General Update: December – February

Today is both the first day of a new month and World Book Day (and also a day where I don’t have any mock exams going on) so I figured it would be appropriate to try and get back to this blog, which has been somewhat maligned over the last three months. The long and short of things was that I was oscillating between exhaustion (in December) stress (in January) and apathy (in February), so it was a little difficult finding my way back to the blog. Nonetheless, I have been kept fairly busy.

I think I’ve decided that The Arbitrary Library is now more of a literary review than anything else. I never really envisioned this blog as being a place where I’d discuss personal matters too much, but the original scope was to talk about life, the universe and everything – all done arbitrarily, as the title may suggest.

While the arbitrary, out-of-the-box concepts are becoming less and less frequent, I will say that some things will likely remain arbitrary. Even if my posts start to get more regular, I don’t expect to adopt a concrete schedule – this blog is something that will hopefully fit into my life, but it is not the centre of it.

But enough of this. Without further ado, updates for the last few months.



This was a very exciting month for me, but also an incredibly stressful one, to the extent that, impossible as it may seem, I sort-of forgot that Christmas was a thing. Those of you who read my November posts may have noticed a sort of strained formality in them. The truth was that I was using them as practise essays of a sort, ahead of my Oxford interview. I’ve always found that I communicate a lot more fluently through my writing than when I speak aloud, so I thought that actually writing down my ideas about the things I had read would help me when it came to interview. Plus, I can now confidently walk around telling people with no interest in Paradise Lost that “Milton was of the devil’s party and did not know it.”

Anyway, this apparently, paid off, as I now have a conditional place to study in Oxford in October 2018, at my first-choice college – which will remain mysteriously nameless for now, but I imagine you’ll be hearing about it if things go according to plan.

After interviews, I managed to sort-of sleep my way through to Christmas, and out the other side of New Year. I can’t say I actually did a huge amount of reading that month, but there were two big Netflix events that I revelled in. The first was Season 2 of The Crown. If people ask me about The Crown, I’ll generally say that I’m not massively interested in the story, but I do think it is a masterclass of technical craftsmanship, with some very good writing, directing, and acting, and quite possibly the very best production design in the TV business. It’s wonderfully opulent, and though its stories can be a bit hit-and-miss – I thought “Marionettes”, “Vergangenheit” and “Paterfamilias” were excellent, but found “Matrimonium” massively tedious – there is no denying that it all looks magical on screen.

The second Netflix event was Season 4 of Black Mirror. I thought this offering by Charlie Brooker was somewhat tamer than the first three seasons, but not necessarily weaker. I considered “USS Callister” to be the best episode of the season, with “Hang the DJ” a close second, but neither of them had either the unexpected beauty of “San Junipero” or the escalating horror of “White Christmas”, which still remain my two favourites. I worry that Black Mirror is losing the surprise factor that made it so originally startling, as while “ArkAngel” and “Crocodile” both had novel concepts, their plots fell apart – possibly telling us that we’ve gotten accustomed to what BM has to offer. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

I have defended “Metalhead” against criticism that it might just be the worst thing ever on more than one occasion. I thought it was a brilliant example of what can be done with a back-to-basics mentality, and I’m tempted to say that the Black Mirror-esque concept we’re supposed to consider here is not so much the contents of the episode itself, but the meta of the series. (I might cover this in a future post: if there’s any BM episode that I might make a commentary on, it’s probably this one.)

(And the less said about “Black Museum”, the better.)

Of course, there was a third TV event, served up by the BBC, amid the festive trimmings: Doctor Who, and Peter Capaldi’s departure in “Twice Upon a Time”. I’m still somewhat conflicted over this episode, as while I liked what it stood for, I have to admit that I wanted something a bit more explosive, with a bit more physical power behind it. I think there’s a very valid argument that the beauty of “Twice Upon a Time” is in its understatement, and some of the very best Doctor Who episodes succeed at this (see “Listen”) – but… you know, it just wasn’t for me in this case. That being said, I loved the ending, and am excited to see what Jodie Whittaker brings.



I only read one book between January 1 to January 31. Granted, it was Tolstoy’s War and Peace, so I reckon that can be excused somewhat. Nonethless, reading it hasn’t stood me in good stead for my task of reading 52 books this year.

I’m not sure how suitable War and Peace is for any sort of analysis, because I don’t think I’m capable of the task of reading through it again to get a better idea of what is going on in there. Currently I’m progressing through the BBC series (available on Netflix, at least in the UK), going over everything again, but at the same time, I’m going about this very slowly as I’m not sure I actually want to go through it again, so soon.

I have decided, somewhat boringly, that Pierre is my favourite character in the novel, but considering his character basically undergoes the entire human experience in those 1300 pages, it’s not really that surprising. But at the same time, there are laudable qualities in a lot of War and Peace’s characters. I have a grudging respect for both Prince Andrei and his father, in their steadfast devotion to duty, even if it their implementation of those duties leaves something to be desired. I think Princess Marya is a character deserving of both pity and awe at her absolute obliviousness to her own personal talents. For some reason I intensely disliked Sonya for the first half of the novel – “oh look, Sonya’s getting in the way again” – but then I realised that in the face of her sad, heroic sacrifice, this was completely unreasonable.

War and Peace isn’t actually a hard novel to read, and maybe that’s what makes it so praiseworthy. Whereas you can easily be snarled up in the intricacies of Middlemarch (more on this later), Tolstoy is clear, crisp, and (laugh if you want) concise, in a way. Except when it comes to his theory of history, where I mostly read the SparkNotes.

When I think of War and Peace, the old reviewer’s cliche of “a richly woven tapestry of a novel” comes to mind, but is then subverted. War and Peace is not a richly woven tapestry; it is one of threadbare simplicity, done on a massive scale, which has been torn apart by some calamity, and only barely remains together in fragile equilibrium. I am convinced that if Tolstoy had written more about his theory of history, if he had thrown in a couple more characters, his novel would have fallen to pieces. War and Peace is stretched as far as it can go, and shows the symptoms, feeling a little tired and drawn-out in places. But for the most part, the effect is one which allows you to take a tiny piece of that tapestry, follow its interweaving threads, and clearly see how it forms part of the whole.



I read Crime and Punishment, continuing my impromptu “classic Russian literature” theme. I think Dostoevsky is a better writer than Tolstoy, but a less compelling storyteller. That being said, I am yet to read The Brothers Karamazov, generally considered his best work, so I will reserve my opinion in the Tolstoy-Dostoevsky debate for now. For what its worth, I enjoyed Crime and Punishment considerably, but I think it is a little drab next to War and Peace.

On to the next novel, which I considered to be my second “big event” of the year after War and Peace, and my proper introduction to Victorian lit: George Eliot’s classic novel, Middlemarch.

I loathe this book. Genuinely, passionately loathe it.

