Doctor Who: “Knock Knock”

Doctor Who is usually considered to be science fiction, largely due to the framing device of time-and-spaceships from another planet, but even though most stories try valiantly to bash out a sciencey-sounding explanation for everything that happens, there’s usually a point where this attempt ends up being fruitless. 1968’s “The Mind Robber” is one of the earlier examples, an adventure which takes place in “The Land of Fiction” and includes threats that disappear if you are determined enough not to believe in them, which is pretty much the opposite of how one would normally define reality. Then there’s 1982’s “Kinda,” one of my favorite Doctor Who stories of all time, in which the antagonist is an intelligent serpent demon from another dimension who possesses people through their dreams and can be (temporarily) defeated by imprisoning it in a circle of mirrors. And of course there’s 2006’s “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit,” featuring a creature which makes a pretty good claim to being, if not Satan himself, a reasonable facsimile thereof. This might lead us to think of Doctor Who as being more in the vein of science fantasy, in the same family as Star Wars. But it might also make sense to regard it as a show where every episode might be a different genre unto itself.

Doctor Who has always done horror extremely well, for instance, but “Knock Knock” is perhaps its most modern stab at the genre. We’ve seen haunted mansions before (“Image of the Fendahl” and “Ghost Light,” not to mention “Hide”) and we’ve seen gruesome body horror (“The Crimson Horror”), and we’ve even seen alien woodlice (“Frontios”), but this is the first time we’ve seen that most important of horror tropes: six young adults falling victim one by one to a sinister family secret.

Well, it’s definitely important to this horror story, because it provides a ton of personality and humor to the first half hour of the story, when the Doctor shows up to help Bill move in with her new friends, and stays to follow up on his unerring instinct for extraterrestrial danger. Capaldi is magnificent throughout this story, in what is for my money his best performance to date as the Doctor, seamlessly switching from “see, I’m good at making friends” moments where he tries to ingratiate himself to Bill’s friends with her Spotify playlist and bluff his way through pretending he knows her music (inadvertently revealing her guilty pleasures) to deadly serious Doctor face where we can see he’s investigating something. He manages to play this same grimly ominous tone for laughs (one bit where he swoops owlishly out of shot like a comedy vampire, and another where he stops all conversation by asking with alarm and then delight, “what’s that smell?…is that Chinese food?”) and chills (reading off the names of the Landlord’s previous victims, then grinning icily and asking “where are they?”). Intoning what might have been the original, classic-era-esque title for this episode (“Infestation of the Dryads”) he pulls off a flawless Tom Baker impression, and has one of the episode’s best moments just by crunching a potato chip.

The banter between the students rides the thin line between lively (Paul flirting with Bill, who lets him down gently but firmly) and a little mean (the gang teasing Felicity about what seem to be an inconvenient multitude of phobias), which is perfect for a good horror story. All this not only lightens what would be a pretty heavy episode (with some of the most disturbing special effects we’ve seen in a while) with some Scooby-Doo laughs, it makes the whole thing hugely entertaining even before anything really starts to happen.

Tasked with playing against this goofiness is David Suchet, who as the Landlord exudes not only an impenetrable solemnity but also a complex blend of false paternalism, impartial malevolence, and stunted innocence. The role could in fact have been your basic Scooby-Doo villain in someone else’s hands, but Suchet, an RSC luminary with a resumé a mile long in every medium, approaches it with the utmost care, giving us every nuance of the Landlord’s injured psyche. It’s an astonishing (if, of course, deeply creepy) performance, making it all the more impressive that Capaldi is able to match its gravitas.

The story sings for most of its length, rather bravely (only four episodes in) splitting up the Doctor and his companion and pairing them up with others (Bill with her friend Shireen, the Doctor with their wide-eyed housemate Harry). It only drags a bit toward the end, when the truths of the house are revealed and the family secret the Landlord has been protecting and feeding decides not to be protected and fed anymore. It’s a resolution that must be earned, but also seems inevitable, and therefore several minutes too long. It also raises some perplexing questions: where did the so-called Dryads come from? Do they really only need to eat once every 20 years, and how in the world did the Landlord work that out? Why do they preserve one person and eat all the rest? How can a person who’s been eaten return to life, especially after it looks as though they’ve already given their energy to the family secret? Why is a process initiated by the sounds of a classical record interrupted by those sounds continuing indefinitely when the record skips? Some of these questions are genuine puzzlers, but others can perhaps be put down to the conventions of genre. Things in “Knock Knock” are a little bit magic because it’s a horror film packed into a Doctor Who episode, and almost every horror film is at least a little bit magic.

