We know who did what best, time to count ’em off. A lot of freshman shows in the mix, and more than one that we heard a lot about in the previous posts… will the old tradition of freshman shows taking the top spot return? Read on!
But first, pour a forty for these former shows… feels like for the first time more shows in the rankings are in this section or about to be than aren’t…
Batwoman:Batwoman had a rough ride, given the replacement of their title and central character after one COVID-shortened season. While I had my reservations about replacing the iconic Batwoman, Kate Kane, with an original character, Ryan Wilder brought a new level of vital social commentary to the show that the proper canonical Batwoman couldn’t: a black woman railroaded by a corrupt and racist law enforcement system speaks more to our current era than a wealthy white woman who, yes, is gay, so conservatives want her dead, but still. But while some people consider the third season its best (I can see that, it is the one with no origins), to me it became the new poster child for what had been going wrong with the Arrowverse: denied access to characters that might be in movies or HBO Max shows, they just said “We’ll make our OWN Batwoman! And our OWN Poison Ivy! And our OWN Joker!” and I didn’t love that. But the core cast was mostly solid (poor Sophie only briefly had a purpose other than “Love interest to whoever’s Batwoman”), and Rachel Skarsten’s Alice was a perpetual delight. With the exception of one scene, they brought their cast to a decent place of closure, and I thank them for that, even if it’s a little unfortunate they have to end here.
DMZ: Miniseries, doesn’t count
Legends of Tomorrow: Oh it hurts me to put this show in this section. Sure, they did even more than Batwoman to forge the unfortunate Arrowverse trend of “Well if we can’t use anyone the film/HBO Max branch wants, we’ll make our own superheroes! With blackjack and hookers entirely original characters!” It drifted pretty far from being able to legitimately call itself “DC’s” Legends of Tomorrow or even “a superhero show,” but it never drifted from being fun, moving, and full of delightful misfits that I shall miss terribly. Legends of Tomorrow lived and died as the most underrated Arrowverse show, and we were lucky to have it as long as we did. Sadly Warner Bros. decided it was done owning part of the CW, and using it to generate shows to sell to Netflix, and that came with casualties.
Lucifer: By what possible right was this show this good. It started as Castle but with the literal Devil instead of a mystery writer, something I watched mostly for the charm of its lead actor, then within two episodes of season two it was appointment viewing. It was a deconstruction of religious iconography, a deep dive into the dysfunctional divine family, and a show that’s funny, suspenseful, incredibly moving, and despite starring the former King of Hell… so very human. They made their cast of humans, angels, demons, and rotating celestials-of-the-season some of the most compelling characters around, old friends I’m sad I won’t be seeing more of. Also they solved murders! Almost every episode! If you haven’t seen it? Get on that. I shall miss it terribly, while rewatching it often.
Naomi: Okay so the thing is, Marvel pushed the “It’s all connected” angle for a reason. Even when the film and television branches were completely separate, they still had “It’s all one universe” to con people into watching Iron Fist or even Inhumans on the off chance that one of the characters would later, I don’t know, turn up in a Doctor Strange movie or something. Naomi decided they didn’t need any of that and created a separate universe for their show, and it turns out this was the worst possible season to do that on a network unsure of its future. Despite her creator’s ongoing attempts to bootstrap Naomi onto the DC A-list, she’s still more deep cut than icon, so maybe they needed the crutch of a connected universe. Still, one less show with a queer BIPOC lead is always worth mourning.
Supergirl: The Maid of Might survived cancellation by CBS, moving to another network and city, budget cuts, a pandemic, having to film a third of their final season while their title character was on maternity leave, some of the net’s most rabid ‘shippers, and people thinking that a hero standing up against hatred and intolerance is “too political.” But it was brought down, at least in part, by the same thing that felled Arrow a season earlier… the lead actor deciding they wanted to move on. Melissa Benoist gave us one of the most passionate, devoted, moving heroes in last past six years, and if she wants to hang up the cape for new endeavours and to spend more time with her husband and new son, she’s earned that. Godspeed, Kara Zor-El/Danvers.
Y, The Last Man: Look it’s inherently sad that a project that languished in five kinds of development hell for over a decade finally saw the light of day only to be almost immediately cancelled, even if they didn’t quite sell me on the result.
The Arrowverse:Arrow is over, Supergirl is over, Batwoman, Legends of Tomorrow, and Black Lightning are all over, and given revelations in the season finale, Superman and Lois went the way of Dwayne Johnson in The Fast Saga… once they spun him off on his own, he essentially cut ties with the rest of the franchise. (At time of writing Stargirl isn’t cancelled yet, but they’re on Earth-2, they barely count as Arrowverse adjacent.) And there seem to be no more Arrowverse shows coming*. Flash is the last one standing and it’s ending next year. Who would have thought a show about Green Arrow’s early days as an archery-based vigilante, cribbing heavily from Nolan’s ultra-grounded Dark Knight trilogy, would eventually lead to time travelling sorcerers, a full multiverse, the Legion of Superheroes, Brandon Routh reprising Superman, Jon Cryer absolutely nailing Lex Luthor, live-action Gorilla Grodd on network TV, annual crossovers that routinely put The Defenders to shame, and the first live-action adaptation of Crisis on Infinite Earths? COVID putting a stop to the annual crossovers took the wind out of their sails, and Warner Bros. deciding to sell off their share of the CW seems to be the kill shot, but while quality could vary wildly from show to show and season to season, it was still a great ride. We shan’t see its equal soon, not unless HBO Max gets its act together and quickly.
*Don’t talk to me about Gotham Knights, Gotham Knights is set in yet another self-contained continuity like Naomi and Pennyworth and I already dislike them for it.
Okay, fights were fought, songs were sung, tears were shed… sometimes during the songs, don’t you dare judge me… let’s talk characters.
Best Guest Star
Everyone loves a good guest star, it’s why even the Emmys have awards for the people who strolled in for a handful of episodes, or even just one, and absolutely stole the show.
Here’s who did that.
Honourable Mentions: Vincent D’Onfrio proved he hasn’t lost a step as Kingpin in Hawkeye; Giancarlo Esposito is brilliant as always as Stan Edgar on The Boys; the brief finale cameos from Peacemaker were super fun; it’s always fun to see Mark Sheppard stop by Doom Patrol; and 90s Flash John Wesley Shipp played golden age Flash Jay Garrick on two shows this year, let’s keep that going, I love it every time.
Bronze: The Armageddon Crew, The Flash
The writers of The Flash miss the annual crossovers as much as we do, but COVID realities mean that actors can’t still easily pop between sets, so a proper crossover remains out of reach. So instead, the Flash producers looked back at past seasons, asked “Who doesn’t have a show right now,” and pulled out the rolodex to fill the opening arc of season eight with familiar faces to give it that classic crossover feel. And not just anyone, some old favourites that made the podium around these parts at least once. Brandon Routh was back as Ray Palmer/The Atom, Chyler Leigh basically strolled over right from the finale of Supergirl to bring Alex Danvers to Central City; Katherine McNamara gave us some follow-up on the cliffhanger from Mia Queen’s failed backdoor pilot; Damien and Nora Darhk show up, Damien’s never not fun. And on top of them, a flash-forward gave us Ryan Choi as the new Atom*; Javicia Leslie managed to sneak off the Batwoman set to make up for not getting to meet Superman last season; Cress Williams brings his gravitas to Black Lightning talking Barry out of a bad choice… there was always someone. Some fun old friend to help “Armageddon” feel epic.
(*That one felt a little “Come on we have to do it once before we shut this thing down, we can’t introduce Ryan Choi from the comics and do literally nothing worthwhile with him, we aren’t Zack Snyder.”)
Silver: The OGs, Legends of Tomorrow
I wanted one thing from the 100th episode of Legends of Tomorrow, a show whose cast has had so much turnover it’s barely recognizable from season one: the return of the OG Legends. And by the gods, they delivered. The Waverider’s AI, Gideon, has become human, and to help her time-computer mind transition to a human brain, two of the latest Legends have to accompany her on a trip through her memories to find her place as a human/time computer hybrid.
And it was a treat.
Sure there’s a few missing… Dominic Purcell had just left the show last season, and not necessarily on the best terms, so no Heat Wave… Matt Ryan had spent the hiatus growing a beard and changing his hair for his new character, so no John Constantine… I couldn’t tell you why they couldn’t squeeze in Hawkgirl or Amaya/Charlie… but other than those four they got everyone of note back. Yep, everyone of note.
Okay the gag was that I’m ignoring the fact that Mona Wu wasn’t there either because she wasn’t a good add to the cast and mercifully didn’t last long but I can see that some of you aren’t getting that so you know what let’s move on.
Gold: Paul Reiser as The Legend, The Boys
In the graphic novels of The Boys, The Legend was Billy Butcher’s source inside Vought American’s publishing empire, the guy who helped market the heroes through comics, and thus knows all the dirty secrets, and was pretty obviously modelled after Stan Lee. But The Boys as a TV show isn’t targeting comics in its satire, its going after the movies, hence all Vought heroes also being movie stars, so season three brought us The Legend as a Sleazy Hollywood Producer (based, it is said, on New Hollywood Era head of Paramount Robert Evans), and Paul Reiser slays it. He crushes every story of old-school Hollywood debauchery, his ongoing if not fully explained grudge with Butcher (doesn’t need much explaining, if you’ve met Butcher you probably have a beef with him), and his annoyance at having Soldier Boy back in his life. I hadn’t been sure The Legend was coming, but man he’s a value add to an ensemble firing on all cylinders.
I loves me some superhero shows, I loves me some DC heroes, and the CW delivers me both of those things through a series of shows that, while flawed, I find overall much more entertaining than annoying.
So I wanna talk about ’em. And I have a blog, so I’m gonna, in a series chronicling the highs and lows, successes and failures, twists, turns, and tragedies of what shouldbe called the DCW-verse, or if you prefer whimsy, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory, but remains called the Arrowverse because the internet makes bad choices.
So let’s dig into it.
Year two remains a simple one… just one show, Arrow season two. But it began to set the stage for something bigger, grander, and glorious.
The journey from Arrowverse to Beebo-Verse begins in year two.
Arrow: Season Two
Season two is thought of as one of, if not the very best season of Arrow. It’s based on the five-year-old rivalry of friends-turned-nemeses Oliver Queen and Slade Wilson, although they spend the first nine episodes on Oliver vs Brother Blood so we won’t know what’s coming. It’s an operatic battle of revenge that forms Oliver’s first real crucible as a hero, and there’s only one season of Arrow that can compete with it.
Season seven is… ongoing at time of writing.
In the flashbacks, Oliver, Shado, and Slade are living on Lian Yu, but find themselves being targeted by a group of mercenaries working for a mad scientist named Anthony Ivo who have arrived via a freighter called the Amazo. Ivo’s seeking a Japanese super soldier serum called mirakuru, which I thought was going to be a reference to Miraclo, the drug that gave golden age hero Hourman his powers, but ultimately wasn’t. Just a similar bastardization of the word “miracle.” Mirakuru gives a person enhanced strength, speed, and resiliency, but also drives them a little crazy, and when they inject Slade with it to save his life, he soon turns on Oliver. Thanks mostly to the death of Shado, which Oliver indirectly causes by choosing to protect Sara Lance.
Oh, yeah, hey, Sara Lance isn’t dead. Not in the flashbacks and not in the modern day. They hide this from us for a couple of episodes by recasting her with Caity Lotz, who later takes the character to heights they didn’t even think possible back in year two. We’ll cover that below.
In the present, Oliver graduates from being the Hood to the Arrow, and in Tommy Merlyn’s memory, attempts to give up killing. It’s… a rocky road, as he does arrow-murder the heck out of the Count a few episodes in, but he’s mostly determined to stick to it.
Diggle begins to reunite with his ex-wife. Felicity becomes a full member of the cast, with a clear crush on Oliver that he’s trying to duck around. (They play it fairly subtly at this stage… when Oliver has a questionable hook-up, she asks “Why her?” and only subtext in her delivery makes it clear that there’s a second part to her question of “And not me?”) Comics-Roy Harper classically had issues with heroin, and as a possible reference to that, TV-Roy Harper gets injected with mirakuru, which makes him predictably unbalanced. There is no similar comics equivalent for Laurel, who becomes an Assistant District Attorney but loses the job when she gets hooked on pills. Thea has taken over Oliver’s nightclub, despite not being old enough to drink there, but when she finds out her biological father was actually Malcolm Merlyn (who, surprise, isn’t dead), begins to unravel back into whiny season one Thea. And Detective Lance, a rock we didn’t fully appreciate in season one, has faced a career setback for working with the vigilante, and is now Officer Detective Quentin Lance.
The Rough Spots
I call it “Felicity interruptus.” Every time, every single time that Oliver needs to attend a meeting to protect his company or have a quick conversation to save his personal life, Felicity or sometimes Digg will call/show up with news about whoever needs Arrow-justice that week, and he’ll have to run off. Without fail. Every time. I gave Spider-Man: Homecoming crap for the same thing… if he chooses hero stuff over personal stuff every single time an important personal matter turns up, it gets old and loses impact.
In one case Felicity actively asks him not to go, and to instead sort out his family business so that he, his mother, and his sister wouldn’t lose their home, their nightclub, and their trust funds (who gave the board of Queen Consolidated control of Oliver and Thea’s trust funds? That is eight brands of dumb). Something that could have been accomplished by saying “Call me back when you have a minute” when Oliver said “I can’t talk right now.”
That’s the one that broke me. That’s the worst one they ever did. It might also be the last one they ever did. In season three I believe he runs out of friends and loved ones who don’t know his identity. But it was still a bad, bad trope.
Also, when Thea’s being written better, Laurel develops a pill addiction that is not a flattering colour on her. As soon as Laurel gets clean, Thea starts endlessly whining about being lied to all the time. Which… she isn’t wrong, but there’s being right and there’s being… not insufferable.
Why is the worst written character always a woman? Well… except on Supergirl, but we’re still two years out from that.
The soap opera romance is better this year, though… the only major occurence being some awkwardness between Oliver and Laurel when Laurel’s sister Sara Lance turns out not to be dead and she and Oliver start banging again.
Let’s see… Felicity interruptus, Laurel’s on pills, Thea bitching about being lied to… I think that’s it.
Oliver’s quest towards being a hero begins with his attempt to stop killing people, which, yes, kind of an important step, especially when you consider how many of his season one victims were just hired security as opposed to actual villainous millionaires. So the transition to hero continues, expressed by changing his vigilante name from “the Hood” to “the Arrow,” but I really want to talk about one of the most important Arrowverse leads, who makes their first appearance this year.
Aside from Barry Allen, I mean.
So. Sara Lance. In the flashbacks, Sara’s on the Amazo working for Ivo… in the present day, she’s the Canary, who spent five years with the League of Assassins before returning to Starling City to prey on men who get violent with women. Soon she and the Arrow are crossing paths, and she joins Team Arrow.
Sara continues the trend of “the costume predates the character,” as she is called “the Canary,” but isn’t A-list comics hero Black Canary. That’s still to come. Still, Sara was such a compelling addition to the show that fans couldn’t help but fall for her. Like Oliver, she’s doing her best to put killing behind her. Like Oliver, her past isn’t exactly willing to let her go that easily. Like Oliver, she’s an impressive badass. Unlike Oliver, she manages not to get lost in brooding and self-pity all the goddamn time.
There’s nothing about Sara Lance, proto-Canary, that screams “make her the captain of a time-travelling spaceship,” not yet anyway, but she was a breath of fresh air and the franchise was and is lucky to have her.
This is the first example of an Arrowverse trend… a warm-up villain who sets the stage for the Big Bad to come. It’s also one of the few times that said warm-up villain sticks around for the whole season. It’s Sebastian Blood, played by Kevin Alejandro, formerly of the James Woods legal drama Shark (not the only Shark veteran to sign on this season), and soon to be of my beloved celestial drama/crime procedural Lucifer. Despite the fact that he’s named “Sebastian Blood,” I somehow didn’t figure out that he’d be the Arrowverse twist on Teen Titans nemesis Brother Blood until someone called him that, probably because Brother Blood has never been a Green Arrow villain per se, but there really aren’t so many iconic Green Arrow villains that they can limit themselves to that. He basically works. Kevin Alejandro is a solid performer, and the growing mystery behind Sebastian Blood is well-played.
But the primary villain of Arrow season two is, perhaps, the very best villain the Arrowverse has ever, ever done… Deathstroke.
The season two flashbacks show how Oliver and Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) began to turn from friends to enemies. At the end of the fall finale, it’s revealed that he’s alive, well, and has been in Starling City for some time, plotting some truly operatic revenge against Oliver. Called “Deathstroke” by ARGUS, the Arrowverse’s clandestine government agency of choice, Slade is a physical menace that Team Arrow combined can barely hold up against, and a tactical threat Oliver can hardly keep up with. And it’s all rooted in a compelling performance by Manu Bennett. The complex relationship between Oliver and Slade, past and present, gives the season bite and depth. Plus, flank him with Brother Blood and an ice-cold Summer Glau as Isobel Rochev, and we’ve got a highly effective cabal of villains. I like a good cabal.
Fan service in the Arrowverse comes in three varieties: the good (characters from the comics and geek-friendly guest stars), the bad (characters grossly misinterpreted), and the weird (characters named after comics characters but not even vaguely similar to them).
