Come one, come all, to the Neil Gaimanest show of all, well, the one episode of this season’s Doctor Who that was written by said author. Containing lots and lots of Gaiman elements including carnival sideshows, magic tricks that aren’t magic, sullen children smarter and more willing to help than they seem, and disembodied hands. In fact, this recap might spend some time talking about parallels to Gaiman’s other work, which I recognize is tangential to Doctor Who, but you’ll all just have to deal with it. So come on in as I talk about the best episode of Who so far this season, which is to say the only episode so far this season that managed to not make me roll my eyes for at least 99% of the way through it, an episode that actually makes Clara seem like she has a personality.
Today’s adventure is a day trip for the Doctor, Clara, and Clara’s kids Angie and Artie, and first stop is the Moon. Well, actually it’s Hedgewick’s World, a fabulous amusement park planet that the Doctor’s got a golden ticket for, and they’re in the Spacey Zoomer ride, though it’s not working at the moment. In masterfully quick succession we are introduced to almost the entire cast of the episode. First, there’s Webley, the proprietor of a sideshow attraction who arrived on the planet to set up shop without knowing that the park had been shut down and is waiting for his ride off. Next is Captain Alice and her punishment platoon stationed on the empty planet, and though the episode is a bit vague on the details it seems to be made up of soldiers who’ve all failed in soldiering in some way. Nothing the psychic paper can’t deal with, however, which convinces the Captain that the Doctor is a proconsul. Alice asks if there’s any news regarding the Emperor and says that the platoon prays for his return. I genuinely mistook this for a meaningless bit of setting polish, but it turns out it’s very important! Once the platoon leaves, Webley pops out again “They can’t stop me being here but they don’t like it!” and leads them along on a grand tour.
Of course since the park is shut down, this consists of a tour of his sideshow, complete with waxworks and oddities, a place where trick illusions are employed to rid the willing visitor of their real money and only a few can find the hard but still supernatural truth that always lies beneath the plaster artifice. These kinds of places are one of Gaiman’s favorite settings, from American Gods to “Mr. Punch” to “Queen of Knives.” Webley’s main attraction is none other than a gutted Cyberman shell that somehow mysteriously plays chess, though it lacks any innards. Don’t be afraid! There haven’t been any living Cybermen for a thousand years. Artie sits down to play, after paying a fee of one sandwich-that-he-had-in-his-pocket, and is quickly defeated while a couple of mysterious electronic thingies (cybermites) watch them from a nearby waxwork. Webley offers an imperial penny for anyone who can name how the machine works. Turns out, it works by Warwick Davis.
Sorry, I mean Porridge. Which is the name of Warwick Davis’ character. Angie nails this one when she says the machine works by “mirrors,” specifically the ones in the bottom of the chess table which conceal Porridge and his control center. She is rewarded with a shinny imperial penny which she compares to a waxwork of the missing emperor, just before everybody gets to ride the Spacey Zoomer. And… that’s it, apparently, for this day trip, at least until the Doctor notices the funny insects. So the Doctor and Clara go looking for bugs after they put down two teenagers for a… nap in the middle of a carnival waxworks, probably the most terrifying place to sleep ever? Instead of chucking them in the TARDIS or taking them home. In retrospect it seemed like there were some other options here. That said, I did like the Doctor’s little “don’t wander off” speech.
Meanwhile Webley resets the game of chess and the Cyberman grabs him by the arms, then the cybermites crawl out of its eyes and down its arms and up his arms and ooooohhhhhhhhh god and it says “UPGRADE IN PROGRESS” and nooooooo oh god.
Meanwhile, unable to play games on her phone, Angie wanders off. Unseen, the silverfish swarm over her phone. Clara, the Doctor and Porridge are definitely looking in the wrong place, but at least Porridge tells us all about the last Cyberwar, when the only way humanity could find to destroy the Cybermen was to destroy an entire galaxy and everyone in it. They notice Angie wandering into the barracks and follow. In the barracks a lot of the electronics are malfunctioning, which is to say that inexplicably there are actually no electronics left in their cases anymore. The soldiers are very gender diverse and I like that (it’s a very tiny nitpick, but I’d also like it if any of the female ones that were given any character actually had survived the episode).
