Season Roundup – Doctor Who Season 8
Now that Season 8 of Doctor Who is complete it makes sense to look at the season as a whole and discuss what worked and didn’t work about it. Some feedback on how I did here will be most appreciated as I’m still figuring out my format for an analysis like this.
Doctor Who always has a relatively small cast of characters which works for such a small season and makes it a lot easier to write about.
In terms of the characters this season of Doctor Who had a lot of ground to cover. First of all there was an entirely new Doctor to have established and developed which brings its own challenges. Audiences were given 3 years of Matt Smith and for the most part had completely warmed to him.
I always thought Matt Smith was good in the role but the writing left a lot to be desired in many cases and I feel much the same here. Peter Capaldi’s casting actually gave me a level of excitement since Steven Moffat had decided to give us a physically older Doctor which would hopefully mean that writing would get a little more mature.
The reality of what happened was somewhat different unfortunately. Capaldi’s Doctor would act very similar to the way Matt Smith would act. I seem to recall reading promises from Moffat that this new Doctor would have a darker edge and take things more seriously. One thing that really annoyed me about the Matt Smith era was the humour. Many scenes would drag on with some really terrible gags that just went on forever so I was looking forward to that going away.
A big problem with The Doctor in season 8 is that he was so inconsistently written. It seemed like the whole season was one long post regeneration episode where his personality was completely in flux. One episode he would be cold and uncompromising and the next he would be childishly flippant. There were other personality traits that came and went as well so I never felt like I knew who this guy was and I get the impression that the writers didn’t really know either.
One major example of this inconsistent characterisation was The Doctor leaving a decision that affects Earth and the human race to Clara in “Kill the Moon” but doing the exact opposite in “In the Forest of the Night”. I found this trait to be a really interesting one that suggests he’s taking a more distanced role from meddling in human affairs but it seemed to be accidental given the later backpedaling.
There were some characteristics that I really liked and wanted to see developed more. In “Into the Dalek” The Doctor seemed to not care about those around him as shown when he did nothing to save someone that he deemed to be already dead. It was a great moment showing his willingness to make the hard choices and a certain practical outlook on a dangerous situation. He can’t save everyone and it seemed like he wasn’t going to let that outwardly bother him. I liked that because it was something new and interesting. The fact that he used that inevitable death for a useful purpose to move the plot forward seemed cold but practical too. He made a point of not letting that death be empty and without purpose. Basically The Doctor that we saw in “Into the Dalek” was a character that I really wanted to see more of.
One line in that episode really stuck out when Clara identified as his carer and The Doctor added “She cares, so I don’t have to”. It almost seems that he’s unable to bring himself to care about those around him and needs someone to remind him to do that. It brought back a memory of David Tennant’s Doctor having to be stopped before he went too far.
We saw this Doctor again in “Mummy on the Orient Express” when he made one of the targeted men give as much information as he could when facing death. Again, making that death mean something and give it some kind of noble purpose but still not being all that cut up about it.
In the rest of the season there seemed to be a different Doctor in every episode giving the season a complete lack of consistency. I get the impression that the darker Doctor was the intention but a lack of writing ability prevented that from actually coming across. I think that Moffat and his other writers confused “dark” with “eccentric” so dialed up the goofy humour where he rambles endlessly and generally makes fun of those around him. It didn’t help that The Doctor became a secondary character to Clara much of the time but more on that when I discuss her below.
Eccentric is nothing new for The Doctor and is a trait that could easily be associated with the versions portrayed by Matt Smith or David Tennant. There were many scenes of The Doctor acting similarly in those eras.
“Death In Heaven” seemed to have some kind of a eureka moment where The Doctor finally understands himself but it was so hideously unearned that it felt clumsy. Spending the whole season on The Doctor dealing with his new personality as a plot point is a bold idea but the execution was so uneven that I never felt he was marching towards any kind of self understanding. I dare say he will be different again in the Christmas special as well as season 9.
