Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Cursed ChildObviously I’ll be spoiling the heck out of The Cursed Child in this post, and I’m going to kind of assume that if you’re reading this you’ve already read it (or don’t care). Actually, if you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a solid and take this fun and totally spot-on quiz of Real vs. Fake Cursed Child Spoilers. More than half of them are true. Can you guess which ones?

And really, that painfully hilarious tumblr post sums up The Cursed Child with more warmth and wit than any review I write possibly could, because, as they used to say on Seinfeld, “I’m speechless. I am without speech.” Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the brainchild of J.K. Rowling, director John Tiffany, and playwright Jack Thorne, has to qualify as one of the most bizarre reading experiences of my life so far. Under the tutelage of C.S. Lewis I’ve tried to resist what Corey Olsen has termed “crit-fic”: The fallacious practice of mistaking the attempt to read creators’ minds with actual literary criticism. We can’t always help this impulse, and sometimes it can be quite fun, but at the very least we should recognize it for what it is. And yet, I found The Cursed Child so trite on so many levels that I have to admit that my own crit-fic is in some ways more interesting than the text itself. What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall of those conversations. What were they thinking? I don’t even mean that in an accusatory way. I’m just genuinely curious to know what they were thinking, because I simply can’t fathom. I’ve been delaying rating the book on Goodreads and writing this review, trying to come up with some sort of coherent take on this whole thing, and it’s a struggle.

But all right, Jack, if we’re going to criticize this “official 8th story” then let’s stick to the text and not waste our time trying to read minds, or just jump to unfounded and/or cynical conclusions (such as “money”). Let’s start with the overarching plot structure. The play picks up exactly where book 7 left off on Platform 9 3/4. Things are briefly warm and nostalgic, and then the magical Hogwarts Express that’s taking us all on a welcome and wonderful journey back to the magical palace of our memories starts barreling ahead at breakneck speed, jumping the tracks like some out of control Amtrak car. I mean this literally: Four years pass in the first act of the play (and remember that there are four acts in total, this play being in two parts and all). The story grinds to a halt somewhere in Albus’ third of fourth year, and things more or less park there for the remainder of the story. For a story so obsessed with mining the series past and playing spot-the-reference with as many characters and surface plot elements as possible, the imbalance genuinely upsets the pace and flow of the piece. This is more than a little disappointing, given that we’ve come to expect extraordinarily sophisticated plot structure from Rowling. Harry’s story had a beginning (books 1-2), middle (books 3-5), and end (books 6-7), with a repetitive and elegant structure where the beginnings and ends of the story echoed each other and where his journey was subdivided into seven individual adventures which had their own beginnings, middles, and ends complete with echoes and subdivisions, etc., etc. Circles within circles, and all that. If you doubt the intricacy of her plotting, I recommend John Granger’s lecture notes Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle, available in PDF and book form. The kinds of literary stunts invented and perfected by Dante and Shakespeare (did you know that “a plague o’ both your houses” is the exact center-point of Romeo and Juliet?) were also very much practiced in Rowling’s Potter books. To go in expecting, if not that level of detail, then at least something reasonably well-paced, and to get instead the Cliffs Notes version of Albus’ Hogwarts experience is jarring to say the least. We go in a matter of pages and montage-like snippets from Albus’ worries about being a Slytherin, to his sorting, to sudden angry rebellion against his father and all things Gryffindor. I don’t object to any of these plot points, as such. In fact, Albus being a confirmed Slytherin is far and away my favorite part of The Cursed Child. Yet Thorne’s play spends none of the time on the things that made Rowling’s world so beloved and successful: smart and well-paced plotting, detailed and memorable characterization, quirky world-building. It shocks me to hear fans say that The Cursed Child returned them to the world of Hogwarts. What world? We spend literally two pages with the Sorting Hat and the first flying lesson before we’ve vaulted ahead to the next summer, back at Kings Cross. We barely spend time in the present of Hogwarts at all. The keystone of the defense of this play has been “at least it brought me back to the world I love and remember,” and it barely does this at all. Instead, the script feels compelled to skip over the opportunity to rediscover Hogwarts through fresh eyes and instead spends the bulk of its time retreading the most infamously plot-holey sections of the entire Harry Potter series: book 3’s time turner plot, and book four’s Triwizard Tournament. The Cursed Child doesn’t cash in on our nostalgia for the Wizarding World at all, but rather for the specific plot-beats of the Harry Potter books. This is a shame, because it misses the opportunity to tell a new story while leaning on the well-established strength of Rowling’s worldbuilding and instead forces the reader to reflect on how much better Rowling told these stories.

To accommodate the overzealous plot we get simplistic characterization. The main returning characters are reasonably well-drawn. Harry is suitably anxiety-ridden. Hermione (in what is admittedly a pretty awesome piece of casting) is adjusting nicely to her new-found authority. Ron’s voice is actually quite good; better than the movie Ron, even. This is pretty faint praise, though. Thorne had 7 books, 8 movies, countless fan and analog materials, ten years in the cultural conversation, and the author herself at his disposal to get this trio right. Where things get screwy is with the new kids. Even though Scorpius is easily the most engaging character in the play, all three (Albus, Scorpius, and Rose) feel like slightly strange amalgams of the previous generation: Harry’s saving-people-thing + Draco’s sullenness = Albus. Hermione’s intelligence + Ron’s goofiness=Scorpius. Both Draco and Ron’s prejudices (both conscious and dysconscious) seem to somehow combined to create the strangely judgmental child that is Rose Granger-Weasley. Oh, Rose. I had so much hope for you. The little involvement she has is spent sneering at Scorpius (and by extension her cousin Albus). These three do not form a new Trio, for we never see them unified. Instead it’s a boyish dynamic duo, and the snobbish girl who’s too cool for them.

