December 10, 2015

Doctor Who: Season 9 in review

Last year I was pretty underwhelmed by Doctor Who, and it came at a time when I felt I should have been energised by it. A new Doctor, played by an actor of whom I was already a keen fan, and who instinctively felt like a better fit for the role than either of his two most immediate predecessors. The problem was that while the star had changed, the series around him had not. It was almost a "business-as-usual" approach from executive producer Steven Moffat, at precisely the time when everything should have been thrown up in the air and changed around. He did it so well when Matt Smith debuted in Season 5; I wanted something like that, and didn't get it.

We definitely do get an adjusted style of Doctor Who with Season 9, but rather than a shock change it was a subtle adjustment over a period of episodes. It began very much in the style of Moffat's earlier seasons, but it ended somewhere a bit slower, a bit darker, and a lot more textured and mature. The season premiere, "The Magician's Apprentice", feels like any number of Steven Moffat episodes from the previous four seasons. By the time we hit the finale, "Hell Bent", it feels tonally changed. It's clearly the work of the same writer but the sort of emotional beats he's hitting have changed. There's a great focus on dialogue than on frantic activity. I actually liked every episode this year, some more than others, and that's a feat I haven't managed in any prior season of the revived show.

So what specifically worked and didn't work in Season 9? Let's break out some dot points and see.

Things that worked
  • Peter Capaldi and the Doctor. While I enjoyed Peter Capaldi's performance last year, this year he settled in remarkably. The balance between his Doctor's brusque and irritable personality and the character's well-established humanity was struck perfectly this year. I read a lot of comments and reviews from people finding elements in his performance of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Christopher Eccleston and others - I think that's not because he was actively aping any of those earlier actors, but because he finally managed to pinpoint the exact qualities that transform an actor into the Doctor.
  • Two-part stories. Splitting the season into four two-part stories, a three-part finale and a one-off experimental episode really worked for me. It achieved two things. Firstly we got a lot of cliffhangers compared to other 21st century seasons, and to me the cliffhanger ending is as integral to the Doctor Who format as the TARDIS or the Daleks. Secondly, and more importantly, it just let all of the storylines settle down and breathe. There was room to explain things, and there was room to give the characters - both regulars and guests - a chance to be properly fleshed out and realised.
  • Experimentation. The opening two-parter teamed the Doctor's companion up with Missy, creating a fresh and entertaining dynamic. Another linked its two episodes by nothing other than one of the guest characters. One episode featured nobody but the Doctor and a shrouded monster. Another was shot in a found footage format akin to The Blair Witch Project. There was a sense this year of the writers collectively trying something new. It didn't necessarily pay off every time - the found footage "Sleep No More" was easily the weakest episode of the season - but it was great to see the series shift out of its comfort zone a little.
  • That speech. The absolute highlight of the year came during the climax of "The Zygon Inversion", with the Doctor talking a Zygon villain down from revolution to forgiveness in the space of 10 minutes. It was a master work of acting from Capaldi, and the monologue's words by Steven Moffat and Peter Harness were pretty much the best ever written in the history of the series. Let's think for a moment on the scale of that achievement: the single-best written speech in the history of a 52 year-old TV series.
Things that didn't work
  • Jenna Coleman and Clara. I have been hammering away with my criticisms of Jenna Coleman and Clara Oswald pretty much since the character was introduced, and while Coleman's performance and particularly her clarity improved a little each year it did feel a little like televising somebody going to drama school. There was a constantly problem with Clara that continued right to the season's final episode, which was that we were constantly being told how important and significant the character was without ever actually being shown how important she was. Her exit could have been very dramatic, had they picked just one exit. By the end, despite some excellent writing, I was just waiting for her to leave.
  • Mark Gatiss. He has written for most seasons of Doctor Who since it was revived, but he simply doesn't seem capable of writing a good episode. I actually thought "Sleep No More" was the best he's done to date, but even that was shakier than it should have been. I don't know why he can't write a good episode, because he's demonstrated elsewhere that he's a talented writer, but the series really doesn't deserve episode after episode of substandard material in the hope that he eventually improves. I feel bad writing that because he seems a lovely person and cares about Doctor Who a great deal. For some reason he simply doesn't work.
  • The story arc. The ingredients were there, and each individual episode was very strong. In the end it didn't quite seem to pull together. Part of the problem was the way in which the Doctor was presented. There were constant hints he knew something and wasn't telling Clara. Unexpected hugs when he first sees her, looking at her when telling Rigsy he's about to die. I wasn't the first to assume we were seeing his adventures out of order, and that he'd already seen her die. Instead the foreshadowing turned out to be not literal but merely thematic, and that left me a little confused and disappointed. The mystery over the prophecised hybrid was also a little shaky - less convoluted than the time-travelling shenanigans of Season 6, but not too many steps beyond the lazy old buzz-word arcs of earlier seasons (Bad Wolf, Torchwood, et al). It could have done with a more direct focus in at least one episode to have worked.

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