How Doctor Who Got Good Again (in Two Easy Steps)

How did Doctor Who go from grasping at straws to having one of the best seasons in years? Amazingly, in just two simple steps.

There are a lot of people who like Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. There are a lot of people that will (rightly) point to episodes like “The Girl Who Waited” and excellent new characters like the Silence to help really drive the point home that following the monumental popularity and goodwill that David Tennant’s tenure as the Tenth Doctor generated, Matt Smith’s run in the big blue police box was just as good as his predecessor.

Except those people would be wrong.

While there will be some great episodes associated with the 11th Doctor — especially when you factor in the Series Six arc of companions Amy & Rory dealing with their pregnancy amidst all of their incredible time adventures — it was by the time the show reached Series Seven that it was obvious that showrunner and Sherlock scribe Steven Moffat was running low on ideas, episodes like “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “The Angels Take Manhattan” really pushing the credulity of a show that already dealt with monsters, time paradoxes, and all sorts of otherworldly wackiness. Things seemed to be taking a turn once Jenna Coleman was brought on as Clara, the quirky, fast-talking girl that almost-flirted with the Doctor and seemed to match him on a basis of pure witticisms. When we first met her in 2012’s “The Snowmen”, we find out she leads the strange double-life of being a barmaid as well as a governess, and, most interestingly, was the same girl that was featured in the pivotal episode “Asylum of the Daleks”. Mysteries abound for this sassy new companion.

However, as she spent more time with Matt Smith, that initial pep of energy that she gave us withered away, as her matching Smith on a quirk-for-quirk basis proved to more grating than it was endearing. Although fans were thrown a bone with the wonderful 50th anniversary special, during which Clara had a mercifully brief role, by the time we reached the Neil Gaiman-penned “Nightmare in Silver”, Clara was commanding an army of reluctant soldiers and still offering wry faces and goofy grins even as the soldiers she was leading were dying all around her. It was ill-fitting for the character, and basically painted her as someone made of all quirks and zero emotion. Even with Matt Smith’s halfway-decent send off, there was still a sense of lacking to his final run in he TARDIS, and while some of it could be attributed to tired scripts, having a companion that was simply not interesting on any notable dramatic level is what ultimately marred the last of Smith’s tenure.

Thus, when Peter Capaldi was announced as the 12th Doctor, it was noted how his character would be unlikable at first, but the audience would grow to love him. True Whovians knew this was a bad omen, as the last time they tried that, it was when Colin Baker was the Sixth Doctor, and the producers at the time wanted to make him an absolute jerk that slowly worms his way into the audience’s heart with his gradual reveal of honest emotions. Instead, Colin Baker’s incarnation just came off as a jerk … and little else. He was saved by a few decent scripts (see: The Trail of a Time Lord), but his character went down as one of the more contentious Time Lords in the canon, and not in the lovable and curmudgeonly way that Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker had done so well.

Thus, “Deep Breath”, Capaldi’s first episode, was a bit of a strange one to start of Series Eight with: he’s making passes at a female dinosaur, being somewhat dazed throughout the episode as he’s finding the limits of his new body (and the audience is getting used to his accent) — it made for a strange stew. However, despite his non-violent victory over the strange Victorian androids, what was most interesting about the episode is how the Doctor really pushed Clara into the action without a safety net, at one point locking her in a room where she was clearly in mortal danger. It was an odd move, but in truth, this leads to one of the two reasons why Series Eight has been one of the most out-and-out spectacular since the surprisingly satisfying Donna Noble-starring Series Four (with Tennant and Catherine Tate) …

1. Clara was challenged, got angry, and was forced to show emotion and make difficult decisions. Part of the reason why that aforementioned “Nightmare in Silver” episode from Series Seven was as weak as it was because Clara just kept on being quirky even as death surrounded her and the troops she was leading, as if she had no regard for human life, making her more sociopathic than actually endearing. With Series Eight, she is given a love interest in the form of Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), a cute, smart teacher at her school who doesn’t take much in the way of nonsense, never really understanding the appeal of “the Doctor” and frequently ends up clashing with him. This, in some cases, forced Clara to choose sides at times (particularly in the episode “The Caretaker”, wherein the Doctor pretends to be a janitor at her school), and seeing actual internal conflict emerge in her character made her intensely more compelling to watch.

In fact, for most of the season, the Doctor really pushed Clara into some very emotionally taxing situations, having to make the mother of all calls in the tense “Kill the Moon” and then having to pick a ride in the TARDIS or her love for Danny in the surprising “In the Forest of the Night”. She absolutely despises him for forcing her into situations where she must prove her own loyalty to either him or to a cause greater than herself, but these rising conflicts turned her around from being a quirky robot into an actual living, breathing human. There was no flirtation. In fact, there were a lot of arguments. The Doctor even has to ask her once if he, in fact, is a good man, as he himself is having a surprising crisis of confidence. Which, of course, leads us to …

2. Peter Capaldi. The casting of a Doctor is one of the hardest things the show’s producers have to consider, as so much of their personality will ultimately define the show going forward, but despite the fact that we called this the second he was announced as the next TARDIS driver, it has been immensely satisfying to see such a drastic, different, and interesting take on such an iconic character.

For one, by choosing a much older actor, we’re not dealing with all the baggage that comes with having a young geeky pinup boy anchor your show. The age difference between the Doctor and Clara alone rules any romantic gestures out, forcing the relationship to take on a new shape. This Doctor is, again, a curmudgeon, sick of cuteness, afraid of hugs, and snarky and stern exactly when he needs to be. Although he does recall a bit of Colin Baker’s Sixth, there’s also shades of the stoic wisdom of Jon Pertwee’s inimitable Third Doctor as well, and although Capaldi can absolutely nail a punchline when you need to, his commitment both the bizarre (his face showing up in a purse during the excellent “Flatline”) and the emotional (pretty much every episode) is what kept people coming back. His big revelation to the answer of his “Am I a good man?” question at the end of Series Finale “Death in Heaven” (“I’m an idiot!”), really summed up the character in a rather succinct way, providing us with an answer most people wouldn’t have expected while also defining the character in its own quirky right. Capaldi finds emotion through personality instead of through sweeping gestures as the Doctors of recent have done.

Then again, neither of these things would have been possible were it not for the good writing that the show was producing, and on an episode-for-episode basis, this was one of the most inventive seasons in recent memory, what with monsters who had the surprisingly-terrifying power of converting 3D things into 2D surfaces (“Flatline”) or even having one of the best standalone episodes since “Blink” (the smart, chilling “Listen”). Although the the first three episodes of Series Eight are a little shaky, the hits have far, far outnumbered the misses this time out, and, with any luck, Capaldi’s reign as everyone’s favorite two-hearted alien will only continue its upward trajectory from here, as well it should. This guy’s a keeper.