Doctor Who didn’t have a lot farther to sink after last season, so season nine was almost by definition something of a rebound. With Jenna Coleman having announced beforehand that she’d be leaving the series, many stories seemed to tease her departure by putting Clara in positions where she could be plausibly killed off.
(Much) more – with spoilers – after the jump.
Ranking the episodes for this season is a tad awkward since 8 of the 12 episodes were each 2-parters, there was one standalone episode, and the last three were really three distinct stories which flowed into one another, but were so different from each other that I’m going to rank them individually. I’m also including the two Christmas episodes shown since then, as those stories usually (though not always) feel more like codas to the previous season than lead-ins to the next season (plus I was lazy enough about writing this up that a whole year has gone by since the season aired).
- “Heaven Sent” (written by Steven Moffat)
- “Under The Lake”/”Before The Flood” (Toby Whithouse)
- “The Zygon Invasion”/”The Zygon Inversion” (Peter Harness & Steven Moffat)
- “Hell Bent” (Steven Moffat)
- “The Husbands of River Song” (Steven Moffat)
- “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar” (Steven Moffat)
- “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” (Steven Moffat)
- “Face The Raven” (Sarah Dollard)
- “The Girl Who Died”/”The Woman Who Lived” (Jamie Mathieson & Steven Moffat, and Catherine Treganna)
- “Sleep No More” (Mark Gatiss)
The season started with a big pile of fanservice in “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar”: The Daleks, Missy (the Master), UNIT, Davros, Skaro, the seeming destruction of the TARDIS, a portent of the Doctor’s impending death, yadda, yadda, yadda. The episode definitely got off on the wrong foot with Missy doing impossible things purely for effect, and the Doctor behaving erratically for no good reason. It gets a bit better, especially in the character bits between the Doctor and Davros (in which each of them lives up to our expectations), and Missy and Clara (about which more later), but it’s just a lightweight romp without any real meaning, except maybe to show just how nasty Missy is. Sadly, Michelle Gomez’s Missy is proving to be underutilized because of the weak stories she’s appeared in.
Things got a lot better in “Under The Lake”/”Before The Flood”, which was the best Capaldi episode to this point, doing what Doctor Who has traditionally done very well: An isolated-locale mystery/horror story, in this case on an underwater base with “ghosts” trying to kill off our heroes and the base’s crew. The details of the story’s premise are a bit nonsensical (the ghosts can touch inanimate objects but not people?), though more consistent than a lot of the silliness in this season. The story breaks – effectively – with the usual format of these stories in that the Doctor leaves in the TARDIS to explore the roots of the problem, but it works quite well. It also has a more upbeat ending than many of these stories have. A very solid story.
The next two episodes are two linked stories introducing the character of Ashildr a.k.a. Me, played by Maisie Williams, who plays an important role later on, but they’re otherwise pretty weak. “The Girl Who Died” is a trivial Vikings-vs.-aliens yarn in which Ashildr gains immortality, and “The Woman Who Lived” shows her development after another 800 years, in the 17th century. The second half is a little more effective, in suggesting the tragedies Me has had to endure, including losing her memories due to her extended lifetime. But both episodes are much more focused on their trivial A stories than the implications of immortality, so they’re both pretty forgettable.
The Zygon two-parter is a pretty decent allegory about war, following up on the events of “The Day of the Doctor”, with some nice suspenseful moments. It’s at its best during its climax, with Capaldi delivering a powerful monologue about war and its effects, though of course in a high-level bloodless manner. It’s the politics of war, not the horrors of war. It has a couple of nice kickers with memory wipes and the ambiguity of the dual Osgoods. One wonders how many times an Osgood has been killed and replaced by a new Zygon; maybe the original Osgood died years ago. With time travel, memory wipes, and other shenanigans in routine use in this series, one wonders whether anything on Earth is what it appears at this point in the series.
I don’t think I’ll stir any controversy in stating that “Sleep No More” is one of the weakest episodes of the series, as awful a locked-venue-horror story as “Under The Lake” was great, with a plot that makes no sense, creatures that make no sense, and a kicker that makes no sense. Just awful.
The final three episodes are sort of one big story, and sort of not. “Face the Raven” has the return of Me, who’s the mayor of a hidden sanctuary of aliens on Earth with their own laws which are applied even to humans who wander in accidentally. The story focuses on Clara’s stupendously bad decision which leads to her death, but doesn’t focus nearly enough on Me’s capricious and amoral behavior or what led her to become a tinpot tyrant with a veneer of doing good. The episode is manipulative in the worst way, with the writer carefully arranging the story to achieve a desired outcome, and also trying her darndest to make Me seem like a mere pawn of the Time Lords, when in fact she’s just a despicable character. While there could be mitigating factors for her behavior, none of these are actually shown to us, and so it doesn’t work.
