Wednesday 12 November 2014

Verdict: Doctor Who Series 8

Doctor Who Series 8 saw the show break new ground - with a new, grumpier Doctor at the helm, the BBC's flagship sci-fi show plunged into darker, and grimier territory across 12 stellar episodes. From a spider-infested Moon base to Robin Hood and his band of merry men, here is my verdict on Doctor Who Series 8. 

Deep Breath - 6.5/10

Doctor Who's feature-length season opener probably wasn't the strongest episode to kick off the Capaldi era. However, there were some genuinely good moments in here.

After completing his regeneration, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in Victorian London investigating some mysterious clockwork robots and murders.

A setting that has been done one too many times before, it was the Pasternoster Gang that saved this episode from mediocrity. Fan-favourites Jenny and Vastra are always a hoot, and one scene in particular where Vastra questions Clara on the Doctor was a stand-out moment. However, am I the only one getting a little tired of the Strax schtick?

The villains were also weak, recycling a plot strand from Series 2 in a way that felt half-arsed. The 'hold your breath' idea was clever, but the threat simply wasn't imposing enough for Capaldi's first spin in the TARDIS.

Into the Dalek - 8/10

Only two episodes in and Moffat makes sure the Doctor's greatest enemy are already ticked off the list.

Into the Dalek was a good episode of Doctor Who, even if it did resemble Dalek (from Series 1) a little too much at times. I thought it took a classic villain in a new direction, something that is often tricky after 50 years of recurring enemies.

After the familiar territory of the first half, things came good when the moral ambiguity of Capaldi's Doctor was called into question by none other than a villainous Dalek. When the Doctor asks Clara "Am I a good man?", you really do feel for him, even after just two episodes. It's also something that resonates throughout the season, and was a nice intro to that arc.

On the whole, a clever premise that was cleanly executed -  the tense corridor fighting was a cool throwback to classic sci-fi horror flicks like Aliens.

Robot of Sherwood - 6/10

Robot of Sherwood contrasted greatly with the previous episode - where Into the Dalek had been tense, claustrophobic and teeming with big moral quandaries, Robot of Sherwood was a frothier and lighter side to the newly appointed Doctor.

After landing in Sherwood Forest, the Doctor is keen to prove to Clara that Robin Hood in nothing more than a myth - oh, how wrong he is.

What follows is more Men in Tights than Prince of Thieves, as all sorts of medieval shenanigans take place between the Doctor and Robin. Did someone say spoon duel?

It doesn't hurt to have a fun, self-contained episode once in a while, and thankfully, Robot of Sherwood was better than most Doctor Who episodes that venture into the past (we're looking at you, A Town Called Mercy). However, that being said, the ending was a bit goofy.

Listen - 9/10

Listen was described by many media outlets as the best Doctor Who episode since Blink. Do I agree? Hmm, maybe? Kinda? It's certainly a contender for one of the best since the 2005 reinvention - there were some really clever ideas swimming around here, and it certainly lent itself well to Moffat's style. But, on the whole, I think there have been better, less divisive episodes of the show (Blink, The Empty Child, Day of the Doctor).

Anyway, what was so great about Listen? Well, personally, I liked the unconventional structure, the pacing (which was slower, not as frantic) and the lack of actual, concrete villain. The episode revolved around a very simple, and clever, premise, as the best Doctor Who episodes do - what is that thing you hear creaking under your bed? Is it there? Is it real?

The ending (which I quite liked) did stir up some trouble though - Moffat does have a tendency to retcon and rewrite past pieces of the shows internal timeline, and the decision to have Clara visit the Doctor's childhood rattled some cages. Personally, I thought the throwback (and chilling barn revisit from Day of the Doctor) was inspired, and made for one of the most intriguing and talked-about episodes for a long time.

Time Heist - 8/10

Not only is Time Heist an awesome title, but it's also an awesome episode. It pretty much had everything - an awesome setting, a killer premise and even killer-er (more killer?) enemy.

The creature design on the menacing Teller is superb, one of the most impressive aliens we've seen in the show for years.

I also really liked the look of this episode, the oh-so Doctor Who corridors and interior settings being dressed up with colourful extras, inventive use of lighting and some seriously pants-wetting tension. That scene where Clara is cornered by the Teller? That was some very creepy stuff right there.

Also, in grand Doctor Who fashion, the end resolution was a fun, inventive one packed with all sorts of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. On the whole, this episode was an all-round cracker.

