Doctor Who reviews: Face The Raven, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent

Here’s my write-up on the Doctor Who Series Nine three episode conclusion. “Face the Raven” was written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Justin Molotnikov.  “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent” were written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay.

Yeah, it took me a while to get around to this… although fortunately not nearly as long as it took the Doctor to escape from the Confession Dial!

Face The Raven

1) Familiar faces

It was really nice to see the return of Rigsy (Joivan Wade), who was introduced last year in “Flatline.”  Our intrepid artist has gotten married and is now a father.  Unfortunately his past association with the Doctor and Clara has put a target on his back.

I expect that by the end of “Face the Raven” the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) had come to regret saving the life of Ashildr (Maisie Williams). Especially as Ashildr’s manipulations had once again gone awry, this time resulting in the death of Clara (Jenna Coleman).

2) Death becomes her

I admit that the whole concept of the death mark tattoo being transferable from one person to another was awfully convenient.  The raven and the tattoos controlled by Ashildr were much too supernatural-type elements for my liking, as well.

Nevertheless, Clara did get a good, well-written death scene in “Face the Raven.” Coleman certainly played it very well.  The only thing that kept me from total shock & mourning was the fact that there were two more episodes left to Series Nine, and I was really left questioning if we had truly seen the last of Clara.

Heaven Sent

3) Solo act

Aside from the Veil, the figure of death that incessantly stalks him throughout the “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor is the sole character in this episode. Peter Capaldi completely blew me away with his performance in this.  Casting him as the Doctor was such a masterstroke, and that is amply on display here.

I loved the insights into the Doctor’s character and his thought processes. It was interesting to see how his so-called miraculous escapes are really the result of him retreating into a mental space in his head (represented by the TARDIS console room) and working though all of the variables and possibilities.

The direction on “Heaven Sent” by Talalay was amazing. She previously did superb work last year on “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven.”  It was great to have her back again to close out Series Nine.

Interesting fact: early in her career Talalay was a production assistant on the John Waters movie Polyester, and the producer of his next two films, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. So, yes, Talalay has worked with John Waters and directed Doctor Who, which officially makes her one of the coolest people ever.

4) Repetition is good for the soul

There was that moment towards the end of “Heaven Sent” when it’s finally revealed that the Doctor had been repeating the same sequence of actions over and over and over again, hundreds of thousands of times, as he attempted to break through that twenty foot thick wall, wearing it down ever so slightly, before dying each and every time. There’s that awful instant when you realize that every single one of those skulls at the bottom of the lake belongs to the Doctor, each one of them the result of another cycle, another death.  It’s a genuinely chilling moment.

How many times did the Doctor have to die and be reborn within the Confession Dial before he finally broke through that wall? It seems that it couldn’t have been more than a week for each sequence.  There are 52 weeks in a year.  The Doctor was imprisoned for approximately 4.5 billion years.  Very roughly speaking, that comes to 234 billion times.  And now my head hurts.

5) Drawing a conclusion

Mike Collins is the artist who storyboarded “Heaven Sent” and several other recent episodes. When trying to figure out how many times events had repeated for the Doctor, I e-mailed Collins to ask if he knew how long each go-round was.  He responded that he didn’t recall a specific length being mentioned in Moffat’s script.

In any case, Collins is a very talented artist who has been involved with the Doctor Who comic books for a number of years now. Given his obvious fondness for the series, it’s wonderful that he now has the opportunity to work on the actual television program.

Hell Bent

6) A masterful plan

While inside the Confession Dial, the Doctor refused to divulge what he knew of the Hybrid, the entity that “will unravel the web of time, and destroy a billion billion hearts to heal its own.” We discover in “Hell Bent” that the reason why the Doctor kept this knowledge was because he needed a bargaining chip, something with which to manipulate the Time Lords into providing  him an opportunity to rescue Clara.

And, yes, she’s back… sort of. Takes from an instant in time from right before her death, Clara is neither alive nor dead.  The Time Lords are afraid that an attempt to undo Clara’s demise, a fixed moment in time, has the potential to cause massive, horrific damage to reality.  But the Doctor, having spent literally billions of years pounding against a wall, is in no mood to listen.

In the end, the mystery of the Hybrid is more a McGuffin to propel the story along than it is a question to be answered. The Hybrid could be the Doctor, who might just be half-human after all.  Or perhaps it could be Ashildr, an immortal half-human, half Mire.  Ashildr herself, still alive at the very end of time, suggests another possibility, one did not even occur to the Doctor…

Ashildr: What if the Hybrid wasn’t one person, but two.

The Doctor: Two?

Ashildr: A dangerous combination of a passionate and powerful Time Lord and a young woman, so very similar to him. Companions who are willing to push each other to extremes.

The Doctor: She’s my friend. She’s just my friend.

Ashildr: How did you meet her?

The Doctor: Missy.

Ashildr: Missy. The Master. The lover of chaos. Who wants you to love it too. She’s quite the matchmaker.

The Doctor: Clara’s my friend.

Ashildr: I know. And you’re willing to risk all of time and space because you miss her. One wonders what the pair of you will get up to next.

7) Time Lord Victorious

I’ve previously hypothesized that the Doctor and the Master were once very much alike, but over the centuries they developed in extremely different directions. Certainly it has been suggested on more than one occasion that the Doctor, if he is not careful, if he disregards morality and ethics, has the potential to become someone quite like the Master.

The Doctor Who novel The Dark Path by David A. McIntee was published in 1997. It revolves around an encounter between the Second Doctor and a fellow Time Lord, an old friend known as Koschei, the Master before he became the Master.  Koschei is at this point not evil, but he is arrogant, as well as quite ready to utilize violence as a first resort, rationalizing that the ends justify the means.  He is in certain respects much like the Doctor was when we first met him in “An Unearthly Child.”

Koschei’s carelessness accidentally causes the death of Ailla, a young woman who is traveling with him. Consumed by guilt, Koschei attempts to utilize an ancient artifact known as the Darkheart to rewrite history and undo Ailla’s death.  In order to do so, he uses the Darkheart to destroy the home planet of the Tereleptils, killing millions of sentient beings.  This horrifying act sets in motion further tragedies, all of which place Koschei on the path to becoming the Master.

Doctor Who The Dark Path

I do not know if The Dark Path is considered canonical, but it certainly offers an interesting possible explanation for how the Master came to be. And there are undoubtedly parallels between McIntee’s novel and Moffat’s script for “Hell Bent.”

The Doctor, the man who never carries a gun, uses one to shoot the General (who was actually more or less on his side up until that moment) in cold blood so that he can escape with the retrieved Clara. The Doctor argues that he didn’t really commit murder because the General is a Time Lord and that he will regenerate.  But that sounds like a very self-serving justification indeed.  Certainly the fact that the Doctor is willing to resort to violence, that he is ready to gamble on the stability of reality itself, and that he wants to wipe Clara’s memories in order to keep her “safe” all leaves her aghast.

Finally, seeing Clara’s reaction to everything that he has done, the Doctor is at last forced to step back and look at acknowledge just what he is doing, what he is becoming…

“Look how far I went for fear of losing you. This has to stop… I went too far. I broke all my own rules. I became the Hybrid.”

8) The restaurant at the end of the universe

I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of Clara and Ashildr traveling through time & space in a TARDIS stuck in the shape of a 1950s American diner. Obviously at some point Clara needs to return to Gallifrey so that she can be sent back to her proper time to die, allowing history to continue uninterrupted.  But that might be in five minutes, or five years, or five centuries.  That’s really open-ended.  Besides, the whole crisis caused by the Doctor’s actions was supposedly predicated on the notion that the longer Clara is removed from her timeline the more danger reality is supposed to be in.  And I’d hate to think that down the line someone uses all this as an opportunity to somehow undo Clara’s seemingly-inevitable death.

Still, it was pretty cool to see a TARDIS console room with the “default” setting, just as the Doctor’s own TARDIS originally appeared back in the early 1960s.

Anyway, however they turn out, Clara is now off on her own journeys. The Doctor has had his memory wiped of all the specifics of who Clara was.  So this appears to be the end of their time together, which is a good thing.  Coleman did a very good job portraying Clara, but the character was sometimes inconsistently written, which was frustrating.  And after three years I think many viewers are ready for a change.  Hopefully the Doctor’s next companion will prove to be very different.

