Doctor Who Recap: Season Eight’s Hits And Missies
Capaldi has delivered the darkest season in ages. But was it worth it?
The first episode of Doctor Who season eight featured a mysterious figure who would later turn out to be the Doctor’s old friend/foe, The Master. The last episode featured the Doctor, Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT teaming up to fight The Master, whose plan involved exploiting the superstitious religious fears of human beings in order to take over the Earth. But hey, enough about 1971.
Yes, this latest season of Doctor Who has a few things in common with the Third Doctor’s sophomore year, but that doesn’t mean it trod old ground. Far from it. The story so far:
Now that the season is over, we have a good idea of what it is this thing was actually about. It’s one thing to talk about all the puzzle pieces, but now that we can see the whole picture the journey comes into sharp focus.
This was a season in which the Doctor was trying to figure out who he was. Is he a good man? Does he make good decisions? Does he make the right decisions? Season finale Death In Heaven explores these questions with the Master (the Doctor’s own there-but-for-the-grace-of-Rassilon-go-I double) and the Cybermen (here depicted as the literal and metaphorical embodiment of the people who died in service of the Doctor) turned out to be a brilliant choice. If science fiction is about exploring themes through metaphor, then Doctor Who must use its own arsenal and explore them through the most recognisable rogue’s gallery this side of Batman.
Where do we begin? There’s an awful lot to talk about with this episode. The red herring of the opening titles. Michelle Gomez’s wonderfully arch Missy. The tragic death of Osgood, which actually hit me harder than the death of Danny. The sort-of return of the Brigadier.
That’s a controversial one. Was the Brigadier suddenly appearing as a Cyberman disrespectful or not? We could do a thousand words on that question alone, so let’s not poke the hornet’s nest. I liked it, many didn’t. As a tribute to Nicholas Courtney it could be seen as tacky, but in the world of Doctor Who, it doesn’t feel like a totally unnatural moment for the Brigadier. The quintessential soldier doing his duty long after he died, bringing to a close this year’s arc of the Doctor’s soldier issues.
The highlight of the episode was the final scene in the café between Clara and the Doctor as they tell one another lies, unable to admit their own horrific truths to the person they are closest to. Whether this is the final scene for the pair, or a jumping off point for their eventual reunion, it’s a beautiful sequence.
What of the season itself?
I’m a voracious defender of the Eleventh Doctor era, but I’m going to say it anyway: this was the most consistently solid season of Doctor Who in a very long time.
I didn’t fall for it completely – In the Forest of the Night left me cold, and Time Heist felt like a gigantic missed opportunity – but overall the hits easily outnumbered the misses. I loved Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood and Mummy on the Orient Express, and I don’t think too many will disagree with me when I say that Listen and Flatline will be remembered as the season’s biggest standouts.
This was the season Clara really came into her own, and a lot of people – I’m speaking anecdotally here – who hadn’t warmed to her in 2013 now seemed to be won over. There’s something about Jenna Coleman’s chemistry with Peter Capaldi that brought out the best in the character, and the writing just clicked.
Danny was a fascinating foil, a tortured soldier who actor Samuel Anderson counter-intuitively played up the wounded side of to great effect. Individually, Clara and Danny were terrific but I’m not entirely sure I ever fully bought into their relationship. It felt a bit too rushed and I didn’t quite feel the attraction between the two. But that’s a quibble. Danny had a fascinating arc and its final moment of resolution in this story was outstanding.
It’s always difficult to fashion an arc for the Doctor that doesn’t (a) ruin his mystique, or (b) cover old ground. The manner in which he questioned his own goodness was a nice through-line, and ultimately The Master was the perfect villain to bring that out. Their relationship has evolved wonderfully in the new series, and The Master embracing her villainy shows that she’s as invested in winning the Doctor over to her side as he has been in rehabilitating her. It’s a nice twist.
If season eight is a statement of intent, then the statement is this: we’re off on a new journey. No more fairy tales. The age of the pretty young Doctor with floppy hair is behind us, and the universe is dangerous again. As I said a few weeks back, Doctor Who has survived by constantly reinventing itself, and this latest reinvention is a bold and promising new step. Roll on season nine.
Questions to ponder
- So if Danny is dead, what of his descendent Orson Pink in Listen? Is it just a coincidence that he happens to look identical to Danny and share the same surname? Or was Clara’s phone call to Danny at the start of Dark Water her telling him some very important news? Like maybe there’s a time-tot brewing in the zero womb?
- If Osgood says that The Master wasn’t even the worst Prime Minister, then who was? Just kidding, it’s William Cavendish-Bentinck.
- Is that reference to Jenny from 2008’s The Doctor’s Daughter hinting at a possible return? Probably not.
- Clara says the Doctor has been married four times, so who were they all? River Song, Elizabeth I, Marilyn Monroe and Scarlette. The first three were all shown or hinted at in the new series, but the latter is from Eighth Doctor novel The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. In case you were wondering.
- The Doctor graduated from Glasgow in the wrong century? It’s true! He says as much in 1967’s Cybermen classic The Moonbase.
- Uh, the “Chaplet Funeral Home”? As in former companion Dodo Chaplet? As in “dead as a dodo”? Wait, I get it!
- Is this the first time we’ve heard the word “Prydonian” in the new series? I think it is. But if I’m wrong, correct me in the comments or, better yet, keep it to yourself. Anyway, if you want to know what it means, 1976’s The Deadly Assassin can fill you in. Google too, but The Deadly Assassin is more fun.
Did you enjoy seeing the Cyber invasion of the Earth foiled? Did you wonder what Kate Lethbridge-Stewart was referring to when she mic-dropped that old Cyber head she said they’d left it behind last time? Then you need to watch 1968’s The Invasion.
This Second Doctor classic features the first appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (or, at least, the “Brigadier” part of him), the introduction of UNIT, and Cybermen invading London with the help of an arch mastermind. Get it, unless you hate things that are great.
Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah