as in a way the end of a season is always the companion’s story and my feelings about her are the most complicated. Thank goodness they cut between CyberBill and regular Bill, and they really couldn’t or shouldn’t have done anything else. As finale episodes these are extremely powerful. Bill is really put through the wringer here, and what’s more they emphasize that fact. Companions have suffered terrible fates before but rarely are we given the time to just sit and dwell on their emotional suffering. The British stiff upper lip really doesn’t apply here. Bill tries to be her cheerful old self but it’s very clear that she’s distraught throughout. Her crying at the Master’s stupid insults, her tearful realization that “people are always going to be afraid of [her],” and her resigned capitulation when Hazran shoots at her… these hit an emotional register we don’t often see from the often “feisty” companions. I’m half-wondering if Moffat is playing with some kind of metaphor here about the gentle soul who is feared mistreated by others due to her appearance. That fits uncomfortably well with New Who’s unfortunate habit of converting black characters into Cybermen, although I’m not sure I like what it suggests about the associations between blackness and deformity. Bill says that she doesn’t want to live if she can’t be herself, which seems to validate her blackness as an integral part of herself. And yet when the Doctor tells her to control her temper lest it provoke others into attacking her, I can’t help but wonder.

Regardless, this is a might bleak time for our beloved Bill. I’m not quite of the school of thought that takes issue with Moffat putting her through this kind of hardship, and yet there does seem to be a slight disproportion between these finale episodes and the rest of the season in terms of Bill’s character development. Simply put… I’m not entirely convinced that she changes all that much in her travels with the Doctor. She starts out a sweet, humble, curious student who wants a bit of adventure and that’s kind of what we see throughout. This isn’t necessarily a problem, especially given the charisma and nuance of Pearl Mackie’s performance, but I’m not convinced that it worked as well as Russell Davies single-season companions. When you look back at Rose in season 1, Martha in season 3, and Donna in season 4 you see very clearly the arc of where they started and ended and the change they went through in just 13 episodes. Granted, those early RTD seasons probably had a lower batting average than these more sleek Moffat seasons, and yet I wonder if some of the more clunky filler episodes served as opportunities to put in those quieter character beats and nudge the development along. Moffat seasons tend to go from one high-concept episode to another, leaving little time to just check in with where Bill is emotionally. As it was, these episodes kind of slammed her out of nowhere and left me feeling like only Bill of all companions could be this well-disposed toward the Doctor after all this bullshit. The fusion of RTD-style companion with Moffat-era ending didn’t entirely fit, even if it was powerfully written and acted.

That said, of course I’m glad she wasn’t killed outright and the door was left open for a return to mundane humanity if she wished. Her sobbing over the Doctor and the horrible thud of the Cyber-body were bad enough: a truly dead Bill would have been too much. Naturally Heather returned, as everyone guessed she would, and whisked Bill off into their own adventure. Perhaps we can have a spinoff with Clara, Lady Me, Heather, and Bill flying around in the diner? That would be dope. Let’s hope the future’s all girl.

The Doctor(s)

originaldoctorIn a twitter debate with my podcasting co-host Curtis Weyant and a few others, the question of “surprisingness” in stories came up again. In the last post, I noted that every single major plot twist had been either spoiled by the production team/BBC or was very easily guessable by an attentive fan audience and therefore the plot twists must serve some other function for the viewer than mere surprise. The answer, usually, is what Lewis called “surprisingness”: the quality of surprise which doesn’t rely on the mere fact of the plot twist. In the hands of a masterful author, one can enjoy with pleasure the process of seeing how a story unfolds as much as the shock of the plot itself. While the fates of Bill, Nardole, and the Masters were more uncertain, the Doctor’s is less so and so lends itself to a kind of surpringness. We know he will regenerate soon: the question is when and how. While Curtis and others felt that Moffat teased out the “fake-out” regeneration energy a few too many times, I have to confess it never really bothered me. Doctor Who has never successfully pulled off a surprise regeneration before (except in the case of those that weren’t true regenerations, like Ten’s, or in the case of one-off characters/arcs, like the War Doctor). Know that we have a Christmas special still to come, that Capaldi would be appearing in that special, and that the Thirteenth Doctor’s casting had not yet been announced I was reasonably confident that we wouldn’t see Number Thirteen in “The Doctor Falls.” True, I would have been delighted to have been proved wrong, but I was in no way surprised or disappointed when we didn’t. Instead, what we get is the long, slow build-up to the inevitable. This is Moffat’s riff on Ten’s regeneration in “The End of Time,” complete with the Simm Master and the homage to the line “I don’t want to go,” yes, but more than that in the elegiac tone. One could successfully make the argument that RTD did it better. Gut-wrenching melodrama is really in his wheelhouse, whereas the bizarre and audacious Eleventh Doctor regeneration really feels more like Moffat’s style. But after some notable departures from the RTD era, it’s still interesting to see Moffat take a stab at riffing on what’s come before in his own way.

