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07 July 2016 @ 02:43 pm
Doctor Who season 9 (or, yet more thoughts about comedy)  
The DVD set for Doctor Who season 9 was in at the library, so I decided to watch it, just to see if maybe I'd like it more than season 8… And at least this way I'd finally get to see "The Husbands of River Song."

I confess to being largely disappointed by the quality of the episodes themselves: a lot of ideas with potential, but the execution consisted of way too much running down dim corridors for me, while key elements of plot and character were left muddied and muddled and underwritten. (I mean, I wanted to like "The Girl Who Died" / "The Woman Who Lived" so much! Humans who become immortal are one of my favorite things! Maisie Williams was delightful! And yet…I never quite felt that I knew Ashildr well enough to be totally invested when she forgets who she is and becomes Me, to actually feel the loss of her. Maybe if we'd spent less time on broad comedy about Vikings who can't fight, and more time establishing who she was and why she loved her village, I would have cared more when she couldn't remember either one.)

But I think my overarching intellectual and emotional disconnect from the season - and the last one - has to do with the nature of the Twelfth Doctor, too. It's no secret that I think Moffat writes his best Who when he's writing it as a comedy. Not just when he's writing humor - although one of the reasons that "The Husbands of River Song" is a welcome breath of fresh air is that Moffat seems to be back on his game, writing those screwball rhythms for River and the Doctor. But comedy: comedy is about hope, about dancing faster than death can catch you, about our better angels winning out. And seasons 8 and 9 are mostly tragic. Season 9 in particular is all about the Doctor going too far and being justly punished, and that's Greek tragedy; even if Moffat can't avoid putting a little fillip of death-cheating on top, for Clara, the cherry can't disguise the makeup of the whole sundae.

And in Twelve, he seems to be trying to write a Doctor who has Rules About Time - temporal strictures that shade into becoming moral and ethical ones. And breaking those rules leads to tragedy. (This seems to be what's going on in "Under the Lake" / "Before the Flood": the Doctor is tempted to break the rules of time to save Clara, even though he won't even do that to save himself. But the episode is - again - muddy enough that I can't figure out exactly what rule he's tempted to break, since Clara, unlike O'Donnell, hasn't yet died. It feels, in retrospect, like the episode is trying for foreshadowing that the setup hasn't actually earned.) And when the Doctor breaks those rules, he is punished, and he declares, in the S9 finale, that this is right. Moffat even brings in the Sisterhood of Karn to declare that the Doctor, in trying to save Clara, is breaking every rule he's ever lived by - to give that statement narrative weight and grandeur (weight and grandeur that I don't think it earns otherwise, because…well, see below).

Except…? Not that long ago, the Doctor was Eleven - and while I'm sure that Eleven has rules about time, his entire tenure as the Doctor is about figuring out just when and where one can bend and break those rules. One could certainly argue that it's only when he accepts his own death that the universe allows him to cheat its way out of it, so there is a moral angle to his bending of the temporal rules. And there are, of course, things that even the Doctor cannot change or "fix," the death of Vincent Van Gogh being one of the most memorable. But Eleven's rallying cry is "Time can be rewritten" - comedy, not tragedy - and how do you go from a universe where that is true, to one where it isn't, without ever giving a reason? How do you go from a universe where Eleven can unhappen the destruction of Gallifrey, to one where no one can be saved from death, without explaining what changed? How can I believe that the Twelfth Doctor's only recourse is to break every rule he's ever lived by, when the Eleventh Doctor would have slipped merrily out of those rules' grasp? (Or at least he would have tried and failed: that's more or less what happens in "The Angels Take Manhattan.") It's like Moffat wants to write a story about someone like "Waters of Mars" Ten, full of hubris and engaging in reckless, selfish tyranny against the laws of time (even if we are moved by why he does it), having forgotten that in between, the Doctor has been far more trickster than tyrant.

There seem to be a couple of deliberate callbacks to Ten in this series: the finale also touches on Ten's decision to wipe Donna's memory rather than let her die on her own terms - only here, he is (again) punished for his arrogance instead. And Twelve finally "remembers" why he gave himself a familiar face for this regeneration, that of Caecilius from "Fires of Pompeii": it's supposed to be a reminder to save the people he can, even if he can't save everyone. Only that backfires too: has he really saved Ashildr, or condemned her to something terrible? I'm not sure - but what really puzzles me is the decision to say "I need to be reminded to save people" in this episode, only to go on throughout the season to suggest that saving people is impossible, could fracture the universe, and deserves punishment. What?

(I should say that I think the critiques of the Doctor's decision are spot-on: Me's "We have no right to change who she is"; Clara's own "Tomorrow isn't promised to anyone, but I insist upon my past." I just don't understand the need or the decision to make the storytelling decisions that got us to that point - where the Doctor needs the critique - in the first place.)

I can understand feeling the need to scale back on the idea that time can be rewritten - or even just to want to try your hand at writing something new. But you still need to set up the new rules in a coherent way, first, and I don't feel like that ever happened with Twelve.

Also…I'm just going to quote myself here, because it's easier. From my post on the S8 finale:
If season 5 ends with the myth of Pandora's box - as I said back then, "a box full of monsters and hope," so very like the TARDIS - season 8 ends with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. If Amy is Sleeping Beauty inside the Pandorica (though waiting for her own childhood self, not the kiss of a prince), the promise of that story is that Sleeping Beauty eventually awakens. And Amy and Rory have always had "Tam Lin" echoes for me, because Amy loves and claims Rory so stubbornly that nothing can take him from her, not even time. But Orpheus and Eurydice is about the fact that the dead cannot return, no matter how much you try to win them back. The Ponds are miracle-makers, even if those miracles are sometimes imperfect (Amy and Rory do get to raise Melody in some way, even if it isn't the way they wanted), but there's no miracle for Eurydice. Clara doesn't get Danny back.

So what's the story of S9, then? In some ways, it's still Orpheus and Eurydice. And that's very much a story worth telling - but it's also definitely not a comedy or a fairy tale. And Moffat's telling that story in seasons 8 and 9 still feels like an arbitrary switch-flip - "okay, the universe is now like this" - rather than a set of situations carefully constructed so that these stories had to turn out this way. I'm sure I'd still be pretty Not My Scene about the change, but it would feel like it made more sense to me, at least.
litlover12 on July 8th, 2016 09:09 pm (UTC)
I always enjoy your Doctor Who analyses! Really well thought out.
tempestsarekind: a sort of fairytaletempestsarekind on July 8th, 2016 11:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you!