And those who dislike it are equally passionate and defensive. You hear about how long it took them to warm up to the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi (if they ever did at all), or conversely, you’ll hear complaints that there wasn’t enough of the Twelfth Doctor — that too much of the season was thrown to Jenna Coleman's Clara. And dear God, don’t get them started on Clara. Series 8 naysayers don’t just feel apathy for Clara; they actively, vocally loathe her. Or if the Series 8 detractors aren’t looking to make a persuasive argument justifying their disregard for Capaldi and Coleman, they’ll look to shame you with what they see as a conversation closer: “The season with ‘Kill the Moon’?” (Among the handful of Who fans who manage to be both rabid and misguided — e.g., the folks who, if you express your disaffection for the Chibnall era, brand you a misogynist — one’s response to “Kill the Moon” has become a kind of purity test.)
People grow fanatical in discussing Series 8, and no wonder: it’s a season designed to get under your skin. It’s a season where showrunner Steven Moffat ensures that nothing happens the way we’ve been taught it will, where nothing plays out as we’re led to expect. And if you’re a Moffat fan, you’re not merely inclined to go along with it, but to bask in it. And if you’re not a Moffat fan, it not only won’t win you over — it’ll infuriate you. Moffat had had to be cautious when he introduced the previous Doctor in Series 5. As the new showrunner, he had to satisfy the fans who reveled in the Russell T. Davies era, particularly the ones unconvinced anyone could replace him. So he was careful not to rock the boat too much; for every tonal change, he left a structural beat firmly in place. By Series 8, Moffat — renewed and reinvigorated after a lackluster season — is ready to reinvent Doctor Who: to experiment with fresh ways of telling a now-familiar story. It’s the biggest overhaul since the Doctor was rendered earthbound in 1970, and as with Season 7 of the classic series, it tweaks the very concepts fans have come to take for granted.
As you can probably tell, this isn’t going to be one of those essays where I temper my remarks. I adore Series 8. I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind, and I’m not looking to make new friends. And I’m certainly not about to “both sides“ the season, and give any traction to the people who "don’t get it." These are just random thoughts I have about a series I consider the pinnacle of NuWho. I won’t be working my way through the season episode by episode; plenty of others have already done that, persuasively and admiringly (Paul Reed, Elizabeth Sandifer). These are merely items that catch my eye and my fancy, moments that delight and astound me, and most of all, things that — to my mind — set Series 8 apart from any season before or since.
From his opening scenes, Capaldi is a revelation. With three decades of screen acting under his belt, he instantly shows the value of experience in elevating "mere" talent and enthusiasm. His choices are at once swift, decisive and novel. His predecessor Matt Smith had made it seem like traveling in the TARDIS was going to be a marvelous adventure. (That welcoming feel had been part of the show’s DNA since Vicki came aboard in 1964.) Capaldi makes it a potentially hair-raising journey. Smith’s Doctor was conceived as someone viewers would instantly take to; his first scene, cunningly, is with a child, and it’s a scene in which — crucially — he charms her. With his Raggedy Man routine, he could say the most alarming things and still be adorable. Capaldi’s lines aren’t all that different from Smith’s; it’s the delivery that’s new. There’s none of that twinkle so familiar to Who viewers: the kind designed to downplay the danger and accentuate the excitement.
It’s easy to imagine Capaldi doing Smith’s famous speech from Series 5: “The universe is big. It's vast and complicated and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen, and we call them miracles.” And it’s just as easy to imagine how different it would sound coming from Capaldi. Smith put a happy face on it — it was expressive of the sense of wonder that had long distinguished Doctor Who. Capaldi would have said those same lines and the universe would have seemed random and terrifying. And those miracles? They would have seemed improbable, infrequent and equally terrifying. “We call them miracles” — because we need to put a name on them; without the name, they’re too frightening to imagine.
In addition to flipping the tone of the series, Capaldi and Moffat come to Series 8 armed with a delicious conceit, that the Doctor’s alien background manifests itself in an inability to understand — much less predict — human behavior: not merely the subtleties of etiquette and comportment, but the plainest, most common emotions on the human face. Even the mechanics of ordinary aging are foreign to him. (Peter Davison‘s Doctor, too, had lacked the ability to view his companions clearly. If Nyssa showed up at the top of “Snakedance” in a new outfit and posed for the Doctor — unsubtly punctuating it with a “Well?” — Five was blissfully unobservant. If Tegan dressed up to the nines in “Enlightenment,” sporting both crown and cleavage, the Doctor sported no reaction. Not because he was rude, but because he simply couldn’t see what they wanted him to see. It's not that much of a stretch to Clara waiting to see if Danny calls after a bad date, and Twelve cautioning her, “It’s too late — you’ve taken your make-up off.” And when Clara counters with exasperation, “No, I haven’t. I’m still wearing my make-up,” the Doctor — wanting to say the right thing but having no idea what that is — concedes, “Oh, right. Well, you probably just missed a bit.”)
Twelve is rarely deliberately unkind, but he’s not the sentimental soul NuWho fans had grown used to. But lacking sentimentality doesn’t mean he lacks vulnerability. As Moffat presents him, he understands better than his predecessors that he’s nothing without a companion. And in fact, it’s that very lack of understanding of how to deal with humans — and how best to react in social situations — that makes Twelve petrified to face the universe without Clara by his side. In the series’ second episode, the Doctor is unclear how to introduce Clara to a team of soldiers and scientists. “I’m his carer,” Clara is quick to announce, and the Doctor likes it: “Yeah, my carer. She cares so I don’t have to.” But that’s bravado — the Doctor doesn’t sentimentalize his missions, but he carries them out just as passionately. (What he’s really responding to — the reason he likes that description so much — is that it’s clever, and that as clever as Clara is being, he can be cleverer still..)
