With the Blu-ray release of Doctor Who: The Complete Eighth Series, it is clear that the beloved Doctor is on a historic roll. While there have been highs and lows since the 2005 re-boot of Doctor Who, something very special has been going on in the past couple of years. Part of this has been the excitement over the 50th anniversary, which was in November 2013. But even bigger was the appointment of Steven Moffat as showrunner. With The Sopranos, David Chase turned the story of a New Jersey mafia boss into a parable of turn-of-the-millennium America. With the eighth series of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat’s parable is a twelve-episode journey into the heart of the human soul.
The tale begins with the roaring feature-length premiere “Deep Breath,” in which the newly regenerated 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is introduced. The opening scene of what appears to be a fully-grown Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping through the center of present-day London is unforgettable. The dinosaur is a red herring though, because even as companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is trying to figure out what has happened to “her” 11th Doctor (Matt Smith), a very dangerous alien threat to Earth is gaining ground. In an effort to provide a bridge to the recent past, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey) also appear in the episode, and there is even a cameo from Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, telling Clara to trust in her new, considerably older-looking Doctor. At the end of “Deep Breath” the Steampunk robot alien villain meets a woman named Missy (Michelle Gomez) who welcomes him to “Heaven.” She will reappear a few times during the season, providing one of the underlying subtexts of Moffat’s arc.
The momentum established by “Deep Breath” is continued with “Enter the Dalek.” The Daleks are the greatest villains ever created, and to see the newest Doctor face off against them right off the bat was exciting. While I understand the criticism of bringing in the Daleks immediately as a way to get ratings, this episode is way too good to be dismissed like that. To be honest, the homage to Fantastic Voyage via Dalek is not what captured my interest though. It was the sick Dalek shouting “Destroy the Daleks!” that got me, plus the moral dilemma the Doctor found himself in when he discovered a good Dalek.
“Enter the Dalek” also introduces Daniel Pink (Samuel Anderson), a teacher at Clara’s school who becomes her love interest. In many ways, Daniel is the biggest threat to the Doctor’s adventures with Clara that has ever existed. “The Robot of Sherwood” signals a lighter touch after the relentless pace of the first two shows. Clara and the Doctor meet “Robin Hood” in Sherwood Forest. If “The Robot of Sherwood” is a glance backward at childhood in the guise of one of England’s most beloved literary heroes, “Listen” has us re-live a universal fear, that of the monster under the bed.
“Time Heist” jolts us back from these reveries with a caper worthy of Ocean’s Eleven. The Doctor and Clara have been recruited to rob the Bank of Karabraxos, the most secure bank in the universe. Without a doubt, “Time Heist” is great fun, and it is also a reminder of the joys of play. This is one of my favorite episodes of the set.
In “The Caretaker,” the two men in Clara’s life finally confront each other. Because of Danny Pink’s history as a soldier prior to becoming a teacher, the Doctor thinks he is unworthy of Clara. This idea is quickly put to rest when Danny reminds them that the Doctor is capable of actions that go far beyond anything he could ever do. There is a lot of depth to “The Caretaker,” and in it Capaldi really solidifies his role as the Doctor. Up to now, he has been the cocky Doctor who believes that he is right especially when he is wrong. In condemning Danny the way he does, the Doctor is going against his own ideals, something that even his own bluster cannot erase.
“Kill the Moon” is great science fiction, taking place in the year 2049 with the Doctor and Clara trying to figure out whether a plot to destroy the moon is real or not. The gimmicky “Mummy on the Orient Express” is probably my least favorite of the season. “Flatline” is more classic sci-fi, while “In the Forest of the Night” again explores childhood fears and dreams.
The series closes with the two-part “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven.” The headline is that the Cybermen have returned, which is pretty cool. But what makes the finale really great are the payoffs. Will Clara choose true love over the Doctor? Who is Danny Pink anyway? Is he worthy of her? And who is Missy from Heaven? The pace is quick, and the answers are intelligent. What may have felt silly with a trip to Sherwood Forest now makes perfect sense, because we see that the child has not fundamentally changed over the years, just grown up.
Like chapters in a book, these episodes tell a larger story. In Doctor Who, the companions always stand in for the viewer. But now the actions and inner lives of Clara, Danny Pink, and The Doctor feel personal. It is a very touching moment when we see the Doctor confronting his own monster under the bed as a child. Some might argue that these elements have always been in Doctor Who. Or that I am reading too much into it. While this may be true, the fact remains that this show is better than ever.
There are over six hours of bonus material in the four-disc Blu-ray set, plus commentaries on selected episodes. The work to introduce the 12th Doctor began long before “Deep Breath” ever aired. The first extra “Earth Conquest - The World Tour” (48:41) chronicles the seven-city world tour that Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, and Steven Moffat embarked on to promote the new season. It is kind of incredible to see showrunner Moffat getting all of the attention in Mexico City, with the audience chanting "Steven, Steven!"
“Deep Breath” holds the honor of the highest-rated season premiere in BBC America’s history. The other major features on the first disc chronicle the premiere, “Doctor Who Live Pre-Show” (11:02), and “Doctor Who After Who Live” (43:23) feature such guests as Wil Wheaton and Natalie Morales before and after the premiere. In “London Post-Premiere Q & A” (29:45), Capaldi, Coleman, and Moffat answer questions. Rounding out the disc are a “Tour of The Tardis” (1:53), and “Doctor Who Exclusive” (9:17) in which Moffat talks about the decision to hire Capaldi.
“The Ultimate Time Lord with Peter Davison” (45:01) is a documentary about the Doctor and Capaldi hosted by Fifth Doctor Peter Davison. A similar documentary about the various companions over the years is the topic of “The Ultimate Companion with Peter Davison” (47:32). Along with commentaries, those are the extras on the second and third discs. Disc four contains a massive recap of the season in “Behind the Scenes” (2:20). Each of the twelve episodes gets the behind-the-scenes treatment, which run from ten to twelve minutes apiece. The final piece is the video for “Don’t Stop Me Now” (3:28).
Steven Moffat is a life-long Doctor Who fan, and he is giving his fellow fans everything they could have asked for and more. And as the 12th Doctor, Peter Capaldi is fantastic. It is hard to believe, but a person who had never seen an episode of Doctor Who in their life could start right in with this set and be knocked out. Doctor Who: The Complete Eighth Series is as good a series of Doctor Who as I have ever seen. Perhaps even the best.