Doctor Who

Some Thoughts on Series 10

Coming fresh out of The Doctor Falls writing this, in what will be my first post for… two, three months?  Maybe more?  Time goes slowly when you’re waiting in a sinister hospital approaching the event horizon of a black hole (the holiday didn’t go quite as expected).

I’m also in a bit of a situation with the old internet – no Wi-Fi at all, and mobile data that’s slowly… dwindling… away.  But, like the Doctor, I refuse to let go, and I will get every drop of life out of it that I can.  Enough, I hope, to be able to post this tonight.

So, Series Ten.  Or as I call it, ‘the year I became absolutely sure that Moffat either reads The Eighth Doctor Adventures, or is my future incarnation’.  No, but I’m getting that out the way, okay?  I’m not going to harp on about it.  I think it’s great that there’s a genius out there writing these innovative ideas, it’s just a shame that Moffat comes along and steals them all from her (I kid, I kid).

That was a marvellous final series for Steven Moffat, Peter Capaldi, Steven Moffat, Rachael Talalay, Michelle Gomez, Murr- oh hell, let’s just take it as read that absolutely everyone good is leaving at the end of 2017 and that this has been a good year for all of them.  I started it optimistically, gathered some cynicism as it went on, but looking back on it all, seeing the themes come together – I’m very, very happy with how that shaped up.  I’m not sure it quite tops either Series One or Series Eight, but it comes pretty damn close.

So I’m going to try do a rank order, though I shan’t be assigning grades to these.  Before I start, to comment briefly on the series itself: one major theme that’s struck me throughout this series, and which I suspected (quite correctly) was building to something big in the finale, was transformation. The first half of the series in particular focuses on what oppressive systems (usually capitalism, sometimes imperialism/colonialism) can turn you into: Heather being ‘monstered’ by the puddle, the humans in Smile being turned into fertiliser because of the Utilitarian programming of the Vardy, the children in Thin Ice being eaten by the creature under the Thames and transformed into faecal matter, Eliza into wood, the workers on Chasm Forge into zombies, etc.  That really reaches its peak in World Enough and Time, where Bill is turned into a Cyberman – but she’s then saved in The Doctor Falls by being transformed again, this time ascending to a higher form to join Heather.  That’s only a small observation, but I think it’s really neat – Bill’s fate gets subverted in a way that’s still very much in keeping with the themes of the series.

Props as well, speaking of space lesbians (yes, I’m smiling), to the way this series has handled sexuality.  Bill follows in the footsteps of Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy and Clara as a character who’s given a plethora of romantic interests and subplots.  There are no changes there; there is neither more nor less focus on Bill’s romantic life, but when necessary they do show the challenges she faces as a lesbian – having to let down all the blokes who try to chat her up, for instance.  It’s nice to see an LGBT+ companion with a variety of love interests, some recurring, and one who gets a happy ending!  Full marks for that.

The series arc work this year has been notably excellent, with this being probably the best-structured series… well, ever.  You see a synthesis of approaches here: the Series One approach of supposedly focusing on one central conceit (i.e. the Vault) but then bringing various unrelated strands together in the finale; the Series Five approach of an arc which occasionally intrudes on the stories being told (in a good, sort of unexpected way); and of course, the Series Eight approach of a story arc which is completely entwined with, and inseparable from, the character arcs.  There’s a sense of Moffat knowing by now what works and what doesn’t – knowing, for instance, that the ‘arc words’/‘puzzle-box’ Vault arc is only interesting enough to last for half a series.

Lots of revealing parallels to Sherlock too, even dismissing the obvious Eurus/Missy, Bill/Mary ones.  I’m not going to go into them all here, but I always enjoy seeing how Moffat uses these two very distinct shows as ways to channel the same concepts, though with two completely divergent results.  There are some really insightful posts on tumblr which point out those similarities – unfortunately, most of them end with some sort of Johnlock conspiracy, but they’re fun while they last.

I think that’s all, in the way of introductory notes.  Let’s do the listing, then.

 

  1. The Lie of the Land
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Best moment of this episode: that bit where Peter Capaldi indulges in the most maniacal, terrifying, villainous laugh I’ve heard in my life, and Wayne Yip and Murray Gold decide to roll with it anyway.

