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

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

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

Face The Raven

1) Familiar faces

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

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

2) Death becomes her

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

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

Heaven Sent

3) Solo act

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

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

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

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

4) Repetition is good for the soul

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

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

5) Drawing a conclusion

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

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

Hell Bent

6) A masterful plan

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

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

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

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

The Doctor: Two?

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

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

Ashildr: How did you meet her?

The Doctor: Missy.

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

The Doctor: Clara’s my friend.

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

7) Time Lord Victorious

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

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

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

Doctor Who The Dark Path

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

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

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

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

8) The restaurant at the end of the universe

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

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

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

Doctor Who reviews: The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion

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

Zygon Invasion poster

1) You say you want a revolution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Working class Zygon

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

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

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

The Doctor: We are on your side.

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

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

3) Capaldi and Coleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ZYGON INVERSION (By Peter Harness and Steven Moffat)

4) Osgood lives

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

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

5) Pod people

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

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

6) Five rounds rapid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zygon Inverson Kate Stewart

7) Let’s let Zygons be Zygons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who reviews: 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: 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: Let’s do the Time War again

“You weren’t there in the final days of the War. You never saw what was born. But if the time lock’s broken, then everything’s coming through. Not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres. The War turned into hell. And that’s what you’ve opened, right above the Earth. Hell is descending.” – The Tenth Doctor, “The End of Time”

When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, viewers were informed that the Doctor was apparently the last of the Time Lords.  All the other members of his race had apparently died fighting the Daleks in a vast, apocalyptic, realty-rending conflict known as the Time War.

Truthfully, the basic function of the Time War was to sweep the decks of the mountains of continuity that had accumulated during the original run of Doctor Who on television from 1963 to 1989.  It enabled showrunner Russell T Davies to start with a clean slate.  He was able to streamline things without having to resort to rebooting the series from scratch.  It worked elegantly in that regard.

The Time War also allowed Davies and his collaborators to offer a new perspective on the character of the Doctor.  The time traveler was now a haunted, battle-scarred figure suffering from survivor’s guilt and the knowledge that in order to save existence he had been the one to finally bring an end to the carnage of the War.

Of course inevitably viewers were curious to know what exactly had taken place during this infamous Time War.  Hints and allusions to the events were peppered throughout various episodes over the next several years, but we never actually saw any part of the conflict itself.  I believe that at one point Davies joked that he’d have needed a one hundred million dollar budget to bring the Time War to television screens.

Besides, much of what the Doctor mentioned, such as his recitation of the myriad horrors of the Time War in“The End of Time,” sounded like the sort of abstract, surrealist nightmares that would probably have been impossible to convincingly depict on TV.  When we were finally granted a glimpse of the War by Steven Moffat in “The Day of the Doctor” it was presented as a more straightforward conflict, with a billion Dalek spaceships laying siege to Gallifrey.  Which, of course, was still pretty damn dramatic.

We eventually learned that a previously unrevealed incarnation of the Doctor portrayed by John Hurt, the so-called “War Doctor,” was the one who fought in the Time War.  The conflict had apparently spanned centuries, during which the War Doctor became a weary old man.  Barring the use of archival footage of Hurt as a younger man, it would be impossible to show most of the War Doctor’s experiences.

Having said all that, I’ve often thought that the Time War would be perfect to present in comic book form.  After all, the only limit on what can be shown in comic books is the imaginations of the writers & artists.  I even thought of the perfect creative team: Grant Morrison and Richard Case, the writer and penciler who crafted many bizarre, nightmarish, reality-twisting stories during their run on Doom Patrol from 1989 to 1992.  Just imagine the creators who brought us such peculiar menaces as the Brotherhood of Dada, the Painting That Ate Paris, the Scissormen and the Candlemaker depicting the freakish, horrifying events of the Time War.

Engines of War

However, it never did occur to me that prose fiction would also be another medium in which to recount the events of the Time War, at least not until I spotted the novel Engines of War by George Mann for sale at Forbidden Planet.  I immediately grabbed it off the shelf, bought it, and started reading it.

