Posts Tagged With: clara oswald

The Kasterborous Archives, #4: Slap in the Face – Why Doctor Who’s Domestic Violence Has To Stop

Author’s notes:

Tackling this sort of subject matter is always going to be tricky. In the process of doing so I encountered a few people who thought I was overreacting and one or two feminists who felt it trivialised male-on-female violence. I contend that neither statement is true and that I’m making a valid point – but I would add that this was written before series 9, which seemed to fix many of the problems we’d had. Whether that was down to a general lightening of the Doctor’s character, a shift in tone, or perhaps a growing realisation that casual slapping was both dramatically lazy and downright irresponsible, I’ll never know. The third option is somehow unlikely.

Thinking back, I wonder if I shouldn’t have used the words ‘domestic violence’. But I stand by the content, so I trust you’ll forgive the occasional lapse into sensationalism.

Slap in the face: Why Doctor Who’s domestic violence has to stop

Published: 19 August 2015

Picture the scene. The TARDIS’s lights glow eerily. Up at the console, the Doctor flicks switches, pulls a couple of levers in quiet desperation. Finally, with an anguished sigh, he gives up. “It’s gone,” he tells Clara. “Gallifrey. Completely gone. I’ll never see it again.”

Clara, who is feeling particularly mean this afternoon, gives a nonchalant shrug. “You were the one who lost it in the first place. Can’t leave you alone with anything, can they?” Whereupon the Doctor turns from the console, striding across the floor of the TARDIS and slapping her savagely across the face.

The inclusion of a moment like this is more or less unthinkable. Even if you could write the characters this way, the OFCOM fallout would be potentially catastrophic. The tabloids would have a field day. The Mail’s headline would be a smug “BBC GOES TOO FAR”. The forums would be clogged with debates about whether the Doctor has become irredeemably dark, irreversibly unpleasant, and whether we need to see violence against women represented at this scale – counter-balanced against the views of those who simply see it as a natural progression, a chance for the show to journey into uncharted waters.

You’ve probably already seen where I’m going with this, but just in case it needs pointing out, when the reverse happens – as it does, with increasing frequency – the net result is a string of animated GIFs and YouTube compilations and the sound of much laughter. Because slapping in Doctor Who is something that they seem to do a lot, and while it’s undoubtedly a source of much hilarity to most of the Tumblr brigade, I’m not one of them. And every time it happens, I get very uncomfortable.

There’s certainly been a history of Doctor-companion violence. Perhaps one of the most notable early stories was The Edge of Destruction, with its strangulation cliffhanger and the notorious scene where Susan attacks Barbara with a pair of scissors. It was a stage in the production history where they were still working out tone and it’s almost inconceivable that it would have happened even, say, a year later. Meanwhile, strangulation rears its ugly head again in The Twin Dilemma, as a paranoid, post-regeneration Doctor shouts poetry at Peri before trying to throttle her. I’ve had dates like this, but it’s a nasty scene in a largely ridiculous story, and we will not dwell on it.

Besides, such things seem to be anomalies in twenty-five years of comparatively chaste television, in which the relationship the companion has with their Doctor is seldom discussed openly. For better or worse, a companion-based intensity is central to the dynamic of New Who, and generally you either love it or hate it. The Ninth Doctor famously tells Rose that he doesn’t “do domestic”, but that almost feels like Eccleston himself protesting against the tide of relationship issues that clogged the show both during and after his stint in the leather jacket.

That’s a different debate, of course, but it has fallout. The Doctor is slapped by Jackie Tyler for taking away his daughter. Francine Jones slaps him because she believe he’s a threat. A bolshy, pre-enlightened Donna Noble slaps him because she thinks she’s been kidnapped (and then again when she thinks he’s making light of a serious situation). Martha slaps the Doctor to bring him out of his self-induced fugue.

Some of these are understandable within the context of the narrative, even if we could question the writers’ decision to subsequently make light of them (the Doctor and Rose share a joke about Jackie on a rooftop, while a reeling Tennant remarks “Always the mothers” while he’s getting up). But that’s television. The comedy value of a good slap in the face is, apparently, worth its weight in gold, whether it’s Tasha Lem in Time of the Doctor, or Clara’s assault on the Cyberplanner Doctor in Nightmare in Silver. It would be churlish to single out Doctor Who for this sort of thing. It happened practically every week in Friends. It goes back to the golden age of television and beyond. Every short film Leon Errol ever made would end when his wife hit him over the head with a vase.

Perhaps comedy slapping has its place, given the right characters and context. But there’s been a shift over the years from a literal slapstick – the Eleventh Doctor hitting himself for his own stupidity – towards a darker, violence-as-reaction ethos, and perhaps that’s what makes me uncomfortable. I’ve mentioned the mothers, but the rot truly sets in when Matt Smith enters his second series: River’s reaction upon seeing an apparently resurrected (but actually two hundred years younger) Doctor is to slap him. She does it again when he fixes her broken wrist. Clara’s about the most violent of the lot, particularly when she’s working with Capaldi: thoughtless behaviour is punished with physical abuse in both Last Christmas and Into the Dalek, while she threatens, in Kill the Moon, to “smack you so hard you’ll regenerate”.

“But surely,” I can hear people arguing, “It’s OK, because the Doctor’s an alien?” And yes, the Doctor’s not human. He’s already demonstrated amazing resistance to injuries. He’s probably got a healing factor. He’s like an abrasive, declawed Wolverine, so that makes it OK. Besides, thumping non-human life forms isn’t a problem: if Han Solo’s response to being captured by the Ewoks had been to punch one of them in the face, I’m sure that would have been entirely acceptable to most children. It’s a poor analogy, but it illustrates that the line’s very hard to draw. To what extent do we disavow the actions of a character on the grounds that the humanoid patriarch they’ve thumped has two hearts instead of just one?

“Or,” the argument continues, “he deserves it, right?” Well, yes, of course he does. The Twelfth Doctor’s an alienating (in a quite literal sense of the word), clinically detached sociopath, at least in his worst moments. He says the horrible things we’re all thinking, only the little switch inside his head that stops you saying them out loud doesn’t seem to be working. That’s a perfectly justifiable reason for casual domestic violence. He deserves it in the same way that provocatively dressed women presumably deserve to be raped.
Why even question the motives of the one doing the slapping, when the one being slapped is so obviously asking for it?

I watch quite a lot of Jeremy Kyle on the weekday mornings I’m folding laundry instead of writing, and a couple of months ago one particular guest recounted the time he was locked in his flat by a girlfriend who supposedly beat him. The authenticity of his narrative was ultimately disputed, of course, but long before that happened Kyle had taken the audience to task for laughing. “If this was the other way around,” he said, “and if a woman was sat here and a bloke had locked her in a flat and she’d been forced to jump out and injure herself you would not be laughing. You would be saying he is a complete nightmare, he should be locked up and that’s disgraceful, but somehow if it happens to a bloke that’s funny. That’s not funny.”

If I could say that the show were making a valid point about this sort of thing, I’d probably be more tolerant. But it doesn’t: moral debate is sandwiched into inappropriate contexts where it is dealt with poorly and rapidly (Kill The Moon again) or, more often, sidestepped entirely. So by turns we’re supposed to laugh, or shake our heads in dismay and mutter “Well, he was asking for it”. We laugh because it’s a powerful Time Lord being brought down off his pedestal by a weak and feeble human. And we shouldn’t, because when it’s supposed to be funny, it usually isn’t, and when it’s supposed to be angst-ridden, it just comes across as nasty. Besides, it’s not just the Doctor. In Asylum of the Daleks, Amy slaps Rory twice. At least that’s consistent. Amy spends most of that story being an absolute bitch, whether it’s the arrogant smugness that pervades the early scenes, or the tirade of fury directed at her ex-husband for considering himself the wronged party (“Plastic man standing outside in the rain for two millennia? Pah. I THREW YOU OUT OF THE HOUSE BECAUSE I CAN’T HAVE YOUR BABIES!”).

I’m not advocating a reduction of violence. I approach many of these situations – inevitably and unavoidably – from the perspective of a parent, but that doesn’t mean I think the show is too unpleasant. I recently showed The Deadly Assassin, arguably the peak of 1970s unpleasantness, to my eight-year-old (and was thrilled when, just last week, he remembered an obscure detail while forming an analogy). The most sensible response to stories that cross your own particular line of acceptable viewing is to simply not watch them.

But I am worried about the show I’m watching. Perhaps Series 8 was Capaldi’s Twin Dilemma moment, borne out across twelve weeks, and the lighter touch hinted at in Series 9 will mean Clara no longer needs to react in anger. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is the way Moffat and the producers choose to do things; a sort of counterbalance to the sexism charges thrown his way last year. But I know we live in a world where The Sun spearheads a campaign to highlight battered women with one hand and dismisses a marital assault charge against its (female) editor as “a silly argument” with the other. I know it’s a world where domestic violence against men is granted less credence than its (admittedly more common) antipode. Once again, that’s another debate for another day. But above all I know this: it’s not the sort of thing I want to see in Doctor Who.

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Lots of planets have a North

This blog’s been comparatively quiet over the last week because I’ve been holidaying: fifteen days of travelling around Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland (with a couple of brief trips north of the border sandwiched in between). We stayed in youth hostels, which varied in breakfast quality / facilities / WiFi strength, and saw more castles, museums and ruined priories than I care to count. I drove the van; the kids in turn drove me mad. Emily planned the whole thing and was generally fantastic.

But you don’t want to hear about the bridges at Hartlepool, or the red squirrels outside the dining room at Alston, or the time Josh got stuck in a revolving door on the way out of the Scottish Parliament building. You want the Who-themed stuff, don’t you? This is Brian of Morbius, after all, and finding tenuous Doctor Who-related connections in more or less everything is kind of what we do here. Very well, let’s get on with it.

 

1. Observed in an Edinburgh museum (and pinched from another website as the photo I took wasn’t much good), a rare sighting of Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton.

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2. So I’m wandering through the middle of Carlisle, and…

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3. Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island: there’s a grave marker for a woman named Osgyth, a seventh century English saint from Buckinghamshire. There are all sorts of stories about arranged marriages and the pursuit of holy vows, but personally I can’t help thinking it’s another Clara fragment.

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4. Hang on, when did the War Doctor visit Cragside?

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5. Random charity shop purchases. My bag weighed a ton by the time we drove home.

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6. That is a chair with a panda on it.

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7. Observed in a York museum. It’s not just me, is it? Tell me it’s not just me.

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8. KFC Dalek, courtesy of Thomas.

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9. Don’t blink.

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10. Finally, something non-Who related, but worth sharing: this burger – consumed in a pub in Edinburgh – is 8 oz of Angus beef, topped with haggis. They call it the Highlander. Concordantly, I have removed its head.

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Gareth wanted to know if I had seconds, but of course, there can be only one…

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Romana’s Photo Casebook (part five)

Clara’s dilemma concludes, and Romana dispenses some womanly advice.

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Romana’s Photo Casebook (part four)

Clara thinks she may have found a solution to her problems – but a shock is in store…

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Romana’s Photo Casebook (part three)

Things are getting worse for Clara – but is there a way out…?

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Romana’s Photo Casebook (part two)

Today, Clara has date problems, but that’s only the beginning…

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Romana’s Photo Casebook (part one)

Many years ago, I used to buy The Sun.

I’m not proud of it. But it was that time in my life that I did hospital radio. Little snippets from The Sun were perfect for a Saturday morning request show, particularly when you combined them with stories from The Weekly World News and challenged your listeners to work out which was real and which wasn’t. I collected requests from the orthopedic wards, which meant a juxtaposition of lonely pensioners and beardy, tattooed bikers. My musical selection was thus an uneasy combination of Val Doonican and Meat Loaf. That was fine. The news stories helped with the flow.

