Saturday, December 5, 2015

Room Without a Window: An Overanalysis of "Heaven Sent"

The Simpsons used to have a rule that every season had to have one episode that pushed the boundaries of what a Simpsons episode should be.  Personally, I think every show should have a rule like this.  Not every episode should be an experiment, but once a season I think every show should push themselves and see if they can go somewhere very different creatively.  "Listen" was probably Steven Moffat's most obvious attempt at an experimental episode, as it really was, in every way, a complete deconstruction of a Doctor Who episode.  It took the most basic concept of a stereotypical Doctor Who plotline, broke it down to its basic components, and reassembled it in a very different way that challenged the very premise of what this show is and what it's about.  Perhaps it was Steven Moffat's confidence after three seasons as showrunner that gave him the confidence to push the boundaries of the show's structure.  I would argue that there are a number of moments when Moffat deconstructed traditional narratives that were not necessarily looked at as "experimental" episodes, such as "A Christmas Carol" and "The Day of the Doctor," but "Listen" is where he really stretched himself.  "Heaven Sent" is the work of a writer at the top of his game, confident in the abilities of his lead actor, sure of the BBC's confidence in him and his show, and confident in his audience's ability to grasp the complexity of the episode.  Sure, a work of genius like this will not silence Moffat's haters, but nothing ever does.  They will talk about how much they love the 11th Doctor, Amy Pond, Rory, River Song, Danny Pink, the 12th Doctor, "Listen," and now, certainly, "Heaven Sent," but will still insist that Moffat is ruining the show.  But while I'm still not entirely sure why Moffat chose to call the episode "Heaven Sent," I do know that it is a work of pure, unadulterated brilliance that will forever be remembered as one of the most important episodes in the show's history.

The show has been dangling out a few mysteries this season hinting at the plot of the finale, and I haven't entirely understood them all, or even cared to understand them all.  I've been more interested in figuring out who the Minister of War is or what Missy's "clever plan" was, but it now seems like those are setting up for farther down the road so let's focus on the mysteries that seem to be setting up for this finale.  The first was The Hybrid.  It's interesting, but incredibly vague, and leaves me with very little to chew on.  But, more importantly, it completely destroys the premise of the show.  We've always known the reason for the Doctor's departure from Gallifrey, and the story of The Hybrid throws that reason out entirely.  To be honest, the original explanation we've had all these years, that the Doctor was simply bored, makes complete sense to me.  It speaks to the true spirit of the character.  Regardless of which generation we're talking about, the Doctor is always insatiably curious.  So why throw out his original motivation when it fits so perfectly with the character?  Unlike Davros, I never once doubted that the Doctor was just bored.

But the revelation at the end of this episode that the Doctor is The Hybrid does give us an explanation that is more in keeping with the Doctor's character.  The Doctor running from a prophecy is silly.  The Doctor doesn't run from enemies, no matter how deadly they are, at least not for very long.  But running from responsibility?  Yeah, the Doctor has done that many times, and that is quite in keeping with his character.  The Doctor has been offered the position of Lord High President of Gallifrey on multiple occasions and turned it down because...well, because damn the man.  The Doctor doesn't want that kind of power over his own people.  But if he needs to set them straight about a few things, which would be necessary even if Clara hadn't been killed in the trap that they set for him, then he's willing to show up and accept his responsibility as the one destined to fix Gallifrey.

Remember that "Day of the Doctor," taken on its own, is a very happy episode, but when you remember the events of "The End of Time," "Day of the Doctor" seems to be glossing over a few things.  Great, the Doctor has saved his own planet, and the Time Lords have been restored to the Universe.  Except that he destroyed them because they were about to destroy the Universe and rise to a higher level of consciousness.  So when the Doctor did finally find Gallifrey, we knew one thing for sure:  The Doctor was going to need to lay a serious smack down on some people.  I'm guessing Timothy Dalton was not available for "Hell Bent," but there are still some people who are going to need to be dealt with.

But how is the Doctor a hybrid?  I was really, really hoping we weren't going to go here, but I think I know what Moffat is referencing, and I'm not the first Doctor Who fan to have noticed it.

There are a lot of things that are wrong with the 1996 movie.  Somehow it manages to be too simplistic and too complex at the same time.  The line about him being half-human on his mother's side was so despised by fans that it has pretty much been rejected.  Expanded universe materials have retconned the line and explained it as an elaborate ruse to fool the Master.  Russel T. Davies pretty much ignored the line when he wrote "The End of Time," and fully admitted that the mysterious Woman was supposed to be The Doctor's mother, but also insists that that shouldn't be considered canon as he never got around to actually putting it into dialogue.  You wouldn't think that Moffat would even want to touch such a controversial line, but I have a bad feeling that that's what it means. 

