I’m not sure I’m only one who feels this way, but Doctor Who‘s “The Girl Who Died” seemed kind of … underwhelming. Or so it seemed on the surface anyway.
Don’t misunderstand. Vikings are cool: certainly cooler than fezzes. And definitely cooler than sonic sunglasses that lasted about as long as the fezzes did. And certainly Maisie Williams, as the actress that plays Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, brought a lot of resolve, fierceness, and presence to this episode in her own right. However, in the trailer for this season that Moffat flashed in front of our eyes, there were things hinted on that just … didn’t pan out the way they might have done.
The episode starts off at the end of a missing scene with aliens and epic space resolutions that we don’t see only for The Doctor and Clara to end up in early medieval times on Earth: near a Viking settlement. Then, after The Doctor’s sunglasses get destroyed by a simple Viking sword, they are taken to the settlement as prisoners: only for an alien posing as Thor to send rust-bucket soldiers with guns to abduct the strongest warriors.
Because, after all, it’s totally not the first time an alien race as impersonated human gods: especially not Norse deities.
The obligatory StarGate SG-1 reference aside, we find out these giant rust-buckets and the Odin-impersonator are called the Mira: yet another warlike race that wants to do some conquering and drink heavily distilled … testosterone? And even though Clara, yet again, can’t listen to The Doctor’s orders and gets herself and Ashildr, Maisie Williams’ Viking girl character, abducted along with the other soldiers it seems to be Ashildr herself that sabotages Clara’s attempts to talk the Mira down from dealing with the Earth: or at least her village. I guess Clara now knows what it feels like, but it’s doubtful these life lessons will sink in any time soon. And even then there is something inspiring about the defiance in Ashildr’s face and tone when she challenges the Mira.
I mean: it wasn’t as though the Mira were going to be intimidated by words anyway.
In the end, the way they actually deal with the Mira is brilliant and cruel in its own way. What is the worst way you can punish a renowned warrior race? It’s simple: you humiliate the crap out of them through trickery and blackmailing them with evidence of their dishonour.
There are two elements of note, however, in “The Girl Who Died.” The first is that we discover just why The Doctor chose the face of Lobus Caecilius: the Roman whose family he saved from Pompeii in his tenth incarnation. It does take a while for the realization to set in, but then you begin to remember something. Do you recall when The Doctor told Clara in “The Name of The Doctor” that the name he chose was a promise he made? Well, as it turns out The Doctor also considers regenerated faces promises. And it was his promise, then, in Pompeii to save what lives he can: no matter how terrible the odds truly were.
But then we have the other element. So Ashildr dies due to her role in The Doctor’s plan to defeat the Mira. We already had evidence that there was something strange about her. It’s true that we were also introduced to the fact that The Doctor’s idea of deja vu often occurs in reverse: that he has the feeling of having met someone before he actually does. So there was some evidence of what was about to happen.
You see, the thing about advanced warrior races is that they often have excellent medical technology. You know: the kind that existed in “The Empty Child?” Well, as it turns out, the Mira left some of that behind and … It’s funny really. I was personally annoyed with the fact that Moffat seemed to make such a big deal about this character in this Season’s trailer: as being somehow central to much of what was going to happen. Certainly, it would have been nice of Ashildr had been another Time Lady: perhaps someone The Doctor knew. It’s that kind of teasing of his that has gotten old pretty fast, which says a lot when you apply it to a show about time travel.
And yet … in a way this episode is kind of an intersection in The Doctor’s life. It’s not just about the flashbacks to his time as Doctor Ten, though they definitely play a part in that. The Doctor stated, in “The Lazarus Project” that “a longer life isn’t always a better one. In the end you just get tired. Tired of the struggle. Tired of losing everyone that
matters to you. Tired of watching everything turn to dust.” Then there is also his own encounters with and his responsibility for Jack Harkness and knowing what the price of immortality ultimately is.
Perhaps it’s different now that The Doctor knows there are other Time Lords left. Even so, in a poignant scene with Ashildr, she tells him that leaving her village — where they accept her as being strange — would be like death. So what will that mean for Ashildr now when she herself may well be immortal? Still, there might be some recompense in this. The Doctor did leave her with another Mira medical device, for someone else: in case she ever gets lonely and can’t bear to lose that one other person.
So there is that. And again, we are introduced to another familiar word from “The Witch’s Familiar”: hybrid. What does that mean and how will this all play out in Doctor Who‘s “The Woman Who Lived” … and beyond?
You’d be forgiven to think that after the really good show with Doctor Who‘s “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar,” we would be subjected to something of far less quality. But “Under the Lake” proved to be something else entirely.
