Doctor Who Review: Series 9 Overview

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With a little under a week to go until this year’s Christmas Special, The Husbands of River Song, I thought now would be a good time to post my annual retrospective on the series, and try to collect my thoughts on the show across this past year.

First of all, here you can find my review of each episode, alongside the score given to it; it’s worth checking these out, methinks, because I’d say they’re amongst the better reviews I’ve written over the years.

  1. The Magician’s Apprentice | Steven Moffat | 10/10
  2. The Witch’s Familiar | Steven Moffat | 9/10
  3. Under the Lake | Toby Whithouse | 7/10
  4. Before the Flood | Toby Whithouse | 6/10
  5. The Girl Who Died | Jamie Mathieson & Steven Moffat | 10/10
  6. The Woman Who Lived | Catherine Tregenna | 8/10
  7. The Zygon Invasion | Peter Harness | 8/10
  8. The Zygon Inversion | Peter Harness & Steven Moffat | 10/10
  9. Sleep No More | Mark Gatiss | 8/10
  10. Face the Raven | Sarah Dollard | 10/10
  11. Heaven Sent | Steven Moffat | 10/10
  12. Hell Bent | Steven Moffat | 10/10

Here we’ve also got a nice graph, showing the scores above, because I do love a good graph.

doctor who series 9 review episode rankings steven moffat peter capaladi jenna coleman maisie williams clara oswald twelfth doctor gallifrey graph

You can see, actually, that I gave this series quite a lot of high scores – there were more perfect scores in this series than I’ve ever given before.  Six of the twelve episodes in this series got 10/10, with quite a few others getting 8s and 9s as their score. In hindsight, I do wonder if I was, perhaps, overly kind and enthusiastic with some of those scores – but then, these aren’t marks of objective quality, rather of how much I enjoyed the episodes, in terms of my own idiosyncratic tastes.

Noticeably, there are a few key areas where my tastes differed from the common consensus – I was quite a fan of the more experimental Sleep No More, but largely unimpressed by Toby Whithouse’s traditional two part story. I’ve reached a point where, having seen a lot of Doctor Who, what I really want more than anything is something that pushes the boundaries of what I’m familiar with, so it was great to see a lot of that this season. Sleep No More and Heaven Sent are, if nothing else, memorable by virtue of the fact that they really pushed the boundary of what Doctor Who does.

The two-parter aspect of this series is something that I’m still not entirely certain of; the problem is that in some cases, it’ll extend a flawed story longer than you’d like (for me that’s Before the Flood & Under the Lake) or it means that the story just doesn’t quite work until you see the second part – a prime example of this being the Zygon story. In general, it works, but in terms of the viewing experience on a weekly basis, it’s much more difficult to consider this a success. I think I’d prefer it if, next year, we returned to something more akin to the structure of the first few series, wherein we would have two parters, but it was predominantly self contained episodes. Balance seems to be the best, in this case.

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Something I did appreciate, quite a lot, was the depiction of Clara and the Doctor across this series. Both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are phenomenal actors, and they got to have several brilliant stand out moments across this series; Capaldi’s Zygon speech and Jenna Coleman facing the Raven will likely be remembered for a long time to come.

I like the fact that both of these characters have developed since last year; the Doctor is no longer a broody, retrospective individual, but someone who’s really throwing himself into the adventure and having fun. There’s a journey here, an evolution, and when we begin series 10, we’ll be seeing a Doctor who is, once again, subtly different and a nuanced, developing character.

Clara’s arc this season was, I think, undercut somewhat by the nature of her role in the stories this season. What we were, in theory, supposed to see was an extension of Clara’s arc last year, as she became more and more of a Doctor like figure. And it worked in some episodes, certainly – Face the Raven springs to mind immediately – but I feel like Clara was sidelined in too many episodes (The Woman Who Lived, the Zygon two parter, etc) for her eventual ending to have the thematic weight it deserved. Certainly, it was still effective, but I do wish Clara had been given a greater role throughout the series.

