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?


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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 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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Die with Whoever Comes After Me – “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood” Review

fisher kingAh, Toby Whithouse. Once a stalwart member of the core “reliable Doctor Who writers” group (like Mark Gatiss, but you know, good). Now a surprisingly polarizing figure of love-it-or-hate-it marmite. When and how did this happen? I’ve said that Whithouse has yet to write an episode of Doctor Who that I didn’t like, and that’s still largely true. “Under the Lake” & “Before the Flood” may be my least favorite of his episodes yet, but that’s not saying much as I have pretty positive feelings towards all of the others.

So what’s going on this year? I’ve seen it said that those who didn’t like series 8 are loving series 9 so far, and vice versa. Blogtor Who declared that no one had a bad word to say for the episodes. According to some, Whithouse apparently “gets” Capaldi’s Doctor in a way others haven’t. On the flipside, another cadre of of fan-academics whose opinions I respect (if not always agree with) seem to have sworn Whithouse off for his lack of creative ideas and traditionalism.

It’s one of those weird cases where the discourse around a particular episode is making it very hard for me to figure out what I think. As usual when things become political and polarized, I find myself somewhere in the middle, sympathizing with everybody and agreeing with nobody. Neither instant classic nor abject failure, I’m left both kind of admiring some potentially envelope-pushing ideas with a surprising lack of follow-through.

Let’s take the Fisher King for example. Before Mssrs. Gilliam & Williams came along, the Fisher King sprang from the Celtic roots of Arthurian legend. First appearing in Chretien de Troyes’ 12th century French romance Perceval, the famously wounded Fisher King is associated with the quest for the Holy Grail (he serves as the Grail’s guardian) and the fabled Waste Land. The legend goes that the fertility of a kingdom is derived from its king, and so his woundedness reflects and even causes the desolation of the landscape.

the waste landNow, we do get a sort of waste land in the episodes. The abandoned Cold War training ground on the Scottish heath looks about as barren and uninviting as you can get. But beyond that (and the relationship to water which the word “fisher” implies) I’m not sure what to make of the Fisher King’s significance. It feels like a slightly wasted opportunity, like the invocations of the Magician & the Witch were in the first set. Maybe I’ve been reading too many books on fairy tales lately, but I keep wanting Doctor Who to embrace its magical titles a bit more than it has been lately.

Let’s also take the opening monologue in which the Doctor breaks the fourth wall at considerable length and explains the bootstrap paradox to the audience. Pair with that the unusual structure of pairing a quite linear first episode with a non-linear, timey-wimey second half and I got properly excited at the prospect of the show intentionally going out of its way to break rules and experiment. This is of course more than a little undermined by the fact that Doctor Who employs the bootstrap paradox on a regular basis, and so it feels slightly silly for Clara to get freaked out by it when she’s already lived through the events of “The Name of the Doctor.” Isn’t that what makes her the Impossible Girl, after all? That’s why he calls her impossible!

Clara: But this is what I’ve already done. You’ve already seen me do it.

So where the story promises to be daring, it’s unfortunately not.

Now, before this gets too one-sided, there were several moments which redeem the story. The inclusion of the deaf character Cass is an obvious plus, and in particular the moment in “Before the Flood” when she’s stalked in the hallway by the ghost dragging the axe across the floor. This is a genuinely scary moment which relies on our being aware of a noise which she isn’t, evoking horror films like Wait Until Dark (in which a blind Audrey Hepburn is stalked by intruders which we can see but she can’t). I loved the cutting between the horrible scraping of the axe and her own perfectly-quiet POV. And yet, it doesn’t all become about her disadvantage because it’s her feeling the floor for vibrations that allows her to duck the axe and escape at the last moment. The use of the camera and visual cues to convey all of this was quite well done.

There are also some interesting character moments, particularly with furthering Clara’s increasingly bizarre story. Her emotional cue cards are clearly the big moment, indicating a kind of phoning-in of the traditional companion role as the Doctor’s conscience. Then there’s the great reversal, in which he (unsettled by her increasing alienation) awkwardly tries to act as her conscience.

Doctor: I just felt that I, I had to say something.

Clara:  I know, and I appreciated it.

Doctor: Because I’ve got a duty of care.

Clara: Which you take very seriously, I know.

Doctor: So can I stop now?

Clara: Please. Please do.

Finally, there’s the startlingly honest moment when she tells the Doctor not to die:

Clara: Not with me! Die with whoever comes after me. You do not leave me.

From Clara the bossy control-freak who creates and image of perfection for those around her, this is a pretty raw glimpse of selfishness, but one that feels true and perfectly relatable. Reluctant though we might be to admit it, we all want to push the consequences off onto the next day, the next adventure, the next person. In this way, Clara’s embracing of her own selfishness actually feels like progression for the character.

Finally, with all of the ghosts and lost love in this episode, Danny’s ghost is certainly hovering around in spirit if not invoked outright. Clara’s painful admission in “In the Forest of the Night” that she “doesn’t want to be the last of [her] kind” seems interesting in light of her consoling words to Bennett that in the face of loss he should “keep going”:

You have to. Take it from me, there’s a whole world out there. A galaxy, a life.

