So that was Season 9 of Doctor Who, then. Ricky Young punches a diamond wall in the face, and wonders if the shredded knuckles were worth it.
Hello! Glad to have you back! Hey, can we tell you what we’re a bit sick of round here?
Oh, we’ll never abandon snark entirely – let’s be fair, we’ve thrown buckets and buckets of it at recent series of Doctor Who when deserved. (We’ve also been pretty nice to it on occasion, too, but nobody ever remembers that.) But when we kicked off this series declaring the whole enterprise tired and in need of a damn good fixing, we desperately wanted to be proved wrong, and when it turned out, in true Moffatian bait-and-switch stylee, that everything wasn’t the hideous pile of godawful we were expecting, well, we’re cisgender man enough to put our hands up and admit we were misguided.
That’s not to say everything was a triumph – again, in the world of Moffat there’ll always be a couple of pungent dog-eggs lurking amongst the glistening profiteroles – but reflecting on series nine has us hugely relieved that the bombast and the gear-crunching of recent times have been scaled back in favour of trying to tell a goddamn story for a change. Stories that try and involve you rather than exist solely as building-blocks to outlandish promises that never pay off. Stories that don’t necessarily invoke a wheen of essential backstory that you need an eight-year-old to explain to you. Stories, in other words, that don’t suck.
There will, of course, be caveats to every one of those. But join us, do, as we spend a few hundred words trying not to be rude to people. Well, not that rude to people. Maybe it’ll be fun!
BORING SPOILER WARNING: You are hereby warned about spoilers.
But first, a word about clothing. The Twelfth Doctor’s initial spiky and detached personality was a tough watch to many, and the semi-bastard of old has had his ways softened to something nearer Grumpy Uncle. This, unfortunately, was flagged up by spending most of the series looking like a fucking tramp. Yes, he still had his Crombie, and yes, the hoodie wasn’t necessarily a bad move. But the t-shirts? God, each week they hung around his neck as sloppy and shudder-worthy as Gavin Esler’s yap, and made us feel as if we were on the verge of being asked for a quid for the bus fare home.
Still, at least by the series-end he’d ditched the hobo-clobber and climbed back into his old get-up, even if it was a vivid plum version. There was nothing we could do about the sunglasses, however. Or the guitar-playing. Never let an old punk do anything they want to, because if you do, before you know it they’ve gone Full Clarkson.
Series nine was structurally different, too. Four two-parters, a standalone and a three-part finale might have meant an easing of the load for the production team, but for the viewers there were swings and roundabouts. With more room for the stories to breathe, the phenomenon of An Interesting Setup Ruined By A Rushed Ten Minutes Of Technobabble To Finish that so bedevilled Matt Smith’s later years wasn’t so keenly felt. On the other hand, the risk is (and was) that it leaves plenty of running-time for filler.
So, we didn’t like the opening episode, Moffat’s ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ very much, but the second part, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, was a shot in the arm. An conclusion top-heavy with Doctor Who’s maddest enemies, the Doctor was stuck with Davros and Clara was at the mercy of Missy, both storylines fizzling with sparky dialogue and juicy thespianics from Julian Bleach and Michelle Gomez. Bonus points for having the plot get wrapped up via the liberal application of sewers overflowing with sentient Dalek-shit. I had as much fun writing that sentence as Moffat presumably had thinking the idea up.
That the two-parter ended up having too many ideas to use successfully? In the new spirit of anti-snark, that’s not something we’re going to hold against it.
Next up was Toby Whithouse’s two parter, ‘Under The Lake’ and ‘Before The Flood’. Opening with the inhabitants of an underwater base finding an alien spaceship in their midst, before being menaced by a bunch of creepy ghosts, the first episode let Capaldi have another shot at his Figuring Stuff Out routine; all elbows and knees and dashing hither and thither knocking out quips and mystery and finally getting this ‘Doctor’ stuff locked down. Slow-building menace, a left-field vibe and a creepy cliffhanger to boot, ‘Under The Lake’ was a worthwhile watch.
