Sunday, October 22, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x3)

Once Upon a Time has always been concerned with defining heroism. Emma's growing heroism, Regina's turn toward it, and Snow's unwavering belief in it have been part of the center of the show. After all, every good story needs a hero. Both Jacinda and Henry are struggling this week to be the heroes Lucy wants them to be. Henry doesn't believe in Lucy's fanciful stories and Jacinda doesn't have enough conviction in standing up for what she knows is right to follow the heroic path. It makes saving a town--or even just a garden--a little more than difficult. Sometimes, though, what a hero really needs is another hero to remind them that being such a powerful force for good isn't a walk in the park; it means making hard choices and learning to live with them. You can't burn the petition or murder the kind cobbler, in other words. This week's episode, "The Garden of Forking Paths," wants to remind us that Jacinda might be on her way to herohood but first and foremost, she's human and a mother, just trying to be with her kid. 

Seeds of Discontent 

I suppose a story about resistance isn't totally apropos of nothing. Not in this day and age, not in this American political climate. The word "resist" and "resistance" have been bandied about so much over the past year that they've become a definitive touchstone of said year. When people speak of 2017, the word resistance will be woven into that narrative. Good fantasy, science fiction, or any sort of story, incorporates real life drama and issues and finds a way to speak some sort of truth about those touchy topics. Star Trek is probably the best example of this, from racism to sexism to ageism to elitism and all the -isms it used the genre of science fiction to parse out those topics. By using the term resistance so freely in this episode, OUAT finds itself in a precarious place. It has to find a way to both show and tell the resistance of Ella, Tiana and the others against Lady Tremaine and Victoria, while not making this resistance seem foolhardy, silly, or unimportant. The resistance here in the real world is too important for too many people and to see it reduced to a vague plot point only brought up as an afterthought is not a good direction to go in. That being said, it's also not necessary to have an over the top bad guy (or gal) who has no depth or emotion or character (the real resistance already has one of those sitting in the very real White House...) which is why it's nice that the show has done the smart thing and given their audience a nice, big, juicy bone to gnaw on instead of spinning their proverbial wheels on Lady Tremaine. I'll pause here to mention that making Lady Tremaine's motivation for everything--the Curse, if she cast it, her hatred of Ella, and her general bitchy demeanor--relate back to motherhood is wearisome. The show has done mothers to death from Emma, to Regina, to Snow, to Belle, and even to Zelena and those are only just the main cast of the past six years. Motherhood is one of those tricky themes that never quite lands as well as the writers want it to; sure, it had several bright and shining moments in season one but those moments became few and far between over the years as motherhood became the only way to redeem a lady villain. OUAT often sees women in two extremes, the much maligned Madonna or Whore trope. If you're a good person or on your way to becoming a good person, it's because you found a child/had a child/are learning to make up for lost time with your child. If you're still in villain mode, then you've likely severed all ties with your children and it is your children who are trying to save you. Lady Tremaine/Victoris has been like a classic fairy tale villain--mysterious but ultimately broadly drawn--until you learn that she's trying to save her fourteen year old daughter who's being kept "alive" inside a magical coffin. Too often, OUAT makes motherhood out to be the ultimate saving redemption for any and all women, which is more than just a little bit backwards, at the very least, and overtly misogynistic at the worst.

However, with that said, while I don't particularly like this particular return to form (a return to the mothership, if I might be so bold....) I am glad that some sort of motivation and character color has been added to Victoria who, thus far, has been one note and not a good note at that, in her Mayor Mills knock off clothing and personality. The real meat on this bone, though, goes to Ella who opens up more as we learn that, like a certain lead princess of seasons past, she too feels responsible for Victoria's turn toward villainy. We don't know what happened to Anastasia when she was fourteen (she did not, apparently, run away with Will to Wonderland, marry a King, and then have one hell of a redemption arc--not that I'm bitter about the original show continuing to ignore their spinoff...) but we do know that by having Ella blame herself, the relationship and story between Ella and Tremaine is made complicated which usually makes for more enjoyable TV. For example, this complicated relationship brings Ella face to face with what it means to be a hero: does she kill an innocent like Henry or the nice shoe maker in order to assuage her guilt over Anastasia and make a mea culpa to Tremaine? Or does she forgive herself for whatever happened as a child and protect the innocents from the wrath of Tremaine? Just like in Hyperion Heights, Jacinda is put to the test: does she choose the easy way out of being with her child in a swagtastic new apartment or does she stick with her convictions of what is right and what is wrong and save the Community Garden. Heroes are born in those quiet moments, these every day moments. It doesn't have to be when facing down a dragon or saving the world from Chaos Incarnate. It can just be in deciding fight for what is right. That is really what the resistance is--slay the dragon, if you can, be most importantly...just fight.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Garden of Forking Paths

--Henry in his muddy red coat looks a lot like the coats Neal and Emma have worn in other episodes.

--Regina Mills: the character growth the show has mostly succeeded on. I loved watching her tell Ella that sacrificing one person for a whole cause doesn’t make it “right” and later telling Cinderella to forgive herself.

--Emma Booth’s character is very interesting! I get strong Rapunzel/Witch vibes from her and Victoria's final scene and I think Victoria is in the Rapunzel role, even though that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sorta blows the hole in my running theory that Rapunzel is Wish Realm Hook's daughter, though?

--“The key to bringing down Victoria Belfry is a bearclaw!”

--A shocking number of people who did not care about the upkeep of the community garden are lined up to sign the petition to save it….

--How does one leave a letter inside a well….?

--UGH, the lampshade moment of Lucy’s “hey this is exactly like when you and Archie went down into the mines in Storybrooke! Remember that!?”

--"And here you a bar..."

Saturday, October 14, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x2)

How do you solve a problem like Emma Swan? When Jennifer Morrison announced that her six year tenure on OUAT as its leading lady were coming to an end, the question was not how would the show go on but rather should the show go on. Season seven might be ruminating on new versions of beloved fairy tales but it's also deeply concerned with the question of life after Emma. Just think about it; this is only the second review for this season and both reviews have opened with me contemplating a character who is--literally--no longer on the show. In this week's episode, "A Pirate's Life," Emma Swan gives us her--wait for it--swan song. This is the last episode Jennifer Morrison will be in, or so she's said. If OUAT was a six season book, this episode is the epilogue that says goodbye to the first hero and pushes the new hero into the fold. It's all red leather jackets, mother/son reunions, and really horrible looking wigs (seriously, OUAT costuming couldn't find something a little bit better than that?) as we say goodnight to Emma. 

