Doctor Who (Series 8)

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This write-up comes in two sections. The General section is spoiler free (at least in specific) and relatively short. Following that is an episode by episode response to this current series that is chock full of stuff you may not want to know if you are still catching up. And, yeah, this is a long one… but eulogies often are.

General

There was some good in this current series, but it was spotty and unconnected; moments, at best. There was almost no sustained bit of character or plot that didn’t have me utterly cringing at some point. The Smith years were frenetic and, often, overly emotional and scattered. But each series (and sometimes across series) held together and felt consistent. Not every Doctor will connect with every audience member, but you know they will eventually change. As long as the Doctors are consistent, the blip is endured, if not fully enjoyed.

The 8th series of the modern Who, however, violated our trust multiple times.  To meet its ends, the show had to do a major rewrite of the rules of the universe, which could have been fine. Where it went wrong was ignoring that change rather than having repercussions and explanations.

After the Christmas episode, we’d been all a-chatter about what it all meant, how it would affect things, what might change? The answer: Who the heck knows? But, we couldn’t wait to find out. And what did we get? Nothing. Not a single mention of the events that rewrote a 50 year franchise, not a single clue how the events might play out, not a single reason to understand or believe the ultimate revelations of the finale. The Doctor goes on as before, if quite a bit gruffer, and Clara has become his keeper and no longer his “impossible girl.”  All of this I blame on the writers and showrunner as the acting was great throughout. Clara may be my favorite companion as a character, even if the stories are no longer doing her justice.

On the good side, there are aspects that have returned to the show that were slipping during the Smith years (due to the writing, not Smith). The Doctor has always relied upon his companions to help him recognize the new and exciting because he has seen so much before. This series, he definitely was enjoying a lot of this through Clara. However, he spent most of the series getting Clara’s emotional state wrong… it took quite a while for him to even notice and understand (or acknowledge?) her situation. She, on the other hand, was flighty and uninvested, mostly due to a split focus and a lack of continuing narrative… and the conscious ignoring of the end of the previous series and bridge to this one. See how quickly I devolve to the bad?

Part of the problem…  the shows were all rather episodic. Clara running onto and off the TARDIS each time rather than really travelling with him. I’m unclear why this was necessary and it certainly hurt the flow of the series overall. There was no progression, just resets and unexplained absences for the Doctor (with him always returning for some reason, that is never quite explained, instead of him moving on). And Clara just shows up or runs off from school or dates. It could have collected up into a wonderful kind of view, but there wasn’t enough. And Danny’s character, while key, was never developed enough to make us invest in him at all.

Overall, this is my least favorite series of the revival. It feels uncontrolled and ill-conceived. It has slipped so far into fantasy that I cannot watch without total disbelief at times. I’m beginning to think the series should have just ended with the 50th Anniversary Special (or, at most, the Christmas special that followed; though that bugged me in different ways). Not only am I left not really chomping for the upcoming holiday special (because the theme is clearly not one I am interested in again), I’m not sure I care about the next series.

Something to hang a hope on is that not only has the Doctor changed over the years, so have the showrunners. Given this most recent run, and the peek at the, yet again, “Christmas” special, it is time for Moffat to go. He is brilliant at many things (Sherlock, for example), but he has lost his way utterly with Who. We need a new set of eyes and someone who respects the genre, generally, and the series, in specific.

By Episode (written as viewed)

Deep Breath: Well damn them if they didn’t make me care about a dinosaur! Moffat certainly managed to have a new take on introducing a doctor. He found good themes and echos, though a bit too much reliant on history for the plot; I suspect he wanted to give us something familiar amidst all the new. And super-sizing the episode so he could deal with both transition and a new plot was a great choice; the story didn’t feel rushed trying to squeeze in all the “my god I have a new face” moments. Capaldi owned his part and is a nice shift and combination of the previous incarnations. I was a little annoyed and frustrated that the genesis of this unprecedented regeneration was never mentioned by Clara, even as she takes on a more central role in the storylines. And Coleman’s timing continues to be impeccable. Watching the spinning up of an uber-arc was also quite fun. I have my theories (think The Doctor’s Wife), but they’ll have to wait to be proved.