The frustrating thing is that I consider Middlemarch to be a very good book, objectively. Even from the opening, I can tell that Eliot is accomplished in the field of social commentary. The prose… is functional, I guess. But it is woefully dry, a great Sahara of a novel. Unlike Jane Austen, Eliot’s voice is only humorous in the same way that academic in-jokes are. Unlike Pride and Prejudice‘s compelling protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, Dorothea Brooke is a complete failure resulting from functionality being elevated miles above personality. The same goes for Celia Brooke, Mr. Casaubon, George Vincy: none of them are relatable in the slightest, and consequently I find it impossible to care one bit about anything that happens to the sorry lot of them. Now, since I have not read the entirety of Middlemarch (though I will probably be forced into it at some point since every university syllabus seems to have it as a required text), I may be ill-positioned to make a commentary on it. But for me, reading this novel was about as exciting as a clinical procedure. The “I love Middlemarch” club, and the numerous #1 positions it wins on lists of great English novels will remain a mystery to me. In the end I gave up and decided to read Pride and Prejudice as a replacement, which is an excellent novel.

On a more positive note, I have made a fair bit of headway on the new book – or, should I say, the old book – because I’ve been writing it on-and-off in some form for at least the last two years. And we finally have a title that is somewhat more than tentative – “The Book of the Drowned”. I’m still not entirely sure where it’s going, though.









Stories Sans Speeches

This week I’ve come across two books that share an unusual link in their use of language and dialogue. The first – and more well-known – is William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the story of the Compson family, and the decline of their Southern sensibilities that happens alongside the degradation of the family ‘honour’. The second is Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a Canterbury Tales-esque (there’s another one for the reading list) story of several travellers meeting at an inn in a forest to tell tales involving tarot cards.

This essay (if you can call it that) will focus on the way these novels tell stories given the absence of proper means to do so. The first sixty-odd pages of The Sound and the Fury are narrated by Benjy Compson, the mentally retarded youngest son of the Compson family. Since Benjy is incapable of differentiating time, the story jumps back and forth in his lifetime without proper signposting for the reader. As such, this is one of the most confusing and strangest passages I’ve ever read in a book, and I found it almost wholly impenetrable without referencing SparkNotes. The reason for this is that the lack of “signposting”, as I’ve referred to it, means that it is impossible for Faulkner to structure the story as to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. We start somewhere in medias res, but we never know quite where. Unlike with the later chapters in the book, there are no breaks that allow us to orient ourselves around points of significance; The Sound and the Fury’s chapter is a near-impenetrable wall of paragraphs. We are, quite literally, walled off from the world as we understand it, trapped in Benjy’s half-comprehensions of the universe.

It is worth noting that Benjy Compson is not an unreliable narrator; indeed, in comparison to his brothers Quentin and Jason, who narrate the later chapters, he is a remarkably straightforward narrator due to his lack of complex emotional entanglement. Where others see symbols and extrapolate meaning from them, Benjy sees things, and is acutely aware of even the slightest difference. At the end of the novel, he becomes distraught when he is driven the wrong way back to the house, breaking his familiar routine. This calls our attention to the contradictory ideas of change and constancy in the novel, and the detrimental effects of both. The Compson family are afraid of change, stuck in an hourglass that keeps on running, yet at the same time they do not react to the fact that their quaint Southern existence is running away because they are too wrapped up in trying to maintain the status quo both within the family and without. Quentin’s suicide is as a result of holding onto pent-up feelings too long; the same can be said for Jason’s anger. Benjy, meanwhile, is unbothered by petty things like themes and ideas and critical analysis. With him, what he sees is what you get, and we don’t get opinions on it. Though his vision may appear convoluted, it often presents startling clarity – and horrifying clarity at that, given that only the absence of a sound mind in the Compson family has allowed for clear thought to prevail. But from that, we can extrapolate something else: coherency of language is not needed to tell a story.

Meanwhile, in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino’s narrator and the travellers he meets are struck silent by a magic spell or some such other. Someone produces a deck of tarot cards and the cards are laid out on the table, and the storytellers, each telling a tale in turn, move the cards to produce stories. The narrator manages to discern a meaning from the arrangement of the cards – a Two of Coins might mean wealth, for example, material or otherwise, or payment, or only gain its true meaning in conjunction with another card such as the Ace of Clubs. Calvino’s narrator offers us a possible interpretation, but we as readers are expected to draw our own conclusions; so long as they fit the cards, they are reasonable. Then all the cards are used up, and those around the table begin to move the cards to fit a different order; this raises some interesting ideas of intertextuality, of old elements being recycled to make different stories, of tropes being continually written and subverted. The link to The Sound and the Fury is a little tenuous, but both books use language in ways that we don’t expect, proving that a story without words is possible, if you have a little imagination.

Or something like that. I’m not sure where I was going with this. It sounded much more coherent when I started writing it down. But then again, so does everything.

To His Coy Mistress: An Analysis

So: I figured I should do something on this topic of metaphysical poetry, to supplement my extra reading ahead of university. It is – to my mild surprise – a very interesting period, because it takes a style that seems inherently classical and uses it to answer much broader questions about life, the Universe and everything. The metaphysical is, weirdly, kind of like Doctor Who, because it can seem an incredibly hackneyed and clichéd genre, basically the epitome of “help me, this poem is old and terrible.” It seems quite basic, in the sense of “this is a boring, old, terrible poem”, but the questions they ask are all weird and newfangled once you get into them.

The imagery is pretty cool, too. Donne’s flea in the eponymous poem is the gold standard, best-known, metaphysical conceit, and they only get weirder.

I think the Doctor Who allegory (above) was a bit nonsensical, and to be honest I only used it because it segues nicely into what I’m going to look at today: Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, of which the famous opening lines, “Had we but world enough and time / This coyness, lady, were no crime”, gave us a title for a DW episode this year.

Anyway, moving on:

To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side [5]

Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the flood,

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews. [10]

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires and more slow;

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;

Two hundred to adore each breast, [15]

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.

For, lady, you deserve this state,

Nor would I love at lower rate. [20]

       But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found; [25]

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song; then worms shall try

That long-preserved virginity,

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust; [30]

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

       Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing soul transpires [35]

At every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power. [40]

Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun [45]

Stand still, yet we will make him run.


Okay, then.

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

So, the narrator opens with a lament, “had we but world enough and time”, immediately imposing a certain negativity on the poem. By instantly putting himself down in this way, he adds another motivation for the nameless woman to cheer him up by offering sex. Not only will it fulfil her (as he goes on to argue), but she’ll be getting rid of this depressive mood that has settled over both of them, so everybody wins. But it’s more important to draw our attention to the “we”, as this is stressed by the tetrameter;  the narrator instantly identifies himself with the object of his affections, and imposes his feelings upon her. If we take a gendered perspective on this, we could argue that Marvell views the role of the woman in the relationship is to be immediately subservient. This isn’t at all odd, but what is kind of strange is the fact that he goes after her heart so hard. But if his ideal woman is bound to follow his feelings, what’s the point? It’s somewhat oxymoronic that he both wants this woman to do exactly as he commands, but at the same time he feels the need to pursue her. So the narrator doesn’t really know what he wants either, despite the fact that he gives the impression of being assured and in command of the situation.

Moving on: after the narrator reproaches the lady’s “coyness”, he continues his lamentation by describing what they would do if they had the time (lines 5-10)

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the flood:

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews.

