Reviewing Doctor Who: Series 8, Episodes 1-6

I haven’t reviewed Doctor Who since December 2013, even though Series 8 began to air weeks ago. The Lad and I have just watched Episode 7 and I hadn’t yet put finger to keyboard! Well I’ve been procrastinating long enough, so here we go.

Series 8 begins with the 11th (or, in truth, the 12th) Doctor, having just regenerated into the 12th (or 13th) Doctor. He’d just faced death having used all of his allotted 12 regenerations (the War Doctor having been inserted into the cannon as the Time Lord’s real 9th incarnation, and the 10th – or 11th – Doctor having managed to regenerate once without changing his appearance), but the Time Lords reached out from their extra-dimensional exile to grant him a new regeneration cycle (another 1? Or 12? Or as many as he needs?). I am tempted to grant proper deference to John Hurt and call Peter Capaldi’s brand new incarnation the 13th Doctor, but no-one else seems to be doing so and I don’t want to cause confusion. I guess the rest of fandom is honouring the Time Lord’s assertion that Hurt’s Doctor was not the Doctor in truth, having disavowed the actions of that incarnation. So I will refer to Capaldi as the Twelfth, grudgingly.

Episode 1: Deep Breath

A dinosaur materialises in Victorian London and spits out the TARDIS onto the banks of the river Thames, from which emerges the freshly regenerated Twelfth Doctor and Clara Oswald. We will later learn that, as the TARDIS spun out of control through time and space following the Doctor’s regeneration, it had been swallowed by the poor beast, which was consequently drawn into the time vortex along with the careening vessel. They are greeted by the Paternoster Gang – Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax – as well as the police.

The Doctor is in the midsts of his usual post-regenerative whacko-act, but the apparent spontaneous combustion of the poor Thames-haunting dinosaur before he can send it home sparks his empathy, sense of injustice and investigative instincts.  So starts the unfolding of a plot that re-introduces the time-travelling, human-organ-scavenging clockwork service-robots from The Girl in the Fireplace (this lot are identified as crewing the SS Marie Antoinette, sister ship to the SS Madame de Pompadour, buried beneath London’s 19th Century streets). Even more creepy the second time around, these drones are slashing their way through London’s fog-wreathed streets, harvesting their victims’ organs to repair not their wrecked ship but their own clockwork systems, evolving themselves into cyborgs. Eventually the Doctor is brought face-to-face with “The Half-Faced Man”, leader of the clockwork cyborgs, a being trembling on the edge of true living sentience.

Directed by cutting-edge British film maker Ben Wheatley, Deep Breath has a darkly cinematic feel that oozes quality. Series openers featuring a new Doctor typically sacrifice great stories, focusing instead on establishing a new lead actor and dealing with the inevitable confusion of those around them. This story is more interesting perhaps, but not up there with the greats. Nevertheless its fog-and-gaslight atmosphere and menacing steampunk cyborgs deliver some decent thrills and gruesome set-peices (hot-air ballon made from human skin anyone?).

What lifts this episode are performances that do justice to the directorial quality. Clara begins to return to form, having been oddly passive in both The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. She’s feisty, resourceful, brave, intelligent and gobby – just as we like companions to be. But at the same time her emotional vulnerability is laid bare as she portrays the extent to which the Doctor’s new face has left her distressed and uncertain (which is curious, as in The Time of the Doctor she met all twelve previous Docs, and in The Day of the Doctor she hung around with three at the same time, so it isn’t like she wasn’t familiar with the territory).

But of course this new Doctor is not a young, geeky-handsome and flirtatious man. The 9th, 10th and 11th Doctors subconsciously embraced youth and, at times, childish behaviour to disavow the enormity of what they believed they had done during the Time War. Freed from that burden of guilt, the 12th Doctor has embraced aspects of his nature we have not seen since the 7th – maturity, inhumanity, remoteness, ruthlessness. Peter Capaldi makes an immediate and indelible impression and fills the viewer with hope that, in him, we will gain one of the great interpretations of the role. His portrayal of post-regeneration neurosis is original and entertaining, and as he stabilises just gets better and better. He is given an embarrassment of outstanding dialogue to deliver and he does so beautifully, demonstrating his mastery of comedy as well as an imposing, even chilling seriousness. If I have a complaint, it is that the sound quality fails to live up to the production values of the rest of the episode, combining with Capaldi’s rapid-fire, Scots-accented and occasionally whispered delivery to make it quite hard to make out what the Doctor is saying at times. I’ve never before felt as though I’d missed out on so much.

