Monday, November 10, 2014

TV Review: Doctor Who, Series 8

If there was ever a show that proved the old maxim that "you just can't please everyone" it is Doctor Who. Having passed its 50th year, and now 8th year since its unlikely return - regeneration, perhaps - from the dead, it seems to have found a place as one of the most talked about TV fixtures of the year. The national press do it, of course - dusting off the old casting rumours, gossip about who is leaving the show and hoary old complaints about it being "too dark for children" or "too silly for grown ups", safe in the knowledge that the comments sections will fill up with impassioned defenses and critiques. It's very prominence makes it a lightning rod for wider debates, a metaphor for wider issues in TV as a whole and geek TV in particular. And so a show about a time-travelling alien in a phone box, that goes out on a saturday evening to a family audience, seems at times to have the weight of a more serious, worthy show, whether it wants to or not. It also means that simply "liking" or "not liking" feels like its not enough.

So I'll start off talking about Season 8 - the first season for Peter Capaldi's 12th Doctor - by laying out some of my own personal biases. I like Doctor Who, in all its forms. I enjoy it. It entertains me. For any given season I expect a couple of great episodes, a couple of duff ones, and a season finale that really doesn't make a lot of sense after 10 episodes of patchy build up. Because that's what the show has taught me to expect, over the years. Its not great - never, ever has been - at bringing its stories together well, it's not great at narrative or character consistency. Its not in the shows DNA, to be honest, and it often falls on the need to be a different sort of show every week. What it is good at, what is at the heart of the show, is a sense of wonder and adventure and the central concept that each time those blue doors open we could be anywhere, any time, even if you sometimes need a bit of imagination to get past it being a Welsh quarry again.

Which makes season 8 all the more interesting as what it attempts to do is but more focus on character and less on story. In some ways, it feels like Steven Moffat does listen to the more rational end of his critics, and wants to make a point - some of the things you criticised me for, he seems to say - are tropes that were true for the 11th Doctor, not all Doctors I write. Here is something new. And the something new is a spikey, hard-to-love figure, all aggression and insecurity. A Doctor who doesn't really seem to like people, but like being alone even less. A Doctor who says he's not your friend even though deep down he still wants to be. And ultimately, you have a season that ends not with some technobabble saving the day, but the intersection of long-building character arcs.

OK, so Love Conquers All again, but hey, this is Doctor Who we're talking about.

These arcs are both the strength and weakness of the series. The Doctors difficult relationship with soldiers has floated around the back of the show since the 1970s "tea and biscuits with UNIT" days, and the character has blown hot and cold on them ever since. UNIT got pretty sinister under Russell Davies' tenure and the modern Doctor is a lot more gunshy than the Classic one, but this is the first time we've really had that explored across several episodes. The accusation that the Doctor claims not to like soldiers but is always willing to throw them away has been made before, but this - for me - was the first time it felt like it struck home.

The problem, I think is Danny and Clara. Both characters are, like Capaldi's Doctor, a little bit off centre and hard to like too much, and consequently get too invested in their relationship. The obvious comparison is Amy and Rory, who were much warmer - safer, perhaps - but always made sense to me as a couple. Danny and Clara are more a throwback to the weak writing around poor old Mickey Smith, although no where near as erratically poor because at least Danny felt like he belonged in the show at all. In the end though, some of the intended emotional punch from the finale is lost on me. It's telling that the Kate Stewart - Brigadier moment was far more affecting.

Onto some of the good things though - generally I'm always going to be behind a show trying to set out of it's comfort zone and a season with such a deconstructive air is always going to win my sympathy. Its nice to see some of the shows core assumptions - is there even a monster at all? does the Doctor have to be nice to people? what drives the Doctor - Companion relationship? - challenged or played around with. The more personal focus means that the seasons ultimate villian(s) both shine - this is by far the best use of the Cybermen since....Earthshock, maybe?....and its good to have the Master back with a typically Master-ish scheme. More of her, please, because she was wonderful.

So to pull it back to the top, how did we do over all? Well I think we got three great episodes - Listen, Flatline and Mummy on the Orient Express, and two duff ones, In the Forest of the Night and Kill the Moon. We got a season finale that, for once, managed to hold it mostly together and never got too stupid, or too clever, for its own good, making it probably my favorite finale after The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. Its a low bar but even so. We also got a darker, more throughful season that may not have managed to hit all it's targets but certainly tried to hit new and different ones, and for a show that's 50 years old - hell for a show that's in it's fourth year under it's current showrunner, that's pretty good going.

Finally, the Christmas Special looks mental. Can't wait for that.