It doesn’t start with Clara and The Doctor in 1920s finery on a cosmic Orient Express, or even with The Doctor bungling his cover as a janitor with something that looks awfully and suspiciously like a proton pack. It does start with a team of scientists, not unlike “Into the Dalek.” But instead of automatically dealing with some people we have no sympathies or connections towards either way, we actually get introduced to the basic personalities of the team exploring a sunken city and an alien craft they found there in the not too distant future all things considered.
The episode starts off creepily enough: with a withered old Tivolian ghost and what seems to be the spirit of the group’s recently deceased leader.
They have no eyes and they seem to be repeating a phrase, silently, over and again. Sometimes they want to kill people with physical objects, and other times just talk to them. And, of course, they come out at night: or the artificial night of their own facility under the deep sea.
The Doctor and Clara do make it into this situation and it is here that you begin to notice something different. It starts off similar to most of their adventures: with Clara rather being somewhere else and questioning why they are there, but the Shut Up Clara element seems to be a bit more subdued this time around.
What’s even more refreshing is that the crew is already familiar with UNIT and know who The Doctor is: making his psychic paper pretty much redundant. At the same time, they take no sass from him: making it clear that while he finds the prospect of the afterlife fascinating, it did cost them their captain and comrade’s life. It shouldn’t be too surprising as well that even as The Doctor dismissively subverts the convention of the exploratory horror genre by already asking for the person in charge whom he should ignore, he also has Clara with cue cards to help him empathize with people and cover his own faux pas.
After all, The Doctor’s bedside manner is only exceeded by that of House.
You would think that a group of scientists would have learned to examine details that stand out, right? Of course, you would also think that The Doctor would learn from his own experience: especially when the TARDIS herself wants to be out of that entire situation.
The Doctor should remember never to ignore Sexy.
Even as The Doctor is utilizing the minds of the crew and his Companion around him to figure out what the ghosts are and how to deal with them and just why they are there, it is the ranking member of the facility’s team — Cass — that clarifies some matters.
Cass is second in command of the Drum facility. She is also one of those individuals that, while reasonable and is quite willing to take The Doctor’s lead, has no issue taking him to task or calling him on his behaviour if it gets in the way of the mission and the dynamic she has with her crew. Cass is also deaf: a fact which eventually allows her to actually make out with the silent ghosts are actually saying.
But that information is not enough. There is also a suspended animation capsule from the craft that they recover from the ruins of the town under the lake: which they can’t open. And even though they manage to trap the ghosts in a Faraday cage, the ghosts manage to flood the station. The Doctor goes back in time to see where the craft came from and why the ghosts are being used as transmitters to summon or communicate with … something.
One thing you might notice, from the last two episodes, is that Clara is almost uncharacteristically quiet. Aside from a very forced and stilted conversation about her mental well-being by The Doctor in the TARDIS, her introductory lines, and the cue cards she is mostly passive and just letting others do the talking. And while this is definitely another refreshing moment when you consider all of the “it’s all about Clara” moments the last seasons had, it is sad that she isn’t actually … doing anything. So far we’ve seen her get “acted upon” and now go along with anything she’s told. It’s kind of disappointing that, at this stage in the game, it looks like this is the place to which her character has finally been reduced.
Yet this might change. Usually, in this kind of episode, The Doctor solves the mystery in an hour’s time. But he hasn’t. What’s worse is that another ghost has appeared in the water. And so now half the crew that left with The Doctor on his TARDIS seems to be gone, leaving Clara with the rest of them … and the hollow eyes of what seems to be her dead friend.
But nothing is as it seems and perhaps there might be … something to that capsule they can’t open. But maybe we will get to see Clara step up, or the plot work out in a “Timey-wimey” sense next time, on Doctor Who, in “Before the Flood.”
Imagine an opening to a television program about time-travel for which you have been waiting. There have been hints as to what to expect but, given the nature of Doctor Who, it never starts the way you think it will. “The Prologue” actually wasn’t part of this episode, but its own minisode leading to “The Magician’s Apprentice.”
There is a plane up ahead that wouldn’t be out of place in World War I. There is also a man with a bow and arrow. You wonder if this is going to start on some other world or time: with Vikings on spaceships or something to that effect. Well, you got the first two parts right. It does take place in another space and time. Then you see a child. At first you think it might be Maisie Williams showing us her new role. But it isn’t Maisie Williams. It is a boy: a young, dirty, terrified boy.
It is at this point, if you’ve been following the rumours about the opening two-part story arc of Season Nine, that you know. You just know who it is.