Artie, understandably a little nervous about sleeping in the dark surrounded by lifelike wax figures, gets up and looks for the light switch. Which he finds, moments before a cyberman finds him. Meanwhile, a second cyberman arrives in the barracks. It uses advanced speed powers to grab Angie and book it out of there in what is actually a really well done action sequence, but apparently it used up all the speed powers for the episode because not a single cyberman does it ever again. The doctor puts himself in charge of rescuing the kids, and Clara in charge of the platoon, ordering her to find a defensible position and “Don’t let anyone blow up this planet.” They decide to head to Natty Longshoe’s comical castle, which is a real castle with a drawbridge and moat, “but,” as Captain Alice puts it with beautiful dead pan, “comical.” It’s a damn well delivered Neil Gaiman line, and if it weren’t for what’s about to happen to Matt Smith in a few moments, it could have been the best delivered line in the episode. In this scene, the Captain also calls Porridge “sir,” which I thought meant he was probably going to be revealed as some kind of war hero. Shows what I know.
As they’re walking over to Natty Longshoe’s, Clara backs up her orders with “the only reason I’m still alive is because I do what they Doctor says,” I’m just mentioning it because I’ll be returning to it much later.
The Doctor heads back to the sideshow, finds a cybermite and uses its frequency to teleport to hits home in the planet’s cybertombs. Artie, Angie and Webley are there and have all been upgraded, although for the purposes of this episode’s highly adaptable, advanced Cybermen, this means Webley has less robotic parts than your average Borg and the kids basically have bluetooth headsets. CyberWebly explains “We needed children, but the children had stopped coming,” which is funny because there’s a bit of a parallel there to a very, very disturbing The Sandman character. He says that during the end of the war, the cyberplanners built a valkyrie to rescue and repair damaged cybermen them. The Doctor says something here about how people who vanished from the park became used as parts for the cybermen, which feels like it may have been part of a deleted bit that explained that the park was shut down because folks started disappearing. In order to make a new cyberplanner to control the cybermen, they needed the creative, inventive minds of children. However, unlike before, the cybermen can convert non-humans now. And now you know where this is going. The cybermites upgrade the Doctor! Welcome to the war of consciousnesses: Cyberdoctor vs. the Doctor. Actually, the cyberman consciousness inside the Doctor calles himself Mr. Clever. It wants all of the Doctors brain and memories, the secrets of time travel, but it can’t get to it while the Doctor is still holding 49.881% of his brain. The Doctor gives it access to memories on Timelord regeneration to show that he could regenerate right now to burn out Mr. Clever’s circuitry, but he’d rather not. With .238% of the Brain locked off from either of them, it’s a stalemate. They agree to a game of chess. If Mr. Clever wins, the Cyberiad gets the Doctor’s brain. If the Doctor wins, he gets his brain and body back, the children and everyone’s lives. Both sides of this argument are acted brilliantly by Matt Smith. Should the guy ever get tired of playing the Doctor, I would watch him play pretty much any villain.
Meanwhile, on the perimeter of Natty Longshoes, a Cyberman takes out a platoon soldier by detaching its hand and OH GOD it grabs her face as she’s screaming. Happy Other Mother‘s Day! The cyberman is on its way, so Clara takes an inventory of their weapons: one giant gun that’s the only thing that works on cybermen and that’s still being used after one thousand years of not fighting them, a crate full of handpulsers (taser gloves that only work if you can touch the back of a cyberman’s head), and, of course, a bomb that will implode the planet. Clara takes the firing mechanism for the bomb and clashes with Captain Alice, whose protocols state that if the cybermen are not wiped out immediately upon encountering them, they are to be destroyed by blowing up the planet. Clara’s being a right badass in this episode, with a platoon to order around and another character to contradict in a way that establishes her power and not her impotence, and it’s really, really refreshing to see her showing a bit of spine aside from conversational sass, which, lets face it, is the bare minimum of spine that is required from all companions. Porridge asks for one of the handpulsers like it ain’t no thang, and the Captain insists on teaching him how to use it, obviously so she can get some time alone with him.