I mean, this is better than Before the Flood.  That’s not to say the script is better at all, but this time some of the people involved actually gave a f***.  That’s nice, although they shouldn’t have felt obliged.  What you end up with is something better than Whithouse’s Series Nine two-parter, but in many ways more frustrating: one of the best performances by both Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, one of Murray Gold’s best scores, and some excellent production work from Wayne Yip and Michael Pickwoad to boot.

That isn’t to say the episode is particularly salvaged by the efforts of the production team.  All you end up with is an episode that feels like prescriptive storytelling at its worst, a category Doctor Who has always risked falling into – the episode doesn’t evoke feelings so much as instruct them.  All you get from an empty script and an effective soundtrack is a scene telling you “look, you have to feel sad now”.

There are good bits with Missy, like the little meta-ethical subplot concerning the Doctor and Missy’s differing notions of good, but most of the best bits between them are down to the performances (God knows how they got that final scene to work, but Gomez does actually sell it) – with that said, not even Gomez can redeem “caliente – that’s Spanish for hot”.  But looking back on this as a whole… it’s a mess.  With fake-out regenerations and fake-out companion deaths, Whithouse just looks like a butthurt kid who wants to be writing Face the Raven instead of a mid-series Earth invasion, but doesn’t appreciate the significant of what he’s actually been given.

The sad thing about this is that, unlike Before the Flood, it damages the series around it.  It’s not throwaway, and frankly, giving this episode to Whithouse was probably the worst decision of Moffat’s career, or at least it’s up there.  Maybe there’s a logic there – for a three-part story in the paranoid mode, there’s perhaps a place for Whithouse, but as the big showpiece?  Jesus, no.  After all that build-up, the whole thing just fizzles, and one is left wondering what the real purpose of Chekov’s Monks was in this series.

Particularly unfortunate is the fact that this episode coincided with the stabbings in London, not very far from where I live.  So yeah, I’m bitter.  On a night like that, I needed a Sarah Dollard script to comfort me, not this crap.

 

  1. Knock Knock
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Having enjoyed the concept of the house and its Freudian wealth of corridors, rooms and compartments, I was disappointed that I couldn’t have this experience enhanced by the ‘3D sound’ version of the story, especially as I have a home cinema system too.  Sadly, my lack of internet meant that I was unable to stream the iPlayer version through my television.  One does wonder why presumably a chunk of the budget went on an experiment only available to those who wanted to re-watch the episode, as opposed to something to enjoy on first viewing.

A sort of guilty pleasure episode for me, something I find far more enjoyable than I should, particularly elevated by David Suchet just being there.  Like Doctor Foster, Mike Bartlett writes something ruthlessly, disappointingly functional, but which couldn’t exactly be called “bad” either.  It’s a shame, from a new writer (and hard to believe that a lifelong Doctor Who fan would produce something so workmanlike), but it’s not the worst thing in the world, and I do genuinely think the series would be weaker without these smaller episodes existing to reinforce the themes and character work in their own quieter way.  Just by paralleling the Landlord’s Bertha Mason-esque imprisonment with Eliza with the Doctor’s imprisonment of Missy (Time Lord and Land Lord, too), you’ve got some suitably uncomfortable arc work that’s already an improvement on The Lie of the Land.  (Mind you, a shit on a plate would be an improvement on Whithouse’s character work.)

There’s nice diversity in the cast, too; this is a very modern and, let’s be honest, very sexy episode.  It’s not often you get Little Mix and fresher’s parties in Doctor Who, either.  While the cast suffer from a lack of emotional grounding (where are their reactions to each other’s deaths?), they’re still established pretty well, and only feel out of place because the series never bothers to pick up on them again, which is a shame, but a recurrent weakness of the Moffat era (which is otherwise brilliant, obviously).  Another point I liked here was how Bartlett managed to avoid the tedium of the Doctor not being trusted by the secondary character/disposables, by having him instantly embraced as the mad old lecturer whom everybody loves.