This child is surrounded by what seems to be Handmines: most likely genetically engineered creatures created to drag people underground to their deaths. You’d be forgiven if you mistook them for your typical Weeping Angel fare. You know: the ones that like to hide under snow or dirt and grab you: stealing away the moments of your life. But no: these Handmines seem to just plain outright kill you.
It’s a good thing that The Doctor came to rescue this poor, scared child from these monsters that just dragged the archer soldier to his death, right? Only …
Think about your Whoniverse lore. Think about a world where archaic weaponry exists side by side with generations of different technology. Think about a world that has been at war for a thousand years. It’d be easy to make the mistake of not recognizing this world after so long and seeing how it — and its denizens — were portrayed in the Fourth Doctor’s run. I mean, they are all supposed to be heartless, evil, Spencerian fascists right? Certainly not ones that would take the time to save a child.
The Doctor asks the child what world this is, and the child doesn’t understand. As far as he knows, this is the only world in existence. The Kaled people, along with their enemies the Thals thought they were basically the centre of the universe before, millennia later, the First Doctor came and disabused their descendants of that notion.
But the code that unlocks the first level of this game is just one word. Just one name.
It’s hard to recognize him. He’s young. He still has his eyes, his arms, and his legs. There is no cunning or twistedness in him: just fear, and The Doctor’s imperative.
He must survive.
Of course, The Doctor realizes the implications of this and he stands there, in horror, trying to decide what he will do.
Now we go forward. Colony Sarff, a being made of multiple snakes, is searching for The Doctor on behalf of Davros. I mean, why wouldn’t he use Daleks or Dalek agents and this strange composite snake person instead might be beyond all of us, but there the dramatic effect to consider. As it turns out, Davros is dying. I mean, since the last time you saw Davros in “Journey’s End”:
But hey: when has death stopped Doctor Who villains in a mythological struggle with their nemesis anyway? But no. It seems legitimate. Davros has seen better days … ages and ages ago, but he does seem pretty physically ill. He knows the best way to find The Doctor is to get to his friends.
The Doctor has a funny notion of friendship. I mean, aside from Missy — who, blithely makes us aware of the obvious that she isn’t dead either (again, when do Doctor Who villains actually permanently die) — there’s also Clara and her priorities to consider. But one thing at a time.
All ships freeze above the Earth: threatening to fall on nuclear power plants. Is this Davros’ work? No. It’s too crude and almost insane. Actually it is insane and we all know who likes to be insane. UNIT contacts Clara because they can’t get to The Doctor. However, they do have a Doctor channel that he has forgotten about and … someone is contacting them through it.
Hmm … Someone has knowledge of UNIT having a Doctor channel. Who has dealt with UNIT before? Who knows the Gallifreyan calculations to access it? Who has been both an ally and captive of UNIT? Who is insane?
Honestly, here is the part in a Doctor Who episode when what I like to call the Shut Up Clara Mini-Game comes into play. I mean, here she is contacted by UNIT to find The Doctor but instead has to meet Missy. Usually, what I like to call the Shut Up Clara Mini-Game happens when Clara berates The Doctor for something petty, has a temper-tantrum, has no idea what’s going on, and generally makes the situation all about her. But strangely Clara is rather subdued in this scene with Missy: probably because Missy is threatening to kill people, is killing people, cost Danny Pink his life a second time, and she’s kind of flabbergasted as to why The Doctor would send that strange disk — that turns out to be his last will and testament — from “The Prologue” to Missy instead of her.
I’m not going to lie: having Missy compare Clara to a pet was pretty much the sickest burn rivaling the holocausts that she was threatening over the Earth. But together they figure out where The Doctor is: leading to a Vortex manipulator of Missy’s and the next scene.
And what an absolutely bad ass scene it is. The Doctor is in medieval times and facing a long-suffering warrior on an empty tank and with a guitar. No one in the battling arena of that time seems to actually care about that, as per a lack of a Temporal Prime Directive or a stereotypical “It’s a Demon!” response. And hey: it’s one of the few times we see Mr. Cantankerous actually having fun.
Of course the two women were being followed and Colony Sarff tracks them down. It’s funny. What do you think would truly disturb The Doctor? A threat from a monster made of snakes? Seeing Missy again? Knowing that Davros and the Daleks are probably coming for him?
No. What disturbs The Doctor is a sonic screwdriver: an ancient one handed to him by Colony Sarff.
It might have registered even before this what just happened between a young boy named Davros and a flabbergasted Twelfth Doctor. Of course, The Doctor wasn’t going to kill a poor defenseless child: even if one day he’d grow up to be an omnicidal psychopath. But he also knows that if he helped him survive the Handmines, he would go on to fulfill his future of horror and genocide. So what does The Doctor do?
