You can say it however you like, but Matt Smith’s Doctor gurned, wobbled, fezzed, and fucked his way through a tenure characterized by the hallmarks of a mid-life crisis. Series’ 5, 6, and 7 writing was at its most self-indulgent, the show at its most commercially viable, and The Doctor at his most confusingly inconsistent. As a lifelong Doctor Who fan, I’m forever indebted to show-runner Stephen Moffat for some of the best episodes put on screen and for securing the show’s future by cracking, not only the American audience, but the show’s full potential as a worldwide entity. However, Smith’s final season highlighted the cracks spreading through the show, and with his exit in the- questionable- specials around the 50th anniversary it seemed high time for a radical shake-up.
Queue Peter Capaldi’s casting and the collective wave of relief that swept through the Doctor Who fan base. Smith had some great moments, but it was definitely time for something darker, or at least more consistently and believably dark. The show had to take a step back out of the limelight, down from the pedestal, and into the murky depths of the dark and dangerous universe it supposedly inhabited. Not just that, but it had to stay there in terms of the stakes. But just how well has the first half of series 8 shaped up so far?
Deep Breath by Steven Moffat
First episodes tend to be a bit dodgy, and Deep Breath is no exception. Considering its elongated run time of 79 minutes, the series’ opener should have been crammed but felt like it was riding on the back of The Doctor’s regeneration madness. Capaldi is pure genius, here trapped in the ruins of a regeneration process (upsettingly close to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s). Pair this with his impressive balance of hilarious observations/furious rambling and we have a perfectly executed Doctor who spends most of the episode disregarding his companions, offending humans, and disappearing into the night.
Even Clara is drastically improved by the confusion of the regeneration. After being relegated to kooky-crush for Series 7 and pretty much all the anniversary/Christmas stuff, Jenna Coleman gets to pull the finger out and do some actual acting which is nice. Moffat makes a point to address his mistakes making sure the flirtation is quashed in an ‘I’m not your boyfriend’ confession from The Doctor. It’s a pittance but it will do.
Victorian London and a plot about robots making themselves human seems tired and repetitive and though that is a part of the story’s address, it doesn’t quiet excuse dull plot and wasted screen time (like the silly T-Rex on the Thames gag). Nods to previous episodes like The Girl in the Fireplace add range to the series and bind the Moffat universe nicely, whereas embracing Capaldi’s previous appearance in The Fires of Pompeii allows for one of the more heartfelt self-discoveries of the episode. However, Moffat’s recurring band of Victorian misfits: the Silurian Madam Vastra, her wife Jenny, and hapless Sontaran Strax, make an unwelcome return here as Clara’s regeneration back-up. Sure there’s actually some genuinely funny scenes with them, but overall they still feel like a strained excuse for a spin-off.
Similarly Ben Wheatley’s turn as director is disappointingly dull. The A Field in England director rarely leaves his mark on an episode characterised by hum drum greys and meh visuals. That’s not to say the episode isn’t punctuated with some creative concepts, particularly when Clara’s holding her breath to avoid detection by the robots, but its not enough to really push the point.
Overall it’s definitely a step in the right direction: a feisty new Doctor who doesn’t bend over backwards for his companions, a darker tone built from flesh balloons and skin masks, and some character study that actually intrigues beyond the realms of superficiality.
Into the Dalek by Phil Ford
Episode 2 of Series 8 is the prettiest episode of Doctor Who ever filmed, basically. Here Wheatley makes up for Deep Breath by injecting way more of his own vision into an episode that could otherwise have fallen on its arse.
Essentially it’s The Fantastic Voyage inside a Dalek, and it looks as many Who episodes can: like an empty factory somewhere in Cardiff that’s been painted different colours. The sets should/could have looked so much better, and there must have been more ways to play with size in the narrative and production, but oh well. However, carefully executed moments of visual psycadelica and choice camera work literally blow you away because we’ve never seen anything like this before in Who. The team’s entry into the Dalek is a thing of beauty and wonder a true science fiction moment worthy of the show’s core desire to show us things we’ve never seen from places we can never go.
Capaldi continues to impress with his slick, quick abuse and cold methodical nature, sacrificing lives to save more lives and throwing himself at the opposite end of the spectrum to Smith’s staunchly humanist Timelord. The episode carries on from Deep Breath by asking the right questions in the right order. Who is The Doctor in relation to himself? Who is The Doctor in relation to his friends? Who is The Doctor in relation to his enemies?
