The latest season of Doctor Who is in my view the weakest of the relaunched series. The basic problem is that the scripts were generally quite weak, and failed to follow through on the promise of their premises, or contribute to the ongoing developments in the series.
As usual, my ranking of episodes this season from best to worst:
- Asylum of the Daleks (written by Steven Moffat)
- The Name of the Doctor (Moffat)
- Cold War (Mark Gatiss)
- Hide (Neil Cross)
- The Bells of Saint John (Moffat)
- The Rings of Akhaten (Cross)
- The Snowmen (Moffat)
- The Crimson Horror (Gatiss)
- Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (Stephen Thompson)
- Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Chris Chibnall)
- The Angels Take Manhattan (Moffat)
- Nightmare in Silver (Neil Gaiman)
- The Power of Three (Chibnall)
- A Town Called Mercy (Toby Whithouse)
(I’m excluding last year’s Christmas special, “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” from the list because I don’t think it’s really part of the season. But if you’re curious I rate it a “shrug”.)
Also as usual, there are spoilers ahead!
I’ve read that producer Stephen Moffat wanted this season to consist of standalone episodes without a season-long story arc like the ones which characterized the last two seasons. I’m not against this – after all, there were many excellent seasons of the original series which didn’t have season arcs – but it was disappointing in that the previous season ended with many questions left unresolved, and the whole “Silence” story thus feels like it was put on hold (their origins and ultimate goals are still, as I understand it, shrouded in mystery). But it was really just the weak stories that sank this season.
On the bright side, the season was bookended by its two best episodes. “Asylum of the Daleks” was genuinely creepy all around. The introduction of Clara was very well done, leaving fans wondering on a meta level who she was since we knew the actress, Jenna-Louise Coleman, would be playing the new companion later in the season. But more importantly it had the clever twist of the knife when we learned that Clara was in fact a Dalek. The erasing of the Daleks’ memories of the Doctor was a little too convenient (they are, after all, cyborgs, not computers), but still an effective climax to the season.
At the other end of the season we had the second-best episode, “The Name of the Doctor”. I was delighted by all the fans who were up in arms that Moffat (whose running of the show a certain slice of Who fandom seem to loathe beyond all reason) had taken it upon himself to reveal the Doctor’s real name, only to have their ire cut short by Moffat working his way around it. Very clever. Besides that, I thought the episode overall was also very clever, teasing us with things like the Doctor’s tomb, hints at what’s to come in his life, and a perfectly satisfactory explanation for why Clara appeared and died twice before during the season. Plus we had Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax (I love Strax!), about whom I’d be perfectly happy to watch a spin-off series.
The coda to the episode (the lead-in to the fall 50th anniversary special) was enjoyably provocative. John Hurt has to be the most prominent actor to play the Doctor (unless you count Peter Cushing). I think my favorite theory is that he’s the real ninth Doctor, who fought the Time War and made some highly questionable decisions, and that Matt Smith is actually the twelfth Doctor. (This would throw a wrench into the “fall of the eleventh” references at the end of season six, but I could live with that.) I don’t think I’d buy that he’s a future incarnation of the Doctor, since our Doctor seems to know what he did as memories, so he must be either a past or an alternate incarnation. Time (travellers) will tell!
Beyond those two episodes is a big drop-off to a couple of decent ones, then another big drop-off to a whole bunch of weak ones.
“Cold War” is a reasonable trapped-with-a-monster-in-a-small-space story (the original series did this kind of story quite well). The gimmick of the TARDIS mysteriously disappearing at the beginning was completely ridiculous and unnecessary, but otherwise the episode worked well as both a horror piece, and in pushing the nominal villain to rise above his limitations. Seeing an ice warrior was fun, as well. I do wish more of the actors on the Soviet sub had managed to affect even a bad Russian accent; after a while I found their solid English accents so distracting that I decided to just assume they were really on a British sub.