The Twelfth Doctor was a fresh and fascinating take on an old staple, but right from the start, some folks complained — vocally — that Capaldi was a turnoff. Their comments were often so obtuse, you realized that those folks knew exactly why they weren't taking to the new Doctor, but were too embarrassed to admit it. When Davies brought back the Doctor in 2005, he brought him back as a fantasy-boyfriend. That concept took a while to take hold, but take hold it did — and it was only magnified once David Tennant assumed the role, and the show hit new highs in viewers, some of whom were there specifically to swoon. (Davies loved the idea of the “unattainable man”: see Captain Jack.) Capaldi broke the mold. And some viewers couldn’t deal with that, but they couldn’t say that — “But...but...the Doctor is supposed to be a romantic hero who'll sweep me off my feet. That's why I watch" — so they were left to spout nonsense instead: "I keep seeing [Capaldi’s best-known role] Malcolm Tucker." "He seems like an evil doppelganger." "I can't understand his accent." "Maybe it's because I'm American.” Or they charged him with being cold and uncaring, and you really have to overlook a lot of text — not just subtext, but actual text — to label the Twelfth Doctor cold and uncaring.
Moffat knows full well that fans who counted on being charmed by a dashing champion might be tempted to bail — so he aims to stop them before they do. In the final scene in the season opener “Deep Breath,” the Doctor tells Clara flat out, “I’m not your boyfriend.” (He might as well be talking to the audience.) She’s taken aback: “I never said you were” — but he corrects her, “I never said it was your mistake.” As Madame Vastra has already advised Clara — and as Moffat confirms here — the Doctor has often assumed the veneer of youth as a way of making himself more attractive and palatable to others. (It’s a wholesale rewrite — the notion that the Doctor has some say in choosing his new face — specifically designed to reassure uncertain viewers.) The Doctor keeps asking himself throughout the episode, “Why did I choose this face?” A year later, Moffat will tie it into Capaldi’s earlier appearance in “Fires of Pompeii,” but by the end of “Deep Breath,” we already have our answer. The Doctor is tired of playing the young man who flirts. That act is getting old for him — for him and for Moffat, too. And perhaps, Moffat suggests, it’s getting a bit stale for the audience as well. He dares the audience — just as the Doctor pleads with Clara — to see that it’s the same man beneath the surface, just with more wizened features (and no interest in flirting), and to give him a chance. To allow NuWho to grow. A select group of viewers declined to do so, but you can’t say that Moffat didn’t give it all he had.
The remarkable thing about “Deep Breath” is that as admirably as it defines the new Doctor, that’s not its chief goal. Moffat’s chief goal is (re)defining Clara. Jenna Coleman had, at that point, done a dozen episodes without much of a characterization. That was deliberate, but it was unfortunate. Moffat’s “Impossible Girl” mystery meant that Clara had to remain undefined — and as a result, much of Series 7 had cast Clara as a stock Who ingenue. That’s not a role, it’s a type: a largely passive one, and especially deadly for Coleman, who did her best work when she was multitasking emotions. So Moffat reconceives Clara in a way that both suits Coleman and balances Capaldi: as someone not only clever and resourceful, but aggressively so. Thirty minutes into “Deep Breath,” the Twelfth Doctor and Clara have their first real tête-à-tête, in a restaurant. One suspects that since Eleven regenerated, Clara has been holding her tongue, waiting to see if the man she knew so well reemerges. But now it’s clear to her that that’s not happening, and her demeanor changes dramatically. The pert ingenue seems to have vanished before our eyes. Are we finally seeing the real Clara, perhaps? The tension between the two is palpable, as Clara silently relays her discomfort:
Doctor: What's wrong?
Clara: I don't know. Maybe the smell?
Doctor: I know. It's everywhere.
Clara: Where did you get that coat?
Doctor: I bought it.
Clara: From where?
Doctor: A shop?
When “Deep Breath” first aired, I replayed this scene a dozen times, just to listen to Clara’s “no.” That “no” was a marvel of intonation. It said so much, in a sliding register that was hard to pin down. It said, “No, try again.” It said, “No, I'm not playing these games with you.” It said, “No, I'm no longer that gullible governess from Chiswick.” It was more distinctive than anything Coleman had done up to this point on the show — and mind you, I quite liked her in Series 7, but “distinctive” was not a word I would have used. But that “no” was distinctive. I knew what Capaldi was capable of, but I had no idea how much Coleman could do. I started to get a good idea, and also realized for the first time that Moffat was set on redefining her. The scene continues; the Doctor thinks Clara is upset because he got older, but that’s about the only thing she isn’t angry about:
Clara: An ordinary person wants to meet someone that they know very well for lunch. What do they do?
Doctor: Well, they probably get in touch and suggest lunch.
Clara: Okay, so what sort of person would put a cryptic note in a newspaper advert?
Doctor: Well, I wouldn't like to say.
Clara: Oh, go on, do say.
Doctor: Well, I would say that that person would be an egomaniac, needy, game-player sort of person.
Clara: Thank you. Well, at least that hasn't changed.
Doctor: And I don't suppose it ever will.
Clara: No, I don't suppose it will, either.
Doctor: Clara, honestly, I don't want you to change. It was no bother, really. I saw your advert, I figured it out. I'm happy to play your game.
Clara: No. No. I didn't place the ad. You placed the ad.
Doctor: No, I didn't.
Clara: Yes, you placed the ad, I figured it out. “Impossible Girl.” See? “Lunch.”
Doctor: No, look, the “Impossible” — that is a message from the Impossible Girl.
Clora: For the Impossible… Girl.
Doctor: Well, if neither of us placed that ad, who placed that ad?
Clara: Hang on. Egomaniac, needy game-player?
Doctor: This could be a trap.
Clara: That was me?
Doctor: Never mind that.
Clara: Yes, I am minding that. You were talking about me?
Doctor: Clara, what is happening right now in this restaurant to you and me is more important than your egomania.
Clara: Nothing is more important than my egomania.
Doctor: Right, you actually said that.
Clara: You never mention that again!
There’s nothing Clara has done on the show so far that would characterize her as a “egomaniac, needy game-player.” On the contrary, she’s been likable and level-headed and, when necessary, compassionate and nurturing. And although Moffat had had her characterize herself (when she and Eleven entered the truth field in “Time of the Doctor”) as a “bubbly personality masking bossy control freak,” he ensured that the line flew by so quickly that it was almost unintelligible. This is a rewrite, but a fascinating and wise and useful one.
Doctor: It's a vanity trap. You're so busy congratulating yourself on solving the puzzle, you don't notice that you're sticking your head in a noose.
Clara: What are you doing? (The Doctor pulls a hair from his head.) That isn't the only grey one, if you are having a cull.
Doctor: What, do you have a problem with the gray ones?