Doctor Who reviews: The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion

Yesterday I watched the recent two episode Doctor Who story “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion” written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat.  It was a pretty good pair of episodes.  They were not perfect, but certainly entertaining and well-made.  This was another one of those stories that I needed to think over for a bit before writing about.

Zygon Invasion poster

1) You say you want a revolution?

The dangling subplot of the Zygons from “The Day of the Doctor” was picked up here.  We learn that humanity and the Zygons did manage to reach an agreement that enabled 20 million Zygons to secretly settle on Earth in human form.  Unfortunately a splinter group of militants has formed made up of Zygons who do not want to live as humans, who wish to embrace their alien heritage.  They regard humans as the enemy and assimilated Zygons as traitors.

I realize that these episodes were written & filmed months ago, and even aired prior to the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month.  But the parallels here are interesting.

Those attacks, and numerous other atrocities around the globe in the last several years, are the work of the Islamic State, a fanatical doomsday cult of Muslim extremists.  They wish to create a “caliphate” based upon their idea of a “pure” interpretation of Islam in preparation for the arrival of the End Times.

The actions of ISIL have led to anti-Muslim paranoia in the Western world.  Many in the United States want to ban Syrian refugees from entering the country out of fear that militants could be hidden among them.  This actually plays right into the hands of ISIL, who want to stop the refugees to find a safe haven, and who perceive the Islamophobia as the perfect recruiting tool.

Harness and Moffat pointedly avoid any mention of religious motivation among the Zygons.  However, the revolutionaries, led by a Zygon known as “Bonnie,” are motivated by the dream of a society that is totally free from both the presence and ideology of anything that is not Zygon.  They are willing to commit horrible acts of violence to achieve this “perfect” world.

Bonnie intends to cause the Zygons who have assimilated to return to their original forms, realizing this will create massive panic among humanity.  This will force the assimilated Zygons to join her group solely to survive the inevitable human violence.  Bonnie even recognizes that realistically 20 million Zygons do not stand a chance against six billion humans, but she would rather die on her feet in pursuit of her goals, taking as many humans with her as possible, than live on her knees.

UNIT, in turn, faced with millions of shape-shifting aliens who have the ability to infiltrate all levels of government, to assume the identities of friends and loved ones before they strike, are ready to wipe out all of the Zygons, guilty and innocent, in order to prevent more violence.

INVERSION OF THE ZYGONS (By Peter Harness and Steven Moffat)

2) Working class Zygon

Bonnie forces one of the assimilated Zygons, a man named Etoine played by Nicholas Asbury, to transform back to his actual form, recording it on her cell phone and posting it on the internet as a start to sowing xenophobia among humanity.

Etoine is horrified; he was perfectly happy with his new existence as a human, and now that has been destroyed.  Harness and Moffat make in very clear that this Zygon is apolitical, just someone trying to get on with their life…

Etoine: I’m not part of your fight. I never wanted to fight anyone. I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?

The Doctor: We are on your side.

Etoine: I’m not on anyone’s side! This is my home!

Seeing no way out, Etoine commits suicide in front of the Doctor.  It’s a heartbreaking scene, with a sad, moving performance by Asbury.  It really demonstrates the suffering that ordinary people endure because self-important revolutionaries prize ideals more than they do actual lives, when fanatics believe that the ends justify any means.

3) Capaldi and Coleman

Both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are amazing in this pair of episodes.

Capaldi is well on his way to becoming my favorite Doctor ever.  He is such an amazing actor.  In the second episode, the Doctor gives a powerful speech to Bonnie…

I don’t understand? Are you kidding me? Of course I understand. I mean, do you call this a war? This funny little thing. This is not a war. I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you can ever imagine. And when I close my eyes… I hear more screams than anyone would ever be able to count!

Capaldi totally owns the episode at this moment.  I could not take my eyes off of him.  He was amazing.

Even when it comes to silly stuff like the Doctor claiming that he has question mark underpants, referring to himself as ‘Doctor Disco” and “Doctor  Funkenstein,” or alleging that his real name is “Basil,” Capaldi delivers those lines with such a wonderful irreverence.  Things that might sound daft coming from a lesser actor are quite witty and almost self-deprecating when Capaldi delivers them.

I know that at this point a number of viewers, myself included, are experiencing a bit of Clara fatigue.  The character has been around for a while now and, as with other companions, the quality of writing given to her has been somewhat inconsistent.  Given that, I think it can become easy to overlook Coleman.  But she actually is a great actor.

This is ably demonstrated when Bonnie takes on Clara’s form for the majority of these two episodes.  Bonnie is a completely different character from Clara, and Coleman plays the part perfectly.  It definitely demonstrates her versatility.

THE ZYGON INVERSION (By Peter Harness and Steven Moffat)

4) Osgood lives

Despite having been murdered by Missy in “Death in Heaven,” Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) returns.  It transpires that since the events of “The Day of the Doctor,” there have been two Osgoods, one human and one Zygon, the living embodiment of the peace treaty.  We don’t find out until the end of “Inversion” which one this is, human or Zygon.  But since they both have the same memories and personality, in a way both of them were real.

When I first heard Osgood was returning, I did feel it cheapened her death.  However it’s made clear that the death of one Osgood very much affected the other, that they had become as close as twin sisters.  Osgood certainly seems a more serious, somber individual here than in the past, no longer a goofy teenage but an adult dealing with great responsibilities.

5) Pod people

There is a tone to these episodes very reminiscent of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a menacing undercurrent of paranoia.  Is this person a human, or are they actually a Zygon?  Who can you trust?  At times it is quite unnerving.

The difference here, of course, is that the Doctor is hopeful that he can cut through the fear & distrust to find a peaceful solution.  He desperately wants to find a way for the two races to co-exist.

6) Five rounds rapid

Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) comes across much better than she did in her previous appearance in the Series Nine opener.  Yes, it’s obvious that Kate is still very much in over her head.  This time, however, we see that she nevertheless remains as rational and level-headed as one can under extremely difficult circumstances.

Kate is obviously much less idealistic than the Doctor.  Like her father, she is willing to use violence as a first resort.  But these episodes do demonstrate that her approach is not all that unreasonable…

Kate: You left us with an impossible situation, Doctor.

The Doctor: Yes I know, it’s called peace.

As much as I appreciate the Doctor’s noble intentions, it’s easy for him to negotiate a peace treaty and then fly off in the TARDIS.  Kate was left with the difficult job of actually making it work, of ensuring that humans and Zygons peacefully co-existed.  Just as Ashildr pointed out in the previous episode, the Doctor is always interfering and then running away, leaving others to deal with the consequences of his action.  All things considered, Kate appears to be doing the best she can.

While it is unfortunate that Kate had to kill several Zygons, if she had not done so then she herself would have died, just as many other members of UNIT did in this story.

Zygon Inverson Kate Stewart

7) Let’s let Zygons be Zygons

The Doctor eventually convinces Bonnie to give up her crusade.  He also forgives her for her crimes.

I was left wondering if Bonnie got off easy.  After all, she and her followers killed a great many people, both human and Zygon.  Many would argue that she was deserving of some form of punishment.

Perhaps this can be seen as the lesser of evils.  If Bonnie had been killed, it likely would have turned her into a martyr, inspiring her followers to continue her fanatical path.  If she had been locked up, she could have remained an unrepentant enemy waiting for an opportunity to escape and resume her terrorist activities.

By convincing Bonnie to reconsider her views, the Doctor has diffused the threat she and her organization presented.  At the end we see her devoting herself to maintaining the peace treaty by permanently taking on the form of Osgood.  It can be argued that she is making amends for her crimes by working to heal the rift she created and prevent others from following in her footsteps.

This is an issue that continually plagues humanity.  What is more important, enacting retribution or ending the circle of violence?  Do you let crimes go unpunished if it will prevent future violence from occurring?  There definitely is no easy answer.

As I’ve observed before, a quality of science fiction which I appreciate is that thru its lens it enables us to gain different perspectives on contentious real world issues. Obviously these two episodes of Doctor Who gave me a great deal to consider.

Doctor Who reviews: Under the Lake and Before the Flood

Here’s my overview of the second two-part storyline of Doctor Who Series Nine, “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O’Hara.  Once again, if you’re looking for a detailed synopsis, there’s always Wikipedia.  The numbered thoughts format worked well in my last Doctor Who review so I’m going with that again.

Under the Lake Radio times poster

1) A fate worse than death

Let’s face it: dying violently & unexpectedly sucks.  But there’s something worse than that, which is dying violently & unexpectedly and then coming back as something that’s neither alive nor dead.  That is a major reason why the zombie sub-genre is frightening; it’s not just the idea that if the zombies catch you that they’re going to kill you, but also that you are then going to be turned into one of them.