The woman who keeps running, never looking back because she dare not out of shame? I’m not sure, just some food for thought.

Next time: Maisie Williams. Vikings. The return of Jamie Mathieson and the first episode by Catherine Tregenna. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. Permission to squee.

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Always Mercy – “The Witch’s Familiar” Review

Hanged ClaraI have to confess to be slightly disappointed by “The Witch’s Familiar” on my initial viewings. Neither half had the slightly mystical vibe implied by the titles. Clara was frustratingly passive throughout the episode. The Doctor/Davros plot didn’t really end up going anywhere in particular: Davros remains unrepentant, and both were playing each other the whole time.

In hindsight, these episodes may fare better once we know the plots that they seem to be setting up:

  • the notion of the Hybrid, and the Doctor’s role in creating it
  • the Doctor’s confession
  • whatever Missy is up to

This opening two-parter does a fine job of initiating those seasonal arcs, I’m sure, but I’m not sure it stands alone quite as well as some of Moffat’s previous season premiers, such as “The Eleventh Hour” or even “The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.”

There are silver linings to these criticisms, to be sure. My frustration with Clara’s passivity just further proves to me how unusual a phenomena this is in New Who. The companions, including and emphatically Clara, are usually not pushed around quite so much. Sure, watching Missy push her around is fun, especially in the comedic moments such as when she daintily shoves her into the pit to test its depth. In that way, pairing Clara with Missy functions much the same way as pairing her with the Twelfth Doctor: Combining the control freak with an aggressive and pushy Time Lord who knows how to ruffle her normally carefully-groomed feathers. That said, after being hung upside down as bait, pushed down a hole, handcuffed to a wall, and trapped in a Dalek shell, I was ready for Clara to take more agency in her own rescue by the end than just pleading the Doctor for mercy. Again, this is hardly damning for the character. This will surely remain and anomaly in the overall journey of Clara Oswald as we approach the end.

Speaking of the Dalek shell, I can’t also help but feel the slight wasted opportunity for further exploration here. The Dalek shell seems to translate Clara’s emotions and pleas for help into violent outbursts and the trademark imperative, “Exterminate!” Did the show really just imply that the Daleks are all inside their suits bursting with emotion due to their inability to communicate their fear and pain? That’s quite a bold assertion if so, and I hope the show goes back to explore this idea in the future.

To come back to Davros, it’s largely because his scenes with the Doctor are so touching and unsettling that I find it slightly disappointing to have it all have been a ruse in the end. In fact, I think I’ll keep the head-canon that it wasn’t all fake just to satisfy myself. As others have said, his genuine happiness at discovering the Time Lords were saved and his earnest assertion that the Doctor should protect his people are quite fitting and in keeping with Davros’ nationalist ethos. I think it’s much nicer to think that, not knowing whether his trap would work on the Doctor, Davros allowed some true emotion and fear of death to come through in order to strengthen their kinship and sweeten the pot.

Hanged ManOne thing that I do think is worth spending a few moments on before leaving off is the symbolism of Clara’s hanging upside down. As noted by others, Clara’s position is conspicuously reminiscent of the famed Hanged Man. Now, I’m no tarot expert, so I’m relying on google here. I’d love to hear some thoughts from others in the comments. However, in some brief searches, the symbolism seems quite suggestive to me. This website talks about the Hanged Man in relation to surrender. Key words are letting go, accepting fate, giving up control. It’s a card of suspended action and sacrifice. This all seems quite relevant in light of Clara Oswald, the self-described bossy control freak. In fact, I think that’s largely what season 8 was about: Clara learning that she can’t control everything, that life will happen. Fittingly, the opposing cards listed below are all about action, assertion, struggle, control. Interestingly, the Magician is listed as one of these opposing cards. Where does that put the Doctor in regard to Clara’s arc? Is he still struggling to hold on and act (he is quite desperate to save her in a very un-Twelfth-Doctorish way), or will he facilitate her process of letting go?

Knowing that we’re coming to end of Clara’s story, I can’t help but read a lot of resonance into this description of the card:

The main lesson of the Hanged Man is that we ‘control’ by letting go — we ‘win’ by surrendering. The figure […] has sacrificed himself, but he emerges the victor. The Hanged Man also tells us that we can ‘move forward’ by standing still. By suspending time, we can have all the time in the world.

If I’m being really generous, maybe this zen approach to life’s struggles even justifies Clara’s seeming passivity in the episode. She’s learned to win by accepting loss. Like the Doctor, she has learned compassion and wouldn’t die of anything else. No longer will she take the Doctor down with her in the flames of a volcano just to protest the death of loved one. Now, he’s “last person she would ever kill” and she merely asks for his mercy and friendship.

I may have just talked myself into liking this episode a lot more. That either says a lot about me or Doctor Who, and I think I’d like to go with the latter.

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