The Sun and I had a falling out back when the Sarah Payne story broke and they did something that I won’t go into, but which made me discard the filthy rag permanently. It was something of a wrench, because I’d grown quite addicted to Deirdre’s Photo Casebook, in which agony aunt Deirdre Sanders would deal with the likes of serial adultery, gambling addiction and problem teenagers through the heady medium of captioned photo stories, told in daily installments, three or four photos per episode, with at least one panel featuring a girl in her underwear. Deirdre’s ‘advice’ would feature on the final day. There were five strips a story. Literally. Look, it’s easier to just show you.

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And so on.

Why am I telling you this? Well, cast your mind back to ‘The Caretaker‘. Series eight threw us its fair share of curve balls, but while I never wanted to throw things at the TV during this one (which is not something I could say for ‘Death In Heaven’) it struck me that I didn’t like the way in which the relationship between the Doctor and Clara had progressed. The Doctor’s physical ageing had presumably rendered any question of a love story distinctly icky, and the only possible solution, it seemed to the writers, was to turn him into a stern father figure. It’s something Moffat dealt with last year when Capaldi lightened up, and whatever mistakes the show made during Clara’s swansong stories (not to mention, of course, the tedious death-and-resurrection narrative arc) her relationship with the Doctor was, if nothing else, far more fun to watch, at least when they weren’t getting angsty about unravelling the web of time.

But in the meantime, I’d done this. And eighteen months later, I appear to have finished it.

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But you don’t get the whole lot at once, of course. You can darn well wait. I will upload an image per day over the next week, and you can see the story unfold at its author’s intended pace. Bonus points for anyone who can spot which episodes each panel is from. It’ll be something nice and not at all cynical for Valentine’s weekend, from your not at all cynical author (who is, I should emphasise, not at all single).

And no, Jenna Coleman doesn’t get her kit off. But keep reading. Someone else might.

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Clara and Ashildr: The Long Way Round

I’m doing a River Song. Certain stories are being told out of sequence. I usually post videos in the order I create them. Today’s an exception, largely for the hell of it. What’s the point in having a self-imposed rule if you can’t break it sometimes? This might, of course, explain why I’m still fat.

Emily and I got home from the school quiz on Friday evening to discover the news that Chris Chibnall will shortly be replacing the departing Steven Moffat, after Moffat has produced series ten of Doctor Who – a series which has been delayed until 2017. I have my own views on this, which I’ll save for another day. If you want the Cliff Notes, here they are: a year off is probably going to do us all good. It’ll give me time to stop hating the direction the show has taken. I need breathing space. I need to watch the Sarah Jane Adventures with the kids. And goodness knows I ought to get that book finished.

But talking of spin-offs, this revelation came hot on the heels of a video I’d uploaded only hours previously. It was one of those things we talked about back in December, when such a thing seemed obvious. A few days ago I had the germ of an idea. I Googled it. The results were minimal enough to convince me I could offer something of substance that wouldn’t look like everything else that people are doing. Alternative title sequences for Doctor Who are all over the internet. Have you seen the Friends one? There are several, but I like this one better than most of the others, largely because John Simm seems far more convincing as a slightly crazed Murdock goofball than he ever was as the Master.

Still. You remember that series nine finale. When Ashildr (I cannot and will not bring myself to refer to her as ‘Me’) and Clara nicked the TARDIS – now permanently disguised as an American diner, which presumably made it impossible to actually park the thing – and went off for centuries of adventuring? I mean, I hated it. I really did. Clara’s dead. She’s pecked to death by a giant bird in the middle of Diagon Alley. She’s already had more than enough adventuring for someone her age. Why does she get to have more? Can’t she leave some for the rest of us? But still the cries of ‘spin-off! spin-off!’ ran thick and fast. Never mind the fact that Jenna’s off to play Queen Victoria and Maisie Williams is presumably still knocking around in Game of Thrones (I wouldn’t know, I’ve never seen it). It doesn’t matter. The fan-fiction writers are, I’m sure, out in force and I daresay that a lot of it comes under the Rule 34 subheading.

