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: Sleep No More

I’m finally caught up on my Doctor Who viewing.  Here are a few thoughts on the episode “Sleep No More” written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Justin Molotnikov.

1) Found footage

I am generally not a fan of so-called “found footage” movies.  I found The Blair Witch Project to be one of the most overrated pieces of $#!+ that I have ever seen.  On the other hand, I did enjoy Paranormal Activity, although part of that may have been due to not having very high expectations in the first place.

You can imagine how I felt when I started watching “Sleep No More” and realized that it was that type of story.  Fortunately this was actually a good episode.  Gatiss wrote a scary, unnerving script that made very good use of the format.

Molotnikov did very solid work directing.  Rather than the confusion and motion sickness that Blair Witch left me with, “Sleep No More” with its cutting back-and-forth between security cameras and character POVs resulted in, for the most part, genuine suspense.  While there were chaotic moments of storytelling, for the most part those contributed to the atmosphere of the story, since the audience was left just as uncertain about what was going on as the characters.

Sleep No More poster

2) In space no one can hear you sleep

Humanity once again manages to make a mess of things.  Yeah, leave it to capitalists and scientists to get together for the oh-so-brilliant idea of cramming people’s need for eight hours of sleep into a mere five minutes, leaving us able to work non-stop for almost an entire day.  I’m sure that in the real world there are people actually attempting to find a way to do just this, all in the name of greater profits.

Of course, since this is Doctor Who, things inevitably go pear-shaped.  The Doctor falls into his standard role of calling out humanity on its arrogance and short-sightedness.  Due to the format of this episode Peter Capaldi only has a couple of short monologues regarding the foolishness of the Morpheus program.  Nevertheless, in these few brief moments he invests them with both a genuine sense of outrage at humanity’s audacity and a philosophical contemplation of the value of sleep.

3) Enter Sandmen

The Sandmen are, when you come down to it, a ridiculous concept.  Fortunately the episode moves at such a fast clip that you aren’t left considering for too long that a bunch of people-eating monsters have been formed from “dream dust.”

The low lighting and herky-jerky camerawork also, for the most part, results in the Sandmen not being seen too clearly.  Good decision, since from the few good glimpses we get of them they look very much like humanoid lumps of oatmeal.  I expect that it a well-lit room they would appear quite silly.  Molotnikov did a pretty good job filming the Sandmen in an effective, menacing manner.

Sleep No More promo image

4) Universe building

If you ever watched any of Doctor Who stories made in the 1960s and 70s that were set in the future, for the most part everything was very white and very British.  That began to change a bit in the 1980s, and since the show returned in 2005 we really have seen a number of future eras occupied by different ethnic groups.

Gatiss had an interesting concept in “Sleep No More” for how in the 38th Century India and Japan combine into a massive superpower with colonies throughout the solar system.  It gave “Sleep No More” a distinct flavor and backdrop.  As with the best universe building, Gatiss mostly leaves these as background elements and hints of a larger culture.

5) To be continued?

“Sleep No More” appears to end on a cliffhanger, which left me believing that this was another example of the two episode structure that has occurred throughout Series Nine.  So I was a bit surprised when I then watched “Face the Raven” and it was completely unrelated, the first installment of a three episode season finale.

I wonder if at some point the dangling plotlines of “Sleep No More” will be picked up in a future episode.  After all, the character of Nagata, played by Elaine Tan, survives.  She heads off with the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS to Neptune, where they hope to shut down the Morpheus program.  Or perhaps we really are going to be left with the episode’s final unsettling minutes, kept in the dark as to exactly how things worked out in the 38th Century.

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: The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived

I’m behind on my Doctor Who viewing!  Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.  In the meantime, here at last are my thoughts on “The Girl Who Died” written by Jamie Matheison & Steven Moffat and “The Woman Who Lived” written by Catherine Tregenna.