Oddly, Scorpius is a more plausible Granger-Weasley child than Rose. That’s how Rowling did family genetics, anyway. Take the Black family. All of the Blacks (and their extended progeny) were some combination of haughty aristocracy and batshit crazy, just dialed up and down in different combinations. Think of Bellatrix. Sirius. Tonks. Regulus. Draco. They’re all different, but clearly fall along the same continuum. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or even unrealistic for a family to have a child who simply does not conform to previous personalities and expectations, but it doesn’t fit with how characterization in Rowling’s world works, and so The Cursed Child swims awkwardly against the current. My main objection against The Cursed Child as canon has less to do with who wrote it, or the fact that it’s on stage, or even that I care much about canon at all (I know this is about Doctor Who canon, but it gets right to the heart at the general silliness of the idea of canon). It’s simply that it’s in such a different style to what’s come before. Is The Cursed Child really the eighth Harry Potter story? I don’t know how to answer that question, but I know it doesn’t feel like one, and the problem is in the fundamental approach to storytelling, world, and character.

And then there are the greatest hits of Potter secondary characters, and their bizarre, shoehorned actions. Voldemort. Snape. Dumbledore. Umbridge. We got ’em all. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this many returning favorites packed into this damn play. It’s tempting to complain that the only characters NOT used are the ones I’m most interested in. Lord knows I would be dishonest to say I hadn’t wished for a Marauders prequel more than once in my life. However, I think this brings up a salient point. If you’re going to do the fanfiction thing of re-examining the story from another angle, you have to choose a new frakking angle. Exploring Harry’s grief over his dead parents, with help from Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and also bringing in his complicated feelings towards Dumbledore and Snape all while trying to stop the rise of Voldemort… That is a well-ploughed furrow. In fact, let me go one step further. Reading it all out like that, it’s clear that that’s not an eighth story. That’s the seven stories we already have. It’s important that everyone put the qualifier “bad” in front of the word “fanfic” here, because good fanfic doesn’t do this. Let’s call it the Stoppard principle: It’s great fun to watch Hamlet imagining that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just behind the curtain in the closet scene. By changing the angle, we gain new understanding of the old story whlie also telling something new. Stoppard knows better than to try to top Shakespeare’s explorations of Hamlet’s psychology, so instead he writes Rosencrantz his own soliloquy on death that is very nearly as iconic. This is the appeal of the Marauders, to me: their shadowy potential. We know the skeleton of their plot, their basic motivations, but everything is still there to be explored fresh in detail. Or, forget the Marauders. Take Teddy freaking Lupin, who is alive and well in this timeline and yet somehow manages the titanic feat of not making it onto the stage or even getting mentioned, because that would just be one character too much. If you want to explore the abandonment daddy issues of a cursed child orbiting the fringes of the great Harry Potter’s narrative while struggling to find his identity as he heads off to Hogwarts, there he is, all wrapped and ready for opening. Making everything about Teddy wouldn’t have fixed the play, but I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have taken the story in more interesting directions. In fact, this makes me, if not more excited for the Fantastic Beasts movies, at least more interested in them. Newt Scamander, collecting and categorizing obscure magical creatures in the 1920’s, is exactly the kind of impulse that lies behind the more successful kinds of fanfic. It realizes that Harry Potter isn’t just about Harry Potter. It’s about the world. The world is so much wider than Harry Potter.

And then there is the what we can only call character assassination of Cedric Diggory. Of all the potential spoilers in the link above, how many of you would have chosen this one? Look, Buffy did an alternate universe plot where a lot of our heroes are now evil bad guys. But, they were turned into soulless vampires. Cedric straight-up becomes a Nazi and murders lovable, squishy Neville Longbottom because of embarrassment. He loses one measly task in the Triwizard Tournament and it’s all downhill from there. That is a mightily slippery slope. It’s not just the sheer dumbness of the notion, it’s the meanness of it. At least Viktor Krum and Fleur Delacour are portrayed as competitive, even ruthless, magical champions (Viktor is a shark, right?). What makes Cedric in The Goblet of Fire so attractive, heroic, and infuriating is his sportingness. We all know people like this: who are so nice that you can’t even hate them for beating you at life. He’s good at everything, and couldn’t care less. Sure, he’s talented and tries his best at all times, but he also shares tips and secrets with Harry like the good Hufflepuff is. He gets to go out with Harry’s crush, but we’re all thinking, “Well, can you blame her?” He is the archetypal Hufflepuff hero: hard-working, fair, and totally without ego. You know what I think might’ve happened if Cedric Diggory had lost the Triwizard Tournament? Nothing much. He would have lived a perfectly happy life. His tragedy is that he won. The entire premise of the play is based on this fact. This is exactly what Albus and Scorpius expect to happen. It’s why they go back in time to save him. And yet, the plot contradicts this bedrock characterization for…reasons.

