Sunday, November 2, 2014

In Which I Review Doctor Who (8x11)

Let's just get this out of the way: The Master is now a woman. The question becomes, how do we feel about that? First, credit where credit is due to Steven Moffat. After 51 years of the universe being saved by a white male, some people have begun getting angsty about the lack of diversity in Doctor Who when it comes to our leading Time Lord. Some have demanded that the Doctor be upgraded (oh hey, appropriate pun) to roll with the times: different race or different biological sex that what he has previously been, to which I give a resounding "whatever." (Race I would be fine with, but there is canon here, people!) It has been hinted at in the more recent past (ie: New Who) that this indeed could happen, though strictly speaking from a canon (meaning old) perspective, not so much. There were Time Lords and Time Ladies and that was that. But after 51 years, Steven Moffat did what no show runner has had the guts to do and gender swapped a Time...Lord...Lady. I'm not quite sure what to make of the fact that the Doctor's chief arch rival is now a woman, but I suppose that's another essay in and of itself. It's bold. It's loud. It's declarative and Moffat will be remembered for it. But, here's the rub. Is it a good story? I'm not one hundred percent sure, truth be told, but isn't this Moffat to a "T?" Bold, loud, audacious and salacious--but more flashy than substantial. In this weeks episode, "Dark Water," we get our answers to our most burning questions: who is Missy and what is this "heaven" we've been hearing so much about. It's not a bad story; it's not Moffat at his finest (sorry, that will always be Blink) but it's certainly better than the start of the season. If anything, it's adequate enough to carry us through to next week. The dead are alive, the Cybermen are back, and The Master finally made out with the Doctor. 

Rest in peace, Danny Pink. Last week, I complained a fair amount about the heavy handedness of the symbolism woven into "In the Forest of the Night." Apparently, all of that went over the head of the writers at the BBC because this week they decided to become even more transparent in their message. For those unaware, the Doctor has always been the "Savior." Now, you can ascribe that to any cultural mores you so desire; I prefer to couch my language in archetypes and not label it as specifically Christian or Jewish or any other variation thereof. Now, before someone waves a red flag at me and yells "regeneration" yes, that is seemingly Christian in origin, but I've also always read it as the idea of the Eternal Hero being reborn into new generations, because that's what happens. The archetype does not have to speak of one specific cultural attestation because of the universal nature of said archetype. Normally, that's how the Doctor functions. I've made note of this over the past few weeks when the Doctor's mythic significance has come to the forefront, in particular his role as the White Knight who defeats the Monsters. This week, however, they smacked a big ol' "Christian" label on his archetype. Yeah, he's Jesus. I get it. It wasn't subtle. The Doctor (sorta) flew into the afterlife to resurrect the dead. It's like something out of the New Testament. Actually, let's put my Masters to use here. You want textual evidence? Here you go: "the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." (1 Cor 15:52). Shoot, that's actually more spot on--with the 'we shall be changed' bit--once you see this episode and how the dead have been...upgraded. There were Christian motifs all over the episode, but most strongly in the beginning. Clara's betrayal, The Doctor's proclamation of everlasting love in the face of betrayal, the idea of doom and fire, and yes, finally the Doctor going into the afterlife to find one lost soul and bring him back. What, perhaps, is the big break for the Doctor from the heavy handed Christian ideology is the fact that the Doctor won't be able to save everyone. Jesus will, according to doctrine. For the righteous and for the repentant, he'll raise up the dead and we'll all go to heaven and frolic like lambs in a pasture...or something. Don't ask me; I was a scholar not a theologian. Had this episode taken place several weeks ago, I doubt the Doctor would even entertain the idea of going to find Danny. This season has been about the back and forth morality of our Time Lord. It started off, really, with one question: "Am I good man?" The answer was, "I don't know. But I think you try." Over the past few episodes, The Doctor has managed to get some of his own back and become that impossible hero Clara has worshiped (prayed to) from afar. And this week, he literally answers the phone (her prayers) and swoops in to save the day. But, this wouldn't have been the case in the beginning when the Doctor was adamantly rejecting his archetype. But now, there is a damsel in distress and by god--this is what White Knights do!

