For our season finale (until Christmas) I’m joined by the legendary Kate Orman, writer of an appallingly large number of very good Doctor Who books. The first half is interview about her Virgin Books novels and her recent Faction Paradox anthology Liberating Earth, the second (starting at about the hour and twenty minute mark for those with no interest in the Wilderness Years, which is to say, wrong people) on Hell Bent. You can get it here, and I recommend you do, cause it’s lovely.…
Moffat must go.
- It is stunningly reckless in its oversignification. Nearly every element of the plot is another thing along the lines of the Zygons in The Day of the Doctor – an unresolved question mark that could be expanded on at vast length. Similarly, nearly every element turns on parallelism with other pieces of the mythology.
- The most interesting of these is of course the Me/Missy parallel, emphasized both by the ostentatious emphasis on Me knocking four times and on the tripled repetition of “Missy” from Clara to the Doctor to Me in such a way as to stress that “Me” would be a perfectly plausible alias for her.
- And don’t give me that “how would you make that work with the continuity” bullshit. The answer is obvious: Clara eventually seeks out Faction Paradox to help her with the whole “has no pulse” problem, and in the course of that adventure Me is flung into the Looms. Duh.
- What an absolutely perfect ending for Clara, though. Not a Time Lord. (Probably) not immortal. Entirely on her own terms, as what she is. But stealing a TARDIS and running away to see all of time and space. With Maisie Williams. Given that the character’s departure is in part defined by the fact that she’s had a half-dozen of them already, three of them fatal, the question of how she’d leave for the final time was vexed. And the episode leaned into that, most obviously with the massively emphasized pan away from the “things that need to be said” conversation. Within that problem, the answer “Clara founds her own discrete and feminine iteration of the basic narrative of Doctor Who and escapes from the narrative into it” is absolutely brilliant.
- More brilliant, though, is the way in which Hell Bent uses its oversignification to create an “it’s all true” approach to its underlying questions of mythology. Numerous things almost happen, or are gestured at through parallels but not through exposition, such that any fan theory is no more than two lines of technobabble away from confirmation. And particularly the role that women have within this – note the way that the episode is haunted by several of them, including some who are actually in it.
- Actually, just to take a quick detour into a bit of canon the episode is mostly content to let slide, isn’t it fascinating that the Sisterhood of Karn is off at the end of the universe with the Time Lords? There’s no evidence they have time travel themselves (and indeed it would fuck with their basic concept pretty hard if they did), so presumably they’re sort of tagging along with Gallifrey. Which is fine – I have no problem expanding the “what gets time bubbled” from “Gallifrey” to “the entire constellation of Kasterborous.” But this makes the question of “where is Gallifrey” somewhat odd for the Doctor, given that he clearly knows how to stop off to visit Ohilia in The Magician’s Apprentice, which should give him a pretty good clue where Gallifrey is if they’re linked like that.
I’m joined this week by Elliot Chapman, Big Finish’s Ben Jackson, for an utterly spellbinding conversation about Heaven Sent and acting, including some fascinating discussion of Capaldi’s technical approach and how it compares to several of his predecessors. It’s an absolutely fantastic conversation, and you can listen to it right here.…
|Art by cardinalcapaldi|
Dollard for showrunner.
What is perhaps most striking about Face the Raven is its studious lack of flashiness. Especially given the extent to which the denouement involves the story nearly being swallowed whole by the season arc. By the end the episode is nearly as awash in references and metaplots as the start of The Magician’s Apprentice, and yet at no point does it lose sight of its underlying goal of being a fairly straightforward Doctor Who story in the “here is a cool premise, let’s explore it” tradition.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some obvious moments where Dollard’s story gets sacrificed to the needs of the season arc. In particular, the fact that Me’s benefactors have to go unnamed (though they’re obviously the Time Lords, right?) and the entire “what the hell is going on here” is offloaded to, at the very least, Heaven Sent and one suspects at least partially Hell Bent means that this all feels a bit messy. It’s a mystery, and yet it never quite feels like it comes to a solution. Particularly awkward is the fact that the Doctor seems to more or less arbitrarily remember the whole “burn their dead” thing when it’s convenient to move the plot along.