The Woman Who Lived poster

1) Period pieces

It has often been observed that one of the BBC’s greatest strengths is in filming historical dramas.  This has definitely served as asset to Doctor Who, enabling the show’s creators to craft stories set in Earth’s past that have a feel of authenticity to them.  Certainly that is on display in these two episodes, which take place, respectively, in a Ninth Century Viking Village and in the English countryside of 1651.

Along those lines, the juxtaposition of a familiar historical period with fantastic sci-fi elements can work wonderfully.  I do not necessarily think that either the Mire or Leandro necessarily rank up there with the all time great Doctor Who villains.  But both are quite effective within these period setting, perhaps more so than in a story set in the present day.

2) Who wants to live forever?

A theme that has recurred throughout Doctor Who is that immortality, or even a really really REALLY long life, can be as much a curse as a blessing.  For all the benefits of living for millennia, there is the fact that everyone around you grows old and dies, that over and over you will lose those you care for.  And with all those long years ahead, you are also left wondering exactly how you are supposed to occupy your time.

This is very evident in the character of Ashildr.  The long centuries have embittered her, left her aloof and indifferent to the rest of humanity.  The majority of her memories have faded, and she needs to keep detailed journals to remember her own past.  For all of the wonderful adventures she has experienced, she has also experienced monumental loss, and now feels utterly alone.  It really is left up in the air if the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) was right to save her if it condemned her to this existence.

3) Maisie is amazing

I was extremely impressed by the performance of actress Maisie Williams, who portrayed Ashildr in these two episodes.  Williams showed such an incredible range and depth for such a young actress (she is only 18 years old).  Ashildr as written by Matheison & Moffat in the first part is very different from the figure seen in Treganna’s second installment.  Williams played Ashildr as a sweet, thoughtful, imaginative girl in part one.  In the next, she effortlessly transitions to the haughty, cynical, haunted, mournful woman that the Doctor now encounters.  Williams and Capaldi had a wonderful chemistry and interaction in these two episodes.

The Girl Who Died

4) Am I a good man?

Previously examining the relationship between the Doctor and the Master, I pondered the idea that the two of them began as similar people but then developed in very different directions.  That leads to a question, one akin to the Twelfth Doctor’s consideration.  If they were once so very alike, then is the Doctor actually a good person?

“The Woman Who Lived” offers some insight into this.  We learn that the Doctor is, from experience, well aware of the pitfalls of immortality.  It can engender a dangerous sense of superiority and disdain for others, and create disconnect from the mortal world.  That is why the Doctor will not allow Ashildr to travel with him; he feels that he needs to be around ordinary human beings to be able to continue to appreciate their importance, the precious qualities of mortal lives.

I believe that the quality of “good,” of decency and morality, is not simply something that it exists.  It is not natural to anyone.  Instead it is something that we need to vigilantly maintain each and every day of our lives, in spite of all the offenses and injustices that life throws at us, in opposition to our own defects of character.

This is the difference between the Doctor and the Master.  They possess similar personalities and flaws, but the Doctor endeavors to continually remain aware of his failings and his weaknesses, and to work to overcome them, to be selfless.  That is what makes the Doctor a good man.

5) Hopefully not a Swift end

When the highwayman Sam Swift (Rufus Hound) shows up halfway through “The Woman Who Lived,” he seems like just an arrogant douche.  Later we learn that Swift has been arrested and sentenced to die.  Standing on the gallows with the hangman waiting, Swift proceeds to tell a number of cornball jokes, hoping to keep the spectators amused for as long as possible, to delay his execution for just a little bit.  It’s a surprisingly touching and subtle performance by Hound, showing the frightened, vulnerable side of the character.

This is a great scene that underlines the Doctor’s point that the inevitability of death is what gives life worth meaning.  Ashildr, barring catastrophic injury, will live forever.  Without the fear of dying, she is no longer able to appreciate her life.  In contrast, Swift is desperate to hold back death, to stay alive, if only for a few precious moments.

6) Another third path?