Clara, my Clara. I can't hate her here. I know there were some fans who were livid at the mind trick she attempted to play on the Doctor (you can't fool the divine, honey, but A for effort) but she is in obvious pain. Clara is grieving and I don't blame her. Not only did her boyfriend, the man she loves and the man to whom she is only ever going to say "I love you," die but he died just as she was working up the courage to tell him the whole truth. Last week I called Clara a liar from Lying Town and it's like she heard me. Littered all over her bookshelves are her lies--the dinosaur, the moon, Vastra, the bank heist, and every other adventure (read: episode) she's gone on this season, everything she has been keeping from Danny. Clara was going to be brave, stop fearing, and finally tell Danny the truth: "My name is Clara Oswald and I am a TARDIS addict." It's a bit of a wake up call, or at least it should be, that just in the middle of trying to unburden herself, her boyfriend is run over by a car. I've mildly complained this season, and certainly others have been more vocal than I, that the show was becoming too focused on Clara but now it makes sense, in part. It was leading to this: to Clara standing at the threshold of this world and the next, trying to decide what comes next--and make no mistake, they may be in London still, but Clara's declaration that she'll be with Danny one way or another is her deciding if she's going to live or die. Last week her line about not being able to see the path felt like foreshadowing and I said as much. This week, well, maybe I should let someone older and more Italian speak for me: "Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark/For the straightforward pathway had been lost." Her betrayal (and I'm only calling it that because that is what she called it, and the Doctor picks up on it, but I don't believe it to be such) is human. After trying to be the Doctor two weeks ago, Clara remembered that being human is heartbreak. And now she wants nothing more than to be human for good.

Welcome to Heaven? It's certainly unique, I'll give them that. The underworld, the nethersphere, the afterlife, heaven, hell. Whatever name you want to give is what it is. It certainly has the heaven aspect with free wifi (joke) but there's also the whole eternal pain and torture. This is fairly plot heavy and it took watching the episode twice to make sure I had it, but here goes: when you die, the soul, the mind, your essence, your...whatever, goes to this place. You see yourself and others as you and they were in life, hence why Danny looks like Danny. But your old body is back on earth and you are still connected to it; therefore, you can feel everything that is being done to your old body: if they are storing you someplace cold, you are now cold. If you donate your body to science, then you feel the experiments. And if you are going to be cremated, get the idea. The first climax of the show comes when you realize that you aren't in heaven, not really. It's a Gallifrey matrix (very Trial of A Time Lord) and it's being used to house people's minds. Now, I have a bit of a metaphysical problem with this because how. Downloading someone's conscience is pretty standard in science fiction, so I'm not going to spend any time trying to wrinkle this out, and obviously neither is Doctor Who. But it is one of those things that if you stop and think too long on it, it will bother you. The bodies of the dead are being kept in a fish tank with "dark water" (hence the title of the episode) that works like an X-ray. You don't see anything except the bones. Anything non-organic is invisible. Clever.  It makes the reveal of what is really going on with these bodies gasp worthy, unless you saw the promo's last week and you know what is coming. (Hint: Cybermen). The company housing the dead bodies (and unbeknownst to the Doctor at the time, the minds inside the Time Lord technology matrix) is called 3W and it's run by Missy--shocking.

It was founded after Doctor Skarosa (erm...see my note section for something crackpot) learned the truth about the death experience. The Master knows all about the death experience; he, like the Doctor, has had several bodies. The last time we saw the Master he was fighting for "good" against the Time Lords who made him "wrong." And, before that, the 10th Doctor gave him a funeral pyre and I do wonder if that plays into the fear of cremation aspect. Missy teases the Doctor about how she is programed for self-repair (ha) and the Doctor is clearly confused by her. Her reveal is decent, surprising yet so obvious. Mercurial, ruthless, cheeky, of course she was The Master. The obvious nature of it should have been even more apparent by Peter Capadli's own acting references, namely to the 3rd Doctor (Pertwee) who was the first to face the Master. But what is Missy's plan? She's going to resurrect the dead of the earth to have them give birth to Cybermen? But...why? What does this get her except lots of Cybermen? Does she think she can control them? I'm betting they aren't going to like you much, dear. Lord and Master or not, you're still a Time Lord and they tend not like anything not Cyberman. But now we come to the question I began with: is this a good story? It's fine. That's my honest answer. It's fine. I am very relieved that Missy isn't some future or past or alternate version of Clara, but really--the Master? Or...The Mistress? He (now she) has been done before; many times. The Master was the chief villain of season 3 and played a role in the final two episodes of the Tenth Doctor. He's had a nice break since then and frankly, I didn't have a pressing need to see him back. John Simm played him beautifully and Missy is just annoying (she can regenerate now; it's fine by me). Missy could have been the Rani, that would be entertaining. But it is what it is. And now Cybermen are descending on London--as they have before. We still have one more part to go. The Christ-Savior-Doctor versus his antithesis. And apparently it's the souls of mankind in play. How...apocalyptic.