Two, count ’em, two Firefly vets this season. Sean Maher makes a couple of appearances as the Arrowverse version of Shrapnel (minus the meta powers and exploding body), but far more significant is Summer Glau’s season-long turn as Isobel Rochev, who on the show and in the comics makes a play to steal Oliver’s company.
Bronze Tiger isn’t traditionally a villain. Yes, I certainly know him best as a member of the Suicide Squad, but one of the “good characters who guides the squad” rather than one of the villains pressed into service. And while the episode Suicide Squad gives him a moment of redemption, it will take five years for Tiger, as the show calls him, to begin to move from villain to complicated potential hero. But he’s played by Black Dynamite himself, Michael Jai White, and that’s great.
Early in season two, Oliver and the Canary take on a serial killer named the Dollmaker. This might be the one time Arrow and Gotham both use a villain and Arrow does it better.
Robert Knepper, formerly of Prison Break and Carnivale, soon to be of iZombie, menaces Oliver as the precision-timed villain Clock King.
Can’t ask for a bigger fan service episode than the assembly of the Suicide Squad, on a mission to DC Comics’ fictional European nation of Markovia.
Nicholas Lea of The X-Files helps Moira Queen run for mayor.
The Huntress is back, and still evil. They call her episode “Birds of Prey,” because it involves the Huntress meeting the Canary, but they do not bond or become friends. Failed WB series Birds of Prey did this pairing better, and that’s nothing to be proud of.
Amanda Waller comes to the Arrowverse, with the Suicide Squad in tow… but maybe because this is the CW, they went with a young, skinny Amanda Waller. The New 52 reboot of DC tried the same thing, and it just doesn’t suit the character. Cynthia Addai-Robinson does well enough with the role, but it’s just not… well, she’s no Viola Davis.
The flashbacks… and one present-day episode set in Russia… introduce Anatoly Knyazev, known to Batman readers as the KGBeast. He isn’t called KGBeast for another five years, and he bears little resemblance to his comics counterpart (being more of a tactician than a physical menace), but I do love him.
Speaking of season two fan service that would be corrected five years later… Professor Ivo’s boat is named in honour of comics-Ivo’s most notable creation, the android Amazo, who can copy the powers of the entire Justice League and is not, canonically, a boat. In year two, it’s an Easter egg for comics fans. In year seven, they introduce Ivo Labs, and a proper Amazo android, who in deference to season two is infused with mirakuru. It was a bit of a wait, but worth it.
Slade’s first mirakuru-enhanced minion is named Cyrus Gold, a clear reference to classic comic villain Solomon Grundy, something backed up by Gold’s fascination with the Solomon Grundy poem. Once again… Gotham did this one better. I hate saying that. They keep making me say that.
Diggle’s ex-and-future-wife, Lyla Morgan, has the codename “Harbinger” in the episode “Suicide Squad.” Making her a reference to the comics character Harbinger (real name Lyla), a key player in the mack-daddy of all comics crossovers, Crisis on Infinite Earths. At the time, we had no reason to believe that they might be working towards a TV version of Crisis. Things… things have changed.
Jean Loring, the Queen family defence attorney, and Starling City DA Kate Spencer both have one thing in common with their comics counterparts, in that they have similar professions. But Kate never fights crime as the Manhunter, and Jean seems unlikely to marry Ray Palmer or… do any of the dark-ass things Jean got up to starting with Identity Crisis. A story DC is probably trying to queitly walk back.
There still isn’t a real crossover in season two, because there’s still only one show… but we have a crossover of sorts in “The Scientist” and “Three Ghosts.” After filling the first third of the season with TV reports on the impending and controversial opening of a particle accelerator at Central City’s STAR Labs, future Flash Barry Allen makes his way to Starling City in the eighth episode… which for the next few years is exactly when the crossovers happen. Barry assists Team Arrow in stopping Brother Blood’s first successful mirakuru minion, gets closer to Felicity than Oliver liked, and returns home to Central City just in time to get struck by lightning after the STAR Labs particle accelerator goes kablooey.
This is more of a proto-crossover than last year’s introduction of the Huntress, because they very much intended for Barry to spun off into his own series. He was supposed to come back for episode 19 as a backdoor pilot for a Flash series, but reaction to his first appearances was positive enough that they decided to make a proper pilot instead. Episode 19 does, however, introduce two of Barry’s future best friends: Cisco Ramon and Caitlin Snow. And name drops Harrison Wells and Iris West.
There’s always deaths in the Arrowverse, and it’s usually someone you didn’t want to go.
Needless to say, here there be spoilers.
Farewell to Oliver’s mother, Moira Queen. She was complex, rarely entirely trustworthy, but as soon as they revealed that she knew Oliver was the Arrow we had to know her time was limited. Moira Queen is a casualty in Slade’s war against Oliver.
Moira’s final episode also involves flashbacks to a fling of Oliver’s who ended up pregnant. This… this is going to be important down the line.
Isobel Rochev was on Robert Queen’s list.
Arrow season two introduces us to Nyssa Al Ghul, the lesser known daughter of Batman villain Ra’s Al Ghul. Lesser known to the point where even I’d never heard of her. Later Nyssa would be given her own DLC in the Batman: Arkham Knight game, which I have to believe Arrow is responsible for. Nyssa is a very popular character with Arrowverse fans, but sadly actress Katrina Law got busy, so we don’t see much of her lately.
Nyssa’s debut is also the first occurrence of something the Arrowverse is really good at. The Arrowverse has a strong track record with LGBT characters, and they’re great at one specific thing… normalization. People don’t strongly react to a character being gay on an Arroverse show, even one who’s just come out. Being gay or bi isn’t a scandal or a shock or a Condition, references to same-sex relationships aren’t treated differently. Which is how it should be. In “Heir to the Demon,” Nyssa’s first appearance, the entire gang learns that Sara and Nyssa were romantically involved during Sara’s five years with the League of Assassins. Everyone, from her sister to her parents to her past and future lover Oliver, responds with at most a simple “….Oh.” And then they’re fine. Hell, Quentin’s just happy that Sara had someone special for the last five years, he could not care less what gender they were.
I talked to Manu Bennett shortly after Moira’s death aired. I told him that in the moment, I almost felt bad for Slade, because it seemed like he wished he didn’t have to do this. His head popped up, a smile on his face, because this was exactly what he was going for, and he was glad to know it landed. Cool guy, Manu Bennett. Shook my hand twice.
Next time in this series, The Flash becomes the makeshift Superman to Arrow’s pseudo-Batman… something they dig even further into… and a certain British con-artist magician garners attention.
Next time on the blog in general… who knows. I have other projects demanding my time. We’ll see.
Oh hey guys. What’s up? Been a little while. Plenty to talk about. I have a nostalgia trip to wax poetic about, stories to tell about the Big Apple, and since by the time I’m done my Doctor Who rewatch series 11 will be done I guess I may as well write it up… but before I get to any of that, there’s just oooooone little thing I need out of my brain.
Let’s talk Daredevil.
Daredevil Season Three: Fall and Rise
Daredevil season three dropped not so very long ago, making 2018 the first year that Marvel Netflix released a solo season for each of the four Defenders… and, given that it came on the heels of the cancellation of both Iron Fist and Luke Cage, the last.
(Also, real quick, gonna cram in another blog topic I’m probably unlikely to get to.)
(Ahem. Dear Iron Fist. You were pretty shit in your first season, and you dragged down the first and only season of The Defenders, making this whole Marvel Netflix connected universe feel like a let-down. But damned if you didn’t at least try to bounce back. You took some of the big problems of season one… Danny has no personality beyond being the Iron Fist, Danny is bad at being the Iron Fist, Colleen was more interesting as a lead… and made them into your narrative arc for the year. Clever move that made for a better show. The show still wasn’t perfect… I never had any sympathy for Joy Meechum as a character, Colleen’s subplot got put on hold so many times I kept forgetting what it was, and your A-plot boils down to two five-episode slogs to two plot points of interest… but hey you were trying. Shame you left so much on the table for a third season that isn’t coming, but you were no longer Marvel’s worst TV show, not even the worst this season.)
So. Yes. Daredevil. A few spoilers will result, there’s really no way around that if I’m going to discuss this in any detail, and I mean to do just that.
First off, the basics, in which Daredevil has fallen but the Kingpin is on the rise. We pick up a couple of months after Defenders. Matt, presumed dead by his pal Foggy Nelson but merely missing by still-not-his-love-interest Karen Page, is in the church where he was raised after the death of his father, healing from having a building fall on him, and spiritually crushed from the whole business with Elektra. Wilson Fisk, meanwhile, begins to enact a plan to get himself out of prison and back into the heights of high society, while building a new crime empire. Matt, Foggy, and Karen each search for ways to get Fisk back in prison, but he’s worked hard to be untouchable, sets out to destroyMattand the very name of Daredevil, and begins grooming a new chief enforcer in Ben “Dex” Poindexter, an FBI agent with lethal aim and severe borderline personality disorder.
Yes, I know exactly which comic character he is, thanks, but I’ll call him Bullseye when they call him Bullseye. Until then he’s “Dex” or “Fake Daredevil.”
It’s the follow-up to Daredevil’s great first season that season two failed to be, the Fast and Furious to season two’s 2 Fast 2 Furious. Season two, in fact, is all but scrubbed from memory. There are some lingering effects… The law firm of Nelson & Murdock remains broken up, we address what happened immediately after the season two cliffhanger of Matt confessing his other identity to Karen (through a flashback, since all of Defenders happened since then), Fisk seeming to have figured out Matt’s secret comes into play, and Elektra gets mentioned exactly once, but otherwise season two is forgotten. We just pick up on everything that’s been dangling since season one and try to pretend the Hand didn’t happen.
Which is for the best. Marvel Netflix fucked up the Hand so thoroughly there’s no real redemption for it now.
So how’d it turn out?
Good. Pretty good. Couple… couple of problems I want to get into, but first let’s cover what they did well.
The cast is stellar. Charlie Cox does solid work as the spiritually lost Matt Murdock, turning his back on his old path and considering breaking his no-kill rule to keep Fisk from hurting anyone. Vincent D’Onfrio remains excellent as Fisk, now adopting the name Kingpin (leaving him off the Best Villains list three years back remains my biggest blunder in comic TV rankings… also I seem to be the only Flash fan who liked Tom Felton as Julien Albert, but that’s another issue). Deborah Ann Woll is riveting as Karen Page. She’s been doing great, subtle work conveying Page’s guilt and torment over killing Fisk’s right-hand man Wesley back in season one, but this year it finally comes to a boil. Wilson Bethel kills it (excuse the expression) as Dex, and newcomer Jay Ali is great as FBI Agent Ray Nadeem. And Elden Henson (Foggy) doesn’t whiff his big moments as badly as he did in season two.
A more centralized arc makes for a stronger season than… most Marvel Netflix seasons. The focus on Nelson, Murdock, and Page against Fisk and Fake Daredevil means no third act collapse like early Luke Cage or season two Daredevil, and no games of villain roulette like early Iron Fist. All without spending six episodes getting to the point like Jessica Jones’ second season.
There is, however, one large problem. Let’s discuss it.
The Problem With Kingpin
In last season’s rankings, the silver medalist for “Worst Trend” was the all-knowing mastermind, and that one’s all over Daredevil this year.
Okay. Let’s assume that you, reader representing all readers, don’t watch as much comic book TV as I do. This seems highly probable because I don’t actually know anyone who watches as much comic TV as I do. So based on that, let’s further assume that you haven’t done this dance with Prometheus, Cayden James, Ricardo Diaz, Shadow King, Hiram Lodge, and lesser versions like the Thinker. That your reaction isn’t “Jesus, not this again.” Kingpin being five steps ahead of Daredevil and pals all season still doesn’t really work. Allow me to explain.
Yes I have to get into spoiler territory. I’ll try to avoid specifics but I have to talk about the season as a whole, yeah?
For twelve episodes Kingpin can’t be touched. For twelve episodes we learn again and again that his influence is worse than we knew, that he has leverage everywhere. For twelve episodes every single move Matt, Karen, or Foggy makes fails completely.
It is one thing for Ethan Hunt to be playing defence for an entire Mission: Impossible movie. Over two or two and a half hours, with action movie pacing, it’s thrilling. Over 13 hours, it’s a slog. When you’re ten episodes deep on a show, and the heroes haven’t had a win yet, and there are three episodes left, it can make pushing through a challenge. And it’s repetitive. It’s a slog and it has no levels. Daredevil’s first season managed this so much better, with Fisk’s criminal cabal of international stereotypes acting as minibosses, giving Matt a sense of progress as the season played out. Now it’s just Fisk winning more and more and the audience thinking “I don’t know, maybe Matt does need to kill him.”
And the other issue is, when Team Daredevil hasn’t managed a win in twelve episodes, it makes the wrap-up super forced and very unearned. There isn’t a thing they’ve been able to do to get Fisk one step closer to prison the entire season, their one big chance collapsed at the finish line in episode 12 because Fisk is that good, and then in the finale, they topple his entire operation with two phone calls and a viral video. Poof. Mission accomplished in one afternoon, with time to grab a slice downtown before dark. Fisk was a brilliant mastermind, constantly five steps ahead, able to counter any gambit, and then all of a sudden he wasn’t and his whole life fell apart (literally, thanks to the big final fight). That’s weak writing. Maybe if over the course of the season Team Real Daredevil had actually made progress, whittled down some of Fisk’s infrastructure and support system (like they did in the superior first season), the ending would have felt more earned. But they didn’t and it felt forced. They reached a mega-happy ending that would make a decent series finale so fastthat it’ll give you whiplash. Of course, if the Marvel TV purge that brought down both Iron Fist and Luke Cage hits them next, we’ll be glad for the closure, but still.
At first, towards the end of the premiere, when all the characters we knew disappeared and we shifted to some guy we’d never met having a party for his kid, it was a little throwing. He’s Special Agent Rahul “Ray” Nadeem, and he’d had to foot the bill for his sister-in-laws’ cancer treatments, which makes him ineligible for promotion because he’s seen as a criminal recruitment risk, or so they tell him. If you’re like me, when he takes up maybe a third of the premiere, you might think “What’s up with this guy?”
But do it with genuine curiosity in your voice, not annoyance, because he works pretty damn well.
Agent Nadeem puts a human face on Fisk’s ability to control people. The way he creates a need, provides a solution, and then leverages that to control his target. Ray’s a good guy, but he’s forced into a bad place, because that’s what Fisk does. Were it not for Ray, Fisk’s growing influence would have been even harder to choke down as a long arc, but viewing it all through Ray’s increasingly troubled eyes makes it almost work (again, all-knowing masterminds are just… they’re not as interesting to watch as people think).
And as I said above, Jay Ali sells the hell out of it, especially as he tries to dig his way back out.
Would that our actual lead was quite as well realized. However.
Matt’s Moral Code (Or Lack Thereof)
The ethics of killing are always, always a talking point in Marvel Netflix shows. The Defenders take a much harder line against bloodshed than the cinematic Avengers ever have. The morality of killing was the point of contention between Daredevil and the Punisher in the good part of Daredevil’s second season, and between Danny Rand and Davos in the second season of Iron Fist (although Davos’ willingness to kill his enemies proved to be slightly less of an issue than how quickly he was willing to classify someone as “enemy”). A desire to prevent deaths was Luke Cage’s only contribution to the main story of his second season. Jessica Jones is tormented by every death on her hands.
Of course this branch of Marvel TV also has The Punisher, a story driven by dozens of justice murders, which is kind of a mixed message, but anyway.
So the big question facing Matt this season is whether or not he’ll break his moral code and kill Wilson Fisk, assuming he can even get an opening to do so. They certainly try to make the stakes on this as high as they can, but… this hard and fast “no killing” rule they’re talking about hasn’t been hard or fast for a while. The second season, which they might want to forget but definitely happened, already established that while Daredevil doesn’t kill, if someone else is killing his enemies to help him out, that’s just fine by him and God, I guess. In the second season finale, both Elektra and Frank Castle killed a bunch of Hand ninjas right next to Matt and I didn’t see him complaining.
Man. Remember when the Hand actually had ninjas? We didn’t know when we were well off.
At first, Matt just wants to get Fisk back into prison, where the Albanian gang he betrayed to set his plan in motion can kill him at their leisure. That seems to fit with Matt’s moral code thus far. He isn’t killing Fisk himself, he’s just arranging for someone else to do it on his behalf, like Frank sniping all those ninjas so Matt could throw Head Ninja off the roof and Stick could cut his head off. Like that but less colourful and more prison-stabby. But something changes after Plan A goes awry with the arrival of Fake Daredevil. From there, Matt becomes determined that he must kill Fisk himself.
Him and him alone, it seems. Because upon arranging matters to put Fisk’s life in mortal peril (those two phone calls I mentioned), Matt then saves his life so that he can do it himself? That seems unnecessary. I guess not wanting to sully anyone else’s hands with the act seems like Matt’s endless martyrdom all over on paper, even if the hands he’s keeping clean are already drenched in blood, but letting someone else do his killing for him actually is Matt all over based on his actions in season two.
Man but season two has a lot to answer for. No wonder they’re trying to forget it happened so hard they gave Punisher a second origin.
And there’s a second failing on Matt’s part. His sin, as the Operative from Serenity would say, is pride.
Despite having just made three super-powered pals (four now, with Colleen), and having a potential new friend inside the NYPD in the form of Misty Knight, Matt decides to take on Fisk’s nigh-infinite resources and unstoppable muscle all by himself, only begrudgingly turning to Foggy and Karen for help.
When Sister Maggie, the nun who raised him (and comic fans know where that’s going), asks why he doesn’t focus on healing and ask any other powered hero to take point on this, he just says “It’s not their fight.”
That is just the laziest goddamn excuse.
I’m not saying this should have become the defacto second season of Defenders, the way Captian America: Civil War was essentially Avengers 2.5. That isn’t how these things work, and ultimately it’s too easy. The real reason he never calls Luke Cage for help, even when he finds himself needing to be in two places at once, is that they needed Fake Daredevil to win his first two rounds against Real Daredevil, and Fake Daredevil wouldn’t have lasted five minutes against Luke Cage, given that being able to throw a pencil with lethal precision won’t matter to someone with bulletproof skin and super strength. But they really needed a better excuse.
Outside of the annual crossover, the Flash almost never comes to save Green Arrow, and vice versa, and nobody ever thinks to ask Supergirl to pop by and solve all of their problems (Earth-1 in the Arrowverse has maybe four villains who aren’t laughably outmatched by Supergirl). This doesn’t happen because “The Hero Bravely Asks Someone to Solve Their Problems” might sometimes be the right play, but it isn’t narratively satisfying. But at least there are reasons why this doesn’t happen. First and foremost, these are episodic shows that air simultaneously, so we can always see what the Flash is busy with that’s keeping him from popping over to Star City when Green Arrow’s stretched thin. And if necessary, they come up with other reasons. Such as in this year’s Flash premiere, when they have a time travel problem, and someone actually thinks to say “Hey, why don’t we ask that spaceship full of time travellers we know for help?” and then they do (off camera), and we’re given an explanation as to why they can’t fix everything. A made-up-science explanation but still an explanation.
Marvel Netflix shows drop months apart from each other, and we’re often shown they happen sequentially (Iron Fist season two clearly takes place after Luke Cage season two, although it’s anyone’s guess when Jessica Jones’ second season is in comparison). So while Danny Rand is probably out of town, Jessica, Luke, Colleen, Misty, and Frank freaking Castle aren’t, and I have no idea what they’re doing that’s so great they can’t take an interest in the return of Wilson Fisk. Hell, Fisk’s plan should absolutely be of interest to the new King of Harlem. And while I can’t see Matt asking the Punisher to come and help him do a murder (as we discussed above, he became really weirdly insistent on doing it himself), I can certainly see Karen Page turning to her super-violent friend for backup, or at least protection.
Not to mention Punisher vs. Fake Daredevil would be a fight to see. But the Punisher isn’t even mentioned. Jessica Jones at least had her name dropped once, if not in a flattering light.
No, all we’re given is “It’s not their fight,” an excuse so hollow it becomes a weakness of character, Matt’s pride not letting him reach out to his new friends, even if they could have tipped the scales before he suffered some hard losses. I mean come on, Matt, at least let them know you got out from under that building.
(Also why did none of them come poking around when Fisk made Daredevil public enemy number one? Stubborn idjits, all of ’em.)
The more I think about it the less I’m on board with Matt giving up the Daredevil costume to go back to those black pyjamas from season one. His whole thing was giving up being Matt Murdock to focus on being the Devil (I know I say this a lot but this time for sure, can we be done with “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” please? At least they only said it once that I remember this time), but why go all the way back to his first outfit? Sure he mumbled something about turning his back on what the costume represented, but it’s not like he completely changed methods and tactics when he put the red suit on. He’s the same hero in red he was in black, and going back to the PJs simply means less protection. Daredevil loses one of his fights with Fake Daredevil for only one reason: Fake Daredevil is wearing body armour and Matt isn’t. Matt was landing way more blows, but Fake Daredevil’s armoured suit could take the punishment better than Matt’s sweatshirt, something I could swear he learned back in season one when that ninja sliced him up like lunch meat. It feels to me like somebody decided the Daredevil suit is a little too comic booky, and that’s the mindset that turned the Hand from a ninja death cult to a multinational corporation of diverse businesspeople who also do crimes sometimes, and that’s the worst thing Marvel Netflix ever did other than hire Scott Buck to write a TV show, so to Hell with that approach. In the event that Daredevil survives the apparent Marvel TV purge, ditch the PJs and get him back in the suit.
Dex is never called Bullseye because he isn’t Bullseye yet. This is meant to be his villainous origin, with Fisk pulling him into the dark he’s spent his life trying to avoid. I just… I never really thought of Bullseye as needing an origin. And since the whole lethal aim with any object thing turns out to go back to childhood, it still kind of isn’t an origin? That skill is never explained. It’s just something he can do.
For the second time, Stephen Rider is credited as a series regular as District Attorney Something-or-Other. Beats me why. He is a minor recurring character, plain and simple, and should just be a guest star.
No Claire Temple, no other Defenders, not even Turk. I don’t know that any Marvel Netflix show has skipped a Turk appearance.
[spoiler title=’Okay so this is about the actual final climax’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]I disagree with the AV Club on one thing. I thought that the big final free-for-all between Daredevil, Kingpin, and Fake Daredevil was at least thematically sound, as it involved literally destroying the home Kingpin had spent the season piecing together. It provided a physical representation of Kingpin’s downfall, the collapse of everything he’d built.[/spoiler]
A lot of people are doing talented work, but there comes a time when the writers have to figure out that 13-hour TV shows need more dynamic arcs than two-hour movies.
Black Mirror is an anthology show which started in the UK but began drifting into America (in terms of production, cast, and location) when Netflix picked it up for season three, and is known by many as “technophobic Twilight Zone,” or to the more basic meme-makers, the anthology show where the twist is always “It’s ’cause you be on your phone.'”
That, I feel, is not a fair assessment. Yes, most (but certainly not all) of Black Mirror examines technology from a future that feels right around the corner, and yes, in most (but not all) of these cases said technology helps the main character’s life collapse around them in spectacular fashion, but Black Mirror isn’t afraid of technology.
It’s afraid of us.
Technology doesn’t (usually) create the problems in Black Mirror, the dark side of human nature does. Creator Charlie Brooker doesn’t seem to fear technology so much as he fears lack of empathy. Without empathy, without the ability to care about others, then tech makes terrifying things possible.
To prove this, having now watched every episode (non-sequentially, ’cause that’s an option), I shall walk you through each episode and what its moral is. But let’s keep this interesting. In the style of the inimitable Soren Bowie, I’m making a drinking game out of this, drinking every time the moral breaks down to “For the love of Zod, do not let people hack your perception of reality” or “We are not ethically advanced enough to be digitally transferring or recreating consciousness.”
That last one’s wordier than I wanted it to be. Um… “If we learn how to digitally transfer or copy human minds, we’ll abuse that so fast.”
Spoilers… (and there may be more of those) the moral might sometimes be “What if technology… was bad?” but will almost never be “It’s because you be on your phone.”
(….I said his style was inimitable as I was planning to imitate it. I am… I am not getting us started on the best foot… okay, push through it. Push through it. Maybe one drink to get going…)
…So how about that Thirteenth Doctor, huh? She’s fun. Looking forward to seeing where that’s going. So guess I need to adjust my opening…
A new Doctor has arrived. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
No, no it’s not. That was The Time of The Doctor. Nine months later, it’s time for Peter Capaldi to get to work.
Series Eight: Twelve Arrives
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a post-regeneration episode so… meta as Deep Breath, the debut episode for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. While The Doctor, Clara, and a returning (for the last time, unless Chris Chibnall chooses to bring them back) Paternoster Gang track sinister robots murdering people (and one dinosaur a freshly regenerated and confused Doctor accidentally brought to Victorian London) to harvest their body parts. But Clara’s distracted from all of that, because she’s not having the easiest time adjusting to The Doctor’s regeneration. She’s hoping there’s a way to change him back into young, dashing, Eleven.
It’s as though, for the most part, Clara is meant to represent all the new-Who fans (previously embodied by UNIT’s Doctor-fangirl scientist Osgood, introduced in the 50th anniversary and back in this series) who reacted poorly to an older actor playing The Doctor back when Capaldi was announced. Which was a little mean, Capaldi had been a Doctor Who fan his whole life and maybe we could have just been happy for him getting to actually be The Doctor.
And so a series of characters drill into Clara that this new face is The Doctor now and she needs to accept that. Madame Vastra rakes her over the coals for thinking he was young in the first place, Twelve pleads with her to just… see him, and we even had an unexpected return appearance by Matt Smith as Eleven, phoning Clara from Trenzalore, right before his regeneration. Told you the Tardis phone was off the hook for a reason.
It all adds up to the most work this show has done to sell the audience on The Doctor regenerating since Patrick Troughton took over. You know, the first time it happened. Deep Breath puts more work into selling the audience on a regeneration than the time they first had to explain what regeneration was.
In her defense, Clara pushes back hard against the notion that she was just doing all this because she had a crush on Eleven. In fact, one exchange between Twelve and Clara clarifies their previous relationship, and sets the stage for their new dynamic…
“I’m The Doctor. I’ve lived for over two thousand years, and not all of them were good. I’ve made many mistakes, and it’s about time that I did something about that. Clara, I’m not your boyfriend.”
“I never thought you were.” “I never said it was your mistake.”
Yes… Eleven was falling in love with Clara. Yes, he thought it may have been mutual. Which explains why his response was so gung ho when she called him on Christmas saying “You’re my boyfriend,” and a touch disappointed when she explained she just wanted him to pretend to be her boyfriend for family dinner. I didn’t mention that bit last time because I felt this moment, when he sees what they are and were with new eyes, was the defining moment for The Doctor and Clara. He’s not her boyfriend and never was… but she remains important to him. Incredibly so, as I’ll explain in our next segment hey here it comes–
“Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle tops off with these!”
I can’t speak for certain that the circumstances of a regeneration are meant to leave a mark on the new Doctor, but my English professors all taught me to ignore and disdain author intent so I look for it anyway. And Eleven regenerated after centuries of war against his worst enemies. My take is that it left a shell, but not nearly so much as being forced to watch generations of friends be born, age, and die. For the first three centuries on Trenzalore he bonded with everyone in the town of Christmas. By the end, as old age set in, he was mistaking people for a child who had no doubt died over 500 years ago. Maybe this got too hard. Eleven hated endings, and being stuck on Trenzalore exposed him to so, so many. Is it any wonder that Twelve is slower to embrace new people?
After two consecutive bright, cheerful, everyone’s-friend Doctors, Moffat felt it was time to try another direction (that was still white and male). Twelve has the hard, angry edge of Nine without the facade of friendly humour. While he fiercely defends humanity, he doesn’t adore them the way Ten did or form quick attachments like Eleven. In fact the phrase “pudding brain” gets thrown around a lot. If you impress him, he’ll warm up to you (witness the engineer in Mummy on the Orient Express, who turns down an invitation to stay on the Tardis). Otherwise, he tends to forget which one you were as soon as you’re out of his sight.
And one more thing about the new Doctor I attribute to his former self…
“I’m Scottish. I am… Scottish. I can complain about things, I can really complain about things now!”
I sometimes wonder if David Tennant is annoyed that he’s the only contemporary Doctor that didn’t get to use his natural accent. Eccleston got to be northern, Whittaker isn’t being asked to turn down the Yorkshire, Smith is naturally as close to Standard British as they get, and Capaldi’s Scottish. I neither know nor care about the behind-the-scenes reason for this. I choose to think of it as The Doctor’s final tribute to Amy Pond.
But don’t let the crusty shell make you think he’s without compassion. He might not have romantic intentions for Clara, but she still means the world to him. He might not think she’s pretty (which is funny because blind people can tell Jenna Coleman’s beautiful), and is confused by her every effort to look moreso, but there’s almost nothing he wouldn’t do for her. Almost. There are only certain ways he’s willing to tear the universe in half for Clara.
How much does he need Clara? Look at the smile on his face when she decides to keep travelling with him at the end of Mummy on the Orient Express. I think that’s the most he’d smiled since regenerating. Part of this is his love for her, which like himself has only changed form, not diminished (she’s the first face this face saw, after all, that may still be a factor), and part of it is that The Doctor is no longer certain he’s a good man. Having a Dalek he names Rusty see beauty in his hatred of Daleks doesn’t help with this. But if Clara can believe in him, maybe he can too.
I get that.
As to Clara…
Clara, more than any companion since… ever?… does her best to balance a regular Earth life with Tardis adventures. In series seven, she’d get dropped off after every adventure. In series eight…
Okay I’ll admit it. Maybe “Clara gets a boyfriend” isn’t, like, the most progressive way to express the “Normal life/Tardis life” struggle. It did put a human face on the struggle in a way that “Will Amy be around for bridesmaid duties” and “Should Rory take a full-time nursing job” never did. (Or could, since they only had one episode to make their cases.) And I maintain, love and romance are a key part of human existence… or so I recall… so why should we get all horked off every time Green Arrow or Supergirl wants to find someone special? Why shouldn’t The Doctor’s companion be allowed to find some companionship?
Thankfully the words “Danny says we can’t travel together” never come close to forming in her mouth, because she’s starting to grow as a character and that would have killed it dead. But while juggling Tardis adventures with trying to court an ex-soldier and fellow teacher named Danny Pink has its challenges, the real issue is The Doctor’s colder attitude. When he knows he can’t save someone, he is… unsettlingly practical about it. We see this in both Into the Dalek and Mummy on the Orient Express, where he views an unstoppable death as a way to gain an advantage or learn something that maybe, maybe, can save the next one, and he is really blunt about it. The days of frequent claims of “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” are over, replaced with “You’re going to die, make it count.”
And she doesn’t love that.
She loves the travel. She sees wonders, as she puts it, and they save people. But she’s not sure she can deal with this new, callous attitude… until she sees him throw himself on a sort of mummy-shaped grenade for someone she’d thought he’d let die. To his credit, The Doctor doesn’t let himself off the hook easily, saying that he thought there was a chance he could save her, but not a guarantee. That sometimes there’s nothing but hard choices.
She also succeeds at playing The Doctor during Flatline. Something The Doctor doesn’t find comforting, which he lets slip when she claims she was The Doctor and she was good.
“You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it.”
Maybe Clara needs her normal, Earth life as much as The Doctor needs Clara…
The Promised Land
“You know the key strategic weakness of the human race? The dead outnumber the living.”
The robots of Deep Breath and the robots of Robot of Sherwood are looking for the Promised Land. A weird thing for two sets of robots to both be doing. What’s even stranger, though, is one of them finds it. In a way.
Throughout the year, when people die (as they tend to on this show) they find themselves in a facility, claiming to be the Afterlife, run by a woman named Missy and her assitant Seb. When Missy first arrives, she refers to The Doctor as her boyfriend, even claiming to have adopted his accent out of love.
Missy is collecting the dead.
That’s probably not a good thing.
It’s a bit more “Bad Wolfy” than other recent season arcs (Impossible Girl notwithstanding, which only pretended to make progress before the finale), but at least when we get our regular reminders of what’s happening, it’s through a delightfully twisted performance by Michelle Gomez, which we’ll discuss below.
The Supporting Cast
Danny Pink. Oh, he was a divisive character. But he works for me because of the conflict between him and The Doctor. The Doctor dislikes him immediately, because he’s a soldier. Twelve does not care for soldiers. Maybe something to do with those centuries of war Eleven just lived through. He refuses to accept that Danny teaches math (no, the British, I will not call it “maths”), calling him PE on the assumption that soldiers can only teach phys ed.
Danny dislikes The Doctor for two reasons. First, he represents an entire side to his girlfriend’s life that he never knew about, and it turns out he’s a little touchy about dishonesty. Second, he sees through The Doctor’s bluster about soldiers. He immediately identifies The Doctor as not just a soldier, but an officer. The man issuing the orders that get soldiers killed.
Which is… not an unfair assessment. As Davros pointed out to Ten back in Journey’s End, a lot of good people have died helping him vanquish foes. We don’t know much about what he did during the Time War, save for hints from that speech from Rings of Akhaten (I really should have spent more time on that), only that both the Daleks and Time Lords were scared of him. But he was likely a general on Trenzalore, leading the Silence into battle for centuries upon centuries. So it’s fair to say that Danny’s assessment, and his habit of treating The Doctor like an officer out of scorn, gets under The Doctor’s skin for a reason.
He’s also haunted by the one bad day that drove him out of the British army. But that would be telling.
One thing that separates Danny Pink from Mickey Smith or Rory Williams is that he has no interest in Tardis life. He doesn’t want to see the universe. He wants to be the best teacher he can be, focus on what’s right in front of him. But in In the Forest of the Night, he puts a charming spin on it, so as not to be an anchor like Jackie Tyler.
Oh, there’s also Courtney Woods, one of Clara’s trickier students, a “disruptive influence” at Coalhill, who ends up getting involved in a couple of Tardis adventures. She’s… well, she’s a bit of an improvement on Angie from last year, but she disappears after Kill the Moon and you’ll never miss her.