I’m returning here to something that I brought up in my review of “The Witch’s Familiar” where both Moffat and the characters failed to think outside the box.  In that case, it was the Doctor not finding a third alternative to either killing Davros as a child or letting him live his life uninterrupted.  In the comments section, Jim O’Brien described that as such: “in many of the stuff [Moffat] pens, I find that he (or his characters) often have a very clean-cut X, Y, and Z perspective on things.”

There was another occurrence of that here in “The Woman Who Lived.”  Ashildr desperately wants to travel with the Doctor in the TARDIS because she is bored with immortality, with being stranded on a primitive planet with nowhere to go, nothing new to experience.  The Doctor refuses to let Ashildr join her because he perceives the danger to his own behavior that could occur from being around another immortal. He wants to leave her in 1651.

Well, why isn’t there a third choice?  Why can’t the Doctor offer to give Ashildr a one-time lift in the TARDIS to another time or planet where interplanetary space travel exists, so that she can then go off and explore the universe on her own?

The Woman Who Lived Ahsildr

7) Weird science

I wonder if electric eels actually work in the manner seen in “The Girl Who Died.”  Could the Doctor really have been able to defeat the Mire that way?

Well, wacky science aside, what I appreciated about the Doctor’s plan is that it once again shows that, rather than shooting or blowing up his adversaries, he really tries to find an intelligent and clever method of outthinking his foes in order to defeat them.  That’s one of my favorite qualities of the Doctor.

8) But you can’t go around wearing copies of bodies!

I don’t think we needed it explained that the Twelfth Doctor subconsciously chose the face of Caecilius from “The Fires of Pompeii” as a reminder to himself that he saves people.  After all, Capaldi is hardly the first actor to guest star and then return to play an ongoing character during the show’s long history.

Along these lines, I’m wondering what we’re going to find out next.  Will it turn out that Lieutenant Andrews from “Carnival of Monsters” was Harry Sullivan’s grandfather?   Or that Bret Vyon from “The Daleks’ Master Plan” was a clone of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart?  Maybe it will be revealed that immediately after the events of “Inferno” Sir Keith Gold bumped into the malfunctioning TARDIS console and was transported back to the Victorian Era where, stricken with amnesia, he assumed the identity of amazingly alliterative London theater manager Henry Gordon Jago.

Now I’m half-expecting there to be an upcoming Big Finish audio story revealing that the Sixth Doctor took on the likeness of Commander Maxil from “Arc of Infinity” to remind himself to, um, dress to stand out and to shoot first & ask questions later?  Well, that would explain Old Sixie’s odd fashion sense and tendency to be trigger-happy!

Okay, all kidding aside, I did enjoy these two episodes.  “The Girl Who Died” was perhaps the weaker of the two, coming out a bit uneven.  “The Woman Who Lived,” on the other hand, was absolutely fantastic, featuring an amazing performance by Maisie Williams and superb writing by Catherine Tregenna.  Of course, Peter Capaldi continues to impress and amaze as the Twelfth Doctor.

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.

Ten years of new Doctor Who

On the 26th of March 2005 “Rose,” the very first episode of the revival of Doctor Who, was broadcast on BBC One.  Viewers were introduced to the Ninth Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston and Rose Tyler played by Billie Piper in a script written by new series showrunner Russell T Davies.  That was exactly ten years ago today.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Ten years.

Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler

Yes, I almost cannot believe that it has been exactly ten years since Doctor Who made its return to television screens after more than a decade and a half absence. TEN YEARS! If you had told me back in 2004 that just a year later Doctor Who would be returning, that the new series would run more than a decade, and that it would become a gigantic mega-hit not just in Britain but in America and numerous other countries, I would have laughed in your face. Yet here we are a decade later and that is exactly what has happened. As Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was fond of saying, “Fantastic!”

I will readily admit that the first year of the revival was wildly uneven.  But even so, it contained a few genuine classics, namely “Dalek,” “Father’s Day” and “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances.”  Certainly the portrayal of the Doctor by Eccleston was brilliant.

