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Reviewed: Doctor Who Series 9 – An Awfully Big Adventure

I was going to begin this write-up by telling you all that 2015 was the year I went off Doctor Who. That’s what I used to think. It’s right there in some of the material I produced: there is a sense of self-entitled vitriol about it, an ascerbic unpleasantness. Some of it was quite funny. A lot of it was downright nasty, and most of the nastiness was aimed at the showrunner. And then I remembered fighting off a virus, shivering in front of the computer at 11 o’clock on a Saturday in a TARDIS onesie, desperate to get some sort of copy filed for Metro by the following morning. I fainted twice, nearly-but-not-quite hitting my head on the toilet both times – which is a shame, because that’s usually how time machines are invented.

No, the truth was I hadn’t gone off Doctor Who; I just thought that Doctor Who had gone off. It had become a grotesque, self-important parody of itself, a show wrapped up in its own worth and coasting on the wheels of its own hype train, unrecognisable from the programme I’d loved for years. In other words, I was exactly where many people seemed to find themselves last year when Series 11 launched, and that’s probably why I enjoyed Whittaker’s inaugural adventures more than many of my peers (including, dare we suggest it, a number of fellow DWC writers). I recognised that sense of fatigue – the feeling that things had changed, and that the state of the programme would not improve until Certain People resigned.

“You’ve got – it’s in your – in your beard, I’ll just…hang on…”

So when Phil asked which of the newer adventures I’d like to cover, it seemed an obvious choice. What better way to atone for your past misdeeds than by revisiting the stories that you loathed on a first encounter? How else do you expect to lay those ghosts to rest, other than by walking once more amongst them? And so I endeavoured to watch Capaldi’s entire second series with fresh eyes, open to the possibility that some of my assessments might have been a little on the harsh side the first time round – and discovered, much to my surprise, that I still largely hate it.

“Three weeks? It must be nearly bedtime.”

Really, the problem with Series 9 is a consistent failure to live up to early promise. It is a collection of dizzying highs and dazzling lows, and it’s strange how frequently these form opposite sides of the same coin: in other words, two-part episodes that are only half good. There are four of them in this particular collection, along with a single standalone adventure and a lengthy three-part finale. It feels like a hankering after the Classic Who format (2015 was chock full of references to the past, so at least that’s consistent), and it’d all be just dandy if the stories were actually any good. Alas, much of the time they’re not.

Don’t get me wrong: it would be lovely to say that time had been kind to this series. That’s usually how it goes: the filters kick in long after the dust has settled, as all the bitterness evaporates into the ether, the contempt you might have felt at the time a long but distant memory. We’ve done our fair share of it over at The Doctor Who Companion: why else would we have spent an entire week re-evaluating underrated episodes? Distance and perspective bring a sort of kindness along with them; it is easier to remember the good things when the pain of the bad is no longer raw or fresh, and thus the good things dominate. It is the way many of us grieve dead relatives; at the risk of trivialising the issue, so it is with nostalgic media re-appraisal.

“I mean, I quite like the hair; I was thinking about trying it next year.”

But Capaldi’s somophore year is still as muddled and tedious as it always was. It is really the story of Clara, who is still grieving, and who deals with her grief by plunging headlong into her adventures in the TARDIS – only now there’s a curious sense of gung-ho about her, a kind of death wish; Charles Bronson in a miniskirt. Early on, the Doctor warns her not to “go native”: it is a warning that is unheeded, and both of them pay the price. Eventually the scales tip, and Clara is killed off – unambiguously and irreversibly, it seems – in Sarah Dollard’s Face The Raven, before spending the remainder of the series in a state of perpetual limbo, a ghost caught between worlds, finally returning to a sort of ageless half-life, travelling round the universe in a stolen TARDIS in the company of an aloof immortal.

