Saturday, December 26, 2015

In Which I Review the Doctor Who Christmas Special (2015)

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope my dear readers are having a lovely holiday and are ready for another round of great storytelling in this the final chapter of our favorite fairy tale (that we're going to get until next Fall, at least). This year's Christmas installment, "The Husbands of River Song," is the sort of genre bending I expect from my beloved Who. On the one hand, it's a fairy tale full of chance encounters, mistaken identities, a compelling love story, a super villain, a cheeky hero, and with a good moral lesson at the end. On the other hand, the story accepts the limitations of reality and knows that there is always an ending. I must admit that I experienced some trepidation with this years Christmas offering. While season nine of Doctor Who was mostly very good, Moffat's Christmas episode are usually hit or miss. Last year's episode entitled "Last Christmas" was decent enough as was the one three years ago (Clara's first Christmas episode); the ones in between were lackluster and dull and, frankly, the less I say about Matt Smith's final episode (also a Christmas special) the better. So it was with some strong hesitation that I tuned in to watch as the twelfth Doctor met his wife, River Song, first the first time wearing this particular (Scottish) face. And, dear readers, I was blown away. This episode was jovial and happy instead of feeling maudlin (as sometimes Moffat tends to get). It was the perfect mix of witty charm, heartfelt sadness, and epic adventure. In short: everything you want out of Doctor Who. Grab a disembodied head, prepare to commit some murder (it is Christmas after all), and let's go! 

River Song has never been a favorite of mine. I know that might be blasphemous to some, but while her story is passably interesting, I've never found it to be anything more than a riff on "The Time Traveler's Wife" novel but with a more (Moffat trademarked) timey-wimey complexity than I have neither have time nor energy for. Her relationship with the Doctor (any of them) is sweet, but I was rather shocked when Moffat had the pair get married several seasons ago. I think, like River professes in this episode, I never really expected the Doctor to love her back. Yes, he loves all his companions because, as the Doctor says to Ashildr in this season past, they are his mayflies and they remind him of the wonders of the universe, the selfsame wonders he's forgotten how to see. River is a horse of a different color from your Roses, your Marthas, your Amys, and your Claras because River is more like the Doctor in that she's got the Time Vortex spinning in her blood. She has the same time traveling, adventure seeking, shock and awe predilections that the Doctor has and in the past that's the reason why they can't stay together too long; like Ashildr, two immortals (semi-immortal in River's case) seeing the Universe would most likely end badly. But mixed in with those (admittedly complicated) feelings, I've never imagined that the Doctor loved River the same way she clearly loves him. River is Amy's daughter and the Doctor cares for her by that virtue alone. The Doctor married River as a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy and felt responsible for her after Amy was taken and River was raised the way she was. He respects her independence and her own unique lifestyle (apparently she married Stephen Fry AND two other women? You go, River Song!) The Doctor would never want harm to befall River, naturally, but he wouldn't go around putting labels on River like "love of my life" or "soul mate." To her credit, River understood that the Doctor is an ageless god and never made any demands of loving affection on him; that, more than their actual story, made the pair enjoyable to watch. However, after this episode, I get the sense that the Doctor does love River quite a bit, but it took him a long time to really accept that. He had to lose the people he loved most (remember, he's hot off the story of knowing that he's lost Clara but not remembering her at all) and face the knowledge that he's going to lose River for good, no loopholes, in order to understand that while he might be a sunset, he can admire and love her back.

