Hey there! This is the last part of my three-part look back on Doctor Who series 9, covering Sleep No More, Face the Raven, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. If you want to look at the other parts of the review, then check out the Doctor Who tag. Hope you enjoy!
Sleep No More
Let’s face it, Doctor Who isn’t a perfect show. Some of the time, it isn’t even a very good show. Don’t get me wrong – it’s currently probably my favourite show on television, but you can count on it to drop a stinker fairly regularly.
Sorry, but Sleep No More was series 9’s stinker.
The first thing you’ll notice about Sleep No More is that it’s entirely found-footage, ala Chronicle or Cloverfield. I’m actually pretty happy about this. Any show that doesn’t experiment with the format will grow stale and die. Most American cable shows that hit the 100-episode mark are a good example of this, from Seinfeld to Supernatural. Props to Gatiss for doing something that I honestly haven’t seen in Who before. Many people dislike found footage, but I don’t mind it.
However, this can’t fix some of the worse parts of the episode. First and foremost, Sleep No More feels like a two-parter where someone forgot to air the second half. It has no ending that’s at all satisfactory. To some people this may have come off as clever, a statement that we can’t see all of the Doctor’s life and victories, but to me it came off as sequel bait (Gatiss’s comments haven’t helped the matter). The entire plot is dropped at the end of the episode. What we do get is a clever twist, but cleverness isn’t a good thing in and of itself.
The monster, while controversial, was… okay. It’s fine and scary, as long as you don’t think too hard. It looks suitably horrifying, and the direction makes it threatening. However, when you think of it, it’s a monster made of eye boogers. I mean, it’s like a big icky pile of eye crust. Not very threatening when any thought is put into it.
None of the cast was that interesting, or really likable. They were all really stock Doctor Who death fodder side characters: You’ve got the dumb-but-loyal one who dies, the brash hothead who dies because he went alone, the nice old guy who dies first, and the generic captain who survives. Unlike the supporting cast in Under the Lake / Before the Flood, none of them develops in any interesting ways. They’re just there to exposit and die eventually. It’s almost cynical.
Besides the non-ending, this is a bog-standard episode. There just isn’t much to say about it. If it’s not average, it’s not good.
All in all, I’m giving Sleep No More four booger monsters out of ten.
Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent
And now, finally, the finale! In three parts, the finale is certainly ambitious. But can it live up to its own ideas?
Something interesting about the finale is, like with Girl Who Died/Woman Who Lived, it’s extremely separate. Each episode is its own complete story, they just… follow on from each other. They don’t use cliffhangers, they’re just serialised. Serialisation vs. episodic storytelling is a larger debate, but suffice to say I like serialisation.
On the episodes themselves – first of all, there’s Face the Raven, a quaint, comfy little episode that takes a violent turn for the worst.
Written by Sarah Dollard, Face the Raven will probably be remembered as the official kind-of exit of Clara Oswald. The episode starts off with the reintroduction of Rigsy, Clara’s ‘companion’ in Flatline. It’s nice to see him back, and Rigsy’s return lets Raven easily bridge themes with Flatline – that, no matter how competent a companion is, being the Doctor without being The Doctor is deeply unhealthy (to say the least).
Along with Clara’s exit, Face the Raven also introduces Ashildr’s modern-day personality. Clearly, she hasn’t learnt much from The Woman Who Lived, as she once again is making shady deals with forces clearly beyond her control. Maisie Williams once again turns in a solid performance. For most of the episode she plays a similar blasé character to Me in The Woman Who Lived, but she really sells Ashildr’s guilt and terror in the end scene.
Something I found very interesting about the episode is how nice it starts off as being. Rigsy’s flashbacks of a traumatic murder leaves a sense of unease bubbling throughout, but for the most part the episode focuses on a quaint town filled with monsters. The plot is almost formulaic as a Doctor Who whimsical plot. You’ve got The Doctor and Clara investigating a mysterious location. The companion befriends the locals and tries to help out. There’s a fun little montage. The companion and the Doctor eventually team up to defeat threatening beastie, everything works out, all the family gets to sit back and enjoy their tea.
Except, of course, that’s not what happens. In a brutal subversion of tropes, the companion’s ingenuity comes back to bite everyone. Clara’s attempt to abuse the loopholes Ashildr left falls flat on its face. It’s an original choice for the script to make in the Moffat era, a time marked by the main character’s ‘cleverness’.
The last part of the episode, where the Doctor and Clara are forced to accept her death, is easily the best. Coleman and Capaldi deliver a sterling performance, conveying the pain and anguish their characters are feeling. The writing is fantastic, following the two characters through every stage of grief before miserable acceptance. The episode as a whole seems to be a great showcase of Sarah Dollard’s writing, proving that she can write both a cosy monster-of-the-week and a harrowing finale.
