Friday, November 28, 2014

Doctor Who, "Death in Heaven"

I hope everyone has awakened from their post-Thanksgiving stupors, as this turned out to be a long one.

Picking up from the previous week's cliffhanger - Missy is the Master! The dead are being resurrected as Cybermen! Clara is about to be "deleted" by a trio of Cybermen! - Season 8 wraps up not only the story line started in "Dark Water" but also puts the finishing touches on several season-long themes. Well, mostly. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've watched the episode twice now, and I still am not sure how much I like it. Some parts are very good indeed, some parts wrap up story lines in a satisfying way, while other parts are... not my cup of tea.

Long Spoiler-Filled Plot Recap Section

Picking up where "Dark Water" left off, Clara is menaced by several Cybermen. She tries to convince them that she should be spared, claiming that she is the Doctor, regenerated into perky Jenna Coleman's body. From there we cut to the title, which, befitting her claimed identity, lists Coleman's name above Peter Capaldi's and shows her eyebrows instead of his. Subtle but effective.

Outside St. Paul's, Osgood (from UNIT) and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart arrive with a number of UNIT soldiers, ready to take on the Cybermen, who evade UNIT by flying away, Iron Man-style. The roof of St. Paul's opens and more Cybermen leave, ready to "pollinate" the world with nano-particles that will create new Cybermen out of dead bodies plus the consciousness, now stored in the Nethersphere, of those bodies. UNIT sedates Missy and, oddly, the Doctor. The two are taken aboard a plane - Missy as a prisoner and the Doctor, now conscious, as President of Earth in order to deal with the Cybermen threat.

In the Nethersphere, with Danny, Seb, and the young Afghan boy Danny killed, Seb explains that they will be returning to their bodies - with a bit of an "upgrade." On Earth, the nanoparticle "rain" falls on a graveyard and in a funeral home, where Danny's body lies. Back in St. Paul's, a rogue Cyberman - Danny - arrives. Clara, not knowing his identity and still trying to save her life, says, "I'm an incredible liar. Ask anyone." Cyber-Danny replies, "Correct," then blasts the other Cybermen and knocks her out.

Missy claims she knows Gallifrey's location. Missy kills Osgood and flying Cybermen bring down the plane. Kate is blown out of the plane's cargo door. As the plane explodes, the Doctor falls, inserting the TARDIS key into the falling TARDIS - cue the James Bond music.

Clara comes to in a cemetery (why?) with Cybermen breaking out of the ground but not attacking anyone. She tells her rescuer that the Doctor is her best friend, the one persokn she'd never lie to - at which point Cyber-Danny removes his faceplate, revealing his identity to her.

Clara calls the Doctor on the TARDIS telephone - Danny wants his emotions removed, but can't activate the emotional inhibitor on his chest by himself. The Doctor implores her not to do it, as Danny will then be a full Cyberman and kill Clara. The Doctor arrives and wants to know Missy's plan, but Cyber-Danny can't tap into the hive mind without activating his emotional inhibitor. Clara zaps it with the sonic screwdriver. As Danny promised, he is able to resist Cyber control and doesn't attack Clara.

Missy arrives a la Mary Poppins, floating from the sky with an opened umbrella. She gives the Doctor her "gift" - control of the Cybermen, "an indestructible army to rage across the universe." She observes, "Give a good man firepower and he'll never run out of people to kill." She tells him, "I need you to know we're not so different. I need my friend back." Although he considers her offer, as he believes he needs the Cybermen to burn away the nanoparticle storm, he ultimately rejects it, telling Missy, "I am not a good man. I am not a bad man... I'm an idiot with a box."

The Doctor gives the control device to Cyber-Danny - who tells the newly-converted Cybermen now under his command that "Today is not a good day," but that as soldiers their promise to civilians is that they will sleep safely tonight. The Cybermen fly to the nanoparticle cloud and self-destruct, destroying the particles.

