The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did
So we follow an episode that evokes The Edge of Destruction with one that evokes The Keys of Marinus. This goes about how you’d expect. It’s not that this is an episode devoid of interesting moments. And indeed, as I guessed it might be last week, it’s unusually light on genre cliches to hold the whole thing together. The problem is that it’s also lacking, in a forty-five minute framework, any space to allow the barrage of concepts to breathe and register. The result is that a series of reasonably clever ideas of the sort that previous episodes were painfully lacking in just sort of flash by without particularly registering. Which turns out to be far worse than the previous problem the show was having.
Let’s start with the biggest and most staggering problem in this regard: Quill angrily and furiously confronting the god she doesn’t believe in. This is possibly the best moment of drama of the entire series. Conceptually, it’s the equal of anything Moffat has ever done. And Ballon’s response to her, even if it is lightly ripped off from that Joan Osborne song, is also phenomenal stuff. But it’s wasted in a scene towards the middle of the episode that’s basically just the third fast-paced Macguffin acquisition sequence in a row. There’s no weight to it – the show doesn’t unpack any of the implications of Quill facing down her god, and the entire incident is basically forgotten by the time we cut to the next big set piece. It’s infuriating – at long last the show delivers something amazing and brilliant and new, and it doesn’t even seem to notice, instead barreling on to the next idea.
But then, what do you expect from an episode that wastes an idea like the Metaphysical Engine on something as fundamentally banal as cobbling together a pseudo-TARDIS, complete with an interior that literally looks like it was bolted together from remnants of the current TARDIS set? “All of the mythologies of every species ever are real” is a jaw-dropper of a concept that deserves to actually be explored and interrogated instead of being used as the technobabble to explain why we’re cycling through a complete litany of the default alien planets that BBC Cymru Wales can do. I mean, maybe this will get sorted out in the finale – certainly Dorothea seems to leave it as a massive hanging plot thread – but frankly, “shoved in as one thread of a forty-five minute season finale” doesn’t exactly sound like a sufficient platform for that idea either.
Meanwhile, in amidst all the whirl of underdeveloped concepts are a bunch of sub-par character moments. Ballon never gets built into anything enough for us to give a shit about the final fight with Quill, not least because we’ve already seen the outcome. His backstory never gets past a vague account, and the fight seems to mainly exist because apparently they don’t want to keep the character around, which rather raises the question of why he’s even in this episode in the first place. I mean, the answer is “so there’s someone other than Quill or Dorothea,” but that just wraps in circles, in that it forces us to ask why we’re doing this episode in the first place. Certainly it’s not “because it puts Quill in a more interesting light” – stripped of her tension with Charlie she becomes a generic Doctor Who take on the notion of a soldier, lacking in nuance or creativity.
And then there’s the ending, which is… the same ending as last week’s. Which is to say, a complete failure to advance the plot of the series. We get forty-five minutes that serve to give us a lumpy and undercooked explanation for last week’s cliffhanger without actually moving forward at all. The result is that there’s literally no payoff to the episode whatsoever. Quill attains the state we knew she’d attain, the one-off character is removed from the board, and Dorothea remains a largely cryptic and mysterious figure with no real explanation. What a complete and utter waste. Who knew I could be made to miss the Brains of Morphoton.
- Oh boy, the Shadow Kin are back next week. How not-even-slightly thrilling.
- Also, man, the M.I.A. musical cue as Quill collapses is at once jarring and underwhelming. Also, what’s with this show and music from 2010? The theme song also comes from that year, and it’s a shockingly bland choice of years – old enough to not actually be cool and young, new enough to blatantly be an attempt at that.
- The “Quill and Bannon hold a knife and stare wildly at an angry god” shot is one of the most ridiculous cases of reach exceeding budget post-2005. That said, the shots of the Quill nest were pleasantly striking – about the only really great visual of the episode, actually.
- I’m trying to think if I can imagine a possibly satisfying way to resolve all of this in a single episode, and I’m really at a loss. Maybe Ness can surprise me, and I’ll be duly impressed if he can, but my enthusiasm for this show has taken a big hit in the wake of this misstep.
- I know this is ridiculously short, but seriously, what is there to say about this flaccid mess of an episode? I might as well be watching Season Two of Torchwood.
