Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent”

How you feel about Peter Capaldi as the Doctor will likely play an important role in how you feel about the latest Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent.” If you like Capaldi, this episode will only solidify and magnify that appreciation. If you dislike Capaldi, “Heaven Sent” is likely to feel interminable. Luckily, I like Capaldi a lot and found the episode to be something of a tour de force on his part. An episode that features only Capaldi’s Doctor and no Clara? Why, that’s right up my alley! It’s a good, compelling episode with lots of creepy visuals that stuck with me and a kicker of a final moment. No complaints. Well, okay, maybe a few small nitpicks. This is me, after all.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

I guessed the Doctor was stuck in a time loop — or a “closed energy loop” this time — the moment I saw the second set of his clothes drying by the fire. (Although when you think about it, the presence of a set of clothes already there would have required one of his previous iterations to have left his clothes and continued on naked. Let the fan fiction commence!) I actually started to guess it might be a loop from the first shot of the hand pulling the lever, but that’s not the episode’s fault. I just know all this show’s tricks by now! Still, a two billion-year time loop is more timey-wimey than I can swallow. Luckily, the revelation that all of this took place inside the Doctor’s confession dial indicates that two billion years have probably not actually passed. Aside from several clues that this is all happening mentally rather than physically (the creature from his own subconscious, the Doctor’s opening speech about how your death is always marching toward you, It Follows-style, also being printed on a section of wall in the castle, calling it a closed energy loop rather than a time loop), if the Doctor is inside the dial there’s no way he can see actual constellations in the sky overhead and judge the passage of time. I suspect very little time has truly passed at all since the events of “Face the Raven,” although we won’t know for sure until the next episode.

Having all the rooms in the castle reset after a certain amount of time except the room with the wall and the room with the spare set of clothes is a bit of a cheat. The wall I can partially understand — it’s evident this is a trap the Doctor is meant to escape from eventually, because Gallifrey wants him back — but the clothes? They’re only there to give us (and the Doctor) a heads-up that he’s stuck in a loop. There’s no reason the clothes should still exist after the reset. And of course the Doctor’s plan to punch his way through a wall that’s four hundred times harder than diamond and twenty feet thick (!!!) makes little sense when you think about it. Even after two billion years, there’s no way to punch through something that thick and that strong. Chipping away at it with a tool (there are obviously kitchen utensils in the castle, since we saw the Doctor eating soup, not to mention a shovel) would make more sense and fit more closely with the Brothers Grimm fairy tale he tells the Veil.

After the Veil grabs him and burns him, the Doctor claims to be dying. He also claims it will take him a day and a half to die from his injuries, but what’s to stop his body from regenerating in all that time? He mentions something about being too injured to regenerate, but he’s come back from a lot worse than a face burn. Hell, the Ninth Doctor basically swallowed the TARDIS’ power supply and still regenerated. I suppose this question can be answered once again with the fact that none of this is physically happening to him, but it felt like handwaving away something that has proved to be critically important to the show.

I’ve mentioned before that Steven Moffat likes to end his seasons with two things: timey-wimey gobbledygook and superfluous additions to the series’ long-running canon. The billion-year closed energy loop covers the timey-wimeyness well, although I suspect there will be more next week, while this time the superfluous addition to canon comes in the Doctor’s admission that he didn’t run from Gallifrey because he was bored, as he has been stating continuously ever since the 1969 Second Doctor serial “The War Games,” but because he was scared. Of what, we don’t know yet, but I assume it has something to do with the Hybrid. (That no Time Lord has ever mentioned the Hybrid before is neither here nor there.)

If the Doctor truly is the Hybrid himself, as he mentions at the end of the episode, I feel like that’s a bit of a cop out after everyone and everything else that’s been brought up as possibilities, especially Ashildr. However, if it is the Doctor, I can’t say that’s entirely unexpected. Moffat also likes his season finales to be about the Doctor in some way, rather than the culmination of a plot line independent of him. So we get the Doctor as the “most dangerous creature in the universe” locked inside the Pandorica, the Doctor having to die at Lake Silencio, the Great Intelligence finding the Doctor’s tomb and Clara entering his time stream, Missy creating Cybermen as a gift for the Doctor, and now this, possibly.