“Hide” is also a good monster story with a nifty twist. I thought the tail end of the episode was poorly-explained – that there were apparently multiple monsters – and that it was poorly foreshadowed by what had gone before. But the idea of a woman trapped in a pocket reality where time moves much more slowly was pretty neat. The use of the TARDIS to rescue everyone was a bit cheesy, though. (“In my day the Doctor could rescue everyone without having to resort to using the TARDIS as a deus-ex-machina!”)
The rest of the season was pretty weak, and several episodes followed a common pattern: The core plot was so silly as to be unbelievable (especially as a mechanism for suspense), but they had some good character bits. “The Bells of Saint John”‘s premise of trapping peoples’ souls in the Internet was absurd, but the introduction of Clara worked well. “The Snowmen” was the prologue to the Clara story and was similar in both regards (with the bonus of Vastra, Jenny and Strax). Both “The Rings of Akhaten” and “The Crimson Horror” were less absurd in their premises, but were also thoroughly routine in them. (I know a lot of people enjoyed seeing Diana Rigg in “Horror”, but she didn’t save an uninteresting story.)
“Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” was a big missed-opportunity episode. We’ve seen the innards of the TARDIS at various points in the past (most memorably in the original-series “Invasion of Time”), and there were some nice bits tromping around in it here, but mostly the episode was a lot of running around. The notion of Clara and the salvagers getting turned into those creatures, with time somehow folding in on itself so our heroes meet them (but not themselves) was pretty silly, and of course the solution is a big ol’ time paradox. Again, some nice character bits, but fairly silly overall.
Notice that I haven’t mentioned any Amy-and-Rory episodes other than “Asylum” yet? That’s because the rest of the first half of the season was pretty awful! “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” gets points for its enthusiasm, both in its premise and title, and in the highly entertaining performance of Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley of the Harry Potter films) as Rory’s dad. The overall story was again, basically silly. As with “Journey”, this one might have been salvageable with a few more rewrites (and perhaps a bit more menace), but as filmed it feels like a mess.
And now we come to “The Angels Take Manhattan”, which I’ve already written about at length. Really the whole thing was just awful: The first five episodes should have been devoted to Amy and Rory realizing they’ve outgrown their time with the Doctor and coming to the difficult decision to part from him because it’s time to get on with their lives. The subtext that the Doctor is a “childish thing” which needs to be put away (which in Amy’s case is almost-literally true!) would have been additionally provocative. Moffat completely missed the boat on this one, and the episode is just a train wreck.
What to say about “Nightmare in Silver”? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it might be the worst Neil Gaiman-penned story I’ve ever seen or read. Super-speed Cybermen? Kids put in danger? An inept combat platoon? The Doctor turned into a cyber-planner in mere seconds? The planner gets defeated because the Doctor essentially asks them to compute, to the last digit, the value of pi? (Speaking of Star Trek references, I kept wondering if the Cybermen were going to say “Norman, coordinate” at some point.) Words fail me at the stupidity of it all. The Cybermen are frightening because of their implacable relentlessness and difficulty to kill, and this episode sidesteps pretty much everything that makes them good villains. The character bits with Porridge are good, but otherwise the episode just didn’t work for me at all. I have no idea how much of this story is as Gaiman wrote it, and how much got rewritten by the show’s writing crew, but it’s almost impossible to believe that it’s by the same writer who produced “The Doctor’s Wife”.
“The Power of Three” is not a good episode – the main plot is ludicrous – but it made a decent effort to set up Amy and Rory’s departure as they wondered whether they should keep travelling with the Doctor. These efforts were completely negated by the awful ending of “The Angels Take Manhattan”, though, so the episode is something of a no-op.
Last and least is “A Town Called Mercy” involving a cyborg hunter in the old west. Doctor Who in the old west – bad idea. It’s a perfectly nondescript war criminal/hunter yarn with a heartwarming ending for a tragic character. Okay if you like that kind of thing, I guess, but I found it completely old hat (and not of the ten-gallon variety). Is it really, truly the worst episode of the season? It didn’t make me want to throw something at the screen like “Angels” did, but Doctor Who in the old west, the blah plot, and the a-little-too-feelgood resolution are big strikes against it.
Hopefully next season can see a bounce-back, and I’m certainly looking forward to the 50th anniversary special. But this season was not very good.