Like Ford’s Tennant special The Waters of Mars, the whole episode is looking at The Doctor and who he really is, where Ford previously highlighted The Doctor’s tendency for arrogance and power, Into the Dalek focuses on The Doctor’s inherent racism towards his oldest foe, and what that anger ultimately costs him time and time again: the stance of the “innocent” man. By the end we are thankfully no closer to understanding The Doctor’s true nature any better than he or Clara are.
Robot of Sherwood by Mark Gatiss
Episode 3 is the light-hearted adventure of the series, the one that gets away with being an old-fashioned Baker romp, but just barely. The “darker” heart of series 8 is betrayed by an episode so ludicrous and smiley it can’t be taken too seriously. In a nutshell The Doctor takes Clara to meet the legendary Robin Hood (who the Doctor is quick to say doesn’t exist) whilst nearby the evil Sheriff of Nottingham plots with space robots to take over Earth.
Robots for the second time is a poor decision, especially ones this dull. The design is fairly boring and the execution is inconsistent. A purple crucifix shape appears as the aiming point for the killer robots but depending on how important the character is, merely hovers on their forehead until help arrives. Less fortunate medieval peasants are zapped instantaneously. Thankfully Ben Miller camps it up as the Sheriff making sure there’s a fun spark of villainy in this Disney adventure of a Who episode. On that note however, The Sheriff does mercilessly butcher a peasant in his first scene. Miller also shares a pretty great scene with Coleman where Clara pastiche’s alien contact stories to worm the plot out of the hapless Sheriff.
Oddly enough, even though it’s the series, over the past two, that seems to have the most scope, it’s the one that is instigated least by the age-old Who drive of sheer adventure. The Twelve Doctor appears to have far more on his mind, problems and investigations he drags Clara along for. Even this episode, Clara’s choice, occurs because The Doctor has a need to prove a point. Moffat makes a mistake though, by alluding to further and more interesting explorations in the opening to The Caretaker, making us wonder just how many of those are innocent travels. One of the greatest images from New Who comes a the opening of series 4’s Turn Left where The Doctor and Donna wander an exotic market place trying foods and meeting people until Donna wanders off and instigates the episode. Series 8 could be doing with more harmless exploring, but then, we were warned I suppose when The Doctor said he had ‘mistakes’ to make up for. A little hinting at how these “mistakes” inform his travels would be nice.
Listen by Steven Moffat
This is probably where the meat of the series kicks in. Episode 4 is a classic Moffat experience of genuinely unsettling Who where the threat is basically the unknown. Following on from Capaldi’s fantastic William Castle routine in the pre-credits sequence, the episode goes on to introduce a new threat, namely, a creature that has achieved perfect capabilities of hiding and never leaves us alone. Like most of Moffat’s best it plays on age-old fear and human nature (don’t blink, don’t breath, don’t turn away, don’t look) so much so that one scene in an orphanage bedroom struck chills unseen in quite some time, and all it took was a blanket and a humanoid shape.
The episode also has a lot to achieve in character work. Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), Clara’s potential boyfriend glimpsed in episode 2 and 3, is given more time and his first date with Clara. It’s a tall order to pull off a successful spooks tale and cement a new series regular without letting the plates fall, but it actually works pretty perfectly, and Pink seems a welcome addition to the series dynamic. This is probably thanks to Anderson’s grounded performance and the character’s simple conception: he’s not as dramatic Jack Harkness, as angsty as Mickey Smith, or as pointless as Rory. He’s just a guy…who might have killed some folks.
The only problem is when the series winds up taking a, highly questionable, step into the Doctor’s past. This is a gross Moffat-ism: to fiddle with massive themes and major characters for one moment of major drama but brush over the whole thing after. Basically, how can they be on Gallifrey? Still, it’s a great episode with a perfect mix of time trouble, spooks, and character relations.
Time Heist by Steve Thompson
Penned by Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS and Curse of the Block Spot writer, Time Heist is arguably the most fun episode so far with the most consistent enjoyment. A totally gripping tale, a thriller episode if there was one. It’s the closest thing to Saw that Doctor Who will ever get, with the mysterious hoody-wearing Architect hiring the Doctor, Clara, a shape-shifter, and a cyborg to break into the impregnable Bank on Karibraxos for unknown reasons. Of course everything is planned, everything has been considered, but the episode still achieves a frantic nature missing from many other high-energy Who adventures.
