After Season 10 of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat is leaving the program as showrunner.
Many fans have been waiting for this news for quite some time. According to Radio Times, his successor will be Chris Chibnall: the original head writer and co-producer of the dark and diverse Doctor Who spin-off and science-fiction program Torchwood and the crime drama Broadchurch. From this alone, particularly his work on Torchwood, Chibnall seems to have promise but let’s let the other fact sink in for a little while longer.
Steven Moffat is leaving Doctor Who.
A lot of things have been said about Steven Moffat over the years. Some people believe he made Doctor Who a world-wide phenomenon. Others believe he has nearly destroyed the franchise. Some say he is an excellent writer, others believe that he has been a terrible showrunner, and still more look at him and think he is yet another casualty of “fan-fickleness.”
I know I have had my own opinion about his writing and showrunning: particularly with regards to The Doctor’s late and latest Companion Clara Oswald. But let me try, from albeit a biased fan perspective, to explain why so many fans have issues with Steven Moffat’s sense of direction.
When Russell T. Davies took up the mantle of showrunner and head writer for Doctor Who, he focused on the diverse elements inherent in the show. He looked at the future, at all the different kinds of futures, and wrote into it sexuality and gender and wonder that could never have really been explored on television in the eighties or nineties. But more than that, he took the old elements of the show — the aspects that made it Doctor Who — and built on them to tell new stories: new character-driven stories. Davies was in turns darkly Byronic and wonderful, managing to intermix the sublimely ridiculous, and the dead serious into something captivating and relatable to viewers. It was this tight, clock-work narrative of golden gears in darkness with baubles of pure delight.
Of course, Davies wasn’t without his flaws. Sometimes he did get overwrought and overly complicated. Certainly, the emotional and character cop-out that was the end of “Journey’s End” comes to mind: perhaps illustrating that it was time for Davies to move on.
Steven Moffat was Davies’ successor. He started off in Doctor Who, like Chibnall, as a writer. And he is a good one. Certainly he is an excellent monster-maker when you look at the empty children in “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” along with the Weeping Angels introduced in the masterfully told episode “Blink.” He has also introduced the dynamic and omnisexual characters of Captain Jack Harkness and Professor River Song into the Whoniverse. And this doesn’t even include the addition of Madame Vastra, the Silurian lady detective in the nineteenth century, her wife and maid Jenny, and … Strax. Yes: Mr. Potato-Head Homicidal Sontarian himself.
So Moffat could tell some good stories. Certainly, his reintroduction of a certain Missy, the episode of “Listen” and most of his previous Season Nine can attest to that. Unfortunately, by the time Davies left Doctor Who, Moffat’s role of showrunner became another matter entirely.
By this point, the tightly gear-oriented narrative structure of Davies is punctured, literally, with tears in time. Inconsistencies between stories and continuity get explained away by it all being the result of time-travel instead of sloppy story-telling. Character arcs and story ideas that could have been excellent in one or a few episodes, Moffat’s excellent self-contained mini-arcs for which he is so known, become dragged out and thin. Even the transitions between episodes — Doctor Who “Day of The Doctor,” I’m looking at you — are widened and viewers find themselves having previous events explained to them, instead of shown. It is the old “show, don’t tell” sin played all across space and time.
And this isn’t even including the “Mary Suing” that becomes more prevalent: especially in the form of Clara Oswald who is alternatively an extension of The Doctor’s character or an inconsistently-portrayed excuse of a human being instead of her own unique self. There is definitely a marked change from how Davies handled diversity and character development in the overall program to how Moffat dealt with these elements.
In the end, the best way to explain what happened to Steven Moffat is to make a bad geek analogy. Think about the original Star Wars trilogy: when George Lucas’ ideas and outlines were fleshed out and tempered by Lawrence Kasdan’s writing, Marcia Griffin’s film and cinematic work, and Gary Kurtz’s assistance. Now think about the Prequel Trilogy: where George Lucas’ former collaborators were all gone and there was no one else to reign in his ideas. Perhaps the most charitable thing to say is that Steven Moffat acts like the George Lucas of Doctor Who.
Take from that what you will.
My own conclusions are pretty clear. I liked Steven Moffat as a writer, for the most part, but as a showrunner he, at best, had a hit or miss direction in Doctor Who: becoming more of the latter with regards to using a character who had might as well be his own particular Jar Jar Binks. All that said, it is good to see that there will be a new showrunner and I hope that Chris Chibnall will be up to the task of playing in the sandbox that is bigger on the inside.
Be prepared to have to wait in order to see Doctor Who again. We will get one Christmas episode this year, and then Season 10 in 2017: Steven Moffat’s last.
