Thoughts on: Deep Breath

So here we are. Doctor number twelve. Peter Capaldi. He totters uncertainly out of the Tardis, disorientated and confused. He manages to insult several people before promptly collapsing on the banks of the Thames without another word, a brief taste of what is to come. As far as introducing the new Doctor goes, this episode played a very audacious, very risky game. The Twelfth Doctor’s first scenes aren’t the most flattering. The viewer can’t help being taken aback, and just a bit repelled, as the Doctor is given the part of the senile, confused old man in his post-regeneration trauma. Gone is the familiar face and voice of Matt Smith, in their place a total alien, something entirely different. We’re unsure of him. Some of us might be daring to entertain the thought, “Is this guy really the Doctor?”, and the characters onscreen helpfully vocalise our uncertainties and insecurities.

But surely that was the point. It’s made clear throughout the episode that the Doctor isn’t even sure of himself; even after he recovers, he isn’t sure who he is. If the Doctor doesn’t know who he is, we certainly can’t expect to. And that’s what makes it interesting. This episode isn’t trying to do what previous new Doctor introduction stories did in showcasing the new Doctor, making us fall in love with him and forget all about the previous Doctor. It’s deliberately wrong-footing us and making us unsure. By the end of the episode we’re not supposed to be completely taken and convinced by Capaldi. The episode establishes that the new Doctor is something completely different to what we’ve seen before, but tries to reassure us (that phone call), and says “Just trust us. Bear with us. We know you’re unsure, but trust us. It’s going to be a whopper.” It’s a risky game the show is playing; it could have gone the safe route, à la The Eleventh Hour, but what it’s doing here has great narrative potential. The only consequence are the viewers whom the change alienated too much, like a good friend of mine who, at the time, was probably a bigger fan than I was, and who has since given up on Doctor Who.

Nothing but praise should be given to Peter Capaldi himself, though, who held himself in his first stint in the role superlatively. He’s easily, by a good length, the best actor ever to inhabit the role (apart from John Hurt). That’s not to diminish the contributions and the talents of any of the previous incumbents at all, but, even from this episode alone, it’s clear that Capaldi’s acting is noticeably on another level to any of his predecessors. That’s why, despite my own initial uncertainties about Capaldi, I was really excited to see what he would do with the role in the series to come and into the future. He’s too good an actor not to prove to be an amazing Doctor. It’s one of the reasons I’m positively gnawing at the bit to see what Series 9 brings us. I mean, just watch the scene in the alley where the Doctor contemplates his new face (and ends up nearly assaulting a tramp). Capaldi is a positively hypnotic presence there. As in the scene he faces off with the Half Face Man in the balloon. He’s captivating throughout the entire episode.

There’s another sense in which Deep Breath is very different from The Eleventh Hour. The latter was focussed predominantly on the introduction of the new Doctor and companion, and with the wholesale revamping of the show that it represented. Plot was a subordinate consideration, as it rather used the hi-jinks of Prisoner Zero as a narrative device to carry the character introductions, which were its overriding purpose. Here the plot is fully fleshed out, and could even stand as a brilliant story in itself, shorn of the burden of introducing the new Doctor at the same time. The freaky clockwork droids from The Girl in the Fireplace return almost unrecognisable, and they’ve opened up the diner from hell. They even serve as an intelligent allegory for the Doctor’s own constant change and reinvention. “There’s not a trace of the original you left. You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from.” There was some wonderful scary fun to be had with these dreadful droids, like the Half Face Man’s interrogation of Clara, which was genuinely suspenseful, gripping, edge-of-seat stuff. And the Doctor’s rescue of Clara was one of those amazing, fist-pumping “Doctor” moments on par with Matt Smith’s confrontation with the Atraxi in The Eleventh Hour, or Eccleston’s “Everybody lives!” moment in The Doctor Dances. I did think, though, that the episode took too long to get to the substance of the story; it meandered a bit in the first half as it followed the Paternosters around. Although, I have to admit, I am actually warming to the Paternosters; they’re actually quite enjoyable to watch here (especially Strax).

The only major thing I’d be critical of in this episode was the way Clara was portrayed. She’s written fairly disagreeably for most of this episode, judgmental and put out about the Doctor’s change of appearance. What annoys me about this is that Clara, of all people, should be understanding about the Doctor’s regeneration. She’s seen all his faces, she understands the nature of regeneration, she knows he’s not really the handsome young man she knew. She’s met him as an old man before in the War Doctor, and arguably in the First Doctor (depending on whether she actually remembers her other lives), and literally, only moments before, saw “her” Doctor as a decrepit, wizened old man on Trenzalore. I know that Clara’s insecurities over the Doctor’s change are supposed to be an analogue for the feelings of the audience, but from an in-story perspective it really makes no sense at all. Colour me baffled. This is no reflection on Jenna Coleman herself, though, who carried her part superbly, especially in Clara’s interrogation by the Half Face Man. Jenna did the best she could with what she was given, and it at least says something about her performance that she managed to evoke the reaction she did in me to her character.

Rating: 9/10.

Quickie reviews of Series 8 episodes

Deep Breath

An engaging introductory episode to Peter Capaldi’s era. Capaldi’s Doctor was established well, and there were some great scenes portraying Twelve’s post-regeneration disorientation (the scene with the tramp in a back alley). It seemed to drag a bit, and much of the first half was unnecessary padding. There was some quite cringeworthy infantile humour in the first half, I imagine attempting to reassure fans of Matt Smith’s era “Yes we’re going in a darker and more serious direction with Capaldi, but it’ll still be fun, see!” I think they overcompensated to be honest; the comic relief was at a level the show hasn’t revisited since the farting Slitheen in Series 1. I’m not a great fan of the Paternoster Gang, to be honest, who just seem to be there for the kids, although I understand why they were included in Deep Breath — surround the alien, unfamiliar new Doctor with familiar old faces, and create a sense of stability, like the producers did in Spearhead From Space with the Brigadier and UNIT when “rebooting” the show with Pertwee and a new companion.

