Doctor, No: Thoughts on Series 8

November 16, 2014

The final episode of Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor has just finished and I have already had two texts asking me what I thought of both Death In Heaven, and the series as a whole. As the resident Who fan of our social circle, I often get asked what, to quote Eric Morecambe, I’ve thought of the show so far. Despite a more-than-generous text allowance as part of my monthly mobile plan, I’ve decided I’d rather like to share my thoughts with other fans first.

I’m going to say it: I have been distinctly underwhelmed. There.

All the ingredients were there, but the season hasn’t hung together as a cohesive end product. Capaldi was great, his portrayal of the Doctor has been a real sea change for the modern run: alien, distant, unpredictable, waspish, still… They’ve rebooted Clara away from all the ’impossible girl’ nonsense of the previous season, and Jenna Coleman has been fantastic. The trouble is that they haven’t really gelled – beyond the notion that there’s meant to be a distance between the new Doctor and Clara, that spark that defines all the great Doctor/companion relationships was missing. This impacted on a lot of the emotional punch points scattered through the series: the confrontation at the end of Kill the Moon, the make-up trip in Mummy on the Orient Express and the frankly extraneous showdown at the start of Dark Water.

Clara and her Gran

Arguably, it’s the case that two great actors have been let down by some sub-par writing. After opening strongly with Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, the series lurched backwards into Matt Smith territory with the inconsequential Robot of Sherwood. Listen was yet another permutation of the ‘everyday menace’ story that Steven Moffat is so fond of (please stop before we get to a story about why some pre-packed sandwiches are a pain to open…). The Caretaker was just another sci-fi rom-com a la the writer’s own The Lodger, Time Heist was nothing-y at best and that’s before we even get started on Kill the Moon and In the Forest of the Night, where the real monsters were the parade of truly awful child actors we had to contend with.

The whole concept of an edgier Who seemed to have fallen by the wayside as the series has gone on. It started so well: dark, intelligent scripts, Ben Wheatley’s atmospheric direction and, of course, a Doctor unlike any other in the show’s recent history. That said, there have been highlights. Jamie Mathieson has been a real asset to the series – Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline were undeniably two of the standout scripts of the season. Mathieson really captured the remit of a morally ambivalent alien Doctor who was perfectly OK in Mummy with people dying as he gathered the evidence for his counter-measures. Compare that with the far more out-of-character refusal to help in Kill the Moon. The marauding 2D creatures in Flatline were an inspired idea, worthy of the first appearance of the Weeping Angels. Seeing them prowling the train tunnels of Bristol was more of a homage to the classic era than the slightly perfunctory appearance of the Cybermen at St Paul’s. More from him, please.

Mummy on the Orient Express 2

And so to the finale, and that big reveal: the jury’s still out here on the idea of the Master being a woman. After all, he’s been a husk, a small CGI snake and Eric Roberts in drag. The Master ‘died’ a long time ago, and several times since. The idea has been made more palatable by the casting of Michelle Gomez, who has taken her Sue White/Miss Pickwell and turned it up to eleven. The idea of turning the world’s dead into Cybermen was a wonderfully creepy one, given a touching pay-off by Kate Stewart being rescued by her mechanised late father.

The point of the emotional focus was, of course, meant to be Danny Pink’s death and conversion into a Cyberman. Sadly, though, the character hasn’t really worked, in no small part due to the weak portrayal by Samuel Anderson. The attempts to recreate the Amy/Rory dynamic have largely been one-sided, with Jenna Coleman shoring up the drama of losing a loved one, only to have them come back as a cybernetic killing machine.

To be fair, the whole character of Danny has been wrong. There have been times when the character has veered towards being possessive, which doesn’t sit right in a series like Who and certainly doesn’t create the kind of conundrum for Clara that the series wanted to create.

