Doctor Who Series 8 Retrospective
It’s been an interesting run of Doctor Who this year, to put it delicately. This was the first time we’ve not had a ridiculously long break right in the middle of the season, for example. We’ve also tacked away from the overly convoluted arc-based storytelling of series 6 and the stand-alone blockbuster style of series 7, settling for a more moderate approach with some serialization and some stand-alone, with two-parters and longer episodes where needed. That’s on top of a new Doctor, a retooled companion and a radical shift in tone. So how did all this add up?
Spoilers throughout the season ahead.
“Deep Breath,” as a season opener, wasn’t the strongest start. With Capaldi unconscious and fighting with Clara for a huge chunk of the episode, we really didn’t get much of a feel for his Doctor’s personality. Contrast that with our last new Doctor introduction in “Eleventh Hour,” which is more or less the perfect way of showing everyone Matt Smith and giving an idea of what his run would be like. The Eleventh Doctor is whimsical, flighty. He’s introduced like the beginning of a fairy tale. He’s active the whole time, fighting off various threats and deducing the enemy’s goals. The moment the Atraxi plays images of the last ten Doctors, and Smith steps through, he IS the Doctor. But “Deep Breath” doesn’t have any of that; so much of it is focused on Clara and the Paternosters, Capaldi’s Doctor passes out instantly and doesn’t behave much like the Doctor throughout the beginning, causing Clara to doubt whether he’s worth being around any more. Except unlike previous occasions (such as Ten’s introduction), Twelve doesn’t get a definite “I am the Doctor” moment, instead opting to make that a character arc for the season… and it just didn’t work. Casting doubt on the new actor is not what the show needs at such a crucial transition, especially when so many of the new fans were skeptical of the choice of an older actor.
The season’s worst flaw is probably the same as most other seasons of the show: it’s incredibly uneven writing. Some episodes were very mediocre (“Forest of the Night,” “Into the Dalek”), some were truly awful (“Kill the Moon”) and some were amazing, finally giving us a glimpse at Twelve’s true personality (“Mummy on the Orient Express”). But most of the bad and mediocre episodes ended up front-loaded, and they didn’t resolve the core questions about whether this new Doctor “is a good man” or what kind of a man he is at all. As a result, a lot of people (like myself) were losing hope for the rest of the season, which was frustrating since, just from watching, it was clear that the problem wasn’t with Capaldi’s or Coleman’s acting. It was all down to sloppy writing or ideas that weren’t fully realized, which was absolutely not what the show needed at such a critical juncture.
When we finally, finally get a clear picture of Twelve with all of the season to look back on, it’s clear that he is still the Doctor. He’s a little ruthless, a lot more alien, and far less likely to put up with shit. But he still cares deeply about his companions; his goal is still to stop the bad guys and save everyone that he can, but there’s none of Tennant’s “I’m sorry. I’m so, so, so sorry.” He outright lied to the characters from “Into the Dalek” about the fact that they’d die, trying to spare them any agonizing before their deaths. One of the more emphasized, recurring points about the Doctor throughout series 8 was this idea that the Doctor hates soldiers, but he is an officer himself, one who orders other soldiers to die for him. Danny challenges him on this point directly, but it’s brought up earlier: Journey Blue in “Into the Dalek,” to a lesser extent in “Listen,” and even with Robin Hood in “Robots of Sherwood.” While this ultimately paid off greatly in the final two episodes, it started off feeling rather forced. With this Time War aspect of the Doctor’s past dug up and dealt with in the 50th, it came across as retreading old ground and made Danny seem unnecessarily aggressive (and the Doctor accidentally coming off as racist for a while in “The Caretaker”).
Which brings me to what I found most baffling about the season as a whole: how much rehashing it seemed like there was going on. Every episode has elements of past episodes in it, some acknowledged and some not. To list:
- “Deep Breath” starts with a post-regeneration Doctor passing out and falling ill before he’s had a chance to do anything, much like “The Christmas Invasion.” Clara has already felt a lot like Rose 2.0, what with her arc-mystery importance (“Bad Wolf” for Rose, “Impossible Girl” for Clara) and provoking an obsession in the Doctor. The Paternosters end up playing the role that Jackey and Mickey played in that episode, but as I mentioned before there was no definitive “Doctor” moment to end on, unlike with Ten.
- “Into the Dalek” obviously paralleled “Dalek” of series 1, with a lone Dalek held by humans who confronts the Doctor emotionally and ends up breaking loose and killing numerous humans. But rather than serving to make the Daleks both scary again and, somehow, sympathetic, we end with a Dalek who’s still totally evil, just willing to point his laser at other Daleks. Which we don’t even get to see much of. Wonder if we’ll ever check back on that?
- “Robots of Sherwood” had the Doctor behaving in a silly manner, jealous of another male heroic character in much the same way that he responded to Jack Harkness back in the first series. He even goes and saves Robin from what should have been certain death, much like he did with Jack.
- “Listen” was compared to “Blink” from well before it was actually released, featuring a monster that varied its operation depending on whether or not you were aware of it (active when not seen, inactive when you’re looking). The main difference ended up being that the monsters in “Listen” didn’t actually exist… except that the beings the Doctor describes match up with descriptions of the Silents really well, so actually yeah there were monsters like that as far as Earth was concerned.