That’s pretty close to what happens in Whithouse’s story.  If you get killed, you then come back as a “ghost” with no will of your own, existing only for two purposes: to signal the Fisher King’s people to invade Earth, and to create more ghosts for that same purpose.  We’re never told how much sentience or intelligence, if any, remains of the victims after they die and come back.  But the mere possibility that you will spend the rest of eternity as a mindless, incorporeal wraith is undoubtedly horrifying.

It’s no wonder the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is utterly disgusted at the Fisher King’s actions…

“You robbed those people of their deaths. Made them nothing more than a message in a bottle. You violated something more important than time. You bent the rules of life and death. So I am putting things straight. Here, now, this is where your story ends.”

Capaldi does a superb job conveying both the Doctor’s moral outrage and his grim determination to thwart his adversary.

Under the Lake ghosts

2) Sometimes less is more

Back in April 2013 I compared “The Rings of Akhaten” to “Cold War.”  The former was ambitious, a special effects laden episode set on a far-off alien world.  Yet it was also a story that very much underwhelmed me.  The later was contained within the claustrophobic interior of a Soviet submarine, but was effectively written and directed, leaving me much impressed.

That comparison comes to mind again this year.  Series opener “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” had the spectacle of the Doctor facing Davros and an army of Daleks on a restored Skaro, but it was a very uneven story.  There were some great scenes, but also moments that were really weak, resulting in a story that was merely good.

In contrast, these two episodes are much more limited in scope.  Part one is set in a shadowy underwater base in the early 22nd Century.  Part two expands the action to a deserted Welsh village in 1980.  The special effects and make-up are rather minimal, limited to the ghosts, the Tivolian undertaker and the Fisher King.  Yet the writing, the acting, and the directing are all absolutely top-notch.  This two part entry is intelligent and suspenseful, both scaring the audience and really making them think.  And speaking of which…

3) Round and round we go

The bootstrap paradox, aka stable time loop, is an intellectually perplexing aspect of time travel, as well an incredibly unnerving one.  The idea of an event existing without a prima causa, but rather as an endless Mobius strip running back & forth though time is definitely the sort of thing that can make your head hurt.

It is also disturbing because it seems to completely nullify the concept of free will.  In a bootstrap paradox, your actions are apparently totally pre-determined.  That is a frightening concept, the idea that no matter what you do, whatever choices you make, they are inevitably going to lead to a single outcome that cannot be altered.

Doctor Who has utilized the bootstrap paradox previously, most notably in “Blink.”  A variation of it appeared as far back as the 1972 serial “Day of the Daleks,” although in that story it’s implied that the Daleks initially altered history, and a failed attempt to undo their changes led to the temporal paradox.

Outside of Doctor Who, the excellent novel The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers contains one of the most interesting utilizations of the bootstrap paradox.  Also noteworthy is the very unsettling comic book story “Counter-Clockwise” by Bill Elder & John Severin from Weird Fantasy #18 (March/April 1953).  I find myself wondering if that tale was an influence on the Doctor Who novel Vanderdeken’s Children (1998) by Christopher Bulis.

Before the Flood Clara

4) Clara Oswald: action junkie

Last season in “Mummy on the Orient Express” Clara (Jenna Coleman) asked the Doctor if he was addicted to traveling through time & space, and to making life & death decisions.  If he is, then it appears Clara herself also now suffers from that ailment.  As “Under the Lake” opens she is chomping at the bit, eager for the TARDIS to land somewhere new & exciting.

Clara also once again, much as she previously did in “Flatline,” finds herself stepping into the role of the Doctor, taking charge and nudging, almost manipulating, the actions of others.  And, whereas previously Clara found herself angry that the Doctor had made her an “accomplice,” here it is almost second nature.  If Clara is a positive influence on the Doctor, making him a better person, well, certainly the Doctor seems to sometimes be a negative one on Clara herself.

And, just as certain people are understandably resentful of the Doctor’s machinations, so too do they not take kindly to Clara’s.  As Cass inquires through Lunn…

“She said to ask you whether traveling with the Doctor has changed you, and why you always have to put other people’s lives at risk.”

I wonder if Clara is embracing the Doctor’s travels and lifestyle so whole-heartedly because she is attempting to fill the void left by Danny’s death.  Perhaps this is going to be an ongoing subplot through the year.  We know now that Coleman is leaving the show soon, so inevitably there is going to have to be some form of closure for Clara’s character.

5) It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever

In his various incarnations the Doctor has always walked a tightrope between a wise, caring guardian and an arrogant, obtuse meddler.  That is especially true of Capaldi’s portrayal of the Twelfth Doctor.  He is an individual concerned with safeguarding the innocent and combating injustice, yet he is frequently cold and dismissive towards those he is supposedly protecting.

The idea that Clara has the Doctor carry around cards with sympathetic expressions for him to read aloud because he is too self-absorbed and alien to see how much he is upsetting people is both brilliant and all too on-the-mark.  On a more serious note, yes, it does seem that the Doctor made only a token effort to save O’Donnell, and he was actually curious to see if she would be the next to die.  He obviously cares a great deal more about Clara since he was seemingly ready to break the laws of time to save her life.  The Doctor can be maddeningly inconsistent… but, then again, so can most of us.

The Fisher King

6) Fishing for compliments

The design of the Fisher King was really good, making him a menacing figure.  The voice was also well done.  The Fisher King was more effective in the scenes set indoors when he was kept somewhat in shadows.  Later, when we see him outside in daylight, he is not nearly as impressive, but still works pretty well.

Having said all that, considering how damn tall the Fisher King was, how exactly did he plan on fitting into that stasis chamber?

7) One final note

Once again the Doctor plays the electric guitar, this time performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in the pre-credit sequence to “Before the Flood.”  Is it a little self-indulgent to let Capaldi play the guitar two stories in a row?  Possibly.  But I enjoyed it.  As Jim O’Brien astutely observed in the comments section last time…

“While over the top, one of the things I like about Capaldi’s depiction of the character is he can pull off things that might come off as a bit too “twee” or camp if it were say, Matt Smith, or maybe even Tennant doing them. That stern gravitas Capaldi conveys makes the comedic stuff even funnier for me.”

Crap!  I wish I’d been able to articulate my thoughts that well.  Anyway, my point is that much of the time Capaldi is brooding or rude or angry.  So when he then does something completely outrageous like, say, playing the electric guitar, the juxtaposition to his usual intense attitude makes it even more amusing and entertaining.  It’s yet another reason why I am so enjoying Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor.

Doctor Who reviews: The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar

The two-part debut of Doctor Who Series Nine, “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” written by Steven Moffat aired a few weeks back.  I’ve been so busy with stuff that I haven’t had an opportunity to comment on them.  But, by popular demand (well, okay, one person requested it… hello, Jim O’Brien!) here are my thoughts.

Looking at my past Doctor Who reviews, they’ve run long.  So this doesn’t go on forever, I’m not recapping the plot.  If you need to have your memory jogged, you can read the synopsis on Wikipedia.

Also, to make things organized, I’m numbering my thoughts.  Other bloggers on WordPress do that, and it can be effective.  So here goes…

Doctor Who The Magicians Apprentice

1) Let’s Kill Hitler?

This story offers a variation of the question of “Would you go back in time to kill Hitler as a child?”  The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) lands on a planet embroiled in a horrific war.  He sees a young child trapped in a mine field and is ready to save him… until he learns that it is Davros, who will grow up to destroy his own people, the Kaleds, and create the Daleks, the most evil life form in the universe.

The Doctor is appalled.  At first he just departs from ancient Skaro, leaving young Davros still trapped among the mines.  Clara (Jenna Coleman) later realizes the Doctor is full of shame, but it is not specified over what.  Is he ashamed that he did not have the fortitude to kill Davros in the past, before he grew up to become a monster?  Or is the Doctor ashamed that he abandoned an innocent child like that?  Maybe it is both.  Maybe the Doctor is so torn by this that he does not know how to feel.

Of course, later the Doctor does return to Skaro thousands of years ago to rescue young Davros.  The Doctor hopes this act of mercy will remain in his subconscious so that, in the future, when Clara is trapped inside a Dalek shell, the concept of mercy will be something she can access among the Dalek programming to alert the Doctor that it is her.

