Tuesday 11 November 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-11 & 8-12 - Dark Water/Death in Heaven

Death always stalks the Doctor, and this year, more than any other, its presence has been a constant theme. In a year that has been marked by more death than I am used to, this feels somewhat personal. Far more so for many more viewers of course. From the quietly devastating cold open of Dark Water, this two-part finale is obsessed with the concept of death and what comes after, exploring its philosophy and twisting it for shock and horror. Danny dies in the most mundane and pointless way, the way that so many of our friends and family have died. To then use this as the starting point for an existential horror story told in the early evening for a family audience is bold, to say the least.

Doctor Who frequently makes the press for being “too scary” or “unsuitable for kids,” ever since Terror of the Autons turned toys into killers in 1971. Perhaps, this time, the papers were right. This is frightening stuff by anyone's standards, but for a young child watching, perhaps a child who has lost a parent or grandparent, to be confronted with the notion that the afterlife is unending hell and servitude... yes, perhaps Doctor Who did go too far this time. This isn't the New Adventures, it's not for a small, select audience of older readers. This is something that is watched by thousands of children. It's made clear that 3W is not the real afterlife, but nothing more than a computer matrix designed to torment the uploaded minds of the recently deceased until they elect to delete their own emotions. Yet it is presented as where millions of souls have been sent over hundreds of years, awaiting resurrection as Cybermen. In the Doctor Who universe, this is the afterlife of humanity, and it's horrifying. How many of us have cremated our loved ones? Even though the 3W was lying about the dead being conscious of their bodies treatment, the idea is still terrifying (and frankly I find the idea of an eternal afterlife terrifying already).

It's interesting that the Doctor's first thought of the afterlife is not Heaven, but Hell. It's very hard to swallow that whatever the circumstance, the Doctor would go on a quest to find a soul in the afterlife. His immediate response upon hearing the supposed truth of life after death is that it's a racket, that the dead are gone for good. This sounds more like the Doctor we know, which makes his mission for Clara's dead love all the more baffling. Did he already have his suspicions that something unnatural was going on? It's hard to credit his actions otherwise, regardless of how much Clara has him wrapped round her finger.

Clara's relationship with the Doctor has been at the centre of this series, particularly the effect the Doctor's presence has had on Clara's character. This story takes these developments to their limit. The opening to Dark Water provides the devastating set-up to one of the most intense scenes ever between a Doctor and his companion. Clara's desperate ruse to force the Doctor to change the past shows just how ruthless she is capable of being, and Jenna Coleman gives her best performance of the series, racked with grief and anger and the injustice of Danny's death and the lengths she's been driven to. Capaldi is naturally more than capable of holding his own in this scene, quietly reacting to Coleman's performance before the Doctor turns events around. It's a tremendously satisfying moment when the Doctor reveals that he has been in complete control of the situation, allowing it to play out. Dream sequences like this are a bugbear of mine, so frequently being dramatically empty and unnecessary to the story. This example, however, is vital and effective, showing us just how Clara has come, what she is capable of and how much she loves Danny. The scene is capped off with the Doctor's perfect response to the situation, forgiving Clara for her betrayal in the name of her friendship. It's an astonishing scene.

Death in Heaven continues the theme of the companion becoming the Doctor. The opening of the second part has Clara pretending to be the Doctor to delay the Cybermen and keep herself alive. It continues on the same vain as her Doctoring in Flatline, but is strangely presented as if we are supposed to believe that she might be telling the truth. Even teaser trailers for the story focused on her claim that “Clara Oswald never existed.” Had this come a year ago, we might have given it credence, but coming now when we've gotten to know Clara, we know it's nothing but a ploy. The tweaks to the opening titles are cute, giving Coleman top billing and having her eyes peer out from the dark in place of Capaldi's. It's a short-lived gimmick, though, and doesn't seem to serve any story purpose. It does, however, push the series further in the direction of the introduction of a female Doctor, something that is now looking more likely than ever. For her part, Coleman is actually rather good as an ersatz Doctor, playing the ruse through with charm and confidence (and more Smith-like than Capaldi-esque).

