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Doctor Who: Series Eight (or Thirty-Four) (Review/Retrospective)

You asked me if you’re a good man and the answer is, I don’t know. But I think you try to be and I think that’s probably the point.

Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who is astonishingly linear.

That feels like a very weird thing to type, but it’s true. Executive producer Steven Moffat backed away from the ambitious structural experiments that defined the two previous seasons, pushing the show back towards a fairly conventional and logical structure. Between Deep Breath and Death in Heaven, there was a clear logical progression. The season did not begin at the end like The Impossible Astronaut did, or end at the beginning like The Name of the Doctor.

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Instead, things progressed cleanly and logically. Character arcs evolved in a very clear and structured way; themes built organically; the season’s central mysteries had little to do with the intricacies of time travel and more to do with guessing the nature of the returning threat. The result was perhaps the most accessible and linear season of Doctor Who since Steven Moffat’s first year as executive producer. In fact, it was the first season not to be split since Steven Moffat’s first season as executive producer.

To be fair, it is easy to see why such an approach was taken. While Peter Capaldi might be one of the most high profile and most successful actors to ever take on the lead role, changing the lead actor on successful television show is always a risky proposition; it is impossible to be too careful in managing the transition. The actor’s first season in the role is an endearing effort; a rather safe first half of the season giving way to a more adventurous and playful second half. While the season has a few flaws, it is hard to consider it anything but a massive success.

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The sixth and seventh seasons of the revived show were wildly ambitious in terms of structure and storytelling. There were season finalés where the audience expected a season premiere, and season finalés that seemed to resemble the light and frothy run-arounds that would logically open a season. Though these experiments did not always pay off, they were certainly trying bold new things. After all, there is a fan argument that the first half of the seventh season happens out of order, with The Power of Three unfolding after The Angels Take Manhattan from the Doctor’s perspective.

In contrast, the eighth season progresses as one might expect. Deep Breath is much more of a traditional season premiere than The Impossible Astronaut or Asylum of the Daleks. Events happen in sequence. Although there is only a single two-parter, that is more than there has been since the first half of the sixth season. Although there are “timey wimey” elements to individual episodes, the season has no “back to the start” bookend like The Wedding of River Song or The Name of the Doctor. The season is also traditional in the sense that it aired as a single twelve-week block.

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It is highly debatable whether splitting Matt Smith’s final two seasons was a clever move. The most generous assessment would concede that dividing sixth and seventh seasons was a necessary move, one dictated by production realities and other concerns. Ironically, splitting the sixth season did little to resolve the rushed nature of the final six episodes. The seventh season suffered because it was attempting to cover too much ground in too few episodes, all while preparing for the franchise’s gigantic anniversary celebrations.

The eighth season is the first season of the show to air without an interval since the fifth. This makes a great deal of sense; after all, both season introduced audiences to an entirely new lead. Matt Smith was inheriting the lead role from David Tennant; Peter Capaldi took over from Matt Smith. In both cases, the new lead is taking over from a beloved predecessor. Keeping the audience’s attention is important; concentrating their exposure to this latest interpretation of the lead character is vital.

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Even though it is not split, the eighth season is comprised of two clearly defined sets of six episodes; although they are all part of the same season, there are two larger story engines at work. The first half-dozen episode of the season are very much about establishing the Twelfth Doctor by putting him through a bunch of familiar Doctor Who staples; the last six episodes of the season deepen and broaden the themes from the first set, while setting up the (eventually aborted) departure of Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald in Last Christmas.

The Caretaker represents a clear line, dividing these two sets of stories. The distinction is as clear as the distinction between the two halves of the sixth season. Nevertheless, it was a clever decision not to split the season. The twelve episodes comprising the eighth season all bleed into (and feed into) one another so clearly and so definitely that separating them would diminish the impact. Although hardly serialised, the eighth season watches very well sequentially, as a bunch of stories building off one another.