Engines of War is told from the point of view of Cinder, a 21 year old freedom fighter from the human colony of Moldox.  Her name comes from the color of her hair, and from the fact that she was found among the burning embers of her home 14 years earlier after her entire family was wiped out by the Daleks.  Moldox and the other worlds in the Tantalus Spiral have been conquered by the Daleks, the majority of the colonists either exterminated or captured to serve as slave labor or experimental subjects.  Cinder is one of the few humans to have remained free, eking out a hard-scrabble existence among the ruins, fighting a hopeless guerilla war against their conquerors.

Then, very unexpectedly, the Doctor comes into Cinder’s life, his TARDIS shot down during a space battle.  Much like Cass from “The Night of the Doctor,” Cinder is initially angry at and frightened by him, believing the Time Lords to be just as bad as the Daleks.  However, her desperation to escape the desolation of Moldox is so great that she tentatively lowers her guard when the Doctor offers to take her out of the warzone and to safety.

Mann does excellent work developing the character of Cinder, and writing her interactions with the Doctor.  Contemplating the idea of something other than the day-to-day struggle for survival against the Daleks that has consumed much of her existence, Cinder starts to recognize the possibilities that life might offer.

For the War Doctor, so long involved in the war against the Daleks, Cinder is apparently his first extended interaction with humanity since his regeneration.  At first he is hesitant to take upon himself the responsibility for her well-being.  Like Cinder, the Doctor had resigned himself to the role of a warrior in a seemingly-endless conflict.  Now, once again traveling with a companion, however reluctantly, he begins to let down his guard, to care.  Cinder offers him an opportunity to reconsider his conviction that he no longer has the right to call himself “Doctor.”

The style of Mann’s prose reminded me of Terrance Dick’s work on the numerous Doctor Who novelizations.  Mann’s writing seems directed at the teenage reader, but it is certainly sophisticated enough that adults will also appreciate it.  Early on he succinctly describes the awesome, incomprehensible scope of the conflict:

Cinder had heard that in simple, linear terms, the war had been going on for over four hundred years. This, of course, was an untruth, or at least an irrelevance; the temporal war zones had permeated so far and so deep into the very structure of the universe that the conflict had – quite literally – been raging for eternity. There was no epoch that remained unscathed, uncontested, no history that had not been rewritten.

Of course, considering that it is set amidst the Time War, the book offers up plenty of examples of what Mystery Science Theater 3000 once described as “good old fashioned nightmare fuel.”  There is some really dark stuff between these covers.

A War Doctor's Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges  / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers
A War Doctor’s Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers

Before the Doctor can take Cinder to safety, he needs to learn what the Daleks are up to on Moldox and the other worlds in the Spiral.  Reluctantly the young human guides him to the nearest occupied city.  The Doctor is horrified to discover that the Daleks have harnessed the energy of the Eye of Tantalus, a vast temporal anomaly contained within the Spiral, and used it to create weapons that erase their victims from history.  Not only will an army of Daleks be equipped with the dematerialization guns, but the Eye itself is to be turned into a single massive weapon which will be used to wipe the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey from existence.

The Doctor travels to Gallifrey to alert the High Council to the Daleks’ plans, bringing Cinder with him.  Through her eyes, we see just how much the conflict has affected them.  The Time Lords had always been aloof, arrogant figures.  Now, driven to desperation by their war with the Daleks, the Doctor’s people have become utterly ruthless.  When the Lord President Rassilon is informed of the danger in the Tantalus Spiral, he immediately decides to utilize a stellar engineering device known as the Tear of Isha to neutralize the Eye.  The Doctor, however, realizes that this will wipe out all life in the Spiral, including the billions of humans imprisoned by the Daleks.

Cinder felt her heart lurch in her chest. She felt suddenly nauseous. They were going to do it. They were really going to murder every single living thing on a dozen worlds.

