Peter Capaldi in BBC America’s “Doctor Who”
There is a mad man who lives inside a box in Clara Oswald’s living room and she keeps him a secret from everyone.
That could be the opening sentence of a magical fantasy adventure, which is what most of Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who can be characterized as, or the opening sentence of a psychological horror story, which is what Season 8 of Doctor Who appears to be about, whether intentionally or not. We noted a couple of weeks ago in our review of “Listen” that “you can’t tell if the menace comes from unseen monsters or from the deeply flawed people who are populating this tale” and wondered whether Moffatt, who has a poor track record when it comes to exploring the emotional states of his characters, was deliberately or inadvertently portraying Clara and the 12th’s relationship as deeply dysfunctional, if not downright disturbing. We were sure, halfway through this episode that yes, this is all very deliberate and we’re diving deep on the dark side of being a companion. Because when you strip way all the magic and adventure (and this has been a fairly low-key season when it comes to threats), and really look at the behavior going on (which Moffat & Co. have been doing in spades), what you come away with is —
Actually, no. We need to make our case first before we tell you what we really see. Let’s start at the very beginning. We heard one time that it was a very good place to start.
In this episode, the Doctor battles a killer MacGuffin from the planet PlotDevicea, which has become a threat not only to Coal Hill School, but to Earth itself, of course. Giving Clara the brush-off, for reasons that aren’t really explained, he goes undercover as the temporary caretaker of the school, meets Danny Pink for the second time, bellows a lot and insults practically everyone he comes into contact with, and eventually defeats the robot with Danny and Clara’s help. Everyone learns a powerful lesson and the earth is saved.
Now, the first twenty minutes or so left us bored and frustrated because, no offense to those who enjoy such things, a relationship sitcom set in the British school system is not something you could pay us to watch. We were squirming in our seats for the adventuring part to come into play. But then things started taking a darker and darker turn, and by the time the MacGuffin was blowing up doors and shooting a flipping Danny, we cared only about how in the hell they were going to end this episode after all the disturbing things it said about the characters. In other words, we got completely sucked into the relationship aspect and couldn’t have cared less about the killer robot.
No one in this tale came off well. In fact, everyone came of much worse than we thought they could going into it. Let’s start with the opening several minutes, where Clara is depicted frantically running from one life to another (and giving her “real” life, including her job and relationship, short shrift), until she’s sweaty and exhausted in front of her own mirror, reassuring herself over and over again that things are under control. That she can handle this. Look at those scenes for what they’re really showing; what kind of classic dysfunctional behavior is being depicted here.
Clara is a TARDIS addict.
The lying to her boyfriend and co-workers, the way she instantly skips out on her life and responsibilities for the intense high that her live-in pusher keeps offering her, the increasing realization that it’s getting out of control while at the same time assuring herself that she can stop any time she wants. It’s all right there.
And then there’s the Doctor, who has taken the highly unusual route of essentially moving into his companion’s home, giving her only the illusion that she has a life outside the TARDIS while disrupting her life constantly and criticizing her looks and her choices, while doing his best to sabotage her new romance. Danny referred to him as her “Space Dad,” which was funny and almost looks accurate on the surface of it, but that’s not it. That’s not what’s being depicted here. When the Doctor smiled with smug glee at the incorrect assumption that Clara had picked a boyfriend that looked just like him (sort of; in a complicated, roundabout way) and then exploded with insults when he discovered who her real boyfriend was, it dawned on us. This isn’t Dad behavior. This is ex-boyfriend behavior.
This is a story about an addict and her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend.
Honestly, if that’s what Moffat’s really going for here, we couldn’t applaud the idea enough. It’s crazy and dark and weird; as if Alan Moore was asked to write a season of Doctor Who. But as we also noted in our Listen review, Moffat doesn’t always seem to understand just how dark he’s getting and just how much damage his character should be suffering. The story of River Song, if it was being emotionally truthful, should have ended with broken friendships and lifelong pain for almost everyone involved, but instead it pretty much ended with hugs. This is why, even though it looks clear as day to us that everyone involved in this story should get the hell away from each other, we doubt that’s quite what Moffat’s trying to do or say. Although if he proves us wrong and this was the master plan all along, we may just call him a genius by the end of it.
“Clara, I’m not your boyfriend,” Twelve told her once, and admitted that he was the one who made the mistake in thinking so. There’s never been a true romantic aspect to their relationship, but they both, at times, fooled themselves into thinking there was. Now that they’ve decided there isn’t, not only has the intensity of their relationship ramped up, but they’ve become more abusive toward each other and spend less time away from each other than they ever did before. When you add the dishonesty and constant game-playing that goes on, it keeps looking darker and darker. And with this episode, it finally tipped over into something that, to us, was unambiguously disturbing.
Why are Clara and the Doctor lying to each other so much? He wouldn’t tell her what he was doing, even though he was smack in the middle of her workplace with no explanation. She hasn’t told him about Danny and seemed deathly afraid of what he was going to think. Worse, she has a conversation with Danny that mimics almost word for word one she had with the Doctor moments earlier, demonstrating that she treats him pretty much exactly the same way the Doctor treats her: by lying badly to him and occasionally insulting his intelligence when she does it. And in order to prove to Danny that she is the person she says she is – in other words, in order to prove her honesty to him, what does Clara do? She steals an invisibility device from the Doctor and tells Danny to eavesdrop on a conversation between the two of them. How is THAT not a major red flag to any boyfriend?
Not that Danny came off well at all. Talk about red flags. We can understand the shock and even, to some extent, the hurt that she hasn’t been truthful to him, but considering they’re hiding their relationship from all their co-workers (badly) and he seemed shocked to hear her say she loved him, they weren’t really in a place where he had any right to be making demands on her. They weren’t together long enough that she had an obligation to inform him of every little secret of her life. Basically, it was an hour of Clara ping-ponging back and forth between her boyfriend and the angry man who used to think he was her boyfriend, lying to both of them and freaking out as they fight over her like a possession. “I’m the one who carries you out of the fire,” Danny tells her, “He’s the one who lights it.” Sorry, what? Exactly what fires have you been rescuing her from? Seems to us, she’s been jumping into those fires willingly AND not asking anyone to get her out of them. We understand the point he was making about how the Doctor is a general who has turned her into a soldier, but that’s her choice to make and she never asked Danny for his help in making it. Later, he tells her, “If you don’t tell me the truth, then I can’t help you. And I can’t stand not being able to help you,” and threatens to break up with her if she doesn’t do as he says. We realize this is a family show (and thus unlikely to be as intentionally dark as we’re interpreting), but the only satisfying ending to this episode, for us, would have been Clara standing up and saying to both men “You know what? I want you both out of my life. You’re toxic, I’m exhausted, and I don’t recognize myself any more.”
Alas, that’s never going to happen. Even so, the episode ends with Clara looking terribly worried, so obviously these issues haven’t been settled. A pretty meaty (third time we’ve used that word this season) episode, even if we squirmed through the first 20 minutes or so. Moffat may not be seeing the consequences or subtext of what he’s doing, but there’s no doubt he’s deliberately exploring this relationship and willing to say it’s not all perfect. That alone is admirable and interesting to us. We can’t wait to see where it’s all going and how it ties into Misty and her heaven for everyone that dies because of the Doctor.
In other news, Capaldi is truly a joy to behold and has settled confidently and even cockily into the role, something that took Matt Smith much of his first season to do. This is not the Pied-Piper-esque Doctor who just can’t stand to hear the sound of a child crying. This is a Doctor who recklessly endangers children when he’s not insulting them or telling them to go the hell away.
[Photo Credit: BBC America]