Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Doctor Who: Series 9 (Season 35)

The Doctor receives a summons to meet one of his oldest and greatest foes, Davros, creator of the Daleks. Davros is dying, and wants to provoke the Doctor's guilt after the Doctor realised he had an opportunity to help the young Davros on Skaro and instead abandoned him after realising his identity. But this encounter is only the start of a journey presaged by a warning, of the coming of a hybrid warrior who will stand in the ruins of Gallifrey. The Doctor and Clara must identity this threat and learn more about it...or if even refers to one of them.

Doctor Who's eighth series was an interesting foray into the psychologies of its two lead characters, and what happens when they become codependent on one another, developing a toxic relationship (though it does not appear so on a surface level), rooted in Clara's addiction to the danger and excitement and the Doctor's willingness to indulge it. The season ended with the Doctor and Clara realising the unhealthy nature of their relationship and calling it a day, a result of Jenna Coleman initially choosing to leave the show. However, she reversed that decision, allowing showrunner Steven Moffat to dedicate the following season to an even darker thematic idea: what happens when an addict relapses?

It's interesting stuff, but decidedly heavy, and the result is arguably the darkest continuous run of episodes that Doctor Who has experienced since its return in 2005. However, Moffat thankfully realised that dedicating fourteen episodes to this idea would be a bit much, so also remembered to include a more obvious long-running plot point - the search for the enigmatic Hybrid - and an experimental format change, where the season shifts from self-contained episodes to a series of multi-part stories. Only the Christmas specials and a single episode, Sleep No More, stand alone in this season.

Things kick off with Last Christmas, which starts when what appears to be Actual Santa Claus (Nick Frost) turns up on Christmas Eve and effectively recruits both the Doctor and Clara to help investigate a mystery at the North Pole, where a remote Arctic base has run into trouble. It's a pretty deranged episode, but ultimately makes sense with excellent performances from a stellar guest cast including Nick Frost, Michael Troughton and theoretical future companion (if Coleman had indeed left) Shona, played by Faye Marsay (whose then-imminent Game of Thrones recurring role is nodded at in an in-gag). The episode is fun, drawing on a variety of movies for its influences. Alien, The Thing, Miracle on 34th Street and Inception are all clear inspirations for the episode, which cleverly remixes them into something quite entertaining, which handles tonal variation between broad comedy and horror with skill. But the episode's most important moment is when Clara rejoins the Doctor on the TARDIS and admits to having missed the dematerialisation sound with all the energy of an addict relapsing in front of our eyes. Yikes.

The Magician's Apprentice and The Witch's Familiar form the first story of the season and sees the Doctor accidentally landing on Skaro during the height of the infamous Thousand-Year War between the Kaleds and the Thals. He is offered a chance to help the young Davros but freaks out when he realises who he is. Davros, remembering the incident, calls to the Doctor for help as the end of his life draws near, and concocts a plan to get Clara and the inevitably-not-dead-after-all Missy to help him find the Doctor. The result is one of the best Dalek stories since the show's return, with the Daleks being more incidental than normal whilst the bulk of the story centres on relationships: the Doctor's with Davros, and the decidedly iffy partnering of Clara as a temp companion to the Master. The fact that they make an effective team (up to Missy's inevitable betrayal) is rather concerning, given Missy's lack of morality, honour or ethics. As a two-parter, it's surprisingly well-paced and threads the needle of horror, drama, comedy and pathos. Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach sell the absolute hell out of the Doctor-Davros two-handers that make up the bulk of the two episodes, and the realisation of Skaro is terrific. Almost unfathomably, this is the first story to definitively be set on the Dalek homeworld after the events of the very first Dalek story in 1963, and the set designers have fun recreating some of the sets, props and sound effects from that original story. Even the Doctor's "midlife crisis" opening (playing electric guitar and taking a main battle tank to a medieval duel) is well-handled.

