Tag Archives: Doctor Who

Doctor Who: “Extremis” isn’t nearly as interesting an experiment as Steven Moffat thinks it is

**This is a spoilery review.**

You can tell, watching “Extremis,” that Steven Moffat thinks he’s very clever. It’s a Moffat episode through and through, with all the self-satisfied smugness and overwrought convolutions that come along with that. The thing is, “Extremis” isn’t experimental or groundbreaking or particularly intriguing. It’s what amounts to a dream sequence mashed together with an extended flashback. Which is fine. But there’s not much actual story here, just exposition about the past and set-up for the future, none of which is nearly as compelling as Steven Moffat seems to think it is.

Perhaps the most significant part of the episode, if only because it’s the part of the episode that’s easiest to make good sense of, is the flashbacks that work on multiple levels. Most viewers have been saying for weeks that the vault under the university must contain Missy, and this is confirmed in “Extremis.”  While it’s not clear what for (and it could be any number of things, really), sometime shortly after the end of the Doctor’s time on Darillium Missy is sentenced to death, and the Doctor is summoned to be her executioner. While the Doctor hems and haws about whether he should pull the kill lever and Missy begs for her life, Nardole shows up and reads to the Doctor from River Song’s diary. He’s been sent by River to take care of the Doctor, which explains why he’s been lurking around all season, just waiting for this episode to have something important to do.

The other half of the episode finds the Doctor (seemingly) called upon by no less personage than the Pope himself to help translate an important religious text. It’s this part of the episode that is most frustratingly Moffat-eque, falling apart to a large degree if you think about it for more than a minute. There are some great moments, both humorous and dramatic, and we’re introduced to a menacing new enemy of humanity, but the truth is that the Veritas and the Doctor’s quest to understand it just doesn’t add up to anything that makes much sense at all. In the end, we learn that what we’ve been watching is simply a simulation being run by an invading species of aliens to work through how they’re going to get past Earth’s defenses. As other characters commit suicide in droves at their realization of their own unreality and his friends simply dissolve into pixels, the AI Doctor inside the simulation puts it all together and turns out to be so lifelike that his own way of dealing with unreality is to send an email to the real Doctor and let him know what’s going on, setting up what seems to be the big bad of the season.

Unfortunately, none of this holds up to much scrutiny. The biggest unanswered question, though, is a simple one, and the lack of an answer undermines the whole premise of the episode: If what we are watching, for most of the episode, is a simulation put on by aliens with a plan to invade Earth, and the real Doctor doesn’t find out about any of this until the end of the episode when the simulation Doctor contacts him, where did the invading aliens get the data for their simulation? And if they can either access data (such as the Doctor’s blindness) that only the Doctor and Nardole know about and they can build a meticulously lifelike simulation for their purposes, are they seriously still limited by a quirk of random number generation? Also, they can’t lock down their network so that their own AIs can’t become self-aware and contact real people outside the simulation? It’s such a common Moffat-era Who problem that complaints about it are frankly just banal at this point.

In the end, “Extremis” isn’t nearly as profound or experimental as Steven Moffat intends it to be, but it nonetheless manages to be entertaining. The Pope and several Cardinals pouring out of Bill’s bedroom to interrupt her date is legit hilarious, even if it does happen in the simulation. The Doctor’s suggestion to Bill that she go for it with real life Penny, even though Bill thinks Penny is out of her league, is sweet. Michelle Gomez is a constant delight as Missy. There are some interesting ideas about religion and faith being explored, even if only in the most facile manner. Like many a Moffat-penned episode, “Extremis” is fine as long as one doesn’t think too hard about it.


  • One Moffat-era trope I wish would disappear forever is people all over the universe being absolutely terrified of the Doctor’s wrath after basically reading the first page of his Google search results. It’s tiresome and patronizing, and the Doctor isn’t actually that dangerous unless you’re a Dalek.
  • I hope we get to see more of Bill with Penny, who seems nice.
  • The visual comparison of River Song’s diary to a Bible is potentially interesting, but it’s pretty much left at that.
  • After last week’s episode using zombie imagery of a kind, it seemed redundant to have this one do the same, even if it was a different take on the zombie look and especially if these zombie aliens are going to make another appearance or two.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen” is a good episode that could have used a bit more room to breathe

**Spoilers abound.**

“Oxygen” is another solid Doctor Who adventure, for all that it retreads some of the same thematic ground that was already covered in “Smile” and “Thin Ice” just a couple weeks ago, specifically regarding the dangers of robots (of a sort) executing their programming in a more extremely literal fashion than is strictly healthy for humans and the dangers of unfettered capitalism, which is also not particularly healthy for humans. It’s an ambitious enough episode in that it takes a strong stand and conveys a coherent progressive message, but it suffers from being a bit overstuffed and at times feels distracted as it tries to touch on more topics than can reasonably be done justice in just forty-five minutes. It’s an episode that, while overall well-done, could have benefited from some tighter editing and spending a little more time on the central thesis instead of getting sidetracked with ideas and asides that never quite fit within the main narrative.

