Thursday, January 07, 2016

"Nothing Is Sad Until It's Over - Then Everything Is" - Doctor Who, Series 9 (2015 season)

Spoilers!  Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.  Anyone who's read this blog before will already know that I'm about to discuss the latest season of DW without the slightest regard for whether or not I blurt out major plot points, but still, it's as well to make allowances for potential casual passers-by.  Those allowances amount to this paragraph warning about spoilers.  On we go, then.

I'm not sold on some of this year's paired episode titles, which seem to be veering into 1960s Batman territory.  Among these, "Heaven Sent/Hell Bent" and "The Magician's Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar" commit the further sin of having no obvious relevance to the episodes they're attached to.  These episodes are doomed for evermore in our household to be referred to as "That One Where X Happened".  "The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion" is at least neat, even if my mind insists on replacing "Zygon" with "Penguin's".

There's some heavy hinting at a season arc about "the Hybrid", but this is ultimately puffed away, and fair enough too.  The real arc here is the game of consequences that starts with the Doctor's decision to defy death at the end of The Girl Who Died and ends with him betrayed to the Time Lords, following which he nearly breaks reality to save Clara because he still hasn't learned his lesson.  (And indeed, is unable to learn his lesson because his memory of it is wiped, which neatly echoes his own handling of Kate Stewart in The Zygon Inversion.)

Against this is a running theme of characters successfully cheating death: not just Ashildr/Me, but Davros, the Daleks never dying but only liquefying in their sewers, the Fisher King being mistakenly pronounced dead, Osgood never dying so long as there are Zygons willing to take on her identity, characters in Sleep No More metamorphosing into sentient dust, Riggsy eluding his death sentence in Face the Raven, and the Doctor himself in Heaven Sent.  It's a very coherent season.  Granted, characters not staying dead is a perennial trope in Moffat Who (death isn't just the equivalent of "man flu" on Gallifrey!), but there seems to be more of a point to it this year.

There's also the running effort to make the Doctor into a kind of rock star, with the "sonic sunglasses" and Peter Capaldi playing his electric guitar all over the place.  I'm hoping this won't stick in the long term, although I expect it'll crop up again in the 2016 season.

All in all, I prefer the variety of the 2014 season, but still, the 2015 season is another good one.  The show is feeling fresh and full of potential again.

The Magician's Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar
Now, this just looks like somebody wasn't satisfied with only having one season finale and decided to write a second finale, then decided to open the season with it.
Missy's reappearance is more than a little reminiscent of the end of the third series of Sherlock.  (On that note, the New Year's episode of Sherlock was more than a little reminiscent of Last Christmas.  Is Moffat overstretching himself?)
And hey, look, it's Every Dalek Ever on the screen again!  Only this time, the giant-sized plastic Daleks introduced five years ago weren't invited!  Looks like we're all basically agreed that Victory of the Daleks never happened, then.
The idea of the Dalek machinery suppressing the personality of the creature inside is an interesting one, but it kind of undermines the notion that the Daleks themselves were genetically engineered not to have any personality beyond just being hateful gits.  On the other hand, I can see how it follows on from last year's Dalek story, with its suggestion that you'd be able to change a Dalek's mind if you could just switch off certain bits of the machinery inside its helmet.  At this point, we're probably within an ace of giving the Doctor a Dalek companion.
The Daleks don't feel very dangerous here, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  In-story, I think we're meant to infer that the Dalek empire has gone into decline with Davros, and the whole tone of the story supports this.  More broadly, I think that making the Daleks look a bit impotent is a valid statement on what they represent - fascism can be dangerous, but it's also pathetic.  All of which is capped off by the rich metaphor of the Dalek sewers: at the heart of the Dalek empire is a cesspool of bubbling, hate-filled effluent that the Daleks themselves both devolve into and are ultimately drowned by.  Which is nice.
Having Davros open his organic eyes must have seemed like a terrific coup de théâtre to Steven Moffat, but honestly, what the hell?!  It's like having him whip his left hand out from underneath his chair's control panel, or climb out of the chair and stretch his legs for a bit.
Michelle Gomez continues to be a complete delight as Missy, and between her performance and Moffat's script I can genuinely buy into this Doctor/Master pairing.  The scene where she explains their "friendship" to Clara just shines.
A good couple of episodes, but still only middling by this season's standards.  I'd have to rate it behind the Zygon two-parter and the last couple of episodes of the season.

