Welcome back, Whovians. After eight months of waiting, we’re finally treated to series eight of Doctor Who. We’ve got a new Doctor, a dinosaur, clockwork-y cyborgs, and the Paternoster gang. With the massive amounts of media hype surrounding the series (including some major script and episode leaks), does the series opener live up to its promise? Sort of.
Loads of spoilers for this episode below the cut.
We begin our episode with the Paternoster Gang in Victorian London. Strax, Jenny, and Madame Vastra are investigating a series of spontaneous combustions when a giant tyrannosaurus rex appears in outside Parliament. The dinosaur stumbles around a bit and coughs up… the TARDIS! Out pops Peter Capaldi as the latest incarnation of the Doctor, readily speaking with the distressed T-Rex as a disheveled and visibly annoyed Clara follows in his wake. The Doctor’s still recuperating from his regeneration, and his memory isn’t all there. The gang convinces him to lie down for a nap (after teaching him about what bedrooms are for).
Vastra confronts Clara about Clara’s hesitancy to embrace this old man as the Doctor, accusing her of being judgmental and shallow. Clara denies this, but Vastra’s unconvinced. Meanwhile, the Doctor hears the dinosaur’s cries of loneliness and rushes to her aid, followed by the Paternoster gang. They arrive only to see her fall victim to spontaneous combustion. Visibly angry and intrigued by the mystery, the Doctor goes searching for answers. The next morning he steals a homeless man’s coat and ponders how his body possibly “chooses” which face he gets when he regenerates. He knows it’s familiar, but can’t place it (although we can: Capaldi appeared in both “The Fires of Pompeii” and Torchwood: Children of Earth as different characters).
Both the Doctor and Clara see a newspaper ad to meet for lunch, each thinking that the other placed it. After much bickering they slowly realize that something is wrong: the other restaurant patrons aren’t really human. Before they can escape, the two are trapped in their booth and taken down into a special dungeon/larder. A man is sitting in a chair, and the pair discover that he’s a cyborg, a robot turning himself into a human. It’s like a combination of the clockwork robots from “The Girl in the Fireplace” and the patchwork people from “The Doctor’s Wife”. The man takes parts from the victims of “spontaneous combustion,” as well as the optic nerve from the dinosaur. The robots in the “larder” begin to wake up, and the Doctor escapes—leaving Clara behind. Clara tries to fake her way past the robots by holding her breath (making her undetectable), but collapses before she can make it to freedom.
The clockwork robot leader takes Clara to a special chamber and threatens to kill her if she doesn’t tell him where the Doctor is. As she’s waking up, Clara has a momentary flashback (or nightmare? It’s unclear) to her first day of school as a teacher and losing total control of her classroom. The memory inspires her, and she refuses to tell the robot anything and taunts him for using his best play too quickly. He counters by threatening her with torture, to which Clara bursts into tears but remains steadfast in her resolution to not divulge any information. The robot starts to reveal his plan, and the Doctor reveals himself (having been disguised as a robot guard). At Clara’s cue Vastra, Jenny, and Strax descend from the ceiling (so Clara wasn’t actually in any real danger the whole time?) and start kicking some serious robot ass. The Doctor pursues the leader upstairs to the main floor of the restaurant.
As the restaurant rises into the air suspended from a balloon made of human skin (ick), the Doctor questions the clockwork robot about his motives. The robot claims to have been seeking the “Promised Land”, and the Doctor vehemently denies that such a place exists, or that he will get there. He waxes philosophical about the nature of regeneration and identity, wondering if you can still be the same thing if all your parts are replaced and nothing of the original remains. He tells the robot that he’ll have to murder him or have the robot fall to his death in order to protect the people of London (and really, the human race). We soon see the robot fall to his death and it’s ambiguous as to who jumped or pushed. The robot’s death stops all the other cyborgs, saving Clara and the Paternosters.
The Doctor and Clara leave to return Clara home, and the Doctor asks if Clara will stick with him. Clara’s unsure, and gives him a tentative “no”. She then receives a call from… the Eleventh Doctor, at Trenzalore. He implores her to give this new Doctor a chance, and reminds her that he’s much more scared than she is, and that he needs her. Mollified, Clara agrees to help the Twelfth Doctor, as they go out to grab some coffee in Glasgow.