Missy tells the Doctor the coordinates of Gallifrey, assuring him that she's not lying this time.

Clara tries to kill Missy, but the Doctor, concerned what Clara will become if she resorts to cold-blooded murder, says he'll do it himself if that's what it will take to save Clara. Instead, Missy is zapped by a Cyberman, who then indicates to the Doctor and Clara the still-alive Kate. The Cyberman is clearly the late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart - hey, if you can't save your own kid, what's the point of being a Cyberman? - and acknowledges the Doctor's salute before flying off.

Danny, somehow back in the Nethersphere (we presume - though it's not clear how this happened), has found a way to send one person back to the land of the living. Clara expects him, but instead he sends the Afghan child, telling Clara to find his parents - this was a promise he had to keep.
The Doctor takes the TARDIS to the coordinates Missy gave him, but finds no Gallifrey - she lied again. In a rage, he whomps the TARDIS console.

Clara and the Doctor meet, and the Doctor believes Danny sent himself back to Earth. She lies and agrees with him, saying that the two are together, and he lies that he found Gallifrey, and that this is it for them. She asks him to hug, and he relents. She asks him why he doesn't like hugs, to which he replies, "Never trust a hug. It's just a way to hide your face" - as both look devastated.

The credits roll, but are interrupted by Santa's arrival at the TARDIS. Santa says, "It can't end like this," leading to a guess that clara's story will continue in the Christmas episode.

It's All About Control

If there's one theme threading its way through the entire season, it's about control. At the start of the season, Clara has a neatly compartmentalized life: there's the part where she is a school teacher and lives a normal life, and there's the part where she travels with the Doctor. As she says at one point, he's one of her hobbies. As the season unfolds, that neat compartmentalization unravels, and in an effort to maintain her relationship with Danny separate from her travels with the Doctor, she increasingly lies to him, to the Doctor, and, ultimately, to herself about what she's doing and why. Clara's unwillingness - even inability - to stop her adventures with the Doctor, even when they endanger her relationship with Danny, reflects a loss of her control over her life.

At the same time, the ongoing tug-of-war between Danny and the Doctor also reflects the question of control. Danny, the soldier, views the Doctor as an officer, one of those responsible for getting ordinary soldiers into predicaments without fully understanding the costs of doing so. The Doctor, always one to enjoy being in control of situations, found himself having to or choosing to relinquish control multiple times during the season. In "Flatline," he was unable to leave the TARDIS for most of the episode, and had to rely on Clara, while in "Kill the Moon" he chose to leave at a crucial time, insisting that the three humans had to make the decision whether to kill the creature about to hatch.

Control plays a big role in "Death in Heaven" as well. Missy's scheme involves creating an army of Cybermen capable of dominating any planet, and then gives control over this army to the Doctor in an effort to... well, what, exactly? By taking control of the Cybermen, the Doctor would be acknowledging that he and Missy are not so different. While the Master's schemes involve using power for his own Machavelian ends, the Doctor also uses other people to further his plans. Although those plans involve saving people and generally trying to do right, at some level the difference between the Doctor and Missy is more one of judgment than anything fundamental. When the Doctor gives up the device that controls the Cybermen, he's rejecting Missy's equating the two of them. He even thanks her, saying he's not a good man, not a bad man, just an idiot with a box who tries to do the right thing. (Of course, turning the Cybermen over to Danny, who then uses this force to save the planet only at the cost of destroying all the Cybermen, including himself, might suggest that both Danny and Missy were correct: the "officer" used his soldiers as cannon fodder once again.)

A few other examples: Danny tells Clara he wants to activate his emotional inhibitor, but can't do it himself, giving her control over him. At the very end of the episode, when he can send one person back through the Nethersphere - sadly, with no explanation of why that might be possible, save that earlier we apparently saw Missy travel to and from the Nethersphere - he chooses to send the Afghani boy he killed, rather than resurrecting himself, a last act of self-sacrifice that re-establishes his control over his destiny.

