The Rankings: Peter Capaldi Year 1, Doctor Who Reviews, 14/11/2014

And so I close my Doctor Who week. I'm still rolling through some philosophy research as well. My communications program is similarly getting busy, with circumstances beyond my control forcing the largest empirical primary research project I've yet attempted into a deadline of about three weeks from now. But it remains actually quite a lot of fun.

As well, I'm reading for pleasure the first book I've encountered by Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian novelist who isn't too famous in this hemisphere, but has a style that I'd characterize as kaleidoscopic micro-paranoia. I'm almost halfway finished her short novel The Passion According to G.H., and the title character has spent the last 40 (of 160 total) pages staring at the oozing corpse of a cockroach she's just killed as she cleans up the quarters of her former live-in maid who hated her. Breathlessly fearless.

You Were My Friend is also going well. The audiences still aren't the size that I'd like, even though my social media work has been furious and my postering campaign has covered a good chunk of downtown Hamilton. The audiences we do get are all moved nearly to tears. So the people love us, and with five shows left, there had better be more people.

But the main purpose of this post is a summation of my Doctor Who reviews. I didn't really address the quality of episodes in each of my reviews, although I think my assessment of their quality can become clear from reading my posts. I'll give them a provisional letter grade as well, so you can get a sense of how generally wonderful I thought this season was just from the list. Where episodes get the same letter grade, their rank on the list indicates how they stack up in finer distinctions of quality than the grade can express.

1. The Caretaker (A+)
2. Dark Water / Death in Heaven (A+)
3. Listen (A)
4. In the Forest of the Night (A)
5. Deep Breath (A)
6. Into the Dalek (A)
7. Kill the Moon (A-)
8. Flatline (B+)
9. Mummy on the Orient Express (B)
10. Robot of Sherwood (C)
11. Time Heist (C-)

My personal vote for the best episode of Doctor Who
this year, The Caretaker.
Time Heist and Robot of Sherwood were very muddled stories, and Mummy was a little too simple of a story, given what Doctor Who can do at its best now. Flatline, appropriately, had a very flat supporting cast and made poor use of the Danny-Clara conflict, but had some wonderful moments like an ingenious concept for the monsters and how to sideline the Doctor, as well as that wonderful moment of the TARDIS hand-crawl and Capaldi's grandpa dance.

Kill the Moon would have been unequivocally brilliant if the production crew hadn't so badly bungled the language that suggested an anti-choice ideology on abortion, particularly the cinematographer's decision to de-emphasize the Doctor's praise of the space wasp as a beautiful and unique creature, and focus on Courtney's simple declaration "But it's a baby!" Wonder is a far better ideology for Doctor Who than reproductive futurism.

After that, it's all varying levels of praise. Rusty the Dalek is a fascinating character, and Into the Dalek has some of the most amazing imagery of the entire history of the show (even Flatline can't beat it, because Flatline has only one amazing image concept, where Into the Dalek has something like 10).

Deep Breath is perfectly executed modern Doctor Who, succeeding without a single hitch. Forest has the best writing for children in the entire history of Doctor Who, along with a cracking narrative without a true villain (a wonderful idea for a show that used to be a xenophobic monster fighting serial), wonderful progress in the Danny-Clara plot, and a beautiful underlying concept about the power of ecologies to brutalize and provide a safe home. Listen is a gripping tale of paranoia, sprinkled with dark humour and ending with a brilliant meta-fictional twist.

Dark Water / Death in Heaven is the greatest season finale in the whole of Doctor Who, beating my previous favourite, The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang. It's the best Cyberman story, using them as creeping terrors, and Danny's story (and that face!) displays the fullest sense of horror in the Cyber-nization process. It's the best Master story ever, with Michelle Gomez essentially becoming a modern Joker to the Doctor, an agent of pure malicious joy in willful destruction who can barely contain her own shattered soul. It also has a tragic companion departure, all the more devastating for how subtle and quiet it is. Danny's story is weaved with fascinating philosophical threads, and climaxes with moving pathos. As well, it isn't afraid to make Danny, as much as we now miss him, inherently flawed, essentially committing suicide and irreparably wounding Clara because his guilt over his wartime mistakes ultimately matters more to him than his love for her and any ethical redemption that could offer.

