Doctor Who 9.12 – Hell Bent

So one day the Time Lords, who can monitor all of time and space, wanted to talk to the Doctor. We’ve seen them teleport to his exact location at least twice, and we’ve seen them take control of his TARDIS several times, but now they figure their best option is a trap. As bait, a boy from London who the Doctor has met exactly once. Contracted to spring the trap, a woman the Doctor has met exactly twice, and who has not interacted with him in more than 350 years, and who lives in an invisible street. Despite the apparent urgency in talking to the Doctor, the Time Lords are content to wait 4.5 billion years for him.

Okay, so about that last point, I’d like to think that 4.5 billion years just pass in the fixed, closed universe of the confession dial, and however long the Doctor spends in it, he’d be spat out into the same moment in the “real” world. Otherwise, in a series where the impermanence of memory has been discussed twice, you’d think that after 4.5 billion years, Rassilon would have forgotten what the heck it was they wanted to discuss. But this urgency didn’t lead them to leave the dial in the High Council’s office or a prison cell. No, the dial’s in the desert for no other reason than the opportunity to take advantage of some nice location filming, just like the only reason they’ve involved Mayor Me is to take advantage of the popular actress Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones instead of, say, Osgood and Kate Stewart, or the Paternoster Gang, or River Song, or Clara’s grandmother. Maybe the Time Lords have lost the ability to teleport or control the TARDIS. But they’ve also lost their brains if they’re using Rigsy and Me instead of people who actually have Clara’s telephone number.

What I’m getting at, of course, is that series nine ends on yet another massive disappointment. Nine’s a weird series that way: it’s bookended by two huge turkeys but I really love the ten episodes between them enormously. Like “The Magician’s Apprentice”, this whole storyline takes something that should have been stripped down to its core – because it really is a simple thing – and complicates it with set piece after set piece. There’s all this nonsense with the soup and the barn and the line in the sand that doesn’t have anything at all to do with the problem of the Doctor and Clara’s friendship being unsafely intense.

Worse, it’s just tedious. There are several very good lines of dialogue, and our son liked the visual of the time-traveling diner if nothing else, but it’s sixty minutes long and you feel every one of them. Even accepting that goodbyes in the modern show take a very long time, this is bloated and weighed down by its length. Clara and the Doctor don’t converse; they debate. At least it begins promisingly, with the Doctor meeting who we are meant to think is another of Clara’s lost-in-time splinters from series seven and playing her “Clara’s Theme” on his guitar, but it falls apart immediately after that. It’s such a shame this season didn’t end with something imaginative and fun. We’d have to wait another three weeks for the Christmas special for fun.

Doctor Who 9.11 – Heaven Sent

Every once in a while, television writers will stretch and do something really, really unusual, and push against the expectations and form of a program with something of a house style. The “Three Men and Adena” episode of Homicide: Life on the Street has been my go-to example of “did you see that?!” since it originally aired. “Heaven Sent” is certainly another. I enjoyed asking our son afterward “You’ve never seen a Doctor Who like that before, have you?”

Truth be told, he wasn’t really taken with it. It’s a little far outside his own wheelhouse, and I think that from his perspective, this felt like a long and uncomfortable road block between what happened to Clara in the last episode and the confrontation that he was expecting. I may be extrapolating similar criticism that I’ve read before into his impatience, but I think there’s a point to that impatience, if what you’re wanting is a story that gets to a satisfactory resolution without delays. On the other hand, if you’re like me and think that the journey itself is often as important, or more, than the destination, then “Heaven Sent” is a pretty amazing journey.

What else? Rachel Talalay is back to direct, the script probably took Steven Moffat months and months to finish, and Peter Capaldi is on fire. Like “Sleep No More” earlier this season, it’s a story that suffers particularly when given artificial commercial breaks. It’s a puzzle box, a trap, a torture chamber, an anachronism, it reminds me of “The House That Jack Built” from The Avengers and it’s just a phenomenal, intelligent, and brilliantly constructed hour of TV.