The subsequent two-parter, Under the Lake and Before the Flood, is a creepy story involving ghosts appearing in an underwater base a hundred years in the future. The Doctor has to navigate a story that, in its second half, is split between two time zones, with events in the past dynamically changing events in the future. There's an excellent supporting cast - one of the best, in fact, of these kind of "base under siege" stories - and the fact that the underwater base is under the aegis of UNIT for once means most of the "who are these people who've just shown up?" tedium can be skipped. The abrupt shift in location halfway through means that - for the second story in a row! - we can have a well-paced two-part story, and the cliffhanger ending to part one is a doozy. What lets the episode down is a slightly iffy and convenient ending, and the surprising ease with which the apparently powerful, semi-immortal enemy is eliminated. Also, the sets in this episode are excellent, but almost too good, and are repurposed for several more stories across the next two seasons which does start to get over-familiar (presumably another result of the show's growing budget issues).

The next story is only nominally a two-parter, instead being more two self-contained episodes linked by the recurring character of Ashildr (Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams). In the first part, the Doctor and Clara have to help defend Ashildr's village from an alien race known as the Mire, after Ashildr goads them into attacking. The result is a pretty standard Doctor Who story of aliens menacing a small community, which the Doctor first tries to rally by training them for battle (complete with montage sequences) before hitting on a cleverer stratagem. The actual story is fairly disposable - the Mire might manage the impressive task of being the least memorable alien race created for the show since its return - since it's all a framing device for Masie Williams' excellent performance and the accidental "immortalising" of her through a merging of Mire medical tech and the Doctor's sonic screwdriver.

The second part, where the Doctor encounters Ashildr - now only calling herself "me" - in England hundreds of years later, is far more interesting. Williams gives a different, more powerful kind of performance and the Doctor has to confront what happens when a primitive human gets the kind of life and perspective only a Time Lord can normally be expected to enjoy. It's a much more interesting episode, even if the ending is kind of abrupt and easily resolved. It does set up the edgy relationship between the Doctor and Me which will permeate the rest of the season.

The next story picks up some dangling plot threads from The Day of the Doctor, namely the revelation that there are now millions of Zygons living on Earth in secret thanks to a peace treaty negotiated between UNIT and the Zygon High Command (mediated by three incarnations of the Doctor). The result is a tense game of cat and mouse as a renegade faction of Zygons tries to spark war between the peace-desiring majority and the humans, playing on the paranoia of the latter. It's fun to see UNIT semi-regulars Kate Stewart and Osgood back, and Jenna Coleman gets a hell of an acting showcase as both Clara and her villainous Zygon counterpart, Bonnie. Capaldi also gets arguably his biggest and best "Doctor speech" as the Doctor tries to stop the wheels of war after they've started turning. The main problem here is the lack of fallout (the presence of millions of Zygons on Earth is one of those things that later episodes kind of forget about) but the story is great stuff. It is possibly the only multi-part story this season which does adhere to the new show's traditional problem of having too much story for 45 minutes but not quite enough for 90, though.

Sleep No More is the season's single standalone episode, but even this gets a format upgrade. The episode is told through "found footage" only, with us only seeing the events from the perspectives of the character's helmet cams and the space station's camera system. This gives the episode an interesting feeling of claustrophobia and it even plays metatextual games with the found footage format itself. Unfortunately, the episode falters on several levels: the sets are very clearly exactly the same as Under the Lake and Before the Flood, and some minor redressing and fancy camera angles can't really hide that, which does make the story feel cheap. The monsters also feel a bit random, without a strong rationale for their presence. The episode also has a confused ending, seemingly setting up a sequel that never comes (a result of the episode's lukewarm reception on original ending). The result is, despite some good performances, the weakest episode of the season.

