Magneto vs the Red Skull round two: March to Axis

This is the second part of my examination of the enmity between the mutant revolutionary Magneto and the Nazi war criminal the Red Skull.  For those who missed it here is a link to the first part.

After their confrontation during “Acts of Vengeance,” it would be years before Magneto and the Red Skull would again encounter one another. They would finally come face-to-face once again in the prologue to the Avengers & X-Men: Axis crossover.

Magneto 9 cover

Although he has gone by several aliases during his lifetime, Magneto’s real name is Max Eisenhardt.  A Jew, Max was born in Germany in the late 1920s. After the rise of the Nazis, Max’s family faced severe discrimination, and they were eventually imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  There the young Max saw his entire family murdered.  Max himself became a Sonderkommando, a Jew who under threat of death was forced to remove the victims of the gas chambers and place them in the ovens to be cremated.

This nightmarish existence was made all the worse by the abuses heaped upon Max and his fellow prisoners by a sadistic Nazi officer named Hitzig. At the time Max’s mutant powers were gradually beginning to manifest, and he sought to use them to kill Hitzig.  But between his young age, and his severe state of malnutrition, Max’s control of magnetism was much too weak, and he failed in the attempt to slay his tormenter.

Magneto 9 pg 6

The unimaginable horrors which Max endured left lasting emotional scars upon him. Years later, after he was prevented by a bigoted mob from saving the life of his daughter Anya, his traumatic memories were re-awakened.  Looking upon the gradual emergence of mutants and humanity’s resulting fears, Max became convinced that a new Holocaust was all but inevitable.  Determined to prevent this, he adopted the ruthlessly proactive identity of Magneto, a figure who would crush humanity before they could perpetrate genocide against mutant-kind.

In the ongoing Magneto series, writer Cullen Bunn has portrayed the title character as a driven, brutal individual. In his quest to protect mutants, and to avenge crimes against them, Magneto has regularly utilized violence and torture.  He has maimed or killed his adversaries with scarcely any remorse, fanatically convinced of the necessity and righteousness of his actions.  Bunn very much captures the extremely fine line that can exist between freedom fighter and terrorist.

In issue #9, by Bunn and artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta, with a cover by David Yardin, Magneto finally learns that the Red Skull has grafted Charles Xavier’s brain to his own, gaining immense telepathic powers. The Skull, with his S-Men and Ahab, has relocated to the island of Genosha, where they have constructed a “mutant reeducation camp” i.e. a concentration camp for the extermination of mutants.  Magneto’s greatest fear given concrete form, he sets out to destroy the Red Skull.  He was never ever able to kill Hitzig, but perhaps he can expunge the guilt he feels for his failure by slaying the Skull.  “After all this time, I’ll get some reprieve from my disgrace.”

Magneto 9 pg 19

Magneto confronts the Red Skull, echoing the words he uttered to the fascist mastermind years before when he buried him alive in a bomb shelter. “I told you once before, Nazi… I am your better!  But where I once showed you clemency, this time I have brought you nothing but death!”  Unfortunately Magneto’s powers are on the wane, and he is overwhelmed by the S-Men, who beat him into submission.

As the next issue opens, the Red Skull mocks the now-imprisoned Magneto. Using his mental powers, the Skull conjures up a psychic projection of Hitzig in an effort to break the Master of Magnetism.  This manifestation pursues Magneto through a lifetime of memories, inserting itself into each of them as a monstrous apparition, reminding him of his myriad failures.

Magneto 10 pg 4

Finally back in the real world, Magneto fins that he has been left at the mercy of Mzee, the member of the S-Men who resembles a humanoid turtle. Mzee is ready to make Magneto suffer.  As the S-Man reveals “As a child, I watched your minions slaughter my family.  Those moments… their screams… were endless.  And no one came to help me.  I’ll make sure your misery lasts just as long.”  Here we see the cost of Magneto’s crusade made tangible.  In his barbarous quest to protect mutants by subjugating humanity, Magneto has created yet another generation of victims who learned to hate and who now seek vengeance.  By his actions Magneto has not changed anything, but instead perpetuated the cycle of hatred.

Before Mzee can act, though, Havok, Rogue and the Scarlet Witch intervene. In the pages of Uncanny Avengers #24 written by Rick Remender, the three members of the Avengers Unity Squad had been abducted by the S-Men and brought to Genosha.  They managed to escape, and they free Magneto.  The three mutant Avengers try to convince the weakened Magneto not to continue his fight against the Red Skull, but to lay low with them while they contact the rest of the Avengers for reinforcements.  Magneto, though, will have none of that, and even accuses Rogue of betraying mutant-kind.  “I forgot you abandoned Charles’ dream.  No longer an X-Man, merely another stooge of the human establishment.”  Rogue is understandably outraged by this, as well she should be.  As a member of the Avengers, she played a crucial role in saving the entire world from being destroyed by the Celestials.  But do not bother telling that to Magneto; so long as mutants are safe, the rest of humanity can burn for all he cares.

The argument between Magneto and the Avengers is abruptly halted when they are discovered by the Red Skull, Ahab, and the S-Men. As Uncanny Avengers #25 opens, with writing by Remender and artwork by Daniel Acuna, the Skull has frozen them all in place with his telepathy.  The fascist takes this opportunity to once again poke & prod at Magneto’s insecurities.

Uncanny Avengers 25 pg 2

Commenting upon Magneto’s state of mind, the Skull mockingly observes “It doesn’t take a mind reader to know why it frightens you so, Magnus. It is not the evil that might be uncovered within – it is the emptiness.  A willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve your means.  Including the gross manipulation of your own daughter.  Tsk tsk.  Oh, dear, she despises you, Magnus.  A hatred that matches my own.  Used by her father.  Driven mad for his purpose.”

As he previously did in “Acts of Vengeance,” the Red Skull is attempting to point out that he and Magneto are more alike than not. And this time the Skull brings Magneto’s daughter, the Scarlet Witch, into his argument.  Remender really hit the nail on the head with this, making a connection I had previously missed.  The Skull used and abused his own daughter, Sinthia, manipulating her into an instrument of his will, a warped reflection of his own sick mind.  As a result, Sinthia absolutely despises him.  And this is all too similar to Magneto’s relationship with his daughter the Scarlet Witch.  On numerous occasions he attempted to utilize Wanda’s reality-warping abilities as a weapon in the cause of mutant revolution, not caring what harm it caused her.  The result is that the Witch would very much prefer to have nothing to do with her father.

Unknown to the Red Skull, when Magneto was freed by the Avengers he took the opportunity to ingest a dose of Mutant Growth Hormone. His powers now restored almost to normal levels, he knocks out the Skull, releasing the Avengers from mental control.  Rogue, Havok and the Scarlet Witch engage the S-Men and Ahab.  Magneto, discovering several lobotomized mutants in one of the concentration camp buildings, furiously declares “This is what they do to our people, Wanda!  And so long as they draw breath there can be no unity.”  Enraged, Magneto uses his powers to seemingly kill the S-Men.  He then proceeds to physically assault the Skull, brutally beating him.  Defiant to the end, the Skull continues to verbally taunt Magneto.  Then, before the Witch’s horrified eyes, Magneto kills the Skull in cold blood, shattering his head with a block of masonry.