2) The Third Path

Thinking over the moral dilemma faced by the Doctor, to kill young Davros or save him, a third alternative eventually occurred to me.  To a certain degree, Davros is very much the product of his upbringing.  He was raised in a fascist society obsessed with genetic purity that was locked in a centuries-long war.  What about removing him from that environment?  Why not take the young Davros aboard the TARDIS and find a peaceful world where he could be adopted by loving parents?  That would give him an opportunity to grow up in a much better place, to hopefully develop in a positive manner.  The Doctor would have changed history, averted the creation of the Daleks, without having to kill a child who had not yet committed any crimes.

Missy The Magicians Apprentice

3) Hey Missy, You So Fine

Despite her apparent demise at the end of “Death In Heaven” Missy (Michelle Gomez) is back.  Hey, the Master / Missy has always been brilliant at improbably escaping certain death.  It’s actually a neat twist that we learn Missy stole the method of her escape from the Doctor.  She is so obsessed with the Doctor that she would crib his methods for herself.

It does make a certain sense for Missy to be a recurring adversary for the Twelfth Doctor.  Capaldi was a huge fan of Doctor Who when Jon Pertwee was portraying the Third Doctor.  It’s apparent that Capaldi has incorporated some of the Third Doctor’s mannerisms and personality into his own interpretation of the role.  Back then, the Master was a regular fixture on the series, so it is appropriate for the two of them to once again have an ongoing rivalry.  As long as Missy is not overused (i.e. showing up in every story in a season) there isn’t a problem with her popping up now and again.

In any case, as written by Moffat and played by Gomez, Missy is brilliantly scary.  She is terrifying because you never know what she is going to do next.  When she walks into a room, you don’t know if she is going to start murdering people or do something wacky like singing show tunes.  And if Missy does break out into song, just when you allow yourself to relax, suddenly she’ll whip out a weapon, casually murder some poor innocent, and then resume her recitation of Rodgers & Hammerstein without missing a beat.  That sort of capricious evil means that whenever she’s on the screen the viewer is on edge.  It’s sort of like having to share a room with a venomous snake.

4) Here come the Daleks… again

Yet another Dalek story already?  They feel overused at this point.  I wish we could have a season without them showing up.

That might be out of the hands of Moffat, though.  Reportedly the arrangement that the BBC has with Terry Nation’s estate is that Doctor Who is required to have the Daleks appear at least once a year in order to retain the use of them.  That would explain why in the two years that there weren’t any Dalek stories there were brief cameos made by them.

If this is the case, well, having fulfilled the Dalek quota for 2015, I hope that we will not see them again until next year.  Even seeing Skaro restored to its classic appearance, with various old incarnations of the Daleks showing up, left me a bit underwhelmed.

Davros The Magicians Apprentice

5) Davros is a bastard

Julian Bleach, who played Davros in “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” reprises the role here.  He has a very good handle on the character.  Davros is at his most effective when the screaming and ranting is kept to a minimum.  As I observed in my review of the Big Finish audio story “Davros,” the most dangerous thing about the character is that he is so incredibly manipulative & charismatic, so brilliant at getting people to underestimate him.  Davros is also very insightful, and he really knows how to get under the Doctor’s skin, point out his weaknesses and failings.

Moffat’s dialogue for the Twelfth Doctor and Davros is very dramatic.  Capaldi and Bleach play these scenes brilliantly.  It was riveting just watching these two adversaries conversing.

6) UNIT is useless

One of the problems I had with UNIT when they were regulars on the show in the 1970s was that they were often depicted as incompetent.  That trend has unfortunately repeated itself with Moffat’s use of the organization.  They show up to provide some exposition, a bunch of their personnel get killed, and then the Doctor steps in to save the day.

I’m not sure why you would get Jemma Redgrave to play Kate Stewart, and then write her as an ineffectual idiot.  In “The Magician’s Apprentice,” when every airplane on earth becomes frozen in place, what does Kate, a scientist who heads a multi-national military & intelligence group, do?  Does she consult with her staff and attempt to devise a solution on her own?  No, she calls the Doctor for help.  And when Kate cannot get hold of him, she brings in Clara.  It’s really embarrassing to see a civilian schoolteacher start suggesting possibilities that hadn’t occurred to a single person in UNIT.

Worse yet, when Clara goes to meet Missy, UNIT has no plan for dealing with her.  When Missy begins disintegrating UNIT personnel just to amuse herself, they have no idea how to react, and Kate is left shouting “Don’t shoot her!”  Yeah, that’s great, just stand there and let Missy murder you.  Brilliant plan!

More than ever, I am happy that Redgrave will be playing Kate Stewart in a series of Big Finish audios.  I really hope that when presented in stories that do not feature the Doctor hanging around to save the day, Kate and UNIT will have an opportunity to actually accomplish something.

7) What’s in a name?

I’m left wondering what the meaning is of the episode titles.  I am guessing that the Magician is the Doctor and the Witch is Missy.  Clara is probably both the Apprentice and the Familiar.  I wonder if these are just clever titles that Moffat devised, or if they have a significance that will become apparent as the season progresses.

8) Colony Sarff

Davros’ henchman, Colony Sarff, is a collective entity made up of hundreds of snakes.  He is wonderfully creepy.  He is just the sort of thing you can imagine coming out of Davros’ twisted mind.  Sarff reminded me a bit of the weird entities devised by Grant Morrison & Richard Case during their classic run on the Doom Patrol comic book.

The “hand mines” on Skaro were also reminiscent of the bizarre quality of that series.  I wonder if Moffat has read Morrison?

Peter Capaldi plays guitar

9) The Doctor plays the electric guitar

Seeing the Doctor playing an electric guitar atop a tank in Medieval England was one of my favorite parts of “The Magician’s Apprentice.”  Even more so now that I know that Capaldi himself was actually playing it.  One of the ways that Tom Baker stated he liked to portray the Doctor was to act serious in silly situations and silly in serious situations.  Capaldi also has that sort of quality about him.

That’s one of the things that I love about Doctor Who; it’s definitely not afraid to be silly from time to time.  At its best, the series has always possessed a healthy balance of the serious and the ridiculous.  Speaking of which…

10) Vampire Monkeys

Maybe it would not be something that would be enough to fill out an entire episode.  In fact, perhaps it is an idea better left as an offhand comment by Missy about an untold adventure of the Doctor.  But I really have to smile at the idea of the Doctor facing a horde of vampire monkeys.

That’s my take on this two part story.  While I didn’t think it was an overwhelming success, and there were definite weak points, for the most part I liked it.

Doctor Who reviews: Last Christmas

Happy New Year!   I see that this blog has a few new people following it.  Welcome, everyone.  Also, a big “thank you” to Cats at the Bar for promoting In My Not So Humble Opinion, along with a number of other excellent blogs, on The Weggie List.

I finally had an opportunity to watch the new Doctor Who Christmas special, “Last Christmas” written by Steven Moffat and starring Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald, and Nick Frost as Santa Claus.  Yes, “Last Christmas” actually features Santa Claus… well, kind of sort of.  As a number of the characters in this episode comment, “It’s a long story.”

The tone of “Last Christmas” is interesting.  It seems to draw influence from several different eras of Doctor Who: the “base under siege” serials of the late 1960s, the Gothic horror of the mid-1970s, the surreal, philosophical quality of the early 1980s, and the seasonal, celebratory quality of Moffat’s own past Christmas specials.  Moffat’s writing on “Last Christmas” very effectively entwines these disparate elements, creating a strong, cohesive episode.

Doctor Who Last Christmas Radio Times promo photo

So, to try to make that “long story” short: Clara, now back on Earth in 2014, is awakened in the middle of the night on December 24th to discover that Santa Claus, his sleigh, reindeer, and two elves named Wolf and Ian have all crashed onto the roof of her building.  Then the TARDIS reappears, and the Doctor urges her to ask no questions, and to get into his ship ASAP.

The two of them re-materialize at the North Pole, where a scientific expedition is under attack from alien life forms.  Four of the eight members of the team have been infected by creatures that have latched onto their faces.  It seems that the Doctor, Clara, and the other half of the team are going to meet with the same fate when Santa Claus, the elves, and an army of wind-up toys burst into the room, giving them all a chance to escape to another part of the base.

The Doctor identifies the creatures as Dream Crabs.  They are telepathic parasites that latch onto a host and literally eat their victim’s brain.  In order to render their victims compliant, the Dream Crabs “anesthetize” their hosts with incredibly realistic dreams.