The Big Bad: Missy. Michelle Gomez (previously of Green Wing, soon to be of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) is sensational as Missy, playful and cheerful on the surface, but the cruelty behind the smile is pretty clear from her earliest appearances. She smiles like a shark, sizing up prey, even when she’s being nice. She’s fun to watch in action even when she’s doing awful things we wish like Hell she wasn’t. And a lot of the fandom figured out the hidden clue in her name, guessed who Missy really was.
[spoiler title=’Who’s Missy?’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]”You know who I am,” she cooed to The Doctor. “I’m Missy.” “Who’s Missy?” he responded. “Please, try to keep up,” she sighed. “Short for Mistress. Well… couldn’t very well keep calling myself ‘The Master,’ now could I?” Nearly five years and two Doctors later, The Master’s back. And she’s got plans for her old frienemy.[/spoiler]
Missy’s not out to rule the world. She’s out to prove to The Doctor… okay this is sounding a little bit Gotham but don’t hold that against them… she’s out to prove to The Doctor that they aren’t really that different. Because once he accepts that… they can be friends again. That’s all she really wants. Her friend back.
Sometimes big schemes with simple motivations are the best villain plots.
Also, she presents the answer to a question that’s been around since The Bells of St. John. Who gave Clara the number for the Tardis? Who made sure The Doctor and Clara met back up in Deep Breath? Missy did. She wants these two together. Might… might not be the best sign.
This Year in Daleks: They wasted no time giving lifelong Who fan Capaldi a go-round with the Daleks. In Into the Dalek, he attempts to see if a Dalek (that he names Rusty, I’m probably telling you that for a reason) can become good by shrinking down, entering its shell, and playing with its mind. The results are… not what he hoped, and a little disturbing for him personally.
Classic Monsters Revived: We’ve run low on classic monsters worth reviving, so we’re down to revived post-reboot monsters for the moment. Specifically, the clockwork body-harvesting robots from The Girl in the Fireplace. The Doctor is constantly commenting on how familiar they are just to drive that home. In fairness, for him, that was 1000 years and two faces ago.
The Good: I do quite like the Boneless from Flatline. They work.
In the tradition of werewolves, vampires, and witches that all turned out to be aliens, The Doctor takes on a mummy that’s… basically an alien, let’s just say alien.
I’ll talk about Listen below.
Keeley Hawes does well as the villain of Time Heist.
Also expect another classic villain or two towards the end. Which? …Spoilers.
The Bad: Look, if you’re going to say that the Sheriff of Nottingham is in league with some larger threat, maybe try harder than another big clunking robot? Or maybe it’s silly to try to out-villain the Sheriff of Nottingham, I don’t know.
The Ugly: The Skovox Blitzer from The Caretaker might not be their best work.
Listen is quite the ride. The Doctor, after maybe spending a little too long knocking around on his own, theorizes that if there are perfect predators, and perfect defense from predators, then maybe there’s something out there that’s perfect at hiding. Maybe nobody’s ever really alone. And maybe everyone who’s ever had a dream about something under the bed wasn’t dreaming. Determined to find this thing he’s convinced is out there, he tries to take Clara into her past… but accidentally ends up in the childhood of her new gentleman friend Danny Pink, and also gets a glimpse at what might be their future.
And ultimately, they end up in a familiar shed, in a time and place Clara never thought she’d see.
Clara and The Doctor each get a good speech about fear, we watch the flirtations and calamities of her first date with Danny, The Doctor learns that not every book with pictures has Waldo (Wally to the British) hiding in it… and the most interesting part?
We never know if The Doctor’s right or not.
They certainly seem to bump into… something, or somethings, along the way, but… we don’t know for sure that it was ever what The Doctor thinks.Maybe they narrowly cheated death twice. Maybe it was all in his head. We never know.
An uncertain ending is good now and then. As The Doctor sometimes shows us, there’s novelty and even excitement in not knowing something.
The point of Kill the Moon is to bring Twelve and Clara to a point where she’s ready to cut ties with him. It doesn’t last, since in Mummy on the Orient Express they go for one last hurrah that leaves Clara deciding she can’t give up Tardis life after all, but they clearly wanted Clara’s feelings about Twelve’s colder attitude to reach a breaking point, where she’s ready to leave the Tardis, not because Danny wants her to, but because she can’t handle Twelve’s seeming indifference anymore. Which, credit where due, was the better choice… having it be Clara’s decision independent of Danny’s preferences was important.
The problem is, the way they got there was pretty dumb.
The premise, in which the moon is an egg, and it hatching might be a disaster, is right out of one of the weirder Bob the Angry Flower strips, one I would link to except apparently creator Steven Notley is embarrassed enough of that particular strip that he pulled it from his archive.
To review, the premise of Kill the Moon was ultimately too silly for weekly gag strip Bob the Angry Flower. Although in this case the monster in the moon egg doesn’t run a private detective firm but I’m not convinced that makes it better.
And Clara’s breaking point comes when The Doctor says “That’s a humdinger of a dilemma for humanity, welp, good luck” and straight up leaves until Clara, Courtney, and the woman who came to blow up the moon make a choice about what to do, protect humanity from unknown consequence or allow an innocent creature to be born.
Wow it is also really uncomfortably anti-choice, when you get down to it.
The Doctor could have had a mental break, having found himself in another Pompeii/Waters of Mars situation, with a twist of Beast Below. Where he either risks humanity or kills a space whale and can’t bear to have his own hand on the switch again, but instead it’s this whole “Humanity’s choice, I’m not human, so my name’s Paul and that’s ‘tween y’all” thing that Clara is understandably livid about.
It’s a whole lot of just sloppy dumb. They did a big moment badly. Fortunately, Mummy on the Orient Express walks it back easily enough.
Several people I knew fell off the Doctor Who bus during series eight. I always encourage them that series eight was Capaldi’s rough patch, and his later years were much better. This is true, yet still a disservice, because there’s a lot to love in series eight.
Into the Dalek is a great way for The Doctor and a Dalek to get into each other’s heads.
Say what you will about Robot of Sherwood but I still think The Doctor and Robin Hood’s banter is fun.
I do enjoy heist movies. So of course I’m a little fond of Time Heist. Clara’s fun date-night suit certainly doesn’t hurt.
The Caretaker, in which The Doctor infiltrates Coalhill, is worth it for the awkward meeting of The Doctor and Danny Pink, and also Clara confronting The Doctor as to his subterfuge…
“You recognized me, then.”
“You changed your coat.”
“And you saw right through that.”
And yet for all of that, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline are the double-header (but not two-parter) where the show really finds its footing. And Flatline has the first really great Doctor speech from Capaldi.
Dark Water/Death in Heaven is the first proper two-part episode since Rebel Flesh/Almost People, and it is a barn burner. Missy’s gambit is revealed as she takes centre stage, and man it’s worth the wait.
I don’t think there’s anything on par with Aliens of London/World War III or Fear Her in here, but there are some notable weak spots.
In the Forest of the Night is a slightly important moment for Clara and Danny, but otherwise it’s an entirely disposable outing. Sadly Kill the Moon is more important, because its a turning point for Clara, but you know, Mummy on the Orient Express can catch you up.
And if Robot of Sherwood isn’t doing it for you, skip to Listen. That’s the handy thing about series eight… the weakest episodes are always followed by the strongest.
Notable Guest Stars:
Missy’s assistant Seb is played by Peter Capaldi’s old The Thick of It and In the Loop costar Chris Addison, who was also Headmaster David Blood on Skins. Shame they don’t have a scene together.
Michael Smiley, who I know as Tires from Spaced but you may know from the White Bear episode of Black Mirror turns up in Into the Dalek.
People who watched Da Vinci’s Demons might recognize the guy playing Robin Hood. Not me, though.
Huh. I am… I am running out. Faster than normal. Well… Rigsy from Flatline is going to be Cyborg on Doom Patrol, that’s a thing. And the dick running his community service was the Broker in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Siwan Morris, who plays a mother in In the Forest of the Night, was also on Skins as Angie the psych teacher. That one’s obscure even for me but it was a thin year for guest stars.
A key way to judge the quality of Twelfth Doctor episodes… the longer Capaldi’s hair gets, the better the show is. It’s pretty short at the top of the year, but it’s growing out by the end. Not the lavish mane he’ll have by series ten but he’s working on it.
This will also be the first of two times The Doctor’s regeneration is referred to as a “new haircut.” And both times are followed by a suggestion that he get his roots done.
The Doctor describes his new outfit (a simple suit, no tie, red-lined jacket) thusly: “I was going for minimalist but I think I landed on ‘magician.'”
Twelve’s Tardis is basically the same as Eleven’s post-Pond Tardis, save for two things… 1) they’ve accentuated the depth of it, either adding or calling further attention to the multiple levels. It certainly feels more cavernous. 2) He’s added some bookshelves and many, many chalkboards. Twelve does like scribbling equations on a chalkboard.
While trying to con The Doctor, Clara claims never to have seen lava. The Doctor looks very serious before saying “It’s rubbish.” Probably it’s because he’s figured out what she’s doing, but I’d like to think all that business at Pompeii, that we’ll learn helped inspire this face, played a role.
In Death in Heaven, Clara bluffs the [REDACTED], claiming to be The Doctor. The opening credits back her play, putting Jenna Coleman’s name first and replacing Capaldi’s eyes with hers. Neat touch.
Stay through the credits of the finale. The Doctor’s in a low spot, but he’s about to get help from an improbable visitor.
Doctor Quote of the Year: There’s a lot of “I’ll do a clever thing,” or “A thing will happen,” since Twelve doesn’t always know how to solve things but is well aware of his slightly random process. But I’m giving it to a one-off quote that made me love the new Doctor/Clara relationship…
“Do you think that I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”
Historical Guest Star of the Year: The closest we get is Robin Hood, whose status as “historical figure” is so questionable that even The Doctor doesn’t buy he exists. And so we bid farewell to this feature.
Saddest Moment: Depending on who you’re fondest of, it’s either…
“I’m already dead. At least you’re here this time.”
“I’m proud of you, sister. But did I mention… bananas! Pop.”
Next time… the Year of Multi-parters, starting with the best two-parter since Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.
I’m beginning to worry I won’t finish this blog series by the series 11 premiere. With three series left to cover and about 33 episodes left to rewatch before… let’s see… tomorrow, it might be on the tight side.
Well, on with it just the same.
There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
Fall of the 11th
For all that I enjoyed about series seven, and I did enjoy a lot, there’s a certain bittersweet quality to it. Every joy arrives under the shadow of coming sorrow. The madcap fun of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and the hope-filled conclusion of The Power of Three will lead, unstoppably, to the heartbreak of The Angels Take Manhattan. Between The Snowmen, The Bells of St. John, and The Rings of Akhaten, Clara’s time as companion starts strong, Impossible Girl issues notwithstanding, but there’s no avoiding the truth that she’s Matt Smith’s final companion.
The Matt Smith years have been and, barring a spectacular debut from Jodie Whittaker (not impossible), continue to be my favourite period of Doctor Who in its storied history… and this is where it ends.
And nothing sums up the mixture of joy and impending sadness like these last two episodes. Day of The Doctor, the 50th anniversary special which is my single favourite episode ever released, and Time of The Doctor, Matt Smith’s epic swan song.
On some level, I’d love to speculate that Karen Gillan leaving played a role. That she and Matt became so close that doing the show just wasn’t any fun without her… but frankly, he’d done three series. That’s how many Tennant did, that’s how many Capaldi did, ever since Peter Davison, “three years and get out” seems to be the norm. So the best guess is that it was just time.
So… how to describe these two without just falling into dull point-by-point synopsis?
Day of The Doctor
There is so much I love in this episode. Stephen Moffat has a gift for witty, rapid-fire dialogue and he puts every inch of it to work in this special. But I can’t just sit here writing down the best exchanges, I’d be at it all day.
Like the previous big anniversary episodes, it’s a multi-Doctor team-up. And also like the previous big anniversary episodes, there is once again a holdout. The Three Doctors (tenth anniversary) only had brief appearances by First Doctor William Hartnell, as he was too ill to be on set. Fourth Doctor Tom Baker gave the The Five Doctors (20th anniversary) a miss, making the title a lie, and the First Doctor had to be recast with Richard Hurndall (not the last actor to take over that role) as William Hartnell had come down with an unfortunate case of having been dead for eight years. And this time out, Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston opted not to return to the role, meaning our Doctor team-up was limited to Matt Smith and David Tennant (who came back to play, I tell you what), plus a new Doctor revealed in the closing minutes of the series seven finale… sci-fi legend John Hurt as the newly revealed regeneration known to fans as the War Doctor, the regeneration who abandoned the name Doctor (or tried to) to fight in the Time War.
(A tie-in short called Night of The Doctor brings back Paul McGann for his second ever televised appearance as Eight, and he quickly shows us that we should really be checking out his Big Finish audio dramas.)
The Doctor and Clara are summoned by UNIT… nope. That’s gonna take too long. Short version… expanding on a line from End of Time Part 2, on the final day of the Time War, the War Doctor has stolen the Moment, the only forbidden weapon that the Time Lords hadn’t yet deployed against the Daleks… because it’s sentient, has a conscience, and doesn’t want to burn whole galaxies. To convince the War Doctor to change his mind, the Moment projects an image of Rose Tyler (“She’s from your past! Or possibly your future, I always get those mixed up…”), and opens a door into his future… uniting War, Ten, and Eleven (and Clara) in an effort to stop a long-game invasion of Earth by the shape-shifting aliens the Zygons.
And if they’re not careful, they just might learn something.
Every scene with Smith and Tennant bouncing off each other is amazing. Their banter in incredible, the way they sync up mannerisms never fails to amuse (throwing on their “smarty specs” in unison, pulling up a chair and kicking their feet up in perfect sync), they’re a delightful double act and the only downside to their partnership is that we won’t get more of it. By the 75th anniversary they’ll be too old to come back. We’ll have to settle for a team-up of Doctors 18 through 20 or something.
As I’ve explained to anyone who asked, or didn’t walk away from me fast enough, the War Doctor suits this story in a way Nine never could, much as I’d have liked to see him back. For one thing, Nine fighting in the Time War doesn’t make much sense, given that Rose highly implied he’d just regenerated. What’s better, War Doc speaks for the Old School Doctors, the pre-reboot crowd. He was able to respond to the new-Who quirks of Ten and Eleven the way Pertwee or Baker or McCoy would have. Examples…
When they brandish their sonic screwdrivers at him…
“Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that? They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols!”
When Queen Elizabeth I plants a passionate kiss on Ten…
War: “Is there a lot of this in the future?”
11: “…It does start to happen, yeah.”
Or maybe the best, as Eleven brings back a turn of phrase from Blink,,,
11: “It’s a… timey-wimey thing.”
War: “Timey what? Timey-wimey?” 10: “I… I have no idea where he picks this stuff up.”
This all leads to Moffat doing something daring, something New-Who fans kind of objected to… The Moment fails to convince War to spare Gallifrey. The Time War still needs to end, and he gains too much respect for his future selves, and what they’re willing to do to never be in that position again. And after too many years (maybe centuries, who knows) of fighting the war, he no longer sees himself on their level. “Great men are forged in fire… it is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” So the Moment pulls one last trick and allows Ten and Eleven to bring their Tardises to the shack in a Gallifreyan desert War had dragged the Moment to. They offer their former self the same gift that Donna Noble offered Ten underneath Vesuvius… to press the button with him, so at least he’s not carrying this burden alone.
Clara Oswald, however, is not having it.
She knew that The Doctor did this, but she can’t simply watch as her Doctor becomes part of it. Clara gives Eleven the push the Moment was trying to give War… “Do what you always do. Be a Doctor.”
It works. The Doctor decides to save Gallifrey instead of burning it… but it’s going to take all of him to do it.
It’s an epic climax that undoes something Russell T. Davies made a key part of the character in 2005… he is no longer the last of the Time Lords. Some new-school (I assume) fans complained about this, but I saw it as restoring a major part of the classic continuity, “Last of the Time Lords,” after all, had only been around for 16% of Doctor Who history, whereas the existence of Gallifrey had been part of the lore since 1969, when the name “Time Lords” was first uttered. To kick off the second fifty years, Moffat gave The Doctor a quest… find Gallifrey. Restore his people.
A quest this Doctor would not be able to see through. He has a date on Trenzelore.
(Also past Doctors can’t remember adventures with their future selves, so The Doctor still thinks he destroyed Gallifrey for, oh, four hundred years and change. Nothing’s broken.)
But in the meantime, wow… wow this is a fun episode. And Clara’s plea to Eleven gets me every time.
The episode opens with the original 1963 title sequence, which fades into a recreation of the very first shot of the very first episode.
Clara has left the nanny life behind (not a moment too soon, Angie was the worst and Artie started too many sentences with “Actually…”) for a job as an English teacher at Coalhill school… the very school where, 50 years earlier, two teachers named Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright decided to follow their unusually bright student Susan home, only to end up bouncing around time and space with her grandfather The Doctor.
The head of the board of governors at Coalhill is “I. Chesterton.” Maybe The Doctor called in a favour with an old friend to get Clara the job?
A subtle reference to The Three Doctors… when Doctors One through Nine (and even Twelve, in an extreme close-up cameo) show up to help save Gallifrey, the Gallifreyan general comments “I didn’t know when I was well-off.” Which is what the Brigadier said when faced with multiple Doctors at once back when.