Why not, you may say? After all, that’s how it all started. But Ashildr (I cannot bring myself to call her ‘Me’) is no Hartnell, and Clara’s get-out-of-jail-free card seems unfairly earned, as if once again Moffat found himself unable to drive home the last spike. By the time the credits roll on the season finale, with the Doctor safely back in his own TARDIS and Coleman and Williams en route to a spin-off that mercifully never materialised, you’re itching for the production team to roll out a new companion, preferably one a little less omnipresent.

Clara’s gradual evolution – it’s supposed to be character development, but it feels more like genetic tinkering – is charted in other ways. At the opening of The Witch’s Familiar (Moffat), she is upside down, suspended from a rock by Missy (the ever-watchable Michelle Gomez) out in the wastelands of Skaro, but by the time we reach Face The Raven she is happily dangling over the edge of an airborne TARDIS – enjoying the experience, as Rigsy notes, “way too much”. Forever disappearing from London at the drop of a hat (how on earth does she manage to hold down that job at Coal Hill?) the young Ms Oswald’s determination to maintain a real life outside her travelling seems to erode altogether over the course of her final adventures and the result is a capable and competent young woman who, you suspect, might just be heading for a fall. Those who know too much are destined for trouble, and the rot sets in early – faced with a deadly situation at the opening of The Magician’s Apprentice, UNIT summons Clara to help them find the Doctor, and it is Clara who has all the ideas while the rest of the staff gather around computer terminals, generally helpless.

“For god’s sake, Doctor, I don’t know…three?”

“I’ve got question mark underpants.”

The Magician’s Apprentice (Moffat) includes one of the most overtly ludicrous scenes in Doctor Who history. Most men get through a midlife crisis by buying a white suit and a sports car. The Doctor goes to Essex and hangs out with the plebs. His eventual emergence from the smoke is Marmite, destined to be one of these things the fans argue about until the show is cancelled (and probably beyond), but for sheer audacity alone it just about works – and if the kids loved it, surely that’s the only thing that matters? “You may be cool,” says the oft-posted meme, “but you will never be Peter Capaldi playing the guitar while standing on a tank cool”.

Capaldi himself is an interesting watch. Toning down the broodiness rather becomes him: it is a heartfelt and occasionally flamboyant performance, a man trying on different faces in an endless effort to determine the best fit. He gambols across the Viking countryside with the dexterity of a spring puppy to embrace Clara; five minutes later, he is translating baby talk with the grandeur of a Shakespearean ham. It bears all the hallmarks of an actor who is trying much too hard: on the other hand, he gets an episode all to himself and you don’t get restless. The chameleonic tendencies are largely there to emphasise the transformation undergone by Clara, but either way the impression is that of a Doctor who is in the process of redefining himself – just as the impression Capaldi gives is that of a man desperate to win an award of some sort, if he can only generate enough submissible footage.

He has competition; it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if he didn’t. In the first story Capaldi is paired off with Julian Bleach, who voices Davros with a quiet dignity, far removed from the cackling Palpatine impersonation we got back in 2008. It’s all a ruse, of course – the Daleks still intend to take over the universe, and they know exactly how they’re going to do it – but thankfully so does the Doctor, who does a couple of magic tricks and drinks tea in Davros’ chair (“I’m the Doctor; just accept it”), eventually sweeping out a metaphorical rug from beneath the inhabitants of Skaro (and, simultaneously, the audience) through the simple act of donning a pair of sunglasses. There are eyebrow-raising moments (Dalek lasers run on emotions? Really? Is this the dark version of Elf?) and the ending is colossally stupid, but the scenes with a young Davros are well-handled, and it’s all quite fun, just as Doctor Who should be.