The Dream Crabs bear a more than passing resemblance to a certain iconic sci-fi / horror creature designed by H.R. Giger.  Moffat lampshades this with some very humorous dialogue…

Albert: They’re a bit like facehuggers aren’t they?

The Doctor: Facehuggers?

Albert: You know, Alien. The horror movie, Alien.

The Doctor: There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.

Clara is attacked by one of the Crabs, which creates a dream world where she is back at home, it is Christmas Morning, and her boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) is still alive.  It is exactly the sort of perfect, idyllic fantasy that she would never want to leave.  The Doctor is unable to reach Clara with his telepathy; she keeps ignoring the messages he sends her brain, so caught up is she in the construct.  The Doctor realizes his only hope is a desperate one: he allows himself to be infected by another one of the Crabs, which enables him to bring himself directly into Clara’s dream.

At first Clara refuses to listen to the Doctor.  She will not accept that Danny is dead, even though the Doctor insists that her boyfriend sacrificed himself to save the Earth.  And then, surprisingly, Dream Danny announces “I didn’t die saving the world, Doctor, I died saving Clara. The rest of you just got lucky.”

Obviously we all know that this isn’t the real Danny, that it is a fantasy.  If Danny is agreeing with the Doctor that he really is dead, it is actually that part of Clara’s psyche which recognizes that this is all a fantasy and that is attempting to make her realize that she must reject it and wake up.  But the dialogue between Clara and Dream Danny is so well written, and is played so well by Coleman and Anderson that it actually feels like Clara is having one final opportunity to see Danny, to find some closure.  It’s a moving scene.

Doctor Who Last Christmas Danny and Clara

(And I’m relieved that we were not treated to some sort of deus ex machina where Danny was brought back to life.  His death was tragic, but very dramatic.  Returning him to life to give Clara a happy ending would have been a real cheat.)

This also reveals just how much the Doctor, beneath his cynical façade, really does care about Clara.  He is willing to allow one of the Dream Crabs to infest his mind, risking his own death, in order to try to save Clara’s life.

Clara and the Doctor are able to escape from the dreamscape, and the Crabs fall off their faces, crumbling to dust.  But then the Doctor begins to wonder if any of that was real.  After all, everyone in the polar base should have been incapacitated by the Crabs when they attacked earlier; it was only Santa’s arrival that saved them.  And where did Santa, a fantasy figure, come from?  The Doctor guesses that they are all, in fact, trapped in a fantasy.  “Dreams within dreams – dream states nested inside each other. All perfectly possible, especially when we are dealing with creatures who have weaponized our dreams against us.”

This is all confirmed by Santa and his two elves.  “Oh, for Easter’s sake! Of course you’ve been dreaming! Haven’t you been paying attention?  …How much more obvious do you want me to make it? Because I can text the Easter Bunny, you know.”

Santa is actually a dream construct that they have all created in order to protect them, to point out the unreality of what is taking place.  Finally having convinced the others of what is going on, the Doctor, Clara and the four expedition members all wake up to find they are still being attacked by the Crabs.  Once again they flee to safety, locking the Crabs in another part of the base.

The Doctor, ever impatient, is ready to leave the North Pole, convinced that the other four members of the expedition who are still infected by the Crabs are beyond help.  But then Clara asks him, if Santa was nothing but a dream, then how was it possible for him to have been on her roof earlier.  And it suddenly hits the Doctor: everything that has happened since he was first reunited with Clara has been a dream.  It’s all been a fake.

Star Trek DS9 it's a fake

Yeah, that never gets old!

The expedition to the North Pole never took place.  The infected team members are actually the four people the Doctor and Clara met, all of them caught up in a shared fantasy created by the Crabs.  None of them are scientists, but total strangers who have been separately attacked by the Crabs, drawn into this false reality.  And the Doctor and Clara are themselves, respectively, back at the TARDIS and at home, each with a Crab latched to their faces.

Wow.  To quote a line from Family Guy, “This whole place is a giant mind fuck!”

One of the Crab’s victims, Albert, is killed.  The Doctor realized that if they do not all wake up immediately they are also doomed.  Surrounded by zombie doppelgangers of themselves, the Doctor announces “Come on, it’s Christmas, the North Pole, who you gonna call?”  Their combined willpower conjures up Santa Claus, who whisks them all away in his sleigh.  And, one by one, each of them finally awakens back in their own separate, real lives.

It was revealing to see the reserved, solemn Doctor having a chance to take the reins of Santa’s sleigh and fly it through the skies above London.  Capaldi acts very much like a giddy child.  It’s one of those rare moments when we see the Doctor let down his guard, allow the weight of the world to slip off his shoulders, and genuinely have fun.

For a character that is (probably) not real, Santa Claus is a real joy.  Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame is wonderful, having fun with the role.  It was definitely perfect casting.  Watching “Last Christmas,” I pondered how Frost’s frequent collaborator Simon Pegg sort of drew the short end up the stick when he appeared on Doctor Who a decade back in the underwhelming “The Long Game.”  I hope one of these days Pegg has an opportunity to return to the show in a better episode.

Doctor Who Last Christmas Santa sleigh

The ending of “Last Christmas” has a bit more misdirection.  At first it appears that it has actually been decades since the Doctor has last seen Clara, and that in the real world, awakened from the Dream Crabs’ fantasy, she is now an elderly woman.  But this turns out to be one more dream-within-a-dream, and in fact it has only been a few weeks since the Doctor and Clara parted ways at the end of “Death in Heaven.”

From everything I’ve heard, the original ending of “Last Christmas” was going to have the Doctor saying goodbye to the now-old Clara.  Jenna Coleman had tentative plans to leave the series with this episode, but then she changed her mind, necessitating a rewrite from Moffat that reunited the Doctor with a still-young Clara, who once again joins him on his travels in the TARDIS.

While the character of Clara was uneven over Series Eight, that was really down to inconsistent writing, one of the few weak points in an otherwise strong year.  Coleman seemed to do the best with the material she was given.  On the better-written episodes she definitely was great.  So I do not mind seeing her stay on for another season, just so long as the quality of the writing is more consistent going forward.  When they’ve been given really well-written scripts, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman have made a superb team.

“Last Christmas” was definitely one of the better Doctor Who Christmas specials.  It was exciting and suspenseful and had a number of great twists.  It was sentimental and festive without being overly saccharine.  Moffat’s script was very strong, and the actors all gave great performances.

So that’s the wrap-up of Doctor Who in 2014.  However, we are left with a few lingering questions… Was the Promised Land that both the clockwork creatures from “Deep Breath” and the robots from “Robot of Sherwood” were seeking an actual place?  Since Danny is dead, does that mean his descendent Orson Pink who we met in “Listen” is now no longer going to exist?  In “Mummy on the Orient Express” who was the mysterious mastermind controlling the computer Gus and manipulating events from behind the scenes?  Let me know if I’ve forgotten any other subplots.

Doctor Who reviews: Dark Water and Death in Heaven

The two part finale of Doctor Who Series Eight, comprised of “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven,” has the Internet all abuzz.  Steven Moffat seems to have hit all the right notes with his scripts.  Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson and Michelle Gomez each did excellent work portraying the Doctor, Clara, Danny and Missy.

There is soooo much to cover… where to begin?  I expect that most everyone reading this review will have already viewed these two episodes, so I can keep the plot summaries to a minimum and focus on my reactions & analysis.  If you need to refresh your memories about the details, well, as my girlfriend likes to say, “Look it up on Wikipedia!”

Doctor Who Death In Heaven promo image

“Dark Water” opens with Danny walking through the streets of London, talking to Clara on his cell phone.  Crossing the street, he is hit by a car and is instantly killed.  Wow, I did not see that coming.  And I was genuinely upset.  As with the character of Clara, I felt Danny was somewhat inconsistently written over this past season.  But Anderson played him so very well, made him such a compelling character, that when Danny died I was upset.

Clara is consumed with grief and shock.  Absolutely distraught, she attempts to force the Doctor to travel back in time and undo Danny’s death, threatening to strand them both on a volcanic planet by tossing all of the TARDIS keys into the lava.  However, the entire journey is revealed to be an illusion, as the Doctor hypnotized Clara to find out how far she was willing to go.  This sequence is interesting because throughout Series Eight we have seen Clara acting more and more like the Doctor.  Now she attempts to manipulate him, and in the sequence where it appears that they are standing on the edge of the volcano Clara really behaves in a very Doctor-ish manner.