The episode begins with two events. First, a nice-seeming couple is working on a space station when they are attacked by what appear to be some kind of space zombies. Meanwhile, the Doctor is pining for space and feeling cooped up being stuck on Earth to guard whatever (whoever, really) is in the secret vault that he and Nardole have secreted under the university. While Nardole does his best to keep the Doctor on Earth, Bill is game for a space jaunt, and soon enough the three of them are answering a distress beacon on the now seemingly abandoned space station. The bare bones of the rest of the story is that there are no space zombies (a disappointment, to be honest); just a bunch of company-owned space suits designed to sell oxygen to workers on a mining station in an especially evil take on the idea of a company town; the station itself is kept empty of air, and all air needed by the workers is metered out through the suits. At some point, either someone at the company or the AI technology in the suits themselves realized that it was cheaper for the company to not have human workers at all, and the suits have been systematically killing their occupants as a cost-cutting measure.

For an episode of Doctor Who, it’s surprisingly dark, and perhaps the most interesting thing about this story is that there are some real consequences for the characters in the end. Bill gets another glimpse of a future that isn’t, at least in some ways, as optimistic as she might prefer. More importantly, she is not only in real danger; she has a serious brush with death that must highlight just how dangerous her travels with the Doctor can be. The deaths of most of the workers on the space station are permanent, however, and the Doctor is only able to rescue two out of forty of them, which gives “Oxygen” a staggeringly high body count, even compared to similar episodes. That the news of the event leads to the eventual downfall of capitalism as humanity’s economic system of choice is cold comfort, especially when the Doctor adds to that bit of information that humans still find new and different mistakes to make after capitalism. Surely this will be true if humanity survives long enough to spread to the stars, but still. This is a family show.

What’s most surprising and compelling about this episode, however, is that it’s the Doctor himself who faces perhaps the most significant and transformative change of the episode. When Bill’s space suit malfunctions right as they’re about to go into the vacuum of space, the Doctor gives her his own helmet to save her life. It works, but though the Doctor’s tolerances to space are greater than any human’s, he’s still injured, left blinded until they can return to the Tardis, where he expects to be healed (or at least says so). In the end, however, we learn that the Doctor is still blind, which may well be a permanent state of affairs, at least until his next regeneration. Going forward, it puts him at a decided disadvantage for future adventures—offering an unprecedented chance for the show to explore disability in a thoughtful manner—and gives him a secret that he’s keeping from Bill, who has no idea that the treatment the Doctor underwent on the Tardis didn’t work. The Doctor is a character who’s defined by periodic major changes, but there’s never been a time in the rebooted show where the Doctor experienced this type of potentially profound change. It will be interesting to see how the show handles it in the weeks to come.


  • I like Matt Lucas quite a bit, and I was happy to see him get some more screen time this week, but I’m still not sold on this weird dynamic between Nardole and the Doctor.
  • This was the most passive I think Bill has been to date, and I’d have loved to see her have a bit more to do, even if the episode was already overstuffed with happenings. This was the first time Bill has felt so purely like a tourist in an episode, and had so little to contribute to the solution of the hour’s problem.
  • The blue guy and every interaction anyone had with him would be my top pick for what to cut to make room for everything else to have a bit more time to shine.
  • Alternatively, just a straight up extra 15 minutes would have done this episode some good.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” is fine, I guess

Doctor Who has always been an inconsistent show, and “Knock, Knock” is the first stumble of this season. It’s not that it’s terrible; it’s just that there’s nothing particularly good about it, either. The story is pedestrian, the special effects are lackluster, the scares aren’t scary enough, and Bill isn’t given nearly enough to do. Your mileage may vary, but I found it to be an overall very “meh” episode that failed to satisfactorily explore its themes.

**Spoilers below.**

The increased focus on showing us some of the companion’s life apart from the Doctor continued this week, with the whole episode’s story built around Bill moving out on her own—into a house with five housemates. They struggle, as many young students do, to find something affordable, but eventually settle on a huge, old house that’s serendipitously offered to them, suspiciously cheap (natch) by a very strange old man. It’s a classic horror movie set-up, and the first half or so of the episode follows the expected horror show formula: Bill and her friends sign an obviously shady contract, move in to their ill-advised lease, and the house eats one of them right away. The Doctor shows up, and hijinks ensue as the solve the mystery of the house and its appetites.

It’s the back third or so of the episode where all the actual Doctor Who happens, but there’s not much depth here. When the Doctor is helping Bill move in, he invites himself into the house and introduces himself to her new housemates, but steamrolls right over Bill’s objections and her attempts to set a totally reasonable boundary. This could, very generously, be interpreted as being in parallel to the toxic relationship between the episode’s antagonist and the wooden woman we come to find out is his mother. Even more tenuously, this theme of relationships needing to have proper boundaries set and respected could be connected to the final scene of the episode where it’s all but revealed that the Doctor’s prisoner is the Master (I mean, obviously it’s the Master, right?), but that’s a real stretch. I suppose the story of the boy who wanted to save his mother is a little sad, but it’s tough to have strong sympathetic feelings for a guy who murdered a couple dozen young people in the last sixty or so years.

All in all, it’s simply not clear what message we’re supposed to take away from any of this. The Doctor oversteps a reasonable boundary with Bill, but the ends here—Bill’s five housemates are all rescued by the end of the episode—seem to justify the means. Bill and her friends really were wrong to rent the house to begin with, the Doctor was right to be suspicious, and through the Doctor’s quick-thinking the day is saved. It’s a facile thesis, and the ending, with the five eaten young people (though, interestingly, only the five, not the eighteen or so others before them) rescued and whole, completely sidesteps having to deal with any permanent consequences for any of the decisions anyone made in this episode. Even the ending of the Landlord and his mother is depicted as more bittersweetly tragic than anything else, and he’s a literal murderer responsible for the deaths of numerous people and who has been keeping his own mother imprisoned and taking advantage of her memory loss for decades. It’s genuinely wild that anyone thought this story was a great idea.

