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Doctor Who, Season Eight

Welcome to my review of the worst season of Doctor Who since the Colin Baker era. Yes, even worse than last season, which did not have a lot to recommend it.

As usual, I’ll start with my ranking of episodes, from best to worst:

  1. Deep Breath (written by Steven Moffat)
  2. Mummy on the Orient Express (Jamie Mathieson)
  3. Robots of Sherwood (Mark Gatiss)
  4. Last Christmas (Steven Moffat)
  5. Dark Water/Death in Heaven (Steven Moffat)
  6. Time Heist (Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat)
  7. Listen (Steven Moffat)
  8. Flatline (Jamie Mathieson)
  9. The Caretaker (Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat)
  10. Into the Dalek (Phil Ford & Steven Moffat)
  11. In the Forest of the Night (Frank Cottrell Boyce)
  12. Kill the Moon (Peter Harness)

Let’s sum it up this way: I own every season of the new series on DVD – but I don’t plan to buy this one. Frankly there is not a single episode I particularly want to see a second time. The best of the season, “Deep Breath”, is barely more than a run-of-the-mill suspense yarn. And it gets worse from there.

Also as usual, my reviews contain plenty of spoilers, and so I’ll continue after the jump…

I was completely behind the casting of Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor, and presumed that the plan was to make him a substantially different character from his predecessors. Honestly I always saw David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s Doctors as essentially the same guy: Heroic, manic, young, handsome, energetic. I’d also heard that Steven Moffat planned for this season to move in the direction of the gothic horror types of stories that were common in the Tom Baker era. So all indications were good.

Well, Capaldi was fine as the Doctor. The problem was that the writing let him down utterly, and he was forced to try to craft a character with almost nothing to work with. He asks Clara (Jenna Coleman) early on, “Am I a good man?” Just about the only thing I can say about his Doctor is that he is a good man. Otherwise he seems like a very generic, average Doctor: Not particularly acerbic, maybe a little more sarcastic, maybe a little more restrained. But there’s just not much there there. I’d like to say that his performance was enough to life some otherwise weak episodes up to being enjoyable, but honestly I just thought he was fine, not superlative.

And if Capaldi was let down by the writing, Jenna Coleman was just about pushed off a cliff. All the great character development done for Clara in “The Day of the Doctor” had been torn down in the horrible Matt Smith finale “The Time of the Doctor”, making me wonder how she could ever trust the Doctor again. While the end of the first episode of this season went some way to repairing that damage, the rest of the season just kept digging her a deeper hole: The ridiculous envy the Doctor seemed to feel towards her boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), the bizarre lengths to which the writers went to maneuver her into a place where she didn’t want to travel with the Doctor yet kept getting sucked back in. Frankly it was cringeworthy. The pair could have had a mature relationship like that of the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith (or Leela, or Romana), or for that matter the tenth Doctor and Donna, but they both seemed to be acting like children half the time. And throwing Danny in the Mickey/Rory role was just as frustrating as those two guys sometimes were – you wanted Danny to act like the adult and tell the other two what idiots they were being. Unlike the other two, Danny got killed before he could grow up.

Now to run through the episodes, in the order aired:

“Deep Breath” was a promising, if erratic, start to the season. Putting aside the silliness of a dinosaur in Victorian London, a hot air balloon made of human skin, and robots who can’t tell if someone is a robot or a human if they hold their breath, it was a fun yarn: Capaldi hamming it up with the best of them, Clara behaving reasonably cleverly, hearkening back a bit to the Doctor/Donna relationship, and the robots were appropriately chilling. Unfortunately rather than tracing what these ancient robots were doing on Earth and what happened to them, they were sacrificed to the ongoing Missy story thread – about which more later. But overall this story had a degree of fun to it which was lacking through most of the season, and that made it the most purely enjoyable episode of the year.

The season thrashed around initially: “Into the Dalek” was largely a waste of time, while “Robots of Sherwood” was a lighthearted and fairly fun story; not outstanding, but it also had that sense of fun that soon disappeared after it aired.