This understanding from the Doctor brings me back to the fairy tale aspect of this year's Christmas story. I've always been fairly critical of Moffat and his inability to let go of some of the most high fantasy fairy tale aspects in his years on the show. He tends to play the "true love saves the day" card a bit too much and he rarely has consequences to some of the bigger thematic issues he's addressing with his characters (Clara's addiction thesis, anyone?) because it will ruin the fairy tale aspect. However, Christmas episodes are a bit special in that this is a time when it's okay to whip out some fairy tale magic and have that "happily ever after" ending because of the nature of the season. Christmas episodes in Doctor Who tend to focus on something treacly be it family, second chances, hope, unity, and so on and so forth. This isn't to say that Doctor Who doesn't often focus on those themes, but at Christmas they do come out in full force; in other words, a dead father can come back to life in a Christmas episode. It can be a bit too saccharine and sweet for anyone who wants science-fiction or meta cosmic storytelling, but it works for the show since it's only once a year. This year the theme hammered home is all about how stories end, they must end; the twist here is exploring that it's okay because you can live happily until the end which is maybe the most un-treacly sweet thing Moffat's version of Doctor Who has ever done. For example, the past season dealt with the Doctor refusing to let his and Clara's story end to the point where he became "an enemy of time and space." In this episode, River assures him that the ending doesn't matter, only the story. I do believe we are looking at the final chapter of River and the Doctor. The Singing Tower of Darillium, the Doctor giving River her Sonic Screwdriver, and the almost full diary all led to one thought: the Library is coming. River Song is going to get a message asking her to come to the universe's largest library and there she will meet the 10th Doctor and Donna Noble, and there she will die. It's how we met River and, after many years and several backwards adventures, it's time for her to go. Not everything can be avoided. The ending doesn't matter though; it's how the life is lived before the ending. The final moment of the episode show a title card that reads "and they lived happily ever after" with snow wiping away "ever after." The point, the message, our Christmas lesson this 2015 year is that it's more important that River and her Doctor lived happily for their final night together, even if it is not ever after. There is no loophole, there is no clever plan concocted at the last second to save River from her fate. Time is going to march on and River is going to go to the Library and die but our takeaway is that the life she led was a happy one; she had a final moment with the Doctor. For everyone on this Christmas, Moffat wants to remind us that endings happen; they must. Companions leave or die; Doctors regenerate; and, yes, showrunners move on. But until the ending comes, we should live happily with our memories and with those we love for as long as we can. And isn't that really the message of all fairy tales? Not to live happily ever after; no one can do that unless you're truly mythic. But, simply, to live. You can't expect a monolith to love you back, but normal, everyday humans (and Time Lords) do, can, and will. It's a sappy message, but that doesn't make it any less relevant. So, as they say in all the best fairy tales: the end.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Husbands of River Song

--How about a really big round of applause for Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston? Their chemistry was off the charts. Simply wonderful considering that they've never been together on this show until this one episode while Alex had two episodes with David Tennant and many more with Matt Smith.

--This episode was hilarious. Moffat always knows how to write a funny line, but this year it felt like every line was a funny one:
"You don't look much like your pictures." "That's an ongoing problem for me."
"I'll kill the lights. You kill the patient."
"Stop holding my hand. People don't do that to me!"
"I'm an archaeologist from the future. I dug you up!"

--I approve wholeheartedly of the TARDIS making the Doctor wear Wilf's antlers.

--I didn't really mention it, but also in the realm of fairy tales, the Doctor is a bit of a Grinch at the start with his "carol singers will be criticized" sign. An adventure with River helps his heart grow three sizes. And because it's Christmas after all!

--The Doctor's moment to shine comes when he has to pretend to be amazed at the TARDIS being bigger on the inside.

--"I'm an archaeologist! Look! I've got a trowel!" The Sonic Trowel is 100% better than the Sonic Glasses.

--The plot of the actual episode was overall very good. The villain was presented as being bad enough that I didn't care about the moral implications of River wanting to kill Hydroflax. Unlike a lot of Moffat penned episodes, this one wasn't overly convoluted but still clever. I didn't feel like I needed a road map to understand how we got from point A to point B.

--Fun reversal of fortune with River being unable to recognize the Doctor. I did love how this exasperated the Doctor every time he tried to drop hints that he was, in fact, her Time Lord husband.

--It's hard to say where we're going from here--new adventures and a new companion certainly. Most likely, this is the last episode until well into 2016. Everyone enjoy their 24 year-night with the Singing Towers of Darillium!  

Monday, December 7, 2015

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (5x11)

Here we are again. Eleven episodes later and we've reached the end of another arc and with three months off ahead of us, it's time for me to sit down once more and ponder how effective the storytelling on OUAT has been for the past 3ish months. I suspect we all know where I'm going to come down on that question. As I normally do, when faced with the end of an arc, I went back and read my review of the season opener in preparation for this week's midseason finale, "Swan Song." The thing that struck me most on my re-read was how I wanted to take each episode one at a time, that my judgement of the show and its narrative would and could only be looked at as it was presented to me live every week. However, now that we've reached the end of our Dark Swan/Camelot arc, it seems easy to say that while episode 501 was mostly successful and the best of this season, the episodes following were mostly disastrous. This entire season was messy, sloppy, careless with little regard for established mythology and, maybe worst of all, really boring. I'm going to be honest: I don't know if I have the energy for this. This episode was a wasteland in poor morals and poorer storytelling. I don't know how much longer I can watch this. I swore to stick to it until the end, but we're so far from the glory of season one that it's getting harder and harder to keep my promises. Ah well. Grab...I don't entire bottle of wine and down it quickly because, dear readers, here we go. 

