I think I should rename my blog to Ravings in Nerdoscope, because of late it’s been quite the spacey scene. However, I’m not going to do that, but I am going to write about the recent finale of series 8 of [new]Doctor Who. New Doctor Who has been something I’ve studiously avoided on this blog thus far, but there’s a first time for everything, and I’ve been so blown away by Peter Capaldi’s first series as the Doctor that I have to vent my positivity somewhere!
I went to see the premiere of the series at the cinema in August, and knew then that we could be in for something really special this series. I’d previously been convinced by my wise girlfriend to return to the show and give Matt Smith another chance, so fresh off the back of a surprisingly enjoyable marathon viewing of series 7, we entered the cinema for “Deep Breath” and sat open mouthed for 90 minutes. And after that impressive beginning, it only continued to improve!
On Saturday night just gone the series came to a conclusion with the second episode in a two parter made up of “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven”. I’m duty bound to say that from here on in this post will be rich with with spoilers, as well as esoteric references to episodes old and new. So apologies for that, but, you know, that’s how I roll.
The first thing to note is how the show has changed over the season. It began on a fairly light and comedic note, with companion Clara and the Doctor’s Victorian London mates, the Paternoster Gang, helping him recover from the shock of regeneration. There were some pretty dark moments, sure, but you expect that from Doctor Who. What you then don’t expect is a season which grows darker and darker and more and more intense and mysterious and less comedic until it is rather suddenly terminated with a series finale where two major characters and one up-and-comer apparently die, the holes in the Doctor’s seemingly heroic modus operandi are stripped bare for all to see, and UNIT don’t win. I mean, gee whiz. Somebody break out the Carry On films, or something. I don’t know if I can handle the seriousness.
But amongst all this apparent downer negativity, there’s actually something remarkably positive happening. We are being challenged. Bravo, producer Steven Moffat. No longer is Doctor Who nice, fun, and bubbly light entertainment. Even Matt Smith’s dark episodes weren’t really dark because the power of love always made everything better by the 45th minute. Not so now. I mean, yeah, the power of love gets a frustrating retread here but it’s not contributing to a happy ending. I’ve said it ad nauseum to anyone who will listen, but Doctor Who has returned to being for fans of the concept as opposed to the sexy young things playing the Doctor. Peter Capaldi can act, but he’s by no means a sexy young thing. And, in a revelation that will surprise no-one, I’m very happy with this new direction. As of “Death In Heaven”, the show is challenging us as an audience to stay on board with the Doctor during his dark times – just as in the lives of all of us, I’m sure even Time Lords have their difficult moments.
Every expectation of what Doctor Who is has been shattered by Moffatt in “Death In Heaven”. For starters, since 1975’s “Revenge of the Cybermen”, the eponymous persons have been a fairly standard and unthreatening villain to the Doctor and Friends. Here they have returned to actually being a little bit frightening. There aren’t as many in the foreground, and they are often just used for brief flashes of “What was that?” scariness. This is a throwback to the early days of the Cybermen, before previous producer Russell T Davies saw fit to put computer generated armies of hundreds on our screens. Indeed, the series finale actively throws back to two iconic and well-respected Second Doctor stories – “The Tomb of the Cybermen” and “The Invasion”. In many respects, “Death in Heaven” is what “The Invasion” would be if it were made now, down to the presence of UNIT in their very own aeroplane.
Publicity from 2014 compared to 1968. Mere nostalgia or bare-faced infamy cash-in?
Speaking of UNIT, there’s another flip that Steven Moffat has performed. Initially I thought of this as a criticism, but upon reflection it’s actually brilliant writing. Here is a man who’s obviously a bit of a fan of that period in the 1970s where the Third Doctor was exiled on Earth and working with the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT). And what has he done? Performed the ultimate fan fiction twist of having UNIT lose. No indeed, UNIT don’t come out of “Death In Heaven” very well at all. They enter and seem all cool and clever, rather like UNIT’s been portrayed (now as the Unified Intelligence Taskforce) in every guest spot since they ceased to be regulars in 1976. Then there’s a bit of a crisis, and it all goes belly up. The gang get in a plane, there’s some banter about the Brigadier (and hacks like me long for the return of that UNIT) and then soon after most of the UNIT personnel either get sucked out of a plane or vaporised by the Master, including the fan proxy character Osgood. Not their finest hour at all. Makes you wonder how UNIT fares when the Doctor ISN’T around. Especially if the Master is again on the loose!
On the subject of the Master, well, I suppose we should say Mistress. Yep, they did it. Male to female Time Lord regeneration. And I think I’m okay with it. The Master is portrayed with a manic intensity by Michelle Gomez, and if anything she’s actually better than John Simm in series 3. I mean, the definitive Master is still Roger Delgado (1971-1973), but I thoroughly enjoyed Gomez’s ridiculous and frankly disturbing antics. A murderous psycho in every sense of the words, the Master/Mistress/‘Missy’ is a welcome addition to the roster of villains. Gomez has infused her with a sublime sense of the insane, but gives us a Master who still fervently wishes to be mates with the Doctor, if only he would do what she/he/they want him to. Even though I preferred the Master with a beard (and really wanted the Doctor to say the same thing), I think Gomez has succeeded in creating the scariest Master yet. I strongly suspect that despite evidence to the contrary, we haven’t seen the last of this particular version.
One person we have likely seen almost enough of however is Clara Oswald. Starting her run as a delightfully quirky Dalek in “Asylum of the Daleks” in 2012, the production team fleshed out the mystery of Clara Oswald the Impossible Girl until the big reveal in 2013’s “The Name of the Doctor” that she was spread all down the Doctor’s timeline (complete with period costumes and era-appropriate video filtering) in an effort to stop him being removed from time. That plot dispensed with, Clara became a full time companion of the Doctor, and despite being all up in his life, couldn’t work out that the Doctor’s personality changes when he regenerates. I mean, hell, she met The War Doctor (John Hurt) and she still didn’t get it. CONTINUITY, MOFFAT.
And then, the most glaringly uncomfortable character trait with which a companion has yet been infused – a lack of integrity towards those she loves. Clara, who is otherwise delightful and fun, is consistently dishonest with love interest Danny Pink. In many ways this is rather like the whole Amy & Rory thing from series 5, 6 and 7.1 except that it plays out in the other direction – Clara gives Danny very little in return for the everything that he wants to give her. And so, when Danny is talking to Clara on the phone and they seem to be at an ultimatum kind of point, he is so distracted by her that he steps in front of a car and dies. I MEAN, REALLY. He probably would have been better off without Clara in his life. At least he wouldn’t have become a Cyberman. But then where does Clara’s lack of commitment come from? Is she in love with the Doctor? Does she not want to settle down? Does she not actually care that much about Danny? Is she, as reddit seems to think, pregnant with Danny’s child? I dunno. It raises more questions than I can to answer, but from where I’m standing right now, Clara looks like a bit of a jerk. There’s a lot of taking, from the Doctor, from Danny, but not a lot of giving. For shame, Clara. For shame. I so want to like her but I’m just not feeling like there’s any reason to.
But you know who I really like? Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. Wow. He has consistently amazed throughout the series, to the point where I’m actually wondering if he may be the finest actor to ever take the role. He can handle the comedy, he can handle the gravitas, and as we found out at the end of “Death In Heaven”, boy oh boy can he handle the emotion. Right from the off he made the role his own. It’s a total change of personality akin to the differences between each Doctor in the classic series. One thing I like especially is that Capaldi is a fan of the Third Doctor as played by Jon Pertwee between 1970-74. As you probably already know or are about to find out, the Third Doctor era, especially between 1970-73, is my favourite period of Doctor Who. The more ambitious stories, the style, and the UNIT family all go together to make some fun and unforgettable television, and it’s clear Capaldi wants to emulate Pertwee’s version of the character. He’s a bit grumpy and suspicious of soldiers in this early stage. His coat is red lined, just like the Third Doctor’s cape. In one episode he dons a flamboyant bowtie and looks almost like he’s in a Pertwee-era costume. But for me, the icing on the cake was “Death In Heaven.” Firstly, he sits down at a table and starts loading up a cup of tea with huge numbers of sugarlumps, in a moment straight out of (I think) 1971’s “Terror Of The Autons”. I saw that and rejoiced, because I, in my probably sad and pathetic way, thought that when Pertwee did that, it was hilarious. There are two other magnificent character moments at the end of the episode, and I’ll discuss the second first because the first hit me like a brick and I want to end with it.
The Master, before her untimely (supposed) demise, imparts to the Doctor the coordinates in time of Gallifrey, their home planet missing since the end of the Time War. And so, in a flashback during his final conversation with Clara, we see the outcome of his visit to the coordinates. And there’s nothing there. The Master, the one remaining link to their vanished home, is now gone too. And the Doctor returns to the TARDIS console, disgust written all over his face. And he breaks down, smashing his fists into the TARDIS again and again before collapsing with despair. It’s a tragic but extremely effective scene. I watched it 3 or 4 times and it still shocked me – it’s overstated and yet understated. If people didn’t think Capaldi was right for the role before this performance, they should be damn sure he was after it!
However, the twist in “Death In Heaven” that I loved the most came at the end of the crisis’ revolution. Let’s briefly talk about Mr UNIT himself, Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. He was portrayed by Nicholas Courtney in all the character’s proper appearances, and is well loved by generations of fans. One of the tragedies is that he never got a proper send-off on the show; just some lip service in 2011’s “The Wedding of River Song”, after the death of Courtney. Well, that was made up for over the weekend. To reveal too much here is a spoiler too far, but with Kate Stewart, the Brig’s daughter and new Chief Scientific Officer of UNIT having earlier mentioned the Brigadier always hoped the Doctor would one day salute him, the Doctor remarks sadly that, “All he had to do was ask…” Unfortunately for our already destroyed emotional centres, the Doctor will have one final opportunity to do so. I felt genuinely sad as it was a real, simple farewell to a great character, in exactly the way it should have been done years ago. Moffat gets lots of points for that.
New Doctor Who has been running for 10 years now, which is nearly half the run of the original series. However, it’s not showing any signs of stopping! Having said that, series 8 has been the refresh the show needed, and now all they need to do is turf the “love conquers all” plot resolutions and everything will be fine. It’s still Doctor Who, but the game has changed. For the first time since David Tennant was the Tenth Doctor, I’m excited to see what happens next. Bring on the Christmas Special.