Embrace

All told, there were some good bits – some excellent bits, in fact – but overall it’s a case of ‘must try harder’. Peter Capaldi, and the idea of a darker Doctor, deserve better material if the idea is to really soar. A less manic Doctor requires stories that will be driven by his less predictable reactions to situations than by the dashing about and piling on incident and the plot elements. Whoever follows Jenna Coleman has tough act to follow: she’s brought the character of Clara back from a pointless story arc, followed by a bit of foot finding while they decided what to do with her. She’s created a self-assured, witty, confident character. It was a pity that things didn’t really work out.

If next year really is Steven Moffat’s swansong as showrunner, I’d love to see him go out on a high. Moffat has provided many of the highpoints of the modern Who, both as writer and, at least to begin with, at the controls. I would love to see the new direction he has evidently been very proud of creating really bed in, but to do that, he needs to have the courage of his convictions, not go for the ‘quick win’ runaround episodes. They’ve got a later timeslot – let’s use it to its full effect. They can do it on Sherlock, they can do it on the show they love so much.

Oh, and please, ditch the stage school kids.

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0 comments on “Doctor, No: Thoughts on Series 8

  1. bonobobananas Nov 16, 2014

    An almost perfect representation of my view on the series with this exception: “given a touching pay-off by Kate Stewart being rescued by her mechanised late father”. That was misjudged, crass, whatever word you choose.

    The overriding sense from me is one of disappointment. Could, should have been much better. If Moffat and his ego hadn’t cocked it up. New showrunner please.

    • Have to agree – Capaldi & Coleman were amazing, production values great, but the scripts were not in many cases (the moon episode was absolutely diabolical). Again and again in the modern DW the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Must do better!

  2. Considering the clamour for everyone to say everything’s rosy as soon as an episode airs I was beginning to think I was on my own with regards to the way the series panned out but much of what I felt was summed up in your critique above. For me the characterisation of Danny and his relationship with Clara didn’t really work and this weighed down the show where it should have soared; this of course seriously lessened the emotional aspect of the finale. Let’s hope the next series gives Capaldi a real platform to show us what his Doctor is really about.

  3. I disagree almost completely with the assessment of the episode. I was far from underwhelmed. I thought it was terrific. I will agree that Danny didn’t pan out quite as well as hoped. The promise shown in Listen never really paid off. I think there was a conscious effort to try and avoid the Amy/Rory dynamic, perhaps to the detriment of the character. He had good moments, but the majority of them came in his final two episodes, which was a mistake. We never really got a sense of why he disliked the Doctor so much (yes, we don’t know why the Doctor dislikes soldiers yet either, but he’s sticking around, Danny isn’t). But that aside, with the incredible tribute to the Brigadier (the actor had tribute paid to him back in Season 6; this was fully a tribute to Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and allowed the Brig to have a much better send-off than dying in an old folk’s home), a great meta gag involving Clara pretending to be the Doctor (we’ll never really see a female Doctor so enjoy the credits), and of course Missy, this was a great send-off and even after more than a week of thinking about it I still feel it’s the strongest finale (taken in concert with Dark Water) the revival has had to date, even surpassing Name of the Doctor and Doomsday.

    • DonnaM Nov 16, 2014

      I assume his dislike of the Doctor was a simple and reasonably understandable resentment of the affection his girlfriend has for another man; the Doctor could look beyond human resentments, but the human could not.

      It’s a pity: Danny dead was more interesting than Danny alive (personally I liked Orson better) and I have to put it down to the way he was written. His demise sparked an interesting debate about road safety in our family – thank you, Steven Moffat for making a point about being distracted on phones better than mother, father, aunt or grandmother ever could – but no tears were shed for a character none of us had especially cared about.

      That, I think, was the biggest failing of the series and the finale. It would have worked so much better if I was actually sad to see poor old CyberDan go!