“Rassilon,” said the Doctor, clearly exacerbated. “You’re condemning a billion souls to a terrible death. More. How can you even consider it?”

“What are a billion human lives to us, Doctor?” said Rassilon. “They are but motes of sand on the breeze. They breed like a virus, infesting every corner of the universe. Where some die, others will take their place.”

There are several scenes in the novel featuring the Doctor and Rassilon sparring verbally.  Reading them, I was left longing for an actual live-action version of Engines of War.  It would be brilliant to have John Hurt and Timothy Dalton acting opposite one another, reciting all of this wonderfully dramatic dialogue.

Doctor Who Rassilon

The Doctor and Cinder realize that not only must they stop the Daleks, but also the Time Lords.  With both sides of the conflict in opposition to them, the odds seem near-insurmountable.

There are a number of excellent moments throughout Engines of War.  Even though the hierarchy of the Time Lords has become inured to the violence, to the cataclysmic loss of life, Mann indicates that the citizens of Gallifrey are genuinely frightened by the War.  At one point, looking over the landscape of the Time Lord capital, Cinder observes hundreds of tiny lights drifting up into the night sky.

“What are they?” said Cinder. “Paper lanterns?”

The Doctor shook his head. “No, although the principle is the same. Those are memory lanterns.”

“Memory lanterns?” echoed Cinder.

The Doctor glanced at her. “They all think they’re going to die,” he said. “All those people down there think the Daleks are coming for them, and that they’re going to be exterminated.” He sighed, and the weariness in his expression spoke volumes. “So they’re recording all of their thoughts and memories into those lanterns, and scattering them through time and space. It’s the last act of a desperate people. They’re terrified that they’re going to be forgotten, so they’re seeding themselves into all the distant corners of the universe to be remembered.”

I am curious about how much knowledge Mann had of the work that Moffat and his co-writers were doing on Series Eight when he was penning this novel.  There are certain parallels.  In “The Caretaker” the Doctor expressed his disdain for soldiers.  In response, Danny Pink declared “I’m a soldier. Guilty as charged. You see him? He’s an officer!”  Indeed, when we first see the Doctor in Engines of War, he is piloting his unarmed TARDIS, leading a large assembly of heavily-armed Battle TARDISes in an engagement with a Dalek fleet, organizing strategy, calling out orders to his fellow Time Lords; he is very much an officer.

At the end of Series Eight, in “Death in Heaven” Danny bitterly commented of the Doctor, “Typical officer, got to keep those hands clean.”   That is a theme that also runs throughout Engines of War.  Despite the fact that he has ostensibly embraced the role of warrior, the Doctor carries no weapons, only his sonic screwdriver.  On both Moldox and Gallifrey he relies on Cinder to destroy Daleks and knock out Time Lord security guards.  At one point, Rassilon’s obsequious lackey Karlax subjects Cinder to brutal interrogation by the Mind Probe, as much to verify the Doctor’s story as to fulfill his own sadistic glee.  Cinder barely survives…

She gasped for air.  “He’ll kill you,” she said, between shallow breaths. “He’ll kill you for this.”

Karlax laughed. “Oh no, not the Doctor,” he said. “The Doctor and I are old playmates. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.”

Mann also addresses the suggestion made by Davies that “Genesis of the Daleks,” when the Time Lords dispatched the Doctor back in time to abort the creation of the Daleks and he hesitated at committing genocide, was actually the first shot fired in the Time War.  Early on, seeing the horrific loss of life on Moldox, witnessing the atrocities being committed by the Daleks, the Doctor is burdened by the knowledge that if not for his indecision on Skaro many years before he might have prevented all this from occurring.

Towards the end of the novel, the Doctor and Cinder come face to face with the Eternity Circle, the group of Daleks tasked by the Emperor with developing the temporal weapons.  The head of the Circle explicitly refers to the Doctor’s presence at the birth of the Daleks

“Ah,” said the Dalek. “The beginning of the Time War. The moment that you, Doctor, taught the Daleks their most valuable lesson of all —  that emotion is a weakness that must be eradicated. That mercy has no place in victory.”

