Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Doctor Who: series eight recap & review - out with the young, in with the older

by Melissa Parkin

Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
It’s official Whovians! The Doctor is in . . . but is he any good? Well, that remains to be seen by some.

Everyone familiar with Doctor Who knows of the title character’s useful trick of “regeneration.” The time-traveling humanoid alien recovers from fatal injuries by changing every cell in his body, resulting in him taking on the appearance of a whole other individual. This wonderfully crafted plot device has allowed the Doctor to survive for 50 real-world years. No one ever has to question how a new actor can continually step in to portray him. But with this gift comes risk.

Upon Matt Smith’s departure from the long running series, as the eleventh Doctor, show-runner Steven Moffat had quite a task ahead of him in regard to recasting the iconic role. With his predecessor known for his spirited and animated delivery, Peter Capaldi’s more removed and unmannered approach, as the twelfth Doctor, may be off-putting for some viewers. Since the 21stcentury reboot of the franchise, back in 2005, there have been three other actors portraying the role to date, all with different methods.

Christopher Eccleston’s ninth Doctor was more offhand, sarcastic, and masculine. David Tennant’s tenth Doctor was widely known for his optimistic sass. Matt Smith brought an undeniably quirky, boyish charm to his depiction. For viewers who kept up with the series prior to the reboot, Capaldi’s darker, more enigmatic take on the role shouldn't be too out of the ordinary. But for new fans, this change may not settle particularly well. Moreover, the start to this new series did not give skeptics much relief.

In “Deep Breath,” the introductory episode to series eight, the onlookers in Victorian London watch in terror as an oversized dinosaur materializes in the middle of the city. Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax, the trio otherwise known as the Paternoster Gang, come to the scene just as the TARDIS is spit out of the prehistoric creature. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) are in a bit of a state considering their crash landing, not to mention the Doctor’s recent regeneration. This is where things may have gone sideways for some viewers.

The past three introductions to the new Doctors have all had a delightful whimsy to them. “Deep Breath” really dropped the ball in comparison. With Nine being attacked by a lone mannequin arm, Ten taking fascination to his newly acquired teeth and sideburns, and Eleven going on a taste-testing binge ending with fish custard, Twelve’s seemed to lack that magical and memorable touch.

Trauma-induced amnesia and confusion isn't new for the Doctor post-regeneration in scope to the franchise. Unfortunately though, since much of the episode made a point to call attention to the Doctor’s “old” age, it probably wasn't the smartest approach to portray him with dementia. Many younger viewers may associate this new Doctor with their poor old Grandpa, Jeffrey, at the nursing home.
Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

It doesn't help matters that the plot aimlessly meanders about until the second half of the bloated eighty minute run-time. Nothing noteworthy occurs until the eerie, perfectly-executed restaurant scene - a worthwhile highlight. Not since Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), and the tenth Doctor (David Tennant), has there been a non-romantic chemistry between the companion and the Time Lord. Here, The Doctor and Clara finally get to have an honest sparring with one another. But this doesn't mask, or make up for, the rest of the issues plaguing the episode.

Given that this is the introduction to Capaldi, and perhaps the make-or-break event for leery watchers, everyone needed to bring their A-game. The first half of this episode certainly wasn't the show’s collective best. Instead of fleshing out the newly regenerated Doctor, lengthy discussions about his appearance and whatnot wasted valuable time that could have been put to better use. Capaldi’s age isn't the issue, unless you make it one, which the writers frequently did. This is a shame, because Peter Capaldi is undoubtedly a fantastic actor. But he isn't given the opportunity to shine until the Cyborgs enter the picture. That’s when the essence of the Doctor really emerges. Prior to that, the only character worthy of their screen time was Strax who, in all his potato-like glory, stole every scene.

Considering the uselessness of the dinosaur to the overall story-line, the lackluster dialogue, the slow and rather erratic pacing, the problem here seems to stem from the writing. Typically, audiences know what kind of interpretation they are in store for, but the narrative within the first installment to the eighth series fails to establish any conclusive evidence as to who the twelfth Doctor really is. The modern Doctor has always been a man (or Time Lord) of principle, with only the best intentions; he’s the Captain America of the Universe if you will. Instead, the audience is introduced to a far less sympathetic and far more aloof Doctor. This departure is refreshing, but runs the risk of being perceived as patronizing as the “darker” Doctor tries to discover who he really is now.

The second episode to series eight, “Into the Dalek,” definitely showcases an improvement. It provides more depth and acknowledgment to the main characters, as they face an all too familiar foe, the Daleks. The banter and pacing is improved upon greatly, showing that the standard one-hour time-frame eliminates any of the tedium and melodrama plaguing the former episode. Capaldi has the potential to become a fan favorite, so long as the writers continue to improve upon the story-line.

Overall rating to Series Eight so far: B


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