Note: What follows contains some spoilers from Doctor Who’s first seven seasons.
Doctor Who‘s rapid increase in popularity has coincided with, and even echoed, its increase in complexity: during the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant years, the show followed a more procedural structure. These four seasons featured a threat-per-episode formula which carried through–albeit in the background–a somewhat larger concern which provided an appropriate elevation for the season finale, and the Christmas Specials were longer, stand-alone episodes that oftentimes introduced new characters and saw the Doctor on his own. Most remarkable of these was Season 3, in which the Tenth Doctor and new companion Martha Jones uncovered the Face of Boe, set all right in space and time, and broke each other’s hearts.
When Matt Smith stepped into the shoes of the Doctor under the direction of Steven Moffat (who replaced original showrunner Russell T. Davies), the show’s structure became wildly complex, and unfortunately, increasingly dependent on using time travel as a solution to all of the problems that came up during the trans-galactic travels of the Doctor and his companions. Still, a few episodes from these years stand out as some of the series’ best: “The Lodger,” “The Doctor’s Wife,” and “The God Complex.”
The show’s recent storytelling struggles chiefly came from Moffat’s plays to center the show on big mysteries and their appertaining revelations. For example, those that came steadily as part of the River Song storyline had all the shock value they needed to gain traction with the existing fans as well as attract new ones, but by the time Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor concluded in December of 2013, her involvement in the plot had essentially no impact on the climactic moments of the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure. By then, the show’s central narrative had become somewhat incomprehensible, and while the superb 50th anniversary special, “The Time of the Doctor,” more than lived up to the hype, the Eleventh Doctor’s visit to Trenzalore in Matt Smith’s final episode declined to answer many of the questions the previous three years had posed to viewers even as it succeeded as a requiem for Smith’s version of the character. In the end, too many of the big mysteries had simply been explained away or ignored on account of time travel and the show’s increasingly malleable treatment of it.
In a few weeks, Peter Capaldi officially takes on the mantle of the Twelfth Doctor, and while very few details of the new direction of the plot have emerged from official sources, the official, full-length trailer shows a more severe, older Doctor who speaks to purpose, a mission (a certain painting, perhaps?), and asks questions of his companion–the incumbent Clara Oswald–about his moral nature.
Peter Capaldi offers a stark contrast to Matt Smith’s gesture-happy youth, and that seems a welcome departure. If, as he tells Clara in the trailer, they are headed “into darkness” to a degree as yet unseen by fans of the series, then a more seasoned Doctor, a harsher, more driven Doctor, seems just the complement to a storyline with higher stakes, and hopefully, a better sense of limits with regard to the TARDIS and the rules of time travel.
We’ll have a review of season 8’s first episode as soon as it airs on October 23rd.