Last season in the episode “Face the Raven” the Doctor encountered what was called a “misdirection circuit.” This was created by alien creatures called lurkworms to hide trap streets from the minds of those passing by. The circuit was said to “normalize everything you see, and place it within the compass of your expectations.” With the high doses of misdirection we’re being fed this season, it’s a wonder if Moffatt’s misdirection circuit is malfunctioning.
This week, we were shown a fake-out regeneration scene, and I almost literally can’t even. This sequence wasn’t just plopped into an episode unexpectedly to add a little fun. No, this was teased for literally months in season trailers and episode previews. Fans and critics were postulating how interesting it would be to have a regeneration occur mid-season. The hype was real. And it was all just a gag.
Truthfully, misdirection in Doctor Who can be a lot of fun. There have been excellent uses of it like “knocking four times” by the Master in Ten’s final season, or Bad Wolf, or Eleven’s “something borrowed, something blue” speech. These worked because they were in service to the story’s themes and arcs. They had gravity. They meant something. A fake regeneration scene is a cheap parlor trick, and with Moffatt as magician, we’re starting to see right through it.
This “gotcha” misdirection under Moffatt (I can’t fully contribute this one to him, as the episode was written by Toby Whithouse) has become the expectation now. The widely panned Tardis key scene with Clara in season eight being the worst of far too many examples. And here’s the problem- misdirection without stakes doesn’t work. Not for long, anyway. If you can’t trust the direction, you don’t feel the result, and worse you probably don’t care. I want to feel the stakes again, and for what I’m seeing to mean something.
You know it’s a bad episode when I’m on the fifth paragraph and haven’t even addressed the plot. Which, let’s be honest, there isn’t much of one. I guess they decided that being the final part of a three-episode arc was enough thematic set up. It’s a shame too, because I genuinely loved part two, and its implications could have been far reaching. Instead they were neutered. Thankfully we have Pearl Mackie’s best performance of her run and Capaldi as brilliant as ever with a dash of Missy thrown in for fun. Sadly, it’s all for naught in one of the most forgettable episodes in recent memory.
“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” – John 8:31
How ironic is it that the worst fake-out misdirection in some time comes in an episode that wants to talk about truth versus fake news? It doesn’t bother to actually talk about it, mind you, but it sure had the set up for it. This over-quoted verse actually gives the Christian a guide for how to define real truth. I wanted to talk more about this, because a sci-fi episode about truth in the era of fake news could have been groundbreaking. Oh well. But the one thing I did like is Bill’s courage to hold onto truth when literally everything around her was trying to change her mind. She knew what the freedom of truth felt like, and that’s what set her, and the rest of the world, free in the end. It’s a nice microcosm of the truth that Jesus called us to seek in John.
While I am highly critical of this episode, I do think it contains a beautiful picture of the Doctor’s heart(s). When Bill asks why the Doctor puts up with the human race, he answers, “in amongst seven billion, there’s someone like you.” We know that he would actually say that to anyone. There’s no one unimportant to him. John 8 is the same chapter where the adulterous woman is brought to Jesus and he invites those without sin to cast their stones. The staggering truth of this moment is that if anyone of the woman’s accusers had been in her situation Jesus would still not condemn them just as he didn’t condemn her. For as wrong as I can so often be, I rest knowing that I will not be condemned for it. Because there’s no one unimportant to Christ either. I am at least thankful for that reminder, even in a poor episode.
Next time on Who-ology:
Skepticism. That’s where I’m at right now. I can’t rightly trust what the previews show me right now, and Ice Warriors don’t inspire me much. I want to be wrong, but I fear I will be prove right unless the stakes are real. A Mark Gatiss episode isn’t known for that, but I’m holding out hope.