Reflecting on the themes of Doctor Who series 8

Clara, morality, guns, addiction, and unacknowledged nods to previous episodes... Nathan looks over the themes of Doctor Who series 8...

Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who up to and including series 8.

I don’t know about you, but I love big ideas. After all, whatever we consume – whether it’s a movie or a TV show or a video game – has a message that it wants to communicate to you, the consumer. These messages – these big ideas, themes and theories – they’re not a bad thing. I’d suggest they make entertainment so… entertaining. The hallmark of a good TV show is that it makes you think. It inspires you to keep track of overarching traits in the hope that you might spot a pattern or a hint of what’s to come.

Doctor Who is one of those shows. We’ve only just said ‘goodbye’ to Series 8 (and what a great series it’s been), but all along I’ve been piecing together a handful of themes and traits that have, for me at least, characterised a rather impressive season. A few of these have occasionally been obvious to spot. Others have been less explicit. But now it’s all over, and a few of these thoughts have begun to crystallise…

Unacknowledged nods to previous seasons

Doctor Who is 51 years old. Much like other shows with a good number of years behind them, Who would struggle not to imitate itself eventually. In fact, not only is ‘copying’ inevitable for our favourite franchise, in many ways it’s positively expected. This was especially true during the RTD era, when the show went to all sorts of lengths to re-introduce classic characters, companions, villains and props.

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Unlike earlier seasons, however, Series 8 has shown an unusual lack of self-awareness when it comes to aping precedents from the show’s history. Usually, when a Who episode parallels itself with an earlier story, this is either clearly signposted (e.g. every classic villain reappearance ever) or the writer simply winks at the audience until he sustains some kind of injury. Don’t get me wrong: we’ve seen this in Series 8. Just nowhere near as much as in previous years. Instead, there were quite a few episodes that felt strangely familiar without any real explanation.

Consider the following features of Phil Ford’s story, Into The Dalek:

– The Doctor struggles with his own inner darkness.

– A lone Dalek has been captured by humans and is chained up in a locked room.

– The Doctor falls into this situation by accident but finds himself the victim of human aggression.

– The Doctor’s companion challenges his prejudices towards the Daleks.

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– The captured Dalek, though at first subdued, breaks free to wreak havoc.

– The captured Dalek eventually tells the Doctor that he would make a ‘good Dalek’.

– The captured Dalek eventually chooses ‘Dalek destruction’.

– The Doctor’s companion finds a human love interest.

Ford’s story was great. In fact, I enjoyed it more than many others. However. Don’t those elements sound a bit… familiar? They should. They’re all found in Robert Shearman’s 2005 Dalek. Does this make Ford’s episode ‘bad’? No. Is it now un-enjoyable? Not at all! It may be fair to describe it as a tad derivative but it’s still a fun episode. What’s so peculiar, however, is that Ford’s debt to Shearman is never ‘owned’ on-screen. The Doctor never quips (as in Deep Breath) about how it all feels strangely familiar. There’s no hive-memory moment from Rusty the Dalek in which he remarks that one of his kind was similarly treated by human beings. It’s just there, in the background. Which for Who is a bit weird.

That’s not the only instance of this un-claimed debt appearing. For example, Steven Thompson – writer of Time Heist – seems to have a little ‘thing’ for Series 7’s Neil Cross. In Thompson’s story, a monster feeds on the memories and thoughts of weaker beings, culminating in the Doctor being similarly treated so as to save the day. Just like in Cross’ The Rings Of Akhaten. And in Thompson’s story, the big twist is that the monster is in fact just trying to reach his lover who is lost beyond his reach, which the Doctor realises, resulting in the two lovers being reunited in a safe place. Just like in Cross’ Hide.

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Then there’s Jamie Mathieson’s wonderful episode, Flatline, which has been widely recognised as a much improved version of Matthew Graham’s Fear Her (2006). Then there’s The Caretaker which is sort of like an inverted School Reunion. Or Dark Water / Death In Heaven, which involves a deadly cloud stretching the entire globe, only to be ignited by fire – just like in The Sontaran Strategem / The Poison Sky.

I’m not saying that this was true of every episode in Series 8, nor am I saying that the episodes of which it is true are bad. Again: I loved this most recent series… It’s a bit weird, though, isn’t it?

Clara’s character: two big themes

Some haven’t enjoyed Clara this season. Personally, I’ve greatly enjoyed her character as well as Coleman’s performance. It’s a huge improvement on Series 7, in which Clara could have been described as a contrived and unconvincing Mary Sue. What I’ve especially liked is that Clara has been furnished with a number of character traits that developed as the season continued, and whilst they weren’t all brought to a conclusion, there’s still time. (Let’s face it: she’ll be back in December.) I’ll list a couple of these here.