Clora: If I got new hair and it was gray, I would have a problem.
Doctor: Yeah, I bet you would.
Doctor: It's too short.
(He pulls a hair from Clara's head.)
Doctor: Sorry, it was the only one out of place. I'm sure that you would want it killed.
Clara: Ooh. Are you trying to tell me something?
Doctor: I'm trying to measure the air disturbance in the room.
Clara: Right. Moments when you know you are boring.
Right from the start, Capaldi and Coleman are alert to each other’s rhythms. The line readings crackle with spontaneity — you believe the scenes were well-rehearsed, but that they could do them a dozen times, and no two would be alike. And next Moffat fastens on another aspect of Clara’s new personality: her staggering ability to bluff on cue. When she comes face to face with the Half-Face Man, she flashes back to her first day at Coal Hill School, when her students were being unruly; Clara threatened them with expulsion, and young Courtney Woods insisted, “Go on then, do it.” And that becomes Clara’s mantra when the Half-Face Man threatens to kill her unless she gives up the Doctor’s whereabouts:
Clara: Go on, then, do it. I'm not going to answer any of your questions, so you have to do it. You have to kill me. Threats don't work unless you deliver.
Half-Face Man: You will tell us where the other one is.
Half-Face Man: You will be destroyed.
Clara: Destroy me, then. And if you don't, then I'm not going to believe a single threat you make from now on. Of course, if I'm dead, then I can't tell you where the other one went then. You need to keep this place down here a secret, don't you? Never start with your final sanction. You've got nowhere to go but backwards.
Half-Face Man: Humans feel pain.
Clara: Ah. Bigger threat to smaller threat. See what I mean? Backwards.
Half-Face Man: The information can be extracted by means of your suffering.
Clara: Are you trying to scare me? ‘Cause I'm already bloody terrified of dying. And I'll endure a lot of pain for a very long time before I give up the information that's keeping me alive. How long have you got? All you can offer me is my life. What you can't do is threaten it. You can negotiate.
Ultimately, Clara — despite being the one in danger — gets him to reveal everything. It’s a stunning scene — quite unlike anything afforded a companion before or since. It’s a preposterous set up — that a memory from her first day teaching becomes first a solution, then one of her defining traits. But once it does become part of her default characterization, it suits her so well that you never again question its unlikely origins. “Deep Breath” firmly establishes the new Clara Oswald: someone who doesn’t admit to failure, accept defeat or suffer fools gladly. The first companion who, in TV terms, doesn’t see herself as costarring on the Doctor’s show, but who sees him guest starring on hers. If she chooses to travel with the Doctor, she’s not about to abandon her life on Earth; he’ll have to make concessions. As with his depiction of the new Doctor, Moffat is practically inviting viewer defection — and once again, it ties into how Davies had conceived NuWho.
Back in 2005, the very first episode of NuWho had been all about Rose Tyler — saddled with a drab job, drab boyfriend and drab mom — and how she escaped it all by running off with the Doctor. That notion of escape had become part of the NuWho mythology. It was there when Donna waited a year for the Doctor to reappear, and it was still there when Amy ran off with the Doctor on the eve of her wedding (and again when Amy and Rory ran off with him on their wedding night). It was so different from Classic Who, where companions typically got stranded on the TARDIS, and the moment they got back to their own time period, they bailed. Now they had to be wrested away. Neither Davies nor Moffat, in 2014, had imagined a companion preferring the life they had to the one they could have with the Doctor. And so, just as Capaldi’s Doctor didn’t symbolize all that the NuWho Doctor had come to represent, Coleman’s Clara — uncertain if she wanted to join Twelve in the TARDIS, and dead set against abandoning her own life if she did — didn’t respond like a companion was expected to. Once Clara was shown to have a host of priorities aside from the Doctor, she was anathema to a subset of fans. (Ironically, many of the folks who never forgave Clara for momentarily being reluctant to travel with a Doctor who was older — even though Moffat made it clear that his age wasn’t the cause of her concern — couldn’t accept Capaldi’s Doctor for precisely that reason.)
This new Clara will become more pronounced and more dominant as the season goes along. A dominant companion in their first full season, of course, is nothing new: Clara doesn’t dominate Series 8 any more than Rose did Series 1 or Amy Series 5; it’s the way she dominates that’s different. Since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, the formula had basically been charting the growth of the companions. Rose and Amy became better people; that was an underlying message of their respective seasons. They became more empathetic, courageous and responsible. They got their priorities in order. They realized their potential.
That’s not Clara’s journey. Clara doesn’t have to becomes someone else — or Lord knows, someone “better” — to generate story. She just has to be Clara: to strive to be the best teacher, the best girlfriend, and the best companion. And the latter means learning everything she can about traveling with the Doctor — in essence, everything she can about being the Doctor. And her learning curve is extraordinary. (Clara wouldn’t have it any other way.) When she pilots the TARDIS at the end of “Listen,” she’s still relying on instinct as much as knowledge. But within two episodes, she’s so in tune with the TARDIS that she can close the doors just by snapping her fingers — and does, matching the Doctor snap for snap. (It took the Doctor nine regenerations — and an intervention by River Song — to learn that shortcut.) By “Kill the Moon,” when she’s primed for a showdown (“Tell me what you knew, Doctor, or else I'll smack you so hard, you'll regenerate” — and she's already smacked him in "Into the Dalek," so he knows she's not kidding), she halts the TARDIS during dematerialization. What earthly companion had ever learned to do that? Two episodes later, she subs for the Doctor in “Flatline” and manages to outmaneuver the aliens. (The episode's requisite hothead wants to know why he should be taking orders from her, and she whispers in his ear, "I am the one chance you've got of staying alive." The Doctor couldn't have done it better.) And then when her boyfriend Danny Pink dies, and she’s hellbent on bringing him back, she puts all that knowledge to destructive use, threatening to separate Twelve from his TARDIS if she doesn’t get her way. It doesn't matter that, ultimately, the Doctor proves to have the upper hand. We believe — given what we've seen Clara absorb and accomplish in Series 8 — that the companion is quite capable of taking down the Doctor. No other season had dared even suggest such a thing.