Many fans seemed to love the next episode, “Listen”, which baffles me. It started off with an intriguing premise, that there was something lurking in the shadows throughout the history of the universe and acting when people couldn’t see them. This is territory Moffat has plumbed before, in the Silence during the eleventh Doctor era, but it was less clear where things were going. What it needed was a big payoff: What the something is, why we didn’t learn about it until now, what made the Doctor suddenly suspect its existence, and what it’s been up to. That’s a tall order, maybe enough to build a whole season around. But in the end we learn that it’s going – nowhere. There are no creatures, no strange goings-on, just the Doctor making things up in his head based on Clara looping back on his timeline at the end of the episode, going back to when he was a child. There truly is no there there. It was all of no consequence. And of course it was so implausible that it was more laughable than profound. What the heck did people see in this story?

(I was also surprised by people who wondered what was under the blankets in Rupert Pink’s room. It was, of course, another child playing a prank, exactly what the Doctor suggested.)

“Time Heist” was similarly implausible, based on the notion that the Doctor would have set up a complex break-in attempt, in which he had to break in ahead of time to set up the heist. Why not just take care of business when he set up the break-in? The story was too clever for its own good.

The season went downhill from here. “The Caretaker” was another trivial “deadly alien threat that happens to be hiding right where the Doctor’s companion lives” story. To have any hope of working, this needed to be the episode which normalized the relationships among the Doctor, Clara, and Danny, but instead it just introduces new tensions as Danny pushes her to stop travelling with him. This colors “Mummy on the Orient Express”, otherwise a fairly good – if overly-contrived – suspense yarn (where did the Foretold come from? Why is it haunting the train? Why does it work by such rigid standards? How frustratingly arbitrary). In-between we got “Kill the Moon”, which is truly one of the stupidest episodes of Doctor Who ever, in which Earth’s moon is an egg for an alien monster. I can’t even.

Alas, despite putting Clara in an entertaining situation where she gets to indisputably be the hero, “Flatline” has a nonsensical premise. The climax is one of the more dramatic of the season, but marred by some particularly lame dialogue (“I name you the Boneless”? Really?).

“In the Forest of the Night” – which, I must note, does not take place at night – is almost as bad as “Kill the Moon” in its ridiculous premise and magical resolution. It’s hard to say which episode is worse.

Here and there through the season we saw some minor characters die and appear in “Heaven”, meeting a woman named Missy (Michelle Gomez), and the 2-part season finale explained that this was in fact The Master in a new regeneration, leading up to her creating an army of Cybermen out of all the dead on Earth. This was arguably the weakest season-ending stories of the new series. Why does Missy bother collecting people who have died helping the Doctor? Why is she saving peoples’ “souls” in the Nethersphere? What edge did she gain by having the Doctor and Clara connect? Why are the Cybermen serving her? Why have the Cybermen spent millennia converting people mechanically if they can do so magically through nanotech? How long have they had a giant complex hidden under London? Among other ridiculous bits in the story. The story – such as it was – felt calculated to have a few funny moments, usually by letting Gomez chew the scenery, but overall it was a trifle. The ongoing drama of Danny’s death and afterlife would have had more bite if his character hadn’t felt so botched during the season. Honestly I felt for the guy, but I didn’t care about him, and I sure didn’t care about him on Clara’s behalf.

At one point Steven Moffat could create nuanced characters whom you could feel for even if they appeared for just an episode or two. Now even given a season to develop the supporting cast, Danny Pink feels like a cartoon character, his relationship with Clara not rising above the level of high school. I know Moffat can still do it, as we saw it in “The Day of the Doctor”, but for whatever reason – maybe the requirements of running the show rather than just writing for it – he rarely does. Last season had plenty of this simplistic melodrama, too. It’s bad, and it’s getting worse.

Anyway, this 2-parter was all sizzle and no steak. It squandered Michelle Gomez’s performance on a silly script and yet another over-the-top end-of-the-world scenario. The bits with the Doctor and Clara lying to each other at the end was just a final frustrating moment in a season full of them. Come on, you two, act like adults! We’ve seen you do it before! Their relationship felt contrived all season, pieces being moved around on a chessboard because the writer wanted them there, and never feeling remotely like the characters would really behave.

Finally, the Christmas special, “Last Christmas”, was better than most of the season, and one of the better Christmas specials, too. Stories that take place largely in dreams are hard to pull off, but this one did pretty well. Unfortunately I can’t shake the feeling that the Christmas theme is getting tired out and needs to be retired.

All-in-all, a massively disappointing season, and probably destined to be totally forgettable, too. Not a hit in it (as an acquaintance once said of the Led Zeppelin album Presence). Inexplicably, it had the highest ratings ever for the series, which makes me feel a little sad for all those people who were tuning in for the first time, because it’s capable of being so much better.

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