So, this is a bit of a reimagining of the monster run-around/return home story of the Davies era, and whilst collapsing that into a one-parter is a good decision, it doesn’t quite land.  It’s not remotely scary, especially when you’ve got World Enough and Time in the same series, though noticeably it goes for the same route as World Enough and Time – a mother committing suicide and taking her son with her is something that would feel out of place in any other series, but seems tame in comparison to what comes later.

At best, this is an unconventional bildungsroman which exists to warn young people of competitive housing prices and exploitative landlord/tenant relationships, and that’s great, but at worst, this is a story that thinks recycling The Lazarus Experiment’s “some people live more in twenty years than others do in eighty” mantra makes a better story, so I’ll leave this one where it is.

 

  1. The Pyramid at the End of the World
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Something which stuck out to me about this story was the bizarre, though charming concern with GM crops, considering they’re basically the most minimal threat to the world right now.  It’s so Pertwee, in the most adorable way.

Okay, we can talk about the good ones now.  Pyramid is, for starters, enormously fun.  Nettheim gives it a lovely visual flourish, which particularly shines in scenes like the post-titles narration, and the lab bits scattered throughout.  Marketing wise, whilst this isn’t necessarily the easiest episode to sell, it’s one where being well-informed is a good thing – knowing the publicity material is a rewarding experience which adds to the tension.  The question isn’t “Will the Doctor get out of this one?”, but “Who will consent to the invasion, and why?”  That’s a refreshingly new approach to the problem of spoilers in multi-part stories, I think – though for my money the best bit of the episode is actually the start, with Harness’s characteristic meddling with the ‘Previously’ recap and the Children of Earth-esque opening scene.

And it’s another democratically sceptical episode from Harness, who seems to be writing “for the few, and not the many”.  That’s me being facetious, though, because in many ways that’s the point of the episode – the way characters like Bill (i.e. minorities) are often side-lined in democracy, where the majority always rules.  I’m not sure what his alternative to democracy is (benevolent dictatorship?), but the criticism is always good to digest, and I’d say equally this is a story about the need for democracy – the problematic nature of the Doctor’s dictatorial role as President of the World is lampshaded by the fact that his absolute authority is what gets us invaded in the first place.

And isn’t it lovely that Harness’s work comes full circle, with another probably unintended sexual metaphor in the moral of the story?  Luckily, that doesn’t detract from this one – “consent is love” is basically a non-issue as far as unintended euphemisms go; in fact, I hope that one was read sexually, so that young viewers f***ing listen to it.

 

  1. Empress of Mars
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Am I alone in feeling that Bill is missing a character beat at the end?  I expected some pay-off to Iraxxa’s comment about the female perspective earlier in the episode, and everything else got buried amidst the more pressing issues concerning the male leads.  Bit strange, when you’ve drawn attention to it in the first place, but not the biggest issue in the world.

The obvious way to do a monster run-around that works is to get someone who actually enjoys writing one.  The obvious way to tackle a low-budget episode is to make that part of its charm.  At last, those two solutions combine to make literally the most Mark Gatiss thing ever – a Classic Doctor Who episode, in a Welsh quarry, that doesn’t last for bloody hours.  I guess you could say it’s unambitious, but with its decisively Wells-flavour sci-fi (with, of course, just a hint of The Martian Chronicles), this is pure, undiluted camp glory (unlike The Lie of the Land, which channels literature too, but with the effect of making you wish you were reading Orwell instead of that rubbish).

Gatiss goes all Silurian (no, not literally) by making them a matriarchy, but actually explores the implications of matriarchy, pushing the more feminine values of honour and courage through Iraxxa, as opposed to substituting them for the same patriarchal values we’re already familiar with (as Cold Blood does).

You can see Gatiss, who’s ultimately a lovely, soft old leftie, slowly finding his feet politically.  He’s totally unwilling to engage with Churchill in any meaningful way in Victory of the Daleks, and skims over the Cold War a bit too, but once he’s started smashing up busts of Margaret Thatcher… well, there’s no stopping him.  Here he takes us back to a world of imperialism, the idealised Britain, and asks the question: why would you want to go back to it?  If we take that attitude out into the universe with us, it’ll get us killed.  But he reminds us that those bunch of idiots don’t speak for all of us: just because there are enough racists to swing the vote towards Brexit, it doesn’t mean we’re all racists.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying all Brexit voters are racists.  But it’s worth speaking about Brexit anyway, since that’s part of the episode’s charm.  You’d expect a satire about leaving the EU from Series Ten, but instead, Gatiss provides an episode about joining it, about how relinquishing imperialist ideologies is what makes Britain Great.  And you can’t not love that.