The narrator confirms himself as Marvell with the reference to “the tide / Of Humber”; Marvell was from Hull, by which the river Humber runs. He juxtaposes this by placing his love at the “Indian Ganges”. He also juxtaposes the wealth and prosperity of their lives; while he lives a mundane life in Hull – probably the worst city in England, even during Marvell’s time – she is down by the Ganges, finding “rubies” in the river. A colonic caesura “Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide” reinforces the separation between the two, and splits lines 5-7 into two separate masculine and feminine halves. There’s a disparity between his side, which, again displays mundanity, and hers, which uses a lot more flamboyant allusions and altogether brighter language. This is explicitly suggestive of her beauty, but if we look beyond that, it seems to undercut this illusion: “Indian Ganges” and “rubies”, though lurid, are hardly complex in a linguistic sense; we can say these words very easily. So while the “coy mistress” masquerades herself as some enigmatic figure decked in jewels, she’s really quite a simple animal – like Marvell himself. There’s also an interesting repetition of “should” or variations thereon in lines 6, 9 and 11. We’re reminded that this is all hypothetical, but using “should” rather than “could” is a bit more authoritative – shades of Donne’s “The Flea” come through here – and also creates an argument of fate within the poem.

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.

Two hundred to adore each breast:

But thirty thousand to the rest.

This passage (lines 12-15) is interesting for all the subversions the poetic line allows. Marvell opens with “An hundred years should go to praise”, which a godly fellow might agree with, then moves onto the next line with “Thine eyes”, proving that he hasn’t had a religious epiphany, but is, indeed, back to wooing this woman. He then moves on to “Two hundred to adore each breast.” Obviously, with “breast” coming in here, there’s a lot of sexuality coming through, but again, Marvell subverts this: he isn’t filthy minded after all; in fact, he’s devoting “thirty thousand” years to the rest, turning away from the overt place of sexuality. Of course, by taking so long in doing this, he’s imposing his will on the woman again; he can only spend “an age” admiring her if she just stands there naked in front of him and does nothing. So she’s become a static object for his voyeurism, which leads us back to Marvell wanting to impose complete control over his love; notice that she doesn’t seem to have anything of an active role within the poem. What if she wants to spend thirty thousand years admiring him? Well, we can’t have that, because by doing so, she gains a certain lusty quality that he (implicitly) doesn’t really want. This can be compared with Donne’s “The Good Morrow”, as in that poem Donne advocates for a (more or less) equal role for the woman: “let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one,” allowing her to engage in lustful behaviour alongside him.

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found;

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song; then worms shall try

That long-preserved virginity,

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust;

This passage (lines 23-30) is interesting for making use of slant rhymes/half-rhymes, on “lie / eternity” and “try / virginity”. This creates an unsettling undertone for a passage which, after all, is all about the loneliness of death. Thus the “coy mistress”, in this part, would be discouraged by the unfamiliar rhythm on hearing Marvell’s description of the grave. Wouldn’t she much rather be somewhere nice, where everything rhymes? And if that’s not enough, there’s some nice invokation of Christian prayer – “dust”, “ashes”. Marvell implies that her virginity would be destroyed by worms – if we take that in a literal sense, that’s a truly horrifying image – so he wouldn’t she much rather have it ‘destroyed’ by him, a man who lusts for her. It’s better for both of them, because in doing so, she’ll also vanquish his lust without the need for worms to destroy that, too.

And while thy willing soul transpires

At every pore with instant fires,

 One of my favourite images from the poem is at the start of the third stanza, on lines 35-36. “Transpir[ation]” is an interesting term to use, as it links to natural imagery, more specifically to Marvell’s mention of “vegetable love” in line 11. In his case, “vegetable love” is a phallic symbol; with her, it’s a little more difficult to decipher, but it could easily relate to a vagina. Transpiration is a natural process in plants, so maybe Marvell is implying that to have sex with him – for her soul to “transpire” – would also be natural, and she wouldn’t be judged for it. At the same time, he could be referring to the menstrual cycle, but on balance this is probably less likely given what he’s trying to stir in her during this poem. Alternatively, we can take things away for a bit, and consider that the invocation of the pastoral is a common metaphysical theme, especially in Marvell’s poetry, where he considers “The Garden” to be his own personal paradise and uses it to explore man’s responsibilities in the natural world. Either way, though, the next line, “instant fires”, seems to immediately destroy that imagery with what seems to be a reference to Hell itself. That seems to reinforce the common suggestion that the “transpiration” is sinful and will condemn them both to hell, which is inconsistent. So how do we look at this? Well, Marvell posits the verb “transpire” as an action of the woman. When she does the transpiring, she’ll be condemning herself to hell for her lust, but… it’s all right if he does the transpiring instead, and pursues his lust for her. All this seems to suggest that Marvell is glad that his mistress is “coy”, because he wouldn’t want to go pursuing someone who has equal lust for him. So throughout this poem, though he’s coaxing her to “seize the day”, he might not actually want her to do that. What he wants her to do is fall for him after his relentless assault, not to simply swoon and collapse into his arms. Arguably this lends some strength to the female character, but at the same time, there’s such egregious misogyny here that the view is difficult to support.

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life:

Marvell goes on with this condemnation with imagery of “birds of prey”, “slow-chapped power” (slow-chapped meaning “slowly devouring”), “devour[ing]” and “tear[ing]” roughly, and imprisonment behind “iron grates”. This very brutal imagery, again, seems to suggest that it is dangerous to let lust consume the woman; he’s turning her away from lust, warning her that it’s some sort of monster that only he, as a man, is capable of defeating. But at the same time, he wants her to try and engage with the lust, at his side, a sort of faithful sidekick following the hero on his quest – in other words, he doesn’t want her to ‘fight’ lust with anyone other than him, and he doesn’t want her to be with anyone other than him when she reveals her full potential of her lust.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

At the end of the poem, Marvell offers another reason for engaging with ‘the beast of lust’. He again returns to his initial invocation that time is short, but offers an alternative solution; instead of trying to outrun it – which is impossible – they should fight it by making it go faster (“mak[ing] him run”). It’s almost a heroic invocation, calling the mistress up to fight alongside him even if their battle is ultimately futile. This can be compared to Donne’s “The Sun Rising”, though with a bit more humility – unlike Donne, Marvell knows that he cannot defeat cosmic powers like “the sun”, but he will put up a good fight against this entity which, as he believed, orchestrated time. In joining him, the coy mistress will help prove his masculinity and heroism, and also enhance her own heroic virtue, though, as he previously reminds her, it is too dangerous for her to take this fight alone.

Though it may constitute a stretch of the language, there is an alternative interpretation of the final line, in which “sun” can be read as “son”. This undermines the idea of the great battle with a quainter outcome. The narrator suggests that, if he and his lover have sex, they cannot prevent the conception of a son. But what they can do is maintain their relationship and raise him together in the spirit of their love: “they can make him run”. Though this isn’t quite as exciting as the other interpretation of the giant Paradise Lost-style battle of the cosmos, it gives a bit of credibility back to the narrator, as it removes the idea that he’s unecessarily concerned with his own vanity and masculinity, and gives him some credibility in wanting a genuine relationship. But you know, that’s a bit boring.





