Doctor Who Series 10 Finale: Not a Deus Ex Machina

Cyber Scarecrow
Image from The Doctor Falls, BBC

Series 10 of Doctor Who recently culminated in a stunningly good two-part story comprised of the episodes World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. My unreserved enjoyment of these episodes as near perfect television story-telling counts as my full disclosure, as I’m about to defend them and don’t want to give the impression that only logic is in play, here…

Note that here be the dragons of copious spoilers, so stop reading if you’re trying to avoid knowing stuff.

Within minutes of the airing of The Doctor Falls, and since, comments have appeared online that the episode failed and ruined the finale because a significant plot point was resolved by a deus ex machina. Specifically, the Doctor’s assistant, Bill, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, has been turned into a Cyberman through the machinations of the Master and suffered horribly, but at the bleakest moment of failure, she is saved by a near-omnipotent character from earlier in the season, the Pilot.

As most everyone knows, by now, deus ex machina is a critical term that literally means “god from the machine,” and refers, to quote the website Literary Devices, to an author’s solving “a seemingly intractable problem in a plot by adding in an unexpected character, object, or situation” in a way that seems contrived, as if “the author must resort to something that he or she did not set up properly plot-wise.”

Superficially, this doesn’t seem a million miles from what happened when the Pilot saves Bill, then, at Bill’s request, removes the Doctor’s body from the battlefield to the safety of the TARDIS, where, unknown to Bill, he will begin to regenerate. I can understand where the criticism is coming from; I just don’t agree with it.

For starters, the Pilot doesn’t actually resolve any intractable plot problems. The story question here is, Will the Doctor defeat the machinations of the Master and the rise of the Cybermen? That question is resolved purely through the actions of the main characters, their struggles and their considerable sacrifices. Missy brings down the Master and seemingly dies for her efforts. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole save the humans from the Cybermen, and all three understand when they make the necessary choices that the cost will be their lives, or at least their lives as they’ve known them. Not a whisper of deus ex machina there.

Nor does the Pilot resolve Bill’s story question. Bill’s story question is explicitly stated in part one, World Enough and Time. It is: Will Bill survive the Doctor’s rash attempt to test Missy’s newfound goodness? The answer turns out to be: No, and furthermore she will suffer an unfathomably lingering and painful death before sacrificing a tortured half-life in support of the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Cybermen. That is, I would argue that Bill’s story is resolved already by the time the Pilot makes an appearance. She died. In slow, awful stages, her ongoing twilight existence as a cyber-revenant not withstanding. When the Pilot comes, it isn’t to deliver a resolution that Bill is beyond needing, but something else—so still not a deus ex machina.

We’re all critics, these days, and we all have access to a toolkit of critical idiom. Tweet your horror that Steven Moffat committed deus ex machina and very few readers will scratch their head in confusion. But we’re also now inclined to be a culture of hammers who see everything as nails. Working from a checklist of possible literary flaws will guarantee that you often find them, but it will also blind you to the truth that there are other idioms, other toolkits, and I think that’s been the case with The Doctor Falls.

I suspect that an episode which begins with the imagery of crucified cyber-scarecrows, in a story riddled with people sacrificing themselves to redeem others, amid characters who are dying and being reborn through cybernetic intervention or Time Lord regeneration, that the toolkit in play here might be that of religious symbolism.

And at the end, it’s not a deus ex machina that the Pilot brings Bill. It’s grace. It’s the gift of the universe to those who have given their all in pursuit of doing the right thing, and failed because humans are flawed and fail, but sometimes they’re still saved.

There are episodes enough of Doctor Who where the Doctor solves an impossible problem by waving his sonic screwdriver at a contrived Plot Resolution Machine. This isn’t one of them.

This is more like Frodo, who came undone on Mount Doom only to discover that his sacrifices to that point had put in place the elements necessary for providence to finish the job.

It’s a reminder, in dark times that I think could use a few more such reminders, that hope is not foolish because sometimes, however improbably, good things happen.

It’s grace.

Of course, enmeshed as we all are in barbed wire cynicism, this will strike many as far worse than a deus ex machina. It’ll be saccharine or cheesy or whatever curmudgeonly dismissal occurs to them. That’s not my problem. Struck me as joyous and uplifting, and I cheered as soon as I recognised the Pilot on the battlefield and understood how her presence had been set up.

I’m just saying, it wasn’t a literary failing, it wasn’t a deus ex machina and it ruined nothing. It was a feature, not a bug.

Bill simply got the ending she deserved, and I’m glad.

Review: Crow Shine by Alan Baxter

CrowshineAlan Baxter’s anthology Crow Shine has recently been nominated for an Aurealis award for best collection, and when you read it it’s easy to see why. It’s a bloody good read, start to finish.

