Doctor Who: “Hell Bent”

Even though “Hell Bent” is as unrepentantly sci-fi and literal as “Heaven Sent” is allegorical and rich with subtext, even though it’s as chaotic and messy and all over the place as its part 1 is focused and precise, I loved it. I don’t know if it’s the best episode of the season, but it might be my favorite. To discuss the many scattered reasons why, let’s turn to an old format for finales and take it 5 minutes at a time.

0:00 – 5:00

The diner framing device is beautiful and sad, as it should be. It’s also a classic Moffat fakeout, because of course our first assumption is that this is a Clara echo who, like the others, has enough instinctive affinity with the Doctor to accept a song as payment, but doesn’t know who he is.

About that song: I haven’t always liked Clara, but I’ve always liked her theme. It’s one of Murray Gold’s best things.

The Sisterhood of Karn have been linked to Gallifrey since their first (and, until very recently, last) appearance in “The Brain of Morbius,” but it’s still kind of goofy that they’re here. Not that I mind. They’re fun.

5:01 – 10:00

I love the Doctor’s ancestral barn. I love that this is the home he comes to now on Gallifrey. It isn’t just a beautiful set with a lot of resonance after “Day of the Doctor” and “Listen,” but also it fights against the Doctor’s patrician roots (as a “highborn Gallifreyan” according to Ohila). Whatever the circumstances of his childhood, he has come to identify himself with the “common” people of the planet. They may treat him as visiting royalty, but are also willing to shield his life with their own. The scene where the old woman it belongs to recognizes him despite his new face is gold.

Speaking of Gold, how about the incidental music? Shades of both Tron and Star Wars. Works for me.

They order him to lay down his weapons and he drops his spoon. The payoff from “Robot of Sherwood,” a long time coming.

We’ll know pretty soon that he’s been scheming to get to the Capitol for a while now, probably since he first entered the confession dial. He wants them to take him there. But he’s not going to make it look easy. First he ignores a gunship, then a squad of infantry, and finally a brace of High Council dignitaries…

10:01 – 15:00

…before he finally gets Lord President Rassilon to come out personally. Here’s one of the few minor irritants of the episode: Moffat deciding to indulge RTD’s resurrected Rassilon rather than sweep him under the rug. He makes the best of it, at least, but it’s still so strange to have Rassilon around at all. He’s a figure from classic Who, both the architect of Time Lord technology and society and a legendary figure who traps prideful Time Lords who seek true immortality. It’s not completely antithetical to convert him into a petty, frothing tinpot dictator, but it really stretches the imagination. “Get off my planet” is a strange thing for the Doctor to say to the man who virtually built that planet…unless, of course, Rassilon’s status as Gallifrey’s founder is more reputation than truth. Regardless, I hope we’ve seen the back of him for a good long time.

“Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.”

15:01 – 20:00

The Doctor can only pull off this bloodless coup because of the respect he earned from his fellow soldiers in the war. This makes his beef with soldiers in Series 8 even more random; he’s essentially left the planet in the hands of the military, having run off the political class.

20:01 – 25:00

If the Doctor really did come up with this plan to rescue Clara soon after she died and he realized who was kidnapping him, it means that “Heaven Sent” was the beginning but not the end of the grieving process. If we believe in the stages of grief, we might say he did depression and bargaining, but is now doing anger and denial. It’s a bit out of order, but people say that can happen.

It’s during this five-minute stretch that we see the Doctor steal a gun and shoot an unarmed man in cold blood. Ohila’s later comment that he’s breaking all his own principles is on target: I’m not sure that he really needed to shoot the General to get away with the next steps of his plan. It does, however, provide “regeneration in progress” for the “Next Time” trailer, and it does provide our first onscreen cross-gender regeneration. It’s not clear whether Gallifreyans have our idea of race, but if they do, it’s also the first Time Lord cross-race regeneration. An argument could be made (though why would you want to?) that River and Missy were special cases, but the General is basic Gallifreyan.

Certainly he’s run for and won the office of Lord President in the (classic series) past, but here the Doctor seems to have reclaimed the title merely by showing up and exiling the previous one at gunpoint.

25:01 – 30:00

It’s not clear to me why wiping Clara’s memory would keep her safe. Surely if the Time Lords really wanted to find her, they could pretty easily track down one woman on one planet in one country and probably one city. They wouldn’t need to home in on her memories of the Doctor; Earth police work without telepathy all the time.

The Matrix, which I guess I didn’t need to explain last week since the Doctor did it this week, looks just a little cheap to me. It’s fun but not really clear why it would have any physical manifestation at all (or why it’s necessary to link that idea to the Cloisters, but whatever), and you’d think if it had one it would look a little less like an ordinary basement with some rope lights. I can’t decide if the Sliders are eerie or if they just make the whole place look like a haunted house amusement ride at a run-down boardwalk.

It’s kind of worth it just to see what it takes to get a Dalek to plead “exterminate me,” though.

30:01 – 35:00

Doubtless there are a bunch of fans who’re already hip-deep into figuring out the significance of the story about the Doctor “stealing” the President’s daughter — who she was (Susan?), who the President was (his son?), what the deal was with the moon (another egg?). It’s a cinch Moffat left it vague on purpose, though.

“I can’t be the Doctor all the time.”

I like that Clara’s important heart-to-heart with him here is unheard. The one in “Face the Raven” was a little much, and it’s better just to imagine the words you say when you find out someone has technically suffered for more than four billion years and many more deaths to have the slimmest chance to save your life.

35:01 – 40:00

I’ll always, always love the Doctor stealing a TARDIS and running away. Always.

That classic control room — it’s austere and maybe just a tiny bit boring, but it’s comforting. There’s something reassuring about how cozy it is, how few shadows there are, how it’s just the one level with no stairs or weird undercarriages. I’m glad to see it get redesigned every so often, but even now this still feels like home.

“Don’t you trust me anymore?”
“Not when you’re shouting.”

40:01 – 45:00

It’s surprising to see that Me is the most resilient immortal of them all. Maybe we can assume that Captain Jack was too reckless not to burn out eventually, but is the Heart of the TARDIS less powerful than a second-rate warrior race’s first aid kit? Maybe we assume, as I’ve seen people suggest, that Me has found ways to extend and continually renew its capabilities. Or maybe she’s just more careful.