Deep Breath vastly improved in the second half, though, when something actually started happening. The scenes with Clara trapped beneath the restaurant pretending to be a clockwork droid, and subsequently being interrogated by the Half Face Man, are truly scary, gripping, edge-of-seat stuff. The Doctor’s dramatic entrance to rescue Clara was one of those brilliant, fist-pumping “Doctor” moments on par with Matt Smith’s confrontation with the Atraxi in The Eleventh Hour, or Eccleston’s “Everybody lives!” moment in The Doctor Dances. Although Deep Breath could have benefited from being condensed to a normal 40-minute timeframe, cutting out much of the padding in the first half, the excellence of the second half more than made up for the meandering first half, and I can’t bring myself to give the episode anything less than 9/10.

Rating: 9/10.

Into the Dalek

Although this one somewhat divided opinion among the fandom, I thought it was a quality episode. It further developed the running theme of who the latest incarnation of the Doctor is, and, ultimately, whether the Doctor was a good man. A lot of fans get tired of this theme, which, admittedly, has been ongoing since the new series began in 2005 (Into the Dalek largely repeats the same themes as Dalek), but, for my part, I never grow tired of it, because it puts the compelling question of “Who is the Doctor?”, this familiar yet mysterious figure whom we actually know very little about, at the heart of the show. It can become excessive of course, but I largely think the writers have succeeded in keeping the theme fresh and interesting after all this time.

In this episode, we learned more about who the Twelfth Doctor was — a Doctor less equivocal about taking morally questionable measures in pursuit of his ends. I think his callous facilitation of Ross’ death for his own purposes came as something of a slap in the face for viewers used to a Doctor who sought to save every life he could. Rusty’s finding the Doctor’s hatred of the Daleks when the Doctor attempted to meld his consciousness with Rusty effectively left us asking the question of who the Doctor was, as a person. Is he a hero? Are heroes driven by hatred? That said, this episode could have been produced better. I’m especially not particularly taken with the extra characters, who seemed an eminently unmemorable and unlikable lot. A lot of fans adored Journey Blue and wanted her to be taken on as a new companion, but, personally, I don’t really care for her. One po-faced miser per TARDIS, I think.

Rating: 8/10.

Robot of Sherwood

I wasn’t particularly looking forwards to this episode beforehand — the concept seemed very unimaginative and didn’t much inspire me, and I assumed Robot of Sherwood was the obligatory early-series “filler” episode (see The Curse of the Black Spot, The Shakespeare Code, The Power of Three, etc.), and, to an extent, it was. Robin Hood and rubbish robots isn’t exactly the stuff of Who classics. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this episode more than I expected to. Peter Capaldi’s acting brought this whole episode up in quality: the Doctor’s spoonfight with Robin Hood and the hilarious exchange between the Doctor and Hood in the dungeon were great, memorable scenes. Jenna Coleman was also great in this episode; Clara’s scene having dinner with King John was some sparkling dialogue and characterisation for the character. The episode also ended on a very contemplative note regarding the-Doctor-as-legend.

However, I do have some problems with this episode. It did, as many fans remarked, seem like it was a hangover from the Matt Smith era. It had the Smith era “fairytale” feel, and it was all very camp and self-consciously unrealistic. The Las Vegas medieval feel of it all, like a Laurence Olivier Shakespeare film, and the fact that Robin Hood and his merry men conformed precisely to their folk legend, storybook depictions, felt out of place in what was supposed to be the grittier, darker Capaldi era. Were I to produce that episode (and I know I’m being very presumptuous and impertinent here, but bear with me), I should have made Robin Hood and his men more realistic — perhaps Robin Hood was actually an unscrupulous highwayman with delusions of moral rightness, perhaps the monk was a very un-monkish exile from the Church, perhaps the rest of Robin Hood’s band were, in reality, similar flawed, somewhat disagreeable characters? This would better suit the episode’s apparent theme of the reality not necessarily being reflected in the “legend” (although feeding into it), and I think the producers rather missed a trick here by making everything look like a Robin Hood children’s storybook, or a 1930s Robin Hood Hollywood film. It was a decent enough story for what it was, but I think I would have liked this one more if it were gritty realism rather than the very unrealistic, romantic Merlin-esque portrayal of Robin Hood and his era that it was.

Rating: 7/10.

Listen

I’ll start by saying I loved the idea of this story. Creatures which have perfected hiding, which constantly stalk us, listening to us, showing themselves only to the last remnants of life in the universe; creatures which may or may not be the product of the overactive imaginations of frightened humanity; an allegory for that most primal of human instincts — fear. Just describing it makes me sit up, intrigued. Indeed, many have hailed Listen as a classic on par with its forerunner, Blink. To be sure, it is a good story. The scene in which the Doctor is alone in the TARDIS letting his paranoia run away with him (or maybe not?) is seriously captivating, ominous stuff, as are the scenes in little Danny Pink’s bedroom and Orson Pink’s space shuttle — some of the most hair-raising sequences Who has ever made.

However, despite these excellent triumphs of production, Listen is somewhat ruined for me by the preoccupation with Danny Pink, a character I don’t particularly care for. The episode’s continuous returning to Clara and Danny’s dinner date is intrusive and breaks the eerie, foreboding atmosphere the episode has built up. The episode would have been so much better as a straight, self-contained story concerning itself with the creatures (or lack thereof) in question, without preoccupying itself with Clara’s personal life and the past and future selves of Danny Pink. It all felt oddly-paced and disjointed. For these reasons, while I agree that the concept and idea behind Listen is nothing short of inspired, I can’t agree that Listen is a classic on par with Blink. After a rewatch recently the episode didn’t improve for me, so I’m resigned that it will remain, in my estimation, a story that could have been a classic but didn’t quite make it, a great missed opportunity.