I’m just going to say it right now: after watching “Hell Bent,” I really didn’t know what to expect from Doctor Who‘s Christmas Special “The Husbands of River Song.” This is especially true as it was Steven Moffat that wrote the episode.
I mean, it could have been an entire episode where River doesn’t even know who The Doctor is and after a fanciful waltz of not knowing who he is, dealing with science-fictional talking decapitated heads he doesn’t say anything and she never knows: and somehow we’d be expected to get something some moral lesson from the entire thing as The Doctor sails, alone, throughout the cosmos until the next Companion comes along. I strongly suspect that I’m not the only one who was thinking that it could have very easily gone in this direction: a timey-wimey circuit winding nowhere.
But then something happened. It’s very easy to do, when you think about it. Doctor Who is often seen to be the journey of one Time Lord and his Companions, but we often forget that there is another party. That’s right. Sexy the TARDIS takes The Doctor to wherever he needs to be. This is an established fact from Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife.”
So here is how I choose to see what happened in “The Husbands of River Song.” Sexy pretty much figured Clara to be a phase in The Doctor’s life. You know: the date that your parent knows isn’t necessarily good for you, and will probably not be around forever but decides after a while to not interfere and just let the phase run its course. So here Sexy is by the end of “Hell Bent,” getting rid of all that graffiti from her surface, and deciding that The Doctor should have a new screwdriver and give those glasses something of a rest.
Then, eventually, she probably gets tired of his moping and takes him into the future on another world where, coincidentally, his parallel-travelling wife also finds herself in the midst of another scheme. She’s even playful about it: putting antlers on The Doctor’s head when someone approaches them to ask for a doctor.
And The Doctor, predictably, starts off as his usual grumpy old man self: perhaps even more so than usual as he knows his memory has been tampered with. But then he is reintroduced to River Song in the middle of another madcap scheme of hers, and she doesn’t even know who he is.
And then he meets her husbands: well, at least two of them in name. One is a tyrant who is a head on a robot body more malevolent than he is, who has a diamond stuck in his head that River is ultimately married to, and the other is a poor man who gets interrogated by the tyrant’s robot body and made into a talking head as well. At first, The Doctor is jealous: madly, quietly, seethingly jealous.
But then he takes that jealousy and decides to revert to his best feature from the beginning of his incarnations: being a troll. He goes along with River’s schemes, hams up a reaction to being in a ship that is “bigger on the inside” and generally asks snide questions and makes clever insights about River’s state of being. Finally, here, the tables have turned. When he first met River, he had no idea who she was and she had all the spoilers. Now, The Doctor is the one who has the keys to her Star Wars Episode VII so to speak, and begins to make the best of a bad situation: essentially having the time of his life.
It could continued something along these lines for a while: or even had their reunion trollishly teased and then subverted. Instead, they carried the tyrant’s head in a bag (The Doctor hilariously calling him a talking bag and in a rare of genuine mirth laughing hysterically at the situation) and they go to a luxury liner ship that is exclusively the domain of rich and powerful dictators and mass murderers to sell the diamond in the tyrant’s head.
As an aside, I would posit that The Doctor, having exterminated the Daleks and other evil races over and again, should have had a royal suite reserved exclusively for him on that ship. But anyway.
It turns out the buyers of the gem are all worshipers of the tyrant and it is when that revelation and all the mummery before it comes to a head, along with a poetic rendition of River Song’s love for The Doctor, that she finally realizes that her companion is her husband. Then they bicker like a married couple, outsmart all the baddies, complete with a line from River stating that she is an archaeologist from the future who has already seen their dead bodies four hundred years later, and they escape.
But it doesn’t end there. You see, The Doctor takes the diamond and finances the creation of a fine restaurant and hotel near the Singing Towers of a planet that he always promised to take River to, except he knew this would be their last night together ala “Silence in the Library.”
Finally, he brings her to this place that he made long ago. And, for the first time ever, we actually see this Doctor do something that he had never done before. We’d seen the Twelfth Doctor laugh, rage, scream, detached, bitter, and sarcastic. But we had never seen him cry. It’s at this point that we see him say something to his wife. This is the woman to whom he told his true name, and the one person who knows all of his regenerations: including the one that he never talked about to anyone else from The Time War.
He says something to her that challenges if not outright blows all of the best one-liners of Casablanca right out of the water. And we find out on this planet, with their last night together, that nights on this planet last … twenty-four years. Suffice to say, as the episode ends, it is no coincidence that The Doctor has also brought her a sonic screwdriver.
