This week’s episode of Doctor Who hands us the largest twist of Moffat’s tenure–and indeed in the show’s history.
Last week, I posted that Moffat was lining up the classic clichés of Doctor Who for his last season and knocking them out of the park one by one. The “Companion Introduction” episode, the “Future” and “Past” episode, the “Haunted House”, etc. This week seemed to follow that pattern, as we hit the classic “Space Terror” episode. Think “The Waters of Mars” from Tennant’s last go round.
The Doctor: Space, the final frontier….Final because it wants to kill us—sometimes we forget that. Start taking it all for granted. The suits, the ships, the little bubbles of safety as they protect us from the void.”
What I didn’t consider is that Moffat was doing this deliberately–lulling us into a sense of security, that these were the episode tropes we know and love, in order to spring the biggest twist in Whovian history on us. He even deliberately picked a trope he’s done dozens of times with the spacesuit horror. How many empty space suit episodes have their been during his tenure? This has been one of his go-to horrors all the way back to “Silence in the Library,” which was before he took over the show.
Another way of lulling us this week–the clear political message of the episode. This episode was clearly written post Brexit, and it postulates that in space, not only will no one hear you scream, no one will give a damn about your work life balance either. No one will care about your needs to the point that every breath will cost you money, and every measure of distance will be calculated in those breaths that you take. It’s capitalism taken to the logical endpoint. The same people who are happily taking away our healthcare would totally make this the way space works when we go. And they make the suits that control those breaths speak to you in a terribly cheerful voice to boot. No matter what color your skin is.
Nardole: Some of my best friends are bluish!
This week also started off with our first Doctor lecture since the premiere, something I’d been hoping for since they made “Doctor” stand for “Professor” this season. And it was a doozy of a speech. Moffat tacitly acknowledges that space isn’t really scary in the Whovian world anymore. (He’s been a big reason for that. Think River Song in a ballgown floating in space towards the TARDIS, or Amy or Clara hanging out of the doorway.) Space is Dangerous. And after a speech which describes in detail how it will kill you, he proceeds to remind us of just that.
And yet. It’s the Doctor, right? He beats these things on the regular. He pulls a plan out of his ass and he saves the world, and we jump in the TARDIS and fly away. Even knowing that the Doctor will regenerate this season, we figure he’ll survive and come out just fine until the regeneration energy starts floating off his skin.
The Doctor: “I’ve got no sonic, no Tardis, about 10 minutes of oxygen left, and now I’m blind. Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?”
Not this time. After weeks of Bill asking the right questions and yet finding herself miraculous safe at the end of every journey, this is the episode where Bill nearly dies. Not just once, but over and over, as her suit just keeps malfunctioning to the point that the Doctor can’t do anything to stop it…except hope that he’s right that it’s malfunction means it’s too broken to kill her–just knock her unconscious.
The scene where Bill nearly dies the first time was one of the effective moments of horror and terror the show has done in a while–and then they followed it up with her walking through the battle with the zombie space suit wearers half conscious. The horror in this week’s episode was excellent in general–but it’s been awhile (maybe since the early days of Game of Thrones) since I’ve been impressed by the fear inspired by a battle I never even really saw.
Narole: Some of my best friends are bluish.
And yet, it seemed like, in the end, all was saved. The Doctor’s brave talk of a good death was just lying, as he does. (At least for once his reasoning is solid–as we saw all Bill’s spacesuit had to do was hear something spoken, and it worked to solve it–like mapping out Sector 12.) And we’re back on the TARDIS, taking the two survivors of our 40 workers to headquarters to file a complaint. And the Doctor is telling us how, in a few years time, and partly due to this incident, capitalism came to an end. Hooray! Happy endings all round, right?
Not so much. The Doctor isn’t wearing those goddamn sunglasses he’s been sporting on and off since Beethoven’s Fifth because Moffat is moffating, He’s wearing them because Nardole’s cure didn’t work. The 12th Doctor is officially blind. And whoever it is in the Vault–we’ll continue to assume that’s Missy, who shows up in the Next Time trailer–is going to take full advantage of that as soon as they find out and get out.
The Doctor: What do you want from me?
Nardole: The truth.
The Doctor: Don’t be unreasonable.
That’s a twist I wasn’t expecting, and I thought the Doctor might start regenerating as early as episode 2 at one point. Obviously those who thought this would be the slow demise of the Doctor over the course of the season just got a major boost to that theory. The question is if Capaldi will be playing the Doctor as blind for the rest of the season–which would be an extraordinary development for the show to take. The show has never injured the Doctor in such a fundamental way and then made him live with the consequences until the rest of his body fails too. (Suddenly the need for Nardole this season would make a *lot* more sense.) Or if by the end of the coming three parter, the Doctor will have regained his site… with only a few more episodes to live.
The Doctor’s blindness is obviously a major factor next week, in the “Monk’s Trilogy” as people have been referring to it. Whatever happens, he’s going to try to keep his blindness from Bill for at least part of the episode. The question is how long any pretense of anything will last once Missy shows up.