In true Rowling fashion, let’s circle back to that tumblr post because it exemplifies the most glaring, if not the most damning, sins of The Cursed Child: the basic absurdity of its ideas. It is deeply, deeply silly. I’m sure Tiffany’s production is worth seeing for how it brings the magic of the Wizarding World to the stage, but from a simple script perspective nothing is new here. The spells, magic, creatures, and locations are all recognizable from the books. What’s so strange are the twisted ways in which Thorne applies these elements, almost to the point of parody. Yes, the Trolley witch is revealed to be a guardian beast who chases the boys onto the roof of the Hogwarts Express while pelting them with pumpkin pasty grenades (before letting them escape by simply jumping off). There’s the use of polyjuice potion to turn into Voldemort, to stop him from reuniting with his long-lost daughter. The sheer angst surrounding the question of Scorpius’ paternity. It has been pointed out by many others that these plot points have long been a part of Harry Potter parody as perfected by Team Starkid, but that’s just the thing. The majority of The Cursed Child reads like parody. Unfortunately Starkid is far better at parody.

I’m aware that this review is even more of a hot mess than The Cursed Child,
and at least The Cursed Child is an interesting mess. To try to wrap things up, you should read my tone as not so much angry as befuddled. I don’t feel angered by this play. I didn’t have hugely low expectations for this play, but neither did I have hugely high ones. I don’t know what I expected, frankly, but I know it wasn’t this. I’d like to keep thinking about it and see if a more coherent “hot take” comes to mind, but at the very least I wanted to vent some of my exasperation with this strange (and ultimately ill-conceived) new branch of the Potter tree.

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Are You Alive?

Clara and Me

Frak the partiarchy.

When last I checked in, winter was coming, a chill was in the air, and I had rambled on at length about two of my current obsessions (for better or worse): Doctor Who and fairy tales. Since then winter has come and gone (bringing a fascinating new season of Game of Thrones in its wake, for whatever that’s worth) and I’ve been attempting to wrestle those very same obsessions into something resembling a coherent thesis. As I write this, I’m somewhere between the planning and execution stages of that project. I only hope that I can endure the seemingly unending array of traps and pitfalls of my own interior puzzle-box castle, evading the specter of death long enough to punch my way through the diamond wall to emerge victorious, liberated, and somewhat more enlightened on the other side. You know, just like the Doctor. That’s the goal, anyway.

It may not have escaped your notice that I quite liked that episode, “Heaven Sent.” Which is to say that I didn’t stop writing my season 9 reviews because of dislike or even disinterest for the show. On the contrary, I quite liked the end of series 9, especially the awesomely girl-powery and affirmative ending of Clara’s story in “Hell Bent.” Basically, the same thing happened as last year, which is that Doctor Who‘s last episodes coincided with the start of the holiday season, and I just got distracted/busy. It’s hard to get back into the mindset of those reviews this far past the season, especially since I’ve become even busier since then, but I do intend to try.

Eventually, but not right now. I’m writing this post at the moment to give a heads-up to some of you who might not be aware of the fact that my other — Kat and Curt’s TV Re-View podcast, which I co-host with Curtis Weyant — also reached an exciting milestone as we concluded our journey through the new series of Doctor Who. For those of you who haven’t followed along with our episode-by-episode discussions, all of them are archived on our website under the Doctor Who tag and can be accessed in perpetuity here. We’re a quiet little corner of the Doctor Who fandom, but I’d like to think that anyone could jump in from the beginning or listen to a random episode and tell us what they think. If nothing else, the project as certainly helped me hone my own close-reading skills, and I hope has provided a few hours of entertainment or thoughtfulness to others.

Before this begins to sound too final, fear not! For those of you with no interest in Doctor Who (or who have become too bitter/jaded by the Moffat era – I know you’re out there), we offer other televisual flavors for your interest. We’re still working our way through every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and will be doing so for a while yet. More recently, though, we’ve just begun our discussion of the mid-aughts reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Our three discussions so far (a series preview both parts of the 2003 miniseries) are here at this tag, and will continue posting weekly with our regular Buffyverse discussions.

BSG

All this has happened before and all this will happen again… on our podcast.

BSG is not something I’ve really talked about on this blog before, so it may be a show that some of you are not really familiar with, or are not aware that I’m familiar with. For both of these types of people, our series introduction (Episode 143) is a great place to start. We talk about the history and context of Ron Moore’s reboot of the BSG series, as well as give our own personal histories with the show.

Whether you’re new to BSG or already a committed toaster-lover, we invite you all to (re)watch and listen along with us, and even join in the discussion on Twitter and in our comments section. If our epic discussion of the first episode of the miniseries is any indication, we have more than a few thoughts and feelings to share, which hopefully promises an interesting discussion, especially as the show continually gets deeper, darker, and (in my opinion) even better than its  impressive beginning. We’ve already found some interesting parallels to our other shows of choice, all of which are reconceptualizations of earlier, very campy genre properties, reshaped and reimagined for a modern audience. In BSG, we’re still talking about the nature of heroism, the creation of what TV Tropes calls families of choice, and the sometimes wonky alliance of science and fantasy, only this time we’ve added a ragtag fleet representing the dysfunctional remains of human civilization and their genocidal and zealous robotic pursuers. It’s just like real life**, but with octagonal paper.