When trying to scare off English soldiers, The Doctor refers to Clara as “the Witch of the Well,” a reference to Hide from series seven.
Upon realizing that multiple Doctors have just met up, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart states “There’s a precedent for that,” and requests one of her fathers old files. “70s or 80s, depending on the dating protocol.” This is a reference to the fact that the second appearance of the Brigadier and the first appearance of UNIT, The Invasion, supposedly mentioned being set in 1979, leaving some to question which actual decade the Third Doctor subsequently went to work for UNIT…. the 70s or the 80s.
They also paved over incongruities between the old and new school as to The Doctor’s age with a single line from Eleven on the subject… “1200 and something unless I’m lying. I’ve forgotten if I’m lying about my age, that’s how old I am.”
The episode ends with an all-too-brief scene between Matt Smith and Tom Baker, oldest living and most iconic of the classic Doctors. That was fun to see.
This is the episode where Jenna-Louise Coleman dropped the “Louise.”
Time of the Doctor
It was never going to be as sad as the last ten minutes of End of Time Part 2. Russell T. Davies wanted the saddest regeneration ever, and he got it, and while Moffat regenerations aren’t exactly happy occasions, he’s not trying to break that record. Also, future showrunners, can we just let Davies keep it? Please?
There’s no farewell tour of companions and supporting players, no last visit with Rory or Craig or Canton Everett Delaware (UNIT and the Paternosters come back before long), no appearance by River Song. After all, Moffat wasn’t going to be able to top Eleven’s goodbye to her in The Name of The Doctor, and nobody ever wants to say we’ve reached the final final River Song appearance. Eleven’s goodbye is simply to Clara, with a brief farewell appearance from Karen Gillan as Amy Pond.
Anyway. Time of The Doctor wraps up the overarching story of the Eleventh Doctor, the one that began in 11th Hour, while also being, in a way, the life and times of each Doctor and all Doctors.
While Clara attempts to have family dinner with her dad, stepmother, and grandmother, The Doctor whisks her away to investigate a mysterious signal, coming from a planet being orbited by an armada of The Doctor’s enemies. Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, even the Weeping Angels turn up for (as of this writing) a final appearance. But also some friends… the Papal Mainframe, who he worked with in Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, but who were also part of the Silence in A Good Man Goes to War. The signal is coming from a town called Christmas, which, yeah, I get it, Christmas special and all that, but it was a bit on the nose, you know?
The signal is coming from Gallifrey, through a crack in the skin of the universe. The same crack from Amy’s bedroom that followed them all through series five, the same crack that we learn was The Doctor’s nightmare in The God Complex. It’s a question. The first question. The question that must never be answered. “Doctor Who?”
If The Doctor speaks his name, Gallifrey will come through the crack… but all of their enemies are waiting, and the Time War would begin again. The Papal Mainframe cannot allow this, and becomes the Silence, devoted to ensuring the question is never answered.
(A splinter faction leaves what becomes the multi-century siege of Trenzelore in an attempt to kill The Doctor before he reaches the town called Christmas, but only succeed in creating the cracks… by blowing up the Tardis in The Pandorica Opens… and creating the perfect psychopath in River Song, which did them no favours.)
The Time of The Doctor covers between eight and nine centuries of The Doctor’s life, as he grows old protecting both Trenzelore and Gallifrey, and about 20 minutes of Clara’s, as The Doctor keeps sending her home only for her to turn back up a few centuries later as she keeps refusing to be sent away.
It’s also a single hour that describes who The Doctor is. He faces off against monsters while embracing humanity, he makes friends and loses friends (Moffat managed to break our hearts with the death of a reprogrammed Cyberman head named Handles), saves as many lives as he can and even if it can’t last forever, each life saved is a triumph. And eventually his time ends. The siege of and ensuing war for Trenzelore represents, in 900-year microcosm, the life and, as the title suggests, times of The Doctor.
It also fixed a coming issue by revisiting some math. In classic continuity, Time Lords can only regenerate 12 times. Matt Smith is the Eleventh Doctor, sure, but only because his ninth incarnation (War Doctor to us, “Captain Grumpy” to Eleven) didn’t go by The Doctor. Throw in that whole metacrisis business from Journey’s End, when Ten burned a regeneration but didn’t change, and it means that The Doctor’s out of lives.
(What about all those times The Doctor claimed to be able to regenerate, you ask? It was a lie. The Doctor lies. As catch-all excuses go, it’s right up there with “Speed force, I don’t have to explain anything” from The Flash.)
Anyway, as the incoming Twelve would come to say, a thing happens, thanks to Clara,and then The Doctor can regenerate again. Which of course he can, we saw his next incarnation in Day of The Doctor, but it’s an important thing to happen just the same, because it means the next showrunner wouldn’t have to worry about this either. As side effects, the crack to Gallifrey closes, and the last invaders of Trenzelore (of course it was the Daleks, who else would be last monster standing) are defeated.
Matt Smith was always great at the big speeches, from “Is this world a threat to the Atraxi?” in 11th Hour, to his bombastic (but slightly futile) address to his enemies in The Pandorica Opens, to his impassioned rant to the parasite sun in Rings of Akhaten. Moffat gives him a good one to close on, one that’s both Eleven’s final words and Matt Smith’s farewell to the audience. And then, as his seconds run out, he has a vision… one last vision of Amy Pond, here to soften his end.
It’s a beautiful enough moment that it’s barely even affected once you know that Matt Smith and Karen Gillan were both wearing wigs to film it.
I don’t have to talk about his actual end speech or any of the other highs and lows in the town called Christmas. What I do want to talk about is a detail that maybe one other person I know might have picked up on.
Musically, I found Eleven’s final moments odd. There’s no final refrain of Eleven’s two main themes, I Am The Doctor or it’s bigger, brasher follow-up The Majestic Tale (Of a Madman In a Box). In fact I’m not sure I can name a moment in the episode that uses either of those themes, which were all over Day of The Doctor. Instead, as his final speech wraps, and Ghost Amy makes her entrance, it’s set to the Queen of Years’ song from Rings of Akhaten. And as he says his final farewell the only way that makes sense…
The grey aliens we first knew as the Silence were created as confessional priests. You confess your sins, then forget about it, and just feel relieved after.
We likely won’t be seeing them again. The Silence and The Doctor eventually team up to protect Trenzalore once the siege becomes all-out war, and so their story ends.
When Clara tracks a mid-regeneration Eleven back to the Tardis, where he’s changed into his old outfit for a last snack of fish fingers and custard before the new face arrives, the phone is off the hook. Turns out it’s for a reason.
Old age makeup really accentuates how freakishly wide Matt Smith can make his mouth when he yells.
Anyway… as Clara reads from a Christmas cracker poem…
“The time has come for one last bow, like all your former selves.
Eleven’s hour is ending now… the clock is striking Twelves.”
Next time, a new type Doctor for the back half of the Moffat era.
Doctor Quote of the Year: 11: “GERONIMO!”
War: “Oh, for God’s sake…”
Historical Guest Star of the Year: Queen Elizabeth the First plays a key role in facing down the Zygons. And I guess we figured out why she was so mad at Ten during The Shakespeare Code, huh.
Cloak and Dagger is the latest offering from Marvel TV’s latest branch, what I refer to as Marvel Young Adult. Marvel YA currently consists of two shows, Freeform’s Cloak and Dagger and Hulu’s Runaways, which between them demonstrate a house style for the Marvel YA branch. Decompressed storytelling, slow-burn character development, simplistic visuals, grounded characters dealing with fantastical elements being shoved into their lives.
Less charitable terms would include “slow” and “kind of basic,” taking ten episodes to work through pretty simple plot points.
And then there is Gotham.
Gotham is wildly creative in its design and in its villainous characters, often gorgeous in its set design and shot composition. Characters constantly forge and break alliances, make and change plans, and every now and then a maniacal ginger sweeps through to upend everything for a few episodes. It burns through multiple plots over the course of one season, ranging from simple to operatic in scope. And most of them are really, really stupid.
In other words, it’s a wildly inconsistent show with no stable characterizations that has the odd moment or scene of greatness but is mostly a trash fire.
Cloak and Dagger is a grounded, narratively sound show about two young people dealing with real issues like police corruption, corporate greed, and addiction; and also the fantastic, as they both develop magic powers that might mean they’re preordained to save all of New Orleans. So why is it that I struggled to get through its ten episodes so much more than I did Gotham’s latest season? Why am I more excited to see Gotham wrap up than I am to see what Cloak and Dagger does now that all of the origin stuff is out of the way?
I think what it comes down to is craftsmanship vs. vision, and how each show only has one. Cloak and Dagger has craftsmanship. It’s good at building consistent characters and by-the-numbers plot points that, in most but not all cases, build and payoff naturally. They’re just basic and a little dull.
Gotham… well it’s never dull, I’ll give it that. They come up with three ways for all of Gotham to be in peril per season, each big and epic, each gorgeously shot. There are moments, every now and then, usually in a scene featuring Penguin and the Riddler, where the show nearly reaches greatness. However, try to describe any single character arc and you end up sounding like a raving lunatic.
Okay. Let’s throw up some subheaders and look at some specifics.
“Skill without imagination is craftsmanship, and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets.” -Tom Stoppard
So at the lead of Cloak and Dagger are Tyrone and Tandy. Tyrone’s a private school basketball player whose brother was killed by a police officer, Tandy’s living rough and scamming rich douchebags because her father was wrongly blamed by the Roxxon corporation for the destruction of an offshore rig, leaving Tandy and her addict mother broke. And the night Tyrone’s brother and Tandy’s father both died, both thanks in part to that rig explosion, they both washed up on the same beach. And when they’re reunited years later, they discover that the explosion gave them powers. Tandy can summon daggers of light, Tyrone can teleport, and when they touch people, they can see visions of their hopes or fears respectively.
Tandy’s addiction issues are well done and not overplayed, as she goes from being hooked on opioids (I assume, what other prescription pills do you grind up and snort?) to being addicted to a simulation of her father’s voice to freebasing people’s hopes and dreams (our hero, ladies and gentlemen). She’s a tough character to like but easy enough to empathize with. Tyrone is a well-built character, to be sure, and the better of the two. He’s still filled with anger over the death of his brother, and the utter lack of repercussions for the officer involved (who, by the way, is now Bad Lieutenant levels of corrupt), but his parents are riding him to stay on the straightest of narrows lest he die too. His motives make sense, his frustrations are real, his arc speaks to an important issue in the US, and that would all be great, it’s just, it’s just…
No, we’ll get to that later.
Gotham, as I described… well, no fewer than five people have, at one point over the series, launched a scheme of mild to mass destruction in an effort to show Jim Gordon “who he really is,” and it is an ordeal each time and whoever’s doing it is instantly the worst person on the show. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true, it takes a lot to be worse than perpetual nogoodnik Barbara Kean, and not everyone out to prove a point to Jim Gordon manages it.
Ugh. Barbara Kean. I guess the producers like the actress playing her because she has been a train wreck since season one, has almost never been in a good storyline, certainly not as a main character, but she just won’t go away. Death couldn’t do it. Although, really, to be anyone in Gotham’s crime circles you really need to die at least once. It’s like a rite of passage.
They’re so thirsty to bring in as many Bat-villains as possible that they introduced Jerome, the proto-Joker, who commits a series of carnival-themed mass murders while acting as Joker-like as possible (even with a sewn-on face at one point, to homage the recent classic “Death of the Family”), but they never commit to him actually being the Joker, because they seem perpetually unwilling to think more than one story ahead. At one point he magically shows up at Wayne Manor (which has the worst security in the known universe, villains stroll into Bruce’s study all the goddamn time) and literally smashes a more interesting plot point.
Gotham is filled with big ideas but very little notion of how to pull them off.
Craftsmanship is what allows Legion showrunner Noah Hawley to craft a tight and compelling story arc each season. Vision is what makes every frame of Legion a painting, the most innovative show on TV.
And I am here to tell you that for all of Cloak and Dagger’s craftsmanship, it has precious little vision.
Okay. Let me back up to that rig explosion for a second. See, while Roxxon is happy to try to pin everything on Tandy’s father, the real cause was that they were cutting corners to save money while trying to drill for a weird and sinister magical energy like it’s oil.
Let me say that again. They are drilling for a weird and sinister magical energy like it’s oil and if that wasn’t enough corporate greed for ten episodes they are doing it sloppily to save money, which puts all of New Orleans at risk because exposure to this weird energy turns people into rage monsters, and every time some douche in a suit tries to save $50 by ignoring the engineers in charge of extracting the dark and sinister soul-juice mortal man was not meant to meddle with, they risk a citywide rage monster outbreak.
That… that should be the main story. Right? Shouldn’t it? Magical force gives two teens superpowers, same magical force threatens to wipe New Orleans off the map? Only Tyrone’s new girlfriend’s voodoo-slinging mother can point Cloak and Dagger to their destiny? Right?
Then why is it only a thing in episodes six, seven, and ten?
This is the main plot. This is what Tyrone and Tandy have been given powers to prevent. And yet it is at best the C-plot of the first season, and the A and B plots are… so, so basic.
Tyrone is out to bring the cop (Officer-now-Detective Connors) who killed his brother to justice. One cop. One cop who has graduated from shooting unarmed black youths to having some unspecified major role in New Orleans’ drug trade, which is being run by one person who maybe is Detective Connors? I don’t know. It is not clear. I think it’s supposed to be a plot point for season two and God I hate it when shows do that.
So with the secret mastermind of New Orleans’ drug supply off the table until next year, Tyrone’s out to bring down one cop. Just one. One committing so many crimes that you’d think it was only a matter of time before he got caught for something.
There are three really big problems with this taking up half of our season, to the point where Detective Connors is still demanding focus while rage zombies are swarming over New Orleans.
First. One corrupt cop doesn’t exactly live up to the likes of Damien Darhk, Wilson Fisk, the Reverse-Flash, or Kilgrave, does it? Doesn’t even live up to The Hand or Vandal goddamn Savage. An effort to bring down one single cop who killed a black youth back in the day is not something I look for in an entire season of a TV show that opens with the Marvel logo. It is, at best, a two-part episode of Elementary.
By comparison, Gotham is endlessly creative in its creation of villains. Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot is almost enough to keep me invested on his own. Cameron Monaghan’s not-Joker-but-Jokeresque Jerome improves with every outing. But the one highlight I’ll name is Anthony Carrigan’s take on Victor Zsasz, which is possibly… no, definitely… the best version of this B-list Bat-villain ever done. He’s used sparingly but is a delight every time he turns up. Detective Connors is used constantly and wears thin quickly.
Yes, sure, it is extremely difficult for the families of African Americans wrongfully killed by the police to get any sort of justice, but I don’t turn to superhero shows to tell me justice isn’t possible. I have the news for that. And this brings us to point two.
Second. In order to stretch Detective Connors’ schemes out to near the end of episode ten, they need to make the entirety of the NOPD hopelessly, comically corrupt to its very core. There are two good cops in all of New Orleans: Detective Brigid O’Reilly, freshly transferred from Harlem*, and Fuchs, the uniform officer she starts dating. Every other cop in New Orleans is willing to do whatever it takes to cover up any and all crimes Connors commits, up to and including unambiguously murdering other cops. Why? Why is this? Because of the uncle he mentions after he kills Tyrone’s brother, the one who presumably made that go away? Because he’s the N’Awlins drug kingpin they’re keeping in place because hey, at least they know where all the drugs are coming from? Impossible to say. Both of those concepts are hinted at but never explored because Zod Almighty forbid that any actually interesting story points get explored in the first season. No, just put a pin in everything but Connors’ crime spree and Tandy’s daddy issues.
Gotham, on the other hand, leaves nothing on the table. Any plotline could get thrown out in five episodes if the showrunner thinks up something he likes more, so they get right to the meat of it as quickly as they can. Sure the plot is possibly, even probably very stupid, but at least you’re not shouting “Get there!” Well, maybe Party Boy Dick Bruce. That overstayed its welcome fast, but in general my point stands.
But the real problem with painting the entire NOPD as this corrupt is that it saps Tyrone’s plotline of that realism that people are likely to use to defend it.Connors doesn’t get away with killing Tyrone’s brother because of the blue code of silence. He doesn’t get acquitted by a grand jury because the defense stacked it with white jurors. No, the entire NOPD twists itself into a pretzel to cover up his every wrongdoing, even when fellow cops are dying. An entire precinct watches him openly plot to murder Tyrone and fellow cop O’Reilly while they’re in handcuffs and just says “Sure.”
That’s not realism, that’s HR from Person of Interest, the organised crime syndicate operating within the NYPD. Except it’s worse than that because HR hadn’t taken over the entire force, and was taken down twice in three seasons. It’s the cartoonishly corrupt police department of Gotham, the police department that agreed to let Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot take over law enforcement through the issuing of crime licenses. But Jeebas, when that happened, Jim Gordon was able to redeem the entire GCPD in only nine episodes, despite being so terrible at everything he does. Seriously, there isn’t a trap he hasn’t walked gleefully into, a villain he hasn’t tried to fight single-handedly even though it never worked. But even he could redeem a police district by setting a good example.
And the fact that the NOPD is so hopelessly corrupted brings us to problem number three… Connors doesn’t go to jail. He gets swallowed by Tyrone’s powers. Consumed by the “cloak” that his powers manifest. So the moral of Tyrone’s arc is “The system is so broken that the only way to get justice is murder.”
