After finding his footing in the previous series, Peter Capaldi returns to the role of the Doctor with a slightly different approach. The grumpy, harsh Scottish man has gone, and we’re left with a Time Lord who’s more akin to a fun, spacefaring uncle. He’s a bit wackier, his outfits reflect this, and he seems to be having more fun. Jenna Coleman’s Clara is also back for the ride, though she is destined not to survive the series.
Series 9 does away with the standalone episodes from last time, and the vast majority of episodes here are connected. But that’s not a complaint. The stories in this series are some of the best that the show’s ever done. Interestingly, series 9 contains what many fans consider to the best ever episode – as well as an episode that most fans hate. But the quality overall is one of consistency, as if everyone involved had got production of the show down to a fine art.
The series starts off with a bang, with the one-two punch of “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar”. This two-parter sees the Doctor’s nemesis Davros call out for the Time Lord, as he is dying and wants to talk before he goes. It also brings back Missy, who didn’t die in the last series – no surprises there. You go into this story thinking it’s going to be another big Dalek episode, an explosive episode to start the series with a bang. And while there are some of those elements, I was surprised by how lowkey these episodes were. Sure, the Doctor and Co are stranded on Skaros, surrounded by the Dalek fleet, but the majority of the story has the Doctor and Davros just shooting the breeze. And these are some really great, well-written scenes, as the Dalek creator appeals to the Doctor’s better nature. These episodes also allow Capaldi to start demonstrating the Fun Doctor that he will go on to embody, making his entrance on a tank playing the show’s theme on electric guitar. And once things really start going bad, he has a hilarious scene where he steals Davros’ chair. So, anyone for dodgems?
Next up is a fantastic two-parter from Toby Whithouse, who I think is one of the most consistent writers on the show. “Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood” is a time-hopping adventure that sees the pair fighting ghosts in an underwater mining facility in 2119, before bouncing back to the height of the Cold War. It also sees the 12th Doctor continue the trend of directly addressing the audience – this time to give us all a very useful lesson on the concept of the “bootstrap paradox”. Not only does this allow the episode to pull off said paradox without anyone being able to call it a plot hole, it is a very stylish way of explaining quite a complicated science fiction concept. At the end of the day, I might be a 27-year-old writing about the show, but it’s primary audience is younger folk.
Following this is another two-parter (get used to that) which sees the introduction to a very important character, Ashildr (played by Maisie Williams). Technically, “The Girl Who Died” / “The Woman Who Lived” aren’t considered two-parters – but they most definitely are. The episodes themselves do feel a bit throwaway at times, with some thinly sketched villains, but there are some really strong character moments in each – for both the Doctor and Ashildr. And there’s a great performance from Rufus Hound in the second episode, as highwayman Sam Swift.
I don’t think I gave these episodes enough credit back in the day. At the time, it felt like including Maisie Williams was just a cynical ploy to capitalise on the success of Game of Thrones. And to be fair, that probably played a part. But with a bit of distance between the episode and the end of Game of Thrones, you realise that Williams was actually really perfect for the role. She was 17 or 18 in these episodes, and she manged to play both a girl and a very powerful woman, respectively (as the titles suggest). Thanks to some meddling by the Doctor, Ashildr ends up immortal by the end of the first episode, and continues to appear throughout time in some very important ways. Williams basically has to play four different versions of the same character at different points in her immortal life, and I reckon she does it really well.
The next two-parter is a really interesting one. Consisting of “The Zygon Invasion” / “The Zygon Inversion”, it’s interesting because at the time I distinctly remember the first part of this story being absolutely dreadful, but the second part being astounding. It’s rare that a two-part story is so completely saved by its second half, but that’s the effect here. It’s true that the first episode isn’t anywhere near as bad as I may have thought at the time – it’s actually pretty good, if a bit underwhelming on its own – but the second part is so very good. The two-parter itself is a really timely message on immigration, refugees, and racism in general. A splinter group of Zygons is threatening the world, and they share more than a passing resemblance to bogeymen of the era, Isis. The story tries to tell us not to judge a whole group based on the actions of a few, and I think that’s a message that’s only gotten more relevant.
