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Doctor Who: The Devil's Chord

"First we have a note. Then we have a tune. Then… we have a melody."

I heard there was a secret chord
That RT Davies played
And it pleased the Time Lord
But you don't really care for music

Do ya?

The most hyped episode of the new season of Doctor Who arrived early. And it's a lot of fun, if not without flaws.

A lot of the pre-season publicity focused on the casting of Jinkx Monsoon for this episode as 'The Maestro.' I have to admit, I'm not really dialed into RuPaul's Drag Race, so I had little to no frame of reference coming into this episode. I do have an enormous amount of respect for the fact that RTD clearly only named the character 'The Maestro' so that everyone would go apeshit debating whether or not they were the Master and thus get a few days of free publicity out of the whole thing. That's just good promotion. And it's exactly the sort of thing that John Nathan Turner was so good at back in the day, so it just feels 'right' for the show.

Russell T. Davies has mentioned in interviews that the starting point for this episode was 'We can't afford to have any Beatles' songs but want to do a Beatles episode.' So, the entire point from the very beginning is that the music is missing. And I really enjoy that line of thought. It's a very 'lemons into lemonade' way to approach things. The Doctor and Ruby go to 1963 specifically to see the music happening and find that the music is entirely absent.

That's a good hook for an episode, and a really interesting study on what a world would look like if we didn't have music to help us express our feelings. It's really about how music connects everything, which leads me to my absolute favorite thing about this episode. The way that Jinkx Monsoon's Maestro plays us into the opening title music on the piano, which transitions beautifully into the regular music, and then transitions back out into music being played on the TARDIS' juke box. That's just such a lovely way of underlining the way that music ties things together in invisible ways that I can't say enough good things about it.

So, at its heart, what we have in this episode is very simple. Something has removed music from our world. What would that mean for how society would develop? But more than that, music isn't just gone, it's been turned into an object of disgust. Look at the way the entire canteen turns on Paul McCartney when the Doctor cajoles him into singing eight bars. Music isn't gone, it's been poisoned. Anyone found engaging in 'music' is basically a monster in this culture. Paul and John hate themselves for pursuing it just to make a little money. No one dares to write songs that aren't shit for fear of persecution. Music hasn't been excised; it's been made indecent. Which is so much more interesting. When The Doctor tries to encourage Paul McCartney to write decent songs, Paul publicly shames the Doctor as if he's been asked to produce the worst sort of pornography. That's interesting.

This is the framework around which Russell builds up a few of this season's recurring themes. I like that Maestro is identified as being the Toymaker's child. It provides a nice throwback to 'The Giggle,' which gives the season a nice sense of unity, while simultaneously giving a sense of a cohesive buildup for things to come. We get mention of the 'One who waits' again, but we also get mention of 'The Pantheon' and 'The Oldest.' Is 'The Oldest' the same being as 'The One Who Waits'? No idea as of yet, but one of them is factored into Ruby's birth, providing the plot justification for defeating an otherwise unbeatable foe, so that works nicely both as a way to resolve this episode AND as a way to seed the ground for the inevitable confrontation yet to come.

Have I mentioned recently that Russell T. Davies is an incredibly lean and disciplined screenwriter? Because he kind of goes out of his way to hide the fact, but it's indisputably true.

Which leads us to a discussion of Susan Twist.

Yes, the actress' name is actually 'Susan Twist.' Fans have been having a field day with that one. But let's circle back to that.

She first appeared as Isaac Newton's housekeeper in 'Wild Blue Yonder.' Then she appeared as a party goer in 'The Church on Ruby Road.' Then she was a space officer in 'Space Babies.' And now she's a canteen lady in 1963 who's apparently over-charging for tea. The one thing we know for certain is that Russell T. Davies absolutely wants us to have noticed this and be talking about it. It certainly hasn't escaped his attention that her name being literally 'Susan Twist' might be leading the fanbase to expect a twist involving Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter. She was obliquely referenced in 'Space Babies' and she's openly referenced here.

I don't think any of that means anything. I think that's Russell pouring PR gasoline on the fire of 'Who is Mrs. Flood' discourse, with the peripheral benefit of the actress' name causing even more speculation.

This is exactly why he's a good showrunner. JNT was good at the same things back in the 80s but couldn't write worth a damn. Russell can. I can't wait to see where this is actually going.


Bits and Pieces:

-- Timothy Drake is an actual composer who's best known for the album 'Symphonies of the Planets,' rather later than 1925. I'd assume that the composer here is either named in tribute to him, or that RTD is a big fan of Batman's third Robin. Could go either way.

-- The Devil's Chord is a real thing as well. Also known as Diabolus in Musica, its history is more or less as Batman's sidekick relates it here. It formed the foundation for much of Black Sabbath's first album, which leads to the amusing visual of Ozzie Osbourne and Jinkx Monsoon co-fronting an album. Weep for what we have lost.

-- Also real, Aeolian tones, which appear to be a fascinating study that I'd encourage anyone interested to look into.

-- The Beatles 'My Dog Fred' song might be the purest and best example ever of a 'deliberately crap song' that we've ever been presented with. Although, to be fair, it doesn't actually sound a million miles away from most of the tracks on Pink Floyd's first album 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn.' Although, again, to be fair, Pink Floyd was doing it on purpose and in 1967, which was a very different musical landscape from 1963. 'Piper...' is a really great and influential album, and if you've never listened to it, you should definitely check it out.

