This is not, hopefully clearly now, my Doctor Who blog. But looking back over the archive, I do spend a bit of time talking about the show, when I’m not complaining about politics or writing parody songs. It’s only natural – I’m a big fan of the property, and unlike many of my other areas of interest I don’t otherwise have an online outlet through which to spout off about it. Longer thoughts than Twitter can handle, irregular enough that I don’t bother reviewing every episode. Normally I just enthuse, or complain, to people about it when cornered.
So, to preface all of this, let me say that I’ve enjoyed the heck out of this season, all things considered. Some genuinely great episodes, two that I really loved, more that I genuinely liked. It’s been AT least two seasons since I’ve been as happy with the show overall…
I hated tonight’s finale. To borrow a phrase from the late great Roger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated, hated, HATED this finale. I think there are two reasons for this, both nested, both stemming from laziness, but both ultimately pernicious. This isn’t just lazy writing, it’s BAD writing, and looking at the two issues, you can really see why. There’s a lot to like here, as everywhere, Capaldi’s always fantastic, I enjoyed “Missy’s” performance just fine, and I even concede there’s the germs of some good ideas here and there…
The thing that works about the Mistress’ plan? That fundamentally giving the Doctor ultimate power is a great attack. Oblique, but brilliant, and brilliant because it should – if executed correctly – be infallible. Because inaction is a sin too, if you follow the metric through properly. If he commands an army to force an ethos, then he’s accountable as a conqueror. But if he refuses to command that army then he’s responsible for everything they don’t do. Pacifism is a fine thing, but if you declare that you won’t use your power to stop, say, Hitler from invading Poland, then you’re – to a degree – responsible for what happens when he does. Not acting is a choice too.
Of course, the Doctor does – and must – do this every day. He has limits, for which ultimately he is grateful. And he has rules, which are like limits, but are self-defined (and sometimes broken), but that allow him to sleep at night. Thematically, though, he’s carried with him since the relaunch the fact that he IS making those choices, as any time traveler must.
I’ve been rewatching Goodnight Sweetheart lately, almost the conceptual opposite of Doctor Who in terms of time travel stories: it’s about a patently human man, and not a very nice one at that, who can only travel from a fixed location to another fixed location, from one time to another in a particular increment. Gary Sparrow, our protagonist jaunts between the mid ’90s and WWII London for a spot of light plagiarism and heavy adultery. But despite the fact there’s a war on, about which he has vital information, he struggles with how much to use it. “What happens,” he asks, “if I interfere?”
Doctor Who sometimes tries to play with this question, but it by and large relies on handwaves to avoid the big questions about destiny and interference because week to week it likes to be a show about a very peculiar type of superhero. And that’s okay. Except in episodes like this one, which seek to have their cake and eat it too. If you raise the question of moral hazard, you have to address it. The power proposed to be handed to him is just an extension of the power he uses everyday, which means rejecting it contains anti-science philosophy of the worst order (ME AM PLAY GOD, cries the Doctor, berating himself for pushing past the limits of what he’s meant to do) which is untenable because he regularly helps people by shattering barriers of limitation (like when he agreed to disrupt the natural order of life and death for a buddy in this two-parter) or sheer lack of empathy (“Yes, yes, ultimate power, but that doesn’t suit ME, I prefer my box and the helping I do when travelling is ultimately a question of ‘why not?'”), which is tenable, but inconsistent with a hundred putative self-sacrifices and the show’s hoped for tone overall. So then, what’s the point of it all? The episode doesn’t appear to function as a renunciation of the Doctor’s meddling – after all, when he throws the bracelet to Danny he has a plan as evidenced by the end of the episode when he’s aware of the possibility, indeed, in his mind, the likelihood of Danny coming back. The Doctor claims his companions are better than an army…and then proves it by using them in such a manner. Which, if nothing else, demonstrates that the moral hazard that the Mistress is theoretically subjecting him to is null and void. The conflict, such as it is, is without stakes, and has always been without stakes. He is not rejecting power, he’s merely demonstrating he’s always had more of it, so the gift is an irrelevance, despite the show’s attempts to paint it as something incredible. Of course, the Doctor (since the relaunch) has regularly defeated unstoppable armies with nothing but his wits and his friends, so I don’t know why the Mistress (or the Doctor) expects any different.
