Reviewing the first of two-parters can feel a bit weird. Okay, we’re talking about something episodic in nature, it’s not like taking the first half of a film or writing up an entree. But the question remains... why not wait a bit and just do the whole thing properly? History suggests I did for some reason review ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ in isolation, perhaps prescient of the second half not really being a second half anyway. So I was half-wondering whether I’d be best of waiting until the Autumn to write this.
I seem to be writing this now, which I suppose is something of a clue.
Though it was Russell T Davies who wrote the contemporary Jesus tale ‘The Second Coming’, I for one have found the Moffat era to be redolent with religious themes. (In fact I seem to be the only one on this, but I’m sticking with it!) The first appearance of the Clerics, against the Weeping Angels, I found to be an anti-idolatrous parable. ‘Beast Below’, meanwhile, had a clergy/civil service who keep the Queen in a check which borders on a golden cage. With ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ I found a Easter story nuzzled inside it.
And now the Clerics are back – and on the other side! But the unhooding scene explicitly contrasts the Doctor most against his new foe - the Headless Monks. Their inhuman headlessness stands for unthinking rote observances. Their alliance with the Clerics seems fairly nebulous to start off with, they’re already demanding “converts” who are actually sacrifices. But they’re mostly held against the purgatorial Lorna Bucket, who has for-real seen the Doctor once, and dedicated her life to accomplishing this again. It’s Church versus religion, strictures versus experience, form versus content.
However, things were bothering me. There seemed to be quite a neat and perfectly ‘Doctorish’ moment, where he renders the Clerics weapons not only useless but self-destructive. All they seem able to shoot with them is each other, so they’re forced to disarm to survive. There was the Vogon guard in ‘Hitch-hiker’s Guide’ who was wont to cry “resistance is useless!” In the Doctor’s universe, it’s oppression which is useless. At which point it seemed not only redundant, not only counter-productive but jarring for the Doctor’s own army to then appear. Frankly, it felt a little too ‘Star Wars’ with it’s attack on enemy bases, sinister black swordsmen, surprise relation revelations and the like.
In fact the whole parade of guest stars, crowding the screen, just became annoying. If less is more than more can just as easily be less. It’s like the scene in ‘The Pandorica Opens’ where the Pandorica... um... opens and everybody from everywhere is cramming to get their rubber mug on screen. In fact it’s worse because that was an ill-concealed stab at a photo-op, here they’re supposed to be integral to the Doctor’s plan.
There also seemed a good supply of monsters fighting on the Doctor’s side – Sontarans, Silurians, even Juddoon. With all the rush, this didn’t seem to get explained very well. I wondered if we were supposed to reflect on the Doctor’s redemptive powers, most obviously on show in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ The Sontaran reassigned as a Nurse seemed to suggest this. The Clerics are also humanised, though that’s in part to distinguish them from the Monks. Now, however, I’m wondering if it had a slyer purpose...
...because half-way through the rug is pulled out from under the Doctor and us, and an apparent military victory becomes defeat. The Yoda-like irony of the title becomes clear, as the trap is sprung on him by appealing to his worst instincts. River’s here to tell him the news. He has not just inadvertently produced a weapon, he’s also become a weapon.
I have never been very comfortable with this “basically, run” bragging Doctor who faces off invasion fleets and says “boo” to monsters rather than the other way around. Wasn’t the Second Doctor always telling his own companions to run? The Doctor should be part-lord part-tramp, the great disguised as the lowly, mighty enough to be modest. Those fixated with wealth and power are essentially blind to what he is, someone who could possess all of that and wants none of it.
With two Clerics speaking in hushed voices of his mighty deeds, this was clearly planned from the episode’s out. But it’s not credible for a second it was planned from the series’ out, that Moffat wrote the Atraxi into running or Chibnall wrote him saying “monsters fear me” as seeds for this moment. The demands of modern event TV are that the protagonist does eventful stuff, that he has memorably heroic catch phrases, ratings reward gun battles and explosions not eccentric theatre actors chuckling to themselves. When the Doctor says “what have I become?” that’s the scriptwriters collectively saying “what have we made him?” What’s here is in no small part an attempt to lance a boil.
But for all that it’s a pretty smart lancing! The series went and came back, but it wasn’t really a reboot. The conceit was that events had been continuing off-screen all this time. Some we know of or can surmise – the Time War, the regeneration into Nine. But the very concept of this surplus repository of time has its own ramifications. Moreover, it cross-breeds with the new show’s sense that it is more sophisticated, that it has a clearer sense of continuity.
In the old days, every time the Doctor fought the Daleks it was essentially happening anew. (Truth to tell, it was fairly often the very same story told over.) Now both sides are aware just how many times this has gone on. But it’s not just the Daleks. That repository of unseen time has been like an echo chamber of reputations, the Doctor no longer just a wanderer but a legend to the universe. The effect is Caesar-like. Gaze long enough into monsters, and what are you likely to become? Can you keep being called The Oncoming Storm and no part of you start to believe it? The religious themes of earlier are given a deep, dark twist. Christ-like or Christ complex?
Before we get carried away, let’s admit we’ve been here before. ‘Dalek’ played, if not on the Doctor’s megalomania, then on his pathological hatred for the murderers of his people. Then, at the end of Davies’ run, we got the “Time Lord Victorious” theme – which was set up nicely at the end of ’Waters Of Mars’ only to... actually, what did happen to it after that?
But the real point is, after both things just went back to where they were again. Will all this be forgotten even by the Autumn, and the good man be back at war as though nothing has happened? Perhaps in a way that’s all that can happen, unless we expect a TV show to somehow resolve the age-old violence versus non-violence debate. This is, after all, precisely the way Yoda worked on ’Star Wars.’ (“Yoda am I. Wisdom I stand for, and here to tell you war does not make one great. But anyway, for great big fight in the finale stand by. Maybe fight scene myself will have in sequels, when special effects better.”) Perhaps we should just be glad the show is strong enough to question its own hero from time to time.
River Song’s revelation to the Doctor he’d become a warrior without noticing was perhaps more memorable than the revelation of her own identity. Conjecture has already taken us here, in fact some had not plumped for that option precisely because they found it too obvious! It’s not a bad idea at all. The problem is more to do with stretching teasers over such lengths – very little can bear that weight of expectation.
(I was still confused by the flashback scene. When River scans the busted-out spacesuit, does she then know who she’s talking about? Also, we now know she’s the child in the spacesuit. But if the Clerics have her imprisoned for killing “a good man” and stand here against the Doctor, does that suggest the killer astronaut is someone else?)
With all this kerfuffle, there still seemed some strange lapses. There was nothing more about the Flesh, how the bad guys got hold or it or whether it should be considered sentient. In fact, there was only the barest mention of how it worked on Amy. Our first instincts were right, two separate storylines were merely being forced together. (And it's now confirmed that Amy was replaced “before America”, in other words handily off-stage before the season even started. That feels too much like sleight-of-hand, up-your-sleeve stuff. It should have happened in the orphanage!)
...plus, despite the reappearance of guest stars we hadn’t even seen before (the ret-conned Madame Vastra), the episode was completely silent over the... um... Silence. How they relate to Madam Kovarian, the Headless Monks or just about anything remains unexplained. Let’s hope these things don’t just get dropped, and new mysteries thrown up to distract us.
...and speaking of Madame Vastra, with a spin-off show so heavily suggested I wondered at a replacement for ’Sarah Jane Adventures.’ But some elements of her character seemed a little... um.. risque for a children’s show!
...and finally, ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’? Tell me you’re kidding!
Okay, this mini-season of 'Who' finished, it's time for me to get working on that backlog!