Doctor Who, Season Ten

While I’ve enjoyed Peter Capaldi as the Doctor well enough, I haven’t been terribly impressed with the stories in his first two seasons, although season nine did have two very good ones and one decent one. Did I like his final season in the role?

Find out (with spoilers) after the jump!

As is customary (for me), here’s my ranking of the stories, with their writers:

  1. “World Enough and Time”/”The Doctor Falls” (Steven Moffat)
  2. “Empress of Mars” (Mark Gatiss)
  3. “Twice Upon a Time” (Moffat)
  4. “Oxygen” (Jamie Mathieson)
  5. “Extremis” (Moffat)
  6. “Smile” (Frank Cottrell-Boyce)
  7. “The Pyramid at the End of the World”/”The Lie of the Land” (Peter Harness & Moffat/Toby Whithouse)
  8. “Knock Knock” (Mike Bartlett)
  9. “The Eaters of Light” (Rona Munro)
  10. “The Pilot” (Moffat)
  11. “Thin Ice” (Sarah Dollard)

Some readers may recall that I really disliked season eight, and I’d say this was a better season than that (which is not a high bar to clear). But while I found most episodes in this season enjoyable, I didn’t find them very memorable, and indeed had to go to Wikipedia to remind me what some of the episodes were about, which is unusual since I tend to have a very good memory for TV episodes.

The season opens with “Pilot”, which exists primarily to establish the Doctor’s current status quo as a university professor with Nardole (Matt Lucas) as his aide, guarding a vault in the basement, and to introduce us to Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) as his new companion. The nominal story here is flat-out ridiculous, though the character of Heather (the “pilot”) does seed Bill’s eventual happy ending at the season’s conclusion, but there’s nothing in it otherwise to marvel at or sink your teeth into.

I liked Bill well enough as a companion, although I found her to be bot much more than the modern iteration Generic Companion Number One (c.f., Jo Grant, Nyssa, Mel, Martha Jones – and for that matter Clara during the Capaldi seasons). I think Mackie’s exuberant performance helped elevate the character a bit. But I was much more entertained by Lucas’ Nardole, who – despite inconsistent writing – was maybe the companion with the richest personality since Jack Harkness.

Most of the season’s stories were done-in-one tales, and most of those fell into one of two familiar tropes: A period horror piece, or a locked-house horror piece (and sometimes both). These are very common tropes in the history of Doctor Who, and the series has often done them very well. (“The Robots of Death” is a prime example, and – although I think some fans would disagree with me – so is “Horror of Fang Rock”.) “Smile”, “Thin Ice”, “Knock Knock” and “The Eaters of Light” all fall into this bucket, and all were decent enough (yes, the weakest episode of the season was “decent enough” – something the last two seasons couldn’t claim), but I don’t have a lot to say about either of them. “Oxygen” also falls here, and though it feels a bit like a redux of “Silence in the Library”, it was also pretty good. And it was a lead-in to one of the two major stories of the season.

The standout standalone story, though, was “Empress of Mars”, which was both a period (Victorian England) and locked-room (trapped in caves under Mars) horror piece, but it was much richer than the others: It had several engaging characters, each flawed to some degree, and an interesting mix of motivations, rooted in the clash of cultures (imperialist England and reviving Ice Warriors). While it has a fairly ridiculous premise, it builds on that premise well, avoiding the trap of layering even more ridiculousness on top of it. Plus it has a nice easter egg at the end for long-time fans.

The first of the two major stories in the season consisted of “Extremis”, “The Pyramid at the End of the World”, and “The Lie of the Land”, involving the monks who conquer the world. “Extremis” is by far the most interesting of these three episodes, with its clever we’re-all-in-a-simulation premise. (Fortunately we’re notprobably.) It stops short of grappling with what that would really mean, but it has a neat kicker at the end. Unfortunately, the two episodes that follow are pretty blah. While the notion of the monks rewriting history through editing everyone’s memories is intriguing, the piece is really unremarkable conquer-the-world stuff, a theme which I think the show should put a moratorium on for a few years, as it feels played out at this point. The monks themselves are just bland; no need for them to ever come back unless a new angle on them can be found.

