The Rankings: Peter Capaldi Year 3, Doctor Who Reviews, 09/07/2017

Sad to see the Peter Capaldi Doctor on his way out, but as far as I’m concerned, the future looks bright. Soon, we’ll see the rumours truly swelling and the name of the next Doctor announced this Fall – I and many others have high hopes for her.

What's interesting is that, as I take stock of the last Capaldi season, I find myself in a bit of a contrarian attitude about it. Maybe it was just the hangover from fandom’s major public love with Clara Oswald, but my sense of the consensus was that the 2017 season was a little underwhelming.

You've all done amazing work, everyone. Applause all around.
But I thought it was fantastic. In my immediate experience of watching and in my critical evaluations in retrospect, it’s on par with Capaldi’s near-universally loved first year in quality.

Here’s how the rankings themselves worked out. Stories with the same letter grade are arranged according to small gradations of quality, complexity, and dynamic aesthetic harmony.

Quality: How well a story is executed technically, its craftsmanship from idea to script to set to editing suite to screen.

Complexity: How many creative ideas across setting, character, narrative, and theme fit together.

Harmony: How well all those complexities interact to produce a philosophically thick final product – a text which always rewards you with new dimensions every time.

The Doctor Falls A+
World Enough and Time A+
Thin Ice A+
Extremis A
Oxygen A
Eaters of Light A-
The Pilot / The Girl With a Star in Her Eye A-
Empress of Mars A-
The Pyramid at the End of the World B
Smile B
Knock Knock B-
The Return of Doctor Mysterio B-
The Lie of the Land F

Whithouse didn't even include the most superficial parallels of the
Monks Trilogy in "The Lie of the Land," like a third version of
Bill's date with Ronke Adekoluejo's Penny. It would have been
nicely bleak, as fits the story. But he couldn't even manage that!
As I said in my review of the episode itself, “The Lie of the Land” was a profound screw-up of the highest order. It’s rare when I see a writer so profoundly fail to understand any of the interesting or innovative aspects of a story he’s commissioned for.

The Monks Trilogy was, in my view, the single most ambitious Doctor Who story Steven Moffat ever conceived and actually got on screen. But the messy realities of production meant that the worst writer in his whole stable got stuck having to stick the landing. Whithouse is the only writer in the current stable who’s gotten worse as time went on.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Doctor Who story crash and burn as badly. I think it comes down to the need to have split the entire Monks Trilogy over three different writers. If the whole story could have relied on the one writer who conceived of it being in charge from beginning to end, we would have gotten at least a consistent script from the whole affair.

I count “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” as part of Capaldi’s last season for a few reasons. It’s established Nardole as a companion, foreshadows Bill’s arrival, and most importantly marked the return of Doctor Who since its gap year of 2016.

The show’s absence for an entire year was a strange period – it evoked echoes of the 1986 hiatus, even though the earlier gap was the function of a production and aesthetic catastrophe.

Doctor Who took on the superhero sci-fi genre for the first time with
"The Return of Doctor Mysterio," but couldn't figure out how to
overcome that genre's most ingrained problem, its deep sexism
and refusal to question the ego of the fragile male characters that
make up so many of its traditional protagonists.
Doctor Who was assured a comeback, of course – it was still one of Britain’s most popular television shows domestically, and its leading global export. The contrast was the most jarring aspect of the 2016 gap year.

Two years before, the BBC sent Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman did a round-the-world tour in a week to promote the premiere of “Deep Breath.” Now the show was going on break for a year?

So it was wonderful seeing a story as fresh and fun as “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” kick off the return of Doctor Who. And it was a straightforward story of Doctor Who riffing on a classic sci-fi genre it had never tackled before, with a few questionable sexual and romantic threads woven in without question. A fun story that left an icky feeling in me for a few days afterward.

Speaking of icky feelings, “Knock Knock.” Doctor Who goes full Freudian horrorshow with a script that dropped the ball on comprehensive characterization. Despite this, it had some fine camerawork that evoked the classic late 20th century aesthetic of Hammer horror, haunted house films, and a pre-watershed riff on the slasher genre.

Smile” worked out the same way, but Frank Cottrell Boyce crafted a better story overall. The inventiveness of the setting and the nature of the Vardy robots were its best features.

Good work overall in a very creative story. Frank Cottrell Boyce is
becoming Doctor Who's go-to for the trippiest settings and kinds of
existence in the writers' stable.
The visual storytelling was wonderful as well, the contrast of the Vardy surface city and the human spaceship underground overflowing with thematic and conceptual meaning. Boyce seems to be one of the best in the current Doctor Who stable at developing radically different kinds of life.

It was also a great decision to make most of the story a two-hander that gives Pearl Mackie a chance to stretch Bill’s character – a fairly generic approach to the companion lets the actor find her own nuances in the performance. But the very ordinariness of the basic story and plot weighed “Smile” down a little bit.

