Thursday, December 10, 2015

Doctor Who Season 9 So Far: Episodes 10, 11, and 12

Thoughts on Face the Raven, Heaven Sent, and Hell Bent

Well, here we are at the end - and what a fantastic season it's been! I know I was pleased (for the most part) with Season 8, but this season just completely knocked it out of the park. Season 8 was the warm-up - this was the real thing, the Doctor Who that I've missed for awhile now. 

Season 4 still reigns supreme as my favorite season of New Who, but this season gave it a run for its money, with Davros, Missy, ghosts, the Fisher King, Vikings, an immortal, Zygons, Sandmen (...okay, maybe not that last one), a quantum shade, the Veil, and last but certainly not least, THE TIME LORDS AND GALLIFREY (I can't believe I called it, I was hoping we'd end up there, and then we frikkin' did!!). 

On top of it all, we had to say goodbye to a companion, Clara Oswald, who has been with us since Season 7. The last few episodes of a season are always emotional, and this was no exception. I actually cried at all three of them. Three episodes in a row; I don't know if I've ever done that for a show before. When you combine great writing and great acting and great directing, you can hit people right in the heart, and that's what these episodes did for me. No time to waste (although Eleven would beg to differ, since time is not the boss of you) - let's get right to them!

Episode 10: Face the Raven

Here we have our second episode this season from a female writer, Sarah Dollard. And my kudos to you, Ms. Dollard, because you nailed it. This episode is beautiful.

First of all, I love the idea of the trap street; if you've ever been in London, it does have all sorts of side streets that crop up everywhere, so it's even somewhat plausible that an alien camp could be hidden somewhere in London. The concept of a refugee camp is interesting, too, particularly with how much damage the Doctor and his various conflicts with alien species create - we're seeing the victims left behind, and ones not of this world at that. 

After spending a little too long looking for the trap street (that's my only real complaint about this episode), we finally find it - and who should be the head of the camp but Me, with a fresh new threat tattooed black around her neck: a chronolock, linked to a quantum shade in the form of a raven. This whole idea of a raven bringing death is very Gothic, and the atmosphere of this episode is saturated with that mix of darkness and thrill. The close streets feel claustrophobic, the threat of the raven looms, we have enemy aliens living in close quarters with only the light from the glowworms protecting their identity (another really clever idea, combining Gothic and sci fi elements wonderfully), and a murder mystery to solve before time runs out. Oh, heck yes.

And then, of course, the name of the episode comes into play in the most tragic way possible.

Clara has been set up since Season 8 to want to be the Doctor. Though Flatline was a major indication, or perhaps fanned the flame, of this desire, Season 9 is when it became most obvious in her character arc. She wants to be as smart, as capable, she wants control of every situation just like he has, and to be able to fix things like he does. Over time, as she's spent more time in the TARDIS, she's grown more confident, until she's giving orders to UNIT and standing up to the Mire. That's all fine and good - great, even - until that confidence turns to arrogance.

I think I can say that most of us didn't expect Clara's death to be like this. I mean, she's the Impossible Girl - shouldn't her death be the consequence of something earth-shattering, saving the universe or some such bombast? Most companions get a huge send-off, like the Battle of Canary Wharf for Rose, or the Master taking over the Earth for Martha. But here, it's on a much smaller scale. 

Maybe that's the point - I mean, you can't get much bigger than splintering yourself across the Doctor's entire timeline in order to save him. Maybe Steven Moffat realized that, and decided to go a bit more subtle, a bit more intimate. Whatever the thought process, I sincerely approve of it. This was not how I thought she would go, but it ended up being perfect.

Clara's Achilles' heel is her arrogance - she wants to be the Doctor, but she can't. Her trying to be the Doctor, to be clever and take control and try to be three steps ahead of everyone else, ends up being her doom, and that is why her end is perfect - because it feels inevitable. One way or another, we would have ended up here eventually.

The showstopper of this episode is, obviously, Clara's goodbye. I couldn't help feeling incredibly proud of her. She doesn't try to run, or deny anything; she accepts the situation, and does everything right - assuaging Rigsy's guilt, protecting Me, and consoling the Doctor, who for once feels completely powerless. This scene is so well written, and so well acted, by both Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi. Clara knows the rage the Doctor is capable of, and so she lets him know that she won't accept his grief as an excuse to hurt anyone: 

Clara: "You're going to be alone now. And you're very bad at that. You're going to be furious, and you're going to be sad. But listen to me: don't let this change you...You can't let this turn you into a monster. So I'm not asking you for a promise. I'm giving you an order. You will not insult my memory. There will be no revenge. I will die, and no one else here, or anywhere, will suffer."

And then the Doctor whispers, "Clara-", his voice cracking, and that is when I started crying.