The Caretaker - 8.5/10

When I heard the premise for The Caretaker, I cringed. Set in Coal Hill School? The Doctor masquerades as a caretaker? A whole episode about Danny Pink? Ehh, sounds too much like School Reunion from Series 2. Perfectly pleasant filler, but not much else, the kind of thing usually packed into the middle of a season (as this episode was).

In actual fact, this was a really brilliant episode. It has a narrow focus (one that centres on a single foe, not millions), and it works really well as take the time to explore the interlocking relationship between Clara, Danny and the Doctor.

Firstly, the Doctor's caretaker schtick was hilarious (yaay, he mentioned River!) and Clara struggling to juggle her dual lives was fun. When they finally brought the Doctor and 'P.E' together and introduced one another, the resultant banter and quips didn't disappoint.

On the downside, this episode did introduce Courtney. The less said about her, the better.

Kill the Moon - 5.5/10

It all started out so promising for Kill the Moon, but as is so often the case with Doctor Who, you end up feeling like the writers just left themselves with too much of a corner to write out of. What began as an intriguing premise (the Earth's Moon is collapsing inwards, and a rescue team is dispatched to solve it) ended so disastrously, it makes you wonder how the episode ever made it past the original draft stage.

If it hadn't been for the implausible ending, this would've scored a lot higher. But let's face it - the ending sucked. Sucked, sucked, sucked. I mean, what the hell?! The Moon is an EGG?! A GIANT SPACE EGG. THIS WHOLE TIME.

So, of course, the damn thing starts to crack and all of a sudden a giant space flea thing pops out and zooms away, only to be replaced with an equally large egg of its own. Hmm.

Of course, this episode scores bonus points for the character drama - the conflict between Clara and the Doctor was excellent, and is actually a bold decision that worked. Jenna Coleman's range as an actress really shone through here. If only the fantastic character writing and acting had been backed up by a plausible and watertight conclusion (although, when is the plot ever 'watertight' on Doctor Who?)

Mummy on the Orient Express - 8/10

This, on first impression, felt a bit like a nothing episode. A stop-gap. Clara and the Doctor visit the Orient Express, wacky adventures with an Egyptian mummy ensue, they save the day and whisk off back to Blighty. Simples.

Well, not quite. Mummy on the Orient Express actually turned out to be one of the best stand-alone episodes in a long-time, again owing to the slower pace and concentration on character development. Confined to the interior of the train for pretty much the whole episode, this 'whodunnit' (or rather, 'howdiddydoit') was Doctor Who essentially doing a bottle episode, which as we know from Community, is just "wall to wall facial expressions and emotional nuance."

And sometimes, with Doctor Who, that's a good thing. Like Series 4's Midnight, Mummy on the Orient Express separated the Doctor and his companion, and the clever script played around with how they operate in a crisis, especially when they're on their own. The Doctor, flat-out lies and sacrifices others to get to the bottom. And Clara? Well, Clara kind of learnt that's what needs to be done sometimes - and that's not nothing for a family show. Like much of this series, this episode got dark at times, and rather chilling. 

Put all this together and you get a solid, good 7/10 episode. The extra 1.5 comes from Jenna Coleman and that eye-popping dress and hair-do - but then again, I'm biased!

Flatline - 9/10

Well this one was a pleasant surprise! If I've learnt anything from this series, it's that I shouldn't automatically write off episodes set on in 21st Century Cardiff Britain. I cross out Cardiff because this time - dun dun dunn! - we're just down the road, in Bristol. The BBC's moving up in the world! 

Anyway, enough cheek. Flatline was a pretty cool premise, interesting written by the same guy as the previous episode. Once again, the Doctor and Clara are cut off - the Doctor, trapped inside a shrinking and underpowered TARDIS must guide Clara through a missing person investigation, as she cheekily assumes the title of Doctor for the day (and even flashes the psychic paper around a bit).

The best part about Flatline was the inventive villains (which I won't spoil!) It's amazing that after 50 years the show can still throw some curveballs like that. There isn't much I can fault Flatline on - Capaldi was great (and grumpy), Coleman was sassy (and cute-as-a-button) and the supporting cast felt more fleshed out than usual. All in all, a stellar episode.

In the Forest of the Night - 3/10

In the immortal words of Krusty the Clown - "what the hell was that?!"

I suppose there is always one episode that ruins it for the rest of them - and this time, that episode was In the Forest of the Night

If someone asked me to outline the plot of this episode, I wouldn't be able to tell them. I'm sure there was something there (I mean, there was certainly a lot of thinly-veiled 'green' morals floating around) but as for how, or why, or what was going on? Not a clue.