Bank-Heist-Who is a dream come true. Nicely-paced, clever-but not too clever, well shot, and with some of the darkest moments to date. The Teller, a new and terrifying creature unknown to the Doctor, is genius; a guilt sniffing Minotaur that detects, catches, then liquidates the brains of its victims. It’s not the beast or even the act it commits that hurts, it’s the sight of a lobotomised human being that really leaves scars. Murder, mutilation, and violence, are integral though often-skimped parts of the show, it’s refreshing to see the stakes get pulled back out of the nursery a bit and left to their own dark devices.
Screw the Teller though, its Keeley Hawes turn as the uber-bitch Ms Delphox and her clones, who steals the bad points early on with a cold and methodical approach to future banking. Her scenes towards the end of the episode leave us hungry for more and one can’t help but think that maybe she was wasted as a bit-part in an episode surprisingly void of a villain.
By the end of the episode, things go the same way as series 7’s Hide; the terrifying alien threat is nought but a romantic misendeavour and all those involved are not as bad as they first seemed. Still, there’s so much fun to be had watching this fantastic adventure pull together that most of the episode’s gripes can be ignored without too much worry.
The Caretaker by Gareth Roberts
The domestic episode of the series, from The Lodger writer Gareth Roberts. The most interesting thing about the episode isn’t Capaldi’s largest amount of social interaction thus far, or even the stories dull plot about a deadly crab-seated cyborg threat, it’s the inevitable meeting of Clara’s soldier boyfriend Danny Pink and The Doctor.
There’s some great pastiche, with Capaldi and Coleman introducing the TARDIS to Pink in a near Vaudevillian manner. Capaldi seems to be ramping up the scrooge-isms in an aggressive attempt to bat off Pink from his companion, making him his most inaccessible and thus lubricating Pink’s path into Clara’s life.
Something that has carried through to series 8 from the Smith era, is Moffat’s quick fire structure of stories that seem to seek trouble out, as opposed to being adventures in Time and Space that result in problems. The lack of continued mystery or real cause is problematic because it reduces the series to a sequence of attempted moral lessons and near-pretentious spontaneous episode messages. The fact that Gallifrey is out there somewhere and The Doctor isn’t engaging in these adventures just to collect clues to its rediscovery is a massive missed opportunity.
The Caretaker is the episode that does the most for the series by pushing its characters forward, no matter how slowly, towards an overall assessment of the Doctor’s character. The total removal of Smith’s buoyant facade and replacement with this cagey and private alien is an intimate look at who the character really is under the Boyfriend, James Bond, and geek-chic persona placated onto him across the past decade. Without all that, why do we keep coming back to watch the adventures of a miserable and inherently “aristocratic” Timelord?
Where to Now?
There’s still heaps of issues with the show: noticeable problems that come, seemingly, part and parcel of Moffat’s particular vision. Saying that, under Capaldi’s no-nonsense Doctor, these issues are far less prominent than they were with Smith’s zany portrayal of the titular Timelord. The eradication of Doctor/companion flirtation, gimmicks, and catchphrases has pulled the show closer to a sci-fi adventure show with a particular focus on concept and character. Similarly Moffat’s obsession with his own – ultimately lame- recurring characters was the major issue with series 6. So far the choice to leave River Song out the equation has paid off well, and we can only hope her inevitable return will be met with the full thunderous fury of Capaldi’s eyebrows. Saying that, minus the forced and cringey flirtation, the pairing could be as endearing as it was back in series four (Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead) and 5 (particularly Flesh and Stone, Time of the Angels).
The story arc of the series is less try-hard, more of a Davis hint than Moffatt’s usual laborious efforts to bind, weave, and tie. This along with the lack of two-parters puts the emphasis back on one-shot stories, wee espressos of adventure in places across time and space. The 30 second scenes of the ‘afterlife’ popped in here and there are intriguing, if a little zany. Moffat’s particular brand of weird is usually illegible until later on, and this overall plot is pretty much spot on with that expectancy, if a little more palatable by The Caretaker.
Once the show’s all wrapped up we’ll look at the whole thing as an actual series and examine how successfully Capaldi, Moffat, and the rest of the series crew have managed to usher in a new era of Doctor Who. (Read Part 2)
By Scott Clark