Into the Dalek: At least they consciously made fun of the concept on this one. I honestly expected to hate it as far too cutsey, but they managed to make it something interesting, if more than a little absurd. However, they’re still doing this odd, I’ll pick Clara up and go on an adventure thing that doesn’t ring right for the show to me. My theories still hold on the uber-arc (though I’ve a competing theory that may prove the more viable). It rewatches a bit better than it does on its first round and it still manages to echo a great line to the Doctor.. Echos are becoming a theme this season. 

Robot of Sherwood: This romp felt like an odd pause and reboot of several Who stories of the past, including the fabulous Big Bad Wolf arc (with a lot less subtlety). There are some nice themes that are being tackled, but we’ve been here before and even with Coleman’s and Capaldi’s great sense of timing and the addition of Miller gnashing his teeth, I was less enthusiastic than I’d have liked to have been about the story. Then again, the story itself is so full of holes and silliness it was just, simply, hard to swallow (particular the climax). Of Gatiss‘ many scripts, this is probably my least favorite of his.

Note: We are not three episodes in and there has been no discussion or mention of complication from the huge breaking of rules in the Christmas episode. This isn’t, or shouldn’t have been, a simple trick to keep the show going, it should have had implications. Perhaps this is what the uber-arc is all about, but how is no one talking about his return from the brink this far in? Especially given all the conversations of the Doctor as a moral being?

Listen: I think my immediate reaction to this episode is that it was just a bit too precious and self-referential. Despite some great moments of suspense and good dialogue, it felt like a retread of the far better Blink. It was ultimately unsatisfying and, perhaps, misleading. It isn’t that it isn’t clever, it is just to self-conscious about it all, and far too satisfied with itself. The rhythm of this season continues to be ephemeral. We just seem to be exploring the many facets of the Doctor’s psyche. Interesting? Yes, but not to build a season around in a series of stand-alones as if we’re looking in on his psych consults.

Time Heist: Keeley Hawes (Line of Duty) gets to let rip in this one. There is some good stuff in this near stand-alone episode… with echoes of series 1 and the Big Game, not to mention every heist film out there. Sadly, the brushing past the hard problems (like knowing where and how to go through the bank) are over-simplified and the plot is more than a little obvious for large parts. As a piece on its own, it isn’t bad, but the show is starting to repeat itself too much and still seems without direction. I didn’t dislike this more than Listen, but for all the fun of the show, it has no shape and no spine, only some good interaction and a bit of heart. I’ve come to expect and desire more.

The Caretaker: Finally some conflict and depth between the characters and their inevitable clash. Some nice humor as well. But the Doctor has seemed to go  rogue and have lost all sense of proportion and danger to others. The idea of Clara as conscience now seems to be extended to even providing the simplest sense of right and wrong as he now is willing to risk children without a second’s thought. A bit more of the big arc came in as well, but has done nothing other than raise more questions. Not sure when or how this uber-arc will pay off, but with this long a game, it had better do so well.

Kill the Moon: Honestly, I’d kill for some good, thought-through science fiction again on this show. The story here is so absurd that I’m surprised that Norris (Outcasts, MI-5) was willing to join the cast. It just never meets the Gravity-like and Waters of Mars sensibility it wanted to have. But where Waters was a brilliant turn for Duncan during year of Tennant specials, this is just ridiculous, even with Norris’ gravitas . The point, of course, was to get to the final moment, which was well played, but you had to ignore the path that got there.

Mummy on the Orient Express: Probably the best episode this series, despite some of the outlandishness. And this plot exemplifies how the ridiculous can live along side science fiction comfortably when you provide enough credibility. The central conceit, in particular, of 66 second chunks helped drive the story forward with a great tension. I was reminded strongly of Galactica’s brilliant premier episode 33. The interplay of the Doctor and Clara was also interesting, but not entirely emotionally complete for me–while they’ve been growing toward these moments, they didn’t feel quite ripe and then it is ultimately discarded in a weird way. On the up side, it is the first time we see child-like joy in the Doctor again since his arrival. Clearly there is a plan going on in the shape of this season, but it isn’t playing well its first time through.

