Doctor Who Series 9 Review – Part 1 of 2

After watching a few random episodes of Doctor Who over the previous several years (I saw the 2006 Christmas special live on TV, and then a selection of episodes from Series 4 and 5 around Christmas 2011), I started to get seriously into the franchise around Christmas 2014, and now consider myself a fully fledged Whovian, having watched over two-thirds of all New Who episodes in not much more than a year. Series 9, the most recently released, was the first Doctor Who I’ve watched week by week while it was coming out.

The series was largely well received, having been hailed by various critics as the best Moffat season yet, the best since Eccleston, or even the best season of New Who. Personally I think Series 4 is still my favourite New Who series, but I did very much enjoy this new one, and Capaldi could now give Tennant a run for his money as my favourite Doctor.

This series contained more multi-episode stories than any other for a long time. This allowed more time for each story to develop, mature, and conclude without feeling overly rushed; on the other hand, it detracted from the self-containedness that many of the best Doctor Who episodes have, and made it harder for casual viewers to ‘drop in’ for just a single episode.

Jenna Coleman secured the title of the longest-serving Companion of New Who towards the end of this series before her eventual departure. Peter Capaldi has now really settled into his role as the Doctor, bringing some of his own flair to the show and ensuring his place in the annals of Whovian history. In Series 8 he had to spend too much time acting grumpy and proving that he wasn’t Matt Smith, but now he’s been able to spread his wings, let his hair down a bit, and establish himself as (in my view) the best speech-making Doctor in all of New Who. Oh, and speaking of hair, was I really the only one to notice the swap in hair length between the two main characters?

Hair in series 8-9
Good hair day or bad hair day?

Now without further ado, let’s start on the episode-by-episode summaries. Naturally, SPOILER ALERT.

#Episode 1: The Magician’s Apprentice

As an episode with historical significance for the show, this has its merits: the first-ever episode featuring both Davros and the Master/Missy, the latter’s mysterious return to the show, some interesting backstory for the former (I still get a chill when thinking about the final line of the cold open: “Davros. My name is Davros.”). As the first episode of a series – the one which should be a gentle introduction for people who’ve never seen the show before – it’s pretty bad. Anyone who doesn’t know who Davros is (which includes some regular viewers, if not any true Whovians) wouldn’t get the point of the pre-credits scene; anyone who’s unfamiliar with Missy or the Daleks would be lost throughout.

Much of this episode feels like pointless filler just to get an episode’s worth of material. The whole business of the planes stopping is unrelated to the main story, just a plot device to bring Missy back into the fray. The Doctor’s dramatic entrance, riding on a tank and playing a guitar, is a typical Moffatism: so “awesome” that it’s right on the edge of crossing into “ridiculous”. (And if he’d said “dude” one more time, I would’ve screamed.) Eventually the main story kicks off, when the trio – the trio? hang on, why is Missy even hanging out with our heroes? – for some reason accept a ride from Davros’s henchman rather than taking the TARDIS.

By now there’s not much time left in the episode: just enough for Davros to play some old Doctor Who clips to the Doctor while Missy and Clara find themselves on – cue dramatic music – Skaro. The cliffhanger ending is so dire that it seems almost ridiculously contrived just in order to have a cliffhanger (that Moffatism again). Clara dead, the TARDIS destroyed, the Doctor possibly a killer … let’s hope the next episode manages to resolve all these problems in a reasonably believable way.

Favourite quote: Missy gets all the good lines this time. It’s a toss-up between:

  • “Try, nano-brain, to rise above the reproductive frenzy of your noisy little food chain, and contemplate friendship. A friendship older than your civilisation, and infinitely more complex.”

  • “No, wait, hang on a minute. Davros is your arch-enemy now? I’ll scratch his eye out.”

#Episode 2: The Witch’s Familiar

What this episode lacks in terms of adequately resolving the last episode’s cliffhanger (whoops! Missy and Clara not dead after all; whoops! TARDIS easily rematerialised), it makes up for with a good deal of deep conversation between Davros and the Doctor: far more interesting to watch than the cheap quips and banter of the previous episode. The two parallel storylines – Missy and Clara making their way back in from the desert; Davros and the Doctor sparring together – mesh together reasonably well.

Missy and Clara’s initial conversation (complete with shots of the First/Fourth/Twelfth Doctor in an off-screen adventure) gives us an interesting little insight into the Doctor’s mind, and if you listen carefully it also explains how Missy survived her apparent death at the end of Series 8. Later on we learn something new about how Daleks work, their every action translated by their tank into gunfire and cries of “Exterminate”. I’m pretty sure this contradicts previous canon, but, well, that’s Doctor Who for you. And was I the only one to think immediately of the film The Italian Job when Missy’s final scene ended?