Mama....Life Had Just Begun

There are some nights when I don't quite know what to write about this show. Tonight is one of those nights; I went into the hour thinking I knew what I'd want to discuss after the episode aired. It mostly involved contemplating if the transition from a female-centered drama to a male-centered one was a good idea. Even with all the history between the audience and Henry, as I talked about last week, this is a show that has prided itself--somewhat foolishly--on having strong females at its center. Would it not be better, from that standpoint at least, to make Cinderella the center of season seven, not Henry? This think piece would then lead into a discussion of Emma's final moments in the show in which she's asked to do precious little besides fret over Henry, make eyes at her husband, and announce that she's pregnant. It's not as if Emma being pregnant is a surprise; Hook and Emma did just get married (because the passing of time is weird on this show) and it's natural that they'd want to start their own family. What's odd about it is the fact that it was clearly written as a way to placate certain sections of the fandom. Not for a single second is Baby Captain Swan going to matter to the mythology of this show. The baby will be born off screen, possibly announced to Henry via a phone call at the end of the season and never seen nor heard from. The baby doesn't herald anything except the writers needing to appease rabid fans who frothed at the mouth all summer about their ship being taken away. The baby makes no narrative sense outside of that. However, I'm not going to spend this blog ruminating on any of that. Neither the idea of transitioning to a male centric show nor Emma's agency and questioning whether this was a ever a strong female centric show are important because the episode itself relegated them to footnotes. Season seven will be male-centered with flashes of different kinds of females interwoven in: the two "old guard" ladies in Regina and Victorian, both vying to remain dominant but for different reasons; the two plucky new combers in Jacinda and Sabine. Emma's agency remains as it ever was post season four or so, which is to say that her agency is mostly given over to Hook and the Captain Swan relationship, which is now blessedly over or at least off our screens forevermore. The topics this episode should have brought to bear are so minor and inconsequential that writing at length about them would only be tedious for writer and reader, both. Instead, this episode decided to go full balls to the wall crazy with plot spaghetti.

Has anyone else ever heard of "keep it simple, stupid." It's a nice way of saying that your story or your idea shouldn't be so overly complex as to be incomprehensible. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be deep or full of twists and turns. The very best writing in fantasy is usually chalk full of subplots, dramatic reveals, and devastating turns (think, A Song of Ice and Fire). But any story at its core must at least make sense. Your audience shouldn't be scratching their head trying to puzzle out how something is even possible. OUAT is not known for its worldbuilding. It usually gets hammered from critics and fans alike for taking an almost perverse delight in shattering previously established rules or worldly logic. I guess in that regard I shouldn't be shocked that the writers decided to bring back Wish Realm Hook and implant him into the larger seasonal story and then also heap a whole mess of plot on him. Except it does shock me because of the total lack of sense it makes. The Wish Realm was always something bizarre that was best left in its own two part episode but to now say that a character from that Wish Realm (a realm that was born into existence in a millisecond after the Evil Queen made a wish on a newly formed Aladdin-Genie) somehow managed to cross universes, have meaningful interactions with characters in one realm of this new universe and have a complex backstory involving a missing daughter is more than a bit much. I lost track of the number of times I had stop and actually think about which Hook was talking to Henry or Emma. To sum it up: Wish Realm Hook, who is not longer a drunken louse, somehow managed to find his way to "Another Realm" which is in a different universe than any of the realms previously known. It also turns out that he has a daughter who has gone missing and we will only know her by the chess piece she keeps on her person at all times. Because that's something normal people do. Here's my bigger question (outside of what on earth were the writers thinking): why should I care? This isn't Hook, not the Hook that has been on your screen since season two. That Hook, dislike him though I do, has at least come along somewhat since he went around knocking out princesses and stealing their hearts. That Hook is not this Hook. It doesn't matter that they are both played by the same actor and look exactly alike. This Hook in Hyperion Heights has none of the rich character history that original Hook does and yet I am asked to care that he has a missing daughter, a plot that was hefted on the audience in a stunning example of random exposition and plot dumpage. And to some extent I get what the writers are going for here; they want the non-Hook fans to like this new version of Hook so they are untangling him from Emma and Captain Swan and using an old trick giving him a missing child (the Rumple special, if you will). They are hoping that this will lessen all the vitriol that gets hurled at Hook and his romantic attachments. But is it it he best narrative choice?

What this episode should have done is keep with the basic themes that makes OUAT what it is (or was?). I know the Captain Swan fans would have lamented Emma and Hook being split, especially after Emma dropped the baby bomb, but this show is about sacrifice and family. Those are some of the themes at its core and having Hook (real, non Wish Realm Hook) go with Henry, telling him that he'd keep Henry safe and help Henry find his family would be much more poetic. A stepfather helping his stepson to find his way in the world, to honor Baelfire and the love Hook bears Henry's mother? Yeah, that's your plot, writers! That's the real meat you could have chewed on for ten plus episodes. Remember: keep it simple, OUAT writers. We already have a ton of plot in Henry, Cinderella, Treamine, Drizella, Tiana, Alice, and whatever is going on with Rumple and Regina. We do not need a magically spawned daughter of a character that has only existed for less than half a season.

Miscellaneous Notes on A Pirate's Life

--I love that Henry’s apartment has tons of knick-knacks like Neal’s NYC apartment did.

--Andrew J. West is still doing good work as Henry; I find him cute, endearing, and slightly silly, which is basically Henry all over. He’s got that cute flustered stutter thing that Emma used to do.

--Regina doesn’t even blink at Henry being in his thirties! That’s just not a normal reaction for a mother. She should be lamenting missing all that time with her son. I find it extremely hard to believe that Regina and Emma would not have gone after Henry after a certain length of time had passed.

--“I never thought Captain Hook would find love…” Look, Killian Jones may have taken a new moniker but he still loved Milah, for crying out loud.

--Henry asks about the entire town of Storybrooke and his family except for Rumple, Belle, and Gideon. Ouch, Henry. Ouch.

--I didn't notice it so much in the premiere but Lady Tremaine's accent and mannerisms really bother me.

--So who's Hook's daughter? And who is the mother?

--I will take more of devious cop Weaver, please and thank you

Saturday, October 7, 2017

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (7x1)

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Emma Swan. Emma had a lot of adventures, full of loss and love, death and birth, misery and happiness. But this is not Emma Swan's story. Not anymore. This is the story of what happens after Emma. Shows get re-imagined all the time. Sometimes it works as in the manner of Doctor Who where change was built into the mythology of the show and is not only expected but often encouraged. Sometimes change doesn't work, like with Sleepy Hollow--another mythology heavy show that jettisoned their lead actress and moved the story to a new locale. Going into season seven, the major question rests not on anything plot related--that will slowly unravel and reveal itself in piecemeal like every other major plot arc of OUAT--but rather lies in pondering what it will take to make Once Upon a Time: The Next Generation succeed? Is success based on shifting the focal point to Henry Mills, a character who has been around since the opening moments of the first season; a character with a rich history and multiple connections to the past? Is success based around maintaining similar themes running throughout the series thus far, like hope, family, belief, and happy endings? Or is this an instance of needing distance from the past, creating a totally new story with only the barest hints of what came before woven in? The easiest answer is, of course, that it needs to do both. If this sameness but also newness sounds paradoxical, it's really not. After all, Star Trek: The Next Generation remembered its past but very much became its own creature when it refused to be enslaved to said past. A new book opens and it's time to see what is in store for Henry Mills in the season seven premiere--and launching point for an almost entirely new show--"Hyperion Heights." Perhaps for the (first) last time ever...let's go! 