Realizing that she has betrayed the Doctor’s trust, Clara is ready to accept banishment from the TARDIS.  But the Doctor informs her that despite this betrayal he still regards Clara as a friend, and if it is possible he will help her attempt to locate Danny in the afterlife, or wherever it is people go when they die.  While I did think the bit about the Doctor saying “Go to hell” was forced, both Capaldi and Coleman play this extremely well.  It really demonstrates Clara’s grief and remorse: she believes that having already lost the man she loves, she has now also let down her best friend.  Then Capaldi shows us a Doctor who, despite his disappointment at this betrayal, is still willing to help a friend who needs him.

Doctor Who Dark Water volcano

Speaking of Danny, he regains consciousness in the Nethersphere, the mysterious location where several other characters who died in recent episodes have also found themselves.  A bureaucrat named Seb (Chris Addison) informs Danny that he is deceased.  Addison portrays Seb with this amusingly smarmy quality.  He very much brings across the notion of a paper-pusher attempting to project sympathy, but who it is transparently obvious really doesn’t give a crap, and who delights in being able to tangle people up in red tape.

Danny is having difficulty believing he is really dead… until he comes face to face with the young boy he accidentally killed while serving in the military.  Moffat has previously been heavy-handed at implying that this is what took place during Danny’s time in the service, and why Danny dislikes the Doctor, who reminds him of the officers & politicians who sent him into a war zone.  So the revelation comes as no surprise.  But, again, Anderson plays Danny so well that he brings real emotion to this scene.

Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor uses the telepathic circuits to navigate via Clara’s thoughts, hoping to home in on Danny’s location.  They materialize inside a massive mausoleum containing dozens of skeletons seated in chambers filled with liquid.  The pair is greeted by Missy who introduces herself as the android interface of 3W, a facility dedicated to preserving the bodies of the deceased out of the belief that the dead remain conscious after death.  The Doctor dismisses 3W as a scam… and he is correct.

Missy is not an android, but the head of 3W.  She has conned people into letting them preserve their bodies, but in fact is converting them into Cybermen.  She has also spent centuries stealing the minds of countless people at the moment of their deaths, storing them in the Nethersphere.

The revelation of the Cybermen is not a surprise, as there’d been publicity photos of Missy standing alongside an army of them circulating about for weeks before “Dark Water” was broadcast.  So it wasn’t much of a mystery as to what was happening with all of those dead bodies in the possession of 3W.

Missy is a slightly different matter.  Over the past few months, since her debut in “Deep Breath” there’s been much online speculation concerning her identity.  It was clever for Moffat to throw in some last-minute misdirection so that, for several minutes at least, it appears that Missy is some sort of artificial intelligence gone rogue.  It then results in some more drama & surprise when her true identity, which many already suspected, is finally revealed.

Of course, I totally missed out on figuring out what the nature of the Nethersphere was, when it should have been so obvious.  The Doctor identifies it as “a Matrix Data Slice, a Gallifreyan hard drive.”  Introduced in 1976 in the serial “The Deadly Assassin,” the Matrix was a vast computer network into which the memories of recently-deceased Time Lords were uploaded.  Living minds could also enter the Matrix, within which a virtual reality world could be generated.  So, yes, as a long time Doctor Who fan, I really ought to have figured out that this was the destination where all of those deceased people were arriving at throughout Series Eight, especially given the speculation concerning Missy’s true nature.

Doctor Who Dark Water Cybermen

Trying to locate Clara, from whom he has become separated, the Doctor accidentally exits the 3W facility, only to finds himself outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, 2014.  As the corpses, now converted into Cybermen, begin marching out into the streets of London (in homage to a very similar scene from the 1968 serial “The Invasion”) the Doctor attempts to figure out Missy’s identity.

The Doctor: Who are you?
Missy: Oh, you know who I am. I’m Missy.
The Doctor: Who’s Missy?
Missy: Please, try to keep up. Short for Mistress. Well…couldn’t very well keep calling myself the Master, now could I?

The Doctor is absolutely horrified at this revelation.  The look on Capaldi’s face is epic.  You can just see an expression spread across his features that translates into “Oh fuck!”

Quite a few people guessed Missy’s identity well in advance.  So it wasn’t nearly as much of a shock as, say, the reveal several years ago in “Utopia” that Professor Yana was actually the Master.  Nevertheless the climax to “Dark Water” is well-written and well-filmed, so that even if you’ve deduced what’s coming it still packs a punch.

Regarding the Master becoming a woman… It was established in both “The Doctor’s Wife” and “Night of the Doctor” that Time Lords have the ability to change genders when they regenerate.  So it is not entirely unprecedented that the Master should resurface as a woman.  Honestly, it adds yet another wrinkle to the Doctor’s dysfunctional rapport with the Master.  The two of them have had a love-hate relationship right from the moment when the Master was first introduced in “Terror of the Autons” back in 1971.  On many occasions the Master has come across as a demented stalker, hounding the Doctor, attempting to impress and outdo him before finally trying to kill him.  It actually makes a certain twisted sense that the Master, regenerated into Missy, now refers to the Doctor as her “boyfriend” and is behaving like an unhinged, jilted lover.

Still in 3W headquarters, Clara is communicating with Danny in the Nethersphere over an audio link-up.  Danny refuses to give her any information that might prove he is the genuine article; he wants her to move on with her life and not attempt to find him, finally having accepted he is deceased.  A frustrated Clara cuts the link, and Danny is left weeping.  Seb hands Danny an iPad, giving him the opportunity to erase his painful emotions… which, of course, is exactly what the Nethersphere programs want him to do, in order to be able to convert him into a Cyberman.  Danny is ready to press “delete,” but then he sees the face of the child he killed reflected in the iPad screen, and he hesitates.

As “Death in Heaven,” opens, the Cybermen are marching through the streets of London.  The human bystanders, rather than fleeing, come up to the cyborgs and start taking selfies with their cell phones.  Oh lordy!  Yeah, I could see people doing that.  The Doctor has mentioned on more than one occasion that human beings have an exceptional gift for mass amnesia.  It seems no one in this crowd remembers the time several years ago that the Cybermen and the Daleks were fighting it out in the city streets.  So we get everyone taking photos of themselves posing with a murderous cyborg army and posting onto Instagram, much to the Doctor’s bewilderment & frustration.  Missy shows him via her own handheld device / disintegrator ray that the exact same thing is occurring in all the major cities on Earth.  “We’re going viral,” Missy proudly announces.

Doctor Who Death In Heaven gone viral

It turns out that many of the people in the crowd are undercover agents of UNIT headed by Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and her assistant Osgood (Ingrid Oliver).  Kate drops a wrecked Cyberman head left over from the 1968 invasion at the feet of this new wave and warns them to leave Earth because humanity has the Doctor on their payroll.  Instead all of the Cybermen fly into the sky via rocket-boots and blow themselves up, scattering “pollen” all over London.  The same thing takes place across the globe.  This infects the bodies of countless deceased people, transforming their corpses into Cybermen, and downloading their now-emotionless minds from the Nethersphere into their revived corpses.

In the past I have described the idea of being converted into a Cyberman as a fate worse than death.  And that is literally the case here.  Missy has stolen the minds of billions of dying people, imprisoned them in the Nethersphere, removed their emotions, and forced their consciousness back into their reanimated bodies.  It is an absolutely monstrous act, depriving countless innocents of the peace of the grave, transforming them into her enslaved army.

Interestingly, in the Big Finish audio story “The Reaping” it appeared that the Cybermen had gained the ability to convert the dead.  This turned out to be a deception on their part to trick the Doctor into assisting them.  But in “Death in Heaven,” enhanced by Missy’s pilfered Time Lord tech, they are able to do exactly that.  One of the most chilling aspects of this is how we see it affect Danny, who revives in the morgue transformed into a Cyberman.  Not having deleted his emotions, Danny is fully aware of what has happened to him.

The converted Danny tracks Clara to St. Paul’s and rescues her from the other Cybermen, rendering her unconscious in the process.  She awakens in a cemetery as disoriented Cybermen slowly begin crawling out from their graves.  There Danny removes the faceplate from his helmet, revealing his undead, distorted face to Clara.  It’s a genuinely heartbreaking moment.

Doctor Who Death In Heaven Danny converted

UNIT takes both the Doctor and Missy into custody.  Aboard their mobile aircraft headquarters, Kate informs the Doctor that due to the worldwide crisis he has been appointed the President of Earth.  Naturally enough the Doctor is appalled; he does not want that kind of power & authority.  Of course, when you think about it, that probably makes him the most qualified person for the position.

