Monday, November 17, 2014

Doctor Who: Season 8 So Far - Episodes 10, 11 and 12

Thoughts on In the Forest of the Night, Dark Water, and Death in Heaven

We've reached the end of Season 8 - and what a season it was!

Not that there weren't some rough patches - there definitely were - but I have to say that it was thoroughly enjoyable, and miles better than Season 7, at any rate!

Throughout Season 8, we were treated to marvels such as a good Dalek, a TARDIS-spitting dinosaur, creatures from the second dimension, a miniature TARDIS, a moon dragon, and a murderous mummy, among other things. We've gotten to know the Twelfth Doctor - cold, calculating, with a very dry sense of humor - and we've finally gotten to know Clara, who at last was allowed the space to be a great companion. 

So, how did the final three episodes round out Twelve and Clara's first (and possibly last?) season together? Let's find out!

Episode 10: In the Forest of the Night

Honestly, I'm having the same problem with this episode that I did with "Robot of Sherwood": I dislike it so much, I'm not sure I can critique it intelligently.

It's not that it's necessarily bad - it's just that it's so boring. I understand that Frank Cottrell Boyce is well known for his children's fiction, and it's not as if this is his first why does it feel like it is?

Okay, before I start railing on the bad points, let's look at the good ones:

Lighting/cinematography - There is one scene in particular, in the forest grove towards the end, that looks absolutely gorgeous, and I have to give director Sheree Folkson props for that beautiful shot. I mean, just look at it:

That lighting is fantastic! For an episode that's trying to bring about the atmosphere of a fairy tale, this is the perfect setting.

The opening - This scene, with just Maebh and the Doctor, actually gave me high hopes for the rest of the episode. Even though his Doctor comes across as a bit of a grump, Peter Capaldi himself seems to work very well with child actors, as seen in "Listen," "Kill the Moon," and "The Caretaker." That dynamic works here as well, as the Doctor shows Maebh around the TARDIS. I love his explanation for the it's-bigger-on-the-inside question: "It's like how a Coke is only this big, but it really has this much sugar in it." I think my favorite part is when the Doctor slaps her hand off of the TARDIS console; Maebh's face is priceless.

Maebh Arden - Kudos to the casting director, as Abigail Eames steals the show as Maebh; she manages to stay on the right side of quirky without becoming obnoxious, and is really just very charming as a slightly odd, unassuming, wander-prone little girl.

Now on to the bad points:

The writing - As I said, the script feels very amateur. The dialogue for the kids feels very cliche - surprising, coming from a children's author and a man who has seven children of his own - and besides Maebh, the kids really don't have any distinguishable, or even interesting, personalities. 

There's no progress in the Danny/Doctor/Clara conflict; they just do the same dance they've done the past several episodes, and frankly, it gets a bit annoying. 

There's also a few strange lines of dialogue. At one point I swear the Doctor tells Clara she is near a "striking, masculine presence," referring to himself. I felt like Capaldi said those lines as if he didn't really want to say them - though he managed to say it, professional that he is, but I don't really blame him. I mean, I could see something like that coming from maybe Ten, but Twelve? And then there's Clara mooning after Danny the whole episode, saying things like, "That's...strangely attractive" while still obviously torn between her life with the Doctor and her life with Danny. Was Cottrell Boyce not informed that there isn't actually a love triangle this season? Clara is not Amy Pond; let's keep it that way, please.

Also, the story line with the lost sister really didn't work. I felt like the last scene was being played as something very emotional, but ultimately I couldn't feel overly concerned about it. We don't get enough background for the sister to feel that it's an integral part of the story; thus, we don't care when she's ultimately found. 

And the way they found her was just weird. I mean, was she just hiding in the bushes for a whole year? 

The tiger - For an episode that takes its title from a very famous (and awesome) poem about that particular beast, I feel like the tiger should have had a bigger part to play. As it is, we just have some lame CGI animals (which is crap, considering how good the CGI in the rest of the season has been), including a tiger, which is ultimately scared away by a flashlight.

Seriously? I feel like you could maybe pull that off in a novel or short story, where the narration could be used to play it up as a bit of light humor; on screen, though, it just looks stupid.

The trees - Does anyone remember the last time Doctor Who tried to have trees as villains? No, we all try to forget, because it was "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe," and it was awful. Here we have just trees instead of tree people, so I guess that makes it a little more palatable. But it also makes it a lot more boring.

It's not like trees are scary; they just...grow. Granted, these trees happen to grow overnight to cover the planet, but even so, they're just kind of...there. Not very exciting antagonists.

Yes, I do appreciate the final message - I'm all for environmentalism and all that - but even so, it doesn't really make for great television. 

