The second Moffat story for New Who! In which all of his later series themes are laid out for us. Plus bonus The Time Traveller’s Wife riff, a great historical fiction revisionist slant on Madame de Pompadour and the chick who played Beth in Spooks.…
Tag: steven moffat
Well! That was Matt Smith’s The Time of the Doctor done right! That was the multi Master story I never knew I wanted! With the exception of the weird deux ex machina at story’s end, that was a near perfect Who finale! Heck! That was Skyfall meets Doctor Who! And I really, really, really liked Skyfall!
This week we start on level 507, a hologram countryside idyll filled with children and their single female adult protector. Mondasian cybermen dot the landscape, bound to stakes in a kind of horrifying version of the modern day scarecrow, trying to upgrade the children. As Simm’s Master helpfully explains, children are easier to upgrade. And there’s less waste.
The Doctor minus his Sonic
This series has had a strong focus on The Doctor sans sonic which has been a welcome change on New Who. I liked the flashback to how The two Masters, cyber Bill, Nardole and The Doctor made it to Level 507. The Master and Missy are equally callous in how they taunt The Doctor, wheelchair bound as he is on a rooftop, as the exodus of the cybermen is set to begin. Of course it’s Missy who violently and cooly slaps him into the computer keyboard (and again because of another nuanced performance from Ms Gomez, I’m still not sure if she did that intentionally or otherwise), but The Doctor is relying on smarts alone when he changes with some careful key strokes just what the cybermen are looking for to upgrade. The Doctor wouldn’t have gotten far without Nardole either, and it was a nice touch to have Nardole turn up with a ship to evacuate everyone from the level.
The Life and Death of Bill Potts
After watching World Enough and Time, my biggest fear was that Moffat would ‘magic’ Bill back from her cyber state straight away. Thankfully, he doesn’t. Instead, Bill spends over two thirds of the episode as a mondasian cybermen, simultaneously tolerated and feared by the children and their keeper. Rachel Talalay has done great directorial work on New Who in the past, and this week is no exception when she carefully cuts between the world from Bill’s point of view (where we see Bill as herself because she sees herself as unchanged) and Bill as the world sees her (first shown through the mirror gifted to Bill by the first child she sees when they come to Level 507). Though this episode is nowhere near as horrifying in a scary hide behind your sofa kind of way, this sequence is pretty damn disturbing.
Simm’s Master doesn’t help matters either. His pantomime villain knows that the best way to hurt The Doctor is to hurt his companion. ‘You missed her by two hours,’ he gloats as he tries to goad Bill into anger knowing that that anger will lead to destruction. But Bill is made of stronger stuff. She hasn’t been around long, but for me, Bill has some of the best qualities of a Doctor Who companion. She’s awfully human, but she’s brave in her own way too. She rises above The Master and his petty games. She wills herself to calmness. She’s better than the bully, and she and The Doctor know it.
Even so, The Doctor doesn’t have much to comfort her or us with later. Will the show reward Bill for her courage and her humanity and her inherent goodness?
For a brief while, it seems the show is going to deny us a happy ending. Capaldi delivers his lines with a melancholy gravity that is very believable.
Bill: You said… I remember, you said you could fix this. That you could get me back. Did you say that?
The Doctor: I did say that, yes.
Bill: Were you lying?
The Doctor: No.
Bill: …Were you right?
The Doctor [sadly]: No.
Still, while there’s tears there’s hope, The Doctor reminds Bill and the audience lest we think things are getting too bleak. It is fitting that Bill stays with The Doctor till the bitter end. That said, I don’t know that Bill’s ending worked for me. This episode would have been a perfect ten score if it had ended with Bill’s battered cyber body lying alongside The Doctor’s ashy flesh as he regenerated.
As it stands, I found the Heather deux ex machina confusing. I’m not sure if Bill is alive or committed suicide and the ending is too similar to Clara’s from a mere series ago. Moffat said he ended Bill’s story the way he did because ultimately Doctor Who is a hopeful story where heroes always win in the end. Though I understand where he is coming from, I agree with an author who was talking last week about what children find in fiction. She said that children can find hope in ambiguity. Even when an ending is bleak or beyond their comprehension, they’ll find a way to make the story fit into their understanding of the world. Then when they’re older, they’ll find the darker layers. I can’t help but think that the story would have been stronger leaving Bill as dead or standing alone with a regenerating Doctor, rather than dramatically changing gear and tone with the reappearance of Heather and the ‘new lease of life’ for Bill. Though I like Bill very much, I hope we don’t see her again.
Farewell to Nardole
Matt Lucas surprised me as Nardole. I’m not one for his comedy and I didn’t like his character on Who at first, but he has grown on me over time in a quiet, understated way. I liked that it was Nardole who helped protect Hazran and her children by figuring out how to set off explosions through his laptop. I liked that he befriended the children. I liked that he took their plight so seriously. And I especially liked the exchange between him and The Doctor when it became apparent that The Doctor was going to remain on Level 507 on a kind of kamikaze mission.