Twelve ends the episode by delivering a cold threat to Ashildr, and Capaldi once again just acts the hell out of it. It’s chill-worthy stuff.
The Doctor: What Clara said… about not taking revenge, do you know why she said that?
Ashildr: She was saving you.
The Doctor: I was lost a long time ago; she was saving you. I’ll do my best, but I strongly advise you to keep out of my way. You’ll find it is a very small universe when I’m angry with you.
Goddamn, that was a great line.
Of course, like any episode, there’s flaws. The monster-of-the-week part, while fun, isn’t really impressive. It’s nice, it’s (mostly) warm and fuzzy, but it’s just a bit run-of-the mill. Of course, the last few minutes aren’t, but the last few minutes are practically a different episode. The tone takes a massive dark left turn which, while earned, still hits hard and fast. You go from thinking ‘Yay, the Doctor’s gonna save the lady!’ rapidly to ‘Oh no’. It’s effective (and might even have been purposeful), but a bit fast.
Face the Raven gets a very respectable eight Rigsies out of ten.
Next up is Heaven Sent, an extremely clever episode, to say the least.
After the cliffhanger of last episode, the Doctor was teleported to an unknown location. But where is he?
Well, ironically, it appears he’s in his own personal hell.
The unique thing about this episode is the much-publicised fact that it’s (very close to) a one-hander – an episode that purely features one actor (Capaldi). The only other character than the Doctor is the Veil, the faceless, indomitable force chasing The Doctor.
Obviously, this episode is a tremendous showcase of Peter Capaldi’s acting ability. It lives and dies on his ability to entertain. He provides a masterclass on how to do a one-hander. He makes every expository monologue flow as I’ve never seen it flow before. Delivering long speeches to no-one in particular can be painful if conveyed poorly, but Steven Moffat and Capaldi pull it off. Rather than feeling unnatural and forced, it honestly feels like stream-of-consciousness. The sheer confidence Moffat must have put in Capaldi pays off in spades.
To borrow a phrase from JJ Abrams, Heaven Sent is a puzzle box. You start off with no idea what’s happening. Why’s The Doctor been brought here? Who died in the teleportation room directly before he entered? What kind of creature is chasing him? These are the sort of questions that drive the plot. This episode isn’t just a statement of Moffat’s trust in Capaldi, but of Moffat’s trust in himself. Not many other writers could pull off such a puzzle – even Abrams’s puzzle box, Lost, couldn’t hold up. But when the big reveal of what’s inside the box comes, oh, what a reveal it is.
The entire episode leads up to the revelation that the castle isn’t just a challenge – it’s an infinite loop, with The Doctor entering and dying and entering and dying again. The entire episode is turned on its head as you realise that all of this makes perfect sense. The foreshadowing in this episode’s not exactly subtle, but it is effective, and the idea of The Doctor having to die billions of time is horrifying.
The resolution, too, is smart. While Face the Raven subverts Moffat’s stock notes of being clever, the denouement for Heaven Sent uses them really effectively. It’s the type of timey-wimeyness and ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ approach that Moffat’s best at. The idea of having Capaldi loop through punching an unbreakable wall over and over until it breaks is great.
And this episode really raises the bar, not just for Capaldi and Moffat, but for the whole production team. The editing in the montage of The Doctor going through the loops is amazing. The directing is on point, with Heaven Sent being filmed more like a horror/suspense show than sci-fi. Murray Gold returns to golden form after a lacklustre season 8, with his music taking on a frantic, baroque tone. The soundtrack in this episode felt completely unique, conveying the gothic tones of the castle.
Honestly, my only flaw with this episode comes from where it was placed in the season. I expected an action-packed finale episode, and got experimental introspection. This is extremely objective, but it took me by surprise. I expected it to start tying up the season’s arc, and it didn’t. I left the episode very pleased, but slightly disappointed. However, this isn’t a fault of the episode itself, so I’m not going to take points away from it.
Overall, this episode gets 9.5 billion years of torturous undeath out of ten.
And so, finally, the season finale. Hell Bent. A much more formulaic episode than Heaven Sent, certainly, but is it good?
After the traumatic events of last episode, the Doctor spends the first parts of this episode giving the Time Lords the silent treatment. Let me first get this out of the way; holy crap, was this episode’s direction good. Rachel Talalay needs to be on more episode. No ifs or buts, her work on this and Heaven Sent was amazing. The Doctor’s silence could’ve looked silly in the hands of anyone else, but Talalay makes every shot look amazing. She infuses a sense of Western movies into the roughs of Gallifrey, does a great action sequence in the Doctor’s escape from the city, and then tops it all off by knowing exactly how to shoot an emotional scene to mine drama out of it. Best directing I’ve seen in Who, easily.