First, Clara as ‘Addict’. Many have identified this already but it’s worth repeating. We saw this theme emerge in Mathieson’s Mummy On The Orient Express. In the preceding episode Clara had made it explosively clear to the Doctor that she wanted nothing more to do with him. In Mummy, several weeks had passed, and they both decide to go for their “one last hurrah”. Drama ensues and at the end of the episode Clara asks the Doctor if travelling in the TARDIS is like an “addiction”. She phones her boyfriend Danny – she lies, telling him that she’s finally done with the Doctor, and then, having put the phone down, she proceeds to tell the Doctor that Danny is “fine” with everything. Another lie. All this is framed by the Doctor’s conversation with Frank Skinner’s Perkins, who turns down an offer to travel in the TARDIS, stating that such an occupation would “change a person”. Perkins was right. In the episodes that follow we see Clara’s personality begin to change as her addiction takes hold. In Flatline (also written by Mathieson) Clara has to become the rebel Time Lord – deceiving others, making terrible choices. Just before the credits roll, Clara demands a response from the Doctor:

“Why can’t you say it? I was the Doctor, and I was good!”

“You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara” – he replies – “‘goodness’ had nothing to do with it”.

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Clara’s addiction forces her character to change. She repeatedly lied to those she loved. She becomes desensitised to horrendous decisions. She was even willing to kill the Master, until the Doctor intervened. The problem is that the trajectory of addiction is not often pretty. To put it crudely: addicts die. In the light of this, it’ll certainly be interesting to see where Clara’s character goes next.

Second, Clara as ‘Matriarch’. If in Series 7 she was presented as some kind of ‘girlfriend candidate’ for the Doctor, as well as the subject of his flirtatious eccentricity, in Series 8 Clara’s role shifted entirely in a maternal direction. We see this most explicitly in Listen. On meeting young Rupert, Clara acts as a figure of motherly comfort – tenderly arranging his toys around the bed. Then she meets Orson, and Clara is literally implied to be his Great Grandmother.

Later in the episode she encounters a young Doctor. She comforts him through his tears, she strokes his hair, she tells him stories, and she gives him a symbolic toy soldier that would shape the Doctor for the rest of his life. Upon returning to the TARDIS she demands that they leave and not investigate further. When the Doctor protests this, Clara simply says: “Do as you’re told”. This line was then repeated in subsequent episodes, e.g. Death In Heaven.

Of course, this doesn’t exhaust Clara as a character; there are undoubtedly other traits we could identify. Nevertheless, it’s satisfying to see Clara being given these extra dimensions. More than this, it’s great to see such complicated stuff being handled on Who. After all, we’re dealing with a mother figure wrapped in addiction. If Moffat handles this properly, Who would have something genuinely interesting to say about society as well as human nature.

The Doctor’s character: guns and confusion

We first discovered the Twelfth Doctor’s disdain for all things ‘military’ in Phil Ford’s Into The Dalek. The introduction of this particular antipathy was a tad gauche for my tastes but, in all fairness, it developed into something that genuinely paid off by the end. My initial unease was due to the fact that it felt a little out of character. Although the Doctor has never liked violence (or a soldier’s salute for that matter) he has never consistently expressed actual hostility towards all things military. After all, he worked with UNIT. He sincerely loved the Brigadier. He was himself a soldier in the Time War – more than that; the Fiftieth Anniversary was all about the restitution of that particular occupation. So it was indeed a trifle odd that he saw red when shown a uniform.

Parallel to this, in Series 8 we heard the Doctor expressing genuine uncertainty as to who he really is, starting in the very same episode (i.e. Into The Dalek). It might be tempting to address these as two separate themes strewn throughout the same 12 episodes. However, the conclusion of Death In Heaven demonstrates that this would be a mistake. As this season reached its climax, as the Master seemingly had the world in her grip, the Doctor has a triumphant epiphany.