Should We Care More About Zany Plots or Emotional Resonance?

Season finales in Doctor Who seem to suffer more than other episodes in plot logic. The audience is carried along from one whiz-bang moment to the next, and it's not until one stops and thinks about it that one realizes how crazy is the internal logic. Missy seems to go through a lot of effort to make a point. The connection between the Nethersphere and the real world is never clear - why would an uploaded mind feel pain from a physical body, and how is that mind restored to a body that no longer exists as living flesh? Even allowing that Cybermen can create others of their kind, how would they be able to do so via nanoparticles, much less "seed" those particles so that the decayed bodies of humans somehow grow Cyber-armor and pop out of their graves? Et cetera.

But the enjoyment of Doctor Who isn't about rigorous plots any more than it was about special effects back in the days of the classic series. It's about stories, and emotions, and relationships, and the success of an episode, or of a story arc, depends on how deftly writers draw the characters, how the actors bring those characters to life, and how the audience reacts emotionally to the character interplay and development. By those standards, the season finale was a success. I'm not convinced that making Missy the Master was necessary or wise; I think I would have preferred that Missy be a new character, even if her plot was the same. Still, Michelle Gomez made a wonderful and, yes, bananas Master.

One thing I thought worked superbly was the ending. As Erika Ensign of the Verity! podcast remarked, throughout the season Clara lies for her own benefit: to keep Danny from knowing about her adventures with the Doctor, to keep the Doctor from know she's lied to Danny, to keep the Cybermen from killing her, and so on. Yet in the end, in the scene in the restaurant, both Clara and the Doctor lie to one another out of selflessness.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Distractions Along the Way

I’ve been meaning to write up my summary of and reactions to the Doctor Who series finale, but I haven’t quite managed it yet. First I wanted to see the episode a second time, then I wanted to hear commentary on it, then I was procrastinating. It’ll come in good time, I suppose.

In the meanwhile, I’ve been spending far too much time playing Doctor Who Legacy on the iPad. I don’t play many games, and those I do tend to be fairly simple ones, like solitaire, but this one has captured my interest.

The game doesn’t have much to do with Doctor Who. Oh, sure, it has characters that resemble those on the show - Doctors, companions, villains, monsters, good guys, aliens - heck, even the Third Doctor’s Whomobile - and something of a story line, but it’s really Dungeons & Dragons crossed with Bejeweled. Create a team - a Doctor and five allies - and match colored gems in order to generate hit points on enemies. Kill enough enemies before your team runs out of health and you win the level. Repeat. A lot. Over time, other characters and “time fragments” drop, and you level up characters by spending time fragments. The game’s currency is the crystal: sometimes these drop as you play the game, or you can buy them. Either way, you can spend crystals on leveling up characters, buying enhancements to the team (increasing hit points, or increasing resistance to damage, for example), or buying characters. In theory, you can play the game indefinitely without spending a cent, though buying as few as 6 crystals for a few bucks unlocks the “Fan Area,” with access to additional levels and some other perks.

The interesting bit involves tactics within levels and your overall strategy for leveling up characters with different skills in order to form successful teams for the harder levels. For example, some of the enemies might “poison” the team, delivering multiple rounds of damage even after the enemy has been destroyed. Having a team member who can “cure” the poison becomes a necessity.

I’ve managed to complete the first two “seasons” of the game, along with some of the extra material, but the Expert levels are still baffling to me. The enemies have such firepower and other abilities, such as locking gems into place, or “stunning” the entire team (so gem combinations have no effect) for one or more turns, that even advanced teams are wiped out in only a few turns. Well, that’s what keeps it interesting, I suppose.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

In Defense of Gendered Pronouns

In some circles, gendered pronouns have fallen out of fashion. Oh, the debate rages on about exactly *how* to replace them - use a hybrid word, like s/he? use the grammatically-incorrect plural pronoun to replace the singular (“I admired their shoes”)? create an entirely new word? - but, the feeling goes, asserting gender through a pronoun is somehow déclassé.