I enjoyed the interaction between the Doctor and Osgood here.  The Doctor shows a grudging admiration for the clever scientist, who is definitely a major groupie.  Osgood is a cool fictional version of a geek girl.  When we first saw her in “The Day of the Doctor” she was sporting a multi-colored scarf.  Now she’s switched to a bowtie.

Since she survived her run-in with the Zygons, in the back of my mind I assumed that Osgood had gained plot armor.  That’s sort of the thing with UNIT personnel: when they first appear they stand a very good chance of getting killed off by that episode’s alien menace.  But if they manage to make it out of their debut alive, their survival is all but assured in any subsequent appearances.

So I was genuinely shocked when Missy, who had been handcuffed & restrained by UNIT, broke free and, after taunting Osgood, murdered her, blasting her to atoms, and then crushed her glasses beneath her boot.  Shortly after, when the Doctor is horrified to discover that all that is left of Osgood is ashes and a broken pair of spectacles, Missy mockingly inquires in a child-like voice “Have you brought any more friends I can play with?”

At this point Missy reveals she was the lady from the repair shop who gave the TARDIS phone number to Clara prior to the events in “The Bells of St. John,” putting them together, in effect altering the Doctor’s entire life.  The idea that Clara had become the most important person in the Doctor’s existence, having been scattered along his time stream, giving him hope when he was a child, understandably annoyed some viewers.  Now we find out that all of this has occurred only because the Missy put her into that position.  It must have given the Doctor’s arch enemy a great deal of pleasure to indirectly influence and manipulate so much of her adversary’s life without him even realizing it.

The UNIT aircraft is destroyed by a group of flying Cybermen, seemingly killing everyone onboard, including Kate.  Teleporting back to the Nethersphere, Missy watches the Doctor plummeting to his death.  She is actually disappointed to see him dying such an ordinary death.  Then, in a cool sequence, the Doctor aims himself at the falling TARDIS and manages to streak down to it, enter, and dematerialize, homing in on Clara’s cell phone.  Seb, who is watching all this with Missy, is delighted by the Doctor’s feat, which causes an exasperated Missy to delete him from the Nethersphere.

When the Doctor arrives in the cemetery, a distraught Clara asks the Doctor to active Danny’s emotional inhibitor, erasing his emotions and ending his turmoil at his undead existence.  At first, the Doctor refuses to do so, alluding to his own relationship with the Master / Missy…

“I had a friend once. We ran together, when I was little. And I thought we were the same. But when we grew up, we weren’t. Now she’s trying to tear the world apart and I can’t run fast enough to hold it together. The difference… is this. Pain is a gift. Without the capacity for pain we can’t feel the hurt we inflict.”

The Doctor asks Danny what the Cybermen’s plan is, but Danny is not connected enough to their hive mind to be able to discern their intentions.  The only way he will be able to find out is if the emotional inhibitor is activated…

“Clara, watch this. This is who the Doctor is. Watch the blood soaked old general in action. I can’t see properly sir, because this needs activating. If you want to know what’s coming, you have to switch it on. Didn’t all of those beautiful speeches disappear in the face of a tactical advantage, sir?”

Once more we see what the Doctor meant when he told Clara “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones.  But you still have to choose.”  It is an impossible choice, save Danny or let him become totally converted in order to learn the information needed to possibly save humanity.  When Clara takes the sonic screwdriver from the Doctor to conduct this awful task, Danny sardonically mutters “Typical officer, got to keep those hands clean.”

Doctor Who Death In Heaven Clara Danny and the Doctor

The now-emotionless Danny reveals that the clouds of cyber-pollen will rain again, this time killing all living humans and converting them into Cybermen.  At this Missy descends from the sky via umbrella, a demented Mary Poppins.  Surprisingly, wishing the Doctor a happy birthday, Missy hands the Cyberman control unit to the Doctor.  She reveals that the only way to halt the annihilation of humanity is if the Doctor himself takes control of the Cybermen army and uses them to bring order to the universe.

There is a great deal to say about the twisted relationship between the Doctor and the Master / Missy.  I’m planning to address it in an upcoming blog.  Suffice it to say that Missy is determined to drag the Doctor down to her own level.  She sees that as her ultimate triumph.  Yet again we have the Doctor confronted by two terrible choices: allow humanity to be destroyed, or join with Missy, in the process becoming everything he has ever fought against.  The question that has been haunting the Doctor since his regeneration comes rushing back at him: is he a good man?

Then the Doctor glances over at Clara, who is hugging the motionless form of the converted Danny.  He realizes that even with the inhibitor activated Danny has not lost all of his emotions, because he will not harm Clara.  The Doctor realizes that Danny is one of those people with a will strong enough to resist being fully converted.  And he comes to a realization.  Addressing Missy, he states:

“Thank you. Thank you so much. I really didn’t know. I wasn’t sure. You lose sight sometimes. Thank you! I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I’m definitely not a president. And, no, I’m not an officer. Do you know what I am? I… am… an idiot, with a box and a screwdriver. Passing through, helping out, learning. I don’t need an army, I never have, because I’ve got them. Always them. Because love, it’s not an emotion… love is a promise. And he will never hurt her.”

The Doctor tosses the control unit to Danny.  Taking command of the Cybermen, Danny flies with them into the sky.  They explode, destroying the clouds overhead.  As Danny stated earlier in the season, “I’m a soldier. Guilty as charged… I’m the one who carries you out of the fire.”  He proved that here, protecting humanity, saving it.

Clara, once again mourning the loss of Danny, now knowing that he is gone for good, is ready to use Missy’s own weapon to kill her.  The Doctor realizes that the only way he can stop Clara is to do the deed himself.  Despite what Danny believed, the Doctor is willing to get his hands dirty, willing to kill Missy himself in order to prevent Clara from becoming a murderer.  Ready to pull the trigger, he sadly tells Missy “You win.”

At the last second, however, Missy is vaporized by a laser blast from a sole surviving Cyberman, one who has also rescued Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.  Although not stated, it is heavily implied that this is Kate’s father, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, returned from death to once more protect the Earth, and to save the Doctor’s soul.

Doctor Who Death In Heaven satute

In the closing scenes of “Death in Heaven,” the Doctor and Clara meet up in a café.  Clara tells the Doctor that she can no longer travel with him.  He believes that Danny used the control bracelet to return to life, and that she plans to marry him.  Via a flashback, though, we see that Danny used this one time only “get out of jail free” card to instead restore to life the child he accidentally killed.  Clara doesn’t tell this to the Doctor, and instead lies.  The Doctor informs Clara that he is going home to Gallifrey, having discovered it at coordinates provided by Missy.  But it turns out that the Doctor is also lying.  The information that Missy gave him before she died was false, one last painful, torturous twist of the knife by her.  Clara and the Doctor part, each with the mistaken belief that the other, at least, has a chance at a happy future.

It’s a very solemn, downbeat ending.  Then, midway through the credits, we cut to the Doctor, brooding at the TARDIS console, hearing a knocking on the door.  And into the TARDIS pops none other than Santa Claus.  Sooooo, to be continued on the 25th of December, then?

Is everyone still here?  Yeah, this write-up went on really long, didn’t it?  The two-part finale was certainly jam-packed with material.  On the whole, I liked it.  While not perfect (Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT felt somewhat wasted) it was certainly enjoyable, a real emotional rollercoaster.

In the past I’ve felt too many Doctor Who season finales have has the Doctor facing some apocalyptic threat that threatens the whole of existence.  In one respect that was the case here.  But it felt a lot different.  Instead of going into detail about the worldwide resurrection of the dead as Cybermen, Moffat’s script mostly focused on the Doctor, Clara, Danny and Missy, at exploring the relationships between them.  Against the backdrop of the looming annihilation of humanity, Moffat wrote a very intimate, moving, tragic character piece.  This story was much the better for it.

How would I rate it?  Well, as the Doctor’s former instructor Borusa once told him, “Nine out of ten.”

Doctor Who reviews: Flatline

This review is a bit late, but I was so struck by the Doctor Who episode “Flatline” that I had to sit down and do a write-up on it at some point.

After another journey in the TARDIS, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is getting ready to return Clara (Jenna Coleman) back home to London. Unexpectedly the TARDIS lands slightly off-course in Bristol.  Something is leeching the energy from the time machine, and the exterior dimensions have begun to shrink.  Clara squeezes out of the now-smaller doors to scout around for anything suspicious while the Doctor stays behind to check over the TARDIS.