In regards to the scene in which Clara comforts the frightened little Doctor in the barn, indirectly creating the Doctor as we know him, the scene didn’t bother me as much as it did others (the scene itself was beautiful), but I’m still a little unhappy about it, partly because it somewhat conflicts with a bit of personal headcanon about the Doctor’s origins, and partly because, like others have complained, Clara is given too much agency and importance in the Doctor’s life.

Rating: 8/10.

Time Heist

Time Heist was somewhat talked up before it was broadcast… I remember reading that it was supposed to be the “biggest” story of series 8 (or words to that effect), so I had fairly high expectations. Indeed, I thought it was an excellently composed standalone story. I echo the words I read in another review, i.e. that Time Heist is such a brilliant, yet simple idea (the Doctor robs an ultra-secure intergalactic bank), how has it not been done before? In the idea contains the basis of a Who classic, and there is definitely a lot to like in this story. The Teller was a fascinating, frightening creature, the perfect monster for a bank heist story like this. The characters, Psi and (especially) Saibra, were well written and endearing. I also liked this figure who had been conjured up to guide the bank robbers through the heist, the Architect; his identity, in the end, was rather predictable, but the viewer was still effectively kept wondering what exactly had been going on. I was more interested in finding out what this was all about, and who the Architect was, than necessarily seeing the group overcome the various obstacles in the bank. I wondered whether the Doctor would find in his vault the co-ordinates to Gallifrey, but, of course, that would have been slightly wishful thinking.

I was a bit let down by the resolution to these various mysteries — the Doctor’s being the Architect, who choreographed this heist at the behest of an aged Madame Karabraxos to free the Teller and his mate. I was expecting something more… significant… I hadn’t yet cottoned onto the fact that the serialised arc-heavy storytelling of Series 6 that I enjoyed so much had been largely abandoned, and that RTD-style standalone stories were all we were going to get from now on. Nevertheless, as a standalone, self-contained story, it is a great episode. My main criticisms would be with the production: we didn’t really get a sense of the alleged sheer impregnability of the Bank of Karabraxos, it all just seemed a bit too easy. Perhaps this story could have benefited from being a two-parter spending more time following the group as they progress deeper into the bank and emphasising the obstacles they need to overcome. Furthermore, a lot of time was spent in fairly nondescript corridors — surely the producers could have been more creative with the settings? Visually, apart from the Teller, this episode was fairly unremarkable. That’s not entirely the producers’ fault, I understand Doctor Who suffered a budget cut this series, but the episode doesn’t rank visually alongside other stories in the series like Kill the Moon, Mummy on the Orient Express or In the Forest of the Night. Unfortunately, for these reasons, Time Heist doesn’t quite make it out of “good” and into “brilliant” territory; it will be remembered as a good story that, had more been put into it, could have been a great deal better.

Rating: 8/10.

The Caretaker

Just like Listen was the Capaldi era’s answer to Blink, The Caretaker was its answer to The Lodger. Like The Lodger, The Caretaker sees the Doctor assume the guise of a “normal” human and attempt to navigate his way in normal human society. While there were some great moments in The Caretaker, I don’t think it quite lived up to its forerunner. While The Lodger was genuinely creepy and found the right balance of comedy and substantive plot, the “threat” in The Caretaker, a poorly conceived and eminently forgettable generic robot thingy with a silly name, was little more than a convenient plot device, the story being preoccupied with the confrontation of the Doctor and Danny. To be sure, this confrontation was well played out — it emphasised the rivalry between these two men in Clara’s life as well as the Doctor’s arrogance and snobbery. The Doctor and Danny’s argument in the TARDIS was a sparkling sequence of writing and acting from all involved.

Something that bugged me about this episode was the Doctor’s display of prejudice and outright loathing towards Danny upon finding out he was a soldier. The Doctor’s anti-soldier prejudice, first established in this episode and continued in later ones, is something completely new. The only thing that comes close is Ten’s attitude towards the UNIT soldiers in The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, and even that was fairly mild compared to Twelve’s positive contempt for Danny (Ten worked alongside UNIT after all, even if he didn’t approve of their methods; Twelve isn’t even prepared to countenance that Danny might be a suitable boyfriend for Clara). As I’ve said before, I feel the injection of anti-soldier prejudice in Twelve is a baffling and poor instance of characterisation.

Unfortunately the plot felt underdeveloped, and the whole thing felt a bit like a filler. However, the story has some redeeming features in the comedy of the Doctor’s going undercover in Coal Hill School, and the dialogue (generally) between the Doctor and Danny. In any case, it was enjoyable enough to watch; its faults didn’t distract the viewer from being able to enjoy the story for what it was.

Rating: 7/10.

Kill the Moon

Kill the Moon was another story that divided opinion among fans. I was jolly impressed upon my first watch, but I have to admit it doesn’t quite stand up to a rewatch. There’s a great deal to like about the story — the plot was gripping, the setting was magnificent, the characters were well-written, those spiders were genuinely terrifying, and the twist was dumbfounding. This is probably the most visually-appealing episode of series 8, or at least the episode with the most visually superior setting. While the “the moon is an egg” thing infuriated a large chunk of the fandom, it didn’t bother me at all. I know it’s rubbish science — that was pretty obvious — but Doctor Who is telling a story, not making a documentary: it’s science fiction, the operative word being fiction. As long as the explanation offered seems to make sense and doesn’t resort to magic or the supernatural, I’m not bothered, and it doesn’t reduce my enjoyment of the story one iota. In fact, I liked the premise of the twist, that the moon is an egg containing an enormous winged creature which the people of Earth had to decide whether or not to kill.