 

  1. Thin Ice
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You’ve got to feel bad for Sarah Dollard.  Twice in a row, she’s written an episode which has been torn to pieces by the Daily Mail’s television critic, Christopher Stevens – and they’ve been the only two episodes he’s bothered to review!  Whilst it’s tempting to get all teary-eyed about how poor old Dollard has been singled out, it’s important to remember that Stevens is probably the vilest, most bigoted TV critic on the planet, and that upsetting the Daily Mail is more of a success than anything else.  Her unique ability to rile the most reactionary of critics speaks volumes about how on-point and straight-up Dollard’s episodes are, really.

Sarah Dollard, who previous did “companion’s last adventure”, gets to contribute to the triptych of “companion’s first adventure” stories (so next time, can we see her do something mid-series?  Yes, there must be a next time).  This time, she relishes in the structure of an ordinary Doctor Who story, and there’s a rare sense of joy at writing the building blocks of Doctor Who – this a story that loves doing the basics, and that makes the basics enjoyable again.  (It’s also loaded with references, some explicit and some implicit.  Shame the River one was cut, mind, what with her prevalence in the rest of the series.)

This is absolutely one of Bill’s best episodes, and once more, you wish Dollard had been the one to handle her character piece in The Lie of the Land.  The punch in the face is also brilliant – it sets the standard for dealing with racism in such a direct way, but it’s not a case of luxuriating in how brilliant this white guy is or anything.  It’s not “isn’t the Doctor amazing?” (even though Bill clearly thinks he is) – it’s a more a case of reminding the viewer that, if you’re privileged yourself, you have to set the standard for how to treat minorities.  You have to make room for anger, for their anger, and you have to use your privilege for good where you can.

Still… there’s room for improvement.  Whilst you couldn’t have better advice on dealing with racism, the racial elements of this story feel undercooked.  The only overt racist is an evil shit (and comedy villain, ultimately) who feeds children to a giant sea creature.  It would be nice to see the prevalence of those attitudes, a reminder that you couldn’t necessarily escape them just by hanging out with poor people.

 

  1. The Pilot
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Best bit of the episode?  Bill asking the Doctor whether the TARDIS can go anywhere in the “universe…ity?”  God bless that innocent little cupcake.

Probably the best companion introduction to date, nailing all the main story beats and adding a few more in for good measure. It establishes the Doctor/companion dynamic with ease, and like Knock Knock makes the smart creative decision of skipping the tedium of prolonged setup.

Something which makes this episode kind of fascinating is that it proclaims itself to be a pilot episode, despite being the start of the last (continuity-heavy) series of the Moffat era.  Looking back, I don’t think the purpose of this was to boost the audience by millions, so much as it was to welcome a new generation of fans.  Above all, this feeling like a jumping-on point for the sort of person who you’d expect to become a fan; it’s suitably compelling in its own way, but by the end of the series, there’s the expectation that you’d go back and check out the early Capaldi years, and Simm’s old stories too.

It’s very straightforward, but doesn’t do anything wrong at all, using the reliable structure of An Unearthly Child or Rose, but substituting it for The Chase at the midway point to do something a bit different.  At the end of the day, the plot doesn’t matter – the TARDIS is set up as a safe space, and really, Pearl Mackie is the focus here, a brand new actress, which is all very exciting, being the first time you have genuinely no idea what to expect of a companion.  (She didn’t disappoint.)

 

  1. Oxygen
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That scene with Bill was one of the most terrifying moments in years, and part of that was because it uses a nightmare scenario that’s very real – people have died in space, and people will continue to die in space.  If you run out of oxygen this far out, there’s nothing anyone can do to save you.