He does what he does best. After initially telling Davros what amounts to the idea that he must survive at all costs, and then realizing who he is dealing with … The Doctor runs. The Doctor abandons a small, scared little boy — not unlike himself at that age if he had grown up in a Thousand Year War — to his own devices: with the screwdriver he threw to him to help communicate with him … before he knew he was talking to a boy who would become a monster.
“Hey Davros. Actually, there are worse things than death. See you later … or rather, I hope I won’t.”
Imagine what that does to someone who had already grown up in a multi-generational war. Imagine what seeing a soldier trying to reassure and rescue you being dragged down to his death would do to you. Imagine someone who promises to save you and then leaves you to die: telling you beforehand to survive at all costs.
Suddenly, all the books that dealt with Davros’ past are swept away: leaving us with his new dynamic with The Doctor. Davros made the Daleks and, as Davros likes to point out, The Doctor made his Companions. But now we see that The Doctor essentially made Davros as well.
Remember how the First Doctor was basically responsible for releasing the Daleks on the Universe by his insatiable curiosity: essentially causing them to come across the Time Lords and eventually start the Last Great Time War? Well now we really know that The Doctor screwed up. A lot.
The ending of “The Magician’s Apprentice” pulls even less punches than the beginning. It doesn’t fuck around. We do get one Shut Up Clara Mini-Game: where she berates him for lying to her about knowing Missy wasn’t dead — and considering her his best friend over her — but it’s kind of halfhearted and she does have something of a point, only offset by hoping to continue their conversation and therefore let The Doctor survive.
But Davros has no intention of killing The Doctor. No. It’s unclear why Davros forgot about having a sonic screwdriver or seeing a mysterious man disappear in front of him. Perhaps dying makes him remember things. If so, he should probably recall his whole existence as Davros has died. A lot. And he’s supposed to be a genius level scientist who created an entire advanced race and he can’t clone himself a new body?
Potential plot-holes aside, such as Missy having trouble dying and always having a crazy backup plan, let’s play that game I promised you at the beginning.
Imagine you are a child left to die thousands of years ago and grew up in war. You see how fallible everyone is who vows to protect you or help save you. You are crippled and twisted during this war. You begin to think that people would safer in tanks and without the illusions of weak emotions such as love or compassion. One day, you encounter your worst enemy and he defeats you time and again: until you remember he was the one that left you to die at the very beginning.
The replaying the time of when he was the Fourth Doctor on Skaro is delicious enough. So what do you do when you realize you are now, finally, dying?
You kidnap The Doctor’s friends. You get The Doctor to you. You make him watch as your Daleks kill the person who is jealous over you being his arch-nemesis, the Impossible Girl that he’ll now never be able to play Shut Up Clara with again and … worse … Your Daleks kill his oldest companion.
You destroy the TARDIS. You kill Sexy.
So, what do you do now? Do you kill The Doctor in his moment of despair? Do you kill him before you die? Oh no. No, see, that is too easy. Instead, you give him a choice. You offer to let him play a game. You are already dying. Your creations have already rendered you obsolete. You have taken everything from The Doctor now. You give him an offer.
You see, The Doctor always prides himself on his sense of compassion. You always saw that as his undoing. Now, you have made him see that. Or perhaps deep down you are punishing him for what you think is cowardice that day on Skaro. You offer him a way to change the fate of his friends. Your replayed conversation with him for all those years ago, from “Genesis of the Daleks” is no accident. You make sure he hears his words to Sarah Jane Smith from so long ago.
You already know he feels guilty for abandoning you to the Handmines and to time. What a better revenge than to make your old self-righteous nemesis betray and destroy his own ideals to kill a child in order to save those he loves. You’ve methodically taken away his best enemy, his Companion, and his TARDIS. He has already given up on his sonic screwdriver. Slowly and carefully, you are attempting to obliterate everything that The Doctor is: to prepare him for this last warped mission that is your revenge. The fact is, either way, you win. And either way, The Doctor loses.
You thought that your final victory was the destruction of reality itself. But, truthfully, it is the obliteration of your enemy’s own reality — his thoughts and beliefs — by his own hand that is a triumph greater than any monster you have ever created.
Like “Deep Breath” last season, “The Magician’s Apprentice” doesn’t pull any punches. We will just have to see if it can continue its own sense of momentum next time in “The Witch’s Familiar.”
I’m going to be honest: I’m glad that this is Clara Oswald’s last season on Doctor Who.