And ultimately, these two facets of Clara — her assumption of skills that used to be reserved solely for the Doctor, and her ability to bluff her way out of any situation — merge in the cold open to “Death in Heaven.” It’s eleven episodes since “Deep Breath,” and she’s no longer tremulous and terrified as she fights for her life. Now she bluffs without breaking a sweat. She finds the challenge almost exhilarating.
Clara: Stop! You can't kill me.
Clara: I'm a target of strategic value. Alive, I'm a tactical advantage. Dead, I'm your biggest mistake. You don't know who I am.
Cyberman: You are Clara Oswald. You are human. You are unimportant.
Clara: Incorrect. You see, that is what you're supposed to think. That is what everybody thinks.
Cyberman: You are Clara Oswald.
Clara: Clara Oswald is a cover story, a disguise. There is no Clara Oswald.
Clara: Oh, don't be so slow, it's embarrassing. Who could fool you like this? Who could hide right under your nose? Who could change their face any time they want? You see, I'm not Clara Oswald. Clara Oswald has never existed.
Clara: I'm the Doctor.
And if that weren’t enough to unnerve the fans who complained that Clara had usurped the Doctor’s traditional role throughout Series 8, Moffat places her name first in the credits — to sustain the bluff a little longer (because although Rule #1 is “the Doctor lies,” no one lies better than Clara Oswald, except Steven Moffat). As an aside, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve disliked the Chibnall era. I had high hopes, at least for the first female Doctor. But Chibnall has been largely inept, and Whittaker’s performances too often flat or odd. But one of the great ironies to me is that the people who've been the staunchest defenders of Whittaker are also some of the people who most loathed Clara Oswald. Apparently they don’t realize how Clara, in effortlessly assuming Twelve’s demeanor and skill set, paved the way for the first female Doctor.
“Deep Breath” is a smashing piece of writing, but to be fair, it plays it safe for nearly half its length. It brings back the Paternoster Gang because they’re audience favorites. (If it’s going to do some heavy lifting — defining both a new-style Doctor and companion — it’s going to do it against an audience-friendly backdrop.) As inviting as the episode is, it doesn’t really pick up steam till 30 minutes in, when the Doctor and Clara meet up at that restaurant — and from there, the rhythms feel fresh and invigorating. The shape of “Deep Breath” mirrors the shape of the season itself. The first five episodes — with the exception of “Listen,” which is a stunning original — are all designed to be familiar and comforting. There’s the Dalek episode (one of the few good ones in NuWho, it should be noted), the cheeky historical (better and far funnier than we all feared), the subpar Steve Thompson installment (though admittedly the least awful of his efforts) — pretty much what you expect from a series of Doctor Who. It’s not till the sixth episode, “The Caretaker,” that the season launches into uncharted waters — and never looks back.
But first, a few words about “Listen.” (It’s already inspired so much praise in prose, I’ll just make a few choice remarks.) I don’t know of any Doctor Who episode where so much pays off, so perfectly. It’s not just the Doctor obsessed with knowing why everyone has a dream about “someone under the bed,” and then the discovery that he’s trying to explain away his own childhood trauma. It’s not just that it turns out it was Clara under his bed all those centuries ago, trying to ensure that two versions of the Doctor, from two different timelines, didn’t meet. It’s not just how Clara and the Doctor, looking to ease young Rupert’s childhood nightmare, inadvertently birth the one that will haunt his adulthood. And it’s not just that the whole episode, to our surprise and delight, turns out to be a treatise on fear, tying together two seemingly disparate threads: the Doctor’s quest for answers, and Clara‘s quest for a decent first date.
My favorite moment — as will happen often in Series 8 — isn’t a plot point at all, but a character beat. Early in the episode, the Doctor is seated at Clara’s dressing table, bewildered by its shape and use. (You might say he doesn’t understand her vanity or her vanity.) Through the course of the episode, he grows obsessed with her features, especially her eyes. (“What's gone wrong with your face?” he admonishes her when she comes face to face with Orson Pink. “It’s all eyes! Why are you all eyes? Get them under control.” Later, the Doctor once again references “the all eyes thing.“) It seems no more than his usual inability to understand human behavior. But near the end, when Clara has hidden under the bed of a young boy, trying to ascertain her surroundings, and realizes suddenly that she’s on Gallifrey, beneath the Doctor’s bed, and Coleman has to make the moment register non-verbally, her eyes do bug out. They’re just as huge as the Doctor described them. Briefly, under that bed, in a moment when time and fate and improbability merge, we’re permitted to see Clara as the Doctor sees her. And perhaps we think, like him, no wonder she needs three mirrors…
As noted, “Listen“ is a high point of Doctor Who’s first 34 seasons. But Series 8 truly kicks into gear with the sixth episode, “The Caretaker.” Late in the season, Missy characterizes Clara as a “control freak,” and it’s this side of Clara‘s character that starts to dominate here, when — despite her mounting exhaustion and disorientation — she can’t bear to part with anything: her travels with the Doctor, or her burgeoning romance with Danny, or her work as a schoolteacher. And she’s determined to keep them compartmentalized. The wonderful thing about “The Caretaker” is that it seems like it’s going to focus on Clara’s dilemma, but instead, it sheds new light on the Doctor. It may well contain Capaldi’s most striking performance. Although this is ostensibly “the comic episode” of the season, the way Capaldi's performance is pitched transforms it. Given that it's a Gareth Roberts script, you expect another "Unicorn and the Wasp" or "The Lodger" in tone, but Capaldi doesn't go there. Oh, the jokes come fast and furious, as when the Doctor first makes his disguise known to Clara, who asks after the real caretaker.
Doctor: He's fine. Hypnotized. He thinks he's got the flu. Also a flying car and three wives. It's going to be a rude awakening.
Clara: Is it aliens? Oh, my God, is that why you're here? Are there aliens?
Doctor: It's assembly. You'd better get going. Go and worship something.
Clara: Are there aliens in this school?
Doctor: Listen, it's lovely talking to you, but I've really got to get on. I'm a caretaker now. Look, I've got a brush.
Clara: Doctor, is there an alien in this school?
Doctor: Yes, me. Now go. The walls need sponging and there's a sinister puddle.
Clara: You can't do this. You cannot pass yourself off as a real person among actual people.
Doctor: I lived among otters once for a month. Well, I sulked. River and I, we had this big fight.