Listen, though. It’s fine. The bar for this show’s success has been set absurdly low for the better part of a decade now, and this episode isn’t without its positives. There’s a genuinely funny moment when Bill breaks the news to one of her boy housemates that she prefers girls, and the boy in question just smiles good-naturedly and responds kindly and with good humor, just like any decent person ought to in that situation. The casting of David Suchet (of Poirot fame) as the Landlord is inspired. We finally do get very close to confirmation of who the Doctor and Nardole have got imprisoned (though Matt Lucas is still shamefully underused in this role). While “Knock, Knock” won’t go down as a standout episode in any aspect, it’s a perfectly serviceable bit of almost-mid-season filler/fluff. I suggest not thinking too hard about it. The folks running the show certainly didn’t.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • Even that episode title was something of a missed opportunity. Was “Knock” not good enough? Or was “Knock on Wood” already taken?
  • Also, maybe it’s just because I recently had to deal with a bug infestation in my own home, but yuck. Also, also, where did all those bugs go at the end?

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” is the best episode of the season yet, but it’s still a mixed bag

In “Thin Ice,” the Doctor and Bill visit the last ever Thames Frost Fair and uncover a mystery, as the Doctor and his companions are always wont to do. It’s highly reminiscent of other Regency-to-Victorian era episodes of the show as well as of the season five adventure, “The Beast Below.” If this season of the show has an overarching theme so far, it seems to be rehashing all the show’s old tropes in new arrangements, and this is both fascinating and frustrating. To be fair, there’s precious little new under the sun, and I don’t expect to be blown away by the originality of the show week after week, but I’m not certain that this most recent iteration of the series is doing enough to set itself apart from previous seasons. There’s some great stuff in “Thin Ice,” but there’s also some tiresomely dull stuff, a tendency to zoom past emotional moments without giving them time to really land, and a sense of self-righteous smugness about some of the episode’s messaging.

Once again, Bill is proving herself to be a great companion to the Doctor, and we’re starting to see more and more of the easy chemistry and nicely accomplished comedic timing between Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi. Bill’s a little bit street wise, and she’s got a sensible level of independence along with a stubborn streak that lets her stand up to the Doctor, who can be a little bit of an intellectual bully at times. Bill’s confidence and cleverness let her adapt to unexpected situations, and the joy she takes in novel experiences is infectious and quite fun to watch. At the same time, this season is continuing very deliberately the themes of the last two seasons relating to the Doctor’s lack of humanity, and like previous companions, Bill is becoming something of a conscience for her mentor. Unlike with the last couple of companions, however, the show is doing a great job of truly showing us why and how Bill is up to that often onerous task.

**Spoilers below.**

This week’s mystery revolves around a great beast chained to the bottom of the Thames, where an unscrupulous nobleman, one Lord Sutcliffe, is feeding it humans in order to extract a valuable and highly efficient fuel that the beast produces as waste. It’s a simple enough plot and a straightforward mystery without any unexpected twists or turns, but that’s fine. There’s something to be said for that kind of comfort television, and “Thin Ice” is definitely in the comfort TV neighborhood. It’s got lighthearted fun, cute kids, and a happy ending where a racist asshole gets what’s coming to him. There’s not much not to like about it. Unfortunately, there’s not much in particular to actively praise about the episode, either.

Perhaps the episode’s biggest problem, though it’s by no means a dealbreaker, is the ease with which it skips from emotional beat to emotional beat without taking time to really examine why these moments are supposed to work. Bill’s concerns about facing racism in Regency England are quickly moved past, as are her concerns about her potential to change the future in unexpected ways. In a show that in general takes a blithe attitude towards its treatment of most of the usual ethical and practical considerations surrounding time travel, it may be best to just leave it alone. I did rather like the Doctor messing with Bill about it, but even that isn’t terribly funny if you think about it; he’s joked around Bill’s concerns rather than actually answering them.

When a little boy dies right in front of Bill’s eyes, she’s outraged at the Doctor’s lack of reaction—and it’s not touched on, but he saves his sonic screwdriver without making a move to save the child—but even this is quickly glossed over. At first Bill seems deeply upset by the experience, and she’s angry with the Doctor for being able to move past it so quickly, but she moves past it fast enough herself. It’s an interesting way that the Doctor seems to corrupt his companions. By removing them so far in space and time from their natural contexts, the companions are often forced to abandon normal human standards of ethics and morality in favor of more broadly logical, but surely less humane, rules for living. For all that the show continues to try and portray the companions as a humanizing force in the Doctor’s life—and the Doctor gives Bill a great deal of power and agency in their partnership this week by treating her as a sort of commander—the ways in which the 2000-year-old Doctor changes his companions tend to never be adequately dealt with, and this episode is no different.

