Listen, from the first series of Doctor Who episodes starring Peter Capaldi, is one of my favourite stories of the era. Not a lot actually happens. We get the opening of the relationship between Clara and Danny Pink; we get an encounter from the far future and a descendant of Danny’s; we get the Doctor investigating a phantom in everyone’s psyche; and we get Clara intervening at a key point in the Doctor’s own childhood. It’s not crammed with action. But perhaps, by not trying too hard, we end up with a better outcome.
One of its successes is the very last scene, which sets up a sort of recursion, with the Doctor’s future personality explained to him by Clara, using words originally crafted by Terrace Dicks. It contrasts with a lot of the other revelations we have had about the Doctor’s origins over the years (most recently the Timeless Child) in its subtlety and ambiguity – almost answering a question with another question. It’s also noteworthy that we don’t actually find an answer to the Doctor’s question, and yet the story is satisfactorily closed.
I also think it’s worth noting that the disastrous date between Clara and Danny riffs off one of Moffat’s most consistent and successful themes, of people miscommunicating. My personal favourite example of this is the Coupling episode, The Girl With Two Breasts, followed by the scene with the twins and the pickpocket in the Tintin movie. But here this situation is played not for laughs but as a deadly serious case of PTSD, and it is done very well.
Dewi Small has written one of the shorter but punchier Black Archives about this story. In a brief introduction, he sets out his stall: this story is based on psychology and he will use a Freudian lens to look at it. It works a lot better than the similarly psychological Black Archive on The Face of Evil.
The first chapter, “What if the Big Bad Time Lord doesn’t want to admit he’s afraid of the dark?”, which takes up more than 40% of the whole text, explains the Freudian concepts of the Uncanny and repression with reference to Who and Henry James, and looks at the significance of the barn.
The second chapter, “I Don’t Take Orders, Clara”, looks at the role of Clara and how it transcends the usual role of the companion in Who.
The third chapter, “A Soldier So Brave He Doesn’t Need a Gun”, unpacks the character and importance of Danny/ Rupert. Its second paragraph is:
The new Doctor sets out the revised terms of his and Clara’s relationship when he addresses his ‘many mistakes’ and tells her that he’s ‘not [her] boyfriend’ at the end of his first episode Deep Breath (2014). However, Clara was almost immediately repositioned into a new romantic coupling, providing another layer of impediment to the continuance of the previous relationship between her and the Time Lord.
The brief fourth chapter, “This is It, The End of Everything, The Last Planet” looks at the end of the world as presented in Listen and Utopia, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Fredric Brown’s “Knock”.
And there is a brief conclusion saying again how good the story is, which I agree with.
This is a brief review of one of the briefer Black archives, but I recommend it. You can get it here (NB the picture on the page is for a different book).
Rona Munro is the only person to have written stories for both Old Who and New Who, having scripted the very last Seventh Doctor story before the cancellation, and then this story for the last Peter Capaldi season. I also saw one of her other plays at the Web Theatre in Newtownards in 2013, a single-actor piece with the only member of the cast playing three parts. I can’t remember the name of the piece, but research suggests it may have been “Women Behaving Madly”.
The Eaters of Light is a rare Doctor Who story set in Scotland (though filmed of course ni Wales) – especially considering that Capaldi and Moffatt are both Scottish, it’s a little surprising that they did not go there more often. It’s less surprising that they got a Scottish writer of the calibre of Munro to take them there. I rewatched the story before reading the new novelisation, and as I had expected, I enjoyed it a lot. (Here’s the BBC page if you want to refresh yourself quickly.)
The Twelfth Doctor, Bill and Nardole arrive in Scotland and decide to investigate the disappearance of the Ninth Legion. They travel back to the first century AD and get involved in the local conflict between Picts and Romans, but manage to persuade both to unite in the face of a Cthulhoid alien enemy attempting to breach the boundaries of the universe. It’s a very simple plot, but it’s very nicely done, with some nice reveals when, for instance, Bill becomes aware of the TARDIS translation circuits, or the two factions realise just how young each other are. At the end of the episode there’s a coda with Missy being released from imprisonment by the Doctor. Season Thirteen is my favourite of the Capaldi seasons and this story is one of the reasons why.