On the other hand, it leads into what is Capaldi’s single best episode, “Heaven Sent”, in which he’s trapped in a torture chamber to force him to disclose what he knows about the fabled “Hybrid”, which is destined to stand in the ruins of Gallifrey. The details of the plot have some rough edges if you think about it (the rooms reset – sort of; the castle is inside the Doctor’s Confession Dial, yet the passage of time inside is marked by the stars, etc.), but it’s still tremendously effective, largely due to the script and Capaldi’s virtuoso performance. The montage as the Doctor works his way towards escape is perhaps the best moment of the season.
And this leads into “Hell Bent”, where we learn that it’s the Time Lords who entrapped the Doctor for 4.5 billion years (!), apparently unable to ever take the hint that he’s not going to tell them what they want to know. The story is a weird one, starting off with the Doctor making significant changes to the Time Lord government, and then switching to him recusing Clara and working to save her, before she manages to wipe his memory of her, and she and Me head off in their own TARDIS. A lot of this makes no sense, as wiping her memory seems like a convenient plot gimmick that wouldn’t actually accomplish anything, and the whole “no pulse” thing makes one wonder why she’d still be able to move, or think, in her condition. It’s all for effect, nothing else.
Watching these episodes yesterday, it occurred to me that one of the running themes of Clara’s time with the Doctor is just how utterly out of her depth she is: She’s completely overmatched by Missy, she’s captured by the Zygons and essentially is powerless against them, and she fatally screws up in “Face the Raven” by acting without understanding what she’s doing, which results in her own death. This doesn’t bode particularly well for her career as an immortal time travelling adventuress, and her companion, Me, doesn’t seem likely to be a great help. It’s not hard to imagine Me taking advantage of Clara in the pursuit of some new psychopathic goal.
It’s too bad, because Clara was an interesting and effective character with the eleventh Doctor, saving his existence and achieving a mutual respect in “The Day of the Doctor”, but it was all torn down by his multiple betrayals of her in “The Time of the Doctor”, and she’s been a pretty weak sidekick to the twelfth Doctor (to be sure, not helped by the array of weak stories in season 8). I don’t think Moffat and the other writers ever got a handle on the relationship between the two characters, and so it’s often felt forced or artificial. Contrast with Rose, who had markedly different, yet distinct and well-defined, relationships with the ninth and tenth Doctors; Clara never achieved that with the twelfth. Disappointing.
Last year’s Christmas Special, “The Husbands of River Song”, was a goofy adventure story that turned into a nice coda to both season nine, and the character of River Song, who just faded away after the sixth season, despite having been a central part of that season. River is in many ways a more successful form of Me: A character of fluid morality, capable of great things but often doing questionable (if not terrible) things. If a person is judged by the company they keep, neither River nor Me bolsters the Doctor’s credentials much. River is a more successful balancing act than Me, since we rarely see her doing questionable things until this episode, and her genuine displays of emotion seem much less artificial (maybe a testament to Alex Kingston’s performances, but probably also due to her getting better stories). In many ways River is a testament to Steven Moffat’s writing style at its best: Though the story doesn’t make a lot of sense beyond the surface level, but the feelings it evokes are genuine, and you’re willing to forgive the parts that don’t seem thought through. I feel like there was a lot of potential in River’s story arc which was left on the table, though.
Finally we have this year’s Christmas special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, which is a trifle filled with witty dialogue and humorous scenarios. I’m not sure why almost every mainstream writer who plays in the superhero genre feels compelled to start with an origin story for the hero, and to play around with the sillier aspects of the genre (such as the painful dinner date between the Ghost and Lucy), but Moffat numbers among them. Clearly Moffat is trying to evoke some parts of Superman: The Movie, but it just feels tired and dated at this point. I think Moffat missed a good opportunity to portray a heroic figure who’s the Doctor’s equal, how the Doctor feels about that, and perhaps also why no one’s heard of this hero before now. I think that would have been more interesting than Yet Another Clandestine Invasion Yarn.
So overall this season was a big step up from the last, but still pretty uneven, with plenty of warts. Peter Capaldi seems like he is much more comfortable in the role, and the character is a lot more colorful. The advance clips of next season don’t show much of what it’s going to be like, but as long as the stories become more consistent and less ridiculous, I’ll be happy.