If this is where Moffat is going with the whole Hybrid plotline, then there are far reaching implications for it.  The Doctor may have been established as half-human almost 20 years ago, but the show has refused to acknowledge it as real, and fans refuse to accept the line.  A half-human Doctor means something very different.  It means the Doctor's tie to this world is not just a fondness for it, but a birth connection.  I always liked the idea that it isn't his planet, but his adopted second home.  I don't know if I like the idea of it being just where his mother was from.

 My co-host from Mile High Who Podcast, Shelley, pointed out the other possibility that he's not saying "Me" as in he himself is the Hybrid, but rather referring to Ashildr by the name that she insists on calling herself, "Me." It's not a terrible theory, but I don't understand why Ashildr would show up on Gallifrey, unless she now feels really bad about what she did to Clara.  I don't think that the Doctor is going to literally "stand in the ruins" of Gallifrey.  To do that to the planet would be to really spit on Clara's legacy.  She saved the Time Lords from him and, even if they're partially responsible for her death, he would never take that legacy away from his good friend.  I think "stand in the ruins" refers to the fact that he's going to completely dismantle their government and institute a new leader, and maybe he's going to decide that Ashildr is just who should do it.  Or maybe one of the Osgoods, another Hybrid the Doctor created.  But he won't do it himself.  The Doctor is the most fit to govern Gallifrey precisely because he doesn't want to do it.

I'm just going to leave this riiiiight here.
I was also surprised about the Confession Dial.  The Doctor kept referring to it as being similar to a human concept of a "Last Will and Testament," but that wasn't true at all.  It was an interrogation chamber to get him to admit his final secret.  There's one thing though:  even if he is the Hybrid, the Doctor went through a lot of trouble to keep from telling the Time Lords something that he knew about the prophecy of the Hybrid, which means that there's still something we don't know yet.  So I'm really excited to see what it is now.  Regardless, I'm really excited for "Hell Bent," but I'm also a little skeptical.  "Heaven Sent" only really stands up if "Hell Bent" answers a lot more of the questions that it brought up.  So here's hoping it does!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Dead Friend: An Overanalysis of "Face the Raven"

Companions rarely die.  The Doctor talks about them like they do all the time, but they rarely ever do.  They wind up in parallel dimensions or get their memories of him erased (this has actually happened more than once) or they end up stuck in a specific time period that the Doctor can't get to. These things are like death to the Doctor because he can never get back to them again, but they aren't really deaths.  The companions go on to continue their lives without him.  More often than not in the classic series, they just went home, or met someone and fell in love (never, before the Moffat era, was a companion allowed to stay on the TARDIS after falling in love).  Only one other full time companion has ever died while traveling with the Doctor on the TV series without bring brought back from the dead later.  One off companions have died many times, and expanded universe sources have given us a few more companion deaths, but still not that many.  Really, Adric remains as the only regular companion to have really formed a connection with the Doctor before being tragically killed at a young age without being brought back later.  That is until "Face the Raven."

"I saw a whole planet rushing towards me.  I tried to surrender to it, but it did me no good.  That usually works!"

Much like Adric's death, Clara's isn't heroic, but more of a failed attempt at a heroic act.  Adric died trying to stop a Cybership from crashing into Earth, failing to understand that the ship he was on wasn't going to destroy humanity, but was rather the "asteroid" that crashed into Earth killing the dinosaurs, thus allowing humanity to spread and thrive.  Clara's death was something this whole season has been building up to, as we've seen the Doctor grow more and more concerned about her recklessness and thrill-seeking behavior.  In the end, it wasn't a heroic act that killed her, as Rigsy would have survived if Clara had never come up with her brilliant idea.  It was solely her recklessness that killed her.  In a weird way, it's a very disgraceful death, which is probably going to make the Doctor even angrier about it.

A few people have brought up the possibility that Clara's death isn't going to stick, and it wouldn't be unprecedented for Doctor Who to bring back a character we assumed was dead.  Moffat has insisted that Clara would not return once she left the show, but we all remember Rule 1.  One of the main reasons people are suspicious is the fact that Steven Moffat did not write the episode.  It is shockingly out of character for Moffat, who has yet to let another writer write even one word of dialogue for River Song (Big Finish's recent announcement not withstanding), to allow another writer to kill off a companion that he created.  If he were to hand that task over to another writer, you would think he'd give it to one of his close friends like his Sherlock co-writers Mark Gatiss and Stephen Thompson, not a first time Doctor Who writer like Sarah Dollard, an Australian writer whose writing credits are actually relatively sparse.  She has a lot of credits as a script editor for major BBC shows like Merlin and Primevil, but the number of episodes she's written by herself for TV shows is significantly smaller than what you'd find on most Doctor Who writers' resumes.  However, one of her writing credits is a 2013 episode she wrote of Being Human, a show that was created and run by Doctor Who writer Toby Whithouse, so perhaps Moffat had a good recommendation for her.  Also, the show has been notably lacking in female writers since the revival, and perhaps Moffat felt it would be appropriate for a female writer to kill off Clara.