Clara: Human beings are not otters!
Doctor: Exactly. It'll be even easier.
But Capaldi doesn't play it as comedy. If it's funny (and it is, deeply), it stems from all the traits Capaldi has established in his Doctor: his obtuseness, his candor, his intensity, his tight focus. Capaldi keeps the humor firmly character-based, and in doing so, he keeps the story grounded. It allows the Doctor moments of fury, self-reflection and growth that wouldn't have been possible had this been merely "the funny episode." (There are very few gags in Series 8 — the laughs mostly stem from character: the Doctor’s defensiveness, Clara’s willfulness, Danny’s lack of social skills. Season 8 is easily one of the most quotable seasons — but by and large the jokes emerge from a dark place, one expressive of the characters’ worst traits and deepest fears. Series 8 is about three characters who crack jokes to cover up their angst, and whose occasional callousness hides their insecurities.) When Clara confesses she loves Danny, the look of confusion and disappointment that clouds the Doctor's face is powerful. “You’ve explained me to him,” the Doctor advises Clara, after she’s forced to come clean to Danny about her other life: “You haven’t explained him to me.” The line stings. This Doctor, for all his aloofness, is quite capable of feeling pain.
Series 8 establishes three core characters whose interactions provide the seasonal arc. (The Missy teasers tossed into most every episode are mere icing on the cake.) There’s talk as I write this that Chibnall is planning one extended story for Series 13; in a sense, that’s what we get in Series 8. It’s one long aria about three fully-formed, multi-dimensional characters who have to establish common ground. And boundaries. And respect. And trust. And notably, remarkably, from “The Caretaker” to “Last Christmas” — that’s eight episodes — there’s not one where the relationships don’t evolve from the start of the episode to the end. Every episode moves the character beats forward or backward, sometimes dramatically — or shuffles the dynamics.
Which brings us to Danny, and without a doubt, Samuel Anderson’s must be one of the most underrated performances to ever grace Doctor Who. He makes Danny so convincing, so quickly. So clear in his complexities. Danny’s at once shy and uncertain, yet angry and defensive. It’s Danny who makes his rivalry with the Doctor all about class warfare, and he manages to lose a student during a class outing. He’s far from perfect. Yet he’s wise beyond his years (“You can never finish with anyone if they can still make you angry,” he advises Clara, when she's told the Doctor to clear out), and his self-flagellating is endearing. And he’s no one’s fool. In “The Caretaker,” he cautions Clara, “I know what you tell me, which isn't always the truth.” He’s not blind to Clara’s duplicity, even early on; he just thinks — rightly so — that Clara is worth investing in.
Danny and Clara‘s early relationship keeps unfolding out of sequence. We see the consequences of their encounters, then we see the encounters themselves. We view them after awkward conversations and bad dates, drowning in self-reproach, and then we go back and check out the conversations and dates themselves. And another particular genius of Series 8 (similar to the way that the shape of the first episode mirrors that of the entire season) is that their whole relationship — like those individual moments — plays out of sequence. Their arc is essentially laid out back-to-front. We’re informed in their second episode that they’re going to end up together, and have children and grandchildren. It’s not presented to us as one possible future; we’re led to believe we’re seeing fixed points in time. The season then lets us see how close they grow — and how quickly — to achieve an endpoint we’ve come to accept. And then Danny dies. And we realize that the timeline we’d been promised was just a theoretical one (the TARDIS itself was an unreliable narrator) — and we’re left with no idea what to make of their relationship. Is Danny truly Clara’s romantic destiny, or was that timeline thwarted by an accident of fate? This is Moffat working in an incredibly sophisticated way, no doubt because he didn’t want to simply redo Series 5, where Amy and Rory’s relationship evolves in a more linear fashion.
Danny is, of course, the hardest of the three to get a read on, because he’s on screen far less than the Doctor and Clara. Moffat has one surefire way of making us love Danny Pink. Give him one adventure aboard the TARDIS. That’s how all the companions’ significant others win our affections. We didn’t give a fig for Mickey until he joined Rose on the TARDIS in “Girl in the Fireplace.” Rory meant nothing to us until “Vampires of Venice.” But Moffat deliberately doesn’t go that route. He stays true to character, because Danny isn’t the sort of person interested in traveling aboard the TARDIS. He’s aggressively grounded, in a way that genuinely appeals to Clara. He’s content where he is (especially given where he’s been), making a difference in the lives of kids like Courtney and Bradley and Maebh. As he informs Clara in “Forest of the Night,” even a jaunt on the TARDIS to witness a miracle of nature holds no allure for him:
I was a soldier. I put myself at risk. I didn’t try too hard to survive, but somehow, here I am. And now I can see what I nearly lost. And it’s enough. I don’t want to see more things. I want to see the things in front of me more clearly. There are wonders here, Clara Oswald. Bradley saying please, that's a wonder. One person is more amazing, harder to understand, but more amazing than universes.
Moffat invites us to explore and accept Danny on Danny’s own terms — and some fans couldn’t do it. They were still tied to the NuWho tradition where a character isn’t truly legitimized until they take that first eager step aboard the TARDIS, revel in its wonders, and pledge themselves wholeheartedly to the Doctor. To those fans, Danny would never feel fully formed. And they kept waiting, too, for the oversized declaration of love between the two characters, as Amy and Rory — so cannily and so carefully — had been given in “Amy’s Choice” shortly after he was (re)introduced, but that didn’t come either.