First, the good. Peter Capaldi is absolutely inspiring as the Doctor. He’s dark and serious and emotional and bloody brilliant. He’s been touted as a “darker” Doctor, but in this case “darker” doesn’t mean “evil”. This Doctor is “dark” like the Mariana Trench, with amazing depth to his character. He seamlessly moves from vulnerable and confused to brilliant mastermind. Capaldi makes playing the Doctor look effortless; it’s obvious why he was the only actor considered for the role.
Clara seems to be benefiting from some much-needed character development, though it was a bit heavy-handed. Last series she seemed to have little to no personality; she was simply a puzzle for the Doctor to solve, and any real character development she underwent was erased with a big friendly reset button. Now we’re told quite literally that she has flaws: an egomaniac, needy, a game-player, and a control freak. I assume that we’ll actually get to see more of these in later episodes, rather than simply hearing that she’s that way. In this episode we do get a few glimpses of Clara struggling with her need to control the situation. She has a dreamy flashback (or a nightmare, it’s unclear which) to her first day as a teacher, utterly failing to keep order in the classroom and foolishly threatening to have all the students expelled. Clara seems to actually cry a lot more than previous companions, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I want to love Clara, and I feel she still has a lot of potential as a dynamic character. We’ll have to see if the writers can deliver.
It was great to see Jenny, Vastra and Strax in top form. They were clearly running the “help the Doctor through his regeneration” show, and Clara was really just along for the ride. Vastra and Jenny were very clear to remind the audience that they’re married lesbians. We even have a close up of them sharing a kiss, to “share oxygen” stored in Vastra’s lungs. They’re undoubtedly going to cause some controversy. While I’m all for diversity in our media, I was a bit disappointed that Moffat is once again giving us the “Jenny reminds Vastra that they’re married” and “Vastra treats Jenny like a servant” routines. It’s fun to see the pair show off their excellent combat skills, but it’d be nice to get some more depth to their dynamic. The characters have certainly been around long enough, and seem like they’ll continue to be recurring characters in the future.
Overall, much of the episode seemed to be Moffat revisiting his favorite ideas and stringing them together into a plot. Many of the elements were explicit references to Moffat’s “The Girl in the Fireplace”, from the clockwork robots to the names of spaceships. Baddies that can’t “see” you if you “don’t breathe” sound a whole lot like “Blink’s” Weeping Angels ignoring you if you “don’t blink”. It seemed like Moffat was trying to set up the Doctor’s motivations for the series-long plot arc, but too much of that remained in the subtext. The dinosaur reminds us that the Doctor is lonely and far away from home (both in reference to time and space), and might not make it back before he dies. We spend a lot of time on the idea of seeing the Doctor for who he really is, without the “veil” of his ever-changing faces. But this is muddied with Clara’s pseudo-romantic feelings for the Doctor. One minute she’s telling us that she doesn’t like him like that, another that if anyone would “flirt with a mountain range” or Marcus Aurelius it’d be her. If Moffat’s trying to show that Clara loves the Doctor for who he is, it’s not really coming through. He’s spent so much time on the show associating love and emotional attachment with sex, it’s hard to perceive any genuine deep feeling as anything but sexual.
The chief Clockwork Robot carries on harvesting and replacing his parts because he’s seeking the Promised Land, and the Doctor says he’ll never get there because it doesn’t exist. The Robot is probably supposed to be a metaphor for the Doctor and his regenerations. A religious “Promised Land” is both a paradise and homeland, and with the fiftieth anniversary episode in mind, I think it’s reasonable to believe that Gallifrey is the Doctor’s Promised Land. But in the last few moments of the episode we see the Clockwork Robot waking up in a beautiful garden, and a mysterious Victorian Lady named Missy tells him that he’s come to Heaven, the Promised Land. She also claims to be the Doctor’s girlfriend. So once again, we get a slightly-to-explicitly ominous lady using religious imagery and claiming to have a romantic attachment to the Doctor. I am so not impressed. I’m temporarily withholding my judgment, just in case Moffat is bringing back the Rani, a renegade female Time Lord. I certainly hope that’s the case; it might help explain the random T-Rex at the beginning of this episode.
What did you think? Did Capaldi impress you, or are you still pining for Matt Smith? Let me know in the comments.