That’s… are we there? Has it gotten that bad? That a show aimed at teens is advocating that murder is the only justice?
I don’t love that**. I don’t know what the real path to justice is, or if there even is one, but superheroes are supposed to leave a little hope that it exists.
*Luke Cage‘s Misty Knight and O’Reilly are established as buds on both shows. Between that and the head of Roxxon saying he has to compete with the Starks and the Rands, there’s more Marvel-universe-connecting than we ever saw on Runaways. But let’s not get excited about crossovers. We all know there won’t be any.
**To specify, I am 100% fine with Detective Connors taking the express train to the Bad Place, I just would have rathered O’Reilly killed him.
And then there’s Tandy
Tandy’s arc is a little less straight-forward, and more tied to Roxxon’s rage zombies. It’s just a little… all over the place. She’s all about grifting, then she’s all about proving that her father wasn’t responsible for the explosion and bringing down Roxxon, then she learns one bad thing that breaks her image of her perfect father… in fairness it was a pretty damn bad thing… and immediately forgets about her dad’s good name (fair, maybe?), the Roxxon assassin who killed her mother’s boyfriend to stop his lawsuit against them (way less fair), and the fact that Roxxon is drilling for magic ooze and being cheap and careless about it which is the entire reason her father is dead. That’s not particularly fair at all. Especially since she forgets all of that in order to become an even worse person than she was before, moving from stealing people’s stuff to stealing their hopes.
It’s not all shoddy writing, though. Not entirely. There is a consistent characterization happening here. Not as rigidly, maddeningly consistent as Gotham’s Jim Gordon, whose character is so consistent he never once learns a lesson about running off to confront a villain without bringing backup, but also not so wildly inconsistent as… everyone else on Gotham. It’s just a bit a slog to get through.
And they know it’s a slog. That’s why the penultimate episode has a framing device in which they keep cutting to one of Tyrone’s teachers explaining the “regression” stage of Joseph’s Campbell’s Hero’s Journey monomyth theory, and how it’s frustrating for the reader/viewer but an important stage in the hero’s story, so we just have to buckle down and get through it.
I) “Regression” is not a stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. It’s merely one of the various tropes writers have employed in the “Ordeal” stage. So becoming a worse person than when we met her is not, strictly speaking, a necessary stage of the hero’s journey, it’s just the one they chose, and…
II) Having a character basically step outside of the narrative and explain to the audience that this is going to be frustrating but we promise it’s important demonstrates a deep lack of faith in their own plot point. From the second scene (the first is Tyrone’s new girlfriend Evita’s voodoo-priestess mother doing a rum-based ritual to figure out what, specifically, is dooming New Orleans… I don’t have time to explain that sentence, just read it again and try to keep up), they are apologizing for this entire episode. If that’s something you feel a need to do… then write something else, because your own script is trying to tell you something.
So Tandy is unpleasant. She’s not a natural born hero, she’s an addict given power and it takes her a while to choose to use it wisely. It’s not inherently a bad arc, it’s just really slow, and has an 11th-hour regression that even the show’s writers don’t care for, or at least don’t believe in. She resists being a hero with every fibre of her being for nine and a half episodes. Which is Marvel YA, and kind of Marvel Netflix, all over. They take a story that would normally fit comfortably into a two hour movie and pad and stretch it out into 10-13 episodes. Maybe that’s your thing. Personally, I prefer to have the character decide to be a hero within two episodes and spend the first season learning how exactly to do that through episodic adventures, and that’s something the CW is more than happy to provide me with, but if you’d rather spend ten hours watching Tandy learn to care about something other than herself then hey here that is.
Cloak and Dagger does have a few moments of inspiration. Episode three ends with Tyrone and Tandy experiencing a vision representing each other’s pasts and possible futures, bringing each to the conclusion that the other needs to change their approach. It’s a bravura sequence in a season that has, maybe, three of those. But the issue I’m bringing up is that a big chunk of the vision, certainly most of Tyrone’s vision about Tandy, takes place in this one chunk of forest. A lot of visions take place in that one chunk of forest. Don’t know why.
It’s an attempt at vision. It just… doesn’t quite get there. Not compared to the poison-induced fever dream that convinces Bruce Wayne to stop being a jackass and get back to Batmanning in season four of Gotham.
The Framing Devices
Three times over the course of the season, there’s a framing device for an episode. Three times they cut between the main narrative and Evita having something explained to her, usually by her voodoo priestess mother (honestly, I don’t know what else I have to explain there, I said it perfectly clearly all three times), and once by the possibly alcoholic priest (another story given almost no attention so we can focus on trying to prove Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans might be a bad cop) who teaches English at her and Tyrone’s school. Each one of these framing devices has a serious problem to it.
In the first, Evita’s mother does a tarot card reading on Tyrone and Tandy. Over the course of the entire episode. The problem here is that it’s episode six and we’ve never had a framing device untethered to the main narrative before. Tyrone and Tandy’s plots take multiple days to play out, and throughout all of it, Evita’s mother is just slowly dealing out cards. We don’t know that this isn’t supposed to match the timeline of the main stories, we just think she’s taking forever to do a simple card reading. “I’ve been dealing the cards for years,” she says. “This specific reading?” I ask.
The second we talked about. A side character comes a step away from literally apologizing for the ninth episode. Not even Inhumans did that.
And in the third, Evita’s mother walks us through her belief in the Divine Pairings: pairs of people throughout history who came together to save New Orleans from some major crisis, always through one of them dying. This has been what she’s been spending half of the season telling us, that Tyrone and Tandy are a Divine Pairing, a crisis is coming, and one of them will have to die stopping it. Before I tell you the problem with this framing device, let me give it props for setting each story to a cover of “Come Sail Away” that matches the time period. That was neat.
The issue is not the fact that of course neither Tandy nor Tyrone are going to die, they wanted and received a second season. The issue is that a lot of her examples call her whole theory into question. In order…
Two native siblings, one of which drowns herself to stop a famine, the other of which doesn’t really do anything. That’s not a story about a Divine Pairing, that’s a story about one girl who died to appease a mean, mean god or whatever.
Two brothers have a duel over a woman, one of them throws it, and a storm that maybe would have gotten around to menacing New Orleans coincidentally ends as he dies. Honestly I’m a little surprised anyone, even the voodoo community, bothered to write this one down. It was raining and then it wasn’t and also a rich asshole got shot by his brother. Lumping it in with the others smacks of confirmation bias if’n you ask me.
A messenger in the War of 1812 who was carrying word that the war was over and the Battle of New Orleans could call it a day, and the woman who delivered his message after he’s shot in front of her. That’s… there were a lot of other people in that story, lady.
A doctor that’s trying to cure a plague, and injects his own blood into his lover in an attempt to cure him. And when the final, lethal withdrawal of blood cures the doctor’s lover, the plague in general goes away. Again, that’s one person who did a thing and one person who was pretty enough to motivate him, “Divine Pairing” might be stretching things.
So really it’s no surprise Tandy and Tyrone defy their supposed destiny. The Divine Pairing theory has some holes in it. What we really have, at most, is a dark force that agrees to stop screwing with the New Orleans area if someone good offs themself, and also a possibly apocryphal anecdote about the War of 1812.
You never have to worry about Gotham having a larger meaning it fails to live up to. Mostly from lack of effort on their part to have a larger meaning. Basically they just keep coming up with excuses to say “It’s a new day in Gotham,” and the only way they can fail to pay that off is if the last shot of the finale isn’t Bruce putting on his Batman costume for the first time while Jim Gordon repeats the line.
Random Cloak and Dagger thoughts
To reiterate, Tandy sees a Roxxon assassin kill her would-be step-dad to silence the lawsuit he was helping her mother with, and she just… forgets about it. Moves on. Makes a deal with Roxxon like they don’t have an assassin who cleans up their messes, and won’t risk catastrophe to save less money than she was demanding. That’s beyond Jim Gordon-level foolish, that is season one Iron Fist Danny Rand-level dumb.
Oliver Queen and Barry Allen have made some questionable decisions these past six seasons but they’ve never freebased stolen hopes. That was an extreme regression for the penultimate episode.
While explaining that this regression that sorry, we know you hate, was going to forge Tandy and Tyrone into stronger heroes (well Tandy had nowhere to go but up, really), it also hints that we’re witnessing Detective O’Reilly’s origin as a villain. Guess we’ll see where that’s heading next season. I’m okay with it. The actress was pretty good.
The commentary on US race relations is pretty spot-on. It was just done better on Black Lightning. Which again managed to show that cops can be bad and/or racist without turning the entire police force into Cobra from GI Joe.
It’s early days yet but I can basically guarantee you’re not going to be seeing Tyrone’s name under “Best Male Lead” next June. He’s trying his best but he’s got a ways to go.
Random Gotham thoughts
This is the worst thing Gotham has ever done, and it involves Ivy Pepper, who we’re made to believe from episode one will later be Poison Ivy, despite the fact that even Joel Schumacher knew that Poison Ivy’s name is Pamela Isely. Anyway, in season one and two, she’s a young girl, but twice over the course of the show she’s magically aged-up into older bodies that emerge wearing her old clothes, now small and clingy to show off the new body’s… matured shape. It is also made clear, at least the first time, that her mind didn’t age up with her. Starting in season three Ivy Pepper has the mind of a 12 year old but a body the producers are legally free to sexualize, and that’s gross, that’s a gross thing they did, it’s gross.
I never knew how much I wanted Mr. Freeze to fight Firefly until it happened in season two and it was gorgeous.
Speaking of Mr. Freeze, I appreciate how they dispensed with an old tradition, as Harvey Bullock insists Victor Fries’ name isn’t pronounced “Freeze.” He says “No, I’m good with last names. It’s not ‘freeze,’ it’s ‘frice.'” Turns out he’s right.
Also clever, if sadly short-lived… Ra’s Al Ghul dispatches colourful assassins to reclaim a special dagger from Bruce Wayne. When they fail, and the GCPD becomes involved, he tries a new tactic… he shows up at the GCPD in glasses and a sweater-vest saying “Hello, I’m Ra’s Al Ghul from the Nanda Parbat consulate, may we have our cultural artifact back please?” If the GCPD hadn’t been answering to Penguin at the time it would have worked. And it’s something Arrowverse Ra’s Al Ghul would never have thought up. That’s three times Gotham has done a villainbetter than you, Arrow, get it together.
And finally, my conclusion
Am I saying Gotham is a better show than Cloak and Dagger? No. That’s a not a statement I or anyone could stand behind. Better than Inhumans, sure, better than Iron Fist, yes, but better than Cloak and Dagger,not so much.
It is, however, so much more watchable. Gotham’s good episodes may be vastly outnumbered by the bad ones, but I keep tuning back in because for every plotline that has me screaming in complaint, there’s another where I have to see where it’s going.
Cloak and Dagger… I knew within two episodes where the bulk of this was going, and was very swiftly impatient for it to hurry up and get there. It didn’t help that they leaned into the previous season’s most overplayed and annoying trope.
Cloak and Dagger has very solid fundamentals. But they need to think bigger. They need to commit to a central narrative, and make it one that’s fun to watch now and then.
They need vision.
Until then… No Man’s Land for the final season of Gotham? Where are they going with that?
When I started this rewatch and blog series a… good lord… a year ago, the plan was to be through all ten series by the time Jodie Whittaker made her proper debut in series 11.
Which is the first week of October. It is, at time of writing, late September. This is what happens when you take a small, slight… multi-month hiatus from blogging to write three different plays. Well, almost three.
Gonna… gonna be a bit tight making that deadline. Well, as the Tenth Doctor would say… allons-y.
There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe doesn’t live up to A Christmas Carol, but it tries its best.
When last we left The Doctor and friends (Eight months ago? My last entry on this series was eight months ago? Goddamn, me, get your life right…), The Doctor had faked his death at Lake Silencio, a fact River Song had let slip to Amy and Rory. We join The Doctor some time later, as he’s travelling alone and thwarting an alien invasion in the 1930s. Crashing to Earth, his helmet on backwards, he is aided in finding the Tardis by a British housewife named Madge Arwell. He promises her a favour in return, and a few years later she ends up needing it. Her husband’s plane is lost over the English Channel in late December, and she’s trying not to let Chrismas be the day her children learn their father has died. Arriving at a family estate in the country to avoid the German bombing, she is greeted by a strange man claiming to be the caretaker.
She doesn’t know it, but her mysterious spaceman (or possible angel) has arrived to repay a favour.
Unfortunately he does it in typical Doctor fashion, and a planned expedition to a planet in the future with naturally occurring Christmas trees goes off the rails because a) young Cyril Arwell sneaks through the portal early, and b) The Doctor has once again failed to check an almanac or something to see if, say, the entire apparently intelligent forest is about to be liquefied with acid. Rory warned you about this sort of thing last year during The Girl Who Waited, Doctor, and now here we are again.
It seems pretty dire for a minute there but it becomes the best Christmas present the family could have asked for. And in the end, Madge helps The Doctor realize something… no one should be alone on Christmas. Especially the people who love him. Which brings him back to Amy and Rory’s doorstep, two years after that whole mess in The Wedding of River Song.
The Doctor, Amy, and Rory, back together again.
Don’t get comfy.
Series Seven: Goodbye, Ponds
The first five episodes of series seven are all about The Doctor and the Ponds (much as Rory might protest, they’ve never been the Williamses). The Doctor knows, on some level, he should let them go. He tried last year in The God Complex. But he can’t. The gaps between his visits are getting longer, leading Amy to worry he’s trying to wean them off of him. Also, as long as Amy and Rory are out there, The Doctor can’t move forward. Amy is his companion, and he refuses to pick a new one. Which means other than the occasional, never seen River Song hook-up, he’s travelling alone. Which is making him cold and mean, and far too willing to kill those who oppose him. Amy lets this slide in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, when this dark side first emerges, mostly because she doesn’t witness it. But when The Doctor tries to throw an alien scientist (and repentant war criminal) to his death to save the titular settlement of A Town Called Mercy, Amy draws a line in the sand.
“And what then?” she asks. “Are you going to hunt down everyone who’s made a gun, or a bullet, or a bomb?”
“But they keep coming back, don’t you see?” he retorts. “Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well, not today. No. Today, I honor the victims first. His, the Master’s, the Daleks’, all the people who died because of MY mercy!”
Amy stares him down. “See, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long. Well, listen to me, Doctor, we can’t be like him. We have to be better than him.”
It’s an incredibly powerful moment that underlines how badly this quirky, funny, seemingly carefree Doctor needs his friends.
Meanwhile, ever since The God Complex, Amy and Rory have been building a life. A real, human life. She’s been a model and a travel writer and other things… she’s having trouble committing to a job because any time now the Tardis could be back to whisk her off to new adventures. But as the time between Doctor visits grows longer, and their desire to be taken home comes sooner, they actually start making long-term plans that don’t involve time travel at all. She doesn’t want to give up either life, but they’re beginning to clash.
And The Doctor knows this. It’s why he’s been trying to pull back. But he can’t ever let go of Amy, not completely.
“Because you were the first,” he explains. “The first face this face saw. And you were seared onto my hearts, Amelia Pond. Always will be. I’m running to you and Rory before you fade from me.”
You know that explains the whole Rose Tyler thing. She was the first face two faces saw. Might explain why he never got over her until he regenerated into Eleven.
He needs Amy in his life enough that in The Power of Three he makes the penultimate sacrifice… he just hangs out for a few months. Lives the Pond life, stable and stationary and everything that drives him crazy… just because he misses Amy too much to leave.
Asylum of the Daleks and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship touch on this, but The Power of Three, which covers an entire year of Pond life, provides the breaking point. Which life will they choose? Earth life or Tardis life?
Sadly for all involved, The Angels Take Manhattan reminds us that it’s not always their choice to make. At some point down the road, when Amy’s aged from a 19-year-old kissagram to needing reading glasses, a run-in with the Weeping Angels in New York brings Amy and The Doctor’s time to an end. And in the wake of it, the show went on hiatus until the following spring. Well, of course, save for the annual oh balls–
It’s Christmas! (Again)
The Snowmen makes up for the heartbreak of The Angels Take Manhattan by being an absolute joy, right up until the moment it isn’t. Why you gotta keep hurting people on Christmas, Doctor Who?
Okay. Let me back up a little to the first episode of series seven, Asylum of the Daleks.
Tasked by the Daleks to help with the planet where they send their most damaged, The Doctor and the Ponds receive help from a computer whiz/souffle enthusiast named Ozwin Oswald. The Doctor knows something is wrong with this picture the second he hears about the souffles (“Where do you get the milk?” comes up a few times). To some, she simply seemed… oddly significant, in her swiftly iconic red dress, trainers, and baking-based utility belt, with her personal theme song, giving us a knowing look to the camera after her parting line of “Run, you clever boy… and remember.” To those of us who can’t stay away from entertainment news, we knew exactly who she was… only she wasn’t her. We knew the next companion would be named Clara and would be played by an actress named Jenna Coleman (then going by Jenna-Louise Coleman, you’d have to ask her why she dropped the “Louise”)… so imagine our surprise when she turned up without warning in Asylum of the Daleks, playing someone named Ozwin. Who… spoilers… doesn’t make it out of the Dalek Asylum.
