A Dr. Who Noob Watches Season 8

Confession: I have never been a Whovian, that is a fan of Dr. Who. I stumbled across the character and the series on my local PBS affiliate when I was a young teenager and immediately dismissed everything about it as being irredeemably cheesy: the stories, the props, the sets, even (and I know I will lose some points for this) the Doctor himself (as played by Tom Baker).  As a youngster who was exposed to the glorious effects of Star Wars, I thought that the American science fiction TV series like Buck Rogers, the original Battlestar Galactica and others were more compelling to me. Even a series as dated as the original Star Trek was, it had better sets and effects than Dr. Who.

As I grew older, Dr. Who faded even further into the background. I didn't know (or care) who played the Doctor after Peter Davison (Tom Baker's successor - the only reason I knew even that was due to an article in STARLOG Magazine that I read). I didn't keep up with much in traditional geekdom for a number of years, preferring to keep up with the Society for Creative Anachronism (a medieval reenactment group) instead.  After some time, Dr. Who fandom reappeared on the horizon, thanks in large part to a completely rebooted series, starring Christopher Eccleston. I wasn't even cognizant of that fact until Eccleston was cast in a bit part in the American TV superhero show, Heroes. Of course, I only learned that fact after he had left Dr. Who in the hands of David Tennant, who also played one of the villains in the Harry Potter film franchise. Once again, I didn't make the connection until recently, after I was more familiar with Tennant from his film role.

I would occasionally parachute in and catch reruns of old episodes, but nothing really captured my imagination much.  I learned some of the history and lore of the series from online acquaintances who would gush about their love for the series, referring to a certain actor's portrayal as "my Doctor" and so forth, but I just wasn't interested.

I think I know one of the things that kept me from really getting into the series: the serial structure of the season. In the early days, I was more comfortable with the episodic structure, where every episode was a standalone and the status quo remains unchanged. That model was the pervasive form for American television programs in my developmental years, like Star Trek, Buck Rogers, and Original Battlestar Galactica. You might have recurring characters and the occasional two-part episode, but again, once the story was over, nothing really had changed as far as the characters were concerned.  In Dr. Who, I picked up right away that there was much more to the character, the history and so forth that I didn't know, and jumping in was not an option, as I didn't want to enter the series in the middle of an ongoing story, and not know what was going on. If I invest in any type of serial program, I need to be able to go back and start from the beginning and follow it from there. When I first encountered the Doctor, there was no NetFlix, no Hulu, no On Demand, no complete seasons on DVD (no DVD for that matter). When the series was rebooted with Eccleston, I still had difficulty in starting in because I couldn't always find the beginning.

Then I heard that there was to be a new "regeneration" of the Doctor, that is a new actor would be taking over the role. The actor's name was Peter Capaldi, and I knew almost nothing about him, other than what a few online acquaintances posted. The general consensus was Capaldi was an acceptable choice, even though there were very vocal groups who had hoped for an ethnic minority or a female as the new Doctor.

Over the summer, my wife and I got hooked on a series from the BBC titled The Musketeers, which was a series based on the Dumas' novel The Three Musketeers. I was interested to learn that Capaldi was cast as the Machiavellian Cardinal Richlieu. Throughout the first season of The Musketeers, I was impressed with Capaldi's take on the Cardinal.  I was so impressed, that I decided to give Dr. Who a shot, starting with the first episode with Capaldi in the role.

There have been several articles bemoaning the stories told in this season of Dr. Who, and I'm sure that there may well be some merit to their lack of enthusiasm over the use of stock Who villains Daleks, Cybermen and Missy (The Master). But for me, someone who has no history or familiarity with them, it was all new and I watched as the Doctor had to overcome the threat each one presented.

Again, Capaldi is an amazing actor, able to go from eccentric to menacing to totally befuddled to supremely confident seamlessly. He is an absolute joy to watch. And I did watch. I thought at first that I would give it a couple of episodes to get me, and while I didn't always enjoy the stories, Capaldi brought me back again and again, and I finished out the season (and am looking forward to the Christmas special).

The stories were uneven, but I discovered a great deal of thought provoking (for me anyway) takes on the theme of redemption, good and evil, pain and loss, and many others. One could even explore the idea of God's apparent silence in times when we really need Him the most in one episode.  The Doctor's struggle with his own identity is apparent in the first episode ("Why did I choose this face?") and whether or not he is a "good man," and even admitting that he had made a lot of mistakes, before announcing a determination to "do something about that."

Some may think that this was a weak season for Dr. Who, but for me, it dealt with a number of my objections, mostly with regard to the sets, props and special effects. But as I imagine most Whovians will tell you, those are peripheral to the portrayal that each actor brings to the role of the Doctor. I think Capaldi plays the kind of Doctor I would like to watch.

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