For some reason, London (and the planet) is engulfed in a giant forest seemingly overnight. Ooh, you say. That sounds like a tasty set-up for chaos and anarchy. Not so, Doctor Who replies. In fact, here's a group of irritating school kids to spend the next 45-minutes roaming a dull forest with. And Danny Pink, who now possesses the ability to ward of tigers with a flashlight - yeah, that actually did happen.

The only redeeming factor I can draw from this episode were, as always, the lead duo. Capaldi and Coleman were ace, and certainly not wooden (ba-dum-tish!).

Dark Water - 8/10

As penultimate episodes go, Dark Water wasn't the best (The Pandorica Opens) and it wasn't the worst (The Sound of Drums), but it certainly was closer to the former. 

After Danny Pink is hit by a car and dies, Clara and the Doctor venture into the Nethersphere to reclaim him from the dead, somehow. They don't really know how. Nor do we. Just roll with it.

Anyway, there they encounter tombs upon tombs of skeletons sealed in a special fluid that only shows organic matter. These are watched over by a mysterious woman called Missy, who soon reveals that her true identity is...the Master, the Doctor's oldest and most feared enemy. And the skeletons? Why, they're actually Cybermen of course, created from the bodies of every person ever to have died on planet Earth. 

Before long, Missy's Cybermen are marching across London, and the Doctor is powerless to stop them. Meanwhile, Clara is trapped in a room with one and Danny is about to delete the pain he feels for mistakes he made as a soldier, thus beginning the transformation into a Cyberman... 

Swoosh, fade to black, that's a wrap everyone. Tune in next week to find out more. It was a really great cliffhanger, if not slightly soiled by the foreknowledge of the Cybermen being the villains and the not-so-subtle Missy/Mistress/Master link, but hey, I can forgive that. 

All in all, what I liked about Dark Water was the super chilling tone - that millions of dead souls are trapped, crying out not to be cremated after they've died will no doubt resonate with audiences everywhere. It's bone-chilling stuff, and the kind of stuff Doctor Who should endeavour to do more often. 

Death in Heaven - 6/10

After such a promising lead-in, the finale of this season felt a bit limp and anti-climatic. Maybe it's just me, but I felt it lacked the soaring crescendo or cataclysmic bombshell past seasons have had.

Firstly, let's talk about some of the issues. The writing for Missy, in my opinion, was just scattershot. I really wasn't feeling Michelle Gomez as the Master at all, and that's got nothing to do with her being a woman. I think she just lacked the presence or malice of John Simm or Derek Jacobi.

Also, the Cybermen were completely wasted. Again. It's becoming something of a pervading theme across the last few seasons. Sure, they sound menacing and look imposing, but if they're just a tool in Missy's wider plan, they're not going to have the same impact as if they were the primary antagonist.

There are a lot of positives from this episode however - I liked that the sombre and uncompromising approach wasn't restrained. Seriously, how depressing was the ending? Danny's dead, Clara is an emotional-wreck and Missy got one last victory over the Doctor by conning him with her lie about Gallifrey. You could almost hear her screaming "psyche!" from beyond the grave.

And the most heart-wrenching part - Osgood is gone! So credit where credit is due, Doctor Who didn't shy away from killing off a likeable character in its finale, something that isn't exactly family show stuff.

There were elements of Death in Heaven I liked, don't get me wrong. But there were also some major complaints that really detracted from the overall impact. Maybe it'll improve with repeat viewings. Still, how exciting is the prospect of Gallifrey making a return!? With that in mind, hurry up Series 9!

Final Thoughts - 7.1/10 (mean average)

On the whole, Series 8 of Doctor Who was a refreshing step in a new direction for the show. It was suitably dark, and had some nice overarching character storylines for both the Doctor and Clara. Whether the latter's time in the TARDIS has definitively come to an end still remains to be seen, but if that is the last we've seen of Clara, it's a satisfying way for her character to leave things.

Highlights included Listen, Time Heist and Flatline, whilst low-points included In The Forest of the Night and Kill the Moon. The finale was very grim and character-driven, but wasn't as bombastic as past entries.

Ongoing plot threads (Gallifrey) have been extended on to next year, but the prospect remains as tantalising as ever. Should these storylines come to fruition, Series 9 should be a belter.

What were you're thoughts on Doctor Who Series 8? Which episodes stood out for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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