Postscript: the Vault. We learn that it’s probably a who in there rather than a what, since they like Mexican food and play the piano. We learn that whoever it is likes the parts of stories where people get killed. And we learn that they know “Für Elise” and “Pop Goes the Weasel.” My mind instantly went to another story where the Doctor made regular visits to someone in a elaborate prison, namely the Master in “The Sea Devils.” Certain that the song “Pop Goes the Weasel” had made an appearance in that story as well, I did some Googling, and found that I was actually remembering a moment from “Planet of the Spiders” where the Great One (empress of the Eight-Legs) mimicked Sarah Jane Smith singing the song. So there you go: clearly the Vault’s occupant is a bloodthirsty taco-eating piano-playing giant spider. Don’t tell Felicity.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

The TARDIS lands in what looks like England’s so-called “imperial century,” and are surprised to find the waters beneath them not as safe and ordinary as they expect. An ambitious man with a great deal of power is engaged in an enterprise whose goal is a massive, unearthly profit, and he doesn’t care even a little bit how many human lives he must sacrifice to achieve it. The Doctor and his companion must recruit the assistance of an equally enterprising female and her ragtag band of rogues in order to get to the prize first and set it free.

I swear I’ll stop it with this gag sooner or later, but this could be 1983’s “Enlightenment,” or it could be 2017’s “Thin Ice.” The two stories also share the distinctions of being among the very few Doctor Who stories written by women (Barbara Clegg in the former case, Sarah Dollard in the latter) and being top-notch, practically flawless works. “Enlightenment” is a top five story for me as far as the classic series is concerned; “Thin Ice” may well rank up there as far as the new one goes.

Further, both stories are concerned with class. “Enlightenment” gives us an immortal “ruling class” of nearly omnipotent beings, the Eternals, whose spacefaring vessels are manned by mortal Earthlings who are often killed in the course of trying to win an interplanetary race for their masters. “Thin Ice” gives us an ordinary Earth aristocrat who feeds London’s working class and underclass to a giant chained creature that looks like a fish and sounds like a whale so that it can excrete them as a highly efficient fuel source. Both grant the final moral choice to the Doctor’s companion rather than to the Doctor himself. And both are concerned with the ethical dimensions of the choices made in the stories, rather than shrugging them off thoughtlessly as the consequence of adventure.

“Thin Ice” handles this last bit more convincingly and articulately and also gracefully than we’ve seen in a long time. This is the first time Bill has seen a person die in front of her, and, deeply affected, she confronts the Doctor about his apparent willingness to shrug it off. He does care, he tells her, but not enough to count the number of times it’s happened (surely some fan out there has made such a count; I certainly haven’t), and in the end he simply…moves on. She presses him: has he ever killed anyone? He hesitates, but eventually admits he has (season 22 of the classic series alone contains at least three unambiguous and often remarked-upon examples, and the most recent one that comes to mind is the Gallifreyan General he shoots in “Hell Bent”). He claims that after living for 2000 years he cannot afford the luxury of outrage. And though this claim is thrown into question later on in the episode when he seizes the opportunity to punch a racist in the face, I’d argue that it’s still accurate. Outrage is what one performs when one is unable, at that moment or perhaps ever, to act. If one can act, as the Doctor does at that moment and every other, there is no reason to dwell in outrage.

Though some will no doubt find the politics of “Thin Ice” heavy-handed, I found them beyond reproach. Conversations about the whitewashing of history, the value of life, the blindness of privilege, and the measure of civilization are handled with impeccable grace, even if Bill is perhaps slightly too impressed with the Doctor’s fairly matter-of-fact speech about the latter three issues. On two occasions the Doctor defers to female authority in situations where this is entirely justified (resolving a dilemma reminiscent of the one in “Kill the Moon” in a much saner fashion). The eventual passing of privilege to London’s less fortunate is exactly what we’d want to see happen. It’s the Doctor and his companion righting wrongs in a worthwhile, thorough, and satisfying way. One can imagine the churl who’d object to any of this, but one cannot agree with him, nor quite respect him.

The characterization of Lord Sutcliffe himself might be the most cartoonish element of the story, being entirely self-aware of his complete lack of compassion, but he’s no more cartoonish than your typical Dalek. The child actors are competent and never outstay their welcome. And both Capaldi and Mackie are in top form, already leaps and bounds more compelling to watch than in “The Pilot.” Blink and you’ll miss the scene where the Doctor tries to congratulate himself on his ability to entertain the street urchins with a storybook, and Bill objects (quite rightly) to his attempts at 21st century slang, but it works so much better than similar lines in the series opener. In some ways, the actor playing every new companion has it harder than the previous one did, having to sell the same reactions to the inevitable realities of traveling with the Doctor in a fresh new way, but Mackie is more than up to the challenge. When we finally see her toward the end, realizing that she’s run out of time and she won’t be able to save everyone still on the frozen Thames before the explosives go off and ice cracks, finally grasping the difficult choices the Doctor makes in every adventure and just urging the kids to run and save themselves, it’s the most natural transition in the world. For this episode, at least, this is a tremendous TARDIS team, and I can finally say I’m sad this will be the only season with the two of them.

In the postscript to one of the very best stories of the past ten years, we get more of Nardole back in that subdued mode that worked so well in “Smile,” providing both an explanation for his post-“Husbands of River Song” survival (the Doctor has “reassembled” him — what more do we need to know?) and a hefty bit of foreshadowing about what’s in the vault (more like “who,” and whoever it is they’re dangerous…so probably not the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, then). Terrific stuff, this. More, please.

Doctor Who: “Smile”

On a planet far out in space, a human colony has been established on which to be unhappy is punishable by death. The basis of that colony’s power is a lifeform with face-changing servitors, whose sentience everyone has overlooked or ignored until now, and which can be peacefully coexisted with if only everyone would treat it with respect. And as the hibernating human colonists wake up, they are about to discover this threat they’ve unknowingly brought with them to their new home.

The story is “The Happiness Patrol” from 1988. No wait: “The Beast Below,” from 2010. Or maybe either “The Ark” from 1966 or “The Ark In Space” from 1975?

OK, so that joke doesn’t quite work two stories in a row. “Smile” vividly recalls quite a few stories in Doctor Who history, probably unintentionally since it’s Frank Cottrell-Boyce and not Moffat writing this installment, but who knows? It hangs together a bit better than “In the Forest of the Night,” and in fact exemplifies an approach to Doctor Who that doesn’t happen much lately: the Doctor and his companion wander into a mysterious situation on a distant planet and, with no one around to explain, have to work out what’s going on before things get out of control. For all that I’m not a big fan of 60s Who in general and the First Doctor in particular, this structure was a hallmark of that era of the show and I’m glad to see it happening here.

Capaldi and Mackie carry the majority of the episode all by themselves, and they do it beautifully. Bill is still taking to this companion stuff like a fish to water, shifting from enthusiastic tourist to clever partner-in-crime, full of bravery and compassion, never bland or boring or frivolous or foolish. Their initial five minutes in the TARDIS — talking about how the Doctor stole his ship, and how it chooses a destination that’s somewhere between “where you want to go and where you need to be” — are as entertaining as the entire rest of the episode. Nardole’s a bit less ridiculous this time out, and a bit grumpier about his apparent responsibility to hold the Doctor to that mysterious promise to stay on Earth and guard the vault. And Capaldi himself is much more interesting this week than last, breathing life into bits about future Earth culture and amorous algae emperors, full of counterintuitive glee about “a grief tsunami.”

The gleaming white building in the middle of a wheatfield populated by adorable squat robots is one of the best-looking alien worlds we’ve seen since “The Girl Who Waited,” another story that seems to have contributed some DNA to this one. The emoji faces and mood discs are an idea that could have been terribly cheesy yet somehow seem perfectly appropriate a few scenes in. And though the few supporting characters do seem to suffer largely because they’ve been scripted to withhold or ignore useful information until the last possible second, generally they’re plausible and sympathetic.

If there’s anything wrong with “Smile,” it’s with the central sci-fi conceit. It’s a little tough to swallow a team of service robots that can understand verbal commands but can reply only with emojis (even the phone you might be reading this on can speak to you if you want it to) and is too dim to comprehend that if its job is to keep humans happy, killing them just for being unable to maintain a positive attitude is the opposite of doing its job. It’s even tougher to swallow the idea that these knuckleheads have evolved into a sentient silicon-based lifeform given their obvious limited intelligence. Why do they need the mood discs if they can read moods from human faces? (Is it so they can still check the mood of a human whose back is turned?) Who programmed them to independently learn the complex problem of human happiness, but couldn’t prepare them to go out into the wheatfields alone to get the pollination done? This is a farcically stupid machine race, such a clear and present danger to the organic life around it that it’s hard to blame the humans when they get trigger-happy. This is not even a slave revolt: it’s just the honest mistakes of a machine acting with the best intentions and lacking even the basic safeguards imagined by Isaac Asimov in the mid-20th century.

But perhaps the Three Laws of Robotics are the wrong thing to expect from a story that was likely influenced less by Asimov than by Samuel Butler, author of the 1872 satirical novel with which the colony ship Erewhon shares its name. I haven’t read the novel myself, but Cottrell-Boyce clearly has, or at least the parts that (according to Wikipedia) deal with “the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection.” Erewhon, Butler’s fictional country, is remarkable for “the absence of machines […] due to the widely shared perception by the Erewhonians that they are potentially dangerous.” Frank Herbert has obviously read Erewhon as well, having named the anti-AI crusade in Dune after Butler. “Smile” doesn’t necessarily regard intelligent machines as incompatible with humans, but to call it a cautionary tale seems like an understatement.

