Series Nine - A RetrospectiveBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 9 December 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Magician's Apprentice (Credit: BBC / David Venni)This 2015 batch of new Adventures on TV had a somewhat difficult start to its campaign. Unlike the last two years of screened material there was no obvious hook to bring the masses back for more long-past-teatime, Saturday fare. Last year had the new Doctor, and indeed a gender-altered Master. The year before was the 50th anniversary, and by both luck and circumstance the coup of hiring legendary screen star Sir John Hurt. And yet I have been most satisfied, challenged and moved by these recent standalones, two parters and ambivalently-connected arc episodes. It is hard to imagine many other years being quite as good a vintage as this one. Ratings and audience appreciation are perhaps not what die hard fans would want, and yet the overall show has more lives than a cat and so many more avenues to pursue. Having writing talent from relative newcomers such as Sarah Dollard and Peter Harness is one of many positive omens.

What a relief it has been that showrunner Steven Moffat decided to go back to the continuous run of episodes both this year and last, as was the convention for most of 2005-2008. I prefer the opportunity to invest in characters over a reasonable period and to also appreciate story arcs and recurrent themes this way. The Christmas specials certainly are a mainstay of Yuletide TV schedules, and whilst not usually offering 24 caret gold stories, do their bit to reflect on the current series before viewers await the next one. River Song alongside just the Doctor seems like a good approach, and finally makes Alex Kingston the younger romantic interest of the Doctor (after being something of a 'cougar' figure for Tennant and especially Smith). How much the Doctor shares his various mental torments relating to Series 9's concluding three episodes should also be of real interest to the faithful viewer.

Whilst Series 8 was a pretty good batch of episodes, not everyone took to the new Doctor, despite the guaranteed excellence of an actor likePeter Capaldi. The deliberate choice of having him question whether he was a 'good man' meant his actions and attitude at times were pretty cold in away not so starkly seen since the Sixth Doctor (with some flashes here and there from the likes of Ecclestone and Tennant at times more recently).

This latest collective of escapades however gives us a more avuncular Tardis pilot. He may still be awkward with a given human being, such as Rigsy's baby but he tries to be agreeable and has also taken to being a bit of a senior rocker - with sonic glasses and electric guitar. Most friends and acquaintances of mine who follow the show have been much more convinced and happy with this more 'accesible' and warm persona. That is not to say though that he cannot be ruthless, (as seen in his defeat of Davros and the Daleks, his outwitting of the Fisher King, or his gunning down of the General on Gallifrey - regeneration or no regeneration),  or too stubborn and reckless (his imposed immortality on Ashildr which contrasts with the accidental state Captain Jack was left in, and his refusal to let Clara die which results in one of them having to forget their time together). But a flawed Doctor is for me the best way to get behind him, rather than running the risk of another generic white hat. The first four Doctors in particular were lovable, silly, authoratitive and moody to greater or lesser degrees. Capaldi being an actual fan of the Classic Series recognises that complexity is paramount to making the title role a success.

I have always been a Clara admirer, going right back to her plucky debut which ended in the most agonising of reveals that she was the maddest Dalek in the 'Asylum'. Although her on/off appearances abroad the TARDIS, and multiple exits may have whittled down others' good will, I still was happy to see her accompany the grey-haired Time Lord after various 'farewell' moments. But early on in Series 9 most faithful viewers knew that Clara's long running stint was finally reaching a conclusion. Although there were teased deaths in most episodes leading up to Face the Raven, the eventual method of departing the mortal coil was most appropriate for her personality and indeed her legacy. She chose to cheat a duplicitous Me of harming someone, even though it was just manipulation to make the Doctor bend to her collaborators' terms. But Clara's 'smart' intervention only served to highlight how some legally binding contracts are painfully narrow in scope. Her dignity in accepting she was done for, and the Doctor's desperate attempts to pull a rabbit out of the hat were some of the finest moments not just of Capaldi's run so far but of all of Doctor Who. And the cinematic, elegantly done way Clara let the Raven extract the life from her, with multiple camera shots and a deliberate decision to eschew sound effects, meant it almost took on a poetic elegance. Some however have not been happy with her continued use in the series finale, but surely turning an ordinary Earthling into a never-aging, somewhat stilted entity who will eventually have to go back for her fixed point of death, is a particularly memorable way to bid adieu to both a fine actress inJenna Coleman, and a uniquely crucial figure in the Doctor's many lives. That she pairs up with the morally dubious Ashildr/Me and gets to fly another stolen TARDIS invites viewers of all ages to imagine countless riveting avenues for a whole new duo.