Is she playing chess with herself? Does she already know the Doctor is planning to show up?

“Does it matter” if the Doctor is half-human? Probably not. There might, someday, be a third story where that question has any impact on the plot. But it will almost certainly not be a good one.

45:01 – 50:00

I’d forgotten that Missy gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number. And though “the hybrid is two people” is kind of a cheap way to fulfill a prophecy, a prophecy is a cheap way to drive a story, so whatever.

Whatever you’ve thought of Maisie Williams in her four appearances this season, she’s fantastic here and looks quite glamorous to boot.

People are saying that the Doctor allowing (or appearing to allow) Clara to disappear from his memory rather than vice versa is “Donna done right.” I can see where they’re coming from, though I think it’s praise rather than criticism to suggest that the RTD era wasn’t afraid to let the Doctor make morally problematic choices.

50:01 – 55:00

If you are cruel or cowardly, and we all are sometimes, make amends. I love pears, though, juicy or not.

The Doctor says “I became the Hybrid,” so in his mind at least he’s only entertaining two of the presented possibilities.

And of course here’s where we find out it’s a fakeout: that it’s the Doctor who doesn’t remember Clara, not the other way around. It had to be this way: he’d never have the strength to carry on and pretend she didn’t exist. Of the two of them, she’s the only one strong enough to do it. Beautiful and sad.

“Memories become stories when we forget them. Maybe some of them become songs.”

55:01 – 59:50

It’s lovely to have Me and Clara in the TARDIS, the immortal and the undead, having adventures together. I’m a fan.

And with this Moffat has in one way cheated and in another satisfied all of my companion departure complaints. On the one hand, he’s killed her. The universe depends on her death; sooner or later, they’re going to have to go back to Gallifrey and put her back. And on the other hand, she’s found the strength to leave the Doctor by choice, and presumably to go pursue her own cause: traveling the universe herself, most likely righting wrongs the way the Doctor did, trying to keep Me out of trouble. That diner traveling in time and space is pretty much perfect. I can’t even guess how many thousands of words of fanfic have already been written since Saturday night.

“Run you clever boy…and be a Doctor.”

A new sonic. Rigsy’s loving tribute flaking off in a blizzard of paint. And he’s gone.

Doctor Who: “Face the Raven”

One way to gauge the sturdiness of a work of fiction might be: if you know the big spoiler, can you still enjoy it? The longevity of Hamlet, Citizen Kane, and The Empire Strikes Back (to name just three) suggest that it’s certainly possible to satisfy this test. And there’s no way to discuss “Face the Raven” without revealing its massive spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the episode, turn back now. This is a trap street.

So how sturdy is this episode? If you know going in, as I did, the general nature of the spoiler at the end without knowing for certain which character it concerns, can you still enjoy it? The verdict, at least for me: kind of.

To give a little more space to anyone who might have glanced ahead of the spoiler warning, let’s talk about everything else first. It begins with Rigsy, and a good job too. He’s a ray of sunshine here as he was in Flatline, earnest and innocent, full of comic surprise and concern. It’s easy to care about the death sentence tattooed on the back of his neck, even without his new family to raise the stakes, and easy to buy Clara’s ability to manipulate him into letting her shoulder the burden he’s been placed under. The sequence where they locate the “trap street” he stumbled into is great fun, a far more charming everyday-magic conceit than the eye-booger monsters from last week. The trap street itself, whose provenance many have noted as Neverwhere meets Diagon Alley, is slightly less charming given its status as an alien refugee camp, apparently a place for injured aliens (mostly “monsters” as far as Doctor Who is concerned) to hide out, recuperate, eke out an apparently grim existence. It’s run by Mayor Me (no relation to Family Guy‘s Mayor Bee, but that’s all I can hear in my head), someone with a peculiar idea about how dangerous the Doctor is to Earth given that she was the one who nearly let a refugee from a Cocteau film destroy the planet just because she wanted to hitch a ride. In a two-parter we might have had more time to flesh out this interesting setting, but here we see it largely as a place of despair and paranoia, which seems like kind of a raw deal compared to what the Zygons got.

The substance of our interaction with this menagerie, which includes Cybermen, Ood, Sontarans, bug-headed guys, two-faced psychic aliens called the Janus, and apparently Wolverine’s cousin, concerns the reason Rigsy has a death countdown tattoo: he’s been implicated in a murder. It is not the big spoiler to reveal that he’s innocent, and that apparently the woman wasn’t even murdered (but someone hit her, and Wolverine’s cousin claimed that she, er, smelled dead — was he in on it?), but the whole thing is a plot to lure the Doctor to the trap street and get him to wear a teleport bracelet. Surely a jewelry store would have made for a less elaborate and suspicious snare?

In any case, that’s what Mayor Me thinks the plot is. Steven Moffat thinks the plot is actually to teleport a companion out of the show, and it’s hard to imagine him ceding sole privilege to Sarah Dollard to do this without planning to give Clara his own send-off sometime in the next two episodes. Perhaps he thought he’d be setting himself up for special criticism if he botched the first true companion death of the new series, and thought it would be wiser to ask a woman to do it. Whatever the case, Dollard handles it as well as anyone could have, and I’d love to see her come back and write something for series 10 with less of an agenda weighing it down.

I’ve commented before that the new series is unnecessarily squeamish about writing out companions, coming up with all sorts of loopholes and evasions to permanently exile them (with the admirable exception of Martha). It’s not cool to kill them outright, and apparently it’s also not cool to imagine that anyone with access to the TARDIS would ever voluntarily stop traveling in it. Yet in the classic series this happened all the time: companions would eventually discover something that mattered to them enough that they decided to put down roots. Sometimes a family, but often also a cause, like Romana freeing the Tharils or Nyssa helping the Lazars. It was very much the exception for a companion to do anything more permanent than disembark, and in fact the last such exception was Adric in 1982 (which is what “remember 82” portends), killed when the freighter he’s aboard crashes into prehistoric Earth. In a way — assuming she’s really dead, which as we all know is a tough call with Moffat — Clara’s death is brave, a first for the new series. In another, it’s yet another cop-out, yet another companion who would never leave Neverland by choice.