We are also introduced to what promises to be the story arc for this series. The SS Marie Antoinette, led by the Half-Faced Man, was on course for “The Promised Land”, which the Doctor brusquely dismisses as a myth. Yet after his seeming demise, the Half-Faced Man revives in a beautiful landscaped garden where he is met by Missy, a rather odd woman (Green Wing’s eccentric Michelle Gomez) who claims to be the Doctor’s girlfriend, welcoming him to the Promised Land.

There are more nice touches. The TARDIS has had another makeover, and I like it. The Doctor obliquely references the fact that he has seen his own face before (Capadli having played Caecillius in The Fires of Pompeii) and muses on where his faces come from. Clara is finally persuaded to stay with the Doctor when she receives a phone call from the Eleventh Doctor, which he is making as he sits alone in the TARDIS on Trenzalore preparing to regenerate, just before Clara has rejoined him.

A great start to the new series.

Episode 2: Into the Dalek

In the far future, the Doctor saves rebel fighter Journey Blue from her space shuttle, which is under attack by Daleks, and returns her to the command ship Aristotle. Unfortunately the ship’s commander (Journey’s uncle) decides to execute the Doctor as a Dalek spy, just to be on the safe side, forcing Journey to offer the Doctor’s services to assist with their “patient”: a damaged Dalek. To the Doctor’s surprise, this Dalek declares that the Dalek race is evil and must be destroyed. Somehow, the damage inflicted upon it has given it a sense of morality and created a “good” Dalek.

Back at the Coal Hill School where Clara is a teacher, she is introduced to Danny Pink, an Afghanistan war veteran (who clearly carries some psychological scars) who has been hired as a Maths teacher. Clara invites him for a drink, but back at her classroom she is ambushed by the Doctor who says he needs her help.

On the Aristotle, the Doctor, Clara, Journey and two rebel soldiers, Ross and Gretchen, are miniaturized so they can enter the “Rusty”, the damaged Dalek, to determine what is making it “good”. What follows is a tense and effective blend of action and psychodrama (again courtesy of Ben Wheatley) as the miniaturised team fight against the Dalek’s internal defence systems while confronting the fractured, damaged psyche of the Dalek creature – in the process exposing the Doctor’s own psychological demons.

In this episode, the Doctor continues to struggle with understanding his own nature as he earnestly asks Clara if he is a “good man”, and Clara is forced to reply that she does not know. The Doctor expresses an aversion to soldiers, which lays the ground work for conflict with the newly-introduced Danny. And soldier Gretchen – who sacrificed her own life inside Rusty – wakes up in “Heaven”, having tea with the mysterious Missy.

Episode 3: Robot of Sherwood

This Mark Gatiss-scripted episode is pure sci-fi comedy gold. The Doctor agrees to take Clara to visit Robin Hood, all the while dismissing him as a myth. Which proves to be rather inconvenient when they bump into Robin Hood and his Merry Men, plus the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham who is in league with another bunch of time travelling clockwork robots. The Doctor absolutely refuses to believe that Robin is real, which sets the tone for the whole episode.

Tom Riley as Robin and Ben Miller as the Sheriff both have enormous fun, exchanging superb comic banter with both the Doctor and Clara (both of whom go from good to great in this one). Lighthearted brilliance from start to finish, and the Lad absolutely loved it.

Episode 4: Listen
This episode is an intriguing, spooky atmosphere piece built on a clever question: Are we ever truly alone? And a secondary question: What does the Doctor do when he has nothing to do? Musing solitarily, the Doctor asks why we talk to ourselves when we think we’re alone, and what lies behind the universal nightmare of someone under the bed grabbing our leg.

