Monday, 7 December 2015

Put Right What Once Went Wrong

"You can't do this to me! I used to have a submarine!"
I've said it before, Marmite wishes it was Doctor Who.

Given how violently "Hell Bent" has split viewers, I'm going to start off by giving my own opinion - bloody loved it - and spent pretty much all of what follows justifying why by batting around various objections (to be clear, none of which I find ridiculous) I've seen online.  Spoilers, obviously, beneath the fold.

Let's start by considering just how much those that hated the episode have the deck stacked against them. You could replace every scene in the finale except for the regeneration scene with photographs of George Osborne's arse and it still would be the most gloriously necessary "fuck you" imaginable to exactly the people who should be told "fuck you". It's brilliant enough that Moffat slapped a gender/race-swap regeneration on-screen , but adding in a line about how the General spent her first ten lifetimes as female before randomly one day becoming male saps the last line of defence the misogynists might have tried to fall back to before they even had time to lumber to their keyboards and start typing "MOFFAT MUST GO!" [1]. That scene could well become the most important in the history of the show since the conclusion of "The Tenth Planet", and for all the right reasons.

Notably, I've seen absolutely no-one complaining about scene - I've chosen my blogs and twitter follows pretty well, apparently. So what are people objecting to? One criticism of the episode is that the central idea of having the Doctor and Clara argue about how to process her death was done already, and perhaps better, in "Face The Raven". The most simple response to this is to point out how little time was actually spent on that during Episode 10. Whatever else Clara's speed-run through Kubler-Ross might have been, it was not something that overstayed its welcome. Frankly, to at least some extent, what we got on Saturday was a necessary correction to what otherwise would have seemed too abrupt an exit.

A second defence would be to note that Dollard and Moffat are very different writers, and seeing them approach the same dynamic from different perspectives is fascinating in and of itself, though I grant the season finale is perhaps not the best of times to attempt something of that nature. Really, though, that doesn't matter all that much, because the important difference between "Face the Raven" and "Hell Bent" isn't who's doing the writing, but what they're focused on. The former episode is all about Clara having to come to terms with her fate. There is never any question for the Doctor that she is going to die, so the focus ison her own need to accept it, and then on how she uses her final moments to try and stop the Doctor from dishonouring her memory. To try and make her death about something other than herself.

"Hell Bent", in contrast, is all about the Doctor immediately turning round (and one thing that really pissed me off here was him never bothering to mention that although 4 500 000 000 years passed between entering and exiting the disc, he only actually remembers a few months of it, if that) and making her death all about him. It's about someone who died coming back from the dead to be faced with how totally their loved one has failed to process their death, and therefore how completely they've been let down. Put another way, "Face the Raven" is about how Clara learns to accept her death, and "Hell Bent" is how the Doctor can't. That's not repetition. It's mirroring. It's about how the single advantage to dying first is that your memories vanish, they don't have to be left around to fade or, more likely fester.

(It's also desperately, profoundly sad, in a way Davies' departures never were, for all their bombastic moping.)

The pain of memory and where they go once they're finally gone is utterly bound up in this episode. Notice the visual effect that bleeds onto the screen when the Doctor arrives to "save" Clara from her last split-second alive? The youngest among you might need telling; that's directly referencing the colour TVs we used to have back when the cathode ray tube was still in charge. The technology upon which Steven Moffat watched "his Doctor" battle Terileptils and Tractators and, of course, the Time Lords. The Doctor is grabbing at Clara not just through a memory, but through a memory of other stories - one corrupted by aging, unreliable technology, or perhaps refracted through tears. And memories become stories, yes, but stories become memories too, fading like any other. You can refresh them, yes, but you can't reforge them, any more than you can reforge the memories of your honeymoon by returning to the same hotel beside the same beach years later. Stories, like memories, cannot be erased, not truly, and nor can they be repaired. The only real way to answer bad stories, and bad memories, is to find newer, better ones.

This is exactly what Moffat is doing here. Taking bad memories (stories) and improving upon them. This idea is plastered all over the episode, from the very first moments, when the Doctor opens up to a strange waitress in a strange diner about the friend he has forgotten, because if you have no memory of a person the next best thing is memories of when you confronted forgetting them, when you talked of all the moments you remember happening around the silhouette cut out of your mind.  It's also in the screaming, nightmarish faces of the Sliders who guard the Matrix, a repository of bad memories (these are Time Lords, after all) that its own guardians can tap into to terrify with images of misery and terror [2]. It's even in Me, the girl who lived forever, whose arc throughout the season has been explicitly linked in the idea that she has suppressed bad memories by tearing them from her diaries and yet has found no satisfaction in that, because what lay on the pages either side wasn't actually any good. Avoiding the bad isn't enough, we have to generate the good. And when we are to blame for the bad memories - when we are cruel or cowardly - we have to generate the good by making amends.

