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)

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