As for the Doctor’s behaviour, leaving Clara and Lundvik to make their decision, I was on the Doctor’s side at first, but I’ve since come over to Clara’s side in that particular conflict. The Doctor didn’t need to take charge of the situation, but he could at least have helped, or given his advice or a push in the right direction. He needn’t have cut Clara totally adrift like that. That said, I agree with those who think Clara overreacted afterwards. In any case, it has since become obvious that that particular incident was supposed to be a catalyst for character development. It was supposed to make the Doctor come to the realisation that the Earth is the Doctor’s home, too, as he said in In the Forest of the Night. One can see where the Doctor was coming from — he learnt from his “Time Lord Victorious” antics in The Waters of Mars, knowing to anticipate that making profound decisions that aren’t his to make can have disastrous, unforeseen consequences. In any case, whatever one thinks of the respective behaviour of the Doctor and Clara, is it not exhilarating to see the Doctor’s relationship with his companion challenged to an unprecedented extent?

Rating: 7/10.

Mummy on the Orient Express

I have only good things to say about this story. First of all, I love that it was basically inspired by the idea of the Doctor finally responding to that invitation he received over a thousand years ago. I suppose that’s the reality of being the Doctor: he puts something down to go do something else and doesn’t come back to it until hundreds of years later. This story was brilliant in every way: brilliantly written, brilliantly directed, brilliantly acted. One might think that a rampaging mummy on the Orient Express in space is a bit of a corny idea for a story, but it is a perfect self-contained story with a terrifying adversary. The mummy was, indeed, seriously realistic and seriously frightening, which itself improves the quality of the whole story (an unconvincing villain makes for an unconvincing story, after all). The episode was superbly paced, and had a well-realised atmosphere of tenseness, conspiracy and urgency. The supporting characters were terrifically written and acted, especially Perkins the engineer. The musical entertainment, provided by Foxes, was definitely a musical high point of Who in general. This episode was also amazing aesthetically: the painstaking faithfulness to the period look was very effective, and Clara was particularly gorgeous in that bob cut.

I was intrigued by the development of the Twelfth Doctor’s characterisation in this episode. His using the deaths of the various passengers to observe the mummy and discover more about it, and ultimately how to defeat it, was an intriguing aspect of characterisation showcasing how the Twelfth Doctor can be callous and unfeeling in the course of attempting to save people. His predecessors, especially Tennant’s Doctor, might have taken a dim view of such methods. At the same time, the Doctor’s actions showed to Clara that the Doctor really is a good man, ultimately trying to do good.

Overall this was a superlative episode, and, to my mind, an undoubted classic.

Rating: 10/10.

Flatline

Flatline is an episode which definitely benefits from a rewatch. The first time I saw it, I was impressed, to be sure, but I didn’t feel “blown away” like I do when I see “classics” or “almost-classics”, for example how I felt when I saw the preceding episode, Mummy on the Orient Express. Which bothered me because all I heard from elsewhere was unanimous lauding of Flatline as a modern masterpiece. I couldn’t see what I was missing. I revisited it again some time later, and I think I begin to see the great appeal of Flatline. It’s a story which benefits from being put in perspective and considered holistically, as the sum of its parts. First there’s the gimmick of trapping the Doctor inside a tiny TARDIS, forcing Clara to assume the role of the Doctor. It’s an amusing and intriguing playing out of a “what if” situation — i.e. what if Clara was the Doctor? To those that were complaining about Series 8 being too much “Clara Who” (of which I am one), I think they were pleasantly surprised to find that Clara Who for real is… actually quite good. Clara takes to her new role with a masterful ease and adeptness that even impresses the Doctor. This experience forms a quality instance of character development for Clara as she comes to understand what being the Doctor really entails, and, importantly, why the Doctor acts the way he does.

I think the main appeal of this episode was the baddies, the so-called “Boneless”, creatures that reside in two dimensions, who “invade” the third dimension to attempt to understand it (supposedly). This is inspired, high-concept stuff, realised terrifyingly onscreen by creepy, malformed bodies materialising out of the earth and slithering menacingly like the living dead. There was a particularly eerie moment when the Doctor and Clara were trying to communicate with the creatures using the loud speakers, and heard a macabre high-pitched tremolo, like a message from some arcane alien intelligence from beyond the stars. The “Boneless” are a classic new monster from Series 8, and I’m definitely excited to see more of them and find out more about them.

While Clara was obviously superb in this episode, the Doctor, although taking a “recessive” role in this story, was also on top form. The moment when he emerged from the TARDIS, restored to full size, at the end of the episode to repel the Boneless, was a brilliant, furious coup de grâce. It was one of those spine-chilling, hair-standing-on-end moments when you can only stand in awe of the Doctor. For me, this was Capaldi’s “I am the Doctor” moment all Doctors (at least all modern Doctors) have when they first convince the audience, and themselves, that they are the Doctor. There was Matt Smith’s confrontation with the Atraxi in The Eleventh Hour (“Basically… run.”) and Tennant’s confrontation with the Sycorax in The Christmas Invasion. For me, this was Capaldi’s moment. Like in The Christmas Invasion, the fact that the Doctor was more or less absent for most of the episode made the moment when he finally appeared and repulsed the baddies so much more satisfying.

Rating: 9/10.

