The brilliant failures of Doctor Who

Doctor Who‘s season 8 two-part finale overflowed with action and emotion, but it exposed the flaws consistent with the Steven Moffat era of this classic show.

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All season long I’ve been wondering what the heck was going on with Doctor Who. A hallmark of the show is that it constantly changes its stars while keeping its core: the story of a double-hearted alien who travels through time with a human companion—typically young, female, and pretty.

Last season we learned who Clara, played by Jenna Coleman really was, and then Matt Smith’s Doctor died, to be replaced by Peter Capaldi.

When season 8 began, we had a prickly new Doctor in Capaldi, and an equally cranky companion in Clara. These two never meshed, and they never really tried. In some ways it was a welcome change from the usual template of wise Doctor and awestruck ingenue. Clara was similar to Donna Noble in that she wasn’t as impressed by the Doctor as Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, or Amy Pond were. But Donna Noble’s Doctor was at least vivacious, happy, and wacky. Capaldi was dour and sarcastic.

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I’m not complaining. It was refreshing to see a different, edgier take on the Doctor/companion dynamic. This year was also a nice change from the past few seasons, with their increasingly complex and convoluted plotlines. This year, any casual viewer could watch any random episode and be able to get 80% of it. The episodes were simpler, more self contained, and frankly, more fun.

But then came the series finale.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. Doctor Who at its worst is dazzlingly fun. I grant it a wide berth when it comes to writing and storytelling, which is good, because this show needs it.

The two-part finale was a milestone in one respect: we saw the death of one major character, and the deaths of some minor ones too. In the UK, Doctor Who is billed as a children’s show; it usually shies away from getting too dark. This time it didn’t. The deaths were sudden and vicious.

But in other ways, the finale, though entertaining, exposed the flaws of the Moffat era.

We saw the return of classic Doctor Who villains the Cybermen. We also sat the return of the Doctor’s arch nemesis, the Master, though this time in female form. The Master (or Misi now, short for the Mistress), is written as crazy. Pure crazy. And she was played brilliantly as a deranged Mary Poppins type figure. So far so good.

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But here’s where the plotting goes off the rails.

It turns out that the Master/Misi was the one who brought the Doctor and Clara together in the first place. Why? We’re never given a solid enough answer, other than some mumblings about how they bring out the worst in each other or something like that. I don’t know. We’re never given a strong enough reason, other than the Master is nuts. Insanity, like convoluted plotting, does not make for good storytelling.

And then we have UNIT, a UN/paramilitary type organization that comes in and nearly saves the day. It was a thrilling turn of events—especially when the Doctor is named President of Earth—but nothing comes of it. His presidency doesn’t even last a full day. No decisions or plans are made. While riveting, it didn’t amount to much in the end.

And now we come to Clara and her ill-fated love with Danny Pink. This was the strongest part of the whole finale. I felt their frustration and pain over having to lose what they had together. I understood how Clara—and Danny—bitterly resented her habit of lying about the Doctor, and where it had led them. (though her lying skills did save her life when she pretended to be the Doctor)

Clara Danny

Something dawned on me, however. Why was Clara always so hostile to the Doctor this season? She acted as if she couldn’t relate to him just because he was in a different body. But last season we discovered that she had interacted with ALL previous incarnations of the Doctor. His changing bodies was nothing new to her. While I appreciated their tension, in the end, it was out of character for what we knew of Clara.

As I said earlier, this season of Doctor Who was a break with previous seasons in that the complicated mythology took a back seat to simply told stories, and for the most part it was a success. The series finale tried to be slick and complicated when it didn’t need to. What this season was about, at its heart, was the complicated relationship between Clara and the Doctor, and also Clara and Danny. Luckily the finale nailed those elements perfectly.

Doctor Who: rating Peter Capaldi

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As an American, Doctor Who is not part of my culture the way it seems to be in the UK.

I first started watching it when I was maybe 8 or so, because channel 9 in New York would show episodes of this crazy, British sci-fi show on Saturday mornings. My first Doctor was Tom Baker, he of the crazy curly hair and long-ass scarf. I really dug Doctor Who back then, though it was mostly a blur.

When Doctor Who was rebooted back in 2005, I was excited. So far I haven’t been disappointed. Christopher Eccleston, one of my favorite actors, took over as the Doctor. Then came David Tennant, and next was Matt Smith. All the while, Doctor Who continued its tradition of a universe-weary hero dashing across time and space, with a human companion (typically female and star-struck) in tow. The storylines have been unevenly thrilling, heavily British, and always fun.

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The new Doctor Who era has ramped up the youth and sexiness (the same hold true for the companions, mostly). In fact, Matt Smith was just in his twenties when he was signed to play the centuries-old alien. So when it was announced that Peter Capaldi (an Oscar winner, by the way) was hired as the next Doctor, everyone, including me, was thrown for a loop. Capaldi is in his late 60s. He’s gray haired and wrinkled. He is a man who has lived. And he most likely won’t be melting teenage girls hearts. Head writer Steven Moffat, in choosing Capaldi, was abandoning the rush to youth. And it makes sense, when you consider that the Doctor is really, really old (older on the inside, at least).

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So how’s Capaldi doing?

We’re nearly at the two-episode season finale, so now’s a good a time as any to rate Calpaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor. And it’s not as easy as listing the pluses and minuses.

First, there’s the question of how the last Doctor died. Matt Smith’s Doctor lived a long, long time protecting the inhabitants of Trenzalore. He died an old man, and he wasn’t expecting another regeneration. The Doctor, as we knew him, was willing to pass on peacefully. But then he was granted more regenerations, and he came back. He wasn’t prepared for that.

And then there’s the question of his companion, Clara, played by Jenna Coleman. I’ll leave her for another post, but Clara has not been the ideal companion for Capaldi’s Doctor. She’s conflicted, she doesn’t understand what regeneration is, and she isn’t trying in the least to be supportive. She’s also one of the only companions who calls the Doctor out on his God complex. What that’s given us is a rough transition for this latest Doctor.

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On the good side, Capaldi’s age gives him more freedom to play the Doctor as a whimsical, childlike figure. He doesn’t have to pretend to be old. David Tennant and Matt Smith were young men who wore their gravitas on their sleeves. Capaldi reminds me of the first Doctor I knew, Tom Baker. He was older and could get away with playing silly.

But all is not perfect with this Doctor, and I think it boils down to the difficult relationship between Clara and this version of the Doctor. There is very little lightness between them. Their relationship is strained and forced. Most times I doubt they even like each other. The Doctor needs a traveling companion, and he’s developed a thing for humans. And Clara loves the rush of exploration. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. Not much love, or warmth.

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Their tension, however, makes for great drama, and some damned funny lines. I loved when the Doctor commented on how Clara’s face was so big she needed three mirrors to see it all. Rumor has it that Jenna Coleman will leave after the season is over. As much as I’ve enjoyed her on the show, I’ll be glad to see her go. This Doctor — befuddled, socially inept, and a little cold — needs someone who will balance him out.