And as gut-wrenching melodrama goes, this was pretty great. Capaldi’s Doctor gets some nice speeches summing up the thematic virtues of his Doctor: the virtue of fear, the value of kindness, the importance of doing good “without hope, without witness, without reward.” When it comes time for his last stand, the at times bleakness of his interpretation of the character give it true apocalyptic weight. It’s an interesting twist on the “I don’t want to go line” to make it not about the regrettable loss of a beloved incarnation and more about the Doctor’s general weariness. In his first episode, “Deep Breath,” Twelve wondered about the “Ship of Theseus” broom paradox. This anxiety was restated at the end of series 9 in “Heaven Sent”: “How long can I keep doing this? Burning the old me to make a new one.” This Doctor mirrors the Master; maybe he doesn’t want to go on. He’s starting to wonder if he’s had enough. He’s the oldest Doctor and yet the first in a new cycle of regenerations. He’s an ancient old man expected to start fresh.

And so, beautifully and fittingly, he is placed alongside that other oldest of men who was also the first. Who else should come shuffling through the snow muttering about his distaste of change but the Doctor? Not the First Doctor, mind you, but the Doctor. The original, you might say. It’s perfect. Except that it’s nonsense. This is the delicious irony, you see. Here we have the Doctor confronted with his first, original incarnation…played by someone else. David Bradley is a national treasure, one of Britain’s great character actors. I’ve loved him in everything I’ve seen him in, and he was excellent as William Hartnell in “An Adventure in Space and Time.” But he’s not William Hartnell but a guy playing him playing the Doctor. And so in that wonderfully metatextual way that Moffat writes Who, he’s set us up to explore the necessity of change both within the story and outside. There is, after all, something of a tradition of other actors playing the First Doctor. Doctor Who has only survived these fifty-four (!) years by this process of actors passing the torch. This is why we, and the Doctor, bear with the pain of regeneration: the promise of something new. And we’re subtly reminded of this fact by the mere presence of an actor doing an impersonation of an actor playing a role. What a weird, wonderful show.

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My First Friend – “World Enough and Time” Review

worldenoughandtimeWell here we are, dear friends: the antepenultimate episode of the Steven Moffat era, and the start of Moffat’s last ever Doctor Who season finale. As has been my wont this season, let’s start with a brief moment of reflection before trying to parse through the episode itself. For his first three seasons — coinciding, not surprisingly, with the Matt Smith tenure — Moffat eschewed RTD’s traditional “parting of the ways” finales and went instead for mostly unambiguously happy, eucatastrophic endings. “The Big Bang” and “The Wedding of River Song” both centered on actual weddings which signifies that we’re in the domain of comedy rather than tragedy. Though undeniably darker, ” Name of the Doctor” ended with both the Doctor and companion alive and together and lead directly into that most eucatastrophic and unifying of episodes, “Day of the Doctor.” Things shifted in the Capaldi era. Clara does survive both series 8 and 9 (sort of) but “Dark Water/Death in Heaven” and “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent” have felt less triumphant and more like narrow escapes contingent on terrible prices. The very titles signify the importance of that most universal experience of death. They have been dark meditations on disturbing themes: the afterlife, body horror and suffering, and grief. The presence of Missy and Rassilon nudges everything into the cosmic conflict of demigods and feels suitably mythic.

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Doors Between Worlds – “The Empress of Mars” & “The Eaters of Light” Reviews

Getting to the other side of those rather odd mid-season episodes to the traditional late-season standalone episodes before the two-part finale, it suddenly occurred to me that there is quite a strong and prevalent theme of imperialism running through series 10. “Smile” introduces a group of human colonists seeking a new home, bringing their culture and civilization with them, and their dangerous interactions with the “indigenous species” of robots. “Thin Ice” and “Empress of Mars” set their stories at the peak of British imperialism, critiquing the uglier aspects of that patriotic love of crown and country. “The Eaters of Light” of course extends this historical aspect further back to a time when native Britons and Celts themselves were invaded by the current imperialist titan — the Roman Empire. “Oxygen” plays upon the imperialist tendencies of soulless, Big Corporations (or the entire capitalist system, if you like). And of course the trilogy of episodes concerning the Monks show the gradual and insidious manipulation of humanity by the Monks, demonstrating how their cultural and systemic domination comes not through brute force and warfare but by creating a situation where their power is invited, then accepted, and eventually normalized by their subjects. This is perhaps the most modern face of imperialism: how human beings willingly give up their freedoms because the alternative is worse, or because there are no other options. The Monks’ assertion that “fear is not consent” is hooey — fear is the key ingredient in this form of empire. Fear is what motivates a bunch of very modern people who fancy themselves enlightened members of democratic society to play ball with dangerous and power-hungry autocrats. Whether Moffat intentionally crafted this season as a reaction to Brexit, Trump, and the wave of nationalist fervor we can currently see sweeping the Western world it is interesting to go into the two-part finale bearing this theme in mind. After all, the Cybermen only want what ever Empire wants — to assimilate its subjects, to make them “like us.”