Questions of Adaptation, Questions in Adaptation

My first piece of reading for this week was Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, “a contemporary retelling” of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I actually picked this one up for Atwood rather than for Shakespeare; given my general unfamiliarity with The Tempest, I was about halfway through before I did my research and actually realised what I was reading.

Felix (“lucky, prosperous — hence, Prospero”) is the artistic director of the Makeshiweg festival who, after being wronged by his contemporaries, ends up in a situation where he ends up preparing for a performance of The Tempest at his local prison – with inmates instead of actors. Thus the dualistic narrative merges the play-within-the-play with the play-within-the-play-within-the-play to offer two different interpretations of The Tempest. The prison production of the play, with performances from such colourfully-monikered characters as 8Handz, WonderBoy and Bent Pencil, seems to favour an interpretation that The Tempest, to some extent, is an exploration of the baser impulses of humanity (blah blah blah) when left in microcosm. As part of their course requirements, Felix asks the prisoners to consider their roles within the play and, more tellingly, what they think will happen to their respective characters once the play has ended. Many of the prisoners envisage bleak fates for the play’s cast, mostly as a result of Caliban’s primeval tendencies and Prospero’s naivety in forgiving Alonso. This favours an interpretation of Caliban as no more than an anagram of “cannibal”, a colonized subject who, in the case, is cannibalizing his newfound society on the boat back to Milan. Another interesting interpretation, though, is the argument that Caliban is the child of Prospero – though the idea is unreasonable in a literal sense, it could be interpreted as a commentary on the way that lawlessness in modern society is a result of society’s own impositions – in the context of the novel, an argument that defunding prison programs serves only to make the prisoners less amenable to rehabilitation.

Elsewhere, Felix’s backstory is very hurriedly sketched out, and the story, on its own, is almost cliché. The characters in the book are, on the face of things, rather one-note and cartoonish. I’m convinced, though, that this is deliberate on Atwood’s part; the tale of Hag-Seed means infinitely more when read in conjunction and in comparison with The Tempest. One of Atwood’s cleverer tricks is the recurrence of Felix’s daughter Miranda, who died when she was three. Though her most obvious resemblance is to the Miranda of the text, Atwood gradually steers the reader towards seeing her as Ariel – her unseen existence is similar to the prisoners’ interpretation of Ariel – and a romance between two new characters who obviously fit the roles of Miranda and Ferdinand confirms this. The final lines of the main text and the epilogue mirror the ending of The Tempest, but in reverse; first Felix reflects that he has been “Set… free” by the performance, and then says thusly to his imagined Miranda: “to the elements / Be free”. Whereas at the end of The Tempest, Prospero finds himself in solitude and requires the audience to set him free, Felix’s isolation is ultimately self-imposed, but could arguably also represent an element of mercy, both for himself and his spirit-like daughter. But at the same time, he does expect Miranda to be watching, promising him the equivalent of “calm seas, auspicious gales / And sail so expeditious that shall catch / [His] royal fleet far off.”

It’s arguably more interesting to look at this interpretation not because of their implications in direct competition with the play, but outside of that. Shakespeare was content to leave the ending of The Tempest quite open-ended. But in Hag-Seed, the way in which Felix’s assignment asks us to go beyond this suggests a modern desire for answers even if it is narratively problematic. And like TV shows that go on too long with seemingly no prospect of ending, Shakespeare’s plays would be considerably weaker if they devolved into speculative fiction.

But Felix’s search for answers, given his deep personal connection with the play, is more of a soul-searching exercise than an actual interest in what happens. When he awards all teams of prisoners full marks for their explorations, we get the sense that he means it with a sort of unexpected sincerity. His desperation to know – to comfort himself – arguably reflects the modern obsession with answers, but the question remains of whether his character is diminished as a literary critic for this. Are we weaker because we, as modern readers, seek comfort in an ending?

Maybe not. Felix, unlike Prospero, is not pandering to an audience at the end. He has moved past that stage, and the world he lives in now is one that is not comfortable, but certain, and in a way, clichéd. He decides that he won’t bother with the Makeshiweg Festival anymore; his interpretation of The Tempest at the prison is the one he wanted to stage all along. It’s the sort of indulgent, hackneyed resolution that we’d come to expect – a basic plot of sorts – but at the same time, we’re glad of it, and arguably richer for it. And at the same time, as Felix realises that the actress Anne-Marie Greenland was his Miranda all along, and Miranda his willing-but-sometimes-not-willing Ariel, we don’t want to know any more.

From The Western Canon to… Um, Fifty Shades of Grey

Three things to note about this essay:

One, I’m not reading it for pleasure, but then, I doubt that many people do, and I don’t think Prof. Bloom would expect anyone to be. I’m sure he can appreciate the pragmatism of my using it as a text to enable me to know what I’m talking about when/if I head to university next year, though, and for the interviews that may come prior to that. So there’s a bit of honesty out of the way.

Two: I haven’t read the book entirely, or anywhere close to it, and I don’t intend to, since I haven’t read all of the authors it mentions anyway. But I’ve read the introduction and his opening “An Elegy for the Canon” – in a seemingly rare burst of humour, Bloom tells us that he’s not writing an elegy for the canon, and then, of course, proceeds to do exactly that with a kind of irritably sarcastic pessimism. I’ve also read most of the chapter on Milton – though I read it much too quickly and can’t remember a word of what he talked about there, so I’ll have to read this.

Three: I am completely out of my depth here; this is the first proper piece of literary criticism I’ve ever read – as a full text, rather than an extract – and whatever I say here will likely be refuted a thousand times within The Western Canon as I go forwards. And three, part two: I’m currently writing this in a coffee-fuelled haze, so there’s not much referencing going on. It’s more a gut reaction than something considered and well-thought-out and even as I write this, I don’t really know where I’m going to end up.

Fourth: a disclaimer of sorts. Prof. Bloom wrote this in 1994. I’m told that it’s a foremost work of literary criticism, but I don’t know how far it reflects his current views given that social and political situations are constantly changing.

So: first of all, we should look at Prof. Bloom’s definition of what the canon actually is. I think his extended metaphor of the canon as some sort of struggle for survival is very appropriate. “What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read?” he asks (Bloom, 15). He says “who still desires” and “attempt” with a sort of blunt, disappointed and grandfatherly cynicism, as though he’s disappointed in us for even picking up the book in the first place. He continues this cynical tone as he derides the current state of English literary study, talking about disillusioned readers, old cigar-toting men in their smoky backrooms, who despair in terror since they “cannot be certain that fresh generations [of readers] will prefer Shakespeare and Dante to all other writers” (16). I’m still not entirely sure whether he’s been satirical here; the ensuing paragraphs seem to suggest that this is definitively Bloom’s view, and one that he sympathises with very stronger, but the language is over-indulgent almost the point of parody.

What convinces me that Bloom is ultimately ‘being straight’ with us, though, is his statement that “it was a mistake to believe… literary criticism could become a basis for democratic education” (17). Bloom’s view on how English literature should be taught as a subject are somewhat inflammatory, at the very least; in sharp defiance of government programs introduced across the world throughout the early 21st century that advocate for “no child left behind”. Obviously, Bloom is talking about university study, not about taking Chaucer into a primary school, but nonetheless, I find it interesting to examine the extent of his prgamatism here. His quasi-Machiavellian rhetoric would be amusing if it weren’t so bloody cynical.