-- Cilla, as we see here, is Cilla Black. An accidental abbreviation of her given name, Pricilla, she was indeed a close friend of the Beatles and very probably would have been in studio at the same time.

-- They needed to do either the 'Twist in the End' music video, OR the 'Abbey Road painted lines as piano keys' bit. Either was fine. Both were too much.

-- The sheer amount of joy that Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson put into running to the TARDIS wardrobe was more endearing than we deserve. We've seen companions get excited about period costume before. We've never seen the Doctor allow themselves to get that excited with them. And I loved it.

-- Interesting fact I learned on investigation. Jinkx Monsoon, in private life, uses They/Them pronouns. But while in drag uses She/Her pronouns. This is not uncommon. Most drag queens I know change pronouns based on how they're presenting at the time.

-- Ruby mentions that her mother, Carla, had a girlfriend named Claire who loved the Beatles and vinyl. It's left deliberately vague as to whether she was a girlfriend, or a girlfriend. If you see what I mean. I like that they left it vague.

-- When the Doctor sees how bad the symphony is and slumps over in despair, Ruby gives him a stoic pat on the back while grimacing that might be my favorite thing I've ever seen a companion do, ever. Honestly, it's just amazing. I love it to bits.

-- It's nicely structured that the secret to defeating Maestro is tied into whatever is going on internally with Ruby.

-- I don't love the visualization of music as floating sheet music here. It's a little too Looney Tunes for my taste. But I can accept it as a visual narrative convention.

-- 'Sound and Vision.' Even the Maestro respects a Bowie reference.


Quotes:

Timothy Drake: "Henry, get away from Him."
Maestro: "Them."
Timothy Drake: "What?"
Maestro: "Me."
Timothy Drake: "What?"
Maestro: "I’m them."
Timothy Drake: "You’re who?"

Ruby: "I want a beehive!"
The Doctor: "I’ve got wigs galore!"

Ruby: "Yup. There’s always a Janet."

The Doctor: "Oh… Cilla…"

The Doctor: "When it’s just you, on your own. Don’t you think there must be better songs?"

Ruby: "Can you dance without music?"
The Doctor: "I mean, you can, but would you want to?"

Maestro: "I heard music. And music is mine."

The Doctor: "Sometimes genius is just hard work."

Maestro: "Playing lovesick songs for heartbroken lesbians."

The Doctor: "I have lived. And I have loved. And I can only smile like this because I have lost so much."


A fun entry into the season that entertains while furthering the 'Mystery of Ruby Sunday' plotline. Interestingly, I liked 'Space Babies' more each time I watched it and like this one slightly less each time I watched it. Not sure what that means.

Twelve out of fifteen Doctors.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.

5 comments:

  1. I've not been watching new Who in some time now (Jodie's 1st season was my last, even though I own her 2nd season on Blu-Ray), but it's too bad they couldn't have tied in that silly bit with Ian and the Beatles from 'The Chase' into this one.

    JNT is an interesting one to be sure. He gets a lot of hate, that may be deserved as he oversaw the nadir of the classic show that is my number one TV show of all time, but as you say, he was good at PR.

    One day I hope we get an animation of 'The Celestial Toymaker' as I have the book and have seen the bits that exist on the Lost Years, but want to see the thing as best realized on the screen as possible, although the racial slur in the old rhyme can be removed of course.

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  2. I think this episode was too Whovian for me. I found it frustrating. It felt like we were moving toward a moment of joy and it didn't happen, at least not for me.

    Your excellent review gave me a lot of info, Mikey -- thanks.

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  3. I really loved this episode. I wasn't following casting news at all, so Jinkx was a surprise for me. But I adored the camp, the theatrical nature of it all, and that undercurrent of horror that ran through everything. I actually liked the black music bars a lot, although the transparent ones hovering in mid air were a little cheesy to me. I loved how Maestro played us into the opening credits or how the Doctor thought that music was diegetic instead of actually happening. I wasn't expecting a connection to the Toymaker, but I liked that too.

    Still undecided on how I feel about Ruby clearly being some kind of Super Special Girl. It was a convention that I tired off during Moffat's run, and one of the nice things about RTD's first run was that he didn't rely on that. I will admit that how it's being handled well.

    For a 60s episode theoretically about the Beatles, I was surprised at how little Beatles there actually was.

    You know, I thought that the tea lady looked familiar and was maybe the woman from "The Church on Ruby Road." I didn't register her in "Space Babies", but this is kind of fun. Very interesting. Is it Susan? Is that too obvious with how the Doctor specifically mentioned her? Or if it just lying the groundwork like good writing is supposed to do? I have zero attachment to Susan as a character, but this lady feels a little sinister. I wouldn't be surprised if she ended up being another of the Pantheon.

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  4. I felt it was nice idea and it should be applauded for trying to do something new but it fizzes out about halfway through. Maybe something a bit more conventional should have come out before this.

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  5. I wanted to like this episode, some of the elements were cool and there were some interesting effects. But overall this is probably my least favourite of the season so far, along with Boom.

    Not terrible, but depended a little on things that I didn't appreciate too much, particularly the end song.

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