Image courtesy the BBC
Two weeks after I watched Doctor Who’s The Caretaker, leading me to write about my love for how the eighth season of the Doctor Who revival is going, I’ve watched the next two episodes, and have encountered what I’d call the season’s first serious flaw.
That’s okay: nobody’s perfect. But it’s interesting how the flaw manifested itself: as a digression in the Doctor-companion relationship that made me applaud a story that I otherwise disliked, and frown at a story that I otherwise loved. More seriously, while I continue to appreciate the work that actors Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman have put in their roles, this flaw makes me like Clara less, and it makes me feel that an opportunity to make Peter Capaldi’s Doctor grow has been squandered.
Note that spoilers will follow. The review continues after this break.
As anticipated, Kill the Moon was an episode that divided fandom. I could see it. This episode was a brave but (in my opinion) flawed attempt to push some big ideas in front of the audience, and it had the highlight of the Doctor stepping back and letting humanity make its own hard choice for once. Conversely, Mummy on the Orient Express was a rollicking adventure without as many deep questions, but one which was better executed. I could see why a number of people loved Kill the Moon, but I myself found it flat. On the other hand, Mummy on the Orient Express was fun, full of interesting characters, and kept me guessing until the end.
Strangely, though, my opinions of both episodes do a 180 when I get to their endings. Both episodes are practically mirror images of each other, very much a pair for what they do to the Doctor-Clara relationship, and that, along with time constraints, is why I’m reviewing them together.
In Kill the Moon, the Doctor takes young Courtney — the student at Cole Hill school who threw up on the TARDIS floor at the end of The Caretaker — under his wing. This is done at Clara’s order, since Courtney, deeply affected by what she’s seen, has become more unmanageable than ever. She herself knows this, and calls out the Doctor for giving her a taste of the universe, and then snatching it away; how can she expect to live a normal life after this? So the Doctor figures, why not a jaunt to the moon? Of course, this does not go quite as planned.
Instead, they land on a hastily-pressed-into-service space shuttle in 2049, carrying hundreds of very large nuclear bombs to the moon. They’re greeted by Lundvik, the first woman on the Moon, and quite possibly to become the last human space-traveller in quite some time. Writer Peter Harness paints a pretty grim picture of the future: one where humanity has turned away from space, bedevilled by ecological and economic calamity. The only reason Lundvik and her crew are on the Moon at all is because the Moon has inexplicably gained mass, raising tides around the world and flooding cities. They’re here to identify the cause and, if they can, blow it up.
That cause soon manifests itself in giant microbial spiders, which killed all inhabitants of the Mexican lunar colony ten years before (the Mexican colony illustrated by use of a Mexican flag and a serape draped on a chair. Family photographs would have been nice), and likely contributed to humanity’s current aversion to space travel. The Doctor and company play “base under siege” for a little while before the true problem manifests itself: the moon is actually an egg, the spiders microbes on the surface of the egg, and the egg is about to hatch. What’s it going to do when it does? Is Earth at risk? Well, the Doctor won’t say. This is an opposite of a fixed point in history, he says. Instead, it’s a turning point: one where humanity has to make its own decisions, and time travelling aliens need to leave well the hell alone.
I don’t really have a problem with the bad science in Kill the Moon. Yes, some of the goofs would make Mr. Bad Astronomer weep (for instance, the Doctor’s statement that the Moon had gained 1.3 Billion tonnes of mass is a nice attempt to explain why they’re not all jumping and flying around like Peter Pan, but have you seen the mass of the moon? It’s 7.35 x 10^22 kilograms, or 73,500,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes. The Doctor’s very specific statement only increased the Moon’s mass by 0.00000000176%), but Doctor Who is rife with bad science, and for the most part the science here isn’t distracting (though can anybody explain to me why one of the microbial spiders appears to reverse gravity and lift Courtney off her feet?). However, the plot scenario and the somewhat roughed-in characters of the Moon explorers (even Lundvic) all seem hastily thrown together to drive us to a situation where three women are forced to decide whether to destroy the moon and kill the emerging creature, or to spare the creature and risk whatever it is the creature could do to Earth.
I have to admit, the standoff is a compelling one, made the moreso by the Doctor’s refusal to contribute. He argues that this is a pivotal point in human history, and humans themselves have to be the ones who make the decision. In one of his most apparently callous acts seen on screen, he abandons Clara, Courtney and Lundvik, leaving them to face death on their own.