The novelisation of the story, also by Rona Munro, was one of the few Doctor Who books released last year. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
Inside Nardole looked around in appreciation. Every surface was painted and decorated: every bowl, every bit of wall, every stool, every piece of cloth. Everything carried geometric patterns in red and blue, green and brown, yellow and purple, the designs echoing the tattoos and the knitted clothes the fierce little people around them were wearing.
The book, as with the best Who novelisations, brings more joyous detail to the plot and fills out the author’s intentions. (174 pages for 45 minutes is pretty generous by the historical standards of novelisations – compare the 143 pages that Terrance Dicks got for ten 25-minute episodes of The War Games.) It turns very much into a story of Picts and Romans, with the Doctor and friends intervening in a local story. This makes the ending, where they reject the Doctor’s help and take responsibility for guarding the Gate themselves, all the stronger. Some of the nicer one-liners are lost, but this is a differently shaped story and in some ways it is stronger for it. The scene with Missy at the end is omitted. Strongly recommended. You can get it here.
Second frame of third story (“A Religious Experience”, by Tim Quinn and John Ridgeway):
I had bought this in hard copy ages ago, and had not appreciated that the title story, a Twelfth Doctor / Bill Potts adventure, is a direct follow-on from the previous Twelfth Doctor volume, The Phantom Piper, which I have not read yet. The arc also depends quite heavily on continuity from earlier stories in Doctor Who magazine, most of which I had read but long ago.
But I got over it and very much enjoyed the title story and the collection as a whole. There is a whole arc about Cybermen, which comes close to making them interesting. There is a First Doctor story, a couple of Fourth Doctor stories, and a Fifth Doctor story by Paul Cornell. There are some interesting endnotes by the writers and artists, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and why. I still wish I had got the previous volume but I don’t regret reading this. You can get it here.
This was my top unread English-language comic. Next in that pile is Alternating Current by Jody Houser et al, a Thirteenth Doctor volume, but I may have to reassess my approach.
The two next in sequence in the generally wonderful Black Archives series of monographs on particular Doctor Who stories. In general I write one post per Black Archive, but that’s partly because in general I have already written a lot of material on each story; that’s less the case with the more recent stories, and in any case these two stories are quite closely linked, so I’m giving you both of them here.
Heaven Sent is, in my completely objective view, one of the best episodes of New Who and possibly the best of the Capaldi era. It’s the one where the Doctor finds himself imprisoned in a tower, doomed to repeat the same actions over and over again until he achieves freedom; Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor is the only speaking part, though we also see Jenna Coleman as the recently deceased Clara, and the mysteriously threatening Veil (played by Jami Reid-Quarrell). It is directed by Rachel Talalay, who is one of the best directors of Doctor Who ever, and written by Steven Moffat, who sometimes dropped the ball but is fantastic when on form, and this time he is on form. It looks great and was the last Doctor Who episode to do at all well in the Hugos (coming second to Jessica Jones). I mentioned it as my top Twelfth Doctor episode in my list of recommendations for people who want to get into New Who.
Kara Dennison’s excellent monograph starts with an introduction wherein she makes the point that this is a rare, possibly unique, case of a Doctor Who story which is all about the character development of the title character. We have the Doctor grieving and guilty over Clara’s death, imprisoned in a castle which will take billions of years to break out of, learning from repetition. An extraordinary setup.
The first chapter analyses the story in Jungian terms, which after all is a pretty obvious thing to do: the rooms, the dust and skulls, the moat, the ascent and descent. This analysis mainly works because Jung was largely right, and hit on some pretty deep threads of the mind.
The second chapter looks at the only other significant presence in the story the Veil, and how it reflects the Doctor’s own personality and experience. And also Freddy Krueger from Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.
The very short third chapter looks at how the Doctor’s repetition of the path through the castle changes both him and the path, and how the clues are laid out; is he the king or the shepherd boy? Or both? Its second paragraph is:
It is, of course, the way of the Doctor. Despite the Doctor’s constant talk of ‘fixed points,’ with everything from Jack Harkness1 to moon dragons2, he can’t claim that he’s ever left a site untouched. 1 Utopia (2007). 2 Kill the Moon.