But how could she? Clara already had a life she was pursuing between travels with the Doctor — a career, and for a time, a boyfriend. She implies that perhaps her increased risk-taking stems from a wish to join Danny, but she’s always been eager to jump feet-first into situations on almost no information: interrogating the Ice Warrior in “Cold War,” entering the Doctor’s timestream in “Name of the Doctor.” She could have found some cause to live for, even perhaps choosing to settle down with Jane Austen, but it would have seemed like a growing down for her rather than a growing up. So I get why she has to die.

And yet there’s so much frustrating about the way it happens. First there’s her exchange with Rigsy, plausible and just like her, and yet so obviously a terrible idea on the level of the horror-flick teen blithely suggesting they split up so she can investigate the spooky attic all by herself. You want to yell at the screen, but if you’re like me, you know Jenna Coleman is leaving the show and you’ve heard someone dies at the end of this, and so from then on it’s just a matter of watching the clock run out. You want to be proud of her, risking her life to save Rigsy’s, but she’s so convinced it’s going to work out fine, she seems stupid rather than brave or clever and it’s hard to be as proud of her as she’d like. And worst of all, everything is a matter of arbitrary law. She hasn’t fallen into a nest of poisonous spectrox or been airlocked by a vicious space criminal; she’s just wandered into a street with draconian rules about theft, and relied on a verbal assurance of safety to save her from a magical executioner who can be controlled by Mayor Me except when it can’t be. She literally dies because of a lattice of legal loopholes. We all would have rolled our eyes if she’d just jumped in front of a bullet or something, but it would have left less room for the sort of “yeah, but…” head-scratching we did after the Angels took Manhattan.

(Incidentally, there is apparently a breed of Doctor Who fan who seem to take pleasure and pride in judging the Doctor’s behavior and perpetually finding him wanting. I don’t understand why this is fun, nor do I follow why we should really fault him for being unable to foresee that saving the life of a sweet young artist would inevitably turn her into an unscrupulous martinet, nor indeed why teaching people to be brave and take risks to save people’s lives is something to regret.)

To return to the original question: I don’t doubt for a moment that if it were somehow possible in 2015 to be a Doctor Who fan and watch this episode without knowing Jenna Coleman had announced her departure from the show, it would have been more effective. It would have conveyed the message — being clever isn’t always enough to save you — as a sucker punch. But if you’re spoiled, even a little, it’s just a bit of a letdown.

Does Clara’s death at least give her a noble exit? “Let me be brave” is a fine quotable, for sure, but even in death she’s just a little too brave, focusing as she always has on how she wants the Doctor to behave, exhorting him not to take revenge and become a monster in her name. Here this finally looks just a bit like that Impossible Girl who’s supposed to save a man (typically her husband, but this is Doctor Who) from himself, to civilize him and temper his ambition and power with her mercy and compassion. Even if you have no objection to that fantasy of male/female relations, her stoicism is a bit bland; a little too perfect, too selfless and self-effacing. It’s the reason I won’t miss Clara as much as I’d like to. I’ll miss Jenna Coleman, who in every other incarnation — Oswin, the Victorian governess, even Bonnie — proved herself a scintillating and capable actress. But I’m relieved that, apart from a few probably-touching afterwords in the two-part season finale, we may finally close the book on Clara. It wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but I’m ready to move on to something else.

Doctor Who: “Sleep No More”

Imagine, if you can, a monster that uses your time asleep to attack you…yes, a bit like Freddy Krueger. Imagine that this monster is so insidious that just watching a video featuring that monster will allow it to get into your eye…yes, a bit like the Angel that gets into Amy’s eye in “The Time of Angels.” Imagine that this video ends with the sinister implication that you are already doomed — that if you look carefully you’ll find that the monster is already here…yes, a bit like the end of “Blink.” Now: imagine that this video you’ve watched is so boring that even if you aren’t tired, it will put you to sleep so the monster can get you. Yes, a bit like “Sleep No More.”

Mark Gatiss’s attempt to do yet another new-to-Who horror trope, the “found footage” approach to filming the episode, should have made it more exciting, but mostly it has the opposite effect. It must have sounded great on paper, but somehow, though it’s supposed to put us into the characters’ heads, it ends up feeling less personal and immediate. And, crucially, less frightening. Because once it’s revealed its premise, this episode spends most of its time trying and failing to be thrilling and scary. It just can’t make us care about four soldiers with two-and-a-half character traits to go around, and it can’t scare us with monsters that are so poorly realized that the director risks only one point-of-view closeup.

Meanwhile, Peter Capaldi obviously realizes he’s in the weak story of the season (one had to come along sooner or later) and phones it in. At least Gatiss’s other weakest story, “Victory of the Daleks,” featured a Matt Smith new enough to the show that he gave that turkey his all, first screaming at the Daleks and then threatening them with a jammy dodger. Capaldi has only a few lines to work with — some limp jokes about the “space-” prefix and some only slightly relevant Shakespeare quotes — and is almost two seasons into his tenure, so he wisely decides to jog this lap.

Let’s try to give “Sleep No More” as much credit as possible. It’s cool how it leaves out the title sequence entirely, replacing it with a stylish word-search screen of digital characters. That ending is indeed just a tiny bit clever, perhaps the only element that improves on what it borrows from (the ending of “Blink” mainly serves to remind me how rarely I actually see statues). And there’s something potentially interesting in that premise, the question of what happens when you find a way to circumvent sleep.

But that’s the episode’s biggest weakness: declining to do anything interesting with the premise. We’re told that the evil forces of capitalism will use this technology to make us work longer and harder, and there’s no doubt that in this situation they’d try. But we’re only told this: we never see the effects of this extended workday on anyone. And isn’t there anyone who, given the option to be fully rested in a much shorter time, would be able to use the extra time for leisure? Read more books, attend more parties, spend more time with loved ones? Doctor Who is, perhaps more than any other show on television today (until they reboot The Twilight Zone, maybe), perfectly suited to explore these kinds of ideas, but it’s almost never allowed to.

