Like the constant ticking of the clock itself a new series of Doctor Who descends upon us and this time I actually found myself caring. Don’t mistake me for a new convert though, I was the trembling cliche of a child behind my impenetrable fortress of a sofa. And I always keep a lazy but beady eye on the latest chapters unfolding in the Whoniverse. Now though, with the new regeneration in the welcome and yet jagged form of Peter Capaldi, this felt different. Since its regeneration the much loved series has had a bumpy ride but its grip on us is stronger than ever, this is a look at the latest journey and the beginning of a new tale.
To begin you have to start with Capaldi, known to most as foul mouthed destroyer of mortals Malcolm Tucker. He had just really started to edge his way into Hollywood with appearances in films such as ‘World War Z‘, so I was over the moon when the news broke that he committed to traversing the universe on our small screens. He has the image that old who fans have longed for, a sharp and older face that betrays his experiences and hard wit. He instantly cuts the figure of classic Who and was a welcome relief for the fans dreading another good looking drama student as the Doctor. Not to say any of the modern doctors have been bad but it was falling into a goofy humour-filled, romance-laden formula too soft so not to lose the kids. Capaldi holds nothing back with an amazing range in this serious with his biting humour, his obsession with detail and his detached relationships as lives around him become more of a distraction than a pleasure. Self deprivation as well as self discovery and questioning, “am I a good man?”. He whips out brutal, scathing damnations and heart wrenching, compassionate lines with an equal ease demonstrating his scope and complexity of character.
With the right episodes, this could be a Doctor for the ages. He is determined to make this Doctor the best, even when the writers are not.
It is a shame then that the episodes are far from compelling for the most part. The series does suffer from an underlying thread in a series that was promised to “set a foundation for the next fifty years’. There is a initially interesting tease for the finale which is ultimately fairly effective but quite lazy. The most of the series is filler episodes and feels more like a long screen test and they try out different variations and scenarios to gauge the new doctor and the reactions of the audience. Nearly every one is a mediocre story that is lifted to being a stronger than it deserves episode, mostly by the Doctor and Clara’s genuine chemistry. Few episode really impress apart from maybe ‘the mummy on the orient express‘, ‘Flatliners‘ and ‘Dark Water’. The latter being arguably the only great instalment. The first episode sums up the series fairly well as the second half story and great set pieces is overwhelmed by the frankly torrid first half. An irrelevant dinosaur thrown in for budget busting reasons, comic sound effects that would make Harry Hill blush and very laboured humour.
Some cameos are welcome and effective such as Tom Riley’s Robin Hood but then others fall flat such as Frank Skinner who projects all the charisma of a hungover Dalek. The standalone episodes also make it harder to relate characters as we rush past them and storylines brush them aside. ‘The Bank Heist’ is a great example of good, solid characters but gone to soon for us to care. Clara is far more improved as an actual real life character with feelings and everything! She and the Doctor snidely quip and dig yet ultimately learn, grow and survive off each other in a touching way not cheapened or distracted by forced romance like previous companions. Danny Pink may be an interest destroying alien from another dimension and his romance with Clara is about as fiery as a murky puddle, but this is despite Jenna Louise Colman’s best efforts. She isn’t just a collection of quips or complaints but is torn apart and built up in a genuine journey throughout the series.
Clara is a well acted character and no longer just the ‘impossible girl’ a story prop that speaks. Nor is she just eye candy and she is genuinely interesting. She counter acts the Doctor’s calculating and almost cold approach and she orders him and drags him back to his humanity even calling herself his carer. With The Doctor’s well acted obsession to detail and his aggressive manner to living distractions around him, she almost is like his carer but this never feels in bad taste or heavy handed. The only worry is Moffat coming under criticism for his writing of female characters and how this may affect his writing. Clara is important but possibly made annoyingly so at every turn. The Doctor gets a lot wrong and hardly really solves everything with Clara doing most of the work, this is harking back again to the doctors of old being yanked along by the coat tails of Ian Chesterton and Susan Wright but is it just to counter the critics? Clara even spends an episode ‘being’ the doctor and gains his perspective, although is this also a nod to the mounting pressure of having a female doctor one day?
The episodes do have some snappy script and neat ideas as well as some dark undertones and is not scared to leave questions unanswered. Did the doctor push him in ‘Deep Breath‘? Was what happened to Danny in ‘Dark Water‘ an accident or an orchestrated move? Moffat seems to struggle in handling the series and in return we miss out on his less frequent but iconic episodes. Ecclestone had ‘The Empty Child‘, Tennant had ‘Blink‘ and ‘Girl in Fireplace’, Matt Smith had ‘The Girl Who Waited‘ but Capaldi did his best with lesser episodes. The closes he came was the first half of ‘Listen‘ which seemed like a gift to all geekdom but towards the end it unravelled into a convoluted and fairly cheap trinket. As every two part finale it also starts strongly as madness descends but then it suffers from the traditional second half syndrome of disappointment.
The overall series theme seemed largely to be about Clara and we in turn, learning what it takes to be The Doctor. This message is put across nicely and is one worthy of teaching. There is sadly a tendency of not grabbing the opportunity to craft a new legacy though and the writers are too eager to reach back into the past. Some references are nice but to stir up some cheap excitement Daleks and Cybermen are piled around or The Master comes calling. The Weeping Angels and Empty child show we have the imagination to add to the story of the Doctor but it’s easier to cash in. Also the ‘Flatliners‘ episode shows how great it can be when we merge the terrifying simplicity of an classic Who style of idea with new effects instead of just throwing a dinosaur in. Some brave writing to journey into the unknown and create new sagas for our hero is a great opportunity to enjoy or to sadly avoid, this series has set it up and we are left only to wait and see.
Series verdict: A series of short stories, a fun but flawed foundation for a national treasure. Capaldi can be one of the best if the writers match his ferocity and scope. Hopefully the slow beginning of a new exciting chapter in a long legacy.