2 years, 5 months ago
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Let’s try something different.
Let’s write this flat-out, without any reference to GallifreyBase, to second watchings, to anything. I have opened up the laptop the moment I finished it, and I am writing first impressions, as an honest, open review. I’ve not looked at Twitter reaction. I’ve not looked at comments. I am making an honest stab at staking out a critical position without any lens of history whatsoever. Because I don't really care. I don't want to contexualize this in the immediate critical reaction. I want to charge out all guns blazing and make a point, fully cognizant of the risk that I might turn out to be in a lunatic minority.
This was the single best episode of Doctor Who ever.
I am using that sentence with perhaps an odd degree of precision. It is better at being Doctor Who than any previous episode, given that so much of what makes it work is that it is an episode of Doctor Who. It is unapologetic, and indeed triumphant about pulling tricks that only Doctor Who can do. “The moon is an egg.” I mean, that’s the most gloriously trolling reveal imaginable. It all but invokes Poe’s Law on a particular segment of criticism of Doctor Who.
And the joke is that the episode as a whole is a decisive move towards the classic themes of science fiction they espouse. Harness was apparently instructed to “Hinchcliffe the shit” out of the first fifteen minutes, and he did, but equally important is the way in which he Lamberted the shit out of it. On a very basic level, this starts like the show did back, well, in the immediate aftermath of two teachers from Coal Hill School confronting a secretive alien in their school. It starts with “here’s a weird place, let’s go explore it.” It does a self-consciously back to basics opening, complete with the Doctor not using the namechecked psychic paper and instead doing a classic, fast, and utterly believable bit of talking his way into command of a situation. There’s a self-conscious move, throughout the start of this episode, to frame Doctor Who in a very classic way.
That’s been a mission statement all season, but with the exception of Into the Dalek, which combined a visually splendid “here’s what Terry Nation wished you could see” with the same warmed over Dalek story we’ve been redoing since 2005, there hasn’t really been the decisive turn to doing the “here’s Doctor Who as you expect it, only not quite” approach that this season has been developing onto something that’s almost entirely composed out of the series’ golden age science fiction heritage.
The series has gotten very smart about how it handles the near future, fully embracing the fact that it’s going to be proven wrong by longevity and accepting that you can still do interesting television that’s a clear extension of the immediate-term. Or, to put it another way, and a relevant one given the Mexican mining facility, The Enemy of the World is not harmed in the least by the fact that it’s looking mediocre as a prediction of 2018. Which, you know, we might have figured out when 2000 AD and 2001: a Space Odyssey survived the odometer rollover, but we’re Doctor Who fans and so are inclined to be irrationally paranoid that nobody will like us. So why not do something that will probably… well, no, actually, let’s remember, the moon is an egg, so essentially certainly turn out not to happen in 2049. (Season Forty-Three, by the way, assuming no more gap years.)
What matters is instead the way in which this is a future built out of the present. The oceans are rising and killing people, people still watch TV, and people’s grans used to post things on Tumblr. We’ve forgotten about space. We didn’t manage nuclear disarmament, but we got down to a hundred, so that’s something I guess.
Into this is projected a classic science fiction dilemma. Trolley problem, straight up, with a genocide chaser. None of this is particularly interesting in and of itself, but the episode is savvy in the set pieces it uses while setting all of this up. Courtney gives them a set of new ways to do old scenes, and they use them systematically and deliberately. Ellis George rises to the occasion, as she does. Giant spiders haven’t been used for a while, so out they come for the requisite action scenes. The cold open is a solid use of flash forwards. A few little nods to The Moonbase to light the way, and you have an episode that rolls along nicely for a while, getting its pieces in place.
Along the way there are little oddities. The Doctor gives a beautiful inverse of the “fixed points in time” speech, which is the first clue that something’s up. (Well, the first is arguably Clara at the very beginning, appearing as found footage, but we’ll get there.) He does the “disappear out of the narrative” trick, which isn’t unusual for the series, and which was made likely by the cold open anyway, but then pops right back in having figured out the plot.
