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Friday, January 09, 2015

Doctor Who -- Series Eight (Review)

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Doctor Who
2014 BBC
Series Eight
Score: 8/10

In the mid-90's, my local PBS station syndicated every still-existent Doctor Who episode in chronological order. I watched every single one, getting a friend to record it for me if I was out of town. We were the only two citizens of Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana to watch Doctor Who. I can't prove that conclusively, but I can conclusively say that I have been watching Doctor Who for much longer than most of its current audience. In fact, in a sad embrace of the fact that I am nearly old enough to be President (how did this happen?), when I watched Doctor Who's first run, much of Doctor Who's current audience was not alive. I said all of that to illustrate that I have a pretty good handle on Doctor Who, and also to brag about myself, though all I've actually revealed is that I am an old, really obsessive, egotistical nerd...sorry.
Anyway, I'll admit I've been in the "the old ones were better" camp from the start of the 2005 Doctor Who reboot. With that said, I have still enjoyed the new episodes of Doctor Who immensely...until Series 6. The second season of Matt Smith and Steven Moffat's tenure rubbed me the wrong way...not because of Smith's Doctor, but because of the work of showrunner Moffat. This was unexpected...I love Moffat's screenwriter work on the show during Russel T Davies tenure as showrunner. I enjoyed the first season of the BBC's Sherlock, also run by Moffat, but at about the same time as Doctor Who's Series 6, I started to grow disillusioned with Moffat's work on Sherlock, as well: people talking too quickly and saying too many words, with unearned ending twists too clever for their own good that essentially came down to either, "I dunno, magic?" or "It was the power of love!" over over-dramatic, overdone music. The opening to Sherlock's third season premier was the final straw. As suddenly-introduced characters scattered back and forth, putting into place plans to fake Sherlock's death, convolutedly explaining Sherlock's miraculous escape from the grave at the end of the previous season, I said (aloud, mind you), "I don't have time for this crap," turned off the TV, and went to bed.
Despite Matt Smith's excellent performance, his tenure as the Doctor ended with a whimper in the sentimental, overly-fantastic "The Time of the Doctor." With all of that Doctor's storylines completed, and a new Doctor's tenure to begin, I hoped Steven Moffat would relish the opportunity to work with a clean slate, and return the show to past glories.
Generally, I despise grading each episode of a television show out of context of what is yet to come, instead, grading the entire season when all is said and done. However, with Doctor Who, each episode is meant to work as its own serial, and with that spirit, I'll give each episode a review of a few sentences, before diving into a deeper reflection of the season as a whole. The only setup needed is this: The Doctor is an ancient alien who travels around in a time machine. When he dies, he regenerates into a new body. This has just happened, and this Series Eight Doctor has gone from a young body to a much older one. Clara, who was quite fond of The Doctor's previous visage, is his human companion.
1. Deep Breath -- 4/10  I'm expecting a clean slate, and instead Moffat shoves the same old supporting characters down my throat, in lieu of actually focusing on Clara and the new Doctor. If you love Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, you want the characters to be put to rest so they can actually have closure, and a somewhat cohesive storyline. If you hate Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, you wonder why Moffat doesn't have the imagination to give his new Doctor someone new with which to interact. Clara brings enough familiarity; Moffat did not have to revive the old gang, and then give them most of the episode. Accomplishes little.
2. Into the Dalek -- 7/10 Establishes the new relationship between Clara and the Doctor, but feels slight.
3. Robot of Sherwood -- 8/10 Perhaps the funniest episode of the show's run. The Doctor and Robin Hood's competitive bickering could carry a full season.
4. Listen -- 10/10 I could be cynical and devalue this episode for some failures in logic, but that would be a disservice to its incredible visual design, direction, writing, and acting. Listen actually earns the commentary it makes about the Doctor, and its revelations about his past and character. Brilliant idea by Moffat, and his best execution in...maybe ever.
5. Time Heist -- 7/10 One of those episodes that must have taken a 400-page screenplay to fill out its 40-minute run. Lots and lots of talking, lots of insane plot twists, and too smart for its own good, Moffat's greatest flaw. Feels like a leftover from the Matt Smith era. However, The Teller is one of the coolest monsters the show has ever done, and the ending is darkly sweet.
