Today at MostlyFilm – Europe’s Best Website – we plunge headlong into our 2014 recap as Ricky Young takes a sideways look at this year’s series of Doctor Who. To be fair, all of his looks are sideways looks, due to being no-doubt deservedly hit in the face with a shovel as a child.
OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING – If you haven’t watched series 8 of Doctor Who by this point, and you keep reading this article, you’re going to find out nearly everything that happened in it. Just so we’re on the same page, aye? So don’t come crying to me etc…
It wasn’t truly great. It wasn’t truly terrible. It had some really, really great bits, and more than a few moments that had us gnashing our teeth with frustration. But back when we looked at the season opener Deep Breath, we – somewhat gingerly – handed over the Official MostlyFilm Benefit Of The Doubt to Steven Moffat, and so considering that previous couple of series had us all fed up with his unnervingly tiny bag of tricks, that the award’s been returned to us in a still-recognisable fashion can’t help but be considered an improvement.
Deep Breath made it clear that if there wasn’t a new broom in the house, then at least Moffat had taken the time remove the dust-bunnies from the old broom. Complicated but ultimately go-nowhere story-arcs weren’t gone completely, but their importance to the show were dialled down this year in favour of emphasising characters and emotions. That’s not to say that we weren’t treated to some damn annoying characters and cheap, unearned emotions, but overall Doctor Who felt different this series. Different and better.
Peter Capaldi as the Doctor was always going to mean things were changed-up. Abrasive (but not horrible), charming (but not smug) and distinctly alien (but not a hammy scenery-chewer), the Twelfth Doctor’s personality has been described as the Sixth Doctor’s done right this time, and there’s something to that. Capaldi stalking about the TARDIS like a pissed-off praying mantis couldn’t be more different to the puppy-dog pretty-boys we’ve spent half a decade slowly being annoyed by. But this isn’t The Thick Of It ill-looking Capaldi. Most of the time onscreen in Doctor Who he’s positively glowing, and if they spend a lot of time having him sullen and grumpy, then it only serves to make his occasional beaming smiles that much more vivid.
So join us as we take a trot though this year’s episodes, handing out plaudits and brickbats wherever we see fit. Compared to previous years, we may end up with a surfeit of leftover brickbats. If I can wrap them all up without anyone here noticing, that’s my Xmas shopping sorted.
Ben Wheatley carried his on-point visual chops over into Phil Ford & Steven Moffat’s ‘Into The Dalek’, a Fantastic Voyage –esque journey which proved Capaldi had no issues with the all-important ‘running-down-corridors’ aspect of the role – although he is a very amusing runner. The story itself wasn’t that gripping (No, YOU had to go to Wikipedia to look up the details!) but it was a stylish and energetic way to spend an hour. We were also introduced to this series’ third wheel; Clara’s boyfriend and fellow teacher Danny Pink, of whom more later.
Mark Gatiss’ ‘Robot Of Sherwood’ served as this year’s traditional third-episode historical romp – the jaunty tone was tooth-grinding for some (few Who writers divide the audience like Gatiss) but the Doctor’s bloody-minded insistence that he was the only normal thing in a pile of nonsensical bollocks emphasised quite how different this man is from the fella he’d been. Capaldi is also probably the owner of Scotland’s finest deadpan since Chic Murray, so the comedy had plenty to bounce off.
A looping, timey-wimey tale about childhood fears based in the everyday? Who could have written that, I wonder? Yes, Steven Moffat’s ‘Listen’ dealt with the youthful years of both Danny Pink and the Doctor, and tried to connect them in a way that dealt a surprising degree of emotion, or just pissed people off, depending on your take. We, perhaps surprisingly, went with the emotion. Perhaps we’re getting soft?
One of the best things about this series was the variety of stories it attempted, and Moffat and Steven Thompson’s ‘Time Heist’ definitely felt like something new, even if had a slightly harder time hitting the aimed-for beats than it would have liked. Bright and sparky and awash with colour and fun, the only real downside was that ‘It’s Not A Monster, It’s An Innocent Creature That Just Wants To Go Home!’ has taken over from ‘Character X Was In Character Y’s Mind The Whole Time!’ as sci-fi’s (and Doctor Who’s in particular) most annoying trope. But we’ll forgive it because the big ugly elephant was so cute.
Gareth Roberts (and bloody Moffat again – at least when RTD filleted a script back in the day, he generally didn’t put his name on the thing as punishment) gave us the unfortunately wildly problematic ‘The Caretaker’, which tried to mash together a bunch of the series’ emerging themes (being comfortable with compartmentalising your life, lying to protect yourself and others, and how soldiers are now a terrible thing for some reason despite spending the entire 1970s on a military base and having all of your friends be soldiers) in an earthbound setting and makes a right arse of it, with the Doctor somehow spending a lot of the episode coming off as a class-obsessed, racist prick. It didn’t help that the monster of the week was so damn shoddy, but it took a lot to make you feel sorry for Danny Pink (who as we got to know him better seemed more and more of a controlling, passive-aggressive crybaby) but the Doctor managed it. There wasn’t even a redemption scene either – it didn’t exactly beat that time Colin Baker strangled Nicola Bryant as the Doctor’s most charmless outing, but it was up there.
