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.

Doctor-Who--Death-In-Heaven_article_story_large

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.

ClaraConfused

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.

Missy-Doctor-Who

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: regenerated again

What do you do when you create an accidental hit TV show, and your lead actor leaves? If the show is the British sci-fi series Doctor Who, you give your time-traveling alien-in-human-form lead the power to regenerate.

Doctor Who

And now, with a change of actors on Doctor Who, we have yet another regeneration.

The era of Peter Capaldi as the latest Doctor begins with an episode titled Deep Breath, and what we saw was a Doctor thoroughly unsettled.

Age brings natural gravitas. Capaldi is older than the actors who’ve played the CapaldiDoctor in the modern era — Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. So, naturally, Capaldi’s Doctor seems so much older than the others.

How to maneuver around that? Capaldi’s Doctor, at least in the early days of his regeneration, is unhinged, nearly to the point of being child-like. In this way, Capaldi’s Doctor seems much younger than any of the modern Doctors.

This Doctor is a rambling, rummaging mess. He’s aggressively disoriented.

It’s not just the writing and acting that make it all so unsettled. The music is thumping and discordant, an angry rock soundtrack out of tune (in a good way). And the camera work is quick and jumpy without being shaky. It all combines in a way that let’s us know that this iteration of the Doctor may be far different than what we’ve been used to.

Regeneration is the theme of this episode. We’re along for the ride as his current human traveling companion Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) Clarastruggles to make sense of the whole concept of the Doctor regenerating. Not to mention the Doctor himself. Regeneration is never easy for the Doctor, and this one is especially difficult.

The writers use the theme of regeneration to hint at the insidious nature of the Doctor. Does this centuries-old alien wear a human face merely to be accepted by humans? Does he use this human face to keep from revealing who or what he truly is?

Philosophical questions aside, this first episode of the Capaldi era is classic Doctor Who, throwing a dinosaur into steampunk-infused Victorian-era London. But it also revels in the darkness that infuses many of Doctor Who‘s best episodes.

Based on this episode, I’m feeling pretty good about where we’re headed. Capaldi’s Doctor is clearly different from the rest, and Clara, as companion, is proving to be more Donna Noble than Martha Jones.

Finally, there was some great dialogue from this episode:

“You mustn’t worry my dear boy. By now he’s almost certainly had his throat cut by the violent poor.”

“Nothing is more important than my egomania.”

“It’s times like this I miss Amy.”