      • Mikey C Nov 17, 2014

        Even at the end, CyberDan was still having solider Officer arguments with the Doctor, it was an interesting line for the series to follow, but as we know that the Doctor isn’t ultimately an Officer, it meant that a main character was continually pursuing to the end an incorrect hypothesis, which is hardly going to help us like him more…

    • Just to balance out the naysayers a bit I like this series too, I like every single episode to some extent, some are better than others obviously. I agree that Danny Pink has not been so well developed but I disagree that the actor Samuel Anderson did a poor job, if you watch him in “Doctor Who Extra” you can see that he has a much better personality than the character he plays and a great sense of humour. The problem with Danny is in the material.

      Any way, I’m buying the series 8 box set!

  4. DonnaM Nov 16, 2014

    Sorry Nick, you lost me at your critique of the Doctor companion relationship. From my perspective they’re about as far from “not really gelled” as it’s possible to get.

    We’re mercifully rid of the overgrown man-child dribbling over a pretty woman in a short skirt; we’re free of the one-line innuendo and the awkward attempts at sassy and arch. We have instead two strong characters who clash, but fundamentally get along. For me, almost the perfect Doctor/companion blend.

    What failed for me was the companion’ s romantic sideline, in no small measure because Coleman and Anderson never had the innate crackle and pop that I felt between Coleman and Capaldi. If they could have channelled that level of chemistry into a romantic plot, I might have been persuaded to believe in it instead of wondering what it was she could see in him…

    • Mikey C Nov 17, 2014

      Agreed the Doctor and Clara have incredible chemistry, you can really feel the deep bond between them, but it’s not touchy-feely love, no it’s the bond and trust in which time after time they can be blunt with each other, can tell each other to do as they are told and accept it. We have a Doctor who needs Clara, and a Companion who is desperately torn between her earth life and Doctor life, and finds that Doctor life keeps winning.
      I also agree about the complete lack of chemistry between Clara and Danny, there was something slightly weird about a character who is all tongue-tied lovable dork, but suddenly flips into Mr angry. It was if they wanted a confident soldier type to stand up to the Doctor, but also wanted him to be more appealing to women by making him all vulnerable and dorkish as well…

      Other than that, I thought it was a very decent series. Some serious episodes, but also some lighter episodes as Doctor Who has always been a mixture of styles.

      • DonnaM Nov 17, 2014

        There lies a problem – if they think vulnerable and dorkish is appealing to women… Well, they don’t know women very well! Some might want to mother that kind of bloke but there are a lot of us who would rather smother the pathetic little bleater instead 🙂

        • Mikey C Nov 17, 2014

          Maybe they thought that (looks aside) a tough soldier wouldn’t be Clara’s type, so wanted to show a vulnerable side of his personality? Either way, I’m not surprised she kept running off with the Doctor behind his back 🙂

          • Simon Magellan Nov 17, 2014

            I assumed there was going to be a running theme that he had PTSD but this wasn’t really developed. The fact that he killed a child, this was supposed to give him the reason for his angst and dislike of officers. It just didn’t work (not that he helped that the kid doesn’t speak or demonstrate any personality whatsoever!).

  5. I would rather be one of the many actors, writers, directors or crew who worked so very hard to bring us this last twelve weeks of highs and lows than some very clever person pulling it all to bits
    Oddly I read only today that very observant critics a bit like our reviewer here, believed that Doctor Who was rubbish and a disaster, when Horror at Fang Rock,Robots of Death and Tallons had just gone out
    Clearly then you all know what your talking about!
    I just hate the way so called fans are so quick to find fault. Sorry don’t know why I get cross. Most of the feedback for this series has been surprisingly positive but you can’t please everyone.

    • Henry Vee Nov 17, 2014

      The feedback on this series in the media and by fans has been almost totally positive but fair dibs if a few people people didn’t like it. Remember there are some people who think series 2 of new Who is ok. Pudding brains!

      Seriously, series 8 was simply brilliant and I can’t agree with the author about Peter and Jenna. Their rapport was amazing and for me the best doctor/companion pairing ever. Hope Jenna stays on board beyond Christmas but as Peter is such a great actor, any companion will be well supported by him.