Miscellaneous Notes on Dark Water

--"Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?"

--Doctor Skarosa. Like, Skaro? The planet of the Daleks? Gee, why do I think Davros might be coming back into play? He also burned the last time we saw him. Crackpot? Possibly.

--That was way too much kissing from Missy and the Doctor, but thankfully he thought so too. "You're very...realistic." "Tongue?" "Shut up."

--Is Danny going to "delete" himself? Obviously, "delete" here means upload as a Cyberman--it is their catch phrase after all. 

--To destroy a TARDIS key you throw it into lava. So, the TARDIS key is the Ring and you must take it to Mount Doom. Another preciousssssss.

--How does this end next week? There is no "saving" Danny; he's dead. But can the Doctor save the dead from being reborn into metal suits? That'll be...interesting.


  1. Hi, Jacquelyn. I think perhaps you might be adding some heavy-handedness of your own in your interpretation of this episode!

    That certain references, motifs, symbolism or other structural devices used in a narrative are obvious is not in itself a sign of weak writing. It really does depend on the function they are serving and how well they are integrated. As the story arc with Missy is incomplete, it's still too early to make a full assessment.

    With what we do have, a few points stand out in relation to your charge of heavy-handedness. From the beginning of this series, Moffat has intentionally dangled the obvious references to religion and the afterlife, heaven and hell, through scenes with Missy. So we're already in deliberately blatant territory. In other words we're dealing with irony - a fine ingredient for nuance and depth (and we don't need to know the writer is an atheist, or to second guess his atheism, for this to work well either) The audience was invited, in no uncertain terms, to ask questions about how the religious themes and frames are going to be realised within a fictional world infused with science fiction elements - where such notions and motifs are often given ambiguous meanings. Being up-front in this way also allows for aspects of this dialogic to become engaged with other related concerns of the series narrative: the question of who this new doctor is in terms of his goodness and in relation to notions of humane behaviour have been given extra layers of complexity by the use of the obvious references to religion from the start. (cont.)

  2. ...So, where we do have some transparent motifs in this episode, which deals directly with the Missy arc, all we have is consistency within the metaphorical pallet. Also, let's not forget that, as a family show, a certain level of simplistic cue helps for all the family to engage in and with this dialogue. I think it is important to consider whether what is simple to grasp invites us into a narrative that offers something with depth too or just something clumsy and superficial.

    I also think that you are being a little too reductive in your reading of 'obvious' 'christian ideology' in this episode and your identification of archetypes. While I agree that we do have some blatant obviousness and simplicity (see above), andthus are going to have some archetypical motifs we can put our fingers on, I think reducing The Capaldi Doc to a White Knight Jesus is more about how you are seeing your frames at the expense of others.

    The relationship between Clara and the Doctor in terms of the agency of a saviour has been one of the strongest themes and the focus of some of the more adult passages in this series, which is already building on and reconfiguring the Clara Saviour role from the last series. Freeing this relationship from its more romantic elements, and with a newly born older Doc alongside a well-trodden companion, has allowed for the mentor/student, parent/child roles to be revisited in a more interesting and critical way, with lots of role-switching and with some maturing and self-and-other examination/exploration along the way for both. Rather than the Doc as mainly a White knight in this episode, the most striking aspect of the opening scenes was about the power play between these two characters, with the wise old man/shaman archetype (the one I would argue is the strongest one underpinning the Doctor) reasserting itself: the Doctor was wise to Clara's trick in a manner that reminded us of his heightened ability to read the signs and divine/manipulate the truth or lore of his realm; his forgiveness was expressed in the wizened terms of a mature but stern parent/grandparent and not with the sort of religious overtones to justify this as a declaration of 'eternal love' (the emotional pay off here, as much to do with the contrast with the less sage-like Mr Angry or the various cold fronts); take another look at the paternal but skeptical ambivalence in Capaldi's face after reassuring (contrite-teen) Clara that they'll find Danny; and there's also the Doc bolstering Clara by asking her to return to the 'skeptical', 'critical' Clara that he likes. Here it seems that a very modern, conflicted wise old man archetype is being set up much more than any white knight hero aspect, at this juncture.

    Indeed, why not go for the obvious, if we're talking obvious. The Doctor is helping Clara on HER grief-bitten mission to save Danny. And who was it went into the underworld to save a lover? Surely Orpheus deserves a mention in the obvious stakes...