This, I think, is the issue I’ve had with Chapter 1 of The Western Canon; it’s a very presumptuous, holier-than-thou critique, and I couldn’t help but wonder Prof. Bloom is playing us all for suckers here. Later in the introduction he talks about Marxist theory, arguing against the notion that literature always has some society- or class-based motivation by stating that Milton would have never have “sacrifice[d]” Paradise Lost even if it meant vanquishing the titanic ideological foe he set out to destroy with his “pugnacious” poem (26). Maybe The Western Canon is just that; criticism written by Prof. Bloom for his own sake. Certainly judging from the introduction, it doesn’t seem particularly welcoming to a wider readership. But again, maybe that’s the point.

While I haven’t really enjoyed the book per se (thus far), I have definitely been intrigued by it. And one thing I can say for reading criticism is that it has convinced me that I made the right choice by choosing to pursue study of English and not History at university.

Anyway, moving on: my own personal thinking skews from discussion of the canon at present into thinking about its future, if there is a future at all. Bloom denies the view that literature will somehow improve society, tearing to shreds that jaded adage that “we study the past to better understand the present”, instead choosing to side with Oscar Wilde’s view that “art is perfectly useless” (16). While I don’t entirely disagree with this (talking in material terms, at least), I think it has its limitations. The canon, for me, is something with sociopolitical relevance at a particular point in time. Just as Milton’s Paradise Lost is a seminal work of 1660s England, there are seminal works of the 2000s and the 2010s. We just don’t know what they are yet.

Or do we? Let me propose something bold: the seminal work of the 2000s is… Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. True, you can’t impose any sort of real literary value on the novel, but maybe that’s because we’re stuck trying to appreciate modern art forms in an archaic way. Maybe the study of English Literature isn’t something with “no future” as Prof. Bloom says, just a little stuck in the past.

Literature has, to some extent, always reflected the society it is written in. And Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is something that reflects our modern society, where fan literature has, despite the best attempts of the grey-smoke men to stop it, has replaced literary fiction in the popular consciousness. And it is deluded to think that tomorrow’s literary scholars are somehow immune to this, that they are higher beings, and they only appreciate high art. They might not be entirely honest, but if you give a questionnaire to 100 students joining a Russell Group university, and ask them, have you read The Divine Comedy? Paradise Lost? Middlemarch? Nineteen Eighty-Four? there will be those of them who say “No,” every time. But Harry Potter? Hell yes. Every one of them will have read it, and if they haven’t, I’ll eat this hat.

Would it be better, then, if we were lectured on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and all our film courses showed was Michael Bay’s Transformers, and the seminal romance novel for university study was that cornerstone of fine literature, EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey? No. Of course it wouldn’t. And if I time-travelled 100 years into the future, I probably wouldn’t expect to see these novels and films being studied (with the possible exception of Harry Potter). But it’s worth considering what their legacy will be.


Ranking the Peter Capaldi Episodes of Doctor Who, 2014-17

The following is a mostly subjective ranking of the Doctor Who episodes during Peter Capaldi’s run as the Twelfth Doctor, 2014-17. The rest is self-explanatory.

34. “In the Forest of the Night” (8×10)

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Every series of Doctor Who has a dud episode. But “In the Forest of the Night” isn’t so much an episode as a collection of nonsensical plot elements, unfulfilling emotional beats, and ridiculous over-the-top child acting – ‘the foughts, the foughts’. It ends with a lot of flapping about at fireflies and there’s something to do with a forest and the Doctor’s role in the episode is basically nonexistent. Also, Danny Pink fights off a tiger. In most DW duds, you can at least tell what the writer was intending to do. But “In the Forest of the Night” is an utter mess, with its entire premise summing up to “Oh look, the trees are at it again!” and “Protect the environment, kiddos!” Not a bad message, overall, but it’s as much a coherent story as it is a peanut-butter sandwich.

33. “Sleep No More” (9×09)

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While “Sleep No More” experienced… hmm, mixed success, you can’t fault Mark Gatiss for being brave here. Unfortunately, “Sleep No More” resolves itself by boldly proclaiming that the episode itself makes no sense. It’s less of a cohesive narrative, more of an excuse for Gatiss to shoddily stitch together a series of vignettes about a generic base-under-siege and say, “Oh look, here’s a gimmick for you!” It feels lazily made, with a collection of dull guest characters and a conclusion that doesn’t really conclude, well, anything.

32. “Kill the Moon” (8×07)

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Managing a trifecta of ham-fisted, barely hidden pro-life commentary, some of the stupidest science to ever appear in a Doctor Who episodes and a dismal ending, “Kill the Moon” is the BBC’s annual expedition to some grey waste of a quarry (only this time it’s in Lanzarote, not Wales!). But while other episodes have made the best of their undesirable backdrops, “Kill the Moon” literally reflects its scenery in being a grey waste of screentime. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman’s final scene saves the episode, but only barely. Admittedly not as bad as its reputation suggests, but far from good, or even average.

31. “The Lie of the Land” (10×08)

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The first half of “The Lie of the Land” is very good, fraught with post-apocalyptic imagery and the dismal horror of a police state, but the awful second half sadly overshadows it. Steven Moffat confined Toby Whithouse to a corner and forced him to cut a two-parter down to 45 minutes. I can almost feel Whithouse’s pain as he cuts out line after line of character-building and necessary exposition, crying all the while. The result is a half-baked and stupidly paced episode with an entire scene of trailer-bait and a dismal power of love ending. If only they’d just kept the first half, featured Missy as a companion rather than a banque de exposition, and portrayed the Monks as a race of Earth-conquering genius-intellect warlords instead of twelve slightly incompetent retail developers.

30. “Robot of Sherwood” (8×03)

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This episode’s low ranking is more an issue of personal taste than with the four episodes preceding it. If you like Gatiss’s signature campy style, you probably have no issue with “Robot of Sherwood”. But this is peak Gatiss, and beneath its hackneyed, deliberately cheesy jokes, it is a bit thin on substance – and it lacks the quality of his stronger character work. That being said, if I watched “Robot of Sherwood” again, I would probably enjoy it, unlike the four preceding episodes on this list.

29. “Knock Knock” (10×04)

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Missed potential is the order of the day here. “Knock Knock” suffers from a rushed and unsatisfying ending, and even with binaural audio it isn’t particularly scary, as the episode’s villains aren’t very memorable. David Suchet put on a sophisticated performance as the Landlord, but ultimately he was underused and his presence wasn’t enough to sell the horror-movie-feel writer Mike Bartlett and director Bill Anderson were going for in this episode.

28. “The Woman who Lived” (9×06)

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The relationship between Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and Maisie Williams’s Ashildr/Me/Time-Lady-Arya-Stark/whatever she’s calling herself now in this episode is its finest quality. Unfortunately, it suffers from odd pacing and the presence of possibly the worst Doctor Who villain since the Abzorbaloff in the weird lion-monster-thingymabob. While “The Woman who Lived” had its great moments – Sam Swift’s scaffold jokes, for one – its ending, however convincingly played, is very clichéd.