Clara meets Rigsy (Joivan Wade) a graffiti artist who is being forced to perform community service, which includes having to paint over his own work, something that his mocking supervisor Fenton (Christopher Fairbank) finds especially amusing. Clara learns from Rigsy that a number of people have recently disappeared under unexplained circumstances, but that the authorities are not particularly interested in investigating since it is a low-income area.  Clara returns to the TARDIS only to discover that the outer shell has shrunk even further.  It is now small enough to fit in the palm of her hand.  Trapped inside, the Doctor squeezes his hand out the door and gives Clara his sonic screwdriver, psychic paper, and an earpiece to wear which enables him to communicate with her as well as see through her optic nerves.

Clara slips the tiny TARDIS into her handbag. Returning to the nearby council houses, Clara convinces Rigsy to help her investigate.  She informs Rigsy that she is “Doctor Oswald” from MI5, and begins to mimic some of the real Doctor’s mannerisms, much to the real Time Lord’s consternation, who is listening in and watching everything on the TARDIS scanner.

Doctor Who Flatline Clara with tiny TARDIS

Clara and Rigsy go to the apartment of the latest victim and find nothing out of the ordinary other than an odd desert-like mural on one of the walls. Heading over to the site of the very first disappearance, they are joined by police officer Forrest.  While Clara and Rigsy are in one room, Forest is sucked into the floor screaming.  By the time Clara and Rigsy make it into the room, the policewoman is vanished.  Looking through Clara’s eyes, the Doctor observes a mural on the wall that is an exact reproduction of the human nervous system.  The Doctor solemnly informs Clara and Rigsy that this is, in fact, an actual human nervous system, all that remains of the unfortunate PC Forrest.  Likewise, in the other apartment they were in the “desert mural” was in fact a close-up of human skin.  The Doctor deduces that entities from the second dimension, beings with length and width but without height, are invading into our third dimension and, in an effort to understand humans, are capturing and dissecting them.

And it was at this point watching this episode that I really started freaking out!

Barely escaping being killed by the two dimensional entities, which the Doctor refers to as “The Boneless,” Clara and Rigsy flee.  They locate the rest of the community service crew, including an especially ill-tempered Fenton.  Clara tries to use the psychic paper to convince him that she is from MI5 to get him to cooperate, but all Fenton sees is blank paper.  Inside the TARDIS the Doctor sardonically observes “It takes quite a lack of imagination to beat psychic paper.”  Before Fenton can argue any further, the graffiti on the walls literally comes alive, revealing itself to be more of the Boneless.  Clara, Rigsy, Fenton, and the crew all flee into the nearby railway tunnels, being pursued by the bizarre, lethal entities.

“Flatline” is written by Jamie Mathieson, who also penned the previous episode, “Mummy on the Orient Express.” It is literally back-to-back frights with these two episodes.  “Flatline” must be the scariest episode of Doctor Who since “Blink.”  Older fans of the series will no doubt recall how certain critics in the 1970s and again in the mid 1980s accused Doctor Who of traumatizing Britain’s youth.  Well, it seems like Mathieson is attempting to completely unsettle an entirely new generation of young viewers.  I bet Mary Whitehouse is rolling over in her grave!

Mathieson’s concept of the Boneless, of entities from a second-dimensional universe, reminded me of an old sci-fi / horror story from the comic book Weird Science published by EC Comics. “Monster from the Fourth Dimension” originally appeared in Weird Science #7, cover-dated May-June 1951, was written & drawn by Al Feldstein.  As you can no doubt tell from the title, that story involved the opposite scenario, with a being from a four-dimensional universe entering our own three-dimensional reality.  Feldstein did an excellent job explaining the theoretical science behind such an entity and how it would be perceived by us, as well as in crafting an extremely unnerving, creepy tale.  I wonder if Mathieson ever read that one.

Weird Science 7 pg 6

In terms of developing the relationship between the Doctor and Clara, “Flatline” can be regarded as the final part of a loose trilogy, with “Kill the Moon” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” comprising the first two parts. In “Kill the Moon,” the Doctor forced Clara to take on his role of making life-and-death decisions.  She did so, and was able to find an apparently ideal solution to the crisis, but she was absolutely furious at the Doctor for placing her in that position.  In “Mummy on the Orient Express” the Doctor once again assumed his role of making life & death decisions, of having to choose who lives and who dies.  Once again Clara was angry, perceiving the Doctor to be cold & unfeeling.  At the end of that episode, the Doctor explained “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones.  But you still have to choose.”  Clara finds out exactly how true this is in “Flatline.”

With the Doctor trapped inside the shrunken TARDIS, only able to offer limited advice & assistance, Clara is now forced to once again assume his role. As first she may have jokingly referred to herself as “Doctor Oswald,” but soon enough she realizes that everyone’s lives really are in her hands, that she once more must make those life & death decisions.  And, unlike in “Kill the Moon,” this time there is no perfect solution.  Instead, as the Doctor previously explained, all the choices before her are “bad ones.”

Attempting to take charge of the community service crew, as well as cope with Fenton’s extremely negative attitude, Clara wonders what she can possibly do, and communicates her concerns to the Doctor:

Clara: I just hope I can keep them alive.

The Doctor: Ah, welcome to my world. So, what’s next, Doctor Clara?

Clara: Lie to them.

The Doctor: What?

Clara: Lie to them. Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. Isn’t that what you would do?

The Doctor: In a manner of speaking. It’s true that people with hope tend to run faster. Whereas people who think they’re doomed…

Clara: Dawdle. End up dead.

The Doctor: So that’s what I sound like?

Clara is able to keep her head and manages to push everyone to try to stay alive, despite the relentless pursuit of the Boneless, who one-by-one are picking off their human prey. Clara is finally able to come up with an extremely clever solution to the problem, with a much needed assistance by Rigsy, who utilizes his artistic talents.

Doctor Who Flatline Clara with sonic screwdriver

The TARDIS is finally restored to normal. The Doctor, who had attempted to help Clara communicate with the invaders, to make them understand that humans were sentient, living beings, realizes that he has no choice but to fight the Boneless:

“I tried to talk. I want you to remember that. I tried to reach out, I tried to understand you but I think that you understand us perfectly. And I think you just don’t care. And I don’t know whether you are here to invade, infiltrate or just replace us. I don’t suppose it really matters now. You are monsters. That is the role you seem determined to play. So it seems I must play mine. The man that stops the monsters. I’m sending you back to your own dimension. Who knows? Some of you may even survive the trip. And if you do, remember this: you are not welcome here. This plane is protected. I am the Doctor.”

The invaders are dispatched, but nearly everyone in the community service crew has been killed by them. The only people who Clara managed to save were Rigsy, a train conductor they encountered along the way, and the ungrateful Fenton, who feels no regret at the loss of the others, who he refers to as “community payback scumbags.”  The Doctor sadly observes “Yes, a lot of people died, and maybe the wrong people survived.”  Clara, seeing how the Doctor feels, responds, “Yeah but we saved the world, right?”  She observes that “on balance” things worked out.  Clara is now even beginning to sound like the Doctor, attempting to cope with the deaths of others by looking at the big picture.  And then, when she asks the Doctor to acknowledge that she did well, that she did a good job filling his shoes, the Doctor solemnly responds “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. ‘Goodness’ had nothing to do with it.”

This goes back to the question the Doctor asked Clara at the beginning of the season, is he a good man? Perhaps the Doctor has finally decided that he is not.  Instead he sees himself as having to do what is necessary, what is needed to get the job done, rather than doing what is “good.”  Maybe he doesn’t believe that he can look at the bigger picture and still be good.

Elsewhere / when, watching all of these events on a computer screen is the sinister Missy (Michelle Gomez). She ominously observes to herself “Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well.”

In conclusion, “Flatline” was excellent episode. Jamie Mathieson’s script was intelligent and scary.  The continuing development of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship was well-handled, with both Capaldi and Coleman doing excellent work with the material.  Joivan Wade was also very good in the role of the story’s temporary companion, Rigsy.

And now, I wonder, will I be looking over my shoulder every time I pass by a wall filled with graffiti?

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 being 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” written by Peter Harness.  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.

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, as well as the rest of the universe, a major disservice? 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.

By the way, I recommend reading Hannah Givens’ sharp & insightful critique of “Kill the Moon.”  She makes some excellent observations.

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 very difficult 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 Roberts’ 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 life.

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.
The 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.