A tribute to, and defence of, the overworked, with shamelessly overt references to capitalism.  Who cares?  The very fact that the kids of today are being told “Fight capitalism before it kills you” rather than “Don’t kill the Daleks or you’ll be just as bad as them”… let’s just say, I’ll be showing my kids Oxygen when they’re old enough to watch space zombies.  (I think this story gets scarier the older you get – I found the suggestion that capitalism is going to last centuries and continue to kill us a very difficult message to digest.  This was a believable story, which makes it some of the best horror in the series.  Much of our water is already bottled – what’s to say our oxygen won’t be?  What’s to say that the solution to global warming won’t be “good air for the rich”?  Shit, we need to act.  Now.)

This isn’t perfect, and with a bit more fine-tuning, maybe it could have been.  The supporting characters are significantly weaker than the ones Mathieson crafted in, say, Mummy on the Orient Express, and the whole thing is slightly rough around the edges.  Even though that doesn’t take away from its charm – and doesn’t in any way undermine the brilliance of writing yet another Doctor Who story around a pun –  it’s a strong case for why Doctor Who stories should be an hour long.

It’s nice to see a story doing science relatively well whilst upholding good storytelling – I’d rather sacrifice scientific realism than a good Doctor Who story, but achieving both, well, that’s even better.  This is a story with a very different mandate to Kill the Moon, though it does have a lot of structural similarities, and plays a similar role within the series.  Here, though, the highlight is the setup – I genuinely think the lecture scenes at the start are the best this gets, and that’s not a complaint.

(Just a small observation, but it’s worth mentioning how Mathieson relies on removing some key aspect of Doctor Who for his stories to take off – the TARDIS in Mummy, the Doctor in Flatline, the sunglasses in Girl, and the Doctor’s eyesight here.)

 

  1. Smile
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And that’s not even CGI.

I liked this one a lot, even if it’s not perfect, and wrote about exactly why that was here.  Tapping into themes of environmentalism, communication, utopianism – well, this was really up my street, and even if it didn’t deal with them in all the best ways, I’m just glad it dealt with them at all – and I’m glad it recognised that all utopian texts are implicated in a philosophy of slavery, and extended that to a commentary on the abuse of AI.

Whilst the structural issues show up a lot more in light of the series of a whole, the rest of the series makes this even more enjoyable.  It’s strikingly gentle compared to later episodes; Bill’s just enjoying the adventure, and the Doctor is just enjoying being a teacher.  I always enjoy those first three episodes with a companion, and I’m glad they’ve preserved the old approach of using them to explore Doctor Who in a safe, fun environment (the policeman reading of the Doctor is difficult, though – God, that’s been bothering me…).

I’d encourage people to read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, because I think this episode does rely on an understanding of that particular text.  Sure, that’s a weakness, but you’ve got to admire the way it transforms a Victorian satire into a satire of late capitalism (or early capitalism, if you want to believe Oxygen).

 

  1. World Enough and Time

 

 

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Look, I’m sorry.  I’m the last person to complain about spoilers, usually.  But for f***’s sake, there’s a line, and they’ve crossed it this time.  Mondasian Cybermen?  Would have been a neat surprise, but sure, you need a hook to sell the finale, that’s fine.  But the Master?  They could have concealed him, they could have done it so easily.  But they revealed him.  Wouldn’t be a problem… except the whole sodding episode builds towards the reveal, and it is exactly that: a reveal, that’s meant to be a surprise.  Remember surprises?  Me f**ing neither.

This is deeply uncomfortable viewing.  There’s no way around that.  This is probably the most uncomfortable episode of Doctor Who ever, and Mary Whitehouse would be furious that Bill was a Cyberman for a week.  Wait, no, she wouldn’t, she supported the conversion of gay people.  (I’m so sorry…)

I understand the backlash.  At the end of the day, there are many approaches to dealing with a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, and… well, this is one of them.  Don’t provide a solution, don’t envisage a utopia: simply reflect the world.  Create a pure dystopia to mirror our own.  As a result, this is a story which packs a punch, and does so through mirroring.  The nurse switching off the volume mirrors the way minorities are silenced when they express their own pain; Bill being turned into a Cyberman mirrors how the marginalised are often stripped of their identities, forced to conform to become something they aren’t.  It’s even worse because the doctor who converts Bill sounds exactly like my dentist.