Anyway, I can’t promise to be a more committed blogger until I’m on the other side of this other big writing project I’m working on, but I plan to get back to posting here regularly in good time. Until then, good hunting, so say we all, and all that.

 

**Seriously, compare Roslin vs. Baltar to the present election. It would be funny if I didn’t know that New Caprica comes next.
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The Brothers Grimm, Lovely Fellas – “Heaven Sent” Review

I went into “Heaven Sent” prepared to love it.dw-heavensent2 I mean, come on. It’s weird, experimental Doctor Who starring Peter Capaldi in what the industry calls a single-hander, a prestige piece by Steven Moffat, and directed by Rachel Talalay. Of course I was going to love it. But the real trick of the episode is in the deferred gratification. From the first minutes when the burned hand of the unseen man painfully pulls the lever, materializing the Doctor in the teleportation chamber and crumbling into dust, I knew it was going to be the Doctor himself, doomed to repeat history ad infinitum. Now, I’m not all that clever. I feel like that was made pretty obvious. The conspicuously unseen predecessor with his elongated skull and thoughtfully folded Doctor-clothes left to dry by the fire. The way everything horrifying (from the shroud-covered manifestation of Death to the sheer boredom, monotony, and claustrophobia of the world) is tailor-made to torture the Doctor. Who else would it be? As he eventually realizes, “How could there be other prisoners in my hell?” So, I didn’t particularly mind seeing that twist coming. The lack of surprise was more than made up by the expertly-deployed “surprisingness” of the way the story unfolded, with the Doctor discovering the rules of the Veil and the castle, exploring its rooms and testing its boundaries. Like the Doctor, we always assume he’s going to win, and so the joy is in watching him figure out how, In his own TARDIS mind palace, no less.

Where it started to get dicey was in the second half, when with growing trepidation I started to wonder where this was all going. What it all meant and implied about the world. Like those trapped in the castle of grief and depression, like the Doctor himself, I started to doubt what kind of future there could possibly be from this prison. Not only in the sense of “How will the Doctor get out of this,” but more disturbingly, “Where can the story go from here? How can you tell Doctor Who stories after this?” This is perhaps the most nihilstic vision of Doctor Who I can think of, aside from the terribly bleak three-part finale of series three. On his unparallelled TARDIS Eruditorum blog, Phil Sandifer is fond of examining Doctor Who finales as exercises in what he calls narrative collapse. In a nutshell, season finales are what they are because the threats contained in them dare to threaten the very circumstances under which Doctor Who stories can be told. It’s the logical extension and expansion of the old, well-loved tradition of episodic TV in which Lassie or Flipper or whatever are threatened: The child hides behind the sofa and thinks, “Maybe this really is the last one.” With narrative collapse, even adults and savvy TV-viewers begin to wonder.

Now, if I have two advantages over child audiences, it’s 1) experience and 2) access to the internet. I know this isn’t the last one, even before I watch it. My experience of Doctor Who and knowledge of the upcoming Christmas Special (if not my story sense) tell me that. But I did start to wonder about what this episode was saying. The story hammers home the futility and boredom of the Doctor’s predicament mercilessly. Take the moment when he sits at the head of the long medieval table eating soup, the most mundane and utilitarian activity of all:

DOCTOR: It’s funny, the day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead. This is how my world works, Clara. I tick off the seconds as they pass. My life is countdown. […] I think this whole place is inside a closed energy loop, constantly recycling. Or maybe I’m in Hell? That’s okay. I’m not scared of Hell. It’s just Heaven for bad people. But how long will I have to be here. Forever?

It’s funny — Chrissie transcribes that last word with a question mark, but I heard it more as a statement. Less a query, and more a revelation. Unnervingly, the fact that by this point I’ve realized something the Doctor hasn’t makes it all the more terrible. He’s tossing skulls into the water, talking about how the stars seem to be seven thousand years too late in time and that’s impossible, and I’m starting to get kind of bummed out.

More than anything else, it started to remind me of Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Don’t get my wrong, I love those stories. Look at the title of my blog, for heaven’s sake. But those are not Doctor Who stories. Those are stories about the existential horror of life. They’re stories about how we enter and exit the world without ever really understanding it. The thing about Godot is that he never comes. Ros & Guil find themselves in a world where everyone seems to know the rules except for them; they’re shuffled about by various powerful people, with no one ever bothering to explain what’s going on; and then they die none the wiser. The real kicker is that, in both cases, they’re doomed to repeat this infinitely. Every time Hamlet is performed, another Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are born and die, and still aren’t quite sure which is which. There’s also the implied reference in the presence of the skulls, explicitly invoking Hamlet’s Yorick. Yorick, of course, is a clown, and like the Doctor his witty humor and iconoclastic wisdom are made impotent in the face of death. You could as well ask the Doctor:

Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning?

The joke of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, of course, is that they are bit players even in their own story, much as the Doctor has been shoved into a confession dial and marginalized by his own people here.

The meta-fictional layer of those plots is very Doctor Who, of course, and Moffat gets that.

DOCTOR: How long can I keep doing this, Clara? Burning the old me to make a new one?

Are we talking about the torture of the castle in “Heaven Sent,” or regeneration in Doctor Who? Or are we even talking about Moffat himself? How many different Doctor Who stories can he write? Even more distressingly, how many times can the show be rebooted? Can the show really, as is so often proclaimed, go on forever?

