A strange sort of episode from the perspective of what you might think of as the Eruditorum Press aesthetic. On the one hand, an episode in which the Doctor literally brings down capitalism; on the other, the most “gun” story since Resurrection of the Daleks. At the end of the day, my personal taste has always run a bit more “gun” than my ideological taste, so I’m pretty on-board with this, although I’m sure the paragraph that starts “but equally” will end up being interesting.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Mathieson writing this. For one thing, he’s proven himself to be quite good at writing gun. Never in quite so pure and frockless a way as here, but his Series 8 scripts’ reputation rests in part on the fact that they appealed to a particular type of traditionalist fan, and this is hitting many of the same notes. For another thing, he’s very good at developing fairly complex concepts. There’s an awful lot going on in this script, but Mathieson has an extremely deft touch in figuring out how much to develop and explain things. With both the voice controls and the fact that Bill’s suit doesn’t work like anyone else’s he gives himself enough to justify the eventual reveals of “that’s why I couldn’t tell anyone my real plan” and “that’s why Bill survived,” but not so much that either point felt like an obvious Chekov’s Gun hanging over the episode. Pretty much everything fits together save for the basic excessive complexity of the company’s plan, and that gets nicely lost in the mix instead.
On top of that, there’s just a lot to like about the ideas here. My complaint about the way in which scary episodes have become too dominated by haunted houses is nicely handled here with an episode that’s long on scares but is thoroughly sci-fi horror. “Make space scary again” is just a great brief. And the commodification of oxygen / murder of the crew when they become inefficient is great in the way that The Sunmakers was great. The point I’ve made about the Moffat era’s fascination with out of control systems as a strong analogue for anthropocene extinction basically becomes explicit text here, which is very nice.
It also accomplishes exactly what I was hoping for from the move into the season’s second act. Bill is still unmistakably Bill and characterized as such (her “last words” of wondering if it was good or bad that the Doctor wouldn’t tell her a joke were fantastic), but this is the first episode of the season to largely not be about her, instead taking a hard swerve into the dark weird brilliance that’s characterized the Capaldi era at large. The big shift in tone I hoped for is accomplished, and my excitement for the next couple episodes, and really for the rest of the season in general is now high. (The Whithouse episode is the only one I’m kind of dreading; I think the Gatiss one actually sounds quite good.) All in all, it’s a compelling mix of ideas executed intelligently.
But equally, there’s just something about this episode that’s hard to quite love. Part of it is simply that it’s so unrelentingly gun that it doesn’t seem to want to be loved. It’s not really trying to be fun. And while I am predisposed to liking a bit of the grimly epic, the sheer level of cold austerity involved in this episode ends up being offputting. It’s almost begging to be the standard “good episode that ends up taking a hit anyway” TARDIS Eruditorum entry for the tail end of any era. Something about its peculiarly joyless leftism seems to tee up a “noble but failed response to the world” critique of the sort I leveled against late Troughton-era stuff. This is great, wonderful, essential, and fundamentally inadequate. Under the “post-Brexit Doctor Who” standard, this feels like a last hurrah of the past more than it feels like the future, in marked contrast to, say, Thin Ice.
How much does that matter? I don’t know. As I’ve said repeatedly, the idea that Doctor Who has some sort of obligation to provide cultural leadership in the wake of Brexit is self-evidently ridiculous and sets the series up to fail. That doesn’t mean it’s not a standard I’m going to hold Doctor Who to – I can’t not, having created comparable standards for every other era of the program. But applying those standards to the program live, on a week-to-week basis, instead of in the historicized context of TARIS Eruditorum isn’t entirely fair. As a thing to torrent and watch in the afternoon with a glass of cider, this was an entirely cromulent way to spend a Saturday, though it rewatched much better later in the night when the sun had gone down (a problem that applied to its UK airing as well, but also one that’s par for the course for Doctor Who). If I want more, that’s only because of how much this offers and the inchoate sense of something greater that it manages to suggest.
All the same, I want more.
- Man, you wouldn’t normally expect Doctor Who into Eurovision to be a transition with quite this much whiplash, would you?
- The episode isn’t about Bill, but she’s absolutely put through the ringer in it, and Pearl Mackie is brilliant with it. Her two death scenes are upsetting, nightmare fuel stuff, and the decision to linger on them and let them be absolutely horrifying is smart and brutal.
- The frozen space zombies are a magnificently distressing design. Mathieson really keeps lucking out with his monster designs. Though equally, the third time you get a rock solid brilliant monster design it’s probably as much about being really good at picking things the BBC can do as it is about luck.
- More broadly, I really am struck by how well developed this world is. Details like measuring distance by average breaths, the posters, and the throwaway “mythical union” joke. There’s a level of thought and craft to the setting that Doctor Who often doesn’t bother with.
- I suppose I can’t leave the blindness angle unremarked upon, although it’s tough to tell what to say about it. It’s not really used that much here – there’s no real plot developments it’s essential to. So it’s mostly there for Moffat, Harness, and maybe Whithouse to make use of. Certainly it’s an interesting idea that I expect two of those three writers to do well with (and hey, Whithouse did all right with a deaf character), but I’m not sure there’s much to say about it beyond “well that’s got potential.”
- Nardole is starting to clarify a bit, though. His relationship with the Doctor has some sharp edges that are legitimately interesting, and seeing him in an episode that really doesn’t give him any space to be comedic is unsurprisingly a major boon to the character. I still don’t see him becoming a character I love, but I think you can easily argue that his presence makes this episode more interesting than it could have been with just the Doctor and Bill, which is the bar he needs to clear to be justified.
- This episode seriously fucks with the plot of The Daleks. (Also The Wheel in Space, but that is famously the story where About Time leads the “Things That Don’t Make Sense” section with “the plot,” so complaining seems a bit churlish.)
- If you’re anything like me, you finished this episode and had the immediate reaction “ooh, I wonder what Jack’s going to have to say about that.” I’ve yet to crack the task of getting Jack to do what I want, but he’s British and thus motivated primarily by guilt, so if I were you I’d contribute to his Patreon. It’ll either make him feel obliged to write about it or send him into crippling despair at his inability to live up to people’s expectations. And really, either would be great, no?
- Meanwhile, we’ll be back on Thursday with a podcast with Shana. (Jack’s on next week, though I’m sure we’ll end up talking a bit about Oxygen as well.)
- And for American viewers who are just coming to Class for the first time, here’s my review of Brave-ish heart.
- This is going up late enough on Sunday that I’ll do Proverbs of Hell on Tuesday again. Hopefully actually remembering to post it this time.
- Right, time to bite the bullet and commit to a tacit philosophical position via the crude art of rankings.
- Thin Ice
- The Pilot
- Knock Knock