Geek Highs & Lows of 2014: Doctor Who series 8 (part 2)

Doctor Who 8

In my last post I cited Season 8 of Doctor Who as a geek low of 2014. In this post I will be talking about how it was a geek high. Is that being contrary and on the fence? Possibly. However, some things are easy to right off, and others are easy to praise. I love Doctor Who, but I’m not going to be an apologist for it if there’s things I don’t like or things I think have been done poorly. I’m no ‘classicist’ Who fanboy either. Yes, there is more classic Who that I like than new-Who, and I have more affection for it, but there is just more old-Who than the modern-Who, and I grew up with old-Who so it has the warmth of nostalgia for me. I’m definitely not a new-Who hater. It took me a while to warm to Eccleston, but I loved Tennant, and while I thought Smith to be the closest to a ‘classic Doctor’, season 6 and 7 cooled my affections for the show. A show I have loved for over XX years. The perception filters back…

Doctor Who was a big inspiration for me as a kid. Yet, it was a difficult relationship. I fell for it in its final two years in the 80s–when the public largely saw it as a joke and the BBC saw it as an embarrassment. In the weekend years of no new Doctor Who, for me it was easier to come out as gay than a who fan. When it was cancelled I had already started exploring the older Doctor Who stories on video. I didn’t always like what I watched, but Doctor Who was dead, so I always managed to find something in a story to enjoy. I’m well practiced at digging through the rough for something that might sparkle. I’ve recently been rewatching season 5 and enjoying it much more than I remembered the first time around. I’ll do a post on it at some point. I may find myself rewatching season 8 in the future and finding more to enjoy about it and find my appreciation was a victim of my expectations. Thankfully, I’ve said all, well, much of the negative stuff about season 8 and it’s now time to power on with Doctor Who season 8 being a geek high of 2014.

Highs

The new look opening. Why hasn’t anyone thought of doing a clock theme for a time-travel show? How did that not happen in 50 years? It looks classy.

The effects looked great. The dinosaur in Victorian London in ‘Deep Breath’, the solar flare in ‘Time-Heist’, the space Orient Express, the spiders of ‘Kill the Moon’, the St Paul’s cathedral roof opening and flying Cybermen, all really good, some were pretty much movie quality. There were also some good set pieces in some of the episodes I’ve not been so keen on–the restaurant scene of faux diners in ‘Deep Breath’, the shape under the bed covers in ‘Listen’, the spiders in ‘Kill the Moon’. Unsettling. Good stuff!

As for stories, ‘Into the Dalek’ redeemed the series for me after the dire opener ‘Deep Breath’. That episode had my heckles up, and when I saw another captured Dalek I was ready to dismiss the episode as a retread, which it was in several ways as it’s a Dalek/Doctor restating of nature, it’s the whole Dalek factor again, and the Doctor exploring his navel again, the description of the Doctor as ‘good Dalek’ again, which I wholly reject, but it whipped by, was fun, looked good, and gave us a supporting character in Journey Blue (the awesome Zawe Ashton) that I cared about. Would’ve been nice to see her saved in the finale. So, it didn’t feel particularly original. But how many invasions and base under siege episodes have I sat through in Doctor Who and enjoyed the variations on a theme?

This really should have been the opener. Doctor Who has proved we don’t need a regeneration story, I think the show should just get into episodes like this with new Doctors. We’ve had enough stories to know that regenerations can be tough, but they’re not a source of drama or entertainment I can invest myself in, I don’t think were depriving new Who fans of much.

‘Time Heist’ was engaging, with the Doctor and Clara and their companions uprooted from their lives and thrown together without any memory of how they got there and why, it felt like a fresh approach to a Who story and set it off at quite a pace. Despite the Teller looking like something from ‘Space Precinct’ it was demonstrated to be a credible threat. The sunken head look for its victim was particularly effective, not to mention pushing the boundaries of what can be done in a kids show. I bet the lesbian kiss for more complaints than that though *sigh*. His stalking of the protagonists worked well. It was way too timey-wimey for me, but an enjoyable twisty tale as long as you don’t think about it too much.

‘Flatline’ was inspired, and for me was a perfect episode, even with the Doctor shut away he still felt very much part of the story. The 2D creatures were really original, and an ‘invasion’ that’s credibly unnoticeable, and very sinister for it. Too often invasions of historical or contemporary Earth have to be balanced with the impact they can have on the planet, but with this covert invasion it was not an issue. Secret attacks are always more frightening due to the isolation they bring upon those who realise it. The episode also had some very creepy scenes–the police officer drawn into the floor, the moving graffiti people, and the veins on the wall. This is classic Who making the mundane a source of unease and fear. Spot on. More of this please.

The horror of this episode is nicely balanced by the humour that runs throughout. The miniaturised TARDIS was a gag that kept on giving and was used so cleverly. Really fun. The siege mode TARDIS was a cool new element. I want me one of them. With one of these I could finally have a real full-sized TARDIS 🙂 well, at least pretend.