Anyway, they let us sit on that for three months.
In The Snowmen, The Doctor has once again retreated to Victorian London, but not just for a visit. For an unspecified amount of time (not long enough for a human friend in that era to age much, long enough that the scuffing of the Tardis that started after all the fuss in New York has gotten significantly worse), he’s been living above the city, his contact with the world limited to three familiar faces from A Good Man Goes to War… Madame Vastra, Jenny, and their new butler, a no-longer-dead Strax the Sontaran, now collectively known as the Paternoster Gang. They don’t approve of The Doctor’s solitude, but are unable to stop it. (“A thousand years of saving the universe, Strax. And do you know what I learned? The universe doesn’t care.”) Seems nothing can. Until a chance encounter with a barmaid (who leads a secret double life as an upper-class governess) named Clara, and some living snowmen, begins to pull him back into the world.
He doesn’t know that she looks and sounds exactly like Ozwin Oswald… but we do. Jenna Coleman’s back, and this new Clara is refusing to let The Doctor just wallow in misery any longer. There are living snowmen and an ice governess menacing the children in her care and by God this Doctor fellow is going to do something about it. The Doctor realizes he’s coming back to his old self when he whips off a scarf, looks in a mirror and sees, for the first time in the episode, his bow tie is back.
The Snowmen is a grand adventure against a menacing villain that turns out to be the origin story of a deep-dive classic monster, filled with laughter and thrills…
And then she dies.
But not before saying that one line again: “Run, you clever boy… and remember.”
Seeing her full name on the tombstone… Clara Oswin Oswald… clicks everything into place. It’s the same woman. Same voice, same love of souffles, same catchphrase. He’s met her twice, in two time periods, and she’s died each time. There’s a mystery to be solved, the mystery of The Impossible Girl, and he’s off to solve it.
Series Seven Part 2: The Impossible Girl and the Road to 50
We pick back up a few months later with the excellent The Bells of St. John, in which The Doctor, losing hope he’ll ever find Clara again, holes up in a 13th century monastery… only for 21st century Clara (the one, true Clara, a description that makes sense later) to call the Tardis asking for tech support with the internet. Which naturally throws him for a bit of a loop. (“I’m not actually… this isn’t… you have clicked on the WiFi button, haven’t ya?”)
The eight episodes that remained in series seven were all one-off adventures with Clara throughout time and space, while The Doctor attempted to figure out what, exactly, she was, and Contemporary Clara attempted the same of this dashing, weirdly old-acting time-traveller that thrust himself into her life all of a sudden. This culminates in the series finale, The Name Of The Doctor, the first of three consecutive episodes to end in “Of The Doctor.” I’ll talk more about the Impossible Girl arc below, but here’s the more interesting thing about series seven.
Part two aired in spring of 2013. The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, November 23rd, 2013, was fast approaching. In ways subtle and broad, Steven Moffat began gearing the show to celebrate the coming landmark anniversary. The first and most obvious, which began in the final moments of series six with the revelation of the First Question, is that Moffat became fonder than ever of writing “Doctor who” into dialogue. The end of Asylum of the Daleks makes this abundantly clear, and The Snowmen and The Bells of St. John drive it home. Of course, that means that by Hide he’s able to have some fun with it…
“I’m The Doctor.”
“If you like.”
The new opening title sequence adds an old tradition that had been absent since the 80s… it slipped in Matt Smith’s face. This had been a feature from Troughton to McCoy, and Moffat brought it back for the tail end of Smith’s run and into Capaldi’s. Will it remain for Jodie Whittaker? We’ll know soon enough.
Also important, a new character appears in The Power of Three: the new head of UNIT (you remember UNIT, right?) Kate Stewart, who The Doctor soon figures out is more properly called Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, daughter of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, UNIT’s first leader and The Doctor’s oldest (now passed) human friend. Played by Jemma Redgrave (of those Redgraves), we’ll be seeing much more of her. And it was important she be in place in time for the 50th anniversary.
Throw in references to past companions (Clara hearing The Doctor mention his granddaughter gives her a moment of pause, I tell you what), not one but two vintage monsters making a comeback, and a brief visit to Gallifrey in The Name of the Doctor, and it’s clear that the show is wearing its fifty-year legacy on its sleeve for all to see.
“I’m The Doctor. I’m an alien from outer space. I’m 1000 years old, I’ve got two hearts, and I can’t fly a plane, can you?” -The Doctor, mid-plane crash.
There are those who say that Stephen Moffat doesn’t understand grief, given how often major deaths are undone (Rory alone has come back from the dead no fewer than five times). To them, I say pay attention to The Snowmen. Having lost Amy, for good and all, he retreats from the world, presumably for years. He completely changes the Tardis interior because he can’t be in a room that Amy was in. He never wears his signature brown tweed jacket, or any of its variations, ever again, switching to a more sombre purple, because he can’t wear the clothes he wore when travelling with Amy. He keeps her reading glasses as long as he has this face. Amy leaves a hole in his hearts that Clara only begins to help heal.
But don’t think that every trauma is forgotten. In one all-time-great speech in The Rings of Akhaten, Clara learns (or appears to learn) exactly how much pain The Doctor’s been carrying around the past three or four centuries as he attempts to pour all of it into a parasitic sun that feeds on people’s feelings and stories, yes you read that right. I’d post an excerpt but without Matt Smith’s heart-wrenching delivery it just isn’t the same. So here’s a video.
But there’s one secret pain he’s kept hidden these last seven series and three faces. A secret we come face to face with in the closing moments of The Name Of The Doctor.
I’ve done a lot of defending Steven Moffat from his various accusers. But sometimes loving something means acknowledging its flaws.
So let’s get into the problems with Early Clara, shall we?
First, as of The Snowmen, they drift alarmingly close to Ten/Rose territory, as Victorian Clara makes some pretty strong advances on The Doctor, making things a wee bit awkward when he finally finds the One True Clara in 2013 England. Are things getting romantic between the two? One of them thinks so, but we’ll address that later.
The real problem is that the Impossible Girl storyline is about Clara but doesn’t involve Clara. The Doctor is trying to get to the bottom of how Clara can be a regular, normal young woman and also the late Oswin Oswald of the starliner Alaska and the equally late Clara Oswin Oswald of Victorian London. But since she might be a trap laid by one of his enemies (not an unreasonable assumption, given everything the Silence just pulled with River), he never lets her know that’s what’s going on.
Giving Clara no agency in her own storyline.
It’s the same problem as Chloe Decker from my beloved Lucifer, and nothing says “I’ve neglected this blog series longer than I meant to” like the fact that I’m using Chloe to explain what’s wrong with Clara and not the other way around. All the celestial beings talk about Chloe, but she never knows that it’s happening, let alone why it’s happening. It reduces her as a character. Likewise, by making the plot about Clara without including Clara, you’re basically making her a prop in The Doctor’s story, and your female lead should never just be a prop.
And there aren’t even any clues. It’s just “What’s the deal with Clara?” and everyone saying “Dude, she’s normal” until the last moments of the last episode.
This is the one complaint about Steven Moffat that’s spot-on. He has a terrible habit of introducing companions as puzzles for The Doctor to solve. It wasn’t so bad with Amy, because we made it all the way to The Big Bang before he raised the question of “Does it ever bother you that your life doesn’t make any sense?” Although that was swiftly followed by six episodes of “Is she or isn’t she pregnant,” which… yeah. Then River was a riddle wrapped in an enigma from her first appearance right up until Let’s Kill Hitler, and in series seven Clara is weighed down by all of this Impossible Girl malarky. He gets better about this down the road, right before he left the show, but as of series seven it’s just Rory who’s all surface.
That all said, there are some things about Clara that work. She’s exceptionally quick-witted, letting her play high-energy dialogue every bit as well as Matt Smith (which is outstanding). She’s great at comedy, and she plays something few other companions had to this point… she’s often terrified of what’s happening, but resolved to see it through. It begins in Cold War, when the rubber hits the road and she sees her first deaths on an adventure. The best example might be Hide, where she asks The Doctor exactly why she should help him look for ghosts, and he responds that she wants to. “I dispute that assertion,” she responds, fear sneaking through her witty facade.
Also, she doesn’t take any crap from The Doctor. When he first turns up on her doorstep in The Bells of St. John, he’s approaching her with the familiarity her alternate self showed in The Snowmen, and she is not shy in telling him to bring it down a notch. There are moments throughout late series seven were she shows her resourcefulness, but they tend to be overshadowed by the whole Impossible Girl thing.
Also her mother is dead. Because she’s a Moffat companion. All their mothers are dead. Well, except Amy’s, who stopped being dead in The Big Bang but was instantly forgotten.
But as series seven progressed, and we learned who would and wouldn’t be around for series eight, I forgave the weaknesses of Clara’s arc this year. I suspected that while she may have gotten her start with Eleven, she’d end up a more iconic companion to Twelve. Much as a whole pile of classic series companions started with one Doctor but were better known for their time with his replacement. (Basically every regeneration-time companion from Sarah Jane onwards… well, except maybe Mel. Mel wasn’t anyone’s most iconic companion. Poor girl. Just wanted The Doctor to drink his carrot juice.)
And like her or not, get comfortable. She’s the longest-running contemporary companion.
The Supporting Cast
River Song is back for two key episodes: she’s there for her parents’ farewell in The Angels Take Manhattan, and is basically present for The Name Of The Doctor, which provides her final farewell with Matt Smith. But not her final final farewell.
Also of note is Harry Potter’s Arthur Weasley, Mark Williams, as Rory’s dad Brian Williams. Brian gets swept up with Amy and Rory when The Doctor unexpectedly materializes the Tardis on them in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, showing him what exactly his son and daughter-in-law get up to when they’re “travelling.” He’s only in two episodes (and an unfilmed deleted scene, written by future showrunner Chris Chibnall, which makes a sad episode sadder), but you instantly wish you could spend more time with him.
Less effective are those horrible children Clara is nannying for. The younger son, Artie, isn’t so bad, but Angie the older daughter seems annoyingly determined to challenge Clara at every turn. To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill in series five, if Clara warned of Hell, Angie would give favourable reference to the Devil. It wears thin fast enough that I’m glad they were never seen or mentioned again following The Name Of The Doctor. Their mother is dead too, by the way. Look, I know the whole “All Davies companions have terrible mothers” thing was weird and overplayed but there’s such a thing as over-correcting.
The Big Bad: Returning for the first time since its two go-rounds with Patrick Troughton, it’s the Great Intelligence, everyone. Having previously menaced the world via robotic abominable snowmen, an early version of the Intelligence is revealed to be behind the icy menaces of The Snowmen. And The Doctor might have accidentally given it the idea that the London underground is a strategic weak point, perfect for invading with (abominable) snowmen. Which is the plot of Web of Fear, the Great Intelligence’s second arc (and the first appearance of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, not yet a Brigadier General). Following The Snowmen, the Intelligence continues to stalk The Doctor, now using the face of its Victorian assistant, Dr. Gideon… played by English actor of note Richard E. Grant, who non-canonically played The Doctor on twooccasions prior to the reboot.
This Year in Daleks: Moffat finds the fear in Daleks again through a planet full of broken, insane Daleks that The Doctor, Amy, and Rory find themselves stuck on. Also, they have a new trick… through an infection of nano-tech, they can hollow a person out and turn them into a human-shaped Dalek. Because that’s safe. Daleks with stealth and infiltration capability. Anyway, this becomes a problem for at least one of the people in Asylum of the Daleks.
Classic Monsters Revived: The Great Intelligence isn’t the only Troughton-era deep dive this year. Cold War brings back the Ice Warriors of Mars… or at least one of them, which has been found frozen in ice by a Cold War-era Russian sub The Doctor and Clara pop onto while trying to reach Las Vegas. Reptilian figures in hulking suits of armour, they’re a menace for any human military, especially if they think there’s nothing to lose. The modern era lets the show do something the Troughton era never could: show an Ice Warrior out of his armour.
The Good: There are a lot of layers to what’s happening in Hide (Ghosts? Monsters? Nothing?) but it’s quite the ride. The Cybermen also get a scariness upgrade thanks to Neil Gaiman in Nightmare in Silver. The people-snatching forces lurking in the WiFi in The Bells of St. John are highly effective and really satisfying to see taken down a peg. The gunfighter and his target in A Town Called Mercy provide some strong philosophical dilemmas on revenge and redemption.
The Bad: The Tardis puts people through a lot of grief in Journey to the Centre of the Tardis, but it’s not the Tardis’ fault. The burnt zombie things aren’t even truly bad. No, the villain that week boils down to “some asshole.” And he learns almost nothing. Not their best work.
The Ugly: Could they have spent a little bit more on that puppet worm from Crimson Horror? Maybe. Maybe. Not that it matters considering who it’s attached to (see below).
The Snowmen and The Bells of St. John are both great, but if I have to pick one (and I do, because I have thus far), I would have to say The Rings of Akhaten. It’s a knockout of an episode, and the Queen of Years stepping up to support The Doctor the only way she knows how, through song, brings a tear to the eye even before The Doctor’s epic speech begins. Sure the budget constraints show a little in the sets and green screen work but it’s a fun and surprisingly powerful outing for The Doctor and his new companion.
Series seven went from strength to strength for the most part, but one could argue that Journey to the Centre of the Tardis isn’t holding its end up, despite getting to glimpse all the rooms we never normally get to see.
All five of the final Pond episodes, from the Daleks to the Weeping Angels, are excellent. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill (Whose name I’ve been spelling wrong on this blog for a long, long time… my b, Captain Hunter) could not possibly have asked for a better swan song. Those five episodes alone made me think that New Who had gotten better each and every year it was on the air. A trend that would soon end, but all good things do. And that quality continued through The Snowmen and The Bells of St. John.
Cold War is a classic “under siege” episode, with a great guest cast.
If you enjoy the Paternoster Gang… and I feel that you should… The Crimson Horror is a good showcase episode for them.
Technically nothing of import happens between Rings of Akhaten and The Name Of The Doctor. That’s the problem with Impossible Girl, it has no stages. No levels. It’s basically Bad Wolf all over again.
I guess you could skip over Journey to the Centre of the Tardis. Every piece of progress there gets undone.
Notable Guest Stars
Plenty in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship alone. In addition to Mark Williams, David Bradley (Harry Potter, Broadchurch, Game of Thrones) makes his first of two guest appearances, as the thoroughly unpleasant trader/slaver Solomon. His next character will be nicer. Solomon’s quarrelling security bots are hilariously voiced by comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who I’d handily just discovered. Sherlock’s Inspector Lestrade, Rupert Graves, plays The Doctor’s new pal, big game hunter Riddell.
Isaac, Mercy’s town marshal, is played by Farscape’s Ben Browder. A rare American guest character played by an American, but they did venture out to America for filming purposes more often.
Although he’s soon followed by Michael McShane (the original Who’s Line is it Anyway and Friar Tuck from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) in The Angels Take Manhattan.
B-movie sci-fi almost-legend David Warner (lots of stuff) is an episode highlight as an 80s-pop-music-loving Russian scientist on a submarine in Cold War.
Mission: Impossible II’s Dougray Scott, he who was nearly Wolverine, plays Bernard Quartermass Alec Palmer in Hide. His assistant is played by Jessica Raine, who around that time also played Doctor Who creator Verity Lambert in the biopic An Adventure in Space and Time, which also featured David Bradley (see above) as William Hartnell.
The voice of the Great Intelligence in The Snowmen is none other than Sir Ian McKellan.
A carnival worker with a secret in Nightmare in Silver is played by Warwick Davis. And a soldier in the same episode is Alo from the third generation of Skins, if that means anything to anyone else.
Game of Thrones Guest Stars: That Russian sub I mentioned is captained by The Onion Knight (Liam Cunningham) with his overly hostile first mate being Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies, yes I know he’s also from Outlander, my blog my rules). Dame Diana Rigg, formerly Mrs. Peele of the British spy show The Avengers, and at the time throwing epic shade at the Lannisters as Olenna Tyrell, is menacing Victorian England in The Crimson Horror.
Clara is only able to phone the Tardis because she got the number from a “woman in the shop.” There was a lot of speculation as to who that woman might have been. River Song was a popular guess. Some eternal optimists thought Sally Sparrow fit the bill. And old-school die-hards held out hope for Romana or Susan or someone. We were all way off, but there was a new player we were over a year away from meeting.
Based on the book one of Clara’s charges is reading in The Bells of St. John, Amy managed a successful literary career in her post-Doctor life. Despite the fact that the Melody Malone novel from The Angels Take Manhattan must have seemed really weird to most audiences.
The Angels Take Manhattan actually filmed in New York. I found the rock in Central Park where they have their picnic, because I’m that level of obsessed. And the cast found out just how popular the show was when hundreds of Whovians showed up to watch filming. Which may have been awkward, as the episode was as hard to film as it was to watch. According to legend (aka the IMDB trivia page), when they filmed The Doctor reading Amy’s last message, Karen Gillan sat next to Matt, reading her voiceover lines to him. Once they got the shot, Matt broke into tears. Can’t exactly blame him.