Having abandoned Missy in a corridor somewhere, the TARDIS crew head over to an underground facility some time in Earth’s future which seemingly has a ghost problem, in Toby Whithouse’s Under The Lake (the script is attributed to Whithouse, but Moffat, in a pattern that would stretch across the entire series, shares writing credit). It is a beautifully crafted, deeply chilling and ultimately compelling episode. Unfortunately its second half – the cryptically titled Before The Flood – is a walking disaster, a complicated caper across time zones that sees the Doctor attempting to solve a mystery and prevent his own demise. It features a scene in which a deaf character (who is not allowed to simply be deaf, and who has already demonstrated a lip-reading superpower) walks down a corridor, oblivious to the fact that there is a ghost behind her. In the end, she manages to find him out by pressing her hand to the ground and feeling the vibrations from the axe he he is dragging along beside him; this wouldn’t be a problem except for the low-light enhanced vision mode that follows, which is like something from Daredevil, and not in a good way.

The whole thing is like that: good ideas, recklessly squandered, or bad ideas given unnecessary credence. Under The Lake had some of the best-ever moments between Coleman and Capaldi, whether she was waving cue cards under his nose or arguing about duty of care. The follow-up has them begging and pleading with each other down a phone line. The monster-of-the-week is a cliché on stilts, albeit one that looks quite impressive (and isn’t voiced by Nicholas Briggs). There is a needless guest appearance from a Tivolian. And the Doctor has a mildly homo-erotic wrestling match behind a pile of dustbins. A nonchalant loss of interest is as inevitable as another scene with that wretched guitar. Actually, Before the Flood rather reminds me of Neighbours: there was an episode where Lance was opening a birthday present he assumed was a surfboard, and it turned out to be an ironing board. It was a colossal disappointment. 2015 is also the year the BBC told us a huge Doctor Who announcement was coming, and then revealed they were making Class. Go figure.

“There was a red sock in there. Dammit, THERE WAS A RED SOCK IN THERE.”

“Your reign of terror will end with the sight of the first crying child, and you know it.”

Can we have Vikings? Yes, we can have Vikings. The Vikings in The Girl Who Died (Jamie Mathieson) do not look like Vikings – they have horned helmets, for one thing – but they certainly behave like them, right down to bellowing “WE ARE VIKINGS!” when facing certain death. It’s a miracle that we can understand them, frankly, given that they’re two days’ boat ride from the TARDIS and the translation circuit is still intact – by that rationale, it should work across the whole of the UK, thus making a mockery of every GCSE French lesson. These Vikings are panicking because their village has declared war on a race of sinister aliens, who pump the testosterone from the bodies of their dead. But there is no honour in running away, and the villagers are determined to stay and face their fate, all the while imploring the Doctor to come up with some sort of plan. The dialect may be a little off: everyone speaks as if they’re in a Netflix costume drama, even the babies.

Throughout, the Doctor is intrigued by Ashildr (Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams), a young puppeteer who eventually manages to defeat the Mire using the power of her imagination. It sounds ridiculous and indeed it is, but when you have a bunch of helmeted alien warriors backing away from a puppet dragon accompanied by the Benny Hill theme, it’s hard not to complain, except that it created a character who would outstay her welcome faster than you can say “Martha Jones”: Williams would go on to guest star in four Doctor Who episodes, and would give a passable performance in just two of them. The scripts don’t help, but it’s impossible not to feel that she’s this year’s Weeping Angel, a one-shot character dragged out for needless repeat appearances in stories where she doesn’t really fit, and who swiftly becomes as tedious to watch as her own life does to endure.

It’s right there in the very next episode. If The Girl Who Died is escapist nonsense, The Woman Who Lived will have you wishing the Doctor had failed medicine. From the pen of Catherine Tregenna (Torchwood), it is the first of the series’ non-stories: 45 minutes of philosophical musing about the nature of mortality, with a talking cat thrown in to give the make-up department something to do. It’s like watching one of Beckett’s TV plays, only without the jokes. Williams is about as watchable as a picket fence, and similarly wooden: there is no spark, no life, and no subtlety to her performance, nor does Treganna give her anything worthwhile to say. Rufus Hound is similarly disastrous – he may have a good deal more screen presence than Williams, but casting a stand-up comedian and then getting him to actually perform stand-up on his way to the gallows is the sort of shoehorned guest appearance I’d rather hoped we’d left behind when Boy George appeared on The A-Team.