As I say, I understand the backlash, but the thing is… look at what the backlash demonstrated.  Different groups of people go into these stories with different sets of concerns.  That’s the nature of intersectionality.  The reason I say I understand the backlash is that it’s not my place to comment on it: I’m white, and whilst my sexuality doesn’t conform to the norm, I’m not a lesbian either, so that trope hasn’t had such a direct effect on me.

What I look for when I go into a Doctor Who story is, a lot of the time, disability representation.  I’ve struggled with my own health at several points in my life, and basically since I was a child I’ve acted in some form of caring capacity, whether towards a best friend or towards my own guardian; I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by disability, and it means a lot to me.  So whilst the lesbian community was understandably focused on the treatment of a lesbian character, I rejoiced at the disabled representation in this story – whilst none of us have ever become Cybermen, what Bill went through in that hospital was pretty damn realistic in a lot of ways.

This story had a lasting impact on me, with that image of Bill, waiting around in hospital to find out what the Doctor would do next.  I spent 2016 waiting for a Doctor Who series that was never coming – as did the rest of the fanbase – but far more to the point, I spent much of 2016 in hospital, unable to get out, unable to live my life, hooked up to appliances and the like.  And that representation meant a lot.

That’s about all I wanted to say about this one.  I’d add, though, that this is the best Cybermen story ever, because it manages to pose the ethical dilemma of the Cybermen in a more nuanced way.  We want them to save Bill, because we care about her.  We don’t want Bill to die getting shot – we want her to carry on.  For the first time, we need the Cybermen.

 

  1. Extremis
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Something I appreciated in this episode was that it directly addressed the Doctor’s own beliefs – “I don’t believe in much.  I’m not sure I believe in anything.”  That stuck out to me as addressing something which Whithouse refused to address in The God Complex, and I don’t mean to single out Whithouse (again…); that’s something a lot of writers would feel uncomfortable addressing.  Personally, I think faith is an important aspect of a character, and I’m glad they went there.

It’s The Matrix meets a tongue-in-cheek version of The Da Vinci Code, structured like an episode of LOST.  It’s Plato’s Cave, but the hidden reality is Lovecraftian despair.  It’s the truth in a post-truth world.  How can anyone not love this?  Oh, and it’s also Daniel Nettheim’s best episode – that guy’s come a long way since The Zygon Invasion.

Character-wise, though this isn’t anyone’s particular episode, there’s a richness that’s missing from, say, Smile, which I do enjoy regardless, but it’s what sets Extremis up on its own pedestal.  The paralleling of the Doctor and Missy, in particular, is a really smart move that demonstrates Moffat’s move towards a more subtle approach.  We’re no longer in the days of “Look, Doctor, it’s a Star Whale – it’s old, and kind – and the last of its kind – the LAST of its kind, Doctor – look, it’s like an OLD TIME LORD OR SOMETHING – okay it’s you”.  Thank God.  It’s nice to see the ghost of River Song haunting the narrative again, this time become part of the meta – the Doctor saves the day by rejecting the Holy Text (the Bible) and the Occult Text (the Veritas), instead clinging onto his own narrative, contained within the diary.

This episode is packed with philosophy, so obviously I was going to love it.  But even putting the philosophy aside, the message is Series Ten at its best: a call to action.  Let fiction spur you on.  Let the Doctor reach out from his story and tell you how to act in the world.  Let yourself become the Doctor, take on that mantle to save our world.

 

  1. The Eaters of Light
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I know a lot of people were unhappy, or at least confused, about this one airing in the early evening, during the summer of all times.  That never bothered me, as I got in late from a night out and watched this at about midnight.  In fact, The Doctor Falls was the only episode during the back half of the season which I watched live.

It’s In the Forest of the Night, but even better.  (Yes, I just said that.)  Poetic, elegiac, and deeply, deeply Scottish (I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out that this is the most Scottish episode of Doctor Who ever, cast/crew/plot considered as a whole).  Doctor Who that’s unashamedly children’s television, but that’s probably a damn sight better, more competent and less pretentious than most of adult television.  And also an episode that would only work at this place in Capaldi’s run – you can feel the show coming together at this point, making its last definitive statements about the world, and reaffirming what Doctor Who is: a show about time travel and talking crows.

