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What exactly is Doctor Who? Why is this a show we keep coming back to after decades? There are a lot of answers one can give, and a lot of different reasons, but the biggest one can be boiled down to one moment in “It Takes You Away”, where the Doctor has a conversation with a talking frog who is a sentient alternate reality that’s chilling out on a white chair where she basically has to break up with the frog with “it’s not you, it’s me”. It’s absolutely bonkers, played straight, and is exactly why Doctor Who exists as a program. There are other reasons, but this is the big one: it gives us something that absolutely nothing else on television is even thinking of doing.
This is an episode that gives us not only a magic mirror that leads into faerie land, and then into an alternate mirror universe, an orc with a magic light up balloon that attracts giant flesh-eating moths, monsters in the woods that turn out to be an illusory trick, stories of plotting sheep from dreams or nightmares, dopplegangers of dead loved ones whispering lies, and finally a frickin’ frog on a chair. This is a veritable treasure trove of wonderful, wondrous images, and we’re lucky to have each of them. There have been massive effects-laden blockbusters with hundreds of millions of dollars in budget that don’t even get close to the number of memorable images we’re treated to in “It Takes You Away”.
But the images aren’t hollow, luckily, and each supports the structure on what is unquestionably the most “Doctor-Who-y” episode we’ve had so far this year, and the episode that really clearly states what this season was about. I’ve written about the recurring themes of the series, but I’m now confident I know what it’s about, and so before we move on to picking things apart, let’s just get it out there:
Over all, this series of Doctor Who is about failed standards of masculinity.
From the toxic “you have to kill someone to be a man” of the Stenza, to Epzo forgoing teamwork for self-interest in “The Ghost Monument”, to the stoic-handsome-authoritative evil racist in Rosa, to the cowardly but power hungry Trump-stand-in in “Arachnids in the UK”, to—okay I don’t have to list everything, do I? The other themes lay into this, support it. The infringements on bodily autonomy. The need to combine organic life with technology to support power structures—we’re inhabiting a world this season where the failures of masculinity have been laid bare. It’s why Graham has been our point character, he’s not perfect, but he’s a model of a strong but caring kind of masculinity, an alternate to the ones the characters run into, while Ryan has been damaged by the same kind of toxic masculinity that’s destroying the family in this episode.
Throughout the season, we’ve been shown lots of bad parents, and in “It Takes You Away” we reach a climax on that. Ryan’s father left, and couldn’t even bother to show up for his own mother’s funeral. Epzo’s mother abused him. King James I’s mother abandoned him. All of these bad parents have left damage, and here is the challenge: we meet a man who is a bad father.
Erik is so caught up in his own wants and desires, he has boiled his brain into excusing his own selfishness. His daughter Hanne can take care of herself, after all. Or so he says. So he makes her afraid, for her own good. Or so he says. But really, he has abandoned his daughter because he’s selfish: he has the woman he loves, or so he thinks. He is blinded by his own importance. Unfortunately, this is all foreseen by Ryan. Early in the episode, Ryan says exactly what her dad has done: run off and left her. Everyone else assumes that there’s a Doctor Who monster afoot. Some menacing beastie in the woods that is hunting Hanne. Hanne wants to get her father back, she loves her father, but Ryan has been right this whole time. He lived through it before, and his experience is the most valuable here, but no one knows it.
In contrast, we have Graham. Both Graham and Erik have lost their wives, but Graham recognizes that the chance to live alone with Grace is wrong, because it means that Ryan will be alone. Graham realizes this when confronted with the reality that Ryan will be alone, while Erik only realizes it when his wife turns him down for the Doctor. For Erik, this was always selfish. It wasn’t about his wife being alive, really. It wasn’t about Hanne. It was about his own loss and longing for his wife.
The only way to end this is for the Doctor break his entire illusory mess, and she only can do this by playing against the forces of his toxic masculinity. She steals his girl. When he realizes he’s not wanted, that this wasn’t really his wife, the spell is broken. Hocus Pocus.