Last year, I went into a great amount of detail as to why I thought Clara Oswin Oswald Didn’t Have to be an Impossible Girl. Here we had a character who started off with a lot of spunk in “Asylum of the Daleks” as Oswin, and a clever governess between Victorian social strata in “The Snowmen.” We had the mystery of just how a human individual could appear in different time lines and planets as different incarnations of the same person.
The ingredients were all there in creating a fascinating Companion for The Doctor. Either Oswin or Victorian Clara might have made for some excellent long-term character interaction. Instead, what we got was a plot device: someone “born to save The Doctor” who later develops a tremendous sense of self-entitlement, and a propensity towards lying and outright hypocrisy.
Seriously, I was kind of hoping that after her betrayal in “Dark Water” The Doctor would remember he could snap his fingers, open the TARDIS, and leave Clara behind on the lava planet.
But what is worse in a lot of ways is that Moffat, and the writers he directed in his show-running capacity, seemed to do this in order to represent Clara as a reflection — and then a mirror darkly — of The Doctor even as they attempted to create for her a shambles of a personal life.
In all honesty, the character of Clara Oswald should have had her ending in “Last Christmas”: in that last denouement mirroring “The Time of The Doctor” where it is she, this time, who is old and dying and The Doctor is now young again and helping her with her party favour. Even in “Listen” and “Last Christmas,” some of Clara’s strongest episodes as a character she is still only seen as important in relation to The Doctor. But in “Last Christmas,” there was this sense of finality. We had seen Clara span space and time. But now her seeing old and tired, leaving a full life behind her in a situation that is a fixed point in time, would have been a bittersweet ending that might have made up for a lot.
Indeed, “Last Christmas” was supposed to be Clara’s last episode before Jenna Coleman decided to stay on for another season.
Instead, that touching scene was rendered into another Inception-level hallucination of the dream crabs and The Doctor and Clara go off to have another tortured series of adventures. You could almost feel Steven Moffat giving detractors of Clara the finger at that point: teasing that moment and then taking it away.
It’s not fair to say that Clara is the only example of bad writing from Season Eight. Certainly, The Doctor himself suffered from this malady, but it was always in relation to the forced relationship that Moffat made between him and Clara and, up until now, didn’t seem all that inclined to change.
It was not unlike reading an otherwise excellent story with a recurrent, discordant, and obnoxious grammar mistake that the author claims is there for creative or dramatic effect: something like a narrative Jar Jar Binks.
But now Jenna Coleman is leaving sometime during the Ninth Season of Doctor Who and this leaves us with so many questions. Could the end of Clara Oswald’s time on the TARDIS have something to do with Missy calling her “Clara, my Clara,” her maneuvering to unite her and The Doctor, and the name of the second episode of the two-part opening story “The Witch’s Familiar?” Certainly, it would explain a lot: if it’s not just another contrived red herring and if her fate in “The Magician’s Apprentice” is only temporary.
Nevertheless, Jenna Coleman is moving on to her new role as Queen Victoria in the new drama series Victoria and I wish her well: just as I wish for Clara Oswin Oswald — the excellent Companion that could have been — to finally rest in peace.
Karn. The planet of Karn is the home to the Sisterhood of Karn. More recently, it was the site of the minisode “Night of the Doctor,” where we got to see the transformation of the Eighth Doctor into the War Doctor and the beginning of his entry into the Last Great Time War. However, Karn and The Doctor have an older shared history: from his time combating the renegade Time Lord Morbius as the Fourth Doctor and the introduction of the Sacred Flame and the Elixir of Life.
What is also interesting to note is that the Sisterhood of Karn are biologically Gallifreyan. In fact, not only do they possess the Elixir of Life that can at least temporarily restore life, but they create potions and processes that aid in helping a Time Lord regenerate. According to the New Adventures novel Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible they are a remnant of the Pythia’s power: the original prophetic leader of an ancient matriarchal Gallifrey.
It could have been assumed, at least in how they were only portrayed in “Night of the Doctor” in the new Doctor Whos series, that Karn had perished with Gallifrey in the Time War but it also makes sense that they did not. The fact is, when The Doctor mentioned he had been the last of the Time Lords, he could have only been referring to Gallifrey and its ruling class. He never actually said he was the last of the Gallifreyans. Gallifreyans become Time Lords, but not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords and the Sisters of Karn are something else entirely: even if they are related in a biological sense.
Of course, this could be a moot point as due to the actions of The Doctor and all his past incarnations, Gallifrey was seemingly saved. Perhaps this could be applied to its erstwhile allies such as the Sisterhood of Karn as well. In any case, here in this Prologue we have an interesting situation.
