Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Doctor Who: Series Eight

Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Michelle Gomez

Writers: Steven Moffat, Jamie Matheson, Phil Ford, Mark Gatiss, Stephen Thompson, Gareth Roberts, Peter Harness, Frank Cotrell Bryce

Directors: Ben Wheatley, Paul Murphy, Douglas Mackinnon, Paul Wilmshurst, Sheree Folkson, Rachel Talalay

Producer: Steven Moffat

The Doctor has regenerated – and this time, he’s a very different man to the one Clara has known. Some things never change though, and it isn’t long before he’s taking her off to far flung corners of time and space in pursuit of adventure…and just maybe, the mysterious Promised Land.

Well. That was a series and a half, and no mistake. It was certainly a controversial one, on a whole host of levels, and where previous series have divided audiences on whether they were any good overall, or whether the Doctor in them was done properly, I’m not sure there’s been a series yet since 2005 where there’s been so much debate over the quality and worthiness on an episode by episode basis. Seriously, you could go onto a fan-site and never be entirely certain whether an episode was going to be hailed as an instant classic or a travesty of the form.

I’ll set my stall out on a few things straight away. Firstly, Peter Capaldi was outstanding. I didn’t necessarily like his Doctor all the time – although that seemed to be mostly an intentional production/acting decision – but his performance could not be faulted. I’ll say the same for Jenna Coleman as Clara; she was arguably the main character this series, and the Clara of series eight is a much more interesting character than the bland cutout we had for most of series seven. I’ll say more about Michelle Gomez and Samuel Anderson later on, but for now, I’ll simply say that Gomez came close to stealing every single scene she was in, and was by far the best villain we’ve had in a long time, while Anderson was solid and reliable, but saddled with an uninspiring role.

Secondly, while it might not always have been successful, I think it un-arguable that this was the most ambitious series we’ve had in a while. There have been a lot of bold choices, and Moffat and the rest of the team deserve a lot of praise for trying something new – or, depending on your point of view, for taking a chance on returning to an older style somewhat counter to a lot of the show’s recent output; either way, it’s a risk.

Thirdly, for all that said above, series eight did not quite add up to the sum of its parts. One of the strengths of the Matt Smith era, for me, was that while there were perhaps not quite as many straight forward classic stories as there were under Russell T Davies, there was a much higher level of consistency in quality, with only one episode in three series that I would outright label bad. In series eight though, while there was much to like, there were also two episodes that rank among the worst the show has put out since 2005. A lot of this can perhaps be put down to the significant changes to the show, a series where everyone involved could find their feet once more, and that’s fair enough, to an extent – but it’s a marked contrast to the swaggering, confident series five, which introduced a new Doctor, new companion, new showrunner, and a new approach to plotting.

And on that note, a more specific breakdown.

Deep Breath

The Regeneration episode. It seems funny to say it like it’s a tradition – it’s only the third in nearly a decade, fifth if you count the online short Night of the Doctor that was released for the 50th Anniversary last year (finally showing the regeneration of Paul McGann’s Doctor), and the closing scenes of Day of the Doctor, with John Hurt’s War Doctor regenerating to Christopher Ecclestone. Neither of those dealt with the fallout of a regeneration though, unlike The Christmas Invasion (Tennant) and The Eleventh Hour (Smith). Both those episodes had fairly lightweight plots, things to be dealt with swiftly so we could concentrate on the serious business of finding out just what to expect from our new/old hero, and Deep Breath, whatever else you might say about it, is far from lightweight, with one of the darker plots of the show’s recent history – although it must be said, that’s one of the things we needed to be introduced to at this stage. Series eight is a rather more serious beast than we’ve had in the last few years.

It was a delicious slice of Gothic horror spliced with science-fiction, with plenty of nods to earlier episodes, and Capaldi owns the screen right from the start. It was a treat seeing him shift from confused, almost traumatised Matt Smith impersonator, through scared tramp and right on to dark, stern new Doctor. Impressively, Deep Breath actually contains some of the best scenes of any of the twelve episodes, which is a good way to kick off; there’s a brilliantly written and acted dinner date between the Doctor and Clara, and a chilling face-off between the Doctor and the villain of the piece, which leaves us guessing about what sort of man the new Doctor really is.