Circle Of Life

Stop me if this sounds familiar. Long ago--but not so long ago as to be the mythological past--a boy and a girl had a chance encounter in a far off magical land. The encounter was not one that instantly led to true love, but one filled with snark, sass, and obvious wait-for-it chemistry. Meanwhile, in the vaguely sketched present day of a totally different realm, the boy and the girl were separated by some nefarious means. One of these erstwhile lovers met a child with the power of belief in their heart who tried to convince them to undertake an adventure. No, it's not season 1 of OUAT, it's season seven but all those too familiar beats of Emma, Henry, Snow, Charming, and Regina are there in Henry, Lucy, Cinderella, and Lady Tremaine. It's easy to criticize this set up as too expected and too much of a rehash of OUAT's former seasons (and, to be blunt, former glory) but there's a different angle to all this: the universality of the hero's tale and the common threads that are found within that trope no matter who is playing what role. Sure, Lucy showing up at Henry's door and asking him to believe in magic and curses and then to bring back the happy endings to a bunch of down-on-their-luck fairy tale characters is almost beat for beat the same as Henry showing up at Emma's door six seasons prior but, broadly speaking, the woe begotten, despondent hero being called off on an adventure to save the world/universe/people because they are the only ones who exactly how this story should start. It's how the vast majority of hero stories begin. Fairy tales are, after all, built on tropes that exist across multiple stories and cultures--the hero, the villain, life and death, monsters and the supernatural, good and evil--and to criticize season seven's opener because it's telling a very familiar story would be failing to recognize the commonality of all stories. Because these legends and fables are so common, with only hints of divergence based on culture mores (Cinderella's famous slipper--glass, wood, or fur for instance) it's fitting--if a bit of a head scratcher at first--to have a different Cinderella and Alice appear in the opener without having to retcon portions of season one and--almost laughably--the entire spin off series, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. In the Original Enchanted Forest, Cinderella may have been a blonde, blue eyed serving girl who found happiness with her Prince, but in this New Realm Enchanted Forest (I will pause here to say that the language we, as fans, have to invent to talk about the new season is cringe worthy) Cinderella is Latina, doesn't want anything to do with the Prince, and is possibly an assassin of some sort. Original Alice might have been an adventurer who fell in love with a genie and is currently living happily ever after in Victorian London, but this Alice is a rogue and epic badass who really doesn't want to be associated with just Wonderland (I mean, you take one trip and it's all your known for!). This new set up and introduction of new characters does cause some whiplash but it fits with how fairy tales operate here in our reality. There are different versions of all these "well known" stories as both young and adult Henry point out. In other words, to sum up what I'm saying, Henry's story doesn't need to be brand new; it is possible to tell an old story well and that's where we need to focus for this episode.

So was it well told? To be fair, this only the first episode out of 22 and any season opener tends to throw lots of spaghetti at the wall and hope the audience sticks around to see it slowly peeled off. There's plot galore here from a new curse, a love story, a gentrification of a small Seattle suburb, Henry's bildungsroman, the ever present mystery of what happened to our previously known characters, getting to know the new cursed iterations, trying to figure out what makes our villains tick and so on and so forth. The strongest beats in the season premiere come from character interactions and building the relationships that are going to shape the rest of the season as we untangle the plots. There are three or four major ones that are set up in the premiere and, as OUAT is wont to do, they are generational. Henry and Lucy are Emma and Henry down to their bones. It's a mark of good writing and careful character work over the past six years that seeing Henry forlorn and unbelieving in curses, magic and also hope tugs at the heartstrings, though he's now being played by a completely new actor. Lucy is just as earnest and sweet and full of hope as young season one Henry, though there's a fairly marked difference in that Lucy has one parent who loves, trusts, and cares for her whereas Henry and Regina's relationship in season one was strained, to say the very least. Henry and Lucy's interactions are written to callback to Emma and Henry; the writers want you to smile at the dramatic irony that Henry has a child who's doing to him what he did to Emma. The second relationship would be the growing love story between Henry and Cinderella (Jacinda in Hyperion Heights). If Henry and Lucy are Emma and Henry, then Henry and Cinderella are Snow and Charming. The similarities are numerous and while I've already praised the idea of emphasizing the universality of fairy tales, I do have to ponder if it can go too far. Hearkening back to Snow and Charming is fine, but at some point Henry and Cinderella need to be their own people with their own story (and, yes, the same can be said of Henry and Lucy). We met Cinderella in the middle of her story so we know almost nothing about her relationship with Tremain, Drizella, or even the Prince that she was about to smite with her dagger. It's hard to fully invest in her because she's such a blank slate with too many question marks, but her interactions with Henry were...endearing at the very least. OUAT often doesn't get it right with romance; either it's too lackluster and underdeveloped (Robin and Regina) or it sends a lot of bad messages (Rumple and Belle, Hook and Emma). Snow and Charming, at the start, were epic and awe inspiring but slowly fell into drudgery as the writers grew bored of them. I want Cinderella and Henry to have a classic, well told love story but fear what the writers will do them if the show continues past this year.

And finally we have the classic case of the evil stepmother and her poor, long suffering, step child. Regina broke a whole world to get back at Snow White and it appears that Tremaine/Victoria did the same, though I urge caution in believing so readily that Victoria cast this version of the Dark Curse. There's a difference here that I find intriguing. When Regina cast the first Curse, it left a hole in her heart that could only be filled by Henry. However, Victoria already has at least one child in Drizella (whom I'm trying very hard to not call Mary, Queen of Scots) and appears to care--if only in a minor way--for Lucy. For Victoria to already have something resembling family love then I'm interested in what exactly happened between her and Cinderella, or what happened just to Victoria, that caused this dark nature. There's a Cora-like streak to Victoria as she proclaims that magic isn't power because magic can be taken, but fear lasts forever. People who talk about fear like that are people who have experienced fear first hand. At any rate, she's got a killer wardrobe and excellent taste in footwear. As for the rest like Hook (sorry, Rogers), Regina (sorry, Roni) and Rumple (sorry, Weaver) there are only giant question marks but it's also not their story anymore. They got their happy endings and now they get to play supporting characters in Henry and Cinderella's stories (though, this doesn't stop me from wondering why Detective Rumple is causally drowning suspects). If the question is "was this story well told" then the answer, at least for the opening chapter, is "yes, mostly." It's a decent season opener and now we just follow down this path to see if it can remain so.

Miscellaneous Notes on Hyperion Heights 

--Welcome back to the weekly reviews! While I was glad for the break this summer, I've missed writing so it's nice to have something to sink my teeth into again.

--Should we ponder where Henry gets his gas in the Enchanted Forest for his mothercycle?

--I think we're gonna skip right over the big "where's Emma Swan" question. I'm sure we'll get that answer sooner rather than later.