‘Kill The Moon’, by Peter Harness. Hoo. This one was a lot of people’s favourite, seeing as the showdown contained a Big Decision based around Big Issues and Big Themes (generally good stuff in a kids’ show) and went a fair way to packing Clara’s character with a damn sight more agency than she’s ever had before. (Male writers talking about female ‘agency’ being so hot right now, obvs), plus it looked and sounded great.
But the Moon was a fucking egg.
There’s only one thing worse than people who say ‘hey, it’s a show about a mad man in a box, it doesn’t matter about the science, just chill!’ and that’s the people who say ‘ah, yes, but while I can suspend my disbelief for so long, there has to be a degree of internal consistency blah blah fucking blah’. But when trying to describe the episode’s events has you sounding just like M*lcolm T*cker explaining Star Wars (“The Moon’s an egg, right? With a dragon in it. So there’s a girl, and a bomb, and an egg which is the Moon, and the girl with the bomb doesn’t blow up the egg, so the dragon hatches and fucks off and lays another egg which is another Moon”) and you’re left wondering if your television just puked at you, then *perhaps* Doctor Who’s script-editing process is still in the perilous state we first wondered about two years ago. It was this series biggest wobble, certainly, apart from one later disaster we’re all best ignoring.
You can see where we’re going with this.
But from one first-time Who writer who waltzed in and screwed the pooch, to another who bought the pooch dinner and took it to a movie before ordering it a taxi home – Jamie Matheson provided the remarkable-for-a-newbie one-two of ‘Mummy On The Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’.
The former was a tight and stylish whydunnit, boosted by great performances, zippy production design – including a truly horrible monster – and Capaldi’s seemingly endless energy. The last five minutes saw the inevitable Moffiosi technobabble-drenched rush to a teensily-underwhelming conclusion, it’s true, but we’re all used to that by now.
The latter was undoubtedly the series highlight. The yearly ‘Doctor-lite’ episode, it featured an angry Doctor trapped in a teeny TARDIS while Clara worked on the mystery with verve and wit. The threat was genuinely imaginative, the supporting cast were just right, the fantastic effects served the story instead of driving them, and it gave the Doctor his purpose-resetting ‘I am the man who stops the monsters!’ speech, delivered perfectly. Although his follow-up ‘I name you…The Boneless!’ did sound a bit like he was being overly affectionate to his KFC Mega-Bucket.
But these are mere niggles. As far as we’re concerned Mr. Matheson may return and write some more Doctor Who, if he wishes. I’m sure he’ll be glad to know this.
Tell you who can fuck off, though: Frank Bloody Cottrell Fucking Boyce, who swanned in with ‘In The Forest Of The Night’, perhaps NuWho’s nadir to date. Three-quarters of an hour of annoying stage-school kids, deeply fake plantpots, a story that was so filled with holes you play Connect 4 with it and a ‘revelatory’ conclusion that makes you wonder what this ‘longterm collaborator with Michael Winterbottom’ – literally nobody’s favourite director, even his mum – actually knows about how life on earth even manages to exist. Perhaps the most ‘Will This Do?’ episode of anything on telly this year, it was completely worthless. So we’re pretending it didn’t air, okay? Good.
We’re going to take a moment here to single out Jenna Coleman for some props. See how generous we are! Her character, such as it was, created in fits and starts during the height of Moffat’s winky-wanky-woo phase (remember Victorian Clara? Remember Dalek Clara? No, I suspect now neither does he.), the Impossible Girl who suddenly wasn’t that Impossible at all. Well, now she’s Possible, it turns out she’s not a bad companion at all, and while Moffat still can’t write convincing or human-sounding young women in the slightest, Coleman sold pretty much every corner into which poor Clara was pushed, with conviction and grace.
Samuel Anderson, on the other hand, gave Danny Pink all the nuance and range for which his ‘Fingers out of Gavin & Stacey’ remains such a byword.
And so to the two-part finale, ‘Dark Water’/’Death In Heaven’, written by MostlyFilm’s old friend, S. Moffat Esq, featuring two returning villains, one rubbish (the Cybermen) and one great (The Master). it was exciting and imaginative and scary and fun, until it collapsed under the weight of its own ambition in the last twenty minutes. Rather the ambition than the alienating, solipsistic shit we’ve been served these last couple of years, however.
But it’s things like the casting of Michelle Gomez as The Master that prove that for all his faults, when Moffat gets things right, he gets them extremely right indeed, especially when the decision to change the character’s gender got some of the internet’s finest dickless wonders so up in arms at how their beloved super-villain was now a very different type of dickless wonder. Others complained about the broadness of her performance, but when it’s a role that’s previously been inhabited by Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley and Eric Frickin’ Roberts – fine, thick slices of air-dried ham, all – then pfft, I say.
And so the Soldiers Are Bad M’kay? theme didn’t really pack much of a punch in the end, everyone applauded when Danny Pink finally died, the mechanics of the Cyber-invasion fell down with the merest thought, and sentencing the previously happily-dead Brigadier to an eternal damnation in a big tin dildo was simply massively misguided. But looking at the series as a whole, Doctor Who is – if you can see past the clunkers – in fairly rude health at the moment, and we’re looking forward to both the Xmas special and whatever Steven has in store for us next year.
We’ve never said that before.
It feels weird.
Ricky can be found (or avoided) on The Tweeter.