This is of course the second episode in a row concerned with technology that is both incredibly powerful and colossally dumb, causing enormous harm through a misguided and clueless desire to help. This premise ought to be threadbare by now since its emergence in “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances,” but still seems to have a bit of life in it and continues to be slightly more interesting than antagonists who are evil and murderous “just because.” We get enough of the latter in real life.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot”

In a dusty hallway of an English university is a room, and inside the room is a professor. The professor is a man who’s had a colorful, exciting, long life and is now having a quiet one, giving lectures and puttering about with his hobbies and his books. He’s a man from another world, on the run from his own people, a hero or a criminal depending on who you ask and when, with two hearts, a long life expectancy, and some remarkable psychic abilities. But it’s his room that contains perhaps his most remarkable ability: the power to travel anywhere in space and time, and perhaps even out of both entirely. One of his students, who has no idea about any of this, is about to step into that room and into a more exciting life than anyone would believe was possible.

The man’s name is Professor Chronotis, the student is one Chris Parsons. This is Douglas Adams’ lost Doctor Who story, “Shada.”

Okay, sorry, it’s not. But you can see how “The Pilot” might have the tiniest flavor of that never-completed story from 38 years ago, and it’s a lovely way to begin series 10. It’s also mysterious: why HAS the Doctor been teaching university for the past 50 years? To whom did he promise to stop adventuring, and is the promise related to the high-tech sealed vault in an abandoned basement on campus? How has his Penfoldesque companion Nardole kept his creamy complexion over 50 years, and is Nardole’s longevity related to the whirring sound it makes and the bolt that drops when he lifts his arm in a quiet room? If these mysteries are the series arc this time out, I applaud their subtlety.

This is, in fact, one of the most dignified series openers and companion introductions we’ve seen in recent memory. The comparison that comes to mind is “The Bells of St. John,” which this superficially resembles, except that this replaces the monastery with a university, and a motorcycle ride up the side of a skyscraper with a thankfully restrained pair of guitar riffs. The show continues to look better and better visually, and the direction is largely excellent; even the incidental music this time out is worthy of praise, setting an agreeably playful tone for the new season.

The story itself is well-conceived and mostly works, with a couple of caveats. Moffat seems to have mined elements from many of the better stories over the years, not just “Shada” from the classic series but also “Midnight,” “The Waters of Mars,” “The Lodger,” and his own stories “The Doctor Dances,” “The Pandorica Opens,” and “The Eleventh Hour.” It never feels too derivative, though it also doesn’t quite cohere. For a thing that’s not evil, just hungry, the main threat seems awfully sinister and dysfunctional. And since the emotional weight of the story turns on the new companion’s relationship with the scary puddle’s first victim, it would probably have helped to give the two of them some chemistry.

A friend said that this felt like a two-parter squeezed down to one, and if so, the short shrift given to this relationship is the worst casualty. We never see Bill and Heather have a conversation that feels authentic and warm; after their eyes-meet-in-a-club moment, Heather always seems troubled and haunted, giving the impression that she’s already in the puddle’s thrall and is reluctantly seeking victims for it. She doesn’t appear to like anything very much, even Bill, and I had to watch a second time to see that her first vanishing act wasn’t an attempt to sacrifice Bill to the puddle. Bill’s crush seems superficial and unreciprocated as a result, though perhaps this is intentional; starting her time with the Doctor by losing the love of her life would have been a pretty heavy debut. It’s probably better for the bond to be easy come, easy go, even if this makes it less moving and more confusing.

We know Bill’s prone to crushes (as, charmingly, is Nardole) because of the story she tells the Doctor at the beginning of the episode about “perving” on the girl she serves chips to in the canteen. The story is bothersome for three reasons. First, perhaps most importantly, it adds to the confusion about her relationship with Heather. We get only the briefest of glimpses of the chip girl, and it’s not entirely clear they haven’t ended up being a thing, so when Bill starts to notice Heather, it’s easy to wonder: is this the same girl? have they broken up? The second reason is that Bill’s answer to why she comes to the Doctor’s lectures would probably have been more interesting than the story she actually tells, which feels like an outtake from Coupling. And the third reason is that Bill doesn’t seem to get that you can have beauty AND chips, and that you don’t have to stop liking a pretty girl just because she’s gained weight.