The final revelation, while clever, feels very convenient; if only any of the characters actually changed or learned anything during this episode, it might have felt worthwhile. As it stands, we learn that 1) Danny is the most reliable, dependable, boring man ever, and 2) Clara is really bad at looking after children. I'm starting to wonder if teaching should be her chosen profession.

Episode 11: Dark Water

There's no denying it; this episode is awesome. You thought "Listen" was creepy? While "Dark Water" doesn't have the same scare factor as whatever was under that blanket, its eeriness is multiplied tenfold with a shocking death early on, a journey to the afterlife, a mausoleum full of living skeletons in water tanks, and the skin-crawling reveal of the purpose behind the 3W organization. 

Clara - First of all, wow. Jenna Coleman knocks it out of the park with her performance here, as Clara grieves over the sudden and tragic death of Danny Pink. While before, in Season 7, her perpetual calmness was irritating, here it's unnerving - she swiftly and methodically takes control in what she sees as her only option, as she kidnaps the Doctor and maroons them and the TARDIS on an active volcano, where she blackmails him, threatening to throw all the keys to the TARDIS into the lava unless he saves Danny.

Honestly, Clara scares me during this scene; she's perfectly ruthless and calculating, knowing full well the weight of what she's doing. Though some of the tension is taken away once you realize that the Doctor can still open the TARDIS doors with just a snap of his fingers, Clara is still committing the worst betrayal by forcing the Doctor to do what she wants, even if it is to save the man she loves.

The Doctor - After being completely betrayed by his greatest friend, in a scene both shocking and heartbreaking, the Doctor tells her to look in her hand...and it turns out the whole scene's been an illusion, inside the TARDIS console room, the whole time.


It was at that moment, and the moment when the Doctor tells Clara, "Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make any difference?" that I realized what I want from the Twelfth Doctor.

I want to see the Doctor broken down. I want to see him completely defeated, emotionally distraught, without an ounce of power or control left over what's happening. Throughout this season, we've seen the Doctor always in control, whether it's hiding among the organ-harvesting robots in "Deep Breath," lying to Clara about the future in "Kill the Moon," or here, when one of the most powerful, emotionally-taxing scenes between the Doctor and Clara turns out to be a complete sham created by the Doctor himself. We've seen Clara break down, we've seen Danny at his breaking point; what we're missing is seeing the Doctor break. 

A complaint against this season has been that it's been more about Clara and less about the Doctor, and there is some validity to that point; we've seen Clara grow and evolve as a character, but, while we've gotten to know the Doctor, we still haven't seen him grow and change, and I think seeing him at his lowest would round out the character that we're still struggling to fully know. We saw Nine's heart broken when he thought he lost Rose in "Bad Wolf"; we saw Ten's heart broken, and ours as well, when he and Rose are separated in parallel worlds, in that unforgettable scene on the beach in "Doomsday"; and Eleven's heart was broken when he lost the Ponds in "The Angels Take Manhattan." In a season that has been more about being dark and morally ambiguous than inspiring hope, we still need to see that the Doctor has a heart, and for us to see the depth of his affections, it has to be broken. 

The line "Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make any difference?" is powerful, and a sentiment completely in character for the Doctor. But what makes it ring a bit hollow for me is, in order to see how much he cares, we need to see the pain of that betrayal, and that is still missing here. 

I'll believe the Doctor cares when, in the face of complete loss and utter betrayal, with no control and no way out, he still holds out for his companion. Until then, I guess we'll just have to keep getting used to a Doctor who feels a bit colder and more alien than any of his forebears (at least in New Who).

3W - If this is the afterlife, as Ten would say, "I don't want to go!"

I mean, my god; this is a kids' show? I know this season was going to be darker, but to have an episode where the whole premise is based upon the concept that the dead can still feel the sensations of their physical body as it's buried, cremated, or, as one unfortunate soul experienced, left to science - yikes. 

Thanks, Steven Moffat, for giving me a fear I hadn't even thought of before.

Characters like Seb help to lighten the atmosphere, but it's still a pretty grim concept (thankfully remedied a bit in "Death in Heaven"!). 

(I did find Seb a bit annoying, though of course his character is supposed to be over-the-top. Then I read a description of him as a caricature of Mark Gatiss, and suddenly Seb became a lot more palatable.)

Missy - At last, we finally find out who Missy is. Michelle Gomez is absolutely fantastic here, just off-the-wall crazy as she welcomes Clara and the Doctor to her bizarre mausoleum in St. Paul's.

I think my favorite part is when she introduces herself as MISI, a welcome droid for 3W; we all know it's a trick just to mess with the Doctor, but the obvious enjoyment she gets out of playing this up is just delightful to see. 

Which brings me to that moment: the kiss.

It's been commented by critics and fans alike that New Who has an awful lot of kissing: Ten did his fair share of it, kissing what felt like almost every companion and would-be companion on his adventures; Eleven had mostly awkward kisses, not necessarily reciprocated, with characters like Rory and Jenny; even Nine saved Rose with a kiss, to absorb the toxic energy from the heart of the TARDIS. Moffat's made fun of all the kissing even within the show, when Clara calls the TARDIS a "snogbox" in "The Bells of St. John" and, most noticeably, in "The Day of the Doctor" when the War Doctor speaks to Eleven as Ten and Elizabeth I start making out: "Is there a lot of this in the future?" "It does start to happen, yeah," Eleven replies a bit sheepishly.

So, when Peter Capaldi became the Doctor, it was a bit refreshing when it was made clear from the start that this was not a Doctor who would put up with that kind of nonsense, kissing or romance or anything of the kind. Of course, we've learned we should never take Moffat at his word, because what does he do here but absolutely revel in messing with the fandom, by having Missy kiss the Doctor. 

It's a bizarre moment, shocking and uncomfortable and funny all at the same time. That kiss is made even more awkward later when we find out who Missy really is.

The Master kissed the Doctor. Let's take another moment to wrap our minds around that.

I can't say I was incredibly shocked at the reveal; I suppose it's a bigger revelation to those who know the Master from Classic Who, rather than just from the awful 1996 TV movie and John Simm's Master from Season 3 and "The End of Time" specials. 

In hindsight, I guess it seems rather obvious: Master, female Master = Mistress, Mistress shortened to Missy (although there really isn't any reason a woman can't be called a master; for the sake of the plot twist, though, I can see why they changed the name). 

I'm not sure what to think of the Master being a woman. Not that I'm against it; definitely not! Michelle Gomez is amazing as the Master/Missy, and it's an interesting take on a Classic character. But at first it had me excited - with Clara nearly becoming the Doctor this season in "Flatline," and the Master now female, how far away can we be from a female Doctor?? However, re-thinking that, it may mean we are actually moved a bit further away from it, since the show-runner probably won't want to have such drastic changes so close together, or thinks we should be satisfied for now with what we have. 

I mean, a female Master and a female Doctor? Whoa, there, let's not get crazy...

While I still remain in hope for Thirteen to be a woman, I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.

The Cybermen - I almost wish the BBC hadn't included the Cybermen in promotional images of the episode; the reveal was so well done, with great directing on Rachel Talalay's part, that it's really a shame we already knew what was in the tanks. I love all the little clues throughout the episode about the Cybermen, including the Cyberman eye on the wall of the 3W office and the musical cues throughout the orchestral soundtrack of the Cybermen motif. It's so subtle, yet so striking, I completely identified with the Doctor when he says in frustration, "I'm missing something obvious!"; I could see all the clues, I just couldn't remember what they looked like! And then when the dark water at last drains away and we see the Cybermen emerge from the tanks - well, suffice it to say that was so completely creepy and awesome.

Other notables:

-The Doctor, to Clara: "This is it - the darkest day, the blackest hour. Chin up, shoulders back; let's see what we're made of, you and I!" 
This is the side of the Doctor I love - brave, heroic, willing to go into the unknown for the people he loves. It's also a sign of faith in Clara - in fact, a call to arms for the whole fandom. This is what it's all about - being brave, taking risks, being the best you can be, in the time when it's needed most! Allons-y!

-I have to admit, some of Seb's lines are classic:

"It's not the afterlife; it's just more life than you were expecting."

Danny: "You have iPads in the afterlife?"
Seb: "iPads? We have Steve Jobs!"

Too soon for that last one? I don't think so; I know it got a great laugh out of me!

Episode 12: Death in Heaven

I hesitate to comment on this episode, as I'm still not quite sure what to make of it. "Dark Water" did set a rather high benchmark, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that Part II of the finale couldn't quite measure up. It's not as if it's terribly written...but still... 

It's not as if it's the worst finale New Who has ever had (I would award that to "Last of the Time Lords"). But finales usually leave the audience with some kind of strong emotion, with either the companion leaving, the Doctor regenerating, or some kind of huge reveal or plot twist. I cried when Rose and Ten were separated, I cheered when Martha realized she deserved better and left Ten of her own accord, I cried again when Ten took Donna's memory; here, though, all I felt at the end of the episode was...well, depressed. I don't usually associate that kind of feeling with Doctor Who; I really hope it doesn't become a trend.

