Okay, I never stopped. But I get it. I was skeptical too. I fell in love with the show when the Ninth Doctor told Rose that he could feel the turn of the Earth. Puns and camp and coincidence are all excusable when the Tenth Doctor is basically Jesus and the recurring theme is the wonder of the world and the value of humanity. Eleven even told us, with a cold fury, “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.” And then somewhere along the line, the show stopped being about that. Characters changed personalities depending on who was writing the episode, coincidence got us out of trouble instead of into it, and it was hard to care when the world was ending, again, but the Doctor just had to push the reset button, again, to save the day. In Series 7 it was clear to me that when it came to Clara’s personality, none of the writers were on the same page. In rewatches of Series 8, I felt like the show was almost contemptuous of its audience, as if it couldn’t care less if I gave a damn about it. Or maybe that was just the vibe I got from Capaldi’s Doctor.
But for Series 9, things are changing. I’m seeing some glimmers of the show I loved so much. So if you’ve stayed away, let me show you what you’ve missed, and why it’s a good time to give it another chance.
Lots of spoilers for Doctor Who, Series 9, through Episode 7 and hints for later on.
One of the biggest differences between this year’s run and the last couple of years is that Steven Moffat, our much-reviled showrunner, decided to give us a season almost entirely made up of two-part episodes. Apparently this was an attempt to recapture the sense of mystery and atmosphere of the show, instead of a bunch of jam-packed action sequences. In my Series 8 midseason review, I thought the one-offs suited Moffat’s style, but now I’m solidly a two-part episode convert. What it’s done for this viewer is make me care about watching next week. Each of the stories has more time to develop, and we can sit with ideas for more than a moment. One of the most frustrating things in the past couple of seasons for me are all of the red herrings and throwaway lines that sounded deep but didn’t mean much (not that we had much time to think about them, when the action starts right back up again). We don’t get as much of that this season. It’s almost as if things aren’t as rushed anymore, or that someone is actually editing the scripts.
In “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar”, Missy and Clara seek out the Doctor, who’s throwing one last shindig before he meets up with Davros, and presumably his death. In a fit of compassion, the Doctor uses some of his regeneration energy to restore Davros and the Daleks, but it’s a trap. Missy encases Clara in a Dalek bot to provide a diversion, and when Missy and the Doctor make their escape she tries to convince him to kill Clara-in-the-Dalek, so she can have him all to herself. But the Doctor figures it out, saves Clara, and travels back in time to save a child Davros on a battlefield, effectively ensuring that the Daleks will still occupy their normal, terrifying place in the Doctor’s timeline. In a lot of ways this pair is about re-establishing the Doctor’s deep (platonic?) love for Clara, and giving us a Chekhov’s Gun for the finale (in the form of the Doctor’s last confession).
“Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” also give us some time-traveling shenanigans, with a tastefully-done paradox. The Doctor and Clara travel to an underwater base in 2119, the site of some kind of alien ship. Mysterious markings on the walls create ghosts, who haunt and murder the crew. The Doctor has to travel back in time, to before the flood, to defeat the evil Fisher King and set the bootstrap paradox in motion. This episode features a Deaf crew leader, whose ability to read lips proves instrumental to our heroes’ survival. These episodes remind us about the rules of time travel and the dangers of traveling within your own timeline. Some things can’t be undone, and some things must happen. You mean Moffat’s actually remembered that every good story needs rules that can’t be broken? Be still my heart.
“The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived” introduces a new immortal, Ashildr (Maisie Williams). The Doctor and Clara are captured by Vikings, and Clara convinces the Doctor to save the town from an alien invasion, because even one life is worth saving. Ashildr, a young viking woman and a great storyteller, is key to his plan. When her life is drained away in the battle, the Doctor jury-rigs an alien med kit to effectively render Ashildr immortal. He gives her a second kit, so she doesn’t have to be alone. Fast forward to the 1600s, and the Doctor meets up with Ashildr again. She’s accomplished and traveled, but grown cold to relationships and the value of human life because she’s lost everyone she’s loved and experienced so much suffering. Apparently no one was good enough for the second pack. Luckily, Ashildr realizes she really does care just in time to use it to save an outlaw’s life (whom she had more or less sacrificed to open a portal to Hell). No one knows how long the outlaw will live (closing Hell portals requires a lot of juice), but Ashildr will keep an eye on him. She had begged the Doctor to take her with him, but now she understands why the two immortals are bad for each other. They need the humans, the “mayflies”, to remind them to treasure the wonder of life. The Doctor will always need someone like Clara, and all of his companions, to stay moral and sane. Ashildr decides to be the “patron saint” of all those the Doctor leaves behind.