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The first six episodes of the season are very much about allowing Peter Capaldi to grow into the role. Five of the six are written or co-written by Steven Moffat; all six are written by established Doctor Who veterans. Listen is perhaps the only truly adventurous episode from the first half of the season; the other five scripts all play it relatively safe. The season even returns to the familiar structure of “home”/“sci-fi”/“celebrity historical” for the first three episodes of the season. In this respect, it harks back to the fifth season – and even earlier.

The Paternoster Gang return in Deep Breath; the Daleks show up in Into the DalekRobot of Sherwood is the first proper celebrity historical in years, albeit one staring a fictional celebrity. Time Heist is a rather light romp and The Caretaker is an episode featuring the Doctor trying to exist in something approaching the real world. The quality of the execution of the individual episodes varies wildly, and there are some solid ideas in each story, but they are shows that are designed to look familiar, giving the audience a chance to get used to Peter Capaldi in familiar surroundings.

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In contrast, the second half of the season is a lot more adventurous. The Caretaker does a lot of work to set up the themes and character dynamics running through the second half of the season, making it quite clear that the first stretch has been about stabilising the new lead. However, after that point, the show is as madcap and as ambitious as it has ever been; the stretch of episodes credited new writers between The Caretaker and Dark Water are bookended by two of the most divisive Doctor Who episodes ever, Kill the Moon and In the Forest of the Night.

The eighth season roars along, with an incredible sense of momentum. There is a staggering sense of confidence to the show; a clear sense of purpose and direction. After all, the launch of the Twelfth Doctor is not a charm offensive. Unlike The Eleventh Hour, Deep Breath is not entirely intended to reassure the viewer that it is business as usual; considerable time is spent informing the audience that the Twelfth Doctor will be quite distinct from the Eleventh Doctor.

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Far from reassuring viewers, Deep Breath fosters a sense of ambiguity around the death of the cyborg. Into the Dalek compounds this sense of difference, as the Twelfth Doctor is willing to accept losses more readily than his recent predecessors and seems to justify his own hatred of the Daleks. Even lighter episodes like Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist emphasise the sense of the Twelfth Doctor’s anger and aggressiveness. Even ignoring the radical shift in age, the Twelfth Doctor is a lot less amicable than his recent predecessors.

While Jon Pertwee is an obvious point of reference for Peter Capaldi’s iteration of the iconic Time Lord on any number of levels, it does feel like Steven Moffat is revisiting the concept behind Colin Baker; introducing a more abrasive and antagonistic take on the title character. Of course, the Sixth Doctor turned out to be a disaster for all involved. The Twin Dilemma seemed to be one of the moments that sealed the fate of the classic television show; it is hard to climb back from the image of the lead actor strangling his companion.

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The Twelfth Doctor is handled just a bit more deftly. Even ignoring the differences in skill between Peter Capaldi and Colin Baker or between Steven Moffat and Eric Saward, the show is aware of the limits of such an approach. The Twelfth Doctor is arrogant and contemptuous; perpetually grumpy. He refers to humans as “pudding brains”, has no time for anybody, and seems to be constantly angry. However, he is still sympathetic and understandable. The Twelfth Doctor is emotionally immature and volatile, but he is clearly vulnerable.

After all, the Twelfth Doctor’s most controversial decisions all seem to come from his own insecurity. Listen suggests that his contempt for Danny Pink is rooted in some form of recognition; that the Doctor lived a similar life, up to a point. In Kill the Moon, the Doctor’s decision to abandon Clara and Courtney to an impossible choice is a response to the assertion that being “special” is an unequivocally positive experience. Mummy on the Orient Express suggests that his callousness towards his horrible choices are rooted in indignation at having to make them.

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These aspects all temper the potentially problematic aspects of the Twelfth Doctor, demonstrating that some of the ideas behind the Sixth Doctor were workable. Of course, this is not the first time that the show has experimented with “fixing” the broken Colin Baker years. In many respects, the portrayal of the Ninth Doctor seems to hark back to the Sixth Doctor, as Christopher Eccleston offered an emotionally volatile and bitter iteration of the Time Lord. (The Third Doctor was not always pleasant either; it seems the audience should be wary Doctors divisible by three.)

