Now the dust has had time to settle, our guest writer and resident Doctor Who expert Scott Clark casts a critical eye over the latter half of Peter Capaldi’s reign as the Twelfth Doctor. You can read the first part of the round-up here.
The first half of Series 8 was a mixed platter for a dubious palette. There’s lots of great things going on, and by keeping all the episodes a bit scatter-shot in terms of content, there’s something to appeal to everyone. But how’s the second half?
Kill the Moon by Peter Harness
First time writer Peter Harness executes the bold kind of sci-fi alt-history story that Who gets a chance at once a season. The big question episode that shrugs its shoulders in the face of cosmic chance and gives the show’s characters a problem to chew over which will affect the course of human history. Tall order.
Harness’ alt-history script could have ended up a bit wishy washy, like the worst parts of Phil Ford’s Tennant-special Waters of Mars, thankfully it instead achieves the dark adventure status that Into the Dalek (also Ford) missed out on. That’s down to a few things. Capaldi channels Hartnell in a cruel display of Timelord disassociation, maintaining his coldest facade yet. Coleman remains on tender hooks after The Caretaker fiasco whilst caring for Ellis George’s deflated Courtney Woods.
The episode looks suitably alien, swapping the show’s usual Welsh quarries for the landscape of Lanzarote and keeping everything nice and dark. Similarly, though the episode’s threat is essentially a bacteria infestation of dull spider-like organisms, the real treat is how they have affected the setting. The moon bases look like discarded sets from Darabont’s The Mist, Director Paul Wilmshurst decision to keep everything as shadowy as possible is a wise one ensuring this episode hits the scares as well as the pacing required for a crumbling moon story.
The whole episode is a heavy-handed abortion metaphor with the people of Earth, led by Clara, deciding whether to destroy the moon before it “hatches”. The last half sees the patriarchal Doctor leave 3 female leads to make a choice. The choice isn’t really that interesting, it’s more the fact that The Doctor unabashedly dolls out “tough love” to a Clara who is clearly petrified of screwing up the universe. Coleman, though good, is a bit doe-eyed until an utterly arresting finale sees her tearing into Capaldi’s shocked Timelord. It’s arguably the most authentic and stirring thing Coleman’s achieved on Who so far and it definitely seems like a crucial point in Moffat’s grand exploration of The Doctor’s soul.
Mummy on the Orient Express by Jamie Mathieson
Considering how emotionally charged Clara’s enraged dismissal of The Doctor was at the climax of Kill the Moon, and the fact it’s one of few episodes in New-Who to leave out the ‘Next Time’ epilogue, it’s fairly disappointing to see Clara and The Doctor back in adventure-land so quickly. The decision is cheap and proves how terrified Moffat is of killing/walking away from characters. Even maintaining a temper seems problematic.
Still, Mummy on the Orient Express is a great wee episode with a wonderful energy. Paul Wilmshurst returns for directorial duties proving he’s great at injecting episodes with a sense of adventure and has a steady hold on visual gags. Jamie Mathieson debuts his frankly unparalleled understanding of Who as a show with a fantastic Baker-style romp we haven’t seen in ages. The title itself is cause for alarm after Chris Chibnall’s monstrous tonal hiccup Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which – I guess- tried to cash in on contemporary audiences’ pulpy needs but ended up hopelessly marooned in tedium. Mathieson understands the limitations, and doesn’t push it too far. The Orient Express and a mummy fit together nicely and the fact it’s happening in space doesn’t seem pointless or gaudy, in fact everything is here for a reason.
The mummy is a great monster, thankfully realised in great costuming, make-up and filming as opposed to CGI. Every time it appears you find yourself just as interested as The Doctor, quickly trying to see if you can spot something that will save the next victim. Similarly Capaldi is at his most pragmatic here, trying to navigate around human mortality in search of an answer. As each character realises they have little more than a minute to live, The Doctor is immediately by their side grilling them for info on a creature only the doomed can see. Lots of POV shots and expert editing keep everything sharp and spooky from start to finish.
The episode also benefits from a surprisingly springy collection of secondary characters. Frank Skinner pops up for some nudge-nudge wink-wink the-only-reason-I’m-here-is-cos-I’m-a-celeb nonsense that is actually detrimental to the episode because it’s the most pointless part. On the other hand, John Session lends his veritable vocals for Gus, the shadowy mastermind who insinuated the whole episode. Christopher Villiers’ Professor Moorhouse has wonderful on screen chemistry with Capaldi and calls to mind Trevor Baxter’s turn as Professor Lightfoot back in The Talons of Weng Chiang.