The biggest hint at the Doctor's potential change of gender is, of course, Missy. After a season-long mystery, the villain's identity is an inevitable let-down. Not that having the Master back is a disappointment, far from it. It's just that Missy=Mistress=Master is the first thing that everyone thought of. It's so obvious that many of us fans dismissed it and tried thinking up increasingly unlikely identities. Missy being the Master is the most obvious answer imaginable, and her introduction across the series is mishandled. As much as it provided an ongoing talking point, having nine weeks of exposure to Missy dulled the eventual reveal. Less “Oh my gosh, it's the Master!” than “Well, yes, obviously.” None of which makes the return of the character in a wholly new guise a bad thing. Michelle Gomez is a fabulous actor, one who I have long included on my list of potential Doctors, should the Time Lord ever be cast as a woman. Gomez once revealed a desire to play the Doctor in a Radio Times interview, and she's had the next best thing as the Master. Nonetheless, I am not quite convinced by her as the Master. She is wonderfully entertaining, dripping with lunacy and makes for an unnervingly unpredictable foe... but she's not quite the Master to me. I guess this is how fans felt when Eric Roberts or John Simm were cast, never accepting them as the Master either. For me, the times when Gomez actually felt like the Master were the quieter, more sinister moments. I'd much rather see her show us how coldly psychotic she is, than hear her shout about how she's “bananas!”

Nonetheless, having the Master back is a fine thing, and the sex change is a good look at how the series may be progressing. If the Doctor doesn't regenerate into a woman next time I'll be very surprised. The outpouring of bile on some fan groups shows just how much misogyny and homophobia there still is in fan circles, especially depressing in a series that is about change and acceptance. In a world where sex change and gender fluidity is becoming evermore common and accepted, these sorts of attitudes are appalling and outdated. I hope those angry few who have declared they will never watch the series again follow through on this “threat.” We'll be better off without them.

It's a pity that the BBC couldn't keep the Cybermen's involvement a secret, but given that they were filming the creatures in broad daylight in the middle of London, it's hard to see how they could have. Instead, they made them the selling point of the story. It would have been a treat had it been presented as a surprise, though. The nature of the skeletons in their invisible support units is screamingly obvious when we already know the Cybermen are coming, and while the reveal is still very effective, it would have been electrifying to see those handles appear had we not already known. That said, the nature of 3W's logo didn't hit me until we saw the doors shut and form a pair of Cyberman eyes. It's then that the old Cyber music starts up and Dark Water's cliffhanger climax begins, something that takes a full ten minutes to put everything into place.

For once, though, the full horror of Cyber-conversion is put centre stage. Once the Cybermen actually begin rising from their graves, they actually do very little for much of the episode. They're not here as stomping robo-soldiers, but as a chilling reflection of our need for the promise of life after death. There are a lot of people who would give up their emotions and autonomy for the chance to live forever in an ageless new body. This is the Cybermen as they were originally envisioned, a desolate potential endpoint for humanity. Although the flying Cybermen are kind of fun. They were lagging behind the Daleks with that, after all.

It's good to see UNIT back, particularly as they are already prepared to shoot down the cliffhanger. It's a joy to see Ingrid Oliver back as Osgood, and the character's death is shocking and upsetting, especially as it comes mere moments after the Doctor offers to take her on a trip into time and space. Kate Stewart maintains further continuity for this modern day UNIT family, although Sanjeev Bhaskar is terrible wasted in his brief role as Colonel Ahmed, though. UNIT's involvement was inevitable, of course. For one thing, this story revels in its links to the past: a genuine Tomb of the Cybermen gives way to a new take on the first UNIT story, The Invasion. In fact, this almost runs as the ultimate unseen story of the UNIT era; a remake of The Invasion with the Master in Tobias Vaughan's role. More importantly, though, is the running theme of the Doctor's attitude to the military, that has been an aspect of the majority of episodes this year. To not have his own military employers turn up would be unthinkable. The setting up as the Doctor as “President of Earth” is laughable – as if every country in the world would vote in such an idea – and plays as a one-shot joke that is never taken to its fullest extent. It does, however, continue the exploration of Doctor-as-general, now commander-in-chief of the forces of Earth.

Most significantly, in this story and across the season, is the contrast between the Doctor and Danny, between general and soldier. While the Doctor may declare that he is no hero, no general, no president, Danny's scathing assessment of him is hard to argue with. Danny's story is painful to watch, from his death to his inhuman resurrection, and Samuel Anderson is brilliant throughout. While some moments in the season haven't shown him in a very good light, like Coleman, when given strong enough material Anderson excels. Their scenes together, in particular, are heartbreaking and hugely affecting. Whether it's by coincidence or design, having the final episode broadcast just before Remembrance Sunday (and before Veterans' Day in the US) lends a particular poignancy to the proceedings. Danny's encounter with the nameless Afghan boy in the Nethersphere is haunting, and highlights the difference between him and the Doctor. Danny, at least, looks the boy in the eye and tries to help. It's hard to see the Doctor confronting one of his victims in such a way.