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“I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man – I am not a hero, definitely not a president. And no! I’m not an officer! You know what I am? I. Am. An idiot! With a box and a screwdriver; passing through; helping out; learning. I don’t need an army; I never have! Because I’ve got them – always them”

Moffat has played an interesting game with the Twelfth Doctor. By the end of The Eleventh Hour we knew that Matt Smith’s Doctor was indeed the Doctor. This has nothing to do with Smith’s superior acting chops. (You’d be insane to suggest that Capaldi is lacking in that department.) Rather, it’s because Moffat framed the introduction of the Eleventh Doctor in such a way that the character was established by the conclusion of the very first episode. Echoes of Tennant are heard in Smith’s performance during the first 20 minutes or so, but after this, everything that constitutes the Eleventh Doctor becomes apparent, concluding in his victorious confrontation with the Atraxi. Now recall Deep Breath. The whole point of this episode is that we don’t really know who the Doctor is anymore. More than this, the Doctor doesn’t know who he really is! It’s not actually any clearer as we approach the end credits; Clara’s not even sure that he’s coming back to pick her up. As if to highlight this ambiguity, we get a call from the Eleventh Doctor, underscoring – both for Clara as well as for us – that this old man really is who he says he is. From here the Doctor is on a journey to figure out who he actually is. Is he a bad man who makes good decisions? Or is he a good man struggling with bad temptations? Is he a man who rejects soldiers and warfare, or is he, in fact, an officer lording it over the troops?

The Doctor’s epiphany is foreshadowed in Flatline – “I am the Doctor!” – but now we see it come to fruition. Finally the Doctor realises who he is. He’s not (just) a grumpy old man, neither is he a cosmic hobo or a clown or a jaded soldier. He’s a travelling idiot (a mad man you might say) with a box and a screwdriver, and the Time Lord who is forever encapsulated by two beautiful words: “Always them”.

A most unusual social lens

In my previous Den of Geek article I noted that Who has, historically at least, been an ostensibly left-leaning franchise. This is not exactly a controversial conclusion. In recent years, for example, the show has championed gay marriage, opposed racism and it has at least sought to include compelling female characters. This is partly why Gen Y as well as a nascent Gen Z (who happen to be more socially liberal than their parents and older siblings) have claimed the show for themselves in a big way. It was surprising, then, to see Series 8 seemingly swim against the current.

Dr. Andrew Crome – a lecturer at the University of Manchester and author of Time And Relative Dimensions In Faith – has suggested that Who can function as a kind of ‘lens’ through which we may identify statements about, as well as trends within, British culture. I’m sure if one were to look ‘through’ S8 one would identify a variety of interesting themes and topics. But I want to suggest, tentatively, that Series 8 occasionally engaged in a form of conservative social commentary. For example, Kill The Moon presents an affirming account of pro-life politics, and I’m not the only one to have noticed. In this episode the male exits the stage, leaving three women to decide whether to kill the baby or let it live. The emphasis is indeed on choice, but it’s made abundantly clear – both by the resulting circumstances and by the Doctor himself – that the correct decision was indeed to ‘keep the child’. More than this, humanity achieves its destiny because Clara opted for a pro-life position, and Courtney even becomes President as a result. Humanity as a whole (as well as the central characters) prospers because abortion is rejected.

Then there’s the subject of gender. Granted, Moffat has long been accused of misogyny because of the way he is said to write female characters. However, this is more specific than that. Although this could be said to be typical of the season as a whole, consider The Caretaker. Clara might be shouldered with the dramatic weight in this story, but she is still subject to the two men in her life (i.e. the Doctor and Danny). She is forced to explain her life choices to them as well as her decisions. Eventually, these two men assert their custodianship over Clara – something she accepts as positively endearing. Indeed, some have observed that, in this light, those of a more liberal disposition might see the very title of this episode as objectionable.

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As I said here, Doctor Who has always had an agenda. Granted, most voices have been left-leaning. But occasionally they have been conservative too. One doesn’t have to agree with those voices to enjoy the episode. Neither does the presence of these voices, with which you might disagree, necessarily render the episodes ‘bad’. In that regard I’m not trying to make a statement, one way or another, about the virtues of pro-life / gender politics. Rather, it’s simply and utterly fascinating to me that S8 has hosted these more conservative discussions. In line with Crome’s ‘lens’ theory, does this represent a shift in Gen Y sensibilities or perhaps in British culture as a whole? Is it indicative of a ‘lean to the right’ in certain contexts? Or are these just the isolated voices of a couple of authors? As with the other big ideas, themes and characteristics identified above, these questions are for us to wrestle with as a fan community. I’m simply grateful that Who is trying to engage with such important themes.

This has nothing to with the show ‘growing up’. However, I would say it’s indicative of a burgeoning maturity. In its second half-century it seems that Doctor Who still refuses to sit down and be quiet, to be a cosy little sci-fi show that talks about little more than laser guns and chameleon circuits. (As cool as those might be.) For 51 years, Who has entertained us but also hosted various discussions about important topics: war and peace; love and loss; life and death; friendship and forgiveness. This is the show’s inheritance, and frankly, it’s our happy privilege to see Doctor Who continuing to cash that cheque.

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