Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Friday, November 14, 2014

"Say Something Nice": Two Cheers for "Dark Water" and "Death in Heaven"

Death in Heaven, last week's finale for series 8 of Doctor Who, is as divisive among fans of the show as was Dark Water, the episode leading into the finale. (My views on Dark Water are here.)

It's not surprising; Death in Heaven is quick-moving, nuanced in its characterizations, and convoluted in its plot. Depending on your metric, it can fairly be viewed as a mixed-up mess or as a brilliant success.

On the negative side, once again, my friend Nick Kaufmann:
Look, I’m not going to mince words here. Doctor Who‘s eighth season finale,”Death in Heaven,” was crap. Although I suppose it could have been a passable, rousing adventure if it weren’t for the fact that nothing in it made any sense. If you thought the science in “In the Forest of the Night” was absurd even for Doctor Who, wait until you get a load of this episode!***

Missy employs something called Cyberpollen (magic rain!) that transforms every dead body on Earth into Cybermen — but only dead bodies. It works so perfectly that it begs the question why it wasn’t intended to transform all the living beings instead. But no, that will require a second pollination performed by the dead-body Cybermen! Why have this two-tier plan? Why not just turn every living human on Earth into a Cyberman with the first rain? Why even bother with transforming the dead first? On top of that, there didn’t seem to be any limit on how long someone could be dead before their body is transformed into a Cyberman. Did you die in the 1700s? Are you just dust and bone shards now? Doesn’t matter. Now you’re a full-bodied Cyberman! On the other hand, are you a healthy, living human being with all your limbs intact? Then sorry, we don’t want you. Just the dead , thanks. Again, why? There isn’t a reason beyond the fact that the plot demands a two-tier plan so the Doctor can stop it.
Also, Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue:
There were a few episodes this season I greatly enjoyed but the overall theme dragged me down to point where I’m considering not watching the show anymore because it’s not bringing me any joy. Clara was going to murder someone but didn’t have to because the Doctor was going to in her place, neither a fantastic scenario. And the Doctor feels he won because he didn’t give into the temptation to basically rule the galaxy but it doesn’t feel like a win when everything else is so awful.

***

Perhaps you felt differently about the episode but after what was a very compelling first half for me, the second part fell apart completely and left me longing for fun adventures through time and space again.
On the brilliant success side of the ledger, Philip Sandifer:
It works. There are plot holes. I identified several in the immediate aftermath. On a second pass, all of them have, at the very least, a line of dialogue. Yes, Missy’s entire reason for bringing the Doctor and Clara together and intervening in their timestreams to keep them together was that Clara would eventually lead the Doctor to try to rescue a loved one out of heaven. It’s a scheme by the Master, what did you expect, sanity? The Doctor probably could have commanded the army to self-destruct, but he recognized that Danny was the right person to do it. They’re not always satisfying payoffs, though for the most part, they’re as satisfying as they need to be for the amount the show built them up - if fans inflated the minor mysteries further, that’s their problem.

And when anything falters, it’s willing to get through on sheer bravado. Moffat returned to the two-parter on the back of Sherlock, and built one with a corker of a cliffhanger. He actually rejects his own usual advice of having to pick up the cliffhanger in a different place, instead just weighting the two halves, so Clara drops out earliest in Dark Water and then gets the cold open in Death in Heaven. Then he uses UNIT to change the pace a second time, and he’s off to the races with something that feels very different without any gimmicks, or, at least, without any of the gimmicks his detractors accuse him of relying on. It keeps moving at a thrilling speed. There’s no flab to this story - just a solid knowledge of what the major scenes actually are and a willingness to linger on them and trim the connective tissue.

It’s phenomenally good, and a worthy capstone to a season that has been a genuinely incredible piece of television. And it’s been a barnstorming success in practice. There are detractors, but most reviews have been positive, ratings have been high. AIs have been a smidgen weak, perhaps, but that’s maybe OK for a show that’s taking this many risks. Maybe the best television doesn’t get a 91 point AI.
(Paul Cornell raved, too.)

So, what gives, and where do I stand?

Well, look. I find myself very forgiving of bad science in Doctor Who, always have been. That's because I have never seen Doctor Who as science fiction, but as science fantasy--I think that Sandifer's great contribution to critical reading of Doctor Who is his insight that, thanks to David Whitaker's seminal contribution to the program, Doctor Who is rooted in alchemical thinking. So, science? Not so much--quasi-science, with alchemical roots, that begins in the Hartnell era and continues into the present. And in terms of that logic, Death in Heaven works.