Instead the big result of sleeping less turns out to be that the gunk in your eye becomes, by what appears to be total magic (“evolving,” claims the Doctor, suggesting that whatever his doctorate’s in, it isn’t biology), savage eye-dust colonies with arms and legs that want to…kill you? Absorb you? Clone you? It’s not especially clear. Even if you don’t roll your eyes and check out as soon as this is revealed — because really, this is self-parody to rival Curse of Fatal Death — you have to wonder: what are these dust guys so angry about, anyway? What’s their problem? They’re mainly composed of our own mucus and skin cells; what grudge could they possibly have against us?

Perhaps they’re annoyed that this is yet another slice of what you might think of as conservative science (for some value of “science”) fiction. It’s a pretty tired mode, having driven all sorts of “man was not meant to play god” stories (including plenty in Doctor Who) since at least Frankenstein. It’s conservative in the sense that it assumes every technological change is doomed to be destructive, to disrupt the “natural order” in a way that can only bring about harm. This attitude is so ingrained in the genre that it can be difficult to imagine doing it any other way, but anyone who likes indoor plumbing, electricity, medicine, or even cooked food should probably try.

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Inversion”

Imagine you’ve been forced to move to another country, one where you don’t speak the language and the customs aren’t your own. You probably still dream about home, where everything is as you understand it, but then you wake up in your new apartment and everything is strange. Perhaps the clock still shows numbers you can read, but the newspapers are in another language, and even the toothpaste looks a little strange.

This is how Clara experiences being asleep inside the Zygon pod at the start of this episode, but she could just as easily be in another country, on another planet. The Zygons imitating humans have the advantage of absorbing at least some of the memories and personality of the originals, but some of the strangeness of Earth must be difficult and terrifying for them to grasp. We get a glimpse of this later in the episode, when the Doctor and Osgood encounter a Zygon whose ability to maintain human form has been disrupted by Clara’s duplicate, Bonnie. He’s the only representative of the Zygon majority we meet, the only one not in the militant splinter group, and while he seems to consider Earth his home, he seems disoriented and terrified and disheveled even before Bonnie attacks him. He doesn’t make much of a well-adjusted, integrated human.

I’d call these scenes highlights of the episode, but the episode is entirely highlights, no filler. We also get the Doctor and Osgood trading pure gold banter after escaping Bonnie’s attempt on their life (perhaps the reason for the Moffat co-author credit on this half), Clara using the Zygon link to influence Bonnie’s actions, Bonnie using it to detect Clara’s lies, Kate Stewart at her very best (echoing her dad’s famous line “five rounds rapid”) and finally everyone in a room with the Doctor urging them to stand down from the brink of war. It’s unflagging brilliance and, as much as I liked “The Woman Who Lived,” I have to admit it’s the best episode of the season so far.

If I had to pick a few bones, I’d first point to the fact that the two key monologues might have been improved as dialogues. The scene with the frightened Zygon who just wants to live and can’t see a way to do it depends on the fact that he’s too overwhelmed by panic and paranoia to listen to a word the Doctor says. And the Doctor’s bravura speech against war and revenge and violent revolution depends at least in part on Bonnie being a bit simple-minded and not having thought through her goals. That she’s the sort of revolutionary who just wants to tear things down without any idea of building them up again is plausible, but maybe not as interesting. It’s still just a bit troubling that none of the Zygon violence from the previous episode was subverted in any way — they were as unsympathetic and bloodthirsty as they appeared after all, and that one peaceful Zygon was too far past sanity to tell that side of the story effectively. And there are a few moments where the Doctor slips into an American accent for comedic purposes, and neither the accent nor the jokes really achieve those purposes.

But none of these flaws stand in the way of a story qualified to be a classic. It doesn’t hurt that Peter Harness has once again written a political subtext that seems to be read in opposite ways by different viewers, even though the full import of the line “you’re not superior to the people who were cruel to you” ought to cut deep into all parts of the political spectrum. But the Doctor knows as well as we do that these kinds of lessons must be learned over and over again all throughout history; it doesn’t take a memory wipe for people to forget that they should be talking instead of pressing the big red buttons.

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion”

And just like that we’re back in a classic mode, in this case the Earth invasion stories that introduced UNIT in 1970 and continued through the mid-70s. Some would say this mode peaked in 1975 with “Terror of the Zygons,” the only story of the classic series to feature them (and their cybernetic Loch Ness Monster). Even in that story they were explicitly refugees, unable to return to a home planet destroyed in a stellar explosion. This, along with their shapeshifting ability, makes them an ideal choice for an uncomfortably on-the-nose story about current events, including radical terrorist insurgency and the Syrian refugee crisis.

It’s gripping stuff, to be sure. It makes the previous six episodes, enjoyable as they were, seem like a lot of playing around. If you’re alive in the world today you can’t fail to be interested in these topics, regardless of your position on them, and they’re treated in a way that might seem unusually gritty to Doctor Who fans who’ve never seen the classic series. The body count is high, even if the corpses are tastefully if somewhat comically represented by electrified hairballs. Children are kidnapped and apparently murdered. There is an extended scene in which a soldier points a gun at a woman who may or may not be his mother and deliberates about whether to shoot her down. You can’t really accuse this episode of playing around.

You can accuse it of jumping around a bit, and it’s a little confusing just what exactly the plan is half the time. It seems that the peace treaty between humans and Zygons negotiated in “Day of the Doctor” allowed Zygons to remain on Earth and live side by side with humans as long as they never ever revealed themselves as Zygons. Of course, they are apparently exact copies of living humans, and while the two Osgoods could easily have lived as twin sisters it’s not clear how the other 19,999,999 copies are supposed to coexist without anyone noticing. It’s an ambitious idea, to put it mildly, but perhaps very slightly easier to swallow than the idea that the moon has always been an egg. When one Zygon child accidentally reveals its true form, all hell breaks loose and suddenly the Zygons (or at least a radical splinter group of them) decide the war is back on and it’s back to imitating humans for purposes of infiltration and murder, not assimilation. Our heroes split up, which as always is a terrible idea, and what ensues is scene after scene of tricky tricky Zygons doing nefarious things.