Watching humanity make its choice to save or kill the Moon is a powerful moment, even if one is crushed by the disappointment of all the lights on Earth going out. But though others have argued the importance of Clara being the one to push the abort button on the bomb, in defiance of humanity, I firmly believe this episode would have been better if Courtney had been the one to do it.
While some may see this as a story of Clara realizing that the Doctor may not always have her best interests at heart, the moment is about humanity’s decision to lash out and protect itself, or take a risk in hope that something better could happen. The Doctor says he doesn’t want to interfere in humanity’s decision, but if he wants to recuse himself, he has to recuse Clara as well, since he’s done nothing but interfere with her. Her decision is not humanity’s decision; they haven’t see what she has. Clara could still be there, she could still object, and maybe try to intervene, only to be blocked, but Courtney has spent the past two episodes struggling with herself, trying to be more than a “disruptive influence”, unsure if she could handle the rigours of the universe. If she were to defy the decision of humanity, stand up to Lundvik, and take a chance on the abort button, her decision would not only be far more representative of humanity, it would be a dramatic culmination of her character.
But Kill the Moon redeems itself with its ending. However well-meaning the Doctor’s act may have been (under the jaw-droppingly cavalier attitude), it needed to be called out, and Clara does a fantastic job calling him out. Yes, the Doctor may not be able to save everyone and, yes, the Doctor should focus on the people he can save; yes, there may be moments in history where the Doctor can’t interfere, but the Doctor of the past few incarnations was a man we followed because he sweated the small stuff. He never said that the smallest weren’t important, even if they couldn’t be saved. He mourned every one.
I’m pretty sure Capaldi’s Doctor continues to mourn those he can’t save, but while his decision to push on ahead without giving outward sign of it may help him handle the big picture, it’s damn hard for the people travelling around him. And for those travelling around him, they have to make decisions that respect their own mental health. If they can’t handle the Doctor’s new approach, then they need to tell him so. And if he can’t change, they need to walk away, for their own safety and mental health.
Mummy on the Orient Express is the mirror of Kill the Moon. Where the latter was serious, Mummy is fun. Where the Moon’s characters were thrown together for the purpose of the plot, the people on the Orient Express in space are fleshed out, full of little details that make me care about them. There’s Professor Moorhouse (played by Christopher Villiers) who’s a bit of a blowhard, but whose commitment to scientific detachment allows him to record his death clinically for all but the last few seconds. There’s Captain Quell (played by David Bamber) who admits that it takes three deaths before he can no longer look away. There’s engineer Perkins, who’s smart enough to start investigating the Mummy before everyone else and who would have made an excellent companion for the Doctor, I think. There’s Maisie (played Daisy Beaumont), consumed by guilt and grief, but who is still smart enough to call out the Doctor on an apparent lie.
The story plays well with the atmosphere of the classic Murder on the Orient Express. Even the mummy (that only the victim can see or interact with) is a bit of a tip of the hat to her (I’m thinking “Death on the Nile” — okay, maybe that’s a stretch). And the countdown clock that precedes the death of each victim, while an intrusion of the fourth wall, is still a fascinating bit of real-time storytelling that I find interesting viewing.
I was a little surprised to see Clara back for this adventure, but my initial misgivings were immediately allayed when Clara called this trip a “last hurrah”. A few weeks have passed, and she and the Doctor don’t want Clara’s rebuke to be their last experience of each other, even though Clara stands by everything she said. Good. But as the story goes on, Clara is forced to admit that she’s not ready to let go of the excitement of travelling the universe. She is also shown the Doctor having to go through watching people die, callously observing their deaths in the hope that this will give him the clue he needs to save everybody else. It’s a good examination of the balance between sweating the small stuff and facing the big picture that this Doctor struggles to maintain. Clara can’t believe that the Doctor would stand by and observe Maisie dying at the hands of the Mummy — until the Doctor gets a brilliant idea that not only saves Maisie, but could possibly save them all.
And I can’t help but notice that the Doctor’s idea involves grabbing Maisie’s grief and guilt and planting them in his own head so the Mummy focuses on him. In that moment, the Doctor knows how one of his bystanders felt. Will this experience change him? Maybe a little? Over time?
The resolution to the Mummy plot is deeply satisfying to me, with the Doctor finding the keyword that makes perfect sense, and the Mummy getting a little bit of sympathy (in many ways, it was a victim too, forced to live so long and to kill). Unfortunately, the episode follows this by going with the completely happy ending, and I think that takes the quality of the episode down a notch. In the final scene, after talking with boyfriend Danny over the phone, Clara essentially tells the Doctor that all is forgiven, and she wants to keep on travelling with him.