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On Mythmoot IV and moments of wonder

A week ago I returned from Mythmoot IV (the semi-annual conference hosted by Signum University) exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed but totally inspired by my experience and motivated for the future. As the growing round-up of post-conference blog posts linked at the bottom of this post will testify, it seems that everyone else feels the same way. I’ve been to every Mythmoot so far but I keep hearing how there was something special about this particular weekend, and I can only concur.

Maybe it was the slightly extended time-frame, the adept organization, or the location at the National Conference Center which evoked something of a disorienting cross between a rabbit warren, the Overlook Hotel, and a painting by M.C. Escher (but did feature fantastic staff, a hobbit-like amount of food, and comfy fire pits). Maybe it was the trickle-down influence of our incomparable leaders and plenary speakers – Corey Olsen, Sørina Higgins, Verlyn Flieger, and Michael Drout especially. Maybe it was the fact that Signum held its first official graduation ceremony, complete with the assigning of a Quest (or aventure) and a ceremonial Elven spear (cold Aiglos, of course). Maybe it was that we’ve mostly all known each other for five years now and so that awkward ice had been well and truly broken long before. I’m sure it all of the above. In any case, when Mike Drout asserts that Mythmoot stands out among the many conferences I’m sure he has had the privilege to attend, I think we have to believe him.

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Fake News Central – “The Pyramid at the End of the World” & “The Lie of the Land”

billpyramidAlas, due to busyness in my personal and professional life these reviews are going to be doubled-up again this week. Perhaps the timing is fortuitous, though. In a way “Oxygen,” “Extremis,” “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and “The Lie of the Land” all serve as, if not a true four-part story in the strictest sense, at least four stories connected by common narrative threads, motifs, and themes: the Doctor’s blindness, the Monks, and the notion of constructed realities and “fake news.” Indeed, Chrissie — who runs the invaluable transcript website chakoteya.net — posted her latest transcript with the hope that “this concludes this weird fake news trilogy”. If we’re more liberal and include “Oxygen,” making this into a quartet, then these four middle stories account for a third of the entire season. Whereas Davies maintained a fairly consistent and even formulaic structure each year of his tenure, you have to give Moffat some brownie points for continuing to experiment with the pacing and structure of his seasons and narrative arcs.

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I Need to Know What’s Real – “Oxygen” & “Extremis Review”

oxygenMuch like the Doctor, I have a confession to make. Due to good but distracting life circumstances, such as my recently completed M.A. thesis chat (which you can watch here) and my impending trip to Signum University’s Mythmoot conference I’ve fallen a bit behind on my reviews, and consequently we’re going to have to double up this week in order to get back on track. While this isn’t ideal, the two episodes do actually have a fair bit of continuity with the Doctor’s [spoiler alert] blindness constituting a kind of mid-season mini-arc, so hopefully this will flow nicely enough. To be perfectly honest, these are two rather dense and difficult episodes and so part of my tardiness may also result from the fact that I’m still processing them. It may not be until the end of this arc or even the end of the season that I’m able to fully appreciate what Moffat & co. are doing here. But like the virtue brought about by extreme conditions, so blog posts must sometimes be written under a tight schedule. Proceed we must.

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The One Who Brought You Into This World – “Knock Knock” Review

knockknockmovingAn interesting fact about series 10 of Doctor Who is that there is only one new writer. This isn’t entirely unprecedented. Naturally the first series of New Who featured an entirely new stable of writers (although all had written for DW in other mediums and were experienced television writers). Several other seasons of New Who feature only two or three writers making their Who introductions. Series 7 is actually the only other one to only introduce one new writer (Neil Cross, who wrote two scripts that year) but series 7 is in many ways an odd duck: Split up into two halves across 2012-2013 and bearing the thankless burden of allowing Moffat to gear up for the 50th Anniversary Special, write out Matt Smith and the Ponds, and introduce a new companion in Clara. His distraction that year shows in the largely mediocre episodes. If we take series 1 and 7 aside then as atypical examples of what a season should do, that leaves this current season 10, although to be sure this is no ordinary year either. Steven Moffat is exiting, leaving the show to its hazy future. Moffat can be forgiven, I think, for leaning on what is by this point a very established and strong team of writers: Mark Gatiss, Peter Harness, Jamie Mathieson, Toby Whithouse, and Sarah Dollard. Even the other notable “guest star” — Rona Munro — makes her return to the series after a nearly thirty year break (she wrote the final story of the Classic television series, the Seventh Doctor’s “Survival”).

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