As far as the overall messaging of this episode, it’s a decidedly mixed bag. It’s nice to see fictional whitewashing called out, and I’m always happy to see a racist get punched in the face, but did the Doctor really need to give a long-winded speech about the sanctity of life or whatever? The decision to free the Thames sea serpent thing at the end of the episode is laudable, but it’s done with an awfully self-satisfied tone considering that there’s no assurance that the beast isn’t going to leave to be a human-eating menace elsewhere. As fantastical as the episode was, we also get a reminder that a black girl couldn’t inherit a fortune in 1814, which necessitates it being given to a little white boy with a much smaller role in the episode. It’s fine, I guess. Whatever. But the overall tone of the episode verges on smugness, especially in the delivery of the Doctor’s lines about whitewashing and his speech about what the true measure of humanity’s goodness is.

For all that the folks behind the show do seem to be making an effort to engage with and address common criticisms, they’ve still got a regrettable tendency to always want to prove that the Doctor is the smartest and best person in the room. He might need a human companion to keep him in check and remind him to do the human thing, but that’s not going to stop the Doctor from making self-indulgent pedantic speeches that challenge the humans around him to be better than they are. Yay.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • The episode seems to imply that Frost Fairs were common occurrences on the Thames, but they weren’t. Even during a mini Ice Age that caused more extreme than usual winters in England, the Thames never froze solid enough for this kind of thing more than once every ten years or so.
  • I guess Nardole is part of the overarching plot this season but not adventuring with the Doctor and Bill. Too bad, though. I would like to see Matt Lucas get a bit more to do.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” is a reasonably well-done soft reboot for the beginning of the end of the Moffat Era

Last time I reviewed Doctor Who it was the most recent Christmas Special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” which was enjoyable garbage. I haven’t been particularly excited about the show in several years, to be honest. Like many people, especially feminist people, I’ve found the Moffat era, well, trying, to say the least, so I was pretty certain that the best news about series 10 of the rebooted show was that it was Steven Moffat’s last one as showrunner. Then the announcement came that Pearl Mackie would be playing new companion Bill Potts, and she seemed delightful. Then a couple weeks ago the news broke that Bill was to be the show’s first gay companion, which brought a new round of both delight and apprehension. It turns out, however, that the first episode of the new series, “The Pilot” is neither as wonderful as long-time fans might have hoped nor as disastrous as pessimists might have thought a Moffat-penned episode introducing a black gay woman would be.

Peter Capaldi is back as the Doctor, and this time he’s been lecturing, for decades apparently, at St. Luke’s University in Bristol. Bill Potts works at the university canteen, but she also attends as many of the Doctor’s lectures as she can get to. The episode opens with the Doctor wanting to know why. He likes Bill—partly because, he says, when she doesn’t understand something, she smiles, which is a nice bit of characterization that, if it doesn’t set Bill apart from previous companions, is a great memorable line of description that quickly gives us an idea of who Bill is. At any rate, it’s a good sight better than Bill’s rambling story about her crush on a girl who comes into the canteen every day, which is cute—and it’s nice to see Bill’s gayness treated so casually—but also somewhat silly. When the Doctor offers to tutor Bill privately—on “everything”—Bill naturally jumps at the chance, although her emotionally distant foster mother is less than supportive.

The episode’s rather slight plot starts and ends with Bill’s newest crush on Heather, a quietly misanthropic girl with a distinctive star-shaped defect in one eye. Heather shows bill a strange puddle that is surrounded by a circle of scorch marks, and when Heather gets swallowed up by the puddle and then starts chasing Bill around, the Doctor gets involved. Amidst a great deal of the kind of 101 level exposition—TARDIS, cloaking device, chameleon circuit, bigger on the inside, Daleks, etc.—that will be redundant and boring to longtime fans but invaluable to first time watchers, we find out that the puddle is actually a sort of sentient space oil left by a now-departed spaceship. If that seems like pure, nonsensical speculation, just wait until the scene where the Doctor and Bill are talking it through and figuring out how it works by using basically the same kind of deductive reasoning used by Sir Bedivere and a horde of angry peasants to identify a witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This would be funnier if it was obvious that it was an intentional reference, but it’s, frankly, just the kind of low-substance mystical gobbledygook that has characterized many Who episodes during Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner.

It’s fine, though. Bill’s not-quite-fledgling romance with Heather is sweet, and Pearl Mackie plays Bill with a lovely sensitivity and vulnerability that makes it easy to believe that Bill could be deeply affected by what has been just a fleeting connection with Heather. The scenes of Bill being chased by the drowned Heather from the puddle are suitably frightening in the ordinary PG way one expects of the show, and there are even one or two almost-jump-scares that heighten the sense of fear and urgency. The chase gets Bill onto the Tardis and offers as good an excuse as any for her to get a bit of a tour and for the Doctor to put the Tardis through her paces, again presumably for the benefit of new-to-the-show viewers. It’s a good way for everyone to get the lay of the land after so much time without regular episodes of the show, and it also takes time to introduce the beginning of what seems likely to be the season-long arc: What is the Doctor hiding at St. Luke’s, and why?