- The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo
- Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart/Brave-Ish Heart
- For Tonight We Might Die
- The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did
November 28, 2016 @ 10:06 am
Wow, really going against the grain on this one. General consensus is that it was far and away the best.
And no, not just because it had monsters and alien planets in.
November 28, 2016 @ 11:36 am
There was one major plot development, specifically that she’s preggers now. With a Hybrid, even.
November 28, 2016 @ 2:24 pm
Oh, yes, rewatching it I see that they did that.
OK, well that’s another mishandled aspect of the episode given how utterly easy to miss that is. (I blame the shitty M.I.A. musical cue.)
November 28, 2016 @ 3:12 pm
No offence Phil, but it’s not THAT easy to miss. My Twitter feed was full of people freaking out about it.
November 28, 2016 @ 3:16 pm
That’s not particularly strong evidence, if 50% of the audience miss a detail, then it’s easy to miss, but the other 50% will still be capable of filling up a Twitter feed.
November 28, 2016 @ 4:21 pm
More to the point, I think its ease-of-missing can be established fairly objectively. It’s a purely visual reveal (inherently easier to miss) that occurs alongside another attention-grabbing event (Quill’s collapse) and coincides with a big, jarring musical cue. So you’ve got three things competing for the viewer’s attention in a couple of seconds of episode, and nothing that subsequently “checks” the reveal by reasserting it.
That’s easy to miss. I’m not denying that some – perhaps even most – people got it. It’s still a fucking clumsy reveal.
November 30, 2016 @ 9:31 am
Late to the party, but I’d also add that it fails to establish why this reveal matters for this character in this show. It’s certainly not a narrative collapse. Quill with a baby doesn’t fundamentally upend how the show functions, or how the character sees herself. It feels like the trappings of soap opera without the drama that makes it matter.
December 1, 2016 @ 5:50 pm
Very few cliffhangers are narrative collapses 🙂
As for drama, for one thing we now have the prospect of Quill being eaten by her child if it’s born (although that danger might not exist if it is half-Law).
John G. Wood
November 28, 2016 @ 5:44 pm
As a point of reference, I was in a room with four other people watching it, and precisely one person missed it. So, a 20% miss rate here. On the other hand, I was that 20%, and by the end of a 45 minute episode my concentration is always flagging as it becomes harder to override my body telling me it’s time to go lie down.
November 28, 2016 @ 5:48 pm
A 20% miss rate is also massive for what’s supposed to be your cliffhanger.
John G. Wood
November 28, 2016 @ 8:55 pm
Oh, absolutely – but then, five people is perhaps a slightly small sample size for making meaningful observations (something I almost added to my comment above). Even 5%, though, would be too big, and the fact that two people contributing to this thread missed it is significant.
November 30, 2016 @ 5:25 pm
I missed it too. I noticed a few people mentioning it on Gallifrey Base, but I assumed it was just speculation.
December 6, 2016 @ 11:00 am
I missed it too, I had not idea it had happened until I came here!
November 28, 2016 @ 1:36 pm
Honestly, it’s been a while but I don’t remember Torchwood’s Season 2 ever getting this bad.
December 1, 2016 @ 5:58 pm
I liked both this episode and Torchwood Season 2 😛
John G. Wood
November 28, 2016 @ 6:00 pm
While acknowledging all the flaws Phil brings up, I liked it. This was basically the equivalent of a Baker & Martin script, but more up the Claws of Axos end, where the production team handled the flurry of ideas well even if they were rather thrown at the screen – I really liked the alienified version of the forest from Merlin at the start as well as the Quill nest.
I don’t particularly mind that it starts and ends at the same point as last week (disregarding the blink-and-you-miss-it pregnancy moment). I do mind that the whole business with Ballon went nowhere. Yes, there was no question that Quill was going to survive, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have found a way round the whole “only one may live” bit. At least they waited until the end to kill off the black guy. My heart also sank a bit seeing the shadowkin in the trailer, but what can you do?
3. The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did
4. The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo
5. Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart/Brave-Ish Heart
6. For Tonight We Might Die
November 29, 2016 @ 12:24 am
“This was basically the equivalent of a Baker & Martin script, but more up the Claws of Axos end, where the production team handled the flurry of ideas well even if they were rather thrown at the screen”
Nothing written about this show has made me keen to watch beyond episode three, but this just might. Sometimes I’d rather being barraged with concepts explored superficially, than focusing on one concept explored superficially.