So far we’ve only seen part one of the next pair, “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion”. In “Invasion”, we’re reminded of the events of the 50th anniversary episode, and the peace treaty so delicately established is now falling apart. This episode has huge, blatant parallels to ISIS and immigration fears in the U.K. and America. Some of the new generation of Zygons have radicalized, no longer wanting to hide in human form but be accepted for who they truly are. Who they truly are turns out to be terrifying, and they want to take over the planet. The Zygons are shapeshifters, and there’s no way to pick them out from the crowd. U.N.I.T.’s solution is to bomb their training camps and strongholds, but the Doctor is determined to find a peaceful solution. He tasks Clara with helping to keep Britain safe, because it’s her country and the site of the largest Zygon population. But Clara’s captured and a Zygon double takes her place. Jenna Coleman does a fantastic Bonnie (Evil!Clara); I hope she gets to play more villains. It’s nearly fifteen years since the events of September 11th, but the episode’s final shot of Bonnie firing a rocket launcher to bring down the Doctor’s “President of the World” Airplane still made me uncomfortable.
The episode does try to adopt a nuanced attitude toward the Zygons, probably because of the strong real-world parallels. It did point out that it’s only a “splinter group” of mostly young Zygons who have radicalized, and the remaining Osgood absolutely refuses to tell the Doctor if she’s “really” human or Zygon: she’s a true cultural hybrid and won’t identify only one way or the other. I’m going to be watching the second part closely. Saying it’s a sensitive issue is a total understatement, between the refugee crisis to ISIS being ISIS to general xenophobia. Whatever the Doctor figures out will send a strong message from Moffat and friends about how the issues surrounding ISIS and refugees should be treated. Is it too soon to even tackle the issue? Or maybe, is that the point?
After next Saturday’s conclusion to our Zygon problem, we’ll be left with two more pairs of episodes. It’s strongly rumored that Clara will be meeting her death in episode 10, since this is Coleman’s last season on the show. That’ll leave the Doctor all alone for the two-part finale, and Moffat’s promised us that at least one of those episodes will feature the Doctor without a companion or guest actor. That’s never actually been done on the TV show yet, so it should be exciting to see what they’ve come up with.
Overall, this season has improved by leaps and bounds over the last two. Clara has a consistent personality, which we get to see when she spends more time solving problems and doing things on her own, separate from the Doctor than ever before. She’s still grieving the loss of Danny, but is filling the hole with teaching and traveling with the Doctor. Her character has agency and experiences consequences! She seems to be getting to the point where she gets self-actualized, becoming the person she is to be as a result of contact with the Doctor. In a lot of ways, this season’s Clara reminds me of Rose. Both have strong emotional intelligence, their thing is “caring”, they both experience loss, they’re both loved dearly and obviously by the Doctor. I feel like I actually have a good idea of who Clara is now, which really isn’t something I could say in past seasons. There just wasn’t enough narrative cohesion before now to make it work.
The overall storytelling is much improved, too. Moffat and his team need the extra time two episodes gives them to really flesh out their stories. The overall theme of each pair is clearly moving us toward the finale, while we still get a kind of “monster of the week” experience. If Clara is going to die (which has all but been confirmed), this season is all about driving her to her death and what her death will mean for the Doctor. The Doctor loves Clara, and needs her so he doesn’t grow into a cold supervillain. Capaldi’s Doctor has decided that he’s the Doctor who saves people, even if it’s just one person, because that’s enough. We’ve been reminded of the rules of time travel, particularly traveling in your own timeline (rules that Moffat basically threw in the incinerator only a few seasons ago, but I’m happy are back). With the Zygons we have the Doctor desperately seeking a peaceful solution, even if bombs are easier and seem more effective. So far, it seems like Clara’s going to die, permanently, and there will be nothing the Doctor can do to save her. It’s going to leave him companion-less, and tempted more than ever before to become a harbinger of death and destruction. Could this mean that Capaldi’s Doctor becomes the Valeyard? Even for a few episodes? In the comic series The Four Doctors:
The Tenth Doctor still considered the Valeyard to be one of his future incarnations, and wondered if the Twelfth Doctor was secretly him upon meeting him as he had already met the Eleventh Doctor and believed that he only had one regeneration left. The Twelfth Doctor rebuked by asking if he “looked like he was out of panto”. (source)
That could be one option. Or Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor could just be in for a really, really bad day. Either way, if you’ve stayed away from Doctor Who, I’m inviting you back. For the first time in a while, Doctor Who is less about cheap tricks, expensive ideas, and no consequences for anyone and more about the big questions, the inherent value and dignity of life, and exploring the depths of characters we know and love.
Have you been watching? What do you think? Let me know in the comments!