...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Day 5060: DOCTOR WHO: Remembrance (Day) of the Cybermen*


There’s one central idea here done superbly well: the Master is just doing all this to get her friend back.

Alex once wrote a piece – one I fully endorse – titled “The Time Lords are Gits and Always Have Been”, chronicling their use and abuse of arbitrary power from “The War Games” on.

And suddenly, watching this, I realised that it’s the Doctor who is the fallen Time Lord, not the Master. The Master, Missy, just wants him to see that they are supposed to be ruling the cosmos and then he’ll come back and play with her the way they used to.

Michelle Gomez is really good at this. Properly bananas as her character says. Even in handcuffs. (Eat that, River Song!) The horrible brutality of killing Osgood the cos-play fangirl – for no reason – is exactly the sort of thing that the Master needed, to underline that she is not just some suave giggling loon, but really properly evil. And grounded in a solid motivation (and decades of “shipping”), the character is a better, more worthy adversary than she has been in years.

It’s not a novel observation to say that “Dark Water”/“Death in Heaven” is Moffat doing “Army of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” his way. Ghosts or skeletons that are revealed as Cybermen; a global invasion; a twist halfway to introduce another old enemy (the Daleks even get a cheeky name-check); even the hand-brake turn last-minute twist to stop the heartbreak ending being too much.

Nor is it a secret that Moffat is not very fond of two-parters: he hasn’t done one since “The Rebel Flesh”/“The Almost People”; hasn’t written one himself since “The Pandorica Opens”/“The Big Bang”; and even when he has, it’s usually to perform a big scene shift to a second part that is often hugely different in location or scope or tone.

But Russell clearly got something right when he minted the new series with a spectacular two- or even three-part finale at the end of every year.

The success of the individual stories is less of the issue here, than how they round out the seasons. For the record, we love the Mister Master in his “Last of the Time Lords” trilogy, and of Russell’s five finales, only “Journey’s End” and “The End of Time” bellyflop into disappointing us, but your mileage may vary. What I’m saying is that the Moffat era could be characterised by series – six, seven a and seven b – that come to an end without coming to a climax.

So it’s some sort of irony that Moffat’s here using the form to write what is ultimately a pretty good story that is also a seriously good capstone to the series arcs, for a series where those arcs have been based in character rather than plot. It seems that Steven is just better at re-writing Russell “but better” than he is at his own stuff.

The other fantastically good scene here is, of course, also a collage of Russell moments, which is Clara’s farewell (even though it isn’t… what is it with Moffat-era companions not being able to say goodbye?).

The way that it’s prefaced with Danny’s inevitable self-sacrifice (a voice from the other side, riffing on Rose’s summons to Bad Wolf Bay in “Doomsday”) and intercut with the raw emotion of the Doctor assaulting the TARDIS in grief that the Master lied and Gallifrey is still gone beautifully composits the information that the audience needs to understand what is happening.

Coleman and Capaldi have been brilliant all year, but never better than in this goodbye that caps off the emotional arc of (this year’s version of) Clara Oswald where all her lies have finally come back to bite her on the bottom, only for her to finish by telling the biggest white lie of all to spare the Doctor just as he does the same for her.

If only all the moments could be as good. Or at least not so cripplingly disappointing.

When I said last time that I thought I’d been spoiled, it wasn’t about the slow, careful, clever build up to the revelation of the Cybermen in “Dark Water” being blown in the teaser at the end of “In the Forest of the Night”. Although it was.

(Of course knowing there would be Cybermen, it was obvious that they were Cybermen, to the extent I didn’t even realise it was meant to be a surprise and so the slowly draining tanks reveal seemed a bit pointless. But I didn’t spot that the 3W logo was a Cyber teardrop until the doors closed to reveal them as a pair; I’d been thinking of it as a “map” of the Nethersphere touching the larger sphere of the real universe as it were as the City of the Saved.)

But I had a much bigger problem with “Clara Oswald has never existed”, because to me that suggested a retrospective redemption of the whole Impossible Girl arc and too-good-to-be-true Clara of season seven.

