Sunday, June 14, 2015

"I Need My Friend Back!" - Doctor Who, Series 8 (2014 season)

And here's step two in my latest attempt to get this blog back up to date in the hope that I might start using it again more regularly.  At least I've managed to write up my thoughts on last year's season of DW before this year's has started to air!

A new year, a new tweak to the theme and the titles.  I'm quite keen on the new theme arrangement, with its bells and its twiddly theremin noises.  Less sold on the new title sequence - and when we'd only just arrived at a title sequence I really liked, too!  It does at least have the zooming eyebrows in its favour.  Meanwhile, Murray Gold's putting more synth into his music, and it's exactly what I wanted to hear, so yay for that.

As far as the stories are concerned, stripe me pink, but it's another year of improvement.  I mean, I'm still waiting for JB Hi-Fi to drop the price below $30 (I'm not proud...), but this is the first year of Moffat Who I absolutely swear shall find its place on my DVD shelves.  Peter Capaldi is of course brilliant as the Doctor, but this would mean nothing if the finest scripts weren't there to support him, and some of this year's output is fine indeed.

I think it helps tremendously that Steven Moffat took more of a hand in controlling the tone of the season, co-writing several stories in the first half as well as penning his own episodes.  Series 8 had exactly the tonal consistency that I found lacking during Matt Smith's tenure.  And when the brief for this season seems to have been "do properly what they tried to do during Colin Baker's tenure" - another era of DW that was tonally all over the place - keeping a firm hold on things is vitally important.  Totally paid off, as far as I'm concerned.  This season finally gives me hope that Moffat's vision for DW is something that can fit with the broader ethos of the show, and something that I might be able to get behind.

Deep Breath

The new Doctor pretty much had me at the point where he describes the destruction of the T-rex as a murder.  This season may play heavily on his less likeable alien qualities, but it's clear in that moment that underneath his harsh pragmatism, the Capaldi Doctor is acting from a deeply rooted sense of morality.  See also his speech at the end to Clara in which he suggests it's time he "did something" about the mistakes he's made - this may not chime entirely with his behaviour in later episodes, but on a metatextual level it suggests that Moffat is keeping an eye on the Doctor's morality this year, and plans to actually develop and address it over the course of the season.

On which note, yes, the Doctor leaving Clara on her own while he infiltrates the clockwork crew in his own way.  We're obviously expected to ask, with Clara, just how far we can trust him now (and given that he pops up exactly when she invites him to, the answer appears to be that we can trust him just fine), but we may as well ask, how far does he expect to be trusted?  Perhaps a little too far?  Given the way in which later episodes show the Doctor falling afoul of his own assumptions about how he can or ought to treat Clara, we might expect the season to build to a revelatory moment of self-assessment, with optional apology.  (In fact we get that in Flatline - the self-assessment, if not the apology - and he does seem to have figured himself out by the time the finale rolls round.)

Lots of interesting and broadly signposted stuff about the question of where the Doctor gets his faces from - which, surprisingly and a bit disappointingly, hasn't been picked up at all in subsequent episodes.  Presumably Moffat is leaving this thread hanging in case he can think of something to do with it in a later season.  It did, however, make for some enjoyable thematic/visual business in this episode.

Nice to see Madame Vastra and Jenny being developed a bit more as characters rather than just presented as the comedy action lesbians again.  Strax is increasingly being lumbered with the farcical/slapstick business, which may become wearing in due course, but so far I'm OK with it.  Fandom wanted more of these characters, and fandom is getting more of these characters, and by and large it's working out peachily.  They're starting to take on the cosy feel of the UNIT family, with Vastra's in-context quote of the Brigadier's line "Here we go again" providing a further wink and a nod in that direction.

Overall a very confident season opener.  It may echo and reference earlier eras of DW, most obviously the Pertwee (Brigadier quote as mentioned, dinosaur in central London) and Tennant years (rehash of the clockwork droid concept from The Girl in the Fireplace, hot air balloon ride over Victorian London), but it doesn't rely on these moments to cushion the impact of the new Doctor.  Peter Capaldi's already quite comfortable in the part he's clearly always wanted to play, aping Tom Baker here and there but finding his own way too.  The "veil" scene between Madame Vastra and Clara is a direct challenge to any viewers who might be struggling to adjust - he is the Doctor, whether you like it or not.  (And in stark contrast to the end of the 1984 season, after one story with the new Doctor, I do like.)

