Series 7 of Doctor Who is often considered to be a bit messy. Like the previous series, it’s once again quite literally a series of two halves – with the first half following the Amy and Rory and the second half picking up with new companion Clara, played by Jenna Coleman. Because of this, the series often feels like two separate seasons, and not one consistent thing. And with Amy and Rory’s tragic exit at the halfway mark, combined with The Doctor’s own departure at the end of the two specials, this is a series of goodbyes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still incredibly entertaining.
After the mind-boggling arcs of the last series, this one takes a surprisingly simple approach to its storytelling, with each episode feeling like one big adventure, harkening back to the “monster of the week” stories that made the series so popular. Each episode also has a snazzy poster that was released alongside it, suggesting that Moffat and Co wanted to capture that big, Hollywood-esque feel for each episode, doing away with series-long arcs and recurring plot points. I’ll go along with whatever the showrunner wants to do, but things did get quite a bit more confusing for the casual viewer. Instead, these big overarching arcs and references to the years gone by of the show are reserved for the finales.
And there’s a really good mix of episodes in this series. It isn’t often considered to be the best season of the show, but for sheer variety it’s one of the best. In the first half of the series, you’ve got some real belters. “Asylum of the Daleks” is a phenomenal episode, and “A Town Called Mercy” and “The Angels Take Manhattan” are very good, with the former being just a really enjoyable episode and the latter seeing the very emotional exit of Amy and Rory. There’s a mediocre episode in there, with “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” – but even that has its moments. For such a silly episode, the ending sees The Doctor at his absolute coldest, leaving the story’s villain to die in a very callous way. This first half of the series also features “The Power of Three”, which is a real oddity. For its first two halves, it’s a genuinely fantastic episode, showing us The Doctor faced with the mundanity of everyday life. It also offers us the best look at what it’s actually like to travel in the TARDIS, and balancing that with an actual life. But it has one of the weirdest third acts, apparently a result of behind-the-scenes drama with well-known diva Steven Berkoff. But it’s still well worth a watch.
As I mentioned, the second half of this series feels like a separate thing entirely. In this half we’re introduced to Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman. She’s probably my favourite companion, or at least she’s up there, mainly due to how interesting she is. Clara isn’t just a human that The Doctor decides to travel with, she’s a full-on mystery of her own and is still one of the most interesting things the show has attempted. After somehow keeping it a secret, she first appears in “Asylum of the Daleks” – as a different character. Then again, she appears and dies in “The Snowmen”. At the time, you really were left wondering what the heck the show was trying to do. And even you weren’t keen on the eventual payoff, the idea of Clara is an interesting one.
And the second half of the series has some really fantastic episodes too, that play with a range of genres and stories to create some really memorable moments. Firstly, “The Rings of Akhaten” is a wonderful sci-fi story, of the kind that we don’t see enough in the show. Filled with more prosthetic aliens than the cantina on Mos Eisley, the episode sees The Doctor and Clara going against an Old God that really feels like something out of the works of Lovecraft. It’s also a great introduction to Clara and the type of person she is, after her proper introduction in “The Bells of Saint John”. On top of that, it The Doctor’s best ever speech, in a scene that quickly became my all time favourite. Check it out and tell me you don’t get goosebumps. It’s Matt Smith’s best performance, from a run full of them, and the scene is composer Murray Gold’s opus, in my opinion.
Another episode in this second half of the series that I want to draw particular attention to is “The Crimson Horror”, from writer Mark Gatiss. Now Gatiss seems to have built up a sort of love-him-or-hate-him reputation among the fans of the show. And maybe not all of his episodes have been classics, but I love seeing his name in the opening credits because you know you’re going to get something bizarre and just a little bit different. And “The Crimson Horror” does that and then some. Set in 1893 Yorkshire, the episode does something very different and has The Doctor not showing up for the entirety of the first act, instead following Strax, Vastra, and Jenny. Bodies are turning up in the canal, all dyed a gross red colour and being dubbed, The Crimson Horror. It’s got great performances from it’s supporting cast, including all of the Paternoster Gang and the late Diana Rigg, playing the evil and wonderfully Northern Mrs Gillyflower. When the villain is revealed to be a little red puppet creature from the prehistoric era (left), it feels like a very conscious callback to science fiction of days gone by, when the big bad of the week could be a little puppet and didn’t have to be a big CGI monster. On top of that, it’s gothic and incredibly camp and I honestly think it might be one of my favourite episodes of all time. In fact, it was only because of the tepid reception among the fans that I first began reviewing the show back in 2013, with a defence of the episode.
And that sort of over-the-top, and at times camp atmosphere really defines this second run of episodes. The Dougray Scott-starring episode “Hide” is another ridiculous one that I absolutely loved. On one hand truly spooky, and on the other very silly, it’s another wildly inventive story. Another winner is “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, which, despite a ropey supporting cast, delivers some of the best visuals the show has even given us. The same goes for “Cold War”, which possibly has the best supporting cast that an episode of the show has ever had.
The series culminates in what I consider a pretty strong finale, with “The Name of the Doctor”. It’s true that this episode acts more as set-up for the 50th anniversary and eventual departure of the Eleventh Doctor, but it’s still good in its own right, with some clever ideas and really evocative set pieces. The Doctor and companions end up on the very cooly named planet of Trenzalore, the final resting place of the eponymous Timelord. Thanks to that always-reliable Macguffin “Timelord Science” there is no body there, instead The Doctor’s timeline rests there. This gives showrunner Stephen Moffat the chance to finally explain what the deal is with Clara, in a mostly satisfying way, as she jumps into the timeline and places herself at key moments in his life. This is a huge moment, and represents a sci-fi idea that’s not all too easy to wrap your head around.
But as is often the case with Moffat, he throws even more at the screen to see what sticks. Luckily for us, most of it does. The insanity of Clara being CG’d into The Doctor’s life (including way back on Gallifrey when he stole the TARDIS) is overshadowed by the revelation that The Doctor has been hiding a secret regeneration, one that took place in the Time War, between the old show and the revival. This is John Hurt’s incarnation, and the episode ends before we really find anything out. But at the time, it was a huge moment, and served to generate a colossal amount of hype for the upcoming special.
So, overall, I found myself really enjoying this series. I’ve heard it described as messy and uneven, but I enjoyed every episode and really appreciated the variety. The only misstep, and an episode I was dreading re-watching, was “Nightmare in Silver”, which saw the return of Neil Gaiman to the show – who penned the perfect Who episode with “The Doctor’s Wife”. But even this episode was enjoyable! Offering a really great showcase for Matt Smith and some very fun ideas – it was only let down by its rushed pacing and unnecessary (and annoying) supporting child actors.
The only downside is that the series doesn’t ever feel like one, cohesive story. It’s a series of two halves, and suffers just a bit because of it. But only a bit. In the first half we bid farewell to Amy and Rory and at that point, you really don’t think the show will be able to produce a companion with as much chemistry. But due to some clever writing from Moffat, the groundwork has already been laid for Clara, who goes on to be possibly the most important companion to ever enter the TARDIS.
Next up, I’ll take a quick look at the two specials, “The Day of the Doctor” and Matt Smith’s exit, “The Time of the Doctor”. It’s going to be emotional. See you there!