Because, this was all magic tricks. The fake sounds are our first clue, that this is an illusory game. The Solitract makes a world, just as Erik made a world. The Doctor constructs a lie for Hanne on the wall that she cannot see. Ryan tries his best to follow the Doctor’s lie. But all of these lies have holes: Hanne can hear that the chalk is writing, not drawing. Ryan can see the wires to the speakers, and see that Hanne’s dad has abandoned her. The Doctor can see that the Solitract isn’t really dead loved ones. On their own, each person would be trapped, but together they can see through the lies. There is strength in togetherness, something the Solitract longs for but can never find.
That togetherness brings back Father and Daughter, the Father has failed her, but he is back, and hopefully learned something from it. And Graham and Ryan are together, and family. He’s a grandfather now, after all this time. Even in our imperfections, together, humans can be amazing.
Which leads to the greatest scenes we get: the Frog on the chair. The Doctor has to convince the Solitract to let them go, and appeals to it’s better nature to do so. We have seen the tricks, but this is real magic, faerie land. The unknown too strange to be faked. The frog on the chair is the same as the orc and his light up balloons, but brighter. She is something beyond, revealing herself in her favorite form. Not death, or an illusion, but a form she trusts the Doctor to see, letting her in without the pretense of fakery. It’s a world of dreams. Mentioning the sheep at the start wasn’t just kidding around.
And of course it’s weird, anything beyond our little lives is. The Earth is just a tiny speck compared to the great celestial bodies in our universe, so small it can barely be seen next to them. And if you go in closer, there’s a girl in her bed in Norway. What does she dream of? Sheep? And in her dream, there is a frog, and in the frog’s dream, there is a world, in that world, if we zoom down, there is a girl in a bed in Norway.
We always wake up, but for that little moment, we’re in Faerie Land. Maybe there’s a frog there to. And maybe, if we’re really really lucky, someone will put that dream on our television sets, laptops, and phones. How lucky would we be then?
It could take us away.
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The Witchfinders (wear masks)
by James Wylder
There’s a certain type of Doctor Who story we’re all familiar with called the Celebrity Historical. You know, Team TARDIS meets this famous person or another: Rosa Parks, Vincent VanGogh, Shakespeare…it’s a staple of the show in it’s modern form. Usually, the episode is something of a beatification. The historical figure is shown as a hero in some way, their accomplishments lauded. In the last few years though, there’s been a few episodes that subverted this. Matt Smith had episodes where the historical figure was a rather nasty person like Richard Nixon or Hitler, and Peter Capaldi had no episodes with famous historical figures, only mythical ones like Robin Hood or Santa Claus. But what we hadn’t had was a sort of middle ground: a historical figure who is painted in shades of gray, with the episode coming down neither in favor of them, nor against them (the closest we got to this was Nixon meeting the Doctor, but the last moments we have with Nixon come down fairly on “he’s a bigot”).
That was until King James I showed up.
Making King James I purely a villain or purely admirable would be the obvious choices here, he’s leading Witchhunts throughout England after all. But then again, he assembled the King James Bible, a lot of people still like that too. He’s also pretty definitely gay or bisexual, unless you want to duck tape your eyes closed to the massive pile of historical evidence that yes, he was. So what to make of him? Maybe, instead of a saint of a villain, he’s just a really flawed person. And as it turns out, that’s a way more interesting take.
James I does a lot of bad things during “The Witchfinders”, and those things are never excused. We as the audience aren’t told, “Well, this is alright because...” he does wrong things, and they are wrong. But, at the same time we’re asked to empathize with James. He’s a man wearing a mask in order to travel about and not be accosted, followed by sycophants who butter him up that he knows he can’t trust. People try to kill him. He was abandoned by his mother, and still reeling with the loneliness of his life. And he has let bad things happen because of that. But the Doctor doesn’t think he’s irredeemable. She gives him a chance. And he still let’s her down in the end, but he’s not ungrateful. Unlike Jack Robinson, he doesn’t walk away from the Doctor cocky and vile. He says he owes her his life.