Under the Lake/Before the Flood
Probably the most disposable part of the season, a monster siege story with characters being picked off by rote, same old same old.  The script overall didn't feel entirely worked through - that whole "ha ha, fooled you, that 'ghost' was a hologram!" business had more than a touch of scriptwriter desperation about it.  And honestly, who didn't guess the twist with the suspension pod?  Nice to see a deaf character though (and played by a deaf actor, too) - Jo was impressed with that.

The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived
Really two separate episodes in the unfolding story of Ashildr, aka Me, but presented as a two-parter.  They make an uneven pair - the first one is quite lively, spiced with moments like the Monty Python and the Holy Grail visual reference and the replay of the villain's defeat as a Benny Hill Show chase, but the second one is dragged down by a stodgy mulch-plot about leonine aliens trying to invade the Earth and a rotten performance by the guy playing highwayman Sam Swift.  And while both episodes are essential to this season overall, neither is what I'd call essential DW.
Interesting to see the Doctor put himself forward as a sort of Regimental Sergeant Major for the Viking farmers after all the business in 2014 of Danny Pink taunting him for his officer-like behaviour.

The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion
Easily the best two-parter this season, although I'd be hard pressed to choose between it and Heaven Sent for the top spot.  There's so much going for it: the topicality, simultaneously rendered in broad strokes and yet not softened for the family audience; the massive showboating anti-war speech for Capaldi to get his teeth into; a double role for Jenna Coleman, especially pleasing after she took such a back seat in the previous couple of stories; all the lovely business inside Clara's mind; the proliferation of strong female characters in a UNIT story, that most macho of DW story types.  Turning Osgood into the living embodiment of the human-Zygon truce - a job as much as a character - is an interesting move, and refusing to reveal to the viewer or to any of the other characters whether she's the original or the Zygon duplicate - refusing, in effect, to allow greater value to be placed on one over the other - is a nice touch.
One sticking point for me is the suggestion that this is "the sixteenth time" the Doctor has wiped Kate Stewart's memory after having allowed her to choose whether or not to commit genocide.  Or more to the point, after she's chosen not to, but without understanding that the Doctor would never really give her that choice in the first place, a test that the Zygon insurgent leader passes without obviously having chosen not to commit genocide herself.  I'm not sure that we're meant to infer fifteen previous instances of this exact story, just fifteen previous occasions on which Kate has similarly disappointed the Doctor.  The thing is, how can she be condemned for not learning when she's not being allowed to learn?
On the other hand, it amuses me to imagine the Pertwee Doctor wiping the Brigadier's mind after each '70s UNIT adventure, which would also go some way towards explaining the Brigadier's shift in character from competent military leader to complete duffer during that period.

Sleep No More
Nice minimalist score from Murray Gold - lovely atmospheric stuff all over the place.  Perversely, I noticed the music more on this episode than on any of the others.
The phrase "experimental Mark Gatiss episode" isn't exactly one that trips off the brain.  Gatiss is a relentlessly conventional DW writer, and that sets up an interesting tension with the experimental aspects of this episode.  For a start, the script toys in a self-aware way with the question of how DW stories are filmed and to what purpose, but this is overplayed for a couple of minutes and then discarded.  This, together with the general conventionality of a Gatiss monster runaround, makes the experimentalism feel more like mere gimmickry.  And then we're told that the whole runaround was staged by the monsters for the viewer's benefit in order to distract us from their real plan - a bog standard DW antagonist performing a bog standard DW story because that's simply what the viewer expects.  Which is brilliant as the subject for a learned fan-academic essay ("The Use Of Mark Gatiss Scripts As A Transnarrative Weapon"?), but ridiculous in superficial story terms.  "None of this makes any sense!" exclaims the Doctor, which looks like a Message From Fred if ever there was one.
It's a baffling blend of high and low DW, which alone makes it worth at least one rewatch.

Face the Raven
An interesting story is set up, full of Gaimanesque Fantasy London touches, only to be dropped abruptly in order to write Clara out and shunt the Doctor off to the next episode.  It's a brutal sacrifice of Sarah Dollard's script to the functional requirements of the production office.  The whole thing is effectively reduced to Clara's big dramatic send-off (and hang on, how long was that, five minutes? how long did it take that flipping raven to get there?!) and the Doctor's big dramatic monologue to Me.  Like Sleep No More, this episode basically boils down to "antagonists set up the entire story as a lure with a one-line pay-off", which is a storytelling device that I'm not finding very satisfying.
Still, it was a very nicely written send-off scene, so there's that.