DOCTOR: I’ve just been here a very, very long time. Every room resets. Remember I told you that? Every room reverts to its original condition… All I have to do is find some energy. And all you need for energy is something to burn.

Doctor Who burns people out. Doctors. Companions. Actors. Writers. Formats. Clara died because Jenna Coleman wanted to leave and do other things. Moffat has been running the show for around seven years now, and been writing for it for over ten. Are we talking about the existential horror of the showrunner, now? Running on a hamster wheel, constantly trying to find fresh perspectives on old stories. Known for his puzzle-box story structures, Moffat has trapped the Doctor in a literal, inescapable puzzle-box fueled by his own nightmares.

But here’s the thing about old, oft retold stories. They’re old for a reason. They’re old because they last. They’re retold because they tell us something we need to know. They don’t have to become worn and stale with repetition, but can gain in strength, power, and meaning. It makes perfect sense that for his salvation, the Doctor invokes the Brothers Grimm and the fairy-tale tradition. They believed a lot of things, not all of them good, but one thing they believed was in the power of old things, and the beauty of things like wonder tales (the German Märchen) and children’s stories. Like the Märchen, “Heaven Sent” is grim, frightening, and violent, but also optimistic. It says that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if there’s a solid wall of diamond between it and you. Fairy-tales have survived because, like living things, they naturally adapt and change with time.

Here’s the full text of the Grimms’ “The Shepherd Boy” in the very comprehensive SurLaLune fairy-tale blog. Interestingly, the narrative itself is pretty sparse. A king asks a shepherd boy renowned for his wisdom three questions (much like Clara keeps asking the Doctor). If his answers prove wise enough, the king will invite him to be his son and heir (spoiler alert: it works out). Probably the most interesting thing is the quality of the child’s wisdom, which is in admitting what he doesn’t know. He frames the answers as a series of impossible tasks: Count the drops of water in the ocean by damming every river on earth; Cover a sheet of paper in black dots to determine the number of stars in the sky. The answers to these questions are so big and unfathomable that they can never be quantified. As Shakespeare’s fool Touchstone quotes, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” The Doctor–part wise man and part fool–knows his own strengths and his limitations, and this episode makes him intimately familiar with both.

Once the Grimms enter the picture, things start to look up. As Shepherd Boy says:

In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.

But, as the Doctor says:

You must think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.

After the creeping, limping, aching start to this story Talalay’s furious direction as we vault through time is exhilarating: Six hundred thousand years. Two million years. Almost a billion years. Well over a billion years. The editing and music build to a thrilling crescendo that rivals “just this once, everybody lives” and the fusion of the Doctor/Donna as one best examples of joyful eucatastrophe in Doctor Who. That’s a hell of a bird indeed, and the Doctor wasn’t lying when he said he would “never ever stop.” Each time he gets a bit farther, both through the diamond and in his story. There is progress in the repetition, however minuscule. This is the basic alchemical principle of solve et coagula, “dissolve and coagulate,” or to be totally bathetic, lather, rinse and repeat. We get a little further, understand ourselves a little better, with each iteration. The only defeat would be in truly giving up. How beautiful that Moffat uses a fairy-tale to make the point, having the Doctor not only be inspired by its wisdom but moved by its ethics. Indeed, he’s literally moved to action by its aesthetics, as we see in his literal reenactment of it, which is ultimately what allows him to break free. This is one of the single best celebrations of the power of stories in Doctor Who, which is no small compliment. I loved it.

I often think about T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in relation to Doctor Who, and there’s a bit where he talks about the “fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again.” The struggle is real and difficult. As Clara says, loss is the “story of everybody.”

CLARA: Get over it. Beat it. Break free.

Eliot: For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

In the next stanza of Eliot’s long poem, the speaker talks of home, which is precisely where the Doctor is going. “Home. The long way ’round.”

 

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All Those Death-Defying Scrapes – “Sleep No More” & “Face the Raven”

sand menI’m putting these together, although they are the lone non-two-part pair of the season. Indeed, you could almost make “Face the Raven” part one of the three-part finale (quite like how “Utopia” set up “The Sound of Drums” while still remaining narratively separate), which makes “Sleep No More” the real anomaly. The pair still remains the thematic unity of the titles, however, with the Edgar Allen Poe ravens & no/nevermore connection. We’ll come back to Poe a little bit later.

To start with by far the less interesting episode, I actually kind of liked it, although less so on second viewing once its tricks are all revealed. It’s not the best episode Mark Gatiss has done (I still really love “The Crimson Horror”), but neither is it the worst. The idea of monsters made of that crusty eye-stuff that you get after a deep sleep may take the cake for the most ridiculous concept for a Doctor Who monster ever, at least for new Who, but what’s interesting is that the design of the monsters is actually quite scary. I had this weird cognitive dissonance watching the episode, with one part of my brain sort of freaked out by their oozy, lumpy, hollow-faced Sandmen, and the other half in complete stitches over the goofiness of the idea. It’s a pretty bold and unique blend of the monstrous/mundane that Doctor Who specializes in so well.

Other than that, the episode is pretty standard fare running through corridors, as I’ve come to expect from Gatiss. There’s some interesting “breaking the fourth wall” moments with the found-footage visual approach, but nothing all that exciting.

