Updated: Jun 19, 2020
The beginning of Doctor Who Series 8 felt like a landmark moment. Matt Smith’s Doctor may have become an international phenomenon across the previous three series, and four years, but it felt as though change was necessary by the time he left. The first series without him felt different in tone, atmosphere, appearance, even in structure, and was a welcome change to the relentless madness of the previous two series’ in particular. Peter Capaldi stepped into the shoes of the Doctor seamlessly, and while Series 8 might not be the show’s finest, or even his best, he ultimately gave the character renewed joy and energy.
By the end of Series 7, the Eleventh Doctor had lived a long life, in more ways than one. Smith’s Doctor gave us a very long goodbye, but his character also died from old age protecting the Time Lords from the town of Christmas. The regenerated Twelfth Doctor sets off with a confused Clara on the Tardis and nobody knows what is going to happen next. The new Doctor spends much of the opening of Series 8 unsure of who he even is himself, and that is a common thread across the series. The big themes and threads of the series includes the continued question, “am I a good man?”, and who is the person that wants the Doctor and Clara to be together so badly that Clara was given the phone number of the Tardis in the series opener. Also, there is the concept of the “Promised Land” that comes up throughout the series, and just who is running it? And what is this heaven-like place? Finally, we also have Danny Pink, the boyfriend of Clara who might just play a bigger role than people expected….
Regarding any changes and developments from Series 7 in terms of personnel and scheduling, this does feel like something of a clean sweep of changes even though it’s only really the Doctor that has changed. Jenna Coleman is still Clara Oswald and is the primary companion for a full series for the first time. In the first story, the Paternoster Gang are very much involved, who had sporadically appeared in Series 7. Therefore, overall the transition to the new Doctor is not as transformative as other years, such as Series 5 or Series 10. This series also brings things back to normality in terms of scheduling, with all the episodes taking place in the latter half of 2014, which is a welcome change from the mess of the previous two years. So, there’s no Part A and Part B this time around, for example.
So overall, there may be some normality, but there are some changes, such as the addition of Danny Pink, played by Samuel Anderson (yet another of the original ‘History Boys’ making a major appearance), and Missy, played expertly and mysteriously by Michelle Gomez. Both certainly bring something different and intriguing to the show for this series.
The biggest change though, is of course, Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. What an inspired casting choice. In hindsight it seems so obvious to have almost been inevitable. He embodies what one thinks the Doctor should be, in appearance and in his personality. To many he will always be Malcolm Tucker from ‘The Thick of It’, but to many more now he just is the Doctor, and captures his eccentricities, humour, personality and ability to make powerful speeches more than anyone ever has before. And for the following three series it is he who brings Doctor Who to life and makes it a memorable period in the history of NuWho.
How can we forget also, the change in theme music, opening credits, even in the font used for the title cards as well, and of course, the Tardis, which has a lot more rings again. Like all new opening credits sequences though, it takes a bit of getting used to, but ultimately it ends up being one of the more memorable, and it’s different to others, focusing more on time rather than on space travel.
Before we get into the episodes, for those of you reading these reviews for the first time, they are being written in light of our upcoming Doctor Who tour of Cardiff filming locations. The Welsh capital has served as the backdrop to most of the new stories filmed this century, be it in studios in Cardiff Bay or around the city’s streets and buildings, and a tour of those locations will become a reality later this year, once tours are possible again. Series 7 is no exception, especially in, for example, ‘Time Heist’ (Roald Dahl Plass), ‘In the Forest of the Night ’ (National Museum), and ‘Death in Heaven’ (Queen St). In the meantime, consider these reviews a light introduction into what may or may not feature on those tours in the future, and a fun look back on the individual series’ as well to get us through lockdown.
With the set up and changes all noted, it’s time to dive into the stories. There’s not even a Christmas Special to distract us from the actual series opener this time...
‘Deep Breath’ is a slow opening for the Twelfth Doctor, as he struggles to adjust to his new, older, more wrinkly, face. It only really gets going when the Doctor and Clara meet in the restaurant half way through the episode, in order to figure out why dinosaurs are spontaneously combusting in the Thames, and why the “Half-Face Man” man is after them. Eventually half-face falls from a hot air balloon and realises he is no longer the same man as he once was, and ends up in the “Promised Land”, but all is not what it seems…
‘Into The Dalek’ is probably the best Dalek story since maybe the Series 2 finale (although Oswin did really enhance ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, even if the ending was a bit silly). The team is shrunk down and goes inside Rusty, a “good Dalek”. Once the Doctor repairs the Dalek he goes back to his old ways, but in an attempt to show Rusty the beauty of the universe, the Doctor connects their minds together. Rusty, however, sees the Doctor's hatred for the Daleks, and decides to exterminate its own race.
‘Robot Of Sherwood’ is a change of pace. We just had two stories that relate to the wider series and questions, but this one is just for fun, as showcased by the macho banter between Robin and the Doctor. While not the best historical story in the Whoniverse, it does also lighten the tone of the show for the first time in quite a while, and gives the Doctor and Clara a more light-hearted environment to bond and reconnect.