Captain Alice and Porridge appear to have some kind of history, but at this point I was still assuming it was shared military service. Porridge forbids her to activate the bomb, which she’s brought with her, indicating that whatever he is, he’s of higher rank than she is. She says she was sent here because she didn’t follow orders, and she can make up for that with this suicidal gesture, and almost does, but gets shot by the cyberman. Under Clara’s orders the rest of the platoon blast the cyberman to smithereens.
Mr. Clever tries to find info on the Doctor from the Cyberiad’s databases, and points out that though the Doctor has been eliminating himself from history he can be detected by the hole left behind. The Doctor, however, knows weaknesses of the cybermen, slaps the gold ticket onto his facial circuitry to temporarily disrupt Mr. Clever, and larks off with CyberWebley, the kids, and the chess set. They rondevoux with Clara and the platoon, who immediately recognize facial circuitry as a bad thing. Clara doesn’t let her giant gun’s sights stray from the Doctor, and gets very righteously pissed at him for endangering the kids, which is great. The Doctor orders them to tie him up in front of a table, because Mr. Clever will get around his gold gambit any moment now, and they do so.
Good thing too, because Mr. Clever gets control very quickly, and in quick succession tosses off the Ninth Doctor’s “fantastic” and the Tenth’s “allons-y,” so I’ll be right back after I rewatch the entire Davies era. Except I don’t leave, because just after that he starts telling Clara all about what the Doctor thinks of her, about how she’s the “Impossible Girl” and that the cybermen are coming and I start, once again, thinking that we might actually get to the episode where the Doctor actually tells Clara important things that she deserves to know. The Doctor manages to use his right arm to write “hit me!” on a notepad that has materialized, and so Clara slaps him, which gives him control of his mouth again. “Why am I the impossible girl,” Clara grills him, and it seems, instead, that she thinks he means “impossible,” like, difficult. But I was still holding out hope (you’d think I’d have learned by now). “It’s just a thing in my head I’ll explain later,” he says before Mr. Clever takes control again, and so Clara leaves to take charge of her platoon.
Mr. Clever wakes all of the cybermen in the valkyrie, which I’m assuming is only happening now because the cybermen lacked a cyberplanner, which was facilitated by the arrival of the children. And presumably they’d never made a cyberplanner before the park shut down because they were making an army? Since the airing of the show on Saturday, Neil Gaiman has been responding to questions about how his script, and even what was shot, was pared down to fit the time constraints of the episode. According to those posts, some of the things that were hit hardest were Artie and Angie’s dialogue and some scenes that “explained something that otherwise would leave you going ‘But why would they do X…? That doesn’t make sense.'” I feel like this is a common thread this season; episodes that are clearly missing a scene that made X plot event make more sense, but I’m not entirely certain whether that’s because it’s actually new this season or if I’m just noticing it more as I think harder about the episodes for recapping. In any case, the fact that making sure the plot hangs together in a logical fashion does not appear to be a paramount priority for Doctor Who‘s editing team bothers me. “Well the show is really meant for kids” is a very poor argument to excuse this sort of thing, since it A) implies that children do not necessarily need well done storytelling because they’re too dumb to know it from poor storytelling and B) I think Doctor Who, based on its time slot and viewing numbers, is pretty damn certain that it’s not being watched primarily by kids. But I digress.