You can feel the pain in this conversation; they never have to say it, but you know Clara and the Doctor love each other. The Doctor would tear the skies apart for Clara, and that is why she knows she needs to tell him not to when she dies. This lingering goodbye is one of the saddest scenes we've had in a long time, made even sadder by the fact that, even though she forbids him to, the Doctor watches as the raven claims Clara's life. Doctor, why do you do that to yourself?

Because he blames himself. And that is also one of the saddest parts of being the Doctor.

I can't say much else except, what a send-off. Last year's Christmas episode, Last Christmas, was supposed to be Clara's goodbye, and it was perfect - and then Coleman changed her mind to come back, so Moffat had to rewrite the episode at the last minute. I wasn't altogether sure if they would be able to match the quality of that beautifully sad departure, but I think they have with this. Again, my kudos to you, Sarah Dollard; I look forward to anything you write for Doctor Who in the future!

Notable Quotes:

[Clara and the Doctor meeting Rigsy's baby girl]
Doctor; (to Rigsy) "Did you make this human?"
Clara: "Oh, Rigsy, she's gorgeous."
Doctor: "She's better than that - she's brilliant!"

Doctor: "Bring the new human. No, don't bring the new human. I'll just get distracted." 
Who would have thought - even Twelve loves babies!

Clara: "Well, if Danny Pink can do it, so can I."
Doctor: "Do what?"
Clara: "Die right. Die like I mean it. Face the raven."
Doctor: "No, this is not- This can't be happening."
Clara: "Maybe this is what I wanted. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is why I kept running. Maybe this is why I kept taking all those stupid risks, kept pushing it."
An interesting look into Clara's psychology - a self-destructive urge, created by her grief over Danny and encouraged by her desire to be the Doctor. For all of Clara's bravado, she has been slowly, silently spinning out of control, and it kind of makes me sad that her friendship with the Doctor seemed to do her more harm than good. I think the problem was they were too much alike; two Doctors is always cause for trouble, and this was no exception.

Episode 11: Heaven Sent

Oh, my god. I have no other words. Just oh, my god.

This episode is spectacular. 

Really, just magnificent. Peter Capaldi holds us captivated for a solid 45 minutes, and it's one of the best things I've ever seen on television. This is Twelve's finest hour, hands down. This will go down in Who history as one of, if not the best episode Twelve has ever had. Because it's amazing. Writing by Steven Moffat, acting by Peter Capaldi, directing by Rachel Talalay - all just amazing.

The funny thing is, the story isn't even that original. It's been done before, with all its Gothic-y, mind-bending awesomeness. But the execution is that fantastic - you're confused for forty minutes and then completely blown away in the last five. I love television that makes me think, that makes my brain feel like electricity is scorching through it when I'm figuring something out (I am a Ravenclaw, after all), and - well, there's a reason we say "mind blown"; it literally felt like my brain was imploding when the twist was revealed. After an eternity of feeling confused, suddenly everything made sense, and IT. WAS. AWESOME.

Just like the Doctor, we're dropped into a place where we have no idea where we are, what's going on, or who the immediate threat is. Like the Doctor, we're still grieving over Clara, and want to find whoever's responsible for her death. And like the Doctor, we slowly figure out what's going on, piece by carefully laid piece.

Within that strange puzzlebox of madness, Twelve finally has a proper monster: the Veil.

Death personified, it hunts the Doctor from the get go, stalking him, accepting confessions as payment until it comes back around, until the Doctor must give up his life when he runs out of hidden truths to tell. This is a haunting presence, preceded by the sound of buzzing flies - a graphic combination of sound and imagery that makes this monster even creepier, if that was even possible.

What's really great about this set-up is that we see the clues from the start. At the very beginning, during that amazing monologue, we see the bloody footprints, someone pulling the lever, the hand burning to dust. But we don't know, we don't understand the weight of what we're seeing, until the very end, when it hits all at once, straight to the gut.

I won't tell you how much I cried during this episode. I won't, because I would probably be too embarrassed by it. It was during the montage at the very end, when everything comes to light, everything comes together, and you realize that the Doctor has been dying and, essentially, regenerating, over and over, for billions of years, to protect a secret he must keep. Looking at that diamond wall, he knows how excruciatingly long it will take him to break through it. And still he keeps going. Even when he knows he'll have to die, over and over. Even when he wants to give up, when he knows he could, he still keeps going. Because of Clara. Who gives him the will to do it. Living, dying, running, fighting, on and on, while the stars change position above and the skulls pile up in the sea.

The Doctor is so brave. And that's why I cried. He's braver than I ever thought possible. Because of Clara. Because of how much he cares.

The speech to go along with his fight is perfect, too:

Doctor: "There's this emperor, and he asks the shepherd's boy, 'How many seconds in eternity?' The shepherd's boy says, 'There's this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to go around it. Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.' You must think that's a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that's a hell of a bird."

