So Matt Smith is gone and in his place we have an old, angry Scottish bloke. It’s a real heel turn for the character of the Doctor and really helps to keep things fresh, and it doesn’t hurt that Peter Capaldi appears to have been born to play this role. Still travelling with Clara, the Doctor spends much of this series coming to terms with the man he is. Starting off the series as a more ruthless, colder version of the Timelord, his arc throughout the season has him finishing up in a completely different place. It’s the most drastic character development I think we’ve ever seen within one regeneration, and I think it makes for a riveting season – with only a few speedbumps along the way.
The series gets off to a spectacular start with the two opening episodes, both directed by Ben Wheatley. Maybe Wheatley isn’t a household name, but for fans of British cinema, seeing his name in the credits is a massive deal (made even better by the appearance of his frequent collaborator Michael Smiley). The first of the two episodes is the feature-length “Deep Breath”. This episode is perhaps a little on the long side, especially following the two previous specials, but it is nice to get to know the new Doctor. Set in Victorian London, this episode is really quite creepy, and gives new Doctor Peter Capaldi chance to demonstrate what type of man he’s going to be. It’s also a nice almost-sequel to the episode “The Girl in the Fireplace”, which is unexpected. But it sets the tone for what is, in large part, a darker series of the show.
Following the opener, there are some genuine classics of the modern Who era. “Listen” does more for the character of the Doctor than perhaps all of the previous seasons combined, offering the audience a quieter, scarier episode that harkens back to the show’s heyday as behind-the-couch entertainment. There are episodes throughout the season that are just fun, for kids and adults alike. “Time Heist” sees the show tackle a bank robbery, in a typically sci-fi fashion. “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline” — both written by newcomer to the show Jamie Mathieson — are instant classics, in my eyes. The first is a fantastic episode that deals with a killer mummy, who only the person about to be murdered can actually see. It’s creep and inventive and crams a lot of great ideas and designs into its runtime. The latter of Mathieson’s episodes separates Clara and the Doctor in Bristol for a fantastic episode that is somehow terrifying, but also contains genuine laugh-out-loud moments (the Doctor in a tiny TARDIS will always be funny).
The only weak link in series eight is “In the Forest of the Night”, which is the only episode I’ve watched that I would advise people to skip. It’s a shame, because there are some interesting ideas, as the Earth is taken over by trees. But it’s full of annoying child actors, head-scratching moments, and just never really offers anything of interest. “Kill the Moon” is almost a misfire, but it has some cool ideas, and the last scene between the Doctor and Clara, as she puts her foot down, is possibly the best in the whole season – with top-notch acting from both.
Elsewhere, we have Danny Pink, played by Samuel Anderson. He’s introduced as Clara’s love interest, and is an interesting character in his own right. He really represents one of the core themes of the series, which is that of war and being a soldier. Yes, Danny was a soldier, and he sure likes to remind people about it. The new Doctor despises soldiers, and this is where a lot of the friction comes from for our TARDIS trio. It doesn’t help that Danny Pink is an honest-to-god war criminal, as we discover that he gunned down a child in the Middle East. It’s one of those moments of Steven Moffatt biting off more than he can chew. I want my science fiction to discuss big ideas, but save the child-murdering soldiers for Torchwood, alright? Despite this, Anderson is a very likable presence with natural chemistry with Jenna Coleman. It’s a real shame to see him get bumped off in the finale (more on that later).
Another recurring theme of the series is the afterlife, or heaven, or the Promised Land. Throughout the series, multiple alien characters are seeking to return to this mystical place. When a few supporting characters die (as is the way when you’re in close proximity with the Doctor) they find themselves waking up in Heaven, being greeted by a strange woman called Missy (again, more on that below). This idea really reminds of me of the recurring themes that used to appear in the revival’s early days, things that don’t make sense at the time but send the internet and fandom wild with theories.
Lots of episodes deal with question of what kind of man the Doctor is. A soldier? A leader? The Doctor himself wrestles with this question, as does Clara, as her travelling companion continues to make choices that she deems unfair or cruel. He’s a long way from the friendly Eleventh Doctor, with his stern eyebrows, Scottish accent, and serious aversion to hugging. But anyone who’s seen Capaldi in “The Thick of It” knows that the man can do funny, and he demonstrates his comedic chops throughout the season, usually in the form of disgust to the things happening around him. But these moments of levity are needed, especially by the two-part season finale, which is hilariously grim.
The finale ties together the threads left dangling from the season. Danny Pink dies, in a surprisingly underwhelming way, leading the Doctor and Clara to travel to the afterlife to save him. This sudden turn into the metaphysical is really great, and I’m up for the Doctor trying to answer the big questions of the universe. These two finale episodes are the most the show has ever really delved into straight-up horror, with Clara and the Doctor finding that the afterlife is really just a big cloud system, where dead people’s consciousnesses are about to be downloaded into Cybermen, before being returned to rotting corpses. The villainous cyborgs then crawl out of graves across the world. It’s surprising this made it through, as some of the imagery borders on truly unpleasant. I love it, obviously. But I do wonder how younger fans enjoyed it, especially with the revelation that stolen consciousnesses are still conscious throughout their cremations. Maybe someone should have taken Moffatt aside for a quiet word at this point.
This gloriously convoluted plan is all down to Missy, or the Mistress, formerly known as the Master. Michelle Gomez absolutely kills in this role, and it the perfect foil for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. The Master should always be cartoonishly evil, and Gomez delivers in spades. She really helps turn the finales into what could have been a weirdly disturbing and tragic couple of hours, into something that retains that sense of Doctor Who fun. And her chemistry with the Twelve Doctor is perfect. I still think the whole thing with Danny and his war crimes is a bit iffy, but upon my rewatch I was completely sold on these final two episodes.
So series eight marks a big change for the show, or for the Doctor at least. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor represents the biggest change in the character in the revival, as he’s gone from young and chipper (mostly) to old and grumpy. I can see why some people might have stopped watching here, because it really is a different character on the surface, and a hell of a lot of people fell in love with Matt Smith’s portrayal. But for me, that’s the power of the show. What other franchises can mix things up to the same extent?
If people gave up somewhere during this season, they really missed out on one of the best eras of the show. And it only gets better from here. Season eight hits the ground running, and apart from a few small missteps (and one major blunder with “In the Forest of the Night”), it’s a brilliant introduction to the new Doctor.