Friday, November 20, 2015

Doctor Who Season 9 So Far: Episodes 7, 8, and 9

Thoughts on The Zygon Invasion, The Zygon Inversion, and Sleep No More

Well, this has been an interesting few weeks, hasn't it? I know for me it's been strange, since in the course of three weeks we've had an episode I felt almost no emotional connection with, an absolutely fantastic episode that had me feeling like we finally, FINALLY met the Twelfth Doctor, and an episode that amused, bored, and frustrated me all at the same time. 

What to do with Season 9, an incredibly solid season thus far, when we hit a bit of a rough patch? Well, let's waste no time before speculating and complaining and marveling about this crazy, amazing, wonderful show; allons-y!

Episode 7: The Zygon Invasion

I don't usually leave a Doctor Who episode feeling emotionally distant from it, but this one I did. Why? 

Well, as you all know by now, I loved the episode Kill the Moon from last season, and so was eagerly awaiting Peter Harness' contribution for this season. 

And...well, for Kill the Moon, I could kind of ignore the political subtext because the argument itself was based around the notion of the value of life, which has always been an intrinsic element of the show. The Doctor values life in any form, human or alien, and does everything he can to save those lives - hence why he called himself the Doctor. It's such an integral part of his character, so when the plot came down to whether to save humanity or a creature that's the only one of its kind, I could push the similarities to the abortion issue aside, because really, it was all about saving lives, no matter how relevant or irrelevant to current issues.

Not so here, in The Zygon Invasion.

To be fair, it's not bad to have a political subtext within a Doctor Who episode; with such a versatile premise, why not? But the problem with this episode for me is that it didn't really feel like a Doctor Who episode. Even with red rubbery Zygons running around, for the majority of the episode it just felt like a political drama that happened to include the Doctor and Clara.

Not to say that there weren't any good moments; I loved seeing Osgood again, no matter what species she may be now (well, isn't that a sentence only talking about Doctor Who could generate), and the line about the Doctor wearing question-mark underpants was frikkin' hilarious - and an image I'll never be able to erase from my brain!

Overall, though, I didn't really feel engrossed in the episode until the very end, when Clara is revealed to be Zygon Clara, or Bonnie, I guess is the name she's picked. (Dalek Clara, Zygon Clara - what's next, CyberClara?) 

But yes, the reveal actually had me excited. It was pretty clever (especially with the visual cue of Clara putting her hair up, so we know exactly when she became Bonnie) - and then the episode ended.

Cue anguished cry of impatience from me on the couch.

Even with some elements I enjoyed, I don't like leaving Doctor Who feeling like I spent an hour watching something I didn't care about...Thank goodness the next episode was amazing!! 

Episode 8: The Zygon Inversion

I don't think this episode needs much of an introduction; it's hard to forget. Everyone watching collectively sat transfixed as the Doctor delivered That Speech. You all know what one.

In this episode we see the Twelfth Doctor at his most vulnerable, most heartbreakingly open, within a tragically timely narrative, as not a week after this episode aired, ISIS set off terrorist attacks in Paris and Lebanon. Globally, we are witnessing attacks of war, and no one knows war better, or despises it more, than the Doctor.

After a fantastically atmospheric opening, a wonderful world-saving team-up between the Doctor and Osgood, and Clara and Bonnie engaging in a surreal game of lie detector, we get to the final showdown: the Osgood Box(es). What a completely ingenious visual; a "scale model of war," as the Doctor puts it. Kate on one side representing humanity, Bonnie on the other representing the Zygons, and the Doctor caught in the middle, as he always is, trying to dissuade each of them from destroying the other. We're back where we were in The Day of the Doctor, and this time the Doctor won't leave, not when he can try to fix it.

Twelve has felt a little cold, a little distant, especially last season, even going as far as abandoning Earth in its hour of need. In this season, he has warmed, become more compassionate underneath his signature bluntness, and nowhere is the transformation more complete than here, in this moment, in pleading with Bonnie, and even Kate, to spare the lives of their species:

Doctor: "When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who's going to die. You don't know whose children are going to scream and burn. How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everybody does what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning - sit down and talk!...I mean, do you call this a war, this funny little thing? This is not a war. I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you could ever imagine, and when I close my eyes, I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count!"

This is the Doctor with any hostilities, any sarcasm, any pretenses stripped away. This is the essence of the Doctor - all that pain, all that heartbreak, all that loss. 

Do you see those eyes? They no longer pierce or ridicule; they're open, vulnerable. And tired. Tired from trying to save the universe from people who are making the same mistake he nearly did.

But what makes the Doctor isn't his darkness and despair; it's the compassion formed from that, and how he uses it to help others see past their own anger, see the people standing on the opposite side of the battle field, not as enemies, but as precious lives worth saving.