Of course, there’s another reason the Doctor could be the Hybrid. In the 1996 TV movie, the Master discovers a secret the Doctor has apparently been hiding all this time: he’s half human on his mother’s side. I was hoping the revamp would ignore that, as they’ve done so far, because it’s stupid and makes no sense, or that they would at least adhere to the Doctor Who comic’s storyline “The Forgotten,” which claims it was all a trick involving a chameleon arch fob watch to fool the Master, but it looks like they might be bringing it back in full force. Oy vey. Here’s hoping I’m wrong about that!

‘Salem’s Lot

'Salem's Lot‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s really shameful how long it took me to get around to reading this seminal horror novel, especially considering what I do for a living, but I’m so glad I finally did. It’s a great story with compelling action, vividly drawn characters, and some chilling images that will stick with me. But more than that, in many ways ‘SALEM’S LOT strikes me as the urtext of modern horror novels, the source material from which so much else followed, from imitations to improvements. Here we can see the seeds of so many tropes that would come to inhabit King’s novels, and indeed so much of the work of writers who came up reading King: the small town facing an ancient evil; the large cast of characters, all drawn with local authenticity and each with their own secrets to keep (though I did find myself wishing so many of the secrets of the Lot’s inhabitants weren’t of a sexual nature, but this was 1975 and that was probably considered quite edgy back then — although now the novel actually feels charmingly old-fashioned); the scenes of gruesome terror that stand in stark contrast to those of idyllic town life, as if to say only an evil intrusion from outside can upset the peaceful status quo of the small town. Given how closely this was written to the end of the Vietnam War — it’s still fresh in the characters’ minds — the allegory of innocent blood spilled and a whole town wiped out stands tall enough not to be overlooked.

I’ve read a fair bit of King — not a lot when you consider the size of his ouevre, but a fair bit — and most of it has been his more recent works. For years I heard that what I really should be reading was his earlier novels. Now, with ‘SALEM’S LOT finally under my belt, I understand why. There’s a purity to the story, even if there isn’t necessarily a purity to the prose (King definitely became a better writer over time), and an appealing sense of love for the horror genre on every page. You feel like you’re not just in the hands of a master storyteller, but someone who loves horror and monsters as much as you do, a kindred spirit, and that kind of connection between author and reader is something special.

As is this novel. If you haven’t read ‘SALEM’S LOT yet, don’t be like me and wait so long. Bump it to the top of your reading list and find out for yourself, firsthand, why this novel is so beloved by generations of readers.

View all my reviews

Doctor Who: “Face the Raven”

There’s something curiously low energy about “Face the Raven.” It all feels rather like a bit of Harry Potter fan fiction retrofitted into the Doctor Who universe, with its secret London street of alien races and bizarre, mystical punishment that comes in form of a raven that’s actually an inescapable Dementoreqsue smoke monster that kills you if it touches you. (Why the punishment for breaking the rules of the street isn’t simply to be exiled from this seemingly idyllic safe haven is beyond me. Better to have an overcomplicated system with all sorts of loopholes and tattoos, I guess?) The murder mystery at its center doesn’t feel all that compelling, the script forces the characters make enormous jumps to conclusions, and even the momentous events of the final few minutes feel, well, strangely tacked on. Let’s dig in.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

When Rigsy from last season’s “Flatline” discovers a mysterious tattoo on his neck that’s counting down the minutes, he contacts Clara and the Doctor for help. The Doctor determines it’s from a forgotten encounter with aliens, yet within mere moments of making that determination the Doctor decides there must be a hidden street somewhere in London where aliens live undetected. It’s a huge leap. Why wouldn’t he consider alien abduction? Another invasion? Some other explanation for Rigsy’s alien contact? What makes him think it’s a hidden street? Well, nothing really, except that the script needs him to, and of course he’s right. Such a street does exist, and it’s being run by Me (a.k.a. Ashildr, the immortal Viking girl) as a kind of refugee camp for aliens who are tired of fighting and violence and wars. We see Judoon, Sontarans, Cybermen, Ood, Silurians, and Ice Warriors all living there in harmony. Me tells the Doctor he better be careful because all these races (except the Ood, I guess) were his enemy once, which makes this street a very dangerous place for him to be. How fun that would have been to explore! Instead, the episode ignores it immediately after it’s mentioned. No one gets in the Doctor’s face. No one says, “Hey, you’re the asshole who blew up my ship,” or, “Sorry about that time I tried to laser your face off.” No one even seems to care that he’s there.

