From the cinematic opener ‘Deep Breath’, we all knew that we were in for something different, something darker, something with more meaning as Doctor Who began its eighth series since rebooting in 2005. Things got personal as intertwining relationships, childhood memories and a whole new Doctor proved to be the real dangers as Peter Capaldi took to the helm of the TARDIS.
Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor may have seen him reset the universe, get married and rewrite the events of the Time War, but all this literal exploration feels like nothing after the amount of delving into the minds of Doctor Who’s lead characters we have done over the past twelve weeks. As the time of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor began, we saw a dark shift in tone and far more mature and intriguing approach that may have been the show’s smartest move yet.
Capaldi looks a lot older than his predecessor and he acted it too, the centuries of war and loss clear in the character’s fresh new eyes. The way the Doctor would brush aside companion Clara’s emotional troubles and seemingly heartlessly allow innocent people to die in order to advance his own plans were hard to take at first, and with the intensity of Capaldi’s performances this less empathetic side to the Doctor is something that should play out finely in series to come. We had a flash of a darker area of the Doctor’s psyche with the war-torn Ninth Doctor that introduced the show to a lot of new viewers, but never has the man in the blue box ever seemed so nonchalant in the face of death. It’s a throwback to the 1960s and William Hartnell’s cruel-to-be-kind approach to the Doctor, yet it feels new and refreshing; a fine new direction headed by a masterful and experienced actor.
It may have been Capaldi’s first series in the title role, but by no means did series eight dedicate itself merely to his introduction to the show. In a series that saw some of Doctor Who’s strongest ever female characters – Zawe Ashton’s Journey Blue in Into the Dalek and Michelle Gomez’s turn as The Master/Missy being particular highlights – Jenna Coleman flourished as the sharp and classy schoolteacher Clara Oswald, finally being allowed to flesh out her character without the baggage of being a walking talking plot device as was the case last year.
‘Death in Heaven’ saw her character not for the first time calling herself ‘the Doctor’ and taking top billing during the title sequence, and considering Oswald’s impact on the events of the series, this seemed perfectly natural. She provided a young Time Lord with wise words in the touching episode ‘Listen’, saved the day in ‘Flatline’ and almost betrayed the Doctor in ‘Dark Water’, making her such a breath of fresh air when compared to companions of previous series who have simply moped around watching the Doctor be wonderful (yes, I’m talking about Martha bloody Jones guys). Clara’s relationship with Danny Pink and its incompatibility with her life in the TARDIS was one of Moffat’s finest plotlines yet, and with the aid of Coleman’s stunning performances reasserted the human element of Doctor Who that had been missing since Catherine Tate’s frank and brash Donna Noble.
In terms of antagonists the show has certainly done better. As Moffat finally masters character development he seems at times to have sacrificed the elements of danger and fright so often associated with the show. The Boneless from ‘Flatline’ were truly chilling, whilst the complete lack of actual monster in ‘Listen’ was a real touch of genius; it’s just a shame that the same idea made its way into later episodes ‘Kill the Moon’, ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘In the Forest of the Night’. This, along with the desperate attempt to make the Daleks interesting again and the frankly offensive use of the Cybermen as mere puppets for Missy’s plans, proves that Moffat is still trying to balance plot with character and on occasion doesn’t quite find the equilibrium that his predecessor Russell T Davies so often perfected.
So perhaps series eight didn’t exactly throw any brand new classic monsters in our direction but in every other department it came up trumps. Scary, emotive, funny and clever, this year’s series of Doctor Who saw a new Doctor, a new style and a new direction that can only be good as we head towards ten years of the rebooted series. Probably the finest the show has been since Rose Tyler stood on Bad Wolf Bay, Doctor Who is back on form.