--Henry has the swan keychian on his keyring. Cue my sighs and sobs.

--Mr. Cluck's Chicken Shack is a delightful reference to LOST. I wonder if Jacinda ever heard of Hurley.

--As much as I loved Original Alice, I was instantly taken by New Alice. She's the perfect blend of surprise, mystique, and intrigue. Anyone else wanna place bets on her being Belle and Rumple's daughter because I got strong Stiltskin family vibes from her.

--Let's not try to figure out when "present day" is exactly, mmkay?

--"My wings!" "I cut them off when you were sleeping. Surprise."

--Quite possibly the worst version of Bippity Boppity Boo ever, amiright?

--Who does Jacinda think Lucy's father is? Since she clearly didn't recgonize Henry she must have some idea who fathered her child.

--Did Hook's curse fully break or was Rogers just jolted at seeing Emma?

--Operation Glass Slipper. Because...of course.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x12)

Early on in his regeneration, the Twelfth Doctor turns to then companion Clara and asks, "Am I a good man?" It's a question Clara doesn't know how to answer and her only response is that she doesn't know, but he tries to be. The Twelfth Doctor has grappled with his goodness--or lack there of--since the beginning, always teetering somewhere between going too far, being a bit too dark, grumpy, utilitarian, and being the hero with the shinning sword we expect when we think of the Doctor. Doctors like Ten and Eleven might have done questionable things and been haunted by them, but to question their own morality was rare. Always, they were on the side of the angels. However, over the past three years we've watched as Twelve moved into the space where he could stop questioning his own goodness and demonstrate to others, and moreover himself, this goodness he sought. The question of the Twelfth Doctor's goodness should be lingering in the back our mind during the season finale, "The Doctor Falls," because this finale serves as a nice way to finally have the Doctor answer his own question. But--and I am just going to get this out of the way--man, did this episode have a lot of weird resolutions or what? A swan song for Peter Capaldi it is not and it complicated my push/pull relationship with season ten overall; grab your exploding apples and let's go!

What makes a person good? Science fiction usually likes to play with a much broader topic, the all too common "what makes a person a person" but Doctor Who knows that its central character isn't human at all so it can safely skirt around that quagmire. The Doctor isn't human and he can be at his terrifying and awe inspiring best when he shows off his godly attributes. But it's those same Time Lord tendencies that often rob him of that spark of humanity that resides in him and that he find so endearing in actual humanity. Take, for instance, the stunning "Waters of Mars" from the 10th Doctor's era; the end of the episode finds the Doctor in all his Time Lord glory: arrogant, self-assured, master of all time and space and subject to no one's laws or rules. And, for the briefest of moments, he becomes a Monster--or perhaps, to bring our starting question back 'round to the two newest companions tagging along with the Twelfth Doctor--he becomes the Master. It's easier to discuss what makes a person good if you look at their opposite. The Master, John Simm's version of him, is a sociopath. He would rather spite the Doctor than see any part of him--present, past, future--standing next to the Doctor in a battle. Missy might think that joining with the Doctor, turning toward the good side, is inevitable, but the Master thinks it's far more likely that he'll shoot himself in the back first. It's a note we've seen this version of the Master hit before; rather than regenerate in "The Last of the Time Lords," the Master chooses burning, destroying, and destruction over the chance of something new. To expect more from the Master is pointless, though it's worth pointing out that a good person would keep hoping and keep trying until finally breaking through. Which brings us to Missy and the back and forth pivots she's been doing all year, or at least once we opened Chekov's Vault Door. Is Missy good? Can Missy be redeemed? It's a central question that has been tossed around all season; we've seen the Mistress hesitate before taking the oft trod "bad" path; we've seen her express empathy, regret, and her own version of kindness like explaining that in order to stop the Monks and save the human race, the Doctor should kill Bill. I don't even think Missy knows if she's good; there's a part of Missy that wants to be good, that longs to take the Doctor's hand and stand with him but her own nature (one that has literally come to life and is dancing circles around her) and her own self preservation stops her. It's a natural feeling, even the Doctor acknowledges in a powerful speech that he doesn't stand against the Cybermen because it's easy or it's fun or he thinks he'll win. But where Missy and the Master truly differ is that while Missy's hesitation stems from wanting to save her own skin, the Master's flat out refusal comes from a sneering spite and vindictive nature to see the Doctor be disappointed and fail. It might be a subtle difference--after all, both Missy and the Master walk off the battlefield together--but it's a difference. This is one of the more frustrating endings for this episode, then. It does a nice job of bringing Missy's redemption--which, as I've said before was given little overall treatment--to a conclusion because, yes, she does choose to go back to the Doctor and help him, but she is stopped from having any kind of grand apotheosis into her best self by the Master. I get why the Master shot her; it's in his nature and we should have seen it coming a mile away; but, from a writing perspective, to deny Missy the moment of triumph and her return to the Doctor's side to fight with him, was an odd move because it cuts her redemption off at the knees. Can Missy be fully redeemed (or even a little bit redeemed) if she doesn't actually get to do anything redemptive? What matters more--the conscious thought of goodness or the act of goodness? I don't want to rob Missy of this nice about face but she essentially died without anyone knowing she made the right and kind choice.

Parallel to Missy in this episode is Bill who, as it turns out, is not going to be saved by the Doctor from being a Cyberman. The Master follows his nature, Missy rebels against it but without anyone knowing, and then there's darling, wonderful Bill Potts who refuses to be the monster she was made into. I'll give credit where it's due, tying Bill's resistance back to the Monks and that particular hostile takeover was a nice through line. Everyone sees Bill as a monster and runs from her, but she won't let it stop her from making the right and kind choices. When Bill looks in the mirror, she still sees herself whereas Missy is more likely to see the monster because she's come at least far enough to recognize that she is one. Perhaps this comparison isn't really fair, though, because Bill was never a monster to begin with. She never burned worlds or turned against her people; it's easier for her to stay moral and kind because it's all she's ever been. So if she's following her already established patterns, does that make her a good person? Does resisting something--her Cyberman programming--make her a better person than Missy? Than the Doctor? And this is where we need to discuss the incredibly weird end to Bill Pott's twelve episode long story. Denying Missy her chance at heroism is one thing, but bringing back a character from the opening episode and having Bill die (is she dead?) and then join this character as water molecules (I guess) in a new way of living, abandoning the Doctor in his time of need because she wants to see more of the universe--where did that even come from? Does this make any sense with how Bill has been characterized thus far? How her relationship with the Doctor has been characterized? I'll even eschew the criticism it would be all too easy to hurl at writer Steven Moffat over his constant--ye gods, constant--need to undo character deaths and trauma with a handwave or that he once again fell into his often used trope of true love saving the day. How does Bill deliver the Doctor to the TARDIS and then decide to turn and leave him in order to show her new girlfriend the stars? Bill and the Doctor aren't just companions; they are that all too unique combination of Doctor/partner on the show--friend, daughter/granddaughter, student, mentor. These two have been built in such a way that they are sort of the perfect example of Doctor/companion relationships. Is this because Bill had to wait ten years for the Doctor to come find her--which seems decidedly un-Bill given that she's been constructed as someone with compassion and heart. I can see how some people might see this as a satisfying conclusion because it's a happy ending and it fits (awkwardly) into the student becoming the teacher trope but it short changes Bill and the Doctor's amazing relationship, the true selling point of this season.

