Alas, 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.
Part of point of experimentation, however, is that not everything always works and certainly this quartet has some major flaws. “Oxygen” is easily the most straightforward and easy to like even if its reach occasionally exceeded its grasp. I fumbled my way around the frankly bizarre “Extremis” where a convoluted plot translated into a fairly convoluted episode, though again with interesting ideas. “Pyramid” and “Lie” take their cue from “Extremis” in creating this grand, baroque invasion of the Monks who don’t want to invade but to be invited in, rewriting our history with themselves as the benevolent and inevitable center. The parallels to our own current “post-truth” epistemological crisis announce themselves less than subtly, with the Monks creating alternative facts and the Doctor proclaiming their capitol pyramid “fake news central.” The timeliness may be heavy-handed but it’s hard to say that there isn’t some pleasure in seeing the Doctor take on the very real monsters we find ourselves having to #resist these days.
Here comes the “but.” There’s something missing in all this sound and fury and I’m starting to fear that it’s Bill. For all his formulaic tendencies, Davies somehow managed to create a powerful character arc for his companions in a single season. Granted, there’s some wiggle room here. Rose obviously got two seasons in the TARDIS and yet one could make a strong case that series 1 was an absolutely compelling and satisfying arc in its own right. If she had not had series 2 we would still count her among the great companions. Donna and Martha likewise each make appearances outside of their “proper” seasons and yet, again, Martha’s growth over the course of series 3 and Donna’s tragic arc in series 4 have an emotional coherence and power. Part of the reason for Davies’ formulaic seasonal structure was its function as a foundation on which to build very strong and vivid character arcs very, very quickly. Moffat’s formal experimentation has worked in large part because he kept his companions around longer. Amy and Rory had the RTD-styled series 5 before getting into the weirder series 6 and 7 in which their characters were already firmly established. Clara’s more atypical introduction in series 7 was soon over and Moffat course-corrected her characterization issues in her two seasons with Capaldi.
As discussed by myself and many others, Bill’s introduction in the aptly-named “The Pilot” seemed at first glance to be a return to the RTD-style companion and seasonal arc. The first quarter of the season might have been a little lackluster but this was often the case with Davies’ tenure: i.e. use fairly generic one-off episodes to establish a base for the character before we get into the really hard-hitting emotional stuff in the back half, like “Father’s Day,” “The Satan Pit,” “Human Nature,” or “Silence in the Library.” The quietness of the first half (with the occasional gem sprinkled in) actually serves quite an important character-building purpose in hindsight, letting the companion show personality and giving them motivation to grow in the more intense episodes.
Now obviously this isn’t the only way to do a companion’s arc — Amy and Clara both prove otherwise But this is the most sensible way to do a Davies-styled companion, which Bill clearly is, and I’m starting to worry that she might become a victim of an awkward melding of styles. Rather than launch from the generic first quarter into later stories built on high emotion we’ve instead dropped her into a string of interlaced episodes based on extravagant ideas. There are certainly elements of the Davies approach here. The climaxes of both of these episodes hinge on emotion of Bill’s self-sacrificial decision to save the Doctor, marking a turning point for her investment in him and allowing her to take control of the narrative in a way she hadn’t before. However I can’t help but feel a bit distracted by all the stuff going on around these decisions: the hazily-defined notion of “consent,” fears about the next great human-caused global extinction event, and the Doctor’s four-dimensional chess-playing with the manipulative Monks.
What this central arc mostly seems is a bit jumbled. The episodes are neither satisfyingly standalone nor are they coherently integrated. There are odd juxtapositions of brilliant ideas, such as using the Doctor’s blindness to create the climactic trap in “Pyramid”, with head-scratchers like why, as someone pointed out on Twitter, he couldn’t just have Bill face-time through his sonic sunglasses. Or how the unexpectedness of having Bill’s confrontation with the seemingly turncoat Doctor in “Lie” comes halfway through the episode only to culminate the dissonant moment of the Doctor actively goading his companion into using a gun and cheering her when she does so (which bothers me even more than the feigned regeneration). Much of these episodes are sold by the actors — I’m loving Bill’s guilelessness, the Twelfth Doctor’s newfound impishness (plus his terribly creepy Kubrick Stare pictured above), and the return of Missy’s threatening Scottish brogue. I’m fascinated by these episodes and I look forward to seeing how they replay after the season has ended but I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed in their execution.
I’ve loved most of Peter Harness and Toby Whithouse’s previous work and if these episodes fail then they fail in interesting ways. However, for perhaps the first time in my Who-watching career I’m really looking forward to the Mark Gatiss “let’s lighten the mood a bit” episode, and he’ll be followed by New Who’s first Classic series return, Rona Munro. While this season has been more a little strange I am going into the final third of the season with very little idea of what to expect which, I have to say, is the funnest way to watch new Doctor Who. So maybe these episodes are doing their job after all.