I hope someone more qualified than myself maps the development of the pseudohistorical throughout Capaldi’s era.  Something that struck me this series was that there’s a vested interest in human history that’s absent in the more abstract historicals of Series Eight and Nine, which were much more “Look, Vikings!” or “Look, Robin Hood!” than “Let’s explore the culture surrounding the last ever frost fair” or “Let’s see what really happened to the Legion of the Ninth”.  So it’s great to see more attention paid to the smaller details, especially to Roman attitudes towards sexuality.  No, this isn’t exactly true – but it’s closer than most fiction, and it’s about as far as you can go without bringing the word “penetration” into family television.  Rona Munro must have loved writing a proper lesbian text, and evidently loved writing Bill (I really don’t want to make unfair gender-based criticisms here… but excluding Steven Moffat, it’s definitely the female writers who do the best with Bill this series.  She’s just… animated, in a whole new way).

What elevates this episode above the rest for me?  The fact that, although it’s children’s television, they’re not quite the target audience: or at least, we’re talking about Robert Holmes’ audience of the “intelligent fourteen year-old”.  The election was only just over a week earlier, and what do we have here?  An episode about the youth coming together against an unambiguous bad guy (with the elephant in the room, of course… Scotland went Tory).  It’s like the Class finale done well, two sides coming together to fight a greater threat, but without justifying slavery in the process.  Above all, this is an episode about learning to fight for what you believe in, and that’s such an important message today.  In fact, that’s probably the most important message to come out of the whole damn series.

(On the metafictional level, it’s also a call through Missy for viewers not just to watch Doctor Who, but to engage it.  Hear the music, the episode says.  Listen to message.  Let it become a part of you.  This episode is begging to be analysed and I’m up for the challenge.)

But really… my love of this episode goes beyond the critical.  It taps into something more than that, and I think that’s what Munro was aiming for.  This is the first time in years I’ve felt like a child watching Doctor Who again – and that’s because this was the Doctor Who of my childhood.  This is what I fell in love with.  Survival was part of the Doctor Who I grew up with, and quite clearly, its appeal has survived.

 

  1. The Doctor Falls
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Though there were many powerful moments throughout this episode, I think the one that got me the most was Samantha Spiro’s character* accidentally shooting Bill, with Bill realising that this is how people see her now, and then not retaliating in anger but just walking out.  Moffat follows up on Sherlock’s ambitious exploration of perspective with his magnum opus here.                                 *Samantha Spiro being in this episode means I can point out the totally obscure fact that, with Michelle Gomez, that’s two episodes in the same episode to have played Katherina Minola on stage.

I’ll admit it.  This was so many times better than I expected it to be.  I was expecting something decent, if a bit depressing.  As it was… well, I’d be willing to say this is the best finale ever, at least after some consideration (Series One is a close competitor.  I reckon this just about beats Series Nine, though).  And again it shows that Doctor Who really should be an hour long every week.

Part of what makes this special is knowing that we’re into the farewell tour.  This isn’t just the crew on top form – it’s their last show.  Rachael Talalay amps the scale up to full while Murray Gold matches his score for The Lie of the Land, this time with a script that makes the music feel like it’s earned.

Was it just me?  Writing this, I know very little about what the consensus for this story was.  Personally, I found this one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I’ve ever consumed.  In terms of what its message is, it’s in the same league as Hell Bent, but I never connected with that particular episode like I did with this one.  By the time Bill found the Doctor’s body, I was on the verge of tears, only keeping them back because of the raw, numb shock of everything.

In its own unexpected way, I think Sherlock Series Four was genuinely good for this.  The ghost of Mary Watson looming over this left Bill’s fate uncertain – at one point I was positive that she was going to blow herself up, and towards the end I was half-expecting her to just keel over and die of sadness.  It means Heather’s arrival isn’t just the “oh, obviously” happy ending of the year, but a moment that feels earned, hopeful, even surprising.  And why the hell not?  It’s 2017.  We need a happy ending for a change.  So Bill gets a Space Girlfriend, and Nardole becomes a Space Dad.  I’m up for that.