Into the Dalek

This looks a lot like a "new recipe" version of 2005's Dalek - lone Dalek, moral compare-and-contrast between the Doctor and the Daleks, even down to the almost-quote of calling the Doctor "a good Dalek".  But where Dalek simply juxtaposed the actions and behaviour of the Doctor and the lone Dalek, here we take a close look at the inside of the protagonists' heads - not just into the Dalek, but into the Doctor as well.

The picture we get is painted in broad strokes - perhaps necessarily, after all this is only 45 minutes of family entertainment - but it's a bold picture all the same.  The idea that it actually would be possible for the Doctor to (literally) change the Daleks' minds is something DW has only ever touched on once (The Evil of the Daleks, 1967); the idea that the one obstacle to this is his own hatred of the Daleks is revolutionary.  The Doctor could actually reform his deadliest enemies, if he could only get over his own past experience of them and his preconceived ideas of them.  This is a highly provocative statement for the show to make - I would say timely, but it's not as if there's ever been a time when DW couldn't have made this statement and had it appear relevant.

As if to emphasise the Doctor's role as part of the problem, we get some standout moments of callousness from the Doctor, first towards the pilot he saves at the start of the episode, but more memorably in his sacrifice of the trigger-happy soldier and his "Top layer if you want to say a few words" later on.  It'll take the Doctor a few more episodes to file off the rough edges of his pragmatism (see also Mummy on the Orient Express); at least in this particular episode, and at this early stage of this particular season, it's not out of place.

There's not a lot more to say about this story.  I grant that it's light on plot, but I do like it very much - hot contender for best post-2005 Dalek story, for what the competition's worth - and thematically it's one of the stronger links in this season.  And ideologically, it's very much my DW.

Robot of Sherwood

Mark Gatiss, a lightweight historical story - this review could pretty much write itself.  And yet it's still a pretty good episode - with about half the season tied for first place, it's still going to rank fairly low in the season for me, but I'd put it ahead of other episodes to be discussed in due course.  The Sheriff's amusingly low-stakes villain rant was a high point.


Not at all suprising to see this episode made it onto the Hugo Award shortlist.  I think this is the moment when Moffat's experiments with the fairytale nature of DW finally come together, in a weird examination of the Doctor's relationship with the whole concept of monsters.  The creature in little Danny Pink's room and the creatures outside the base at the end of the universe clearly exist, but they're never explained.  They may not even be the same creatures, and as it turns out they're certainly not the same creature that the child Doctor feared was hiding under his bed.  They're less important than the Doctor's own fear of the unknown, says the episode; if he can overcome that, he may find that what he thought were monsters can in fact be friends.  A worthy theme for DW, and one that carries over into the next episode.

(In light of the series finale, it's worth wondering where Orson Pink comes from, assuming he still exists at all.  Perhaps events in the finale (and follow-on in the Christmas special) weren't that final after all...)

Time Heist

What appears to be a morally questionable heist story turns out to be a thoroughly compassionate rescue story.  It's all a question of what the characters know and what they assume.  Another episode that does a great job of overturning some stale story structures and viewer assumptions, while still looking good and providing surface entertainment.  DW has definitely found its groove again.

The Caretaker

Strange that the Doctor should take such exception to Danny being an ex-military maths teacher - after all, cut back to Mawdryn Undead and you find his old pal the Brigadier in the exact same position.  (What's that you say - a foreshadowing reference to the Brigadier?)

So, a low-key character episode with laughs and a largely incidental generic alien menace.  Gareth Roberts is evidently the go-to writer for this variety of story.  Underneath the comedy, the character work is surprisingly sharp and fits nicely in retrospect with later developments.  Perhaps not one of the keystone episodes of this season, but what it does, it does well.

Kill the Moon

Yes, the science on this one is laughable.  It's not as if DW has troubled itself greatly in the past to get science right, but certainly this episode is an extreme example.  And yet...