All sorts of interesting questions are sidestepped. Before the treaty fell apart, what was life like for a Zygon — a hulking, moist, hissing amphibious-looking creature with limited social grace by human standards — trying to fit into human society? Were there enclaves or settlements where they could stretch out their suckers and relax where humans couldn’t see them? Did they pay taxes, shop, go to hospitals? A couple scenes of these would not only have been entertaining and intriguing but would more importantly have set the stage for the idea that this treaty was a viable strategy for peace and that the Zygons actually deserve some measure of compassion.

Because “The Zygon Invasion” does a lot of work to erode any sympathy we might feel for the creatures. Scene after scene shows them as conniving, ruthless, bloodthirsty murderers, willing to use literally duplicitous tactics to play on human scruples and gain the upper hand. In one scene a drone pilot can’t bring herself to bomb a Zygon family that appears too much like her own. In another Clara seems bizarrely willing to overlook what appears to be a child afraid of his own parents (though this is later explained). And then there’s that scene with the soldier and his mom. None of this is likely to endear Peter Harness to the crowd who felt his previous “Kill the Moon” read as a pro-life allegory, and are likely to read this one as an anti-Muslim anti-refugee polemic, despite the “splinter group” and anti-assimilation dodges. It seems inevitable that we’re being set up to change our minds about them in the conclusion (whose very title, “The Zygon Inversion,” all but promises this), but Harness has gone to great lengths to make this seem impossible.

He’s also gone to great lengths to ensure this episode passes the Bechdel Test. Like his previous “Kill the Moon,” “The Zygon Invasion” keeps most of its male characters to the sidelines in favor of its female leads. The military leader working with the Doctor, the drone pilot, the sheriff of Truth and Consequences, the two ousted Zygon leaders, all female, and all for the most part well cast and acted. Clara gets a bit more to do this time around, after being absent for most of “The Woman Who Lived.” And of course Osgood’s back, and terrific; we may never know if she’s the human or the Zygon Osgood, since it’s become a moral issue for her not to disclose her origins.

Sadly, it’s our UNIT crew who still fail to inspire confidence. Even though they’ve supposedly shifted from a military focus to a scientific one, and even though she’s considerably stronger here than she has been in most of her previous appearances, Kate Stewart still seems strangely inadequate to the task at hand, and Jaye Griffith’s character Jac seems completely at sea in a crisis. To be fair, classic series UNIT’s Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates never came off as the most hardened of military men either, but still.

Then there’s the Doctor, curiously passive just as in “Kill the Moon.” He does get in a bit of grandstanding (mainly “poncing about in a big plane”), perhaps a bit too much. I’ve been giving the guitar playing and the sonic Wayfarers a lot of rope, but with this episode they may have hung themselves. The Doctor doesn’t need to strum pensively every time he finds himself alone in the TARDIS. These motifs are starting to look less like Capaldi’s grace notes for his Doctor’s character and more like the desperate attempt at cool their detractors always said they were. It doesn’t help that he refers to himself as “Doctor Disco” and “Doctor Funkenstein” over the course of the episode. Relax, dude.

Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Lived”

For a moment in this season’s opening two-parter I got the ghastly fear that by the end of this year we’d have a definitive, boring answer to the question of “why did the Doctor run away from Gallifrey?” Something like “he felt ashamed of his role in developing a hybrid warrior.” This episode gives some hope that we’re not headed there, simply by providing an excellent answer on its own. The Doctor ran away, always runs away, because if you live too long in one place and time, you risk burning out whatever it is that makes you who you ought to be.

It helps, of course, if you’ve had quite a long time to practice being who you ought to be. The Doctor has been stuck in one place and time for a couple of stretches of his life; most of his third life, for example, when he was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, and a pile of centuries at the end of his eleventh (twelfth, I don’t know, whatever) defending the planet Trenzalore from invasion. In the first case, he had plenty of friends around to help him — Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Jo Grant, and Sarah Jane Smith foremost among them — and wasn’t there long enough to see any of them grow old and die. And in the second, he had already lived out a full Time Lord lifespan, believed he was at the end of it, and had a job to do. He didn’t have to survive on his wits alone, pretending to be a normal person, starting over every 25 years or so and struggling through Dark Ages European culture, loving and losing over and over with no end in sight. He didn’t come from humble beginnings with no one around like himself, figuring out all the ropes of being functionally immortal with no one to help him. If he had, he might very well have turned out like Ashildr.

Her life hasn’t been all bad, it seems. Like all lives, it’s had its ups — stints as royalty and as the most skilled archer imaginable — and its downs, what with the leper colonies and the losing lovers and children. In 1651 we find her a wealthy landowner and a successful highwayman. She’s a shrewder, worldlier take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with maybe a soupçon of Lady Johanna Constantine. It’s no surprise that after 800 years of human lives, she’s outgrown her planet and is ready to run away herself — to flee the banality of her own people, just as the Doctor did, and escape beyond the stars.

Maisie Williams is even more fantastic this week, outwardly a young woman and inwardly older than the Doctor when we first met him in 1963. Apart from maybe Kirsten Dunst as Claudia in Interview With the Vampire, it’s hard to think of any other young actor who’s pulled this trick off in a comparable way. Her attitudes, aptitudes, and circumstances seem fully believable, faltering only slightly toward the end when she’s called upon to jerk the wheel a hard left into Doctor Who Villain Lane and then pull a hard right back into Redeemed White Hat Street. That’s partly the script, though, which otherwise is a scintillating jewel from Catherine Tregenna, the very first female writer of the Moffat era and the first on the show in seven years. If you slogged through Torchwood you know that she was a standout on that show as well, and an old hand at writing people who were supposed to die but didn’t. The combination of the two make this a highlight on par with “Dark Water,” “Listen,” and “Hide” in my book.

Peter Capaldi is in top form as well, bringing exactly the right deftness to every scene, never overplaying his guilt for having doomed Ashildr by saving her, or his judgment of the person she’s become, or even his determination to tolerate a few bad puns and some banter to save a man’s life. He’s mellower than we’ve been told he’s supposed to be, and it suits him, whether he’s discovering why he has a device called a “curioscanner” or bribing a pair of guards with a fortune of 30 pounds.