  3. I'm not saying that there aren't such things at play, but I do think that you suffered from some confirmation bias feedback looping on this one - never mind the bias that might be emanating from from someone who seems to have studied Religion and wishes us to know their educational status? This is a show for those who didn't take Religious studies too and so judgements about the obvious should be assessed from that point of view and not your own.

    The thing about Who, as I'm sure you'd agree, is that it's a very pulpy show and uses the flexibility of its mysteries and its genre overlaps as a way to play with all sorts of narrative motifs, and since new Who the ironical nature of the most obviously religious themes has meant that where certain motifs have been used, they have been used inclusively or multiculturally (very BBC) in the sense that the narratives have allowed for all sorts of different kinds of philosophical/religious viewpoints to intersect under the hood of the more overt structures - whether such has been realised successfully or not is beside this particular point. For example, references to a 'path' might come to us through Christian reference, but can play out in a much more humanistic way that undercuts the overt vehicle (ie like the Wizard of Oz) or end up resonating with, say, a more Buddhist or Daoist 'way' (I've found as much reincarnation or rebirth-conciousness in regeneration these days as any Christian motifs, by the way).

    Atop that, we also have the modern cyberpunk elements and Sci-fi/Fantasy'Horror/Fairytale intertextuality and so on in the Who mythic pulpy makeup, which can further reconstitute and/or reconfigure the overt clothes the narrative wears, and which in themselves might carry with them certain latent grand narrative motifs that stay passive, are reinvigorated, or are critically re-examined and realigned in a new context. We could even see modern psychology as another mythic structure in the mix with all the others when examining what a narrative with overtly (or not so overtly) religious motifs is actually doing (narcissism, sociopathy, codependency, transference and projection to name but a few terms on the same level of narrative visibility in series 8).

    In short, reducing things down to monolithic archetypes and religious motifs might just be an interesting, yet heavy-handed way to decode the deliberately obvious motifs and might also lead one into one's own over-simplistic reading of the more layered clues and structures.

    As one of my favourite religious thinkers wrote: realisation is the state of ambiguity itself.

    Hence this long post!

    1. Hi Andy,

      I'd like to respond to you, at least in part. You wrote a lot and that deserves my attention, and the ideas you present are certainly worthy of thought and something I'll keep in mind moving forward in Who but also over all.

      I must admit my baffled nature at the moment; you're now the third person who has commented on--what has always been--my little fun TV blog that I do just for kicks and I have no idea how people are even finding me at this point. I've been reviewing various TV programs for well over a year now, mostly for myself and a little for friends, but that's really it. So, thanks for reading and talking back to me, but hopefully you'll understand that I'm still a little jumbled (unnerved? nervous?) from people actually finding me...

      All this aside, there are a few things I'd like to say. First, you mentioned Orpheus and yes, that's a great catch and one I made note of privately. There are a lot of Orpheus/Jesus parallels that speak to the cultural connection of early Christianity inside the larger Greco-Roman world. My reasons for not bringing it up in-blog, as it were, is largely not to weigh down the actual writing (since these things take several hours to put together anyway from first viewing to final edit and taking time out to explain how I think early Christianity appropriated Greek symbols and myths for their own design is a bit too daunting for a little TV blog).

      But also...I think Western Perspective plays a role here. We talk about myth and religion as if they are separate, but to me they are not and never have been. But to the people who haven't taken religious studies--the larger audience of Who as you pointed out and about which I agree that their perspective might be the forefront--myth tends mean false/fictional whereas religion tends to have the idea of realness/truth attached to it.

    2. I see the Orpheus/Eurydice parallels but if you talk about the plot in broad terms--descent into underworld to rescue souls--most people are going to ascribe that to Christianity and not Greek myth, being from a Western World perspective, no matter how much they may or may not believe in said Judo-Christianity. Add in that Missy refers to this place as heaven and that it has been referred to by others over the series so far as the "promised land" and the Judo-Christain-ness of it all is more apparent, to me at least. Are those ideas solely J-C? No. But our Western perspective would cast them as such, and Who is written from that world view (British show, largely for both Brits and Americans now).

      Two. I truly meant to make mention of the Doctor's constant "keep critical" and Clara's almost scientific and cold shutting off of Danny. And somehow didn't. In the midst of all the religion, it's nice that Who is keeping the science/critical thinking, though we'll see next week how that plays out. I suspect there may be a union of the two: Danny is somehow scientifically and religiously saved?