The consistency of this season has been truly commendable. Only The Girl Who Died, featuring Vikings and a fake god with semi-cyborg warriors fell short of the mark for me. In many ways the ingredients were good but the end result was a cheesy romp more at home on the weekday afternoon slot of young children's TV. Although twists and directorial flourishes were evident, I never really cared for the fate of the supporting characters and would have been indifferent to Ashildr, were I not a big admirer of Maisie Williams' natural style from Game of Thrones. But my overall attitude to the episode is boosted by observing that the plot set up much of the remaining series quite well and gave the Doctor a chance to really see much negative influence he can wield, despite himself.

Most two-parters were very enjoyable and did enough to justify their length. The Davros/Missy/Daleks effort from Moffat was a great showcase of what makes Doctor Who fun, moving, chilling and unpredictable. Only the ending fell down somewhat in that it made Davros look a bit too foolish, whereas his defeat when supposedly in charge of the Hand of Omega is still a fine moment from the Seventh Doctor era. The twisted genius discounting the 'inferior Daleks' as not being linked just felt a little contrived. And yet by needing this conclusion to bring Capaldi and Julian Bleach together for amazing conversation after fascinating discussion, I can forgive Moffat in not plotting his story as tightly as Toby Whithouse did In his respective two parter.

I have always been partial to adventure stories involving the sea and underwater base intrigue.  Under the Lake /Before the Flood certainly was another strong addition to the many such examples available. By limiting the screen time of the main villain and showing the human players in depth, we were made to feel like real lives and emotions were at stake. Whithouse's script showed poise and confidence, and Capaldi gave us a taster of the outrage and dedication to winning at any cost; which was in evidence when threatening Me in the latter episodes of the series. The Fisher King had brute force and special powers with 'ghosts', but the Time Lord who cradles Earth had the guile and the masterplan. By linking a story already full of incident with a most ingenious subsidiary plot involving Beethoven gaining inspiration, this will be a personal favourite of mine even if other productions were arguably better overall.

The Woman Who Lived immediately answered questions as to what an immortal Ashildr could be capable of, and her collaboration with the leonine aliens with dark designs for Earth showed the folly of the Doctor believing a human could remained uncorrupted by having an endless lifespan. I was quite excited for this highwayman-themed story, but had to almost force myself to finish it in one sitting. Though it did many basic things right, it seemed to not have enough urgency or fully-fledged characters to connect with. And yet the decision to ultimately lose out on having a fellow immortal join the 'young' wonan was astute, perfectly setting up the rather pompous and indeed dangerous leader of a hidden society in Face the Raven. And as she faced endless centuries before at last sitting on Gallifrey's ruins, the audience were invited to reflect that the Doctor was more relatable on the surface and also more deplorable in essence.

Some perhaps would cite the Mark Gatiss effort, Sleep No More , as the low point for Series 9. I never found it totally gripping, but I still admired the attempts to do something different. The Doctor was never going to come close to pulling off a win, or saving even half the lives of the military force he teamed up with. The final twist which had a strong meta element was nicely done though, and helped compensate for a sluggish pace, lack of memorable sets or monsters, and a bizarre decision to crop the opening credits and bolt them wih the closing ones.

Other than three comparative misfires, the series showed verve, heart and invention aplenty. Who can forget the haunting and disturbing showcase of Capaldi's range as the Doctor is trapped in the most punishing of groundhog days in Heaven Sent? Or the impassioned and perfectly scripted speech our hero gives to the representatives of the human and Zygon races in the bunker, which makes them realise there are no winners in war?

Having a good variety of time zones, planets and space stations - real, imagined or fake - also showed the care and attention that the producers, writers and other crew were willing to bring to the table. The modern show may now be a veteran, even if one were to somehow discount the Classic Series as another entity altogether, and yet that can be a big plus. For now, the happy medium has been found and bottled, and can be sprinkled over the airwaves and streams of various nations worldwide. 

So it's a long wait for more top notch Capaldi/Moffat fare, especially once the Doctor and River have had a reunion for the umpteenth instance in their amazingly tangled time-streams. But why not  press the reset button? Just go watch the opening pretitles on Skaro's warzone and the Doctor being forced to question his moral framework like rarely before..right up to the closing moments where he opts for a sonic screwdriver proper once again, and adventures in the past, present and future. 

'Series 9' (or 'new' Doctor Who's Eleventh Year) is one to treasure and cherish time and time again.

 

*****************

Episode rankings

The Outstanding: Face the Raven, Heaven Sent

 

The Excellent: The Magician's Apprentice/ The Witch's Familiar, Hell Bent, Under The Lake/Before The Flood

 

The Good: The Zygon Invasion/ Inversion

 

The Average: The Woman Who Lived, Sleep No More

 

The Disappointing: The Girl Who Died