Sunday, June 18, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x10)

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

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

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

Miscellaneous Notes on The Eaters of Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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