Heaven Sent
Probably the best episode of the whole season, and a tremendous character piece for Capaldi.  It's dark, with the Doctor recycling himself through the same day over and over in order to grind his way out of his prison, but also hopeful in that he does eventually succeed.
The idea of the castle resetting itself behind the Doctor's back doesn't entirely work - the wall he's trying to punch his way through never resets, the octagonal flagstone he's removed from inside the castle is allowed to stay buried in the grounds and the message that (presumably) some earlier version of himself wrote on it is never erased.  The phrase "closed energy loop" offers better cover, but then there are all the skulls at the bottom of the lake which suggest an unlimited supply of new matter from outside the loop.  Best not to think about the mechanics of it too much, I suppose.  It's just a great bit of TV.

Hell Bent
I quite like the fact that Rassilon, last seen in full-on powerful villain mode, is resurrected here as a ranting old man with delusions of messianism ("Rassilon the Redeemer!") who can't even watch the Doctor being shot by a firing squad.  As with the season opener, an authoritarian antagonist is undermined and their flaws exposed.  Having been exposed, he's quickly sent packing, which I think is the right choice - we've had the macho posturing, now let's cut to the character-driven plot.
Nice to see Television's Donald Sumpter, by the way.
The visual effect used on the scene of Clara's extraction from time is an interesting choice - the kind of red-green-blue split you get (well, I get, anyway) when you catch a flatscreen TV at the wrong angle.  Once again DW nods to its own status as a TV programme.
Is the Doctor shooting the Castellan a dodgy moment?  Fair enough, death can certainly be readily worked around on Gallifrey even if it's not quite the "man flu" the Doctor casually suggests, but did he really need to shoot anyone to make his escape?  It's an awkward way to engineer a situation where you can show a transracial/transgender regeneration just to prove the point.  And fine, perhaps for more conservative fans the point still needed to be proven (what price Sophie Okenedo to take over as the Doctor?), but even so.
The presentation of the Capitol Cloisters and mention of a "Cloister War" are highly intriguing.  Nice to see Moffat putting the '70s Gothic aesthetic back into the Time Lords.
The weird thing about the story's resolution is that apparently it doesn't need resolving - Clara is clearly at liberty to travel for as long as she likes, so long as she doesn't mind having no pulse (how similar is her predicament to Captain Jack's?) and provided she's returned to the moment of her extraction at some eventual point.  The Doctor seems to mind her not having a pulse (how similar is this to his reaction to his first sight of immortal Captain Jack - is Clara now "just wrong" in the same way?), but it's not obvious why this couldn't be worked around.  In real world terms, obviously Clara has to be written out somehow, so hey.  Pleasingly, Moffat does the opposite of what RTD did with Donna's exit, giving Clara the upper hand and letting her decide her own fate and wiping the Doctor's memory instead.  (We'll see how long his amnesia lasts, eh readers?)

The Husbands of River Song
What is up with Alex Kingston's acting in that pre-credit scene?
Like the 2015 season finale, I feel as if Moffat is revisiting some of RTD's later work here - in this case, I'm strongly reminded of Voyage of the Damned, with its cruise ship, its meteor strike and its cyborg villain.  Instead of saving the ship and killing off everyone except the bastardous character, Moffat fills the ship with bastardous characters and crashes the whole lot with evident glee.
The focus of the story is apparently on writing out River Song once and for all, and this together with the "happily ever after" ending strongly suggests Moffat was expecting this to be his last year on the show.  I've seen it suggested that he'd planned for the possibility but later downplayed it.  It wouldn't have been a bad note for him to go out on - a fine, strong season and a fairly solid Christmas episode too - but hey, I'm interested to see where he goes from this point in 2016.
So, goodbye to River Song - she had her good moments, but I'm not entirely sorry to see the back of the character.  My main objection to her during Matt Smith's run on the show was that she always seemed to bring the guns, so I'm bemused by the sonic trowel.  It's clearly a step back from all the gunfoolery, but she still uses it as if it were a gun.  (A bit like Matt Smith with his sonic screwdriver, then.)  Beyond that, she's still the morally dubious mercenary character she was in the 2011 season, a character that Moffat clearly revels in - echoes of Eric Saward and his fetishisation of dodgy mercenaries?  At least she's good for a laugh - the reveal of the liquor cabinet hidden in the TARDIS was a nice moment, and the suggestion that she follows the "Damsel" Doctor around and borrows his TARDIS when he isn't looking opens the way to all sorts of fun speculation.
But anyway, roll on 2016.

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