I fully admit I needed Moffat and team to win me back after series 8, which was weak and muddled (to put it kindly). I like Capaldi and Coleman, but I was so very disappointed by the previous series that they were starting at a deficit with this one. I am back on-board now, which speaks well for the quality of this series, even if it took almost the entire run for it to pay off. I’m even curious to rewatch it all knowing where it leads. I want to see what clues and groundwork are there when I’m not lost in the misdirects or bad assumptions.
Ok, let’s start with the really good: this series is miles ahead of the previous series. There is a large arc moved along by rich stories that are of a reasonable quality. There are still some challenges, but I have hope again, which is more than I can say for how I felt this time last year. And I loved the episode title pairings this series. They showed a sense of humor and consideration that had been missing. Also, it was great that they were allowing more time for the stories to develop by making most of them multi-part.
One thing is clear, however; it appears to be getting harder and harder for the writers to come up with new things to do and still keep the classic scope of the series in mind. Mind you, I’d be just fine and dandy to get some new ideas infused into the series and leave the classic encounters for specials or infrequent appearances. The Weeping Angels, for instance, were a brilliant addition to the mythos. I’d like to see more attempts to show us something new, not just dressing up something familiar in a new way all the time.
But to the series itself: This 9th outing is focused on the mortality of the Doctor. About time, since his unexpected and rules-defying regeneration last Christmas left us all wondering what the heck did it mean? How that has affected Capaldi’s incarnation has been Mercurial at best. Last series, it barely came into play after the opening episode. While most of the run the Doctor appeared to be weak (in this series as well), Clara became downright demanding of his attention; it is in this series that this Doctor finds his real sense of self. That is almost unforgivably long for this show. The reason for that journey becomes clear, but it made for a disconcerting run at times.
But on to the episodes themselves… written up as I watched them…
Episode by episode ripdown
The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar: Here we are again revisiting the classic monsters in a nice riff on Let’s Kill Hitler. On the positive side, Clara is back to being stronger. On the down side, the Doctor is feeling a little weak. Admittedly, this is the one enemy and situation he may actually become a shivering mass over, but it is weird to make Missy the focus of the episodes at the top of the series (c’mon, none of us thought she was dead)… and trying to rehabilitate and explain their relationship. The first part is solid and tight and, unlike last series, they’re taking the extra time to get us a little more character with the two-parter. Overall, the episode is solid, but feeling a bit like well-worn ground with some nice twists. And Missy gets all the best moments and lines. If they don’t watch it, the Master/Mistress is going to dominate this season despite anyone’s best efforts.
Under the Lake/Before the Flood : A ghost story under water with the added benefit of tackling time paradox head-on (eventually). In part one, I have to admit, felt like we’d been here before. And until some of the explanations came through it appeared they had gaping plot holes. By the end of part 1, most of the choices were covered and explained. I had spent some of the first part rather annoyed with some of the “clues” as they were so human (and particularly Earth) centric. Mind you, some of the Doctor dialogue was very Earthman in this episode as well.
All that aside, the tension and design of the episode are nice, and the cliffhanger between the two halves is well played, though sort of ridiculous as we’re never going to believe the suggested implication. Part 2 bugged me on a couple levels. First, it set up the bootstrap paradox conversation in a rather jolting way. Why intro that half-way through a story instead of at the top? Second, the Doctor was just plain acting weak, bordering on sniveling at some points. Not sure where Moffat is going with this season, but clearly there is an idea getting set up as in both of the stories so far the Doctor is confronting his own potential mortality (though still only briefly touching on the fact that he shouldn’t even exist … and how does that work?). But Clara actually uses the “L” word with the Doctor (I can’t even recall if Rose used that word in the earlier series), making me wonder where that is all going as Clara appears to be decompensating a little since the death of Pink.
Ultimately, the resolution was clever, if not unexpected. The plot itself of what the ghosts were for was less clear and too tossed off to the side in the end for me, but they chose to focus on the characters, which I tend to never argue with, so will have to suck it up for now.
The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived : And now we get to the subject of mortality incarnate in the guise of Masie Williams (Game of Thrones). The Doctor continues his vacillation between strong and handled this series. Clara is most definitely in the driver’s seat for the first half of the story as the Doctor’s conscience, as well as his apparent burden watching out for her. Clara is a great companion, but she is far from the Doctor’s favorite over the years. I have trouble buying into him elevating her above all others as “unable to bear losing.” And I say this while having her among my top favorite companions. One interesting little treat and clean-up in the first half is that we also get a reason for Capaldi’s return physiognomy from series 4 (unlike the Colin Baker elevation, which went forever uncommented upon).
The second half of this story is something very different. Clara is almost absent. The morality tale of why immortals should never hang out together is played out nicely, though the supporting story for the episode is a bit obvious and, well, ill-thought-out. The explanation of the amulet is a rather weak Macguffin, with a rapidly spoken explanation, no doubt in the hopes that the audience just nods and moves along. The heart of the tale is really about Williams’ character as mirror for the Doctor. They are playing a long game in this series, which I do appreciate. The need to reboot the Doctor and give him both a focus and a grounding drive now that Gallifrey is returned is necessary. Now if they would only answer the question about his regenerations…
The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion : This episode gets a little odd. It has, mostly in the climax of the second part, some of the most powerful and amazing writing for the Doctor in a long while. A looong while. His big speech is rife with chilling statements about humanity and war, truths that enlighten and depress… right through all the reveals.
