Heaven Sent/Hell Bent

I’ve been pressed for time the last couple of weeks and have not really had time to blog, but I wanted to post a few thoughts about Heaven Sent and Hell Bent.

Heaven Sent is easily my favourite new Who episode.  It might be my favourite Doctor Who episode ever, except that I’m terribly indecisive and that comparing episodes from different eras can feel like comparing apples with oranges.   It’s a quadruple triumph: for Peter Capaldi (perhaps most of all), for Steven Moffat, for director Rachel Talalay and for incidental music composer Murray Gold.  I’ve been critical of Gold in the past, especially for the bombastic scores that accompanied a lot of David Tennant’s stories, but here he is more subtle and genuinely moving.  In particular, The Shepherd’s Boy, the piece that accompanies the montage of the Doctor being in the confession dial for millennia, is brilliant.  Moreover, the cumulative effect of these four talents is greater than the sum of their parts.  There’s a haunting beauty in this story not really found in any other story except Warriors’ Gate (with which it shares some similarities and one key difference – the former story is about winning if you “do nothing” whereas here victory comes from doing one small thing over and over and over again).

What I admire most about the episode is the way it spotlights the Doctor’s heroism, his determination to just keep going despite everything and do the right thing, despite the most terrible psychological and physical tortures imaginable.  In that respect it’s like one of my other favourite stories, The Caves of Androzani and obliquely like a third, The War Games (which pushes the Doctor until he actually breaks – by the middle of episode ten he’s given up fighting the Time Lords despite Jamie and Zoe’s determination to escape, surely the reason the Time Lords of The War Games seem more powerful than in subsequent stories).  While some fans admire the programme’s politics, I prefer episodes that focus on the Doctor’s morality in a more personal, less abstract and ideological way.  Here, more than anywhere else, we see the Doctor as the man who is never cruel or cowardly, never gives up and never gives in (admittedly we don’t see “never cruel” so much).

Hell Bent is a more complex and uneven episode.  It’s true that I generally prefer chamber pieces to epics, but Hell Bent seems inferior to its predecessor even when taking that into account.  Perhaps it gives away too much about the Doctor’s childhood (without really giving away very much at all) or perhaps it’s the confusion about the Hybrid, which, despite being trailed extensively this season (without ever having been mentioned before) ultimately doesn’t amount to much more than a hint that the Doctor might genuinely be half-human after all and the implication that the Doctor may have made a terrible mistake in making Ashildr immortal, which we already knew from The Woman Who Lived and Face the Raven.  Plus the end of the universe setting might clash with Listen; I wouldn’t usually quibble over continuity like that, but it was only broadcast a year earlier, although you can probably handwave it away.

But the real problem is that the Doctor is cruel here.  His swift dismissal of Rassilon and the High Council of Time Lords is justified, but his shooting of the General is less so.  For all he says that death is just “man flu” on Gallifrey, that’s not how it is generally presented and the sequence here just seems to be there to further establish gender fluidity in the Time Lords rather than to carry any real weight.  We see the Doctor’s love for Clara here, but it seems to come at the cost of his sense of responsibility.  He has a duty of care to Clara, but risks destroying space and time as a result.  He seems unbalanced. Still, this is an intentional decision on the part of Moffat and Capaldi, to show just how much he loves Clara, but his memory wipe seems like a justified punishment as well as a a way of getting Clara out of  the series and to reset the Doctor’s character to factory settings.

Still, this is not to detract from a pacey and epic story that ably ties up the loose ends from Heaven Sent and takes the Doctor’s character even further than its predecessor.

The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar

I’ve been on holiday (hence the blogging lull) and am jet lagged, so I don’t have the time or the energy for a review of The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, but I will note that it’s a strange story, not so much a juxtaposition of horror and comedy as is common in Doctor Who, but, if you will, a hybrid where the comedy and the horror come from each other, like The League of Gentlemen (not that I’ve seen much of League of Gentlemen, but I guess it’s the obvious comparison given that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are long-term collaborators).  Missy’s violence and her indifferent or joyous reaction to it, is both frightening and comic in its extreme moral disruptiveness and the idea of the semi-dead Dalek mutants eating the other Daleks is introduced as a joke, becomes a minor plot point and then turns into the cornerstone of the resolution.

It’s downright insane in places.  Doctor Who is often insane, but there is a sense here that this only works because Steven Moffat is back on form as The King of Plot (which he hadn’t been for a while before this), with all the plot points dovetailing and a deft double twist whereby the Doctor manipulates Davros to think that he’s manipulating the Doctor.

I do wonder, though, if Clara could not have thought more laterally to get out of the Dalek.  If she had said, “I teach GCSE English at Coal Hill School” would it really have come out as “I teach advanced extermination at the Dalek Military Academy”?

The Caretaker, Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express

When The Caretaker was transmitted, the Doctor Who Magazine review remarked on the unfortunate scene of the Doctor telling a black man that he was too stupid to teach maths.  This is indeed problematic, but I was more concerned by the fact that the Doctor seems to have forgotten that his best friend was a soldier who retired to teach maths at a school.  Such continuity quibbles might be though trivial, but this is an episode set in the school seen in the very first episode back in 1963 and revisited every twenty-five years.  This is not a minor point; the whole reason the Skovox Blitzer is around, according to the Doctor, is that it homed in on artron energy, presumably from the visits by TARDIS and Daleks.  Nor is it only long-term continuity that is a problem.  Kortney’s parents refer to what Danny said to them “last year” even though it was established back in Into the Dalek that Danny had only just started teaching at Coal Hill School.