Doctor Who 9.10 – Face the Raven

Well, let’s get the nitpicky out of the way first. “Face the Raven” was Sarah Dollard’s first Doctor Who script, and it’s extremely good in many respects, but it makes a critical error in basing the big problem around an extremely complicated deathtrap with more rules than a television hour can realistically address. This naturally leads an audience to start questioning “why didn’t they” and “why couldn’t he” instead of dealing with the fictional reality. In a book, this might have worked a lot better, because a novel doesn’t have the clock until the end of the episode ticking. I can imagine somebody like Susanna Clarke providing the full contract between Me and the Quantum Shade in the book’s appendix. So as much as I like this story, there are questions that are never going to be satisfactorily answered; the episode just has to shout “She just can’t, okay?!” and honestly, television should never need to do that.

Wait until we get to episode twelve, though. That mess is nothing but questions.

That said, everything else is really good. Maisie Williams is back as Me, who we last saw in the 17th Century, and she has sprung a trap for the Doctor using his and Clara’s friend Rigsy, who we met in “Flatline” in season eight. I really love the realization of the “trap street.” The Harry Potter films had a couple of similar “hide in plain sight” places that I don’t think were done as well as this, and the occupants of the street, mostly survivors and refugees from various attempted conquests of Earth, remind me of Kate Orman’s novel Return of the Living Dad. Although full credit to Orman: this episode has some amusing familiar faces, but nothing here is as ridiculously lovely as the novel’s poor Auton, cut off from the Nestene Consciousness and stuck forever in the form of a spatula.

It’s a very intense episode that kept our son practically motionless for its full running time, which rarely happens. Clara’s death scene is really amazing and he was absolutely silent. He said afterward “That… kept me on my toes. It wasn’t exciting the way I like it, but I couldn’t guess what was going to happen.” Despite my problems with the script, everybody involved did an outstanding job with the material. My eyes were dry this time, but I have watched it something like eight or nine times, and a little of its power has admittedly been a bit dulled.

Doctor Who 9.9 – Sleep No More

After the last Doctor Who story that we watched, we talked to our kid about how, even at its dopiest and most unlikely, good science fiction should make you think about something in the real world that isn’t quite right. In that case, it was war and radicalization. In this one, I’m reminded of how the stories about Amazon tell us that the warehouse employees’ restroom breaks are monitored and how spending that half-minute washing your hands is a good way to find your advancement prospects limited. For what it’s worth, a co-worker who used to be on my team before moving to another department, who had no reason to lie about it, came to us from the Amazon warehouse a few miles north of Chattanooga, and he said those stories are blown out of proportion and he really enjoyed working there.

Well, true or half-true, within the found-footage horror story about monsters made from sleep mucus, there’s a beautifully angry revelation in Mark Gatiss’s script for “Sleep No More” about the business world of the 38th Century. They’ve figured out a way to compact sleep into five minutes so that workers can keep pushing and get an edge on their corporation’s competitors. It isn’t a wholly original idea – Judge Dredd introduced sleep machines in the late seventies, I think – but the way the episode presents this to the audience via a sales pitch from the company is remarkably devious and real. Compare to how angry the episode “Oxygen” from the next series will be about a similar issue, and then marvel at the missed opportunity of “Kerblam!” in series eleven.

We see Doctor Who on BBC America, whose unfortunate employees are tasked with the unenviable job of finding places to insert commercials. The program always suffers from this, because it’s not made with any kind of rise or fall in the narrative to stick an ad in it. But somehow “Sleep No More” was one of the episodes that I felt was wrecked by ads more than almost any others, and in fact we ended that night in 2015 kind of disappointed with it. It wasn’t until I gave it another spin after the DVD release in the middle of the night that it clicked with me. I think it’s a very strong story with lots of fun little surprises, and who can resist the Doctor and Clara arguing about putting “space” in front of common words just because they’re not on Earth and need to identify a “space restaurant,” or who gets to name the new monsters. Of course the Doctor gets to do that. If you let somebody like Fulton Mackay name them, they end up being called Silurians instead of Eocenes or Devonians.