This episode brings the Doctor back to Gallifrey, and his reaction is interesting (specifically, his lack thereof). After Day of the Doctor set him up on a quest for Gallifrey and Death in Heaven reminded us of this, it’s disappointing that The Doctor only expresses rage of the Time Lords. Frankly, although I’ve seen reasons for The Doctor’s non-reaction, I think that this is down to one of Moffat’s primary flaws as showrunner. Whether it’s the cracks, the Silence or Gallifrey, he’s shown that he can’t really do multi-season arcs. His season arcs are good or great, but if he tries to string it out it falls apart.
The Doctor faces off against Rassilon, and demolishes him without lifting a finger. As good as this sequence is (and between the direction, the music and Capaldi’s sublime seething, it’s great), it’s somewhat disappointing to see Rassilon reduced to an old man screaming about past glories. After Timothy Dalton’s badassery in the role, it was a bit hard to accept.
The Doctor hijacks Gallifrey to bring back Clara, shooting the General and stealing (another) TARDIS beneath the Cloisters. Capaldi’s on point here as a Doctor who’s very, very desperate. The cameos of Daleks, Cybermen and Weeping Angels were a bit much though – how would they get there? Why would Cybermen be there? All the same, Capaldi and Coleman do very well, making the viewer really feel the wall that’s grown between the two due to the Doctor’s harshness and Clara’s deceased status. The General also performs the first Time Lord male-to-female on-screen regeneration, which is nice, I guess.
This brings us to Maisie Williams’s fourth appearance in series 9, standing on the ashes of Gallifrey. It also brings us to the wrap-up of the series’s recurring plotline – that of The Hybrid, a mythical creature that will destroy Gallifrey. Is it The Doctor? Ashildr? The Doctor and Clara pair? Personally, I’d go with the latter, but any of the three could be it. It was particularly ballsy of Moffat to only leave implications of resolution to the plotline, and then go one better and reference the much maligned TV Movie.
The Eighth Doctor: I’m half human, on my mother’s side.
A lot of people didn’t like this vague an ending to the series arc, but I found it just fine. The Hybrid didn’t play too major a role in the series, so it didn’t need as much focus as, say, the cracks in time did.
Clara’s exit was surprising. It’s an interesting skew on Donna’s mind-wiping exit, and, in my opinion, it’s for the better. Having a companion effectively have all their development wiped away never sat right with me, even with a writer as occasionally dark as RTD. I didn’t actually think they were going with wiping The Doctor’s memory, but I liked that they did. It was probably the only way that Clara and The Doctor could be separated without serious detriment to both characters – at this stage, their bond was too close.
Of course, it isn’t perfect. The death is, on the scale of the entire series, a copout. I love that Doctor Who is a mostly optimistic show, but stuff like Clara’s wonderful death scene in Face the Raven probably should be left alone. At the very least, Clara going back to her death should’ve been shown. Hell Bent undermines the themes of Face the Raven, having Clara be rewarded for her recklessness and adrenaline junkie tendencies. You could even say that it undermines The Woman Who Lived.
The Doctor: People like us, we go on too long. We forget what matters. The last thing we need is each other. We need the mayflies. You see the mayflies, they know more than we do. They know how beautiful and precious life is because it’s fleeting.
The Doctor: I looked into your eyes and I saw my worst fears. Weariness. Emptiness.
Me: That’s why you can’t travel with me. Our perspectives are too vast, too far away.
So basically, two immortals travelling together is bad.
Stephen Moffat: ayyy lmao
It is extremely emotional, however. The dialogue crackles and the acting is on point. Overall, it’s a better exit than many other companions have gotten.
Finally, the framing device. It works well. The fake-out with The Doctor’s memory loss really hits home. Capaldi playing guitar is always beloved, and the reveal that Clara’s leitmotif is an in-canon thing was lovely. Coleman and Capaldi both have one great last scene together, and ‘Run, you clever boy, and be a Doctor’ caused my eyes to water. I do have to say, however, that Me and Clara’s exit was a bit cheesy. The reveal that they even have a broken chameleon circuit was a bit much.
So, overall, Hell Bent is a good finale and a great episode, marred by a few clunky decisions that don’t quite hit the spot. Eight and a half feels out of ten.
So, I’m done! Phew. That ended up being bigger than I expected. I hope you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on Doctor Who series 9 as much as I’ve enjoyed watching and writing about it. Thanks to Glorious Editor Kevin and my ever-amazing beta-readers, Caelum and Cormac.
Join me on my next article, where I’ll be reviewing something other than Doctor Who! I’m aiming for a shorter, more concise review hopefully will be able to write it faster. I’m also writing an article about open world videogames in the background, which I’m hoping to get out eventually
See you there!