Sunday, July 2, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x12)

Early on in his regeneration, the Twelfth Doctor turns to then companion Clara and asks, "Am I a good man?" It's a question Clara doesn't know how to answer and her only response is that she doesn't know, but he tries to be. The Twelfth Doctor has grappled with his goodness--or lack there of--since the beginning, always teetering somewhere between going too far, being a bit too dark, grumpy, utilitarian, and being the hero with the shinning sword we expect when we think of the Doctor. Doctors like Ten and Eleven might have done questionable things and been haunted by them, but to question their own morality was rare. Always, they were on the side of the angels. However, over the past three years we've watched as Twelve moved into the space where he could stop questioning his own goodness and demonstrate to others, and moreover himself, this goodness he sought. The question of the Twelfth Doctor's goodness should be lingering in the back our mind during the season finale, "The Doctor Falls," because this finale serves as a nice way to finally have the Doctor answer his own question. But--and I am just going to get this out of the way--man, did this episode have a lot of weird resolutions or what? A swan song for Peter Capaldi it is not and it complicated my push/pull relationship with season ten overall; grab your exploding apples and let's go!

What makes a person good? Science fiction usually likes to play with a much broader topic, the all too common "what makes a person a person" but Doctor Who knows that its central character isn't human at all so it can safely skirt around that quagmire. The Doctor isn't human and he can be at his terrifying and awe inspiring best when he shows off his godly attributes. But it's those same Time Lord tendencies that often rob him of that spark of humanity that resides in him and that he find so endearing in actual humanity. Take, for instance, the stunning "Waters of Mars" from the 10th Doctor's era; the end of the episode finds the Doctor in all his Time Lord glory: arrogant, self-assured, master of all time and space and subject to no one's laws or rules. And, for the briefest of moments, he becomes a Monster--or perhaps, to bring our starting question back 'round to the two newest companions tagging along with the Twelfth Doctor--he becomes the Master. It's easier to discuss what makes a person good if you look at their opposite. The Master, John Simm's version of him, is a sociopath. He would rather spite the Doctor than see any part of him--present, past, future--standing next to the Doctor in a battle. Missy might think that joining with the Doctor, turning toward the good side, is inevitable, but the Master thinks it's far more likely that he'll shoot himself in the back first. It's a note we've seen this version of the Master hit before; rather than regenerate in "The Last of the Time Lords," the Master chooses burning, destroying, and destruction over the chance of something new. To expect more from the Master is pointless, though it's worth pointing out that a good person would keep hoping and keep trying until finally breaking through. Which brings us to Missy and the back and forth pivots she's been doing all year, or at least once we opened Chekov's Vault Door. Is Missy good? Can Missy be redeemed? It's a central question that has been tossed around all season; we've seen the Mistress hesitate before taking the oft trod "bad" path; we've seen her express empathy, regret, and her own version of kindness like explaining that in order to stop the Monks and save the human race, the Doctor should kill Bill. I don't even think Missy knows if she's good; there's a part of Missy that wants to be good, that longs to take the Doctor's hand and stand with him but her own nature (one that has literally come to life and is dancing circles around her) and her own self preservation stops her. It's a natural feeling, even the Doctor acknowledges in a powerful speech that he doesn't stand against the Cybermen because it's easy or it's fun or he thinks he'll win. But where Missy and the Master truly differ is that while Missy's hesitation stems from wanting to save her own skin, the Master's flat out refusal comes from a sneering spite and vindictive nature to see the Doctor be disappointed and fail. It might be a subtle difference--after all, both Missy and the Master walk off the battlefield together--but it's a difference. This is one of the more frustrating endings for this episode, then. It does a nice job of bringing Missy's redemption--which, as I've said before was given little overall treatment--to a conclusion because, yes, she does choose to go back to the Doctor and help him, but she is stopped from having any kind of grand apotheosis into her best self by the Master. I get why the Master shot her; it's in his nature and we should have seen it coming a mile away; but, from a writing perspective, to deny Missy the moment of triumph and her return to the Doctor's side to fight with him, was an odd move because it cuts her redemption off at the knees. Can Missy be fully redeemed (or even a little bit redeemed) if she doesn't actually get to do anything redemptive? What matters more--the conscious thought of goodness or the act of goodness? I don't want to rob Missy of this nice about face but she essentially died without anyone knowing she made the right and kind choice.