With Missy, as everyone guessed, turning out to be the Master and also, as everyone guessed, the “woman on the phone” who gave Clara the TARDIS telephone number, along with the drop-in scenes suggesting that Missy “chose” Clara for the Doctor… the expectation rose that Clara was either a construct of the Master’s, like Seb, or maybe the Master’s TARDIS (remember how Clara and the TARDIS did not get on in series seven?), or even the next regeneration of the Master herself (Missy = Miss C Oswald… apparently, nahh). (Or was Oswald the Penguin!)

Having Moffat’s companion be the most specialist ever, who jumps into the Doctor’s timestream to save him and so meets him (and beats him!) everywhere smacks just a teensy bit of “Mary Sue”. But having the Master wrap him/herself around every point in the Doctor’s timestream because… “a Universe without the Doctor scarcely seems worth imagining”, now that would be properly epic. In fact, it would be an almost perfect reversal of the “they turn out to be the same person” ending that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had in mind for their “Final Problem”, and incorporate elements of the Reichenbach Fall ending that Saward and Holmes planned for “Trial of a Time Lord”. It would even be satisfyingly timey-wimey for a Moffat story.

Really, the only other way to go would be for Clara to turn out to have been the Doctor all along.


The twist with Clara turns sour because it is so obviously a fake-out, and such a waste of a terrific idea.

It would be such a great story to do, too: the end of season switcheroo reveal that Doctor and companion were actually the other way around. But having done it for false now, how can someone do it for real?

But you couldn’t have done it at the end of this season eight. You couldn’t have done it after seeing Matt Smith turn into Peter Capaldi, or after the scene in “Deep Breath” where Capaldi’s Doctor remembers the phone call made by Smith’s. You couldn’t do it after a season that included “Listen” that expressly takes the present Doctor back to his childhood on Gallifrey. You couldn’t do it after a season that included “Flatline”, a story about Clara trying to be the Doctor. (Though wouldn’t that have worked differently in retrospect if she’d turned out to be the Master!)

What you needed was to end “The Time of the Doctor” with Clara (or “Clara”) returning to the TARDIS and meeting Capaldi, and he knows nothing about who he is so she tells him that he’s this man called “The Doctor” and then season eight is about her setting out to teach him how to be this Time Lord, this hero.

(And – suggests Alex – we could have cast that jobbing actor, even though he’d been in it before, who’s been in tons of things and was very respected but really became well-known when he got a bit older and got all crabby and sweary and was in a sit-com. He meant “A Very Peculiar Practice” and “Waiting For God” of course…)

In order to work, it needs some things to be more ambiguous. The fake Doctor can’t fly the TARDIS alone, for example, so can’t keep materialising at Clara’s home to collect her. And he can’t rely on pulling knowledge or Gallifreyan superpowers out of his hat (though you could slyly imply that Clara does – perhaps having her seem to appear somewhere out of nowhere, the way Missy appears to shift at super-speed when she makes her move and grabs Osgood).

There was a chance there to have done something jaw-dropping. But instead, Moffat burned that idea. Tossed it away for a gag. It brings to mind his engineering the Doctor’s regenerations so that he could be the one to confront the “thirteen regenerations limit”, only to blow it off with “and the Time Lords gave him some more lives”.

Burning up ideas like TARDIS keys, Moffat is closing the box on other people using these ideas to tell much better stories, and I think that’s a real shame. Russell used to throw out ideas for people to tie up in better stories – the Fall of Arcadia, the Moment – so it’s a good job no-one’s used those up in half-baked fan-fic…Hang on…

The Cybermen were, obviously, totally wasted. Where exactly did all those metal suits come from, I ask? Gallifreyan technology, says Alex and fair play to him I’ll give him that. And I suppose you could say that just for once in her lives, the Master teams up with a monster menace only to betray them before they betray her!

But really, do we have to believe that every single human was willing to delete their emotions and turn bad, unless they were so specially-wecially as to be in love with Clara Oswald (or the Doctor… see below). Seb tells us the Nethersphere is emptying and we see the lights going out. And yet only two Cybermen out of all of humanity resist the conversion.

Again, it’s the better story not told. The Cybermen are never (apart possibly from “The Tenth Planet”) treated as individuals. They all just become an army of grunts. (Ironically, when the season’s been trying so hard to tell us that soldiers have personalities too.)