As best as I can tell, this trend is based on two concerns: one, the very modern concept that gender identity is fluid, and thus no one pronoun necessarily captures an individual’s essence; and two, gender carries with it assumptions about a person that may be unwarranted in any particular situation. Fair enough.

Yet the solution is not to blur or even erase gender lines. First of all, it’s a little silly. Whether describing a real or a fictional person, gender is an important and obvious identifying characteristic. Fine, a small fraction of the population feels that its outward sexual characteristics do not accurately reflect its true gender, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Second, vive la difference. Men and women don’t just look different, or have different equipment for use in the bedroom; they often behave differently, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but in a world that claims to celebrate diversity it’s peculiar to attempt to quash gender differences. I’m reminded of the Ursula K. Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven, in which the protagonist’s mental powers allow him to reshape reality, so he tries to use that power to benefit humanity. By eliminating race, however, he finds that he no longer has a connection with the woman he loves. Whoops.

This is not to say that emphasizing gender is always appropriate. After the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, some commentators observed that the male justices voted one way and the female justices the other way, suggesting that gender overrode judicial wisdom. This was an ugly slur toward all the justices and such sentiments should never have passed editorial muster. But the solution to such things is not to eliminate mentions of gender, but to gently correct these misguided souls.

Long live gendered pronouns!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Doctor Who, "Dark Water"

“Dark Water” is the first part of the season-ending two-part story, and, as such, reviewing it without having seen the remainder would be silly. Instead, I’ll put down a few reactions. We’ll see if they need to be revised come this Saturday.

Lengthy Plot Summary, Filled with Spoilers

When the episode opens, Clara is on the phone with Danny, telling him that there are things she needs to say, not all of them good, but that she loves him - all the while looking at a series of Post-It notes affixed to bookshelves in her apartment. (Most of the notes deal with her adventures with the Doctor. Others, such as “Three months,” are more obscure.*) Suddenly, his end goes silent. A woman picks up and tells Clara that Danny has been hit by a car and killed. As openers go, that one was a doozy.

In her grief-stricken state, Clara hatches a plan that we see unfold: she enters the TARDIS, asks the Doctor to take her to see a volcano, steals all his TARDIS keys,** then, when he wakes up outside the TARDIS, she demands he bring Danny back, throwing one key after another into the lava, which apparently destroys TARDIS keys, every time he says no.*** He won’t budge, she goes through with her threat… only to find that the Doctor had outwitted her and the scene is her dream state. What follows is one of my favorite scenes of the season:
Clara: "What now? Doctor, what do we do now, you and me?"
The Doctor: "Go to Hell."
Clara, after a lengthy pause: "Fair enough. Absolutely fair enough.” She turns to leave the TARDIS.
The Doctor: “Clara? You asked me what we’re going to do. We’re going to Hell. Or wherever it is people go when they die…. Wherever it is, we’re going there and find Danny. And, if there’s any way possible, we’re going to bring him home."
Clara: “You’re going to help me?"
The Doctor: “Well, why wouldn’t I help you?"
Clara: “‘Cause of what I just did."
The Doctor: “You betrayed me. Betrayed my trust, betrayed our friendship, betrayed everything I stand for. You let me down!"
Clara: “Then why are you helping me?"
The Doctor: “Why? Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?"
Despite the Doctor’s apparent indifferent to Clara, occasionally bordering on outright cruelty, over the course of the season, this exchange lays bare his true relationship with her.

The Doctor insists Clara use the telepathic circuits in the TARDIS again, as she did in “Listen,” to take the ship wherever the pair is most likely to find Danny. They land in a mausoleum, filled with skeletons sitting in water - the “dark water” of the title, able to show only organic matter. They meet Missy, who tells them that the bodies have “exoskeletons” that are invisible.