All of this is just there to buy the space for the Doctor, and indeed Capaldi to do the ultimate trick and actually disappear from the narrative in a way that contributes to the storytelling. This too is a classic series trick, of course - the Doctor frequently vanished for whole episodes so that Hartnell and Troughton could take a week off. But here it’s used in spectacular fashion, with a fantastic Capaldi speech that comes out of a very classic science fiction heritage - one that’s ultimately about free will and the ability to choose your own destiny and about the existence of ethics and morality as a serious concern. It’s the “why doesn’t Superman solve poverty” speech, ultimately, but in a way such that the moral problems that speech has (namely that it’s in the end still an argument against ending poverty) don’t really apply, given the ridiculously fictional nature of the problem the Doctor refuses to solve.
So the perfect match for the moral dilemma, really, which is just as blatantly constructed, such that we get a self-consciously theatrical story about three people stuck in a room together with an unpleasant job to do and a disagreement over how to do it. Under the hood, we’ve moved from a 1960s/70s perspective on science fiction to a 1940s/50s one. We’re back in the days of Quatermass - science fiction as televisual theater, complete with the theme of space as a yawning and horrifying void full of cosmic horrors.
Except that this story has been set up as only Doctor Who can do it: as a decision about whether to murder the moon before it hatches, taken by an astronaut, a school teacher, and a black girl who’s been labeled a disruptive influence at school, with a countdown imposed by the army of giant spiders bearing down on them.
So with all of this done, it proceeds to do the other massively Doctor Who twist and become a magical incantation. Suddenly Clara makes her own Troughtonesque move, peering out of the television screen at the viewer. She takes the pixie part of her underlying trope with sudden seriousness, goes full Peter Pan, and demands that the viewer clap their hands, or at least turn off or on their lights to vote to save or cut the hatching moon.
It is worth noting, in a series that seemed to start by being acutely aware of the sun, as we head now into October and the autumn proper, does a story that could only work at night, well after moonrise, and with a mostly full moon. The viewer is, of course, ensnared here. The default choice is to leave the lights on. And indeed, no viewer is going to go “yeah, fuck the imaginary alien on Doctor Who, I’m turning my lights off to prove a point.” Clara demands we choose, we leave our lights on, and by doing so we make our choice. Which is exactly what the story expects us to do, and which it then responds to by giving the actual inevitable result of saying “hey humanity, do you want to risk extinction or murder the last star whale,” which is that the star whale has literally lost that vote every time it has ever come up in human history. (Although the decision to focus mostly on white European nations in depicting the vote is significant as well, again tying the decision to the actual cultural context of the episode. This is, I think, the most immediately concerned with the act of transmission Doctor Who has been since "The Feast of Steven.")
And so we get Clara and Courtney using their veto on the audience’s behalf, taking in their affect and finding themselves hurled into action by the audience’s demand, turning Doctor Who into reality television, and deciding that, no, they are not going to use the Moment/fire the nuclear bombs (and siding with the viewer in doing so), and in the process bring Tinkerbell back to life/bring back the Doctor. Democracy be damned. The people do not have a moral right to make a morally wrong decision. An immoral order does not magically become moral simply because of the number of people giving it. "I was only following orders" is not a defense simply because the orders were democratically dictated. Clara and Courtney could have said no. They did. Good for them. May we all be so brave.
And so the Doctor returns with another classic science fiction speech, this time used to give humanity its utopia back, rewarding the audience’s moral decision with a promise that this decision to value life and beauty over fear and violence can overcome humanity’s worst instincts, turn the lights back on, and save the future.
And then for good measure it has two further scenes - the staggering confrontation between the Doctor and Clara, in which Clara seems to give a review of the episode’s own emotional manipulativeness and condemn it, storming off with a perfectly reasonable and earned emotional point that doesn’t undermine the act of incredible magic she has just performed, but speaks of the cost that such magic inevitably has.
