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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.

doctorwho-deepbreath2

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.

doctorwho-intothedalek17

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Doctor Who: Death in Heaven (Review)

Welcome to the only planet in the universe where we get to say this. “He’s on the payroll.”

Am I?

Well, technically.

How much?

Shush.

Death in Heaven doesn’t work quite as well as Dark Water. Then again, it has a lot more to do.

After all, Dark Water was a sublimely extended joke – a forty-five minute gag. It is easier to affectionately parody the excess of the Davies-era finalés in the first part than it is to offer a straight-up imitation of those same finalés in the second. This simply isn’t the sort of season finalé to which Moffat’s style lends itself. This is very much a return to the scale and mood of The Parting of the Ways, Doomsday, The Last of the Time Lords or Journey’s End – the type of big emotive farewell season-ender that the show hasn’t done in quite a while.

"Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul's Cathedral..."

“Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul’s Cathedral…”

This is a different beast than The Name of the Doctor, The Wedding of River Song or even The Big Bang. After all, although The Big Bang was the second part of a season finalé with the entire universe at stake, the bulk of the story featured familiar characters in a relatively confined space. In contrast, Death in Heaven is very much structured as an “event” story built around an iconic adversary and teasing the departure of a long-term companion. It is full of big emotional beats and stunning set-pieces, placing the entire Earth at the mercy of a massive extraterrestrial threat.

Most of Death in Heaven feels like Moffat is writing in a strange language; he knows the words, but the grammar does not entirely fit. And yet, despite that, Death in Heaven mostly works. It doesn’t work as well as it might; it isn’t the strongest script of the season by any stretch; it is a little disjointed, a little all over the place, a little too giddy with itself in places. However, it is as clever as viewers have come to expect from the show and the writer, remaining in tune with the season’s core themes and putting an impressive capstone in Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor.

Psycho selfie!

Psycho selfie!

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Non-Review Review: Byzantium

Byzantium is visually stunning and thematically fascinating, a thoughtful and well-constructed vampire tale from the director of Interview with a Vampire. Neil Jordan’s latest bloodsucking epic might lack a narrative cohesion and take a while to get going, but it’s still an interesting exploration of the genre. Jordan has a wonderful skill for composition, and his flair ensures that the story of two ageless female vampires always looks breathtaking, even if the story does take a while to get going.

Talk about running red...

Talk about running red…

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Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (Review)

How do we get down there? Jump?

Don’t be silly. We fall.

– Clara and the Doctor set things straight

Like The Wedding of the River Song, The Name of the Doctor suggests that Moffat might be better served by reverting to the Davies-era model of two-part season finalés. The strongest season ender of the Moffat era (and probably the best season finalé of the revived show) was The Big Bang, because it felt like Moffat had enough space to allow his ideas to breathe. The Name of the Doctor is a lot sharper and a lot more deftly constructed than any of the closing episodes from Russell T. Davies’ seasons, but it feels a little too compact, a little too tight for its own good.

To be fair, Moffat is has very cleverly structured his season. The mystery of Clara was seeded as early as Asylum of the Daleks and hints have been scattered throughout the past year of Doctor Who. Even the build-up to the final line of the episode feels like an idea that Moffat has been toying with since The Beast Below. Despite all this, it still feels like The Name of the Doctor could do with a little more room to elaborate and develop the concepts at the core of the story.

Journey to the centre of the Doctor?

Journey to the centre of the Doctor?

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Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (Review)

I’m the Doctor, and you’re nuts.

– the Doctor making friends, as usual

The Crimson Horror, much like Cold War before it, feels like a Mark Gatiss episode. Perhaps due to the fact he has been one of the most consistent contributors to the revived television show, Gatiss has developed his own technique and tropes, favouring particularly elements of Doctor Who, which tend to shine through in his scripts from The Unquiet Dead through to this latest instalment. While I’d be reluctant to name Gatiss among the strongest writers to contribute to the television show, it’s clear that he’s cracked a formula that works for him.

While The Crimson Horror feels a little too familiar in places, a little too conventional, it’s a solid instalment – much like Gatiss’ earlier addition to the season, Cold War.

He's got the formula down at this point...

He’s got the formula down at this point…

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Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (Review)

“Good guys do not have zombie creatures. Rule one, basic storytelling.”

– Clara understands the way the universe works

And here our big theory that this anniversary season is a “greatest hits” collection runs into a bit of bother. Okay, Cold War was definitely a Troughton-era throwback. And Hide had a definite Hinchcliffe-and-Holmes feeling to it. (“The Baker Street irregulars” in 1974.) Maybe you could stretch it a little bit and argue that The Bells of St. John is a tribute to the Pertwee era by way of Russell T. Davies; and The Rings of Akhaten definitely feels a little like a classic bit of Hartnell-era world-building.

Making the case for The Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is just a little bit harder. After all, The Crimson Horror is another throwback to Hinchcliffe and Holmes, while Nightmare in Silver is another “base under siege by classic monster” tribute to Troughton. So there’s only one missing piece here. If that “greatest hits” argument holds, then Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS must be one gigantic shout out to the John Nathan Turner era.

Hear me out.

A shining beacon of light...

A shining beacon of light…

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Doctor Who: Hide (Review)

Say we actually find her. What do we say to her?

We ask her what she is, how she came to be.

Why?

Because I don’t know and ignorance is… what’s the opposite of bliss?

Carlisle.

Yes, Carlyle. Ignorance is Carlyle.

– the Doctor and Clara

Hide is the best episode of Doctor Who to air since The God Complex, almost two years ago. Writing an affectionate tribute to gothic horror Doctor Who, Hide allows even the most skeptical member of the audience to forgive writer Neil Cross for his somewhat clunky script for The Rings of Akhaten. It’s a nostalgic and atmospheric trip back in time, and a reminder of just exactly what this show is capable of, offering a creepy haunted house horror that manages to morph into an epic love story by the time the credits have rolled.

What lies beyond?

What lies beyond?

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