Revisiting Doctor Who - series 11, 8 & 7
Doctor Who series 11 is bland. I'm not as negative towards it as some people - I enjoyed the educational/historical elements and team dynamic, and I'm open to the idea of a female Doctor. But, as I mentioned in a previous article, compared to series 1 (which introduced the Russell T Davies production era of the show) and series 5 (which introduced the Steven Moffat era), series 11 is utterly paltry.
The direction is bland and repetitive, the budget is abysmally low, and the scripts have been clumsy and worthy of soap operas (even the ones I enjoyed). Last year when I watched footage from San Diego Comic-Con 2018 and first gathered that Jodie Whittaker's portrayal of the Doctor would be childlike and quirky, like Matt Smith's before her, I was a little disappointed. As much as I appreciate the quirkier, clownish Doctors - Patrick Troughton, Sylvester McCoy and Smith - I do get a little bored of this characterisation after a while. I wanted to see something new. Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor is one of my favourites. As well as being my first, childhood Doctor (and therefore always guaranteed a special place in my heart), I like him because he was a stripped-down, back-to-basics version of the character. He still had his own sort of quirkiness to be sure, but it was more realistic and less bombastic - the same could be said of the original Doctor, William Hartnell. But Jodie Whittaker is not just another quirky Doctor - she's quirky and nothing else. Patrick Troughton, Sylvester McCoy and Matt Smith all had a darker side to their characters which balanced out nicely the clownishness and prevented it from becoming too over-the-top and sickly sweet. Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor has no such dark underbelly - she's merely a clown, and therefore lacks the gravitas of all her predecessors. It's difficult to believe that she is the same ancient Lord of Time who delivered the Speech to Akhaten, condemned the Family of Blood to punishment eternal, or was ever in any point in her existence the great Tom Baker. And though Whittaker's proven a proficient actress in other things, I hate to say it, but in Doctor Who she really overacts. She's almost cringingly cartoonish - even more extreme than series 7b Matt Smith!
To be fair, Doctor Who appreciation is largely posthumous (as I have personally discovered with the Peter Capaldi era), and maybe series 11 will grow in esteem as the years pass. Colin Baker was once universally loathed when he was the Doctor, but even he has his defenders these days. But if you're doubtful, and are miserable about the state Doctor Who is currently in, I would urge you to cheer up. The show has had plenty of peaks and troughs over its 56-year history, but thanks to its great flexibility to change it has only been cancelled once. Unless Chris Chibnall fundamentally messes with the fabric of the show, by, say, revealing the Doctor's origins, or her name, or turning the Daleks into fuzzy love machines; then Doctor Who will pull through and someday it'll get good again. It may not be the same, because it never is, but so long as it's good that'll be fine by me.
Although if you're impatient, the simple answer is to rewatch old classics. You have 56 years of Doctor Who to sift through! You're not exactly being starved. Most programmes are lucky to get a second series, let alone 26 seasons, 11 series and a TV movie (and counting).
Even the virtually unknown classic Who serials, like Full Circle (which I reviewed in a previous article) are often surprisingly good. And even if you've somehow seen every surviving Doctor Who episode from 1963 to the present day (a feat which me and a friend are attempting in our Doctor Who podcast), there are yet endless Doctor Who audio dramas and books to sample, such as the Big Finish series. I've only just begun listening to Big Finish recently - their audio dramas Jubilee, The Chimes of Midnight, and Spare Parts are some of the finest Doctor Who stories ever, and they're available on Spotify.
My point is, I've always had very mixed feelings to the Capaldi era. It's not Capaldi's fault - I've always thought he was great in the role. Rather, I think Steven Moffat was often not at his best during this time. But I've lately decided to retry some of series 8 with a posthumous positive attitude.
"Into the Dalek" has some excellent visuals and Dalek action. It was great to see the Daleks as this powerful imperial force again, pursuing a helpless band of human rebels across the galaxy. My main problem with this episode, which I noticed during my first watch in 2014, and which hasn't been resolved upon rewatching, is this: the Doctor goes "into the Dalek" to find out why it has apparently turned good. He then figures out the cause (a radioactive leak) - and fixes it. Utterly predictably, the Dalek turns bad again and goes on a rampage, killing dozens of people! All those deaths are on the Doctor's stupid hands. What did he think would happen, by fixing the source of the Dalek's goodness? I guess he was hoping that the Dalek would be good of its own accord; but surely it would have been wise to take precautions? This plot hole is extremely jarring in an otherwise entertaining story.