It’s not quite as whiz-bang as some other Moffat-penned episodes, but “The Pilot” is quick and snappy, filled with short scenes, fast talking, and lots of running around. It at times feels as if it’s going through a checklist of “Things Steven Moffat Wants Us to Know About the Doctor and His New Companion,” but it’s mostly coherent, albeit sometimes absurd. Increasingly in recent years, I find that the less I think about Doctor Who the more I enjoy it, and that is almost certainly still going to be the case in this new season. “The Pilot” wasn’t as bad as I worried it might be; it’s just exactly what the show has been since Steven Moffat took it over. I’m optimistic about Bill, who I’m already half in love with, but only time will tell if she’s going to get the well-written adventures she deserves. As a soft reboot of a well-loved show, “The Pilot” is a mostly successful, with enough information and thrills to hook new viewers, a promising new companion, and plenty of references to the show’s past to please old-timers.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • It’s good to see another companion with an actual backstory and identity outside of “companion to the Doctor.” Bill already has more depth than Clara was ever given, though it remains to be seen whether Bill will be more consistently written than the Ponds.
  • I like Matt Lucas, but Nardole was utterly forgettable in this episode. It seemed as if they didn’t know quite what to do with him this week, which is too bad.
  • Why didn’t Bill ask the Doctor about his appearance in one of the photos of her mother?

Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is a fun, fast-paced garbage fire

I’d love to say that I loved “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” especially after it’s been such a long time since we last had any Doctor Who at all. It was an enjoyable enough hour, but of the sort that I rather hate to enjoy because as soon as I think about it for more than a minute it all begins to fall apart. This has long been true of Steven Moffat-penned episodes in general, but this one is even worse than usual. Let’s start with some positives, though. Some spoilers ahead.

First, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” has a coherence that has often been lacking in the last couple of seasons of Doctor Who, and it’s refreshing. The episode is internally consistent, makes smart use of time travel, and overall makes good working sense. It also fits nicely within the broader timeline of the show, taking place, for the Doctor, shortly after his last long night with River Song (at the end of last year’s “The Husbands of River Song”) and addressing, sort of, some issues raised in season seven’s “The Angels Take Manhattan.” That said, these previous episodes certainly aren’t required viewing to enjoy this one, which is good. Moffat sometimes tends to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of the show, but there’s nothing too arcane here, just some mostly cleverly-worked-in references for fans who have been paying attention the last few years.

Second, Matt Lucas is back as Nardole, and he’s now the Doctor’s Companion. I’ve liked Matt Lucas for some time and thought it a shame to waste him on a throwaway role in last year’s Christmas special, so I was thrilled to see him get a chance to grow the part again this year. Nardole is excellent as comic relief, but Lucas also injects some much-needed warmth and empathy into an hour that was unexpectedly dark for a Who Christmas special. I understand that Lucas and Nardole will return in season ten as a series regular, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he fits into the Doctor’s adventuring. In this episode, he does spend far too much time on lazily-written expository speeches, but he gets to fly the TARDIS and spend some time ruling 12th century Constantinople (“firmly but wisely”).

Finally, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” does, despite its significant flaws (which I’m getting to), manage to be fun to watch. Its pace can only be described as “romping”; the hour absolutely flew by, but without the frenetic quality of many recent Moffat episodes. I’ve often felt that Moffat era Who uses breakneck pacing to cover up hole-filled plotting with a shoddy whiz-bang veneer, but “Doctor Mysterio” avoids that, instead keeping things moving along. No fast-talking deus ex machina shenanigans here. Only sensible progression through the above-mentioned coherent storyline. Even the time travel and flashbacks make perfect sense and work well within the story being told. For Moffat era Who, this is a great episode.


What the fuck is “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” supposed to be about?

Is it about the Doctor’s irresponsibility with alien technology? Kind of, I guess. Except that said alien technology ends up saving the day in the end.

Is it about the difficulties of being a super-powered human? Not really. Masked vigilante Grant’s (a rather dull Justin Chatwin) point of view is never inhabited by the viewer. Some of his problems and concerns are alluded to, but aside from his puberty-induced x-ray vision, which is played mostly for laughs, his super powers are never an actual problem. Instead, he’s basically invulnerable and his super speed and flying powers make it possible for him to successfully lead a seemingly rich and fulfilling double life. Sure, the Doctor does some handwringing about how hard the double life thing must be, but none of the Doctor’s worries are shown to be well-founded.

Is it about the duality of man (and I do mean man—there’s only a single named, speaking woman in the episode, but more on her later)? Maybe, but if so the messaging here is much less coherent than the surface story being used to communicate it. I mean, something something parallels between the Doctor and Grant and the compartmentalization of their identities as men and as superheroes? It feels as if, by the end of the episode, we’re supposed to feel as if some profound observation has been made and we’ve been given some new insight into the Doctor’s character, but neither of those things have been accomplished.

Is it about poking fun at the absurdity of superhero genre conventions? Only if by “poking fun” one means “playing every trope pretty much completely straight.”

Is it about gender? Could be, but if so it’s a sexist garbage fire of garbled messaging on the issue.

The episode’s singular woman, Lucy (Charity Wakefield, making the most of things), is a sort of Lois Lane character, right down to her apparent inability to recognize the man she has known for over twenty years if he takes his glasses off and does his best Batfleck impression. Lucy starts off promising enough, seeming to be a competent and perceptive investigator, but she’s quickly sidelined once the Doctor arrives, gets sexualized and then damselled in the final act, and ultimately has nothing much to do other than have the wholly unearned epiphany that she was in love with the nanny all along. I’d say that this all amounts to a systemic destruction of the character, but it’s done so casually, with so little appearance of malice and with such an obvious wink and nod from Moffat (as if it’s all a big joke that we’re all supposed to be in on), that I think it’s likely that all these choices are totally intentional. Steven Moffat has always been cavalier in his disregard for Doctor Who’s female characters, with a strong penchant for robbing them of agency and turning them into prize objects to be manipulated by and in service of the always more-important-to-Moffat male characters on the show.