And this, then, brings us back around to the question the Twelfth Doctor asked three years ago: is he a good man. Yes, a thousand times over, yes. What makes him a good man? It's not just his actions, though he certainly performs the right ones. The Twelfth Doctor is a good man because he's kind. Because when someone needs help, he stops his little blue police box that's bigger on the inside and he helps in whatever way he can. Sure, the Doctor might die, but if he can help even just a little, then why not. In recent politics there's been a nifty little analogy floating around certain circles about Skittles and questioning if you would eat a bowl of Skittles if you knew there were at least one or two in the bowl that were poisonous and would kill you. The Doctor, if he were to hear this, would demand the whole bowl of Skittles, downing every single one and asking for more and that, I believe, is the message we are meant to take away from the past three years of the Twelfth Doctor. It's better to be kind. It's not safe, it's not easy, and you may end up losing something dear to you, but it's kind. Just kind. This is why, at the end of all things, this Doctor doesn't want to regenerate. Would you want to give up the type of clarity you just achieved after searching for it for so long? I wouldn't. And so he'll rage, rage against the dying of the light to maintain this perfect little piece of hope and tranquility he's gotten. But, we know how this story ends, do we not? All things end; and like the Fourth Doctor so wisely intoned, "it's the end...but the moment has been prepared for."  One more time then, Twelfth Doctor, if you please. We've crash landed on a snowy bank and the First Doctor has come to call. See you at Christmas.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Doctor Falls

--"It's hard to say; I'm of two minds but fortunately the other one is unconscious." Michelle Gomez and John Simm have fabulous chemistry and it was a real treat to see these two play off each other.

--However, for the last time Moffat, dick jokes are not funny and are beneath this show.

--"Nothing wrong with being kind. Jelly baby?" Yes, 12. Get your 4 on!

--Is anyone going to go back for Nardole or the ship that is currently teetering on the edge of a black hole? That's a rather big plot thread to leave hanging, no?

--I had thought, some 6 seasons ago now, that the Master was dead and then we have been led to believe that Missy was dead twice over, so I won't say that we won't be seeing Missy again but it sure did look like this was her final hurrah.

--"Is the future going to be all girl?" "We can only hope."

--"I'm not a doctor. I'm The Doctor. The original you might say."

--"I'm not trying to win...I do what I do because it's right, it's decent, and it's kind. Just kind."

--Overall thoughts on season 10? This one is a bit tougher to wrap my mind around. It had its highs, to be sure, but it also had an awful lot of lows. It worked best when the focus was on Bill and the Doctor's relationship and anytime it veered off course, like trying to mix things up tonally with the Monks, it fell flat on its face. Bill is quite clearly the best part of this season, followed by anytime Peter Capaldi was given a long speech and it was nice to get back to some simpler story lines like space romps or haunted houses. Because this is Moffat's final season it behooves us to consider what he was trying to say in his last few moments and, again, it's hard to say. He course corrected a lot of the faults he's been hammering over and over (again, the writing of Bill comes to mind) and the show slowed down from the full throttle blockbuster feel of seasons 6-8 but there are still too many times when he relies of multiple time jumps or time streams to solve his problem of the week. The season also had a problem with balance, albeit a new sort of problem; it used to be that Moffat wrote too much for the companion and turned the show into something Doctor-lite, now that particular balance has returned, but like we see in this finale, the villains have become bland. However, if the ultimate message of season 10 is to be kind that's about as straight forward and simple as Moffat is likely to get.

Final Episode Ranking for Season 10 (lowest to highest)

12. "Empress of Mars" (10x9)
11. "Smile" (10x2)
10. "The Pyramid At The End Of The World" (10x7)
9. "Extremis" (10x6)
8. "Knock Knock" (10x4)
7. "The Lie of the Land" (10x8)
6. "Oxygen" (10x5)
5. "The Doctor Falls" (10x12)
4. "The Eaters Of Light" (10x10)
3. "The Pilot" (10x1)
2. "Thin Ice" (10x3)
1. "World Enough And Time" (10x11)

Final Grade for Season 10: B

--Well, that's it! Barring any fly-by movie reviews, I'm done for the summer. See everyone in the fall when our TV shows return.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x11)

Had we but world enough and time, 
This coyness, lady, were no crime. 
We would sit down, and think which way 
To walk, and pass our long love’s day. 
--Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress."

The relationship between the Master/Mistress and the Doctor has always occupied a rather complicated sphere. They are antagonists, to be sure; the megalomania of the Master matching the Doctor's heroic streak point by point. Over the course of this very long series, they've engaged in more fights and battles than I could possibly detail here, but what makes the Master/Doctor relationship so meaty is that it does not just occupy the enemies space. There is a delicate push and pull of regret and longing that we don't find in, say, the Doctor's relationship with the Daleks or, as is more appropriate for this week's episode "World Enough and Time," the Cybermen. Behind the Doctor's unrelenting need to stop whatever plans the Master has concocted this time around to burn planets and destroy anything and anyone the Doctor loves, is a hope that our hero in a blue box can save his oldest friend. Nostalgia; it gets us all in the end. Trusting Missy, believing that she can be redeemed and be good, is possibly a very stupid move on the Doctor's part, especially by episode's end when we--and our Time Lord--are confronted by one of the most dangerous versions of his foe to date--but he wouldn't be the Doctor if he wasn't constantly trying to save everyone. It's a heartbreaking episode that also ramps up the stakes for the finale next week. Grab your ever present IV and let's go!

In a segment at the top of the hour, during a rib tickling hilarious bit where Missy pretends to be the Doctor (sorry, pretends to be Doctor Who), the devious Time Lord tells Bill Potts that the Doctor doesn't have friends. Only another Time Lord can serve as a friend to a Time Lord; everything else is just "cradle robbing." This point is emphasized over and over as Missy finds new and laugh out loud ways to characterize Bill and Nardole as anything but friends to the Doctor. This upsets Bill and with good reason; the Doctor is many things to our girl, friend being among them. This season has had a lot of nice focus on the various facets of relationship the Doctor can have with one human; he's served as a professor and mentor, a father and grandfather, a god and savior, and--for Bill who has enjoyed all of these different variations on a theme--a friend, as well. Moments like the Doctor chatting to Bill while she works in the cafeteria or the two of them enjoying fish and chips on the rooftop show how the Doctor has become the perfect companion for Bill. He doesn't put pressure on her to be something she's not, like her foster mother who doesn't grasp Bill's sexuality, but he is also there to bolster her, encourage her, and help her transcend whatever mundane and normal human life she was living before she met him. But for Missy, this lovely human/Time Lord relationship is a farce because it cannot possibly be real. As close as Bill and the Doctor might be, our plucky assistant (or pet or snack) isn't a Time Lord and therefore cannot possibly be as close to the Doctor as someone like Missy could. It's a point that the Doctor actually emphasizes as well, revealing to Bill that Missy is the only other person who's like him and his first memories of him/her are as a child at the academy; they aren't terrifying memories of a lad who wanted to watch worlds burn, but of a clever, smart, funny kid who made a pact with his dearest friend to go and see all the stars someday. Two drifters off to see the stars. Is it any wonder the Doctor has been trying to fill that void ever since the Master turned? When the Master went mad and began plotting to burn worlds instead of visiting them, the Doctor didn't just gain an enemy, he lost a friend and it's this quiet but hopeful desperation that the Doctor can get that friend back that causes him to lose his other companion. Poor Bill. Poor, poor, poor Bill.