November 29, 2016 @ 12:59 am
Also comparing it to Keys of Marinus is always going to pique my interest- there’s some real fun in watching a bunch of great ideas get mostly wasted (The Velvet Web, case in point)
The Flan in the High Castle
November 29, 2016 @ 11:09 am
I suspect Ness may have modelled this one, at least in part, on Heaven Sent – both penultimate episodes where unknown forces isolate the hero for an arbitrary sequence of gruelling tasks, with a twist that they’ve spent far longer there than they thought, then setting up the finale by sending them crashing back into the previous episode’s climactic moments. There were also some directorial parallels – the same flashy, avant-garde, non-literal camerawork, and even a similar palette.
In places, though, it slipped into Five Doctors territory, especially with all that teleporting about. The sudden killing of the Quill god rivals the Doctor’s bathetic reunion with Susan in terms of sheer wasted dramatic potential.
November 30, 2016 @ 10:49 am
Clearly in the Baker-Martin model of Doctor Who, most definitely. It’s part of a long tradition the show has of just throwing as much batshit crazy at the screen for the sake of partying in the spectacle.
I found there was an even freakier thing going on in the episode, though – Quill was basically taking over as the protagonist of Class. It was more than the sense of when the Daleks or the Master would do this on Doctor Who, because those situations are always a crisis, when a villain takes over the production of the show. But because this episode is the first time we’re literally seeing Quill in her traditional mode as a freedom fighter – fighting for her own freedom from servitude to the Rhodian monarchy, just as she did as a guerrilla leader – she also takes the ethical high ground from the under-25 cast.
More details here, piggybacking as usual.
One thing regarding Phil’s note on the use of songs from 2010 in the show. When I looked up the ages of all the cast members, I discovered that the teenagers are all being played by people in their mid-20s. Only Vivian Oparah is an actual teenager, and she’s a 19 year old playing 14. So songs from 2010 are literally from when the cast themselves were in high school.
November 29, 2016 @ 1:31 am
I am much more tolerant of torrents of great ideas that don’t necessarily pay off, but this was my favorite episode of the season, albeit for definite junkfood/Torchwood type reasons.
November 29, 2016 @ 7:22 am
I wish they put subtitles on these. The music drowns out the dialogue half the time
November 29, 2016 @ 10:07 am
There’s subtitles on BBC iPlayer?
December 1, 2016 @ 5:58 pm
Yes. The letter S in the white box between the video position/length and the full screen button to the right of the control bar.
December 2, 2016 @ 5:29 pm
Sorry, my post was supposed to be a statement not a question!
November 29, 2016 @ 10:20 am
I’m really running out of reasons why I’m still watching this. All expectations of it improving or having any interesting story to tell having been dashed it’s just become car-crash TV for me. So, what’s left? What’s keeping me tuned in?
Coal Hill school. My inner fan boy demands references. Wither Ian and Barbara?
The possibility that Capaldi might turn up and just destroy the lot of em.
The excruciatingly bad dialogue which has ascended to ‘so bad it’s good’ level for me. Particularly every character’s tendency to finish the other person’s over-complicated statement for them. Something like this –
“You couldn’t possibly understand what it means to feel…”
“Abandoned in a dark dimension with the shared heart of a demonically generic monster I think I do! Anyway I’ve just worked out the macguffin it’s…”
“A dimensionally transcendental wave portal tuned to the vibrational frequency of the thoughts of EVERY ONE OF US! Of course! That’s it! We just need to…”
“Wait here until another plot inconsistency turns up. Did anyone bring Chekov’s gun?”
November 29, 2016 @ 2:48 pm
Well, isn’t that interesting? Because I loved this one. It was everything the series so far hasn’t been, but also everything it’s building towards. It settled my concerns about Quill (that Ness was working up to a horrific hero/villain dichotomy between Charlie and Quill), focused more on the ‘showing’ than the ‘telling’ (which isn’t always a good thing, but Ness is AWFUL at telling – no nuance at all), and got rid of the young leads for an episode, which is good because I feel nothing for them at all.
Sure, it didn’t advance the plot, but it added to it. It was almost like stepping out of the story, watching it from the outside before stepping back in again for the finale. Which some might have found jarring, but I really loved.
