It’s been a nice almost two weeks since the airing of the finale of Doctor Who Series 8 and I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about it, what I actually thought of it, what I think Steven Moffat and crew were trying to do and whether or not it was successful. The year that followed the 50th Anniversary and the end of a very popular Doctor’s reign was controversial to say the least, both for the individual stories and for the portrayal of the Doctor, Clara, and new character Danny Pink. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but very few were on the fence truly. But what, like, was it?
Like pretty much everything Steven Moffat does in relation to the program, it’s hard to pass too much judgment until you see the whole thing, and this series especially had Moffat’s fingerprints all over it, much more than any series he’s done since his debut Series 5. But, unlike that series, there wasn’t a ton of things we missed because we all weren’t paying attention or fancy timey-wimey plot devices that play with and change what we’ve seen up to that point; Series 8 was, believe it or not, all about the characters, and each of the three leads having a very definite arc, with internal struggles and not just exterior ones.
The Twelfth Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi has been a huge departure from Matt Smith’s take on the role, and with good reason. They needed to shake things up and make what is essentially a new First Doctor following his getting a new bunch of lives from the Time Lords. On the surface, he’s grouchy and mean and dismissive and thinks he’s always right but has no idea about most things. If Smith was a young-looking Doctor who seemed ancient, Capaldi is the opposite, appearing older but being very childish and petty and jealous and everything we would not associate with being a wise learned man. And this man didn’t know who he was, not even knowing if he were a good man or not until the finale when he declared himself an idiot.
A lot of people didn’t like this aspect to the Doctor; to them, the Doctor is always steadfast and true and, though clearly with faults, a hero who always does the right thing. This Doctor wasn’t that. He didn’t always make the right decision, he sometimes let people die and didn’t seem to care, even claiming he needed a carer early on. But he didn’t stay that way, by the end, he displayed a great deal of compassion to those around him, sad at the death of Osgood and aghast that Missy would hurl Kate Stewart out the plane, even if she was ultimately saved. He’s good with kids seemingly right away, even if he’s grumpy about them being there, and often treats them like adults even when he shouldn’t. He’s a complex character who doesn’t quite understand emotion, but is nevertheless bubbling under the surface with it. His eyes contain a lot of inner struggle even if his eyebrows are all furrow and bluster.
Clara also had a crazy-huge arc this year, and we didn’t quite know it at the time, but she was becoming the Doctor, even going to far as to BE the Doctor in a couple of episodes and get her name and visage in the Doctor place in the credits. While Rory accused the Eleventh Doctor of trying to turn him into the Doctor, Clara knows it’s happening and ultimately decides she loves it, lying to her boyfriend in order to do it. Jenna Coleman did an amazing job this year with all of that, solidifying that she’s got to be one of the finest young actresses on TV.
Clara began the season not knowing if she liked the Doctor, flatly saying she doesn’t know what kind of man he is at all, good or not. But in the episode “Listen,” which still might be the best of the year, she sees him as a little scared child, being the soldier without guns who uses fear as a strength. He’s still afraid of everything but pretends he isn’t. I think this allowed Clara to see past the cold exterior to the man underneath, but she wasn’t quite on board with his methods yet. She’d met this man, Danny Pink, and fallen in love with him (very quickly, it has to be said) and she wants the Doctor and he to get along, and they just don’t. Then after the Doctor’s bullshit in “Kill the Moon,” she’s done with him. But is she?
She’s become addicted to that part of her life, to traveling and being awesome and helping people. She’s addicted to being the Doctor, and in the next episode following her deciding to still travel with him, “Flatline,” that’s precisely what she is. He’s trapped in a tiny TARDIS and can’t physically hero, so she has to do it. And she loves it, and she does a good job. All she wants from him is a “Good work,” but all he can muster is making her remember that being the Doctor isn’t all heroics and swashing buckles. In “In the Forest of the Night,” she takes it upon herself to “save” the Doctor when it looks like the Earth was going to burn. Misguided, definitely, but a very Doctorish thing to do. And finally, in “Death in Heaven” she claims to be the Doctor, then goes a step beyond when she’s the one who has to use the sonic screwdriver on Danny. She’s eschewing anything having to do with herself being happy for the benefit of Danny. Above all, the Doctor is lonely.
The final scene between the Doctor and Clara in the diner illustrates that she has finally become the Doctor. They both lie to each other to spare the other feeling sad about the other. Clara is alone, or at least without Danny, and would love to keep traveling with the Doctor, and the Doctor is alone and would love for her to keep traveling with him, but they both believe the other has found something better and so neither expresses anything. Rule One: The Doctor lies. She lied to Danny for awhile, but she’s finally lying both to the Doctor and to herself. She succeeded in becoming this lonely Time Lord figure.
And finally, Danny Pink, who many saw as a kind of hindrance or a bad boyfriend or whathaveyou. I maybe don’t disagree, but look at things from his perspective: he loves this woman, and all she does is lie to him and go off on adventures with a guy who is flatly disdainful of him and his very existence. Danny believes, rightly, that the Doctor is like an officer in the military, completely detached from any of the dirty work and able to sleep at night because he’s above it all, while Danny knows what being a grunt on the ground is like and how that can change someone. He’s a man constantly trying to make amends for one mistake, done in the line of duty, and as much as he loves Clara, he’ll never be able not to do that. He, like the Doctor, puts helping someone else above his own happiness. While I can’t say I loved Danny Pink, I think his arc was a very well-rounded one.
One of the themes of Series 8 before it premiered was said to be the idea of “Darkness” and going into it. This was certainly one of the darkest series they’ve done, if not the #1 darkest, but, while going into darkness was certainly on the menu, coming out the other side seems to have been the end game. In the darkness there’s turmoil and uncertainty, but eventually they leave it, even if it’s just for more danger and adventure elsewhere. The Earth is saved, the dead aren’t Cybermen anymore (except the Brig who might still be out there), the Master is gone for now, and things are back to “normal.”
Moffat’s name was on seven of the twelve episodes, and I think most of that was dealing with these three characters. Say what you want about it, but Series 8 was certainly the most consistent series of New Who perhaps ever. Consistent in quality, yes, but in tone and story. With the exception of the crazily out of place “Robot of Sherwood,” every episode, no matter the plot, furthered the character development in a way that RTD at his best only did most of the time. Ultimately, you were either on board with this or you weren’t, but at the very least it can be said that Moffat was reinventing things, actively shaking things up, and making sure the show didn’t get stagnant.