‘Before The Flood’, however, wasn’t. Having gone back in time to find the source of the mystery, the Doctor dithers as the tension seeps away, the conclusion a confusing mish-mash of hard-to-follow time-loops, underused side-characters and a villain whose motivations proved impossible to care about. We tried, but nuWho is at its worst when it consists of a quirky (by which we mean ‘annoying’) guest-cast in grey rooms shouting at each other, and ‘Before The Flood’ was the second-guiltiest of that this series. Who can we blame for the top slot?
We really liked Jamie Matheson’s contributions to series eight, so we were pumped for ‘The Girl Who Died’ and were glad when we weren’t disappointed. The Doctor and Clara get captured by some Vikings, for some reason, an inaccurately-helmeted crew who have their own problems – their menfolk are being stolen by aliens who want them for, and there’s no pretty way to say this, their intimate juices.
Series 9’s ‘comedy’ episode, the Doctor (as is his wont) comes up with a way to help the village against the invading horde, and while some of his moves might have been a little broad for some, they come up sharp when one of the villagers, a young woman named Ashildr is killed in the process.
The Doctor, racked with guilt for being an incredibly dangerous person to be around, arranges not only to save the girl, but in doing so knowingly makes her immortal. Could we quibble about this being the For Some Reason to end all For Some Reasons?
Possibly. But that’s not who we are now.
Anyway, the Doc and Clara depart, leaving the village free from menace, and Ashildr free to watch everyone around her grow old and die. But as we find out in the next episode, Catherine Tregenna’s ‘The Woman Who Lived’, when a power like that is given to a normal person, as opposed to the ultra-competent super-human types who populate these sort of tales, it’s bound to have some side effects.
Now an 800-year old highwayperson, Ashildr is a shell; isolated, lonely and desperate. When the Doctor and Clara run into her again, she’s made a deal with another hairy alien to try and leave Earth. But, and as we can personally attest, making deals with hairy aliens usually has some small-print attached, and it ends up a clusterfuck that the Doc has to sort out.
Continuing the romp-like feel from the previous episode, cut through with slivers of sadness from Ashildr’s tragedy-filled existence, the lesson – ‘isolating yourself from pain meaning you’ll never feel anything’ not actually being that sensible an idea – was compelling without being preachy. Also, the lion-man was quite funny. He looked like a lion!
From there, it was the double-header of ‘The Zygon Invasion’ and ‘The Zygon Inversion’, by Peter Harness alone for the first, and with the Moff in the second. A juicy, plot-heavy runaround with big themes and big stakes – even if it was all about our personal sci-fi bugbear, namely the relentless boringness that are shapeshifters – the second episode was most notable for an extraordinary stand-off scene where the Doctor delivers a fiery, impassioned monologue about war, cruelty, forgiveness and peace; Capaldi absolutely nailing every line, and finally, finally becoming the Doctor we’d all hoped he could be.
It’s the sort of thing violently unbecoming of a children’s show on a Saturday night, of course, and thus exactly why this programme is still frying young brains so long after a couple of teachers fell out of the world one November weekend in 1963.
How do you solve a problem like Mark Gatiss? We’re markedly going off-script from our newfound positivity here, because every series of Doctor Who has at least one clunker, and you better believe ‘Sleep No More’ is it. A purveyor of varying-quality genre pastiches, we’ve never got on with the emptiness at the heart of Gatiss’ scripts, and here he produces a big bag of fuck-all, wrapped in a whisper of fuck-you.
Do you remember the story about the found footage and the eye-gunk monsters and everyone shouting ‘DEEP-ANDO!’ over and over and the story ending up being that there was no story and the Doctor worked this out and pissed off out of the story before the story ended and then the story ended? Call it a playful, meta-textual trope-subverting genre experiment if you like. We call it desperately treading water and the embodiment of everything we didn’t want to see this year, or a hot cup of cold wank; whichever one you want to pick. We don’t actually care: we’re right, everyone else is wrong.