Doctor Who 9.8 – The Zygon Inversion

So the kid said that he enjoyed this episode and that it was “powerful,” and I think that’s an unusual word for a ten year-old to use to describe a piece of television. I think that he’s right, and I think that many people will agree, but I’m pleasantly surprised that we’ve raised a kid who, only ten, can see that television that challenges viewers to think more about the emotions and the reasons and the consequences for and of war might need different words than “cool” or “awesome.”

Many people seem – quite understandably – to think of the big climax, with Capaldi forcing his angry enemy to think about those consequences and change her mind, as the big moment to take away. But I sometimes come back to this scene in a small, closed supermarket, and think it’s one of the most amazing pieces in all of Who. Most of what happened before is left to our imagination, but we know that the rebel leader messed with this peaceful immigrant Zygon’s ability to hold a human form. He turned into an alien monster again in front of people, the video went viral, and hours later, there are dead people in the lobby.

The Zygon just wanted to live in peace. He had been a Briton for two years, living quietly in what looks to be a beat-up, aging council estate in south London. Nobody bothers him, and he’s happy. Then some young, violent meatheads do something terrible, and racists close ranks, and immigrants aren’t welcome. Every time that racists and white supremacists and nationalists do something even more disproportionately terrible in response to whatever’s pissed them off this month, this scene hits harder. It’s brilliant, brilliant writing.

In a much lighter observation, after the previous episode’s revelation that seventies – or possibly eighties – companion Harry Sullivan had worked on the team developing an anti-Zygon nerve gas, I made sure to remind our son of the delightful moment toward the end of “Revenge of the Cybermen” when the Doctor tells everybody within earshot that Harry Sullivan is an imbecile. 1300 or so years later, and the Doctor’s opinion hasn’t changed; he’s still “that imbecile.” And our son observed that cosplaying as Osgood probably isn’t that difficult, although his methods certainly are. He suggests that anybody who wants an Osgood costume just needs to go to the “BBC Costume Creation Department and take all their old designs and things for the Doctor that they’ve thrown away.” I think he might could build a better mousetrap if he thought about that a bit longer.

Doctor Who 9.7 – The Zygon Invasion

I’ll get the worst out of the way, because Peter Harness’s two-parter is otherwise extremely good, especially its second half. I don’t like the Zygons’ weapons turning people into blobs of sparkling hair because it looks ridiculous. It’ll be topped by an even dumber death visual in the next season, unfortunately. But what I really can’t stand is this absolutely unbelievable interlude where the Zygons shapeshift into copies of the family members of these crack UNIT troops.

Okay, sure, UNIT’s always been known to find soldiers of the “Holy Moses! What’s that?” variety, but you’d think that fifty years later, they’d have sorted out who gets to wear the blue badge. But no, we have an entire company of redshirts sent to Turmezistan, who know the Zygons pulled the “don’t kill my kid and his dad” trick with the drone operator, who’ve been told by their commanding officer to watch out for the trick, and a dozen soldiers nevertheless fall for it anyway, meekly walking along to their offscreen death by sparky-hair, in a scene that is utterly unnecessary to the plot. The story would have continued in precisely the same way if Colonel Walsh and the Doctor had gone in by themselves. It adds nothing except to say “Aren’t these heroes gullible idiots?” and “I’m sure the director thought that was dramatic; he was wrong.” It’s padding every bit as obvious and awful as that bit in “Timelash” where the Doctor shouts at Herbert for six minutes, and stands as one of the most breathtakingly stupid and misplaced moments in the whole of Doctor Who. That bad.

Whew. I mean, we understand and often love the fact that Doctor Who is frequently stupid, but it’s frequently lovably stupid. This one’s full of those moments, like the revelation that the two Zygon bigwigs in the UK have chosen to disguise themselves as two schoolgirls. Then there’s “Doctor Disco” and the Nixon salute and the great little revelation that the “hush-hush” business that Harry Sullivan had been up to at Porton Down was developing an anti-Zygon nerve gas, after his experiences with them back in the seventies or eighties.

The premise is that after the events of “The Day of the Doctor” two years previously, twenty million Zygons have resettled on Earth, agreeing to hide as humans and keep a peace treaty. I remember that some people baulked that twenty million is a huge number, but it’s also about the population of Cairo, spread out everywhere from Turmezistan to New Mexico, so maybe it isn’t that outrageous. UNIT’s Osgood has been concerned that some of the Zygons were not going to be happy with this, and now her predicted “Nightmare Scenario” has come true.