Speaking of ordinary stories, “The Pyramid at the End of the World” suffered from that a fair bit. Peter Harness’ commission consisted of repeating all the general military action story styles of “The Zygon Inva/ersion” but in a thematic context so different that they’re all kind of empty. He even brought us back to Turmezistan.

That was the main problem of “The Pyramid at the End of the World.” The psychological terror at the heart of the Monks as a concept didn’t fit the story style and setting of the international military thriller. Other than that, Harness understood their core concepts very well.

With “The Empress of Mars,” we really get into the brilliance of this season. Mark Gatiss told a simple fable of the immoral, criminal, petty, chauvinist, cruel, hateful nature of the too-often romanticized British Empire. Not a word or even an image was wasted (even if Friday kind of disappeared from the story in the last act and he just gave up on integrating Nardole into the story).

I'm kind of glad Mark Gatiss will probably never get to play the Doctor
officially, but he's already made a significant historic contribution to
the franchise in so many different ways. His work has only improved
as his time with Doctor Who has gone on.
He did it while expanding the culture of the Ice Warriors in creative and fruitful directions, so future writers have plenty of new places to take these creatures so deeply embedded in Doctor Who. This and “Sleep No More” were his most creative and ambitious stories.

Whether or not he writes for Doctor Who in the future, his best work is probably in front of him, and that’s fantastic.

The Pilot” was of similar quality – Steven Moffat can write tightly-structured, thematically-deep, characterization-rich companion introduction stories in his sleep by now.

Eaters of Light” is the best of the stories of A- rank because it was the story that best-balanced the TARDIS team of the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole in an everyday setting. It was also another stellar contribution to the general theme of this season, Doctor Who’s rejection of Brexit morality.

Like “Empress of Mars,” “Eaters of Light” was fundamentally about the rejection of militarism, imperialism, and nationalism to embrace a plural society whose powers are stronger for their diversity and mutual respect.

Its only real flaw was that the story structure of splitting the main cast up to explore the world efficiently through parallel adventures doesn’t have room to breathe in a single 45 minute episode. It was well-suited to the classic series, where stories were 100-150 minutes long. But now, it’s too rushed.

"Oxygen" was one of the few stories this year to make good use of
the three-person TARDIS team, involving Nardole significantly in
the action as well as Bill. I think a lot of Doctor Who writers don't
have the skill to weave a TARDIS crew of more than two people
into a story effectively, simply because most of the show has
featured only a two-person TARDIS crew. Future writers of a
three-person main case should study this episode, "Eaters of Light,"
this season's finale, and the Pond family era.
Oxygen” is a grade above because its story was perfectly in tune with the possibilities of the 45 minute episode. It was a simple setting – a base under siege – which the Doctor and Bill explored in a clear linear order, where each event revealed more about the central mystery of the story.

It carried another aspect of the anti-Brexit political message of this year’s Doctor Who with an intensely punk fire – a world that opens everything to be bought and sold as a commodity robs all dignity from people’s lives. Their own existences are only as good as their short-term profit margins – we aren’t lives, but assets to be managed or replaced.

Extremis” was the only part of the Monks Trilogy that carried off its core themes and ideas without a hitch, because the person who conceived it is also the one who wrote it. Steven Moffat’s most ambitious story perfectly designed and executed.

Thin Ice” was the clearest and best-executed story that carried Doctor Who’s opposition to Brexit ideology. It firmly punctured the Brexit myth that British isolation was a time of cultural, moral, and political greatness.

Bill visits a world where a petty, self-absorbed racist aristocrat has become an energy industry oligarch by enslaving an alien creature. Here’s a story where poor orphan children, a black lesbian, and an anarchist professor overthrow a repressive business leader and steal his fortune.

Most of the time in "The Doctor Falls," John Simm's Master is part of
the storyline focussing on that character. But it made for a fantastic
moment when he stepped into Bill's storyline to show, univocally,
what a wretched monster the Master is. His taunting her was a
collision that showed the high stakes and radical shift the current
Master was undergoing.
The finale was the pinnacle of this season’s success, however. “World Enough and Time” was a perfectly-made story that assembled a complex script built on a brilliant scientific conceit. Its time dilation narrative hook returned to the 54-year-old mandate of Doctor Who for popular children’s science education.

Meanwhile, that hook was also the lynchpin in a terrifying story of cybernetic body horror – the haunted hospital of living monstrosities, perversions of humanity, and manipulative villains in disguise.

But “The Doctor Falls” was where everything came together with such wonderful perfection.

Its three core stories – Nardole integrating with the Mondasian community, Bill adjusting to her existence as a mutilated Cyberman, and the Master’s ethical redemption – played in parallel with perfect balance. All the performances were at their A-game, perfectly fitting what was necessary for each of their central moments.