There is an argument, which has spread through fandom like wildfire, that this episode can be read as a commentary on issues relating to abortion; I think this is quite plausible.  The argument further runs that this episode is making a pro-life (or, if you prefer, anti-choice) statement, on the grounds that Clara makes a unilateral decision not to abort the moon-dragon, and that she's proven right; I think that that's a misreading of the episode.  The real substance of the episode, and of the subtext, is the Doctor's refusal to make the choice for Clara, to the point that he disappears for much of the episode in order to force her to make the choice herself.  It has to be, can only be, the woman's decision (and note also the Doctor's lampshady remark about "womankind") - and moreover, the individual woman's decision, hence the business of having Clara ignore what the rest of humanity is telling her to do, which doesn't make a lot of sense in a pro-life interpretation of this subtext.  Clara's anger towards the Doctor later on seems to stem not so much from the fact that he presented her with this choice at all as from the fact that he didn't stick around to help; the issue seems to be not that he didn't tell her what to do but that she couldn't use him as a sounding-board while she made her decision.  So if we're going to read an abortion subtext into this episode, I think the message we should take away from it is that it has to be the woman's choice, but that she shouldn't be denied moral support in making her choice.

As far as the actual textual decision to have her not kill the moon-dragon is concerned - well, look, it's DW, a show that celebrates diversity and not solving problems by killing.  Given a straight choice, there was little chance the scriptwriter would opt to resolve the episode any other way.  This is simply in keeping with the Doctor's little pep speech at the end about humanity reaching out to the stars, and with the show's history in general.

So is it a problem that this story presents the familiar old Moon as an eggshell for a growing (presumably transdimensional, how else to fudge away explain the change in mass/gravity) space creature?  There are all sorts of real-world science problems in having the moon-dragon lay a replacement Moon of identical size and appearance, or having the tidal waters just in front of where the Doctor and co stand at the episode's end be completely unaffected by it all.  It's bollocks, yes.  But, eh...  I'm inclined to claim that it's magic realism and simply belongs at a strange angle to the normal run of DW.  As ridiculous as this episode seems on a surface viewing, thematically it works, somehow, or at least I believe it does.  Which is more than can be said for episode 10 of this season.

Mummy on the Orient Express

Back in the groove again, with an episode that plays like something straight out of the Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker songbook (and note also Capaldi's dead-on Tom voice when he's talking to himself, and some unmistakeable homage to Dudley Simpson's style in Murray Gold's soundtrack).  Welcome, welcome, welcome Jamie Mathieson, who turns out two excellent episodes in succession, very different from each other yet both very Whoish, and here's hoping he'll be back next year.

Presumably the whole matter of Call-Me-Gus and his puppetmasters has been left hanging for a reason.  Something to look at again after the 2015 season has aired.  I thought the scene on the beach at the end of this episode was a tremendous comment on the Capaldi Doctor's morality - possibly a little overdue two thirds of the way through the season.  And Jo loved the lounge jazz version of "Don't Stop Me Now".  I haven't told her about the Series 8 soundtrack CD yet.  Let's see how long it takes her to notice this blog post.


This one's my personal favourite of the season - as I may have mentioned before, I'm a sucker for stories that play around with the TARDIS.  All the dimensional shenanigans in this episode are brilliantly realised and a great science fictional idea for DW to play with.  Also notable for being set in a parallel universe Bristol that has underground trains - eh wot?  Best Bristol accent on display, tragically, was the first guy in the community service group to be killed.  Still, we don't watch this show for its convincing portrayal of the West Country, and at least it wasn't plain old London.

The one bit of the episode I would have happily left on the cutting room floor was the scene of the Doctor pointlessly giving the 2D creatures a monster name, presumably just so that the merchandisers have got something to work with.  Otherwise, perfick.

In the Forest of the Night

DW ventures into the realms of magic realism again, but this time the thematic material is lacking - what, "trees are good"? - and the episode ends up being a dribbling mess.  I've tried to compose a more detailed response to this story, but I just can't seem to avoid using the words "or some shit".  Probably best to drop it.  It's just... gah.

Dark Water

An episode which gets its title from a substance that has been created for the sole purpose of hiding the Cybermen in plain sight of the viewer, and for no other meaningful purpose.  I don't have much to add to that.  Some very nice work from Michelle Gomez as Missy - let's face it, she's carrying this episode.