There are nineteen stories  from the dark end of the speculative fiction genre, mostly horror, but with a smattering of weird and urban and dark fantasy. Character, time period, geographical setting, and supernatural element are richly varied, so no mid-anthology ennui here. Indeed, the collection starts well and only gets better as it proceeds.

For my money, the closest thing to a weak story is Punishment of the Sun, which, while engaging, I felt lacked clarity in its underlying events. But it’s still a pretty high low, and its surrounded by gems.

Tiny Lives is such a pristine and moving example of shorter short fiction that I read it several times to see what I could learn from it about writing. The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner is a brilliant eldritch pirate story, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and a highlight. Darkest Shade of Grey is like a lost episode of Kolchak: the Night Stalker, but with extra added humanity. A Strong Urge to Fly is pure Tales of the Unexpected, with some beautiful, atmospheric prose in the descriptions of the town of Beston-on-Sea. The Old Magic is a moving story of longevity and power. Among these highs, the final story, The Darkness in Clara, in which a woman struggles to make sense of her partner’s death, still manages to stand out as exceptional. Again, moving and humane, with a point to be made about how we harm each other and ourselves.

A great collection, highly recommended.

Review – A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

atasteofhoneyKai Ashante Wilson’s The Devil in America was nominated for the Nebula award, and his Tor.com novella Sorcerer of the Wildeeps picked up the 2016 Crawford award. You’d expect his newest novella from Tor.com to be pretty marvellous, and it is.

At first glance, A Taste of Honey is a fantasy story in which a young nobleman of Olurum finds first love with a Dalucan soldier, and pursues that love despite religions proscriptions against homosexuality and the violent disapproval of his family. Once the gods put in a brief appearance, and turn out to be transhumans rather than divinities, the genre shifts slightly to science fiction. And the story unfolds into a beautifully told examination of how our choices shape our lives.

The intense and risky love affair between Aqib and the foreign soldier Lucrio is skillfully handled. Tension arises from the Dalucan’s inability to fully understand the need for secrecy (coming, as he does, from a freer society) and from Aqib’s feverish, giddy surrender to first love leading him to take risks that he otherwise mightn’t. As the narrative shifts in time between younger and older Aqib, other kinds of love enter his life, and new perspectives on the romance emerge.

Wilson’s prose is lovely. His worldbuilding is relatively simple, but a novella doesn’t require the vast, sprawling world that a modern fantasy mega-tome might, and what is there is appealing. For me, the gods were a highlight—human but wonderfully strange and a little perilous in their casual power. The subplot concerning Aqib’s wife, the Blessed Femysade, makes plain how even the slightest touch of very great power can disrupt a life simply by opening up new choices.

The ending is surprising and satisfying, and you can’t ask much more than that. Highly recommended.

Review: “The Massacre of Mankind” by Stephen Baxter

massacre-of-mankindThe iconic tripods rampaging across the cover tell you fairly succinctly that The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter is an authorised sequel to H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds. I’m normally indifferent to new authors revisiting old wells (pardon the pun). Moreover, The War of the Worlds is among the first science fiction novels I read and it so thoroughly blew my mind that I re-read it until my copy disintegrated. I expected to be disappointed by The Massacre of Mankind and I doubt that I’d have bought without Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover. As it turned out, I enjoyed Baxter’s sequel.

Briefly, the novel reports the events of the second Martian invasion of Earth thirteen years after the first. The narrator of Wells’s novel is reduced to a minor character named Oliver Jenkins, while the narrator of The Massacre of Mankind is his sister-in-law, the journalist Julie Elphinstone. When the Martians return, they have adapted their biology and technology based on their first experience with Earth and this time they have their sights set on the whole planet.

Baxter does an incredible job of building the post-Martian world as an alternate 1920s inflected by humanity’s first encounter with aliens and their efforts to adapt abandoned Martian technology. There are fun cultural details such as Charlie Chaplin’s being famous for his portrayal of a character based on Wells’s Artilleryman. And there are grim historical alterations such as World War I becoming Germany’s long solo war against Russia using Martian technology acquired from their increasingly militaristic allies, the British.

If the novel has a flaw, it would have to be pacing. The early part of the book moves quite slowly as it sets everything up. An exacerbating issue throughout the novel is its nature as journalistic memoir written after the fact by Miss Elphinstone so that even impactful scenes from which she’s absent are delivered as dry reportage.

But once the Martians put in appearance, the book becomes gripping. They’re portrayed as cunning and well-prepared conquerers and some of the set piece scenes of Martian attacks on cities around the world are marvellous—particularly, for me, Constantinople and Melbourne.

I suspect the ending will divide people, but I found it acceptable. In some respects, the ending isn’t the point. The point was to revisit for the twenty-first century Well’s critique of Imperialism—that just because you believe there’s a ladder of creation it doesn’t mean you’re standing on the top rung—and he does that skillfully.

In short, well worth a read.