It must have escaped literally no-one whose actually been watching the show for long enough that the bad memory most relevant to both episode and audience is, obviously, that of Donna.  "Hell Bent" is all but explicitly making amends for "Journey's End". I'm sure those objecting to the echoes of Donna's fate haven't missed this, but I do think there is too much focus on the fact that the episode requires the Doctor to intend to do to Clara exactly what he once did to Donna.  I can see the argument this suggests he hasn't learned from his grotesque behaviour to the universe's newest Time Lady, but I respectfully disagree. This episode had to set up a situation in which the Doctor wants to wipe his companion's mind "for their own good", or the mirroring is lost. You can't redeem the Doctor (or at least demonstrate his understanding of the need for it, whether this actually redeems the Doctor is obviously up for discussion) without putting him in exactly the same position to see what he's learned. In particular, you can't give him some last-minute costless escape plan he can pull out of his regularly-reshaped arse. The lesson he needs to learn can't be that he could've figured out some other way to save Donna, it's that he had no right to decide how to choose for her between the only two options that remained.

So of course the Doctor has to be confronted with the same situation. What matters is that he deals with it in a different way. And he does. He tells Me that he's going to let Clara know what's going on. He still has his own preference - look at him almost begging Clara to take the memory wipe and survive outside of Time Lord scrutiny - but as much as he wants the same thing as he did sixth and a half years earlier, he can't do it this time without permission. The only two alternatives to this set-up (and it's clearly a set-up that's been extensively considered by Moffat, why else would he give Maisie a chess-set at the end of time where she has literally no-one to play with; it's a visual clue that this situation didn't just coalesce from earlier stories, it's been meticulously built up) would be to not do it, and leave the Doctor's last word on mind-wiping being explicitly HELLS YEAH!, or to have the Doctor decide it's better to let his companion die rather then erasing their memories.

(Yes, I'm not entirely playing fair here. Capaldi's intonation when he tells Me that he will let Clara know what's happening and what we know of the character in general both give the impression that he may well be lying. The problem with arguing that this is the case is that it'd mean letting Me into the TARDIS to watch what comes next is utterly fucking idiotic. And whilst the Doctor is acting like an idiot in any number of ways here, all those ways stem from his love for Clara, as oppose to not understanding how voices work.)

So. You put the Doctor back in a situation where he is desperate to erase the memory of someone he cares about. You cut off every alternative one by one until the death of the body and the death of their history are the only two options.  And then you have him say: "I can't bear to see you die again. But what say you?"

And what happens next is glorious. The Doctor neither gets to spring himself from the trap he's set himself, nor does he have to go through with what he sees as the least-worst option and violate the autonomy of his friend. He lets her solve the problem for him.  It might seem like I am contradicting myself terribly considering my comments above about how unsatisfying it would be for the Doctor to pull out a new alternative at the eleventh hour (twelfth hour now, of course, and how fitting that it should chime as the universe takes its final metaphorical breaths. Who and what in this scenario has not, at long last, finally run out of time?) But that's not what is key. What's key is that the Doctor - the man we trust to solve every conundrum, to win every battle, to the extent where him failing to do so is occasion for Murray Gold to toss aside what little restraint he has and go for broke on the crashing sad-chords - can't think of how to win here, meaning it is up to Clara to solve the problem for him.  It doesn't really matter how Clara solves the problem, what matters is that the Doctor, despite his desperate need to "save" her, can no longer bring himself to not give her her say.

That her solution is for essentially her to be the Doctor is simply perfect. Though in fact, that's not quite what's happening here.  It's not that this time she gets to be the Doctor and the Doctor the companion - though that would be wonderful in itself - it's that between them they engineer a situation in which neither of them knows who going to end up being the Doctor. Clara has finally reached her apotheosis, she has saved the day and played with people's lives already, and now she has both died and not died. She is ready to be the Doctor, irrespective of her heritage.

