Supposedly we were going to get an all-new series with Matt Smith gone and Capaldi taking over the keys to the Type 40. Did we? I'm not sure - tonally the series was book-ended by episodes that were dark, figuratively and literally, and Capaldi was a triumph but along there way there were episodes that pastiched Doctor Who itself, giving the overriding impression of jaded familiarity.
The efforts of Gatiss and Roberts were predicable and rather depressing, while some of the episodes from newer authors were distinctly Moffatian, perhaps not surprising as the show-runner co-wrote several of them after ditching the planned episode arc late in the day. Fundamentally, Doctor Who is a very Steven Moffat series and it's hard to see that changing in the near future.
There are a few familiar traits here as Moffat increasingly descends into the televisual equivalent of LOLspeak - narrative short-hand strung together with funny bits. In this idiom the audience is a passive receptor of OMG, LOL, WTF? and ;-( moments - where bonkers revelations, juxtapositions and tonal shifts are routinely heralded simply because they are bonkers. Plot functions in these episodes merely as facilitator for high concept notions, with results that are only sometimes satisfying.
Despite all the narrative smart-arsery and bi-polar mood swings, I found myself frequently bored during Season 8. I couldn't find much to believe or invest in so I couldn't latch on to it. In the way that channel-hopping serves to further famish the soul, the step up in hyperactivity left me feeling empty. Very little of modern Doctor Who makes much sense, but before you can start worrying about that, there are a dozen new mysteries to ponder - it's crash-bang stuff that hopes the lingering emoting and laughs override critical faculties.
But Moffat is no fool. There are always questions that require answers; new scenarios that need to be addressed. What next for Missy? How will Clara's journey be concluded? What's up with Gallifrey? Why did the Doctor keep rubbing his arm? What's under the sheet? Will Danny Pink return from the dead like everyone else? Will Cyber-Brig get his own spin-off?
So, yes, there's much to answer - but the same question marks hang over the series and production team for me. Season 8 might have started with a deep breath; for the most part it engendered a heavy sigh.
It's usually at this point that I break up the highs and lows of the series into Caves and Twins - named after Androzani and Dilemma respectively - to signal the good and bad. In this instance I've added a third option...
Death in Heaven
I've had to invent a new genre for these two episodes as I don't feel able to critically assess them. They seem to belong to a meta-genre, so dizzyingly beyond anything else in the series. The last series of Sherlock, which seems to delight in throwing any rules of logic, causality, honesty and narrative in the bin - with sometimes good and frequently bad results - is the only thing I can really compare them to.
Neither story really made any sense, with things frequently only happening to further the plot - Moffat has made no secret of his desire to write simply to ensure people keep watching. In this way I kinda think he's ahead of the curve in that casual viewers will readily dip in and out of programmes on a whim, so any device - whether dishonest, illogical, mawkish, absurd or in dubious taste - is on the table. The fundamentally GIF-, Vine-, Tumblr- and Instagram-friendly nature of the show doesn't do any harm either.
Like Chekhov's Gun, if an aeroplane suddenly appears in Moffat's Doctor Who, you can bet it's going to crash and the Doctor will end up performing a mid-air TARDIS docking. Elements, characters and scenarios are introduced solely for the pay-off they can pack. Kill off beloved recurring character? Sure! Transgendered Timelord descends to Cyber-infested graveyard via Mary Poppins brolly? Why not?! Dead Brigadier reanimated as caring Cyberman saves daughter from decompressed plane by catching her out of the air? Sign me up!
Does it matter that it doesn't make sense? Does it matter that it's tonally incoherent? Does it matter that it's utterly nonsensical and has no internal logic? Does it matter that it's in dubious taste? I don't know.
Personally I don't think Doctor Who has to be like this, but it seems to be working. This is not to say that it couldn't also work by slowing down, breathing and allowing for things to develop more organically. Like Deep Breath did. As it is, stories such as Dark Water and Death In Heaven kind of defy critical analysis, because they defy all normal rules of storytelling.
I view this style of Doctor Who the way I do Magnus Greel feasting on the lifeforce of young unfortunates: the more you do, the more you have to do it and, sooner or later, it doesn't work anymore and there's nowhere else to go but to eat yourself.
The two-parter that finished off season eight was very dark in tone and investigated some new ground. For that I'm grateful, even though I'm not sure I particularly liked it. But for its watch-the-birdie style of dishonest storytelling, emotional blackmail and mish-mash of emotions, tones and elements, it's very much cut from the same cloth as every other end-of-season clusterfuck stretching back to 2005
Several stories impressed me first time around; others grew one me. But these are the episodes that I enjoyed from Series 8 of Doctor Who.
I loved Deep Breath. It made room for characters to breathe and for scenes to play out in their own time. It has some of the best lines and acting in the series and made for an awesome introduction to Capaldi's Doctor, while fleshing out Clara. I thought the phonecall from Matt Smith badly misjudged but overall Deep Breath was funny, scary, surreal and touching.
I hated Into The Dalek on first viewing but, somehow, it grew on me. Ben Wheatley's direction is one thing, Capaldi (natch) another and some beautiful visuals worked a treat. Overall, though, I think the thing I liked best was the Dalek eyeballing The Doctor as it swivelled and then glided away from him, having delivered the most bitchy insult imaginable.
In isolation Listen was a fine piece of work, with only Clara being inserted once again into the fabric of the show that I found a little tiresome. But in amongst a legion of other Moffatian tropes it felt rather familiar.
I liked the creepy first half - and the pleasing circularity of Tony Osoba getting killed off once again in Doctor Who - but the rest of it was only redeemed by Capaldi's playing of the line: "The moon's an egg."
Mummy on the Orient Express
Hated the title; enjoyed a straightforward story that was well told.