Luckily, Bill is so effortlessly appealing that she’s perhaps the only modern companion who could say something like that and get away with it. She’s wonderful from the get-go, making Bill entirely real, lots of fun, optimistic despite what looks like an uninspiring upbringing, and a breath of fresh air. After Me, the Impossible Girl, and the tangled web of Amy, Rory, and River’s intertwined timelines, it’s lovely to have a Possible Girl on board the TARDIS again. Pearl Mackie is great, turning on a dime from a minor freak-out over instantaneous international travel to pointing out that the Doctor’s granddaughter named the TARDIS in English, not Gallifreyan.

This season’s second companion, Nardole, is obviously the comic relief, and he’s so broadly drawn that he’s a bit less successful at it than he ought to be. It’s a tall order for any actor to juggle three thankless tasks: running around in fear whimpering “oo ‘eck!” at anything scary, laughtracking other people’s comedy (“banter! It’s good, this”), or — worst of all — underscoring obvious character moments of the Doctor’s (“quite silly,” “never notices the tears”). He’ll get a great line like “Human alert. Would you like me to repel her?” and have to follow it up with tired potty humor (“I’d give it a minute if I were you”). Matt Lucas is as appealing as anyone could be under these circumstances, but hopefully other writers will give him some better material.

Finally there’s Capaldi himself, whose performance as the Doctor continues to frustrate me. For every line he nails, there are three that seem like missed opportunities. It could be the script; for example, “I can see I’m going to have to raise my game” isn’t the wittiest line Moffat’s ever written, and yet I can’t help feeling Matt Smith would have made it into something perfect. I respect Capaldi’s credentials as an actor and he’s brought real magic and gravity to the role over the last few years, but he’s a much drier Doctor than either of his predecessors and it doesn’t always serve him well. I get the sense that behind the scenes he’s probably brought a steadying influence to a show that had started to get a bit over-the-top, but I’m ready to swing the balance back to a lead who can deliver a line about the sky being made of lemon drops without needing Nardole to rimshot it.

On balance, though, a small cast works well together to tell a simple monster story, reintroduce us to the TARDIS, provide a good jumping-on point for any new viewers out there, and give the longtime fans some Easter eggs right before the holiday. Everyone knows River Song, of course, but it’ll take a classic fan to recognize Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, in the other photo. And it’ll take a real classic fan to recognize the Daleks’ longtime enemies the Movellans (from “Destiny of the Daleks” in 1979) being cut to pieces by “the deadliest fire in the universe.” There’s something here for all of us, and it’s been worth the wait.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio

My hot take was that it wasn’t my least favorite Christmas special, but I’m having trouble coming up with the one it beats. Maybe “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe”? But even that inconsequential yarn included Matt Smith, whose effortless charm and spontaneity would have been more than welcome here. I like Capaldi, but the script includes very little of his Doctor. Indeed, he’s in full zany fish-fingers-and-custard mode, even dropping in on a child (see “The Eleventh Hour”) whilst working on a Rube Goldbergian contraption (see “The Lodger”). I’d suspect this had been drafted in the Smith era if not for the genre, which is just hitting its stride in 2016. Superhero tales accounted for 1 out of every 3 new movies or TV shows greenlit in America in the last 18 months*, so it’s no shock that Doctor Who has finally gotten around to running this overexposed genre through the old meat grinder. The problem, and it’s a fatal one, is that nothing got ground up. There’s a slab of superhero sitting next to a strip of Who and it’s been sold as a sausage.

Classic Who has a long tradition of absorbing and reinterpreting existing genres and even specific novels or films. That approach has given us such masterpieces as “The Brain of Morbius” (based on Frankenstein), “The Robots of Death” (And Then There Were None), “State of Decay” (Dracula and Carmilla), “Planet of Evil” (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), “Pyramids of Mars” (The Mummy), and “The Deadly Assassin” (The Manchurian Candidate), and that’s in the Tom Baker era alone. The Moffat era has done the same on several occasions, most notably “Last Christmas” (Alien meets Inception) and of course “A Christmas Carol” (Great Expectations, j/k).

But there’s nothing absorbed or reinterpreted in “Mysterio.” The Doctor appears to be heavily involved in the plot, serving as the event creating our ersatz Superman out of a somewhat dim ersatz Clark Kent, and handling a lot of the exposition about the diagonal head opener aliens who want to invade Earth by wearing important-people skins in a manner completely unlike the Slitheen. But Grant and Lucy are on their own fairly predictable track, with the Doctor commenting on but almost completely failing to impact their relationship. He’s really good at equivocating around the Grant-related parts of Lucy’s interrogation, to the point that I found myself wishing for him just to calmly blurt out the truth, exhibiting some of the Twelfth Doctor’s characteristic lack of social grace. If there were any way for Doctor Who to invade and revise the superhero genre, that blithe subversion of the secret identity trope might be it. Would that be enough to build a whole episode around? Probably not, which is why “Mysterio” can’t help but fall flat. At its best it’s a mildly entertaining, very slightly subversive (the “nanny” secret identity, the X-ray vision joke) piece of superhero fluff. At its worst it’s dead boring. “Wardrobe” at least made you wonder, on first viewing, if it might be headed somewhere. “Mysterio” is perhaps the least surprising Moffat episode ever aired.