Who is this person who has a history with The Doctor, and is attempting to use his servants to find him? Who is this “creature” that The Doctor owes nothing to? Well, it most likely isn’t Missy as Missy identifies with the female gender pronoun and the only minions she has are those she subverts or creates for twisted and zany purposes.
However, there might be another clue.
Who is The Doctor’s other arch-nemesis? Who has had, and still yet may retain, servants to seek him out? Who had a very long and storied association with him? Who could, at this point in his existence, be classified as “a creature?” And who is this person that he can identify with: someone who creates agents through circumstance almost as much as he has?
There had been leaks and rumours that Davros will be returning to Doctor Who. I mean, many believed that he had died before, so what is stopping him from coming back now. But there is more. One particular rumour states that The Doctor will be meeting Davros before his injuries, perhaps as a younger man … or a child. It always seems to return to that idea from “Genesis of The Daleks”: to that quandary of destroying an evil before it at least overtly becomes evil. And, as The Doctor proclaims in “The Prologue” sometimes “an enemy is a friend that you don’t know yet.”
I mean, if it is Davros he is pretty well beyond any form of redemption and some things are very much fixed points in time. Davros will create the Daleks. He will be one of The Doctor’s greatest and most ingenious enemies. But, then again, this might not be about Davros at all. This could be someone else entirely: someone we know or someone that we are about to meet.
As for the object The Doctor gave the Sister Ohila … who knows? Your guess is as good as mine. Doctor Who and its protagonist Mr. Cantankerous returns this September 19.
So we’ve been following the adventures of Mr. Cantankerous, my pet name for the Twelfth Doctor, for a little while now and I know that I’ve always wondered just how his wife, Professor River Song, would handle him. I mean, we know she tends to pop up at the most unlikeliest of times but it wasn’t certain as to whether or not she would return after her appearance as a holographic psychic ghost in “The Name of the Doctor.”
Well, it turns out that we might get those questions answered after all. Alex Kingston is returning to her familiar role for this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special. Of course, with the obligatory Who out of the way, we have to deal with the elements of What and How. What is going to happen in this episode. And how is River Song going to come back?
I mean, we know that hers and The Doctor’s time lines are generally parallel. He is seeing her from the supposed end of her biological life to the very beginning, and then all the Timey-Wimey, wibbly-wobbly in-between that would make The War Doctor weep about his midlives crises.
Almost any scenario could be possible at this point. She could appear as a psychic ghost in The Doctor’s head again, that much is true. They could run into each other in between encounters with monsters and other time lines, with her not knowing about his new incarnation as she’d still be with Eleven. But there is also the possibility that with being downloaded into the Library she has amassed all of its knowledge and simply waited and managed to create a new physical body for herself ala re-evolution.
I am just as curious to see what this Doctor Who Christmas Special will be about. I’d love to see her totally put Clara in her place with regards to The Doctor, or outright punch Missy in the face for messing with him. Maybe they will all have a tea party on the TARDIS together. And perhaps somewhere in there, River Song might help Mr. Cantankerous find Gallifrey or, at the very least, see how cantankerous he can remain around her?
I don’t know about all of you, but even at the end of summer I actually look forward to Christmas now.
If you are a comics geek and you haven’t been reading writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s and artist co-creator Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet, you should be.
My first impression of Bitch Planet, from what I saw of Issue #1 was that it would be a comic not unlike something Pat Mills would make: something gritty with major punk themes that, in particular, would parody an established comics trope or convention. Even more so, I was expecting a highly political grindhouse death battle situation where the characters would screaming “Fuck the Man!” in literal cage grudge matches when not engaging in gang wars or creating anarchist havens for one another.
Of course what I found was something that — while it plays with those themes — is entirely different. I suppose anyone who is part of the Carol Corps would have been able to tell me that. This was before I’d actually started reading Kelly Sue’s Captain Marvel run and while I saw the great potential in the mythos of Pretty Deadly I had a feeling that Bitch Planet would have a very different story.
I’ve read that Bitch Planet essentially exploits the exploitation genre: specifically with regards to fictional stories about women in prison. So picture the following scenario. Imagine you are in the future. Space travel, surveillance, and holographic technology exists. There is at least one civilization, or national government, that seems to be able to colonize other planets. Everyone is in smart suits and dresses and they get their creature comforts. But crime still exists and there still means, read: prisons, to deal with it. There is one prison planet in particular referred to as the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost.
It is this world that deals with particularly extreme female criminals. Their crimes are numerous: theft, assault and battery, murder, infidelity, abortion, gender treason, hysteria, and a slew of other crimes that — when you get right down to it — are all acts of non-compliance.
