Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Doctor Who Season 9: Love It or Leave It

It’s been a while since your TV Sluts have talked much about The Doctor. Having finally finished the latest season of the very long running show, I naturally have thoughts about it. The most recurrent thoughts being, “WTF?”

Season 9 is an odd one. For the most part, it felt to me like slog just to get through. I was, in fact, ready to write off the entire season until the last three episodes came out of nowhere and got unexpectedly amazing. At its worst, the season was trying to be too clever for its own good. At its best, season 9 delivered some cool twists, sent some characters flying, and delivered what is legitimately one of the best episodes of Doctor Who ever made.

Given the dual nature of the season, I’m here to help you figure out which episodes you need to watch and which ones you delete off your DVR queue.  Generally, everything I say will be spoiler-free up until the final three episodes, which are as spoiler-y as can be. As a note, I’m including the most recent Christmas episode, even though it’s technically a part of season 10 because the BBC is just weird. Onward!

Wibbley wobbly coat-y woat-y
Episodes 1 & 2: The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar
Summary: The Doctor discovers that he is inadvertently responsible for making one of his own arch-enemies, Davros, the creator of the Daleks. For two episodes, The Doctor and Davros speechify at each other about their respective lives and deeds. In an almost unrelated story, Clara teams up with Missy to get the Doctor and… do something. It’s never totally clear.
Should you watch it? Only the scenes with Missy and Clara. Missy is one of the better new creations to the Doctor Who universe and the action between the two of them is fast-paced, funny, and exciting. The Doctor’s scenes drown themselves entirely in the show’s own mythology and need to be clever.

Episodes 3 & 4: Under the Lake/Before the Flood
Summary: The Doctor and Clara come to an underwater base and discover an alien space ship and a whole bunch of dead people who keep coming back as ghosts. The episode gets incredibly timey-wimey as The Doctor must go back in his own timeline to just before the two of them arrive in order to save the day.
Should you watch it? In a word, no. At best, this should have been a single episode. Stretching it into two is painful. Hardcore fans, who will watch anyway, will appreciate a few Easter Eggs dropped into the dialogue, but for the rest of it it’s just a waste.

Arya Stark is really progressing this season.

 Episodes 5 & 6: The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived
Summary: The Doctor and Clara attempt to save a pre-historic Viking village from aliens masquerading as gods. In doing so, they rely on a precocious girl in the village named Ashildr, played by Maisie Williams (Arya Stark from Game of Thrones). In the process, Ashildr is granted immortality. In the second half, The Doctor discovers Ashildr thousands of years later in 1600s London, now completely changed by her immortality and not necessarily for the better.
Should you watch it? Oh my, yes. The first episode is really just a set up for the second, but for completeness of story and for recognizing how awesome Masie Williams is in this part, it’s well worth it. “The Woman Who Lived” was the first episode this season that I actually loved. It felt like the best kind of Doctor Who episodes of the past.

Episodes 7 & 8: The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion
Summary: Remember the Zygons from the 50th Anniversary episode and their “pretend to be human and infiltrate Earth” plan? They’re back and up to their old mischief. The entire episode is largely an excuse to bring back the character Osgood, who died in last season’s finale. It also tries to make a statement about human nature, though largely falls flat.
Should you watch it? No. While the episodes bring back some fan favorite characters, that’s not enough to give up two hours of your time.

Episode 9: Sleep No More
Summary: The lone standalone episode of the season, The Doctor and Clara find themselves on a space station with a mysterious enemy slowly hunting down and killing the crew. The show usually tries to do a space-themed horror episode once person season; this is it.
Should you watch it? Skip this one. The horror never really materializes and it mostly feels like a filler episode. Though at least it’s only a one-parter.

As I said at the top, the last three episodes of the season are all 100% worth watching. They are, in fact, wonderful and are the ones that reminded me that Doctor Who isn’t out of ideas and fanciful storytelling just yet. Watch all of these!


Scarfs are cool.
Episode 10: Face The Raven
Summary: Clara attempts to save a friend who has been sentenced to death for a supernatural murder that he doesn’t remember committing. In the process, she and The Doctor are reunited with modern-day Ashildr (Maisie Williams again) who has calmed since her last meeting with The Doctor in the 1600s and is now a protector of people who have been affected by him. To that end, Ashildr has set up the entire bogus murder in an attempt to trap The Doctor in an effort to keep him from harming anyone else. Clara’s self-confidence and attempts to out-clever everyone backfire and she is killed in front of The Doctor as he is teleported somewhere else…

Oof. This episode. I can't you guys... All the feels...
Episode 11: Heaven Sent
Summary: The Doctor arrives in his prison, a large castle somewhere unknown completely surrounded by an ocean of water and haunted by the memory of not being able to save Clara. The only other thing in the castle is a silent, shrouded figure that constantly pursues The Doctor, attempting to kill him.  Finally deducing a way out, The Doctor is caught by the figure, who kills him at the very same time he re-appears exactly where he began. The Doctor eventually deduces that he is caught in a cycle whereby he searches for an exit and is killed that has been going on for over 7,000 years and the only way to break free is to continually try to beat it, a process that lasts for over 4 billion more years. In the end, the Doctor is freed and finds himself standing on Gallifrey.

