Doctor Who: Reflections on Season 9: What Made it Great

On December 5th the Ninth Series of Doctor Who (or as we old-timers call it, “Season 35”) came to a close, giving us Peter Capaldi‘s second outing as the Doctor and bringing to a close the Doctor’s friendship with Clara Oswald. It was a season that gave us Daleks (no big surprise there), a return of Davros, a major reappearance of the Zygons, and a brilliant new encounter with The Mistress, as well as some new monsters and one particularly important new recurring character. I found myself enjoying the show in ways that I hadn’t in previous seasons, my excitement growing each week. As I wrote reviews of each episode I found myself, more than halfway through the season, still referring to it as “the best season of the Modern Series.” But now that the whole season is complete, including the big trilogy of episodes that loosely make up the finale, do I still feel that way? Is it still the best season of New Who?

For the most part, I think so. This was definitely a season of changes. For one thing, it was heavier on 2-parters and continued storylines than any season we’ve had since 2005, which changes the scope of the storytelling in a number of ways. Also, for the first time in 10 years, we didn’t have subplots that revolved around the companion’s family/dating life. This is actually a pretty huge deal, as it’s been kind of emblematic of the New Series in comparison to the Classic. Thirdly, the season-long arc, that of the Hybrid and the Doctor’s confession dial, was pretty unobtrusive and therefore didn’t seem to overweight the individual episodes. In other words, this season had a much stronger Classic Who feel to it than any season in the past 10 years. But this is evident not only in the way the individual stories and the overall structure of the season was devised; all these things were certainly factors, but mostly they simply set the stage. The most notable thing that sets Series Nine apart is the way that Peter Capaldi approached the character of the Doctor. Steven Moffat reported that Capaldi told him that he didn’t want to play the 12th Doctor, he wanted to play all the Doctors, and that is very definitely evident. Capaldi took what he had done in the previous season and fleshed it out to be reminiscent of who the Doctor has been throughout all his lives. He has become a culmination of 50+ years of the Doctor. You can even see it in his wardrobe, with different outfits suggesting inspiration from various past Doctors. But at the same time, he’s made the character new again, bringing in elements that are unique to him and his portrayal. The guitar is a masterstroke, giving the Doctor the air of aging-yet-ageless rocker, and using his playing to accentuate or reflect a mood or thought, giving us new insights into the Doctor, showing us additional dimensions to his nature. [And then of course there are the shades, which I loved but most fans hated. C’est la vie.]
This wasn’t a perfect season, to be sure — there were a couple of duff episodes, a couple of Part Twos that were a little weaker than their Part Ones, etc. But I think this has been the most consistently strong, interesting, and engaging season of the modern era. Even the weaker episodes, like “Sleep No More” and “The Woman Who Lived”, were fun to watch. And honestly, they were in the minority, as the series was dominated by solid fare like the opening Dalek/Mistress story, Capaldi’s incredible “solo” episode “Heaven Sent”, and that amazing Zygon two-parter, one of the best Who stories of the modern age.
I’ll be honest, the changes that I spelled out above, along with some very strongly written episodes, are the reasons that I enjoyed this series so much. But other fans may cite these exact same changes as the reasons that they didn’t enjoy this year. Fair enough. For me personally, I don’t want to see romance, marital strife, mother/daughter squabbles, etc. in Doctor Who. To me, Doctor Who at its best has always been unlike anything else on television. It can literally do anything and go anywhere it likes. But when it emphasizes these types of story elements (which it did heavily in the Rose / Amy / Clara eras especially), it grounds the show, ties it too firmly to modern-day Earth, makes it mundane — and that’s the one thing Doctor Who never, ever should be. Other viewers, however — especially those who have come to the show within the past 10 years — may have loved those elements the most and might find the current series bland and empty without them. That’s a perfectly valid viewpoint. But here’s the beauty of it: Doctor Who is like a grandfather clock, whose pendulum swings back and forth. If the pendulum swings towards the style and tone and direction that you love, that’s great! But that also means it will eventually swing away from those things. Right now, I feel like the pendulum has finally swung back my way, and I’m having a ball as a fan and a viewer again. If you aren’t enjoying this new direction for the show, just be a little patient; the pendulum is sure to swing back your way in the future. But what’s fantastic is that the grandfather clock — the totality of what Doctor Who is and can be — belongs to all of us!

If you enjoyed this review and would like to read more, order a copy of my book Doctor Who’s Greatest Hits: An Unauthorized Guide to the Best Stories From Time and Space!

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