27. “The Caretaker” (8×06)

Joining the lion-monster-thingymabob in the list of bad Doctor Who villains is the Skovox Blitzer, a Tesco own-branded Cyberman-on-wheels, which also happens to be ‘the deadliest predator in the universe’. “The Caretaker” allows Peter Capaldi to demonstrate his comedic timing, and Gareth Roberts does what he does best in this grounded minor-mystery episode, but it falls foul of Series 8’s greatest trap: Danny Pink. While Moffat and Mathieson were able to confine him to a tiny corner of their episodes, “The Caretaker” heavily features nobody’s favourite character, Danny Pink, and more Danny Pink, and even more Danny Pink, the most exciting thing since a bottle of pills and a loaded revolver.

26. “Smile” (10×02)

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“Smile” isn’t bad, and for the first 25 minutes it’s a perfectly palatable story showing Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie at their most likeable. It’s well-directed, and Cottrell-Boyce proves his skills at writing realistic dialogue that adeptly establishes the Doctor-Bill relationship. Unfortunately, it has a horribly rushed dumpster-fire of an ending, and its premise, though not entirely bad, is perhaps best summed up as “meh”.

25. “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” (2016 Christmas Special)

After 12 long months of waiting, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” was something of a festive/not-really-that-festive. There’s a lot of charm in this episode, which pays homage to the classic era of comic books… perhaps too much of an homage, to be honest, as the episode is rather predictable and a bit too cheesy, even for Christmas. I remember being distinctly disappointed with this one at first, but upon rewatching I found a few saving graces: Matt Lucas’s first full performance as Nardole turned out to be endearing whereas I initially found it irritable, and it plays upon one of Who’s simplest and most effective mantras: “Everything ends, and that’s always sad. But everything begins again, and that’s always happy. Be happy.”

24. “Into the Dalek” (8×02)

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Although “Into the Dalek” is one of the more original explorations of the Doctor’s most recognisable foe, it doesn’t change the facts that a) the Daleks have been milked to the point where they are honestly more comedic than scary, and b) any story featuring a Dalek is bound to end with plenty of “EXTERMINATE!” and lots of explosions. And honestly, the “Am I a good man?” angle is slightly overdone, making Capaldi seem a little bit too intimidating and one-note.

23. “Empress of Mars” (10×09)

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“Empress of Mars” is an homage to classic Who, plain and simple. And though it has some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard, it’s all good fun, and the guest cast is quite memorable given their short screentime. The Ice Warriors weren’t quite as intimidating as they might have been, and the ending was arguably lackluster, but I wasn’t bored by this episode, and I found both its Britishness and classic monster-appeal rather charming.

22. “The Eaters of Light” (10×10)

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“The Eaters of Light” isn’t a standout adventure, but it’s certainly enjoyable. The mystery of the Ninth Legion is a premise which is perfect for Doctor Who, and the time period and both the Roman and Pictish way of life are explored very well. Admittedly, the monster is a bit disappointing, both in its questionable CGI and the vague, unexplained nature of its threat. This episode is in a very similar vein to “Empress of Mars”, a definite homage to classic Who – which is unsurprising given its writer, Rona Munro. It moves above the previous entry by virtue of its slightly stronger writing and the ending scene which perfectly sets up the season finale.

21. “Last Christmas” (2014 Christmas Special)

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Capaldi’s first Christmas Special had to be changed late in production when Jenna Coleman decided she would stay on the show for another year, and it shows. The ending of “Last Christmas” is slightly little inconsistent with the episode’s theme of dreams and departures, which undercuts some of its poignancy. It would have been a perfect departure episode for her character, but instead it ends up feeling a bit awkward. Still, Nick Frost is well-cast as Santa Claus, and it has a good Christmassy spirit, a certain magical quality that some of Moffat’s specials have lacked. This is more of a matter of personal taste than objectivity, admittedly – a lot of people seem to really like this one.

20. “Deep Breath” (8×01)

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“Deep Breath” is a rollercoaster, with lots of ups and downs and dramatic moments, but a rollercoaster that only runs at two-thirds speed. Running at 76 minutes, this supersized behemoth of an episode is intended as an introduction to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. Admittedly, its opening minutes are a bit of a slog, but it evens out and Steven Moffat should be commended for effectively telling multiple character arcs over the course of one episode. Clara’s arc, with her skepticism of the newly-regenerated Doctor, is a bit cliché, but Jenna Coleman sells it well. The monster is a bit meh, too, but that doesn’t really matter, because this episode is really about Peter Capaldi. Admittedly, his introduction isn’t as good as Matt Smith’s, but it shows a lot of promise as the show charts a fresh new course. And any episode which stars the Paternoster Gang of Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax, as well as introducing Missy and featuring a cameo appearance from Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, is a win in my eyes.

19. “The Pilot” (10×01)

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Our introduction to the Doctor’s new companion, Bill Potts, takes place over an episode that could have come straight out of the Russell T Davies’s era. Admittedly, “The Pilot” doesn’t have a massively compelling storyline, but in terms of introducing us to the new TARDIS team, it certainly accomplished its task. It’s one of those episodes I’m certainly grateful for, but don’t feel a massive urge to rewatch.

18. “The Pyramid at the End of the World” (10×07)

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It’s quite difficult to judge “The Pyramid at the End of the World” as a standalone, as it has the unenviable position of being at the middle of the Monks Trilogy. It’s got a belter of the ending and a fantastic soundtrack, but other parts of the episode are distinctly odd. Unfortunately, “Pyramid” loses a few places by failing to explain… well, anything. (Admittedly, this failing is partly due to the rushed nature of the following episode, “The Lie of the Land”). “The Pyramid at the End of the World” is like digging in the desert for ancient buried treasure, gold and jewels, and instead finding a cashmere sweater and some twenty-pound-notes. It’s not really what you wanted, but, hey, it’s better than nothing.

17. “The Girl who Died” (9×05)

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I’m still not really sure whether or not this episode was intended to be a romp. The vastly overexaggerated bravado of the Mire warrior race suggests that it was, but it deals with some pretty serious issues on the side, namely the cost of immortality and the extent of the Doctor’s duty. Jenna Coleman and Maisie Williams were both standout in this episode, both alone and in their interactions with one another. Unfortunately, “The Girl who Died” doesn’t have a hugely thrilling premise or interesting setting, which means that despite the fantastic story, it’s somewhat lacking in excitement and repeatability. It’s a little bit like a Diet Coke.

16. “Time Heist” (8×05)

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Boasting the dubious honour of having the worst episode title of Capaldi’s run, “Time Heist” falls foul of the Doctor Who writer’s oldest foe: the 45-minute timeslot. As a result of this, the main characters feel a bit static, the guest characters lack development, the Teller feels like a plot device, and Keeley Hawes is criminally underused as Madame Karabraxos. But… these failings ultimately dwindle into insignificance, because more than anything else, “Time Heist” is good old-fashioned fun. This is what Doctor Who is supposed to be. It’s a pastiche of the bank heist genre with a clever bit of time-travel as the framework, and it’s infinitely rewatchable, which makes it the perfect episode to entice your friends to watch the show.