This mirrors, in many ways, the real man. James I did over see the torture of Witches, but over time grew to doubt that they were really finding witches at all.
It’s a complex look at a complex person, and even if there are some kinks to work out, this is a fascinating path for Doctor Who to take for how it looks at historical figures. More, please.
Also, more Alan Cumming please. If anyone comes back from Series 11’s guest stars, can we please have a sequel to this absolutely delightful performance? Watching James I hit on Ryan Sinclair was great, and watching Cumming seamlessly move between comedy and honest drama was fantastic. He was perfect casting, and I really would love to see more of his take on this character. He’s a pure delight.
Another thing this episode does well is allowing us the small pleasures we’d like: the Doctor and Graham wearing the big Witchfinder hat, for instance. Of course we want to see the Doctor wearing a big silly hat, and it gives us that.
It shouldn’t be understated also, that this episode handling the Witchhunts themselves so deftly is a coup for scriptwriter Joy Wilkinson. We’ve had some very difficult historical subject matter being dealt with this series, and Wilkinson did it well. Hopefully we see more from her too.
The running theme of bodily autonomy this series is key in Wilkinson’s script as well, our villains not only go inside human bodies to use them as macabre puppets, but our conflict stems around a healer being uncomfortable performing a medical proceedure on a patient. Every antagonist in this episode, from James I, to the town’s landholder, to the alien threat, wish to take people’s bodily autonomy. To bind them and torture them. To bind them and dunk them under water. To fill their bodies up. None of them respect other people’s rights to exist as bodies freely. To control other’s physical bodies is power, and it’s how they deal with their problems. How the landholder deal with being unable to cure her illness, how King James I deals with his sad life, and how the aliens deal with their imprisonment: they destroy other’s bodily autonomy to feel some sense of control.
The reveal that the aliens were imprisoned for War Crimes fits with this running theme perfectly: their lack of respect for autonomy is cosmic. They parallel the Stenza in this way. The names are different, but it rhymes.
How fitting then, that amidst these Witchhunts, the Doctor becomes the hero of bodily autonomy? She once called herself a Doctor of Hope, but maybe she is a Doctor in a physical sense, yet not only as a physician. A Doctor that knows that it’s not just our souls that need saving, but our flesh too. A Doctor who defends our right to live inside our own skin unmolested.
A Doctor I’d be happy to call for an appointment.
* * *
But oh yes, let’s check in on our running themes, shall we? We have all the usual ones, and the repetition of them is becoming pretty in our faces. So there’s something going on with these. With the reveal of the finale’s title and synopsis, I’m fairly certain that how the elements of this season come together isn’t going to be in a direct way, but in a thematic way. We’ve had these recurring elements of bodily autonomy (this week, that theme was your face...literally!), living beings with something else inside them, bad guys getting away, etc. Plus one new one I should have listed before in these essays: the Doctor doesn’t kill something, but someone else in the episode tries to or does it for her (Jack Robinson shooting the spider, Kevin shoving the Stenza off, James I shoving his torch into the bog zombie, etc). We’re leading to something in the finale, and I’m getting more and more certain that something is going to do with the Doctor facing a scenario where these repeated narrative elements come together in a way that she cannot walk away from, or not interfere with. Perhaps the Stenza will still return, but I don’t think it will be the Monster Mash some predicted or would like.
But time will tell. Let’s see then.
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Doctor Who: Kerblam! (...azon)
I woke up this morning, stressed about money. Being a freelance writer isn’t easy, and gets more difficult when you’ve had a few health crisises in one year. Pulling up my feed from Kindle Digital Press, an Amazon Company (TM), I looked through the stark last few days of book sales. Book launches always peter out, that’s in their nature, but it still always sucks to reach the point where the luster has rubbed off for readers. My anthology is in the slow burn phase of it’s life, where it will remain. I remember that I need to continue the work of getting my books onto Audible, an Amazon Company (TM). I have a lot of work to do. I always do. I feel guilty for taking care of myself, after all, I have no salary. My time is mine for work.