Uncanny Avengers 25 pg 16

The Scarlet Witch, Rogue and Havok are horrified. At first speechless, Rogue finally gasps “What have you done?”  Magneto attempts to justify his act, announcing that he has “killed evil incarnate” and “saved countless lives.”  Rogue mere responds “You – after all your words – you’re no better than him.”

Of course, that is not the end of things. By killing the Red Skull, Magneto inadvertently set loose something that was buried deep within Xavier’s mind.  Onslaught, the psionic entity that was once born out of the combined subconscious darkness of the Xavier and Magneto, lives again.  And it is now controlled by the twisted consciousness of the Red Skull.

Uncanny Avengers 25 pg 21

Thus is the stage set for “The Red Supremacy,” the first act of Avengers & X-Men: Axis. I will be taking a look at that miniseries, and the continuing struggle between Magneto and the Red Skull, in the near future.

Doctor Who reviews: Mummy on the Orient Express

“Mummy on the Orient Express” written by Jamie Mathieson, is possibly my favorite episode of Doctor Who Series Eight so far. It very effectively took the mid-1970s “Gothic horror” sensibilities of the early Tom Baker stories overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe & script editor Robert Holmes and filtered them through the prism of modern-day Who.

Several weeks have passed since “Kill the Moon.” Despite the furious anger Clara (Jenna Coleman) had towards the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) at the end of that story, by now she realizes she does not really hate him.  That said, neither does she particularly like him anymore, either.  Clara is ready to throw in the towel on her TARDIS traveling, but the Doctor convinces her to join him on one last journey.  He takes her to the far future, where a replica of the famed Orient Express passenger train journeys through outer space from one planet to another.

Clara wanted a nice, quiet, relaxing vacation for this final trip. Unfortunately her hopes are quickly dashed.  One by one, people are dying of sudden heart attacks.  Each of them, in the minute before he or she is killed, perceives the horrific sight of an ancient mummy lumbering towards them, a being they and they alone can see.

Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express promo image

The Doctor realizes these deaths match up to a legendary creature known only as the Foretold, a seemingly unstoppable entity that always claims its victims exactly 66 seconds after appearing, a creature whose existence has never been explained. The Doctor also notices that a rather large number of the passengers just so happen to be scientists specializing in alien biology, physics and mythology.  He deduces that they have all been assembled for a purpose.  “If I was putting together a team to analyze this thing, I’d pick you.  And I think somebody has.  Someone of immense power and influence has orchestrated this whole trip.  Someone who I have no doubt is listening to us right now.  So are you going to step out from behind the curtain and give us our orders?”

With that the hidden mastermind, via the Orient Express’ computer system, announces that they have all been gathered to analyze the Foretold, find a way to capture it, and reverse engineer its abilities. And if they do not succeed, well, then they are all going to die at its hands.  This horrifying possibility proves to be all too real, as Clara searches through the train’s records, and discovers that the mastermind has actually attempted this on several other occasions, with scientists on different spaceships… and they all died.

Peter Capaldi is once again magnificent as the Twelfth Doctor. Both his mannerisms, striding in and imperiously taking charge, as well as his attire, again bring to mind Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor.  There is also quite a bit of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, especially as he played the role during his first three years under Hinchcliffe & Holmes.

“Mummy on the Orient Express” undoubtedly brings to mind the 1975 classic “Pyramids of Mars” written by Holmes. First off there is the obvious connection of mummies who are in fact something entirely different.  The mummies in “Pyramids” were actually service robots created by the alien Osirians.  Similarly, the mummy-like Forgotten in this latest story is not a supernatural entity but a long-dead soldier reanimated by incredibly advanced alien technology, a deadly weapon of war & assassination.

Also present is the coldly analytical attitude of the Doctor. In “Pyramids of Mars,” faced with the threat of Sutekh the Destroyer, a godlike entity with the ability to decimate entire planets, the Doctor is focused exclusively on thwarting this apocalyptic entity, to the exclusion of all pleasantries.  When the Doctor and Sarah discover that their ally Lawrence Scarman has been murdered by his brother, whose body is now an animated cadaver controlled by Sutekh, the Doctor is quite cold and blasé about it…

The Doctor: His late brother must have called.

Sarah: That’s horrible! He was so concerned about his brother.

The Doctor: I told him not to be. I told him it was too late.

Sarah: Oh! Sometimes you don’t seem…

The Doctor: Human? [The Doctor examines a deactivated service robot] Typical Osirian simplicity.

Sarah: A man has just been murdered!

The Doctor: Four men, Sarah.  Five, if you include Professor Scarman himself.  And they’re merely the first of millions unless Sutekh is stopped.  Know thine enemy.  Admirable advice.

“Mummy on the Orient Express” sees the Doctor taking a similarly ultra-pragmatic stance. Each time the Foretold appears to a victim, the Doctor attempts to get that person to describe the creature in as much detail as possible before they die.  He knows that he cannot save them, but if enough of the Foretold’s victims provide him with the information he needs to deduce its nature, then hopefully he will eventually be able to stop it from slaughtering everyone on the train.

After the Orient Express’ captain is killed by the Foretold, the Doctor is seemingly unmoved, instead speaking aloud in a rapid stream of consciousness as he runs through the evidence, trying to connect the dots. In an exchange that echoes the aforementioned scene from “Pyramids of Mars,” Perkins the train’s engineer reacts with disbelief at the Doctor’s seemingly callous nature…

Perkins: A man just died in front of us!  Can we not just have a moment?

The Doctor: No, no, no!  We can’t do that!  We can’t mourn!  People with guns to their heads, they cannot mourn!  We do not have time to mourn!

While this is taking place, Clara is at the back of the Express, attempting to comfort Maisie, whose grandmother was the first victim of the Foretold. Then the Doctor contacts Clara on her cell phone.  He has deduced that the next victim will be none other than Maisie, and he wants Clara to bring her up to the scientists so they can once again try to study the Foretold, “observe it in action.”  Clara is, of course, aghast.  She is even more upset when the Doctor tells her to lie to Maisie, to say that the only way he can save her is if she comes to the front of the train.  And Clara very reluctantly does exactly that.  Face to face with the Doctor, Clara accusingly tells him “You’ve made me your accomplice.”

Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express Doctor and Clara

It’s very interesting that “Pyramids of Mars” played such an apparent influence on both this episode and on the one it immediately follows out of, “Kill the Moon.” In that, Clara insisted that they should just get in the TARDIS and leave since the Moon did not get destroyed in 2049, because in his travels the Doctor has previously seen it still existing even further in the future.  To which the Doctor responded “Clara, there are some moments in time that I simply can’t see.  Little eye blinks.  They don’t look the same as other things.  They’re not clear, they’re fuzzy, they’re grey.  Little moments in which big things are decided and this is one of them.  Just now I can’t tell what happens to the Moon because whatever happens to the Moon hasn’t been decided yet.  And it’s going to be decided here and now, which very much sounds like it’s up to us.”

This very much parallels the scene in “Pyramids of Mars” where Sarah argues that she comes from the year 1980, so it is obvious Sutekh did not destroy the world in 1911. In response, the Doctor takes Sarah back to 1980 in the TARDIS, and she is horrified to discover the Earth has been reduced to a lifeless wasteland.  The Doctor tells her that if they do not go back to 1911 and stop Sutekh then there is no future.

In “Kill the Moon” Clara resented the Doctor for thrusting her into the position of playing God, of making her the arbiter of the fates of others. Now, still attempting to deal with her feelings about the Doctor’s actions, in “Mummy on the Orient Express” Clara witnesses the Doctor reassuming that role.  She is not at all comfortable with either alternative.

In the end the Doctor saves Maisie and figures out exactly what the Foretold really is, thus finding a way to stop it. But this was not something that he was at all certain he would be able to do.  As the Doctor later solemnly explains to Clara “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones.  But you still have to choose.”

Back in 1999, I was over in Britain for a few months. While there I went to a comic book convention in Bristol, England.  The evening of the last day, at the hotel bar, I was hanging out, having drinks and chatting.  Also there was Dave Stone, an author who had written several Doctor Who New Adventure novels.  Talking with him, I discussed how I disliked the depictions of the Seventh Doctor in many of the books, often finding him to be an overly manipulative, judgmental figure.  As an example, I cited some of his actions in the novel Cat’s Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel.  After listening to what I had to say, Stone simply replied, “The Doctor cannot save everyone.”

That was certainly at the forefront of my mind while watching “Mummy on the Orient Express.” Something that I’ve occasionally observed concerning the episodes with Clara was that she possessed this belief that if the Doctor simply tried hard enough, if he was as clever and brave as he could possibly be, “neither cowardly nor cruel,” that he would somehow always find a way to do the right thing.  We saw this in “The Day of the Doctor” when at Clara’s urgings he managed to alter history and save Gallifrey.  Last week, at the end of “Kill the Moon” it really felt like Clara was rejecting the entire concept of a no-win situation, and that she demonstrated it was possible to find a consequence-free choice where everyone lived happily ever after.  But now, just one episode later, Clara witnesses that sometimes that is just not possible, that sometimes you really are forced to choose the lesser of all evils.

Clara suggests to the Doctor that “being the man making the impossible choice” is an addiction. Immediately after Clara calls Danny and tells him that she is finally done traveling with the Doctor, and she’ll be home soon.  Yet, in the next breath, she turns to the Doctor and tells him that she has changed her mind, she wants to keep traveling with him, and that Danny is okay with this.  Clara lied!

Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express Foxes

Going back to the beginning of “Mummy on the Orient Express” there is a sexy chanteuse played by Louisa Rose Allen aka Foxes singing, appropriately enough, a rendition of “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen:

Tonight I’m gonna have myself a real good time

 I feel alive and the world it’s turning inside out – Yeah!

 I’m floating around in ecstasy

 So don’t stop me now don’t stop me

 ‘Cause I’m having a good time having a good time

Hmmmm… that could apply to the Doctor as well as Clara. So who is the addict?

I may not be especially happy with how the character of Clara has been proceeding in the last couple of episodes. But I certainly have to acknowledge that Jenna Coleman is doing a wonderful job with the material.

Putting aside all of the brilliant character moments, “Mummy on the Orient Express” is a riveting episode. It was a very effective mash-up of the eerie 1972 movie Horror Express starring Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing and the Japanese anime series Galaxy Express 999 created by Leiji Matsumoto.  The concept of a mummy-like alien creature that is completely invisible & intangible to everyone except its victims, that can teleport anywhere, that will kill you exactly 66 seconds after it appears, is genuinely frightening.  I expect that “Mummy on the Orient Express” must have contained some bona fide modern-day “behind the sofa” moments for younger viewers.

Magneto vs the Red Skull round one

The current Marvel Comics crossover Avengers/X-Men: Axis sees the Fascist mastermind the Red Skull gaining the devastating powers of Onslaught, threatening the entire world. A key aspect of this storyline has been the conflict between the Skull and Magneto, the mutant Master of Magnetism.  But this is certainly not the first time those two have encountered one another.  For that we must look back to late 1989 and the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover.

Captain America 367 cover

It is actually a bit surprising that it took Magneto and the Red Skull so long to meet. In certain respects they have much in common; in others they are complete opposites.

Magneto, the long-time ideological opponent of the X-Men and one of their greatest foes, spent his early years as a one-note mutant supremacist. He was almost a Hitler-like figure, a ranting, sadistic conqueror who wanted to crush humanity and rule the world in the name of mutant-kind, who he saw as their superiors.

Then throughout the 1980s, in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, writer Chris Claremont developed a back-story for Magneto. He was a Jew from Eastern Europe who had spent much of his childhood imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  At the end of World War II the barely alive Magneto fled to Russia with the gypsy Magda, who he married.

Eventually, as seen in Classic X-Men#12 by Claremont and artist John Bolton, when Magneto’s mutant powers began to manifest, a fearful mob attacked him, preventing him from rescuing his daughter Anya who was trapped in a burning house. Magneto lashed out in anger, slaying the mob.  Magda fled from him in fear, and he never saw her again.

The death of his daughter, the loss of his wife, and the actions of the mob brought him right back the horrors of the Holocaust. Magneto became convinced that it was inevitable that humanity would attempt to destroy mutants in a new genocide.  Between his overwhelming fear of a mutant Holocaust, and an unfortunate side effect of his powers creating severe emotional instability, Magneto became a violent revolutionary determined to protect mutant-kind by conquering humanity.  In effect, he became very much like the Nazis who he hated.

Classic X-Men 12 pg 10

The Red Skull’s real name is Johann Schmidt. In the back-story originally set down by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, and developed in detail years later by J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Neary & Roy Richardson in Captain America #298, we learn that Schmidt was born to an alcoholic father and his abused wife in a small German village.  When the mother died giving birth the drunk, angry father attempted to murder his newborn son.  He was prevented from doing so by the delivering physician.  The distraught father committed suicide soon after, leaving the infant Johann Schmidt an orphan.  Although only a newborn when all this occurred, the Red Skull claims to remember these events with crystal clarity.

Schmidt spent his childhood and teenage years as an outcast and a vagrant, ostracized by his peers. One time the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper showed the coarse man kindness.  Schmidt responded by clumsily attempting to woo her, and when she spurned his violent advances, he responded by beating her to death, taking out on her all the rage he felt at humanity as a whole.  The experience filled him with “a dizzying joy such as I never suspected existed!”

