It’s a strange privilege to be able to discuss The Doctor here on the hallowed pages on Pajiba, since my introduction to the fandom came several years ago when Joanna and Dustin just would not shut up about it, and I figured if they liked it, I’d have to do dive in. Now, alongside my co-host Rye Silverman, I produce a weekly Doctor Who podcast which endeavors to plow through the original 98 seasons of the show, in addition to covering the new episodes as they are released. Between Pajiba and Laughing At Archaeologists, this has been the most invested I’ve ever been in a season of The Doctor’s journey, and the most confident I’ve been that I know fifty years of lore, so when I shout “bullshit” I think I’m slightly more correct than all of Tumblr. So let’s wrap up S8 together.
First off: Peter Capaldi. Jesus. What a blistering tour-de-force. For those that are unaware, Capaldi actually grew up as an annoyingly invested fan of the show, who once started a letter writing campaign to the BBC to replace their official fan club head. People that worked on the show back them still remember and dislike him for this, but it’s also an unparalleled experiment in acting versus fandom. You might imagine that giving the role of say, Luke Skywalker, to the most vocal person on a Star Wars message board might end disastrously, but Capaldi’s acting chops combined with the need for a new take on The Doctor resulted in a perfect storm, and now there’s something delightful about knowing the lead actor in a series is so invested he traded money for veto powers over story decisions. How great is it to know your madman in a box was also a madman in pre-production? His influence also steers the show away from the years of Doctor/Companion romance and into something a bit grittier, or at least more grounded than a show famous for fart monsters.
If getting to watch a crazed old man put his exploding brain back together wasn’t enough, we also get one of our best companion seasons since the first Karen Gilliam season, mostly because it’s about Clara moving away from the Doctor, or perhaps, moving to eclipse him. Her parallel adventure with Danny Pink offered some odd sidetracks, including an insufferable sequence on the TARDIS shouting about the nature of soldiers, but by the time it wraps up in the finale two-parter, you realize they sold you on investing in this. But Clara is not defined by her men. Her evolution from S7 as an angel-nurse-savior is all but forgotten in place of giving her the authority to lead a solid half of this season’s adventures. Only three episodes in, my co-host and I were already discussing the possibility that Clara might be The Doctor after all yielded whoops of joy when the finale allowed her to suggest, even as a lie, that she’d been the Doctor the whole time. With a showrunner constantly under fire for his treatment of female characters, it seems impossible we’d get such an incredible change, but having opened that door it now becomes the kind of fan theory that will launch a thousand rewatches. (If you look at the intro sequence of the final episode, they use her eyes instead of Capaldi’s, and I screamed at the screen for a solid minute.)
This twelve episode run feels like it ended too soon, especially after the usual mid-season break was skipped over, but this really allows Capaldi’s character to find some footing. There was an early promise from the show writers that this season would be far more “episodic” in nature as everyone felt out who the new Who was, and the result is the most consistent run in the show’s history. Whether traveling in the brain of a Dalek, battling horrifying two-dimensional creatures, or solving a mystery on an outer space Orient Express, each journey was tonally similar yet shockingly diverse in content and intent, making a definitive listing of “Best” episodes nearly impossible. I stand firmly with my show co-host Rye in agreeing that the two least successful episodes are “Robot of Sherwood” (which felt written for a previous Doctor) and “In The Forest of the Night” (which was generally hodgepodge). This yields our new rule of next season’s writers: Stop Putting The Doctor In The Woods.
Now, down the dirty business of season finale and our series baddie. “Dark Water” and “Death In Heaven” took on the idea of religion and an afterlife, subjects that have remained notoriously unmentioned in the Whoverse, aside from a true red herring in “The Satan Pit.” In an adorably subversive twist, the show suggests that all concepts of an afterlife, and therefore religion, were the creation of The Master as part of a plan to resurrect a Cyberman army to win back her childhood best friend. I’ll say that again in case mother’s watchdog groups didn’t hear me the first time: Steven Moffat wrote a show for children that believes all religion was an evil scheme to make robot people. I think we can all agree this is the best thing to happen in the history of time, so stop being hurt that they laser-blasted the asthmatic assistant. “Missy” winds up being as mustache-twirling cuckoo-clock evil as one might hope, but now that you’ve sold us on her you can’t take her away. She’s a femme-fatale for the ages, so it’s good that no one on Doctor Who ever really dies.
The finale ends with an intimate scene in a location we’ve visited before, bringing all of the personal growth from both of main characters to a head. Lying, as a survival skill, has been brought up throughout the run, so to watch two people that care for each other masterfully manipulate the other into leaving… well, it’s a scene you would expect to see in Sherlock, but never here, and maybe that’s what makes it feel so grown up. The first rule is, of course, the Doctor lies. But now we have to ask, “Who is the Doctor?”
See you all at Christmas. Especially you, jolly old Nick Frost!