And I guess I just found it a really sweet story about belief. Not that I’m a believer myself, but I really respect what Ness said about the power of belief. It’s an obvious thing, in 2016, that our beliefs have a power over the world- but still, worth saying..
Not looking forward to the finale. They’re probably going to kill off a character who shouldn’t be killed, it’s overloaded with characters, Charlie looks to be taking the lead, and the f—ing Shadow Kin are back. HOW did Ness think making them the Big Bad would be a remotely interesting or logical thing to do?
November 30, 2016 @ 1:57 am
The Shadow Kin exist to fill the ‘Obligatory Series Big Bad’ hole, rather than the other way around. Their lack of any distinguishing features is because they’re the vague space around which Ness hung all the things he was actually interested in doing.
November 30, 2016 @ 11:37 am
He could have used something that he actually cared to do as the uniting theme. Especially having 8 episodes.
November 30, 2016 @ 5:21 pm
“Not that I’m a believer myself, but I really respect what Ness said about the power of belief.”
As someone who is a believer, and knows a bit about other religions, the whole episode came across as written by someone who doesn’t really understand religion (either my own or other people’s). I guess this might not be apparent to someone not in my position.
November 30, 2016 @ 9:21 pm
(Anecdotal) evidence I know, but a Catholic friend of mine said she thought it perfectly summed up what she thinks about belief – which I suppose is the point: these things are often so personal that you’re never going to encompass everyone’s view.
November 29, 2016 @ 10:56 pm
One of those things I quite liked, but couldn’t meaningfully disagree with any of the criticism of. Although I thought the idea of the Metaphysical Engine being a pseudo-TARDIS was appropriate – or, as I prefer to think of it, a TARDIS is a limited form of Metaphysical Engine.
Oh, and it turns out that the answer to my question “How are they going to handle having an actress in a wheelchair playing an able-bodied character?” is looking set to be “By not having her appear at all after the big standing up scene.” Which is, um…
November 30, 2016 @ 10:22 am
Well, she couldn’t very well have been in Ep 6 (all in one room, just the kids at school) or Ep 7 (Quill’s backstory and quest).
So as you’d expect she is in fact turning up in Ep 8.
December 1, 2016 @ 1:31 pm
Yeah, so maybe don’t have a big character development for a secondary character immediately followed by a bottle episode and a solo adventure? Maybe structure the series so you can actually follow through on it?
But I’m sure there’ll be plenty of room to explore her story in the finale; that episode doesn’t look crowded at all.
December 3, 2016 @ 7:58 pm
At the end of the day, you don’t structure your series around character development for the secondary characters, but around character development for the primary characters.
In any case (Ep 8 spoilers!) it’s been reversed now, anyway, and she’s back to being as she was before April tried to cure her.
December 3, 2016 @ 9:23 pm
Ha! He referred to the main characters of Class and character development in the same sentence!
Part of the reason I find the waste of this storyline so irritating is because IMO, it’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to anyone in the entire series. And if Ness doesn’t think it’s worth doing anything with apart from hitting the reset button as fast as possible, maybe he shouldn’t have bothered in the first place.
November 30, 2016 @ 5:16 pm
This is an excellent putting-into-words of why I can’t agree with the seeming consensus view that this is the best episode of the series – though I will disagree with you on two points, cos it wasn’t the worst either, and it was still better than most of Torchwood series 2.
The Metaphysical Engine is a good enough idea to be the premise of an entire series – and I can’t think it would be a much better (and certainly more original) premise than the schoolchildren-fight-monsters + rift-in-time-and-space ideas they’ve gone with. I’m rather hoping now for a radically retooled approach in Series 2, where Quill and the kids get hold of the Metaphysical Engine and it becomes the main driver of the plot, but I won’t hold my breath.
November 30, 2016 @ 11:28 pm
The things with season 2 of Torchwood is that even if it was bad as a season, it still had some of the best episodes ever.
December 1, 2016 @ 1:34 pm
Give Class time. Once we see Season 2, we may well be saying Season 1 had some of the best episodes…
November 30, 2016 @ 11:27 pm
For me it has to be:
1. For Tonight We Might Die
2. Coach with a Dragon Tattoo
And the rest is just such shit that I can’t even bother to order them.
Oh who am I kidding, of course the Heart ones were the worst.