Years past, and eventually Schmidt was working as a bellboy at a German hotel. One day Hitler and his advisors were staying there.  By chance, Schmidt was bringing refreshments into Hitler’s chambers right when the Fuhrer was berating the head of the Gestapo for letting a spy escape.  The fuming Hitler was despairing at ever having anyone competent enough to carry out his vision.  Motioning towards Schmidt, Hitler declared “I could teach that bellboy to do a better job than you!”  Glancing at the young man, Hitler was startled to see to look in Schmidt’s eyes.  Within them Hitler recognized a bottomless capacity for hatred and violence.  The Fuhrer realizes this was someone who he could transform into the ultimate Nazi, a being who would mercilessly advance the cause of the Third Reich.  Thus was born the Red Skull.

Captain America 298 pg 14

It is interesting that circumstances both led Magneto and the Red Skull onto a path of violence and conquest, each driven by the belief in their own superiority, by the desire to punish the world for the harms inflicted upon them. The difference, I think, is that if young Magneto had grown up in a different place & time, and never lived through the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, he might very well have grown up to be a normal, happy, well-adjusted figure.  In contrast, one gets the feeling that Johann Schmidt, even if he had been raised by loving parents, was of possessed some form of anti-social personality disorder and would have inevitable become a cruel, unpleasant individual.  He simply might have become something slightly more socially acceptable, such as a corporate executive or a politician!

These two men finally come face-to-face during “Acts of Vengeance,” when the Norse god of evil Loki brought together several of Earth’s greatest villains and criminals to organize a series of attacks directed at destroying the Avengers. At first Magneto thinks that this is a different Red Skull, believing the original died some time before, not realizing the Skull’s consciousness was transferred into a new body cloned from none other than Captain America.  Nevertheless Magneto cannot put the matter out of his mind.  In Captain America #367 written by Mark Gruenwald, with excellent artwork Kieron Dwyer and Danny Bulanadi, Magneto breaks into the Skull’s office in Washington DC, demanding to know the truth.  The Skull admits he is the original.  He attempts to convince Magneto that the two of them are in fact very much alike, hoping to trick the Master of Magnetism into lowering his guard.  This fails, and the Skull is forced to flee.  (Click on the below image to enlarge it for the full details of their exchange.)

Captain America 367 pg 8 & 9

Despite the fact that the Skull now resides in a body that possesses the Super Soldier Serum, he has never bothered to undergo the extensive regular training that Captain America himself engages in which has made the Sentinel of Liberty one of the world’s greatest fighters. Instead the Skull still relies on lackeys such as Crossbones and Mother Night, and on the advanced technology & robots developed by the Machinesmith.  So rather than possibly having a chance of at least holding his own against Magneto, as Cap probably would, the Skull quickly finds himself outmatched.

Soon enough Magneto captures the Red Skull. He spirits him away to a subterranean bomb shelter, leaving him with nothing more than several containers of water.  Magneto tells the Skull “I want you to sit down here and think of the horrors you have perpetrated.  I want you to suffer as you’ve made others suffer.  I want you to wish I had killed you.”  With that Magneto leaves, entombing the Skull in darkness.  Dwyer & Bulanadi definitely draw the hell out of this page.  That look on the Skull’s face in the final panels, as he silently fumes in a mixture of defiance and horror, is genuinely unnerving.  And you are really not sure if justice has been served, or if you actually feel perhaps the slightest bit of pity for the Skull for not having been given a quick, clean death.

Captain America 367 pg 22

The Skull spends a lengthy period of time imprisoned in the bomb shelter. Eventually he begins to hallucinate.  In Captain America #369, in an eerie sequence written by Gruenwald and drawn by Mark Bagley & Don Hudson, the Skull sees his father, Hitler, and his daughter Sinthea berating and belittling him, urging him to commit suicide.  We see that beneath the Skull’s belief that he is better than everyone else is a horrible fear that he is an insignificant nothing, and that everyone is looking down at him.  The only way he can prove that wrong is to trample the whole of humanity beneath his heel, demonstrating his superiority.

Eventually of course the Skull is located by his underlings. Weakened and dying, his burning hatred of Captain America gives him the strength to keep living and recover.  Even when Cap attempts to offer him the slightest bit of concern and sympathy, all the Skull can react with is venomous contempt and malice.  As far as the Skull is concerned, kindness equals weakness, and only hatred will keep him strong.

Captain America 369 pg 29

Much time passes by. The Red Skull dies and is resurrected at least a couple of more times.  Presently he has been revived within a copy of his own original body in its prime.  As seen in the events of Uncanny Avengers and X-Men: Legacy, the Skull has stolen the body of the recently deceased Charles Xavier.  He has ghoulishly had Xavier’s brain grafted onto his own, gaining the immense telepathic powers of the X-Men’s founder.

In the aftermath of the “Avenge the Earth” storyline written by Rick Remender, Kang the Conqueror’s sprawling Xanatos Gambit to wipe out all future timelines save for the one where he rules and to seize the power of a Celestial, becoming a literal god, was thwarted by the narrowest of margins. It was also a most pyrrhic of victories: Havok was horribly scarred in his final battle with Kang, the young daughter who Havok and the Wasp had in a now-erased timeline is a prisoner of Kang’s in the distant future, Sunfire’s body was transformed into an energy form, Wonder Man’s consciousness is trapped in Rogue’s mind and, as usual, people still hate & fear mutant-kind.

Uncanny Avengers 23 pg 21

Uncanny Avengers #23 by Remender and artist Sanford Greene shows that the vengeful Kang, seeking to rub salt into these wounds, has dispatched Ahab, the cyborg slave-master from the “Days of Futures Past” reality, to assist the Red Skull in his plans for mutant genocide. Thus is set the stage for the Axis crossover, and for Magneto to once again confront the Red Skull.  I will be taking a look at that encounter in the near future.  Stay tuned.

Click here to proceed to round two in the war between Magneto and the Red Skull.

Doctor Who reviews: Kill the Moon

In regards to last week’s Doctor Who episode “The Caretaker,” the author of the WordPress blog A Succession of Busy Nothings wrote “Occasionally, an episode of Doctor Who comes along that leaves me… confused. Not confused about the plot, mind you, confused about just what I thought of it.”  Well, that is exactly how I felt about this week’s episode, “Kill the Moon.”  It has been several hours since I watched it, and I still cannot make up my mind.  This review is an effort to try to organize my thoughts concerning Peter Harness’ script.  I hope that it makes at least a little bit of sense!

Doctor Who Kill the Moon

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) takes Clara (Jenna Coleman) and her rebellious pupil Courtney (Ellis George) on a trip to the Moon in the year 2049. They arrive to find that it is falling apart, creating devastating tidal waves that are decimating human civilization on Earth.  There is no longer any sort of space program, and the worlds’ governments have hauled a space shuttle out of a museum, loaded it with dozens of nuclear bombs, and launched it at the Moon.  The makeshift expedition is headed up by Lundvik (Hermione Norris) whose task it is to determine what is disrupting the Moon’s stability and blow it up.