But there is a bigger issue here.  As I noted in my review of Into the Dalek, the Doctor has never liked the ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ attitude and the Doctor shouting at trigger-happy soldiers is a stock image of the programme.  But so is the Doctor cooperating with soldiers or, more usually, getting them to work for him.  Never has he phrased a hatred of soldiers as strongly as this season and not only is it difficult to find a narrative reason why, it is difficult to find a non-narrative reason why either, unless it was to create some conflict with Danny and perhaps to build up to the truly bizarre scene in Death in Heaven where the Doctor salutes a Cyberman-zombie-Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.  Mind you, Danny is nearly as bad.  He never seems to ask  himself whether he would actually have believed anything Clara might have told him about time travelling adventures had she tried being honest with him.  It’s as if, unable to find a genuine conflict to focus the drama upon, one had to be manufactured.

Which may well have been the case, as there is pitifully little else here to get our teeth into.  The plot is essentially a rehash of The Lodger and Closing Time with Peter Capaldi’s sarcastic cynicism replacing Matt Smith’s innocent abroad act.  But the joke is wearing thin by this time, especially as it relies on the Doctor not really understanding anything about human beings and their societies, which seems unlikely given how much time he has spent with them over the millennia.  This did not bother me so much in the earlier stories, which were basically good-natured buddy movies, but this is a farce focused on the Doctor’s irrational hatred of Clara’s boyfriend, something out of character (as I mentioned) and also crossing the boundaries of appropriate behaviour.  The Doctor really gets no say in who Clara spends her non-TARDIS time with and it’s hard to have any sympathy for him here.

I’ve told myself that I need to find one good thing about every story I review here (fortunately, I came up with that rule after Into the Dalek).  It’s hard.  But I did like the gag where the Doctor tells Clara that she got the date Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice wrong and she rants at him asking if he’s going to say he met Austen that year and had crazy adventures together, only for him to respond that he just read the biography at the back of the book.

Then on to Kill the Moon, which dissipates any goodwill left after The Caretaker.  The premise is utterly ludicrous, not just scientifically impossible (although science geeks have had a field day ridiculing giant spider-bacteria and breaches of the law of conservation of mass, not to mention the speed the Earth must be turning at for Clara to watch the whole world ‘vote’ in a few minutes), but truly bizarre.  This might not matter if the story was told with some conviction, but the moral dilemma remains too abstract.  We don’t get a proper look at the creature, nor do we really see the effect the moon’s disintegration is having on the earth.  Everything is told, not shown, and it’s hard to engage with it.  The story seems to be some kind of thought experiment about abortion, but the silliness of the story is so at odds with the gravity of the subject matter, that it is impossible to take it seriously.   It doesn’t help that, as happens whenever new Who starts talking about fixed points and the limits of the Doctor’s knowledge and ability to intervene, everything just seems utterly arbitrary and done for the writer’s convenience.

To cap it all, the story closes with an ’emotional’ scene that does not seem to make sense.  While it is understandable that Clara would be angry with the Doctor for running out her, her argument is phrased in terms of her lack of knowledge and ability, something at odds with her general sense of independence and assertiveness (she is, we are repeatedly told, a control freak).

I’ve said I will find a good point for every story I review and with Kill the Moon it has to be the cinematography, particularly the location sequences.  It really does look like the moon.  I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories that say the moon landings were faked, but if they were, they were faked like this.  Even so, there is still a moment of directorial silliness when the shot goes into slow motion while Our Heroes are running down a corridor.  It’s supposed to be heroic, but it looks clichéd and silly, too cursory to really justify its existence.

Finally, after a couple of duff episodes, we are rewarded with Mummy on the Orient Express, an enjoyable mystery-cum-horror story with perhaps the most memorable monster of the season in The Foretold, an ancient mummy rather more decrepit and terrifying than the ones seen in Pyramids of Mars.  The Foretold is so realistic you don’t know whether it will throttle you or collapse in a pile of bone and dust and its shambling gait is a masterclass in Doctor Who monster acting.

If there is a problem, and there may not be, it is that this is Doctor Who by numbers, an attempt to do a Gothic horror story of the kind Doctor Who did so many times in the mid-seventies.  It’s an attempt to take on the past of the programme on its own territory, like bringing back UNIT led by the Brigadier’s daughter.  On that level, it succeeds, and Mummy can hold its head up high in company with the likes of Pyramids of MarsThe Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.  The problem is that there isn’t very much more to it than that.  It has some good scares and some good jokes and some very good acting and design work, but nothing more.  Still, after a number of more experimental stories, not all of which worked, there arguably needed to be a more traditional story as a palette cleanser.

Actually, there is one more tangible problem: like those classic Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories, this really needs to be told at greater length.  There is a lack of foreshadowing here (perhaps ironically, given that the monster is called The Foretold).  Plot elements are introduced and resolved too quickly.  The Scroll is introduced too late; it should have been an element of mystery for both the Doctor and the viewers from earlier on.  Similarly, Captain Quell comes around to the Doctor’s point of view too easily; in a Tom Baker story we’d get fifty minutes or more of the Doctor wielding his best sarcastic put downs to bait authority before being officially allowed to investigate unhindered.  There’s a feeling here of having watched a great story on fast forward.  With a longer running time, this could have been the best Doctor Who Christmas Special ever (compare with Voyage of the Damned, with which it has some superficial similarities, and weep).