Since then we have had David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi all portraying the Doctor, each bringing something unique and wonderful to the role.  We’ve also seen the final fate of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, the revelation of the existence of the War Doctor portrayed by veteran thespian John Hurt, and even cameos by past Doctors Peter Davison and Tom Baker.  Oh, yes, and the return of Sarah Jane Smith, played by the much loved (and now much missed) Elisabeth Sladen.

Oh, yeah, and there’s been a whole bunch of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff,” enough to keep fans endlessly guessing… and arguing.

doctors-9-10-11-12

Obviously not every episode has been a brilliant success.  There have inevitably been a few stinkers over the past decade.  However, on the whole I believe that both Davies and his successor Steven Moffat have done good work keeping the series going, bringing it into the 21st Century.

Maybe it is just the nature of Doctor Who fans to complain, to argue “It isn’t as good as it used to be!”  But, honestly, I really do think that some of the all time greatest installments of the series have been produced within the past decade.  And I am eager to see what comes next.

So here’s to the next ten years of Doctor Who!  Geronimo, allons-y, and all that!

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.

The Doctor and The Master: the best of enemies

“That’s my best enemy. He likes to be known as the Master.” – The Third Doctor

On the Doctor Who television series, the Daleks are often referred to as the Doctor’s greatest enemies.  However, our eccentric time traveler also has another arch-foe, an adversary of a more intimate nature, his personal bête noire: a fellow renegade Time Lord known as the Master.

The character of the Master was created in 1970 by Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts.  Having compared the relationship between the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to that of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, they then contemplated who his Moriarty would be.  The two of them devised the Master, a fellow Time Lord of the Doctor’s who was also in exile, but one without morality or conscience, who had devoted his existence to the acquisition of power.

The relationship between the Doctor and the Master has always been complicated and dysfunctional.  Not only did they come from the same world, but they also attended university together, and at one time were even close friends.  But then something occurred to sour that friendship, and they became bitter enemies.

We first saw the Master on television in “Terror of the Autons,” written by Robert Holmes and broadcast in January 1971.  Portrayed by Roger Delgado, the Master was already an infamous criminal.  Appearing regularly on the series throughout the next three years, the Master led a succession of alien menaces to attack the Earth, where the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was temporarily exiled by the Time Lords.

Master Roger Delgado

On the surface, the Master’s goal seemed to be one of conquest.  But underneath it all you got the impression that he was causing all of this death & destruction primarily to annoy the Doctor.  In “Terror of the Autons” the Master ostensibly comes to Earth to aid the Nestine Consciousness in a second attempt to invade the world.  But in fact the Master spends the majority of his time not working to advance the Nestine scheme, but rather repeatedly attempting to kill the Doctor via all manner of complex, sophisticated death traps & ambushes.

The second story to feature the Master, “The Mind of Evil,” had the renegade Time Lord utilizing an alien mind parasite that could psychically kill people by manifesting their greatest fears.  When the parasite is accidentally turned on the Master himself, the results are illuminating: it appears that the Master’s worst nightmare is of the Doctor scornfully, mockingly laughing at him.

In the next serial, “The Claws of Axos,” at one point towards the end of the story it seems that the destruction of Earth by the energy vampire Axos is unavoidable.  The Doctor briefly appears to agree to work with the Master in order to escape the seemingly-doomed planet.  Although skeptical, the Master was also rather pleased at the idea that the Doctor was ready to abandon both humanity and his principles in order to save his own skin.  Of course this was just a ruse by the Doctor to trick the Master into assisting him in defeating Axos.