But, of the series so far, this was the weakest for me plot-wise. Despite it bringing back in some nice bits of history, particularly from the anniversary special, the plot felt very challenged. The clues and flashpoint for the action confused, not to mention a lot of highly trained people doing incredibly stupid things in the first half of the story. The quality of parts one and two are so divergent that it is a little hard to believe they were conceived together. In fact, it feels more like they planned the end and then worked backwards to get there, but without a lot of careful consideration to believe-ability. Part 2 almost excuses part 1, but not entirely. Using Truth or Consequences as a recurring theme was a stretch, especially for the American chunk of the material. Coleman, though, really got to sink her teeth into some fun this paring. I like that she’s getting so much focus, but it doesn’t bode well for her this series. She has become too important to the Doctor, which can only mean she’s gone or dead by the end of this sequence.
Sleep No More: Hands down the weakest of the series so far. Gatiss was trying to be too clever by half trying to assail the ramparts of Blink. It didn’t work; even with the change-up to no front credits to really throw you off balance. The first third was fine (even interesting) though a bit worn in the tread. But once the explanation came, I’m sorry, I couldn’t take the bloody episode seriously. It was just plain dumb and a waste of an hour. This is also the first stand-alone episode of the season, breaking the rhythm of two-parters. Unsure of what comes next, but expecting a ramp up to the series conclusion and xmas special. We shall see if they just, simply, ran out of steam while they were prepping and filming Sherlock.
Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent: As a reminder, I wrote this up as I was watching the episodes, so my reactions are based on what I knew as I knew it, not with the completed story in mind.
We’ve been watching Clara become more and more cavalier in her actions all season. In the first part of this triptych, The Impossible Girl meets a near-pointless death. Not since Adric has there been a death for a companion so pointless. Rose was a universe-saving sacrifice. Jack, well, didn’t die. Donna was a an odd un-death. And there is a companion from way back from the first Doctor’s time (classic series) but that episode is long lost so I can’t be sure of the quality and meaning of her death, though get the sense it was done to save others. Clara’s death was a result of trying to be too clever. Though she dresses it in good intentions, she even admits she may have been somewhat suicidal since, we assume, Pink’s sacrifice. However you slice it, and however good her farewell speech and moment, it was frustratingly without value other than to piss-off the Doctor.
Commentary on the framework of the death aside, it is a strong and interesting episode, even with the silly psuedo-science and oddly forced plot. The return of Williams as Ashildr is becoming great fun and she is developing the character nicely. Clara’s final moments are beautiful and heart-wrenching as she falls silently, and the cliff-hanger of the episode gripping.
The cliff-hanger takes a weird sort of pause, though ultimately pays off, in one interesting way. Frankly, the set-up and primary plot driver I was ahead of from the first moment (the Groundhog Day aspect). The reasoning, resolution, and ultimate reveal I didn’t see coming, though that opened all manner of other questions (and one major mental leap). My only gripes in this section were, first, that the Doctor keeps blaming the perpetrators for Clara’s demise when, in fact, it was her own doing. He knows this. While his anger and drive are real, the dialogue didn’t ring true. Second, the leaps and assumptions and rules around the repeat get broken at the end (he remembers too much), though the final montage is well-paced to keep you from noticing. I was forgiving of some of the forced aspects of the rules because, in the end, the environment is set up for a particular purpose so it fails if it couldn’t drive certain behaviors. And finally, third, how the heck did the Hybrid suddenly become the focus?
We now have a third part coming… hopefully Missy will finally reveal herself (we’re all assuming she’s behind a lot of this, especially Ashildr, pulling the strings, aren’t we?) and we will get some closure on the sequence. I’m enjoying aspects of it a great deal, but I’d like the logic to be a bit more adult and a bit less Saturday afternoon cartoon.
In part three, I’m happy to say the show has almost redeemed itself completely, even if the time in the Matix (which is now suddenly physical) was a little bit of a distracting greatest hits at times. Moffat even almost gave us answers on the historical regeneration (but then didn’t). Still it hinted at something that put some boundaries around the event, even if it leaves you wondering how they can grant such things and why don’t they do it more often? Could it be it has something to do with Rasalon being involved?
It is also in this episode that we finally get a reason for the demise of the sonic screwdriver at the top of this series. My reaction to that moment at the beginning of this cycle was disappointment. The device is not from original canon, to be fair, but it has become as entrenched as the Tardis in the lore since it was introduced. Moving to “wearables” left me a little disappointed, even as I was impressed with the choice to keep things current. But, one must consider that since the Doctor is a time traveler, he knew all about these and still chose to have the sonic, but that’s getting quibbley. However, by this episode we discover that it was a metaphor for the Doctor losing his focus and his way as he comes back around to a way forward.
Regardless, the emotions were well conceived. And while Ashildr does come back into it, Missy appears to be only an instigating reference for it all. The overall arc of this story and the series finally come into focus by the end of this episode. I can say I am a bit intrigued about where Moffat will go with the xmas episode… hopefully not to xmas, but the brief frame I saw in the teaser tells me, yet again, we’re likely to focus on the holiday rather than the story.