Flatline was one of the few times the series felt like it embraced a different tone and direction. It was boldly frightening and rather cruel and thought-provoking - with enough charm and humour to prevent it from simply being grim. And the Boneless - a superb moniker - were properly scary.
The shit ones.
Tired, bored, patronising shit.
The title kinda says it all, really. It wasn't terrible but Time Heist simply didn't hold my attention - I turned it off before the end.
Again, in isolation, The Caretaker would have been a decent filler episode. As it was it was another retread of Gareth Roberts' patented 'Doctor in your flat' set-up, the third in five years by my reckoning.
A stupendous misfire on nearly every level, made even more disappointing because I was looking forward to this most.
I thoroughly expect more of the same, the grinding necessity of a production schedule I expect is gruelling and sapping of creative juices leading to another Moffat-y season next time around.
Next year will be as far from the show's return with Eccleston as The Three Doctors was from An Unearthly Child - or The Dalek Invasion of Earth to Spearhead From Space, if you compare the likely debut of the next series to The Eleventh Hour.
The last comparison is attractive - stranding the Doctor on Earth would be an intriguing set-up for Season 9...
I'm sure I'm not alone when recalling Hinchcliffe moments in bygone Doctor Who. My very earliest memories include the Melkur, a staircase in what was probably The King's Demons, bits of The Five Doctors, the end of Adric and the Murker. Yes, the pantomime horse thing from Warrior of the Deep, which someone really should have stopped much earlier. Same with Matthew Waterhouse really.
Perhaps my strongest memory from this era is being so Hinchcliffed that I ended up under a sofa. I started off lying on the floor in front of the fire and, as I grew more and more Hinchcliffed, shuffled backwards as the Doctor and Peri slumped under the red cloth and a hail of bullets. I was utterly Hinchliffed, and though I don't know if the shit has literally been Hinchliffed out of Doctor Who fans (as apparently happened to a gentleman viewing the original broadcast of Ghostwatch) I bet some piss has been Philipped out of a few youngsters over the years.
What am I doing? I'm using the word Hinchliffe to denote the act or the fact of being scared. This was clearly what Steven Moffat intended when instructing Kill The Moon writer Peter Harness to 'scare up' the first half of Kill The Moon. He did a pretty good job and the visceral horror of the lunar spiders jumping on people's faces felt like a real shift in the series' tone and boundaries.
Doctor Who has been intermittently scary since its return, generally in Steven Moffat's scripts (The Empty Child, Blink and Listen particularly) but also under Russell T Davies in Midnight and Neil Cross in Hide. Arguably some of the things that go unremarked on in RTD's episodes – or under his leadership – are far more hideous but they tend to be played for laughs or glossed over. The living Hell of a life as a paving slab is not mined for its inherent bleakness, for example, but a blowjob joke.
The horror genre is something the series has only dipped a toe into, however, favouring more accessible tropes under both showrunners. Much is made of RTD's everyday soap-and-chav-culture tropes and Moffat's fairytale ambiance, but it's been harder to figure out exactly what Series eight's touchstone is.
So the deliberate detour into much darker territory should be interesting and it is – finally Kill The Moon felt like it was delivering on Deep Breath's promise to give the series a mild reboot. But it's interesting for what's it is not rather than what it is. Hinchcliffing the shit out of the first half might mollify some fans who long for Yeti in tube stations or unspeakable horrors stalking stately homes, but it doesn't last long.
As soon as the spiders are dealt with – you spray them with Flash liquid – we move on the actual plot and Kill The Moon essentially turns into a new story. The moon is an egg and once hatched any number of things could happen. So we get a morality tale instead that pitches Clara, a gobby urchin and a non-nonsense bitch in a spacesuit agonising over whether to kill a big space dragon or risk endangering the Earth. For what it was, I thought it was OK though I was ambivalent about Clara's fit of pique (again, I was dismayed by Clara's threat of slapping the Doctor) and largely unimpressed by yet another 'it's not a monster after all but something beautiful, old and wibble' ending.
If Moffat instructed Harness to 'Hinchcliffe the shit out of it', what directive did he give him for the latter half? Because Kill The Moon felt into a familiar structure of diverting a narrative in an entirely new direction halfway through and finished with another Moffat trope – finishing with a happy ending that subverts the original set-up. Hide, Into The Dalek, Listen and Time Heist are four examples off the top of my head, but there are many more.
This suggests to me that Moffat simply doesn't think relatively simple, self-contained narratives can work in the modern day. However, another reading is that he doesn't have enough faith to let these stories stand on their own two feet – a recent article written for Doctor Who Magazine was interesting and instructive. Having been asked to give a speech to some film and TV students, Moffat found he couldn't fulfil the appointment and wrote something on what goes through his mind when he's writing Doctor Who instead. It basically amounted to: whatever I think will keep people watching.
This has become a hang-up for Moffat on Doctor Who and on Sherlock. Both series rely on frequent revelations, metatextual references, risque humour, big explosions and demanding, high-energy performances from their leading men. They're emotionally exhausting, aesthetically violent, narratively tricksy and authorially unreliable. Does it keep people watching? Viewing figures suggest as much, but we have no indication of whether people would stop watching just because episodes of Doctor Who didn't follow this template.
Kill The Moon flirted with a full-on horror story, but fell back into what I think of as bad habits, as if it didn't have the courage of its convictions and didn't really believe in them in the first place. Even writers other than Steven Moffat seem to be required to deliver episodes that are Moffatian – default positions that feel so very tired and familiar.
In 40 years' time will writers be instructed to 'Moffat the shit out of' a new story? I suspect not but it feels like they are at the moment. For all of Kill The Moon's visual style, Hinchcliffian motifs and moral parables it was wholeheartedly the work of a more recent producer.