Series 8 really starts to come into its own with ‘Listen’. Capaldi is really finding his feet as the Doctor, Danny Pink, having been introduced in the second episode, becomes a bit more prominent and complex here as well, and it’s really just an excellent story revolving around monsters under your bed. The finale, where Clara turns out to be the monster under the Doctor’s bed, as a small boy on Gallifrey, is a beautiful moment, and she gives the young Doctor the same advice he gave the young Danny/Rupert.
‘Time Heist’ has its moments, especially in terms of its visuals, as it somehow turns Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff Bay as the approach to the bank. It’s fun, a nice twist on the bank robbery trope, but there’s nothing too significant going on here in the longer term.
Which brings us to ‘The Caretaker’, which understandably is not everyone’s cup of tea but it does have plenty of positives to it. The monster is a little low budget and silly compared to others, but otherwise the Doctor/Danny dynamic is good, the Doctor’s confusion over who Clara’s boyfriend is is funny (because one of the teachers looks like Matt Smith), and having the Doctor hanging around the school is an enjoyable romp. In the end, the community support officer who disappeared early in the story, re-awakens in the “promised land”, also known as the Nethersphere, adding to its mystery.
‘Kill The Moon’ takes us back on the road in a more traditional manner and Clara and the Doctor, and one of the school kids, find themselves on the moon. However, the moon turns out to not be a moon at all but rather an egg. The egg eventually hatches and lays another egg, which happens to be identical to the moon we already have. A classic moral dilemma episode, in which somebody needs to decide what to do about the creature. The people want to kill it, but Clara ultimately saves it.
‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ sounds like classic Doctor Who. Sure, hasn’t Agatha Christie already had her own story back in Series 4... The Doctor realises that the mummy, identified as a legendary entity called the Foretold, is invisible to all but the one about to die, and it kills its victim in exactly 66 seconds. With the help of the train programmer/caretaker, Frank Skinner (Gus), he realises by surrendering to the mummy-solder, he sets it free and saves everybody. Not enough substance in this one unfortunately, considering the possibilities.
At this point Clara should be done with the Doctor, at least as far as Danny is concerned, but she just can’t help herself. Set in Bristol but filmed in Cardiff anyway, ‘Flatline’ sees Clara essentially become the Doctor, which must have sent Whovians wild at the time. The Doctor was stuck inside the shrunken Tardis, as Clara helped Rigsy to rid the walls, and the graffiti, of the Boneless. Rigsy tricks the creatures into restoring the Tardis by placing it on the other side of a fake door that he’s painted. The Doctor uses its power to send the Boneless back into their dimension. If anything this is an outlet for Clara to show what she can do.
‘In The Forest Of The Night’ is yet another episode from Series 8 that divides opinion. It’s a bit too child friendly for some, and it’s too ridiculous for others, like how there’s no other people in central London that day somehow, and how Clara choses to let everyone die rather than just be safe on the Tardis. However, there are some spectacular visuals, the child actors are not as terrible as they usually are in Doctor Who, and the resolution and not-so-hidden-message about protecting the trees is nice enough.
‘Dark Water’ kicks off the season-ending two-part story, which gets off to a surprising start with the death of Danny Pink. He is transported to what we think is supposed to be heaven, but is the mysterious Netherworld. Clara threatens the Doctor and ultimately he decides to help her find and save Danny. That leads them to the 3W Institute, where they encounter Missy (3W= Three Words: ”Don’t Cremate Them”). The liquid skeletons at the Institute are revealed to be Cybermen once their water drains. The dying minds of people, like Danny, are uploaded to the Nethersphere—a Time Lord "hard drive"—where emotions are deleted and their minds are downloaded into the Cyberman. If it wasn’t obvious by now, Missy reveals herself to be the Master.
Series 8 comes to an end with ‘Death in Heaven’. It brings about the return of UNIT, including Osgood and Kate Stewart for the first time since ‘The Day of the Doctor’, and they tell the Doctor he is the President of the World. Cybermen detonate themselves around the world, to reincarnate and transform the dead into Cybermen with clouds that rain "Cyberpollen". The dead being to rise as Cybermen, including Danny Pink. Missy gives the Doctor control of the Cybermen to prove he and Missy are the same, but he refuses and gives control to Danny, who leads other Cybermen into exploding and stopping the rainfall, and the invasion. Old Brigadier Stewart shoots Missy, after she has told the Doctor where Gallifrey is, the Doctor leaves to find it, and Clara is left to live with a saved Danny Pink, or so the other thinks at least. They leave each other on the same street where they started back in ‘Deep Breath’.
While the series does finish properly with ‘Death in Heaven’, the Christmas story, ‘Last Christmas’, is certainly more of a Series 8 episode than an opener for Series 9, especially as they are only a few weeks apart from each other. Nick Frost is Santa Claus, which is a very fitting casting choice. It brings the Doctor and Clara back together again, albeit in a ‘Inception’ style world of dreams, starting from the North Pole, where Dream Crabs are forcing people into dream-states so they can devour their brains. Santa saves the day and after telling their respective truths, finally, from the season-finale, the Doctor and Clara are reunited.