I also think that Capaldi's Doctor is a bit too cruel to Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton's character), just because she is a soldier. The same can be said of his treatment of Danny Pink later in the series. I understand that the Twelfth Doctor is often blunt and rude in series 8; it's part of his character. But since when did the Doctor hate soldiers so much? He's always been a pacifist, sceptical of military methods; but to hate soldiers on a personal level? What about the entirety of UNIT? (Yes, I realise they reference this by resurrecting the Brigadier at the end of the series. But why would the Doctor need to be reminded of the Brigadier to finally get rid of his hatred of soldiers? Why - and how - did he develop that hatred in the first place, after his years of service to UNIT?).
|Above: a chilling moment.|
"Listen" is a controversial one. The concept is very interesting, but it's a bit boring to rewatch knowing (spoiler alert) that the villains aren't real. Though it's clever how - if you listen closely to the dialogue - Moffat provides an alternative explanation to each and every apparently supernatural event in the story. My main problem with this episode is the ending. It's truly chilling when it's revealed that Clara has visited the Doctor's childhood. It's utterly unprecedented, and it really puts the Doctor into perspective - we often forget that the Twelfth Doctor, or any other Doctor, is actually an ancient alien, thousands of years old, with many lifetimes behind him (or her). Seeing his/her original incarnation as a child on an alien world in the distant, mythical past reminds us of his immortal, otherworldly nature, which is always present but rarely above the surface. It reminds us of how little we actually know about this mysterious figure we think we are so familiar with. That said, things start to go wrong with the unnecessary fan-servicey War Doctor cameo. And the implication that Clara is responsible for the Doctor's character via "Dan the Soldier Man" is hideous overkill. Showing the Doctor's childhood is risky enough, but retconning his origin story like that really does deplete his mystery.
As for Orson Pink, implied strongly to be Danny Pink and Clara Oswald's descendant; he becomes a gaping plot hole only a few episodes later, when Danny Pink dies in "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven" without children. Seriously? In the same series? That's just embarrassing writing. "Listen" and "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven" were both written by Steven Moffat. He doesn't have an excuse.
|Above: Orson "Plot Hole" Pink.|
"Time Heist" on the other hand is a super fun episode with likeable characters who have struggles the audience can empathise with. It has cool sci-fi concepts, the Teller is a real threat, and the acting is also superb. Definitely worth a rewatch.
"The Caretaker" is the funniest episode of Doctor Who. There, I said it. It's effectively a Doctor Who comedy and should be appreciated as such. While the Ninth, Tenth and (just about) Eleventh Doctors could all get away with pretending to be human, Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor is utterly hopeless at it, and it's completely endearing. The scene in which he assumes Clara is dating someone who looks like Matt Smith is so meta; it's brilliant. But even this episode has great emotional drama - the exchanges between the Doctor and Danny Pink are powerful, especially Danny's assessment of the Doctor in the TARDIS. It's interesting to get a strong male "companion" (of sorts) who actually stands up to the Doctor - sees through him. It's a fascinating angle and refreshing after Mickey Smith and Rory Williams (who the Doctor just walked all over). Although, again, the Doctor's hatred of soldiers seems a little heavy-handed.
|Above: the Twelfth Doctor fends off a dangerous Clara with a broom (from "The Caretaker").|
"Kill the Moon" is all right - it has some interesting ideas but I found it a little boring, and the fact that a new Moon the exact shape and size of the previous one was immediately created out of thin air with no negative repercussions to the people of Earth whatsoever still seems extremely convenient to me. Nevertheless, the episode does have some interesting themes, and I could understand if someone did like it.
"Mummy on the Orient Express" is a Twelfth Doctor classic. Capaldi and Clara are really cute in this episode, even in simply the way they move and act around each other. The way the Doctor overhears Clara lie to Danny is subtly and cleverly done, and I also loved Frank Skinner's character Perkins' last scene with the Doctor. The Doctor offers him a chance to join him on the TARDIS, but Perkins refuses, saying travelling like the Doctor "can change a man". It's implied he's refusing because, throughout "Mummy on the Orient Express", he saw the Doctor at his most calculating and ruthless. This is the theme of the story - how heartless decisions sometimes have to be made to save lives. This is also partly explored in the next episode, also written by Jamie Mathieson, called "Flatline".
|Above: a hilarious, quaint moment from "Flatline".|
"Flatline" was even more brilliant than I remembered it. Capaldi is excellent in this. He's certainly the best actor to play the Doctor; every expression of his face carries so many meanings. And the way he moves about the TARDIS is wonderful; he really treats it as his own. Clara is an underrated companion. She has a great relationship with the Twelfth Doctor, and it's interesting to see an effective, capable, Doctor-like companion, rather than a swooning sidekick. In "Flatline" she takes the role of the Doctor while Capaldi is begrudgingly trapped in the TARDIS, which is an enthralling and funny dynamic to see.