I cheered and clapped at that last line, as he finally smashes through the diamond wall. Something so triumphant at the end of what seemed like such a futile mission was the perfect ending.

And then, just to top it all off, we get another surprise: the enemies were the Time Lords. And the planet on the other side of the diamond was...Gallifrey!!

Episode 12: Hell Bent

And so we're here, at the season finale. I didn't think there was any possible way to top Heaven Sent; it was just too good. And I was right - but to the writers' credit, they did give us a solid episode to end on, and, after last year's so-so finale, I appreciate that.

This episode essentially has two storylines: past and present - the past with the Doctor and Clara on Gallifrey, and present, with the Doctor telling the story to Clara at the diner. Personally, I think both of these storylines have both their good and bad points, adding up to a satisfying conclusion plot-wise, but maybe not so much character-wise.

I will explain.

So, starting off, the Doctor doesn't say a word for the first ten minutes of this episode. That must be the longest the Doctor has ever gone without talking. Ten and Eleven could never have done that, no way; but Nine could have, and I think that's what I love about the Doctor we see in this episode. We see the war-weary soldier Nine personified so well, and to see the intimidation factor build and build as the Doctor's silence stretches is something awesome to see. He doesn't need words; he just uses silence, and the attack eyebrows, of course, until they bring him what he wants: President Rassilon, no longer Timothy Dalton, but an older, power-hungry tyrant. Nine's theme music even plays for a few seconds when the Doctor stands up to Rassilon, telling him to get off his planet.

What a way to come home!

Then we bring Clara back into the story, and here's where I feel the narrative starts to go wrong.

Clara's death was perfect. She died in the trap street, the Doctor grieved, and her memory helped him through all those years in the confession dial, keeping him strong and making him brave. That's how I wanted to remember Clara - brave, and compassionate, and strong, staring down death with no hint of fear.

And then the Doctor decides to take time into his own hands. Because that always ends well.

Stealing Clara from her death in the moment before her last heartbeat, the Doctor kills a Time Lord in their way before he and Clara escape to the depths of the capitol. 

Doctor, what the hell are you doing?! 

I mean, I don't care if on Gallifrey "death is just another word for man flu"; you just murdered someone!

The next few minutes reveal a big issue with this episode: pacing. We had a beginning that stretched out with the Doctor's silence, and now we have a middle that's being crammed full of Time Lord mythology, the matrix and cloister wraiths and time-frozen monsters and just too much stuff that doesn't matter all that much to the story we're trying to tell.

On the other hand, it is nice to see the Doctor and Clara together again. But Clara knows something is off; when the Doctor won't tell her what, she demands it of the newly-regenerated general (white man to a black woman - not that subtle, Moffat, but I do appreciate that now we have on-screen proof of Time Lords being able to switch genders!).

And then we find out: the Doctor was in the confession dial for four and a half billion years.

You can guess what I started doing at this moment. 

Clara's face just says it all: the shock and the pain and the anguished love for her friend, who used all his grief to fuel him through eons of psychological torture. He did it to keep the secret, but that was never the point after all; the point was to save her. 

He endured all that, all that time, just for her. And he wasn't even going to tell her.

Maybe I'm just too sensitive for my own good (and believe me, I know), but stuff like that hits me hard. I mean, that is a complete and total love that spanned billions of years, years filled with pain and grief where he could have given up so easily. But he didn't. All for her. 

In a world where it often feels like everyone's trying so hard to protect their own hearts, it's astounding to see someone willing to love so openly, and so much, with their whole heart, without fear of the consequences and in spite of the pain of loss. He could have turned bitter and given up; instead, he kept going, punching away at that diamond wall, all for the slimmest chance that he would break through and force the Time Lords to bring Clara back. 

The relationship between Twelve and Clara has never been a romantic one. There have been hints, but ultimately they are just best friends. But no matter what anyone says, this is a love story; there's no other context for it. Whether romantic or the deepest friendship the universe knows, the Doctor loved Clara so much he fought for four and a half billion years just to see her again. And if that doesn't break your heart, I don't know what will.

Now we have the great escape - the Doctor and Clara steal a classic-design TARDIS (it's the round things!) and head for the stars, running from the Time Lords just like the Doctor did all those years ago. And for a moment, it feels like just another wild adventure, the Doctor and Clara back together again.

 But Clara's heartbeat doesn't restart. And suddenly the Doctor has a decision to make.

Here we get an echo of Donna's story. I didn't want Clara's memories erased, but I couldn't see how else the episode could end, with the Doctor standing with the neural block in hand.

Never would I have thought that it would be the Doctor who loses his memories.

It is a pretty nice twist, especially since we had assumed throughout the whole diner scene that it was Clara who had had forgotten, and the Doctor would leave quietly, like he did with Donna, leaving her to live out her life in peace.

