Sunday, 9 January 2022

Doctor Who: Series 8 (Season 34)

The newly-regenerated Twelfth Doctor is cantankerous and irritable, and a long way from the boisterous young man Clara Oswald joined on his adventures through time and space. But the Doctor is still the Doctor, still a champion for justice and the downtrodden. As their adventures resume, Clara finds herself torn between her time in the TARDIS and a new relationship. Meanwhile, an old enemy's of the Doctor has taken pains to throw the two of them together and is now planning her triumphant return.

The eighth series of the relaunched Doctor Who sees the arrival of Peter Capaldi as the twelfth (mainline, numbered) incarnation of the Time Lord. Capaldi was a huge fan of Doctor Who as a youngster, even visiting the set and meeting Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, executive producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, and has cited his correspondence with Letts over several years as a key reason he decided to become an actor, writer and director. Capaldi had twice appeared before in the franchise, as Caecilius in The Fires of Pompeii and Frobisher in Torchwood's third season, Children of Earth. He was the oldest actor to play the role on a regular basis since William Hartnell's First Doctor in 1963.

The arrival of the new Doctor coincided with a shift in filming formats, with the show adopting much greater use of handheld cameras to make the viewer feel more part of events, and the use of higher-profile film directors such as Ben Wheatley and Rachel Talalay. However, there were also some signs of creaking budget problems: a dependence on standing or redressed sets, small or enclosed settings and using already-extant locations. The episode count was also dropped by one due to budget and time constraints.

There was also a marked uptick in the maturity and seriousness of the stories (up to a point), with the primary season-spanning arc being about the relationship between Clara and the Doctor. In the first episode of the season, the Doctor "resets" their relationship to one of friends and allies, noting his predecessor incarnation had liked to think of himself as Clara's boyfriend, which he does not. However, it becomes clear that Clara has become "addicted" to travelling with the Doctor and the danger she encounters. This is repeatedly referenced through the season as she tries to balance her adventures with the Doctor with her day job as a teacher at Coal Hill School (a storied school from several appearances in the classic Doctor Who series) and a burgeoning romantic relationship with fellow teacher Danny Pink. Clara's repeated claims to be able to handle the stress and balancing three wildly different parts of her life are shown to be incorrect, and she very easily slips into lying and deceiving Danny even after he has learned the truth about her. In the face of this, the more obvious season-spanning arc, about a mysterious woman named Missy greeting people who've died during the Doctor's adventures in an afterlife, is very low-key.

Things kick off with Deep Breath, in which the Doctor suffers from post-regeneration confusion in 19th Century London. Clara and the Paternoster Gang - in surprisingly their last appearance on screen to date (likely a correction to them almost being overused in the previous season) - try to help the Doctor recover whilst simultaneously dealing with a mystery involving spontaneous human combustion and a man with only half a face. This is an odd episode - the longest episode of the series since its return bar only 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor (and then only by a minute) - with the actual alien plot being very slight and most of the episode being given over to the new Doctor trying to get a handle on himself. It feels like Steven Moffat wanted this new incarnation to be utterly unlike the hyper-charismatic, fast-talking and young two that preceded it, but was also slightly paranoid about not making the new Doctor unlikeable (a mistake that had previously damaged the popularity of the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, way back in 1984). It's an episode that's a bit too long and too heavily focused on characterisation at the expense of the SF action/drama element of the series, but it does have a lot of great stuff with the Paternoster Gang, including some major laughs from Strax's antics. The CGI dinosaur is also impressive. Capaldi is, of course, outstanding.

Into the Dalek sets up the Clara-Danny romance, but it's main focus is on a Fantastic Voyage-style story as the Doctor and Clara are miniaturised with a bunch of guest actors (including Fresh Meat's Zawe Ashton and Game of Thrones' Ben Crompton) to go inside a Dalek that bizarrely seems interested in defecting, but is injured and needs to be repaired so it can help defeat others of its kind. It's an oddball story, but given the difficulties in finding new ways of telling interesting stories about Daleks, it works out reasonably well.

Robot of Sherwood is a very silly episode, and may as well have been dubbed Monty Who and the Holy Grail, but it's good fun. Mark Gatiss turns in a witty script with some good laughs and guest stars Tom Riley and Ben Miller are clearly having a whale of a time. Robot knights and exploding archery targets round off a disposable story, and it feels like the idea of Robin facing losing his identity as a real person in favour of becoming a story could have been explored in a more interesting way.

Listen is the season highlight and one of the best stories since the show's return in 2005. The story works on two levels, as Clara goes on a date with Danny which turns awkward due to her not knowing how to handle the revelation that he used to be a soldier, something she knows the Doctor would disapprove of. Clara leaves the date several times, each time to help the Doctor with a somewhat bizarre obsession he's developed about the possibility of the existence of an alien race with the perfect ability to hide. Each revelation from this mystery allows Clara to return to the date (thanks to time travel) with a renewed desire to make it go right. Ultimately Clara discovers what caused the Doctor's obsession, putting the Doctor in the difficult position of having to give Clara far more faith and trust than he usually does with his companions. Impeccably-directed by Douglas Mackinnon from one of Moffat's best scripts, it's a showcase for Capaldi and Coleman, with a strong supporting turn by Samuel Anderson as both Danny Pink and his apparent, distant descendant Orson Pink (whose existence after the events of this season is a whole other argument).

Time Heist is a fun romp, with the Doctor having to break into an apparently impervious, futuristic vault without the use of his TARDIS. He collects together a band of allies and has to work out how to pull off an impossible heist, whilst facing formidable foes in the bank manager (an excellent Keeley Hawes) and an alien that can sense criminal intent. It's a fun episode which plays around the heist concept, but it feels like it needs to rush through some things to fit into its time slot. Really, they should have dropped some time from Deep Breath and giving it to Time Heist to allow the ideas to be better explored. Still, it's a fun, if fairly standard, run-around corridors adventure.

The Caretaker is something of a thematic sequel to the earlier stories The Lodger and Closing Time, with the Doctor have to blend in on modern-day Earth among "normal" people with no knowledge of aliens or time travel. It also directly addresses the problems Clara is experiencing in trying to balance the three different parts of her life together and her growing sense of recklessness. It makes what could have been a more disposable episode into a more consequential and meaningful piece, which works well. Although personally I would have preferred a nod to the fact that the Doctor's granddaughter once attended the school (1963's An Unearthly Child), and two factions of Daleks fought a small-scale but brutal civil war around its grounds (1988's Remembrance of the Daleks), since otherwise if feels making the school Coal Hill is completely pointless.

Kill the Moon is effectively two episodes in one. The first half is a taut and solidly claustrophobic "base under siege" story as the Doctor, Clara and companion-for-an-afternoon Courtney Woods (one of Clara's students who saw the interior of the TARDIS and got a free adventure in return for her help in the prior episode) visit the Moon to investigate the fate of a missing previous expedition. A bunch of standard and enjoyable shenanigans involving moon-spiders abruptly turns into outright incredulity as it is revealed that the Moon is an egg which hatches a giant space dragon which...does absolutely nothing. And leaves behind a second giant egg as a replacement moon. Or something. It's rare to see a Doctor Who story launch in such a promising way only to fall flat on its face in pointlessness. The episode's highlight is Clara's anger at the Doctor passing responsibility for resolving the crisis to her and refusing to help with his superior knowledge, but even this feels contrived.

Mummy on the Orient Express has a daft premise - there's a space recreation of the Orient Express but an alien mummy has gotten loose and is killing people - but superb execution. The mummy only appears to the person who is about to die, who has sixty-six seconds before they perish. The Doctor therefore has to defeat an enemy he can't see (unless it's about to kill him) and with only limited information from the understandably-panicking afflicted before they are wiped out. This central tension is ramped up admirably over the episode, supported by outstanding performances from David Bamber and Christopher Villiers (and a rather indifferent one from comedian Frank Skinner).

Flatline has a great premise, the idea of two-dimensional aliens who cannot perceive the third dimension coming into contact with Earth and attempting to communicate, resulting in deaths. The Doctor's attempts to intervene result in the TARDIS's external shell being reduced to a fraction of its normal size, forcing him to act as the "man in the van" for Clara, who effectively takes on the role of the Doctor for this adventure. She even recruits a young graffiti artist, Rigsy, as her companion for the duration of the crisis. There's a number of interesting ideas at work here, and the Doctor being trapped inside a shrinking TARDIS is played for both laughs and jeopardy. The 2D aliens are convincingly horrible, killing people by flattening them into walls or floors, and Clara's resourcefulness is impressive, especially the Doctor reluctantly surrenders some of his secrets such as how he judges a leader emerging in a small group under threat and the tricks he uses to take control of the group. Although the tactics save the day, it adds to Clara's growing feeling of power and authority, something arguably that a companion should not have.

In the Forest of the Night draws on the iconography of the Doctor Who New Adventures novel Blood Harvest, in which the Doctor visited contemporary Earth to find it an overgrown jungle, ruled by dinosaur-riding Silurians. The dinosaur-riding Silurians are unfortunately missing, but the visuals of London completely overgrown by a forest that appeared overnight are equally powerful. The mystery of the forest and how it hinges on a group of kids in Danny and Clara's care is also compelling to start with, helped by the kids being pretty good actors. The episode does lose steam in its second half, with the fact they are shooting the episode in a studio or a location with London iconography dropped into it being pretty obvious. The simple absence of large numbers of people - the London forest should have hundreds of thousands of confused people in it - doesn't make much sense. The fact there isn't a huge sense of jeopardy isn't a problem as such, but the episode kind of fizzles out rather than climaxing. Some great ideas, but poor follow-through.

The season ends in Dark Water and Death in Heaven, a standard epic Steve Moffat two-parter, which is to say that the first part is excellent, being chilling and well-paced with a terrific cliffhanger, and the second half has the threat too easily dismissed, whilst an interesting recurring character is summarily dealt with by being killed off in the most awkward way possible, leaving the audience scratching their head. There is some great stuff though, like the return of UNIT and the revelation that the excellent Michelle Gomez is playing a new (and female) incarnation of the Master, with the Doctor having his very own big plane being quite amusing. The emotional climax, in which Clara and the Doctor apparently "break up" but in the most bittersweet way possible (with both lying to protect the other), is fairly well-handled.

The eighth series of Doctor Who (****) since its resurrection is a mixed bag, with some weaker moments but also, in Listen, one of the best stories of the entire series. The idea of exploring a toxic and codependent Doctor-companion relationship is fascinating and somewhat well-handled (with Capaldi and Coleman doing great work), but it does feel like it takes precedence over the adventure-of-the-week element of the story, which is more variable this season. But, Kill the Moon possibly excepted, there isn't a really awful episode in the bunch. One oddity is that it does feel that known Doctor Who fan Dan Harmon binged this series before working on Rick and Morty's fourth season: Time Heist seems to have inspired Once Crew Over the Crewcoo's Morty, whilst Mummy on the Orient Express has similarities with Never Ricking Morty. Not enough to be derivative, but enough to feel like more than a coincidence.

The season is available on the BBC iPlayer in the UK and HBO Max in the USA.
  • 801: Deep Breath ****
  • 802: Into the Dalek ****
  • 803: Robot of Sherwood  ***½
  • 804: Listen *****
  • 805: Time Heist ***½
  • 806: The Caretaker ****
  • 807: Kill the Moon **½
  • 808: Mummy on the Orient Express ****
  • 809: Flatline ****½
  • 810: In the Forest of the Night ***
  • 811: Dark Water ****½
  • 812: Death in Heaven ***½

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