They do care that Rigsy is there, though, because they all believe he murdered one of them, despite any evidence outside the fact that he was found standing over the body. (Oddly enough, this happens to the Doctor constantly in the classic series. He lands somewhere, finds a body, is discovered at that exact moment, and is immediately accused of being the killer. This is literally the opening scene to easily half of the serials.) A murder mystery is a great hook for any story, as is a ticking clock, and linking the need to find the real killer to that countdown should make for narrative gold. Except here, our heroes decide it’s less important to find the real killer than to just convince everyone on the street that Rigsy is innocent, which is without a doubt the least narratively compelling way to go about solving a mystery. Anyway, they find a psychic who tells them almost everything they need to know, the Doctor immediately figures out the rest, the victim turns out to not even be dead, and it’s all a trap set by Me to hand the Doctor over to some mysterious forces who have threatened to otherwise destroy her secret enclave. In other words, it’s all a set up for an episode yet to come, which makes it all a bit of a shrug.

After giving an incredible performance in “The Woman Who Lived,” Maisie Williams seems over it here. Her performance is overly subdued, with none of the charm and energy she brought to it previously. I understand that her character is older now, perhaps wearier, and that she’s concerned about the trap she set for the Doctor, but her presence barely registers for me throughout the episode. Seriously, it could have been anyone in charge of that street. (I’m also upset that the now-immortal Sam Swift isn’t there with her, too. He’s awesome, and to be honest I was hoping for a romance between them!) I was excited when I heard Maisie Williams would be back for this episode, but I was let down by how small of a role she ultimately played. I suspect Me will be back for the finale, though, and I hope it’s a return to form.

That “Face the Raven” is also Clara’s last episode is the only thing that makes it special. (Presumably her last, I should say. I half expect her to appear again one way or another in the finale, just like Me.) That she sacrifices her life to protect Rigsy from the raven is fitting and brave — and also feels completely unnecessary in such a lightweight episode. That’s why I said up top that it feels tacked on. I was never a big fan of Clara, and if this is how she goes so be it, but it all feels very forced.

The Doctor Who revamp has always had a problem with companions leaving. In the classic series, companions left for all sorts of reasons. Some realized the TARDIS had taken them somewhere they were needed (I’m thinking of Nyssa staying to help cure the sick on the Terminus space station, or Romana staying in e-space to help free the Tharils from slavery); some left because they fell in love and wanted to start a new life with their partner (like the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, who stays on 22nd century Earth with Dalek-fighter David Campbell, or Leela, who confusingly decides to stay on Gallifrey to be with Andred, one of the Chancellery Guard, with whom she has very few scenes or, for that matter, chemistry); or they’d just had enough and wanted to go home (like Ben and Polly, who left the TARDIS together as soon as they were back on Earth in their own time, or Tegan, who had seen too much Dalek violence and was over it). But the revamp, from the start, has been so in love with the idea of the Doctor that it literally cannot think of a reason why anyone would want to stop traveling with him, so they have to come up with big reasons for their departures: Rose got stuck in an alternate universe (although she chose to stay there even after finding a way back, so whatever), Donna had to have her memory wiped or her head would explode or something, Amy and Rory got zapped back in time to the 1930s and just lived out their lives there because for handwaving reasons the Doctor couldn’t go get them, despite having a vessel that can go anywhere in time and space, and now Clara has to die. No wonder I like Martha so much: she’s the only companion who decided to leave the TARDIS for her own reasons (eye-rolling ones, if you ask me — “You’ll never be my boyfriend!” — but still, they’re her own) and went on to become an awesome recurring character on both Doctor Who and Torchwood. I would love to see the show do that again, but it seems determined to have every companion’s end be a final one. But the problem is that if every companion has to die or come to some other tragic end, it stops being fun. (It also runs the risk of making the audience stop engaging with them, because they know it’ll only end in heartbreak.) Anyway, I still think Clara should have run off with Danny Pink last season and been like, “Byeeeeee!”

Actually, I suspect that’s going to be the final scene of the season, perhaps in Missy’s computerized afterlife, which as far as we know is still operational. But what about all this stuff about the Hybrid? The season has been ominously hinting at its importance from the start, and now it’s only got two episodes left in which to deal with it. I like to think Steven Moffat has learned his lesson about bringing up plot points only to discard them before anything comes of them (remember when the TARDIS didn’t like Clara?) so I fully expect something to be made of it in the next two episodes. Or at least, I hope it will. You can’t take anything for a granted with a show that thinks replacing the sonic screwdriver with sonic sunglasses is a good idea.

