What a season.
Doctor Who has had its ups and downs, pluses and minuses, but when it pulls through, it really pulls through. Rather than coyly caging my opinion of this season, particularly the finale, I’m just going to say upfront that as a whole, I loved Series 9, and I can only hope that it will cement Peter Capaldi’s place in Doctor Who history. While there were still weak links, as always, I can safely say that by the finale episodes, I was the most satisfied that I’ve been with the show since the excellent 50th Anniversary Special.
Also, I can promise you that spoilers will be safely marked, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you can read on without fear!
What Made This Season Work
Thematically, this season continues the character arcs of Season 8, but it sees them through to a fully-realized payoff. While the character advancement and development in Season 8 struck me as a little forced sometimes (especially Clara’s change over time), it’s satisfying to see them take that character development and do potent things with it. Clara and Capaldi have finally developed a dynamic that’s a bit of a powder keg, as they go racing into perilous situation after perilous situation. In some ways, neither of them has anything to lose, and we get to see them play out this chase across time and space.
Compared to the previous season, it finally feels like Capaldi’s been given a chance to breathe and develop his own persona, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he’s personally had a much more potent influence on the show since Season 8. Capaldi comes through in full force this season: brash, abrasive, madcap, giddy, and even grim in parts. He took a bit to warm up, but now he’s here in full force, and he absolutely is The Doctor now. You remember the very first time we saw him, with those Attack Eyebrows as our only sign of what he was like? Yeah, that Doctor is finally here.
The decision to make this season heavy on two-part episodes was also an excellent one. I’ve long felt that many of the Moffat-era episodes have felt rushed and crammed, and giving them some breathing room seems to have done wonders. Mind you, they could probably be writing the episodes snappier at times, but I do really enjoy having the space for bigger stories. Sometimes, the double-header format is a little too long for some of the stories, but the season mostly avoids that, and none of the double-headers seem so egregiously stretched that they harm the season’s quality. Another nice touch is that the episodes remain rather episodic instead of trying to develop a massive cross-episode metaplot. There’s still a metaplot, but it doesn’t swamp the whole season or overshadow the individual episodes in any way, and it’s honestly pretty straightforward.
Why You Should Watch It
If you want to see the Twelfth Doctor really come alive, this is the season for you. Not only does he deliver a powerful performance every episode, he uses some pivotal moments in the season (especially in the finale) to chew the scenery properly, delivering some choice Doctor rants and monologues. He’s somehow a cross between a grandfatherly sage and the Oncoming Storm that we all know and love, and out of all the new Doctors so far, he nails the “Oncoming Storm” part without seeming angsty or annoying or forced. This season, you get to see the fury of the Doctor, and his diamond-hard determination.
If you want to see cool, weird, alien setpieces and stories, this season is actually very good on those. It feels like they’ve taken a distinct turn away from a lot of the attempts to be super-clever with their sci-fi plots, and they even try to take a step back from attempts at creepy sci-fi stories, which can be incredibly hit-and-miss for Doctor Who. (Barring one notable exception this season, when Mark Gatiss went for full-bore creepy and the shot went horribly astray.)
Oh, and if you have an appreciation for Classic Who, this season seriously steps up its game when referencing the older series, in a ton of ways, even down to a couple “wink, wink” callback lines of dialogue that should delight long-running fans who catch them.
There’s also some things I want to talk about more specifically, but if you’re interested in not knowing pivotal details of the season (including some major plot spoilers), beware! I am ending my restraint on spoilers from here on out! It’s kinda difficult to review this season without really talking about some stuff. Most particularly, I want to talk about some of the most important bits of the finale.
So, wow. I mean, wow. This wasn’t a season of grand, intricate plot. It was a season of powerful character moments and legendary actions.
Clara is dead. Well, mostly dead. A kind of zombie. Or maybe a vampire, since her physical functions aren’t functioning. But she doesn’t leech off of people to survive, so sure, we’ll go with Quantum Space Zombie. And with that, her character arc comes to a close. And I honestly found it to be a really satisfying close. We got to see her give up her life to save an innocent, becoming too much like the Doctor in some ways, and following that to a conclusion. We also got to see her rebuff the Doctor’s boundless desire to keep saving her from certain death, accepting her fate (eventually). Clara took charge during the second half of the finale, standing up to The Doctor and showing him the same corrective stubbornness that some of his best companions in the new show have shared, including Donna and Martha.
Speaking of Donna…I absolutely appreciated that the finale was an implicit counterpoint to Donna’s fate at the end of Series 4. Instead of being put in a situation like Donna, being mind-wiped against her will, we see Clara outright refusing that fate and savvily manipulating events so that The Doctor agrees to undergo the risk of losing her from his memory. It’s bittersweet, but it’s a very strong statement to me personally, because the more time goes on, the more unhappy I’ve gotten about what the Tenth Doctor did to Donna.
The Doctor is terrifying. In the penultimate episode Heaven Sent, we got to see the Doctor slowly unravel (with his immense wits) an infernal Groundhog’s Day scenario, repeating the same sequence of events in a castle prison over and over and over again. And for what? To slowly chip away at a wall harder than diamond, carving a path through, because he makes just a little bit of progress every time around. There’s a point during each loop when he realizes what he’s doing, and how long he’s been doing it for, and he almost completely breaks down. But each time, he faces the wall with unabated fury and raw will. And Peter Capaldi sells it so well.
“And the shepherd boy says: ‘There’s this mountain, of pure diamond! It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to go around it! And every hundred years, a little bird comes, and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed!‘ Now, you must think that’s a Hell of a long time. Personally? I think that’s one Hell of a bird.”
Gallifrey is here! The Doctor’s bloodless coup of Gallifrey was absolutely phenomenal, and I loved all the glimpses of strange and horrifying stuff we got to see on the planet. Gallifrey is present in all its grandeur, and we also see terrifying glimpses of the horrors that can be found within Time Lord society. The Time Lords are callous and stuffy as always, and yet there are points where they appear downright stable next to The Doctor’s rash actions. Oh, and the bit where Clara and the Doctor pop into a classic-style TARDIS? Priceless. And I was absolutely giddy as Ashildr/Me and Clara rocketed off on time-and-space-hopping adventures in their diner-TARDIS.
This was a good season, and the finale just sealed the deal, crystallizing some of the best Doctor Who I’ve seen in a while. It’s good, folks. It’s good.