It seems as though The Doctor’s other wife, Sexy, knows what’s best.
“The Husbands of River Song” almost make up for the events of “Hell Bent.” Almost. As I’ve stated before, I hope that River Song manages to find a way to re-evolve herself from the Library database and incarnate once again: so that we can definitely see her continue to interact with The Doctor. Or at the very least we know that she underwent life-extension treatments to add two hundred years to her own lifespan in lieu of the regenerations she seems to have lost. Anything could happen with those addition two centuries: if not more.
It was a good episode to end off the year with and one that was completely and utterly deserved by The Doctor and Doctor Who fans alike.
In the words of the Dalek trapped by the Cloister Wraiths near the Matrix, “Exterminate … me …”
This week, on “Hell Bent” the season finale of Doctor Who, we see The Doctor return to Gallifrey — the world he thought he destroyed but ultimately saved — with the fire of wrathful self-righteousness. It is in the deserts of the outside of Arcadia that the common Gallifreyans, the people who were not fortunate enough to become Time Lords, celebrate the hero of Gallifrey’s salvation. As The Doctor comes home, the Chancellery Guard — still militarized with Time Lord-destroying stasers — surround him: demanding that he go meet the Lord President and High Council and reveal what he knows about the Hybrid.
After telling the multitude of Gallifreyan denizens to stand down with a wave of his hand, he leaves with the Guard: without any weapons, unnerving them all with his presence and the stories of what he has done. They respect him. They are afraid of him. It is there, at the Council that both the Councilors and the Sisters of Karn stand in attendance. The Doctor puts on his glasses as Rassilon, still Lord President of Gallifrey, comes into the chambers and both congratulates and threatens The Doctor. The Doctor asks why the High Council has not been disbanded, and Rassilon executed for attempting to destroy all of reality and betray their sacred oaths to watch over all of space and time. Rassilon makes a whole lot of self-serving remarks about how he is Time Lord society’s founder, creator, and liberator. He blames The Doctor for trapping them all in a pocket dimensional purgatory in which they cannot get out and for using The Moment to summon the Hybrid: to kill them all.
It is then that out of the shadows that Rassilon reveals the person who managed to get him here: by “revising” his confession dial. It’s Missy. In exchange for the repair of her destabilized body and another batch of regenerations, she lured The Doctor here through the manipulation of Lady Me: for the Council to interrogate him about The Hybrid. This and Missy’s “methods of persuasion” are why there are sections missing from Me’s books of memories. Of course, The Doctor is not fooled. He knows why Missy really brought him here. It turns out The Doctor had used his glasses to broadcast this whole interrogation to all of Gallifrey. The Chancellery Guard comes in. Rassilon orders them to kill The Doctor. But they ignore him. The General comes in after them.
Then the Guard surrounds Rassilon and point their stasers at him. The Doctor reveals that during this entire time, he also erased all of Rassilon from the Matrix and the Dark Matrix. He mentions that something that is dead and obsolete should remain dead and obsolete: that he cost him the life of his best friend. Rassilon tries to use his gauntlet, but The Doctor reveals that he has negated that too with his glasses. Rassilon commands the Guard to stand down, but eventually realizes they won’t. He pleadingly reminds them of who he is. The Doctor turns away as the General condemns Rassilon to death.
The Doctor exiles the rest of the High Council. Missy and The Doctor reluctantly work together in order to get Gallifrey out of its pocket dimension. This leads to The Doctor calling his graffiti-decorated TARDIS back using Gallifrey’s command functions. But they have some work to do first. They have to travel back in time just to help the other Doctor incarnations save Gallifrey during The Time War. And right after, he works with Missy and the other Time Lords on Gallifrey – many of whom he knows and trusts from his many incarnations – to bring the planet out again.
The Doctor, as Lord President, commands that Clara Oswald be brought back for her part in helping them save Gallifrey during “The Day of The Doctor.”
And it is then that The Doctor realizes the truth about The Hybrid. There are flashbacks to every interaction he had with all iterations of Clara: and how they met. They are at the Chamber: where someone can get called back from their time for just a few minutes. He realizes that Clara had been in his time stream. She had been introduced to him by Missy. Missy has done something to her. Even as he calls her back to save her, as Clara almost manifests again – changing this fixed point in time – she begins to destabilize time at the centre of Gallifrey. They just have a few moments. Clara tells The Doctor to let her go and something else we don’t hear.
The Doctor heartrendingly returns Clara to her death and turns on Missy who, in the confusion of the time displacement energy Clara was making as The Hybrid, has escaped. The Doctor’s glasses have broken. He leaves Gallifrey: utterly disheartened. But he sees the blackboard on his ship with Clara’s words: “Be a Doctor,” and a sonic screwdriver on the control panel of the TARDIS. The TARDIS then wheezes away out of reality to parts yet unknown.