It's hard to watch a companion go out in this manner, if indeed this is Bill's end. After almost an 11 full episodes, Bill has become the surprise all-star of the season. Her quick wit, her compassion, and her wonder at the universe have made her (and yes, I'm about to use certain words again) a refreshing delight to a series that can often fall into the formulaic. Bill has an interesting relationship with the Doctor because of all those aforementioned layers that ultimately comes down to a deep level of trust between the two; so when the Doctor plants an order in her subconscious of "wait for me," Bill has no problem believing that the Doctor will come for her and, in turn, I have no problem believing that Bill would make the best of being tied to one location for years on end, with only a fairly crazy janitor for company, waiting for the Doctor's time stream to catch up. In a lot of ways, the ending for this episode would have been pretty easy to write if there weren't so many twists and turns. The Doctor arrives on site, manages to get the metal heart out of Bill, realizes he's about to encounter the Mondasian Cybermen, reveal the Master as behind the whole plot (complete with the Scooby Doo face mask peel off--damn those meddling kids!) and then find a way to save the day with Bill and Nardole as he has done before. Where the episode becomes one of the best of the season, is in the way it upends your expectations. Suddenly, it's to the Mistress that the Master is revealed, with Missy perhaps taking his side. It's not Bill the Doctor runs into but a Bill-turned-Cyberman, the Doctor appearing to be too late to save her; in a lot of ways this brings us back around to the point I, Missy, and the Doctor, were making in the above paragraph. Can the Doctor have friends who are not Time Lords or are Time Lords his true friends? For the former, the answer has always been yes, be it Classic or New Who. We've never doubted that the Doctor doesn't just look at those who live in the TARDIS with him as pets or lesser creatures upon whom he can bestow his godlike wisdom and grace; they are his companions in the truest sense of the world. Allies, partners, friends. The stumbling block comes where it always comes: in the Master/Mistress. The writers this year have been pushing the narrative that Missy is changing but it's hard to accept that as true when she is standing next to the Master, with a Cyberman Bill in between them, grinning like a Cheshire cat. Missy is great at playing long games but would the Doctor's true friend play such a game when the Doctor is in anguish over the loss of someone, especially when it's her former self who is responsible for said loss? The question circling the end of this season is can Missy be good? Or have the Doctor's hopes once again been misplaced.

 Miscellaneous Notes on World Enough and Time

--If the flashforward at the top of the episode is any indication, the Doctor will regenerate alone, in the cold snow, in anguish. I'm not ready for this.

--The music this episode--particularly the motif where we are examining the space ship and the Black Hole--were stunning.

--I wish I could quote the whole Missy speech in the beginning but a smattering of funny lines will have to suffice: "Hello, I'm Doctor Who. These are my plucky assistants, Thing One and the Other One."

--"What does he call you? Companions? Pets? ....Snacks?"

--"These are my disposables...exposition and comic relief."

--"Are you human?" "Oh, don't be a bitch."

--Missy (and the writers) casually trolling the fandom by insisting that the Doctor's name is really Doctor Who was possibly the most meta piece of exposition this show has ever done. I was laughing a bit too hard at "I've known him since a child and his real name is Doctor Who! He dropped the 'Who' later because it was a bit too on the nose"

--The Doctor addresses one of the peskier elephants in the room for the show as a whole when he insists that the Time Lords are the most advanced civilization in the universe and are beyond human obsession with gender and stereotypes...only to be called out by Bill that they still call themselves "Time Lords." Well done, show. Well done.

--I am troubled by the image that the show's first full time LGBT companion is killed off by a character we've never met before and to serve as a narrative point for a white man but there is something deeply political about that same LGBT character's story being a horrifying look at "conversion" to become "just like everyone else."

--John Simm, it has been too long. Welcome back to your classic role. I really look forward to seeing what goes down between the Doctor, CyberBill, Nardole, Missy and the Master next week! One to go....

Monday, June 19, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x8)

Every religion or code of faith is a story. It has all the hallmarks of a good narrative; there's a plot with a beginning, middle, and end; there are heroes and villains, quests for redemption and falls from grace. There are deeds of valor and actions of woe; magical creatures, far off places, larger than life characters who work their charms alongside any other talents or gifts the world has given to them. And like all good stories, faith is asking for only one thing: belief. Since the beginning of the series, I--and American Gods--have pounded home the idea that at its center, this show is about belief. Testing belief, finding belief, expanding your belief, losing belief, discovering all the unique ways that belief and faith manifest in our world--and in worlds unseen--are all at the heart of American Gods and perhaps no other episode quite captures that essence more than the season finale, "Come to Jesus," a fairly apropos title given that, on the one hand, there are several Jesuss' that are wandering around a villa in Kentucky on Easter and, on the other hand, the term means to have a conversation that leads to an epiphany, a reckoning, or an understanding. Shadow Moon, welcome to belief. It only gets weirder from here. Grab your bunny rabbit that poops jelly beans and let's go!