Following that, in “Colony in Space” written by Malcolm Hulke, the Master is seeking control of the Doomsday Weapon, a device capable of destroying entire planets.  The Master wishes to blackmail the entire universe into obeying him.  And when, after five episodes of padding, the Doctor finally catches up with his foe, the Master, instead of attempting to kill him, surprisingly offers to divide control of the universe between the two of them…

The Master: Doctor, why don’t you come in with me? We’re both Time Lords, we’re both renegades. We could be masters of the galaxy. Think of it, Doctor. Absolute power. Power for good. Oh, you could reign benevolently. You could end war, suffering, disease. We could save the universe.
The Doctor: No, absolute power is evil.
The Master: Select carefully, Doctor. I’m offering you a half share in the universe. You must see reason, Doctor.
The Doctor: No, I will not join you in your absurd dreams of galactic conquest.
The Master: Why? Why?!? Look at this. Look at all those planetary systems, Doctor. We could rule them all!
The Doctor: What for? What is the point?
The Master: The point is that one must rule or serve. That is a basic law of life. Why do you hesitate? Surely it’s not loyalty to the Time Lords, who exiled you to one insignificant planet?
The Doctor: You’ll never understand, will you? I want to see the universe, not to rule it!

This scene is well scripted by Malcolm Hulke.  It is also played extraordinarily well by Pertwee and Delgado.  Throughout the entire exchange you can see the Doctor contemplating the Master’s offer, mulling it over in his head, weighing the pros and cons. Likewise, the Master is genuinely perplexed that the Doctor isn’t being won over.  As the argument continues, the Master becomes more and more frustrated.  He just cannot comprehend why the Doctor isn’t willing to accept what to him is so readily apparent about the nature of the universe and existence.  When the Doctor finally rejects the proposed partnership, the Master is absolutely furious, and in the very next second he is once again quite ready to kill the Doctor in cold blood.

So, even from the start, it was obvious that there was a lot going on beneath the surface when it came to the relationship between Doctor and the Master.

There are definite similarities between the Doctor and the Master.  They are each brilliant, charismatic, sophisticated, and arrogant, as well as not altogether sane.  But the Doctor has a conscience, a sense of right & wrong, an appreciation for the lives of others, things totally absent in the Master.  One can look at the Master and see that he is the Doctor completely unencumbered by any sort of empathy.  The Master is a sociopathic figure who casually uses and discards others, who finds amusement in manipulation and murder.

Master Peter Pratt

Dicks & Letts had planned to write one last story featuring the Master that would explore his exact relationship with the Doctor, an epic swan song for Roger Delgado to go out on.  These plans came to naught when in June 1973 Delgado tragically died in an automobile accident.  The character of the Master quietly disappeared until 1976, when the Doctor was now being played by Tom Baker.

Resurfacing in “The Deadly Assassin,” a serial written by Robert Holmes, the man who had scripted the villain’s first appearance, the Master was now a very different individual.  Somehow having used up all of his regenerations, the Master, portrayed by Peter Pratt, was now literally a walking corpse.  Seemingly driven on solely by willpower, the Master conceived a brilliantly apocalyptic scheme to renew his regeneration cycle, a plan that would have destroyed his home world of Gallifrey.  Part of this plot required a patsy to be framed for the assassination of the Time Lord President.  The Master’s ally / pawn Chancellor Goth protests that using the Doctor for this was too dangerous, and they could have manipulated anyone.  To this the half-decayed Master stubbornly replies…

“Noooo, we could not have used anyone. You do not understand hatred as I understand it. Only hate keeps me alive. Why else should I endure this pain? I must see the Doctor die in shame and dishonor! Yes, and I must destroy the Time Lords! Nothing else matters! Nothing!

Even at the apparent end of his existence, the Master cannot let go of his rivalry with the Doctor.  His will to survive is equaled by his obsession with humiliating and then killing his old foe.

The Master next appeared in “The Keeper of Traken” in 1981, still in his grim reaper incarnation, now played by Geoffrey Beevers (who would later reprise this incarnation in several of the Big Finish stories).  It was Beevers who observed that this incarnation of the Master, stripped of all his charisma, cultured airs and good looks, was “the essence of the creature,” revealed to all the world as an insane, hateful, murderous figure of death.