Photo: Simon Ridgeway

I mean, that’s good. I rather like that one. But you couldn’t possibly do a spin-off and not call it The Long Way Round, could you? It just seems such an obvious title. I can even forgive Moffat for using it twice. It works.

The most difficult part of this was finding music that worked. There is a decent Stereophonics song entitled ‘The Long Way Round’ – used for a biking documentary that was quite popular over here – but stylistically it didn’t fit. A close contender was ‘End of the Line’, which was eventually ditched because a poor facsimile of the song has served to underpin the New Tricks titles for years, and it just felt a bit like cheating. I consulted a Facebook group of which I’m a member. They were helpful, although I didn’t employ any of their suggestions. The idea of using ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ was one I feared would be fraught with difficulties until I discovered the 12-inch version. There was a lot of copy-and-pasting, and if you listen carefully you can hear the joins.

The trick is to use as many different outfits and contexts as possible. Coming up with a variation for Ashildr turned out to be easier than I thought, even though she only appears in four episodes. There’s understandably very little footage of her and Clara together, which is why I spliced a scene from ‘Cold War’ with the ending of ‘The Woman Who Lived’, in one of those things that’s so bad that people will hopefully just assume I was being artistic. The opening dialogue is a composite of Clara’s monologue at the beginning of ‘The Name Of The Doctor’ and various things she said in ‘Hell Bent’.

Overall, this straddles a fine line between Life on Mars and Cagney and Lacey, purposely emulating the former. In that respect, it works. You don’t see the Doctor at all, and that’s entirely deliberate. Someone else mentioned they’d like Jenny to be on board, and while I don’t think the TARDIS is quite that big, she could be a recurring character. She could pop in every series and slide under lasers or something, and then bounce off again. Or they could do a series finale where she goes all veiny and evil. I’d kind of like to see that one.

Oh, and that quiz I mentioned? We won. And there wasn’t a single Doctor Who question. Some days, you just throw a double six.

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Review: ‘Hell Bent’

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There’s this bit towards the end of the first Bottom live show where Rik Mayall is about to commit suicide. Adrian Edmondson has wired up a makeshift electric chair. He pulls the lever: there is a colossal build-up, a wheezing and whining of unseen machinery, alarms, flashing lights. And then there is a fart, and the bang of a cheap firecracker, accompanied by a microscopic shower of sparks.

“Yes,” says Mayall, sighing. “Sort of a bit like having it off with Bonnie Langford, this really, isn’t it?”

It says something about the state of Doctor Who when your verdict of a series finale is “Not as dreadful as some of the others”. Might we say that we’ve sat through worse? Well, yes. ‘The Wedding of River Song’ was a low point, until we reached ‘Death In Heaven’, which had me throwing my Tenth Doctor action figure at the cat. The site of a resurrected Brigadier saluting at the Doctor across a graveyard seemed to vomit on the legacy of Nicholas Courtney and the Doctor who worked for him at UNIT, and those of you who were reading this will remember that I got very cross.

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There’s none of that this time. None of the grandiose, universe-shattering finales to which we’ve become accustomed. Oh, there’s a story about a prophecy that comes to nothing (more on that later). There are threats and recriminations and things that will probably come back to haunt the Doctor later, and a heap of unanswered questions (just where exactly is Gallifrey these days, given that they’ve moved it?) As a finale, it was empty and not terribly satisfying, but it could have been worse. With notable exceptions, that seems to be the best I can say for Doctor Who these days, which is something of a shame, but there it is.