- “Time Heist” featured a villain who looked almost exactly like Madame Kovarian from Series 6 in Karabraxos, but that wasn’t all. The plot idea of a monster who is actually an alien acting monstrous to secure its mate is straight from last season’s “Hide.” Both episodes feature psychic powers, too.
- “The Caretaker” has the Doctor going undercover in a school, just like in “School Reunion” (and to a lesser extent “Human Nature,” although the Doctor wasn’t himself then). And much like in “School Reunion” the Doctor comes in conflict with his companion’s love interest, in that story Mickey and here, Danny (another comparison between Clara and Rose). He even uses the name John Smith in all three stories!
- “Kill the Moon” features a female mission commander on a doomed spaceflight where something incredible happens that will affect the future of the human race–exactly like “The Waters of Mars.” That episode was a fixed point, however, and “Kill the Moon” wasn’t, even though the fucking Moon exploding seems like it would be pretty damn important compared to the death of an astronaut. Both episodes also credit the future of human spaceflight to whatever just happened in seemingly incompatible ways.
- “Mummy on the Orient Express” is literally the continuation of a plot point brought up in the end of “The Big Bang,” where the Doctor was invited to the Orient Express (in Space!). But more than that, it’s an episode set aboard a famous Earth vehicle that’s inexplicably traveling through space, wherein the majority of the characters die over the course of solving the mystery, just like “Voyage of the Damned.”
- “Flatline” is by far the most original episode of the season, but even it bears a resemblance to past episodes in that it features aliens that exist outside ordinary dimensions of our universe who experience extreme difficulty at maintaining a proper humanoid form for cover, like Prisoner Zero in “The Eleventh Hour” or the robots of “Power of Three.”
- “In the Forest of the Night” features strange beings with a nature connection who abduct children, much like the fairies from Torchwood‘s “Small Worlds” and living trees with a communal life force, which also featured heavily in “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe.”
- “Dark Water” focuses on a connection between the dead and the Cybermen, centering on an alleged revelation about the afterlife, just like “Army of Ghosts.” It also has Clara trying to make the Doctor take her back in time so as to avert the death of someone she cares about, which Rose also did in “Father’s Day” (to disastrous effect).
- “Death in Heaven” has the Master showing up aboard an aircraft belonging to UNIT, exactly as happened the last time the Master returned in “Last of the Time Lords.” At that point, the Doctor and the Master were the only known surviving Time Lords, with Gallifrey time-locked in the war. In this episode, the Doctor and the Master are also the only known surviving Time Lords, with Gallifrey lost in some pocket dimension.
I kept waiting for some kind of acknowledgment of this, thinking it might be tied to the (still unknown) explanation for Twelve looking like Capaldi and his previous characters Caecilius and Frobisher, but that never happened. I have no idea if this was deliberate or not, but it’s far too thorough to be a coincidence to me; notice that all these stories that they resemble are post-2005 revival, not vague resemblances to old serials from 40 years ago.
All of that aside, there’s a lot of good stuff here. “Mummy” and “Flatline” are among the best episode that new Who have to offer, and “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven” is definitely one of the best Cybermen stories. The quality of the acting in this season has taken a huge step up, too, with Capaldi and Coleman delivering consistently amazing performances, and Michelle Gomez brings a crazy new side of the Master out while still keeping a solid connection to previous incarnations. The interplay between her and Capaldi is amazing, and that really, really is needed when it comes to casting a new actor as the Master. The dark “Mary Poppins” magical take marks a good contrast to his “evil magician” outfit, as people were calling it before this season began. It almost seems like changing genders has served only to ramp up the Master’s obsession with the Doctor, which gives it a fresh spin as, in her own twisted way, this is all still some attempt at repaying the Doctor’s actions in “The End of Time.” Since the Master seemed to show some ability to control his regeneration in the end of “Utopia,” deliberately regenerating into the younger John Simm form, I wonder if there was a purpose behind regenerating into a woman this time. It seems everyone’s much better at controlling it than the Doctor is.
Series 8 has been one of the most divisive in the show’s history. I have seen people absolutely loathing and tripping over themselves in adoration of every single episode, and I’ve yet to talk to any two people who had the same likes and dislikes. So naturally, that makes trying to rank Series 8 alongside the others is complicated; I think series 4 and 5 are the best that the revived series have to offer, and this doesn’t quite reach that level for me. And while series 6 was convoluted and ultimately a little unsatisfying, it still had some really, really great episodes mixed in, like “The Doctor’s Wife,” which nothing in this series can even come close to. That ends up pushing it down towards the middle somewhere, probably right alongside series 2, which featured some really great (“The Girl in the Fireplace,” “School Reunion”) and truly awful (“Fear Her,” “Love & Monsters”) episodes, just like this one. The more mature tone definitely helps it out, though, so that with the exception of “Kill the Moon” all the lesser episodes are still elevated by serious drama and acting.
How would you rate series 8? I’m sure anyone reading this is going to have some point of disagreement, so feel free to leave your opinions in the comments, or shoot me a message on Twitter where we can discuss it.