It’s nonetheless perversely impressive to see how efficiently Moffat can squeeze a wildly regressive character “arc” into a single episode. Lucy never does get to fully understand the story that she’s in—indeed, the story that she was actively investigating at the top of the hour. We learn from Grant that Lucy, while married and a new mother, has recently been abandoned by her husband, and this turns out—even though it’s literally never mentioned by Lucy herself—to be the problem in her life that needs solving. Instead of getting satisfactory answers to her questions or succeeding in her investigation of the alien invaders, Lucy’s “happy” ending is a renewed interest in domestic life and faith in monogamous hetero coupledom. Her career isn’t even mentioned in the end, and her emotional energies are directed more towards helping Grant—not to adjust to a new domestic life of his own, though. Rather, she encourages him to at least remain open to the possibility of continuing his super-heroics in the future.

It would be profoundly depressing if Doctor Who still had the power to surprise and dismay me with this crap. As it is, I just found myself sighing and rolling my eyes. Thank goodness, we’ve only got one more year of Steven Moffat to go. And, hey, new companion Bill looks like she has some potential. It’ll be interesting to see how Moffat manages to screw up come April.

Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song” was surprisingly wonderful

I feel like it’s a somewhat unpopular opinion, but I adored “The Husbands of River Song.” Certainly, it’s my favorite Moffat-era Christmas special, but it’s also a rehabilitation of the relationship between the Doctor and River Song, for whom this episode also functions as a very nice send-off that wraps up her story as neatly as I think Steven Moffat is capable of doing.

In the tradition of Doctor Who Christmas specials, “The Husbands of River Song” is wildly silly. With a whisper-thin plot (River is trying to steal a diamond that’s embedded in the head of a tyrant robot king), the episode is carried along mostly by the entertainingly slapstick-y performances of the guest actors and, ultimately, by the wonderful interplay between Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston, who have more chemistry in this one episode that Matt Smith and Alex Kingston ever did.

The thing about this episode is that it’s basically not about the plot at all. The tertiary characters of Hydroflax, Nardole, Ramone, and Flemming are all fun, in their ways, but they don’t matter. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure why the episode spends so much time with them. While I appreciate the desire to give everyone a happy ending, I actually found it unpleasant when Nardole and Ramone popped up in the final, otherwise beautiful and very romantic, scene at the Singing Towers of Darillium. For the most part, though, everything about this episode is building up to River Song’s impassioned speech about the Doctor’s indifference towards her and her realization that the Doctor has been with her all along on this adventure. From there, the episode makes quick work of showing how the Doctor plans to make things right with his wife.

River Song has been a troubled character almost since the very beginning of her existence in Doctor Who. While her introduction back in “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” was interesting, River’s appearances after Steven Moffat took over as show runner became more and more frustrating as she was transformed from a fascinating time travelling adventuress to a character whose entire existence seemed to be bound up with the Doctor. When she and the Doctor actually wed, things were just plain uncomfortable, as the Eleventh Doctor was overtly hostile to River by that time. The couple of times River appeared after that were, frankly, forgettable, and it seemed that, after systematically diminishing the character and thoroughly subordinating her in service to the Doctor’s development, Moffat was finally content to let River Song be.

While I’d been excited for some time about the prospect of seeing Alex Kingston get to act with Peter Capaldi, I tried very hard to temper my expectations for this Christmas special. Even just the title, “The Husbands of River Song,” just seethes with sexist potential, and it wouldn’t be the first time that Moffat had used a Christmas special to convey some boring and condescending ideas about the role of women. Instead of the sexist disaster it could have been, though, “The Husbands of River Song” turned out to be a lovely portrayal of the romance between River and the Doctor. Sure, it may be a sort of hand-waving solution to years of missteps on Steven Moffat’s part, but it works so well and the payoff is so earned and touching that I can’t help but fall in love with River Song all over again, myself.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • The Doctor’s feigned reaction when he steps inside his own Tardis is a new iconic moment for the show.
  • Peter Capaldi really sells that “Hello, Sweetie.” Perfection.
  • I honestly just sort of uncritically love this whole episode, but I can definitely see myself watching that ending over and over and over again.

Doctor Who: “Hell Bent” is a hell of a finale after a rocky season

“Hell Bent” is a hell of an episode of a show that I have largely lost faith in over the last few years. My expectations for Doctor Who under the leadership of Steven Moffat have pretty much completely evaporated, and Moffat’s handling of the Doctor’s history, especially as it concerns Gallifrey, has consistently been one of the least interesting-to-me hallmarks of the Moffat era. The previews for this episode showed that Gallifrey was exactly where the Doctor was going in this finale, so my expectations of enjoying it were correspondingly low. I’m happy to have been pleasantly surprised.

Of course, I say “pleasantly surprised,” but the truth is that “Hell Bent” blew all my expectations out of the water. While it doesn’t redeem multiple seasons’ worth of bad writing, poor characterization, whiz-bang endings, and a general trend towards “style” over substance, this episode—especially in conjunction with the previous two—stands out as a stellar accomplishment, the type of truly excellent storytelling that Steven Moffat is, sadly, only all-too-occasionally capable of.

