With the ninth series of Doctor Who coming up fast (likely towards the end of August), it’s time we reminded ourselves of where we are up to with Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor, by looking back on the series. Starting with Deep Breath and Into the Dalek.

Deep Breath

This episode gave us our first proper look at the Twelfth Doctor. The new Doctor burst into action, dragging a gigantic dinosaur out of the distant past and dumping it in Victorian London. While Clara struggled to come to grips with this new, grumpier, shoutier Doctor, Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax (The Paternoster Gang) were on hand to help solve the mystery of who killed the dinosaur.

The adventure pushed us towards some eerily familiar clockwork robots who had been harvesting human bodies as spare parts. We were given a glimpse of the fact that this Doctor is a lot less forthcoming with his plans and intentions, a lot more secretive and a lot more prone to sacrificing others to achieve his ends. Clara has some really big reasons to doubt him and question his methods, but ultimately he comes through and wins the day, albeit in a somewhat ambiguous fashion.

At the end we were introduced to the mysterious Missy, who, it seems, has been welcoming people into the afterlife. She calls the Doctor her ‘boyfriend’ and has some pretty sinister music accompanying her just in case it wasn’t clear enough that’s she’s a villain.

Generally, I thought Deep Breath a good episode. However, it is not without it’s problems.

A criticism levelled against Moffat has been his treatment of women in the past, his blasé attitude to sexual assault, and the humour he finds in putting women in compromising positions. There was some attempt to redress this, but it often fell flat or felt too easily dismissed. For example, there is a scene roughly half way through the episode where Jenny is posing, scantily clad in front of Madame Vastra. The ‘joke’ is that Jenny believes Vastra is painting her, but it is revealed that she was not and simply had Jenny stand there as decoration. Jenny complains and objects to being treated like this, but her complaint goes mostly unheeded.

I wrote previously about how Clara’s character undergoes some pretty dramatic changes to the point where,when I first saw the episode, I felt like she was a completely different character. Now, in fairness, this worked out well as we finally got to see Clara as a more complex and rounded person, one who clashed with the Twelfth Doctor in a more energetic and dramatic manner.

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is angrier, more prone to insult people without caring what they think. He’s brazen and forthright with his criticism of people to their faces. This is an interesting direction to take the character. Even the First and Sixth Doctors weren’t quite so outwardly hostile – and not without balance. He’s still funny, don’t get me wrong, and there is a little bit of a joy to be had in watching people being rude to those that deserve it.

I do wonder if the Twelfth Doctor’s standoffish nature is down to a decision to simply write him like this, or if there is a real in-universe reason for it. My own speculation is that his time on Trenzalore prior to regeneration essentially made him less prone to connect with people. Having watched friends being born, living and then dying in a war he started, perhaps making friends is too painful for him. After all, people can’t leave you if you push them away first.

The ending does set up the series nicely, though. We have a very heartfelt interaction between the Doctor and Clara and get a glimpse at their true selves. The Doctor is afraid, terribly afraid of being rejected, I think. He tried running away and going it alone, but clearly he couldn’t stand it. He needs a companion by his side, and he is even willing to acknowledge his mistakes and failings. This may be this Doctor’s saving grace, if we have it as his major arc. I will come back to this when discussing the season finale.

Into the Dalek

It has been said by many that this episode sought to mirror in some ways the 2005 story ‘Dalek’ with

‘A Good Dalek’ from Into the Dalek (2014)

Christopher Eccleston. The similarities are there and there is certainly an attempt to address many of the same issues, but I felt that this episode had a very different message and aim to it.

The Doctor struggles with his notions of good and evil. For as long as he has been an adventurer, the Daleks have represented the pinnacle of malicious hatred, violence, and destruction. Evil refined as engineering. The genocide he believed for so long he had committed against his own people was balanced against the simultaneous genocide against the Daleks – it was how he dealt with it. That and the Time Lords’ plan to bring about the end of time itself, of course.

Here we see again the Doctor’s morality put to the test. He sacrifices people for ‘the greater good’. When one soldier is about to die, the Doctor uses his death as a way of saving the others. Again we see, perhaps, why this Doctor is trying so hard to be detached and unemotional – the decisions he is making are harsh and questionable; if he starts moralising, he will see only his own reflection in the evil he fights.

Zawe Ashton (who was tipped to play the Twelfth Doctor in a poll or two) gave us Journey Blue, a woman

Zawe Ashton as Journey Blue

who was determined, brave, and capable of standing up to the Doctor when he is at his most callous. She breathed a lot of life into the episode and gave a very human face to the dilemmas; where the Doctor and increasingly Clara are becoming detached, Journey was still very close to things. She displays a layered understanding and a much more interesting character to have to deal with these issues. Where we know the Doctor will make the harsh decision without a second thought, Journey was someone who agonised and deliberated, asking the questions the Doctor wanted to avoid.

She really was the companion the Doctor needed, perhaps. Alas, for some reason, this Doctor has decided soldiers are not his cup of tea. Which is a bit odd given his history with UNIT, the Brigadier, Captain Jack, and others. The military he has always disdained, but individual soldiers have often won him over. Curious that this Doctor is so reluctant to see that. Again, one can speculate that 900 years of war on Trenzalore left him exhausted of soldiers and any sort of war.

The Doctor’s attitude goes on to improve over the series, but at this point I was getting a little uneasy about his harsh comments directed at Clara. She stood up for herself and gave as good as she got often enough, but it came across as a particularly toxic relationship as a result. When the two of them were at each other’s throats, constantly jabbing and insulting at every moment you had to wonder if they were even friends at all. Sure, the Doctor needs a voice of reason, a hand to guide him and a voice to tell him he’s acting cruel or worse. But does Clara really need all that negativity?

I’ve seen critics speculate that the writers are trying to break from the Eleventh Doctor’s flirtatious interactions with Clara by having the Twelfth Doctor be casually horrible to her. I’m not sure it was working at this point.

Ultimately, in this episode, we see the Dalek turn ‘good’, having looked into the Doctor’s soul. Much as the Doctor wishes to impart his ‘good’ nature onto the Dalek, it is not his insistence on the beauty of the universe that gets through in the end. Instead, it is the Doctor’s burning hatred of the Daleks, it is his intense drive to always defeat them, to stop them, and to never be like them. This is what the Dalek latches on to, this is what it takes on and becomes – still a machine of hatred and death, but it is death to the Daleks. Much like Dalek Caan from Journey’s End (2008), a Dalek is able to see their own kind for what they are and has deemed them too evil to exist.

Dalek Caan, another ‘good’ Dalek?

So the Doctor is left with the question; if the Dalek wanted to kill Daleks, does that make it good? Is the Dalek being motivated by hatred enough to make it good? Do the motivations matter when the end result is the destruction of some of the most evil creatures in the cosmos? Such questions are ones the Doctor will face for the rest of this series.

What I found additionally enjoyable in this episode was Murray Gold’s musical score. Since the Fiftieth Anniversary had him incorporating synthesizers into his orchestra, he seems to have kept them into this series. Now, having as I do a soft spot for the 80s series of Who, I got a little jolt of joy every time I heard the digital music wafting in and out of the episode. It’s times like that where you are reminded of the fact that the show of now is still connected to the show of decades ago.

Next week we will take a look at Robot of Sherwood and Listen.