If someone orders one of my books, they’ll roll off the printers, and an Amazon employee will package that book and send it out. Dropped on a doorstep, kerblam.
Meanwhile, in space, the same thing. But a different company name. Space Amazon… Spamazon… Kerblam!, that’s it, yes, Kerblam! is the biggest mailing retailer in the galaxy. They send antique lamps! And Fezzes! And their workers only get to see their own kids twice a year! They’re not allowed to talk or robots will come up and very politely threaten them! A big old happy place. We shouldn’t question it, not when our lives depend on it, our livlihoods. Even if our jobs are terrible, even if they disrespect our dignity, or reduce us to things machines could do, or give us little indignities that sting up our arms bit by bit till it sneaks up on us we have sores, its okay!
Kerblam! Is nice. They’re looking out for us. Sure, the manager is a brute who insults the nicest person alive, and sure they’re an autonomous entity that answers to no authority when people are dying, But that’s okay.
After all, at the end of the episode, the system at Kerblam murders an innocent girl, Kira, the nicest person alive, to try to show another one of it’s employees that he shouldn’t murder people. It’s not a fake out, they really murder her. But that’s okay. The Doctor even says that the system murdering her was because it was being kind and trying to save the guy who is going to kill a lot of people! How nice. We all know Kerblam is kind now, and that the Doctor did nothing about it’s murder of an innocent person and lets it walk away as though it was pure is because...it must actually be pure! It isn’t an indictment of the Doctor’s morals that she’d let that happen. Kerblam had our best interests at heart after all.
Which is why we should be so angry about Charlie, the terrorist who wants to kill people so more people get jobs. Charlie after all, wants to kill people, which is wrong (it’s not wrong when Kerblam does it though! Don’t misunderstand me! Bless Kerblam). The Doctor and friends stop him from murdering people which is good.
Kerblam then, in all it’s wisdom, closes the facility for a month while they get things together again. They give their employees two weeks pay (not pay for the full month though, let’s not be unreasonable), and the Doctor and co leave to deliver a necklace to the daughter of a nice man Charlie reprogrammed some of the adorable robots in Kerblam to murder.
The end of the episode seems strange. You have expect the Doctor to hang out of the TARDIS and yell, “Wait, what?”. Was this episode pro Kerblam? By the end, Kerblam is the good guys, the guy asking for more rights as a worker is evil and dead, and the middle managers promise change. The middle managers had been searching out the deaths all along?
Was this episode braver once, and did it get toned down somewhere in it’s process? Was it always just a subversion of Doctor Who tropes? Or does it really think that the endless stress of young people in our economy is a selfish cry that will lead to bombs and we shouldn’t ask for a better world?
Kerblam is, from a craft perspective, the best episode of this series of Doctor Who. The pacing is fantastic. The dialogue sings off the page, naturalistic but witty. There is the best action sequence we’ve had yet (with the chute!). The music is, once again, fantastic. The fake company looks like a real fake company! But the episode’s ending, with the murder of an innocent girl, with it glossing that over, with the demonizing of the person asking for change…it leaves a confusing sour note. Sweet and sour, mixed together. Results may vary on how it will sit in your stomach. If morality bothers you, you’ll probably be left uncomfortable. If not, I suppose it’s just fun! Kerblam is great! Smile!
There is a discord there. Did the writer miss the dissonance, or was the dissonance intentional? Is this a black comedy, or a defense of mega corporations? If you owed your income to a company, would you be brave enough to speak out against it? Or would you muddle that message? Would it come out whole, or in pieces.
I guess we’ll never know exactly what Kerblam meant to say.
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Today we have a guest post from friend of the blog Samuel Maleski, you can read more of his work at downtime2017.wordpress.com and find him on twitter at @LookingForTelos . It's a really interesting look at the Halloween movies, and I'm lucky I get to share it here. Enjoy!
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.