To give credit where it’s due, ‘Hell Bent’ starts brilliantly. After a suitably enigmatic opening in a Nevada diner that – as is now customary with Moffat – will eventually subvert all our expectations, we move to Gallifrey, and a glorious, eight minute sequence in which the Doctor utters not a single word. It contains some of the best acting from Capaldi since he first complained about his kidneys, with the Doctor saying more with the simple act of picking up a spoon or dropping his confession dial in the dust than he could with the sort of monologue he got at the end of ‘The Zygon Inversion’, as good as that was.

Even after the Doctor starts talking, and the plot unfolds and the logic machine breaks beyond repair in a shower of cheap sparks, the acting remains impeccable – particularly from Donald Sumpter, who excels as the Time Lord President, a figure finally and unambiguously revealed to be the resurrected Rassilon. Sumpter plays Rassilon like a battle-hardened East End kingpin in a low-budget, independent gangster flick (something that Clara deliberately points out), chewing up the scenery and stealing every scene that he’s in. It’s a mesmerising performance, and it’s a great shame that there isn’t more of it.

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Instead we get a lot of back and forth about prophecy as the narrative twists in all sorts of directions. The Hybrid is the Doctor! No, that was an obvious joke and it’s Maisie Williams! No, it’s the Doctor! No, it’s the Doctor and Clara! It’s Missy! It’s Keyser Soze! Actually, it doesn’t matter because we’re going to leave this unsolved until Capaldi’s final episode! That’s a writer’s prerogative, but everything about ‘Hell Bent’ smacks of something that hasn’t been thought through. It’s like buying a washing machine when you live in a third floor flat with no lifts. It’s the same problem that dogs The Deathly Hallows, in which Harry, having spent most of book six looking for a set of objects, decides in book seven that there’s another set of objects he ought to be looking for instead. Similarly, the question of the Hybrid is teased throughout and then conveniently confined to the sidelines, another ball the Moff’s thrown in the air, teasing out his reign for as long as possible until all these questions are answered. He did precisely the same thing during Smith’s run, and I think most of us are wise to it by now.

This is, of course, an episode all about Clara, and having spent last week keeping her out of shot, Moffat places her firmly back into the limelight come the story’s second act. While I don’t dispute the unavoidably autobiographical nature of writing it seems ridiculous that Capaldi’s Doctor has become, to all intents and purposes, an extension of Moffat himself. He clearly can’t bring himself to kill Clara permanently, so the Doctor finds a way to save her. Perhaps I’m being churlish, but it says a lot about the way Doctor Who is written these days that the Doctor is prepared to move heaven and earth and break every law of time to save people he likes. You get the feeling that if ‘Doomsday’ had been a 2015 episode instead of a 2006 one, Rose’s separation from the Doctor would have been at the end of episode eleven and he’d have found a way to pop into the parallel universe to retrieve her almost immediately.

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I didn’t like ‘Face The Raven’. That’s no secret. But if nothing else, it did at least kill off a character in one fell swoop, even if it took longer than it should have done. The act of undoing that – simply because there’s a loophole – basically cheapens death. I have talked about this before and am reluctant to retread old ground because no one is listening anyway, but to see the writers take us this far and then pull a Davies (I think that’s what we call it now, isn’t it?) is seriously lame. If Doctor Who were action movies, we’d be in Taken 3 territory: losing your daughter once is unfortunate, two is frankly careless and three is just taking the piss.

On the other hand, ‘Hell Bent’ is crammed absolutely full of Things To Annoy The Fanboys; the sort of thing that sparks ferocious debate and keeps Twitter chugging over over Christmas until the turkey (no, I don’t mean ‘Before The Flood’) is a distant memory. The Doctor’s much-disputed half-human origins are teased. The head of security regenerates onscreen from a middle-aged white man into a younger black woman, ticking two equality boxes in one fell swoop. And it’s revealed that the Doctor left Gallifrey because he was told a scary story when he was a kid. There’s a bit more to it than that, but it’s the Whovian equivalent of Kevin from Home Alone coming face to face with the old man who carries the shovel, running out of the 7-11 and jumping on a bus bound for Nevada. Simultaneously, this isn’t Moffat re-establishing the canon, this is Moffat deliberately toying with us, and I’m not rising to the bait.