We’re in the final straight now. Sarah Dollard’s ‘Face The Raven’ sees the Doctor, Clara and a pal enter a Gaiman/Rowling mash-up, where a hidden London street hides an alien refugee camp run by the still-on-the-scene Ashildr, and a murder-mystery within. But as Clara’s increasing confidence within the world of the Doctor has seen her flourish away from The Impossible Girl that nobody could stand, she’s not quite The Indestructible Girl that Ashildr is, and a fatal misstep has her kicking the bucket.
There are reams of places you can go on the internet to discuss Mr. Steven Moffat’s female characters. Detractors, defenders, they’re all out there. We’ve even mused on the subject ourselves, although we’re not going to delve too deeply here. But sure as shit, he clearly can’t handle a goodbye.
As with Amy Pond, when it was time for Clara to go, it was tearily announced, endlessly heralded, wrapped up in broad-stroke emotions both earned and not, and then, ultimately, at-the-last-minute, comprehensively botched. Maybe we should give the guy a pass here, as despite Jenna Coleman’s increasingly heroic efforts, the character of Clara’s been botched since her introduction and that wasn’t really going to change.
‘Heaven Sent’, episode eleven of twelve, and the strongest discrete tale the show has told in a number of years. I’m not sure how it’ll stand re-watching, mind you, so ‘Blink’ probably still has the top slot on points, but time will, as ever, tell.
The Doctor is trapped in a clockwork castle, and he spends the show’s running time working out how to escape it. It takes him quite a while to do it, but he gets there in the end. Ta-daa! If you’ve seen it, you’ll know, if you haven’t, then the iPlayer’s over there. —>
Funnily enough, while it’s a good story, it’s not inherently great – it’s full of Moffatian tics and tropes, and there’s very little involved that’s not been seen before – his fetish for sad-faced men enduring aeons of self-sacrifice because their noble hearts will repair the damage they’ve done to women, for example, can fuck off this very second – but it’s his collaborators that elevate ‘Heaven Sent’ – Peter Capaldi’s acting, Rachel Talalay’s direction, Murray Gold’s score, Will Oswald’s editing, all of it just great. Hats off, trebles all round.
Oh, so, yeah, at the end, we find out it’s the Timelords who trapped him, and now the Doctor’s on Gallifrey – he’s there to kick ass and eat soup, and he’s all out of soup.
No, actually, he’s got some soup.
We know we’re not into quibbling this year, but it’s the finale, so here goes: ‘Hell Bent’ is a bit of a comedown after ‘Heaven Sent’; a verbose, continuity-laden script weighed down with much talk of prophecies being fulfilled, a concept that’s always death to drama, especially if the prophecy in question is set up badly and will have no consequence, as here.
All of the Timelord stuff is window-dressing, really – it’s all a mechanism to rescue Clara from the second before her death, and send her on her way roaming the universe with an annoying and pointless Viking sidekick, in a fairly crushing blow to coherence and character. Oh, it was fun while you were watching it, and what Who fan didn’t leap in their seats at the sight of the freshly-unboxed white TARDIS? But it was all noise, and very little signal.
Bitter-sweet endings that occur naturally we can deal with. Bitter-sweet endings that only exist because you’re pathologically afraid of closing down stories just mean nobody’s happy that they’re happy, and nobody’s happy that they’re sad.
But, amazingly, this year we have no advice for the production team. No #MoffatMustGo, no #MoffatMustStay. There was some good work done, by dedicated people under enormous pressure. We’d like some more of that, please.
Oh! We forgot! Thanks, thanks, THANKS for letting us have two whole series without River Song! We’ll raise a glass to you on Christmas Day for sure, Steven!
Wait… what’s that?
Ricky can be found on The Tweeter.