Meanwhile, Danny awakes in the Nethersphere, being processed by Seb, who tells him that he’s dead but that he still maintains a connection with his body. He feels cold because his body is being stored in a cold place, but once he’s cremated… Seb asks Danny if he ever killed anyone as a soldier, then tells Danny he has a visitor. We see a flashback in which Danny’s unit is under fire in Afghanistan, and Danny clears a house using his automatic weapon. Danny’s visitor is a young Afghani boy, whom Danny presumably shot, and Danny apologizes to the boy. Seb provides Danny with an iPad (“You have iPads here?” Seb replies, “We have Steve Jobs.”) and they receive a call from Clara. The Doctor insists that Clara be skeptical, “even if it breaks your heart,” and determine whether it’s really Danny to whom she is talking.

Having missed all the signs - the logo for the 3W Corporation bears more than a passing resemblance to the Cyberman eye-with-tear-drop, and the reference to an “exoskeleton” on the corpses in the dark water might have given up the game - the Doctor only belatedly sees the Cybermen for what they are. And despite having had his hand on Missy’s heart - or, in this case, hearts - he apparently doesn’t make the connection that she is a Time Lady (“I’m old-fashioned.”). As he exits the mausoleum, he finds himself on the steps to St. Paul’s church, in the middle of London, as the Cybermen start marching out (hearkening back to the classic Doctor Who story, “The Invasion”). Missy then gives her Big Reveal to the Doctor: Missy is short for Mistress which is the female version of the Master.

Random Thoughts

From our first scene with Missy, in “Deep Breath,” people speculated that she was the Master, regenerated into female form. Others dismissed that as preposterous. Well, we see who’s laughing now.

That said, did we really need to bring back the Master? And the Cybermen? The whole idea of the Nethersphere was intriguing on its own. Surely someone could have stumbled across Gallifreyan technology, the way the Master used the Matrix, to construct the Nethersphere. The concept of an afterlife (of a sort) in which the mind is still connected to what the physical body feels is very creepy. The Master seems unnecessary.

I’ve seen some commentary suggesting difficulty accepting a female Master. The concept of Time Lords switching genders in regeneration doesn’t bother me particularly, though one has to wonder how the Doctor managed thirteen blokes in a row, and the Master even more than that (as he had run through his regenerations back in the classic series) without a single female regeneration. The new series has dropped a few hints that this is possible, but it still seems… unusual.

Because some people can’t be satisfied, though, the ladies on the Verity! podcast took the opportunity of the Master’s new body both to reiterate their belief that a female Doctor is inevitable at some point and to carp that we haven’t seen a “Doctor of color.” Come on, ladies, Gallifrey seems to be a pretty pasty society. What would produce black Time Lords? Fine, be politically correct about it if you wish, it seems to me you’re retconning the whole idea of changing genders and introducing the whole idea of different Gallifreyan races just to fit some modern conception of what a television show should look like.

Changing topics entirely, it was pretty brave to kill off Danny before the credits, and in such a banal way. Of course, Doctor Who being what it is, we’ll have to wait until the end credits roll next week to see if he stays dead. Nonetheless, this season has really been about two people, the Doctor and Clara, both discovering things about themselves, and to me it’s made for a number of top-notch episodes.


* Someone on Twitter advanced the hypothesis that this means Clara is pregnant. If so, it would be yet another example of how television people apparently have no concept of birth control. They turn up unexpectedly pregnant whenever the plot so demands. Please, TV characters in the 21st century, act as though it is the 21st century and take care of this problem.

** Eagle-eyed Twitter user Sean Blythe (@OmitWords) noted that the book in which the Doctor keeps one of his TARDIS keys is The Time-Traveler’s Wife. Hilarious.

*** We’ve apparently completely forgotten about the Doctor’s ability to open the TARDIS with a snap of his fingers. Also, given the powers the TARDIS has an her proprietary interest in the Doctor, do we really think he needs a key? But read on.