In fact, the eighth season harks consciously back to the Russell T. Davies era in a number of ways. Most obviously, Into the Dalek borrows some pretty big ideas from DalekKill the Moon opens with a similar dilemma presented in a similar manner to Children of Earth; the structure of Dark Water seems to intentionally evoke the structure of Army of Ghosts. There are other superficial similarities, including the season’s exploration of the consequences of war and a recurring focus on class structure that had been largely absent from the Matt Smith years.

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Even the season’s basic structure feels like it harks back to the first four years of the revival. The eighth season has only a single two-part episode, but it still builds towards a big two-part finalé structured around a returning monster and the potential departure of one of the leads. It is interesting to wonder whether this was a conscious decision, and whether there was a reason for it; was it that enough time had passed that Moffat felt the show could revisit these ideas with fresh eyes, or was it simply an easy way to introduce a new lead actor?

The eighth season is also notable for its development of Clara Oswald. Clara was rather undeveloped during her appearances in the fiftieth anniversary year. There were a number of factors at play. Steven Moffat only decided to go with a modern-day version of Clara at the last minute, to the point where several scripts had to be hastily re-worked; Clara only had a handful of episodes in which to establish herself, as opposed to a full season; Clara was introduced as a big season-long mystery, with the twist being that there was no mystery.

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As a result, Clara seemed like an awkward fit for the Eleventh Doctor. As with much of the second-half of the seventh season, Jenna-Louise Coleman’s work with Matt Smith felt like an unnecessarily generic piece of work for the big anniversary year. It did not feel at all inappropriate when Karen Gillen and Matt Smith shared a big moment at the climax of The Time of the Doctor, as if to suggest that Amy was really the only companion who ever really mattered to the Eleventh Doctor.

Nevertheless, Clara really comes into her own with the Twelfth Doctor. This is not the first time that a companion has worked better with their second Doctor. Sarah Jane Smith worked a lot better with the Fourth Doctor than she did with the Third Doctor, to pick the most obvious example. On a very basic level, the characterisation of the Twelfth Doctor plays better with Clara’s established personality. “The control freak and the man who should never be controlled,” Missy taunts, not inaccurately.

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In a way, the Twelfth Doctor and Clara seem like the most traditional and old-school Doctor-companion pairing of the relaunched series; an older and alien man paired with a younger and chirpy woman. Jenna-Louise Coleman works very well with Peter Capaldi, the two performers practically bouncing off one another. Even if Clara were still presented as the “generic companion” who appeared in most of the seventh season, the two would still work quite well together. However, the show makes a conscious effort to expand and develop Clara across the season.

One of the more intriguing ideas of the Moffat era is the sense that companions do not have to give up their whole lives to travel with the Doctor. The Doctor himself helped Amy and Rory establish boundaries in The God Complex. Clara set her own firm boundaries in The Bells of St. John. It is no longer expected that companions live in the TARDIS; visiting relatives is no longer a rare occurrence. It is possible for Clara to have her own life completely separate from the Doctor.

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The way that the eighth season develops this life is particularly interesting; it seeds Clara’s professional and personal life through the episodes. The Caretaker is the only one episode that centres around Coal Hill School, but it is the episode around which the entire season pivots. Every episode features scenes in and around the school – with the exception of Robot of Sherwood or Death in Heaven. Courtney Woods is introduced in a couple of small appearances in Deep Breath and Into the Dalek before she is developed properly.

As part of that life and that setting Danny Pink appears in ten of the season’s twelve episodes, but seldom holds focus. He is at the centre of about half of those ten – Listen, The Caretaker, In the Forest of the Night, Dark Water and Death in Heaven. However, his non-intrusive presence is felt throughout the season. He feels like a fixture in Clara’s life, even though he remains quite removed from the TARDIS. The season is structured so these sequences fit comfortably; be it a bedtime phone call in Mummy on the Orient Express or a call from a park bench in Flatline.

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This allows the season to have its cake and eat it too. Episodes like Mummy on the Orient Express or Flatline work very well as stand-alone monster stories; however, they still fit comfortably within the overall arc of the season. There is a constant sense that the series knows what it is building towards. These little bits of connective tissue are more satisfying than quick appearances from Missy or Seb teasing the season’s big science-fiction twist. These elements suggest that Clara comes from a world as nuanced and textured as that inhabited by the Doctor.

