Warning: This article contains spoilers for series 9 of Dr Who. I want you to read this article, so if you have not seen series 9, watch the show and then come back and read this article.
I find it hard to be objective about Dr Who. My love for the show began in 1993 when the BBC rebroadcasted Planet of the Daleks as part of the 30th anniversary of the show's first broadcast. I was 8 at the time and the show captured my imagination. Through VHS and episodes taped off UK Gold, the adventures of an eccentric man in a time traveling phone box became an integral part of my childhood and the foundation of my love of science fiction.
A lot of criticism has been leveled at the tone of the show, the believability of the stories, the reliance on CGI and head writer Steven Moffat, and I do not want to go into that debate here. Here I want to talk about how entertaining and well-made series 9 of the show, - which finished on Saturday the 5th of December - was.
Overall I thought this series was better than the one before it. I enjoyed a lot of episodes from series 8, especially The Caretaker, but this series had several distinct improvements. Primarily more two part stories, which allowed for meatier and better-developed narratives. Writing Dr Who must be a difficult task, each new episodes requires a whole new sci-fi world to be introduced, along with characters, and a story executed in three-quarters of an hour. It is not a writing job I envy. Due to these constraints, there have been unconvincing, cop-out, endings. Kill the Moon from series 8 is a good example of this. Series 9's longer stories were convincing, at no point did I feel cheated by a writer or that a plot needed more development.
The series opened with an overwritten introduction, typical of Moffat’s style. Moffat clearly has talent as a writer - Blink is near perfection – however, his ability to dwell too much on the infamy of the Doctor while writing confusing non- sequiturs that do not advance the plot is style over substance. It was an interesting motif but added nothing to the story. Moffat shows off too much in his writing. He needs to practice the art of writing stories without flair, which follow a linear progression. Then he can be play at being a sci-fi James Joyce. The opening of series 9 was typical Moffat excess.
After that, the story of The Magician's Apprentice kicked in and I forgot my misgivings. It was great to have Missy back and Michelle Gomez is exceptional in the role, definitely the stand out performance from the series. The Daleks were used effectively and not simply rolled out as a suitable end of series villain to add some dramatic weight the sake of it - I am looking at you, Russell T. Davies. From that point on, the standard of writing was high.
Series 9 boasted a great cast at the top of their form. The writers have caught on to how well Capaldi can act and given him more nuanced scenes and longer speeches where he can really show off how good he is in the role. Capaldi ably rises to these challenges and easily proves that he is the best actor to play the Doctor since the show was brought back in 2005.
Maisie Williams was an excellent addition to the cast and stole the show in four well-written episodes. I certainly hope her character can return at some point, as there is plenty of unexplored potential there. Clara is a good companion, she has a character in her own right, and Jenna Louise Coleman plays her well. Despite being a good character, Clara lacks the magnetism of some of past companions, Amy or Donna for example.
Some stand out episodes from this year were Under the Lake and Before the Flood, which had the creepy build up and satisfactory pay off of a strong horror story. Also The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion showed how sci-fi in general, and Dr Who in particular, can be used effectively to hold up a mirror up to the human condition. Here was a well-developed story, based on moral complexity and relatable characters on both sides of a conflict. When Dr Who makes you doubt whether you are rooting for the human, then it is doing its job properly. Heaven Sent reminded us of the great Moffat of the past, the one who wrote Blink and Silence in the Library, someone who can twist a story round on itself and keep you guessing until the last second.
One criticism of this year was that too many end of episode cliffhangers hinged on suggesting that either the Doctor or Clara were dead. This has been done so many times that it has lost its intrigue. Such is the overuse of this trick that it detracted from Clara’s eventual real death. Aside from the overly bombastic opening to The Magician’s Apprentice, I was also underwhelmed by Mark Gatiss' offering this series. Found footage has been done to death and this brought nothing new to the field - although Sleep No More did have a genuinely disgusting villain.
The ending of the series was solid, it did not loom over the rest of the series like Doomsday did in series 2 and did not feel like a bizarre and unnecessary coda like The Wedding of River Song at the end of series 6. The long anticipated return of the Time Lords was handled well by Moffat and Clara's goodbye was probably the best companion departure yet. It was good to have an emotional ending to her time with the Doctor, without her having to suffer greatly. It also addressed the question of what can give your life meaning after the Doctor has gone from it?
I generally feel positive about this series. Dr Who as a whole is not without its flaws. The momentum that the David Tennant and early Matt Smith series had is gone from the show. This is not necessary anyone's fault, nothing can stay that fresh and zeitgeisty for long. However, my enthusiasm for Dr Who is less than it once was. I have not re-watched a complete series since series 5.
I will always have a soft spot for Dr Who, and it is very pleasing to see Capaldi doing well in the role. The improvements over the last series show that this show can still deliver surprisingly good episodes, the Zygon adventure was a case in point. Capaldi appears to be just hitting his stride, whereas Smith and Tennant were already starting to feel a bit tired two series in. I can only hope that this year's Christmas special and series 10 maintain the quality.