This was an excellent season finale of Doctor Who …. that never happened.
What actually happens in “Hell Bent” is The Doctor came back to Gallifrey. Then we have a segue where he meets someone who looks like Clara at a diner. We think that she is just one of Clara’s echoes in Arizona. The Doctor goes back to the shack where he was raised. And it’s interesting because, as Lady Me says later on, why would a Time Lord from the high society of Gallifrey spend so much time around humans on Earth? Certainly, from “Listen,” we have to wonder just where The Doctor came from, and his origins as part of the family that is the House of Lungbarrow in the books was ultimately a pleasant and noble lie.
But the rest of it is true. The people, including the woman who raised him, meet him and celebrate. And then the Time Lords simultaneously praise and threaten him: particularly Rassilon who is still Lord President for some reason. There is some epic and foreboding music and you think: Oh, this is on now. But then they do turn on Rassilon, but instead of executing him for his crimes, The Doctor tells him to “Get off his planet.”
Rassilon whines so pathetically that you almost feel sorry for him. Almost. Then The Doctor goes to Arcadia and banishes the High Council as well. From this point on, and before, we are given the mystery of the Cloister Wraiths — that are very reminscient of Rassilon’s Time Lord Interstitials from the novel Engines of War — that guard the Matrix and why they are now active. Leave it to Moffat to create yet another monster of the week.
And then … and then … as Lord President of Gallifrey The Doctor calls back an … old friend: from moments before her death.
Yep. You guessed it.
Then he runs off with her, and the secret in the Matrix of this episode — a fascinating place of ghosts guarded by more ghosts utilizing Wraiths and enslaved Daleks, Cybermen, and giving Weeping Angels something to really weep about — being that there is an old TARDIS hidden in the tunnel under there. Granted, there is a touching scene where Clara actually asks The Doctor and the other Time Lords there what they actually did to him in the confession dial whereupon she tells them that the reason they suck is that they are “hated.”
Pot, kettle, black, but I digress.
They run off to the end of the universe where The Doctor meets Lady Me and we discover that The Hybrid is neither of them, but actually two people of similar temperament and hobbies: namely, Clara and The Doctor because The Doctor is willing to risk fracturing all of space and time to keep her alive.
But apparently The Doctor’s plan is to erase all of Clara’s memories of him specifically so that the Time Lords or reality can’t harm her: so that she can’t be tracked. Basically it’s Donna Noble all over again. So Clara doesn’t like this and they both decide to flip the memory-erasing device to see whose memories of whom will be erased instead.
And guess what happens? No seriously: guess. The Doctor’s memories of Clara are erased and Clara and Lady Me have a new TARDIS that looks like an Arizona diner. Clara has no pulse because she is still dead even though they travelled to the end of time itself so she has to stay on … her TARDIS in order to survive. I mean: at least Bill in Kill Bill had the decency to walk five steps afterwards, no?
So The Doctor isn’t talking to an echo of Clara, or a mind-wiped Clara at the diner that is a TARDIS, but rather Clara herself as he can’t even perceive her anymore. Then she and Lady Me leave: dematerializing around him and having not question it at all. And surprise: Clara brought back The Doctor’s TARDIS, with the blackboard’s inspirational message and a new sonic screwdriver that just happens to pop out and be waiting for him.
The blue box TARDIS and the diner TARDIS happen to pass each other in the night of the universe as they travel and … exeunt!
That’s “Hell Bent,” gentle-beings. No Missy. No Time War timey-wimey. No getting Gallifrey out of the pocket dimension because they already did it. Nothing more.
Honestly, I don’t really know what else to say here. It makes me wish that someone would go find Rassilon in his exile where he is totally not going to be plotting revenge against The Doctor, and beg him to destroy reality. To all the people out there that were hoping to see something spectacular about Gallifrey returning, well congratulations. You remember the Clara Oswald show that mercifully got cancelled? Well, we got a whole new bonus episode of that program instead.
At this point, Clara Oswald is a character that goes beyond being a Mary Sue. She is actually, more aptly, Steven Moffat’s Untempered Schism Sue or – more accurately – a Black Hole Sue. Google it: or better, yet, you can find what a Black Hole Sue is on TV Tropes: namely a character that the author likes so much and ascribes so much importance to even if there is no evidence of this importance aside from being told they are important to the point of warping all characters and plot around them.