      Also read this morning that in addition to this series being the most watched in new Who, that ratings in the US are the highest they have ever had, so not just UK who thinks Peter is wonderful and that this series has been fantastic.

  6. Paul Cheesman Nov 17, 2014

    “Some fifty years ago I knew a man who solved the insoluble by the strangest means. He sees the threads that join the universe together and mends them when they break**.”

    Sadly I did not seem him this year.

    [** Zastor in ‘Meglos’]

  7. Ranger Nov 17, 2014

    Sorry Nick, disagree with you in almost every way.

    One thing I totally disagree with is your description of the Doctor as morally ambivalent. I think the Doctor more than showed that he is very moral, that he had to do things that were repugnant to most people ( a la Mummy) does not make him morally ambivalent, it makes him a person who knows that sometimes to retain your morals there are things that you have to do that are not cosy and comfortable. After all he did not kill anyone in Mummy, he tried to save people the only way possible by gaining knowledge – (possible) lack of empathy is not lack of morals.

  8. Margarethe Nov 17, 2014

    The fact that there are so very few articles with any criticism of series 8 is evidence enough that it has been highly successful and well regarded. Nevertheless it is good to see some dissenting, although minority, views. Two things which everyone seems to agree upon is the magnificent performance of Peter Capaldi in his debut series and that Danny and Clara’s romance lacked zing.

    I think that Capaldi’s and Moffat’s approach in this darker doctor has been completely successful. Rather than come to us begging to be liked inthe way that Tennant and Smith’s doctors were all charm and no substance, Capaldi’s doctor asks us to come to him on his terms. He is not an immediately lovable puppy dog, but nevertheless compels us to try to understand him as the series unfolds. During the series Capaldi has remained consistent in his character and uncompromising- his doctor doesn’t seek to be hailed as a hero but is a good man underneath who goes about his life and makes thoughtful decisions and choices without the need to boast and preen the way doctor 10 idid. Capaldi’s astonishingly good performance sells this approach and even with much of his screen time shared with Clara, it is always the doctor who commands the situation. Capaldi is equally adept at comedy and his jibes at Clara and her retorts are not only funny but demonstrate the great chemistry they have. I am at a loss that anyone could not see the close bond Clara and the doctor have. Compare this to Clara and 11 where we were expected to believe Clara would die for the doctor, yet they had nothing more betwen them than witty banter.

    With series 8 as the best of the new era and Capaldi comfortably near the best ever doctor list, things are looking up for series 9. I do agree that there is great potential to take the show darker again, but I think the current balance is better. Serious and intelligent stories but withthe odd bit of silliness to keep it light when needed. Capaldi is obviously a favourite with kids as well as he scares them a bit, but they trust him and know he’s the doctor. Kids loved Smith’s doctor too but with Capaldi it is affection mixed with respect. They probably wanted to be Doctor 11but would feel safest travelling with doctor 12.

    Capaldi is definitely Doctor Yes Please, I want more for me.

    • bonobobananas Nov 17, 2014

      Whilst I agree with a lot of your comment I must take issue with your comment “Rather than come to us begging to be liked in the way that Tennant and Smith’s doctors were all charm and no substance, Capaldi’s doctor asks us to come to him on his terms.”

      That first episode does precisely that; begs for the new Doctor to be liked. Even Matt Smith had to be recruited to say ‘It’s ok, it’s me really”. I much preferred the ‘I’m the Doctor, basically, run’ from Matt Smith. That was saying ‘I know I look about 12 but sod you, I AM the Doctor’.

      I’d agree with kids identifying with Capaldi with an added sense of respect. It’s just a shame they keep on having kids in episodes. When I was young I didn’t want children running around in Who and neither do children these days. It’s a program suitable for children, not FOR children. As has been said on here ad infinitum, they take away any sense of menace because you know they’ll be ok.

      I’m certainly looking forward to Series 9 even if I may give the Christmas episode a miss. This series had three classics IMO, something that poor old Matt had very little of: My favourite episode of his was ironically his first with only the Doctor’s Wife to come close.