“I’m just saying, if he starts on with the political stuff again, you might want something to throw at him.”

One advantage of hitting rock bottom is that there is nowhere to go but up, and the second half of the series is a marginal improvement. The Zygon Invasion (Peter Harness) opens with two Osgoods – one cosplaying as Baker, the other as McCoy – delivering an expository monologue, the chief narrative function of which is to explain how she can be in this episode, given that the last time we saw her she was not just slightly dead but very dead. It turns out there were two Osgoods (by the end of the story, there will be two again), and while we know that at least one is a Zygon, we don’t know which – with Osgood herself insisting that she’ll tell us “the day nobody cares about the answer”. Only now the events of Day of the Doctor have unravelled and the peace process is close to failing, and so Harness brings mankind seemingly to the brink – seemingly undecided about whether he’d rather be having a pop at the warmongers or the immigration policy, or both.

Invasion / Inversion is a sprawling, transcontinental epic: a story of duplicity and subterfuge, where no one is who they say they are. Clara becomes Bonnie the moment she ties back her hair (something Violet Baudelaire was prone to do), while Kate Stewart does a brilliant job of pretending she’s a Zygon, finally revealing her hand with a couple of head shots and a well-placed nod to Nicholas Courtney. Elsewhere, the Doctor has an encounter with a couple of twins who wouldn’t look out of place in The Shining, as well as spending some quality time with Osgood, who becomes a companion of sorts, the pair bonding after Capaldi bails out of an exploding plane with a Union Jack parachute. The story is always at its most enjoyable when the two of them share screen time (Capaldi dismisses London as “a dump”, while Osgood asks after the TARDIS acronym, conceding that she’s “heard a couple of different versions”) and it’s hard not to feel that perhaps things would work better had Harness cranked down the worthiness. Somewhere underneath all the military bluster and vigorous anti-war sentiment – the zenith of which is a lengthy, BAFTA-hankering monologue, far too much of which is delivered in the worst American accent since David Bowie’s Twin Peaks cameo – there is a silly story waiting to get out. Why couldn’t we have that one instead?

“Just give me a second; there’s a Magikarp around here somewhere.”

“None of this makes any sense!”

All flaws aside, one thing Series 9 has in its favour is a desire to push the envelope, or at least ruffle the corners a little bit. There is a sense of innovation at work here, even if it occasionally comes across as showing off. Not content with giving the Doctor an hour long solo spot (more or less), it also lets Mark Gatiss loose with an entry into found footage territory, although the net result was less horrifying, more head-scratching. That may have just been our family, of course, and it may have been the lice. We do tend to get them a lot.

The unsavoury reputation of Sleep No More hinges largely on two factors. One is the much-maligned Gatiss, a man who does not deserve the critical lambast that follows his semi-regular contributions to Who; the other is the fact that we’re watching the first part of a two-part story that has yet to come to fruition. It opens with an announcement from Reece Shearsmith, rambling about the fate of a starship crew, and the story that you’re about to see, as told by a combination of helmet cams (which feels a little like cheating) and closed circuit television. “There are bits missing,” he admits, adding “Sorry about that.”