“Hell Bent” was a terrible episode. If “Last Christmas” was one middle-finger to many Whovians, then this was easily two middle-fingers: especially when you consider that this was the finale of an otherwise better season. And if I had to rate this episode, that is precisely what I would give it.
“Hell Bent” can get bent with two middle fingers up.
At the very least, right now, The Doctor will no longer have to remember the Clara Oswald Show. If only the rest of us were so fortunate.
Back during “The Zygon Inversion,” I thought I finally saw Peter Capaldi’s Doctor shine through. It was also around that point, when he truly became poignant, that I worried about the character’s upcoming fate. After all, almost every time The Doctor has a particularly striking moment, it heralds the beginning of his next regeneration.
Well, perhaps I was wrong. Maybe it was an omen for something else entirely. Certainly, Clara as a Doctor substitute would suffice here: she died attempting to imitate him. But we see in “Heaven Sent” that there are many other ways you can die which do not necessitate regeneration.
Perhaps you were expecting the righteous wrath of a furious Doctor being unleashed on an opponent after “Facing the Raven.” Instead, after The Doctor appears in a teleport tube with his Time Lord threats quite clear in the air is a particularly vicious and cerebral form of torture: tailor-made specifically for this current incarnation. There is a lot that is excellent about “Heaven Sent.”
For instance, we get to see — intimately and in detail — precisely just how The Doctor’s mind actually works. It’s no mean feat. Steven Moffat truly brings out an advanced and alien mindset that is still affected by intense emotion. His mind is specifically assembled, probably through mnemonic training, like his TARDIS and he retreats and interacts with this fortress — his safe place and home — in his psyche even as he deals with death-dealing situations with a sharp and analytical mind.
But this episode is brutal. It didn’t take me long to realize who the person who activated the teleporter at the beginning truly was. There also was too much time to figure out whom each of those skulls in the bottom of the sea in the abandoned castle and its turning gears also belonged. In early stories pertaining to The Doctor, he dealt with the Eternals of Time and Death: which makes the shuffling monster surrounded by flies coming after him a bad pun and something eerie altogether. Even the music sometimes veers into strange eighties synthesized tones.
Moffat could have seriously ended “Heaven Sent” on a major down note. He was quite capable of having The Doctor get out of this in the upcoming “Hell Bent.” But that would be nonsense. Instead, through watching The Doctor fall over and again, you have a reminder of precisely how strong-willed and relentless he truly is. The way his prison works is that he would get a moment’s respite for every fear-based truth he told. But it was a losing proposition.
Think about it. If The Doctor told all of his truths, he would still die over and again. He would continually go insane. And his enemies, whomever they are, would know everything about him. If he just continued moving throughout the castle, he would still die and come back to life each time. A lesser mind would break either way.
But then The Doctor realizes something. He notices, each time after he brings himself back through the teleporter, that the stars are not in the right alignment as his innate Time Lords senses tell him. He also keeps punching a crystal in front of him: whittling it away through each incarnation, dying again, and crawling back to resurrect himself. The gears in the castle turn. It’s as though the entire prison is a puzzle calibrating precisely at certain temporal and spatial coordinates.
By the time The Doctor smashes through the crystal and finds himself in a desert, he doesn’t seem at all surprised by the revelation. First, we find that his prison was actually his confession dial. Second, he is back on Gallifrey.
The third truth is for us though. You know that Hybrid we’ve been hearing about from Davros onward this season? Well, apparently, it’s The Doctor. And from the way he looks at the end of the episode, there is going to be a reckoning.
For all the brilliance of this Doctor Who episode made by Sisyphus, there are still some issues. If The Doctor drowned in several incarnations — becoming those stacks of skulls underwater — how did he get to the teleporter to bring himself back those times? And, I’m sorry, but even in death Clara seems to be tagged on by the writer: a continuation of how important she actually is, while you just don’t really … feel it. Even her dialogue from the subconscious of The Doctor is contrived and outright callous. The episode keeps telling us we should care about Clara but it’s hard to when you already weren’t doing so. It just makes you aware that even though she’s gone, the badly written Clara Oswald is unfortunately going to linger on for a while.
All that said, however, here are some questions to consider. Who last held The Doctor’s confession dial? And is The Doctor lying for the benefit of whom might have done this to his dial? Are long time fan theories and certain lines from the 1996 Doctor Who movie about The Doctor’s origins true? Just how did Missy get out of Gallifrey exactly? Why did The Doctor leave Gallifrey to begin with? Who else did he leave with? And when he says “The Hybrid is me,” does he mean “Lady Me?” The same Lady who had a vast portion of pages torn out of one of her journals?
