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: 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?