It’s been a while since we last checked in with Doctor Who’s Season 8. We last covered the Season 8 premiere, and I had some mixed feelings about it. The next five episodes haven’t followed much of a cohesive plot. Rather, they’re one-off ideas for what might make an interesting Doctor Who episode. Steven Moffat seems to be asking a lot of questions about who the Doctor really is, and what it means to be the Doctor. We’re also finally getting some character development for the Doctor’s companion, Clara. So has Moffat produced some quality Doctor Who? Sort of.
Spoilers for the first half of Season 8 below.
Each of the episodes attempts to cover a fun idea in a stand-alone fashion. “Into the Dalek” shrinks down the Doctor, Clara, and a team so they can crawl inside a Dalek in an attempt to heal it. “Robot of Sherwood” takes our duo to Sherwood forest, largely following Disney’s version of Robin Hood (minus the animals, and add some robots). “Listen” wonders what really lives under your bed, and explores the past and future descendants of Danny Pink. “Time Heist” places the Doctor, Clara, and two new characters named Psy and Saibra attempt to rob the most secure bank in the world, following the directions of the mysterious Architect. Finally, in “The Caretaker”, the Doctor goes undercover as a janitor in the school where Clara and Danny teach to seek out an alien menace, as Clara explores her feelings for Danny and seeks the Doctor’s approval of him as her boyfriend.
Throughout this season, Clara’s character development has taken some twists and turns. Before this season she seemed to lack any kind of identifying personality, instead filling the role of idealized companion for whichever writer was penning the episode. We’re getting to know Clara a bit more this season, albeit just a little at a time. We find out that she’s stubborn, speaks before she thinks, and tries to talk her way out of any problem she faces. We also know that she’s very good with kids, especially when they’re scared. Clara has a lot of feelings, and has decided that she’s the Doctor’s conscience. She stands as a foil to the Twelfth Doctor’s cold and rational way of looking at the world, and for the most part, it works. What doesn’t work is when the writers use Clara’s talkativeness and her emotional nature to shoehorn her into typical female tropes. Strictly in this season, Clara has demonstrated that she’s a very capable assistant to the Doctor, able to stand up (through her tears) to mortal danger.
But in “The Caretaker,” Clara’s development is pushed aside in favor of integrating Danny into Team TARDIS. She spends most of the episode worrying over her feelings for Danny and getting the Doctor’s approval. She can’t give Danny a clear answer about her feelings for the Doctor, and when she confesses her love for Danny, her declaration is met with little more than a look of mild surprise on Danny’s face. Clara becomes the girl caught between two boys, or the daughter looking for her father’s approval. What happened to the stubborn woman who leads her own independent life, and doesn’t wait for the guy she fancies to make the first move? Furthermore, as Clara plays decoy to an alien war machine, Danny feels the need to follow her to ensure her safety. At the last moment, Danny steps in and distracts the alien so the Doctor is able to disable it. Clara’s response isn’t to tell him that she’s done this a dozen times before. It’s to gaze at Danny with loving admiration. While I would love for Danny to continue to be a major character in this season, I sincerely hope it doesn’t continue to come at the expense of Clara.
Thematically speaking, Moffat asks lots of questions about the Doctor, but he gives us few answers. “Into the Dalek” ponders the nature of the soul, and wonders if the Doctor has more darkness in his than light. Is the Doctor a good man? As Clara tells us, “I don’t know.” Moffat seems to love playing with this ambiguity, giving the Twelfth Doctor a special kind of darkness and gruffness to his character, which Peter Capaldi conveys wonderfully. The Doctor’s moral code isn’t all that clear to us. It seems mostly utilitarian, doing whatever is best for the greatest number, with an occasional exception. Is this a good moral code? Moffat leaves the audience to decide. Other questions get their own episodes. “Robot of Sherwood” questions what it means to be a hero, and whether or not it’s better to be a legendary hero or an accurate figure in a history textbook. It leaves us feeling like it may be better to live forever as a story than to exist as a minor footnote of history, providing some meta-commentary on Doctor Who‘s place in history. “Time Heist” asks us what we would do for the thing we want most in the world, and asserts that we wouldn’t trust a person who looks at us with our own face. I think this episode is trying to explore the Doctor’s self-hatred, but really it just makes a claim with little evidence. It’s not very convincing, but the Doctor and company robbing a bank is interesting.
As far as the season’s long-game plot goes, we seem to be heading towards the Doctor’s search for Gallifrey and subsequent questions about his identity. The end of “Listen” takes us to a barn on Gallifrey, where a child Doctor is comforted by Clara. How can the TARDIS land on Gallifrey if it’s supposed to be lost? Good question; we’ll undoubtedly revisit it as we get closer to the end of the season. At the end of a few episodes, we’ve met Missy, the Gatekeeper of the Nethersphere. She seems to be a bit like the Grim Reaper, welcoming the recently deceased to “Heaven.” We’re treated to many references to Heaven and the Promised Land, and it seems like Gallifrey would be the Doctor’s Promised Land. While I’m excited for a search for Gallifrey, I don’t trust Moffat to handle religious themes with any dexterity. Most of his references to religious figures and ideas are incredibly negative, casting the religious as villains. When we have gotten truly religious figures in the show, they turn out to either be evil (like the Sisters of Plentitude in “New Earth”) or lose their faith (like Rita in “The God Complex”). Giving a science-y explanation for religious ideas is no strange thing in Doctor Who, but most of the time the writers provide enough wiggle room to respect the beliefs of any audience members. I’m not sure that Moffat will give the same care to ideas of Heaven and the Afterlife.
I hope he can give us a rousing quest for Gallifrey while not insulting the faith of the religious in his audience. I’m a fan of the one-off style episodes, at least as long as Moffat is showrunner. I think the style plays to his strengths, if he doesn’t start running out of ideas. The trick with this style is to make sure recurring characters have a consistent personality. While Season 7 struggled with Clara’s character development, Season 8 seems to be slowly but surely fleshing her out… that is, as long as they continue on the current trajectory, and don’t lazily shoehorn her into stereotypes and harmful tropes. I’m not sure if Moffat can resist the lure of his deus ex machina, magical “reset the universe” button for the finale. What I do know is that I can’t stop watching Doctor Who.
But what do you think of the season so far? Let me know in the comments!