New Season Breathes Life Back into Doctor Who

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Firstly, we’ve seen it all before, at least in DW. In recent years, nearly every single one of the Doctor’s companions has turned out to be the key to everything. Unfortunately, special snowflakes don’t seem so special when you’ve seen at least three of them, and thanks to overuse, this particular trick is far less potent than it used to be.

Secondly, I’d argue that this strategy is abysmally weak anyway. It focuses FAR too much on plot (or plot twist, if I’m being accurate), and effectively throws character development under a bus. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that most of these new companions are barely distinguishable from each other; nearly all of them are plucky, smart-mouthed, yet wholly unassuming females from earth, who wind up at the nexus of some major cataclysmic event. They’re archetypes, mere puppets for the next Big Twist, and when you write characters like this, it’s hard to make people care about them. Sure, you can try to squeeze emotion out of the viewers through the aforementioned stake-raising and musical cues, but it’s far easier – and far more effective – to simply shift the emphasis back to character.

Fortunately, DW’s showrunners have figured this out. They did some fantastic work with Clara in this episode, and it had nothing to do with the mystery of her identity, or what crucial role she might play in the Doctor’s universe. It simply had to do with the fact that she showed some serious heart.

The first time we see this is during her face-off with the Lizard Queen, who challenges Clara’s assumptions about the Doctor and her loyalty to him. Because this occurs early in the episode, and the tone hasn’t yet shifted towards the ‘new’ way of doing things, the scene gets a little bogged down with some melodramatic grandstanding. However, it does establish Clara as somebody with more depth than we’ve given her credit for.

The second time we see Clara’s depth is when she’s being threatened with torture. This scene successfully avoids melodrama and instead delves into much more frightening territory. Because Clara displays enormous courage and presence of mind, she is finally established as much more than just as a romantic interest or a cosmic accident with the power to save the world. At this point, Clara proves her worth as a companion, partner and human being. It’s a subtle but important shift, but it’s one that needed to be made.

Overall Direction

As I mentioned before, the overall tone or direction changes throughout this episode. It starts out with the usual high levels of shouting and arm-waving that we’ve come to expect from DW – not to mention an attention-grabbing dinosaur – and gradually shifts to less noisy fare with greater emotional resonance.

That would have been more than enough to satisfy me, but then the writers went and did something I’ve been hoping they would do for a long, long time.

They brought the creepy back!

Traditionally, one thing that Doctor Who did exceptionally well was to scare the living daylights out of young children. I remember being terrified of the old black-and-white episodes, and while there have been some terrifically spine-tingling monsters in the new-Who, nothing has been so other-worldly that it got under my skin. However, if this episode is anything to go by, things are about to change.

I won’t give too much away, but the final scene features a rather unsettling ‘afterlife’ helmed by something akin to a Stepford Wife. It’s more disturbing than frightening, and nothing at all like the glossy monsters and spaceships we’ve seen in recent seasons. Its tone so strongly reminds me of the old Doctor Who that I can’t help thinking the current showrunners must have been mining the BBC storeroom for inspiration (rather than just old monsters).

Honestly, I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Praise for the Actors

Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1Image: BBC America

On a side note, I really have to tip my hat to Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. I know absolutely nothing about the craft of acting, but as a viewer, I enjoyed them both enormously. Capaldi gave us such a nuanced performance – from a bundle of rapid-firing nerves after his regeneration, to a mysterious stranger, to a proud but desperate old soul – that I can’t wait to see what else he does with the Doctor. As for Jenna Coleman, her warm and heartfelt performance proves that she’s a hell of a lot better than the material she’s been given so far. Together, Capaldi and Coleman have genuine chemistry as a Doctor/Companion duo. I’m saddened by reports that Jenna Coleman MIGHT be about to quit the role, but I still look forward to seeing what they can do together, no matter how short their journey may be.


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