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.
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.
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.
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.