However…while it’s a fun plot, it cannot be escaped that Moffat has simply blended together two previous gimmicks – the cannibalistic robots of Girl in the Fireplace and “Don’t blink!” from, well, Blink – and returning to old successes is something he’s a little too reliant on. Also, while the scenes of Capaldi coming to terms with his new persona are very well done, they do rather drag on; we end up with a feature length episode designed to introduce us to the new boss where we arguably don’t actually meet him until the last ten or fifteen minutes, and it’s hardly a definitive introduction even then. Of course, that’s a plot point that spans the entire series – “Am I a good man?” – but at this stage, especially compared with the regeneration episodes I mention above, it feels strangely like there’s a lack of confidence in the whole enterprise. This is only exacerbated by a wholly unnecessary if rather touching final farewell from Matt Smith’s Doctor, begging Clara, and by extension the audience, to stick with his successor.

Into the Dalek

Obligatory Dalek episode, go! Ok, cynicism aside, this does have a new take on the Doctor’s oldest foe. A good Dalek? It ends precisely as you might expect, with the Dalek still insane and genocidal, just pointed at the Daleks instead of anything else. But they have fun with the idea, and shrinking a team to go inside a Dalek is a neat concept – although it’s a shame that the Dalek interior is so reminiscent of Space Station set B from every science-fiction show or film ever made. There are some interesting parallels drawn between the Doctor and the Dalek, specifically their capacity for hate, and the episode is very much a companion piece to Dalek from series one, in that respect, but ultimately it’s a fairly throwaway if entertaining episode notable primarily for two things.

1 – This is a far more pragmatic Doctor than we’re used to. At one point, he recognises that he cannot save someone, so sets about trying to find a way to use the death to further the mission. It’s a genuinely shocking moment, as is the continued spikier relationship between the Doctor and Clara.
2 – The introduction of Danny Pink, played by Samuel Anderson with surprising nuance for a character who only gets a couple of minutes screen-time.

The main problem with the episode, really, is inevitability. As said above, you know what the ultimate conclusion is going to be, so there’s not much room for the episode to play with the idea except to illuminate the new Doctor’s character, and even that retreads old ground.

Robot of Sherwood

The fluffy episode. This should have been a triumph. Gatiss is a fine writer, and his previous romp for the show, last series’ The Crimson Horror, was a real delight. Plus, it’s Doctor Who meets Robin Hood. How can you go wrong?

Apparently fairly easily. It starts well. The Doctor fencing with a spoon is great fun, and there are some brilliant lines, Capaldi getting to dance the fine edge of his most famous role, Malcolm Tucker (his script here is almost as withering, but with a substantial reduction in bad language). About halfway through though, it changes gear completely and doesn’t quite recover. If it had stayed as the knockabout romp of the first half, or done the whole thing as the (relatively) serious alien invasion of the second, it would have been fine. No classic, perhaps, but perfectly decent. Unfortunately, the blend of the two means the serious scenes are watered down and the lighter moments feel forced into the wrong episode altogether. This is the first of the two ‘worst episodes’ that I mentioned in the intro.


This, on the other hand, is up there with the best. It just misses out on all time classic, for my money, but it’s certainly a close run thing. The concept is fantastic – are there creatures so good at hiding that we are never alone – and this simple idea is spun into the most outright terrifying scenes since the Weeping Angels first appeared. And they’re evil looking statues that will break your neck and eat your memories if they’re in a bad mood. Here, Moffat renders you speechless with terror with nothing more than a bed sheet. That’s impressive.

