Doctor Who is about a mad man with a box. Though this sort of sentence has been used to describe the show before, it’s not entirely true. The Doctor is not a man, but a Timelord; an alien race that has the ability (with technological aid) to travel through time and space. When a Timelord “dies,” unless their body is completely destroyed, they regenerate into a new form which has a different appearance and personality, but most of the memories of its past lives as well. The aforementioned box is called a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) and it’s best if you don’t ask how it works. Just know that it’s a time machine and it is the Doctor’s form of transportation as he flings himself about the universe (past, present, and future) righting wrongs and fighting evil. Sometimes he has a companion, sometimes he flies alone. It’s utterly ridiculous science fiction and I love it.
Despite a few breaks here and there, it is still an impressive achievement that Doctor Who has persisted as long as it has. Like the titular Doctor himself, the show has regenerated time and time again. Thanks to Russel T. Davies’ 2005 reboot, the show has finally made its way into the popular culture of America. The fervent fan hunger for more Who is something that Stephen Moffat has been trying to satiate since 2010, when he took over as showrunner. Though Moffat’s decisions and blockbuster-esque arcs have proven divisive for some, it cannot be denied that with his guidance and the strength of Matt Smith’s performance as the 11th Doctor, Doctor Who has become more popular than ever before. Yet no one can be the Doctor forever and last year, after a much lauded three series run, Matt Smith decided to exit the show. Matt Smith ended his run with two of his best performances, starting first with the entertaining bit of fan service that was, “The Day of the Doctor” (which also served as the show’s 50th anniversary celebration) and the subsequent 800th episode and Christmas special, “The Time of the Doctor.” Fans wondered who could possibly top Smith’s zany yet heartfelt performance. Moffat and co. surprised many by not even trying.
This is not a detraction. In fact, this was my favorite part of this new series. Like every regeneration, there was little time to mourn 11’s passing. A new Doctor appeared, notably older than his most recent incarnations and undeniably Scottish. Played by Peter Capaldi (known mostly for his genius portrayal of political fixer and master swearer, Malcolm Tucker, in various British productions), the 12th Doctor is the most alien Doctor to date. 11 was considered “alien” as well, but there is a clear distinction between the two. Whereas 11’s otherness was defined by his misunderstanding of the human species, 12’s is defined by his chosen distance and coldness. Humanity is something that he acknowledges, but not something he desires to be a part of. 11, for all his awkwardness and infrequent dark turns of character, loved humanity for its massive potential for goodness. 12, in contrast, is often aloof, inherently suspicious, and dismissive of humankind, yet still equally driven to help those in danger because it’s the right thing to do. Being an “ends” more than a “means” character means that the trademark regret and sadness that previous Doctors experienced at the death of allies is mostly absent. You will not find the, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” of the 10th Doctor here. Nor will you encounter 11’s teary-eyed farewells. 12’s immediate reaction to tragedy is anger and frustration. He is incensed by injustice and abhors thoughtlessness. If any Doctor were to kill in the name of justice, this might be the one.
Given the massive breadth of his emotions, the Doctor is a difficult character for any actor, yet Capaldi portrays him with ease. Though he may rant and rage, Capaldi’s ire never appears manufactured or melodramatic. His biting wit and off-handed comments drip with sarcasm and his ongoing monologue with himself is believable and often hilarious. Despite his vitriol, Capaldi’s greatest accomplishment with 12 is how skillfully he peels back the layers of the character to allow us to glimpse the goodness that is buried within, a core that is both just and kind, yet not something he displays openly. More than any other Doctor, it seems that Capaldi’s carries the weight of his many experiences as well as the sorrows that accompany them. Throwbacks to previous series are sparse, but perfectly placed, and Capaldi’s remembrances of these moments are the perfect mixture of bittersweet and melancholic. Truly, an inspired choice for the Doctor, Capaldi is an incredibly nuanced and talented performer who has already made this incarnation of the Doctor one of my favorites. I hope that his run is as long and successful as Smith’s or Tennant’s before him.
However, no Doctor works in isolation, and despite the return of some familiar faces, the one that people care about most is the companion. Though she was Matt Smith’s companion for much of Series 7, Clara Oswald has really come into her own in the company of 12. Many levelled criticism at her early character arc, stating that she served very little purpose outside of forwarding 11’s story and that she was defined by his presence rather than being her own character. Those detractors should be more satisfied with this Series (though who knows, you can never tell with a fandom as massive and varied as Doctor Who), as Clara not only proves to be a formidable and capable woman, but also this new Doctor’s moral compass. Jenna Coleman, who charmed me last series and continues to do so now with her wonderful performance, is an extremely talented actress, capable of both great emotion and humor. In the beginning of this series, she effortlessly conducts Clara through stages of grief and confusion as she struggles to cope with the loss of 11 as well as the less amiable man that has replaced him. Later, as she grows accustomed to this new Doctor, their relationship blossoms into something truly unique. Like the best companions, Clara is no push over; her headstrong and often blatant defiance of the Doctor is always entertaining, and more importantly, pertinent to the exploration of their dynamic. The Doctor, as an immortal, time-traveling arbiter of justice, sometimes loses focus on the bigger ramifications of his actions; Clara is always there to question him and pull him back to remind him of who he really is. The allure of being the Doctor’s companion as well as the dire cost of pursuing this position is also something that is explored in this series, to great effect in my opinion. Clara’s personal life and possible romance with another school teacher named Danny Pink (portrayed by Samuel Anderson) are directly affected by the Doctor’s meddling in her affairs, and as the series continues, it becomes apparent that where the Doctor is present, unfortunately, bad things are soon to follow. That being said, Clara’s arc this series has been a great direction for the character to go and Coleman has continued to impress with a performance and spirit that embodies the best of what a Doctor’s companion can be. If the upcoming Christmas special turns out to be her last episode, I will be sad to see her go.
As far as the writing, series eight is classic Who. More focus and less spectacle has made this series one of my favorites since the reboot. Shedding the epic, blockbuster nature of much of Smith’s era, Moffat and company have returned to Who’s more episodic roots, while sprinkling the threads of various story arcs here and there. Though the show is strewn with Doctor Who’s trademark silliness, its wit is still as strong as ever, featuring some truly blistering banter between Coleman and Capaldi, as well as endlessly entertaining sequences in which Capaldi condescends and reprimands those around him. Despite the silliness and humor however, this is probably the darkest the show has ever been and Capaldi’s Doctor has proven to be the most uncompromising yet, even more so than John Hurt’s War Doctor from last year’s anniversary special. The silliness tapers noticeably as the series goes on, culminating in one of the darkest and most depressing finales the show has ever had. There have only been a few times I have been stunned by Doctor Who, this was definitely one of them.
On a technical level, the show continues to grow better. The direction is often creative and kinetic, especially in the opening two episodes by Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers). Visually, despite a meagre effects budget, the CGI’s quality is at an all-time high. As far as the score goes, the incomparable Murray Gold returns, making the cosmic wondrous and the human moments memorable. Being the sole composer for the reboot, Murray Gold has given a definitive sound to new Who and has continued to impress each and every series.
With that said, in all, series eight has been one of my favorite series since the reboot. I have enjoyed Peter Capaldi’s Doctor immensely (though I’m still sad he can’t swear) and Jenna Coleman’s Clara finally grew into the character we all suspected she could be. The story developed into something dark and brilliant and I really can’t wait for more.
The Christmas special cannot come soon enough. If only I had a time machine.