But crucially, Dollard handles each of her two briefs here well enough that the slight awkwardness of the transition between them is largely beside the point. The first chunk of the story, prior to the Doctor turning the key, is raw cleverness. Of particular note is the deftness with which Dollard ditches one premise for another. The trap street is clever, and very Doctor Who. Similar ideas exist in other media – Danny the Street in Doom Patrol and the Wandering Shop in Discworld spring to mind off the top of my head, and I’m sure your head will provide as well. But it’s also necessarily a setup to another kind of story, and the handoff to “alien refugee camp” is well-timed and well-executed.
Moreover, though, “alien refugee camp” is a flat-out astonishing premise. And “murdery mystery in an alien refugee camp” is an even better one. Indeed, its compression into a third of a single episode has to go down as one of the most ridiculously swift disposals of a promising premise in the history of the season, and one really wonders what on Earth was ever going to happen in the parallel world where we spent two weeks on Sleep No More. But even in its ultra-compressed form it works well, with the elements fitting together in a satisfying fashion that builds ominously while also giving the audience sufficient opportunities to feel clever.
As for the second chunk, what is there to say? Not for the first, but nearly for the last time Capaldi and Coleman are given astonishingly good material, and they do astonishing things with it. Notice the structural cleverness of it: the cliffhanger is identical to The Magician’s Apprentice: Clara’s dead and the Doctor’s trapped.…
This is solidly Gatiss’s best-ever Doctor Who story. It is in several regards outright brilliant, in a giddy and brave way that makes a perfect little quiet breath of an episode in the tradition of Love and Monsters or Blink, which it most obviously resembles. I’ve not, obviously, run the timing of it, but it certainly feels like a Doctor-lite episode, sharing their structural trick of treating a Doctor Who story as a defined thing happening inside another story. But where those stories put the Doctor into a very different sort of story, here he’s put into a found footage horror film. The result, very cleverly, is a story that gradually unravels into two separate stories, with the Doctor falling out of the narrative instead of slowly overtaking it.
This unraveling is by some margin the highlight of the episode, and is done with deft panache. Information is conveyed through the subtle shifts of the narrative rules, so that the found footage approach moves gradually and cleverly from being a gimmick to being the entire point of the episode. This is handled smartly on multiple levels, including Gatiss’s script, Justin Molotnikov’s direction, and Reece Shearsmith’s performance, which is a beautifully clever blend of familiar forms of Doctor Who acting that shifts cleverly with each twist. The final scene is particularly beautiful, with just the right amount of ecstatic thrill in his evil plan and clear relish in his transformation into dust. What a finish.
On top of that, many of the ideas here are genuinely great. I imagine Jack and Jane will both be over the moon with aspects of this. The leisure time destroyed by unchecked capitalist growth rises up and consumes us, our dreams taking revenge on us for our failure to attend to them. The dust is watching us, and the story it tells about us will kill us. I mean, these are just the sorts of sentences you live to write as an anarcho-Marxist occultist television critic, you know?
There are, however, two significant weaknesses. The first is, simply put, the irreducible flaws of Gatiss. Even when he, as he does here, has genuinely brilliant ideas, he’s rarely inclined to push them particularly far. Given a concept with all the metaphorical heft and conceptual possibility of sleep monsters, we really should have something more interesting than the smashy brutes that are the Sandmen. He doesn’t even go as far as indulging in the obvious grossness of literal snot monsters with people getting transformed into Sandmen and crumbling to dusty snot as they die or anything. Just smashing, and a bunch of kills in the form of “oh no one got in the room with you and we cut to black.”