Pearl Mackie played her bombast at the epic scale it required – and Rachel Talalay shot it perfectly, cutting between Pearl and Cyber-Bill at just the right moments to maximize her story’s power. But Michelle Gomez gave the best performance of all, because of the subtlety and complexity of her own performance.

In the whole history of the Master's character, from 1971 to today,
46 years later, Michelle Gomez was the most epochal.
Pay close attention to her face and speech in the final confrontation between the Doctor and the two Masters. It tells you all you need to know about how radically the Master has transformed, all in the smallest details of facial expression and voice.

Ultimately, it was a tale of redemption, which is a narrative central to Doctor Who – there can always be a better way forward, even when there isn’t. There’s no better way to have ended the Capaldi years.

So this Xmas is going to have a lot to live up to.
• • •
How does all this stand up to previous Capaldi seasons? His second year was probably the most problematic. Several stories were excellent, particularly “The Zygon Inva/ersion” and “Face the Raven.”

“Heaven Sent” was a revolution for the show, a moment where Steven Moffat brought such talent and concentration to a story that it put an episode of Doctor Who on the same level as the best works of Philip K Dick or Ursula LeGuin.

But Capaldi’s second year suffered from Toby Whithouse’s worst (and now second-worst) script. Plus, there was a lack of thematic unity that led to a kind of scattershot unfolding.

At this point, the arc from "The Doctor Falls" to the Xmas Special is a
serious contender for the best regeneration story in the history of
Doctor Who. If you're going to go out, leave them wanting more.
Even after eight years.
Ashildir’s story was closest to supplying the unity that contemporary Doctor Who seasons need, but it often danced around the potential of her character, staying ultimately at a very superficial level.

The deepest she could explore her isolation was in the joke of naming herself Me, a few scenes of crying in “The Woman Who Lived,” and some bemused indifference in “Hell Bent.” It wasn’t due to Maisie Williams’ performance – she did very well with writing that had trouble grappling with the real existential depth of immortality’s horror.

“Heaven Sent” is where you go for that horror. But the season overall was a grab-bag of mostly disconnected stories with a few ideas – Clara’s recklessness, the experience of immortality – that recurred now and then. Would have been a brilliant construction in the classic era, or even the Davies years. But Moffat has raised the standards on season arcs too high for us to stay with this.

Capaldi’s first year was the tightest story – something of every episode contributed to developing the Clara-Danny love story and the Doctor’s role in it. Its conclusion in “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” was beautiful in its power.

But the season itself was so tightly bound to that story, even stories that had little to do with it like “Flatline” found themselves shoehorned in. So there are benefits and problems to that approach.

When it's all over, but not quite yet.
Where does the Capaldi era break down? What was the best season? Well, I can give two answers. One is just with math. Let’s count the number of A-level stories in each season and see what they are as a percentage of the whole.

I’m calculating Capaldi Year One simply as the main Fall run from “Deep Breath” to “Death in Heaven,” counting “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” as a single story. Both the Xmas specials “Last Christmas” and “The Husbands of River Song” are part of Capaldi Year Two because they serve as prologue and epilogue to that season’s main run.

Year Three is as I listed above, with a caveat that its score would change depending on the upcoming regeneration story. So the scores.

Year One: 7/11 64%
Year Two: 5/10 50%
Year Three: 8/13 62%

What’s my second answer? It’s about progress. How does each season innovate in what Doctor Who can do? Frankly, I think Capaldi Year Three did the most.

The show developed a strong, principled aesthetic and ethical response to the explosion of Brexit nationalism. In the Monks Trilogy, Moffat crafted his most ambitious piece of writing in a career in which he’s refused to stop pushing himself creatively (even if it did fall flat at the ending).

This season also completely rejuvenated and transformed the character of the Master, so that now the character will be defined by its pre-Gomez and post-Gomez nature. A snarling, cackling villain has now become a nuanced parallel to the Doctor’s own complexity.

That’s what we want Doctor Who (and all our storytelling) to do, right? Spin me a narrative that I haven’t quite heard before.

1 comment:

  1. Finally remembered to read this - great review! I feel like you may have mixed up Doctor Who fandom's consensus on the Capaldi era seasons and the reception of Clara with the eruditorum press fandom's response to those things - as far as I can tell, the reception of Clara and series 8 in fandom was not one of universal love, but decidedly mixed. I mean, I agree with you about series eight being Capaldi's strongest quality wise, and Clara is one of my favourite companions, but my impression of the fandom response is quite different to yours.

    Still, I think your rankings are pretty much spot on, and think your summary of the season's themes and ideas are spot on. Have enjoyed your reviews/philosophical meditations on series ten as always.