Every character in this episode has a story to sell and they are really hoping that you'll believe in it long enough to get whatever it is they want. Let's start with one of the more complicated stories to parse out: Shadow Moon and the problem of disbelief. Maybe the most frustrating--but necessary given the medium of TV where revelations are best served up in a climax--thing about Shadow is that after seven episodes of bat guano crazy twists and turns--from Laura coming back to life, to Not-Really-Lucy-Ricardo talking to him out of a TV, Marilyn Monroe floating and revealing herself to be in cahoots with the likes of Technology and Mr. World, to six foot plus leprechauns, to Slavic sisters and their cow killing family member--Shadow still doesn't know what to believe and worse still doesn't know if he believes in anything. It's a bit preposterous given that his confession of non-faith is given to a version of Jesus with a literal glowing halo who is literally floating on water. I'm not sure how Shadow, at this point, manages to avoid belief of any kind given all he's seen except to handwave it away as the magic of TV needing our hero and protagonist to come into belief by way of something explosive. However bizarre and frustrating, Shadow's disbelief serves a purpose in that it helps to illustrate how ordinary Americans manage to fall out of belief due to circumstance of life or the absence of gods that they can touch, feel, see, and interact with which in turn leads to the likes of Mr. Wednesday and his war. The ever present multiple Jesuss's (Jesi? Jesuses?) are a good example here. They are not the real McCoy; they're a specific image of an image, almost a magic trick meant to fool the observer. The reason why there are so many is because belief in Jesus takes many different forms from Catholic to Protestant to Greek Orthodox to Coptic and, I mean this quite seriously, the list could go on for quite awhile. Lists within lists. Jesus, a lot like Vulcan, can be adapted for whatever the believer needs: King of Kings, prophet, humble shepherd, fully human, fully divine, son of god, messiah, savior, or guy down on his luck. For Shadow and others it's hard to know which one to latch on to because while they all present a similar image, the up close version is distorted. Notice how the various types of Jesus have precious little to say that is meaningful; the one interaction we get between Shadow and the main Jesus is a platitude: "I am belief. I don't know how to be anything else." That's not super helpful and because it's so very opaque and Shadow is looking for something he can hold on to; it's no wonder that it takes Wednesday with a lightening storm, screaming his various names for Shadow's eyes to truly open and believe in something real. Wednesday feels real; he's tangible in a way that the other ephemeral Jesuss' aren't. The other part of Shadow's story that he's trying to sell (and failing at every turn, poor guy) is that he's so angry at Wednesday for how massively weird his life has gotten that he doesn't care about the truth, about what's really going on. The story Shadow himself wants to believe is that he can walk away from Wednesday at any time. But, of course, Shadow can't because a big part of Shadow wants to believe; he wants the surety of faith that everything that has happened has some sort of explanation. Shadow's story is one from disbelief and heavy skepticism to belief; because seeing is believing, he has finally witnessed that the gods are real and that there actually might be a reason behind all the crazy happenings around him.

At the center of Shadow's journey into belief is Mr. Wednesday who sells stories better than anyone we've met so far. The New Gods offer too much flash, too much pizzazz in their stories to make us receptive; they offer almost nothing concrete. Like Mr. Wednesday has told them twice now, they are mere distractions from any existential crisis of faith. What he offers, by contrast, is inspiration and, more importantly for the Old Gods he's trying to recruit: meaning. I should pause here to point out a few things; first it's worth noting that Wednesday lies a lot. He flat out lies to Easter (sorry, Ostara) about Vulcan's fate, claiming it was the New Gods who killed the lord of firepower. Second, the Old Gods understand that Wednesday is a tricky fellow. Several times gods have called him fraud, a deceiver, a liar, and outside of verbal cues we have many instances of Wednesday selling a story that simply isn't true from acting like a senile old man to get on to a plane, to pretending to be a bank guard taking people's deposits. The idea that Mr. Wednesday lies hovers around our story, even as it asks us to believe everything he is saying. It's a nice push/pull between wanting to believe and put faith in Odin despite what our eyes are telling us. The show has made clear several times that the motivation behind Mr. Wednesday's lies and trickery is desperation. He has been forgotten over time; his name (or names) no longer have any meaning in America except as a myth long since replaced by something newer, shiner, and prettier. If belief is the life blood of these Old Gods, prayers and sacrifices the appetizer and main course, then Odin is--essentially--starving. No one lifts up their voice in song to him anymore, no one beseeches him, no one offers up the fated calf, and so he'll spin his tale in whatever manner he can so that he can feast once more. His interactions with Easter demonstrate that he's not willing to go gently into that good night; he can't sell his soul--for want of a better term--and change his story to suit the new world; Easter can, though it's not the same. Easter's story offers up a chance to see how hollow Odin and the other Old Gods would be if they accepted the New Gods's way of life. Her high holiday has been overtaken by a different religion but also become a mass product that can be sold, not just to the religiously minded but to atheists as well. Peeps, Cadbury eggs, bunnies and chicks, it doesn't matter if you're of the faith or not, Easter has become a holiday that all participate in, though it's sugary sweet and doesn't fulfill anyone, Ostara least of all. The story Ostara is selling is one of peace through accommodation; hair pinned up, a beautiful picture but simply that: an image of an image. The real Ostara is spring itself; wild, beautiful, full of life and rebirth, and utterly powerful. What's interesting about Wednesday in all this is that it takes lying and manipulating Ostara to bring her back her muchness, to borrow a phrase. Does that make her return to self false? Or less powerful? Does it mean that, should Ostara find out what really happened to Vulcan, that she'll regress? Or does it not matter how one gets to belief and fullness just so long as they get there? Questions for season two, I suspect.

And finally, we have a few other stories being sold by various peoples and gods. The New Gods really like their narrative that you can't stop progress and that progress in and of itself is good. They are good because they are new, different, and longer lasting (or so they imagine). I don't know that progress itself is bad, but it is the way these New Gods want to go about doing it, which is to say destroying the old and offering something less substantial in their place. Wednesday is right; Media and Technology are distractions for the most part. We offer up our time, our energy, our attention, and sometimes each other for our computers, our phones, our TVs and I have to wonder if we really get anything in return (this is a deep piece of irony given that I spend several days a week writing a TV blog, parsing out one of the more prolific types of media for deeper meanings). Laura's story is that she has so much to live for, having finally realized that Shadow makes her happy to be alive and surely someone can help her; Mad Sweeney's story is that he can undo his past mistakes of killing Laura in the first place by resurrecting her with the help of Ostara. Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Hollywood, Bilquis tells herself the story that selling her soul to the New Gods is worth their price because she feels like a goddess again. All of these stories from Shadow to Wednesday to Easter to Laura to the New Gods to Mad Sweeney to Bilquis have belief at their center. The belief in love, in power, in sex, in progress, in life, in strength, in reverence, and in belief itself. We started off American Gods with a simple commandment: believe. Now as we move into the next phase of the story, a question arises: what do we do with all this belief?

Miscellaneous Notes on Come to Jesus 

--The art director for this show deserves all the awards not only for every single shot of Easter's house but also for the carefully constructed sewing room at Mr. Nancy's. Talk about gorgeous!

--"Once upon a time...see it sounds good already. You're hooked." Anansi doing what Anansi does best, telling a tall tale.

--Can we start a petition to have Ricky Whittle dress in grey and lavender all the time? Damn.

--"Worship is volume based; whoever has the most followers wins the game."

--I don't think I'd welcome Wednesday into my house either if he kept running over my bunny rabbits.

--"What are you pissed off about?" "You just cut off your friends head!"

--"People create gods when they wonder why things happen. Why do things happen? Because gods make things happen."

--There is a great power in sacrifice, most religious texts and traditions will tell you that. Notice that Laura was a sacrifice to get Shadow to where he is now, literally and mentally. Also, take note that Odin dedicates the deaths of the faceless men to Ostara which seems to give her some sort of power that she previously lacked.

--"Do you believe, Shadow?" "I believe." "What do you believe?" "Everything."