The fourth chapter looks at the Doctor’s personality in itself, and how it has been developing since the last season of Old Who (including in Moffat’s The Curse of Fatal Death); and in particular how Heaven Sent exposes some of the flaws in his character.
The fifth chapter looks at time loops, bringing in the fascinating case of the Endless Eight anime which I was previously unaware of. (Also of course Groundhog Day and The Dark Tower.)
A final brief sixth chapter admits that Moffat may not have been thinking about Jung at all. To be honest that misses the point for me; if Jung was right (and I think he was), we are all subconsciously thinking along Jungian lines, whether we like it or not.
Anyway, a book that gave me new things to consider about a favourite story. You can get it here.
The season finale which immediately followed Heaven Sent was Hell Bent, which I do not rate as highly, though rewatching I realised that it does have a number of excellent aspects. The Doctor, having escaped at the end of the last episode, seizes control on Gallifrey, brings Clara back to life but ends up with no memories of her; meanwhile she ends up romping around the universe with Maisie Williams’ character Ashildr/Me.
On first watching, and on rewatching before writing this, I found the story a bit too convoluted to be completely entertaining. However there are some lovely bits. The regeneration of the Gallifreyan general, previously played by Ken Bones, into Tnia Miller is the first clear onscreen change of a Time Lord between apparent races and genders. It was also my first introduction to Miller, who I have since found captivating in Years and Years and Foundation.
And on the one hand, I slightly regret Moffat’s tendency not to let the dead stay dead, but on the other, I actually prefer this closure to Clara’s story than the one we got in Face the Raven; and Maisie Williams is always a fun element to add to the mix.
Alyssa Franke (who in real life works on the staff of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) has provided what I found a rather redemptive reading of Hell Bent, persuading me that there are indeed hidden depths to it; in particular she brings a feminist analysis to the story, which certainly made me reconsider it (in a good way). And also I have to admit that her fannish enthusiasm for Hell Bent is slightly infectious.
A brief introduction sets out her stall, quoting a glorious line from the script:
‘The Doctor is flying around the classic console, like a distinguished Scottish actor who’s slightly too excited for his own good.’
My hope is that you will read this and not see it as a definitive statement on Hell Bent’s feminist values, but rather as an exploration of how it explores themes of power, privilege, patriarchy, and autonomy. It’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end.
The first full chapter examines the Doctor’s patriarchal flaws, particularly of the Tenth and Twelfth Doctors, and looks at how he often erodes, or attempts to erode, the autonomy of the women who he meets and travels with. Clara’s fate is in stark opposition to Donna’s, and must surely be read as a commentary on it.
The second chapter looks at the Western genre in Doctor Who, given that large chunks of Hell Bent are set in the US desert (in a diner which turns out to be Clara and Ashildr’s Tardis) and also given the dynamic between the Doctor and the Gallifreyans. Franke makes some telling comparisons with Shane.
The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
Clara was always a character who was never content to play second fiddle to the Doctor. When Steven Moffat first wrote the character, he imagined her as a young, contemporary, female version of the Doctor, who would be ‘terribly clever’ but also have ‘a wayward ego’, reflecting both the Doctor’s strengths and flaws. And like the Doctor, she isn’t particularly suited to living an everyday, domestic life. Moffat said that Clara ‘doesn’t feel like she particularly fits in the world that she lives in’ and that ‘she’s not really very good at living a normal life.’ 1 1 Anderson, Kyle, ‘Steven Moffat on Clara Becoming the Doctor in Doctor Who Series 8’.
It looks in more detail at Clara and the extent to which she was always set up as a contrast to the Doctor – I had not noticed that Jenna Coleman is credited ahead of Peter Capaldi in Death in Heaven – and compares her arc and departure with the other New Who companions, again notably Donna, but also Rose and Amy. (Martha, who leaves completely of her own volition, is the exception.)
The fourth chapter looks briefly at Clara’s leitmotif – I like that fact that the Black Archives often do include a look at the incidental music for the show. It’s really neat that the Doctor plays it diegetically on his guitar when he meets Clara in the desert without knowing who she is.