The other major story, of course, is the season conclusion. “World Enough and Time” starts as a horror yarn, and finishes on a cliffhanger involving Missy, her predecessor the Master (John Simm, chewing the scenery as few can), and Bill transformed into a Cyberman. “The Doctor Falls” finishes out the season with a convoluted yarn involving a lot of explosions, and Bill heading off to explore the cosmos with Heather from “Pilot”. And the Doctor about to regenerate but resistant to do so. It’s an enjoyable enough romp which largely falls apart if you look at it even a little bit. Missy’s character collapses into a mess of questionable motivations where I felt like we were left hanging as to whether she’d really follow through on her dying promise to help the Doctor. And at the end the ship is still stuck at the edge of a black hole, with Nardole and his small farming community having escaped a few levels up, until presumably a new wave of Cybermen eventually overcomes them. And the janitor from “World Enough” likely spending the last week of his life at the top of the ship waiting anxiously until he, too, is overcome. Cheerful! Ultimately there are too many loose ends for this to be a satisfying story.

Capaldi’s tenure ends with the Christmas episode, “Twice Upon a Time”, in which he meets the first Doctor (David Bradley, who doesn’t closely resemble William Hartnell but conveys his mannerisms well), and both of them work through their issues resisting their respective regenerations with the help of a World War One soldier (Mark Gatiss) and a collective of individual human memories called the Testimony. In a sense it’s a return to Moffat’s better stories during the Russell T. Davies era, a little weak on believability (there’s little reason to believe that humanity in the Whoniverse could be trusted with this high level of time travel capability) but emotionally resonant. While there’s a bunch of plodding in the middle of the story (jumping out of a spaceship, going to seek a friendly Dalek), it has a heartwarming climax involving the Christmas truce of 1914. This leads into a lengthy goodbye with Clara, Bill, and Nardole, and a lengthy goodbye soliloquy by Capaldi’s Doctor before he regenerates and (sigh) the TARDIS explodes again. (As you can tell there are some recent conventions in regeneration sequences that I’d rather they do away with in the future.)

Oh yes, and there was supposedly a running story in the season involving the Doctor guarding Missy in the vault below the university, after having refused to execute her and instead agreeing to keep her imprisoned for a thousand years. While full of potential, this thread was ultimately a big nothing. How long had the Doctor been there guarding her? What sorts of impact had he had (or not had) as a result of being there for so long? Why would he put up with this, since it’s not like he’s the only Time Lord around to take charge of her? Was he supposed to just let her go after a millennia? And Nardole’s sense of righteous responsibility made for some interesting character tensions early on, but once he released her in “Empress of Mars” – which seemed very out-of-character for him – any potential in this set-up went out the window. Ultimately, I don’t think there was any payoff to this set-up.

So. Season ten: Terribly, credibly okay. I predict that it’s not destined to have a great deal of re-watch value.

This season says goodbye to both Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor, and Steven Moffat as lead writer and show runner. Moffat’s tenure has seen the series explode from nerd-popular to globally popular, though his writing has been subject to criticism.

I thought Moffat’s tenure started strong and went downhill. I thought the first two eleventh Doctor seasons were generally strong, and the running storylines in them were quite rewarding. But the third season was a mess, with a couple of high-profile-yet-terrible episodes, and both River Song’s and the Silence’s storylines spluttered out. Then the series cratered in the first twelfth Doctor season.

As a writer, Moffat’s strength (as I said above) was working an evocative premise – even if it didn’t hold up under examination – whose human elements resonated and moved the viewer. I think that’s still true, but I feel those strengths didn’t transition well to running the whole show. Certainly I don’t have any insight into how the show gets put together, and it might be that there was a deliberate pull-back from ongoing storylines dictated at a higher level, but I think it really killed the momentum of the series. I don’t know if the show’s problems these last 4 seasons have been due to Moffat, or executive fiat, or something else, but something wasn’t working. I hope it’s something that will be changed.

As I said at the beginning, I thought Capaldi was fine as the Doctor. It took him a while to grow into the role, perhaps because of the exceedingly weak stories in his first season (and boy does his ‘look’ in that season look strange now, especially the short hair, but also the Doctor’s stuffier attitude). Ultimately, the themes of his character were those of kindness, mercy, and reason, and perhaps his finest moment was in “The Zygon Inversion”, when he urged the humans and the Zygons to think about what they were doing and to have some compassion for others. Which was the point of ending up at the Christmas truce here, of course: A moment of spontaneous compassion in the middle of one of the most insane events in human history. For me, his enduring phrase was “Just be kind”, with an expression of hope that others would listen and sadness that he couldn’t fix everything.

The season ended with Capaldi regenerating into Jodie Whittaker’s thirteenth Doctor, and next season the show will be run by Chris Chibnall, who has written several episodes for the show before (of varying quality, but all over 5 years ago), and who created Broadchurch (of which I’ve heard good things but haven’t seen). Doctor Who has over 36 seasons of material in the can now, and it seems clear that something needs to change. A new head writer, a Doctor who is by definition substantially unlike all her predecessors – it just might work.

We’ll find out in the fall of 2018.

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