6. The Caretaker -- 8/10 Feels like a really good romantic comedy/thriller with the Doctor acting as both Clara's over-protective father-figure and jilted suitor (which is as awkward as it sounds, but also quite wonderful).
7. Kill the Moon -- 9/10 A great episode that firmly draws the line between this particular incarnation of the Doctor, and the previous three. This doctor is more alien than human, and sometimes he would rather just get out of the humans' way and let them blow themselves up. Again, great direction and set and monster design. Series Eight is really clicking at this point, with the Twelfth Doctor's characterization really becoming clear. The way this doctor views humanity, even those closest him, and how this affects Clara's perception of him enables some of the best character work Doctor Who has ever done.
8. Mummy On the Orient Express -- 9/10 Yet another great episode, again revealing the darker machinations of which this more alien Doctor is capable. Also, as the direction and set design are again elevated, it appears the production standard for this season as a whole is simply beyond that of the previous seven.
9. Flatline -- 8/10 At this point in previous new Doctor seasons, the show would deliver a lazy, cheap-looking episode, but Flatline is thrilling, funny, and features better special effects than maybe any Who episode ever.
10. In the Forest of the Night -- 5/10 The clunker of the bunch. Unbelievably silly. "Trees did it" as a plot-device pretty much ensures failure.
11. Dark Water -- 7/10 Burdened with the flurry of exposition, the "we gotta get through the plot" storytelling of many a two-parter, but manages to stay interesting and emotional. "Dark Water" also excels at creating a genuinely dark and unsettling atmosphere, and spills its excellent ending twist in spectacular fashion.
12. Death in Heaven -- 4/10 And then Steven Moffat takes a dump. This excellent season developed to center around one thing: the messed up, co-dependent relationship between Clara and the Doctor. Clara had become addicted to the thrills she receives from her dangerous travels with The Doctor, putting her life on the line at the Doctor's whim. Meanwhile, this much less personable Doctor used Clara as a soldier, putting her into situations where her death is almost certain, and trusting she can find her way out. Clara calls the Doctor out on this in "Kill the Moon," and even tries to leave him. She fails to get away, even though her boyfriend, who can see this Doctor's true nature, asks her to time and time again. Anyone who's been paying any kind of attention can see this is what the season has centered upon. Apparently, Moffat, has not been paying attention. It is quite clear from this season finale that he has absolutely no idea what is going on, despite the fact that he is somehow running the show. This season of Doctor Who earned Clara's death by working hard to show the Doctor's callousness. Instead of cashing that check, Moffat arbitrarily kills off another character, off-screen, in a matter which has nothing to do with the Doctor. Moffat is absolutely clueless as to the actual conflict between Clara and the Doctor, and has another character definitively define Clara as "the control freak," something that has NEVER, EVER been shown in two seasons of Clara-involved Doctor Who. Moffat feels like he has to tell instead of show, and go through ridiculously complex plot machinations and mysteries instead of telling a simple story that allows the characters to simply be themselves. Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi did absolutely excellent work leading into this finale, and all Moffat can do for them, all he can ever do, is throw a ton of words up on the screen, then shrug and say, "I don't know, um, the power of love?" That's it. I am so sick of this guy. Everything he's done lately has been so damn lousy, including Sherlock, which showed so much early promise. He needs to take a break, and he needs to step down. Let someone else have a turn here. And why are the special effects so lousy in this episode when they were so good leading up to it?
So there you go. One of the best written, best produced, best acted seasons of Doctor Who in history, completely derailed by Stephen Moffat's incompetence.
Last Christmas (Doctor Who Christmas Special) -- 8/10
Classic dream within a dream episode featuring a welcome performance by guest star, Nick Frost. Essentially hits reset on the entire season that preceded it, though, which I don't even know how I feel about...
Yes, I'm a fanboy. Anyone who's read any reviews on this website knows I never speak this disparagingly of anyone but George Lucas, and I can honestly say that nothing has creatively disappointed me more than Death in Heaven outside of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. Moffat has had his turn. He wrote some good episodes during Russel T Davies tenure as showrunner. He wrote "Listen," the best episode this season. He's welcome to write even more good ones during the tenure of whoever next takes the showrunner position. But first he needs to get out of the way.
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