The first inkling we get that something is off is when we switch to Clara’s point of view – the subsequent mystery and not-quite resolution is familiar territory, albeit one explored in the most preposterous fashion. The idea of a monster made from sleep crust is almost as stupid as the Spitfires-on-the-moon story we had at the very beginning of Moffat’s run: it is like something a child would have dreamed up (what if Rasmussen had been trying to cure the common cold?) and in many ways, that’s key to the story’s success. Doctor Who is supposed to be all things to all people – and frequently fails in the process – but Gatiss is seemingly under no delusions about his target audience, and as much as Sleep No More baffles and perplexes it hits the mark when it comes to scaring the kids, which is surely the only thing that actually counts for anything. If it’s ridiculous and convoluted, that’s entirely on purpose: this is a meta-story, one which is as much about the act of watching Doctor Who (sit down, Valeyard, and have a cream horn) as it is about anything else. Shearsmith may have been excruciating as Troughton, but as he crumbles into dust in the episode’s denoument, moaning like a banshee and telling you that you’ve got something in your eye, it’s almost possible to forgive him.

“Clara? I’ve been hiding in here an hour, and the station’s really not that big… Clara? Clara?”

After Sleep No More aired, there was a guy on Twitter explaining to the Americans why Elaine Tan refers to everyone as ‘pet’. It might have been helpful if he’d come back the following week to emphasise to the community that Diagon Alley really doesn’t exist anywhere in London, unless you go to the Harry Potter Experience and even then you should probably book. And yet here were the Doctor and Clara, happily strolling along a darkened street, all gas lamps and dimly-lit doorways and stacked, slanted housing, and unsavoury characters hidden in the shadows who are actually Judoon and Sontarans and Cybermen, despite not actually behaving like any of those creatures while in their human form. And yes, that is partly why they’re there, but still.

There’s no easy or polite way to say this, but Face The Raven is a disaster. It is labouring and tedious and overwrought – a story in which nothing happens at the speed of a slug travelling across a leaf. It is an episode that exists to advance the series arc; that is its sole function, and everything else that matters is recklessly scattered to the wind. You could imagine the conversation: Moffat calls Dollard, out of the blue, and says he needs an additional writer for this series of Doctor Who and would she like to do the episode where Clara dies? Dollard replies that yes, she certainly would, but she doesn’t have any ideas for a story. Moffat informs her that this is not a problem: no story is needed, so long as Clara dies.

She takes about 6 minutes to do it, and there’s a lot of tempered emotion. To be fair, Capaldi and Coleman do the very best with what they have, which is rather like trying to get a gourmet meal out of stuff you’ve retrieved from a McDonalds waste bin. This is soap opera extraordinaire: a character we only vaguely liked to begin with framed for a murder he didn’t commit and given a death sentence he doesn’t deserve, along with an infant daughter to make sure we care enough to keep watching. It is Clara’s rank stupidity that gets her killed, along with that lingering, subconscious death wish: “Maybe I wanted this,” she admits to Capaldi, before imploring him to be nice to the universe. When she finally expires, it is in a flurry of camera angles – not since a Seventies horror movie have we seen a montage like this – and a cacophony of mawkishness from Murray Gold, turned all the way up to eleven. The strings are like eating five buckets of candy floss and having to vomit into your own mouth. This may be hyperbole. You decide.

“The wand guy? Yeah, we know each other.”

To contrast, Heaven Sent (Moffat) is nothing short of astonishing. It is one of those episodes that sticks in your throat, like an undigested mouthful of muesli, lingering long after the meal is finished and the closing credits have rolled. It is metaphysical and nonsensical and heart-rending and moving. It stretches dramatic convention to its limit, seizing Aristotle’s Unity of Time and throwing it neatly out of the window (along with a dining chair). It pays homage to The Stanley Parable, 2001, and about a dozen Doctor Who stories. It is brilliantly written and impeccably directed (by Rachel Talalay, who has repeatedly proven herself a safe pair of hands) and, at its best, it is both quietly captivating and utterly terrifying.

Oddly, on a repeat view the twist in Heaven Sent is so obvious you’ll wonder how on earth you missed it the first time. The words “The Doctor spends four billion years punching a wall” must have looked ludicrous on paper – that it works is down to Moffat’s flair for quotable platitudes (which work better when there is no one there to have to react to them), Talalay’s eye for a compelling visual image, and the Veil, a voiceless wraith that stalks the castle interior in a relentless pursuit of secrets and confessions. Meanwhile, back in the Doctor’s mind palace, there’s another visitor: Clara, scribbing silently at the blackboard, ever the teacher, forever just out of shot and (until a crucial moment) just beyond the Doctor’s reach.