Beyond that, he remains infuriatingly rubbish at giving his characters interesting arcs or things to do. The supporting cast makes that of Under the Lake/Before the Flood look like Osgood or Ashildir; they’re banal cannon fodder for corridor runs. Clara gets to trip and fall into a box.…
It is, in many ways, the most Part One of the two-parters we’ve had so far. Which is as it should be. I mean, it comes right out, first thing, and proclaims “we’re doing Zygon ISIS.” Pretty much right there, you’ve justified your second part. This isn’t some premise that requires a stealthy inversion at the halfway mark to work over ninety minutes. This is just an incredibly meaty, dense concept that it would be a travesty to even attempt in forty-five. Which makes it a beast to review, of course, but oh well.
Let’s stipulate up front, then, that much like Under the Lake/Before the Flood, a lot could go wrong in the second half. Clara – the actual one – is going to need something significant to do next week to avoid this contributing to a frustrating pattern of sidelining her this season. There’s an “immigration requires assimilation” subtext that, without some actively managed balance, could turn genuinely ugly, although there’s self-evidently no chance of this story going UKIP or anything, having already skewered them. And The Zygon Inversion could just suck. I’m pretty confident it won’t go wrong, though. Part of that is that I just have a lot of faith in an episode with the writing credit “by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat,” but much more of it is just that this is simply a very, very good episode of Doctor Who, and requires none of the “OK let’s be willfully sympathetic about what could easily just be abject sloppiness” that Under the Lake did.
From the start, there’s a deft balancing act going on between the two 1970s that Terror of the Zygons represented. On the one hand is the UNIT era that it ended, with all its political thrillers and sense of implied scale. On the other is the Hinchcliffe era it was a part of, with all its buried gothic horrors. The opening scene, as Osgood runs from a raging battle sold convincingly through a shaky camera and sound design into the police station is emblematic. The first part is neo-”Action by HAVOC.” The second is intimate dread. And the episode keeps toggling between those two approaches. On the one hand, the population of London is being sucked into the ground through its elevators. On the other, drone strikes in Generistan.
But this balance is all the more compelling when it’s tied unapologetically to the headlines in a way the series hasn’t really done since Davies left. When I say “Zygon ISIS,” I am not reading into the story to any meaningful extent. The radicalized Zygons are, first of all, actually described with the word “radicalized.” They send video messages of their hostages, whom they sometimes execute on camera. They have a sigil consciously designed to mirror the ISIS flag. This episode is not fucking around. Similarly, as a metaphor about immigration and assimilation, it’s as subtle as a brick, and gloriously so, both in the “they’ll think you’re trying to pinch their benefits,” a very particularly sort of classic Doctor Who line that just doesn’t show up much in the new series (“The rest were all foreigners.”…
This week I’m joined by Caitlin Smith, aka abossycontrolfreak on Tumblr, who previously contributed the searingly good guest post on Clara in Series 7 for TARDIS Eruditorum. It just seemed a good one to have her on for, what with Clara not actually being in it and all that. Anyway, she’s brilliant, and I’m a mad editor thing, and that makes for good radio or something. Have a listen here. And tune in next week, when we’ve got a massive exciting guest. …
There’s an odd tone to this, which is mostly good, although there’s a big exception. Perhaps the most striking thing is that the first half is essentially a two-hander; an extended character study in Me. This is an interesting exercise, especially coming off The Girl Who Died, and it’s by some margin the most successful the “all two-parters” experiment has been. Between the fact that she’s a Big Guest Actor and the fact that we just spent an episode being introduced to her character, Maisie Williams conspicuously does not need an introduction, and so the story sets about giving her one.
As expected, Catherine Tregenna is well-suited to this. And it’s remarkably tricky ground, especially given the decision to make Me an unsettling and borderline-villainous character, which immediately brings in a lot of mirroring, an approach that can crash into dull cliche with ease. Tregenna is good at this, deftly balancing the big tell-don’t-show lines with slightly surprising and unexpected perspectives throughout. “I stopped caring because everyone died” is obvious. “I left it there to remind me not to have any more children” is staggering. “They value life because it’s fleeting” is yawn-worthy if sweet. The act of caring as “falling off the wagon” is deliciously unnerving. She’s done this sort of thing before, and hat-tips Captain Jack in the script, but the experience in finding new takes on “person out of time” she brings to the job pays off mightily.
