November 10, 2014

Doctor Who: Season 8 in review

With all 12 episodes now broadcast, it's time to look back and reflect on Doctor Who's much-anticipated eighth season. It featured a new Doctor in the shape of Peter Capaldi, and several new writers and directors, but by and large was a stable continuation of the series that's been running on the BBC in one form or another since 2005.

Each time I review a science fiction TV series I use a very simple 'quality ratio', where each episode is given a very simple score of either 'good' or 'bad'. The quality ratio reflects the percentage of good episodes in the season; in the case of Season 8 that ratio was ultimately 67%. Eight good episodes and four bad ones. That hardly paints a detailed picture, however, so it's worth looking back and re-assessing the season as a whole to see what worked and what didn't.

Things that worked

  • Peter Capaldi. He was an obvious and brilliant choice for the Doctor, and he played the part with energy and intelligence. Importantly he presented an enormous contrast to Matt Smith's 11th Doctor, and proved to audiences (and, I suspect, BBC management) that the series still works brilliantly with a middle-aged man in the title role.
  • Jenna Coleman and Clara. Now last year I actively loathed both the character of Clara and Jenna Coleman's performance. In particular I hated Coleman's poor diction, which often made her dialogue difficult to understand without really leaning in to the television and concentrating very hard. Season 8 saw an enormous improvement: the scripts gave the character much better material, and Coleman relaxed into the part, stopped mucking around so much to hide her Blackpool accent, and suddenly became intelligible.
  • Samuel Anderson and Danny Pink. Part of why Clara worked so well this year is that they gave her another character with whom to share a romance. Samuel Anderson played Danny very well, and I found him an immensely appealing character. His final fate was, to be honest, a bit of a foregone conclusion, but while we had him in the series he was a wonderful asset.
  • The Nethersphere arc. For once a season-long story arc that worked. Previous attempts to foreshadow the season finale throughout the year were either hopelessly half-assed like Russell T Davies' code word approach, or needlessly convoluted like Steven Moffat's 'timey-wimey' shenanigans. This year it was simply, intriguing and built up perfectly to the final two episodes.
  • Michelle Gomez and Missy. Gomez played the Master brilliantly, carefully balancing silly over-the-top lunacy reminiscent of John Simm's take on the character with a more measured, serious approach that enabled me to believe this was the same character that used to battle Jon Pertwee's third Doctor. I really hope she gets to return in Season 9. She was funny, entertaining, wonderfully murderous ('Say something nice.') and proved once and for all that an audience won't have a problem changing a Time Lord's gender. I honestly think a female Doctor is only one or two incarnations away.
  • Jamie Mathieson. He came in fresh to the series, and wrote two outstanding episodes in a row. I really hope he's invited back. I really hope he's happy to return.
  • Rachel Talalay. The same goes for Rachel Talalay, who directed the hell out of "Dark Water" and "Death in Heaven". Contemporary TV is often described as 'cinematic', and that often means over-the-top visual spectacle and explosions. Talalay's episodes were actually cinematic: they were shot to look like feature films: proper, thoughtful composions, strong mise-en-scene and intelligent editing. The BBC really lucked out in attracting her across the Pond to contribute.
Things that didn't work

  • The science. Doctor Who has always been a hand-waving sort of science fiction series, putting crazy ideas and whimsy ahead of fidelity to biology or physics. This attitude was taken a full step further this year, and for a lot of viewers stretched it to breaking point. It pretty much peaked with "Kill the Moon", where the moon was an egg infested with the universe's most bizarrely complex-looking single-celled organisms that managed to birth an identically sized egg within seconds of hatching. On an emotional level I thought "Kill the Moon" was wonderful, but it's difficult to argue that the science wasn't frighteningly out of whack.
  • CyberBrig. I've said my piece on this: catastrophically tacky and unwarranted.
  • Old blood. The season included return engagements for writers like Mark Gatiss and Gareth Thomas, and they both contributed the worst work they've ever done for the franchise. In the case of Gatiss, and I've had two months to think about this carefully, he really did contribute the worst episode of Doctor Who ever made. Given the stronger results gained from fresh writers like Mathieson and Peter Harness, it's maybe time to retire the old guard and focus on some new faces.
  • Steven Moffat. I'm not the sort of fan who foams at the mouth proclaiming that it's executive producer has ruined their favourite show, and demand their sacking by the BBC. I'm also a big fan of Steven Moffat. Press Gang was an integral part of my adolescence. I think Coupling is one of the finest sitcoms of the past quarter-century. I loved what he did with Jekyll. He's also responsible for some of the best episodes Doctor Who has ever had. And I'm very ready for him to move on.
Let's break out of the dot points, because Moffat really is where I find myself most preoccupied when thinking about Season 8. I think it's inevitable that if you filter a series through one writer for enough years in a row, you're going to suffer from diminishing returns. By the 2009 specials I was desperate for Russell T Davies to move on, because I felt like his scripts were becoming self-similar and predictable, and his penchant for bigger and bigger climaxes was reaching ludicrous proportions. When Moffat took over in 2010 it felt like a genuine breath of fresh air, and Season 5 felt immensely enjoyable as a result: new Doctor, new tone, new style.

Jump forward to 2014, and while there's a new Doctor we're still working on the same style and tone Doctor Who has worked with since 2010. There's still the focus on fairytale and folklore over science fiction. Plot and adventure is still losing out to romance and soap opera. With a few exceptions the entire season felt as if it could have been performed by Matt Smith with few changes beyond cosmetic ones.

There was a remarkable opportunity here, and it only comes along once every three or four years, for Doctor Who to re-imagine itself for another generation of viewers. This was the perfect time to strike out with a new executive producer, new writers and an entirely fresh tone and aesthetic, and instead we got a fourth season of Steven Moffat. There was plenty in this season I liked, but even during the good bits I found myself regretting that we didn't get something new as well.

So my final thought on Season 8 is this: I love Steven Moffat, and I've really enjoyed his tenure as executive producer, but it's past due for him to move on. I want to see him exercise his considerable talent on new television dramas and comedies, and fresh ideas and characters, and I want to see someone completely new come in and shake Doctor Who to its foundations. The series never lasted 51 years by standing still.

The Best Episodes
  • "Dark Water"
  • "Flatline"
  • "Mummy on the Orient Express"
The Worst Episodes
  • "Robots of Sherwood"
  • "The Caretaker"
  • "In the Forest of the Night"

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