Episode 12: Hell Bent
Summary: The Doctor declares war on Gallifrey’s High Council and extracts Clara from her own time-stream moments before her own death in an attempt to save her. When this doesn’t work, The Doctor takes the TARDIS to the very end of the universe to see the only other person who will be there: Ashildr, who tells him that he and Clara cannot be together because they are too catastrophic. The Doctor attempts to erase Clara’s memories of him but the process backfires and he instead forgets most of his memories of her. At peace with her death but assured that it will happen, Clara and Ashildr use a TARDIS of their own to return Clara to the moment of her death, but not before deciding that they could perhaps “go the long way around” and vanish off into space and time.


Goodbye, Sweetie?
Christmas Episode: The Husbands of River Song
Summary: Your favorite (or not) Moffat-era character returns as The Doctor encounters River Song near the end of her life, just prior to going to The Library. River is unaware of the 12th Doctor and thus doesn’t recognize him but uses him to help her pawn a very valuable diamond that she’s married a dictator for with the plan of swindling him out of it. A madcap adventure ensues, ending with The Doctor and River’s final night together before she is destined to go to her death in “Silence in the Library”.
Should you watch it? Your mileage may vary, depending on how much you like River. As a fan of her character, it gave me all the closure I have wanted for her story. If you prefer to think of The Doctor without his wife (it happened; deal with it), you can likely skip it.

So where does that leave us? Far too many of the episodes fell victim to Doctor Who writing at its worst, which is to say needless complexity and cleverness for the sake of being clever without any of the actual sense of adventure or wonder. Showrunner Steven Moffat in particular suffers from this from time to time, though he’s not the only one. This cleverness for cleverness’s sake is evident in the mandate that rather than have a season-long story arc, every two episodes would be paired together for two-part story with a neatly hook-y title denoting how they relate to each other. And while I appreciate that approach as one that doesn’t make me wait for a big payoff that inevitably won’t be as earth-shattering as it is promised, it also means that a story that doesn’t grab you is doubly-long and hard to sit through. Unfortunately, that was the case for a lot of the stories here.

What serves as a trip-up for this season likely comes down to the basics. I like the 12th Doctor. I like Clara Oswald. I like Peter Capaldi. I like Jenna Coleman. I like all these things. What I apparently don’t like is what happens when they all come together. Clara and The Doctor have never totally clicked, despite strong performances from two (actually three) likeable actors. This is incredibly disappointing for me given how incredibly strong Clara’s introduction was, way back in Season 7’s “The Asylum of the Daleks”. I could write an entire post about Clara and what made her work relative to what made her different, but for now I’ll just say that she became problematic, though her character was delivered some kind of justice by giving her an ending that is absolutely worthy of what her character should have been all along.

Emo sigh.
All that said, I absolutely loved the poetry and genuine emotion and fun that last three episodes and the Christmas episode manage. “Heaven Bent” in particular is notable for storytelling that hits every note it needs to and does so while packing an emotional wallop. It’s worth noting that entire episode only contains two speaking parts, The Doctor and one other character who gets one or two lines at the very end. Likewise, “Hell Bent” gives us a peek at an alternate reality Doctor Who with Ashildr and Clara going off in their own TARDIS that is stuck looking like a 1950s American diner and that’s a TV show I would watch the hell out of. The excitement evident in those final episodes save the season from being a complete misfire.

So, get to watching the good stuff. Ignore the boring bits. And join the rest of us in waiting to see just who exactly will be the next companion now that Clara has exited the show. I’m still waiting on them to bring back Donna, though. 

Or, you know, two chicks with their own TARDIS would be cool too...

1 comment:

Maggie Cats said...

It seemed pretty clear to me throughout the season that Moffat was responding to the criticism about the lack of varied female characters in earlier seasons. I really liked that aspect of Season 9 the most, and having a Time Lord actually switch genders with a regeneration seemed to me pretty clear foreshadowing that we won't have a male Doctor forever. Other than that though (and the awesomeness of Arya), I am meh. There were some high points, there were some low points, but in the whole Moffat always gets bogged down in his own cleverness and time twists. Stop making everything so complicated and let the Doctor be the Doctor!