It’s not just an exercise in fear though; this episode is also a treat for those who loved Coupling, Moffat’s answer to Friends. The alternately sweet and cringe-worthy date between Danny and Clara is a masterpiece both of characterisation and the comedy of awkwardness, and it’s perhaps the strongest set of scenes the duo have in the entire series. However, most of Anderson’s work here is as his (probably, possibly with Clara) descendant, the first human time-traveller. It’s not the most complicated role – tired, scared man in a spacesuit – but he acquits himself well.

Really though, this episode is all about the Doctor himself. Even when it appears to be about Clara. Putting her so central to the Doctor’s history is a bold move, but effective; the scene with her reassuring the Doctor before he was ever the Doctor is very touching, and offers intriguing insight into the show’s fifty year history. The ambiguity of the episode will doubtless draw a mixed response from any watching it, but it just about works. Other than the Doctor not seeming quite absent-minded enough to scribble LISTEN on a blackboard without remembering, each scene is just about convincing whatever interpretation you want to put on it, and the monster or lack of it isn’t really the point. However, the fact that it only ‘just about’ works is what keeps the episode from guaranteed classic, for my money.
Time Heist

Listen is definitely the sort of episode that needs bookending with lighter fare, and Time Heist certainly delivers on that score – although it has to be said, the central premise is almost as intriguing as Listen. A bank robbery in four dimensions? Sign me up!

Again, there’s a lot to like here. The twin monsters of the episode, the Teller and Madame Karabraxos, are both brilliant creations in their own ways; the Teller is a masterpiece of makeup artistry, and genuinely creepy, while Keeley Hawes is clearly having a blast as Karabraxos, injecting prime ham into what is fundamentally a pretty daft episode. The guest companions are good value too, with Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Benett-Warner giving their roles just enough depth to care about their thinly sketched back stories. There’s also some sterling direction from Mackinnon, especially with a nicely inventive shot of the Time Vortex slowly turning into a shot through Clara’s spin cycle.

All that said, it isn’t perfect. The whole thing kicks off with a call back to the series’ plot arc regarding the woman in the shop trying to keep Clara and the Doctor together, which is fair enough, but it doesn’t really ring true to the series as a whole. “No-one has this phone number!” Apart from Winston Churchill. Numerous former companions. Whoever wanted the Doctor to check out the Orient Express a few series, a regeneration and several thousand years of his personal time line previously. Probably River Song, although she’d never be so boring as to phone him up. The point is, someone having the phone number for the TARDIS isn’t that odd, so hinging a plot point on it doesn’t quite work (although it is possible to take these things too seriously: after all, when Ecclestone was in the role, it was explicitly not a real phone, so nobody could ring it. To quote Matt Smith, “Never apply logic to Who!)

On a more serious note, there’s a parallel to be drawn here with last year’s Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS: a fantastic concept that can never really be done satisfactorily due to time and financial constraints. The robbery itself never feels quite clever enough to have been planned by the Doctor, or inventive enough to really grip viewers. As a result, no matter how enjoyable other aspects of the episode are, it ultimately feels a little bland, disappointing.

On a final note, one of the big things said in the build up to series eight was that there would be no romance, which was largely met with a sigh of relief. There have been a few moments throughout the series where aspects of the Doctor’s personality have not been treated with consistency, and at the end of Time Heist, there’s an odd satisfaction in Capaldi’s voice as he mutters “Now how’s that for a date?” – the context being that Clara gets dragged along for the caper just as she’s about to go off to meet Danny. Oh well.

The Caretaker

And so we return to Coals Hill School to better explore the relationship between Clara and Danny, stop a murderous robot, and laugh at the Doctor’s idea of going undercover.

We’ll dispense with the robot first. It looks like a cross between WALL:E and a Terminator, it has a really daft name – the Skovox Blitzer – it’s surprisingly easy to defeat for something that seems to be on the same level as a Dalek or Cyberman, and to all intents and purposes it is supremely unimportant.