Perhaps we will find out next time on Doctor Who: “Hell Bent.”
Let’s say we are still playing a game called Doctor Who. It’s to be expected that in a game between The Doctor, Missy, and Davros that the rules will change constantly, but imagine that both “The Magician’s Apprentice” and the more recent “Witch’s Familiar” share a one-word thesis statement.
What is that word?
Before we answer that, and realize why that is the correct answer, let’s look at what we might have gotten wrong. The conceit of “The Magician’s Apprentice” was that Davros was still in a nihilistic mood from “Journey’s End.” He already knew he was dying, there seemed to be nothing he could do about it, and it looked like it was going to be a case of “If I go down, I am taking you with me, along with my stupid, disobedient children.”
In retrospect, it might have also seemed clear that The Doctor symbolized the magician — who appeared out of nowhere on Skaro in the past to abandon a young Davros to Handmines — and that Davros was the apprentice to the ultimate sleight of hand and disappearing act of The Doctor. The act of abandonment and helplessness was changed by Davros into the creation of the ultimate survival of the strongest lifeforms that were fully dependable: on exterminating the hell out of you.
Some of this makes sense and you would totally be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Steven Moffat attempted to lead us to: that Davros would force the magician of The Doctor to complete his disappearing act and help him go back in time to kill him as a child and destroy The Doctor’s own sense of compassion.
But there is something to be said about super-villains. The best super-villains are those with two qualities: complexity and, strangely enough, optimism. Most super-villains have a plan: even and especially when they are near defeat. It’s kind of like being a magician, or the apprentice to one. There is always something up your sleeve: which is even more incredible when you’re Davros and you only have one cybernetic arm left.
Now let’s bring Clara and Missy into the act. I know that a day or so before “The Witch’s Familiar” I remembered that Missy and Clara both have vortex manipulators. It explains a lot. So of course neither of them were dead. Right now I’m just going to say: if this episode will be remembered for anything aside from the compelling and uncomfortably poignant dialogue between The Doctor and Davros, it will be for the pure psychological torture porn situations in which Missy puts Clara.
This is literal. We start off the episode seeing Clara hanging upside down from a rope on a desolate tree while Missy is sharpening a long stick. Of course, Missy isn’t going to make it that easy. I will give you several guesses as to who the witch and who the familiar are in this dynamic. Clara doesn’t so much need Missy to help her rescue The Doctor so much as survive the horrors of the Dalek City itself. Missy explains the situation and lets Clara come to her own conclusions, but she doesn’t make it easy for her. But whereas The Doctor might have a tough love attitude with Clara at times, and still quite a lot of leeway, we are always reminded of that scene in “The Magician’s Apprentice” where Missy compares Clara to a pet.
Missy manipulates Clara. She threatens her in an almost playful manner. She comes up with plans and makes Clara do all of the dirty work. You can see Missy’s utter disdain, and amusement at hanging Clara from a tree, tossing her into the Dalek City Sewer, the psychological game of turning her back to a stake-wielding Clara only to remind her of her powerlessness and disarm her with ease, and then making her sit in Dalek armour after killing its original host, and always leaving Clara wondering if and when she is going to turn her over the Daleks.
This last act of Missy’s is especially terrifying when you remember “Asylum of the Daleks” where one aspect of Clara, Oswin, was turned into a Dalek. If this Clara has any of Oswin’s memories, you can imagine her reliving that lost life over and again.
Clara is even more of a plot device in this episode and somehow loses more agency than before under Missy’s seemingly arbitrary but ultimately meticulous cruelty. It almost makes up for The Doctor, yet again, trying to convince us that right now Clara is his “be all and end all”: and the most important person in the show.
So here we have a magician who is drawn into the act of his inadvertent apprentice, and a witch manipulating her familiar into her own scheme. These dynamics will overlap in final acts against The Doctor.
The backdrop is excellent as well. We are shown more about Dalek physiology and the differences between the Cybermen that interact with their systems through the repression of emotion, and the Daleks that express their power through anger and hatred. There has always been something poetic about how the Daleks speak and Moffat has Missy explain this in an extremely clever and disturbing manner. I mean, who knew “I love you” in the Dalek language meant something along the lines of “Exterminate exterminate.” But the Dalek Sewers are even more beautiful, in a horrific way. Daleks don’t consume enough to make a lot of waste. However, they have to put their dead somewhere. There is just one thing … Daleks are extremely hard to kill, and they do not die of old age. Imagine vast underground chambers where dying and rotting Daleks merge together into dark filth filled with pain, helplessness, and nothing but their own hate. It’s the literal foundation of Dalek society.
