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: “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.

Doctor Who: “The Magician’s Apprentice”

That Moffat! Who else would be so clever as to start off a new season with an RTD finale?

The first time I saw this episode, I was almost certain the boy on the battlefield would reveal he was “Adolf Hitler.” And to all intents and purposes, he did.

And just as there is really only one time-travel story involving Hitler*, there is only one time-travel story involving Davros. He is superfluous to “Destiny of the Daleks,” “Resurrection of the Daleks,” and “Remembrance of the Daleks,” any of which could easily have written him out. He is a tedious mouthpiece in “Journey’s End.” Only “Revelation of the Daleks” makes any dramatically interesting use of him, but it is not so much a Davros story as it is a story with Davros in it. No: if you are going to do a Davros story, you are going to do THE Davros story, “Genesis of the Daleks.” That’s the only one that happens while Davros exists but the Daleks as an independent species do not, at least not in Episode One. That’s the one that asks: if you could stop one of the most evil forces in the universe from coming into being, but you would have to commit an evil act to do it, should you?

In that story, which is quoted directly in “The Magician’s Apprentice,” the evil act is destroying a roomful of Kaled mutants destined for Dalek shells. In this one, the evil act is killing Davros himself as a child, or at least leaving him with a thousand-to-one chance of survival, and the decision is very much in the Doctor’s hands. It puts that moral question, the Doctor Who version of “if you had a time machine, would you go back and kill Hitler?”, in terms that require some resolution. Even if you’ve pondered this question many times in philosophy classrooms or late-night student lounge discussions, it’s a cinch that many viewers haven’t, particularly the young ones. So this should be gripping TV.

And it is, but not because of Davros. Both actors playing him are fine, though compared to Michael Wisher in “Genesis” and Terry Molloy in “Revelation” I still think Julian Bleach is a poor third in the Davros steeplechase. It’s just that rather than being reminded of why this question even matters, refreshing our memories about the Daleks’ Naziesque atrocities, we’re presented instead with a threat to the Doctor’s TARDIS and his friends. Perhaps we’ve all seen so many Dalek stories by now, heard the Doctor play them up as the ultimate enemy so many times, that we don’t need reminding that they are a threat to the entire universe, but surely in a story like this, it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a few scenes of the Daleks occupying and sterilizing several planets, showing them as active, ongoing threats, not just personal foes. Maybe we’ll get some of that in the second part, now that it’s been revealed, in what can hardly have come as a shock to anyone, that Davros has some Daleks hanging around with him.

So why is it gripping? In a word, Missy.

She’s the best Master since Delgado, we’re all correctly saying. She might be the best Master, period, some of us are quite reasonably suspecting. She might still seem a little capricious, and a little too preoccupied with the Doctor himself rather than having any independent goals, but the discussion of her relationship with him is priceless. It does for Missy what “The Doctor’s Wife” does for the TARDIS. And Michelle Gomez doesn’t so much steal every scene as steal the entire show.

Capaldi, on the other hand, is saddled with playing a delicate balance in his biggest scene: he has to show us a Time Lord scared for his very life and hiding it with desperate attempts to be cool (the guitar), funny (the dad jokes), and cool/funny (the “dude” jokes). To give the scene the most possible credit is to assume it intended for the Doctor to seem nervous and dorky, not for the scene to seem nervous and dorky. Capaldi almost pulls it off.

Then there’s Clara. I should love her: a companion with an independent life, a clever mind, an iron nerve, and a history of snogging Jane Austen. I still don’t. Perhaps she’s just too impossible.

I keep forgetting Kate Stewart was even in the story. It’s as though Moffat, the directors, and the costume designers are going out of their way to make her forgettable every time she appears, and Redgrave has never had so little to work with as she does here.

And then there’s Colony Sarff, as nervous and dorky a concept as the Doctor’s arena entrance. Perhaps in a different story he (I mean they) would fit, but here they just seem incongruous. The need to wheel in what looks like a roller-skating Skeletor henchman as an “intimidating” Davros catspaw underscores the fact that the Daleks are, time and again, just not menacing enough. I mean, we already know Davros is the key figure in this story. Would it spoil that much suspense to just have Daleks bust in on the Maldovarium, the Shadow Proclamation, and Karn? Why wouldn’t that be scarier?

The answer is revealing: because the Daleks aren’t scary. We never see the pepperpots themselves being scary anymore. We need eyestalks popping out of people’s heads, humans turned into pigs, or an old scientist with a ruined face and a mechanical hand to make them seem scary. These are space Nazis, for goodness’ sake. It shouldn’t be hard for a Dalek to be the least cuddly creature in the universe. And yet even when it’s threatening to kill you, all you want to do is hug it. Ask Rose.

* “What about ‘Let’s Kill Hitler,'” you’re asking? Exception proving the rule: our time team shoves him in a cupboard. The story goes out of its way NOT to involve him.