Master Anthony Ainley

At the end of “The Keeper of Traken” the Master perpetuated his existence by seizing control of another living being and merging his form with his victim.  As played by Anthony Ainley, he was rejuvenated into a form physically similar to Delgado, although now rather less charismatic, and certainly much more feral & insane.  Still unable to regenerate, the Master embarked on a series of highly implausible, convoluted schemes to further extend his life and generate chaos & destruction.  And no matter what he got up to, the Master always had to drag the Doctor into the proceedings in order to brag about his latest scheme before once again attempting to kill his longtime opponent.

Even after being exterminated by the Daleks, the Master found a way to survive as an ectoplasmic snake-like entity.  Causing the TARDIS to crash-land in San Francisco in late December 1999, this remnant of the Master once again engaged in body-snatching, possessing an ambulance driver named Bruce (Eric Roberts).  Knowing that this human form would not last long, the Master unsuccessfully sought to take over the body of the Doctor (Paul McGann).

The Master, reborn with (appropriately enough) a rather reptilian persona, manipulated the misguided teenager Chang Lee into helping him gain access to the TARDIS, telling the young man that he regarded him like a son.  Later, though the Master quite casually murdered Chang Lee, as well as the Doctor’s friend Grace Holloway.  Understandably enough the Doctor was outraged by these deaths, and he angrily shouted “You want dominion over the living, yet all you do is kill!”  To this the Master’s only response was a snarled “Life is wasted on the living!”  During their struggle, the Master was sucked into the Eye of Harmony and once again seemingly destroyed.

Master Eric Roberts

By the time David Tennant was playing the Doctor, it was revealed that the Master had been resurrected by the Time Lords to fight in the Time War against the Daleks.  Instead the Master had fled to the end of time itself and transformed himself into a human being, losing his memory in the process.

Arriving at the end of time, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) encountered Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi).  A brilliant but absent-minded scientist, Yana was a kindred spirit to the Doctor.  The two of them got along brilliantly… at least until the Doctor’s companion Martha Jones recognized Yana’s broken fob watch as a chameleon arch, something which the Doctor himself had also once utilized.  Her interest in the “watch” led Yana to open it, restoring him to his true identity: the Master.  The kindly, benevolent grandfather figure was instantly supplanted by an icy, arrogant, ruthless murderer who shot his long-time assistant Chantho in cold blood.  Before she succumbed to her wounds, Chantho also shot the Master.  Mortally wounded, the Master regenerated into a new, younger body (John Simm).

It is certainly telling that the Master, stranded at the end of time and stricken with amnesia, became a figure very much like the Doctor.  And once he regenerated, the Master, as played by Simm, was very much an evil reflection of the Tenth Doctor, possessing many of his qualities and habits, but none of his positive attributes.

Master Derek Jacobi

By this point, despite their long enmity, the Doctor was desperate to mend the shattered friendship he once had with the Master.  It appeared that he and the Master were the only two surviving Time Lords, the rest of their race having perished in the war against the Daleks. Unfortunately the Master, who had always been decidedly unbalanced, was now barking mad, totally unwilling to listen to the Doctor’s entreaties.

In “The Last of the Time Lords,” captured by the Master, the Doctor is reduced to a feeble old man, unable to regenerate.  The gloating, sadistic Master keeps the Doctor as a pet, forcing him to witness his brutal conquest of the Earth.  At one point the Master even has the Scissor Sisters song “I Can’t Decide” playing as he manically springs about his headquarters, pushing the incapacitated Doctor around in a wheelchair:

I can’t decide
Whether you should live or die
Oh, you’ll prob’ly go to heaven
Please don’t hang your head and cry
No wonder why
My heart feels dead inside
It’s cold and hard and petrified
Lock the doors and close the blinds
We’re going for a ride

That chorus certainly sounds like an apt description of the Master’s ambivalent feelings towards the Doctor.