15. “Mummy on the Orient Express” (8×08)

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I think this episode is a bit overrated, but there’s no denying that “Mummy” is good. Jamie Mathieson’s first effort for Doctor Who is a fun, easy romp without an overly convoluted plot to follow. Frank Skinner is predictably excellent, and the ’66 seconds’ thing is a clever twist… but I always feel like I’m missing something when people tell me that “Mummy on the Orient Express” is the greatest episode in this series. And… that’s about it. I don’t really have anything else to say, so I’ll just repeat the ludicrously long title a few times: “Mummy on the Orient Express”, “Mummy on the Orient Express”, “Mummy on the Orient Express”…

14. “Thin Ice” (10×03)

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“Thin Ice” is fantastic both in its development of the Bill-Doctor relationship and as a standalone adventure in Series 10. Granted, the monster is a bit weak, but “Thin Ice” is really about people, and the attitudes of Victorian London – indeed, it’s one of the show’s best explorations of human nature – of racism, regret, loss, love and prejudice – since… well, since Series 3’s aptly named “Human Nature”. And Sarah Dollard manages a mighty feat of storytelling by condensing such a multifaceted episode down to 45 minutes. It’s not exactly standout, but it’s pretty damn good.

13. “Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood” (9×03/9×04)

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Also known by its working title, “Toby Whithouse and the Bootstrap Paradox”, this two-parter is simultaneously not as good as you remembered it being and better than you remembered it being. This weird dichotomy characterises the story: Whithouse’s use of paradoxes is masterful, but also incredibly confusing. The supporting cast are very well written, with two romances that for once don’t come off as ham-fisted, but the Doctor’s characterization is a bit all-over-the-place – he’s fun to watch, but there’s no real progression. The ‘ghosts’ in “Under the Lake” are intriguing, but the Fisher King in “Before the Flood” is an oddly disappointing villain, effectively defeated by being loudly shouted at. The underwater base location is original(-ish) and a very clever way of moving the plot forward, but by God these episodes are ugly, with horribly clashing colours and a colour palette consisting mostly of murky green and Soviet grey. Then again, the pluses outnumber the minuses, and it has Peter Capaldi breaking the fourth wall and playing the electric guitar, which is cooler than a fez, a bow tie and a Stetson put together.

12. “Oxygen” (10×05)

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A horror story in space, “Oxygen” sets a frenetic pace and never lets up. It’s a brutally punishing ride, with real, lasting consequences from its cliffhanger that starts an arc lasting through to “The Lie of the Land”. Charles Palmer’s directing is fantastic, with sequences that leave us both breathless from the action and marvelling at the expansive wonder and cruelty of space. Yes, it’s heavy-handed with its commentary on capitalism, like “Kill the Moon” (which is not really something to emulate) but this episode is so much more than that. It’s about the unglamourous side of space: the cruelty, the loneliness, the empty, chilling fear.

11. “Dark Water” / “Death In Heaven” (8×11/8×12)

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“Dark Water” is GOAT. It’s completely ruthless and utterly harrowing, and arguably far too dark for children. But as an episode, it is full of great and unexpected moments: Danny Pink’s sudden demise, Clara’s dark moment with the TARDIS keys, the ‘do you think I care for you so little?’ speech, 3W, and of course, the Cyberman twist and the Missy reveal at the end of the episode. It’s a work of art, in truth… and then we have “Death In Heaven”, which isn’t nuWho’s worst finale episode, but is certainly it’s most disappointing, somehow managing to throw away loads of brilliant setup with the intent of messily merging the plot to a single point: a non-existent final showdown in a bleak London graveyard, with characters variously being carried by Cybermen and thrown out of the sky to get there. It manages to avoid being a complete trainwreck by having a fantastic denouement, featuring a final tribute to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the Doctor’s anger at not finding Gallifrey, the resolution of Danny and Clara’s relationship (incidentally, Jenna Coleman was fantastic in this episode), and a beautiful final shot which mirrors the ending of “Deep Breath”, and proves that Series 8, while questionable in places, was essential to the growth of both characters. “Death In Heaven” reaches a proper and emotional conclusion in the end, but its path to that conclusion is a bit messy. Do the ends justify the means? I don’t know.

10. “The Zygon Invasion” / “The Zygon Inversion” (9×07/9×08)

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This two-parter is where Peter Harness wrote a dramatic post-9/11 war documentary, and then remembered that the Doctor needed to fit somewhere in it. For most of the “The Zygon Invasion” and about half of “The Zygon Inversion”, the Doctor, Kate Stewart and Clara strut around in three godforsaken hellholes: Turmezistan, a generic Middle Eastern country with an abundance of barbed wire and Stinger missiles; Truth or Consequences, a dusty, middle-of-nowhere, far-too-hot New Mexico town with no personality but a whole lot of guns; and those flats in suburban London which the BBC use to film basically everything, complete with creepy horror movie lifts and an underground Zygon base on-site for your convenience. Jenna Coleman has far too much fun playing Bonnie/Zygella, who is basically Series 8 Clara but with more makeup. Fortunately, Moffat (and Osgood) are on hand to pull Harness back into a relatively restrained mood. The episode culminates in an epic showdown where Capaldi engages in a very loud and very Scottish rant which reduces everyone to squalling children, and we all come away vaguely self-satisfied. “You don’t think he’s the Doctor?” we say to our fez-toting, Converse-wearing friends. “Well, watch this.

9. “Face the Raven” (9×10)

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“Let me be brave,” Clara Oswald says, arms spread as she makes her final sacrifice, “let me be brave.” The genius of “Face the Raven” is that it acts as a microcosm of Clara Oswald’s character development throughout Doctor Who, perfectly demonstrates the threat that arises from pretending to be the Doctor, and thinking that you’re invincible. It acts as a blunt and brutal doorstop to Clara’s meteoric rise throughout the Capaldi era. “Face the Raven” is probably nuWho’s most appropriate companion exit. And on top of that, it has a wonderful setting, permanently shot in some sort of strange, ethereal twilight, with a sense of underlying threat that fills you with dread.

8. “The Magician’s Apprentice” / “The Witch’s Familiar” (9×01/9×02)

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The first two-parter of Series 9 is also its best. “The Magician’s Apprentice” is a re-orientation in the world of Doctor Who, based around some snake-monster thing hissing “Where issssss the Doctorrrr?”, a refreshing twist on the Doctor’s encounters with Davros, and the all-new, shiny Series 9 Peter Capaldi, a mid-life crisis Doctor whose idea of a quiet farewell includes tanks and an electric guitar. (Unfortunately, this episode loses points for introducing the sonic sunglasses.) “The Witch’s Familiar” re-invents the Daleks as monsters that are at least vaguely frightening, and has a smart, mostly-not-hamfisted resolution. However, the high-point of these two episodes is the golden trio of the Doctor, Clara and Missy. Michelle Gomez takes on the role of a vaguely sympathetic companion, and the odd mixture of selfishness, sympathy and self-confessed evil marks one of her very best turns in the TARDIS.