Face the Raven kicks off a three-part story with the Doctor and Clara rushing to help save the life of their friend Rigsy (from the previous season's Flatline) who has gained a tattoo which is counting down to his apparent death, an execution for a murder he allegedly committed. This leads them to the discovery of a Diagon Alley-style hidden community in London, this once consisting of alien refugees and fugitives living under the protection of a returning Me. This results in a puzzle box of a storyline as Clara and the Doctor try to find a way to stop Rigsy's death. What appears at first to be a solid stand-alone episode abruptly takes a turn for the catastrophic when Clara's overconfidence, fuelled by her increasing capability as an ally of the Doctor, leads her to make a horrendous mistake and one of the absolute dooziest of cliffhangers in the show's run.

The cliffhanger directly leads into Heaven Sent, an almost one-hander, acting masterclass for Peter Capaldi as he is transported to an apparent prison, an ancient castle in the middle of an ocean, and is haunted by a spectral figure. The Doctor realises he is being interrogated in a highly obtuse way and the castle, whose walls shift like an immense clockwork mechanism, is a puzzle that he might be able to escape if he can find the way. Eventually he finds the solution, but it is so horrendous and mentally taxing that it seems unfathomable...unless the Doctor can find the right motivation to carry on.

Heaven Sent has occasionally been cited as the greatest episode of the show since its return and maybe the greatest single episode of the entire run of the series, with a series of puzzles leading the Doctor to a horrifying conclusion. Capaldi does all of the lifting - heavy or otherwise - for the episode and it at times invokes hard SF, fantasy and the surrealism of The Prisoner, not to mention the Clockwork Mansion of the Dishonored video game series (which was almost complete when this episode aired and came out a year later, so clearly no influence was shared, they just developed a similar idea at the same time). The invocation of the Doctor's "memory palace," where he can retreat to study a problem at hyperfast speeds (thus explaining the number of times he's come up with a plan in the nick of time), is clever. The fusion of Steven Moffat's best script and Rachel Talalay's outstanding direction results in something very special.

Hell Bent finally gives us what fans had wanted to see for ten years by that point: the Doctor's triumphant (?) return to Gallifrey following the events of the Time War. It's a fast-moving episode as the Doctor has to deal with Rassilon and the High Council, find a way of trying to rescue Clara and delving into some of the mistakes of his own past. It's a busy episode, maybe too busy for even its extended run time, but some excellent performances (including Donald Sumpter as a post-Timothy Dalton Rassilon and a frequently-fancast-as-the-Doctor T'Nia Miller as the General) keep things ticking over, even if the ending is the very definition of having your cake and eating it.

Things round off with another Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song. This episode is a definite lighting of the mood after the previous season, with the Twelfth Doctor inadvertently recruited by River Song (who does not recognise him, believing the Doctor to have exhausted his regenerations and died after the Eleventh) to take part in a diamond heist, with the problem being that the diamond is located inside the skull of a powerful alien ruler (played with gusto by comedian Greg Davies). The very definition of a fun, knockabout romp with some able support from Matt Lucas as companion-in-waiting Nardole (well, he's just playing Matt Lucas, but Matt Lucas in Doctor Who works better than it perhaps should). Given how Moffat overused River Song earlier in his tenure as showrunner, she works much better here in an isolated appearance, as Moffat effectively wraps up the story arc he began seven years earlier with Silence in the Library.

The ninth season of Doctor Who (****½) since its return makes a convincing case for being the best of the entire reboot series to date, with a run of very strong episodes culminating in one of the greatest episodes of all time. It is, though, a serious, more adult season with less knockabout larking, which may explain why Doctor Who's long-term (if slow) ratings decline really started becoming noticeable here, as kids moved on to other franchises. The season is available to watch on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Britbox in the USA.

  • 9X: Last Christmas ****
  • 901: The Magician's Apprentice ****½
  • 902: The Witch's Familiar ****½
  • 903: Under the Lake ****
  • 904: Before the Flood ***½
  • 905: The Girl Who Died ***½
  • 906: The Woman Who Lived ****
  • 907: The Zygon Invasion ****
  • 908: The Zygon Inversion ****
  • 909: Sleep No More **½
  • 910: Face the Raven ****½
  • 911: Heaven Sent *****
  • 912: Hell Bent ****
  • 9XX: The Husbands of River Song ****

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