Sunday, October 11, 2015

In Which I Review Doctor Who (9x4)

In Arthurian mythology, the Fisher King is the last man in a (very) long line who is charged with keeping the Holy Grail. The King, sometimes referred to as the Wounded King, also has a sympathetic relationship with his kingdom. As one might guess from his moniker, the Wounded/Fisher king is injured (groin, most usually) and as he suffers, so does his kingdom. His injury renders him impotent and since he is unable to sew his own seed and bring forth a son to rule after him, his kingdom, in turn, becomes a barren wasteland. As above, so below. The sympathetic relationship between king and country extends long after the legend of the Fisher King, though I need not document it here. What's important is that the Fisher King is often found waiting for someone to come along and heal him--Percival, Galahad or Bors, depending on iteration of text. As one might expect, these knights who heal the Fisher King can do so because they are the chosen ones. It's a shame, then, that Doctor Who's version of the Fisher King bears so little resemblance to his mythological namesake. The show could have really pulled a few cosmic punches (my favorite kind) by rendering the Doctor as the Galahad figure who heals the would and causes things to grow again. However, I'm willing to overlook it since the episode landed many other punches this time around. In this week's episode, "Before the Flood,' we go on a wibbly wobbly, timey wimey journey in which the Doctor is cast as the conquering hero through a lot of jumps and spins and turns. So, grab a copy of Beethoven's Fifth and let's go! 

I first want to discuss something that has nothing to do with plot or the timey wimey-ness of it all, but rather has everything to do with character. My favorite moment in this episode was the emotional beat between the Doctor and Clara. Too often in the Moffat era, the emotional resolutions or important bits are either cut off at the knees or at reduced to shouting matches that only resolve out of frustration or because the monster of the week is chasing down the main cast. However, in this week's episode, there was a really great phone conversation--happening across time, naturally--between the Doctor and Clara that really sang. This makes two weeks in a row that script writer Toby Whithouse has given a nice, introspective, and heartfelt conversation between the Doctor and Clara; last week, the Doctor felt the need to remind Clara that he's responsible for her and this week, Clara begs the Doctor to come back for her, not to die and leave her. I find, maybe for the first time ever, that I am not bothered by Clara defining herself by a man--er, Time Lord. I suppose in some ways this begging to be rescued or using love as a reason to come back would have disturbed me, but it's not out of line with any of the other Companions the Doctor has had 'lo these 50 plus years and in Clara's case, we're dealing with some serious emotional baggage and trauma. Once more, Danny Pink's death hangs over this episode. Clara cannot stand the idea of losing another person she loves. She's lost the first Doctor she ever traveled with, the 11th, and it took her the span of an entire episode (and almost being eaten by robot machine things) to come around to seeing the 12th Doctor. Clara's lost Danny twice over, first in the mundane fashion, and then in the more fantastical way. But Clara's also lost her innocence; she's lost the wide eye wonder she had back when the adventure was still more magical than adrenaline producing.

I still think the overall thesis for Clara has been tweaked from being in an abusive relationship (with travel, the TARDIS, and the spirit of adventure) to repressing hurtful emotions after the cost of addiction becomes clear; but in this week's episode we see those emotions surface. In other words, we see Clara as human, and so does the Doctor. His willingness to go die speaks volumes about his hero-status (and perhaps, also, his reckless and macabre tendencies) but for a moment he forgets how much his death will hurt the person he cares about the most. I really loved when the Doctor turned the phone conversation private between the two of them--Doctor and Companion--and he began to realize just how hurt Clara would be; laying his head on the TARDIS console, only able to say her name and listen to her emotional plea, it really struck a chord in him and in me. Also, in the same vein, this is what happens when you give Peter Capaldi something meaty to work with; he knows how to play the Doctor as both the egotistical mad man with a crazy box who solves all the problems and as the lonely wounded god who understands that traveling with him changes you in a fundamental way, but he's willing to risk your life and soul in order to not be alone. All of those charged emotions--the remorse, the guilt, the fear, the desire--were there during this phone call. I just wish it had been carried through to the end; we never got a proper emotional closure from either party; the final scene being a narrative timey wimey wrap up. Ah, well. I'll take what I can get, eh?

Outside of the heightened emotional beat I mentioned above, the episode is mostly very good. It's very Moffat-era with the time streams going haywire and too many characters having too little to do and not leaving a lasting impression. The villain never felt very threatening because the motivation of the Fisher King is left unbelievably vague (but also because the Doctor always wins, or at least manages to get him and his companion out of harms way.) In fact, I had to look at the writing credits twice to make sure that Moffat did not co-write this one; he didn't, though, it's pure Whithouse. The Doctor secretly being behind a lot of the plot and time twists, and it only coming to light at the end of the episode, isn't new, much like the plot of last week's episode being rote, but it was an exciting ride nonetheless. What I want to touch on briefly, here in the last paragraph, is the opening segment. That one was...strange. And certainly one that is going to cause some controversy. I'm of two minds. On the one hand, the Doctor's monologue felt like Whithouse didn't think his audience would "get it" by episodes end--that the Doctor was behind the flood (insert your own God reference here), that he was responsible for the Fisher's King's destruction (same parenthetical applies), and, moreover, the lingering question of how the Doctor knew what to do when he ended up changing the future. The opening break in the fourth wall and the Doctor's Beethoven example take away a lot of the narrative punch of the ending and realizing just how much the Doctor was behind everything because, due to the very beginning, you're expecting some heavy timey wimey stuff. You've just been told, by the Author (in the skin of the Doctor looking directly into the camera) to expect some sort of paradox. The resolution of the plot this week likely would have been much more surprising had I not known that we'd be witnessing some sort of time stream madness. However, the Doctor breaking the fourth wall and moving about the TARDIS like a mad man, giving a very impressive and mysterious speech, works well in Capaldi's hands. Once again, I must state that when he is given proper Doctor Who-esque material, he really delivers. In the end, the opening sequence is something that is best left as a one time thing and only in the hands of a very skilled actor. So...who did write Beethoven's Fifth?

Miscellaneous Notes on Before the Flood

--Caution, Doctor Who. Don't overuse the guitar playing gag too much. It's fun, but I worry if you make it common.

--Interesting opening credits too, with the guitar playing in the background.

--Really could have done without the two love stories because the four characters in question left little impression on me. We could all tell that the deaf lady and her translator were in love, but the other two felt thrown in at the last second.

--The Doctor has done 99% of the heavy lifting in the past two episodes. It's really working, especially in contrast to season eight.

--"First proper alien, and he's an idiot."

--"I have to die." "Not with me. You die with the one who comes after me. If you love me in any way, you'll come back."

--So the Fisher King just wanted to invade Earth? But...why? There are thousands, if not millions, of planets out there.

--"Even a ghastly future is better than no future at all. You bent the rules to life and death, so I'm putting it straight." Get down with your mythic self, Doctor. You do you.

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