* Source: I just made it up. Sounds about right, though, doesn’t it?

Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song”

This is the first time since “The Five Doctors” back in 1983 that my first viewing of a Doctor Who episode took place in a movie theater, surrounded by other fans. I watched “Day of the Doctor” and “Deep Breath” that way, but both were second viewings for me. For “The Husbands of River Song” I deliberately left the episode unwatched on my DVR and waited three days so that I could watch it on the big screen with a college pal who’s a fellow fan, and my girlfriend, at most a casual Who viewer.

At first I thought we might have made a mistake. I chose a block of seats in a mostly unoccupied row, but quickly regretted it when it became clear we were next to three of the loudest fans in the theater. Once the slideshow of River Song trivia questions gave way to a short feature in which Nerdist impresario Chris Hardwick enlisted a carpenter to build a TARDIS facade into a doorway in his log cabin (“this is kind of a period room so a TARDIS would fit right in”…well, maybe if the chameleon circuit were working, but even if it were a room that looked like the 1960s rather than the 1860s, it wouldn’t have a police box stuck in the doorway), the three of them began to gush: “oh my god I love that man!” etc. They were silent during the segment where two girls who’d accompanied the carpenter to Hardwick’s house constructed some heartbreakingly half-assed homemade Doctor Who snowglobes, but perked up again when Hardwick reappeared and got so excited about his TARDIS that he started dropping F-bombs (bleeped) and S-bombs (unbleeped). We considered moving seats. My friend texted my phone: “K I L L M E.” I texted the two of them: “Next time you guys pick the seats.” My girlfriend texted back “I will pick the seats called at home.”

Fortunately, either our three rowmates calmed down during the next segment or I stopped noticing their reactions. Even more fortunately, the next segment was a primer on River Song, reviewing all the continuity leading up to this point. I’d been worried my girlfriend would be lost, since she’d only seen “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” and hadn’t gotten as far as “The Time of Angels,” but it’s as if this primer were made for her, since surely most people in the theater were avid fans and fully caught up. She seemed to take most of the convoluted River timeline in stride, though she scoffed a bit (and rightly so) at the idea that merely being conceived in the TARDIS would generate a pseudo-Time Lady.

And then on to the main event. Though our rowmates and most of the rest of the theater were laughing right away, and though I’d been prepared for this to be what Doctor Who fans have learned to refer to as a “romp,” I thought the jokes (starting with the antlers) were hit and miss. After last year’s Alien-cribbing Christmas special, this one seemed more inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, especially the larger-than-life cliché-spouting head-removing dictator and the doomed galactic cruise ship with its disintegrating restaurant. It’s a mode that’s always worked well for Doctor Who, not least when Douglas Adams was actually writing and script-editing for the program, and makes a welcome coda for a season that ended with some pretty heavy stuff. Still, the humor seems self-conscious at times, and less confident than you’d expect from Moffat at this stage. The Doctor doesn’t really need to emphasize that “we’re being threatened by a head in a bag!”, and at one point he actually says something like “I know that wasn’t funny but I couldn’t help myself.” That weird line “He’s a lying down person. I don’t like lying down people. It’s so untidy” got a laugh, though, so what do I know?

Of course, the heart of the episode is the reversal of “Silence”/”Forest,” where the Doctor recognizes River, but she doesn’t recognize him. And that bit is so good, it really doesn’t matter whether any of the rest of the jokes land at all. It turns out that while she knows all about the Doctor’s previous incarnations, including the Tenth, not only does she not know about the Twelfth (because the Eleventh, her Doctor, didn’t), she doesn’t even know it’s possible for there to BE a Twelfth (because she knows about the War Doctor and the traditional regeneration limit). This is conveyed with virtuoso economy by the sort of plastic accordion foldout photo section nobody carries in their wallet anymore. Moffat delays the revelation for a deliciously long time, allowing us to meet River’s other husbands: King Hydroflax — the aforementioned dictator, marriage material chiefly because he has a diamond lodged in his skull and not a whole lot else — and Ramon, an affable fellow with romance-novel stubble and an unsteady hand with a teleport. We also learn that somewhere along the way River’s had at least two wives (one of whom might possibly have been the Doctor, or even the Damsel — long story) and even managed to win the hand of Stephen Fry (she’s that clever). In her defense, she cites the Doctor’s wives Elizabeth I, Marilyn Monroe, and Cleopatra (who may actually have been Stephen Fry — it’s confusing).