In the Forest of the Night

I don’t share the vitriol directed towards this episode by some sections of the fandom. Admittedly, it was easily the most mediocre episode of Series 8. It had an absurd plot and a platitudinous resolution. The concept was ridiculous, the science was embarrassingly rubbish, the creatures (tree spirits?) were confusing, and the supporting characters (i.e. the children, apart from perhaps Maebh), again, an embarrassment. As well as this, this story felt like it belonged, again, to the “fairytale” Matt Smith era, or even the Tennant era, with its clumsily-conveyed strong moral/social message (“live in harmony with nature”). Maebh’s being reunited with her long-lost sister, especially, felt like a hark back to similar cringe-inducing antics of the RTD era. If Robot of Sherwood felt out of place in the “darker” Capaldi era, In the Forest of the Night jars like a semitone clash.

That said, despite all that, In the Forest of the Night is nonetheless just enjoyable to watch. It is easily one of the most aesthetically beautiful episodes of Series 8 — perhaps the one area where this episode excels. In addition, the plot, while plainly ridiculous, is intriguing and interesting, and never failed to absorb me. The resolution, in which the trees act as a force field of sorts protecting the Earth against the solar flare, was admittedly absurd, but once one suspends the obligatory disbelief, it’s actually very nice and heartwarming… There are some great moments in there, for example, when the Doctor makes the tree spirits talk through Maebh (properly chilling, that), and the dialogue between the Doctor and Clara when Clara rejects his offer to save the children, or at least her (“I don’t want to be the last of my kind”). As well as this, Capaldi’s acting, again, brings up the whole quality of the episode. For all its faults, this episode is, after all, a fun, cute, entertaining little story.

Rating: 6/10.

Dark Water/Death in Heaven

The first half of this finale, Dark Water, was exceptional. To my mind, Dark Water is the closest Who has come to a masterpiece since 2005. It’s exactly the kind of dark, heavy, thematic drama I was expecting from the “darker”, more “grown-up” Capaldi era. There was so much to like: the high-charged scene atop the volcano in which Clara attempts to blackmail the Doctor, brazenly taking the Doctor-companion relationship further than ever before; the chilling investigation of the reality of death and the afterlife; the menacing revelation of the Cybermen; and Missy. The Master was brought back in terrifying style in the unsettling form of a manic, psychopathic Mary Poppins, and it was brilliant.

The second half, Death in Heaven, however, was something of a letdown from the exemplary first half. In general, it felt like a mess. Whereas the pacing and atmosphere in Dark Water was perfect, Death in Heaven seemed to flounder around quite a bit, showing plenty of action but almost abandoning the plot, or, rather, disgorging all the plot in the last ten minutes of the episode in a disconcerting crescendo. The “twist” behind Missy’s shenanigans — seemingly to put the Doctor on the spot by giving him a Cyberman army — was wholly unsatisfying and just plain confusing. The resolution, in which the Doctor gives Danny the bracelet, who orders the Cybermen to self-detonate, also didn’t seem to make sense: I didn’t understand why the Doctor couldn’t have ordered all the Cybermen to their deaths, rather than Danny.

Other problems with Death in Heaven include arguably the worst portrayal of the Cybermen yet, as unthinking automatons which march in step to a magic bracelet (and are, again, defeated by the power of love); and the confusing and completely unsatisfying resolution to the “Woman in the Shop” arc (i.e. why Missy was interested in Clara). That said, there was (just) more good than bad in this episode: both Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez were unfailingly brilliant, as was Ingrid Oliver as the ever-endearing Osgood; Clara’s confrontation with the Cybermen in 3W was awesome; and the Doctor’s violent rage upon discovering Missy lied to him about Gallifrey’s location was… a sight to behold, to say the least. In addition, the concluding scene in the cafe in which the Doctor and Clara “part ways” was touching. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that the faults of Death in Heaven bring down the quality of the finale as a whole, as this one surely had the potential to be a masterpiece, as the exceptional Dark Water showed.

Rating: 8/10.

Last Christmas

Not technically a Series 8 episode, but part of 2014 Doctor Who nonetheless. I have to say, in my opinion, Last Christmas is the best Christmas special yet. Fans are used to the Christmas specials being, essentially, continuity-lite, frivolous one-off romps that are catered to the general public more so than Doctor Who fans themselves (RTD’s Christmas specials, apart from The End of Time, were all in this formula, in any case). To an extent, Last Christmas also follows this formula — it’s got Santa Claus in it, for goodness’ sake. Nevertheless, Last Christmas also departs from previous Christmas specials by being darker, scarier, more tense, and, for once, introduces an ingenious, genuinely frightening and repeatable new monster — the Dream Crabs.

The “Christmas” element is constituted by the dubious presence of Santa Claus and a couple of elves… oh, and Rudolph. For once, the Christmas element of the Christmas special doesn’t feel awkwardly shoehorned-in, despite the inclusion of Santa having the potential to be the most awkwardly-shoehorned thing of all. Of course, Santa is played brilliantly by Nick Frost, whose interpretation of Santa is a hilarious cross between a mob boss and Alfie Wickers (from Bad Education). I don’t think I’ve laughed more at a Doctor Who story than I did at Nick Frost as Santa, there are just so many great lines (the scene on Clara’s roof, “magic carrots”, “bigger on the inside”, “that’s a verbal warning”, “it’s all a bit dreamy-weamy”, etc.). The recruitment of Nick Frost was a masterstroke for this Christmas special, to be sure.

