Sunday, June 11, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x9)

Okay, Doctor Who. I think it's time we had a serious chat because this is yet another week where I feel you've dropped the plot ball and are simply spinning your wheels rather aimlessly. It's not that this week's episode "Empress of Mars" is bad but it certainly isn't good either. It's a very standard, by the book, rote episode. Two opposing forces face off, the Doctor and his companion intercede and we get another look at the Twelfth Doctor as a negotiator, something Moffat and company have been hammering home since Capaldi took over the role three years ago. This is an unremarkable episode, with a forgettable plot, that adds almost nothing to the season as a whole. That's harsh, I know, but after a much hyped trilogy that ended abruptly before it was allowed to really be fleshed out, a return to the norm might be expected, but the episode fails to elevate itself above the anticipated and expected. I'm still waiting for this season to recapture the momentum it had for the first few episodes when it not only felt like a new experience but when the show genuinely had something to say. The saddest bit is that the fix for this episode is simple and it would have made for a much more interesting hour: Bill and the Empress discuss feminism, the patriarchy, and colonialism. Come on, tell me that doesn't sound fascinating. Grab your Gargantua and tally ho, let's go! 

There's a pretty consistent through-line in this episode about colonialism and the irreversible effects of the conquering nation on the conquered. This is a more tricky to approach as an American than it would be if I were, say, British. It's not that America didn't get its feet wet in colonialism--our nation was quite literally ripped away from the indigenous peoples living here--but we've never really experienced the kind of dissolution in Empire that our neighbors across the pond did; there's a reason the old saying "the sun rose and set on the British Empire" exists. The British Empire at the time of Queen Victoria, specifically in 1881 when the Doctor and Bill land on the surface of Mars, was immense. It spanned to almost every corner of the globe, across several--if not all--the livable continents (poor Antarctica, always left out!). The psychological, literary, and cultural effects of colonialization are far reaching and require years of study to really parse out; in other words, more time and effort than I admittedly expect Doctor Who to tackle in one hour of TV. The colonialism trope is a staple of science-fiction and it's more than acceptable for Doctor Who to stick to the hallmark traits of an openly hostile conquering race (British humans, in this case) who are pit against a conquered race (the Ice Warriors) in which the conquered culture is seen as foreign, other, and ultimately inferior to the conquering culture. For example, one British soldier remarks, "Don't belong? We're British; Mars is part of the Empire now!" and another red coated officer pays no mind to the sacrality of a tomb and instead proceeds to pry off the coffin's gemstones. I understand that all narratives need a driving force so I'm not asking that the show cut the entirety of the skirmish. To wit, looking at the episode presented before me, it does have a fast pace and lots of explosions, the much lauded chemistry between Bill and the Doctor, and various subplots that quickly endear or deride the one-off characters. As a stand alone episode, it fulfills a lot of Doctor Who requirements. The issue, for me, is that it's just not enough to give the episode a passing grade. This episode could have joined the ranks of "Thin Ice" in terms of unpacking clever political analysis instead of avoiding it. When the Ice Queen arrives on the scene, we get an indomitable, strong, female force, something all too rare in any sort of warrior culture where men get the lion's share of credit. It's a right shame, then, that the episode didn't put a giant pause on the predictable battle of conquering vs conquered and, instead, give viewers a meaty and weighted conversation and think piece between Iraxxa, the Queen, and Bill, our queer, colored, modern working class woman. There was so much to pick up here between what it means to be female between human and Ice Warrior, the relationship between male and female, and even colonialism given not only Bill's skin color, but also the fact that she just saved her planet from being invaded by hostile alien-Monks! We get a small morsel of this when Iraxxa wants Bill's opinion because "we are both surrounded by noisy males" but then the episode drops any further development of this idea and focuses instead on the internal angst of a lot of male figures. I understand that Doctor Who isn't hard science-fiction and likes to stay in the more pulpy, campy, and often fantastical lane but for a season that has been so politically charged, more's the pity that the writers didn't find a way to cut large parts of the male-orientated drama (a coup, a dishonorable officer who gets his honor back, the tiredness of a soldier who returns home at last) and focus on something a bit more relevant and modern.

Miscellaneous Notes on Empress of Mars

--Speaking of shame, the eponymous Empress of Mars was a one-note character until the end. She did little but bark orders at her warriors and hiss at the humans. The only coloring she got was when she spared the officer's life.

--Well hey there Alpha Centauri! That's a blast from the long ago past if ever there was one.

--"Sorry, I never could resist a countdown."

--Why did the TARDIS zip Nardole back to the present day Earth? And why did Missy keep inquiring if the Doctor was okay when the team was all reunited? I have a feeling this dangling thread will come back before the season is over.

--It would have been very meta if the picture of Queen Victoria kept by the army had born a more striking resemblance to Jenna Coleman given her latest TV project.

--I think this is the least amount I’ve laughed during an episode all season. The only chuckle I got was that the Doctor hasn’t seen classic sci-fi movies like the Terminator or The Thing, but he has seen Disney's Frozen. Go figure.

--"You will die with honor, with bravery, and in fighting for those you have sworn to protect." Geez, foreshadowing the regeneration much?

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