At the conclusion of “Last of the Time Lords,” with the Master defeated and his year-long rule over of the Earth erased from history, the Doctor is ready to take custody of his arch foe.  However, the Master’s abused wife Lucy shoots him.  The Doctor realizes that if the Master dies he will once again be the only surviving Time Lord and begs his adversary to regenerate.  But the Master wills himself not to.  He would rather perish than become the Doctor’s prisoner.  And, seeing how terrified the Doctor is of once again being alone in the universe, the Master says “How about that? I win.”  With that he dies.  The Master, a being who clung so stubbornly, tenaciously to life, looking for any means to escape death’s embrace, finally lets himself die just to spite the Doctor.

Master John Simm

Of course, even dead and cremated, the Master finds a way back to life.  He’s good at that sort of thing.  “The End of Time” sees him and the Tenth Doctor once more face to face.  Again the Doctor is pleading with the Master to end his latest scheme of conquest and accept his help.  For once, we see the Master hint at regret and sadness at how twisted their friendship has become.  But he is also possessed of a resigned conviction that things can never be the way they once were.

A few writers over the years have attempted to examine what led the Master to become the cold, ruthless monster that he is.  David A. McIntee’s novel The Dark Path and Joseph Lidster’s Big Finish audio play “Master” each had their own ideas.  Russell T Davies also took a stab at it in the revived television series.  We learned that the future Master, at the young age of eight, looked into the time vortex as part of a Time Lord rite of initiation.  The experience apparently drove him mad over time, and in the back of his mind he heard the incessant, unrelenting sound of drums pounding.  Davies stopped short of categorically stating this was the cause of the Master’s insanity, suggesting it is only a theory on the Doctor’s part.

Davies returned to the pounding of the drums in the Master’s psyche in “The End of Time,” and we learn the horrible origin of the mental noise that has plagued him throughout much of his life.

In the final days of the Time War, the Time Lords, corrupted by their immense powers, and driven to desperation by their cataclysmic conflict with the Daleks, decided to re-create reality itself and ascend to a higher plane of existence.  Unfortunately, this would wipe out all other life in the universe.  The Doctor, realizing how dangerous and ruthless his own people had become, apparently destroyed both the Time Lords and the Daleks.  The events of the War became “time locked,” unalterable.

The Time Lords, though, refused to give up.  Rassilon, the resurrected Lord President of Gallifrey, hatched a desperate scheme to escape the time lock.  On the eve of the War’s conclusion, Rassilon learns that the Doctor and the Master are the only two Time Lords who are destined to survive the conflict.  Rassilon orders a signal beamed back centuries through the time vortex, to be intercepted by a young Master during his initiation: the sound of drums.  This signal, which helped drive the Master insane, is something the Time Lords can now fix onto and use to break Gallifrey out of the time lock, freeing the Time Lords to rewrite all of existence.

The Master, the grand manipulator who sought control over all reality, learns in “The End of Time” that he has been someone else’s pawn all along.

At the conclusion of the story the Doctor managed to shatter that link.  Rassilon, the Time Lords, and Gallifrey were all yanked back into the time stream, to once again perish at the end of the Time War.  And this time the Master vanished alongside them.

However, as was revealed in “The Day of the Doctor,” Gallifrey was not actually destroyed.  Instead it was hidden away in an alternate dimension.  And so the potential survival of the Master once again became a possibility.

Missy Michelle Gomez

The Master did indeed eventually resurface to bedevil the Doctor.  Now in his Twelfth incarnation, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) encountered Missy (Michelle Gomez), the Master regenerated into a female body.  But she was still as insane and demented as ever.  In the two part story “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” Missy succeeded in transforming billions of dead humans into an army of Cybermen. When she subsequently reveals that her manipulations have all been enacted in order that she could give the Doctor control of this Cybermen army as a gift, he is absolutely flabbergasted…

The Doctor: All of this… All of it, just to give me an army?
Missy: Well, I don’t need one, do I? Armies are for people who think they’re right. And nobody thinks they’re righter than you! Give a good man firepower, and he’ll never run out of people to kill.
The Doctor: I don’t want an army.
Missy: Well, that’s the trouble! Yes, you do! You’ve always wanted one! All those people suffering in the Dalek camps? Now you can save them. All those bad guys winning all the wars? Go and get the good guys back.
The Doctor: Nobody can have that power.
Missy: You will because you don’t have a choice. There’s only one way you can stop these clouds from opening up and killing all your little pets down here. Conquer the universe, Mr. President. Show a bad girl how it’s done.
The Doctor: Why are you doing this?
Missy: I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back.