Much emphasis was placed on The Doctor’s role in the conflicts he gets involved in. “Into The Dalek” brought back the character trait of hating soldiers and guns in particular. In previous seasons it was suggested that he is a soldier but refuses to identify as one. It was something he was in denial about
Peter Capaldi is a fantastic actor and he did such a good job with the material he was given. Unfortunately the material wasn’t all that good so there were many moments where he just came across as bad. There was a clear disconnect between the actor and the writing in many episodes. I don’t think Capaldi is well suited to teenage bickering for example and scenes like that should never have been written for him. It’s such a shame that a great actor like him is suffering with this terrible material.
His ability was shown in many intense scenes with emotional heft where he really got to show his diverse range. There was so much authority to his voice and Capaldi played the lonely genius aspect of the character brilliantly. In many cases there was a weariness to his performance that makes sense given how old the character is and what he’s had to deal with over his very long lifetime. With some stronger writing Capaldi’s Doctor has the potential to be a character dripping in depth.
Part of the significant ground that needed to be covered was establishing Clara as a character in her own right. Her introduction midway through season 7 placed lots of emphasis on her role as a plot device instead of fleshing her out as a character in her own right.
We got to know little things about her sure but the main thrust of the storytelling was surrounding the mystery of her and more time was spent on resolving the “Impossible Girl” story. What I had seen of Clara in season 7 was really good and Jenna Coleman is instantly loveable in the role so more development was something I was looking forward to seeing.
One thing season 8 proved was that you should be careful what you wish for. A greater emphasis on Clara meant a lesser emphasis on The Doctor which made him feel like a guest star on his own show. In some of the episodes he contributed so little to the events that he might as well have dropped her off and let her get on with it. In fact, in “Flatline” that’s basically what happened.
Clara was repeatedly shown to be the one in control of the situation and keeping The Doctor on track. I did like the idea that he wasn’t sure if he was a good man or not and she had to represent his compassion. There were also some undercurrents of Clara being corrupted by her experience in the later episodes as she appeared to be able to shrug off the loss of a small number of people as long as the majority made it through. There was a particularly good moment in “Flatline” as The Doctor was horrified at how alike him she was becoming.
Unfortunately this never went anywhere despite a clear indication that she was becoming colder as time went on. It would have been an interesting paradigm shift if The Doctor had become the one who was compassionate and Clara was the emotionally distant one. There may be work to do on this at a later point but the inconsistent writing stretches to Clara as well.
One major story for her was her ongoing relationship with Danny Pink who was more of an obvious representation of her normal day to day existence. It was sort of like Rose’s mother but there was a twist due to them being a couple. When he didn’t know about The Doctor there was a really well put together sequence of her going on various adventures with The Doctor while keeping her dates with Danny. Naturally this caused her to become really strung out and exhausted as she struggled to lead a double life.
It got to a point where a choice had to be made between her fairytale adventures with The Doctor and a normal life with Danny. Some flaws in her character showed her thinking that she could have it both ways causing her to lie to both of them which proved to be quickly unsustainable. Danny was never played as stupid and saw through her lies pretty much right away. He also seemed to be abnormally understanding when it was confirmed that she was lying to him.
Their relationship was at times quite interesting particularly towards the end but in a lot of cases I was pretty annoyed by it due to the humour style that was continually used. Most of it amounted to Clara making fun of him in really harsh ways in attempts to be cute but just really fell flat. There was something about their relationship that never seemed quite right as well. It felt a little fake.
As I hinted at above there were hints that her development was taking a darker path and this did actually amount to something. When Danny was killed Clara went a little insane and seemed to stage an elaborate trap for The Doctor where she held his TARDIS keys ransom over an active volcano and threatened to destroy them if she didn’t use time travel to bring Danny back. Despite the fact that this literally proved to be a dream it showed how far she was willing to go.
Unfortunately many of the threads set up remain unresolved. Clara’s status as the “Impossible Girl” is still ongoing as far as I’m concerned with no satisfactory resolution as yet. The growing darkness inside her is still something that wasn’t really dealt with. The Doctor completely let her get away with betraying him in a massive way and doesn’t do anything about his concern over her clear corruption as the series progressed.