Series 5 had a magical arc in which Amy, upon being given wings, comes to understand how much she needs roots as well. Traveling with the Doctor makes her realize what she’s missing, and what she truly needs to make her happy. It's a lovely fairytale, which is exactly how Moffat described it at the time. Series 8 is the season — like Capaldi‘s Doctor, like Coleman’s Clara — that doesn’t have time for fairytales. Series 8 exists in this universe — in which people try to have their cake and eat it too, in which people do awful things to the ones they love in the interests of self-fulfillment. Or because they buckle under the weight of self-loathing. And it’s a world where equal partnerships don’t necessarily yield equal dividends. Part of the (blissfully understated) message of Series 8 is that, whereas Clara inspires many of the Doctor’s best qualities, he brings out many of her worst. She awakens him to possibilities and ambiguities he’d long since dismissed: that Daleks can be redeemed, that legends have something to teach us. (“Clara Oswald, do I really not pay you?” he asks, when she’s forced him to see how his inflexibility is keeping him from carrying out a mission. “You couldn't afford me,” she’s quick to respond, and she’s not kidding.) Whereas under Twelve’s tutelage, Clara grows addicted to life on the edge, and convinces herself that the end justifies the means — as he’s been doing for centuries. “Come on, why can't you say it?” she pleads with him after “Flatline”: “I was the Doctor, and I was good.” “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara,” he concedes: “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”
“The Caretaker” ends with the Doctor and Danny reaching an uneasy detente, and Danny cautioning Clara that if she ever feels like she’s being pushed too far — which happened to him as a soldier — she needs to tell him. And of course — because Series 8 is a character-driven drama — that’s exactly what happens in the following episode. Peter Harness’s “Kill the Moon” would be a genius episode if it had nothing else to recommend it than Capaldi‘s line reading of “the moon is an egg.” He says it with such devilish glee, thrilled by the discovery and anxiously awaiting the response, marveling at the wonder and absurdity of it all. Since its original airing, “Kill the Moon” has been labeled an abortion allegory; a bunch of Series 8 detractors seized on that hot-button issue as a way of denigrating the episode, and as so often happens in this age of unchecked social media, the misnomer stuck. But at the time, “Kill the Moon” received phenomenal reviews, and none of them mentioned abortion, because the issue — a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body — is nowhere to be found. (The AV Club called it “an instant classic” and its second half “25 of the best, most important, and most heartbreaking minutes in Doctor Who’s long history.”)
“Kill the Moon” does wonders for two of the oldest themes in sci-fi, which Doctor Who had tackled numerous times: whether one life should be sacrificed to save millions (cf. “Planet of Giants,” “The Wheel in Space,” “Arc of Infinity”), and whether a planet has the right to determine its own destiny (cf. “Frontios”). And because of the nature of Series 8, the turning point isn’t a piece of plotting but a character beat, when the Doctor exits the scene midway through, intent on letting Clara make a crucial decision about the fate of her own people without his guidance. The brilliance of “Kill the Moon” is that you understand Clara‘s resultant fury, but you also understand the Doctor’s confusion. This is a Doctor who doesn’t understand how human beings dress, much less how they think. He thought he was doing something wonderful and supportive — he was making, to his mind, a grand gesture — but Clara, reasonably, felt otherwise:
Clara: It was cheap, it was pathetic. No, no, no. It was patronising. That was you patting us on the back, saying, you're big enough to go to the shops by yourself now. Go on, toddle along.
Doctor: No, that was me allowing you to make a choice about your own future. That was me respecting you.
Clara: Oh, my God, really? Was it? Yeah, well, respected is not how I feel.
Doctor: Right. Okay.
Clara: I nearly didn't press that button. I nearly got it wrong. That was you, my friend, making me scared. Making me feel like a bloody idiot.
I’m not sure why some fans are resistant to the concept of “Kill the Moon.” For me, “Kill the Moon” is exactly the kind of thing Doctor Who can do that no other show can. For decades, Doctor Who has been mix-and-matching historical figures and unearthly creatures; it’s explained away our greatest myths (the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster) with alien technology. Is the moon being a shell for an alien entity more of a stretch than reptilian creatures hibernating beneath our planet’s surface, or the Earth having a twin planet that was dislodged from its orbit? (The folks who link it to abortion are a lot of the same people who claim to this day that the Doctor presumes Danny is a PE teacher because he’s Black, when it’s made quite clear that it’s because he's just been informed that Danny was a soldier. The Doctor has a low opinion of soldiers; given how underdeveloped most of them are during the Moffat era, you can’t blame him.)
In “Kill the Moon,” Clara admonishes the Doctor, “You walk our earth, you breath our air,“ rejecting his depiction of himself as an outsider. They’re the same lines he repeats back to her in “In the Forest of the Night,” to assure her that he’s been weighing her words since then, that he’s come to accept that he’s just as responsible for Earth’s future as those who were born here. Throughout Series 8, we see Moffat weaving the season into one long story. Some of the links are plot points, as when the solar flare in “Time Heist” is described to us in such detail, it can be referenced swiftly in “In the Forest of the Night.” But most of the connections are bits of dialogue carried from one episode to the next. The characters are listening to each other — and learning. “Do as you’re told,“ the Doctor commands Clara in “Listen,” when he’s on the precipice of solving a mystery that’s haunted him since childhood. She’s infuriated at being treated like a child, but recognizes — if the Doctor is spewing crass commands — just how important the moment is to him. Eight episodes later, when Clara has a chance to end Danny’s suffering, and the Doctor is resistant, she throws his words back at him, knowing he’ll understand exactly what the moment means to her. In “Listen,” the Doctor advises Rupert Pink, “Fear is a superpower,” and six episodes later, when the Doctor is unimpressed with Clara’s students, she has the last word on both her students and her teaching skills: “Furious, fearful, tongue-tied. They're all superpowers if you use them properly.” It’s a far cry from “Bad Wolf” linking nearly every episode in Series 1 (a conceit I quite liked, mind you) or that crack in the wall reappearing throughout Series 5 (another device I highly enjoyed). And it’s totally evocative of the character-driven format of Series 8.
Similarly, “Kill the Moon” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” both begin with a countdown, and wind down on a beach — but those are superficial ways they (deliberately) mirror each other. Crucially, in each, the final scene is about Clara coming to a decision about her relationship with the Doctor. I remember when Series 8 first aired, the anti-Clara brigade went to town after three consecutive episodes: first for her laying into the Doctor at the end of “Kill the Moon,” then for lying to the Doctor at the end of “Mummy,” then for lying to Danny during “Flatline.” Folks so desperately want their Doctor Who companions to be perfect. Clara lies to the Doctor, and ultimately lies to Danny, because that’s who Clara is: not a liar, but someone who furiously wants to have it all, who needs to show herself that she can handle and conquer even the most untenable situations. (Her nickname The Impossible Girl, tied to a mystery devoid of clues, didn’t carry much weight in Series 7, but ultimately, it describes her to a T in Series 8.) She doesn’t deceive out of malice; she does it because it cuts to the heart of the biggest flaw in her character.