A few specific points:

1. "Doctor Idiot": The Doctor's self-discovery

When the Doctor realizes he is not a good man, a bad man, a hero or an officer, he realizes that he is "an idiot with a box nd a screwdriver. Just passing through, helping out, learning." He is, in other words (Robertson Davies's words, for choice, the Fool:
The Fool; the cheerful rogue on a journey, with a rip in his pants, and a little dog that nipped at his exposed rump, urging him onward and sometimes nudging him in directions he had never intended to take. The Fool, who had no number but the potent zero which, when it was added to any other number, multiplied its significance by ten. . . He had been inclined to see his own myth as that of a servant, a drudge, not without value, but never an initiator or an important figure in anyone’s life but his own. If he had been asked to choose a card in the Tarot that would signify himself, he would probably have named the Knave of Clubs, Le Valet de Baton, the faithful, loyal servitor. Was not that the character he had played all his life? . . . Oh, the Knave of Clubs to the life! But now Mamusia had declared as true what he had for some time felt in his bones. He was something better. He was the Fool. Not the servitor, napkin in hand, at the behest of his betters, but the footloose traveller, urged onward by something outside the confines of intellect and caution.
And that's not a bad description of the core meaning of the Doctor as he has been presented in the series, from the beginning on. Finding himself, alchemically speaking, spiritually speaking, is a key step on his trip back to Gallifrey. It's not an express trip, for those who thought that this would be the reason arc; he has to get acquainted with himself first.

2. The Mistress's Plan: Why the Dead, and Not the Living, too?

Missy's two step plan makes perfect sense when you look at it in terms of her purpose: she wants to force the Doctor to accept her gift and exercise power. She hangs the threatened cyber-conversion of all the living as a sword over the Doctor's head to make him do so. She says this explicitly:
DOCTOR: Nobody can have that power.
MISSY: You will, because you don't have a choice. The only way you can stop these clouds from opening up and killing all your little pets down here. Conquer the universe, Mister President. Show a bad girl how it's done.
(Missy drops a deep curtsy. The Doctor rips the bracelet off.)
DOCTOR: Why are you doing this?
MISSY: I need you to know we're not so different. I need my friend back. Every battle, every war, every invasion. From now on, you decide the outcome. What's the matter, Mister President? Don't you trust yourself?
(My emphasis.) The whole plan is structured not to defeat the Doctor, but to corrupt him--to make him see the Mistress as his peer, his friend, again. The dead are used because the living are hostages, spared only if the Doctor takes the bait, and actively participates in effectuating Missy's plan.

3. Why Clara?

Missy's putting Clara and the Doctor together likewise works; as we have seen this whole season, Clara has learned exactly the wrong lessons from the Doctor. Her "control freak" aspect, always present, has come increasingly to the fore, as she has come to enjoy power and its exercise. She has become, as the episode makes clear, "an incredible liar." She has become, while not evil, someone who the Mistress (as the Doctor said about her name, a regeneration or two back, "You chose it. Psychiatrist's field day.") understands enough to manipulate. Clara is enough like Missy that Missy can predict how she'll behave. And (the inference seems clear), either she brings about Danny's death, or is aware of it as a fixed point from her scanning of Clara and the Doctor's timeline.

4. Give Me Something to Sing About: What About "The End of Time"?

Back in June, I wrote:
the Doctor has seen his own darkness, and, in revulsion at his own arrogance, is prepared to die to stop the corrupted Time Lords under Rassilon destroying, well, everything. The Master makes the same choice, first telling the Doctor to "get out of the way," mirroring the Doctor's own prior warning to him.

It is hard to imagine a story that brings back the Master without undermining that ending, and though I have always enjoyed the character, I would hate for that to happen. Unless the integrity of the character development can be respected, and a new kind of story told, I'd prefer Moffatt leave the Master in peace.
So, the inevitable question--did the Moff pull it off?

Well, he has found something different, and something that I, personally, find compelling--the Doctor's oldest friend trying to regain her former role in his life, trying to bridge the gap between them, but in a psychotic way that shows that she is still deeply, profoundly damaged. This isn't Eric Roberts's seemingly motiveless malevolence, or even Ainley's game-playing aesthete. The character now is a logical extension of the best of Ainley's Master, and, especially, of Simm's portrayal--less walking wounded, more polished, but still--insane, even against her own best interests. And despite that, and even with the Doctor poised to kill her, there was a kind of meeting of the minds in this story that we haven't seen before--this touch-averse Doctor cupped her face in his hands, and kissed her, thanking her for what he learned through his ordeal. Look at how Micelle Gomez plays that scene again--how gentle her expression is at that moment. And again, when the Doctor chooses to kill his old friend rather than to let Clara do so:
DOCTOR: No. No, don't you dare. I won't let you.
CLARA: Old friend, is she? If you have ever let this creature live, everything that happened today, is on you. All of it, on you. And you're not going to let her live again.
DOCTOR: Clara, all I'm doing is not letting you kill her. I never said I was letting her live.
CLARA: Really?
DOCTOR: If that's the only thing that will stop you, yes.
(Clara hands over the thingy.)
MISSY: Seriously. Oh, Doctor. To save her soul? But who, my dear, will save yours? Say something nice. Please?
DOCTOR: You win.
MISSY: I know.
(The Doctor prepares to vaporise Missy, but another energy bolt gets there first. It was a Cyberman with a dark chest disc. It points to something lying amongst the gravestones.)
The Doctor-Missy dynamic is in a very different place from where it has previously been. Moffatt has found a new story to tell.

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