The Doctor calls for Clara and casually asks to see the detonator that will implode the world. You could read what happens next a number of ways, but to me it seemed like she figured out immediately that only Mr. Clever would actually ask for the detonator in this situation, and asks him to prove he’s the Doctor right now just to play with him. He answers that “I’m the only one who knows how I feel about you right now,” and starts talking about how he is just so in love with her. She slaps him and the Doctor actually has to ask how she knew it wasn’t him, the egotistical sillybilly: “Because even if that was true, which it is obviously not, I know you well enough to know that you would rather die than say it.” This is the most perceptive thing a new companion has said about the Doctor in a long time.
Also, hey, look, Neil Gaiman understands that it’s gross and sinister and villain behavior for Mr. Clever to use the Doctor’s own body to make advances someone he is not attracted to without the Doctor’s consent, it’s too bad that according to other episodes this season it’s adorable when the Doctor, of his own volition, forces women to kiss him.
Anyway, Mr. Clever takes control of the Doctor’s left arm, grabs the detonator and destroys it anyway. Oh well.
The oodles and oodles of Cybermen are lined up outside, and while Clara and the platoon desperately fight them off (I was really hoping Clara would get in at least one good hit with that giant mace), while the Doctor and Mr. Clever duke it out on the chessboard, and Porridge, unexpectedly, retrieves the planet-imploding bomb. The important part here (nestled amid all the action) is that Mr. Clever offers the Doctor a deal: if he makes a move that leaves his queen open for the taking (and thus ensuring his defeat in a handful of moves), Mr. Clever will release Artie and Angie from the Cyberiad. The Doctor takes the deal, Mr. Clever releases them and starts spouting the usual Doctor Who villain stuff about how useless emotions are, and uses CyberWebley to try to kill them. Fortunately, Porridge has just arrived with the bomb, and uses his borrowed handpulser to short circuit CyberWebley, after which he is knocked unconscious at the Doctor’s feet.
The Doctor, however, has a trap for Mr. Clever: a win in three moves, and he challenges Mr. Clever to figure it out, if he’s got the processing power. Incensed by the challenge to his cyberballs, Mr. Clever stops the advancing cybermen so that he can take advantage of their processing power as well, which is good, because they were about to kill everybody. The Doctor’s moves are to amplify the power of Porridge’s handpulser with the sonic screwdriver in order to pulse Mr. Clever out of his head. Hooray! The Doctor is saved. Everybody from the courtyard dashes in, and by way of a Turing test, Clara asks if he thinks she’s pretty. He tells her no, that she’s short, bossy, and has a funny nose, which is rich because, as she herself says earlier in the episode, she does everything he says.
But it’s not all sunshine yet: Mr. Clever is stil in all of the cybermen, and they’ve got no way to destroy the whole army except the planetary bomb. Unfortunately, everybody and everything that could set off the bomb is dead or destroyed. Angie, then, to the rescue, and this is a Neil Gaiman story, so it should not come as a surprise that the petulant, bored teenage girl actually turned out to be whipsmart, perceptive, and resourceful. She drops the metaphorical bomb that Porridge is actually the lost the emperor, since his face is the same as on the wax figure (despite its embellished height) and on her imperial penny, and he should know the activation codes for it. Porridge doesn’t want to activate the bomb, because he doesn’t want to go back to being Emperor yet, which is a bit confusing until he explains that as soon as he speaks the activation codes, the bomb’s countdown will begin, but it’ll still be more than enough time for Imperial navy to find him and teleport everybody out before the planet goes. The Doctor makes sure they grab the TARDIS too, and the planet goes up as they watch, with a wistful emperor Porridge musing, “it was good to get away. Good to be a person.” Then he proposes to Clara in a scene that’s actually cute and very regal, when it could easily have been kind of creepy and possesive. The Doctor gets very nervous at this idea and tries to give her advice, but Clara lets him down nicely enough on her own, and they VWORP off in the TARDIS, leaving the lonely emperor on his own.