The plot itself was intriguing and gripping, to me more so than any other Christmas special. The concept of being stuck in a dream, or several dreams, was probably heavier than any other Christmas special, and it was absolutely thrilling. I loved the Inception-ness of it all. The characters were all well-written and well-realised, especially the endearing Shona. The teasing of Clara’s departure at the end of Last Christmas was an emotional merry-go-round, and perhaps the only instance where the resolution of “It was all a dream” was actually welcomed (or not, depending on your opinion of Clara). It was promising and encouraging to see Clara and the Doctor reunite with such mutual excitement and adoration at the end; it seems the Doctor and Clara are finally at ease with each other and understand each other, their relationship is in a good place, and they can finally uncomplicatedly enjoy travelling with each other and enjoy sharing each other’s company. I’ll admit I originally wanted to see Clara leave in the Christmas special, but that final scene changed my mind; I’m excited to see how their relationship has changed in Series 9. I’m reminded of the mellowing of the Sixth Doctor’s and Peri’s relationship between the end of Season 22 and Trial of a Time Lord, during which time had passed, allowing their initially spiky relationship to develop positively.

Rating: 9/10.

An appraisal of the Twelfth Doctor

Well. We’ve had one series and a Christmas special of the twelfth* incarnation of our favourite Time Lord. That’s plenty of opportunity to have become familiar with the Doctor’s latest persona. So, what do we think? I know those who are singing this Doctor’s praises, who have been positively awed by Peter Capaldi and who have duly cleared a spot at or near the top of their personal “Best Doctors” list (all Whovians have one) for Twelvie. At the same time, I know others for whom Capaldi has failed to live up to expectations as the Doctor and have found it difficult to warm to Capaldi’s Doctor. The general consensus seems to be that Capaldi’s Doctor, and Series 8 in general, has been a success, and I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who positively dislikes Capaldi’s Doctor, but certainly not everyone has taken to Capaldi’s interpretation of the Doctor with equal enthusiasm.

Which is where I come in.

Don’t worry, Whovians, I’m here. I’m going to provide you with an objective, definitive and completely authoritative appraisal of the Twelfth Doctor. There’ll be no need for any more arguments over Twelve’s behaviour in Kill the Moon. You can thank me later. So, without further ado, here’s my verdict on the Twelfth Doctor.

Expectations and predictions

First of all, it’s worth discussing what I expected of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor before I had seen him. Based on the casting of an older actor for the part, Moffat’s descriptions of him as a “darker”, more “abrasive”, less “user-friendly” Doctor, and the context of his regeneration (after having spent approximately a millennium defending a town on Trenzalore), I formed a picture in my mind of a more sober and solemn Doctor, much like the Fourth Doctor when he’s in his solemn, brooding moods. More humourless, more world-weary, more aloof, less patient with evil, and less equivocal about taking morally-questionable measures to deal with his enemies. Based on my expectations, or prophesyings, I was genuinely excited for Capaldi’s Doctor. It had been a while since a Doctor in the Hartnell-C.Baker formula had been done, a formula which, done right (as both Hartnell and Baker had succeeded in doing in various moments, although not consistently), can be the most compelling of all Doctor characterisations. I was also looking forwards to seeing New Who’s take on the Hartnell-Baker archetype. My predictions for Capaldi’s Doctor were broadly accurate. We got an abrasive elder Doctor in the Hartnell archetype, more morally ambiguous and certainly more alien (although Matt Smith’s Doctor was also very alien in his own way).

Where Capaldi’s Doctor differed from my predictions was in his energy and adrenaline. I foresaw a world-weary, increasingly cynical Doctor for whom saving the universe had become a nuisance and an intrusion into his peace and quiet. I saw Twelve helping people only reluctantly, and finding himself in the midst of trouble with an air of annoyance and impatience. I expected this more cynical incarnation as the most likely effect of his long stay on Trenzalore, a Doctor who had grown tired of saving people, who wanted only for the universe to finally leave him in peace. It would fall to Clara to help the Doctor in this respect, to reignite the spark and rekindle his sense of duty and his drive to pursue justice. What I didn’t expect was for the Doctor, upon leaving Trenzalore, to leap straight back into his old routine with the energy and zeal of a much younger, much less battle-scarred man. But that works, too, I guess.

Praise — what works

Capaldi is probably the most talented actor to play the role of the Doctor in the show’s history. He gives his all to the role, and one can tell he is supremely in his element playing the Doctor. One could expect no less of perhaps the biggest Whovian ever to be cast in the role. It’s also obvious that Capaldi has a very good idea of what he wants to do with the character, and, for the most part, executes this vision impeccably. After two incarnations of affable, youthful “good boyfriend” Doctors, Capaldi’s more unpredictable and abrasive approach makes for a refreshing change.

Certain elements of the Doctor’s character crystallise prominently in Capaldi’s portrayal: arrogance, charisma, leadership, curiosity, toughness, alien-ness, coldness. Elements of the Doctor’s character more recessive in Twelve include whimsy, warmth, humanity, moral compulsion, eccentricity (bar the obligatory alien-ness), vulnerability. In relation to previous incarnations, Capaldi’s Doctor draws most influence from Hartnell, in his abrasiveness and cantankerousness, Colin Baker, in his unpredictability, callousness and unwillingness to “suffer fools”, Pertwee, in his gravitas and hauteur, McCoy, in his darkness and manipulativeness, and Eccleston, in his straightforward, no-nonsense attitude. I particularly feel that Twelve and Nine would get on famously; both represent similar approaches to the Doctor’s character — the tough northern Doctor and the rugged Scots Doctor. Twelve also seems to bear a lot of similarity to the War Doctor (from what we’ve seen of him), a more sober, darker, morally ambiguous Doctor. Capaldi’s Doctor is least like the whimsical incarnations of Troughton and Smith, as well as the more human incarnations of Davison and Tennant.