Indeed, as Danny points out, the Doctor's hypocrisy is evident here. As Danny stands there, his face distorted by cybernetic implants, he calls the Doctor to task for his unwillingness to get his hands dirty. He shoots down the Doctor's profound words, knowing that once a tactical advantage is made clear, he will have to go back on them. It's hard to argue with the Doctor's logic, but emotionally his hypocrisy is hard to bear. Which is, of course, the point of the story, of the involvement of the Cybermen and the Master and the ongoing debate of military force. To be an effective soldier means disconnecting, if only temporarily, from ones emotions. To respond emotionally to the things a soldier must do can break someone. Hence the Cybermen are perfect soldiers, unquestioning and unencumbered by emotion. Danny packages away his emotions to do his duty, but never gives them up; even when his inhibitor is enabled there is, as the Doctor puts it, the promise of love. The alternative is to become a Cyberman, or worse, to revel in the darkness, as does the Master.

With so many very strong elements in play, it's hard to say why the story doesn't quite work. It's certainly better viewed altogether, even rewatched with the knowledge of what's coming, able to focus on the meat of the episode rather than the excitement of twists and revelations, such as they are. Perhaps there is simply too much going on, but it's more a question of tone. This is an unusually bleak story, and yet the normal moments of comedy are still present. More often than not Doctor Who balances these things well, but in spite of such gems as Chris Addison's performance as Seb (such as shame he didn't get a reunion scene with Capaldi), or the Doctor's Malcolm Tucker-esque meeting with Dr. Chang (a very Matt Smith-like performance by Andrew Leung), the comedy moments seem out of place. Nowhere is the tone more uneven than in the climactic scenes. We have the truly beautiful goodbye scene between the Doctor and Clara, both Clara and Capaldi quietly dignified while their characters lie to each others faces for what they perceive to be their own good. We have the Doctor's explosion of anger as he faces the fact that Missy lied to him about Gallifrey's location. Yet we have the misjudged soldier speech from CyberDan, no doubt incredible on paper but over-the-top and pompous on screen (I kept expecting him to announce that he was “cancelling the Apocalypse!”) And the Cyber-Brigadier. A charming tip of the hat to a beloved character, or a rather crass joke? The jury's out, and the scene is so tonally mismatched that it's hard to know how to take it. The same has to be said for the sudden magical rescue of Nameless Afghan Boy by Danny, necessitating a hurried moment of exposition and so totally out of keeping with the rest of the episode it's impossible to swallow.

Finally, the powerful final scene is punctured by a teaser for the Christmas special, the first time the narrative element from the festive episode has broken into the main series in this way since the days of David Tennant. As joyful as it is to see Nick Frost playing Santa Claus, and as baffling as the implications of this are, it just doesn't sit right with the emotionally draining scene we've just witnessed. Which perhaps sums up the whole story; full of such brilliant moments, but, like the Master's plans, incoherent when taken as a whole. If ever there was room for a director's cut of a Doctor Who story, it's this one. It could have been something more.

Links: The Doctor refuses to change Clara's timeline and save Danny. A similar event occurred when Rose saved her dad in Father's Day, and the paradox almost led to the end of the Earth. We first learned of the existence of emotional inhibitors in Cybermen in The Age of Steel. Cybermen marching from St. Paul's Cathedral is from 1968's The Invasion. A Cyberman's head from that story is brandished by Kate Stewart.

3W is based on a piece of Gallifreyan Matrix technology. We first encountered the Time Lord Matrix, where all the minds of Time Lord presidents are stored in virtual reality, in The Deadly Assassin. The Master utilised it then, and also entered it in The Trial of a Time Lord.

Clara claims the Doctor has had four wives, all deceased. They would be, to the best of our knowledge, River Song, Marilyn Monroe, Queen Elizabeth I and presumably his first wife on Gallifrey. She also mentions a non-Gallifreyan daughter created by genetic extraction – that's the first mention of Jenny Anomaly for a long time. Might she finally be due a comeback?

The supposed discoverer of the true nature of the afterlife, Dr. Skarosa, has an interesting name. Is it a coincidence that Skaro is in there?

Nitpicks and quibbles: Did the Doctor and Clara forget that they can open the TARDIS doors with a click of the fingers now? Or does this require the keys to be intact?

The Cybermen rain down conversion fluid on the world, presumably filled with nanites that convert their victims into Cybermen. But where do they get all the metal?

Best line: “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”


"Go on, crack a smile. I want to see if your eyebrows fall off."

No comments:

Post a Comment