So. Clara and Danny. The episode opens with an amusing little montage of Clara flitting between the two men in her life, and slowly coming to the realisation that she’s barely coping. Which is fair enough. There’s only so many men willing to put up with their date showing up with inexplicable seaweed in their hair, after all. There’s some nice screwball comedy between the two as Clara does everything she can to stop Danny finding out precisely who, or perhaps what the new caretaker is, but inevitably the two meet – and surprise surprise, they don’t get on, because this Doctor goes beyond the apathy and occasional disapproval shown by some of his predecessors into outright disgust at the very idea of someone being a soldier, for reasons which are never quite explained adequately (it’s suggested here that it’s more about him making sure Danny is good enough for Clara, but if that’s true then there must be some incredible deleted scenes from Into the Dalek). It all ends up feeling a little artificial. Still, Danny’s concern for Clara is touching, and it’s a refreshing change to see relationship drama being handled relatively maturely – as much as I liked Amy and Rory, Danny’s calm requests for honesty and caution are a nice contrast to the melodrama they brought to the show.

Kill The Moon

I said earlier that this was one of the more controversial series of the show’s modern history. Well, this is definitely one of the more controversial episodes.

To get it out of the way, the science in the science fiction is nonsense. Complete and utter nonsense. But, hand on heart, I didn’t care in the slightest. The moon is an egg? Great. Fantastic idea. The moon spiders are germs? Genius! I could write an entire blog on suspension of disbelief in Doctor Who, particularly on those who take a more flexible approach to it, so suffice it to say that if you prefer your science fiction on the harder side, you’re probably going to hate this episode. If you can take a more fantastical approach, then you still might hate it, but perhaps not quite as much.

Because of course, as much of a furore as the technical details caused, they were very much a side show to the main event. The moon is an egg…and it’s hatching. This is clearly not a good thing – quite apart from the immediate problems of a fluctuating gravitation field, what happens if the newly born moon-thing is less than friendly? To help approach this, we get a belter of a performance from Hermione Norris as a dour astronaut (Lundvik) who seems to have had her sense of wonder surgically removed; her icy response to the Doctor’s delight at an entirely new lifeform – “How do we kill it?” – is one of those spine-tingling moments that lives long in the memory. She contrasted well with Clara’s expected moral outrage, but also fellow guest companion Courtney (Ellis George) who provided a slightly more striking expression of damaged innocence. Kudos to George for being the best child actor the show has had since…probably The Eleventh Hour.

Whether to kill or be kind is a tough debate to pull off, and it’s one that might have been better served in a two-part story rather than trying to cram it all into forty-five minutes. Subsequent episodes make clearer the Doctor’s constant dilemma of only ever having bad choices, and with time to develop that theme here it might have been less divisive. In the end, it perhaps doesn’t quite stand up to close scrutiny, but for me the powerful performances carried the day (going back to the idea of suspension of disbelief, above). And the final moments are marvellous, both Capaldi and Coleman acting their socks off in a scene that ranks amongst the most dramatic and intense of the last eight series. Is the Doctor a good man? It’s harder than ever to say, at this stage.

Mummy on the Orient Express

You may recall at the end of series five, in the aftermath of Amy and Rory’s wedding, the Doctor getting a phonecall requesting his assistance with a monster on the Orient Express. In space. A regeneration and somewhere in the region of one to two thousand years later, he finally gets around to it.

It all gets off to a cracking start; the mummy itself is very well designed and suitably spooky, with a truly creepy modus operandi. The villainous, disembodied and relentlessly cheery Gus was a nice touch, reminiscent of Glados from the Portal games, while Frank Skinner is the second great guest star in a row (there’s another guest star in this episode, the singer Foxes, who was given rather more promotional time than Skinner for what turned out to be a thirty second cameo at best). In fact, this episode has a wide range of great performances, with David Bamber and Daisy Beaumont giving sympathetic performances in roles that could so easily have been two dimensional at best.

The controversial climax to the last episode gets a good payoff too; the Doctor and Clara seem almost scared of each other, neither quite willing to speak openly about things. Given the at times vague approach to romantic entanglement on the TARDIS this series, it’s perhaps unfortunate that the most apt comparison here is two exes trying to muddle along as friends, but such is life.