Criticisms — what doesn’t work

While, all-round, I like Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor, there are certain aspects of his character which I think have not been portrayed well. For one thing, Capaldi’s Doctor seems to be very one-note. He’s the grumpy, abrasive, unpredictable one with the Scottish accent. Beyond this, there’s little more to Twelve’s character. Even the much-hyped “darkness” of Capaldi’s Doctor hasn’t come out like one would have expected it to, and seems limited to a lesser reluctance to undertaking morally questionable measures (providing they are in pursuit of a greater good). There’s potential there, to be sure, in exploring Twelve’s morally ambiguous side, as we saw in Mummy on the Orient Express, although for the most part it has not been tapped to the extent seemingly promised. The whimsy and eccentricity that has, to an extent, been part of every incarnation is markedly absent in Capaldi’s Doctor. Or, to be more accurate, on the few instances that Twelve does attempt to do whimsy it comes off as inauthentic and out of character. To be sure, Twelve can be convincingly humorous, but only when he’s deploying dry sarcasm (“She cares so I don’t have to”), which is more fitting with his character, rather than when consciously trying to make people laugh (“2DIS”).

Another aspect of Twelve’s character I would criticise is his alien-ness and general cluelessness about human things, e.g. his inability to understand human relationships and behaviour. This all comes off as very affected and unconvincing, as though it were a bad attempt at a joke on the Doctor’s part. I think the worst instance of this was in the final scene of Last Christmas, when Clara asked the Doctor if she looked young, to which the Doctor’s reply was “No idea”, promptly fetching her a mirror so she could see for herself. Cringe-inducing. Such cluelessness doesn’t necessarily bother me per se (Matt Smith’s Doctor was very clueless about human things in many respects, after all), but it just feels like sloppy writing.

Additionally, it somewhat feels like Capaldi is yet to carve out a unique take on the character. At the moment, Twelve feels a bit like a synthesis of bits and pieces of the incarnations that came before him: a bit each from Hartnell, Pertwee, C. Baker, McCoy and Eccleston. That, to an extent, is the curse of casting as big a Whovian as Capaldi in the role: when playing the Doctor he’s constantly conscious of all the actors who’ve played the role before him, and finds it hard to detach himself and forge something new. It has been suggested that Capaldi will peak late in his tenure, that it will take him time to flesh out his character. I very much hope that is the case, and I have no doubt that an actor of Capaldi’s calibre is fully capable of giving us one of the classic performances as the Doctor.

Conclusion

Capaldi’s Doctor is a refreshing new direction for New Who, and a compelling re-imagining of the character of the Doctor. However, his character needs further development and fine-tuning if he is to be convincingly a multi-dimensional character. At the moment, if the Capaldi era thus far can be taken as representing the whole of the Capaldi era in a historical sense, I would place the Capaldi Doctor somewhere near the middle of a “greatest Doctors” list; of the New Who Doctors I would rank him bottom. In my opinion, Capaldi hasn’t captured the character of his Doctor as convincingly in his first season as each of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith did in their first seasons. On the level of characterisation, there still needs some work to do on Twelve if Capaldi would be remembered perhaps as much as he’d like to be. That will, of course, come in time, and I look forwards to seeing what Capaldi will bring to the role in series 9.

* Well, thirteenth, really, or fourteenth, depending on how you look at it. But let’s not get into that.

Thoughts on Dark Water/Death in Heaven

Doctor-Who-Series-8-Episode-11-Dark-Water-Pic2

I thought I’d begin this blog by offering my review (of sorts) on the series 8 finale, Dark Water/Death in Heaven.

In general I quite enjoyed the finale. I found a lot to like, and found myself utterly captivated by the unfolding drama more than once. However, there was also causes for criticism. Dark Water was, in my opinion, as close to a masterpiece as Doctor Who has come since 2005: it had a superb high-charged emotional scene (the volcano scene), the Doctor-companion relationship was taken unrepentantly to daring pastures new, there was a heavy religio-metaphysical-philosophical theme, the menacing return of the Cybermen in a style harking back to The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Invasion, the revelation of Missy as the Master, and all-round genuine thrills and chills, not to mention ended on a torturing quadruple-pronged cliffhanger. However, Death in Heaven was rather a letdown after the exemplary first half. It felt messy, poorly paced, and, after presenting the audience with a confusing twist, ended the conflict with a wholly unsatisfying resolution. The letdown of DIH rather brought down the quality of the finale as a whole, which is unfortunate, as the first half was exceptional.

What I liked

  • Missy — Michelle Gomez’s performance as Missy was absolutely superlative. A female incarnation of the Master was always going to be a gamble for Doctor Who, but Gomez pulled it off brilliantly, definitively making the character her own. She played a compelling Master/Mistress, a deranged and psychopathic Mary Poppins whose sense of humour unsettles just as much as amuses. Missy exuded both menace and madness, but also showed her human (or at least less inhuman) side in that brief moment where she pleaded with the Doctor, “I just want my friend back.” I certainly don’t think we’ve seen the last of Missy, she’s too compelling a character to kill off (the fact that she was visibly atomised notwithstanding).
  • What happens after you die? — the compelling concept, at least for the first half of this finale, was life after death, a refreshingly serious and heavy theme for this new series of Doctor Who, especially when much of New Who has been very much Marvel-style action stories. I didn’t mind that paradise/the Promised Land/the Nethersphere turned out to be a Matrix data slice (Time Lord technology) set up by Missy to “harvest souls” (so to speak) for her undead Cyberman army — that’s to be expected with Doctor Who, and I don’t think I’d have been happy if Doctor Who presented a definitive view on the afterlife or religion.
  • The graveyard scene — speaking of the Doctor-Master relationship, the dialogue between the Doctor and Missy in the graveyard was excellent. Apart from adding depth to the Master’s character that, to a degree, was lacking with John Simm’s Master, in Missy’s apparent motivations for creating an undead Cyberman army (“I want you to see we’re not so different… I just want my friend back.”), it satisfyingly culminated the running theme in series 8 of “Is the Doctor a good man?” Although it was a little confusing as to what the answer to that question was; he mentioned something about his companions, which seemed fair enough.
  • The volcano scene — in this scene, the dynamics of the Doctor-Companion relationship were taken further than ever before. We saw Clara betray the Doctor, not only blackmailing the Doctor by threatening to destroy the Doctor’s access to the TARDIS, but making good that threat when the Doctor would not concede to her impossible demands. It was a high-charged scene that had me more gripped than I can remember with Doctor Who. Not only that, but the scene was followed with one of those fist-pumping, heart-warming moments when the Doctor agreed to help Clara get back Danny, saying that he cared too much for her for her betrayal to make a difference. To Clara, at least, that was the moment when it became clear that the Doctor was a good man, a great man. And he is.
  • The Cybermen in Dark Water — the Cybermen were never more menacing and threatening in this finale than when they weren’t doing anything.
  • The Doctor’s domestic abuse of Sexy — finally we have some progress on the searching-for-Gallifrey plot. Missy knew where Gallifrey was, supposedly having escaped from it. I particularly liked the scene in which the Doctor entered the co-ordinates given to him by Missy into the TARDIS, only to find, to his violent disappointment, that he had been deceived. The rage of the Time Lord is always a sight to behold.