      • Margarethe Nov 17, 2014

        Never took to Smith’s or Tennant’s doctors are they just didn’t seem to have the authority and control that I expect the doctor to have. That’s why I think Capaldi has succeeded in the role immediately while it took both Smith and Tennant a long time to settle. Tennant in particular spent too much of his tenure wanting to be liked and seeking validation. He’s the doctor, he doesn’t need to be everyone’s pal! Capaldi is basically saying that this is what the doctor is, accept it or go away and I don’t really care one way or the other. That is what the doctor should be.

        I thought The Eleventh Hour was much better than Deep Breath, not because of the performance of the new doctor, but just as a good piece of television. The Eleventh Hour just grabbed you by the collar and took you on a breathless adventure. Deep Breath was too flabby and would have benefited from some editing. Capaldi was riveting from his first moments though and tested our belief that he would save the day – I really liked this note of uncertainty he has brought to the part.

        I think that Capaldi will end up being a real favourite with kids because he has that slightly scary thing but they know he is still the doctor. Doesn’t hurt that Capaldi appears to be a complete darling and spends a lot of his time with his young fans. Tennant and Smith are just too bland and similar in their doctors and to some extent they are now reduced to catchphrases and bits of costume in most people’s minds. It’s hard to really describe what their doctor was about, rather than what he looked like. Peter is giving us a much deeper and richer characterisation which doesn’t rely on those external things.

        I really think Capaldi will be like Tom Baker and come to define Doctor Who for this generation. I also like the genuine respect shown and collaborative nature of the relationship between Moffat and Capaldi. I feel that they are equals whereas Smith and Tennant didn’t seem as interested or maybe were not welcomed to have this kind of partnership. This can only be good for a show which is heading in a really great and strong new direction with a fantastic and confident team at the helm.

  9. Tommy Thomson Nov 17, 2014

    Over the piece, I enjoyed it. There were lovely moments, and I think that Capaldi commands the screen better than any modern Doctor. My favourite pastime is to imagine a past episode and cast Capaldi in it. In my mind, most are elevated. Of course, a few are forever to be treasured in the perfection of the original cast; Silence in the Library was perfectly pitched for DT, Parting of the Ways likewise for CE. But I imagine PC being magnificent in Dalek or The Waters of Mars. To me, we have still to see the best of Moffat’s planned arc for the present Doctor.
    New companion; bespectacled and bow-tie wearing boffin. There, I’ve said it…. God know’s how, but since he’s the show runner, I’m certain he’ll find a way.

    • David Adler Nov 18, 2014

      Hey – I do exactly the same thing. Capaldi is so good that I often think about how he could have improved a lot of episodes which while well written enough but simply failed to deliver due to the performance of the particular doctor. The two you picked are two of the ones I thought of too! Glad I am not the only one who does this. Both Dalek and Waters of Mars were well written but CE and DT just didn’t *quite* deliver the goods in terms of performances, but PC in the role in either – I would be very happy to see that! He would knock it completely out of the park. I think he would be awesome in Human Nature as well, bringing a real contrast in being human and falling for the nurse given how he plays 12. DT just couldn’t do that in that episode which I otherwise liked but kept thinking it needed a better actor. I also have PC in my mind in The Next Doctor, Nightmare in Silver, Tooth and Claw, Daleks in Manhattan, 42, and the Last of the Time Lords trilogy. These are all pretty awful episodes but with PC in them, the entire dynamic would change and I can see him delivering the lines in ways that might make these episodes work. It’s a fun game to play!

      With a lot of the earlier series, the writing is too tailored for the actor and can’t see even an actor as brilliant as PC being able to save a lot of series 2 and 3 because bad writing is bad writing.

      Good to see Capaldi is staying on for series 9 and hopefully 10. The massive improvement in the show in pretty well every aspect has really made me fall in love with it again the way I did in series 5. Nearly everyone I speak to about Who says the same thing – absolutely love Capaldi’s doctor and series 8 as a whole.

  10. Howard Railton Nov 18, 2014

    Thank you to Nick for an incisive, well thought out review of the problems of this series. I truly believe that the only way to really get better series of Who is to be a little critical when occasion demands or they’ll simply go on making poor shows that fail to hit the mark or simply should never have been commissioned, ie Forest of the Night etc. I only disagree with Nick in that I think that the series’ final 2 parter should come in for a lot more criticism that Nick gives it. It just feels wrong to me on every level, from the grab any old scene that was great in an old B&W Troughton cyber-story and plonk it arbitrarily into Dark Water, to grabbing the Master and, as Moffat has said himself, just doing a ‘gimmick’ by making the character change gender for no apparent reason at all. If Moffat can’t write for the character without completely ruining it, then it would have been better left for another writer to work with. The problem seems to be that writers like Moffat just cannot cope with the idea of the Master as envisioned by Dicks/Holmes/Letts, so they think: ‘I’ll make him insane and then there doesn’t have to be any logic to his/(now her) actions’. Hence Moffat thinking he can get away with any old rubbish about the after life even though it has no meaning and makes no sense in plot terms at all. Or handing the Doctor a Cyber army because it’s the last few minutes and we’ve no idea what to do next. The Master’s mad idea is the easy cop-out and demonstrates extremely lazy writing, the kind of lazy writing that didn’t develop the Danny Pink character, so the actors had so little to work with that I wasn’t surprise the actor looked a bit non-plussed to be doing that role. His character being completely devoid of any imagination or desire to go somewhere in the TARDIS just didn’t ring true at all. The sad thing is that an actor of the quality of Peter Capaldi deserves so much better. My suggestion is to sack Moffat and replace him with someone that gives a s**t.

    • I agree. The Master was a terrible character, for the most part, through out the series history.

      Roger Delgado was a fun adversary, but his plots were always a bit silly and far too easy undermined by the Doctor.

      I liked Anthony Ainley in the McCoy stories, but his plot lines have still almost always been panto. He stole a radio telescope to announce he was the ruler of the universe in Logopolis. Really?

      In the new show, he turned everyone into a copy of himself; he killed a third of the human race (or whatever) so he could abuse his wife, make a black family into servant and turn Barty Crouch Jr into Doctor Dobby, and now destroyed a billion corpses or more to make faces at the Doctor. Sure. this idea had a little more of a point, but the Doctor isn’t the Master or Davros. This was shown far better in the 50th when the Doctor managed to not kill all the Gallifreyans after all. How many times do we need reminding of this point?

  11. The 2.5th Doctor Nov 18, 2014

    Maybe Series 8 was like Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker’s first season.

  12. zontar Nov 21, 2014

    I had a conversation with a serious Whovian & we agreed on season 8
    We both enjoyed it and loved Capaldi as the Doctor, but the highs weren’t as high as some other seasons-and with the exception of a couple of episodes, the lows weren’t as low–so this season snuck through the middle–with some very enjoyable highlights, and enough there to keep us coming back and waiting eagerly for the Christmas special & season 9.

    I’ve re-watching the renewed series from Rose onward–some episodes I had only seen once.
    Some I enjoyed more on re-watching, some less, some about the same–but every season was uneven in ways.
    For example I found the first part of season 3 to be boring, and not that good–it was like a rehash of Rose episodes-without Rose, but then the last part of the season was amazing with Human Nature/Family of Blood, Blink and Utopia, The Sound of the Drums & Last of the Time Lords.
    Season 3 had higher highs & lower lows than Season 8 for me, but even with the excellent episodes did it measure up to other seasons?

    Re-watching the older episodes I find myself imaging Capaldi in them and how they would have been different.
    Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

    But I like that the characters change around and the show can go in different directions due to that.
    I try to enjoy each Doctor & each companion for what they bring although comparisons are inevitable.

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