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Something else I’m still scratching my head about: we were told, through a variety of press releases, that we were going to be left “a tiny bit devastated”, and after watching an episode in which the Doctor sort-of-but-not-quite loses bits of his memory, takes over Gallifrey and regains his means of transportation, while a not-quite dead companion gets to wander the universe in a stolen TARDIS with an immortal eighteen-year-old…after all this, I’m still trying to work out where exactly I’m supposed to be devastated. Is it the memory loss, which counted for nothing the moment the Doctor saw Clara’s picture on the side of the TARDIS? Is it the fact that Clara is still destined to die on that trap street, presumably after a long and happy life of zooming around the galaxy in a floating restaurant? Is it the moment when the Doctor walks into his darkened TARDIS alone, just before he goes to spend Christmas with Alex Kingston and pick up another soap actress?

I mean, I’m always a tiny bit devastated at the end of ‘Earthshock’. Or ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’. Or Attack of the Cybermen’. Actually, most of Eric Saward’s stuff would do. There was a man who loved killing off supporting characters. I’m not saying I wanted the corpses piling up the way they do in ‘Warriors of the Deep’. I don’t even mind the fact that there wasn’t a single death this episode; it’s kind of par for the course when you’re doing a story about a species with a marvellous talent for self-healing, accompanied by a woman who is functionally immortal and another who was already dead. I’d just like to point out that for all the spiel about getting upset, the body count for this week is actually minus one.

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But there are elements of goodness. Gallifrey is pleasantly minimal, considering that in a decade of New Who we’ve never actually been there properly; it feels like a throwback to ‘The Five Doctors’. The retro TARDIS interior in which the final third of the episode takes place is a crowd pleaser; likewise the shattered corridor in which the end of the universe takes place is nicely realised. Even Maisie Williams throws in something that might almost be called a decent performance this week, which is a refreshing change after two hours of sulking.

Still, it’s not quite enough to save the story from mediocrity, largely because the story itself isn’t particularly interesting. The structure is as uneven as a toddler’s brick tower; it’s as if Moffat decided at the last minute to postpone his grand plan for another year and had nothing else to go in its place. I can’t say that I hated this episode as much as I did last year’s finale, or even ‘The Woman Who Lived’, but there must be, somewhere, the sort of finale that neatly straddles the road between Everything Happening, and Nothing Happening. If it sounds like I’m one of those impossible-to-please fans, I’d just point out that the crucial, series-defining moment in ‘Hell Bent’ is two characters debating whether or not they should press down on a piece of plastic. Honestly, it doesn’t get much more Bonnie Langford than that.

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Review: ‘Heaven Sent’

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Warning: spoiler heavy.

In 1976, right after he’d dropped off Sarah Jane in Croydon (by way of Aberdeen), the Doctor found himself back on Gallifrey. There was a sinister plot to assassinate the President – perhaps unsurprisingly, the Master is behind it all – with the Doctor caught very firmly in the frame. But there are a couple of things I remember about ‘The Deadly Assassin’: one is the tense, dialogue-light episode three, which we’ll come to later, while the other is the very first part of the story, in which the Doctor wanders around the TARDIS and the Gallifrey Citadel, talking to himself.

Tom Baker’s mid-70s assertion that he could carry the show without a companion was quickly shot down by the producers, and it’s easy to see why. ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is a great story, but the early scenes are frankly excruciating. Baker is always at his best when he is bouncing off someone else, even if it’s John Leeson on the other end of a radio link. The rest of the story more than makes up for it, but it was, you felt, the sort of thing that should never be repeated. And yet this evening the BBC broadcast an entire episode that featured Peter Capaldi running round a castle for an hour with only a bedsheet for company – and amazingly, it works.

