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Thursday, 1 February 2018
Did Thematic Dissonance Ruin Series Eight of Doctor Who?
A New Era Dawns
Christmas Day 2013 saw Matt Smith sneeze into Peter Capaldi and a new era of the show begin. Hot on its heels came series 8, a new series which promised… well, newness! New Doctor, new writers, new aesthetic and new goals.
It was a bold new era of the show. Capaldi provided a brilliant new direction as the rebel Time Lord and there’s no denying that he was born to play the role. Coleman returned as Clara Oswald, who had completed her tour de force as nothing but a meaningless MacGuffin and now had the opportunity to flourish as a character with a wonderful actress behind her. Moffat, meanwhile, had assembled a collection of some of the best writers of revived Doctor Who; Jamie Mathieson, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts (if you don’t think the Shakespeare Code, Unicorn and the Wasp and the Lodger are classics, you’re wrong) and of course himself. Directorially, brilliant creatives like Douglas Mackinnon and the living legend that is Rachel Talalay, to name just a few, were at their best. The series also brought some of the most stunningly creative episodes in recent years; Listen (taken out of its greater context for best enjoyment) is, divisively, brilliant and Mummy On The Orient Express is widely hailed as one of the best episodes of the entire Capaldi era.
So, the question is, why doesn’t it work? Why doesn’t the series shine in the way it’s meant to? Why is it that despite all this creative force, series 8 is regarded as the critical worst of the Capaldi era?
You ask me, I think it’s thematic dissonance.
An Idea That Recurs In Or Pervades A Work Of Art Or Literature
‘Doctor Who,’ since its 2005 revival, has often used themes to tie together its series, often by presenting the large character arcs that follow a series as an exploration of these themes. This creates a sense of thematic resonance, in that there is a clear correspondence between theme and story. Taking what I believe to be the best series of revived Who, series 1, for example, you can see that the story arcs clearly resonate with the series’ theme of evolving from your past; in Rose we have a 19 year old shop worker who must learn to become an intergalactic hero, in the Doctor we have a war veteran who must learn the war is over and in Jack we have a selfish con man who must learnt to become a self sacrificing hero. And, in the stories themselves, we see a clear resonance with this theme: in the Long Game, a journalist has to accept that the news organisation she believes in is wrong, in Father’s Day, a selfish man must accept fatherhood by sacrificing himself, in the Empty Child, a young woman must accept motherhood when she’s been running from it. And that’s just a few examples. In the strong majority of series one, stories revolve around this idea of evolving from your past.
Sidenote: Do you see the metatextual wealth in that? The show coming back from its sixteen year hiatus makes its main point the need to evolve from a past way of life. God I love Russell T. Davies.
Clearly understood what he was doing
In series 8, there is a clear attempt to enrich the series with a continuous theme. From episode one, we can clearly see the need for the Doctor’s redemption and there are attempts to mirror this. In the introduction of Danny, we see another soldier dealing with a traumatic past and in Missy we see an inverted version of the Doctor, a metaphor for how the Doctor is having to grapple with whether to be himself or not. But, unfortunately, these opportunities are deeply underplayed. There’s no real sense of correlation and the stories don’t complement each other; where the Doctor helping Rose and Jack to change allows him to change too, there’s no sense that the Doctor and Danny’s relationship has any real impact on the Doctor or Danny’s development other than in terms of mutual spite.
And the stories themselves lack any major thematic resonance. That isn’t to say there isn’t a clear attempt to do; quite the contrary. Almost every episode features at least one scene when the Doctor or another character stares into the middle distance and says, “Am I a good man?” but this doesn’t really achieve anything. Open discussion of the theme is a good way to set it up, but the actual pay off or exploration has to be achieved through events, through episodes that explore the themes in a variety of ways.
Occasionally this is managed through bold decisions- Twelve’s possible murder of the Half-Face Man or being called ‘a good Dalek’ are moments that promise the moral ambiguity and eventual redemption arc the series so clearly wants. Yet, this thematic resonance is never achieved because it’s only the Doctor’s actions that mirror the theme.
Robin Hood (traditionally a lord returning from war who has to choose to be a hero) offers no mirroring.
Time Heist (which offers a morally ambiguous set up in the terms of the Doctor having to help criminals or fighting a monster that’s actually innocent) makes the Doctor an archetypal hero.
Even the Caretaker, the perfect opportunity to explore the Doctor’s morality through the mirror of Danny, never uses the theme other than to add mere flavour to the story’s main plot.
Furthermore, the series arc (e.g. ‘The Promised Land’) is completely unrelated to the central theme, unlike in series 1 where the Bad Wolf is the literal embodiment of Rose’s transformation. In the Cybermen and Missy, there is a perfect opportunity to mirror the Doctor (the dead born into new, uncaring bodies they don’t fully understand and a Time Lord who is the moral opposite of the Doctor) but this opportunity is underplayed in favour of… the Doctor being the President. And, relationship angst.
Furthermore, the polarisation of character tone from episode to episode worsens the problem. In the first two episodes, we see the Doctor murder someone and be compared to a Dalek, as an unfeeling robotic veteran of an impossible war. In the third episode, we see him fight Robin Hood with a spoon because he doesn’t approve of his merriness. In the last three episodes, we see the Doctor go from someone who gets on best with children because adults are boring to someone who can storm the battlements of Hell to the President of the Earth, jumping out of an airplane and flying through the Tardis doors. There’s no consecutive tone.