“Not a weakness,” said the Doctor, “but a strength.”

“If it had not been for your hesitation,” said the Dalek, its tone derisory, “for your inability to do what was necessary, then the entire War could have been prevented. The Daleks would have ceased to exist.”

Engines of War is very much concerned with explaining exactly how the Doctor arrived at the point seen in “The Day of the Doctor.”  What was it that finally drove him to solemnly declare, “No more,” to decide to utilize the Moment and wipe out the whole of the Time Lords and the Daleks?  What was it that convinced him that there was no other choice?

War Doctor

Mann shows us a Doctor who, as the story opens, is already burned out, bone-weary from an unending nightmare conflict.  And then he is faced with further horrors as both the Daleks and his own people pile atrocities upon one another, and each side reigns down scorn & mockery upon him for his perceived weakness and lack of resolve.  When the novel finally comes to a close with the Doctor experiencing yet another soul-rending loss, you can fully imagine that this is a man who just wants it all to end, who will do anything to stop it, who will tell the Moment Interface “I have no desire to survive this.”

If there is a weakness to Engines of War, it is that perhaps it references the history of the series a little too heavily.  It is inevitable that any novel set during the Time War is going to require allusions to a number of past events.  Nevertheless, the nods to specific televised Doctor Who stories do come quite frequently.  While for the most part Mann is able to fit them in seamlessly, on occasion they do feel superfluous.  By the time a character starts playing the Harp of Rassilon, well, I couldn’t help but feel that Mann was overdoing it just a bit!

Well, aside from that, and from events jumping back and forth between the different settings, Engines of War is a good read.  Mann effectively delves into a previously little-explored period of the Doctor’s life.  He is successful at not just conveying the cosmic scope of events only previously hinted at on the television series, but at utilizing them to explore the character of the Doctor.  Mann also examines how a conflict that rages across myriad planes of reality would affect the average mortal person on the ground, viewing the staggering events of the Time War through Cinder’s eyes.

As I indicated earlier, for a variety of reasons it is very unlikely that we will ever be provided an in-depth look at the Time War on our television screens.  Nevertheless, that conflict provides a rich backdrop against which to tell engrossing stories in other mediums.  Engines of War by George Mann undoubtedly proves that potential.

Doctor Who reviews: Last Christmas

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

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

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

Doctor Who Last Christmas Radio Times promo photo

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

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

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

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

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

The Doctor: Facehuggers?

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who Last Christmas Danny and Clara

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Trek DS9 it's a fake

Yeah, that never gets old!

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who Last Christmas Santa sleigh

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who reviews: Dark Water and Death in Heaven

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

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

Doctor Who Death In Heaven promo image

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

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

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

Doctor Who Dark Water volcano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who Dark Water Cybermen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who Death In Heaven gone viral

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who Death In Heaven Danny converted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who Death In Heaven Clara Danny and the Doctor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who Death In Heaven satute

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who reviews: The Caretaker

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who The Caretaker promo image

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who The Caretaker Danny salutes

The Doctor does not like Danny because he associates soldiers with people who do not use their intelligence, who believe that the answer to every problem is violence. Danny, in turn, does not like the Doctor because he reminds Danny of his former superior officers, and of the politicians, the ones who start wars and then send people like him into the battlefield to fight and die in order to do the dirty work of cleaning up those messes.  And, yes, I do think that there is some truth to Danny’s comparison.  I was once again reminded of the scathing observation made by Davros in “Journey’s End” concerning the Doctor, a line I’ve quoted before:

“The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons.”

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

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

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

Doctor Who The Caretaker Courtney

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

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

Doctor Who reviews: Time Heist

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

Doctor Who Time Heist poster

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

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

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

Doctor Who Time Heist cast

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who Time Heist Abslon Daak mug shot

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

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

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