Let's take that as a good moment to side-step into looking at another objection about the episode, which is that it somehow cheapens Clara's death to have her be pulled from it at the last second. This, to say the least, is a strange argument to make about Doctor Who, where failing to properly die has been baked into the show since before the vast majority of its fans were even born (it's been 49 years since Patrick Troughton bounded onto screen). It's particularly strange in Clara's case because the idea of her trying to become the Doctor was a major part of her arc in the last two seasons, and the idea of preventing her doing that has unfortunate connotations regarding gender politics, for all that the show is kind of locked into that problem for as long as the Doctor is male and the companion isn't.

Mainly, though, I just don't see how Clara's astonishingly brave refusal to flinch as the Raven arrives - hell, she arches into it, that's how strong she is - is invalidated because it actually failed to stick. What matters is how Clara faced the raven, not that doing so actually had the results we were led to believe it would.  Someone else pointed out that "Face the Raven" had more than a few echoes of "Caves of Androzani", with Clara as the Fifth Doctor and Riggsy as Peri. So of course she has to find out that in saving Riggsy she'd doomed herself. And of course that doesn't mean this should be the end.  I talk above about telling better stories, and the message her is unequivocal: a story in which Clara didn't die is simply better than one in which she did.  It's been Moffat's contention for a while now that, ultimately, that should be the overriding factor in any given storyline. It certainly helps explain the resolution to the cliffhanger of Sherlock's second season, which was to say more or less explicitly that it couldn't possibly matter how Sherlock survived, it was just clearly a better story if he did and John had to deal with the resultant sideswipe of equal parts elation and betrayal. How Sherlock got to tell the story of his own death isn't important. Why he needed to tell it is.

All the best stories take on a kind of momentum beyond the brute "facts" of their foundations. So all the worst ones, actually.  Look at the Time Lord's tale of "the Hybrid". They took half-formed rumours and barely-understood prophecies - stories - and fashioned them into something worse.  It doesn't actually matter what the Hybrid is, in the end. What matters is the damage the Time Lords did by constantly telling themselves the same hysterical stories; and endless circle of Donald Trumps hyperventilating about space-Muslims until they bring about their own misery.

Let's not focus on the worst stories. Let's focus on the best. Clara, like I say, finally proves that she can be the Doctor. And so that's now who she gets to be, with Ashildr as her companion; two women travelling time and space to take exactly zero shit from the men of the universe. If that sounds worse than Clara dying on the cold cobbles of a London alley, then I don't know what to tell you. If it sounds so good you realise you'd much rather watch that than the next season of Who, then I do know what to tell you: fucking obviously. If this doesn't lead to the BBC at least trying to flog the rights to Big Finish, then it simply doesn't deserve to exist anymore. Of course, it'd be difficult enough to find time for Colman and Williams to sit down and give a voice performance, which highlights how impossible the TV spin-off adventures of Clara and Me really is. That's just something we have to live with. But even beyond the financial and scheduling difficulties, if Clara & Me's Time-Hopping Diner became a spin-off, everyone would see it as just that; an appendage to the main programme. They deserve better than that. They aren't a spin-off, they're a mirror image of the original show. They exist in our imaginations as equal to what we see on-screen.

Long may they continue, the hidden half of a glorious cellular mitosis. The blueprint for where the show, as of its two seasons, is inevitably headed into its own reflection. One day this show will spend every episode centered on two women travelling the universe saving lives and having fun, and Clara will have finally succeeded in making every story better.

Let's hope that with that as our destination, that we don't have to wait until the end of the universe. 

Let's hope we don't take the long way round.

[1] If there's a slug in this particular bed of chrysanthemums (yes, it's supposed to be "bed of roses", I just wanted to show that I can spell "chrysanthemum") it's that Moffat felt the need to underline the gender change with gender essentialism. I guess that boat was being loaded with cargo throughout the River years and finally set sail for good with Missy, but it's still annoying as hell. There's probably a lot to be written on how this approach impacts upon whether a Time Noble (?) can be considered meaningfully cis or trans, but I'm demonstrably not the right person to be writing about that. All I'll say on the issue is that if we'd heard the male general complaining about how his current body just didn't feel right to him, that might have been very interesting indeed. Maybe it would have carried other problems with it, though, and maybe Moffat knows that. Like I say; don't ask me. 

[2] And let's not forget that these hovering nightmare generators are, like the handmines of the season opener, just tossed off in the middle of something bigger, like Moffat has too many ideas for him to be capable of pacing himself. This has been in fact an astonishingly inventive season for a writer who many - myself included - accused of constantly returning to the same approaches (as oppose to themes) again and again.

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