It’s as if the series has an idea of what it wants to be but the impatience to actually become it, instead flitting from one idea to another in the desperate hope that a pattern will rise from the chaos. Interestingly, however, this isn’t without precedent.
Series 2 saw the Tenth Doctor go from being an immortal wanderer who murders a Sycorax in his first episode to… well, this in his fifth:
There is, however, a reason why series 2 can relatively get away with this and series 8 can’t. More precisely, there’s two reasons, and these are also crucial to the downfall of series 8.
Masking Via Metaphor
In series 1 (which when you think about it tells exactly the same story as series 8 wants to tell in terms of a war ravished Doctor learning to be more human, forgiving and all round a better person) no single character sits down and says, “The Doctor is a bad man. He must become good.”
This is subtext, with the main motif being the constant insistence that ‘everything dies.’ This is a clever metaphor for the Doctor’s arc in the series; his resolution in Parting of the Ways is refusing to kill, thus showing that not everything dies after all. Furthermore, this stepping from death to life proves a metaphor for the Doctor’s other journey; from the frenzy of a regeneration and constant death swirling around him to the new brith of a new regeneration where he is able to embrace life.
It also boosts the metatextual message, when thinking about the show returning from the dead.
Whether Russell T Davies had the intention of writing all this subtext is another matter, but accidental art is a lot easier to achieve when there is consistent, logical plotting placed in a key position, rather than the abstract of spewed forth ideas, as seen in series 8.
The Supporting Cast
As discussed earlier, series 2 saw wild inconsistency in terms of the character’s tone whilst the various writers working on the series tried to find what the Tenth Doctor should really stand for. In that case, it was no problem; they had an incredibly strong supporting cast in terms of Rose, Mickey and Jackie on whom to rely on for the series’ consistency and to cover up for any errors in terms of the Doctor. When Tennant became Smith, this rug was pulled away but it was alright as Moffat was able to engineer a whole arc for the Doctor based on his newness and relationship with new, custom written companions.
And then there’s series 8. In series 8, a weird compromise is created between the formats of carrying over a supporting cast from the previous Doctor and starting a new supporting cast with the new Doctor. So, in his first episode, Twelve gets a best hits of Eleven’s cast, with Clara and the Paternoster Trio. But, as the episode grows on past the initial stage of Twelve trying to work out how to function, all of these characters become ridiculously irrelevant to the plot. Without even talking about the problems they conjure in terms of tone, the Paternoster Trio is utterly unneeded from the restaurant scene onwards leaving just Clara as a companion. The intention is obvious, surely? The series intends to contrast Capaldi’s Doctor with Smith’s Doctor by showing how he treats a shared companion. Except, of course, series 7 Clara and series 8 Clara have less in common than Oswin and Victorian Clara. (And the fact that I can refer to four different versions of the same character is a whole other problem in itself.)
Where 7’s Clara was a live in nanny with vague hints of everything you loved from all the other companions mashed together, 8’s Clara is a control freak teacher with varying degrees of relationship success and some level of a psychopathic nature. The effect is that series 8 is trapped with the difficulty of introducing a new supporting cast whilst trying to maintain some level of continuity to the old supporting cast and the distraction this creates, to writer and viewer, ultimately leads to the messy introduction of the actual new cast.
And it’s probably worth noting that, like everything else in this series, Clara and the rest of the supporting cast have absolutely nothing to do with the series theme other than the ability to point it out. I mean, what even is Clara's arc in this series? To choose between the Doctor and Danny? To forgive the Doctor? To get over the grief of her boyfriend? (And by boyfriend, I mean the Eleventh Doctor.)
To wrap up, there is one final question that must be answered. Throughout this essay, I’ve tried to remain objective and impartial. I face a dilemma when it comes to series 8. The geek in me likes it (as does the thirteen year old who fancied Jenna Coleman) but the writer in me finds it a terrible disappointment. Whenever I try to balance these two points of view, an idea comes to mind that I can’t help but become fixated on: Does the series fail because of thematic dissonance?
For my money, the lack of correspondence between the episodes is the biggest problem. It causes tonal inconsistence, lack of strong characterisation and exposes the other weaknesses (such as some really awful ideas *THE MOON'S AN EGG* and the difficulty surrounding the supporting cast) in a time when the show was under great scrutiny.
I don’t, however, think there’s an objective answer to this, which I suppose is embodied by my own dilemma. The fan in me finds Capaldi’s grappling with morality entertaining. The writer in me thinks that it is poorly executed and a little annoying. But I think I can find a compromise that, subjectively, would solve series 8’s problem:
Drive the story with the theme, not the theme with the story.
In reality, series 8 drives theme with story. Each story has a moment where it sits down, and says, “This is how this episode links to our overarching theme,” then winks at the camera and runs away. It’s like the story of the series has been mostly written, except for the set up and the pay off, and then Moffat has gone through, retroactively working the theme into each story and writing a set up and pay off to match. It’s not so much an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature as an idea that has been copied and pasted into a work of art or literature.
What I believe would make more sense is for the theme to be a major factor in constructing the stories, rather than something to include in them. Starting a series with the intention to tell a redemption arc almost forces you, at the beginning of each episode, to wonder how this episode can propel such an idea forward so you end up with one cohesive narrative that’s all reading from the same hymn sheet.