The framing device for the episode is the Doctor in a 1950s style diner in Nevada, telling the story of Clara to…Clara herself. This is the first surprise of the episode, which I had thought would be another no-companion episode that would deal with some kind of epic storyline on Gallifrey. It turns out that is not at all the case. The Gallifrey stuff, honestly, ends up being almost incidental rather than integral to real story, which is an exploration of the Doctor’s unhinged grief over Clara’s death and a way to provide an even better ending for Clara than the quite serviceable one we got in “Enter the Raven.”

That said, it takes until about halfway through the episode before we actually learn what the Doctor is on Gallifrey for. Spending nearly thirty minutes with the Doctor dicking around in a barn, prevaricating about what he knows about the Hybrid, and banishing all his political enemies is a shameless waste of time. Though I suppose this is Moffat’s attempt to establish Gallifrey’s place in the show’s current mythology, it’s a tiresome and senselessly circuitous route to take to the crux of the story: The Doctor is really on Gallifrey to gain access to an extraction chamber that will allow him to remove Clara from time at the moment of her death in order to save her life.

Once the Doctor has safely rescued Clara, we get more of the same speech that she gave before she walked out to meet the raven in the first place, which is a nice bit of emotional continuity while the Doctor steals another Tardis so he can take Clara to the end of the universe. He’s convinced that this journey will give time a chance to heal and set Clara’s heart beating again, which is a weird piece of mysticism, but it gets us to where Ashildr/Me is waiting for the Doctor with some perfectly delivered philosophical advice. This is also where things get really interesting, as the Doctor spills his plans to Me while Clara listens in from inside the Tardis.

In a sometimes incoherent discussion, we learn that it’s possible that the “Hybrid” that is supposed to be so dangerous might actually be the combination of the Doctor and Clara, something the Doctor acknowledges as a possibility. This, you see, is why the Doctor’s big plan is to resurrect Clara only to then remove all her memories of him and then leave her forever, something like what happened to Donna Noble, only even more infuriating because the Doctor’s decision here isn’t motivated by a desire to minimize harm. He’s just being high-handed and, frankly, selfish, which Me reminds him of.

Even better, when the Doctor and Me enter the Tardis, Clara is prepared. She’s used the Doctor’s sonic sunglasses to reverse the effect of the memory erasing device so it will work on the Doctor instead of on her, and she’s adamantly opposed to giving up her past. It’s a scene that finally brings home the idea that Clara really is perhaps too much like the Doctor for anyone’s good, and it’s also the first time since Martha Jones’ departure that a companion has left the Doctor so entirely on her own terms, and it’s really wonderful.

Jenna Coleman really shows her range in this episode as she refuses to have her own life and experiences subordinated to the Doctor’s will, and it doesn’t hurt that the Capaldi’s performance is absolutely superb both in his final scene on the newly stolen Tardis and in the scenes in Clara’s diner that bookend the main storyline. The best moment of the night, though, is a tie between the bittersweet instant when the Doctor insists that he will know Clara if he ever sees her again and Clara realizes that he’s really forgotten her and the moment very shortly after that when we get to see Clara fly off together with Me in the extra absconded-with Tardis.

If the first half of “Hell Bent” is an exercise in self-important grandstanding (it really, really is, on the part of Moffat and the Doctor both), the second half is a well-conceived, beautifully acted, and deeply resonant conclusion to Clara Oswald’s tenure as companion. “Face the Raven” was the best ending it was reasonable to expect for Clara, but “Hell Bent” is the ending that she deserved.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I love Donald Sumpter, but I miss Timothy Dalton as Rassilon.
  • I’m don’t understand why Moffat seems to like Ohila so much, and I’m not sure why the Sisterhood of Karn is on Gallifrey this week.
  • The old-style Tardis that they steal is apparently the original design, and it looks kind of surprisingly great in color.
  • Clara and Me turned loose on the universe, taking the long way back to Gallifrey in a Tardis of their own, is basically my favorite thing that’s happened on Doctor Who in ages. However, this is the second time (The first time was when he gave us Lady Vastra and Jenny.) that Moffat has created a premise for a spin-off series that I want to see more than I want to see more Doctor Who. I desperately want to see Clara and Me’s adventures in time and space—as long as Steven Moffat isn’t anywhere near them.

Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” doesn’t quite hit its emotional targets, but it’s still good

“Heaven Sent” is a near-perfect episode of Doctor Who and a reminder that Steven Moffat isn’t completely and irredeemably awful and a blight on the history of the show, but is in fact a very good writer capable of creating truly compelling television. It’s by far the best episode of Doctor Who in recent years, though perhaps that’s because the Doctor is the only character on the screen for the vast majority of it—something that I would suggest is Steven Moffat’s ideal for the show, judging by the show’s increasing disregard for and neglect of all characters who aren’t the Doctor.