CLARA: When do you sleep?

DOCTOR: [Looking at Clara/the audience] When you’re not looking.

To be honest, by far the most interesting aspect is the ending, where the Doctor and Clara are lucky to escape with their lives, the monsters are left unconquered, and (in a very Ring-like way) the very footage we are watching is called into question. It ends on an ominous note of defeat, with the Doctor fleeing for his life, still wondering what the hell is going on,the space station crashing to destroy Neptune and the video signal infecting the world via our TV screens. Sweet dreams, indeed.

 

face the ravenNow on to the real reason we’re all here, which is Sarah Dollard’s exquisite “Face the Raven.” While you’re at it, go download her script from the BBC Writers Room and give her a follow on Twitter and Tumblr, and she’s one of the most exciting new talents out there. What’s most exciting about her, as you’ll see from checking out her social media feeds, is the unpretentious earthiness she brings to the table. She is so clearly a fan, not just of Doctor Who but a fan of art and TV in general, and not just a fan in the classic stats-and-facts sort, but the new breed of fan that’s all about, as they say, “feels.” I mean, seriously? How cute is she? It’s a brilliant contrast to”Sleep No More”, which is dressed up in a Doctor Who suit but supplies a fraction of “Face the Raven’s” charm, ingenuity, or emotion. Indeed, watched back to back (as I did with my family this holiday) “Sleep No More” feels pitifully thin in comparison.

“Face the Raven” is not thin. It’s an ooey-gooey, yummy layer cake of delicious elements. What starts as a slightly comedic romp featuring Rigsy’s countdown tatoo, his baby daughter, Clara dangling over London, and a hidden “trap street,” turns into a murder mystery in an alien refugee camp starring Maisie Williams’ increasingly poised Lady Me, which morphs yet again into the surprising (and surprisingly devastating) exit of Jenna Coleman’s Clara. All of these episodes within the episode are done with skill and confidence from this relative newcomer.

But let’s talk about that ending, which is where the real power lies. We also have to talk about it in the context of killing characters on TV. When Game of Thrones adapted, well, Game of Thrones and committed George R.R. Martin’s famously shocking killing of Ned Stark, this was something of a game-changer. TV deaths happen all the time, but every show has the unwritten rule of the “unkillable characters.” Killing the unkillable has subsequently become something of a fashion, to the extent that nowadays the only way to shock an audience is to fake-kill some characters. See, again, Game of Thrones with Jon Snow (and their recent teaser poster). There’s The Walking Dead‘s multi-episode taunt regarding Glenn’s (in my opinion, all too obvious) fate. There’s The Leftovers which mercifully launched Kevin straight into his brilliantly bonkers dream quest immediately after offing him. These days, the shock isn’t in the shock death. It’s in the surprise of life, and the ambiguous in-between.

Then, of course, there’s just the question of death in Doctor Who at all. Death can be a huge theme in Doctor Who without killing the companions, simply because a large number of guest actors are killed off pretty much every week. The Doctor himself dies on a fairly regular basis, only to be brought back in a different form. The narrative, in other words, does not necessitate the death of the companion, and there’s even an argument against doing this, given Doctor Who status as family entertainment and the companions as the sort of protagonists of the show. I’m in the process of formulating a theory of Doctor Who and fairy-tales, which usually follow a “there and back again” structure. Fairy-tales (though often grim, frightening, and violent) are ultimately an optimistic genre and rarely end in the death of the hero.

Which makes it so fascinating to me that Clara is 1) killed, and 2) killed in this episode. We don’t expect Clara to die. That’s not what the companions do (at least, not lately). And it’s not just that you expect Clara to leave in the last episode of the season. Certainly Davies established that precedent, and Moffat continued it with the Ponds exiting in the mid-season finale. In that sense, this is definitely a shock, but if that were the only reason for doing it here I’d call it a cheap twist. No, more than that, Moffat entrusts this emotional climax of the season and the character to this noobie fangirl, Sarah Dollard. She writes to him with some ideas for a story, asking for a job, and he says, “You know what? Why don’t we kill Clara in your episode.” Where does he get the gumption? Given that Dollard knocked it out of the park, you have to think he had considerable confidence in her abilities. But I don’t think it’s just that she’s a great writer. Nor is it a case of him thinking, “Oh she’s new, so they’ll never see it coming. [Insert evil showrunner cackle]” It’s also that she has the qualities necessary to pull this off.

The fact that she’s a woman in a typically male-dominated culture (both in Doctor Who and the wider TV/film-making industry) counts for something. She’s also, as I said, a fan. Modern fangirls are all too aware of things like fridging in their favorite shows. As Philip Sandifer mentioned in his review, Clara’s final speech goes out of its way to establish Clara’s agency and non-victimization:

CLARA: You can’t let this turn you into a monster… You will not insult my memory. There will be no revenge.

This happened because of choices Clara made, and she owns her death, the good and the bad, the sadness and the bravery. It’s the culmination of Clara’s quest to become like the Doctor. The only difference is that he has back-ups of himself.

CLARA: Why shouldn’t I be so reckless? You’re reckless, all the bloody time! Why can’t I be like you?