After being pursued about the Moon by a horde of bacterial organisms that resemble giant spiders which kill most of Lundvik’s crew, the Doctor discovers what is occurring. The Moon is, in fact, a giant egg, and an immense alien organism is about to hatch.  Clara and Courtney ask the Doctor what they ought to do: should they go along with Lundvik’s plan to detonate the nukes and kill the alien baby before its birth possibly causes even more devastation to the Earth, or should they wait and allow nature to take its course?  The Doctor stubbornly refuses to answer.  He bluntly states that this is a moment in time where humanity’s future path is determined, and that they have to come to that decision on their own.  “Kill it or let it live, I can’t make this decision for you,” he coldly tells them.  “Some decisions are too important not to make on your own.”  With that the Doctor ducks into the TARDIS and dematerializes, as Clara angrily shouts his name.

Now Clara, Courtney and Lundvik are left by themselves to decide. Clara broadcasts a message to the Earth informing them of the situation.  She asks the whole of humanity to vote.  If they choose to let the alien in the Moon live leave their lights on, if they vote to kill it then turn off their lights.  And Clara then looks out the window of the base on the Moon at distant Earth, and sadly sees all the lights going off, as humanity makes its choice.  Even then, Clara cannot abide by it, and seconds before detonation she hits the abort button.  At that the TARDIS returns and the Doctor takes them all back to Earth, where in the sky they see the creature hatching harmlessly and laying a new egg, a New Moon, before flying off into the universe.

The Doctor explains to them “Mid twenty-first century, humankind starts creeping off into the stars. It spreads its way through the galaxy to the very edges of the universe and it endures until the end of time.  And it does all that because one day in the year 2049 when it stopped thinking about going to the stars, something occurred that made it look up, not down.  It looked out there into the blackness and it saw something beautiful, something wonderful, that for once it didn’t want to destroy.  And in that one moment the whole course of history was changed.”

Nevertheless Clara is absolutely furious at the Doctor. “Don’t you ever tell me to take the stabilizers off my bike and don’t you dare lump me in with all the rest of the little humans that you think are so tiny and silly and predictable. You walk our Earth, Doctor, you breathe our air. You make us your friend, and that is your Moon too and you can damn well help us when we need it!”  Completely livid, Clara demands the Doctor return her to her own time & place, which he does, dropping her off at Coal Hill School in 2014, where she confides in Danny (Samuel Anderson) about what has just happened.

Doctor Who Kill the Moon egg hatching

I think that the reason why I found “Kill the Moon” so unsettling and complicated, so difficult to up make my mind about, is that in the end the Doctor and Clara were both right. The Doctor has on countless occasions had to decide the fate of billions of lives.  Perhaps he has decided that he is tired of being put in that position.  There are times in the past where the Doctor attempted to play God and decided to alter the course of human history.  “The Christmas Invasion” and “The Waters of Mars” are probably the two most notable examples.  On both those occasions, the Doctor’s actions came back to bite him in the ass, and the results of his interference were catastrophic.  Now he is being taken to task by Clara for not becoming involved, for not making a crucial decision on behalf of humanity.

At the same time, I understand Clara’s frustration with the Doctor for just running off. Perhaps he could have done a better job of explaining why he felt it was not his place to interfere in this historical event, to articulate why humanity had to determine its own destiny.  In that respect Clara was possibly justified in her anger.

Yet on the other hand she was basically telling the Doctor that she wanted to abrogate any responsibility of her own, that she did not want to have to make such a monumental choice. Clara would rather have the Doctor get his hands dirty once again than have to make a difficult decision herself.  She is furious at the Doctor for regarding humanity as “tiny and silly and predictable,” yet at the same time she wants him to decide what is best for humanity, rather than allowing us to stand on our own two feet.

I am very much left wondering if, in the end, Clara made the correct decision to override humanity’s vote and save the alien baby. Yes, it turns out that it all seemingly worked out.  The egg hatched without any more harm befalling Earth.  But did Clara really have the right to single-handedly determine humanity’s destiny?  I know there is such a thing as the tyranny of the majority.  But there is also the tyranny of the individual.  Was Clara imposing her will upon the rest of the world?

More significantly, in the long run did Clara actually do humanity an injustice? I expect that the whole point of the Doctor wanting humanity to make the decision on its own was because it would have demonstrated that we were ready to leave this little planet of ours and spread out into the universe.  But, really, humanity learned nothing.  It voted out of fear to sacrifice the unborn alien in the Moon rather than risk the Earth’s destruction.  By overriding that choice, Clara allowed the alien to be born, which demonstrated to humanity that there is life and wonder out there, inspiring us to reach for the stars, but without us having grown and matured in the process.  As a result of Clara’s actions in 2049, the humanity that travels out to the stars is still ruled by fear, still ready to utilize violence as a first and only resort.

There have been a number of Doctor Who stories over the decades that have demonstrated the terrible cost of a humanity still consumed by greed and arrogance and violence spreading throughout the universe. ‘The Sensorites,” “The Rescue,” “The Ark,” “The Colony in Space,” “The Mutants,” “The Frontier in Space,” “The Power of Kroll,” “Nightmare of Eden,” “Kinda,” “Planet of the Ood” and “The Beast Below” all spotlight how the worst qualities of humanity are still present many centuries and millennia in the future, now let loose upon the other denizens of the cosmos to tragic, bitter results.  It could perhaps be argued that the death of the alien in the Moon would have been a small price to pay if it kept humanity grounded on the Earth for a few more centuries, until we finally developed the maturity and morality to expand out into the universe responsibly.

Possibly part of my discomfort is the uncertainty of how I would have decided if I had been in Clara’s shoes. Faced with the choice of definitely killing an unborn alien or possibly allowing billions of humans to die, I really do not know how I would have chosen.  Perhaps I would have taken Lundvik’s stance that this was a conundrum with no right answers, only two terrible ones, one of which was somewhat less bad than the other.  I really do not know.  Until you are actually faced with that sort of dilemma you really have no idea how you would choose.

I do have to acknowledge that Peter Harness wrote an episode that in extremely complex and thought-provoking. It really does make you think, and raises some difficult questions.

Capaldi was once more superb as the Twelfth Doctor. I’ve mentioned in past reviews that he seemed to have been very influenced by Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor.  At the same time, hints of some of his other predecessors’ performances have popped up here and there.  The most notable example was the aloof, alien presence that Capaldi projected in “Listen,” which very much brought to mind both William Hartnell and Colin Baker.  Yes, that was also a quality of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, but it was often balanced out by his oddball bohemian humor.  In contrast, both the First and Sixth Doctors were often difficult to like, and they had complex, adversarial relationships with their human companions.  That was very much on display in “Kill the Moon,” and I could easily imagine the Doctor in his First or Sixth incarnations acting very similarly, if not identically, to how the Twelfth did here.