The episode’s centrepiece is the conversation between Davros and the Doctor, setting the stage for what I feel is one of the main themes of this series: showcasing Capaldi as perhaps the greatest speech-making Doctor ever. The game of strategy between the two old enemies goes deep as first one then the other gains the upper hand. Finally, just when Davros seems to have secured his victory, the Doctor turns out to have been (as usual) pulling the strings all along. As the city collapses around them, he brings back the TARDIS using … wait for it … sonic sunglasses. Ugh. Millions of Whovians just threw their hands up in disgust. We’ve known and loved the sonic screwdriver for years, and replacing it by some ‘wearable technology’ just feels like a betrayal.

Favourite quote:

  • “There’s no such thing as the Doctor. I’m just a bloke in a box, telling stories. And I didn’t come here because I’m ashamed. A bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came because you’re sick and you asked. And because sometimes, on a good day, if I try very hard, I’m not some old Time Lord who ran away. I’m the Doctor.”

#Episode 3: Under the Lake

This has all the elements of a classic “base under siege” episode, which Doctor Who has been doing well for decades: a small, clearly defined cast and set; an insidious, poorly understood threat; and no means of escape. As usual there’s a slightly obnoxious ‘money man’ – Pritchard – but while such characters often end up surviving just to show it’s not always the most likeable ones who live (e.g. in Voyage of the Damned and Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead), this time he’s one of the first to be killed. The rest of the crew consists of two men and two women, and don’t worry: the shippers will be satisfied!

In typical Twelfth Doctor fashion, the Doctor at first pooh-poohs the idea of ghosts, saying there’s no such thing – apparently forgetting all the dead souls returned that he’s encountered before, most recently the Cyberghosts in the Series 8 finale. When he finally comes to accept it, his childish enthusiasm is on the edge between amusing and ridiculous. (The “nice things to say” record cards that appear in this scene, on the other hand, are simply ridiculous.)

Quickly it becomes clear that the ghosts have some sort of master plan which involves killing again and again to increase their numbers. The Doctor orders a quarantine, effectively sealing them all in, and masterminds the plan to capture the ghosts. For a moment it feels more like fantasy or horror than scifi, with the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple being some kind of words of power. But once they’re decoded, we’re back to sci-fi with submarines and spaceships and suspended animation chambers. Cass and the Doctor are in the middle of working out the whole scheme when the base starts to flood, and just as happened in Series 3’s “base under siege” episode 42, the Doctor is cut off from his Companion. The cliffhanger ending arrives along with what appears to be the Doctor’s ghost.

Favourite quote:

  • “It’s OK. I understand. You’re an idiot. […] Sorry, why is this man still talking to me?”

#Episode 4: Before the Flood

For a show that’s supposed to be all about time travel, Doctor Who actually has surprisingly few episodes in which time travel plays a role in the plot: this and the series finale being the only such episodes in Series 9. This episode is also unusual in its breaking of the fourth wall. The first scene is the Doctor explaining to us, the viewers, about bootstrap paradoxes: a common concept in time-travel fiction and one which has come up before in Doctor Who, most famously in the episode Blink. I was OK with this break with tradition, except for the thrown-in advertisement for a certain search engine company. It also inspired this awesome picture (originally sourced from the Radio Times):

Pedtwig van Capalthoven
The composer Petdwig van Capalthoven

Back in 1980, in a Soviet-style town, we finally meet the undertaker for real. Played by the inimitable Paul Kaye (of Game of Thrones and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell fame), he provides a little much-needed comic relief to this otherwise rather dark episode, before his mysterious and entirely expected death. The plot thickens as the Doctor’s ghost turns out to be mouthing something different from the others – our first clue that it’s not just another ghost. The old theme of the Doctor facing moral criticism from his human companions, much more prevalent in Old Who than it is today, resurfaces here when Bennett accuses him of having allowed O’Donnell to die.

As might be expected in an episode based around a bootstrap paradox, the narrative is quite hard to make sense of. Does the Doctor actually change the past, or does he not? It took me a while to work out, but it all makes sense provided you’re OK with certain ideas having no clear origin. The Fisher King did create the writing to turn Prentis, Moran, Pritchard, and O’Donnell into ghosts, and the events of the previous episode were part of its evil scheme just as we thought (it was only the Doctor’s ghost that wasn’t), but it was destroyed in the flood and never took its place in the suspended animation chamber. It’s one of those episodes that you need to spend a while puzzling over after you finish watching, but worth the effort. Oh and just like I promised, all the shippers are satisfied at the end: we have Bennett-O’Donnell for those who like tragic romances, and Cass-Lunn for those who prefer happy ones.