For most of the episode, it’s an entertaining, spooky little romp, with a neat twist around halfway through. But, and it’s a big but, the ultimate resolution hinges a little too much on the Doctor not caring that people are dying. This is perhaps a problem of execution rather than intent – there’s a line between bluntly pragmatic and callous – but it is a problem. In addition, there’s something a little unfortunate about the fact that the episode, which features at least two people singled out for death due to their psychological issues, was broadcast the day after National Mental Health Awareness Day…


Since the show’s revival, there has been a tradition of a Doctor-lite episode to save money, also known as a bottle episode. This has had mixed results; in series two we had the fairly awful Love and Monsters, while on the other hand series three gave us the superlative Blink. For this series, Listen perhaps fits the bill technically – no monster, only a couple of sets, primarily dialogue based – but Flatline does give us a story where the Doctor spends 90% of the episode trapped in a bottle sized TARDIS. And it’s wonderful.

Where to start? It’s a fantastically creepy episode, with some very unsettling and gruesome deaths, and the Boneless themselves are brilliant creations, sadistic and gleefully malevolent. It’s a toss up as to whether they are creepier when they are invisible and flattening people into the walls or when they are imperfectly humanoid zombie like figures, but they work really well in both forms.

We’re also treated to a barnstorming bit of acting from Jenna Coleman. Her big speech at the end of Kill the Moon is probably her single best scene this series, but she owns this episode completely, acting more as the Doctor than the Doctor himself. Which is not to say that Capaldi is sidelined; he isn’t required to do as much, but he gets a classic moment at the end to see off the Boneless, and some great humorous moments.

The only slight criticism I can make is that the obligatory scene for Danny and Clara is mixed; by itself it’s actually quite a funny scene – Clara trying to have a regular conversation with him in the midst of a Boneless attack – but in the grand scheme of things it’s another episode that leaves the relationship stalled in the same position it’s been for weeks.

In the Forest of the Night

From the sublime to the ridiculous. The Doctor arrives in London to find that the city has turned into a forest overnight – and, it transpires, so has the rest of the planet. So far so good – nonsense, of course, but classic fairytale nonsense, which is clearly the vibe they’re aiming for, so that’s fine.

But then…nothing happens. There’s a bit of business with a tiger chase through the forest, and who doesn’t love a tiger chase, but other than that the story basically just follows the Doctor coming to the conclusion that there’s nothing he can do before realising that he’s completely wrong, the trees are trying to save the planet, an that it’s all going to be fine. And it is. The solar storm threatening the planet is absorbed by the trees (yeah…if you didn’t like the science in Kill the Moon…) and then they just fade away. Everything goes back to normal.

Even the potential drama of Danny finding out that Clara has been lying to him is curiously flat, with his reaction little more than mild irritation and another request for her to be honest with him.

It’s without question the worst episode of the series, and a strong contender for worst episode of the last few years, and it really boils down to one thing: whatever else you might say about it, it’s just plain dull.

Dark Water & Death in Heaven

Well, as opening twists go, it’s undoubtedly effective. I certainly wasn’t expecting Danny to exit like that. Despite the fact that he has actually been a fairly minor presence in the series overall, his death and Clara’s numb grief are quite affecting; full credit to Coleman here. Top marks, also, for the thrilling scene where she tries to blackmail the Doctor, entirely pointlessly for a whole host of reasons, into helping her save Danny, her subtle emotion perfectly offset by Capaldi’s stubborn ruthlessness. It is in moments like this that Capaldi has been at his best, and both of them are at the top of their game here.

And then we’re off to find out if there’s an afterlife, and what exactly is the Nethersphere? And who is Missy? Well, she isn’t a robot, as she gleefully pretends to the Doctor in a fantastically funny scene that seems to finally settle this Doctor’s approach to romance: “Is it over?” he plaintively asks Clara after Missy finally stops the lip-lock.