But then we travel above the Sewers and back to the top. You might find it kind of sad just how the interaction between The Doctor and Davros actually goes.
After The Doctor steals Davros’ chair — and you realize that Davros pretty much has no legs, or an arm and you get the lovely spectacle of seeing his metal spine sticking out of his torso — we get another “Genesis of The Daleks” moment where Davros tells The Doctor that he has been keeping himself alive through wires and tubes that connect him to all the Dalek race and entices him to destroy them.
And then we have the greatest feat of the episode. Whereas seeing the usually self-sanctimonious Clara humbled constantly is nice (there isn’t even a Shut Up Clara Mini-Game in this entire episode), Moffat actually manages to make us … feel sorry for Davros.
Oh it’s true. We know that Davros is most likely planning something, and he is, but you realize that everything he is saying to The Doctor is absolutely true from his perspective. Davros really did want to save his own race. He saved them by his own standards. He wanted to live so that he could further aid them in surviving and thriving. What is really touching in a weird kind of way is seeing the rapport between these age-old enemies: and Davros accepting his own mortality is reminiscent of The Face of Boe dying. It makes you want Davros to die this episode: for an entirely different reason. And look: it turns out he still has his eyes after all … and he’s crying.
But he probably stole those eyes from someone else because, what a surprise, he tricks The Doctor and tries to use his regeneration energy to make his Daleks more powerful: and keep himself alive. It is kind of a let down to be honest. Here we had a story that could have been quite poignant: with an antagonist that actually shows some humanity before he dies, or perhaps just wants The Doctor to give him a mercy kill.
I mean, it’s pretty horrible to be Davros when you think about it: the terrible will that drove him through all that pain and torment — by others and his own hand — to create a legacy that has tried to destroy him so many times. Or at the very least there was that hint of Davros getting his ultimate moral revenge.
But as I said before, super-villains have to be generally optimistic — read: ambitious — and Davros and his treachery makes sense for what he is.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only heavy-handed villainous final act. After Missy actually rescues The Doctor — and hilariously pokes Davros in his one eye — she tries to trick The Doctor into killing Clara: who is still trapped in her Dalek armour and can only say “I’m a Dalek” and “exterminate.” Or so it seems.
And here is where things get interesting. Aside from the fact that Davros is, in The Doctor’s own words, “a moron” for not realizing that regeneration energy would affect the rotting Daleks in the Sewers — “The Sewers are revolting” being one of the best lines in this entire episode — Missy’s long and elaborate story about how she tried to save Clara from “the Dalek” would trip so many alarm bells in The Doctor’s mind that even the TARDIS crashing would be more subtle. Surely Missy understood that The Doctor knew she was more of a liar than he is and is far less trustworthy.
But here is where the game reaches its most important point. Remember the beginning of this article: how I asked you if you were going to find a one-word thesis statement for this two-part season’s opener, what would it be?
Daleks have a limited vocabulary. Aside from the Cult of Skaro, only one other Dalek said a word that was an anathema to its existence: such as when the Dalek in “Dalek” asked The Doctor for “pity.”
Clara, through her Dalek armour, asked for “mercy.”
And there it is. “Mercy.” How is that even possible for a Dalek to say without throwing up a little bit in its non-existent orifice of a mouth? But that word is the thesis of both “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar.” It is The Doctor’s greatest strength.
Cue in the timey-wimey. That’s right. It turns out Sexy didn’t die. TARDISes apparently have the ability to disperse into scattered molecules. So Sexy takes The Doctor back in time: back to where he abandoned a small child. He then destroys those mines with the gun he cobbled together and takes little lord Davros back home to, most likely, his fascist and warmongering family.
At the beginning of “The Witch’s Familiar,” Davros laments that all Daleks have a genetic defect of “respect” towards their creator. But it seems as though they have another “defect” as well. And now we know why.
Then consider Missy. Missy, after The Doctor realizes Clara is in that Dalek armour, reminds him that there are friends in enemies and vice-versa. Then she leaves. She must have known that the Daleks knew that word: mercy. She just made both The Doctor, and in particular Clara, work and suffer for it.
So there we go now. Davros and Missy are most likely still alive: and scheming. Clara becomes the plot device that resolves another episode yet again and inspires The Doctor to perhaps subliminally influence Davros into placing some compassion into the Daleks. We even get to see more tantalizing hints as to what The Doctor’s and Missy’s previous lives on Gallifrey might have been like while not spoiling the rest of their character development. And The Doctor continues to possess one power greater than Time Lord regeneration. One magic word.
