Peter Capaldi’s First Season in Doctor Who – 12 Highlights

And so, we now live in a world where Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor is behind us.  What’s our response?  Well, like all seasons of all TV shows (pretty much), there are good episodes and bad episodes, things to celebrate and things to hopefully avoid in the future.  Overall, though – it was a pretty good run of episodes.  Better, I’d say, than the year or year and a half prior.  And so as a fan, I’m pretty happy.

What made me happy?  Here are some of the reasons.  12 reasons, in fact.  Because it’s the 12th Doctor, there were 12 episodes, and it’s the show’s 12th season.

[12th season?!  OK, not really.  It’s just the 8th season.  Buuuut, if we count Season Six as two seasons (because it was split into two when it first aired), and we count Season Seven as two seasons (because it was split even more dramatically–new year, new companion, new title sequence, new Tardis set), and we count David Tennant’s year of Doctor Who specials in that stretched from the end of 2008 to the beginning of 2010 as a season, and we count all the hoopla around the 50th Anniversary (Night of the Doctor, Day of the Doctor, Time of the Doctor) as a season, than we can get up to 12 seasons.  12 seasons, if we squint.]

Now, to be clear, I’m sure I could just as easily do a post on 12 things that drove me crazy about this last season of Doctor Who, but I’m trying to be upbeat here, and there was plenty to life.

Anyway, 12 highlights of Peter Capaldi’s debut season of Doctor Who

1. Clara was Awesome

Doctor Who - Deep BreathSome people seem to be complaining that the show gave too much emphasis to Clara this year – sort of the opposite complaint the companions got back in the old days, when they were often accused of just being “screamers”.  I think it’s an  overstated grumble – the Doctor was still front and centre, but Clara was great.  The first indication that she was going to be great came when she stood up to the extremely irritating Madame Vastra back in Deep Breath, but the coolness there is mitigated by the fact that the scene included Madame Vastra, and especially Jenny.  But later in the episode, as she faces down with the Half-Faced villain of the story, Clara demonstrates courage in the midst of terror that most of us could only dream of.  By the end of Deep Breath, Jenna Coleman and the team had sold me on Clara in a new way, and I kept on being sold through most of the season.

Back in Season Seven, Clara was nice enough, and appealing, but her characterization was a bit lost behind the mystery of the whole “Impossible Girl” thing.  Now, in a new season, with new chemistry alongside a new Doctor, she has really shone and become one of the stand-out companions of the entire series.

2. The Doctor asks, “Am I good man?”

Into the DalekThis question, poised in the second episode of the year, was really the over-arching theme of the season (even more than the mystery of Missy).  We had a number of moments that really brought that home pretty strongly, where we were suddenly put into a position of not knowing if we could really trust the Doctor fully.  In Deep Breath, there’s the obvious question of how the Half-Faced Man ended up falling to his death.  In Into the Dalek, the Doctor is pretty cold about some of the characters’ deaths.  And in Kill the Moon, the Doctor really seems off-the-wall with his response to the possible destruction of the earth.

But then the show begins to also subvert our expectations regarding the Doctor’s callousness.  The shift really happens in Mummy on the Orient Express, where the Doctor appears to be just wanting to tale advantage of poor doomed Maisie, nevermind her personal fate.  But then the Doctor turns it around, taking on her emotional turmoil, thus putting himself in the danger she was just in.

The story even gives him a chance to talk it through with Clara.  She says, “You were only pretending to be heartless,” to which he replies, “Would you like to think that about me?  Would that make it easier?  I didn’t know if I could save her.  I couldn’t save Quell, I couldn’t save Moorhouse.  There was a good chance that she’d die too.  At which point, I would have just moved onto the next, and the next, and the next, until I beat it.  Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones.  But you still have to choose.”  Truly excellent characterization.

3. The Doctor don’t take no guff from nobody

Robots of SherwoodThere were some very funny moments throughout this season, many of them related to the Doctor’s abrupt temper.  The first one I remember was from Robot of Sherwood, when the Doctor responds to Robin Hood’s “laughing in the face of danger” with the retort, “And do people ever punch you in the face when you do that?…Lucky I’m here then, isn’t it?”

But my favorite was from Dark Water – Dr. Chang tells the Doctor that Dr. Skarosa believed that voices he heard were telepathic communication from the dead.  The Doctor’s reply is classic.

“Why?  Was he an idiot?”

4. Danny Pink

ListenThere are some uneven moments, but generally speaking Samuel Anderson shone as Danny Pink in his impressive nine appearances this year (that’s more than Missy, more than Rory, Jackie or Mickey in any season that they weren’t regulars).  It was impressive enough that Danny wasn’t written as an apparently ineffectual, kind of whiny guy who eventually mans up a bit – like his two predecessors (Mickey & Rory) were.  Danny is a fully-realized character who is integral to the overall plot and whose backstory plays strongly into the season’s themes (see below), and even better, he’s not threatened by the Doctor’s relationship with his girlfriend.  All a reason to like the guy.

5. Fully Developed One-Part Stories

Time HeistLast year, for whatever reason, the decision was made not to do any two-part stories in Doctor Who.  The comment from Steven Moffat was something to the effect that they wanted to make each story feel like a fully developed movie, but compressed into 45 minutes.  Unfortunately, Season Seven wound up being, to my thinking, the weakest of the Moffat-helmed  years (all the business around the 50th Anniversary notwithstanding), with quite a number of episodes that were a bit ho-hum, and not living up to intentions.