Clara’s deceptions are exposed in “In the Forest of the Night,” which most folks, I suspect, would list as one of their least favorite episodes of the season. I find it enchanting, and exactly what the series needs at this point. There’s so much that’s magical about the episode that what doesn’t work doesn’t seem to matter much. The forest sprouting up overnight, and Maebh running through it; her encounters with wolves (shot from multiple perspectives) and Clara‘s canny, creepy “what are wolves afraid of?”; and the appearance of the tiger — it’s captivating. And the children are tremendous, and let’s face it, NuWho doesn’t have a great track record with kids. (When Danny cautions young Ruby that she’s letting her imagination run away with her, she’s quick to counter, “I haven’t got an imagination. You can ask Miss Oswald.” We instantly get a vivid picture not only of Ruby, but of Clara's teaching style.) Ostensibly an episode about Danny discovering Clara’s deceit, it’s really an episode about the Doctor coming to accept Danny. Near the end, when the planet seems doomed, he informs Clara, “I can save you and Danny”: a huge leap forward from where we were just four episodes earlier. Series 8 is a story about the relationships between three people, and while they’re working them out, there are some crackling good stories going on around them. It’s the antithesis of every other Doctor Who season, which is action-based drama with character details sprinkled throughout.
The season nears its climax with “Dark Water.” At the time it aired, it seemed a gripping set-up that culminated — in “Death in Heaven” — in a dour, dispiriting conclusion. Danny was dead (and not merely dead: turned into a Cyberman). Missy was dead. Osgood was dead. And the Doctor and Clara said their goodbyes by keeping secrets from each other — having gained no ground from where they began the season. In “Listen,” the Doctor didn’t admit that the nightmare of “something under the bed” was his, and Clara — confronted with her grandson Orson Pink — was unwilling to reveal how and why she might be related to him. And now, in “Death in Heaven,” the Doctor doesn’t tell Clara that he couldn’t find Gallifrey, and she doesn’t reveal that Danny remains dead. Have they learned nothing in twelve episodes?
Now, upon rewatching, “Death in Heaven” seems stunning, and “Dark Water” merely a splendid set-up. Oh, the start of “Dark Water” (from Danny’s death through Clara’s betrayal) is as gripping as ever, and the Cybermen and Missy reveals are still killers. But the middle part — its insistence that humans continue to feel pain after they’re dead, and that millions of souls are silently screaming “Don’t cremate me” — is a big misdirect, and as such, it no longer holds the interest it once did. Whereas “Death in Heaven,” which once felt unsatisfying, now feels exhilarating because we see it for what it is: a second cliffhanger. Moffat’s only mistake at the time lay in letting us think it was the closing chapter of a two-parter, when in fact it’s the middle chapter of a three-parter: not “The Big Bang,” but “The Pandorica Opens” — the place where the narrative collapses. And even though Moffat has Santa Claus appear at the end and state his intention to set things right — “Doctor? You know it can't end like that. We need to get this sorted and quickly. She's not all right, you know. And neither are you” — we didn’t imagine that was something we were meant to take literally. We thought it was just another Christmas promo tacked onto a story that had properly ended, as when Donna intruded on the Doctor’s grief at the end of “Doomsday.” But no, this was Moffat being serious, and ironically, the series had been such a dizzying high-wire act that this — the one time he wanted to be taken at his word — is the one time we refused. We thought it was another misdirect, and not the other thing at which he had so excelled in Series 8: rebooting familiar tropes — in this case by making the requisite Christmas episode the series finale. “It can’t end like that” — and therefore it won’t. “Death in Heaven” is a smashing episode, a dazzling cliff-hanger — and in juggling the Doctor doing his duty as President of Earth and Clara doing damage control as a very guilty girlfriend, it manages to be both epic and intimate.
And devastating. Clara’s story is about how her worst traits ultimately break Danny’s spirit. While Clara is posturing to the Cybermen that she’s the Doctor, a new Cyberman appears. Unbeknownst to Clara, it’s Danny. Earlier, in “The Caretaker,” he had donned the Doctor’s invisibility watch to see what Clara was like during her travels with the Doctor. Now, six episodes later, he gets his answer, and it’s the worst possible one:
Clara: Oh, seriously, this is getting old. Look, there is no Clara Oswald. I invented her. I made her up.
Danny-Cyberman: Born 23rd November, 1986.
Clara: Yeah, I chose that date. Always liked it.
Danny-Cyberman: Father, David James Oswald. Mother, Elena Alison Oswald.
Clara: Stories. Stories. Stories. I made them up. Look, ask anybody who knows me. I am an incredible liar.
(He lowers his head, wounded.)
And later, with Danny’s identity still unclear, Clara continues to stall for time.
Danny-Cyberman: You are not the Doctor.
Clara: Of course I’m not the Doctor. I was lying to stay alive. But how do I know so much about him?
Danny-Cyberman: You are his associate.
Clara: No, I'm not. I'm not his associate. I'm his best friend. Right now, his best friend, anywhere in the universe. Have you got any sort of Cyber-Internet in there because, really, you should look it up. Look up what happens to you if you harm me.
Danny-Cyberman: Where is the Doctor?
Clara: What, you think I would give up the Doctor? Don't be daft. I would never, ever give up the Doctor, because he is my best friend, too. He is the closest person to me in this whole world. He is the man I will always forgive, always trust. The one man I would never, ever lie to.
Clara went into “Dark Water” with the best of intentions — to let Danny know how much she loved him. She had dozens of note cards in place to ensure that she said exactly what she meant, in the manner she intended. (Of course she did.) But instead, her final words to Danny — before she discovers he’s a Cyberman — cheapen that love, diminish her devotion. They injure him, as it turns out, more than any fatal automobile accident. And although that’s not where Clara and Danny’s relationship is left, that’s where we — the viewers — are left for the six weeks till Christmas. This is the farthest thing from a fairy-tale — no wonder even Moffat devotees prefer Series 5 — but it’s about as honest and adult as Doctor Who has ever gotten. No one walks away from Series 8 unscathed. We demean the ones we count on the most (“Kill the Moon”); we betray the ones we trust the most (“Dark Water”). And we wound the ones — irrevocably — to whom we’ve pledged our heart.