But no - Clara, in the end, does, in fact, get to play the role of the Doctor, observing him without his memories of her and sending him on his way to live a life without her. 

I'm not sure this works so well in practice as it does in theme. Yes, it's poetic justice, but isn't it a little cruel for Clara to let him go without trying to tell him who she is? Does she think she's being kind, since she's seen the consequences of him losing her, and doesn't want that to happen again? Is she doing it for the good of the universe, to protect it from the Doctor's grief when he does inevitably lose her again? I'm not sure. I wish it had been made clearer what her main motivation was for leaving him behind.

Which brings me to my one true issue with this episode:

Every companion needs a character arc, with noticeable developments and a contrast to themselves at the start that needs to be fulfilled by the end of their time with the Doctor. For Rose it was ambition; for Martha it was self-worth; for Donna it was empathy.

Right now Clara's arc is less clear, but I think part of her development as a character is she's learned to accept responsibility for her own actions. In Season 7 she depended on the Doctor to fix everything; in Season 8 she was forced to fix problems on her own; in Season 9 her recklessness sometimes overshadowed her sense of responsibility, but in Face the Raven, instead of trying to run away or desperately fix a problem that couldn't be solved, or even blame someone else for it, she accepted her death with grace and faced it with courage. That is what I truly admired her for - her courage, and her compassion, even shown in her last moments by her comforting those around her.

For Clara's character arc to be complete, and for us as the audience to have closure on her as a character, she needs to go back to Gallifrey and back into her time stream and die on the trap street again. As she has been telling the Doctor over and over, "It's my time. Everyone faces the raven. I have to die." It's her chance to, for once, actually be better than the Doctor, to stop running and face the consequences.

So what does she do?


Don't get me wrong, I think it's a fun idea for her and Me to go flying around in a TARDIS. BUT NOT AS PART OF HER CHARACTER ARC.

It was so simple. All she had to do was die, and we would have had that closure that's so essential to a good story. But for some reason, Steven Moffat felt the need to keep her around, for a guest star appearance sometime in the future or something, I seriously don't know.

I dare you, Moffat, I double dog dare you, to KILL OFF A MAJOR CHARACTER AND KEEP THEM DEAD. Sure, in real life, a person might decide to avoid death no matter what they've said earlier. But that isn't good storytelling.

Okay. I've said my piece. Besides that MAJOR misstep in basic storytelling, I think it was a successful episode. The Doctor is the Doctor again, as shown by him putting on the Doctor-y velvet coat, and - BAM! - catching a new sonic screwdriver the TARDIS made for him. My fellow Whovians, THE SONIC SCREWDRIVER IS BACK!

Looking at it, it's kind of funny how themes change over time. In Season 8, when the Doctor was supposed to be all stern and minimalist, he never would have had a screwdriver like this. I mean, I was surprised at how flashy it is! The lights keep flashing around and around, and the light is actually really big this time, and what even kind of design is this? I think I saw someone describe it as "disco crayon steampunk," and that's a bizarrely accurate description. If the Doctor wants to be Doctor Disco, I guess this is the right sonic for him!

But anyway - Season 9 is over, but we have the Christmas episode to look forward to! Last year's was a delightfully bizarre mix of Alien and Inception; this year's looks like a fun little comedy, where Twelve meets River Song! I can hardly wait!


-I love the inclusion of Clara's theme being played on Twelve's guitar. It's such a subtle and beautiful touch.

-Rassilon: "Who the hell does he think he is?"
General: "The man who won the Time War, sir."

-Kind of random, but Me looks gorgeous in this episode. Just saying.

-So, does this mean we're going to run into Clara again when we inevitably run into Me somewhere down the line?

-I was kind of hoping that waitress Clara would be one of her echoes, a nice callback to her status as the Impossible Girl. Ah, well :)

-I love all the little tributes to the Doctor's past in this episode. The song from Mummy on the Orient Express playing in the diner, which happens to be the diner from The Impossible Astronaut, the mention of the Ice Warrior from Cold War - it's genuinely lovely, although I hope this doesn't mean we're going to be losing Capaldi anytime soon!

Series 9 Final Ranking:
1. Heaven Sent (Ep. 11)
2. The Zygon Inversion (Ep. 8)
3. Face the Raven (Ep. 10)
4. The Girl Who Died (Ep. 5)
5. The Witch's Familiar (Ep. 2)
6. Under the Lake (Ep. 3)
7. Hell Bent (Ep. 12)
8. The Woman Who Lived (Ep. 6)
9. Before the Flood (Ep. 4)
10. The Magician's Apprentice (Ep. 1)
11. The Zygon Invasion (Ep. 7)
12. Sleep No More (Ep. 9)