What I didn’t like

  • The Cybermen’s portrayal — the Cybermen felt threatening when they were sitting in their tombs, but, for the rest of the finale, they were quite rubbish. The zombie Cybermen with uploaded minds was an interesting idea that didn’t quite work out. That’s because New Who (and, admittedly, much of Classic Who after the 1960s), completely misses the point of the Cybermen in portraying them as little more than killer robots, a cross between Terminator and Iron Man. The Cybermen may as well be robots, without need for human bodies or minds. When the Cybermen are portrayed in this way, interesting ideas with potential, like the zombie Cybermen in this serial, come to nothing, when the entire zombie-Cyberman army are made into unthinking automatons that obey a magic bracelet. Apart from this, the Cybermen did not feel like a threat at all during this finale, except when they attacked the Valiant (that moment when the Cybermen’s head appeared at the plane window was scary, I’ll admit). The maudlin feel-good “love beats Cybermen” meme again destroyed all the work the episode had (unsuccessfully) done in making the Cybermen feel threatening. I hoped the Cybermen would be rehabilitated in this serial, having been given poor stories since 2005, but I was disappointed.
  • So… why was Missy interested in Clara again? — the hints throughout the series about Missy’s pseudo-celestial role in bringing the Doctor and Clara together suggested that Missy’s interest in Clara would be one of the big arcs that would be resolved in this finale. And so it was, sort of. This was explicitly addressed in the finale, but it wasn’t quite clear what Missy’s interest in Clara was. Missy seemed to be saying that she brought the Doctor and Clara together because she thought they’d hit it off. There was also something about Clara being an instrument to bring the Doctor to 3W (which was far from assured, from Missy’s point of view). If this is really all there was to it, my faith in Steven Moffatt, generally strong, has suffered a significant blow. Knowing Steven Moffatt, there may well be more to this than it seems (and Clara is returning for the Christmas special), but it is equally likely that Moffatt thinks this revelation is more clever and impressive than it actually is. From my point of view, if there is no more to this mystery, it would be completely unsatisfying and infuriating.
  • No explanation for sex-change regeneration — after it was revealed that the Master had become a woman, a tide of debate in the fan community was unleashed about Time Lords’ ability to regenerate into the opposite sex, and, more specifically, the prospect for a female Doctor that Missy’s identity had potentially opened. Although not closed to the prospect of a female Doctor, I am nevertheless quite sceptical. I also don’t like the idea that Time Lords are basically asexual in that they have no “base” sex and could, by default, regenerate at random into any sex or none — the history of the programme seems to contradict this idea. In any case, for these reasons, although I’m not necessarily opposed to the concept of Time Lords swapping genders, I was hoping for an explanation as to the circumstances in which a Time Lord could regenerate into the opposite sex, and preferably that it wouldn’t be established that regeneration is random and that the Doctor is equally as likely to regenerate into a female as a male form. By leaving the question hanging like that, and by having the Doctor act as though the Master being a woman is nothing out of the ordinary, the idea that the Doctor could randomly regenerate into a woman has been virtually de facto confirmed until it is established otherwise.
  • The Doctor’s anti-soldier prejudice — We see more of the Doctor’s inexplicable and absurd prejudice against soldiers in his dialogue with Colonel Ahmed, which we first saw in The Caretaker in with respect to Danny Pink. I felt sorry for poor Colonel Ahmed, who looked visibly hurt by the Doctor’s insensitive and disrespectful remarks. I know I’m not the only one wondering where this anti-soldier prejudice of Twelve’s, amounting to outright contempt bordering on loathing, has come from. The Third Doctor never seemed to have a problem with the Brigadier and co. when he was working with UNIT (Three’s irritation and mild annoyance was not the same thing as Twelve’s callous loathing). I very much hope this isn’t an instance of woefully misguided characterisation in an attempt to make some delinquent political point, which would be more offensive than anything Doctor Who has come out with in its 50-year history.
  • The resolution — It was confusing and unsatisfying. The Doctor gives the bracelet to Danny who orders the Cybermen to destroy themselves in the atmosphere. Why couldn’t the Doctor have ordered the Cybermen to destroy themselves again? Is it because he didn’t want to appear to be an officer, or he didn’t want to order CyberDanny, CyberBrig, the CyberPonds, CyberSarah-Jane, etc, to their deaths? Whatever it was, it felt like an anti-climax, and Danny’s speech was eye-rollingly platitudinous.

Dark Water rating: 10

Death in Heaven rating: 7

Combined finale rating: 8