Death in Heaven

So let's talk about the transgender Master.  This subject could sustain several academic essays, and I look forward to seeing them in fanthologies to come.

My first thought is that this does interesting things to the long-standing slash fiction interpretation of the relationship between the Doctor and the Master.  RTD already did interesting things with that in Last of the Time Lords when he pretty much implied that it was the Doctor, not the Master, who was wrestling with an unrequited Time Lord love.  Moffat seems to reject that take - the Master can't have failed to notice that the Doctor, particularly the version she last met, is strongly attracted to human women, so having her turn up now in a female body looks like a deliberate ploy for the Doctor's attention and affection.  Note also the aggressive kiss in the previous episode.

But that gets in the way of the more simple but equally interesting fact of just having the Master turn up in a female body.  Previous throwaway references to the gender fluidity of the Time Lords are finally embodied on screen.  And of course, fans who've been asking why the Doctor can't be played by a woman are given a sop, and a strong piece of fresh ammunition.  Or are they?

On the one hand, yes, having the Master change gender does look like a dry run for the possibility of casting a woman as the Doctor.  On the other hand, Moffat has previously been dismissive - almost to the point of outright insult - of the idea that the Doctor might change gender.  And then, note how, through the character of Missy, Moffat symbolically attacks the younger generation of fandom twice in this episode: first when she vaporises Seb for squeeing, casting a pitying look directly at the camera as she does so; then when she kills Osgood, who once again is seen cosplaying as the Doctor.  Is Moffat pandering to the fans, or cruelly mocking them?

It's a tough one to call, especially when you have the beloved character of the Brigadier resurrected as a jet-propelled flying version of Kroton the Friendly Cyberman.  Is that thumbing the nose at older, more conservative fans and their sacred cows?  An invitation to them to dismiss the episode and everything in it?  A way for Moffat to show that he's sympathetic to the idea of transgender Time Lords by contrasting it with something really outrageous?  A way for him to double down on his previous dismissal of the idea - "well, if you're going to have that, you might as well have this"?  Just another zany, punk-rockin', DW-can-do-what-it-likes idea thrown into the mix?  Am I reading too much into all of this?

The last scene is a lovely one, with the Doctor and Clara both lying about having got what they wanted.  Clara's relationship with the Doctor - in 2014, at least - has practically been defined by lying, usually to Danny.  It'll be interesting to see how that pans out in 2015 in Danny's absence.

Overall, a finale that just about sticks the landing, and one of those rare occasions when the second part is at least as good as the first.  The unsurprising return of Missy has already been confirmed, hooray; knowing Mr Moffat's general approach to character deaths, I wouldn't be too surprised if we haven't seen the last of Danny Pink or the Cyber-Brigadier either.

Last Christmas

Not much to say about this one.  It's a Christmas episode, so my expectations are lowered; it's actually better than many previous Christmas episodes, probably the best Moffat Who has provided thus far.  It makes a modest amount of sense, it doesn't rely on "the tears of a family at Christmas", and it actually moves the characters forward.  Love the cheeky banter with Santa and his elves at the start.  I kind of hoped Moffat might actually stick with the old version of Clara at the end, but hey.


Sarah said...

Hey new post!

Watching Gomez's portrayal of the Master made me appreciate Antony Ainley's Master much more. I think what I miss, and what Ainley did so well in recreating, is the part of the relationship between the Doctor and the Master where they could work together. Ainley and Delgardo (master of the Master!) portrayed this in such a way that it was in his interest to work with the Doctor whilst still working towards his own goal and still being "evil". Whereas Gomez took the "I'm crazy so therefore I'm going to do something that makes no sense" route.

John Toon said...

True, there was a lot of "Hey, I'm bonkers, me!" going on. But I guess that's the line they've been taking with the Master in New Who - qv the retcon of John Simms' Master being mad because of Rassilon's back door out of the Time War, or whatever that was all about. And besides, the Master probably would be mad by now.

There was kind of a hint of "I want to force the Doctor to work with me in my evil plan" about handing him a police force of Cybermen, but I agree that the script put the emphasis more on "I want to snog the Doctor while popping his friends like balloons". But still, I did find Michelle Gomez's performance very watchable.