Doctor Who last year, frankly, wasn’t very good.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good things to be said about it – Capaldi was a fantastic choice to play a darker Doctor, Jenna Coleman got an actual character to play, and it had many entertaining episodes. Overall though, it was a bit of a mess, a show that couldn’t quite decide whether it wanted to be a show where the Doctor can talk a robot to suicide or a show that featured the Doctor swordfighting Robin Hood with a spoon.
I’m happy to say that series 9 not only is a return to form, but one of the most consistently Very Good seasons since the return of the show. But it does raise one problem:
The Problem with Reviewing Two-Parters
Series 9 used an interesting spin on the show’s formula by having two-thirds of the series be two-part episodes, with one three-parter and only one single-episode story. This works on a number of levels, as it gives more time for characters and concepts to develop effectively and it can create a more detailed story. However, it also means that it is difficult to decide whether to judge each episode individually or the story. If the second part is amazing, can I ignore a lacklustre setup? It’s a difficult question to answer, but I’ll be judging these story-by-story. It just seems like the best way to go about it.
SPOILERS WILL BE AHEAD. SPOILERS STRAX IS WARNING YOU.
So starting off, a quick note on the 2014 Christmas special, Last Christmas, as it’s included in the Complete Series 9 box set. I haven’t seen it since its first airing, so it isn’t fair to give it an in-depth review. Suffice to say, I wasn’t a massive fan. It had some good concepts, Frost was great as Santa, but I just wasn’t in the mood for another ‘Is Clara leaving? Oh… No, she isn’t’ type of ending. It was very Christmassy though.
Anyway, onto the actual series, with a beginning that exemplifies the type of lacklustre-to-greatness story I mentioned above…
The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar
We start out this series with a lovely character focus on the Doctor, his morality and Davros… But not really though.
I wasn’t a fan of The Magician’s Apprentice. I love a good Dalek story as much as anyone else, but it just felt a little… off. It was probably down to the writing of Capaldi in this episode, and series 9 in general.
The Doctor in The Magician’s Apprentice feels like a very different character than in series 8. He’s happier and more jovial, actually willing to hug people. My problem with this isn’t that it’s a bad change (Hell, I actually prefer Capaldi like this), it’s that there’s just something missing. Some connective tissue, some character development between uptight and punk rock must’ve happened off-screen, and it was hard to adjust at first.
Anyway, the rest of the episode is interesting. We have a great conversation between Davros and the Doctor, where we get to dig deep into this Doctor’s morality and we get some great scenes between Missy and Clara. Their characters clearly have the B-plot of the episode, but the scheming nature of the Master/Missy means that there’s always some tension there. On to part two!
The Witch’s Familiar, in my opinion, is where the season really found its stride. It feels more confident, more aware of what it wants to be. It functions not only as a sequel to Apprentice, but as a sequel to Genesis of the Daleks and a piece on morality. Once again, the question of genocide and how far the Doctor really is willing to go comes up. Is compassion worth it against pure evil? It also deals with the age-old question, ‘would you go back and kill Hitler as a child?’ quite well. It’s a fantastic piece of introspective science fiction that sets the tone for the entire series.
Everything in this episode is just… Better. Better than the show has been in years. It finally decides on a consistent tone for Capaldi, with writers that have both the ideas and the skill to write them. Capaldi feels more at ease moralising and bantering with Davros and the Daleks than he has for ages, and he’s clearly loving the scene where he gets to roll around in Davros’s chair.
Meanwhile, the scenes where The Doctor and Davros are just talking are some of the best scenes involving the Dalek concept in newWho.
The Doctor: Why have I ever let you live?
Davros: Compassion, Doctor. It has always been your greatest indulgence.
Davros: Did I do right, Doctor? Tell me, was I right? I need to know before the end. Am I a good man?
Doctor: I didn’t come here because I’m ashamed – a bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came because you’re sick, and you asked.
Between these character-defining quotes and Capaldi and Julian Bleach delivering these lines excellently, the entire sequence just sings. It feels like an episode that provides a new beginning to the Doctor and Davros’s interactions, while saying all that needs to be said about it.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is it’s quite good.
However, with the weak first episode, it brings us to that earlier question of reviewing two-parters – can I judge this properly? I hope so.
Based on a 3.5 stars opening and a 4.5 closer, I’m giving Magician’s/Witch’s eight out of ten.
Under the Lake/Before the Flood
Under the Lake/Before the Flood is a very uncommon case of what would otherwise be a great two-parter becoming forgettable by virtue of being stuck between two other great two-parters. It’s not a bad episode; in fact, it’s quite good.
Under the Lake is a quite good episode. We’ve got an original concept for a monster (ghosts that mouth co-ordinates and can only touch metal and visual earworms), some great directing and some solid writing of Capaldi and Coleman’s characters. On the other hand though, it’s a fairly standard base-under-siege story for New Who – Doctor meets skeleton crew in oppressive environment fighting overwhelming/supernatural evil. Unable to get out easily, he must find a clever way to beat his enemy.
Thankfully, the side cast has some good additions. While they’re mostly standard crew members such as the jerk miner and nice guy who gradually snaps against the Doctor, they’re generally written and acted quite well. Bennet, the aforementioned nice guy, is a quite good example of his archetype. Particularly fun is the staff’s leader, Cass, who’s upgraded by the death of the old one. She’s deaf, but it’s played as not only being pretty irrelevant due to the presence of an interpreter, but also useful in her lip-reading abilities. Cass’s actress plays her with enough composure that you can believe that she’d be good in a leadership position, but with clear stress and caring for the rest of the team, and it’s a great performance.
Overall, it’s a well done episode in a generic archetype. Next episode!
Like many of the two-parters you’ll see throughout the season, Before the Flood is quite different to its other part. Where Under the Lake is a straight base-under-siege, Before the Flood is a timey-wimey Moffat-type episode. This is another thing I enjoyed about the extended format – it allows writers to stretch their legs and try different things with the same concept.
The episode starts with one of the most clear fourth-wall breaks Doctor Who has made since the First Doctor told everyone at home “Merry Christmas”. An explanation of the episode’s most complicated temporal concept in this memorable way was, while controversial, extremely entertaining, as was Capaldi’s guitar solo throughout the titles (yes, that’s him playing the guitar).
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N0toccEyT4&w=420&h=315]1963 times were weird.
Afterwards, we get a great episode that divides itself between last week’s base setting and a bleak, temporally complicated past. The way it functions is mostly run-of-the-mill Doctor chase stuff – redshirts die, characters get angry – until the end, where the Doctor meets the Fisher King. A horrifying design for the character voiced excellently by Peter Serafinowicz (best-known for being the A-holes guy in Guardians of the Galaxy and Fuck-A-Doodle-Doo guy in Shawn of the dead) managed to create a great impression in what might otherwise have been any other doomsday villain. The script doesn’t quite come off as well as the performance though, and he’s clearly generic.
Finally, I also quite liked the ending. We had Clara being a lot like the Doctor, the Doctor being extremely clever, and some heart-warming interactions between the side cast to close out the episode. All in all, I really like the concluding episode. It wasn’t great, but it was certainly Very Good.
So, I’ll give Lake 3.5 and Flood 4 spooky ghosts out of five each, leading to a 7.5 average.
Phew! That ended up being a lot longer than I expected. My original plan was to have one post, but as you can see, plans change. So, I’ll be dividing this into three sections on four episodes each, with the third being extra-length. Maybe. Hope you enjoyed!
Big thanks to my colleague Caelum for the beta read!