This leads the Doctor and Clara on a mind-bending journey through time to the childhood of Clara’s almost-boyfriend, Danny Pink (the episode includes their first, awkward and fairly disastrous date), and into the unimaginably distant future where they meet stranded time traveller Orson Pink, Danny’s descendant (and, it is hinted, Clara’s). Along the way writer Moffat treats us to some of the scariest Doctor Who moments since Blink, as well as some fine continuity-building: the Doctor and Clara find themselves in an old barn, where a child is in bed, crying under the covers. Clara approaches the child, but is forced to hide under the bed when two people enter and try and coax the child out of the room. Overhearing their conversation, she realises that the child is in fact the Doctor, and his guardians believe he’ll have to become a soldier as he lacks the potential of a true Time Lord. Continuing her inescapable destiny of influencing the Doctor at pivotal moments throughout his life (The Name of the Doctor), the words Clara whispers to the young Gallifreyan boy will stay with him forever. And we realise that the old barn is none other than the same blasted ruin in which the War Doctor secretes the Moment in The Day of the Doctor.

One of the greats, and all the critics agreed.

Episode 5: Time Heist
The Doctor is trying to convince Clara to come with him for a day of sightseeing in the TARDIS as she prepares for a date with Danny Pink, when the TARDIS phone begins to ring. Despite Clara’s protests, the Doctor answers.

So begins an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist caper. It’s fun, and the Lad enjoyed it. It is an effective enough ensemble piece with some entertaining twists and turns, but not one for the memory banks.

Episode 6: The Caretaker

Clara is struggling to maintain two separate lives: one as the Doctor’s companion and the other as a school teacher at Coal Hill School. At the same time, she is engaged in an ever-closer relationship with fellow teacher Danny Pink. Nevertheless, she has mixed feelings when the Doctor informs Clara that she cannot join him on his next jaunt as he is going ‘deep undercover’. The next morning in the school staffroom, the head teacher presents a temporary caretaker: the Doctor, under the alias John Smith.

Clara eventually learns the Doctor is staking out the school to try an apprehend a murderous robot called the Skovox Blitzer. Clara wants the Doctor to leave it alone, but the Doctor explains that if he does not act, it poses a terrible danger to the whole planet. Meanwhile, one of Clara and Danny’s students, Courtney Woods, becomes suspicious of the Doctor when she sees the TARDIS hidden inside his cupboard.

To make matters worse, the Doctor meets Danny, and on learning he is a former soldier shows disdain and assumes he is a PE teacher. Danny is himself shocked to learn of Clara’s double life, assuming that she is an alien and the Doctor is her father.  When the Blitzer shows up during parent-teacher evening, both Clara and Danny are drawn into a desperate attempt to save the school – and the planet – from the Blitzer’s rampage.

Let me just get something out of the way before going any further: the Skovox Blitzer robot is utterly, completely rubbish, just about the worst monster seen in the entire revived series. However, perhaps that is the point, as it allows the characters of the Doctor, Clara and Danny to shine through. Capaldi’s Doctor just gets better and better, Clara’s return to form is complete, and Danny is engaging and likeable. The dialogue is fizzing and the dynamic is believable. No more flirty Doctor here, but instead we have fatherly Doctor who doesn’t approve of Clara’s choice of boyfriends. At the same time, we know he has got completely the wrong idea about Danny. Our overall concern is not the danger presented by rubbish robot, but the growing feeling that Clara is still struggling to adjust to the new Doctor, and her relationship with Danny might soon eclipse her relationship with the Time Lord.

Other important plot developments include Courtney’s brief trip in the TARDIS (it makes her sick), and the revival of a hapless police officer (vaporized by the Skovox a few days ago) in the Promised Land where he is being interviewed by “Seb”, one of Missy’s subordinates (played by Capaldi’s old The Thick of It partner Chris Addison).

About Mark Winter

Dark Fantasy novelist (INFERNAL PREY). Blogging on politics and current affairs (GibberLog), science and history (BlatherLog), sci-fi, fantasy & horror (WittlerLog), business, product development & start-ups (MutterLog). View all posts by Mark Winter

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