By the end of the episode, we’ve had quite an adventure. The mummy has perhaps been handled in too gooey a way, Skinner gets an unprecedented wander around the TARDIS, and Capaldi and Coleman cap off the story with an atmospheric chin-wag on a desolate alien beach. Oh and if you like, you can assume that The Doctor wasn’t necessary kidding when he said he let everyone else on the Orient die. Arguably that’s the best thing about Capaldi.
Flatline by Jamie Mathieson
Without doubt the best episode of Capaldi’s debut season, Jamie Mathieson’s second script is frankly a tour de force of what Doctor Who should be doing every week. Grounding the episode on a scheme terrorised by vanishing locals, Mathieson goes on to incept some truly original TARDIS tinkering which sees The Doctor’s iconic ship shrink inexplicably on the outside.
For an invasion narrative, Flatline is original and fresh. Discarding the public panic narratives of Davis (see Rose, Army of Ghosts) Mathieson gets the most from his story by downsizing for intimacy. What we are seeing is the starting point of a potentially massive problem that will soon burst the banks of its suburban beginnings. This kind of story feels like something Sylvester McCoy should have had back in the 80’s, but it probably would have looked foul.
Visually the episode has some of the best moments in ages. Whether it be the tongue-in-cheek genius of dragging a tiny TARDIS out of harm’s way Adams Family style, or the fascinating process of flattening we see throughout the episode, Flatline consistently throws up opportunities for something different. Simply by making the threat a 2 dimensional being, Mathieson allows the rest of the story to take on an alien quality and a genuine sense of the unknown. The villains themselves are fairly dull until they manage to actualise 3D, then they become the stuff of nightmares in all their staggering glory and probably the closest thing to a zombie horde we’ll see in Who.
Capaldi finally gets his “thunderous fury” moment, that bit when The Doctor throws self-control to the wind and lets pure anger take over, and it’s wonderful. Frustrated with the final realization that he’s dealing with a actively dangerous force and returned to full-size splendour, Capaldi dazzles in a scene that sees him rant at the baddies, fire them back into their own dimension, and name them as ‘The Boneless’. With that naming, one of the most intriguing (and hopefully recurring) villains of Capaldi’s tenure has been incepted.
In the Forest of the Night by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The strangest decision of series 8 is to follow Mathieson’s stunning sci-fi horror with the tame and whimsical In the Forest of the Night. The story, Boyce’s first for Who, shows considerable gall by making the pupils of Coal Hill its primary characters alongside Danny, Clara and The Doctor. Who doesn’t exactly have a very good reputation for child characters so the move is a risky one, especially when the episode is so lacking in threat. Disappointing move when Boyce shows such Grimm-like interest in man’s relationship with the forest.
After 9 episodes of relatively punchy adventure Boyce’s move to make the wolves and tigers of London zoo a suitable threat seems odd. Animals unfortunately don’t match up to trans-dimensional beings or Daleks, and that’s a shame. But it’s kind of the point. In the Forest of the Night actually serves as a kind of companion piece to Kill the Moon and The Caretaker. Both scripts subject Earth to the forces of natural cosmic order and put The Doctor firmly outside the realms of usefulness. By removing the aggressive alien threat, Boyce attempts to give the characters a fresh problem to deal with but unlike Kill the Moon, there’s no emotive decision to distract you from the fact there’s very little going on here that we haven’t already seen.
Dark Water by Steven Moffat
From the offset, the finale two-parter is a tame affair riding on character relations and big dramatic scenes, which is good and bad. Danny Pink’s death at the start of Dark Water is a bold move, pushing Capaldi and Coleman further down the rabbit hole of the Doctor/Companion relationship. Clara’s slow development from naive schoolteacher to two-faced pragmatist sees its full fruition in a volcano confrontation. Hijacking the Doctor and destroying his TARDIS keys one by one, Coleman pours her heart into a brutal blackmailing for Danny Pink’s life. It’s a stupendous scene that thankfully doesn’t result in the end of the universe but it is however a pointless induced dream and The Doctor happily aggress to help anyways.
Moffat still gets caught up in interesting moments and touches as opposed to fluid dialogue. The Doctor’s assertion that they will ‘Go to Hell’ is a melodramatic exaggeration somewhere along the lines of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’. It’s a hook, nothing more. Similarly one of the episode’s crowning achievements, but silliest features, is the giant crypt the TARDIS arrives at. A grand wonderful Victorian neo-futuristic mausoleum with brass fixtures, blue water and decaying skeletons in every tank. It’s a fantastic sci-fi set but feels OTT for how the rest of the story pans out.
After the intrigue of the water tanks, and the question of Pink’s whereabouts still hot on our minds, Michelle Gomez at long last steps out of the shadows. Finally liberated from episode-cameos Gomez charges into the lime-light with full zeal, and so she should considering the fact she’s inherited one of the show’s most iconic villains: The Master.
Missy’s reveal at the end of the episode is a weird unfulfilling moment considering Moffat has at long last acquiesced to the 21st century. Gomez’s manic tendencies are a bit scattershot, sometimes unnerving, others far too camp for a series consistently grounded in darkness.
Perhaps it’s the introductory scene where Gomez puckers up with Capaldi for an uncomfortable snog. That could either be a weirdly perfect thing for The Master to do, or a routine thing for any woman within 20ft of Moffat’s Timelords. Also, one can’t help but feel the change from Master to Mistress is a complicated way of dangling the obvious in front of the viewer and an oddly sexist dig. Surely a character like The Master would relish in his new sex and maintain his ludicrous, bloodthirsty, and psychopathic assertion that he is and always will be The Master. If there’s a female Doctor, will Moffat demand we call her The Doctress?Of course not, but you get my drift.
However, there are plenty of great moments here to keep the episode afloat. Intrigue abounds in the Nethersphere as Moffat’s series arc falls into place. The tanks of fluid containing pickled skeletons are neat, but the final reveal of the Nethersphere is a great Who moment. Danny Pink’s situation finally settles in as the camera pulls a 360 to show us the stunningly rounded Inception-style city. And the reveal that souls still feel what happens to their bodies after death is deeply disturbing and adequate proof Moffat still has the ability to flourish some deeply unsettling ideas.
As for Missy’s plan, to upload recently deceased minds to a Gallifreyan hard-drive whilst the bodies are converted to Cybermen, it’s a cool move, but feels a bit empty. Like most finales since Tennant’s departure, there’s been too much focus on convoluted sci-fi concepts forcibly wrapped around desperately invasive “cool stuff”. TARDIS explosions and death on the beach are closely followed by Cybermen in tanks. Granted, this finale is a significant improvement, putting character relations at the forefront but still falls into the trap of presenting its interesting moments in an oddly undramatic way. Gomez’s reveal in the final moments of the episode is derailed somewhat by the image of four measly Cybermen “terrorising” St. Paul’s when we just saw a mausoleum literally crammed with thousands of them.
This perhaps best highlights the schizophrenic nature of the episode: to set up rules and promises then, scene by scene, change its tune. Its one of the series biggest issues actually because it messes with our sense of proportion, threat, and stakes.
Death in Heaven
As a finale Death in Heaven is a flawed but heartfelt affair which steps away from the series’ breakneck pace to slow down and re-examine its central relationships.
As with Dark Water, the episode seems bogged down in its own mix of ideas. As a climax the episode is muted and sombre, more of a character climax than an actual climax of activity and action. Even with the attempts at a worldwide plot and the involvement of UNIT it’s very much about Clara, Danny, and the Doctor. In a way, this is actually Clara’s episode.
Jenna Coleman receives first billing in the credits, and it’s her eyes that appear in the opening credits sequence, but why? Surely no one is expected to believe Clara’s profession that she is the Doctor? Is it really an attempt to milk intrigue from a predictable situation? Or is it more of a heavy-handed way of illustrating her development? Anyways, Coleman is pretty impressive in an episode that definitely sees her on the flip side of where she started last year.
As an idea, post-mortem cyber-conversion via rain is pretty cool, and is definitely one of the strongest Cybermen concepts in years. Considering the classic villains have been relegated to secondary threats for a few series, it’s the perfect time for a comeback. However, Moffatt’s ‘favourite’ villains don’t quite fulfil the threat they’re set up for. In a series that’s been pretty good at killing people, it seems that Cybermen have lost their knack. Similarly the water-horror sequences work to a point then, like The Waters of Mars, prove that Water’s only scary up to a point. Also, not once do we actually get to see a human body converted to cyber man, and that’s something the episode really could have used to solidify a threat that remains, mostly, obscured by frivolities.
The whole stint on UNIT’s plane feels too flash for the episode’s vibe. Essentially the whole scenario is devised to facilitate one of the most tired villain tropes of the past decade: planning to get caught. It gives Gomez’s Missy an opportunity to do some dangerous things whilst Cybermen cling to the outside of the plane and President Doctor runs about helpless until he’s sucked out the plane and forced to fly Bond-style into the TARDIS.
Saying that, Gomez gets one of her few great scenes toying with tired fan vehicle Osgood. She even kills her! And again, how Missy is able to release herself from her cuffs and cross a room in front of 2 guards and a sharp-as-Hell scientist isn’t deemed important, and actually makes the escape bafflingly irritating. It’s those moments that we should see Missy’s ingenuity as opposed to her ability to kill and dance in and out of set-pieces.
The episode deserves note for looking pretty great. The CG sequences of Cybermen on the plane look fantastic, the exploding Cybermen are done wonderfully, Cybermen crawling from graves is a gothic grotesquery much needed in modern Who, and Cyber-Danny’s make-up is pretty eerie. Rachael Talaly makes an odd addition to the Who team, directing both parts of the finale. Having previously directed final Elm Street instalment Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and cult graphic novel adaptation Tank Girl, along with a prolific career in Television, Talalay brings a pulpy campiness to what could perhaps have been far too gloomy.
Dark Water’s problems definitely follow through but the climax of the episode is a wrought character dilemma and the slower vibe seems to fall into place. The question of the series and indeed the anniversary year, Doctor Who? seems to draw to a close rather anti-climactically. Capaldi shines when he’s navigating the darker aspects of the role, and it doesn’t get much darker than asking your companion’s boyfriend to delete his soul and become part of a hive-mind for info. Coleman, Capaldi, and Anderson all shine in the climactic sequence, but Pink’s ability to maintain his humanity after conversion is something of a narrative folly that again detracts from the stakes of the episode. Along with his final speech to an army of drone-like Cybermen, it all seems a bit superfluous.
In the end Danny Pink destroys the cyber clouds in a scene far too reminiscent of the resolution to 2008’s The Poison Sky, and a confrontation with Missy happens far too quickly, with The Doctor somehow suddenly understanding who he is thanks to Missy giving him an army? It’s an odd and disappointing climax to Missy’s reasons for choosing Clara way back at the start of Clara’s arc and further proof that Moffat still hasn’t totally figured out his finales.
The post-adventure scene between Clara and The Doctor is a far more fitting end to the story and series, having the balls to have the both of them lie barefaced to each other about the outcomes of their adventures. Clara’s choice to lie about Danny’s return is the kind of bold character development that Who should be capable of, proving a quiet dark alternative to the melodramatic farewells of previous years. Similarly The Doctor’s lie, that he has found Gallifrey, is accompanied by a breath-taking scene of The Doctor losing his shit and trashing the TARDIS console after discovering Missy lied to him about Gallifrey’s coordinates. Yet even this is faulted by a misplaced go-pro shot!
Farewell for Now…
Moffat has perhaps reached the end of his time as head writer, there are just too many bad ideas that seem to stick to his style. Sure this season’s Philip Hinchcliffe vibe is a welcome remedy to Smith’s comic content, but the worst fixtures of series 6 and 7 are still inexplicably present. The Christmas Special will be the final argument on that case, because as the last 2 years have proved, Moffat appears more interested in name-dropping and crow-barring gimmicks in, than he does about writing consistently enjoyable adventures.
Capaldi’s first series is, compared to Smith’s last 2, a complete success. Not only does it manage to successfully incept the latest incarnation of the time travelling Timelord and turn public opinion around on Clara, it feels fresh and open, new and dark, tinted with nostalgia but led by creativity and originality. Next series we want more gothic Who, maybe it’s time to ditch the sonic and go hands-free for a bit, and why not give Capaldi his own TARDIS rather than Matt Smith’s cast-off. There’s still some distance to cross if Doctor Who is to achieve the kind of writing it’s capable off, but for now, we are both impressed and, most of all intrigued to see if Capaldi’s Doctor can successfully fulfil his promise to take us ‘into darkness’.
Thanks to Scott for the article.You can connect with him on Twitter and read his other reviews over at The People’s Movies & Cinehouse UK.