So with all that in mind, why do I rank The Caretaker over the finale, and declare it my favourite story of the season? The Caretaker keeps its heart. The finale is ultimately a tragedy of needless death. It needs Santa popping in at the end to keep the show from ending in a deep, nihilistic hopelessness. Danny, whose love for Clara is so powerful that it overcomes the Cyber hive mind, remains so overcome by guilt that he still embraces death. Danny forces Clara to experience his death for a third time because he lets his guilt overcome him. Clara's end in Doctor Who is, therefore, in death, guilt, self-hatred.

The Caretaker is just as deft as the finale in handling its themes and narrative. The conflict between the Doctor and Danny plays out with humour, and the class dynamic of the episode is something that Doctor Who hasn't really dealt with before. Here, it displays its politics on its sleeve, critiquing the Doctor for his attitudes, even though we understand that the critique is not quite right. The Doctor is rightly upbraided for his relative self-absorption and sarcasm, but Danny is also off the mark, seeing an oblivious officer and a nihilist in the Doctor that isn't true to the core of the character. The episode, brutal though it can be, plays out with a tone of farce. Doctor Who has met the sitcom genre, and Gareth Roberts writes it perfectly. And all this still comes to a happy, hopeful ending. Danny and Clara are still in love, and even though her double life and its shenanigans will continue, the men in her life have reached a kind of mutual respect.

And, if not the Doctor's actual next companion, then I think with Courtney we see the template for the kind of personality Capaldi's Doctor will attract. It also serves, implicitly, as a rebuke to Danny's critique of the Doctor's imperious nature. Aside from Clara, the person the Doctor gets along with best in this story is a juvenile delinquent from a troubled home. Courtney is smart, practical, intelligent, difficult, and a willful shit-disturber (as we used to say in the old country). She faces race, class, and institutional disadvantages with sarcasm and sabotage. Capaldi's Doctor is an imp, and his next companion should be the same.


  1. I'm surprised and somewhat pleased to see so much overlap in our ratings. I liked "Flatline" a lot more than you did, but that's the biggest deviation. I agree wholeheartedly with your choice of "The Caretaker" as best of the season, for all the reasons you cited. I actually think it handled all the season's themes with the gravity they deserved and a mature approach to the drama alongside the comedy that was never bettered. It's not my favorite Gareth Roberts episode of the show, but it might be his best. I'd say it's a photo finish with the finale, just as you have it.

    It's interesting to read your reasoning on the rest of them; we're a little less in sync on some of those. In particular I can't offhand think of a single image from "Into the Dalek" that I found more memorable and interesting than the ones in "Flatline," but that might be just my usual Dalek-fatigue rearing its jaded eyestalk. I'm also one of those tedious souls who can't get past the D-minus science in "Kill the Moon," which means that even your excellent suggestion of how to fix the pro-life implications wouldn't have saved it for me.

    I'm applauding most of all for your choice of Courtney or someone like her as the next companion. I couldn't agree more. I was never a huge Ace fan back in the day (though after Mel and Peri anyone would have been a relief), but how thrilling would it be to pair up her 2014 equivalent with Capaldi? At the very least let's (again?) have someone in the new series with a point of view.

    1. Thank you! I always appreciate such opinions that I know are so enlightened, being as they are so close to my own. I kid, of course, but thank you. I suppose all I could do is add a little to your comments, if only to clarify and add to the explanation for my rankings.

      What I can think of off-hand in Into the Dalek: the Doctor's hand liquifying as he steps into the eyestalk, the antibodies, looming up at the Dalek's power plant, the beautiful way the Dalek gun battle was shot, the design of the Aristotle, the high-res Doctor face appearing in Rusty's mind-scape, inside the Dalek's brain, the HAL 9000 homage when Clara examines Rusty's memory banks, staring down an an enormous organic Dalek blob. And I just don't share your Dalek fatigue. It's a challenge to do Daleks well, but when they succeed, they're brilliant.

      You're totally right about the science of Kill the Moon being utterly pants. But when it comes to sci-fi, I've learned to accept the batshit insanity and let the story take me where it wants to go. When the science makes no sense, I realize that it doesn't matter and shut that element out of my account of the story; it's just not part of the narrative's terms, so I lay it to the side. I can understand why it can be a dealbreaker, though.

      In a larger sense, I'm just glad that the Doctor Who crew has managed to get me so excited to see what's going to happen next. Not just Nick Frost as Santa Claus (it really is the part he was born for), but what they'll do next season as entirely new stories and companions begin.