Which leaves me with the two finale episodes as the last worthy mention. That’s not to say the episodes I’ve skipped over were lows, ‘Robots of Sherwood’ was a funny romp, but I wish we could have humour without it being a comedy episode. It needed to be a bit straighter to feel like it had any depth to the plot and credibility to the threats it offered. ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Kill the Moon’ were enjoyable too. Both had effective horror elements, but one was a bit silly and the other a bit un-who like in what the Doctor did. I think you can guess which ones I’m describing. The only stand out aspect of these episodes? Hang on in there, I’m building up to fanboying in a bit…

‘Dark Water/Death in Heaven’. I take my imaginary hat off to the darkness inherent in these episodes. THAT death in the opening moments was a shock. Initially I expected a new-Who reset at any point–right up until the closing moments–but it didn’t happen. What a bold and brave move. If they don’t undo it in the future that is–just where does Orson from ‘Listen’ fit in though?! There is a habit to leave lose ends untied in new-Who.

The story itself had a good build to it, even though it suffered with the necessary divide between Danny’s story and that of the Doctor and Clara. The catacombs of the decomposing dead was another effective horror element of the season, even though it’s hard to imagine a relative wanting to see a relative like that, and the properties of the Dark Water being a bit of an obvious cover for the true threat–which had been well publicised. The closing doors revealing the now iconic arrangement of shapes and that equally effective musical motif was a nice touch and got the hairs on the nape of my neck tingling despite figuring out what was was coming.

The idea of the Cybermen being transmitted as a virus through rain was a nice approach to an invasion storyline, and again it gave us graveyard as the familiar presented as a frightening place–although it is following on the stumbling heels of the glut of zombie fiction in recent years.

Like most new-Who two parters though, the build up is better than the denouement, and we have a quick undoing of all that wonderful menace. Every now and then I’d like a climax that felt like a real battle and slog, not a quick table turn or loophole ending. It’s not particular to Doctor Who though, and delivering an overpowering enemy or situation of seemingly no escape is tough to write your characters out of without a trick or two. The reappearance of someone lost at the end could easily have been a reset for THAT death, but bravely it wasn’t, and that character effectively died three times in two episodes. There you go Rory, not the only character to be stalked by Death.

Speaking of characters returning from the dead… That saluting Cyberman. It may have been the wine, it may have been everything around it, it may have been my feelings, but that was emotive. It was both a nice touch, but afterwards, I kind of felt a little violated in the way it was a cheap grab at my affections, and that’s not what I wanted for that characters legacy. I like the phone call to Matt Smith’s Doctor as that character’s goodbye.

That aside, I come to the female Master–there should be zero fuss about this in this day and age–and I hope this opens the way for a female Doctor in the future. We already know form ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ that a Timelord can pick their post regeneration appearance, trying out a few before deciding, and this can be a different species, so why not gender? As long as they don’t sexualise her that is. People that have an issue with this need to get over it. We’ve had ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ after all. I vote for Zawe Ashton as the Doctor.

I’m not sure I’m taken with the Mary Poppins look, but if they keep her in Victorian Edwardian garb I’ll be happy. I like how her umbrella has a handle like the 80s tissue compression eliminator gun Ainley’s Master carried. And I wouldn’t liked the name to have remained the Master. OK, it might not fit the gender, but the Master’s not exactly one to make sense. ‘Missy’ just didn’t fit.

I’ve still managed to sneak a few criticisms in, which I guess shows I’ve found it quite an inconsistent show to watch. That’s nothing new to Doctor a Who though. ‘Caves of Androzani’ is bookended by ‘Planet of Fire’ and the ‘Twin Dilemma’, one passable, one classic, and one awful. What is it that made me generally enjoy series 8 and feel it’s a show I can get behind again after the ropey seasons 6 & 7?

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor and the writing behind him.

There hasn’t been a Doctor Who I haven’t liked. There are definitely those I like spending more time with and have a soft spot for. Capaldi’s Doctor is already in my affections and is up there as being one of my favorites. His Doctor was saddled with a naff opening story, but then regeneration stories can be hit and miss. ‘Castrovalva’ and ‘Twin Dilemma’ anyone? No, no. They’re not my go to Doctor Who fix either.

After Tennant and Smith, having a mature Doctor feels refreshing–injecting new life into the role, bringing gravitas back to the Doctor, yes Tennant could be shouty, Smith could scowl and sneer, but I do think you need maturity for gravitas. Could a whippersnapper pull off Gandalf’s ‘You. Shall. Not. Pass!’. Not really. That’s why I think they really missed a trick in not having Derek Jacobi as the Master. Capaldi’s mature, but not a doddery William Hartnell, and in my mind the flamboyancy of the portrayal and the whip crack dialogue kept the pace of recent Who.

Which brings me to the dialogue. The Doctor has never been this fun or funny. He has a Tom Baker alienness cranked up to 11. The innocent offensive jabs at Clara were more than welcome, and actually played against the characters ego. There was a little too much introspection and stand out inconsistencies in how he would shoulder Clara with some of the big decisions, which came across as cruel and took away from the heroism, but I see those more as story flaws in particular episodes, which hopefully won’t reappear now we have the regeneration season behind us. It is nice to have some darkness, some edge, in the Doctor, which I don’t think we’ve genuinely had since Sylvester McCoy. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has made this show a joy to watch again, and I’m looking forward to things improving in season 9.

Come on. Make me love Doctor Who again. I can’t have ‘Downton Abbey’ above it in my top shows list any longer. It’s not right.

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