That last line is the killer. Coleman says it with such longing, like a kid talking of the parent they admire and want to emulate. She doesn’t want to be ordinary. She wants to go down bravely, sacrificing herself for someone else, just like the Doctor does. She complained that Danny’s death was boring. This is certainly not that. But it’s never a petulant tantrum of Clara’s. She’s sad and scared. This isn’t what she wanted, but she faces it nevertheless. I wondered if acceptance and “letting go” would be Clara’s theme this season in light of her position as the Hanged Man in “The Witch’s Familiar.” Not to toot my own horn, but the image of Clara proudly walking to face death, asking whoever is listening for the strength to be brave, sort of answers that question.

To come full circle to Poe and the problem of fridging, in “The Philosophy of Composition” which examined his poem “The Raven,” Poe said:

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object—supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Poe was right about the objective poetry of dead ladies, I think we can certainly agree that death is as close to a universal theme as we’re likely to find, and that the untimely loss of loved ones is a “most melancholy topic.” The danger here (inherent in the fact that we are all he bereaved survivors in this scenario) is to fridge the beautiful woman, to kill her off and freeze her beauty for the sake of the exquisite man-pain of her grief-stricken lover. It prioritizes the suffering of the survivor by killing off someone else (usually, as it happens, the woman). This is precisely what Dollard doesn’t do, and why I suspect Moffat gave her the episode to write. We’ll spend plenty of time with the Twelfth Doctor’s man-pain in “Heaven Sent,” trapped as he is (in Moffat’s words) in the “castle of grief.” And it’s not as though Moffat hasn’t had a chance to write a death scene for Clara, having written (by my count) at least three death scenes for her. I suspect that when we see Clara in “Hell Bent” it will be as one of the echoes, book-ending nicely with “Asylum of the Daleks.”** No, I think Moffat knew what he had in Sarah Dollard and was smart enough to let her take the reins on this one. He let the eulogy for Clara come not from the “lips of a bereaved lover” but from the pen of the female fans who loved Clara. She put Clara front and center and did the Impossible Girl justice. Go on and tell me again how fan fiction isn’t a legitimate enterprise.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has been sent somewhere by some mysterious someones. “The Raven” is a poem about a man trapped in his sorrow and grief, possibly forever. I wonder if that will be relevant?***

**And wouldn’t it be nice if that one were to live on and not die for the Doctor?

***Sarcasm

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Why Don’t You Break the Cycle? – “The Zygon Invasion”/”The Zygon Inversion”

zygon inversionI would never presume to claim that Doctor Who can offer an adequate response to the horrors unfolding in Paris and Beirut, because nothing can offer an adequate response. But isn’t that why we create art and tell stories? To try to come to some sort of grips with the world around us.

The episodes themselves were really good. The scripts are a smart, logical extension of “The Day of the Doctor.” The Zygons are used in a scary and effective way. Jenna Coleman gets to flex her muscles, portraying Clara’s cleverness and cool-under-pressure as well as Bonnie’s icy villainy and subsequent repentance. I’m not sure that I’m as crazy about Ingrid Oliver as everyone else is, but I thought they made really interesting and ambiguous use of Osgood.

But, look. All I really care about today is the Doctor’s speech–his appeal to think and talk–brilliantly and passionately delivered by Peter Capaldi. With all credit to Harness, Moffat, the BBC, and the incomparable chakoteya.net transcript site, I’d really rather just let the Doctor talk:

DOCTOR: Ah. Ah, right. And when this war is over, when you have a homeland free from humans, what do you think it’s going to be like? Do you know? Have you thought about it? Have you given it any consideration? Because you’re very close to getting what you want. What’s it going to be like? Paint me a picture. Are you going to live in houses? Do you want people to go to work? Will there be holidays? Oh! Will there be music? Do you think people will be allowed to play violins? Who’s going to make the violins? Well? Oh, you don’t actually know, do you? Because, like every other tantrumming child in history, Bonnie, you don’t actually know what you want. So, let me ask you a question about this brave new world of yours. When you’ve killed all the bad guys, and when it’s all perfect and just and fair, when you have finally got it exactly the way you want it, what are you going to do with the people like you? The troublemakers. How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?
CLARA-Z: We’ll win.
DOCTOR: Oh, will you? Well, maybe, maybe you will win! But nobody wins for long. The wheel just keeps turning. So, come on. Break the cycle.

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It never rains but it pours

I wanted to make a quick announcement about (for me) some very exciting news. I am now officially an author of two — count ’em, two — chapters in published books.

The first is volume II of Unlocking Press’ Harry Potter for Nerds series which presents “Essays for Fans, Academic, and Lit Geeks” on J.K. Rowlings beloved series. Unlocking Press is the publishing arm of John Granger’s Hogwarts Professor blog, probably the source of the best Harry Potter scholarship out there. You can see Granger’s announcement post here, buy the book here, check out the official book launch page here, and even listen to the book’s editor Travis Prinzi of the Hogs Head website talk about the book here. If you’re unfamiliar with this crowd, I’m really in some esteemed company here. Granger and Prinzi have written several fantastic books between them. The book is co-edited by Kathryn McDaniel of Marietta College. Other contributors include Dr. Amy H. Sturgis and my fellow Mythgard Institute students Emily Strand, Laura Lee Smith, Kelly Orazi, and Kris Swank. My chapter is a character analysis of Lupin in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Secondly, the follow-up to Open Court’s Doctor Who and PhilosophyMore Doctor Who and Philosophy: Regeneration Time — will be published on November 17, 2015. You can see and buy the book here. Edited by Courtland Lewis (University of Alabama) and Paula Smithka (University of Southern Mississippi), this is the latest in the Pop Culture and Philosophy series, which are always a lot of fun. Check out the official publisher webpage here. My chapter looks at the alchemical themes of the Russell T. Davies fourth series episode “Midnight.”