Rory’s middle name is “Arthur,” no doubt named after Arthur Darvill. (Look, it’s not my fault that it just looks like it should have an “e” at the end…)
The Doctor mentions the effort he put into taking “a gobby Australian to Heathrow airport.” This would be Fifth (and very, very briefly Fourth) Doctor companion Tegan Jovanka, who the Fifth Doctor would encourage with the phrase “Brave heart, Tegan.” Shortly after mentioning her, the catchphrase gets reused. “Brave heart, Clara.”
The scientist/ex-spy in Hide was meant to be Dr. Bernard Quartermass, of Doctor Who’s BBC sci-fi predecessor The Quartermass Experiment, but rights issues blocked it at the last minute. Pity. It would have been like Sherlock Holmes teaming up with Auguste Dupin. (Oh, Google it yourself if you need to.)
Clara Oswald was the first character Jenna Coleman ever played in her natural Blackpool accent, or so she’s said. Which was weirdly an extra challenge. Accent work had been like a mask, a way to build the character.
Future… well, “current” at this point, really… showrunner Chris Chibnall wrote Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and The Power of Three. Promising. Very promising. Those episodes are fun.
Steven Moffat surely believes that “I don’t know where I am” is an intrinsically terrifying phrase because it certainly gets used a lot.
Doctor Quote of the Year: “Run.”
(I mean the real quote of the year is “Run you clever boy, and remember,” but I don’t have a section for companion quotes.)
Historical Guest Star of the Year: Queen Nefertiti of Egypt is our last true historical guest star. That kind of fell off in the Capaldi years.
Saddest Moment: “Raggedy man… goodbye!” (oh god just typing it…)
Next time… Matt Smith’s final two episodes are the greatest episode ever and our next big farewell as the “Of The Doctor” trilogy brings us to the end of an era.
Okay. So let’s get down to it. Twenty-two comic book series. How do they stack up? And perhaps some hints about why we didn’t hear from some of them during the awards portion. Worst to best, let’s get this party started.
A cheap-looking blend of boring and annoying, determined to find the least interesting version of some of Marvel’s strangest characters, weirdly reluctant to connect to even the other Marvel show about Inhumans on the same network.
To paraphrase the late, great Achewood, Inhumans failed with a focus and intensity normally seen only in successes.
#21. The Defenders
This one has fallen the furthest in my esteem since my initial review. In August, I was digging the show’s strengths… primarily the interplay between Matt Murdock & Jessica Jones and Luke Cage & Danny Rand… enough that I was willing to forgive some of its many flaws (aggravatingly slow start, misuse of supporting cast, poor pacing despite being only eight episodes, focusing the plot on the worst parts of the franchise and no they haven’t improved). But as the TV season progressed, I began to turn on the show more and more, because this overly talky, stripped-down, “grounded” miniseries is what Marvel Netflix thinks prestige comic TV looks like, and it isn’t, it just isn’t.
Although the overall franchise bounced back a little since then, and is no longer getting its ass kicked quite so thoroughly by the CW.
#20. The Flash
[Deep sigh] Come on, guys, you are better than this.
They tried to bring back the fun after the Refrigerating-Iris Savitar arc from last year, and for six episodes it was working and working well… then the Thinker arc kicked into gear, and every single thing the show did well from that point on was drowned out by the oppressively and remorselessly grim A-plot. I love so much of this show, but their refusal to cut Team Flash a break made tuning in a chore.
Pull it together, Flash.
(But any dudebros saying that the real problem was too much Iris can go straight to Hell. Why are fandoms so toxic lately.)
The season’s most improved player didn’t creep up too far, because the greatest problem about Gotham is that it is maddeningly inconsistent, with extreme highs and lows. When it’s good, it’s actually pretty damn good, but when it’s bad it is so very bad, and you never know which Gotham you’re going to get from episode to episode, or even scene to scene. It has some of the best cinematography and art direction of any show on this list but frequently pairs it with shoddy storytelling.
The show cycles through multiple storylines per year, which means never getting mired in something as bad as the Thinker on Flashfor 22 episodes, but also means a plot you enjoy might get tossed out or devolve into some Barbara Kean or Jerome the Proto-Joker nonsense. Actors are made full-cast regulars but might get dropped at any point… like Ra’s Al Ghul, who only turned up for half the season, or Harvey Dent, who was a series regular for nearly all of season two but was only in three episodes. Put these two things together, and it gives the appearance that the writers have no plan. They’re just making things up as they go along.
This year the good parts (most of Penguin, the Riddler, Solomon Grundy, early Ra’s Al Ghul, and even about half of Jim Gordon, who had classicly been stuck in the worst plots) were as good as the show has ever been, and even Jerome the Proto-Joker, a concept I never overly cared for, was surprisingly entertaining. But the bad parts (90% of Barbara Kean, at least half of Bruce Wayne, late Ra’s Al Ghul, anyone trying to show Jim Gordon who he really is– which has not gotten more fun since the last five times it happened) were everything that’s bad about Gotham in its purest form.
Ugh. This Zod damned show. I can’t believe I’m going to watch every single episode of it.
The mid-point plot twist was a game-changer that made the second half of Krypton surprisingly compelling and sets up a potentially improved season two. This does not, to my mind, make up for the fact that the first half of Krypton was mostly drab nonsense. Until the Zod reveal, it was Smallville that thought it was Game of Thrones, and no show has a right to only be good in its back half.
Two great… or at least really well cast… villains and a much, much improved Felicity Smoak helped, but a sluggish second act and a season arc that hinged on two of the year’s most annoying and overplayed tropes (all-knowing mastermind and heroes-behind-bars) mean that Arrow has lost ground since its top-four placing last year.
#16. The Gifted
The Gifted shows a lot of promise, especially in the Mutant Underground vs. Hellfire Club plot they’ve kicked off. Certainly more promise than an X-Men show in a world without X-Men seemed to suggest. But that potential isn’t quite paying off yet. Improved pacing and making the Struckers more interesting (or less central, either way) could bring this show from “okay” to “quite good.” But man I do not care for Agent Jace, even if Emma Dumont thinks his motives are perfectly understandable.
Is it me? Have I been spoiled by so many shows that favour seasonal arcs over full-series arcs? Is that why I ended up less fond of Runaways?
You know what, no. It’s an insanely crowded TV landscape this year. There’s so much TV on that I somehow still haven’t finished the second season of Santa Clarita Diet and it is so freaking funny this year, you have no idea. So while Runaways was doing well, save for some really clunky dialogue here and there, the fact remains that the first season is essentially a ten-hour pilot.
If you have room in your viewing schedule for a ten-hour pilot, you could do a lot worse. If you don’t, then hey, I get that.
Detractors of Riverdale will point out how ridiculous and overwrought everything that happens is on this noir crime thiller that for some reason stars the Archie Comics characters. Fans of the show will point to the exact same things. Yes, this show is… it is melodramatic to the point of self-parody. By way of a for instance, Betty Cooper had her previously unknown half-brother Chic teach her to be a dominatrix cam girl and they just, and they just, they just moved on like that wasn’t even a thing. “Betty becomes a cam girl! Anyhoo, let’s check back in on Archie joining the mafia.”
It works because it knows what a ridiculous melodrama it is, and they lean into it so hard. From the direction to the cinematography to the set decoration to the acting, everyone knows exactly what this show is and they commit to it. That’s why I don’t ding Riverdale for clunky, awkward dialogue like I did Runaways. Because Archie’s pals and gals sell it. And that’s what makes it so hard to stop watching.
I mean… if you can get past the fact that it is, at its core, this ridiculous. Which I can.
#13. Agents of SHIELD
And so ends their reign as Marvel’s best TV show. Turns out it’s a hard title to hold when Marvel Netflix actually shows up to work.
Despite that fact that no other Marvel property (save for the comics) will even look Agents of SHIELD in the eye, it does remain an entertaining watch with some delightfully charming (most of the time) characters. That said… of the two halves to the season, “SHIELD in Space” and “Fix the Future” (my titles not theirs), the first one overstayed its welcome by a few weeks, and the second did nothing with one of its central premises. Which is to say, the fact that the Agents of SHIELD might have been stuck in a time loop ultimately had little impact. They broke the time loop with little effort, just because they decided to. Not the strongest choice.
But it was fun watching them write a season like it was going to be their last.
#12. Luke Cage
So, showrunner, you see your season as a Zeppelin album, something to be experienced in its entirety, rather than a collection of singles. Cool. So that means you don’t care so much about making each episode its own thing. Sure. But you still, honestly I’m also getting tired of saying it, you still need to work on pacing. As much as Alfre Woodard is acting the Hell out of Mariah, the fact remains that her arc runs out of momentum in episode ten. Of thirteen. And episodes ten and eleven reeked of filler, and that was too late in the season for filler.
They improved on a lot of fronts. They have two good villains (three including Shades) and stick to them instead of pulling in a Diamondback for the third act. (It was amusing watching the showrunner try to walk back an admission that he didn’t use Diamondback this season because nobody liked him). Misty Knight was finally well used. It only took them three episodes to get the plot going, not five. Maybe this show was the season’s most improved player, not Gotham… but I continue to live in hope of a Marvel Netflix show that actually knows how to fill 13 episodes.
Also once again Luke Cage manages to be one of the least interesting or necessary characters on his own show. I think about the A-plot and it’s all about Mariah and Bushmaster but also Luke is there. He’d lift right out. Not ideal.
Still, more worked than didn’t. We’re at that point of the list.
#11. The Punisher
Okay. So. Gun-toting mass murderers are a kind of problematic as far as leading characters go, in this time where the United States has mass shootings once a week. And knowing this, they included the bad kind of disgruntled while male turned domestic terrorist… well that was rough to type… in the form of rat-faced Lewis, the ex-soldier who despite all the support in the world becomes a mad bomber because he meets one bigoted gun-nut who radicalizes him against liberal society. Which, fine, okay, but they sure did waste a lot of time on Lewis when the beginning and end of his arc were the only necessary moments. And hey, maybe implying that every soldier can become a remorseless killing machine once back in society isn’t awesome? Maybe show that there are ways to get past battlefield trauma other than mass murder?
Also, and I cannot stress this enough, making this a second origin story was a bad, bad choice. Frank knew his old commanding officers were involved in his family’s death, he should not have needed Micro to walk him through it in order to care about it again. When your franchise is known for pacing problems the way Marvel Netflix is, don’t waste your first episode dragging your lead back to square one.
I am looking at you, Daredevil season three. Don’t screw this up, Daredevil season three.
Still, pacing issues and too much Lewis aside… Jon Bernthal was great as Frank Castle, Ben Barnes was great as Frank’s frienemesis Billy Russo, and Amber Rose Revah was the best “Marvel Netflix Badass Female Co-Lead” since Trish Walker, so if you aren’t instantly turned off by the nature of the protagonist, there’s stuff to enjoy here.
#10. The End of the F***ing World
It’s a little bleak, and gets bleaker, especially as the odds of an “And they get away with it” ending fade the closer they get to James’ 18th try-me-as-an-adult birthday. But it’s still a fun and quick paced watch with two solid leads, who have great emotional journeys, and good supporting cast.
Come on, you’ve wasted four hours on worse, give it a go.
#9. Jessica Jones
Jessica’s still a treat to watch in action, and the main plot gave her whole new demons to grapple with. Jessica’s great, the villain is great, Jeri Hogarth is super great, solid supporting cast with the exception of Pryce Cheng…
But just because you put all of the pointless wheel-spinning in the first half of the season doesn’t mean there isn’t any pointless wheel spinning. So it’s top ten, but it still takes a tumble from its first season.
Man this show is fun. Just fun. And such a great central cast… Liv, Major, Ravi, Clive, Payton, Liv and Ravi a second time for emphasis, I am going to miss these guys like crazy when the show ends next year. Even the villains are fun to watch. It’s why I’m glad that four seasons in, Blaine DeBeers has never truly paid for his sins. I need him lurking around launching schemes.
That said… they kind of had the opposite problem as anything ever from Marvel Netflix. The Marvel Netflix offerings struggled to fill 13 episodes (or even eight… Jesus Christ, Defenders…), while this year iZombie could have used an extra nine to flesh out a couple of their central themes more. Bother Love’s zombie supremacist church, Fillmore Graves’ struggle to maintain order, the growing movement to just nuke New Seattle and be done with it, all of these could have used a bit more time.
…Except that might have led to it taking even longer to bring down the corrupt, brain-skimming Fillmore Graves soldier that Liv identified in the season premiere. Not ideal.
#7. Black Lightning
Now, this is how you do a 13 episode season, Marvel Netflix. Black Lightning is nearly all thriller with very little filler. The lead works, his family mostly works like gangbusters (his ex-wife is a bit of a drag early on, because saying “don’t be a hero, [main character]” is never a strong choice), Tobias Whale is a villain I’m glad to have stick around for multiple seasons… plus few if any pacing problems, and unlike, say, Luke Cage*, when Black Lightning takes on systemic oppression of African-Americans, they make the systemic oppressors the bad guys.
Look, this close to the top five, I’m going to start running out of bad things to say about shows. Let’s just be okay with that.
*Obviously Luke Cage and Black Lightning don’t need to be in direct competition. There are… [checks spreadsheet] 15 shows on this list with white male leads and they don’t have to battle each other for the right to exist, we do not need to pit the two black leads against each other any more than we needed to pit Supergirl and Jessica Jones against each other two years back. I’m just saying, they each attempted this one thing, but Black Lightning did it better.
The CW’s most unapologetically liberal and wonderfully hopeful show. Even getting punched into a coma in the fall finale can’t rob Kara Zor-El/Danvers of her compassion for all, even her enemies. Plus the second best A-plot of any CW show. The central cast is all delightful, Mon-El was much improved (and he was pretty fun in season two), Brainiac Five was great, Saturn Girl was decent (so she’s telekinetic now? You are just determined to write out Cosmic Boy)… there are probably ways that Supergirl could push from good to great, but it’s most of the way there most days.
Okay. Top five. We’re into the photo finishes here, people.
Man this show is good.
What started as “Castle but instead of a mystery writer it’s the literal devil” has become a brilliant ensemble show that, yes, at its heart, still involves the ex-King of Hell helping the LAPD solve murders, but is also television’s sharpest theological deconstruction. From sympathy for the Devil to the introduction of God’s ex-wife to pointing out the part of Cain and Abel nobody considers (Abel was a dick), now that Lucifer has started playing with the divine, it’s addictive television. And the cast doesn’t have a weak link. Not even the kid.
Sure they forgot about the whole Sinnerman thing for half the season but man this show is good. I am so glad I get at least ten more episodes. (#LuciferSaved! We did it, Lucifam!)
#4. Legends of Tomorrow
Few shows capture pure fun like the last two seasons of Legends of Tomorrow. I’m not saying it’s pure good times, they emotionally crushed me at least twice this season (I asked you to stop writing out Arthur Darville, Zod damn you), but every episode delivers at least some high-octane time travel shenanigans. Time Agents Ava Sharpe (the badass who hooks up with Sara Lance and it’s adorable) and Gary (the comic relief one) were good additions, and bringing Matt Ryan’s John Constantine into the show almost but not quite makes up for writing out two of my very favourites this year you bastards. That’s three of my very favourites gone, with only… what’s the count now… five absolute favourites left! (They’ve managed to add three.)
It might, if anything, be a little too glib, but rumours circulate that next season might correct that. Oh, please don’t let this show hit a fourth season slump like Flash and Arrow did, I live for these kooky time travellers.
Legion is visually and narratively daring and inventive like nothing else on television. A longer runtime for their second outing didn’t create padding so much as gave key moments room to breathe, spending entire episodes on emotional beats that might have gotten condensed to a single scene or montage with only eight episodes. A phenomenal cast, brilliant cinematography, few shows command full and undivided attention like this one, where every frame feels significant.
I just wish they hadn’t done that thing they did in the finale. But they did. So regardless of how it may lead to an interesting and different third season, it’s down to third place for you, Legion.
…I kinda want to rewatch the whole thing. Good thing I’ve never deleted an episode from my PVR.
The one show on this list giving Legion a run for its money in terms of visuals is Preacher. Gotham is trying its best but it’s not there yet. Preacher has addictive scripts, brilliant visuals, and an excellent cast. I need this show to run for ten seasons, each bigger and bolder than the last. If they’d come up with character arcs for Tulip and Cassidy as good as Jesse’s, this would be the uncontested champion. As it is… that title falls elsewhere…
#1. The Tick
It’s not just that The Tick is almost aggressively fun, or that the whole cast is superb (down to the voice of Alan Tudyk as Danger Boat, Overkill’s sentient boat/lair) and wonderfully well written. It’s that The Tick, above all others, is constantly the best version of itself. There are no filler episodes, no pacing issues, no underwritten Tulips or brutally unsettling finales or unnecessary villain swaps or villains too obnoxiously good at predicting the heroes’ every move. There is virtually nothing I did or could roll my eyes at. It’s just 12 episodes of exceptionally good, exceptionally fun, perfectly crafted television, and by the time it was done I loved it to death. I cannot recommend The Tick enough.
And we made it. Twelve awards given out, twenty-two shows ranked. Remember when this started, and there were only seven? And ranking them was so fast I did a bonus section on Elementary and Doctor Who and whatnot just to keep it going? Man. Simpler times. Well, it probably can’t get more crowded than–
The DC Universe streaming service launches soon, doesn’t it. Damn it.
Well… if there’s no legal way to watch Titans and Doom Patrol in Canada, I probably don’t have to write about them, right? Right?