This would be bad, of course, but it’s followed by the even more asinine (and indeed, more offensive) murder of the Mistress at the hands of the CyberBrig. Now, some people have suggested the likelihood that (of course) the Mistress will live through this, and all signs point to yes – but it’s not presented that way within the confines of the narrative. Chance the Gardner isn’t walking across a hidden pier: what is on the screen is on the screen and it is presented, unequivocally, as murder. Now, I don’t have a problem with the Brig shooting people. He’s the Brigadier, and it is to an extent what he’s for. But like Jack Harkness (for those more familiar with New Who than Old Who), the Brigadier always served as a counterpoint, someone embracing an alternate conflict resolution philosophy which brought him into conflict with the Doctor even as their mutual respect as peers deepened into reliance and friendship. Now, this Doctor clearly has a slightly different attitude towards killing than most of the recent crop (for better or for worse) and the fact that this summary execution is topped off with a respectful salute to an old friend might have passed as a minor sin if not for the fact that the episode just – immediately prior to the execution in question – set it up as a grave moral wrong. A sin so vile that to do it would “destroy Clara’s soul”, another cross for the Doctor to bear on someone else’s behalf. Until, a few seconds later, it’s a problem conveniently solved.
This is inconsistency, but it’s not due to a muddling of events or “confusion” (an allegation often laid at Moffat’s feet), it’s due to a complete failure to take a position on the ethical issue with which the Doctor is confronted. Like the promise of ultimate power, ultimately cast aside by the Doctor with nary a qualm, the moral praxis of the situation is revealed, in fact, not to exist. It makes for something far worse than an inconsistent show, it makes for an EMPTY show. A hollow show.
The episode fails to carry through on a single one of its posited issues because it fundamentally fails to take those ethical positions, instead allowing people’s emotions towards activities to drift moment by moment to service speeches. The Undead Cybermen are the greatest threat the universe has ever faced, except they can easily be ordered to self-destruct. The Doctor’s decision to let them go will haunt him until the end of his days, except it clearly doesn’t – by episode’s end he’s moved on to OTHER apparently haunting moral choices. Danny hates officers but can save the day as a simple soldier…by ordering mindless drones to destroy themselves and their technological foundation. To kill the Mistress would be a bad thing if Clara did it, a less bad thing if the Doctor did it, and apparently not a thing at all if the Brigadier did it. Tennant’s Doctor, who wept uncontrollably as he lost the Master, who begged him to stay on the understanding that things could be different, that they needed each other, is gone, Capaldi’s doctor steps over the corpse of his one time friend without a magnificent eyebrow out of place. Which, you know, might be alright given that the episode doesn’t explain why Clara killing a mass-murdering grave robber would be wrong. It takes it as sinful as a given, then when the sin is committed, breezes past it. This can only lead to a feeling of disconnectedness, of artifice because suddenly you can see the strings in the puppet show.
Without these moments, what’s left? The Mistress doing her best Con-Air? The Doctor plummeting like Roger Moore for the safety of a target? Sanjeev Bhaskar doing Nightmare at 20,000 Feet? The murder of fan-favourite guest stars? The answer is very, very little.
And yet, we’re not done. We haven’t crossed into the realm of the most damning moment in the episode, the minute that takes it from bad to genuinely bothersome. The kind of thing that inspires multi-thousand word blog posts.
2) The Power of Love
Now, almost every review I’ve read, comment I’ve seen made, has noted this, usually with a half-affectionate eyeroll. “Oh, yes. How cheesy. Still, the kiddies are there, and what more can you expect, eh?”