To be fair, the nature of Doctor Who means that there will always be misfires. Although the eighth season does contain fairly tight internal continuity, it is still largely an anthology show. Mummy on the Orient Express may resonate with the themes of Death in Heaven, but it is very much its own story. As such, the quality varies from week to week. There is no perfect season of Doctor Who, and it seems highly unlikely that there ever will be, due to the nature of the series.

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However, the failures of the eighth season were modest and tempered. Time Heist is the most generic story of the year, a perfectly functional piece of television that does everything competently and nothing exceptionally. Even then, the show is taking for granted ideas that would have been a huge deal only five years ago. Episodes like Time Heist or The Caretaker throw in casual time-travel hooks like they are nothing; counting on the audience to follow along without too much exposition or explanation. It is remarkable that Time Heist feels generic, but it does.

In contrast, the season never suffers from a shortage of ambition. In the Forest of the Night is arguably a more noble sort of failure, a story with not shortage of brilliantly ambitious ideas, but also some terrible decisions about how to realise those ideas. It is certainly a weak episode, but even these weak episodes have their strengths. There was nothing quite as disillusioning as The Curse of the Black Spot or Evolution of the Daleks or Night Terrors to be found in this twelve-episode stretch.

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All in all, the eighth season of Doctor Who is an impressive piece of work. It is perhaps less narratively ambitious than the sixth or seventh seasons, but it has a lot more confidence and swagger. It hits the mark pretty consistently, and even its misses are worthy of discussion. It is a pretty solid début for a new take on an iconic character.

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who:

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6 Responses

  1. A very interesting review.

    This series was very much a mixed bag and sadly I disliked most of the supporting cast, finding Courtney profoundly irritating, Danny Pink an uncharismatic block of wood (I’m mystified as to what Clara saw in him) and Missy more a comedy drag queen that happened to be played by a female actor than a proper treatment of a female version of the Master (though I think Moffat has huge problems with gender portrayal in any case.) To my own surprise it was mostly the one off characters I find myself liking the best – Robin Hood, Captain Quell, Masie, Lundvik.

    The central duo however where very good, to the point I almost wish Clara’s bluff in Death in Heaven being the real Doctor was true just to see where they would have gone from there.

    • The TARDIS landing in heaven would open a minefield! I’d love it, but I can see why – given the complaints around the cremation fake-out – the show steered clear and made it all rational and logical.

      I seem to be the only person why kinda liked Danny. He’s no Rory, but he’s more compelling than Mickey, I think. And I loved the five minutes of sad scene in Last Christmas. I am actually quite worried the ninth season will bring him back, though.

  2. Excellent retrospective, Darren. I found this to be one of the best series of Doctor Who since the show was revived back in 2005. I was happy with pretty much every episode. Even the ultra-contentious “Kill the Moon,” which split fandom down the middle, was appreciated by me because it certainly forced viewers to really think, and it inspired some passionate, interesting debate on the internet, including here amongst various WordPress blogs.

    The only episode that really disappointed me was “In the Forest of the Night.” Even there, I did feel in had some intriguing ideas and quite a bit of potential. It just did not have an effective execution.

    I agree with the similarities between Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor and Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor. From all that I’ve read in the time since Baker’s short, tumultuous tenure on TV, along with his performances on the Big Finish audio stories, he really hoped to be able to play the Doctor in a manner quite similar to how Capaldi is all these years later. Unfortunately Baker was cursed with some poor stories, a script editor who did not like him, an awful costume, and executives at the BBC who were not interested in supporting the show.

    In any case, I really enjoyed Capaldi’s performance as a somber, rude, condescending, intense, intorspective, morally ambiguous Doctor. This really is an example of a talented actor who has been given high quality scripts, and the results are amazing.

    For those who are interested, I’ve reviewed most of these episodes on my own WordPress blog.

  3. i m big fan Peter Capaldi

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