Friday, December 5, 2014

Review of Doctor Who Series 8 (or 34)

It's a few weeks since series eight of Doctor Who finished. Or, to be more accurate, series thirty-four — the actual series eight aired in 1971 and first introduced us to the Master.

It was an important series, whatever its number, not only coming after all the hoo-ha of last year's anniversary, but also introducing us to a new Doctor, always a crucial time. So how did the series — and the Doctor — shape up?

As far as the series is concerned, I'd say it was variable, with both successes and failures, although there were no episodes I couldn't at least moderately enjoy rewatching. As for Peter Capaldi's Doctor, I think he's fantastic. Although I enjoyed Tennant and particularly Smith, I'm not sorry to say goodbye to the young, chummy Doctors we've had lately and go back to an older and utterly alien character.

In contrast to the Eleventh Doctor's extremely selective habit of occasionally forgetting all the human social customs he knows perfectly well the rest of the time, the Twelfth Doctor comes over as genuinely baffled by humans, and particularly by Clara. Superficially, their relationship is a little reminiscent of the Sixth Doctor's with Peri, or even the Fourth Doctor's with Sarah Jane (all three having first got to know a gentler, more considerate Doctor) but this character's arrogance seems to come less from over-confidence than from insecurity.

At the same time, he develops further the Eleventh Doctor's ambivalent moral stance. A couple of series back, in response to the comment that good men have too many rules, the Doctor pointed out, "Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many."

Capaldi's Doctor goes further into trying to answer the question Am I a good man? In the second episode, trying to explain his relationship with Clara, he comes up with my carer, adding, "She cares so I don't have to." And that seems important to the Doctor, yet one of the overarching threads of the series is that he's gradually destroying what he values in her, making her more like him.

Clara has had perhaps the strangest arc of any Doctor Who companion. It isn't entirely clear how much of her fragmented existence she actually remembers now, but she appears to settle into the same precarious juggling act as Amy and Rory did, trying to balance her normal life and her Doctor life. It isn't made easier by her now having a boyfriend (Danny) who she first has to lie to because he knows nothing of the Doctor; then, when he finds out, she has to lie to both him and the Doctor because they disapprove of one another.

"Rule One: the Doctor lies," River once said, and lying seems to be at the heart of this series, as the Doctor, Clara and Danny skirt around one another, withholding information, right to the final scene where the Doctor and Clara are each lying to make the other feel better. Clara, in fact, grows more and more like the Doctor as the series goes on, up to the point where, in the final episode, she's claiming to be the Doctor. Lying, of course.

Danny has an interesting back-story and is a good character, but much of the time he seems to be consigned to the "useless boyfriend" role pioneered by Mickey Smith. It isn't really until the two-part finale (in which he dies) that he becomes a seriously interesting character. Pity they left it so long.

The ongoing "tease" through the series is the enigmatic character Missy, who seems to live in some kind of afterlife and is gathering people who've died close to the Doctor. I admit I never saw the reveal about her coming. My original theory was that she was the TARDIS, for some reason uploading the consciousnesses of the dead to her matrix. Well, the second part was more or less right, but it was revealed as the cliff-hanger in the two-part finale that she's actually the Master, regenerated into a female form. Considering the rumours that have been floating around for thirty-five years or so about the Doctor becoming female, I loved that twist.

So what of the individual episodes?

Deep Breath — A long, somewhat sprawling introduction to the new Doctor, featuring the Paternoster gang (Vastra, Jenny and Strax) who seem to have replaced River as the standard occasional extra companions. As with most "new Doctor" stories, we see him acting bizarrely and out of character, but gradually finding his new identity. At least he doesn't try to strangle his companion. For the plot, there were some good things, but other elements (like the dinosaur in the Thames) that just seemed to have been slung in because they seemed like a good idea. An interesting episode, but I wouldn't put it with Spearhead From Space or The Eleventh Hour as a great new Doctor story.

Into the Dalek — A little reminiscent of the 2005 story Dalek, this delved into Dalek psychology, asking if Daleks are fundamentally evil, as well as giving us a Fantastic Voyage style journey inside a Dalek (a trope used before by Doctor Who in 1977, though not with a Dalek). I thought it was well done. It also introduced us to Danny, and returned to Clara's briefly-glimpsed new life as a teacher at Coal Hill School, the place where Doctor Who started back in 1963.

Robot of Sherwood — Nonsensical fun. We're presented with a thoroughly Hollywood image of Robin Hood, except that the Sheriff's "men" happen to be robots. It's strongly suggested all the way through that this scenario has been created by the robots, based on the legend, but then at the end we're left with the idea that this really is how it was — raising the question of why the "original" legend is nothing like the earlier retellings and entirely like the later ones. If you can get past that, though, it's huge fun, especially the alpha-male sparring between the Doctor and Robin.

Listen — An intriguing and chilling episode, in which the Doctor becomes obsessed that there are unseen beings shadowing us all the time. On the trail through time of attempting to prove it, he and Clara encounter both Danny as a child and what appears to be Danny's grandson, and, in a first, the Doctor himself as a child. The plot leaves a lot of events unexplained, but maybe it has to be that way.

Time Heist — A story which should have been great, but turned out only as quite good. For reasons that aren't explained till the end, the Doctor, Clara and two random companions have to break into the most secure vault in the universe, facing a terrible fate if they fail. The explanation at the end is a typically tortuous "timey-wimey" solution, and the whole thing just didn't excite me as much as I'd have expected from the synopsis.

The Caretaker — To counter an alien threat, the Doctor takes the position of caretaker at Coal Hill School, where Clara and Danny both teach — a position he declined to apply for in 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks. Like The Power of Three from last series, this is really a character/relationship story with a perfunctory adventure plot bolted on. The interactions between the three characters are well done, but I could have hoped for a better, more integrated alien threat.

Kill the Moon — As in last series, we have a story where the Doctor gives a trip in the TARDIS to a random child in Clara's care, the rather annoying fifteen-year-old Courtney, who also plays a substantial part in the previous story. The story, focusing on a future threat from the moon, is bizarre and suffers from a degree of scientific absurdity far beyond the odd pass we usually give Doctor Who. The weakest episode in the series, in my opinion.

Mummy on the Orient Express — A surprisingly effective episode, set on a replica of the Orient Express* travelling through space (shades of the spaceship Titanic) whose passengers start dying in mysterious circumstances. The whole thing turns out to be a gruesome experiment by an unknown enemy, with the Doctor finally finding the solution in a way that's a little unconvincing, but doesn't really spoil the fun. I was a little disappointed, in retrospect, that this wasn't tied in with the Missy arc. Perhaps we still have to discover someone else trying to manipulate the Doctor.

Flatline — Another great story, with Clara investigating an invasion of Earth by two-dimensional beings, while the Doctor is trapped inside a shrunken TARDIS (as in the 1981 story Logopolis). We still actually see a lot of the Doctor, but Clara takes the lead, gradually adopting his modus operandi to defeat the menace. The only real negative here is that the 2-D monsters become a lot less scary when they turn 3-D, but it's still a fine story.

In the Forest of the Night — Now, this seems to be a real Marmite episode, with some fans seriously detesting it. I loved it. A party of schoolchildren, supervised by Clara and Danny, get caught up in trying to find out why a forest has covered the entire earth overnight. The answer suggests a sentient-earth ecological message, though without ramming the message home too hard. The only real negative for me was that the children (who all acted decently, though not outstandingly) were ridiculously too young for their supposed age — the lead girl looked as if she should still be at primary school.

Dark Water/Death in Heaven — The finale, and I was glad to finally get another two-parter, where the story could stretch a little, since one of my objections to a lot of the more recent stories is that they tend to be rushing to fit into 45 minutes. The successive reveals at the end of part one (the Cybermen, and that the mysterious "Missy" is the Master) make it one of the best cliff-hangers in the revived show, and the return of UNIT in part two was very welcome, as was the classic image of the Cybermen in front of St Pauls Cathedral. Michelle Gomez is wonderful as Missy — charming and psychopathic at the same time, just as the Master should be, not to mention coming up with a characteristic mind-bogglingly complicated trap for the Doctor — though one or two aspects of the story were unexplained, such as how people can physically move between the material world and a virtual reality. A great finale.

So where now? The final scene of Death in Heaven suggests that Clara wouldn't be returning, but she appeared in the Children in Need clip from the Christmas special. Although I've enjoyed her stint as companion, I think it's about time we moved on. I've been saying for some time that I'd like to see a companion who isn't a twenty-something contemporary woman — someone from history, or from the future, or even an alien, all three of which we had a number of times in the classic show — but with Capaldi's Doctor being so alien, perhaps this isn't the best time for it.

Whoever the new companion might be, the important thing is that she (or he?) provides a foil for this intriguing new Doctor to develop his character further. I look forward to the next few years of Doctor Who.

* Definitely the classic Orient Express that Poirot travelled on. I made a three-day journey on the Orient Express in the 1970s, when it was just an ordinary train. Now that was murder.

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