Jenna Coleman is a very good actress who consistently gives astonishing performances. Her portrayal of Clara is note perfect even when the material isn’t up to much. As I said above she is instantly loveable and manages to make Clara incredibly likeable despite the fact that for a long time there was really nothing to her. Like with Capaldi her talents are being mostly wasted here.
The season was a mixed bag with a really uneven tone and some really horrific episodes. Some of which bordered on unwatchable. I hope I never have the misfortune of having to sit through “Robot of Sherwood” ever again. Boring characters and story really doomed something that was never really all that good a concept to begin with.
Similarly terrible was the insult to The Doctor’s character in the form of “Listen”. This was the episode that established his inspiration to be the man he is now. It turns out that Clara calmed him down when he was a crying child and put the idea of not using guns in his head. I think most of us are willing to believe that The Doctor is capable of informing his own choices without Clara being behind everything he does. The other major issue with that episode is that it was almost entirely devoid of plot. It was more or less just a collection of unconnected scenes before a terrible reveal. There was a genuinely terrifying moment in the episode but not worth sitting through the whole thing for.
The two part finale “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” was a completely misguided venture. Gender swapping The Master is an obvious way to open the door to eventually doing the same with The Doctor. It’s not something that I’m able to get behind because as far as I’m concerned The Doctor and The Master are male Timelords. If Steven Moffat wants to have female Timelords in the series then why not introduce some? There are plenty to choose from in the vast history of the show or he could try something else and come up with a villain of his own.
More than that the plot of these episodes was so completely moronic that I almost feel like the intention was to make a parody of Doctor Who rather than the show itself. To this day I still don’t understand Missy’s plan or what she hoped to accomplish. The Cybermen were about as toothless as they usually are despite the fact that there was a clear comparisons to zombies and some really interesting cinematography in the graveyard scenes.
I will concede that the attempts to tell an engaging story involving death and the nature of the afterlife was a bold move but the execution was so terrible that it was robbed of any depth.
It wasn’t all terrible though. I thought “Into the Dalek” was a really good episode that gave an interesting look at The Doctor’s relationship with his oldest foe. It also created some interesting character traits that were never really revisited to any significant degree. Having said that it was still a very good episode.
I also felt that “Kill the Moon” and “In the Forest of the Night” were really strong episodes. Both were completely ridiculous in concept but I felt that they were enjoyable despite that. “Kill the Moon” had some solid horror moments and The Doctor forcing Clara to make an important human decision was interesting.
“In the Forest of the Night” proved to be an exciting adventure and a well built mystery with something of a weak resolution. The ecological message was completely lacking in subtlety as well but I still enjoyed it.
“Time Heist” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” were both worth a watch as well. The heist story in the former was a lot of fun and we were introduced to a cool new alien. It was also good to get an engaging horror story in the latter.
The rest of the episodes I have either mentioned above or aren’t really worth mentioning. I’ve put my original scores below and all of the reviews are hyperlinked throughout this article except from “Deep Breath”, and “The Caretaker” which weren’t previously mentioned.
I never mentioned the season arc in any of my reviews because it was so forgettable that I never felt the need to mention it. Having seen it all the way through I can confirm that it really amounted to nothing.
It started off as Missy plucking people who died as a direct or indirect result of The Doctor’s interference for some unknown purpose. We never actually find out what that purpose is but it did look like she was planning to use his survivor’s guilt against him by making him face those he had killed. It’s a shame that wasn’t what Moffat went with as that would have both been interesting and made sense. Instead we never really find out why she was grabbing those people specifically and it all culminates in a very confusing mess.
Another major arc was Clara being chosen to accompany The Doctor for some reason. It turns out that Missy thought she was a perfect companion due to her being a control freak to contrast him being someone who is impossible to control. It’s a mystery that is set up throughout the season that amounts to absolutely nothing. I was hoping for something interesting to come of it but like everything else it completely fell flat.
The clue based storytelling has rarely worked well for Doctor Who and it certainly didn’t work here. Dropping clues in each episode that are supposed to make sense later isn’t something that Moffat is particularly good at. It amounts to namedropping rather than being a solid arc. The story is mentioned, not built so I think it’s time to try something else.