I’m not great a promoting my own stuff, but if anyone ends up reading my chapters or the full books come leave me a comment and tell me what you think!

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I Am Afraid, But I Will Sing – “The Girl Who Died”/”The Woman Who Lived” Review

ash-women-who-died-pub-scene-570x321The thing that really stands out about this melancholy and lyrical pair of episodes is how much they appear to be setting up and playing into, even more than the first four, the seasonal arc regarding the departure of Clara. In fact, I don’t think there’s been a series so focused on the impending exit of a companion since series two, which teased Rose’s exit with the notion of the “valiant child who will die in battle” and Rose’s own ironic (and hubristic) assertion that “people keep on trying to split [her and the Doctor] up but they never, ever will.” With Martha and Donna each in residence for only one full season, their stories were more or less told in one fell swoop. Leaving only five episodes in series 7, the Ponds’ exit (though certainly foreseen and foreshadowed) happened a bit more suddenly in the narrative. In contrast, series 9, like series 2, seems to be gearing up for the kind of big, emotional climax of something like the devastating “Doomsday.” In a sense, the whole series will be about the finale in a fundamental way.

Whereas Russell T. Davies made use of irony in writing out Rose–i.e. having her repeat with increasingly absolute confidence and even desperation that they will never be separated–Moffat seems inclined to emphasize the inevitability of Clara’s departure. Which just goes to reinforce Moffat’s overall aesthetic of metafiction, really. While Davies trades on the dramatic irony of the audience knowing something the characters don’t (namely, the Billie Piper had decided to leave the show), Moffat writes the characters as basically aware of the cycles of the show. Clara knows that there will be someone after her, and even finds that thought somewhat comforting. The Twelfth Doctor laments these cycles, but he also accepts them:

I’m sick of losing people. Look at you, with your eyes, and your never giving up, and your anger, and your kindness. One day, the memory of that will hurt so much that I won’t be able to breathe, and I’ll do what I always do. I’ll get in my box and I’ll run and I’ll run, in case all the pain ever catches up. And every place I go, it will be there.

There’s real poignancy in how his contemplation of the loss of Ashildr (and by implication, Clara) leads his thought back to Donna, and so to the revelation of the message implicit in his current face. And so, in defiance of fate, he saves Ashildr, something he knows to be, if not wrong, then decidedly dangerous.

Things become rather more complicated in part two, when we catch up with the wonderful Maisie Williams’ character. She’s become this strange melange of Doctor Who archetypes. Like the Doctor, she’s a long-lived immortal and therefore alone. She adapts to her ever-changing surroundings, abandoning/forgetting her old name and life, cutting all ties that would keep her from running from her past. She’s of course explicitly compared to Captain Jack Harkness, another human to have immortality thrust upon him against his wishes, but also like him she’s resentful of the Doctor’s abandonment. Like Elton Pope, Jackie Tyler, Lorna Bucket, and countless others, she’s been left behind. “I’ll be patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers,” she declares with mingled warmth and bitterness. But of course, she’s also a companion, taking Clara’s place in this week’s adventure, learning that common lesson that it’s rather difficult to stay angry with the Doctor when you actually spend time with him. Or rather, he serves as her companion, teaching her the same compassion he’s been retaught many times over the years.

Hybridity is of course the recurring theme here. Missy talked in the premier about seeing the “friend in the enemy, the enemy in the friend.” Of course we saw Clara encased in the Dalek shell, a motif we’ve seen before. We know the Hybrid seems to be a monster coming down the pike, if not the season’s Big Bad. “Enemies are never a problem,” Ashildr asserts. “It’s your friends you have to watch out for. And my friend, I’ll be watching out for you.” All this means that we’re prompted to “watch out” for Clara, and the ambiguity is pointed. You “watch out” for people you care about, people you want to protect. You also “watch out” for danger. Although the Hybrid was presented as half-dalek, half-Time Lord by Davros, I’m laying down my bet now that Clara will have some part in it.

We’ve really only ever had one other companion-lite episode that I can think of in New Who: the chillingly bleak “Midnight.” Just as Doctor-lite stories tend to be about the Doctor’s influence in a particular way, so these stories–by the companion’s conspicuous absence–become about their role in the story. They are a key element, as essential as the Doctor. Fun and kick-ass as Lady Me is, she and the Doctor are not compatible. They are like the magnets that repel each other because of their similarity. “We need the mayflies,” the Doctor tells her. “They know how beautiful and precious life is because it’s so fleeting.” The laws of life (and alchemy) demand the union of opposites that attract. Lady Me declares the endless cycle of death and rebirth “boring,” but it’s also the opposite of stagnation. “I’m not going anywhere,” Clara assures the Doctor, but maybe she should. As the Doctor once eloquently put it, “Everything has to end sometime. Otherwise nothing would ever get started.”

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