It’s an utter pleasure watching these two banter, both before and after River recognizes the new face of the man she loves. The Doctor has some fun once he’s accepted the situation, pretending shock at the TARDIS’s dimensions and turning in the scenery-chewing “bigger on the inside” reaction to end them all. But it’s River who gets in the best zingers, such as her contention that “it’s the easiest lie you can tell a man,” that you’re in love with him. “They’ll automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.” River so convincingly sells herself as a wonderfully, charmingly unscrupulous, man-eating, profiteering, booze-sneaking, sonic-trowel-brandishing holy terror (and note that she herself has successfully booked passage on a ship whose tickets are only available to those who have committed “the provable murder of multiple innocent life forms”) that there’s just the hint of doubt whether she has ever actually cared for the Doctor or just found him “terribly useful now and again.”

But then when she thinks he’s in danger, even though she believes he’s nowhere nearby, what has to be the truth comes out: as far as she believes, he’s never loved her, but she’s always loved him. She goes on and on, possibly stalling for time but almost certainly speaking her mind, talking about how loving him is like loving the stars or a sunset, not a person who could love you back and put themselves in danger to save your life. And this was one of two moments in the episode (the other toward the end, in the tragic and romantic denouement) when I knew it was the absolute best thing to have my girlfriend sitting next to me, because both times this casual Who fan with little more than a passing acquaintance with River Song, and almost none at all with either Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi, was moved enough to reach for my hand. And just as the Doctor finally let the penny drop with a quiet “Hello sweetie,” I reached for her hand back.

In the end, the episode and the way we watched it all came down to that moment. The Doctor got to reveal to the woman he loved more than she realized that he’d always been there by her side, to protect her, to admire her, to share in her adventures. And so did I.

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: series 9 penultimate rankings

By tradition, before the finale, I rank the year’s episodes and discuss how my opinions of them have changed with hindsight. I’ll list them from my least to most favorite this time.

11. Sleep No More
Mark Gatiss seems like a fun guy I’d probably quite like if I met him socially. I wish I had nicer things to say about his work on Doctor Who.

10. Before the Flood
Not actually terrible, just one of the two low-key episodes in a generally exciting season. Bit of a bad habit of killing off the characters I actually liked.

9. Under the Lake
Not significantly better than its conclusion. Ask me tomorrow and I might swap the two.

8. The Girl Who Died
The message is nice: there are other ways to fight that don’t involve violence, even the most powerful foe can be vulnerable to a dose of truth, and so on. It’s just that the episode itself feels a bit too goofy to take seriously, and not quite funny enough to enjoy for its comedy.

7. The Magician’s Apprentice
Davros and his dopey snake flunky hold no interest for me. This episode appears this high on the list for one reason and one reason only: Missy.

6. The Witch’s Familiar
More Missy, more fun. The rest of it isn’t bad, but it’s not that great either. Focus on Missy.

5. Face the Raven
Clara’s death was annoyingly arbitrary, but the Gaimanesque urban fantasy leading up to it was intriguing and cool. More of that, please.

4. The Zygon Invasion
An intriguing, bold concept for the show, in some ways a throwback to invasion stories of old, in others a welcome reimagining of the same. Far from perfect, but you don’t have to agree with every move it makes to find it fascinating.

3. The Woman Who Lived
The haters are right that the second half of this is less successful than the first, but if you’re only focused on embarrassment at the gallows humor, you’re forgetting that “Day of the Doctor” and “Vampires of Venice” went there first and arguably worse. Again, not perfect, but still one of the best this year for me, and dare I say a lot more honest about how humans face death than “Face the Raven.”

2. Heaven Sent
I had to watch it twice to love it, but now I really do. It appears to be either a puzzle or a sort of symbolism-filled dream sequence, but in fact it’s a perfect explication of grief. And dare I say a lot more successful at depicting depression than “Vincent and the Doctor.”

1. The Zygon Inversion
Not just for the speech, which goes into some surprising corners in addition to the obvious ones, but for Clara’s experiences in the Zygon pod, the Doctor’s banter with Osgood, the way the episode makes you cheer “five rounds rapid” and then fear the point of view behind it, and really almost everything else. Clara’s duels with Bonnie are the best Jenna Coleman moments all year, and unless “Hell Bent” is truly incendiary, this is the undisputed tops.

Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent”

The Doctor has lost his best friend. His best friend has forbidden him to take out his anger and grief on anyone else. But he can still take it out on himself.

There’s no mystery as to the subtext here. It’s a labyrinthine prison, containing a literal image of Death as the minotaur pursuing the Doctor through the maze, complete with shroud and flies. The Doctor finds a spade and uses it to dig up what looks like a fresh grave. The castle is empty of any other people, but one room holds a peeling painting of Clara. And at the bottom of the ocean surrounding the prison is a seabed of skulls. We probably don’t need a dream dictionary to figure out these symbols.