I think you can see where this is going. Still, I’m now going to go into some spoiler territory so if you want to read this ongoing comics series and you don’t want to be surprised, or should I say too surprised, you might want to stop here.
The fact is, non-compliance is a very real theme in Bitch Planet: not just within the society of the New Protectorate and its Council of Fathers, but also in how Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro play with the comics series’ women in prison exploitation genre itself.
Issue #1 starts off at a place with a woman attempting to get through a crowd to her job constantly apologizing. This in itself might not mean anything on the surface until you see the transition to where the story is going. It’s pretty clear that the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, or Bitch Planet as many call it, is a metaphor for that entire society. There are little signs of this in how all of the female characters behave. Even in Issue #3, which is a character origin story, a woman at a bakery goes as far as to tell a particularly obnoxious man that she isn’t rolling her eyes at him. Women’s behaviour is observed and policed in this futuristic setting for a variety of reasons: sometimes to the point of incarceration and “re-education.”
Kelly Sue herself is already tapping into that place of patriarchy where women’s behaviour is expected to be conciliatory and passive with regards to men in society. At the very least, she is bringing to light, through her narrative, these traits that women are still expected on some level to embrace to get along in “polite society.” But the creative team go further with this. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro depict the guards of Bitch Planet wearing visors not unlike mirrors. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own utilizes the metaphor of the mirror: of patriarchy needing women to be an inferior or more coveted reflections of men in order to make them more powerful or heroic.
And in Issue # 3 of Bitch Planet it’s shown that the New Protectorate is attempting to see into the minds of women with something called a cerebral action-potential integration and extrapolation machine. It’s purpose is, apparently, to reveal to a committee of men exactly what a woman’s “ideal self” truly is in order to “help her” reach it. Conveniently the device utilizes a mirror.
And Bitch Planet also uses painfully neon holograms to parody the New Protectorate’s “ideal form” of women: to use them to train, indoctrinate, and punish the prisoners at will: a twisted derivative of advertising turned propaganda to a socially — and now physically — captive female audience.
The mirror visors, the mind device, and the holograms are created to symbolize one very important fact: that women in Bitch Planet should prioritize how others see them over how they see themselves.
And, of course, this is always done for “women’s own good.” The New Protectorate seems to have a very paternalistic view of how to deal with women, and this chauvinistic attitude peters down from the Council of Fathers, to the almost exclusively male-committees making decisions about women’s bodies and minds, and to the common man and woman. Even men, if they are not in certain standing within the hierarchy are, at best, useful tools and at worst underlings to be reminded of their place. And either way, they are just another form of commodity that can be disposed of at will.
The fact that Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro are able to convey the humanity of both oppressors and victims only makes this dynamic even more disturbing.
It is also clear that, unlike H.Y.D.R.A. in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. it isn’t so much that “compliance will be rewarded.” On the contrary: compliance is expected. And non-compliance will always be punished. And even then, like any good patriarchal model, there is the other side of the same coin: violence. It’s safe to say that beatings are commonplace on Bitch Planet and abuse of power as well. The two male supervisors of Bitch Planet seem to view their prisoners as little more than trite entertainment for their arbitrary attentions, and seem detached from sending guards in to break up riots in any way possible: whether the prisoners are violent or not.
So whether women in Bitch Planet are compliant or not, it almost doesn’t really seem to matter. Their lives are dependent on the whims of men in power and those to whom they give power. Women’s privacy, personal space and sexuality are something to be bartered and compromised. This can be see from Issue #2’s emphasis on a man slapping two waitresses on the buttocks all the way to Issue #4, where there are more unpleasant metaphors abound when the reader finds out there is a hole in the shower areas where two women can be intimate with each other provided that they do so in front of the guard viewing them behind the wall: another metaphor for the male gaze.
There are also some very loaded racial descriptions, body-shaming, and gender terminologies bandied about by those in power: terms that women are expected to accept as commonplace. Bitch Planet shows the reader a patriarchal setting that thrives from “keeping up appearances” and encouraging others to do so: from the guards who hide behind the power of their masked anonymity when doling out violence and violation — perhaps a metaphorical jibe at Internet trolling of women by Kelly Sue and creative company — all the way to using the veneer of events such as funerals, blood sports, and camera smiling to maintain the status quo. And it goes without saying that if this system somehow “makes a mistake,” it will not hesitate to use any means to “correct it” and save face: even if they officially decry state-sponsored murder.