Meet PapaJones   

Captain Hook has father issues. I am awash in shock. Really, this was really the most surprising part of the entire episode (sarcasm). The entire point of this (badly shoehorned) flashback is that Hook, after abandonment, became like his father and that the man he chose to be was not a good one (again, shocking. News at 11). In present day, he remembers this and chooses to be something that is perceived as a good man. If you're a Hook fan, then it's sure to give you warm squishy feelings, but I'm not so it doesn't. Honestly, this entire flashback was so flat and uninteresting that you could have boiled it down to the following and not missed a beat: Hook's father left; Hook later kills his father after *mumble mumble* magic sleeping curse saved PapaJones long ago. See, that's really the crux of it all. Hook's a villain who committed patricide in a heated moment when he is re-traumatized by memories of his father leaving in contrast to his father refusing to leave his new son (whom PapaJones stupidly named Liam, like Hook's brother. Dude, you were almost asking for a hook through the heart.) This is supposed to give Hook's character more color except it doesn't. It stretches the narrative so that you now know the entire story and history of Hook and his Papa, but it doesn't add any emotional depth to the main character of Hook. We knew he had father issues. We knew his hook "had tasted the blood of dozens" and that he was hell-bent (unintentional pun!) on revenge against Rumple. All of this we have known since season two and Hook's introduction. And I could almost forgive the boring backstory that adds nothing to the character in question--because that's how all flashbacks go nowadays--if it wasn't for the awful shoehorned in feeling. When was this supposed to take place? In "Queen of Hearts" Hook and Regina meet for the first time and it's followed by Regina explaining her plan to Hook about Cora; it's moments after said first meeting (you remember... the one where Hook beats Belle unconscious and almost kills her). There's no costume change, no change of scenery but suddenly, in this week's episode, Hook is outside in a field with a goblet of wine (for reasons!) waiting for Regina, who appears in a totally different outfit. This is one of those cases when the writers make their lives so much more difficult than it needs to be. You don't need to set this new information in the moments before the original Dark Curse. You could set it 100 years ago when Hook is running an errand for Peter Pan and meets his father inexplicably in a bar. Logistics: solved! At any rate, that's all I have to this flashback. Nothing was gleaned for Hook's character by this flashback. It was repetitious and tedious. But, one question, what happened to the kid? Did Hook just leave baby Liam 2.0? Has Hook ever tried to find him? Is the Kid on the Forgotten Character Island Orphanage along with the season three Lost Boys?

Just Die Already (I Mean The Show)

I want to start off this part of the analysis with something that has nothing to do with OUAT. At least, not directly. I want to talk about emotional truths. This is not something I came up with on my own but is the result of reading a lot of Hulk Critic, in particular one of his posts about rape culture and its intersection with media and pop culture. For me, emotional truths are why having any sort of meaningful discussion in fandoms never goes anywhere. It's why the OUAT fandom has become a cesspool of stupid, full of infighting, anger, rage, and some truly appalling logic and rationalization. To be fair, it's from all sides, all ships, and a majority of fans. When fans debate characters or ships or storytelling, it is not an objective facts-and-just-the-facts debate (it's a lot like politics, really). It's a subjective emotional debate that begins to feel incredibly personal, like you and your very self are under attack if you are "canon-warping" how you read a text (as if there is any such thing as a strict right or wrong way to read a text). What is emotional truth? It's my interpretation of a text that I will argue to be true, in spite of any evidence that someone else might present as part of their emotional truth. It boils down to my emotional truth vs your emotional truth and how when all people do is argue their emotional truths, the debate will never go anywhere because we aren’t arguing facts. We’re arguing feelings and you can’t know my emotional truth and I can’t know yours. But because it’s YOUR emotional truth, it’s real. And because it’s MY emotional truth, it’s real. In other words, we aren’t even speaking the same language anymore. This entire fandom stopped speaking the same language some time ago. Yes, this is some little silly show but this is how people digest media. And we go in circles–over EVERYTHING–because we’re arguing emotional truth instead of anything that might be factual–and my emotional truth and your emotional truth might be far from the factual truth, but it doesn’t matter. Our emotional truths are real and true to us. And this, essentially, is why debating in fandom is so…tiring. We’re never going to get anywhere. We “agree to disagree” and pat ourselves on the back and continue to believe our own emotional truths.