Doctor Who: “Sleep No More”

I have mixed feelings about “Sleep No More.” On the one hand, I really liked what they were trying to do, namely tell a horror story in a way that Doctor Who had never done before, via first person “found footage.” On the other hand, 1) “found footage” may be new to Doctor Who, but it is everywhere in horror cinema these days and has pretty much worn out its welcome through overuse, and 2) I would have liked “Sleep No More” a lot better if it didn’t keep tripping over itself. Since we can’t do anything about #1, let’s talk about #2.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

At the heart of this story is a cool idea: the Morpheus sleep deprivation pods have so messed up the natural rhythms of the humans who use them that they have produced a monstrous side effect. The Sandmen are scary-looking monsters who eat people (I think; we’ll come back to this) and aren’t easily dispatched. Unfortunately, in my opinion the script by Mark Gatiss goes in the wrong direction when it comes to the Sandmen’s origin. What a horror story like this needs is nightmare logic, not scientific explanations. So while we’re told the Sandmen have evolved inside the Morpheus sleep deprivation pods from the human sleepers’ “sleep dust,” the hardened mucus that accumulates in the corner of your eye when you sleep — an explanation that is both gross and absurd enough to pull me right out of the story — imagine how much more frightening the episode would have been had we been told the Sandmen sprang from the subconscious of the sleepers. Imagine if a major problem with the Morpheus sleep deprivation pod was that it always gives its users nightmares, and this new version has somehow managed to pull those nightmares out of the sleepers’ minds and give them life. Well, I think that’s scarier than eye boogers, anyway.

The Sandmen themselves are also a problem. Are they a new lifeforms that grew from and ate the sleepers, or are they the sleepers themselves evolved into new lifeforms? Why is the dust able to record and transmit images but the Sandman, who are made of the same dust, are blind? Why are they blind when it’s revealed they can shapeshift into forms that can see? The episode tries to have it both ways on a number of details, which only causes confusion for the viewer. There is a possible explanation for the confusion (which we will get to), but I think the episode would have been stronger with a more consistent idea of how the Sandmen operate. The rules of the Sandmen don’t have to be logical, mind you, they just need to be consistent for the sake of the narrative.

Among the elements of “Sleep No More” that I did like are the cast, who were certainly game; the concept of “found footage” without the use of actual cameras (although this required the rather tortured explanation of the dust somehow recording and transmitting everything itself); the creepy look of the Sandmen; the Doctor’s slow-dawning realization that everything is being manipulated for show; and the twist at the end, which very nearly saves the episode in my opinion. One issue with “found footage” stories is that they often struggle to come up with a good reason why the story needs to be told that way at all. Sometimes, as with The Blair Witch Project or Cannibal Holocaust, it adds an extra layer to the story and gives it some background weight. But for every film with a good reason for “found footage,” there are tons that don’t have one. Cloverfield comes to mind, with its halfhearted “the world has to know what’s happening here” justification, and Paranormal Activity, which just wanted to have a spook house vibe. (I like both these movies, by the way, but I find their justification for “found footage” to be weak.) These movies only use the conceit for its immersive value, which admittedly can be very effective. “Sleep No More,” on the other hand, gives us a good reason for its “found footage” approach in Gagan Rasmussen’s trap: an embedded signal within the footage that will create more Sandmen (or turn the viewers into Sandmen; again, it’s not made very clear how this works). That was a nice creepy note to end on. (Mark Gatiss certainly knows his horror tropes. Check out his three-episode special series A History of Horror, it’s essential viewing for horror movie fans. I think it’s available on YouTube.)

There’s a funny bit where the Doctor says he wants to be the one to name monsters and “it’s like the Silurians all over again.” This is a reference to the 1970 Third Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” (yes, that’s the official title!), in which the lizard men are wrongly identified as Silurians by a mistaken paleontologist. The Doctor more accurately places their origins in the Eocene era, but the term Silurians sticks. By the time they returned in the 1984 Fifth Doctor serial “Warriors of the Deep,” they are actually referring to themselves as Silurians. (And the Sea Devils are calling themselves Sea Devils, which is pretty weird.)

Interestingly, “Sleep No More” is the first standalone episode in a season that has been unique in having every story so far be a two-parter. I suppose the next episode, “Face the Raven,” will be a standalone as well, and then we’re back to two-parters with the finale.

 

 

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