Flatline: This is a tough one for a number of reasons. It rehashes numerous other episodes and various other existing tropes in the genre. Also, the Doctor and Clara are getting awfully loose about admitting aliens are involved… every episode seems to be adding more people “in the know” without any consequences. I’m having trouble with that. It also gets one important piece wrong… the TARDIS has been shrunk before, though not quite the way it happens here, admittedly. What it has going for it is some of the humor and Clara’s being launched into point position . And the solution for the resolution was clever. Clara’s relationship with Danny, however, is getting a little absurd and non-credible in terms of the lack of honesty. Having TARDIS siege mode turn it into a mini-Pandorica was interesting, as was the Doctor’s repeat of “this world is protected” from ages ago. If I sound like I’m swinging back and forth on this one, I am. I wanted to like it more, but couldn’t get “Fear Her” (Olympic torch episode) out of my head, which was just one of the weakest of the last many years. And while the 2D-3D battle was an intriguing idea, the whole concept seemed to have rather unsettled rules making the danger more horror film than science fiction… and frankly, less scary for that reason as illogical monsters keep us from understanding and fearing. Finally, we have a moment devoted to the uber-arc again here, which had been missing for the last couple shows. Still not much to chomp into, but nothing that dissuades me from my original theories.

In the Forest of the Night: And back we go again into the absurd: from plot to gaggles of children in the TARDIS. And where the heck was UNIT during this massive crisis? Honestly, one of my least favorite of the series so far. This story, though with potential, was just ridiculous (though a close tie with Kill the Moon). Torchwood tackled the whole faerie question with a lot more guts and heart than was accomplished here. We’re at the very edge of the finale beginning (in two parts starting next episode) and we’ve not had near enough direction to have any sense of the potential outcomes or enough hooks to hang our heartstrings on to feel like we care either way. Clara and the Doctor are fine in isolation, but the relationships (not to mention Danny) just aren’t there.

Dark Water: I’m going to start with the obvious… how could they use the Cyberman image to promote this finale when that doesn’t even get revealed until 3/4 of the way through (and very cleverly hinted at throughout)? Honestly, I hate marketing people sometimes. It bugs me even more as I was really angry with the first part of the story (really, the Doctor is honestly seeking out the afterlife? Really?). At least it becomes sf, sort of. We still don’t quite know if these are supposed to be the dead or simply the snatched. But to the episode… The post-front-credit TARDIS key sequence was actually quite good, until it was “just a dream.” Character motivations and actions are getting a bit convenient and fuzzy in this series. And even with the reveal of Missy, this long setup to the last episode was more slog than exciting. To be honest, Missy’s identity was the third or fourth option on my list as it was not only one of the more banal, but violates the rules of the Whovian universe, not to mention the character of the Master who had redeemed himself previously. Why do they keep rewriting the rules and the history? Come up with something new, Moffat! You’ve got a huge brain and great skills, why get mired in the past all the time? Suffice to say we’ve a part 2 coming and it had better be blockbuster and full of good explanations or this entire series, despite some great acting, is going to rank as my least favorite in the modern run.

Death in Heaven: Nope, didn’t pay off, just pissed me off. Some manipulated moments reflecting old Who (which were sweet, but I’m pretty sure a salute was previously offered up in the past). The rules and explanations for the Master Plan were undefined or ridiculous, I honestly couldn’t make up my mind. Seriously, if bodies from the 1700s can be converted, why weren’t all bodies in the cemeteries being converted (other than, perhaps, budget)? Why was Danny’s inhibitor not on, when all others were? What was Missy’s real motivation and intent? Do we really think she’s gone permanently at this point (of course we don’t, he held the disintegrator horizontally and turned her blue rather than holding the thing vertically and blowing her to orange bits)? At least UNIT finally appeared when there was a global threat–even if their mandate was one of the more absurd. I did love Clara’s whack at being the Doctor; it was very well played. But their final meeting fell flat for me because they’d never really connected the whole season. Honestly, I have finished every series since the reboot with a loud, frustrated groan knowing we had to wait months (if not a year) for the next episode. This time, I just didn’t care.

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