I am bringing this up for a very specific reason. Last week, my review focused quite a bit on the similarities I see between Killian Jones and Kilgrave from "Jessica Jones" and the parallels between CaptainSwan and Kilgrave/Jessica. My review was found by someone who is (probably) a CSer and they really (really) went to town on me. I chose, at that time not to respond because, you guessed it, emotional truths. I respectfully left up their comments because I believe strongly in freedom of speech and in being able to argue emotional truths, but I want to stress something to readers, just in case it hasn't been made apparent: I am not a Captain Hook fan nor a CS shipper. I have heard every argument under the sun for why CS is shippable and why Hook is redeemed. I have argued against both of those ideas for years, here and elsewhere. No matter what evidence you present, you are not going to persuade me otherwise. I respect your emotional truth, but mine is not yours and it never will be. Why am I saying this now? Because Hook is dead and Emma's going to Hell for her boyfriend because "not fair!" and I weep for the end of feminism, logic, and good storytelling on this show. If that particular CSer is reading (or any CSer in general), I hope you enjoyed the show; I hope you continue to enjoy the show; but I'm not going to buy into any other argument. My emotional ain't changing just as sure as yours isn't going to change.

Unfortunately, for this episode, I can't avoid talking about Hook. It was all about him, after all. In fact, most of the season was about Hook, was it not? This season was sold as part of Emma's hero journey. Season 5A had potential and I was prepared to see it out and accept it had it stuck to its original intent to be Emma focused and all about her individual heroes journey. Sadly, this did not happen. It turned on its head about 7 episodes in and became all about Hook. Sure, he's a character and a leading one but so much of this season and arc were supposed to be focused on Emma's self actualization. Her war against the darkness wasn't because she's the Savior and inherently light and therefore at odds with said darkness, but it was because of her boyfriend. Emma even went so far as to speed up a pregnancy (and who knows how that will affect baby GreenHood) but also then to plan and almost execute (pun!) an attempted murder of Zelena--granted, a low character who revels in her villainy with no hope of redemption, but premeditated murder nonetheless. And all of it was for her boyfriend. Not her son; not her mother nor father; not even the town of Storybrooke that Emma is honor bound by cosmic reality to defend. Just Hook. Sure, if you're a shipper then I guess it speaks to you about love and overcoming the odds--even cosmic forces--but to me it's taking Emma Swan--strong feminist, independent but still vulnerable Emma Swan, who's story was about her family and her home and her son--and making her into a Mary-Sue Magical Vagina who heels poor sob story boys with the power of her...womanhood. There is such a level of emotional manipulation with Emma and Hook, who are being touted as an epic love story, that it is truly sickening for me. Hook can only be good if Emma loves him and is with him. When the Darkness infects him, he becomes one of the worst examples of the Dark One that we've seen (though major props to Colin for really going to town with this role). He's a true black-hearted villain who says and does some truly appalling things. But it can all be forgiven because at the last second he saw the light? Emma should kill Hook. Not because of the Darkness or the various Jawas Dark Ones in Storybrooke with whom Hook is cavorting, but because he was a villain who terrorized her, her family, and her town. The same with Cora and Pan, both of whom Emma knew she had to stop without getting all wishy washy. Hook asking Emma to let him die as a hero bothers me so very much because he doesn't get to be the one to dictate the manner upon which he is received after death. Seeing the errors of his ways at the last second and deciding to take on the cost of Darkness himself does not a hero make! It means he realizes how badly he messed up, but it doesn't mean he's a hero!

