It saddens me more than you can imagine to write that I am so glad that Series 8 of Doctor Who is finally over. This has been one painful trip. To think that just three months ago, I was giddily excited about the new season and meeting the new Doctor, though a bit apprehensive of another season of Clara, a companion I’ve never really liked. Well, sadly, though I love Mr. Capaldi’s Doctor, there’s not much of this season that’s worth anything. I’ve been avoiding writing about the season as much as possible, because I had wanted to not complain, but now that it’s done, here’s how I’ve felt about it.
Before the season started, the press releases were telling us that the show was being taken in a new direction. The new Doctor would be dark, they said, and you wouldn’t always be sure if he was going to keep the companion safe. And they told us there were consequences if you choose to run with the Doctor, that it’s not just travel and fun. I was a little apprehensive about this, because, you know, why should they have to tell you what to expect? Part of the essence of good storytelling is having the audience think about the story you’re telling and figure these things out for themselves. I was particularly concerned about their emphasis on the “consequences for the companion”, since we had already learned from Rose, Martha, and Donna and their families that being with the Doctor causes everyone to get hurt. As Martha put it, “He’s like fire. Stand too close and you get burned.” Why should they think it’s such a great new novel idea when the first five years of the show was all about that?
However, I went into the season premiere, “Deep Breath”, with anxious anticipation, and, well, it was as bad as I’d dreaded. I’ve already written a review of it, and going back and reading it, I still pretty much agree with how I felt back then. It horrifies me that I didn’t remember that I had gone to the theater to see it – I have such bad memories of that episode that I don’t even remember going out for it. To summarize, though, I found that “Deep Breath” was way too preoccupied with Clara being unable to accept the new Doctor, that it was way too talky (the Doctor basically talked the robot to death), and its attempts to draw clever parallels were obvious and heavy-handed. Unfortunately, that was the beginning of the trend for the entire season.
Apparently, the “consequences for the companion” was a code-word for “making Doctor Who into The Clara Show“. Much of the season concerned itself with Clara, either her relationship with the Doctor or her relationship with Danny Pink, to the exclusion of the Doctor from the show. Few of the episodes weren’t mostly about her, and some even marginalized the Doctor without being an actual Doctor-lite episode (“Kill the Moon”, “Flatline”, “In the Forest of the Night”, and to a large extent, “Dark Water” / “Death in Heaven”). Clara herself was neurotic and manipulative, spending most of the season lying to both the Doctor and Danny to keep them well-heeled, while simultaneously complaining to them if/when they lied. Her mood swings were impressive, going from hating the Doctor in one episode to “everything’s fine” the next (which was a lie, of course, along with blaming it all on Danny). And her relationship with Danny was simply dysfunctional, starting as a sexual predator (forcing him to go on a date with her, then returning multiple times after that date had gone south twice, even showing up at his apartment uninvited and kissing him; can you imagine if their genders were reversed, how offensive she would be?), then lying to him repeatedly, even when monsters are attacking and he’s trying to figure out what’s going on simply to survive (yes, tell him you’re just rehearsing the school play; very clever).
Danny himself was poorly characterized. He was supposed to be a PTSD soldier, but apparently all that means is completely emotionless and spineless except when he can insult the Doctor. Granted, the Doctor probably started it, but still, Danny had no personality except in those moments. In general, though, the main problem here is that the season was completely about Clara and her relationships, and she was not interesting at best, offensive at worst. There were good episodes this season that were damaged by her simply being there. I remember being completely enthralled by “Mummy on the Orient Express” until the scene cut to Clara, and she ruined the atmosphere with her complaint about having to lie to the woman to get her to go to the lab. (And she didn’t have to lie; there were other ways of persuading the woman to go to the lab without lying. But she chooses to lie, and then yells at the Doctor later that he “made” her lie.) And then the end of that episode, where suddenly everything’s fine and she only told the Doctor she hated him because Danny wanted her to – that was unbelievable. I could go on, but I won’t.