7. “Flatline” (8×09)

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With a brilliant monster concept and a savage wit in the writing, “Flatline” proves that the boring-bottle-episode-set-in-a-depressing-English-city can be done in such a way that it sets new expectations for the ‘subgenre’ as a whole. This is Clara Oswald’s finest hour in the TARDIS; Jenna Coleman’s performance is both a satire of the Doctor’s mannerisms, and a showcase of Clara’s most endearing traits. Some of the guest cast are a bit flat (if you’ll pardon the pun), but Coleman’s performance, the Boneless monsters, and the ingenuity of the script make this episode worthy of its high placing on this list.

6. “The Husbands of River Song” (2015 Christmas Special)

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Capaldi + Kingston = quality. “The Husbands of River Song” is Doctor Who’s best Christmas episode, full of the usual Moffat-isms. There are many brilliant moments – the Doctor’s reaction to entering the TARDIS ‘for the first time’, the comic relief provided by Greg Davies’s King Hydroflax (though the less said about Nardole in this episode, the better) and the sheer ridiculousness/uselessness of the Doctor’s sonic trowel – but really, it’s the chemistry between its two leads that makes this episode great. River Song may belong in the Smith era – that cannot be denied – but Alex Kingston’s acting ability is timeless. This final salute to one of Who’s most divisive characters is arguably her best episode, and the way Moffat wove this story into her grand narrative is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

5. “Extremis” (10×06)

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Crazy but brilliant is a cliché term that is used far too often, but it has never been more appropriate than with “Extremis”, the latest in a line of downright odd conceptual episodes by Steven Moffat. The Doctor’s blindness (carried over from “Oxygen”) provides an interesting new dimension to this story, and this, along with Daniel Nettheim’s superb directing and the fantastic use of lighting, makes the introduction of some of Who’s most visually impressive and shadowy monsters even more intriguing. So, “Extremis” is visually and conceptually impressive, but it’s Moffat’s writing which really elevates it. As the opening to a three-part story, “Extremis” has the luxury of slower pacing than most Doctor Who stories, giving it ample character-building opportunities, as well as the Da Vinci Code style mystery buildup that leads into one of the Capaldi era’s greatest twist. And though I found it a little underwhelming at the time, Michelle Gomez’s role as Missy in this story is far more signficant in the shadow of “World Enough and Time” / “The Doctor Falls”. “Extremis” gives rise to one of the show’s best ever lines: “Without hope. Without witness. Without reward… Virtue is only virtue in extremis.”

4. “Hell Bent” (9×12)

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Look, you probably just don’t understand “Hell Bent”. And that’s okay; not everyone can have the same understanding of ‘dank Kino’ that I possess. So let’s go back to basics: this story is set on Gallifrey, but it’s not about Gallifrey – and to be honest, why would you want it to be? Call me ignorant, but there’s enough time for dusty Time Lord politics in the future, but there’s only one chance to say goodbye to a companion, and in the Capaldi era, there was only one chance to see the Doctor teetering so precariously on the brink of morality. “Hell Bent” is not only a fitting farewell to the days of Twelve and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS; it’s a pitch-perfect character study of the Doctor in crisis, a counterpart to the beautiful, almost romantic idealism of “Heaven Sent”. It’s a story of bitter scorn, verging on self-destruction and occasionally even hatred, next to the loving devotion of its predecessor. The Hybrid arc comes to a fitting conclusion, and Rachel Talalay directs this one impeccably right up until the second-to-last scene (if you really want me to criticise “Hell Bent”, I’ll say that the TARDIS stock-footage shot and the spinning diner was a bit much). There are some standout cinematic moments – the Doctor’s wordless defiance of Rassilon being the most notable – but the morals of this story are really what puts it so high on the list.

3. “Listen” (8×04)

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Steven Moffat has written some brilliant monster stories over the years, but “Listen” is all about the characters, and it’s so well done that purely from a writing perspective, it deserves to be at the top of this list. The wonder of “Listen” is that it manages to completely tell a story arc for The Doctor, Clara, and Danny Pink (who is somehow not boring in this episode, I repeat, Danny Pink is not boring) in the space of 45 minutes. I’m not sure this is a good thing, but “Listen” accounts for about half of all character development in Series 8. Many have compared this episode with “Blink” – personally, I refute this idea. “Blink” and “Listen” are two very different episodes, with very different strengths. I don’t think the monster (or lack of monster) is there to make you feel scared, but it doesn’t need to. “Listen” is pure psychological horror, the deepest sort of all. Instead of making you afraid of statues or clockwork droids or monks, it forces you to look inwardly. It gets inside you, and forces you to re-evaluate your own life, because this isn’t even Doctor Who anymore; it transcends the screen and becomes part of the real world. And I guarantee you’d go to bed with nightmares about it if you skipped the ending, which brings the story full-circle with an absolutely stellar monologue/life lesson.

2. “World Enough and Time” / “The Doctor Falls” (10×11/10×12)

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If you ever feel like making a tribute video, you’re in luck. Of all of Moffat’s stories, “World Enough and Time” / “The Doctor Falls” is the most emotionally compelling. On top of that, it remembers to be fun, something these conceptual episodes often forget. “World Enough and Time” has Michelle Gomez to provide a healthy smattering of humour, before throwing us into a bleak, austere, heavily chloroformed underworld. Rachel Talalay is at her best here, discreetly putting together the individual elements of what makes a Mondasian Cyberman before the big reveal. John Simm is excellent both in his Mister Razor costume and outside of it, and Pearl Mackie’s final journey as Bill is just a bit heartbreaking. “The Doctor Falls” sees Simm and Gomez come together, with some of the best chemistry ever seen on Doctor Who, and an ending to the character of the Master/Missy which is so fitting and so impeccably executed that you don’t really want him/her to come back for fear of ruining its significance. There are suitably emotional sendoffs for Bill and Nardole, but really, all this is just windowdressing. “The Doctor Falls” is, as the title would suggest, about the Doctor, and Peter Capaldi acts his heart(s) out here. In retrospect I think his speech from “The Zygon Invasion” is slightly better, but it was here, in these circumstances, that he truly became my Doctor. And you can’t really get much better than that. “The Doctor Falls” is also to be rewarded for subverting the expectations of a Moffat finale – rather than being forced to avert/fulfil a prophecy and save the Universe, this episode sees the Doctor sacrificing himself and everything he is for the sake of one spaceship. Peter Capaldi is the Twelfth Doctor, and he saves people.

1. “Heaven Sent” (9×11)

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Kino (noun): a work of art, usually television or film, so intellectually and artistically stimulating that it transcends the medium in which it takes place and becomes an ideology. Known examples include Doctor Who’s “Heaven Sent”.

There is a world out there, somewhere, where people go down on their knees and pray to their DVD copies of “Heaven Sent”, where pilgrims attempt to recreate the Doctor’s labours by punching diamond walls and incinerating themselves, where every house has “how many seconds in eternity?” written on their mantelpieces, and churches are modelled on the castle in the Doctor’s confession dials, where Peter Capaldi, Rachel Talalay, Murray Gold and Steven Moffat are revered as prophets. There is such a world. I live in it. And honestly, I’m struggling to find anything else to say about “Heaven Sent”. It’s just so, so, so impossibly brilliant, and none of my descriptions can do it justice. It’s Kino. As the Doctor famously said in “The Pilot”, “Series Nine. Episode Eleven. Heaven Sent. It means life.”