But at its core, this is an angry story that’s really well told and has a few very good twists in it. It’s a story about radicalization, using alien shapeshifters to talk about young, impatient jerks waging jihad. It goes out of its way to insist that there are good and evil in all cultures, but perhaps sadly this story is only about the radicals, who announce themselves with a spray-painted stencil of a black claw. The leader, who takes the name Bonnie, seems to have a following of a few thousand Zygons, possibly a drop in a bucket of 20,000,000, but more than enough to be one of the greatest threats the planet’s ever seen. After all, as Colonel Walsh asks, how can you actually count them?

Doctor Who 9.6 – The Woman Who Lived

Our son said “It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, but it was interesting.” Strong disagree from me this time; I think this one’s extremely good. Madly, it’s Catherine Tregenna’s only Doctor Who writing credit, although she contributed a few episodes of Torchwood. Heck, Chris Chibnall used her six times on Law & Order UK; surely he’s had her in to pitch. This is such a good script and it leaves me wanting to see more work from the writer.

So this is, obviously, a follow-up to “The Girl Who Died”, though sadly our son couldn’t quite connect the dots when I replayed him a scene in that installment’s beginning. This episode ends with the revelation that Ashildr lives until at least 2015 and makes good on her promise to keep an eye on the Doctor. It’s reasonable to assume – not even knowing what’s to come – that she’s been around the sidelines for as many of the Doctor’s adventures on Earth that anyone could run across. And the Doctor, wearing any number of faces himself, probably saw her in some crowd or other from time to time, not registering anything important about her. It’s only when he sees her in the year 800-something that it clicks. Deja vu.

There’s a plot to this story and it’s certainly entertaining. It’s 1651 and there are highwaymen and amulets and a strange lion-faced alien, and it’s all done with wit and charm and I enjoy it a lot. But the meat is the Doctor realizing that Ashildr has gone very far astray. Immortality – and didn’t Rassilon once tell him this? – is a curse, not a blessing. Ashildr goes by the name Me now, but the Doctor, rudely, declines to call her any name but the one with which she was born. Funny to think that an episode made just six years ago has dated so strangely in that regard. There’s so much to chew on here, from fannish references to the Tereleptils, who will burn down London in about fifteen years, to how many memories somebody can expect to hold onto after 800 years and how much someone will change. The Doctor hints that she may need to look up Captain Jack Harkness in the future. Probably Orlando, Dorian Gray, and Hob Gadling as well. I’m sure they have a lot to talk about.

Doctor Who 9.5 – The Girl Who Died

I amuse myself by noting when the Doctor expresses familiarity with our culture. He mentions ZZ Top in this one. I can accept that. This Doctor plays guitar, and Billy Gibbons is one hell of an excellent blues guitarist. It makes sense the Doctor would know his work. But Clara also mentions adding the Benny Hill theme, “Yakety Sax,” to some recorded footage of some alien invaders getting routed by a big puppet, and the Doctor seems to know what she’s talking about. Oh, if we must. It’s a good gag. Our son has no idea who Benny Hill was, and he laughed like a hyena.

Anyway, “The Girl Who Died” was co-written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat and it’s really, really entertaining. It introduces Maisie Williams as Ashildr, who of course we’re going to run across several more times. The Doctor saves a Viking village after their warriors have been murdered by some alien thugs called the Mire, and gets the remaining farmers and fishermen to defend the small town after Ashildr sparks further fighting. It’s a great introduction to the character, and there are a couple of surprising flashback clips to the episodes “Deep Breath” and “The Fires of Pompeii”. The kid was really pleased as well. He always seems to like it a lot when the Doctor’s last-minute plan is revealed. This one involves ring toss and electric eels.

Doctor Who 9.4 – Before the Flood

After an hour of brilliantly claustrophobic material in an underwater base, the Doctor travels back to 1980, and the village that was flooded. It was abandoned several years previously, and had been dressed as a typical street in the Soviet Union for Cold War-era military intelligence training. It reminded me a little of “Target” in The New Avengers. There and then, we meet the sniveling alien undertaker whose ghost was setting the events of 2119 in motion, and a great big alien menace called the Fisher King.