And then we get the equally fantastic scene with Danny, and that final shot of the moon, pregnant with mysteries, reminding her of the decision she made. He gets two fantastic lines - the “you’re never done with anything if it can still make you angry” one, and the “I had a really bad day” one, which are both dripping with human truth.
So my television has just made me vote on whether or not to belong to the sort of species that deserves to go to space and see an endless future of impossible wonders or to belong to the sort of species that falls in on itself and sinks beneath the sea into deserved extinction. Doctor Who has decided to go back and fulfill the promise of the Hartnell era, using science fiction to confront the present. I think this is genuinely the first time the series has ever dared to be this radically faithful to its own premise. I think that what just happened was an act of magic carved out of television. It was art and alchemy. More than any other story, I think you can point to this and say “this is a demonstration of why Doctor Who is amazing.”
- At this point, the last five can all be as bad as Fear Her and this will still be my favorite season of Doctor Who ever.
- So, we’ve got Alan Moore’s devil in Listen. We’ve got the homage to Steve Moore in Time Heist. And now we have Doctor Who as a magical incantation that’s clearly borrowing some of its plot from Steve Moore’s best Doctor Who Magazine comic, “The Spider-God.” I think Moffat is just unabashedly writing Last War in Albion fanfic at this point.
- Interesting that Clara is completely absent from the trailer for next week. And the episode after, Flatline, is described in a way that makes it sound like it could be Doctor-light.
- Brilliant, of course, that the three people deciding humanity’s future are all women. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone spike the football in the course of passing the Bechdel Test before.
- On a more problematic note, there’s an obvious elephant in the room where people are going to read this story as a pro-life fable. I can see why the interpretation exists, but I think it is inferior on the evidence to my reading of the story’s values, which are based on an aesthetic of exploration and love of strangeness that is a common theme in Doctor Who. The abortion reading ultimately hinges almost entirely on Courtney’s “it’s a baby” line, and while taken in isolation this is a very strong interpretation of that specific moment, but has no particular connection to the resolution of the story. Though if one does want to read abortion themes in here, I'd think the line "womankind, it's your choice" (or something along those lines) is probably a bit significant. That they chose not to kill the moon and that this turned out to be the right choice in this specific context does not seem to me to outweigh the fact that the story went out of its way to focus on the moral validity of abortion being a choice made by women. More broadly, there’s not a strong thematic link between “avert an abortion” and “reclaim humanity’s moral right to a sci-fi utopia,” not least because of the ideological tension between the secular humanist ideals of the sci-fi utopia and the largely Christian ideals of the pro-life movement. Beyond that, the fact that the moon is on the brink of hatching minimizes the abortion angle. I agree, the spectre is there, but it remains on the outside of the text. I would suggest that the story is pro-reproductive futurism in some key ways, particularly in highlighting Clara’s desire for children and the idea that Courtney is wise because she is a child. And the pro-life movement is hugely pro-reproductive futurism. So there is a substantive link between this episode’s concerns and abortion issues, but it’s a two-step process.
- I loved the bit at the very end where Clara comes home and pours a glass of wine to sit down and think about the Doctor and why she does what she does. It’s such a deft, small bit of characterization - the decision that Clara is the sort of person who would do that. Who would have a cheap screw-top bottle of wine on the counter that she nurses over a few days. Who would be introspective like that. Who drinks red, not white. It really highlights the way in which this season is anchored in Clara’s life. (See also that great move from the TARDIS to Clara’s classroom at the end, highlighting the stepping between worlds.) It’s really not that Clara is being written any differently this season. It’s just that there’s been a conscious change of focus and a decision to highlight what makes her unusual as a companion, which is that she travels on the TARDIS as a series of digressions from her ordinary life. That was there last season, but it would go episodes without being stressed. This year, only Robot of Sherwood has ignored Clara’s home life.
- Courtney Woods for President. Campaign slogan: “Imaginary President Now.”
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- Kill the Moon
- Deep Breath
- The Caretaker
- Time Heist
- Into the Dalek
- Robot of Sherwood