This exchange very much parallels the one between the Doctor and the Master many years back in “Colony in Space.”  Once again the Master / Missy is offering the Doctor the opportunity to bring order to the universe, to reshape it in his image.  And whereas before the terms of the offer were “join me or die” here it is “join me or I destroy the human race.”

Christopher H. Bidmead once described the Master as “the devil incarnate.”  That was an apt description.  Not only is the Master an entity of pure evil who wants control over all existence, but he is also a figure of temptation.  On various occasions he has tempted individuals with offers of power.  In the end, after they (metaphorically) sold their souls to him, he inevitably killed them.  The Master sought to bring the Doctor himself over to his side with the promise of equal control of the Doomsday Weapon.  Now once again the Master / Missy seeks to corrupt the Doctor with the offer of absolute power.  If Missy cannot prove that she is superior to the Doctor, then she is instead determined to drag the Doctor down to her level, to demonstrate to both herself and the Doctor that in the end he is no better than her.

Missy Master all incarnations

As I was writing this post, pondering the question of what caused the friendship of these two Time Lords to transform into such a bitter, twisted enmity, a thought occurred to me.  Perhaps it was not only the Master who changed.  Maybe it was also the Doctor who became a different person.

In the very first season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1963-64, the figure of the First Doctor, portrayed by William Hartnell, starts out as very unsympathetic.  In the first few stories he is, at best, an anti-hero.  If you want to be brutally honest, he is an asshole.

The Doctor is repeatedly insulting and condescending to Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton.  He kidnaps the two schoolteachers in the TARDIS to prevent his granddaughter Susan from going with them and leaving him.  In Earth’s prehistoric past he is willing to bash in the head of a wounded caveman with a rock, to kill in cold blood, in order to ensure his own survival.  He selfishly sabotages the TARDIS so that he will have a chance to explore Skaro, resulting in him and his companions nearly dying from radiation sickness and then becoming prisoners of the Daleks.  Afterwards, when the TARDIS malfunctions and hurtles back in time out of control, without any evidence he accuses Ian and Barbara of sabotaging the craft, and threatens to throw them out at the very next destination.

Finally, at the climax of “The Edge of Destruction,” a fuming Barbara reads the Doctor the riot act.  She calls him out on all of the crap that he has pulled throughout the previous three serials.  When the Doctor discovers that he was totally incorrect about what was wrong with the TARDIS, and Susan points out to him that he has acted horrible towards Ian and Barbara, the Doctor is forced to eat humble pie.  He reluctantly offers up a mea culpa to Barbara, acknowledging that he was wrong and she was right.  He acknowledges that “As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.”  And from that point on the Doctor began his transformation into the heroic figure we all know & love.

If the Doctor became a better person through his travels and his friendships with human beings, perhaps the opposite is true of the Master.  Perhaps he was once like the Doctor in the old days, arrogant, overconfident and manipulative, yet not truly evil.  But along the way, traveling the universe alone, without the positive influence of others, without anyone to call him out on his mistakes or urge him to change his ways, all of the Master’s negative flaws were left unchecked and allowed to flourish, until eventually he became a monster.

That, I think, is the fascination of the Master as a character.  He is the man the Doctor could have become under a different set of circumstances, if he had made different choices.  The Master is his warped mirror image, an eternal reminder to the Doctor of what he still might yet become, a potent warning that he must ever keep himself in check, lest the same fate befall him.

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.”