Opening sequence - There have been some great opening scenes this season, so the fact that the one for the finale fell kind of flat is a bit disappointing. 

I understand what Moffat is doing - this whole season has been more about Clara than it has about the Doctor, so to have her say "I'm the Doctor" is kind of a middle finger to the fans who are complaining about Doctor Who turning into "The Clara Oswald Show." But as an opening sequence, it just felt sort of lame. I mean, of course we all know she's lying; she's trying to avoid being killed by the Cybermen! The line might have worked as a shocker/tease in the trailer, but in the actual episode it's basically pointless.

U.N.I.T. - I like Kate Lethbridge-Stewart; I love Osgood (who doesn't? (Although we're kind of obligated to, since she not-so-subtly represents the fandom)); but having U.N.I.T. show up here just feels very random and jarring. They have a plan in place, but it's not as if they're very helpful (if they ever are). The plot takes a bizarre, anticlimactic turn when they show up, put everyone in handcuffs, including the Doctor, and try to control a situation that we already know is way out of their hands. I mean, if U.N.I.T. had the answer to stop Missy's Cyber army, they wouldn't have shown up so early in the episode, because then there wouldn't be a problem to fix within the episode. So, we have some tension lost there.

Osgood - I get that Missy is insane, and Gomez does a great job of playing that up, but did she really have to kill so many people to show that? I guess the title of the episode is a bit of a hint that's there's going to be a lot of casualties, but my goodness!!

I understand that I'm being a bit hypocritical here; I've complained before that Moffat doesn't seem to be able to make his characters stay dead, so I suppose I shouldn't complain when they actually do (I can't have my cake and eat it, too, essentially). Okay, fine, kill off the characters - but when you do, give them a death that's worthy of the character and reflects how much they mean to the audience

I mean, seriously! Osgood? You killed off Osgood? Where is the point in that, besides being unnecessarily spiteful to your audience? It's like kicking a puppy - it's cruel, and there's no good reason for it. This is a character that Moffat has created knowing that we will all like her, because she is us - that was the point of her character in the 50th Anniversary episode. So to build up our hopes one moment thinking she might be the next companion - "All of time and space. Just something for your bucket list" - and then have her be killed the next...well, it's all well and good trying to be "dark" and "edgy" to try out a new tone for the show, but when that goes too far, it just starts feeling downright sadistic. Know your limits, Moffat. 

"Love is not an emotion; it's a promise" - Here is where my main problem with this episode lies. This line is a very nice sentiment; however, when it becomes the means of a major plot point, it doesn't work as well. In episodes like "Closing Time," when Stormageddon is saved by the power of his father's love, it can be forgiven because 1) it's Craig and Stormageddon, and 2) it doesn't ultimately have a huge effect on the major season story arc. Here, though, the defeat of Missy and her Cyber army turns on the fact that the Cybermen hive mind can be overcome by love - whether that be Danny's love for Clara, or the Brigadier's love for his daughter Kate.

But doesn't this invalidate everything that makes the Cybermen a threat? The point of creating them is that they can no longer feel anything, thus they have no control over who they kill/convert, including their loved ones. If this is no longer a problem, well, then, what's the point of the Cybermen now? They've lost their scare factor, just like the Daleks and the Weeping Angels.

I can't really fault Moffat for bringing the Brigadier back, as I'm sure that was a great moment for fans of the Classic series. But I don't buy it for Danny; I wish they'd found another resolution for the Cyber army. After all that build up, the Cybermen didn't really do anything, and they seemed to be defeated quite easily; again, very anticlimactic, which doesn't go well with the other theme of the episode - depressing.

Clara and Danny - Though Danny's character was never fully realized enough for me to buy this romance, props to Coleman and Samuel Anderson for making me tear up when Clara has to convert Danny into the Cyber hive mind. That is proper acting, right there.

The Doctor - Speaking of acting, Capaldi once again is absolutely brilliant, especially in one of the final scenes, when he discovers that Missy lied to him about finding Gallifrey. Though I thought smashing up the TARDIS console was a bit much (poor TARDIS!), the Doctor's look of absolute despair as he collapses on top of it is some amazing acting. Now we've seen the Doctor broken down, a genuine sign of vulnerability that's been missing this past season. Now let's see him show that much emotion over another human being/Time Lord, and I'll feel like I know the Doctor again.