The Twelfth Doctor era had many duds to be sure - "Robot of Sherwood", "In the Forest of the Night", "Last Christmas", "The Magician's Apprentice", "The Return of Doctor Mysterio", etc. These should be safely left in the past and ignored. But it also had its highlights, which I would urge any haters to revisit with a positive attitude. Such episodes as "Time Heist", "The Caretaker", "Mummy on the Orient Express", "Flatline", "Heaven Sent" and "World Enough and Time" will be remembered as Capaldi classics, and will continue to be enjoyed many years from now.
I've also been revisiting some of series 7, which also has its detractors. "The Bells of Saint John" is really fun. "The Rings of Akhaten" is also an enjoyable watch; granted, some of the costumes can be seen through, some of the visual effects are a bit dated, and the space bike and the monster that feeds on consciousness are both a bit too similar to the previous episode, but for a rushed script and a rushed, low-budget production, it's pretty damn impressive. Why did everyone get so upset about the Mummy when this was first broadcast? I thought he was pretty scary - it was a great costume - even if he was just an "alarm clock" for the real villain, Akhaten (the episode simply pulled a "there's always a bigger fish"). The Vigil likewise were quite scary, and it was disappointing they were underused. The worldbuilding, around this "space religion" and the cultures that were assembled there, was wonderfully imaginative. Matt Smith's performance and Murray Gold's score are what really give this story its magic, and it's certainly worthy of many a rewatch.
"Cold War" is the best Mark Gatiss-written Doctor Who story. It's beautifully directed - so many wisps of smoke in the flashing lights! The way the Ice Warrior talks with a lovely monstrous clicking sound - not to mention the Ice Warrior costume itself, which is beautiful and very faithful to the original design (although the CGI face is a bit disappointing). There's a wonderful moment with Matt Smith when he's trying to convince himself to blow up the submarine in order to save the earth - he's talking to himself, muttering "I will blow it up I will blow it up". It's touching and very characteristic of the Doctor that he has to really force himself to get in the mindset to do something so horrible yet horribly necessary.
"Hide" is also directorially brilliant. It's probably the most cinematic Doctor Who episode I've ever seen (apart from the Doctor Who movie, of course!). As for "The Crimson Horror"; it's a fascinatingly bizarre parody of Victorian religious conservatism. It has some great, surreal Doctor Who-ish moments, like a woman who is chillingly reported the death of her husband before he has even finished screaming, a factory full of Victorian gramophones replicating factory sounds, and a weird foetus-like creature called Mr Sweet suckling on the antagonist's breast. Unfortunately, while the Paternoster Gang (Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax) were an interesting and unique addition to Doctor Who, I don't think they really work. Much of the tension in "The Crimson Horror" immediately falls flat as Strax appears from nowhere and solves a problem by shooting at it, or Jenny chases away baddies with her karate skills. A large part of what makes Doctor Who so clever is that the Doctor and his companion are usually unarmed. This not only forces writers to come up with interesting methods of escaping or dealing with antagonists, but it racks up the tension as well. The Paternoster Gang, armed as they are, detract from this.
"Nightmare in Silver" has some interesting concepts, and I appreciate the level of worldbuilding and mythology the highly imaginative Neil Gaiman tries to establish in his episode, but there are a lot of flaws that let it down. Here I'll focus on two. Firstly, the child actors are atrocious. Secondly, the story concludes abruptly and unsatisfactorily with a ridiculous plot hole. At the end, Warwick Davies' character Porridge reveals he is the "Emperor of Known Space", and teleports everyone to his spaceship before the planet is destroyed. Why didn't he just do this at the beginning? It would have saved a lot of lives. It could be argued that he didn't want to return to his Imperial lifestyle, and I think this is what Mr Gaiman was going for; but in that case, doesn't this make him terribly selfish? "Oh, woe is me; it's such a pain to be an Emperor". The other characters wouldn't have delayed on destroying the planet if they had known he could have just teleported them away from the beginning. Many lives would not have been lost. It makes no sense; Porridge shows no repentance over this and the Doctor doesn't even seem to notice it. It's just left unsaid. Although, come to think of it, why didn't the Doctor just transport everyone away safely in his TARDIS? Both the Emperor and the Doctor are culpable for those lost lives. It's a gaping wide plot hole and, as it's the conclusion of the story, it leaves you dissatisfied.
As for "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"; I'll just say it deserves its reputation. A great concept gone to waste on an average story, with terrible actors.
They're all the mini-reviews I'll do for this article, but where I'm concerned there are always more Doctor Who reviews to come! The main purpose of this article is to persuade the reader that, if he or she isn't enjoying the new series, then there's plenty of Doctor Who out there to choose from. If I have proven anything here, it's that some of it is better than others, but nevertheless there are some classics that are criminally underrated. Give Peter Capaldi another chance, or watch some obscure classic Who serial no one's ever heard of. You might very well be surprised.