There were some good episodes, if you squinted Clara out of the camera frame; “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline” are the two standouts, as long as you chop off the final scene in both, where Clara does her attention-getting schtick. Both of these had interesting adversaries, lots of problem-solving, and well-designed horror scenes. And I think that’s the problem. Most of the rest of the episodes were designed to have the characters talk about philosophical themes: “Deep Breath”, “Into the Dalek” to some extent, “Listen”, “The Caretaker”, “Kill the Moon”, “In the Forest of the Night”, and “Dark Water” / “Death in Heaven” all fit this bill. “Death in Heaven” was particularly bad for this: with its lead-in with Cybermen invading London, it spent most of its 60 minutes (15 more than usual) with the Cybermen simply standing around while the main characters talked. It’s okay to transform what’s traditionally an action-packed adventure show into a philosophical drama, if you do it well, but it rarely was. Perhaps they tried too hard to keep the action-adventure format. Or maybe they just don’t know how to do philosophical drama. Either way, these episodes devolved into heavy-handed sermons, usually with contrived plots to set up the discussion and pat, unsatisfying conclusions. Tack on melodramatic scenes meant to tug at heartstrings (Really, her sister was in a bush? What?), and all you have is a mess.
And I think that’s the problem. I can’t say for certain, but it really does seem to me that the writers were told to elicit specific emotional responses or say specific lines or handle certain themes, and the plots were shoehorned in around them. The thing is, the audience is not stupid. We can tell when something is contrived, when you’re trying to manipulate us, and this season reeked of manipulation.
Now, you might note that I haven’t discussed the Capaldi Doctor himself yet. The Doctor was wonderful, as was his actor. He was very different than his predecessor, with a very alien outlook and an inability to really understand how humans think, resulting in his being abrasive and insulting a lot of the time. While he’s older and a lot less action-oriented than the Smith Doctor, he still had a sharp wit and brilliant logic. A lot of people didn’t like his arrogance and tendency to insult people, either directly or accidentally, but I think that people who feel the Doctor shouldn’t be like that are forgetting Tom Baker’s and Colin Baker’s Doctors, and to a lesser extent, Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. Unfortunately, Capaldi has had to endure less-than-stellar episodes, and I’m hoping that a new companion will make things better for him (I’m not anticipating an improvement in the writing).
I am very disappointed in two things, though. First, the promise of the “dark” Doctor. Now, maybe this might be due to my definition of “dark.” To me, a dark Doctor is one who teeters on the edge of corruption, who is close to giving in to his dark side. McCoy’s Doctor was dark, because he was manipulative and actually sacrificed his companion to further his goals. Tennant’s Doctor courted the dark side multiple times, with a tendency towards cruelty (“The Christmas Invasion”, “The Runaway Bride”, “The Family of Blood”) and tempted by power (“School Reunion”), ultimately giving in to it (“The Waters of Mars”). Capaldi’s Doctor showed very little darkness. He let Clara fend for herself in “Deep Breath”, though he believed that she was fully capable of surviving, and while the Rusty looked into his mind and saw hatred, the Doctor’s actions were never affected by it. This Doctor is less dark and more, well, grumpy.
The other thing is the promise we had at the end of Series 7.2. What happened to the search for Gallifrey? When the Smith Doctor talks to the Curator and discovers that Gallifrey has survived, his eyes gleam with hope, and the final scene is that of all twelve Doctors with the voiceover that he finally knows where he’s going: home. He finds out that Gallifrey is behind the crack at Trenzalore and spends the rest of his life defending the planet, but once he regenerates, Gallifrey doesn’t come up once. He doesn’t spend a moment searching for it until the Master appears. What happened to going home and finding his people? Was he really satisfied with the confirmation that Gallifrey was stuck somewhere – doesn’t matter where, as long as he knew it was still around? At the end of “The Day of the Doctor,” the Doctor actually had a purpose, for once in his lives – a quest, you might call it – and he forgot it. Instead, we were given a season of soap opera.
This season has been bad enough that I’m not excited for the Christmas special, and don’t actually care if there’s a Series 9 or not. I love the new Doctor, but if the show is going to continue to be as maudlin and condescending as it has been since Series 7.2, then, it’s time I moved on. I’m nowhere near finished viewing the classic series. I’ve hundreds of hours of Big Finish audios to listen to, and that’s just in the main range. And, of course, there’s Series 1-6 to enjoy on rewatch. The current show has a lot to do to recapture my imagination.