But a lot of credit also has to go to Maisie Williams. The Ashildir/Me role is not one that a lot of people could do, requiring as it does the ability to convincingly play a child and then convincingly play a centuries-old immortal who is actually the same person as that child. The list of people who can do that – and it is of course a matter of age and skill both – is very short. Maisie Williams is on it. It’s as simple as that. Whereas The Girl Who Died involved playing off of her role as Arya repeatedly, here her role is almost always to be alien and disturbing, and she relishes in it.
In short, Tregenna’s a great choice to write a story about a different sort of immortal, and Maisie William’s a great choice to play one. The result is that this story has a pretty foolproof basic engine. Basically put, you’re not going to go wrong with Catherine Tregenna writing forty-five of Maisie Williams as an immortal, and you don’t. And given that, it’s tough to call the fact that Doctor Who ends up being a guest in its own programme a problem. (And it’s manifestly Doctor Who, not the Doctor, who’s a guest here.) Indeed, it’s a refreshing variation, which is doubly welcome in a season that deliberately has fewer moments of completely reinventing the tone of the show than some.
What is a problem is that you can tell that Catherine Tregenna’s previous disinterest in writing Doctor Who was, in fact, a genuine sentiment.…
Oh good, they didn’t just completely forget how to make Doctor Who. That’s comforting.
A lot of credit has to go to Jamie Mathieson, whose style is starting to emerge, and emerge compellingly. Central to it – and a point Moffat highlighted in interviews last year talking about him – is a solid sense of premise. The spine of this episode – Seven Samurai with Vikings – is, much like “there’s a mummy on the Orient Express in space” and “evil Flatland,” a rock solid structure that Doctor Who fits into nicely. In a season whose first two stories were marred by odd pacing, an episode that feels like it’s shaped correctly is just terribly relieving.
But the details are also all wonderfully on point, right down to an otherwise stupidly generic alien warrior race that’s instantly elevated by the detail that they harvest testosterone to drink. Similarly, the use of “Yakety Sax” over the video of Odin cowering from a wooden dragon is just a solid bit of charm. And the dialogue for the baby, which manages to be haunting and mythic while still being coherent and sensible as a baby’s take on a sense of impending doom.
Mathieson also seems, to me, to write something very much like the definitive take on Capaldi’s Doctor. The scenes where the Doctor angsts to Clara about events are all electrifyingly good. Much of this is Capaldi, who plays both scenes as a man grappling with the inertia of depression. But it’s also down to the writing, which, as with the closing scenes of Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline, is adept at picking what ideas to tell instead of showing. I feel slightly bad about ragging on him at this point, but Whithouse is an all too useful counter-example, always putting relatively obvious sentiments in explicit text. Whereas Mathieson picks lines like “I’m sick of losing people.” Really, that entire scene is amazing – the Doctor anticipating and dreading his inevitable eventual mourning of Clara’s departure, the way it contrasts with his earlier use of her as an example of someone he’s reshaped. It’s stuff that’s obvious in the sense of being self-evident, but it’s not obvious in the sense of being a cliche. It’s a small and simple thing – the same angst displayed whenever the Doctor sulks over losing a companion – but moved to a position in the narrative where it’s an unexpected nuance. And the overall take on the Doctor is genuinely impressive. Instead of being self-loathing and self-pitying, the Doctor is just exhausted by the centuries. A good man who is worn out.
Implicit in this is also the fact that Mathieson gives Clara good stuff; and he’s very easily argued as the best Clara writer besides Moffat himself. Obviously at this point, after three episodes where she was given very little to actually do, simply having an episode where Clara gets plot is relieving and satisfying. But it’s good plot. Her cajoling and pushing the Doctor is consistently satisfying, and the baseline of it.…