Doctor Who Love and War

There was also a manipulative aspect to the Capaldi’s Doctor in “Kill the Moon” which recalled Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, who was at times characterized as a cosmic chess master. That quality of his was carried over to and amplified within the New Adventures prose novels that were published in the early 1990s.  Jason Miller, in his write-up of “The Caretaker” on his WordPress blog, observed that the Doctor Who New Adventures had a major influence on the television show when it was revived in 2005, with many of the authors of the novels becoming intimately involved in the production of the series.  I was again reminded of that with “Kill the Moon.”

Within the New Adventures the Seventh Doctor’s human companion Ace gradually began to tire of his machinations. She reached a breaking point in Love and War by Paul Cornell.  Tired of the Doctor’s plots, of his utilizing others like pawns, of his sacrificing lives for the “greater good,” Ace departed the TARDIS in anger & disgust.  And while she did eventually rejoin the Doctor in a later novel, she now had a wary, distrustful regard for him.  Clara’s angry exit from the TARDIS at the end of “Kill the Moon” is certainly reminiscent of the conclusion of Love and War.  I am curious how Clara will be depicted in the remainder of Series Eight’s episodes, if she will now, like Ace, have a much more tentative, distant relationship with the Doctor.

I was happy to see Courtney again, this time traveling with the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS. She was both well-written and well-acted.  The development of the character was quite good, with Courtney starting out as an over-enthusiastic teenager, before panicking about being in way over her head, and then struggling to find the bravery she needed to deal with the dangerous situation she found herself in.  I hope we get to see more of her in Series Eight.

So what happens next with the Doctor and Clara? We shall have to wait until next week to find out.  The suspense is killing me.

Doctor Who reviews: The Caretaker

The Doctor Who episode “The Caretaker,” co-written by Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat, jumps in feet first with a hectic pre-credit sequence. We alternate between glimpses of the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) on their various adventures through time & space, and Clara’s romance with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson).  Very quickly it becomes obvious that Clara is having a hell of a time balancing her travels with the Doctor with her relationship with Danny, especially as the later is being kept completely in the dark about the former.

Then one day the Doctor announces to Clara that he wants to be alone for a while, that he is going “undercover.” Clara is unsuccessful at getting the Doctor to reveal what he is up to, and reluctantly shrugs it off, returning to her job as a teacher at Coal Hill School.  However she quickly discovers to her alarm & dismay that the Doctor’s “deep cover” mission is posing as John Smith the temporary caretaker at Coal Hill.  Much like Gareth Robert’s earlier 2010 episode “The Lodger,” this latest entry sees the Doctor attempting to pose as a normal human & blend in to everyday life on Earth, only to fumble about with humorous results.  And all of that causes Clara to become increasingly exasperated, as the oblivious Doctor intrudes upon her personal & professional lives.

The Doctor is impersonating a janitorial professional so that he can locate an alien war machine that has become stranded on Earth and lure it into a trap, all without attracting any attention. This once again betrays the Doctor’s overconfidence and egoism.  On the one hand, it is understandable that he doesn’t want Earth’s military to engage the heavily armed Skovox Blitzer, as such a confrontation would no doubt result in a catastrophic loss of human life.  On the other hand, the Doctor is absolutely convinced that he is the only person capable of dealing with the threat, to the point that he keeps Clara completely in the dark about what is going on.  And when Danny Pink, who understandably has no clue that anything odd is going on, accidentally trips up the Doctor’s attempt to trap the Blitzer, the time traveler goes to town on him, hurling every insult imaginable at the poor teacher.

Truthfully, the Skovox Blitzer, although very cool looking, is something of a side issue. This episode could have featured nearly any alien menace.  The real focus of “The Caretaker” is the relationship between the Doctor and Clara, the romance between Clara and Danny which is being undermined by the former’s secrecy, and the tension between Danny and the Doctor.  Roberts & Moffat do a good job scripting these interactions, and the three actors play their roles especially well.

Doctor Who The Caretaker promo image

Once again, I was very much reminded of the Third Doctor by Peter Capaldi’s performance. It’s not surprising that Jon Pertwee is a major influence on how Capaldi has decided to approach the role.  Capaldi was a tremendous fan of Doctor Who back in the early 1970s when it starred Pertwee.  Much like his third incarnation, the Twelfth Doctor for all his bravery and genius is also an arrogant, condescending jerk.

When he first meets Danny, the Doctor simply cannot wrap his head around the idea that a former soldier now teaches math, instead becoming stubbornly convinced that Danny must be Coal Hill’s phys ed teacher (no doubt a nod to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s stint as a math instructor, and the Doctor’s accompanying surprise, in “Mawdryn Undead”). The Doctor incorrectly (and egotistically) assumes that Clara is dating someone completely different, another of her co-workers, one who bears more than a passing resemblance to his last incarnation, complete with bow tie.  When the Doctor finally learns that Clara is involved with Danny, he is disgusted.  In a display of appalling rudeness, the Doctor asks Clara, with Danny standing right next to her, “Why would you go out with a soldier? Why not get a dog or a big plant?”

Of course, we soon discover that Danny is no one’s door mat, and he can give as good as he gets. The next day, upon overhearing that the Doctor is a Time Lord, Danny gets right in the Doctor’s face in a blisteringly insightful exchange…

Danny: “Time Lord!”  Might have known.
Doctor: Might have known what?
Danny: Well, the accent’s good, but you can always spot the aristocracy.  It’s in the … the attitude.
Clara: Danny!
Danny: Now, uh, Time Lords, do you salute those?
The Doctor: Definitely not.
Danny: Well, sir!  [Danny sarcastically salutes the Doctor.]
The Doctor: You do not call me “sir.”
Danny: As you wish, sir!  Absolutely, sir!
The Doctor: You, get out of my TARDIS!
Danny: Immediately, sir!
Clara: Doctor, this is stupid!  This is unfair!
Danny: One thing, Clara.  I’m a soldier. Guilty as charged. You see him? He’s an officer!
The Doctor: I am not an officer!
Danny: I’m the one who carries you out of the fire.  He’s the one who lights it.
The Doctor:  Out now!
Danny: Right away, sir?  Straight now?
The Doctor: Yes!
Danny: Am I dismissed?
The Doctor: Yes, you are!
Danny: That’s him.  Look at him, right now.  That’s who he is.

Doctor Who The Caretaker Danny salutes

The Doctor does not like Danny because he associates soldiers with people who do not use their intelligence, who believe that the answer to every problem is violence. Danny, in turn, does not like the Doctor because he reminds Danny of his former superior officers, and of the politicians, the ones who start wars and then send people like him into the battlefield to fight and die in order to do the dirty work of cleaning up those messes.  And, yes, I do think that there is some truth to Danny’s comparison.  I was once again reminded of the scathing observation made by Davros in “Journey’s End” concerning the Doctor, a line I’ve quoted before: “The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons.”