As for the ending and the journey to Hell, yeah yeah yeah, it's a katabasis and we all know I love those. Honestly, they are some of my favorite things in literature. But for Emma to say that she has to go and save Hook (and resurrect him by giving him half her heart) because it's not fair to Killian that he remain dead just brings up all the bile in my throat. You want to talk about fair? How about Henry who misses his dad and wishes Neal was around to talk to but whom you insisted, Miss Swan, had to stay dead because he died a hero? You couldn't go to the Underworld then? You couldn't let Rumple change history? I don't care about the ships anymore; I don't want Nealfire with this version of Emma Swan, but this show used to be about family and having Neal be alive, with his son and father, breaking the cycle of abandonment, is good enough for me. Also, Emma, did you fall down and hit your head on something hard? Did you forget how Hook spoke to you last episode? Did you forget his cold blooded murder of Merlin? Did you forget how Hook used the love you bear for your child against you in this episode in order to get the shiny sword? Did you forget how, thanks to him, your entire family was almost sucked to Hell? Emma thinks Hook's death is not fair but I call it comeuppance. Hook doesn't have to pay for any of his crimes, does he? Not killing his father; not working with Cora to destroy the heroes; not taking Aurora's heart; not beating and shooting Belle; not speaking to Emma in such a vile and abusive manner. Nope. He doesn't have to pay for any of it. In fact, Hook's going to get rewarded with some Emma Swan lovin' because this show is officially morally bankrupt. Where is your self-worth Emma? Where is your respect? Remember back in season one when Emma issued a laudable creed to Ashley that, "People are gonna tell you who you are your whole life. You just gotta punch back and say, 'No, this is who I am.'" Instead of living by that code this season, Emma lets herself be Hook's emotional punching bag. Her response to Hook telling her that she'll always be an orphan should have been claws-out defense of her family, her son, and her town, all of whom love her so much that they traveled realms to find her. And then to have the audacity to say that precious Killian needs to be saved from the Underworld and brought back to life...I need to move on now, don't I? Fine one more thought. Domestic abuse in narrative, in TV storytelling, can work. It really can. When the writers are consciously aware of what they are writing and making a commentary on the effects of abuse, the signs of abuse, and how to handle it, it works well enough on TV. The writers on OUAT are not self-aware that this domestic and emotional abuse. They are romanticizing it. And it's appalling.

Repetition, Thy Name Is Rumplestiltskin

I thought about leaving this for the notes, but I really need to speak my mind on this low blow. There is something to be said about circular storytelling. When we conceive of the heroes journey, it's often depicted as a circle. The hero sets out, they encounter a strange new world that they are somehow destined to save, they conquer death and rise again, the master of both worlds, fully realized and then they arrive back home, at the end of their journey, the hero and not their former archetype (farmer, lost boy, son, or more often than not, orphan). That's a example of good circular storytelling. It has a beginning, a middle, and an ending that feels earned and organic. Rumplestiltskin being the Dark One again (by some weird mechanics that I don't fully get) is neither earned nor organic. Last season, the writers went as dark as they could with Rumple. He was full on villain, trying to destroy everyone's happy ending. It cost him everything, having already lost Baelfire, his heart darkening to a lump of coal, and losing Belle in the process. What happened after that was a bit of a transformation--granted at the hands of a plot device, but a transformation nonetheless. Rumple's darkness was sucked out of him and he became, against all odds, brave and a hero. A hero worthy enough to pull Excalibur from the stone. He faced off against Dark One Hook. He even tried to give Belle the life she deserved by granting her the means to leave Storybrooke forever and go have adventures in the great wide somewhere. And in the end, it turns out that none of those lessons--the losses, the transformation, the bout of heroism--stick. Not even a little bit. This is not circular storytelling. This is repetition at its most egregious. What the writers should write is Rumple trying to be a good man, live the rest of his life, without magic holding him up. But no, instead, we revert back to Rumple as the Dark One. Literally, back to square one. To add insult to injury, Rumple's new-but-not-really-new status as the Dark One, was revealed after Belle came back to him, believing that he had changed, and they had wild sex in the shop. Rumple has gone to the lowest low there is; he's joined the ranks of characters on OUAT who participate in wonky consent. Rumple lets Belle believe that there is hope for him and their new life together, that he's a hero, and then undoes his fly and proceeds to make the beast with two backs. It's so...disgusting. It's so...disheartening. This used to be my favorite character. This used to be the character I wanted to see redeemed. Rumple wasn't the great Cosmic Evil; he wasn't the Trickster archetype. He was the Father, looking for his lost little boy and doing highly questionable things in the process. It was deep and complicated and complex and both sympathetic and not and it made this show so fresh and interesting. And now? Now Rumple is just straight up villain, no redeeming qualities, no hope, and nothing more than a black hat with no depth. This show was once so complex and nuanced. Now, it's drudgery and as insulting as it gets. Long gone are the strong women, the morals, and the poetry. Now, we're left with parents who leave their kids with fairies to be raised while these so-called heroes go to Hell to break "dead is dead" one more time for Captain Guyliner and all his rape culture values.

And on that note, see everyone in March.

Miscellaneous Notes on Swan Song

--It's a truly bizarre world when Zelena is my favorite character in an episode. She got in some great lines, though. Robin will now be "Robbie!" I suspect we'll see her again, right around the middle of S5B.

--Adam and Eddy: try all you want, but you'll never be Joss Whedon. So, maybe stop trying. This episode was an insult to the amazing "Becoming" (BtVS season 2). 