Now, Season Eight (or Twelve?) had some weak points, but overall, it was a marked improvement, with a lot of episodes that really delivered a complete movie-type experience, even as they also developed the overall arcs.  Now, there’s tons of disagreement about all this of course, but I’d say this is true for Time-HeistThe CaretakerKill the MoonMummy on the Orient Express, and Flatline.  Also, Listen, although that ended up being a bit of a stranger animal that I’m still not fully sure what I think of.

6. Clara’s Home Life Actually Means Something

The CaretakerOK, on my wish list for the future of Doctor Who is a companion who actually lives on the Tardis again, something we haven’t really had for a while.  But if we’re going to make Clara’s home life part of the narrative landscape, it’s nice that it actually counts for something.  Most of the time in Season Seven, having first Amy & Rory and then Clara go back home again in between every adventure felt like a waste of precious episode minutes, but this year it felt like we were seeing an important part of the season’s story.

It was also nice that Clara’s home life didn’t revolve around her relationship with her parents or extended family, but rather with her work and romantic life.  I’m all for family, of course, but after Rose, Martha, Donna, etc – it’s nice to see something different.

7. People who tell the Doctor off

Kill the MoonI like David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, but in my opinion, that guy was in desperate need of somebody to tell him off from time to time.  Sometimes people did, but usually, that came hand-in-hand with people gushing uncontrollably about how much they love the Doctor, how much they must be with him even if they’re terrified of him, and so on.  (The big exception to this was Joan Redfern at the end of Family of Blood, which was amazing to see).

Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor is one of the most abrupt and potentially unpleasant we’ve seen in a while, so it’s a nice counter-balance that we’re also seeing people occasionally put him in his place.  Danny Pink does it when he compares him to an officer, but the  main person is Clara of course, especially in that brilliant scene at the end of Kill the Moona standout moment for the whole season, really.

8. The Orient Express…in Space!

Doctor Who - MummyAnd lots of other crazy stuff as well.

Like two dimensional creatures pulling themselves out of walls.

Or the moon cracking open and pan-dimensional space baby flying out.

Or a room hall full of skeletons sitting in transparent tombs.

But my favorite is the shot at the end of the teaser of Mummy on the Orient Express.  This is one of the main reasons I love Doctor Who, especially the revival series – the insane imagery.  Remember, this is a show that can take us anywhere and show us anything.

9. New Menaces

Doctor Who - FlatlineI love it when the show brings us a new menace – a new threat or monster – rather than relying on the same old same old.  Daleks, Cybermen – I’m a bit tired of them, and wouldn’t mind if they were rested for a while (though I have no expectation that that will happen).  But those two dimensional monsters, that creepy mummy, or even that strange hidden thing underneath Danny Pink’s bedsheets – those sorts of creatures grab my attention.  In particular, the “Boneless” from Flatline are perhaps the most effective monster we’ve seen on the show in a long time that was not created by Steven Moffat – at least since Russell T. Davies wrote Midnight.

10. Interesting Callbacks

Doctor Who - In the Forest of the NightIn a season full of strong one-part episodes, the show took the opportunity to make small references to previous episodes.  For example, there were a couple of solar flares on display, a couple of examples Clara piloting the Tardis via telephathic circuits, and even the more obvious stuff of getting a glimpse of the War Doctor in flashback, not to mention a surprise cameo from Matt Smith in the opening episode.  A simple one that I really enjoyed was that bit of a dialog from the Doctor in In the Forest of the Night (otherwise one of the weakest episodes of the season), when the Doctor repeats back to Clara, “This is my world, too.  I walk your earth, I breathe your air,” calling into mind Clara’s angry tirade in Kill the Moon.  Little things like that give the season cohesion, and I like it.

11. Missy is the Master

Dark WaterLike several other items on this list, the revelation that Missy is the Master in Dark Water was not on my wishlist.  I’m tired of the Master, and I think the series could work a little at creating a new recurring antagonist who is not a renegade time lord.  But, like other things on this list, I have to say that I’m impressed and how this aspect of the show was handled, and how much it worked.

Michelle Gomez truly impressed as the Master, creating somebody who was more believably insane than I ever thought John Simm was, but still terrifying and utterly despicable.  It was good casting, and good writing, to create a well done character.

That said, I’m still not looking forward to having her back on the show, though I feel it is inevitable.  But then, maybe those stories will continue to surprise and impress.

12. The whole thing about Soldiers

Death in HeavenOne of the strongest themes of the year was the Doctor’s reaction to soldiers.  It came up over and over again, with his dismissal of Danny Pink, his rejection of Journey Blue, his surrender which defeated the Mummy on the Orient Express, and ultimately his embracing of Cyber-Danny as the key to beating the Master, topped off with his salute to (presumably) the Brigadier towards the end of Death in Heaven.  It was a great through-line to the season which represented strong characterization for the Doctor (and not to mention Danny) and again gave the year tremendous cohesion and strength.

So that’s it – 12 things that were highlights for me this year!  And we still have a Christmas special on its way (and not too far away) and then, presumably, another season.  Looking forward to it!

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