Story arcs:

-The Doctor as a commanding officer: There's been recurring commentary throughout the season about the Doctor often acting as an authority figure, though he loathes for it ever to be acknowledged. This is particularly noticeable in "The Caretaker," when Danny mocks the Doctor for acting as a general, and later, when the only way the Doctor can save the day is by taking on the authority of Skovox Blitzer's commanding officer. Here, the Doctor has the world's ultimate authority thrust upon him, as he is made the President, and subsequently Commander in Chief, of Earth, courtesy of U.N.I.T., on top of Missy then making the Doctor commander of the Cybermen army. The Doctor knows, tempting though it may be, that this is too much power for one person, and thus it's here that the Doctor finally understands who he is: "I"m definitely not a president, and no, I'm not an officer. You know what I am? I am an idiot! With a box and a screwdriver. Passing through...helping out...learning."
-Danny as a soldier: Danny's story arc is finally finished, when he leads the Cyber army up into the sky and self-destructs, ridding the world of the Cyber pollen and its ghastly effects. He also manages to save the life of the boy he killed in combat by sending him back using Missy's bracelet. While the whole ending with the boy felt a bit tacked on (to me), I suppose it's good we finally have some resolution to that particular arc. While Danny wasn't my favorite character, Samuel Anderson did a good job with the material he had, and I'm sorry the character had to go out with such a depressing ending.
-Clara as someone willing to love and be loved: Clara the "control freak" finally let someone in, namely Danny, and it changed her throughout this whole season. Though she tried hard to keep up the facade, Danny saw that she was not perfect, that she didn't have it all together, and loved her anyway. I think that's why, even though the characterization of Danny wasn't as well done as it could have been, their romance is credible - as Clara says, "Though I wasn't always very good at it, I did love you." She's not perfect at loving someone else; it's a learning process, but she does learn - learn to let down her guard and let Danny see her for who she really is. When she finds that he loves her in spite of herself, she realizes how much she loves him. Tragically, though her realization comes too late; it's a bit disappointing that, after all that build-up and character change, Clara and Danny can't have their happy ending. 
Although...when the Doctor and Clara meet for the last time in the cafe, Clara starts to tell the Doctor something, but is interrupted. What could her news have been? She says she can't go traveling in the TARDIS anymore, but obviously it can't be because of Danny. There's speculation going around that Clara might be pregnant. I think that would fit into her narrative very well - there's Orson in "Listen," of course, who is supposed to be her and Danny's great-grandchild, so the line has to carry on somehow. Danny sending the boy back to Clara could also be a nice foreshadowing - Danny's legacy lives on not only in his selfless deed of sending the boy back to be with his family, but also in his child that Clara might be carrying. It's also a happier ending for Clara; while she parted ways with the Doctor with both of them feeling very lonely, Danny's child would give her the love and family she wants as well as keeping a part of Danny alive.

Other notables:

-Through all the darkness of this episode, thank goodness there was at least one moment that made me laugh out loud: "Oh, Missy, you're so fine, you're so fine, you blow my mind, hey, Missy, hey...Excuse me." Going from comedic to serious in the span of a second, Gomez absolutely kills it here!

Season 8 Overall:

For the most part, Season 8 has been a delightful surprise. While "Kill the Moon" probably will forever divide the fandom, "Listen" definitely can be counted as one of the Twelfth Doctor's classics, and I'm looking forward to many more adventures in Season 9 and onward, particularly from writers Peter Harness ("Kill the Moon") and Jamie Mathieson ("Mummy on the Orient Express," "Flatline"). Peter Capaldi's Doctor is amazing, although I'm hoping for him to show more vulnerability in coming seasons. I'll miss Clara when she (in all probability) leaves in the Christmas special, as she more than made up for all the lack of character development last season and really came into her own. I also look forward to whoever the new companion will be - perhaps a male companion this time, and/or someone from another planet besides Earth or another time besides present-day London. It's also been exciting to see the possibilities for a female Doctor, especially with a female Master present and probably returning at some point. However, I'm very happy to have Peter Capaldi stay on as the Doctor for as long as he wants!

As for me, while it's safe to say I'll probably never re-watch "Robot of Sherwood" or "In the Forest of the Night," episodes like "Listen," "Kill the Moon," "Dark Water," "Flatline," and "Mummy on the Orient Express" are definitely going to get many viewings while I wait for the Christmas special. 

Nick Frost as Santa - just the casting itself is enough to make it sound promising!

Season 8 Final Ranking: 

1. Listen (Episode 4)
2. Kill the Moon (Episode 7)
3. Dark Water (Episode 11)
4. Flatline (Episode 9)
5. Mummy on the Orient Express (Episode 8)
6. Into the Dalek (Episode 2)
7. Deep Breath (Episode 1)
8. Death in Heaven (Episode 12)
9. The Caretaker (Episode 6)
10. Time Heist (Episode 5)
11. In the Forest of the Night (Episode 10)
12. Robot of Sherwood (Episode 3)