      The Doctor archetype as sage vs white knight: Yup, I agree. But he's been a lot more White Knight this season, to me. Clara's belief in the impossible hero, the tossing of the Sonic Screwdriver and the defeat of the Boneless in Flatline (very here Mr. Knight, have your magical sword back to defeat this dragon!). They even met one of the classic "white knight" heroes in Robin Hood this season, where Robin drew some obvious parallels between himself and the Doctor. The Doctor is still counseling Clara in the matters of life like a good guru, but it's still about the adventure and danger and magic of it all and Clara is the one who seems to be schooling the Doctor more and more. They had entire episode (Flatline, and my favorite of the season so far) devoted to the idea of Clara-As-Doctor and the end result was less about Clara's understanding of the world around her, but more about the Doctor realizing who he is, and always has been. Who is the master/sage and who is the pupil? But it's still the Doctor who saves the day.

      I don't think reducing down to archetype's is bad writing, and I'm sorry if I gave that impression. I'm actually quite fond of archetypes and like when I can pick up on those things in TV. My issue was when they get a big ol' label on them, and yes i put the label there myself. But, for what's worth, I don't think Moffat is thinking in terms of other religions/philosophy when he's having Missy describe this as heaven, and we've got descent into the underworld to save the souls of men, and you have clear "resurrection" talk. He knows his audience is of the J-C persuasion (belief aside) and he's using that.

      Finally, one more time, thank you for reading and I'm sorry you didn't particularly seem to enjoy what I wrote--maybe if you stick around, I'll do better? I'm not trying to come across as an expert (nor trying to sell my own credentials) or even someone who is particularly good at this. I just like talking about TV and this was the way to do it.

  4. Hi Jacquelyn.

    Thanks for the interesting reply. I have limited time, so I thought I'd just address some of the more personal points here, and which I feel are of greater value in light of your last words - and in case I don't get around to what is a fascinating area of exploration and discussion at a later date.

    I did enjoy what you wrote and found it stimulating, which is why I wrote my lengthy response. Also, I don't think reducing down to archetypes is bad writing. Archetypes are already pretty reductive, but can be a very useful for understanding texts and other human interaction. My criticism was more about where I thought you were being reductive in your approach to and use of archetypes which, in my view, interact and combine in more complex ways than we could ever put sufficiently into words, but which we can identify and come to terms with. Where I did mention 'weak writing' at the beginning, it was in addressing your own implied criticism of the episode's writing, in which I argued that the obviousness of the motifs were not necessarily a cause for criticism of the quality of writing that went into the episode. Where I argued that you had been 'heavy-handed' was not meant to also carry the freight of that instance of my phrase 'weak writing'.

    As for not trying to come across as an expert. As I probed on that one, I think it's worth going into some (largely suppositional) detail. There seems some ambiguity at work here too! You do have some expertise, and I was stimulated by how it manifested in your review. When you write things like, "Actually, let's put my Masters to use here. You want textual evidence? Here you go: "the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." (1 Cor 15:52)," my impression was of someone who wants us to know about their expertise, rather than let it speak for itself, having perhaps declared their area of expertise in a more neutral, informative, yet still sure-footed manner. As it stands, it reads to me like an argument bolstered by shades of Argument from Authority, and in my experience is something that slips in or pops out when educated people without official creds are drawing upon their expertise, but are insecure or ambivalent about doing so. So I'll take "I'm not trying to come across as an expert (nor trying to sell my own credentials) or even someone who is particularly good at this" as the words I would (and did) expect, in response to my probing words there.

    In my view, you are good at this, and I think you - not just should be - are rightfully proud of the skills and expertise you have at hand. That sort of pride inevitably takes sure steps when and where given a freer rein and can lead to a honing through dialogue. Or it can be reined in, in order to protect its value status within an individual's sense of self-worth - which can lead to it functioning a little narcissistically, in certain contexts and tend certain views that intersect with it towards conformation bias - in places! The terms of false humility are terms we too often deal in in this highly narcisstic, Western culture and are too often taken at face value because they are so readily embraced - especially as nobody is free from narc tendencies. I'm certainly not free of them or its deft traps, sidesteps and defences. But I find that playing such games as a default can do our real potential a disservice and keep our very useful egos from functioning to healthily build upon our limitations rather than hide behind false images of them. I'm aware that pressing on this point is being somewhat heavy-handed in itself, but I think worthwhile, even if wide of the mark.

    I hope that you take my last points, especially, with the sincerity and respect in which I wrote them.