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Bedsheets are frightening, of course. ‘Listen’ was an episode of two halves, but the half that worked – the first half – was as tense and chilling as anything the programme had done in years, and certainly since ‘The God Complex’. The monster-of-the-week here is a wordless, faceless phantasm that stalks the corridors of the castle, always present and prone, like Ridley Scott’s Alien, to jumping out at any given moment. We get to see the devastating effects of its touch late in the story: it kills the Doctor, and not just once. The castle, too, is an enemy, shifting and rotating like the stairways at Hogwarts, with doors opening onto blank walls and corridors leading nowhere. The surroundings themselves are as important as the stunning New Zealand backdrop that made Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies work so well, and if they get a generation of children interested in English Heritage properties, so much the better.

It helps that even though the Doctor is usually alone this week, he’s never just talking to himself. When he’s not addressing the Veil, he’s monologuing to Clara – seen, for the most part, with her back to the audience as she scratches questions on one of the TARDIS blackboards. Moffat’s decision to eventually show her (albeit for a moment) is slightly cheap, and the interchange between the two that results is one of the episode’s weaker moments, but it does at least answer the question of whether it was Jenna Coleman or her stand-in (and truth be told, it was probably both). Is it churlish to say that this silent, visually obscured Clara is Coleman’s finest performance in quite some time? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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But it’s Capaldi who’s the real star, here, breezing effortlessly through a script that requires him to be angry, smug, weary and frightened, often within the same scene. The Doctor stalks the corridors of the castle with wariness and scientific curiosity and a sense of genuine sadness – it seems anomalous somehow, given that he’s lost companions before, and Moffat really is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but Capaldi is never less than absolutely compelling, whether he’s examining a skull on the castle battlements (a clear nod to the first and last acts of Hamlet) or chatting up a tree, for the second time in a decade. The TARDIS segments are less effective, capturing frozen moments in time with the same smugness that pervades Sherlock, but thankfully they are comparatively brief, allowing Capaldi to shine where he needs to. We all knew he could act, but it’s always nice when he gets to prove it.

It all threatens to go south as the plot unfolds proper. This is not a mind trip: it serves a purpose. If the Fourth Doctor entered the Matrix in order to find the Master, the Twelfth Doctor is dumped inside a prison of his making so that the Time Lords can eke the truth out of him, one nugget of information at a time. Once it becomes apparent that the Doctor we see is not the first one to arrive, nor will he be the last, the story threatens to unravel: the fact that every single narrative unfolds in precisely the same way, with the same outcome, seems alarmingly fatalist, while the Doctor’s two-billion year wall punch echoes a particular scene from Kill Bill. Oh, and we’ve not even discussed the metaphysical implications of the guy working with constant backups of himself from a hard drive, but I’m not touching that one with a three foot pole.

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Besides…look, to be honest, ‘Heaven Sent’ is one of those stories that works better if you discard its surrounding mythology. I don’t care what’s in the Doctor’s confession dial. I don’t care why he left Gallifrey. I’m not interested in what the Time Lords are up to. The episode’s final punch line – “The hybrid is me” – is an obvious internet talking point, pitting those who think it refers to the Doctor’s much-disputed half-human origins against those who’ve worked out that it’s almost certainly Maisie Williams. It’s dull and unnecessary and, like the scene it follows, sets things up for a finale that I fear will be an absolute trainwreck.

But for the moment, absolutely none of that matters. Murray Gold’s innovative-but-intrusive score doesn’t matter. Even the wider implications of the tedious series arc don’t matter. This was an episode that dared to think outside the box a little: a risk-taking episode, simultaneously grand and claustrophobic, telling a story that succeeded on its own terms, irrespective of where it sits in the grand scheme of things. It echoed ‘The Mind Robber’ and ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and ‘Castrovalva’ and ‘Scherzo’. It echoed 2001. It even echoed The Stanley Parable, which I was by an uncanny coincidence playing this very evening. It was beautifully realised, impeccably acted, and thought-provoking and contained several genuine scares. Whatever happens next, for once I really can’t complain.

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Categories: New Who, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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