--I have enjoyed every single second of this show and reviewing it this season. The writers, actors, the producers, and everyone else have done Neil Gaiman and his magnificent work proud. Thanks to everyone who read! See you in season two.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x10)

It's hard to praise this week's episode, "The Eaters of Light," and not sound just a wee bit like a hypocrite. Why? Because the broad pitch of this week's episode is almost identical to last week's episode. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole find themselves in the middle of a skirmish between an invading force and the natives; the travelers try to negotiate peace and understanding between the two cultures so that the blows do not claim more lives. I had a lot of issues with last week's Mars centric episode because I felt it did not push any sort of boundaries and stayed too safe in the blandness in regards to both sides of warriors nor did it give any of our major characters a chance to shine. This week's episode did the opposite, dispensing with carbon copy tropes of hardened and dogmatic soldiers versus bitter and resentful natives, and instead couched the entire sequence of events in something more human and real. In other words, everything that was missing from last week's Ice Warriors episode is found here in the second century Scottish countryside. Grab some weaponized popcorn and let's go!

It might be helpful, when discussing this week's episode, to think about it terms of contrast to last week's. There was so much done right in comparison to last week's wrong--or if not outright wrong, than at least underwhelming and rote. Like last week, the mission to parts unknown is spurred on by a mystery, though this one is (literally) grounded to Earth and comes from Bill's insatiable curiosity for the unknown and nothing stumbled upon on a way to a different mission. Pausing quickly, but this is one of the better through-lines of this season; Bill's entrance into the TARDIS and into the Doctor's life is not one of mystery. She isn't a puzzle to figure out, clues carefully hidden throughout the text, her every word and mannerism supposed to telegraph something unknowable. Bill is simply....Bill and much like Rose or Donna before her, her adventures with the Doctor come from her desire to learn and to know. The universe, all of time and space, is the mystery for Bill to puzzle out and it's to the show's credit that they let her reason things out on her own, not needing the Doctor's (glaringly male) hand to guide her into realizations big and small. For example, past companions have needed the Doctor to explain why everyone in space speaks English (they aren't, of course, but the TARDIS and the Doctor are able to auto-translate what babble the aliens or peoples of the past/future are saying); but Bill didn't get the same explanation. She figured it out on her own in a particularly funny Latin/English exchange with a Roman soldier. Since this review is all about the contrast from last week's episode, Bill's active role is a good one to focus on for the moment. Last week, Bill didn't have much to do and, in fact, my most major complaint about the episode was how it missed the mark on letting Bill and the Empress of Mars present a unique version of feminism on and off world. This week, while femininity isn't exactly on display in an obvious way, Bill's active role is. Bill sets off on her own, wanting to solve the mystery of the Roman legion before the Doctor can; when she stumbles (er, falls down a hole) into the remaining bits of the legion she does not simply wait for rescue but uses her time with the lads to tell them about the Doctor and his way of seeing the universe. When Bill realizes that her long sought after Romans are really just boys with swords, she takes charge, she tells them how they are going to get away from the monster. Bill has been one of the season's best surprises, turning Moffat's typical (and often maligned) female companion on its head. I've used the word refreshing on Bill more times than I can count but it bears repeating: she is a breath of fresh air in a show that can often get bogged down in formula.

And while we're speaking of breaking the formula, there's another really well sold contrast in this episode when compared to last week's: the soldiers. In the Mars episode of last week, the soldiers were mostly devoid of personality, totally flat archetypes of battled hardened men (and Ice Warriors) who showed little fear in the face of actual battle. Men (and women) all around, they faced battle with grim determination, faltering neither in resolve nor courage nor dogmatic approach to ridding the planet of those they considered enemies. It's not that these types of soldiers don't exist in the real world but they are rather hard to connect to. This week our soldiers weren't battle tested; they were children. This is a point that is driven home time and time again by both the Doctor and by Bill; making the soldiers young does one vital thing that the Mars episode failed to do--a sympathetic link to them as characters is almost instantaneous. The episode would likely have been less successful if one side was demonstrably older than the other but in keeping both the Picts and the Romans as young children, the writers were able to show a commonality between the two parties which went from subtext to text when Bill and the Doctor got involved, imploring them to drop their weapons and work together to fend off the monster who eats light. Going along with that, we have a different version of the Doctor, one we haven't seen much in the past but one that keeps making an appearance this year: the father (or, if you like, grandfather). The Doctor has always fit into several different molds of archetype; clearly the mythic hero or the angry god is obvious, but it's easy to forget that, when this show began, he was a grouchy old grandfather trying to curtail his granddaughter and newly minted companions in one breath. It's a role that Peter Capaldi does as well as William Hartnell did in the 1960s largely because Capaldi has already made his version of the Time Lord a bit of a grouch who is ever so slightly exasperated with the "young kids" under his watch. The Doctor-as-Father, though, doesn't just mean a grouchy exterior. It means a fearless and unyielding protection for those he has sworn to take care of. Sacrifice comes easy for the Doctor; as he said, he doesn't die he just regenerates. But this sacrifice comes not just from his mythic hero status but from his role as a parent/grandparent. These Roman and Pictish soldiers are, after all, just kids. Asking them to leap into a never ending battle inside a time rift with a dragon-monster-thing isn't something any parent worth their salt would ask a child to do; the parent would always take that role on themselves. In the best line of the night, the Doctor reminds Bill that he's been guarding Earth's creatures since they were all children: "I've been standing at the gate of your world keeping you all safe since you crawled out of the slime." It's a pleasant contrast to last week's episode where the Doctor was a weary soldier and negotiator, a role we've seen him take up several times not only this year but in Capaldi's entire run. All of this is to say that if Doctor Who took several missteps with the Monk trilogy and with the excursion to Mars, this has certainly gotten the show back on track as we head into the final two episodes of the season.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Eaters of Light

--Just in case anyone thinks it's all sunshine and roses from me this week, the titular monster is one of the blandest and least developed of the era.

--As poignant and sweet as the episode was, the crow “Kar/Caw” thing was eye roll inducing. There’s a line, Doctor Who, between heartfelt and sickly sweet.

--Remind me to use popcorn as an escape mechanism if ever I’m in trouble.

--The Doctor not only lived in Roman times but he also juggled and was a Vestal Virgin, second class.

--“It’s called charm.” “I’m against that.”

--The final thread of this week's episode is the continuing Missy saga. I've already expressed misgivings about this plot because the moments of redemption or reflection on Missy's part are like this one here: kept and confined to the final few moments of the episode. Redeeming the Master/Mistress isn't something that should be left until the the end of an arc; this is a villain almost as old as the Doctor himself and there's a lot of ground to cover.

--However, there is a really nice push/pull between the Doctor and Missy; the former wants to hope that he might get his old friend back but the idea that she is pulling a long con on him fits with Missy's modus operandi more.

--Going along with that, though, it does look like Missy will be a focal point of the show for these last few episodes. Can the writers sell it? We shall see.