It all comes crashing down at the denouement, paving the way for a lacklustre damp squib of a finale. Hell Bent could have been something very special indeed, or it could have been a disaster: instead it is simply mediocre, a collection of set pieces that attempt to redefine both the Doctor and his relationship to Gallifrey, explaining away the reasons he left there in the first place with the resolution of a muddied and confusing series arc which didn’t really interest anyone in the first place. There are a couple of token Sixties throwbacks, one of which is quite pleasing, and Maisie Williams even turns in something we might call ‘acting’. But the crushing sense of boredom is there in abundance, right up until the final twist – which happens, incidentally, when someone opens a door.

It’s a shame, because Hell Bent’s opening sequence really is astonishing: a 6-minute stand-off in the Gallifreyan desert, during which Capaldi dismisses armed guards, a hovering battleship, and the entire high council, all without uttering a single word. He saves that for Rassilon (played like an East End gangster by Donald Sumpter, a marvellous performance which falls short of perfection simply because there isn’t enough of it) and before you know it the resurrected despot is on a shuttle to who knows where, as the General laments that “He was a good man once”. It’s like watching Clint Eastwood in a frock coat, right down to the squinting: the Time Lords, impotent and pompous, against the man who would tear down their regime in an instant. For the second time in as many episodes, the Doctor eats soup.

“Fear not, Lord Rassilon: we are many, and your contact lens will be down here somewhere.”

But not even Sumpter can save this vapid mess. Not when there’s so much prattle about the Hybrid. Not when there’s a body count of minus one. Not when the dramatic climax – the universe-shaking, high-stakes moment of truth – is two characters arguing about whether they should press down on a piece of plastic. It’s enough to make you hanker for a bit of Davies’ kitchen sink drama, served with a decent slice of reality bomb. Or, at the very least, someone who actually stays dead, or whose death means something. A story can be quiet, but it should at least be a story.

Surely it’s best to let people bow out gracefully? Death is a permanent squatter throughout the series: the unspeaking guest performer in every tale, in one way or another, forever lingering at the sidelines, checking watches and cursing at near misses. Under The Lake raises the question of the afterlife: Before The Flood sees the Doctor calmly accept his own death before actively avoiding it, something Clara will do later on. Harness’ Zygon stories see the Doctor believe, for all of five minutes, that his companion is dead (“Longest month of my life”), while Heaven Sent takes us through the grieving process, albeit within the context of a mysterious, largely metaphysical setting. The Girl Who Died gives the Doctor a power over life and death that would have made Frankenstein proud, while The Woman Who Lived is a cautionary tale about the consequence of that power (where the note of caution runs along the lines of “If you’re going to write about this s**t, make sure you actually have something else happening”).

But there is a sense of weariness about this whole foray, just as there is about the title character himself. The Doctor goes to hell and back during this series – his own, strictly personal hell it may be, but Eurydice is still waiting for him, and unlike the fable she makes it out intact (if not necessarily alive) before she can be newly snatched. But we do not leave with any sense of joy or resolve: only that head-scratching unease, a sense that the show is somehow in transit, helmed by a contradictory and multi-faceted Doctor who still has yet to decide exactly who he really is. For all its good moments (and there are many), this is a series of unfortunate events, tempered by a succession of inadequate and disappointing resolutions, with a chameleonic madman at the tiller.

It wasn’t until Capaldi’s final year in the TARDIS that they finally got the balance right. But that’s another story.

NEXT: Naughty and Nice.

James Baldock

Reviewed: Doctor Who Series 9 – An Awfully Big Adventure

by James Baldock time to read: 19 min
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