Doctor: "And do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight, until it burns your hand. And you say this - no one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will ever have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!"

In a world where people are killing each other over beliefs or wealth or long-held resentment or any number of reasons, here in this family television show is the greatest message of compassion I know. Pain and tragedy doesn't have to make us bitter and hard-hearted; we can take that pain, and turn it into empathy for others' pain. 

Bloodshed and bombings claim lives, but they don't have to claim our regard for our fellow human beings, whether they stand beside us or live across the globe. Some people are full of hatred, and sometimes that won't change; don't let that make you forget the ones willing to serve others, to listen, to live with a compassionate heart and say, "No one else will ever have to feel the pain I felt. Not on my watch."

Notable moments, to end on a lighter note:

Osgood: "I've never seen you smile before."
Doctor: *smiles wider* "Dazzling, isn't it?"
(also, the Doctor drives!)

Doctor: "London!...What a dump!"

Osgood: "Why do you have a Union Jack parachute?"
Doctor: "Camouflage."
Osgood: "Camouflage?"
Doctor: "Yes; we're in Britain."

Doctor: "Are you flirting with me? You know I'm over 2,000 years old? I'm old enough to be your Messiah!"

Clara: "Take care of you."
Osgood: "You take care of him. Don't let him die or anything."
Clara; "What if he's really annoying?"
Osgood: "Then it's fine."

-Kudos to Jenna Coleman, who was excellent playing both Clara and Bonnie. I think we sometimes forget how good of an actress she is, since it's a rare episode that she gets to really be versatile. Bonnie and Clara have the same face, but I would never confuse the two!

-So, Osgood has joined the ranks of Captain Jack Harkness, Rory Williams, River Song, and Clara Oswald in characters who died and came back (what is Moffat's obsession with this?), and could potentially keep coming back, over and over. Osgood's around as long as there are Zygons left in the universe!

-The Doctor mentions Clara's absence felt more like a month rather than five minutes. Is this some kind of clue? Did we miss something in his and Clara's adventures? Did Clara actually die, and he's just gone back on her timeline so he could see her again? Is that even possible? I don't know, I'm just trying to prepare myself for what's inevitably going to be a terrible, stab-to-the-gut sad exit for Clara.

Episode 9: Sleep No More

Oh, dear. I...I don't even know what to do with this episode. Did this even happen, or was it a strange, strange nightmare?

It's the first found-footage episode for Doctor Who, but I wish a more worthy episode could have been awarded that benchmark because - wow, was this weird.

Things I liked: some of the Doctor and Clara's banter was amusing; the Mr. Sandman song was a fun detail; and the general premise had potential. Overall, though, it just feels like a bunch of random ideas that are just not coming together into a conglomerate whole.

Killer. Sleep dust. How is that scary?

This whole episode is trying to be scary, but it's just not working. Mostly because no matter how hard you try, sleep dust is not scary, and the monsters look like actors in morph suits with yellow papier-mache thrown on them. What the actual heck? I know Mark Gatiss likes his references to Classic Who, but did we really need a monster that looked like what they used in the 60's because they had no budget back then? Was it intentional? If it was, why, and if it wasn't, how did that ever get approved?

Also, the story just feels like a mess. I don't even know if I was following it all correctly. People go in the Morpheus machines and sleep, but because it's such an intense process the sleep dust builds up more than usual and becomes its own living entity, which in turn tries to eat people? And over time the people with sleep dust in their eyes eventually become the carnivorous sleep dust themselves? Why is "carnivorous sleep dust" even a phrase that exists?

Even Capaldi couldn't save this one. He's brilliant as usual, but at the end of his big Macbeth speech about the phrase "Sleep no more" and how sleeping makes us human, I still couldn't help busting out laughing. Even the Doctor can't pass these monsters off, or this episode, for that matter, as something to take seriously. (Actually I should be kind of mad, as this may have forever ruined my favorite Shakespeare play.)

Gatiss is a big Doctor Who fan, and he tries to have fun with his episodes, but this just fell flat. Let's just move on from this - and please, for the love of God, Gatiss, don't write a sequel!

This week's episode is Face the Raven (which I was kind of hoping was an Edgar Allan Poe episode, but watching the trailer, sadly I don't think it is) - is this Clara's exit, her time to face death? How will Moffat rip our hearts out this time? And most importantly, how will the Doctor deal with her loss?

Season 9 Ranking So Far:
1. The Girl Who Died (Ep. 5)
2. The Zygon Inversion (Ep. 8)
3. The Witch's Familiar (Ep. 2)
4. Under the Lake (Ep. 3)
5. The Woman Who Lived (Ep. 6)
6. Before the Flood (Ep. 4)
7. The Magician's Apprentice (Ep. 1)
8. The Zygon Invasion (Ep. 7)
9. Sleep No More (Ep. 9)