Parallel to Missy in this episode is Bill who, as it turns out, is not going to be saved by the Doctor from being a Cyberman. The Master follows his nature, Missy rebels against it but without anyone knowing, and then there's darling, wonderful Bill Potts who refuses to be the monster she was made into. I'll give credit where it's due, tying Bill's resistance back to the Monks and that particular hostile takeover was a nice through line. Everyone sees Bill as a monster and runs from her, but she won't let it stop her from making the right and kind choices. When Bill looks in the mirror, she still sees herself whereas Missy is more likely to see the monster because she's come at least far enough to recognize that she is one. Perhaps this comparison isn't really fair, though, because Bill was never a monster to begin with. She never burned worlds or turned against her people; it's easier for her to stay moral and kind because it's all she's ever been. So if she's following her already established patterns, does that make her a good person? Does resisting something--her Cyberman programming--make her a better person than Missy? Than the Doctor? And this is where we need to discuss the incredibly weird end to Bill Pott's twelve episode long story. Denying Missy her chance at heroism is one thing, but bringing back a character from the opening episode and having Bill die (is she dead?) and then join this character as water molecules (I guess) in a new way of living, abandoning the Doctor in his time of need because she wants to see more of the universe--where did that even come from? Does this make any sense with how Bill has been characterized thus far? How her relationship with the Doctor has been characterized? I'll even eschew the criticism it would be all too easy to hurl at writer Steven Moffat over his constant--ye gods, constant--need to undo character deaths and trauma with a handwave or that he once again fell into his often used trope of true love saving the day. How does Bill deliver the Doctor to the TARDIS and then decide to turn and leave him in order to show her new girlfriend the stars? Bill and the Doctor aren't just companions; they are that all too unique combination of Doctor/partner on the show--friend, daughter/granddaughter, student, mentor. These two have been built in such a way that they are sort of the perfect example of Doctor/companion relationships. Is this because Bill had to wait ten years for the Doctor to come find her--which seems decidedly un-Bill given that she's been constructed as someone with compassion and heart. I can see how some people might see this as a satisfying conclusion because it's a happy ending and it fits (awkwardly) into the student becoming the teacher trope but it short changes Bill and the Doctor's amazing relationship, the true selling point of this season.

And this, then, brings us back around to the question the Twelfth Doctor asked three years ago: is he a good man. Yes, a thousand times over, yes. What makes him a good man? It's not just his actions, though he certainly performs the right ones. The Twelfth Doctor is a good man because he's kind. Because when someone needs help, he stops his little blue police box that's bigger on the inside and he helps in whatever way he can. Sure, the Doctor might die, but if he can help even just a little, then why not. In recent politics there's been a nifty little analogy floating around certain circles about Skittles and questioning if you would eat a bowl of Skittles if you knew there were at least one or two in the bowl that were poisonous and would kill you. The Doctor, if he were to hear this, would demand the whole bowl of Skittles, downing every single one and asking for more and that, I believe, is the message we are meant to take away from the past three years of the Twelfth Doctor. It's better to be kind. It's not safe, it's not easy, and you may end up losing something dear to you, but it's kind. Just kind. This is why, at the end of all things, this Doctor doesn't want to regenerate. Would you want to give up the type of clarity you just achieved after searching for it for so long? I wouldn't. And so he'll rage, rage against the dying of the light to maintain this perfect little piece of hope and tranquility he's gotten. But, we know how this story ends, do we not? All things end; and like the Fourth Doctor so wisely intoned, "it's the end...but the moment has been prepared for."  One more time then, Twelfth Doctor, if you please. We've crash landed on a snowy bank and the First Doctor has come to call. See you at Christmas.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Doctor Falls

--"It's hard to say; I'm of two minds but fortunately the other one is unconscious." Michelle Gomez and John Simm have fabulous chemistry and it was a real treat to see these two play off each other.

--However, for the last time Moffat, dick jokes are not funny and are beneath this show.

--"Nothing wrong with being kind. Jelly baby?" Yes, 12. Get your 4 on!

--Is anyone going to go back for Nardole or the ship that is currently teetering on the edge of a black hole? That's a rather big plot thread to leave hanging, no?

--I had thought, some 6 seasons ago now, that the Master was dead and then we have been led to believe that Missy was dead twice over, so I won't say that we won't be seeing Missy again but it sure did look like this was her final hurrah.

--"Is the future going to be all girl?" "We can only hope."

--"I'm not a doctor. I'm The Doctor. The original you might say."

--"I'm not trying to win...I do what I do because it's right, it's decent, and it's kind. Just kind."

--Overall thoughts on season 10? This one is a bit tougher to wrap my mind around. It had its highs, to be sure, but it also had an awful lot of lows. It worked best when the focus was on Bill and the Doctor's relationship and anytime it veered off course, like trying to mix things up tonally with the Monks, it fell flat on its face. Bill is quite clearly the best part of this season, followed by anytime Peter Capaldi was given a long speech and it was nice to get back to some simpler story lines like space romps or haunted houses. Because this is Moffat's final season it behooves us to consider what he was trying to say in his last few moments and, again, it's hard to say. He course corrected a lot of the faults he's been hammering over and over (again, the writing of Bill comes to mind) and the show slowed down from the full throttle blockbuster feel of seasons 6-8 but there are still too many times when he relies of multiple time jumps or time streams to solve his problem of the week. The season also had a problem with balance, albeit a new sort of problem; it used to be that Moffat wrote too much for the companion and turned the show into something Doctor-lite, now that particular balance has returned, but like we see in this finale, the villains have become bland. However, if the ultimate message of season 10 is to be kind that's about as straight forward and simple as Moffat is likely to get.

Final Episode Ranking for Season 10 (lowest to highest)

12. "Empress of Mars" (10x9)
11. "Smile" (10x2)
10. "The Pyramid At The End Of The World" (10x7)
9. "Extremis" (10x6)
8. "Knock Knock" (10x4)
7. "The Lie of the Land" (10x8)
6. "Oxygen" (10x5)
5. "The Doctor Falls" (10x12)
4. "The Eaters Of Light" (10x10)
3. "The Pilot" (10x1)
2. "Thin Ice" (10x3)
1. "World Enough And Time" (10x11)

Final Grade for Season 10: B

--Well, that's it! Barring any fly-by movie reviews, I'm done for the summer. See everyone in the fall when our TV shows return.