--Words cannot even begin to describe how scared I am for what this show will do to Greek mythology.

--The Snow and Emma conversation in the vault was really good, but it was also the one and only meaningful conversation they've had all season and it really is too little, too late.

--Um. Where's the Camelot Crew? Did the heroes really just leave their town with Arthur and MindRaped! Guinevere are still out there? With Merida?

--PapaJones was in a sleeping curse and fell in love with his nurse. Mmmmkay. Oh, she died because of the plague. That’s convenient. And seriously, what happened to Liam 2.0?

--The Lake…is Purgatory? I don’t…understand.

--Emma doesn’t break her own darkness. Hook does. Sure, not by TLK, but Hook nonetheless. It would have been *such* a strong message if Emma had done it herself

--How about some thoughts on S5A overall? s5A had potential when it was going to be Emma focused, but it wasn't. It was all about Hook. Even the Camelot Crew, in the end, didn't matter at all. They mattered so little that the show didn't even bother seeing them home. This is to say nothing of all the horrible Magical McGuffins, the continued disregard for the LGBT community, the ongoing racial and class problems, MORE rape and wonky consent story telling, clunky dialogue in which the characters stood around rationalizing and explaining the plot instead of having anything resembling human emotions, horrible timing in which the story either slowed down to a crawl or sped up so fast as to be confusing, and the disregard for previous established mythology. It was sloppy and ill conceived. It feels very much like the writers got bored halfway through and began planning for 5B instead of focusing on 5A. Also, I have never denied that romance is an important part of OUAT (and fairy tales in general) but there is a point when you need to put the brakes on all the romance! And s5A really needed to learn that. Emma had next to no important or significant conversation with her parents but heaven forbid she be separated from Hook (or Regina) for more than an episode. Remember when this show was actually about the power of familial love?

Overall Grade for Season 5A: C-/ D+

Final Episode Ranking for Season 5A:

11. The Broken Kingdom (504)
10. Swan Song (511)
9. Birth (508)
8. The Bear King (509)
7. The Bear and the Bow (506)
6. The Price (502)
5. Broken Heart (510)
4. Siege Perilous (503)
3. Nimue (507)
2. Dreamcatcher (505)
1. The Dark Swan (501)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In Which I Review Doctor Who (9x12)

At the end of everything, we should expect a couple of immortals. Wise words and some heavy prophecy in that line here in this week's episode and season nine finale, "Hell Bent." When it comes to the Doctor, there is never any real danger, even if you know the actor is about to leave and regenerate (don't worry, Peter's still got another year, at least, with us). The show has--often and very cleverly--gotten out of killing its main character many times. What isn't so safeguarded, however, is his emotional state. It's the end of the season which means the Doctor has to pick up the pieces of the life that he has lived over the course of twelve episodes (and in this case, about 4 billion years apparently). Like I did at the end of season eight, I'll start with a question, the most basic question: did I like the episode? It's really hard to say. I know; that's cheating, but it's true. The first 45 minutes or so were cold and bloodless and without heart for something as momentous as the Doctor coming home after so long. It wasn't the homecoming I wanted, but then again are homecomings ever what we expect? Probably not. But, on the other hand, the last 15 minutes--once Ashildr entered the picture--were really spectacular and I found myself gaping in awe at what was happening. We've seen the Doctor take away people's memories of him and their time together before (Donna Noble, I'll never forget your heroism) but this time the tables really were turned. It's a brand new day for the Doctor in this the continuation and end of his katabasis and while there is a sense of being made whole once again, with his velvety Doctor coat and his new sonic screwdriver (praise god), there is definitely a feeling of loss as we finally say goodbye to the Impossible Girl. Grab a sad story for the road and let's go! 