The long, final fifth chapter mentions Hell Bent only incidentally as part of a sustained campaign by Moffat to normalise the possibility that the Doctor could be a woman, undoing the harm of his jokey introduction of Joanna Lumley in The Curse of Fatal Death. I mentioned above that my own most vivid memory of the episode is the General’s regeneration into Tnia Miller, and I’m sure that I’m not alone. But Franke goes in depth into public statements and other sources to show how the ground was prepared for Jodie Whittaker by Moffat.
So, this is the Black Archive at its best: I like it when (as with Heaven Sent) they produce good and thought-provoking analysis of a story that I already like; but I love it when they produce good and thought-provoking analysis of a story that I did not particularly care for, and prod me into reassessing the experience. You can get the Hell Bent monograph here.
Latest in the Black Archive sequence of monographs on Doctor Who stories, the first of a trilogy with the next two. I don’t seem to have written much about Face the Raven before, though I included it in my starters’ list of New Who five years ago. I actually saw the set for the story when I visited the Cardiff studio in 2015, and though I did not take pictures, I very much liked it. The producers did too, and kept it around for a bit longer than had been planned. This of course was many months before the episode was broadcast, and one of the marvels of TV is that what is actually quite a small and constrained space can be made to look much more expansive on screen, as if, to coin a phrase, it is bigger on the inside than the outside.
Rewatching it now, I felt that it somewhat pulls its punches. I had completely forgotten who Rigsy is, which slightly blunts the drama. For the high stakes of the story, I didn’t really think that Capaldi and Coleman quite rose to the emotions of the occasion. Stephen Moffat has a habit of killing off his main characters and then resurrecting them again, and that expectation also slightly deterred me from investing much in the drama (and indeed Clara comes back again two episodes later).
Having said that, I’m definitely not one of the Clara-haters who were so prevalent in the fandom at one point. I really like Jenna Coleman as an actress, the character was intriguing and had more of a real arc than most Who companions old or new, and the way that she is brought down by her own hubris, in a small alley off the real world, does work for me. And I’m also a fan of Maisie Williams, whose character Ashildr gets a good outing here. (But I’ve never had my picture taken with her.)
Sarah Groenewegen is a friend of mine anyway, and I’ve enjoyed her Who fiction. Here she brings a close analytical lens to the story, pulling up all kinds of things that I had not really thought of; the Black Archive at its best produces books that you like more than their subject episodes. This has a short introduction and four long chapters.
The first chapter looks in depth at the character of Clara. Groenewegen starts by pointing out that Clara was basically invented to satisfy the needs of the 50th anniversary in 2013, and Coleman actually appeared and got killed off twice before becoming established as Clara Oswald, twenty-first century schoolteacher. She looks at the role of companions and how this worked out in this particular case. Sometimes fans invest more in the emotional dynamics of a show than is really there, but I was convinced by the argument here.
The second chapter looks at Ashildr and Rigsy as returning characters, and reflects on how the show interrogates time and change, and the Doctor being held accountable for his actions. There’s a brief but fascinating exploration of the Ashildr/Clara relationship.
The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
Vivian Sobchack observed that contemporary American science fiction and horror movies also rely on making the familiar unusual1. The motif of Earth as home being ruptured by the alien is a common one in Doctor Who, especially during the late 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, one of the most effective Doctor Who scenes is the sight of dummies coming to life and bursting from their shop windows to terrorise the passers-by during Spearhead from Space (1970). As Jon Arnold observes, ‘They are the most logical choice from a gallery of Doctor Who’s gallery of monsters’ to bring back in Rose (2005) because they are ‘a place of domesticity suddenly rendered shockingly alien’2. 1 Sobchack, Vivian, ‘Child/Alien/Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange’ in Penley, Constance, Elizabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel and Janet Bergstrom, eds, Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction. p16. 2 Arnold, Jon, The Black Archive #1: Rose, p30.
The chapter looks at geography, London and refuge, and the way in which Doctor Who interacts with the real universe (there is a real London; there was a real refugee crisis at the time the story was made). Lots of other writers are invoked, in particular Paul Cornell and Ben Aaronovitch.