Hats off to Pearl Mackie too, while I’m dishing out the praise.  That woman deserves to usurp Jennifer Lawrence’s place in popular culture.

The Master might not get a happy ending, but it’s the perfect ending for the pair of them: the misogynist becomes a woman, while Missy gets her redemption, at the cost of her life.  The Master becomes an ouroboros, eternally consuming itself over and over again, in a scene which echoes the very best of Shakespeare’s tragedies, with a time-travel twist.

Speaking of literary references… whilst the previous episode was called World Enough and Time, I like to think the pay-off to that title was held off to this story.  To His Coy Mistress is a seduction poem, but even simpler than that, it’s a carpe diem poem: death waits for all of us, so seize the day, live, love…

When Heather appears to Bill, Bill has lost everything.  But she doesn’t mourn forever.  Where there are tears, there is hope.  Faced with the certainty of death, the limits of world and time, Bill realises that she can’t waste her life mourning.  Despite the allusions to a “marble vault”, I don’t think Moffat’s allusion to Andrew Marvell were about the Doctor and Missy at all – I think it was about Bill the whole time.  Seize the day, while you still have time.

What a series.  Approaching the end of this, I was almost – almost – expecting to be underwhelmed.  But that last episode swooped in and made one last stab (literally) at making the definitive Doctor Who story.  I really needed that happy ending this year, and I am so, so grateful to everyone involved for making a story which will stick with me for the rest of the year, if not the rest of my life.

 

P.S. Off to the land of Emojibots on Thursday, so I’ll try to get something up again soon-ish, maybe before, maybe after.  I have many ideas, and had I world enough and time, I may have been able to share them all.

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5 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Series 10

  1. Marvelous as ever. Good to see we’ve all been picking at the same themes, because really. that just shows how properly done these themes were. Even with the bungling of Lie of the Land, there’s so much tightness to the broader themes and so much triumph to this finale that it’s all elevated. It’s a solid run of Doctor Who that I think will rise to remarkable due to its own internal strength. And I cried buckets, so that’s good.

    Interesting point about Hell Bent. In a way, that episode still feels like more of a triumph than this to me. But this is more emotional, more visceral, more breathtaking. This is a showcase for everything magical about Doctor Who. God, I hope Bill hangs around for more, but if not, she’s certainly made for a magical time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it too. Personally, I found this finale much more triumphant than Hell Bent – as I said, the fact that Bill’s fate is genuinely uncertain at that stage in the story makes Heather’s arrival feel more victorious.

      Though, really, it’s all a matter of personal taste and subjectivity. I didn’t particularly want Clara back from the dead (not that I mind that they did, though); with Bill, I was practically praying for her to live.

      Like

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Some interesting reads on the episodes, even if I enjoyed “Knock, Knock” and “Pyramid” a lot more than everyone else.

    However, “Consent is love,” (so only have sex when you want to settle) and “Don’t have an abortion, even when all logic demands you should, the other people who will be affected tell an outsider they shouldn’t; and that Doctor who won’t say his opinion secretly thinks it will be fine” belie a very conservative outlook on life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      To be fair, I mentioned “Consent is love” because it was less problematic than KTM’s unintended subtext – I’m not even going to try and defend the abortion reading, except suggesting that, well, it’s just the wrong reading for that episode.

      Personally I read Pyramid’s message with an emphasis on the “Consent is not fear”. I don’t think it’s commenting on commitment and cohabitation at all; I think it’s saying that consent is only meaningful if it’s done without fear, in full confidence and full knowledge. Which is a very positive message, I’d argue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fair enough.Thanks for responding! I was being a little harsh, mostly because KTM is an episode I’m very unsure about. My own fear is that was an abortion episode designed to be hard to relate either way. Certainly Pyramid’s message is fairer than most people’s reading of KTM.

        All in all, I think that Harness is technically a skilled enough writer for his episodes to always be worth watching, even if he is quite polarising.

        Liked by 1 person

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