And the main action is the Doctor figuring out exactly what he needs to do to race one step ahead of Death, rapidly calculating gravity and time in his head, analyzing mineral hardness and teleport engineering with his sonic sunglasses and Time Lord ingenuity, “winning,” as Clara would put it, by the skin of his teeth. And then the literal punch line: winning in this case involves doing all this over and over and over again, repeating his actions over billions of years, so that he can break down the harder-than-diamond wall in the one room that doesn’t reset itself to its previous state, one frustrated fist at a time.

We were promised in the previous episode that someone had arranged to kidnap him to this place, and we see that he manages to punch his way out of it over billions of years, fulfilling the promise he made in “Day of the Doctor” to reach his home planet of Gallifrey “the long way round.” But we also see that his prison was situated within his confession dial. Apparently a confession dial is like a TARDIS — bigger on the inside — and not only can you be teleported into one, and die within it repeatedly, you can somehow punch your way out of it as well. Maybe in “Hell Bent” we’ll get the rest of the story: who put him in there? were they really interrogating him, and if so, was it really just about the hybrid?

More questions abound. If the creature kills you when it catches you, weren’t the interrogators relying heavily on the Doctor to figure out how to slow it down and to survive long enough to produce the exact confession they wanted? Did the first Doctor to die just remember the “BIRD” story on his own, and figure it all out without any clues the first time through? Is this the first televised Doctor Who story to include the word “arse”?

In the cliffhanger, the Doctor seems to reveal that he himself is the prophesied hybrid. Which of course put me and probably a ton of other classic series fans in mind of the “half human” line from the 1996 TV Movie. It’s crazy to think Moffat might be headed there, and yet it’s just the sort of thing he’d try to make work. And while I’m uneasy about the idea of retconning what to me is a more inspiring and interesting take on the Doctor’s flight from Gallifrey — the implication that Time Lord society was too detached from the rest of the universe and too stagnant to stimulate a mind like the Doctor’s — I’ll reserve judgment until I see what he has in mind. I’ve seen people speculate that he didn’t say “the hybrid is me” but “the hybrid is Me,” which raises all kinds of questions about what he knew this season and when he knew it.

The other classic series bell ringing here is the Matrix, an idea Robert Holmes came up with for the 1976 story “The Deadly Assassin” that was reused in 1986 for “Trial of a Time Lord,” well before the movie of the same name in 1999. The idea is that Time Lord consciousnesses are placed into the Matrix, essentially a vast computer network, when they finally die, so that future Time Lord High Councils can access their memories and intelligence in perpetuity. In this it’s not unlike the Nethersphere in which Missy stored people’s minds in “Dark Water,” and both are a kind of afterlife (Heaven, Hell, take your pick). It’s possible, apparently, to enter the Matrix and even do battle within it, Time Lords dueling with one another using landscapes and weapons dreamed up by their respective minds. It’s not clear whether the confession dial is something similar — did the Doctor somehow unwittingly dream up his tortures himself, or did another Time Lord do it? — but the resemblance is striking.

Peter Capaldi, of course, easily keeps this episode compelling all by himself; apart from brief cameos by Clara (her image in his mind, at least) and a Gallifreyan child, the Doctor’s is the only face we see throughout. By now we all know he’s a wonderful actor and good with a monologue. He does scary and determined and clever and agonized very well. Even so, the emotional effect of the episode is a slow burn until the last fifteen minutes, when we discover the Doctor has been living through his own personal and mostly unchanging Groundhog Day, and since Murray Gold’s music gets extremely loud about that time (and just when I was about to give him props for the Paddy Kingsland-esque synth earlier on), it might help to turn closed captioning on so you can actually hear the climactic monologue.

On first viewing, the episode didn’t appeal to me. I think I spent too much time trying to puzzle out what was going on at the literal level, and not enough just relaxing and soaking in the emotional content. On second viewing (with closed captions) it’s much easier to see the very simple and profound thing happening here. At its heart, this is an episode about grieving: repeating what seem like identical, meaningless days doing the same things over and over, seeing reminders of death around every corner, running just to get away from them, hoping against reason that if you just keep doing the mundane everyday things long enough, maybe the person you’ve lost will somehow reappear, knowing there’s no chance it will ever happen…and relying only on their memory to propel you forward to be the person you know they would want you to be.

Fortunately for the Doctor, there is an escape. It’s two billion years in the making, but in the end he can finally crack his own personal prison of grief and come out ready for a fight. He’s one hell of a bird, and now his beak is very very sharp.

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.