Let's talk the katabasis. I do so love a good katabasis. A lot of this episode, once we get past the issue of Rassilon being alive and a menace to society (maybe his hat was too tight), focuses on the Doctor working his way through a spooky labyrinth like maze full of ghosts and creatures who have been captured by said maze and are forced to spend eternity in pain and misery. It is called, by the Time Lords themselves, Hell. Not to put too fine a point on it or anything. Subtle it is not, but that's fine, I'll work with it. When the hero embarks on his journey and finds himself facing the Underworld, Hell, Hades, the realm of the dead or whatever you want to call it--"including a giant computer guarded by ghosts in a big crypt"--it is really for one sole purpose: to conquer death itself. Harry descends below the trapdoor and faces Voldemort (the embodiment of death and chaos) once more; later Harry finds himself at a certain railway station making a choice between life and death; Hercules goes down into Hades and comes out the other side; Aeneas crosses over the threshold and sees what is to come before rising up, more fully realized, and sets out on his journey to create a lasting empire; Emma Swan enters the Vault of Eternal Goo and must battle the Darkness within and stop its plan to snuff out the light. And, lest we forget, at this point in the calendar year, Jesus had a little something called the Harrowing of Hell. All of this is to make one point; whether it be a literal descent into a literal underworld or whether it be metaphorical, the hero can only be seen as a true hero if he can conquer death and/or the villain who embodies death. By facing down death (the one true entity that every creature in the universe is subject to) and coming out the other side, the Hero has shown that he is special; he is set apart, branded, by the Universe as being something more. For the Doctor this week, his mission is not so much about saving Gallifrey or saving his people, but it's about saving Clara from death. He punched through a diamond wall to save her, after all. Here's the question that the show really wants us to ask, though: did he succeed? Is he the Cosmic Hero? Well, yes and no. In many ways, Clara is alive; the Doctor did save her. She's out there, right now, with another immortal flying around in a TARDIS all her own (that looks like a 1950s diner?) having adventures and living the life that she became so addicted to. But at the same time, the answer to that question is no. Clara is going to die. Maybe not today; maybe not tomorrow. It might take lifetimes; eons upon eons until Clara is ready to go back to that moment, but at some point, the Impossible Girl will face the raven and die on that Neverwhere-like street. The Doctor conquers death, but only temporarily. I suppose that actually lives up to some of those Christian influences that are replete throughout the show. Yes, Jesus conquered death for you, but that doesn't mean that you aren't still subject to death. One of the positive aspects here with Clara is that she keeps her agency intact. Clara chose to go and face the raven two episodes back and now she'll get to decide when she wants to face the raven once more. The Doctor doesn't decide her fate nor does he get to rob her of her past; Clara decides her fate and advocates for her past. Moffat often gets into hot water for some misogynistic overtones, but I think we can say he subverted that criticism this time.

The issue I'm facing is that Clara is actually sort of alive but not because I wanted her to die out of spite, but rather that it robs Clara's death of any emotional weight. Clara's new found status as immortal is problematic for a great many reasons, not the least of which is that it means the lesson that was learned in "Face the Raven," that sometimes you do lose and not everything can last, was unlearned and Clara continues her reckless behavior unphased. I have said this a great many times over the course of two seasons, but Moffat's working thesis for Clara Oswald was addiction and the dangers of staying in the TARDIS too long. Clara got reckless; she believed that any danger--no matter how great or how small--could be undone by the Doctor. He was magic; he was a fairy tale and nothing bad can possibly happen in fairy tales, right? The princess wakes up; the kingdom is saved and everyone lives happily ever after. That's the problem with a lot of Moffat's Whoverse. He wants the fairy tale. This isn't to say that Doctor Who isn't a fairy tale because, by and large, I'd classify it as one as much as it is also science-fiction. But Moffat isn't prepared to actually take some of his stories to their natural conclusion meaning that for stories to have resonance, they must have consequences and weight. Some things shouldn't be undone. Doctor Who has weight, and this episode certainly does, but it is also a bit flippant about the matter of death. Clara's lesson that sometimes the Doctor cannot fix everything because, despite his magical and cosmic status, sometimes he does lose, is ultimately erased by episode's end. She doesn't have to face the raven until she's good and ready. She gets to continue on being Clara, being the Impossible Girl, forever if she so chose. Moffat doesn't have (I hate to say this) the guts to kill a character (an important one) and leave them dead. Amy, Rory, Osgood, Clara. All dead. All came back to life or, maybe more accurately, at least got to live out their lives peacefully after a supposed death. Russel T Davies' time as showrunner wasn't exactly littered with bodies, but the tragedies that befell his characters stayed tragedies. Donna Noble still has no idea who the Doctor is or that she was once the DoctorDonna and a reminder of that means her head would (literally) explode. Maybe I sound like I was secretly thrilled at Clara's death, but it's more that her death was handled beautifully and brilliantly and this feels a bit cheap. And, honestly, am I really supposed to believe that the Doctor is never going to realize that there's another TARDIS out there flying around all of time and space and not put two and two together?