Better. We can expect better.
And before you dismiss me as holding a wholly unromantic soul, let me assure you that quite the contrary is the case. To coin a glam rock phrase, I believe in a thing called love. But the show isn’t serving it, or honouring it. It’s betraying it.
If the narrative of the story is to be believed, stakes are set up when Danny’s inhibitor chip might be turned on. Switched off, we are told, he remains at least in part himself, switched on, he will be the unrepentant killing machine we’ve come to expect a Cyberman to be. The show outright says this, with promises of neck-snapping to come and all.
Except, of course, the chip comes on, Danny gains the insight he apparently needed (though “evil cloud is evil and might need to be destroyed” doesn’t seem like a BIG logical leap for the Doctor to make, even if he is a little leery of Mistress engendered double bluffs) but he still loves Clara too much to ever hurt her.
Except, what does that say for the rest of humanity? The power of love, as a storytelling device, is best used (when used) as an instance of narrative grace. Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, the universe is kind to the good, and love is the best in all of us. True love is an instance of an assumed higher platonic good, and steps taken in it are taken in respect of a fundamentally moral goal. Thanks to our ideas about courtly and romantic love, love itself is usually presented as a form of divine providence (even in non-religious texts) a force to whose purity the world will occasionally respond. The narrative – particularly the “heroic” narrative – usually emphasises this by confining itself it a single set of true lovers, who represent, unique among them, the truth of true love.
Except, this isn’t the presentation of true love in the story as presented. Oh no – Danny and Clara’s love is explicitly presented as an achievement. There love is strong enough to defy the order of nature, not because of the nature of love, but because of the nature of the lovers. And we know this, because we’ve seen – both implicitly and explicitly – true lovers fall victim to the Cybermen before and not come out on top. Vast SWATHES of humanity have fallen to the Cybermen. The episode itself presents literally millions of the recently dead, whose love does not save them (whatever it may be, existing as it surely, statistically, must among the multitude). Remember Age of Steel the Cybermen episode in which they truly debuted? Remember when JACKIE TYLER got turned into an emotionless robot? Remember Army of Ghosts?
Love isn’t enough. Like Winston in Room 101, your love, as strong as it maybe, isn’t enough to save you. That’s what makes the Cybermen scary, at least conceptually, the thing that brings them up alongside the Dalek’s as Doctor Who’s big monster. The Cybermen take humans and take away their humanity.
Except, all this time, it turns out that this wasn’t the case: every poor bastard who has become a Cyberman soldier thus far hasn’t just loved hard enough. They haven’t been invested in their human emotions as much as Danny and Clara have. More fool them.
The episode takes an instance of grace, and turns it into a character accomplishment. It may not mean to, but that’s the inescapable conclusion of the events as presented in the episode. Everyone remains a robot except for Danny (and the Brig, who I’ll come to in a minute).
That is, in and of itself, a horrible message, because it takes an ineffable human experience, the experience of being in love, and reduces it to something quantifiable. It takes the immeasurable, measures it, and finds most of humanity wanting. It promises miracles, but only for those who are “special” enough. It moves to sort the wheat from the chaff.
AND YET — AND YET – that might, might, might in some conceivable universe be okay, or at least interesting. If this were a love story that spanned all of time and space and was the entire theme and substance of the show, if it was devoted to the idea that some love maybe is more special than other kinds and devoted all its energies into examining that question it might, in sufficiently skilled hands, reach a point where that’s not wholly dismissive of one of the primary human experiences. But Doctor Who, you haven’t earned it. I say this as someone who, generally, has good feelings about the Doctor/Clara romance, who thinks the season brought out by far the best in Clara, a character who I never clicked with until this season, who liked Danny and even liked them together. That’s still a cheque your body can’t cash.
Falling on the power of love is hackneyed and cliched. But we’ve gone beyond that at this point. We’ve traveled into the territory where instead of cheaply cashing in on human emotion, the show is outright betraying it with facility. It’s romantic objectivism – insufficient love is dragging us down.
Added to this, we can’t ignore that this was done in the cheapest way possible. Last of the Time Lords which ALSO had the Master undone by the power of the human spirit and wish fulfillment, which has traditionally met my lowest of the low standards for episodes, at least bothered with the technobabble of the Archangel network. And at least they made the achievement of the human spirit a coming together of the whole of the human race, not the love of one man for one woman elevated above the whole of humanity.
And then there’s the Brig. And look, the Brigadier is a great character. He’s an important character. It’s important to say goodbye to him. But we did that. We did that with the Eleventh Doctor taking a telephone call about his death, a moment that floored him, that reminded him of the best things that he could lose, of the inexorability of the end, the memory of a man who gave him enough strength and dignity to stop running. That’s an amazing legacy to convey on a character. And then, to go one better, the gave us Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and they gave the character a future.
I have no doubt that the Brigadier loved his daughter. And maybe he was itching for a chance to do one more sniper killing for his old pacifist friend. But in the context of the episode, he’s someone we’ve never met. And yet, the brainwashing, indeed, the mechanical brain rewiring, doesn’t pause him for a moment as he leaps into the sky like the Rocketeer. Is he still alive? Will we get SuperBrig the Cyborg cameos? Has the noble death of a good man been reduced to Robocop?
Also, remember what the inhibitor chip is for anybody? It’s not just to bring you under control, it’s because the pain of being cyberised is so intense so as to drive you mad, and is everlasting. With everything they can do, they can’t stop the pain. They can just bring you to a point where it doesn’t matter to you anymore. Except, what are inhibitor chips even for now? Apparently sufficiently motivated Cybermen have been able to feel things all along, meaning that by all rights they should’ve collapsed into gibbering hallucinatory pain. Unless they’re resisting that, unmentioned, as well.
I’ve thus far ignored the fact that the Doctor didn’t do anything (literally, go through the episode step by step, unless you count turning on the inhibitor chip that doesn’t work he does nothing – even Indy has a better record in Raiders), because, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, that’s okay, in some stories. But fundamentally, for a finale of this kind, we’re owed a plan.
We’re owed a plan not because the heroic narrative calls for the display of power (and the Doctor’s power has always been cleverness) but we’re owed a plan because love is fragile sometimes, as well as beautiful. It’s rare, and it can be hard, and it can be snuffed out at a moment’s notice – by careless words, mistimed actions, incautious strangers, or (yes, Danny Pink) a swerving car on the high street. This risk, this fragility, doesn’t rob it of it’s beauty – it enhances it. It’s important because an amoral universe has every opportunity to snuff out love, but sometimes, if people work really hard, because it matters to them, but also because they’re clever and they try (and not just let the universe take care of it for them) they get to keep it anyway. Love is worth fighting for. It doesn’t do the fighting for you. It might make you stronger, but it makes you do the fighting all the same. And rightly so.
That’s the emotional reality. And it’s the emotional realities that ground the fantasy of a fantasy show, that make it real. That make it mean something. I don’t ask that Doctor Who practice hard science (heaven forfend), and I give it a by, most of the time, on wonkiness of internal logic (although I’ll argue that to be a good episode, that internal logic needs to hold up – the beauty of the concept of the show is its premise contains enough flexibility to allow that internal logic to have any number of bizarre elements as long as they’re built up correctly, but I digress). But I do ask it to have some kernel of emotional truth, some clarity amongst the noise of the beeping whizzbang and the exploding aeroplanes, to make us care a little. Make us care about the emotional stakes, and you and Santa can hunt xenomorphs all you want.
This was lazy. But it wasn’t just lazy. It was stupid and ugly and sad. I have liked a lot of Season 8, but this, this one stung. It made me angry, but mainly it just leaves me cold, just after letting me warm up for a season. Damn it, Doctor Who. You better bring the A-Game at Christmas. I expect better. We all should.