That said, Steven Capaldi has been the show’s strongest asset for some time, and “Heaven Sent” finds him imprisoned in a mysterious castle and pursued by an actually quite frightening, if also mysterious, creature in a voluminous robe. This creature can only be outrun temporarily, though it moves slowly, and the only thing that will stop it (also only temporarily) is the Doctor offering it a truthful confession. Something, something, the Doctor has a mind-palace—I mean mind-TARDIS—where he’s working through his feelings about Clara’s death and figuring out how to “WIN,” and also he has to spend literally billions of years punching through a giant harder-than-diamond wall with his fist. It’s a much better episode than it sounds, though, and Capaldi is at the top of his game here as he explores the castle and talks at Clara inside his head.

The problem that I have with this episode is a problem that is ongoing and omnipresent in Moffat’s work as both a writer and showrunner. While “Heaven Sent” could be read as a great episode that gives the Doctor time to grieve his lost companion, it just never manages to feel really real, and this is entirely due to Steven Moffat’s unwillingness to do the actual work required to actually elicit the emotional responses that he wants the audience to have. Instead, Moffat tells us how he thinks we ought to feel, regardless of whether or not it’s supported by anything that we’ve been shown so far.

The overall effect of this is that, while it’s possible to sort of objectively understand what Moffat is trying to communicate, it’s difficult to actually really get it. It’s unfortunate, particularly in an episode as well-written as this one. If Clara had been utilized more intelligently and developed as a fully-realized character over the past couple of seasons, this episode (and “Enter the Raven,” for that matter) would have been absolutely devastating. As it is, it’s not even enough to bring a tear to the eye.

Steven Moffat is a capable writer and can come up with clever ideas from time to time, but he’s never quite managed to learn that he can’t script the audience’s reactions. The most emotional moments of a Moffat episode always rely on implications, narrative shorthand, and straight up telling the audience what feelings to have. This is as true now as it was all the way back in “Blink” and “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.” I don’t suppose I can reasonably expect this style to change after all this time, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

“Heaven Sent” could have been perfect, but instead we have to settle for close-but-no-cigar.

Doctor Who: I only wish that “Face the Raven” was the end of an era (namely, Moffat’s)

“Face the Raven” was as good as it could be, but by no means as good as I would have liked it to be. This looks to be Jenna Coleman’s last episode in the role of Clara Oswald, which had been the rumor before the season started, and it’s frankly a relief to have it over with. The facts that it’s the second episode of the season written by a woman and that it’s actually pretty well written—both nice changes for Doctor Who—are really just a bonus.

Given the state of the show after over five years of Steven Moffat doing his best to destroy everything good about it, my expectations of it are pretty low, and “Face the Raven” exceeded them. That’s not saying much, and the episode did have some great moments, but it’s all tempered by my general dissatisfaction with the series and with Clara’s tenure as companion in general.

In “Face the Raven,” Clara and the Doctor receive a phone call from previous acquaintance Rigsy, who has a problem: he’s got a mysterious counting-down tattoo on the back of his neck. In a somewhat senselessly convoluted plot, it turns out that Rigsby has been framed for a murder at an alien refugee camp in London that is being run by the Doctor’s most recent frenemy, Ashildr/Me (Maisie Williams), who has contrived this scenario to draw the Doctor into a trap because she’s decided to trade the Doctor to some unknown “them” in exchange for protection for her little alien enclave.

It’s nice to see Maisie Williams returning so soon, and I suspect that we could see her sometime in the next couple of weeks as well, judging from the “…to be continued” at the end of this episode. Her performance here wasn’t as strong as it was in “The Woman Who Lived,” but she wasn’t given nearly so much to work with here. Still, I adore Maisie Williams, and Me/Ashildr is as good a recurring character as has been introduced during the Moffat era. Me’s plan in this episode may be a little silly to start with, but once it all goes sideways, Williams does an excellent job of portraying the character’s conflicted feelings, her regret, and her fear of the Doctor’s wrath.

Peter Capaldi turns in a much more understated performance this week than I expected. I rather thought we would see a fit of overly verbose histrionics over Clara’s death, but instead his reactions here stick to the realm of the believable, and it’s gratifying to see that Clara’s final moments weren’t entirely focused on the Doctor—at least not for his part.

Clara, of course, is (as always) a mixed bag this episode. She oversteps the bounds of her role as companion and does something that is, honestly, wildly stupid and results in her death. Even within the questionable logic of the episode it’s a decision that only makes marginal sense. However, Clara’s courage and kindness as she faces her death, talking the Doctor down from his desire for vengeance and doing what she can to protect Me and reassure Rigsy, is well-done. At the same time, though, it’s terribly frustrating that, in her final moments, Clara thinks almost entirely of the Doctor and his feelings. It’s frustrating that Clara’s death was so clearly a result of her own poor decision making, and it’s infuriating that years of piss-poor characterization diminish the emotional impact of it all. Worse, Moffat’s inability or unwillingness to truly kill characters off ensures that Clara’s death doesn’t have the feeling of finality that would make it really tragic.

Make no mistake. I’ve never disliked Clara herself. I’ve only been incredibly disappointed and dissatisfied by her treatment in the narrative of the show. Jenna Coleman is a talented actor, and she brought a great deal of charm to the role, but she’s never been enough of a superwoman to overcome as much awful writing as her character has been subjected to. No one could be, and it’s an unmitigated shame that my strongest feeling about Clara’s final episode is gladness that this chapter of Doctor Who is finally done with. I’d like to say that I’m hopeful that a new companion will provide just the sort of fresh start the series needs, but I don’t expect any real change as long as Moffat holds the reins.