The final chapter looks briefly at the symbolism of ravens, reminding us that they actually have something of a history in Doctor Who, and in more depth at the subject of death, which I think Face the Raven handles rather better than Dark Water / Death in Heaven.
It’s a rare case where I wished I had read the book first before rewatching the story; I would have got a bit more out of the latter. You can get it here.
Dark Water is a ghost story, a tale of post-mortem communication and animate skeletons with a horrific conceit at its centre, while Death in Heaven is an elegiac story of mourning and self-sacrifice, and of the heroism of the dead. As these are two halves of a single story, however, elements of both celebrations – which in any case overlap in images of graves and in a heightened concentration on the dead – permeate both episodes.
Fourth in the series of Black Archive books about Doctor Who, old and new, this was published within a year of the first broadcast of the 2014 story that it covers. I didn’t write up the Capaldi era in detail here at the time, but I did watch the programme when it was first shown and again before reading this book. I’m afraid I don’t share his enthusiasm for it; I rank it as one of the comparative failures to end a series properly, with some good points but also some glaring flaws. At the same time, as I said in my last write-up in this sequence, it’s also nice to read a positive account even of something I didn’t particularly enjoy myself.
The central problem I have with the story is its treatment of death. As with Kill the Moon, which tells us that the Moon is actually a space dragon’s egg, though we all know perfectly well that it is a large chunk of rock, Dark Water / Death in Heaven tells us that dead people have become Cybermen under the control of a renegade Time Lord. I find both of these concepts almost offensive in the expected suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, and can imagine uncomfortable family conversations as kids asked their parents if that means that people who they knew and loved who have died have also been turned into Cybermen. The casual disposal of Osgood strikes a sour note as well, and I find the dead Brigadier awkward. That’s not really what Doctor Who should be about. Philip Purser-Hallard doesn’t quite tackle this problem, though he does have a chapter on death as we’ll see below.
So, before we get into the book, here are two clips with geographical relevance for me. Death in Heaven includes one of the Whoniverse’s few references to my adopted country, as Missy suggests killing some Belgians; “they’re not even French.”
Also, with relevance to the 2024 Glasgow Worldcon bid, Clara has done her homework while pretending to be the Doctor:
I should add that I’ve been thrilled to meet all three lead actors in this in various times and places:
So, to the analysis by Philip Purser-Hallard. As usual with this series, the book is broken down into discrete chapters each making a particular argument. The chapters deal with:
Dark Water / Death in Heaven seen in the context of season finales – as mentioned, Purser-Hallard gives it higher marks than I do; I do agree that it pulls together the narrative strands of the series better than some other finales;
the narrative arcs of the main characters in the story, including the Doctor, Clara, Missy, Danny Pink and also Osgood, Kate Stewart and Santa;
the significance of the story being broadcast in the week between Halloween and Remembrance Sunday in 2014, dealing as it does with death and commemoration (NB that last Sunday’s episode explicitly called out Halloween);
gender-swapping and the Master – worth noting that Kronos and Eldrad in Old Who also swapped gender, and also explores how gender affects the way we read the Master’s relationship with the Doctor – turns out of course to be prophetic for the central character of the show;
death, where Purser-Hallard skips over what for me is the central problem of bad taste in the story, and looks instead at the various and contradictory treatments of death in the Whoniverse (including within this story – what happens to dead Osgood? Let alone the Belgians);
whether or not the Cybermen are cyberpunk (on balance, not);
an appendix on the similarities between the story and Purser-Hallard’s own Faction Paradox novel Of The City of the Saved, which Purser-Hallard modestly says are probably coincidental or else flattering (having since read the entry on the City of the Saved in The Book of the War, it seems to me that they share only the most basic concept and every other detail differs).
Each of these is thoroughly footnoted and well argued, and the book succeeds in making me think a bit more about something I had not really expected to think much more about, and lifts my overall experience of the story (though I’m afraid still leaving it in the negative for me).
So there you go. Next up are Simon Bucher-Jones on Image of the Fendahl, and Jonathan Dennis on Ghost Light.