“Last Christmas" is the Series 8 finale, despite how reference books list it. (Once you’ve seen it, there’s no other way to view it.) As with the previous seven episodes, the plot is novel (Alien meets Inception meets Miracle on 34th Street isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill Doctor Who Christmas special), but it's also merely a backdrop for the way the relationships unfold. And everything comes to a head here.
I’ve long maintained that it contains Jenna Coleman’s best performance. It’s one quick mood shift after another, and her skill at juggling emotions — and at creating a complex character whose flaws help make her so fascinating — is never more impressive. But Coleman’s achievement here goes beyond hitting the necessary beats well. In “Last Christmas,” Coleman clarifies a year’s worth of scripting, with respect to the relationship between Danny and Clara. Their time together was tinged with so much deceit on her part and self-sacrifice on his — and it ended so suddenly — that it was tough to get a read on it. Was Danny, as we were promised in “Listen,” truly Clara’s romantic destiny? In “Last Christmas,” Coleman gives us our answer. Her joy at seeing Danny appear at her bedside on Christmas morning; her delight at guessing what gifts he’s gotten her (her love of being right is never more charming); the soft intensity of her gaze when she’s forced to admit it’s all a dream; and the grief and adoration in her eyes as Danny makes her promise to think about him for just five minutes each day — it’s extremely powerful and altogether convincing. Coleman and Anderson make the relationship rich and moving in a way that they never had a chance to do while Danny was alive; they accomplish the rare — and necessary — feat of legitimizing the love story after the fact. Late in Series 8, Clara keeps telling Danny that she loves him and that she’ll never say those words to anyone but him. And when “Last Christmas” rolls around — even though Danny is dead — we finally believe it.
And as a result, it’s a gut punch of a season. Series 8 climaxes with the Doctor and Clara — who’ve finally come clean about their losses — agreeing to travel together without strings, without reservations. In the moment, it feels like a joyous decision. But the reason it happens is that Clara has lost the love of her life. Of course, to a Doctor Who fan, when the Doctor asks Clara to join him for — in TV terms — another series, and she responds with an enthusiastic “yes,” it’s an exhilarating moment. (The tone of the scene is a reversal of the season opener, where he spent half the episode begging her, and she finally joined him — if not reluctantly, then certainly cautiously.) But beneath the surface, it’s agonizing. Clara agrees to travel again with the Doctor because she has no reason to believe her personal life — the thing she so cherished, she fought to retain it while she traveled — is worth clinging to. She’s never going to tell another man she loves him. So of course she’ll travel with the Doctor now. She has nothing left to lose.
To return one last time to “Deep Breath”: it’s amazing how many people didn’t understand the episode at the time, and thought Clara was rejecting Twelve because he got old. The point of “Deep Breath” is that Clara is reluctant to travel with the Doctor not because he’s aged, but because she’s lost a friend. There was this lovely young man with whom she had a budding flirtation, and now he’s gone. This new man lacks the twinkle of his predecessor. Words sound harsher when he says them because he doesn’t know how to sugarcoat them. But the genius of Series 8 is that, with this new incarnation, she builds a deeper bond than she ever could’ve imagined. Once you eliminate the flirting — once you remove the possibility of the Doctor being her boyfriend — what emerges is the strongest relationship between a Doctor and a companion in Who history. (And yes, I adore Four and Sarah — and Ten and Donna — as much as the next person, but I stand my ground.)
“Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” the Doctor asks Clara in “Dark Water.” It remains one of the most gorgeous lines in all of Doctor Who (and anyone who still thinks that Twelve is cold or uncaring after that line needs to have their head examined), and it’s evocative of the extraordinary bond between Twelve and Clara. It’s not merely that they become close, but that they become too close — theirs is a partnership so intense and so imprudent that it ultimately threatens the very core of existence. Missy’s plan to bring the Doctor and Clara together makes little sense in Series 8 (it’s one of the few bits that doesn’t quite work). She knew that that Clara, the control freak, would try to bring back the dead if she lost someone important, and the Doctor would be so devoted to her that he’d assist her, and they’d end up in Missy’s Nethersphere? You just have to go with “another of the Master’s bonkers plans” and accept it. But by the end of Series 9, Moffat has solved it. As it turns out, Twelve’s devotion to Clara is so great, he’s willing to risk the very fabric of time and space to save her; they do indeed develop the potentially calamitous relationship that Missy anticipated. (Leave it to Moffat to take one of the few plot points that doesn’t pay off properly in Series 8 and address and fix it in Series 9.)
Nothing like Series 8 would come along again. By Series 9, Capaldi has urged Moffat to let him stop being “the Twelfth Doctor“ and merely be “the Doctor." He’s lightened up considerably — he makes his first appearance strumming an electric guitar. (I was at the premiere screening of “The Magician’s Apprentice” in New York City, and the audience cheered that entrance. The Doctor was back — not Capaldi’s Doctor, but the fun Doctor. The Doctor they preferred.) And Clara by this point has no personal life left to pursue while she travels with him, so her story is streamlined. Season 9 is a knockout in a lot of ways, and it comes to a dazzling conclusion, but the prickly complexities that so distinguished Series 8 are notably diminished. And with the exception of “The Woman Who Lived,” we’re back to scaling adventures rather than charting character development. Series 8 was an experiment in reimagining and revitalizing Doctor Who: going against the grain of what audiences had come to expect in a Doctor and a companion, and using the pair to upend the show both tonally and structurally. Series 8 is a season about how our lives are shaped by the company we keep, not by the adventures we pursue. Those adventures provide a backdrop — sometimes a fascinating, memorable backdrop — for the interpersonal stories, but at the end of the day, the adventures fall away, and what we’re left with are the lives we’ve touched, the relationships we’ve forged — and those we’ve lost. As a format, it was probably unsustainable. But it was glorious.
Want more Doctor Who? I offer up reviews of seven Classic Who stories that I consider unfairly neglected or maligned, one for each Doctor: "Terminus," "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "The Wheel in Space," "Attack of the Cybermen," "Death to the Daleks and "The Leisure Hive." I look at the actors who've played the Doctor for more than one full-length story, and assess their best and worst performances. And I do the same for thirty-three companions. I serve up praise for three "lost" stories: "The Abominable Snowmen," "The Smugglers" and "The Savages." I also take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era; and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years. And finally, in a 16-part series, I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials, starting here.