Whatever Danny might say about the Doctor being an officer and a general, he’s lying to himself if he thinks he’s not doing exactly the thing he condemns when he orders the Cyber-army to their deaths without compunction. Though to be fair, he’s probably had Clara delete his compunction.

As for his big soldier speech to the Cybermen – was anyone else just hoping they’d reply to “love is a promise” with “we don’t care; we’re Cybermen, you moron!”?

Still it could have been worse. Oh wait. It was.

I’d really expected that the Doctor would use the TARDIS to save Kate from falling out of that airplane – as he’s done to save River Song at least twice. It’s not like he was going to be late for getting to Clara in the graveyard in his time machine. And at least it would have spared us the Cyber-Brig. Oh for shame, they even painted his handles black to make him a Cyber-leader.

The Brigadier’s passing in “The Wedding of River Song”, the Doctor missing it, and learning a lesson about mortality, was understated, tasteful and a last nod to a beloved old friend. So why the need to bring him back? And as a Cyberman?! What is it with Moffat-era companions not being able to say goodbye?

(And while we’re at it, “permission to squee” is up there with burping bins and farting Slitheen as… something I will have to get used to.) I’m glad to say that Alex enjoyed it, though. Mainly because the Master immediately shot him.

If there’s one tiny sliver of redemption for the whole wretched idea it’s this:

“Who will save your soul, Doctor?” Well who is it who is always there to shoot the monsters so that the Doctor doesn’t have to?

But, having got all that out of my system, let me return to the story that was actually there, rather than the stories I thought might be there or hoped might be there, because the one that Steven does tell is still a good story.

The genius of it is this: all season we have seen Clara trying to be the Doctor, trying to keep up with his breakneck lifestyle, trying to match his moral ambiguities. And all season the Doctor has been asking the question that Clara should have been asking herself, practically shouting it in her face: am I a good man?

How often do we stop to interrogate our own actions? Or do we, like Clara, keep on doing what we’re doing – telling the little lies to cover the bigger ones – because it’s simpler to keep following the path rather than stopping to think, really think if it’s the right path.

We all like to think we are “good men/women/choose your own label or none”. We are all the heroes of our own story, as the saying goes; and as Moffat has said, Clara thinks the show is called “Clara”. But the Doctor’s answer is a good one: it’s too hard to be a “good man”; it’s okay to recognise yourself as a silly one, one just muddling through with a box and a screwdriver, trying to help. That’s actually quite liberating – the freedom from the obligation to “do good”; and the avoidance of the total harm that “do-gooding” can do (take heed, politicians of all stripes).

The Master thinks only in absolutes. She takes the logic of being good to the max: obviously you want an army raised from the dead and slaved to your will because if you are going to be “good” you need to do all the good, stop all the evil, destroy all the monsters.

And that’s bananas.

We, as a society, seem to have gotten ourselves stuck in a place where we are all expected to work harder, increase the productivity, deliver more. We are trapped in a World of “The Apprentice” where we have to give it 110%. And that’s the same logic that the Master uses. It’s not okay to be just okay.

I like that our hero, the fallen Time Lord, wins with the simple, welcome realisation that it’s okay to fall short.

So forgive me for demanding better stories. It was wrong, when the lesson of this one is so good.

Also, somewhere, presumably, Rory has just come back from the dead again as a Cyberman.

Next Time: Santa Claus? Santa Claus! Dammit we’re British! He’s Father bloody Christmas!

Start the Wham! It’s “Last Christmas”.

*May not contain actual Cybermen.


Unknown said...

Awww It's lovely to have you Who-ing again Mr. Elephant, but you've missed some of the best bits: The Caretaker controversy, The Kill the Moon controversy, the Clara leaving controversy, the Flatline non-controversy, the In the Forest of the Night Meltdown...

Any chance of a few one line reviews for these rather wonderful episodes? Genuinely curious about your opinions. I'd settle for "likey" "no likey" I loved them all (even that one) cos I'm boring

Iain Coleman said...

We Scots are also British, and in Scotland the chap in red is traditionally called Santa Claus.