There are a few slightly goofy Whoisms threaded into the plot, of course. It’s not clear why death should rip open the fabric of the universe even a little bit when part of the point of Ashildr is that death is the most natural aspect of life. It’s also not clear why a perfectly lovely color like purple should be “the color of death” (should someone notify Prince?), why a device that can create a transdimensional rift requires only one person to die in order to power it, or indeed why a feline-faced alien (“a lion man!” as one villager charmingly exclaims) who can breathe fire should need to wait for a hanging in order to arrange a human’s death. Here’s where aesthetics (including the never-not-welcome allusion to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête in the alien’s appearance) win out over logic, and I for one am happy this time to let them do so.

This is the first episode of series 9 that didn’t feel significantly indebted to any classic story or era of the show I can think of. In naming immortals or near-immortals the Doctor has traveled with, in fact, it names Jack Harkness (new series) while skipping over Romana (classic series), the Doctor’s Time Lady companion who also left him to head off into the sunset with a lion-faced alien (a benevolent member of the Tharil race; see “Warrior’s Gate”). It does, however, drop a reference to 1982’s “The Visitation,” in which the Terileptils really do start the Great Fire of London. And it does share a theory about immortality with one of the other rare and top-flight Doctor Who stories written by women, Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment” (1983). If you live too long, like that story’s Eternals (and in fact the Gallifrey-bound Time Lords), you need “ephemerals” — people who live short, brightly burning lives — to remind you of why life is worth living.

It’s actually nice to see Clara at the end of the episode, but it’s not because she would have enriched it. The joy of many companion-lite episodes is that they let us see the Doctor with new eyes, belonging to someone who doesn’t have to be generic enough to be a recurring co-star, and it’s a breath of fresh air. And in this case, it reminds us of why the Doctor travels with companions whose lives are short enough that he can and will lose them, companions for whom even a selfie, a captured image of one of very few moments we have to capture as mortals, can be a precious gift. And it prepares us for why he’ll eventually have to resign himself to letting her go.

Doctor Who: “The Girl Who Died”

Series 9 continues our tour of the classic series in general and the Tom Baker era in specific with a season 16/17 smorgasbord. Those two seasons were the “comedy” era, in which Douglas Adams first wrote for and then script-edited the show. It produced such classics as “The Pirate Planet,” in which a bombastic space captain with a cybernetic “eyepatch” flew around the galaxy raiding other planets and draining the life out of them, and frequently (“The Ribos Operation,” “The Androids of Tara,” “The Creature from the Pit”) featured aliens and alien cultures that seemed to take their cues in look and feel from past Earth cultures (mainly medieval and Renaissance Europe) while mixing in advanced technology and knowledge of space travel. In one story, “The Horns of Nimon,” the invading aliens present themselves as powerful gods who demand tribute from the weaker cultures they’re dominating. The two seasons are praised for their sense of humor and entertainment value, but have sometimes been regarded as slightly embarrassing by fans for bringing in a lower-budget slapstick feel that’s harder to take seriously.

So if the Vikings seem a little goofy, if the wigs fit a little poorly, if the fire-in-the-water gambit seems a bit ridiculous, maybe it’s because this story is deliberately harking back to the (really rather enjoyable) stretch of Doctor Who history from 1978-1980 when this sort of thing was business as usual. Or maybe it’s just that the presence of Maisie Williams, and indeed the production values up to this point, lead us to expect something that looks as good as Game of Thrones or even Vikings, and we have to remind ourselves that this is Doctor Who. Where, apparently, anyone who lived before maybe 1400 or so is kind of incompetent to live in their actual time and place and is moreover kind of an idiot. I mean, maybe? I’m not super well read about history. It could very well be that in a typical Viking village, at least half of them would not only have never even tried to pick up a sword back in their day, but actually be prone to fainting at the sight of blood.

No matter. Like those comedy Baker episodes of old, this isn’t really a story about the Vikings. It’s not about historical accuracy. It’s about different ways of fighting. It’s about what you do if you’re being threatened by a bully and you’re not really that good at physical combat, but you’re good at other things. Say, for example, you’re bad with a sword but you’re good with a wood knife and you can carve a beautiful dragon totem. Or maybe your footwork sucks but you can throw a ring over a peg with the best of them. Maybe you’re brave enough to declare war on the biggest bully around, but the only thing you can do to stand up to him is to tell a story that will embarrass him so badly he never attacks you again.

It’s unusual for the Doctor, who is the poster alien for “Fight Different,” to be the one locked into the idea that the Vikings must fight (and die) or flee (and live). It’s slightly tiresome for Clara always to have to remind him of what he’s been doing for around 2000 years, but it’s possible that losing companions or seeing them permanently changed by their adventures with him has taken its toll over time and he’s gotten gunshy about encouraging people to put themselves in danger. This makes room for Clara and Ashildr to demonstrate the alternative fighting skills which may have been the strength that got them teleported to the Mire ship along with the testosterone-filled Viking warriors (or maybe it was just that they were carrying the Doctor’s broken sonic sunglasses). Clara’s is, apparently, talking villains into running away, while Ashildr’s is — along with issuing ill-advised but courageous challenges — telling stories.

The episode is a bit heavy-handed with this, spelling the themes out rather than letting us read them for ourselves, so we’re told flat-out that it’s her stories that have saved the day, tricking the Mire into retreating from an illusory foe and, thanks to Clara’s iPhone video, leading to a true story that will damage their reputation beyond repair. The stories people tell to and about you, says “The Girl Who Died,” are more powerful weapons than any sword or gun in your hand.

All of this is generally worthwhile and, to some extent, true, and it distracts us from the ending we know has to come, because it’s right there in the title. It’s dismaying nonetheless when we see that the girl has actually died, partly because Williams has so successfully and immediately made us believe in Ashildr, a character who is like Arya Stark in a few ways yet unlike her in many more. What the Doctor does next does come as a surprise, partly because if it was mentioned earlier in the episode I missed it, and partly because he quickly and casually creates yet another pseudo-immortal not-quite-Time-Lord (joining Jenny and River) with just a bit of nanotech. It’s strange but not unwelcome, paying off in a reasonably satisfying and surprisingly early way the questions raised in “Deep Breath” and “The Witch’s Familiar. I’m looking forward to seeing where this new character goes.