This took a while to get going but ends on a satisfying note. The first episode, ‘Deep Breath’ is not like any in modern Doctor Who. It’s dark, feels like there’s a sense of renewal in the air, the episode is even a bit lost in itself, much like the Doctor. The Doctor has never been so introspective and unsure of himself as he was in this story. While the story has a slow beginning as we adjust to Twelve, having him age and just be older than the previous incarnations was a good move for the story once we got used to having a new Doctor. Across the series, the darkness continues, apart from in ‘Sherwood’ perhaps, as this is one of the darkest series in tone and atmosphere compared to any before. It rarely has time for the lighthearted fun and ‘banter’ that are often a feature of Doctor Who, as it is focusing on so many dark and mysterious themes, which all come to a conclusion.
We discover what the Promised Land/Netherworld is, culminating in a strong finale. The mystery of Missy is solved, the woman who brought the Doctor and Clara together, as far back as when Clara needed WiFi in ‘The Bells of St John’ in Series 7, and again in ‘Deep Breath’ in the newspaper advert. It took a while to figure out, being thrown off the scent with the Master being a woman, so it very much added to the suspense of the series. Whether the Doctor is a “good man” or not is probably the least conclusive aspect of the series and its plot threads, but of course he is, whether he realises it or not. With all that in mind, it is a satisfying end as we actually get answers to long standing questions, rather than the cluttered conclusions, which featured answering old themes with new themes, that dominated the previous three years of the show.
Regarding Clara, she has more responsibility and matures across the series from the cutesy curiosity and love-struck sidekick of Series 7 to an able companion. The Impossible Girl angle was wrapped up long ago but there’s still more to her than meets the eye it would seem, especially knowing by the end of Series 8 that she will continue into Series 9. At one point it seemed logical that she would leave the Doctor in order to live happily ever after with Danny, especially considering that Orson Pink supposedly exists in the future. In hindsight, that seemed too easy a way out for her having been such an important companion for two Doctors. ‘Flatline’ made a strong case that she might just be a Time Lady of Gallifrey herself in some way, so Series 9 might explain that next week….
Overall, Series 8 was up and down. Following an interesting start, some inconsistent stories followed, with highs of ‘Listen’ and ‘The Caretaker’ (in parts at least) as well as some slower and inconsequential episodes like ‘Time Heist’ and ‘Robot of Sherwood’ (even if it did have fun moments). However, much of that can be put down as a period of readjustment for the viewer, as really there were no bad or boring episodes. There were plenty of highlights throughout like meeting Orson Pink, meeting the caretaker, seeing the forest on Earth and the Orient Express in space, as well as the moon and, of course, and meeting the Mistress. We also got an interesting finale, and one of the most enjoyable, and, it’s been said many times already here, satisfying as well. So in all it’s probably been a series of some great moments and ideas rather than any stand alone wonderful episodes, and the real stars were the actors, Capaldi, Coleman and Gomez. The Series really leaves us wanting more of them, as the dynamic between the three of them, and even just between the Doctor and Clara are the best things about the show during this phase, and we’re going to get more of it in Series 9.
Best Episode - ‘Dark Water’
Actually maybe there are some great episodes here after all, like ‘Listen’, ‘Deep Breath’ and ‘Dark Water’. The penultimate episode just featured so much, including Danny’s death outside Alexandra Gardens in Cardiff, answers about the Nethersphere, 3W Institute and who Missy was, and some wonderful visuals as well in Cardiff, London and ‘heaven’.
Worst Episode - ‘Kill the Moon’
A close call with ‘Time Heist’, but ‘Kill the Moon’ is one that hasn’t lived as long in the memory.
Best Character - Missy
It took a while to figure out who she was, which is not always the case with the mysteries of Doctor Who, and Michelle Gomez gives John Simm a run for his money with her performance.
Favourite Moment - Are you my mummy?
Could it be anything else...yet another call back to the iconic Series 1 one line occured in ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’.
Best Villain - Missy
This was fairly obvious.
Favourite Guest Star - Frank Skinner
The English comedian was a welcome addition to the Orient Express story, and proved a useful foil for the Doctor as well.
Obviously Cardiff/Wales Location- National War Memorial, ‘Dark Water’
Danny Pink’s death is preceded by his walk through a park. That park is Alexandra Gardens in Cardiff, in which the Welsh National War Memorial looks typically resplendent in the spring sunshine.
Location Not So Obviously Cardiff - St. Paul's area in London is just Cardiff, ‘Death in Heaven’
This is particularly less obvious to the untrained eye because filming did actually take place in London. However, when Missy and the Cybermen encounter UNIT on the streets of ‘London’, it is actually The Friary in Cardiff and Queens Arcade’s entrance on Queen St is clearly visible in the background.
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