In the end, though, the Doctor is not able to stop the Skovox Blitzer on his own. Without a much-needed assist from Danny, the Blitzer would have engaged its self-destruct device, obliterating the Doctor, Clara and probably a good chunk of London.  The Doctor is forced to acknowledge a grudging admiration for Danny.  As for Danny, he doesn’t care what the Doctor thinks of him.  All that matters to him is that the Doctor recognizes that Danny is good enough for Clara, and stops questioning their relationship.

I am interested in seeing where things develop from here. How will this affect the relationship between Clara and Danny going forward, and between Clara and the Doctor?  Will Danny be joining the Doctor and Clara on any of their travels in the TARDIS?  If so, how will that turn out?  It could lead to plenty of interesting drama.

Another aspect of “The Caretaker” I enjoyed was the interaction between the Doctor and Courtney (Ellis George), one of Clara’s students at Coal Hill. The inquisitive, headstrong Courtney keeps prying into the Doctor’s affairs, attempting to learn why the new caretaker is hiding a police box in the supply room.  We are told that Courtney is referred to as a “disruptive influence” by the school staff.  It makes sense that the Doctor simultaneously is annoyed by and fond of Courtney.  They are probably very much alike.  I would not be at all surprised to learn that many centuries past, back on Gallifrey, the teenage Doctor had also been labeled a “disruptive influence” by his elders.  The Doctor does eventually let the persistent Courtney take a trip on the TARDIS, although she ends up quite unsettled by the experience!

Doctor Who The Caretaker Courtney

I was initially skeptical of the character of Danny, and of his relationship with Clara, upon his introduction earlier this season. However, after the developments of “The Caretaker” Danny is definitely shaping up to be an interesting, assertive, likeable figure, and his romance with Clara seems real & natural.

I do think that the Doctor’s blatant disdain towards soldiers was heavy-handed, and I hope that before Series Eight concludes Moffat will delve into the specific reasons for his feelings. I’ve suggested before that it could be rooted in the Doctor’s involvement in the Time War.  His present aversion to the military, which is much more pronounced that it ever was in most of his early incarnations, is perhaps a reflection of his self-disgust at the acts he committed during that apocalyptic conflict, and his fears concerning his continued capacity for violence.  That’s something worth exploring.

Cats and comic books: Captain Action Cat

Captain Action was a doll-sized action figure who debuted in 1966. The gimmick was that kids could purchase the costumes of various comic book & pulp heroes (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, etc) and dress up the Captain Action figure in them, transforming him into different characters.  There was also Action Boy, the teenage sidekick to Captain Action, and Dr. Evil, a blue-skinned alien with an exposed brain.  DC Comics published a short-lived Captain Action series in 1968, with artwork by Wally Wood and Gil Kane.  Four decades later, in 2008, Moonstone Books began publishing a revival of Captain Action.  And in 2010 TwoMorrows Publishing released Captain Action: the Original Super Hero Action Figure, an oversized hardcover volume by Michael Eury.

Action Cat is the creation of Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, the duo who have previously brought us such fun comic books as Tiny Titans and Itty Bitty Hellboy. The super-powered feline Action Cat and his partner Action Bug hail from beautiful downtown Skoakie, Illinois.  They star in the adorable, humorous self-published series Aw Yeah Comics.

Captain Action Cat 1 cover

You may well ask, what does one have to do with the other? Well, put Captain Action and Action Cat together, with Art Baltazar, Franco Aureliani and co-writer Chris “Zod” Smits at the helm, and you get Captain Action Cat: The Timestream Catastrophe.  Published by Dynamite Entertainment in collaboration with Aw Yeah Comics and Dark Horse, the four issue Captain Action Cat miniseries is one of the most offbeat, irreverent, undeniably cute team-up comic books of all time.

Action Cat’s arch nemesis, the fiendish Evil Cat, utilizes his “Evil Timestream Device” to search through the myriad parallel universes for a like-minded ally. He discovers Dr. Evil Cat, a villain from the Silver Age who is the enemy of Captain Action Cat, an alternate reality kitty counterpart to the human Captain Action.  Along the way Captain Action Cat encounters the Golden Age Action Cat, who is across between Batman and Captain America (he wears a utility belt and he’s discovered frozen in an iceberg).

Evil Cat tries to snag Dr. Evil Cat with the Device, but the beam goes wild, bringing together the inhabitants of numerous other universes. Soon Captain Action Cat, Golden Age Action Cat and Dr. Evil Cat encounter the human Captain Action and Lady Action, the vigilantes Ghost, X, Skyman and Captain Midnight from the Modern Age (courtesy of Dark Horse) and the supernatural guardian known as the Phantom Lemur.  And back in beautiful downtown Skoakie, Modern Day Action Cat and Action Bug are attempting to stop Evil Cat and his Device before all of reality gets turned into Swiss cheese.  Next thing you know, everyone comes together for a final time-crossed titanic tussle.

Captain Action Cat 2 pg 7

And, um, that’s more or less it for plot. Really, this isn’t exactly War and Peace, y’know?  Captain Action Cat is a fun, charming miniseries that younger readers will no doubt enjoy, and adults will find more than a bit amusing.  The story by Balthazar, Franco and Smits is a chance to humorously throw a whole bunch of disparate concepts together for the sake of having some fun and generating a bunch of laughs.  Balthazar’s artwork is, as always, just too darn cute.  There are also a few fun pin-ups and back-up shorts by Franco, Scoot McMahon and Kurt Wood in the third and fourth issues.

I suppose if you like cats then Captain Action Cat is also a recommended read.  After all, ever since Michele and I adopted Nettie and Squeaky several years ago, I’ve become crazy about all things feline.  (Right now, as I’m typing this blog post, I’m sitting on the edge of my chair, because Nettie is taking up the rest of it, and she won’t move.  Yeah, that’s a cat for you.)

Captain Action Cat 4 pg 6

By the way, a heads up to parents with young kids: Dynamite’s marketing department must have been asleep at the wheel in a major way when Captain Action Cat #1 was put together, because the back cover features an advertisement for the dark fantasy series The Blood Queen, with the title character displaying her cavernous cleavage in all its glory.  As they say, there’s a time & place for everything, but I don’t think this was it.  At least the next three issues of Captain Action Cat contain somewhat more appropriate ads.  Did you know that Dynamite is publishing Doodle Jump and Bob’s Burgers?  Hopefully when those two series come out Dynamite won’t be running ads in them promoting Vampirella or Purgatori!

For those who missed Captain Action Cat when it first came out, all four issues can be purchased on the Aw Yeah Comics website, along with many other fine products by Art, Franco and the rest of the gang. So go check ‘em out!