Another reason that the fandom has been a little skeptical about the permanence of Clara's death is that it came at a very odd point in the season.  We've never gone into a season finale without the companion before.  In fact, only once before in the entire series, modern or classic, has there been an episode with no companion, not even a one-off companion to fill in for the episode.  That was the 4th Doctor serial with the title that is now quite appropriately mocked for its redundancy, "The Deadly Assassin," and supposedly the reason for that was that Tom Baker was trying to convince the production staff that he could carry the show on his own without a co-star.  He failed in that, and a new companion was brought in for the very next serial.

"My oversized teeth can be my companion!"
I would like to take a moment, while discussing this episode, to talk about Clara's brief reference to her "love" of Jane Austen, which she followed up with "Take that how you like."  This was a pretty obvious callback to a line from "The Magician's Apprentice" where Clara commented on Jane Austen being an excellent kisser.  When asked about this at a recent con and if this meant that Clara is bisexual, Jenna Coleman responded by simply saying that Clara's sexuality is open to interpretation.  I think it's beyond interpretation at this point.  Doctor Who is a proudly LGBTQ friendly television show, and I think this is just the latest iteration of that.  Kudos as always to the writers of Doctor Who for always insisting that LGBTQ content is appropriate in a children's television show.

I still kept holding out a thought in the back of my mind that Danny was going to come back, that "Listen" was really going to turn out to be prophetic, and that somehow Clara and Danny would live happily ever after.  Moffat went on record as saying that there were plenty of other possible explanations for how everything went down in "Listen," and that Orson Pink could be a descendent of Danny's brother, who always heard the family story of the great Danny Pink and Clara Oswald and what they went through to save the world.  Still, I assumed that was just Moffat being Moffat and bullshitting us as usual.  I guess that, unless he intends to undo two deaths very abruptly (which probably wouldn't go over well with the fandom) this is how the Clara and Danny story ends.  If there is an afterlife, that's the only happy ending they get together.

I keep thinking of all the times that the Doctor saved Clara.  This is not to claim that she's been a damsel in distress, as she has saved the Doctor herself many times.  But I think of the Doctor's promise not to let her die again after letting two other Clara's die in other time periods.  I think of the Doctor jumping into his own timestream to rescue Clara after she saved him from the Great Intelligence.  I think of all those moments, and how futile they seem now that she died anyway.  It's a dark direction for the show to go, and I'm frankly surprised that they went there.  A shadow has now been cast over so much of Clara's era, and I can't watch any of her old episodes the same way again, knowing that all of this was just leading to her tragic death.

The Doctor's fury at Ashildr was certainly founded at this moment, but Clara's insistence that he promise not to take revenge was a very important moment.  Remember Donna's warning that the Doctor needs someone to stop him sometimes.  Clara knows this better than anyone.  She's the one who stopped him from destroying his own planet and his own people.  She's seen the worst of what he can be.  Clara knows that, without her, he's likely to go rogue, and that a promise to a dying friend might be enough to keep him from turning into the War Doctor all over again.  As I'm late writing this blog (sorry) we now know exactly who set this trap for the Doctor, and we know he's not entirely keeping his promise, but the promise is what's going to keep him from completely going off the deep end.

But it was a trap, quite maliciously set for the Doctor, and one of his companions got caught in it.  There will absolutely be hell to pay, and the Doctor is going to be, as the title of the final episode of the season suggests, hell bent on shutting down whoever and whatever is responsible for this trap, even if Clara's death was an unintended consequence.  This is time for the angriest, rashest, and unfriendliest regeneration of the Doctor that we've seen in a long time to set things right in the Universe and, before its all over, things are going to get ugly.  The only way I see this lightening up is if somehow Moffat is going to pull a rug out from under us and find some way to save Clara, or at least semi-save her (think River in "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead").  Perhaps something to do with the stupid machine from "Sleep No More"?  But more than likely, this is the end for Clara, and there will be hell to pay.

But for now, in honor of Jenna-Louise Coleman (RESPECT THE HYPHEN!) and her amazing performance as Clara Oswald, a companion named in honor of Elizabeth Clara Sladen, the actress who played Sarah Jane Smith, and a companion who died with more grace and dignity than anyone in the history of the show.  If you are gone for good, which I really think you are, we're going to miss you Clara Oswald, our dead friend: