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Hello folks. Let’s take the temperature of the world, shall we? Comments thus far are quite positive. GallifreyBase has an impressive 84.4% in the 8-10 range, with 9 being the most popular at 32.69%, which has this at slightly more popular than Mummy on the Orient Express. I’ll be honest, that surprises me a bit, as I was, for the first time this season, a bit underwhelmed.
That said, this one is tricky, and in a way that feels as though there’s an unusually high chance of my revising my opinion on it upon seeing what it’s actually building to. We’re to the point in the season where the finale is tacitly hanging over things, and this one in particular seems to be making some points about Clara that could feel very different in a couple of weeks. But for me, right now, it feels messy and untidy. Like Mummy on the Orient Express, its emotional resolution is consciously ambiguous, in a way that makes it end off feeling slightly less developed than I think the story actually is. This is due in part to the sneaky power of endings to redefine and reimagine everything that has come before, but it’s also due to the ending actually just not quite fitting with what’s come before completely.
So much of what is going on here hinges on the question of what Clara being elevated to having to “be the Doctor” actually means. Which is indeed a complex question, given the way in which the season has largely treated the Doctor as an object of the sublime – at once wondrous and terrifying. And so for Clara to become the Doctor is not merely aspiration.
This is a marked change – typically the “companion steps up” story is about the companion striving to be better. With Clara, it’s not quite. Indeed, there’s a genuine sense that in becoming the Doctor she has become lessened. In a season in which we have repeatedly been asked to consider the idea of a dark Doctor, and have in many cases simply done so unbidden, without the text particularly pushing us to, just by the knowledge that Peter Capaldi is playing him. Instead, however, especially as her relationship with Danny continues to paint her into an increasingly unsympathetic corner, it feels as though it’s in fact a season about a dark Clara.
And the contours of this revelation have been slyly hidden in the way in which the Doctor’s part has never been written as a traditional lead. I suspect part of the reason why Mummy on the Orient Express went over slightly better than I’d have guessed was simply down to the fact that it was the first story to leave the focus on the Doctor being Doctorish for the episode’s entire run. He’s been left on the edge of the plot, and not given anything like an arc – instead, he remains a constant but slightly alien figure, while Clara gets pushed in increasingly varied directions, the variety of this serving as a gradually slipping mask hiding the problems with her actions.
Which is, of course, surely tied to the fact that Missy “chose” her for some purpose. But between this and the cryptic comment on the Doctor’s part about “goodness having nothing to do with it,” the end resolves this fantastic story about Clara being the Doctor with utter ambiguity. Which would be less of a problem if everything that came before weren’t in turn dominated by a very “let’s run around and fight monsters” approach that played up plot and played down theme.
Which is fine. A straightforward adventure where Clara gets to be the Doctor (and unlike most “the companion has to be the Doctor” stories, succeeds straightforwardly, on her own merits and competence, and without having to commit suicide or anything, which is absolutely brilliant – I love that she’s absolutely capable of being the Doctor) is a fine thing to do. An unsettling examination of Clara as a character that really pushes the possibility that she’s lost or is losing her moral center is a fine thing to do. But this feels uncomfortably like one that just changes what it’s trying to do at the last second without quite knowing how to do it.
It’s not that the ending is unearned – Clara’s constant instinct towards simply taking the Doctor’s callousness at face value and, indeed, turning to it as a first and most obvious choice is a clear part of what’s going on here, and the Doctor is visibly disturbed by it. But the theme isn’t loud enough in the buildup for the ambiguity of the ending to quite work. In many ways the key dropped ball here is Danny, who needs so much more than a single phone call. Five episodes ago, he defined himself in part because he knew when people were lying. Four ago, he considered what lies people told him to be the most important thing about them. Now he hears his girlfriend smashing through a window, obviously knows something is wrong, and wanders off out of the plot anyway. This, like many things in the episode, is something that might be clarified in later weeks so that this improves on rewatching – some explanation of why Danny doesn’t follow up on this, or, alternatively, seeing him call Clara out for it next week. But today, on October 18th, it’s a problem – he feels like he vanishes from the story, despite so much of the story hinging on Clara’s treatment of him.
This is all not entirely helped by a story that is clearly reveling in the tone shifts that Doctor Who is capable of, enjoying the sort of absurd visuals that the show can deliver and its ability to be terrifying one minute and have the Doctor squeezing his hand out of the TARDIS and walking it off a train track the next. (Which may be the most bewilderingly wonderful action sequence ever, especially given that it gets the exact same slightly overblown action theme as everything else in the episode.) It’s a marvelous bit, and is much like the mixture of camp and scares in Mummy on the Orient Express, but in a story that’s destabilized by inconsistent tone elsewhere, it exacerbates the problems.
Which ultimately adds up to the first story in Season Eight that I just don’t feel like quite comes together. After a chain of episodes that made interesting changes to their fundamental premises at the halfway point, we have one that hits its basic note of “monsters on a council estate” and then stayed there, unblinking. Its spin on the companion-led episode structure in which the companion proves a perfectly competent Doctor is great. But on the whole, the episode feels a bit like the one that fell through the cracks, or, at least, like the one that’s been the most willing to settle for merely being pretty good.
- Love the two main supporting characters, though. They’re both absolutely delightful. Although I spent most of the episode thinking that the Daily Mail one was going to turn out to be a zombie sort of thing based on his facial appearance.
- The visuals are in several places wonderful – the anamorphic victim in the cold open and, especially, the slow circling around the possibly 2-D guy in the warehouse. And the flickering monsters themselves are great. If an episode is going to ride so heavily on its great monster concept, it’s nice to see one that’s actually good, which the Boneless absolutely are. This is (mostly) the most visually striking episode of the season, I think, although in typical Doctor Who fashion, shambling zombie bodies possessed by two-dimensional monsters prove terribly effective, but trains are oddly dodgy affairs.
- I find Capaldi’s acting of his big scene bursting out of the TARDIS fascinating, as he goes from reluctance to overplaying things in a really quite sly way. He’s done things like this a couple times, and I’ve still not decided if I like them or not, but they’re such striking decisions that I can’t help but be intrigued.
- In the spirit of probably wrong predictions, I will guess that Missy is the Master, and that she will have a ludicrously elaborate long-game plan involving Clara and the Doctor, with the excessive complexity played in part for laughs in the finale, probably in the first episode.
- Thinking about it slightly more, and adding this bullet point after the rest of the review, my problem here, I think, is that the ending seemed to be there to push me towards not quite trusting Clara, with the double whammy of “goodness had nothing to do with it” and Missy laying a measure of claim to Clara. And that’s interesting, and I like it, but it really undermines, for me at least, an episode that focused so heavily on Clara. It left me with the sense that I’d just watched a bunch of setup for a big twist ending, but without the twist ending actually being in this episode. This one might well move a bit in my end-of-season rankings.
- And finally, rankings.
- Kill the Moon
- Deep Breath
- The Caretaker
- Mummy on the Orient Express
- Time Heist
- Into the Dalek
- Robot of Sherwood
- Flatline (Pending end of season re-evaluation)