Doctor Who reviews: Time Heist

The recent Doctor Who episode “Time Heist” written by Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat reminded me, both structurally and stylistically, of the preceding installment, “Listen.” Both were very unconventional, with non-linear plot structures.  Both involved some wibbly wobbly timey wimey paradoxes.  And on each episode, early on, my thoughts alternated between “this really makes no sense” and “this isn’t very good,” yet by the end of each I was saying to myself, “Wow! That came together brilliantly! What a great episode!”

Doctor Who Time Heist poster

“Time Heist” opens as Clara (Jenna Coleman) is getting ready to go out on a date with fellow Coal Hill teacher, and new boyfriend, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson)… cue a flashback as they sneak a quick snog in the classroom! The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is vainly attempting to convince Clara to take a trip with him instead, when suddenly the TARDIS phone rings.  Despite Clara warning him not to answer, the Doctor picks it up… and suddenly the two of them find themselves in a strange room, accompanied by the cyborg hacker Psi (Jonathan Bailey) and the shape-shifter Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner).  All four of them have had their memories of the immediate past erased.  But via a pre-recorded video message from a shadowy figure calling himself “The Architect” they learn that, somehow or another, they have agreed to break into the Bank of Karabraxos, the largest bank in the galaxy.

Not surprisingly, the Bank of Karabraxos possesses an incredibly formidable security system, making the task of the Doctor & Co extremely difficult. One of the Bank’s most remarkable & dangerous deterrents against theft and fraud is “The Teller.”  A strange alien who is kept in a straightjacket & chains by the Bank staff, The Teller is a telepath who can detect “guilty” thought patterns, and who can feed on a person’s mind, literally sucking their skull dry.  The Doctor realized that this is the reason why The Architect arranged for them to have their memories wiped, to lessen their chances of being sensed by The Teller.

“Time Heist” is simultaneously a bank heist story with multiple sci-fi twists and a mystery, as the Doctor, Clara, Psi and Saibra each attempt to figure out why exactly they would have volunteered to commit this dangerous crime. In the process, the viewers learn quite a bit about Psi and Saibra.  Psi, when he was previously arrested, deliberately erased all his memories of his friends & family to protect the authorities from learning about them.  Now that he is once again free, Psi very much wants to recover those memories so that he will no longer be alone.  Saiba is also seeking to overcome her solitude.  Her shape-shifting power hinges upon physical contact, meaning that she will transform into a duplicate of anyone she touches.  Understandably enough, that prevents her from ever becoming close to anyone, to having any sort of romantic relationship with another being.  Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner both do excellent work playing these two characters, and you do feel like you get to know them quite well before the end of the episode.

Doctor Who Time Heist cast

So, spoilers… we eventually learn that The Architect is none other than the Doctor himself. He has used his knowledge of time to determine the exact point in history when the heist will succeed, and to set the groundwork for himself, Clara, Psi and Saibra to break in.  And the reason why he has arranged all this is that the person who is calling him is none other than the Bank president Ms. Karabraxos (Keeley Hawes) many years in the future, dying and full of regrets about the myriad crimes she committed during her life.  She asks the Doctor to go back along her timeline and rescue The Teller and its mate, which she holds hostage, from her captivity.  The Doctor does just that, in the process handing the much younger Ms. Karabraxos a note with the TARDIS phone number written down on it.  He tells her to give him a call some time, and Karabraxos responds “You’ll be dead.”  To which the Doctor replies “Yeah, and you’ll be old. We’ll get on famously. You’ll be old and full of regret for the things you can’t change.”  This episode was an interesting twist on the notion of the Doctor as a manipulative figure, as this time he is even influencing his own actions from behind the scenes.

Certainly the most compelling aspect of “Time Heist” is Peter Capaldi. Even early on, when I wasn’t sure about the writing, his performance was superb.  I love watching his Doctor working on a mystery.  You can almost literally see the wheels in his head turning.  And his irreverent eccentricity is just brilliantly mad.  When everything begins to come together at the end, his Doctor has this manic “A-hah!” quality about him, and we see him almost literally bouncing about the room as he connects the dots.  Yep, I love his Doctor.  It was just brilliant casting Capaldi in the role.

It was certainly intriguing that the Doctor’s anger at The Architect turned out to be a projection of his own self-loathing for his worst qualities.   And it is that which leads the Doctor to finally figure out exactly what was going on.  “I hate him!  He’s overbearing, he’s manipulative, likes to think that he’s very clever. I hate him! Clara, don’t you see? I hate the Architect!”  It is a very well written, revealing piece of dialogue that is expertly performed by Capaldi.

I also continue to enjoy the Doctor’s oddball interactions with Clara. At the beginning of the episode, when she’s getting ready for her date, the Doctor asks “Are you taller?”  Clara shows him that she’s wearing a pair of heels, to which the Doctor obliviously inquires “What, do you have to reach a high shelf?”  At the episode’s conclusion, the Doctor drops Clara off right after their departure, just in time for her date with Danny.  After she’s left the TARDIS, the Doctor smugly comments to himself “Robbin’ a bank. Robbin’ a whole bank. Beat that for a date.”

Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat did good work on this episode. Certainly this is a significant improvement over the two previous Doctor Who stories that Thompson wrote on his own, “The Curse of the Black Spot” and “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.”  As with the previous week’s episode, “Listen,” I think that “Time Heist” is a story that will gain much from successive viewings, so that you can more clearly see the twists & turns of the plot unfolding.

Doctor Who Time Heist Abslon Daak mug shot

Easter egg time: at one point when Clara is being pursued by The Teller, it is lured away from her by Psi.  He accesses his data banks and brings up all of the criminals he has on file.  “Come and find me. Every thief and villain in one big cocktail. I am so guilty! Every famous burglar in history is hiding in this bank right now in one body.”  A number of “mug shot” images rapidly flicker across the screen.  Among them I spotted a Sensorite, a Terileptil, the Gunslinger from “A Town Called Mercy,” a Slitheen… and, very surprisingly, Abslom Daak: Dalek-Killer.  Yes, that’s right, the infamous chain-sword wielding anti-hero created by Steve Moore & Steve Dillon in pages of the Doctor Who Weekly.  That’s Dillon’s artwork from the comic strip on display.  The whole of Doctor Who fandom must now be pondering whether Daak will ever appear on the show in person and, if so, who will play him.

I know that some viewers were no doubt turned off by the unconventional nature of both “Listen” and “Time Heist.” But, honestly, one of the major strengths of Doctor Who has been its flexibility.  Having the Doctor regenerate every few years, revealing his background as a Time Lord, exiling the Doctor to Earth for several years, sending him on a season-long quest for the Key To Time, destroying Gallifrey, making Doctor-lite episodes like “Blink” and “Turn Left,” having the Doctor in a non-chronological romance with River Song, revealing the existence of the War Doctor… the series has repeatedly experimented with different story structures and made significant changes to its main character.  Really, the only two constants in Doctor Who are change, and that fans of the show will never manage to agree with one another about those changes!

“Time Heist” is certainly an interesting installment of Doctor Who. I look forward to re-visiting it in the near future and seeing what I make of it the second time around.