Clara’s characterization has come under criticism from a number of fans. They object to Steven Moffat’s handling of her relationship with the men in her life, particularly her dependency. It goes to a wider criticism of how Moffat’s writers handle female characters and their relationships throughout the revival. I don’t think I’m qualified to give a good analysis of this, yea or nay, but in Mummy on the Orient Express, I think I can say that Clara’s change of heart should have been handled much better than it was.
The bravest thing the show could have done was allow Clara to walk away, standing by the things she said in Kill the Moon. It wouldn’t necessarily have meant that she’d be gone from the show, either; simply have her show up and lend assistance when the Doctor ventures to Earth again, or have her venture on board the TARDIS as a mentor for a younger companion the Doctor takes under his wing (Courtney, perhaps?). That would have represented real growth in Clara, and a strong progression in her relationship with the Doctor. It might have been a little bittersweet (I like bittersweet), but it would have been strong writing.
I am okay with Clara changing her mind and admitting that she’s not ready to give up adventuring just yet, but not with the way that she did it. Erin objected to Clara saying “Danny’s fine with this!”, as why should she have to ask her boyfriend for permission, but I think the situation is worse than that: I say, why did Clara have to lie to Danny? Because, after my first viewing of the scene where Clara tells the Doctor of her change of heart after talking to Danny on the phone, I’m pretty sure she hadn’t told Danny of her change of heart, and expects to live a double life of travelling with the Doctor and maintaining a relationship with Danny without either knowing about it.
But worst of all was Clara’s whole backtracking on what she said in Kill the Moon. Her approach is very much a rapid-fire of “forget about all of what I said; I didn’t mean a word of it, please take me on board the TARDIS now! Now-now-now!!” and that left me shaking my head. Clara does not need to unsay what she said and still want to travel on board the TARDIS. If she had been honest — to Danny, to herself, and to the Doctor — and said “I’m not willing to give this up. I want to keep travelling. But what I said to you after the Moon still stands: you need to watch yourself, Doctor, and you need to show more compassion towards those around you!”, that would have been an excellent compromise between “walk away because I need to” and “keep travelling because it’s fun”.
Then again, Clara’s selfishness is far from inhuman, and it may be too early in the season for the Doctor to really be confronted with the consequences of his new character. There’s still Missy and the Nethersphere out there, collecting those people the Doctor fails to save. If this is the mirror that gets held up in front of the Doctor’s face at the end of this season, then Missy, the season’s villain, may have done the Doctor the best service anybody could ever have done since this revival began. This is a Doctor that needs a dose of humility, even though it sadly may end up coming through a course of humiliation.
On another note, this is the second story to feature a lost soldier still fighting after a long forgotten war. The other is the warrior robot that the Doctor reprogrammed at the end of The Caretaker. It could even be the third, if you include the robots looking for the “promised land” in Robot of Sherwood. That’s probably not a coincidence. I do appreciate the fact that they didn’t hit us over the head with it, though. I happened upon this realization long after the episode with an “oh… right!” and it made me excited about the overarching story of the season. Just what connection does Missy and the Nethersphere (is it the “promised land”?) have to these soldiers of long forgotten wars? I hope that it’s a different war than the old Time War, as I feel that plotline was rather thoroughly resolved, and I want the show to move on. Still, I like where things are going.
- The age given for the Moon (100 million years) may seem like a disastrous goof for Doctor Who (in reality, it’s at least 4 billion years old), but the date does work out in terms of the series’ canon. Remember, in The Silurians, it was the Moon’s sudden appearance that compelled the Silurians to go into suspended animation underground. Most viewers, however, would probably not remember this, and what may have been a tip of the hat to the geeks instead comes off as series that couldn’t be bothered to look stuff up.
- In addition to the Mummy, the Caretaker robot and the robots of Robot of Sherwood, I’m pretty sure that the mysterious computer known as “Gus” in Mummy has something to do with the Promised Land. Colour me intrigued.
- A lot is made of Maisie going to the baggage car to look for her grandmother’s body and finding the sarcophagus instead. Her scenes suffers from a bit of choppiness, suggesting that maybe some parts are on the cutting room floor due to a lack of running time. But they never explain why she never finds her grandmother’s body, and why nobody will tell her why. That’s when it hit me: it’s because the body is no longer there. Missy took it.