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My only other principal worry, though, was that this series was way too reliant on continuity and callbacks to prior episodes.

The Magician’s Apprentice & The Witch’s Familiar had Daleks, Missy, and Davros, as well as the Maldovarium and the Shadow Proclamation. The Girl Who Died had a significant plot point and motivation predicated on a flashback to a six-year-old David Tennant story. The Zygon Invasion & The Zygon Inversion had Zygons, Osgood & Kate, and a fair few references to Classic UNIT stories. Face the Raven had cameos from old aliens like Sontarans and Cybermen and Ood and Judoon. Hell Bent, obviously, had Gallifrey.

That’s 7 of the 12 episodes with a real connection to the past, there, and it’s not like the others weren’t devoid of references here and there – Mark Gatiss threw in at least one joke about Silurians that I could remember, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were more throughout the series as well.

The worry is, of course, that this will start to alienate people and put them off – it’s great for fans, and I loved it, but there does come a point when you have to say that enough is enough. Series 9 has had the lowest viewing figures of any of the NuWho series across the last ten years, and I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the reason why; after all, the last time Doctor Who got mired in this much self referential continuity was the 1980s, and you remember how that turned out.

Obviously, I don’t think Doctor Who is in trouble. This has been one of the strongest seasons in several years, with some genuinely amazing episodes in it.

But I think that, more than anything, series 9 reminds us of the need for change, and the fact that we can’t be complacent. We’ve got to have evolving main characters, we’ve got to have changes to the format, and we’ve got to have innovative episodes.

So long as we keep that in mind, I have no doubt that Doctor Who will continue to rise to new heights.

This review was recently posted on the Yahoo TV website.

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Doctor Who Review: Hell Bent

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Run you clever boy, and be a Doctor.

And now we’ve finally reached the finale episode of series 9, bringing the latest season of Doctor Who to it’s close. After the closing scenes of last week’s episode, and the various trailers and promotional clips that were released across the week, I was pretty excited for this story. Yes, I know, this shouldn’t be such a big deal.

But it’s the return of Gallifrey. After ten years of ruminations on the importance of Gallifrey and its legacy, to return to the planet of the Time Lords is something that’s going to create some serious expectations. Particularly so, in fact, when you consider the inclusion of the Hybrid; a new addition for this series, carrying the potential to make us re-evaluate everything we thought we knew about the Doctor Who mythos. In fact, that was the promise: Moffat and Capaldi were both insisting that, with certain revelations, we’d never see the Doctor the same way again.

Did Hell Bent deliver, then? I’d say it did, actually, albeit not in the way I was expecting.

One of the things I found fascinating about the Gallifrey plot (beginning as it did after the cold open) was how long they held off on making the Doctor actually speak. That’s perhaps an odd thing to pick up on – I don’t think I’ve seen it discussed elsewhere yet – but it’s something that stood out to me as I was watching it. Obviously, it’s a very direct contrast to Heaven Sent, an episode which is nothing but the Doctor talking, and I think that’s part of what makes it so effective in establishing a very commanding presence for the Doctor in these sequences. He commands respect and authority simply though his presence, and that makes the audience feel his presence as well.

Similarly, the way the Doctor dealt with Rassilon and the High Council was unexpected, but I think it was effective in its simplicity. I think the majority of people were expecting that to form the entirety of the plot – The End of Time Part Three, as it were – but in the end, the Doctor simply kicked them off the planet by organising what would probably be considered his fastest revolution yet. It’s actually helped by the aforementioned silence, because this becomes more believable as the Doctor’s authority is emphasised; it’s ultimately a clever, swift way to deal with the Gallifrey problem before moving onto the main plot.

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It was smart, I think, to open in Nevada, rather than on Gallifrey, with this framing device. It turns the entire episode into one of Moffat’s favourite tropes – the puzzle box, with the layered reveal of the truth, pulling back every level of misdirection and obfuscation.

