Doctor Who Series 8 in Review

So, I fell off the wagon in terms of reviewing each episode each week, mainly because I stopped watching them weekly and started saving them up to binge-watch with company. Also, Busy Mikey is Busy.

But now, the series is over and I've got stuff to say about it. WITH SPOILERS, so be careful.

First, let's go through the ratings and some mini-reviewing per episode. On a 1-10 scale...

  • "Deep Breath": 6. Sloppy Moffat is Sloppy. But Capaldi was fun.
  • "Into the Dalek": 6. Nothing really new here. Daleks. Yawn.
  • "Robot of Sherwood": 7. Fun, but I never believed there was any danger.
  • "Listen": 8. This is where Capaldi starts to really come into his own. A bit too timey-wimey, but an improvement on the others.
  • "Time Heist": 9. I loved this one a lot, and I didn't expect to. I guessed the twist but I didn't care. This one had a "Classic Who" vibe to it that's hard to pin down.
  • "The Caretaker": 7. The Doctor is really terrible having to pretend he belongs to the real world. You'd think a 2,000 year old man would have learned better how to go undercover. It's also not at all clear why he felt Coal Hill School was a good idea at all. Throw-away line about how the Blitzer was likely drawn to the area by all the artron energy floating around should have been followed up on -- the only reason there's so much artron energy around that vicinity is because of how often the Doctor himself has been there!
  • "Kill the Moon": 4 or 8, depending on whether I can disengage my knowledge of what the Moon is actually composed of -- knowledge any schmuck with Wikipedia can look up easily and that has been verified in various ways -- or not. Dramatically, this episode is actually fantastic. But the story is predicated on willful ignorance of demonstrated scientific reality.
  • "Mummy on the Orient Express": 9. I expected to hate this episode, actually, and I actually rather liked it. Like "Time Heist", it has something of a "Classic Who" vibe, while retaining modern pacing. This is the story where we most clearly learn what the 12th Doctor's thought processes are like, and why he seems so callous. He's not the first Doctor to behave this way, mind you, but Capaldi somehow accentuates this aspect of the Doctor's nature, about which more in a bit.
  • "Flatline": 8. The scientific premise is pretty thin here, but not as incontrovertably terrible as "Kill the Moon". Meanwhile, watching Clara have to really take charge--and hol her own doing it--was pretty delightful, I thought.
  • "In the Forest of the Night": 6. Given that Doctor Who has a very large audience of children, I get that occasionally a story or two has to focus on kids to be relatable. Unfortunately, these stories are rarely very good, because child actors are rarely very good. That said, this story is not without redeeming value, mainly because it gives Danny Pink some substance.[1]
  • "Dark Water": 7. As so often happens with modern-series two-parters, the first half of the season-ender is really just about moving the pieces around on the board so that they're where they need to be. That said, the sequence with Clara threatening to destroy TARDIS keys to force the Doctor to help her bring back Danny is very strong, Kate and Osgood made a lovely entrance, and Capaldi is definitely on his A game. And then, of course, there's the whole Missy reveal, which I can watch over and over again just to see Capaldi's eyebrows attempt to secede from his face.
  • "Death in Heaven": 9. The actual payoff of the finale, on the other hand, was somewhat more like it. With Missy's identity revealed, Michelle Gomez really is full-on bananas in the role. Some might disagree with me, but I think that her interpretation of The Master is second only to Roger Delgado's. In the end, the story is marred by two key things:
    1. Osgood's death. Not forgiving that one anytime soon.
    2. The way the Doctor and Clara finally part company. I know it gets resolved in the Christmas Special (and would have regardless of whether Jenna Coleman was staying), but I still kind-of don't like it.

I haven't watched "Last Christmas", yet, and anyway, I don't consider it part of the series, per se, so that will get its own review later.

So, here's the thing about this season overall: there's no 10 in it...but it's really pretty consistently adequate. Most of the stories are fun to watch, and that counts for a lot.

But here's what stands out the most for me: for the first time since Moffat took over as show-runner, the companion -- Clara Oswald -- is a character, and not a plot device. Amy solo, Amy and Rory together, River Song, Victorian Clara, and Modern Clara during S7.5 were all really plot devices, and were treated as such. Their character development was minimal, and they were yanked around in ways that were designed to force the Doctor to act in response. They weren't people, at least, not consistently.

This began to change with "Day of the Doctor", the 50th Anniversary story. Clara doesn't really get a lot of screen time compared to the three Doctors, but with the Impossible Girl storyline mostly played out, she gets to actually just be the Doctor's friend. She doesn't get much time in this state with Matt Smith, but that may be OK. I don't know that she really had the chemistry with Smith that she has with Capaldi, anyway.

In many ways, this season is much more about Clara as a person than about the Doctor, although Twelve's character definitely evolves over the course of the series. Her relationship with Danny is frankly never quite believable, mainly because we so rarely get to see them just being together. But her relationship with the Doctor becomes more and more believable. She is, frankly, addicted to the experience of being his companion; and he really needs someone he can work with, someone to call him to account when he's really being an ass, or forgetting to think about how his actions affect real people. This has been one of the functions of the companions from the earliest days in 1963, and Clara, who takes no shit whatsoever, is perfect for it.

If there's any problem at all, it's that Clara (2014) almost seems like a completely different person from Clara (2012). Having not really developed her character much in Series 7.5 or the anniversary, the conception of Clara the Control Freak comes almost out of left field when it's introduced in full in "Deep Breath". In short, it's almost like Clara herself has regenerated, and it makes me wonder if the whole year-long character arc was originally intended for a new companion.

If the performances of Coleman as Clara and Capaldi as Twelve are the unquestionable highlights of the series, the reliance execreble science to drive some of the plots is the low point. Even if it stood alone in this regard, "Kill the Moon" would drag the whole series down a long way, but it doesn't. "Flatline" and "In the Forest..." are each almost as bad in their own way. I'm perfectly OK with Clarke's Law -- which a train in space falls under, for example, in my book -- but pretending like we have no idea what the Moon is actually made out of is just absurd, and frankly insulting, not whimsical. The fact that the dramatic strucutre of the story works very well almost makes it worse, not better, because all that excellent acting and dramatic tension and realistic interpersonal conflict between Clara and the Doctor is blown on a truly impossible premise.

All in all, however, I'm actually happy with Series 8. I think Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor is exactly what the show needed to kick it in the pants right now, and that he's clearly having the time of his life with the role. Coleman's Clara Oswald is finally interesting as a character and I find myself genuinely glad that she's sticking around. I really want to see what her and the Doctor's relationship is like now that they've come to really know each other.

The main question that remains is whether Moffat can maintain the kind of focus that made "The Day of the Doctor" and "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven" genuinely good, or whether Sloppy Moffat will reassert himself as he did with "Deep Breath".

[1] It also introduces a continuity problem. At least two Classic Who stories and one New Who story is based on the idea that a solar flare will successfully sterilize the Earth's surface, requiring various groups to find means of escape to preserve themselves ("The Ark in Space", "The Sontaran Experiment" and "The Beast Below"). Where was the spontaneous forest for that disaster?