It also has some damming things to say about war. We know the Doctor is no fan of warfare or soldiers, especially after his difficult relationship with Danny Pink last series. But the 12th Doctor’s speech on war in this episode is really fantastic. Explained in simple terms – like his explanation of the bootstrap paradox – Capaldi delivers a career-best speech that has gone down in history, and rightfully so. He’s a pacifist Doctor, more than any of his predecessors. The Doctor has always been a progressive character, but it feels like 12 is more tuned into the injustices of the world, especially in this series. And in an era where any sort of comment on injustice makes you the enemy, or a snowflake, he’s an icon.
But the series can’t say on it’s high forever, and that brings us to “Sleep No More” – the only truly standalone episode of the series. Written by Mark Gatiss, a writer I will readily defend, this episode is full of really interesting moments. Sleep monsters have taken over a space station (another entry in the Doctor Who canon of ordinary things made scary) and the Doctor and Clara have ended up in the middle of it. Shot entirely in found footage, the episode delivers some truly scary moments and creepy imagery. I definitely like this episode more than most, but even I have a hard time defending the ending. The Doctor fails to solve the mystery and it’s revealed that watching the footage is what infects people. So, basically, we’re all infected. Sleep monsters are going to take over the world. And the Doctor failed. It’s an interesting twist on the usual structure, but leaves to feeling as if you’re lacking closure. A misfire from Gatiss.
And that brings us to the final three episodes of the series. In the first, “Face the Raven”, the Doctor and Clara journey to a hidden street in London where Clara ultimately sacrifices herself. I say sacrifice, but it’s really thanks to her trying to be the Doctor and cheat the system. She dies saving someone else, but ultimately it’s because of her own actions. It’s a brave choice to have a companion bow out thanks to their own poor decision making, but it’s been telegraphed for a while, with Clara getting increasingly reckless thanks to her time with the Doctor. It’s an interesting comment on the effect the time traveller has on those around him. But with it being Steven Moffat, there’s always a loophole and she doesn’t stay dead for long.
This is followed by “Heaven Sent”, which is often cited as Moffat’s very best episode. It sees the Doctor trapped in a revolving castle, followed by a terrifying veiled creature, as he is forced to confess. The Time Lords have trapped him, and they want information. But instead of giving it, the Doctor decides to break out. The only problem? The exit is through about 20 feet of azbantium, a mineral 400 times harder than diamond. Using the machine that brought him there, the Doctor starts punching he way out. By constantly dying and reliving his time in the castle over and over, each time finding the wall and punching it, the Doctor eventually breaks through. And it only takes him four and a half billion years. Thanks to gorgeous direction from Rachel Talalay, a top-tier script from Steven Moffat, and amazing music from the one and only Murry Gold, it’s an episode for the ages. It’s a one-man show for Capaldi, and a meditation on grief for a character that knows the feeling more than most. As the Doctor says: “The day you lose someone isn’t the worst; at least you have something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.”
After the tour-de-force that is “Heaven Sent”, the follow-up episode was always going to struggle to measure up. But “Hell Bent” tackles it admirably, and somehow manages to round out the series with closure. Now on Gallifrey, the Doctor uses Time Lord tech to bring Clara back at the moment of her death, between her final heartbeats. Then he does what he does best, he runs. But as far as he goes, Clara stays frozen. Even at the very end of the universe, where the only remaining living thing is Ashildr (making her easily the oldest being in Who lore). So, he has to say goodbye to her – and in a twist on Donna’s fate, he forgets all about her. It’s a bittersweet ending for the character, but at least she gets to live, flying around the galaxy with Ashildr in a stolen TARDIS until she decides its time to die. I hated this when it aired, but after rewatching the series and growing very fond of Clara, I’m so glad she got a good ending. That’s rare for a companion to the Doctor.
So that was series nine. And I really hadn’t anticipated writing so much about it. It was only when I began this retrospective that I realised how great this series is. Peter Capaldi shines as a more wacky version of the Doctor, and the stories he’s given are some of his best. There are career-best moments in this series for him, especially in terms of speeches (there are a lot!). And while it’s sad to see Clara go, I don’t think anyone can say she’s not been around long enough. Unlike some companions who are lucky to get a second series, she’s been here for a while. And she deserved that happy ending.
Next up, we meet fan-favourite Bill, as we embark on the last of the 12th Doctor’s adventures. The hair and the adventures both get bigger and wackier.