Even after Clara’s death in Face the Raven, I knew she’d be in this episode. In part because of things like casting announcements, but moreso because pictures of Jenna-Louise Coleman in her waitress outfit had been released, and we’d not seen that scene in the series thus far. My assumption, and I think that of many others, had been that this was another echo of Clara; the Doctor would go to visit her, as part of a final goodbye, which would form a quiet, intimate coda to the series after the loud bombast of the Gallifreyan Western. It would have been, I think, a rather bittersweet, melancholy goodbye, that could have fit Clara quite well. Moffat likely expected people to make this assumption, and played into it accordingly.

But then, halfway through the episode, the implication shifts. Because the Doctor starts talking about how he’d had to “wipe Clara’s memory”, the immediate assumption is that we’re now seeing her post memory wipe. And, well, of course that’s the assumption – why wouldn’t it be? We have every reason to believe that we’re now seeing the Doctor and Clara, post mind wipe, and this is all building up to a tragic ending. It’s clever, really; the framing device makes it seem like the story we’re watching is inevitable, but in fact, it’s the greatest sleight of hand of all. We’ve no idea where we’re going or what we’re going to see.

Because, in the end, it’s not a tragic ending. It’s the most ultimately triumphant ending a companion has ever received, and perhaps the most fitting of them all for Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl. It’s a brilliant final twist; throughout the whole of this season, we’d been lead to believe that Clara becoming more and more like the Doctor would lead to her downfall. In the end, though, it lead to her becoming a Doctor in her own right, travelling the universe in a rackety old TARDIS, with a companion right by her side. It’s beautiful in terms of what it implies, and allows, for Clara Oswald – just like in her first trip in the TARDIS, way back in The Rings of Akhaten, Clara ends with thousands of different possibilities ahead of her.

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It’s not just the story and the writing that works about this episode, though. It has two other core strengths; the visuals, and the acting.

Once again, Rachel Talalay has done a fantastic job of simply making this episode look beautiful. Every scene is just so nice to look at, you know? From the drylands of Gallifrey, to the interior of the classic TARDIS, there’s never anything on screen that looks less than perfect. (In the most recent issue of DWM [other Doctor Who Magazines do exist, probably] Talalay talks about how the classic TARDIS set was a bit of a nuisance to film on, primarily due to the fact it was constructed for 1960s style TV and filming. It’s an interesting account of the production of this episode, and made me appreciate what we saw on screen even more.)

Of course, with the acting, we’ve got to salute our two main leads: Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Capaldi was on fine form once again, demonstrating the same skills we saw on display last week. Capaldi did a great job of conveying the breadth of the Doctor’s emotions this week; his rage at the Time Lords, his desperation to save Clara, and, most poignant of all, his discussion with Clara at the end, unaware of who she really was. Capaldi did an amazing job this episode – and indeed this season – but it was those final scenes that really demonstrated his prowess. You can see it in his eyes; Capaldi takes those scenes, already written wonderfully by Moffat, and elevates them to 110%.

But he’s not the only one who does that – Jenna Coleman is just as skilled, and gives just as compelling a performance. Once again, there’s a danger that I’d be reduced to simply listing scenes – “Don’t you trust me?” “Not when you’re shouting, no.” – so I want to highlight, once again, the final goodbye between the Doctor and Clara in the diner. Where the Doctor doesn’t even realise he’s saying goodbye, not to her. Jenna Coleman gives a great performance; she does a wonderful job of showing the audience Clara’s reluctance to let the Doctor go, and appearing to still want to tell him the truth. It’s very well done.

In the end, then, Hell Bent is one of Moffat’s best series finales. It’s full of neat little touches; something I really loved was the use of Clara’s Theme throughout, which is one of Murray Gold’s most beautiful scores. (And an on-screen depiction of a cross-race, cross-gender regeneration! Wonderful stuff.) While I might have perhaps liked a little more resolution to the Gallifrey plotline, in the end, we got an intensely emotional, intimate plot, about the end of a friendship, performed by talented actors, on a beautiful set.

And I think it’s difficult to ask for more than that.

10/10

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Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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