Favourite quote:

  • “Off the map. Out of the rule book. What if I don’t die? What if I refuse? I’m going to go back to the base and I’m going to save Clara, because that’s what I do. And I don’t see anyone here who’s going to stop me.”

#Episode 5: The Girl Who Died

Several of this season’s episodes start with the Doctor and Clara just emerging from, or talking about, their previous (off-screen) adventure. This is in contrast to episodes in the RTD era, which usually started with the TARDIS materialising somewhere and the Doctor and his Companion jumping straight into their latest adventure. The idea is presumably to show just how much time Clara spends with the Doctor – not just the adventures we see on-screen, but untold dozens in between – so that the scale of his grief at losing her at the end of the series makes more sense. The actual story here is straightforward: Doctor shows up, human village under threat from alien warriors, all seems lost, Doctor miraculously saves the day using unexpected resources and a strong team effort.

The main purpose of the episode is to introduce an important recurring character for this series: Ashildr. For those who weren’t following the rumours that Maisie Williams’s character was going to have a significant role, this was made clear by the Doctor’s reaction to her in her first few moments on the screen. Although most of her character development comes after this episode, the way we view her changes significantly here too: from the warrior maiden declaring war on the Mire, to the semi-outcast who’s always been different from the others, to the frightened girl who loves her home and her friends, this is someone the showrunners have put an unusual amount of effort into characterising.

We also get a nice case study of the Doctor. This is when he’s always at his finest: put him in what seems to be an impossible situation, with what seems to be a bunch of useless people, and watch him use every last scrap of the resources available and force everyone to play to their strengths and bring out their inner talent. After his inevitable victory, the fate of the one-off Companion is taken beyond “she dies saving the day” (a la Voyage of the Damned) to “she apparently dies and comes back to life” (a la The Doctor’s Daughter), and even a step beyond that since her coming back to life is an issue in itself: it makes her a new kind of creature, an anomaly like Jack Harkness. And as part of what spurs the Doctor to save her, we get something we’ve never had before: an explanation for where he got one of his faces. Another moment with historical significance for the show as a whole.

Favourite quote:

  • “No, no, not Vikings! I’m not in the mood for Vikings!” (It doesn’t sound very funny here, but the tone and facial expression with it made me crack up.)

#Episode 6: The Woman Who Lived

This is what they call a Companion-lite episode; Clara is basically absent throughout, except for a short scene at the very end. It’s also, despite what some of the internet will tell you, almost completely separate from the previous episode. The issue of whether or not they’re officially considered a two-parter is complicated, but the stories being told are entirely different and linked only by a single character, who also appears in other episodes towards the end of the series. Once again, the main purpose is to explore Ashildr’s character, and the actual story is even less interesting than the previous episode’s: attempted invasion of Earth by big cat aliens, thwarted at the last minute by using their own technology against them.

It’s obvious straight away that Ashildr (I’m going to keep on calling her that) has greatly changed since we last saw her. No longer going by the same name, no longer seeming to care about the village where she grew up, this callous and aloof woman is a far cry from the innocent girl we met last time. And it’s clear almost from the start that she’s not telling the Doctor everything, which heightens our mistrust for her. She’s a fascinating study in what immortality – never growing old, losing everyone you love, but always continuing on – can do to a person. As she herself points out, she’s similar to the Doctor in this respect; the difference between the two lies in how they deal with the problems of an extended lifespan. The exploring of powerful moral issues like this, which lead us to respect the Doctor on a deep level, are one of the things I love most about the show.

Sam Swift initially seems to be nothing more than comic relief (bad comic relief at that, with some quite terrible jokes), but he ends up at the very centre of events. As with several one-off Doctor Who characters, the showrunners leave the option open for him to appear again, by not resolving the question of whether or not he’s as immortal as Ashildr after being killed and brought back to life. Ashildr, on the other hand, establishes herself as a recurring presence in the Doctor’s life and leaves us almost certain that she’ll turn up again, and in a way more significant than simply a background figure in photos of Clara. As indeed she will …

Favourite quote:

  • “Ashildr! He doesn’t care.” “But I do. Oh, God, I do. I actually do. I, I care.” “Welcome back.”

#To be continued …

Review

3 thoughts on “Doctor Who Series 9 Review – Part 1 of 2

  1. I’m always amused by the criticism for Before the Flood. It’s a show about time travel and we have a problem when the show address one of the biggest paradoxes involved in time travel. We don’t have to be OK with ideas having no point of origin, that is the bootstrap paradox. It is an actual theoretical concept.

    This review is great. Although funniest Before the Flood review I have ever read was from Blastr – “The episode opened with a monologue about the bootstrap paradox which had nothing to do with the rest of the episode” – This makes me seriously question who is watching the show.

    Note: This comment originally appeared on reddit.

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