There were hints of it when The Doctor regenerated at “The End of Time.” Neil Gaiman’s episode “The Doctor’s Wife” pretty much stated that Time Lords can change sex from regeneration. And then, of course, we have our friend Missy — or The Mistress — to consider from this past year’s Doctor Who. And according to Steven Moffat, the man who also wrote the two-episode comedy special Doctor Who and The Curse of Fatal Death — the role of The Doctor will eventually be played by a woman. According to Moffat, they have been laying down the groundwork to do this for some time, but it is a question of finding the right personality before they can make this an eventuality.
Doctor Who, particularly in the era of Russell T. Davies, has been pushing the envelope of just what future, and present, life can be: and how far it can be accepted as a given. There is, and there will be, resistance on the part of some fans. I mean, The Doctor has been consistently male for at least thirteen incarnations now — from 1963 all the way to the present — and even for those who are not outright dismissive or hateful towards the idea, it would take some getting used to.
But, at the same time, would it really?
The Doctor has changed a lot throughout the years. He is the Lego-equivalent of a protagonist: even though you can rearrange him into different shapes, sizes, and patterns the building blocks of him as a character — his core — will always be the same. This allows the people working with him to tell new stories about his character while always making it clear that he is The Doctor. And myths change over time: they adapt according to the times and even the culture of the audience.
There are some interesting implications, of course. There is the matter of LGBTQIA representation to consider with regards to sexuality and gender. For the most part, The Doctor has been portrayed as asexual and while it’s tempting to mention that in latter years he has become a lot more romantic and has displayed feelings and more physical expressions of love towards his Companions and other characters, these are not necessarily mutually exclusive ideas. Certainly asexuality does not exclude the possibility of platonic love — which seems to be a default setting of The Doctor’s character — and it also doesn’t outright dismiss the notion of romantic or even physical love.
So what if The Doctor has relationships with male or female Companions, or other characters? Does it really matter what body The Doctor has at the time? Certainly this wouldn’t affect The Doctor’s brilliance or core personality. In fact, this would make some good stories in and of themselves. I mean think about it: The Doctor changes into a woman for the first time in her life. Does it take some getting used to? Do her relationships change? Does this create discomfort in her Companions, or another level of relatability?
And this isn’t even going into gender. While Missy prefers to be called The Mistress or a Time Lady, would The Doctor want to be considered female? Would she insist on male pronouns: as gender does not necessarily equal sex? I’m thinking that she would adopt female pronouns as Steven Moffat and others probably wouldn’t delve too much into this nuanced issue for mainstream television. Personally, I could have seen Missy insisting on being called The Master and it would have definitely fit her core character to do so.
I think the idea I’ve been thinking about the most since the possibility of sex-changing in regeneration actually came about is whether or not The Doctor would be a good representation of a transgender — or gender-fluid — character. On one hand, I can see some transgender and queer fans completely supporting this idea and perhaps relating to this character more: expanding on the idea of a complex LGBTQIA universe that Davies himself brought to television.
But then there is the opposite side of the coin. Some fans have accused the creation of characters such as the female Thor, and the Black Captain America of being gimmickry: as something of a fascinating “What If?” oddity that will be retconned out or marginalized again once the status quo of those franchises are restored. Certainly, there is something to be said about making a story about an entirely original female character instead of temporarily gender-bending an established one. One concern I have in seeing a female Doctor is that she will, inevitably, regenerate again and that this last regeneration will either have less time on screen, or become something of a one-off.
I think that this can be done under a fine hand and certain degree of sensitivity, but whether or not Steven Moffat and his writers are up to the task is a whole other story entirely: though the fact that Doctor Who has hired Catherine Tregenna, its first female writer in about six years, might hopefully be a step in the right direction.
Personally, I want to see a female Doctor. I want to see what she would be like and to watch her dance toe-to-toe with the messed up intrinsically Lovecraftian madness of the Whoniverse. I want to see her laugh and cry, be silly, fierce, and terrifying, a fiery angel and a goofy clown, and loving hard, while pulling her sonic screwdriver on some Daleks. It could be another adventure for The Doctor: a new aspect of the character’s life that we can see unlocked in both external and self-exploration.
In the end, I want to see The Doctor give her Companions The Talk. You know the one. Whereas humans get the Birds and the Bees talk, Time Lords get The Timey wimey, wibbly wobbly Talk. I’d like to see her explain that just as she understands, or doesn’t understand, or intuits time so too does she understand, not understand, or intuit her own sense of sex and gender. So too does she understand, not understand, and intuit herself.
But really, I just want to see The Doctor’s happiness as she gets her ultimate wish: when, at long last, she finally gets to be ginger.