As an avowed Doctor Who fan, I have been making a point of watching episodes from the new season as promptly as is convenient. But as a bit of a lazy blogger who has been super busy at work and with visiting family, and also kind of sick, I haven’t been writing about each episode. But I just finished The Caretaker, which is the 6th episode of the season, and I thought I’d just jot down a few thoughts about the season so far.
I already wrote fully about the opening installment, Deep Breath. You can go and read about the whole thing but the short story is that while I really liked the new Doctor-Clara dynamic, and overall enjoy both lead performances, I wasn’t too impressed with the episode itself. I think the Vastra-Jenny-Strax thing is long past its prime, and the “climactic” battle scene between them and the murderous androids is possibly one of the silliest and least believably directed sequences I have ever scene in modern Doctor Who.
So, with that opening, I was a bit nervous about what we’d find in the subsequent episodes. And now, five weeks later, what’s the verdict? Well, as is inevitable, it’s a bit hit and miss, but with the hits coming more and more frequently.
I’ve only watched each episode once, and I barely remember Into the Dalek. What strikes me since I saw it is the stupidity of everyone working so hard to re-activate the Dalek without taking into account he possibility that it would turn around and start killing them all. When that happened, I couldn’t help but to think what a bunch of fools all these characters were.
A bit stronger is the portrayal of the Doctor’s coldness at the death of the Ross, as well as Journey Blue’s brother. These moments are a stark demonstration of the Doctor’s alien-ness, without taking him so far down that path that we can’t relate to him at all. It contrasts sharply with all the Doctor’s goings-on about his distaste for soldiers, which is something we will see again and that plays into the ongoing theme of the Doctor’s self-loathing.
Of course, the other thing that the episode does is introduce us to Danny Pink, a love-interest for Clara. Samuel Anderson immediately impresses as the conflicted former military man, and the character is a welcome change of personality from the nervous and insecure likes of Mickey Smith or Rory Williams, who both took a lot longer to get their acts together.
Next up was Robot of Sherwood, which seems to be the first of two episodes this season with Sherlock-esque pun-filled titles (the other being Mummy on the Orient Express, which airs in a couple of weeks). That’s appropriate since it’s written by Mark Gatiss, who is Steven Moffat’s partner-in-crime creating and writing Sherlock. It is a silly, light-hearted romp that mostly works, once again, on the strength of the charm of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman.
Mark Gatiss is a pretty uneven Doctor Who writer for me. Here there is something really choppy and uneven going on. The gimmick, I guess, is that the “Robin Hood” story the Doctor finds himself in is so “over-produced” that he cannot believe that it’s actually real, but then it turns out to be real after all. But the show does such a good job making the whole Robin Hood shtick seem so ridiculous that I find it hard to buy this subverted twist. Maybe if Robin Hood and his gang weren’t such goofs all the way through (at least, until the end with the nice moment when he’s reunited with Marion). And maybe if there wasn’t that strange moment 2/3 the way through when Robin Hood demands that Clara tell him all that she knows about Robin Hood. What was the point of that?
Maybe the problems arise from the show’s last minute self-regulating editing, where they apparently removed an image of the villainous Sheriff being decapitated due to sensitivity issues regarding recent real world tragedies. According to something that I read, that moment would have also revealed the Sheriff to actually be a robot or a cyborg. Apparently, it’s still clear if you’re paying attention (I guess I wasn’t paying attention). I don’t know how that would have worked in the story, but if it’s true than it lends weight to the idea that the final episode came off somewhat different than the original plan.
Listen came next, and a stranger story we are not likely to see anytime soon. The whole thing starts off invoking a bit of a vibe from Steven Moffat’s greatest hits – with things lurking in the corner of our eyes and an unidentifiable terrors creeping up behind us from nowhere. But then the episode makes a sharp turn about halfway through and turns into this unexpected character study about who the Doctor is and why he does what he does. I think the episode works on that level, but it clearly implies that there really is some creature living in little Reginald Pink’s bedroom, and possibly a different set of creatures outside of that bunker at the end of the time. At first, I was frustrated at the idea that we’ll probably never follow up on the plot threads that are brought up here, but after a bit of time had passed I decided that I could accept the idea that there are these creatures out there who are just really keen to avoid being seen, and that the Doctor’s strange encounter with Clara his youth simply guides his reaction to them.