But a brief detour from Missy. The Nethersphere and the company that runs it, 3W, are truly spooky. Some of the methodology doesn’t quite make sense when scrutinised, but it’s a very unsettling location, brilliantly realised even before you look at the skeletons sitting around the place. And then you find out what 3W stands for: the three words that are the constant refrain of all those recently departed – “Don’t cremate me!” How terrifying is that? The dead still feel pain. It’s certainly up there as one of Moffat’s best ideas.

While we’re talking about the Nethersphere, let’s look at Danny, hanging around as a ghost undergoing spiritual bureaucracy (or, as we later find out, as a bunch of data hanging around in what is essentially a magic hard-drive). We find out his big secret, that he accidentally killed a young boy in Afghanistan, and while that isn’t much of a surprise it is touchingly portrayed. Samuel Anderson hasn’t had an awful lot to sink his teeth into as Danny, but when he’s given something to do he turns in some quality performances.

But back to the main event of Missy, who is of course the Master, regenerated as a woman and mysteriously not trapped on Galifrey. She’s also found some Cybermen, and plans to convert the dead, which as nefarious plans go is a real winner. Michelle Gomez is obviously having the time of her life, all psycho Mary Poppins, combining the at times amusing insanity of John Simm’s take on the role with something more sinister all her own. When Moffat first took over as showrunner, I remember wishing that he would bring back the Master in a version inspire by his take on Mr Hyde in his Jekyll miniseries. Gomes is about as close to that as I’m going to get, and I’m ok with that. She’s one of the best bits of Dark Water, and is probably the best thing full stop about Death in Heaven.

This is because while Dark Water is a genuinely outstanding episode, full of intrigue, drama, and clever surprises, Death in Heaven is a very disappointing conclusion. This is not to say that it is uniformly bad; there’s Missy, obviously, cementing her status as one of the series’ best villains, especially her chilling, predatory scene with Osgood (Ingrid Oliver, returning from Day of the Doctor). The main bulk of the episode is entertaining enough, dealing with UNIT trying to solve the fairly major Cyberman problem, but other than a faintly silly attack on UNIT’s plane, there’s not much to this strand of the story. It all comes together at the end, where we find out that they’re a gift from Missy to the Doctor, but that works because of Missy and Gomez’s performance rather than anything else. The only other strand of note is Clara dealing with the fact that Danny is walking around again…trapped in Cyber armour.

Which is where the real disappointment comes in, as the Power of Lovetm comes into play. It’s always been a slightly dodgy plot device, not always working especially in the at least vaguely scientific world of Doctor Who, and often seeming cheesy at best, a lazy copout at worst. Here though, it doesn’t really work for more concrete reasons: it all centres on Danny’s love for Clara, which is fine in principle, but there just hasn’t been enough of their love for each other shown. I’m not saying that everything has to be spelled out in big bold statements, but what we’ve seen of their relationship basically amounts to Clara lying to Danny about some pretty fundamental aspects of her life – whether understandably or otherwise – and Danny making statements of concern/nagging her about her (lack of ) honesty. It’s hardly a romance to set the world ablaze. Individual scenes have worked perfectly well – Clara’s grief at the start of Dark Water and their date in Listen, mainly – but overall the whole thing is undercooked. Which again, might not have been too much of an issue if it had been a b-plot rather than the basis for the entire resolution to the series. Especially when so much of the final episode is essentially filler; entertaining filler, perhaps, but filler nonetheless, marking time until we can get to the big dramatic climax…which then doesn’t work.

The episode briefly soars back to excellence for the last scenes, which provide a genuinely tragic, heartbreaking conclusion to the series as the Doctor and Clara tell each other about how their lives have improved in the weeks since Missy’s defeat…neither one of them knowing that they’re both lying, in the belief that the other is better off without them. If they’d left it there, it would have gone down as one of the finest companion exits in the show’s fifty year history; we’ll have to see how it goes at Christmas and, maybe, beyond.

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