Then the TARDIS gives Angie a new cell phone for the one the cybermites ate (which might possibly become plot relevant?) and Clara and her kids troop off back to their house and their time (he tells her “See you next wednesday. One of the wednesdays.” And I wonder if this is an actual indication that the Doctor has been interacting with Clara non-linearly from her perspective without her realizing it, or just a joke.). Then the Doctor talks to himself about how tight Clara’s skirt is, before apparently drifting off into a reverie of thinking about her butt. Seriously. It could not be more clear that this was a moment tacked on by a staff writer in charge of making sure the last scene of the episode dovetailed into next week’s reveal of Clara’s identity, and not something written by the guy who put in a scene based around the fundamental fact that the Doctor does not see Clara as a sexual or romantic conquest in this episode. All of this happens without Clara asking why she’s the impossible girl again AAAAGHGH
Welcome to Doctor Who, Series 7, where the writers wanted to set up a season long mystery that turns out to actually only be complicated enough for the finale episode. This is, I think, Series 7’s biggest problem. The writers want to have their cake and eat it too.
It started with the last episode of Pond Life, with Amy and Rory’s divorce. Maybe we were going to get a half season where the common thread of all episodes was Amy and Rory’s healing relationship? Nope, nipped that in one episode. Instead we were promised a central mystery: who was Clara and why had identical versions of her popped up elsewhere in history? But instead, of, say, a half season of Clara and the Doctor working together to travel time and unravel her true identity, we got a season that has almost completely lacked companion-specific qualities in any way. Since the Doctor hasn’t actually told Clara that he has an ulterior motive in taking her on as a companion, she hasn’t been able to participate in that aspect of the plot. When it does come up, it’s been furtively, at the end of an episode, or quickly, in a way that characters can’t stop to consider it, and reveal of it has even been part of a retconned timeline.
This is the show wanting to have its cake and eat it too. In the case of Amy and Rory, wanting to throw relationship turmoil in the paths of its characters to set up drama and suspense for the audience, but not wanting to spend the time to follow through on any of the emotional fallout, as if we can’t be expected to sit patiently while the show pretends its characters are actual people when there are space dinosaurs to get to. In the case of Clara, Doctor Who wants to create an impenetrable mystery at the center of its plot, but it also wants to not have to actually address that mystery in any way during the season, even though half the season features her as a companion. This has created a number of side effects, all of which are, well, bad writing.
For example, the show clearly wants the audience to become obsessed with Clara because she is a mystery, but has almost entirely failed so far to give us any other character traits to hold onto for her. So she’s a bit bossy (except for how, because it makes plots easier, she does everything the Doctor tells her), she’s got a dead mom and some near-dead traveling ambitions, and she likes kids. This leaves us hanging on her mystery as the most unique thing about her, and because the show refuses to address it, it means that she doesn’t actually have enough character traits to be singular among companions. For another example, this means that the Doctor has been unable or unallowed to tell Clara that he’s not actually been travelling with her because he likes her (though he does clearly like her), he’s been traveling with her because she represents a thing that he doesn’t know and must find out about because he’s become obsessed. This makes the Doctor look like a lot of things but among them, creepy, untrustworthy, and like a stalker and a jerk. Like he doesn’t believe Clara could handle basic facts about her own identity and the initial impetus for their relationship and it’s his job to protect her from them.
So, the result of delaying all of this until the last episode of the season? Clara’s far too generic than any companion or indeed any female character (who are so often genericized when appearing alongside male characters intended to be charismatic scene hogs) deserves, and the Doctor is made to look unfit for companionship. But most importantly, the central relationship of the show, between the Doctor and his current companion, can’t actually reach the honest emotional link that’s so necessary for an audience to care what happens to it, because it’s based on a grossly unequal sharing of information between the two parties.
See you next Monday. One of the Mondays, when we finally (hopefully) get some resolution on this.
PS: I was really looking forward to finding out what was so comical about Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle, but I suppose it was probably deleted for time.