What kind of Doctor are we looking at now? I never thought that Moffat would erase Clara from the Doctor. I thought it'd be the other way around. That ending--Clara having no idea who the Doctor is--seems perfectly up Moffat's alley and absolutely something he'd do (though, I'd accuse him of stealing Donna's story). But I admit that Moffat got me with this one. There is something so heartbreaking about the Doctor not knowing about Clara, the person who is really his best friend. The first face this face saw. He can sit right in front of her, look her in the eye, talk to her, and not know it's his best friend; the man who runs to forget really did forget. The Doctor knows that eventually he'll lose his companions; it's part of his ongoing reality, but at least he always knows that they are out there in time and space, living their life. The one adventure he can never have, as he said to Rose Tyler in "Doomsday." But what happens in this episode is the real tragedy of the story: the Doctor doesn't even have the luxury of knowing that Clara is mostly okay. He can't even remember anything about her. The Doctor came out the other side of hell and is reborn (not literally since no regeneration) but with fragments of himself gone. It's tragic and it's a nice twist on the heroes journey. Normally, I'd expect the hero to come out the other side more fully realized, whole and ready to face whatever comes next. To an extent, that's all here in the final moments of this episode. The coat is back on and the Doctor has a new Sonic but there's something missing; a piece of him is gone and one that he can never get back. This hero's tale is a sad one. His ballad is not a joyful paean but a broken melody that carries on because that's all it can do. Memories become stories when we forget, and sometimes they become songs. The Doctor's song isn't over (it never really is), but it did just get a bit sadder.

Miscellaneous Notes on Hell Bent

--Moffat still knows how to write some funny one-liners. A smattering of good ones:
"You've been traveling?" "Yeah from time to time."
"How about lunch and then breakfast because we're time travelers and that's how we roll." 

--This regeneration of Rassilon is not a good one. However, this regeneration is also Maester Luwin from Game of Thrones so I can't hate on him entirely. 

--"You lot? No. You cramp my style. Look at your hats!" Doctor Who have you been reading my blog??

--Loved seeing the retro TARDIS interior from the Classic Era.

--During his conversation with Ashidlr, the Doctor insists that things can last forever and that's why he stole a time machine. I got quite a whiff of "The Great Gatsby" and Jay Gatsby insisting that you can repeat the past, as he reaches out toward that green light and Daisy Buchanan. Is Clara the Doctor's green light? Or is it more the idea of being free from fear and loneliness that is his great dream? I'd say the latter, personally.

--When the Doctor grabbed his new Sonic from the air and held it aloft, I got very teary eyed. It is an iconic moment of the cosmic hero with his magical sword. Stay self-aware, Doctor Who. 

--Who is the Hybrid? I suppose it's the Doctor but it's left pretty vague. I guess Ashildr is right; it doesn't actually matter. It's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

--"Look how far I went for fear of losing you. It has to stop. One of us has to go." I will say that this is a nice ending to Clara's addiction thesis. While Clara might not have learned all the lessons of addiction and abuse, she did learn (and finally understand) one thing: she and the Doctor are bad together when they both go to extraordinary and absolutely mental lengths to avoid losing one another. It's not good for the universe. So, they must fly apart.

--How about some thoughts on the season over all? I thought this was the strongest season since season 5, really. Most of the episodes are very, very good and moreover focused on what mattered, the Doctor. I don't mind the companions playing a significant role (they are supposed to) but they should never overshadow and take over the Doctor's role. That was the largest issue with season eight. Season nine did a nice job of course correcting that. I still think Moffat has a way to go in telling a tighter story from beginning to end, but this was a step in the right direction. My hope for future seasons is that Moffat stops with the time wimey overly convoluted feel and gets into the core of the Doctor's emotional storyline. It crops up every now and then but I feel as though Moffat cuts it off at the knees. If we never see Gallifrey again, I'm going to be very upset. There needs to be a more proper homecoming than what we got this week. As usual, Peter Capaldi is wonderful and I truly love him as the Doctor. Here's hoping the next companion brings something new to the table (please don't be another modern Earth female...)

Final Rating for Season 9 : A-

Final Episode Ranking
12. Sleep No More (9x09) (bottom of the list. I know we were all wondering where I would put it)
11. The Zygon Invasion (9x07)
10. Under the Lake (9x03)
9. The Zygon Inversion (9x08)
8. Before the Flood (9x04)
7. Heaven Sent (9x11)
6. The Witch's Familiar (9x02)
5. Hell Bent (9x12)
4. The Magician's Assistant (9x01)
3. Face the Raven (9x10)
2. The Woman Who Lived (9x06)
1. The Girl Who Died (9x05)