Like River Song who became a hologram inside a computer to protect hologram souls ‘saved’ into the drive, Nardole will see out his duty to look after these children in a hologram world until death or the cybermen come for him and for them. I like the parallel to River there, and like Bill, I hope this is a definite ending for this character as there is a kind of poetry to it.
The Master vs. The Master
After this episode aired, I ended up in a three way twitter conversation about all of the reasons why Missy is the best essentially. Don’t get me wrong, I think John Simm is as talented as the next person, but he never captured the heart and soul of the character of The Master in the same way Gomez did. His callous heartlessness for villainy’s sake is far less interesting, and comes across far less nuanced, then Missy’s conflicted battle between doing what is right and what is hard wired. Whether on the rooftop with The Doctor captured, in the empty barn leaning in far too sensually to her previous self or stabbing herself, Gomez’ Missy is at once chilling, nasty, terrifying, beautiful, tragic and human. Gomez’ performance as she teeters between hero and villain is perfectly ambiguous, allowing for multiple rewatches and multiple different interpretations. Gomez was the perfect Master, the incarnation I never knew I wanted till she twirled her way across the screen in Deep Breath in her messed up version of heaven. I am terrible sad Gomez has left the show, but oh what a way to go…
To His Coy Mistress
Without witness, without hope, without reward, The Doctor begs Missy to redeem herself, to edge back from the precipice, to end the coy game she plays. But time is running out.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
As The Doctor faces off both Missy and The Master, he makes another Moffat speech which cuts to the heart of The Doctor’s essence.
The Doctor: I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.
On a second rewatch, this scene reminded me of Sally Lockhart and the deformed pirate Ah Ling in The Tiger in the Well. In a final showdown, Sally tries to explain to Ah Ling why she tries to make a difference to the pain and poverty and wrongness she sees in the world. And how does Ah Ling repay her for her pretty speech?
‘He just couldn’t understand her. And she saw how right she’d been; he was a coarse, brutal, limited man whose manners and graces and fine connoisseurship were no more than perfume sprinkled over garbage. She’d confessed to him. She’d opened her heart to him in the acknowledgement of the hurt shed done him. She’d offered him that – and he was bored. ‘ pg 374
Simm’s Master is like Ah Ling; one dimensional in his villainy. He is callous and bored by The Doctor. He hasn’t been paying attention to The Doctor’s ‘pretty speech.’ But Missy? Missy is visibly moved, but then she walks away. Coy to the last.
The first time I watched this episode, I was so upset at Gomez leaving, I was too busy shouting at my TV to enjoy the cleverness of The Master double murder. This time around it felt right. There was no other possible way to end this redemption arc. Missy destroys her past self to go stand with The Doctor. Her past self prevents her.
What beautiful lines and delivery as Missy seductively wraps an arm about The Master to stab him.
Missy: I loved being you. Every second of it. Oh, the way you burned like a sun, like a whole screaming world on fire. I remember that feeling. And I always will. And I will always miss it.
It’s like a strange echo of Eleven regenerating into Twelve (I’ll never forget the time when The Doctor was me). And then the horror as The Master shoots Missy in the back. But then fittingly, they both go down, both stabbing each other in the back for blood begets blood and self knows other self too well. The Doctor tragically never finds out that at the last Missy aimed to stand with The Doctor, but we as the viewers know and will remember…
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
And That Ending…
Three knocks as Twelve leaves his TARDIS behind? A snowy landscape? One and The Doctor? What will happen in the Christmas Special and just who will Twelve regenerate into?
The Doctor Falls: 9/10 inky stars for a near perfect finale marred only by the confusing deux ex machina in the final ten minutes which sees Bill reunited with Heather
Well that was a surprise. I actually kinda enjoyed that. I’ve said before on numerous occasions that Gatiss isn’t my cup of tea on Who every time. For every Crimson Horror, there is a Victory of the Daleks and I’m never sure from season to season what I’m going to get from him.
What happened this week? The Doctor and Bill end up on Mars and improbably find themselves with some Victorians and a lone ice warrior. Nardole gets trapped in a rebounding TARDIS and asks Missy for help (take note kids: This is never a good idea). The lone ice warrior is trying to awaken his Queen and a clash of civilisations happens on Mars.
“God save the Queen”
NASA uncover God save the Queen written on the surface of Mars in a nifty flashback to the series 2 Ten episode featuring Queen Victoria and Torchwood (Queen Vic even gets a photo reference when the camera pans to a picture of s2 Vic on the wall of a cavern in Mars). The Doctor, Bill and Nardole, immediately need to hop into the TARDIS to investigate.
Ah, and there we have it, a welcome return to the anti-neoliberal theme of earlier s10. The Victorians see Mars as theirs to obtain. Because they are Victorians and they have ‘discovered’ this new planet, it and its resources are theirs. I quite liked the characterisation of the cowardly Victorian soldier who saw through the hubris for what it was and elected to try to make peace with the Ice Warriors and their Queen.
The Ice Warriors
Though their Queen is a little hissy, I liked that she looked to Bill for an opinion on what she should do and how she should assess the Victorians and The Doctor’s request for peace. I also liked that the lone ice warrior who had joined forces with the Victorians acted as a mirror to the cowardly soldier. I liked that the actor playing the Ice Warrior sounded grave and sad and wise, even underneath all of the costume and makeup. The reference to Alpha Centauri was confusing for my partner and I, as we’d never seen the original classic episode Alpha came from before, but once we’d looked it up, we both conceded it was a nice nod back to the past.
Nardole managed to get back to Bill and The Doctor, but not without help from an unexpected and dangerous quarter. I am fast running out of superlatives to describe the multi faceted character study that is Michelle Gomez as Missy. Her reply to Nardole as he begs for her help through the box that constrains her is chilling because it is delivered in such an understated fashion. And I loved the visuals and Gold’s music working together with Gomez when The Doctor looks horrified as he sees Missy’s reflection in the TARDIS console and Missy’s Theme plays. Then dreadful silence followed by, ‘are you alright?’ Absolutely terrifying.
The Empress of Mars: 6/10 inky stars
This week is a Toby Whithouse oddity. I mostly enjoy his work on Who. I’ve enjoyed every episode he’s written with the exception of Under the Lake/Before the Flood, and even then I thought they were average Who episodes rather than terrible ones. I had…
…Or that was a bit disappointing after last week’s strange confection. I loved Peter Harness’ series 9 Zygon two parter and loathed his abortion metaphor in Kill The Moon (not to mention the waste of a particularly strong guest star in Hermione Norris). A writer…
Ah this episode was more like the old school Santa Moff penned script I know and love. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Pilot. I did, but I have always enjoyed the way Moffat does outlandish experimentation in directions you never expect on Doctor Who, and this is what happens again with Extremis.
Like the openers to series 6 and 9, this mid series episode felt like part one of a finale two parter. Aside from some jokes at the Catholic Church’s expense via Bill and her prospective girlfriend, Penny’s shock at the TARDIS materializing and bringing The Pope to say hi, the whole episode feels dark, foreboding and like the stakes are getting ramped up in a big way.
Missy and The Doctor
The episode opens sometime after The Husbands of River Song and the singing towers and The Doctor finding Bill we presume. We aren’t given a lot of background on why Missy is about to be executed (is it something to do with her escape with the daleks at the start of series 9? Will this story strand come up again in the s10 finale?), but the way Moffat weaves how The Doctor came to be minding the box at university actually works quite well alongside the second story strand of the episode, which is basically The Name of the Rose meets The Matrix alien invasion story.
I have always found the relationship between The Master and The Doctor to be interesting. They are both Time Lord renegades, and therefore, in some sense bound by mutual understanding of what it is to be alone, to be an outcast from kin. They are both brilliant geniuses, even if they choose to use that genius to different ends. They both play games with each other, to test that intellect, and to make sure both can still play the game.
Though Missy was understated in this episode, Michelle Gomez is as brilliant as ever, and I am heartbroken that she is set to leave alongside Capaldi. Though I still enjoyed Simm Master, he has nothing on the cold, intelligent, brutal mania of Missy. I couldn’t quite tell, as Missy knelt before her executioner, if she meant every word she said or she was just trying to save her own skin.
I have also often said in these recap reviews that Moffat has a way of verbalising via his scripts key qualities of The Doctor, the qualities which make him loved, respected and famed throughout the galaxy. This time Moff does this via Nardole, River Song and her blue TARDIS diary. If The Doctor killed Missy in cold blood, he would no longer be The Doctor (the name you choose. It’s like a promise you keep). He would take responsibility for her, he would watch over her for a thousand years because she is a Time Lord following horribly wrong paths, but he cannot kill her without destroying the part of himself that people love most. River’s diary quote felt like something out of a philosophy text rather than a TV episode, and it is no less beautiful for that.
River: Only in darkness are we revealed. […] Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit, without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.
In the most extreme of circumstances, The Doctor saves The Master in the hopes that someday she will make good on her word and pay The Doctor’s kindness back. By episode’s end, The Doctor must ask one of his oldest enemies for help. The question is, at what price does Missy’s aide come? Does she truly understand the meaning of calling someone friend? Her words as her doom sat high seem to indicate so:
Missy: Without hope. Without witness. Without reward. I am your friend.
I am still loving Bill, and this episode continued with building on her relationship with Nardole, which I am a fan of. I love that Nardole can be a ‘badass’ and then two seconds later reveal himself to be a real coward. He is a companion that grows on me more with each passing episode.
I am also enjoying the run of stories in series 10 which see The Doctor and his companions relying less on the sonic and magic Time Lord get out of jail free cards, and more focus on companions and The Doctor resorting to intellect to get out of sticky situations. This episode then is a mixed bag on this front; most of the episode is spent with characters figuring things out, yet The Doctor’s ability to email from the simulation to himself in the real world made no sense.
Extremis: 9/10 inky stars for being a chilling, yet oddly beautiful in parts episode, with some fine performances from everyone, but especially from Capaldi. His gravity when he explains to Bill that they are simulations is grave and sad.
PS: Will The Doctor’s attempt to read The Veritus affect his next regeneration? What price did Twelve pay for the brief use of his vision returned?