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…