I do not buy the idea that the creatures are just in the Doctor’s (and everyone else’s) imagination. That seems really inconsistent with what we see on screen.
The brief flashback to the War Doctor and the tie-in to what we saw in The Day of the Doctor gave everything an unexpected taste of grandeur that I appreciated.
Incidentally, I misheard the name of Danny Pink’s descendant and thought it was Colonel Awesome Pink, which made things seem even crazier.
Because of my general dopiness, I was confused at about key point in Time Heist. I fully thought that Keeley Hawes’ character, Ms. Delphox / Madame Karabraxos was the same as Michelle Gomez’s Missy, the creepy mystery lady that we saw briefly in both Deep Breath and Into the Dalek. So I spent the entire episode thinking we were delving into the big mysteries of the entire season. Silly silly unobservant blogger. Discovering I was wrong (as I eventually did) didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the show though. Maybe it even improved it, as it made the episode a bit more of a stand-alone adventure, one that I was encouraged seemed to add all up at the end, even with all the time travel shenanigans going on.
It wasn’t the deepest story by any means, but it was a slick and enjoyable one. The Teller was an effectively realized monster and the revelation that the Doctor’s fellow conspirators were not killed as we thought was a welcome one. The episode also touched on various themes and ideas for the season without doting on them – like the Doctor’s self-loathing (which I think we can safely say informs his feelings about soldiers) and the question of the identify of the mysterious woman on the phone from The Bells of Saint John.
And that brings us up to The Caretaker, which marks the halfway point for the season (I haven’t heard why this season of the show only has 12 episodes rather than 13 – anyone else privy to this knowledge?) I really liked The Caretaker – lots of funny moments blended in with some genuinely thoughtful character drama, garnished with some glitzy science fiction action and a robot that is a like a deranged nightmare version of the one in Short Circuit. The Doctor’s confrontation with Danny Pink on the Tardis is a bit of a triumph for the series, and the episode is able to bring out the humor of the situation in way that is distinct from The Lodger, which is a script by the same writer (Gareth Roberts) which has a similar set up.
I am not a particular fan of Courtney Woods – the disruptive influence who throws up in the Tardis – and I’m in no hurry to see her again, but I suppose that she is better than the alternative (the kids that Clara was a babysitter for in the last season). With the story set in Coal Hill school, I wouldn’t have minded seeing some sort of cameo by William Russell as Ian Chesterton, something that feels increasingly unlikely, but I continue to hope.
And of course, you can’t talk about The Caretaker without at least mentioning the mysterious “promised land” that we see at the end – the Nethersphere, which I guess is the new accepted name. Still no idea what’s going on there, but the idea of a place where people who are killed in proximity to the Doctor continually turning up in this strange environment is certainly an intriguing one. CSO Matthew is the first person who we’ve seen arrive in this location who didn’t willingly die as a result of something the Doctor did (if we assume that the Half-Face Man from Deep Breath took his own life). But maybe it could be argued that the Doctor was somehow responsible for his death, since without the Tardis’ regular visit to Coal Hill, the Skovox Blitzer might not have been there to do in the poor police officer. If the Nethersphere is filled with the souls of anyone who has died in conjunction with the Doctor’s actions, than it could be a very crowded place indeed.
In spite of some bumps along the way, I have been enjoying the ride that Season Eight of Doctor Who has brought me on so far. I like the characterization of the 12th Doctor and the theme of his struggle to come to peace with himself. I love the dynamic that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has with Clara – much improved over how she was used with Matt Smith. I think that overall the idea of doing mainly single episode stories is working better than it did in Season Seven – the stories overall feel more complete and emotionally satisfactory than most of last year’s regular outings.
And I’m hopeful that story will bring it’s overall season-arc to a close in a way that’s satisfactory. I really like Steven Moffat’s take on Doctor Who, but even his biggest apologist is going to have to concede that the conclusions of his story arcs have been a little bewildering, to put it mildly. Still, I prefer bewildering to the deus ex machinas of Russell T. Davies’ season finales, but I wouldn’t mind something that really combined Moffat’s snappiness with some narrative sensibility as well.
Six more episodes to go!
(Click here for a Creative Apologist’s view of the next episode, Kill the Moon)