Doctor Who: “Before the Flood”

It’s all about paradoxes this season so far. In the opening two-parter, we got the Grandfather Paradox: if you go back in time and kill your own grandfather, how can you have been born and then gone back in time to kill your own grandfather? It was a softer version — if you go back in time and kill Davros before he creates the Daleks, then the Daleks will never have existed and given you a reason to go back in time and kill Davros — but the same principle. This time around it’s the Bootstrap Paradox: if you go back in time and hand Beethoven a modern copy of the sheet music for his Fifth Symphony before he actually wrote it, so that all he has to do is copy it out…who actually wrote it?

If the paradox is slightly less clear this time out (requiring the Doctor to explain it through the fourth wall at the beginning of the episode), well, so is everything else, really. There’s the nagging feeling throughout that something is missing, that there’s a piece or two or three left unexplained and perhaps inexplicable, given the absurdities and impossibilities of time travel. A friend of mine raised the question of why O’Donnell’s ghost doesn’t appear in the future until she’s killed in the past. She’d already been killed years earlier than anyone else, right after the creepily subservient Tivolian, in fact, so why wasn’t her ghost hanging around the base before it was even built? Perhaps the answer is something to do with the technology animating the ghosts, and when it starts to project them, but since this is never quite clarified either (why are ghosts mouthing words a more efficient means of interstellar communication than, say, a radio transmitter?), who knows? Or maybe it’s something to do with our point of view, or the Doctor’s: if changing history through time travel involves slipping between infinite universes that all vary slightly from one another, perhaps we don’t see the new ghost until we slip into the universe where she didn’t stay in the TARDIS but stepped outside instead.

Really, very little of the so-called Fisher King’s plan makes much sense to me either, but it’s tough to concentrate on puzzling it out when his giant wobbly puppet head and cowl are so distracting. At least it’s a practical effect, and an ambitiously designed one. If last week’s classic series motifs were bases under siege and running through corridors, this week’s include endearingly unconvincing monsters and villains that spend a little too much time revealing their plans through monologues rather than shooting first and asking questions later.

One mystery that perplexed me on first viewing made more sense on second; presumably the attempted TARDIS trip that causes Bennett and the Doctor to cross their own timestream is what ends up giving the Doctor time to create his holographic ghost and to prepare a trap for the Fisher King. It does seem a little excessive — though spectacular — to blow up a dam and flood an entire landscape in order to kill a single alien, even a very tall and Gigeresque one.

All that said, this is a surprisingly enjoyable second half. The structure, the characters, and the settings all seem vivid and fresh. There’s something appealing (though a bit random) about the Cold War village as a setting, about having a spacecraft parked incongruously in its midst and two actual aliens wandering around in it. Capaldi’s dialogue seems smoother this time, leaving out the “morning breath” joke. There’s time, since this is a two-parter, to stop and enjoy a few nice character moments, particularly the one where Lunn asks Clara what he should say to comfort her in a miniature reiteration of the Bootstrap Paradox. It’s a classic series story through and through — at root, it’s just an evil alien trying to invade Earth — and yet it doesn’t feel like one, and this time that’s not a bad thing.

So who did script the Doctor’s ghost? Who, for that matter, wrote Beethoven’s Fifth in the Doctor Who universe? These seem like intractable problems, but mainly if we assume (as most of us do every day — I know I do) that we have free will. If a symphony and a plan to vanquish an evil alien warlord are both things that require a brain to actively and deliberately choose to imagine them, then sure, there’s a paradox. But if we imagine that we are all part of and not separate from the universe, that the act of composing is in some way no different than the acts of recognizing, remembering, transcribing, or imitating, then maybe the notes of Beethoven’s Fifth are in a sense already written on that universe. Maybe they get inside our heads like four ideograms on the inside of a spaceship wall, just without a Fisher King to write them. Maybe this isn’t something we’re capable of noticing because we can’t travel in time…but if we could, we might find that every idea we think we’ve created has always been there in our heads, waiting to fall without a guiding hand into a particular shape the way a speck of dust from an exploding, expanding universe fell into the shape of the Earth.

Or maybe I’m just tripping out on that guitar-enhanced theme tune. We’ll probably get the illusion of free will back next week, but let’s hope we keep the guitar in the opening credits.

Doctor Who: “Under the Lake”

If you hear a classic series fan talking about the “base under siege” story, they’re talking about a story like “Under the Lake”. It’s a scenario where the Doctor and his companions are trapped in a more or less confined space with a small group of people native to that time and (usually) place, while a deadly threat either attempts to invade that space or has already infested it from within. It’s a classic formula for science fiction and horror films, e.g. The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter’s The Thing, not to mention the first four Alien movies. It’s the basis for tons of classic series episodes, including “The Ice Warriors,” “The Web of Fear,” “The Ark In Space,” “The Horror of Fang Rock,” “The Robots of Death,” and “Warriors of the Deep” (which was also set on an undersea military base), and almost all of the Cybermen stories. In the new series it’s cropped up quite a number of times as well, notably “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit,” “42,” “The Waters of Mars,” “The Time of Angels”/”Flesh and Stone,” and “Cold War.”

Put another way: though “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar” were rooted in the classic series episode “Genesis of the Daleks,” they were structured in a wholly new-series way. Whereas “Under the Lake” is almost as traditional as Doctor Who gets.

This makes the Doctor’s amazement and wonder, culminating in the ecstatic “I want to kiss it to death,” seem a little over-the-top. It’s not as though he’s never seen a monster that can appear to animate the bodies or take on the appearance of the dead — “Horror of Fang Rock” and “42” being two obvious examples — or seen what appear to be supernatural phenomena turn out to be rooted in physical technologies. It’s fun to have the Doctor react to danger with excitement, but a little goes a long way.

Usually a base under siege, especially one with as much time to stretch out as this two-parter will afford, starts with those under siege taking a while to discover they’re under siege. This often involved a lot of tedious suspicion of the Doctor (here mercifully short-circuited by the psychic paper and the Doctor’s reputation), but it also gave us a lot of time to get to know the crew and begin to care about them as characters. Here we’re thrust into the spookiness right away, and unfortunately it’s done by, for the second time in three weeks, killing off a black character in the pre-credits sequence. In this case, it’s (also unfortunately) so that he can become one of the story’s monsters, stalking around and looking threatening. And the remaining characters, though the actors make most of them as appealing as they can, don’t reveal much about themselves. We have the commander and her interpreter, the computer expert who’s a fan of the Doctor, the corporate toady, and the scaredy sciencey one, and that’s about it.

The ghosts themselves seem a bit limited in their ability to threaten people, which keeps the tension tepid — they can’t take objects with them when they walk through walls, and they can be confined in a Faraday cage — but also keeps the rather hapless crew’s survival thus far plausible. In fact, to get to a suitable cliffhanger, we have to trot out what’s starting to become a real joke: the prospect that the Doctor himself has been killed and become a ghost himself. This is, of course, also the second episode of three that’s teased this as a possibility, and the second cliffhanger of two hinging on the apparent death of the main characters. It would be nitpicking if the returns weren’t diminishing; “oh my God, they killed Kenny!” is comedy, not tragedy.

What works is the ghosts’ apparent motivation: they’re not killing people for fun, but because they need extra Xs marking the spot where the treasure is buried. How dead people mouthing words, presumably in English, which only the lip-reading character can make out would be more helpful than, say, an ordinary radio transmitter is a bit mysterious, but we have another whole episode next week to work that out. Maybe it’ll be another timey-wimey message from the Doctor to himself, or maybe Whithouse has an even more clever twist in mind. Perhaps it hinges on the reason Cass refuses to let Lunn see the words on the spaceship (thus keeping him from being vulnerable to the ghosts).

Love him or hate him, Moffat writes some of the best, sharpest, and funniest dialogue the series has ever seen, and his absence is really felt this week. It could also be the direction, but on occasion Capaldi seems almost marble-mouthed wrestling with Whithouse’s dialogue, and some of the jokes fall flat (“don’t leave me hanging” — really?) when they could have been salvaged with one more writing pass or just tighter editing.

Still, after all the flash and timey-wimey wizardry of the show under Moffat’s reign, there’s something almost comforting in a good old base under siege, and even the second time through this is less off-putting than “The Rebel Flesh” and more endearing than “Cold War.” And there’s every reason to believe, just as in the back half of almost every one of those, that this ragtag bunch could pull it together next week and save the day.

Doctor Who: “The Witch’s Familiar”

I said last week that there was only one time travel story to be told about Hitler: do you go back and kill him before he attempts genocide? Well, that clever Moffat has proven me wrong again. Apparently there is also the time travel story where you meet up with him (or Davros, same difference really) just before he dies and share a good laugh and a cry with him, apparently just because it’s the polite thing to do.

Oh sure, there’s the Doctor’s lines about compassion, which he chooses “every time” and other than which he “wouldn’t die of anything else.” They’re great lines, actually, and Capaldi delivering them has never been better. And he does point out that he’s not doing it for old decrepit genocidal Davros, but for the young vulnerable Davros he left on the battlefield, temporarily abandoning compassion. It’s the line later on, after he’s resolved the handmine cliffhanger the only way he could have (yes, spoilers coming), that’s perplexing: the one about how the distinction between friend and enemy isn’t as important as there always being “mercy.”

So where’s the mercy in this story? Is it when the Doctor donates some of his regeneration energy to Davros, claiming afterward that he knew it was a trick and fully realized it would cause living Dalek sewage to rise up and attack all the other Daleks and presumably Davros too? Is it when he hesitates before shooting a roomful of Daleks just long enough for Colony Sarff to constrict him into unconsciousness? Is it when he says “Missy…run” and, instead of shooting her for nearly making him shoot Clara, leaves her to the Dalek sewage fate with no obvious way off Skaro? Or is it when the Doctor leads young Davros out of the handminefield, something which we know he does primarily because it’s the only way to ensure that the Dalek autocorrect will allow Clara to express the concept “I show mercy”?

The waters are muddy, is all I’m saying.

But it could be worse. My first time through I was so put off by the spectacle of the Doctor having a friendly chat with the progenitor of a universal holocaust (I’m pretty sure I said “oh come ON” out loud when the Doctor’s hand started to glow, and the less said about the Vaderesque “let me see you with my own eyes” baloney the better) that it was hard to notice all the good stuff. For example:

  • The aforementioned Dalek autocorrect, probably the best concept introduced here. In some ways this makes Davros worse, because even if there were a pacifist Dalek, it would have been unable to express its sentiments, and any frustration it felt would be channeled into extermination.
  • The Doctor in Davros’s chair might be a Dalek’s worst nightmare, but for us it’s good fun. Though “I’m the Doctor. Just accept [the teacup]” is cheeky even for Moffat.
  • “You can’t kill a Dalek with a brooch.”
  • The design of Skaro itself is pretty gorgeous, not just the elegantly rounded buildings but the faithfully retained (from 1964) asymmetrical corridors. What the Daleks lack in genuine menace they still make up in iconic style.
  • Capaldi spends a good deal of the episode, whether intentionally or not, doing a striking Tom Baker impression.
  • Julian Bleach finally had something to do as Davros other than taunt the Doctor, and so I finally can agree he’s fantastic in the role.
  • Missy’s not quite as consistently awesome this time as she was last time (her “bad neighborhood” riffing verges on embarrassing) but I’m still going to miss her next week.

I must say I’m curious whether the sonic screwdriver is really gone. Probably not — if nothing else it’s good for merchandising. But with all that corny talk about the Dalek/Time Lord hybrid (what would be the point of that?) and the even more off-putting notion that the Doctor really fled Gallifrey because he helped develop such a hybrid, AND the rumor that this might be Moffat’s last season, we may be in for a finale that makes “The End of Time”‘s continuity-fiddling look like a model of restraint and good taste. If I were forced to choose, I’d take a seasonful of sonic sunglasses over a finale like that every time.