I absolutely love “Before the Flood,” and told our son that this two-parter is among my very favorite Doctor Who adventures. He not only agreed that the second half was better than the first – 45 minutes of creepiness and scares locked in a base with no way out? no, he wasn’t completely happy, no – but said “the second part more than made up for the first part, it made up for some bad parts in some other Doctor Who stories I didn’t like.”

I think this is an incredibly intelligent and very surprising story that uses time travel really well, introduces a character who’s familiar with the Doctor and has read about some of his 21st century adventures, introduces another character who’s even more familiar with the Doctor and the Time Lords and how bloodthirsty they got in the Time War, and it does them effortlessly, without sounding like it’s bogging down with fannish references. The resolution turns out to be a really clever example of the “bootstrap paradox,” which is delightful, and the acting and the direction are simply full of clever surprises. I love it to pieces and want Toby Whithouse to come back and write more for this show.

Doctor Who 9.3 – Under the Lake

Well, here’s a strange little bit of casting. We saw Colin McFarlane once before at our blog, and he was playing a ghost in that performance as well! He got to join Marty Hopkirk in the afterlife as a living-large PI named Snellgrove who doesn’t end up living for very long. I must get around to catching him in something where he’s alive one day.

Anyway, “Under the Lake” was written by Toby Whithouse, who really should come back and write some more Who episodes one day because he’s extremely good. Among his previous adventures was “The God Complex”, which introduced a race of aliens called Tivolians as supporting characters. The Doctor recognizes that one of the ghosts is a Tivolian, and I love how understated this is. The whole adventure is excellent, I really love it to bits, but I especially like how this is quietly placed to the side, because there’s so much going on, and nobody has time to ask how this alien got here, or how long he’s been here. In fact, it’s an interesting inversion of the typical set-up of a modern Who two-parter. Usually they spend part one setting everything up and part two running around madly. This time we have to wait to get the full picture, and I love that they did it this way.

Doctor Who 9.2 – The Witch’s Familiar

I’m writing this the week that the season 24 Blu-ray set was released in the UK. I decided against getting the British limited editions, thinking they’re too expensive, too fragile, and too large, and complain about the domestic editions, which come late, and don’t even have a little insert card explaining what’s on what disk, instead. So this week, fans in the UK are revisiting the much derided-“Time and the Rani”, with which this story shares a very curious similarity in my book. Both of them suffer from a really poor part one and things get better from there. I think it’s notable because this happens so rarely in Doctor Who, a program which usually has great – or at least interesting – ideas and trouble making them stick.

Of course, “Rani” only goes up from utterly embarrassing to mediocre, but “The Witch’s Familiar” is so darn good that it defies belief. The first half, “The Magician’s Apprentice”, was overwritten and unnecessarily complicated. The second half is excellent and simple and everything that happens in it services the plot.

We learn a lot of bad fandom habits when we’re young. One of mine became unshakeable: I got to know Anthony Ainley’s Master, didn’t think the character was worth a darn, had my mind blown by the excellence of Roger Delgado later, and concluded that everybody since was wasting valuable screen time and real estate. And here, at last, Michelle Gomez has a script that lets her nail it. She isn’t given any of the self-consciously “wacky” stuff that was so annoying in the previous episode (see also: pretending to be a robot in series eight), and she carries herself with smugness, experience, and power and is a constant, tangible, very dangerous threat. In keeping with the character, she even knows Elton John lyrics. (And hey, belated kudos to the Doctor for a rare insight into modern culture: he played a bit of “Oh, Pretty Woman” on his guitar last time.)

Our kid was in heaven. It’s full of all sorts of Daleks and provides lots of fascinating backstory about how they use their negative emotions to get stronger. Plus, it’s packed with visual and textual nods to many previous adventures, it’s gross in places, Missy is incredibly evil, and, in a glory so crowning that it prompted about a full minute of laughing, Missy and Davros finally meet. It’s easily the best Dalek installment in at least six years, and so many of the next episodes are going to be even better.