This is the structure of compliance and it is all the more terrifying when you consider that it is only a few steps away from a lot of the attitudes of people in power in our time. Indeed, according to an interaction between the apparent series’ protagonist and one of her jailers, this New Protectorate seems to have developed not too long ago in that world’s future. In fact, the creators could leave this world on its own: as a cautionary tale as to what kind of dystopia might happen if we take our freedoms for granted and let them get legislated out of the way for expediency’s sake or out of fear born from a particular trauma.
But, if there is one thing I’ve learned, Kelly Sue DeConnick does not like to leave these things the way they stand.
The creative team begins with the protagonist. At first, the reader doesn’t know who the main character is going to be or even if there is going to be one. Then the narrative starts to focus on an older white woman named Marian Collins who has apparently been wrongfully imprisoned on Bitch Planet. Kamau Kogo, a Black athletic fighter who, at the moment, seems to be the actual story’s protagonist after starting off as a peripheral or secondary character.
What is even more interesting is that, four issues in, we still don’t know much about Kam or why she is on Bitch Planet. There are clues. In Issue#1 the head prison supervisors actually discuss some of the prisoners and mention the inclusion of one volunteer. Whether or not this person is in the prison program as an inmate or a guard is another story entirely: especially, as by Issue #4, the reader finds out about the existence of an unnamed — an anonymous — prisoner. But what is known is that the protagonist is looking for someone, or something. Only time will tell if these elements will interlap and, at the moment, Kelly Sue is keeping her cards to herself.
What we do know is that while Kam comes from one of the most exploited groups in all of history — being a Black female — she is also physically strong, athletic, well-trained and apparently had a career before the establishment of the New Protectorate. And she is extremely smart. For instance, she takes that hole in the shower walls, with its unfortunate dual metaphor of female exploitation and the male gaze, and she smashes through it: making it into a spot on the wall of possibility of which Virginia Woolf may have been proud. The guard behind that hole is brought painfully into the situation. His anonymity and the power behind it is taken from him as she knocks off his helmet: leaving him vulnerable to her as she plans to exploit the system that is exploiting her and her fellow inmates. Essentially, she takes the obligatory shower scene, uses it and destroys it to further her own plans.
In Issue #2 of Bitch Planet, Kam is approached by a special operative with a proposition to create an all-female prisoner sports team to fund the Bureau of the New Protectorate. The sport is called Megaton, or Duemila: a form of Calcio fiorentino: an activity reminiscent of football with the ability to throw punches and kicks. It is a bloodthirsty sport and while there may be “no crying in baseball,” I suspect there might be some dying in Megaton. At the same time, however, the game will give the prisoners a chance to fight an all-male guard team on their own unconventional terms. It will be a publicly viewed game and everyone in the Protectorate and the world will be watching. It is an opportunity to challenge the game: to subvert their own exploitation.
And while I’ve also read that Bitch Planet is considered to be Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale meeting Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds: I would add that it also has some Orange is the New Black, some Battle Royale and a little bit of A League of Their Own for good measure.
So here we have both Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro playing with stereotypes of femininity, or perceptions of it in much the same way that her characters will be exploiting the hell out of their own system. This may be a dystopia, but there is some resistance: even in the very design of the comic itself. I’ve already mentioned that Valentine De Landro’s art in Bitch Planet has a very gritty punk aesthetic. In fact, I can go further and state that it’s reminiscent of the style of drawing found in many comics from the eighties and nineties: complete with stark colours and eerie neons. But it is the series’ usage of the back matter of each issue — each one designed by Laurenn McCubbin — that is truly something to behold. Each one utilizes the aesthetic of an old, pulpy classified page: in which subliminal patriarchal ads are subverted by feminist messages and parody for the discerning reader.
In fact, one of my few regrets about Bitch Planet being collected into trades is that the back matters, the essays from inspired feminist contributors, and the comments sections won’t be included. At the same time, it makes me very thankful that I’ve started to read Bitch Planet in their separate comics issues. For the first time in ages, I can almost understand what it felt like to be a reader collecting an issue of Sandman, V For Vendetta, or Watchmen each month: while eagerly waiting for the next story to come out and somehow feeling involved in some of the process as a reader. Really, I feel like I am somehow a part of watching a masterpiece continue to grow into fruition. To those who say that no one has created an epic stories equally those of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, or Grant Morrison I would just love to direct their attention to what Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro are doing right now.
So, to end this off, let me just say this. If you like murder mysteries, prison dramas, dystopias, political intrigue, grindhouse violence, human characters, and a feminist story that shows clearly what it is critiquing through clever storytelling and human characters — if you yourself are non-compliant — then come acquaint yourselves with Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet.