Adding the question mark to Doctor Who has become the defining feature of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. In the past the odd “Doctor Who?” reference in a script was little more than a tongue in cheek nod to the programme’s title, but over the course of the last three series’, the lead writer has been boldly exploring the essence of the enigmatic Time Lord. And yet as the curtain closed on series nine, we were none the wiser. Just who the Doctor is and what makes him tick remains a mystery, with the answers to fundamental questions such as why he ran away from Gallifrey and whatever happened to his family, still open to debate. The issues have been foregrounded as if they matter in a way that they never did before. It was once enough to accept that the Doctor was an alien with deep secrets who didn’t like to talk about his past. But now, every time his backstory is teased we are enticed into wanting to dig that little bit deeper into the Doctor’s psyche and the reasons he is the way he is.
This approach opens the showrunner up to accusations of teasing the fans and of adding scenes and lines just in order to play devil’s advocate. Series Nine, whether by design or accident, certainly had its fair share of fan baiting. While the general audience were worryingly becoming less invested in the show, pockets of fandom became ever more obsessive in their in-house debates. Arguments raged about the Doctor’s genetic makeup, his relationship with the Master, his nonviolent moral code, the difference between Time Lords and Gallifreyans and the ability of Time Lords to change gender when they regenerate. But by focusing on single issues, the broader sweep of Moffat’s reimagining of Doctor Who is missed.
Series Nine secures the future of the series by reversing the companion/Doctor dynamic. Whereas the emotional pull of the stories used to revolve around the impact that travelling with the Doctor has upon the companion, now the focus has moved towards how the hero himself is affected by his companions, his foes and his own choices. The shift had already started with the Eleventh Doctor and the Ponds, if only fleetingly (The Angels Take Manhattan). In no other era of the show would a one hander episode work and it is the remarkable Heaven Sent that best illustrates this change in perspective.
The introduction of the Doctor’s new toys also indicate where the Doctor is at psychologically. The sonic glasses as a temporary replacement to the sonic screwdriver are as equally multi purposed, but as an alternative symbol, they place the emphasis away from the Doctor’s tendency to want to fix things and towards his need to see whilst also protecting and hiding his soul. Both the shades and the electric guitar help in the characterisation of the Doctor as a dad trying to be hip, but they are more than signs of a midlife crisis. Near the beginning of the series the Doctor’s guitar playing breaks through the fourth wall and into the title music as if he is reaching out to us, but by the very last episode he is playing Clara’s theme within the drama. We the audience who have faithfully and vicariously travelled with the Doctor through identifying with his chosen companions, have finally broken into his psyche. It’s a clever sign that his memories have indeed been fictionalised from his point of view, but more importantly, in the process we have joined the tune in entering the Doctor’s head. Rarely has the character generated such a degree of empathy. But we certainly feel it as the Doctor experiences a taste of his own medicine, with the clever reversal of Donna’s memory wipe in series Four.
Series Eight charted the adventures of the Doctor through his most introspective phase. Questioning his morality to a level of self-obsession that verges on the narcissistic, we see him giving scant consideration to the needs and feelings of others in the process. In reflecting on what makes him tick he forgets to be the Doctor, forcing Clara to step into the role. The impossible girl who was scattered throughout his time line to save his life, again and again, is now tasked with redeeming his soul. It’s not exactly new, we saw Donna do the same for the Tenth Doctor (The Fires Of Pompeii) and Amy Pond for the Eleventh (A Town Called Mercy), but for Clara it’s not just an occasional intervention or timely reminder – it’s her duty as the Doctor’s carer (Inside The Dalek). As we discovered in last year’s series finale (Death In Heaven) she has been handpicked by Missy to become the Doctor’s companion.
Clara’s personality is such that she revels in the opportunity to manipulate the Doctor, but it’s a little too muted in Series Nine. We do see a more passive Twelfth Doctor who is happy to defer to Clara every time she selects an appropriate prompt card for him to read out in a socially awkward situation. At times he sounds like an impotent parent, appealing to a duty of care, but knowing that he cannot control Clara’s thirst for adventure. Although the wider arc highlights Clara’s impact upon the Doctor, the stories in Series Nine fail to build upon the Clara being Doctor-like motif that we saw so effectively in the later part of the previous series, and too much is left to inference. The dots may be easy to join up, for example the comparison between Clara hanging out of the TARDIS over London and the Eleventh Doctor doing the same in The Eleventh Hour and The Day Of The Doctor, but it would have been fun to see this explored in more detail and it would have made the concept of the hybrid seem less of a stretch.
Series Nine is less about who the Doctor is and more about what the Doctor has become as a result of his relationship with Clara. We are teased in the series finale that the Eighth Doctor’s throwaway line might be true – the Doctor himself might be the hybrid, only for Me to stumble upon the truth. It is the Doctor and Clara’s relationship that is the hybrid. We were promised in Series Nine that we would see the Doctor and Clara having the time of their lives, gallivanting around like two excitable children without a care in the universe. We knew it would end in tears, that something devastating would come and spoil the party, but little did we suspect that the fun itself was part of the tragedy.
It’s the in-between moments that best illustrate their madcap adventuring – Face The Raven even begins as another unscreened story is resolved. The Doctor’s occasional moments of concern for Clara, as if he knows she is going to die, come from him being acutely aware that she is enjoying being the Doctor a little too much. The Doctor knows the intoxicating effects of wandering across all of time and space, because it’s his drug of choice too. It is unhealthy – an abnormal grief stuck in the denial stage, after the terrible events of Series Eight. The scene in which Clara counsels Bennett following the death of O’Donnell in Before The Flood is the one vital clue that Clara is not over the loss of Danny Pink, however well masked that brokenness is.
Jenna Coleman’s about turn decision to stay on for another series presented a challenge to the writers. In many ways Clara’s story had run its natural course at the end of Death In Heaven, and Series Nine sees her completely removed from real life in a throwback to companions pre-Rose. Starved of the social and relational hooks of work, family and relationships, Clara loses some of her appeal to the viewers and her characterisation suffers for it (Jenna Coleman’s stand out performance in this series was as Clara’s evil Zygon counterpart). And yet the unexpected chance to make her the longest serving companion, forced Steven Moffat to up the stakes when it came to the reason for Missy bringing the two together. In Death In Heaven Missy tells the Doctor that he would go to hell if Clara asked him too. In Heaven Sent, he experiences that hell by choice in an effort to save Clara against her wishes.
It would be a mistake to think that the Doctor is less badass in Series Nine. Without the checks and balances of his own morose meditations, and with Clara enjoying the game so much, at times he strays into even more dangerous territory. In Into The Dalek, the Doctor is, not for the first time, likened to the Daleks, but in The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar he is prepared at first to leave the child Davros to die and is justifiably compared to the evil scientist, save for one flaw – compassion; which he then demonstrates was a front all along. In that story and the next two parter (Under the Lake/Before The Flood) it is not so much mercy, but the desire to save Clara that motivates him. Davros’ alternative fates as a boy, whether he lives or dies, are both determined by the Doctor’s unDoctorishness on account of the unhealthy relationship he has fostered with Clara.
The seeds of the Doctor’s impassioned response to Clara’s martyr-like death in Face The Raven, are planted in his public appeal on Skaro for her safe return and his cringe worthy begging before Davros. They are watered by his displays of overprotective concern for Clara in other episodes, such as Before The Flood, when saving her life is all that motivates him to intervene. But there is little to prepare the viewer for the lengths that the Doctor will go through to bring Clara back to life. Consequently his enduring billions of years of suffering, lack the plausibility of Rory Williams’ Centurion. Onscreen, the closeness of the Doctor and Clara is underexplored through the series and we are forced to take it on trust that they are ideally compatible. The shift from Series Eight, where they remained largely antagonistic and suspicious of each other is softened ever so slightly by the Doctor having already begun to call Clara his friend in Death In Heaven, and is cemented with the Doctor now being able to hug her (The Girl Who Died). But by Hell Bent, he is ready to go all War Doctor again, even taking his actions a step further by using a gun on the commander and banishing Rassilon.
The Doctor experiencing billions of years locked inside his confession dial should be seen as a consequence not the cause of his bullish, take no prisoners attitude. The intensity in his relationship with Clara has to have been there from the start for him to endure a fraction of this sentence. And while Steven Moffat himself has stated that the Doctor can sort of remember those billion years, it is at best a trace memory, and in reality he has only ever suffered the horrors within the confession dial one time over. His anger at the Time Lords’ unauthorised use of the dial to trap him, matters less to him than the method used to get him there – the sacrifice of Clara. The point is not the length of the sufferings, but the fact that every time he makes the same choice. The viewer and later Clara herself are under no illusions, the Doctor will always choose to save her at the expense of his own freedom and health.
Series Nine was the year of the comebacks and flashbacks – with the Sisterhood of Kahn, classic Daleks, Davros, Missy, Skaro, past Doctors, Zygons, UNIT, Kate and Osgood, Rigsy, the 60s TARDIS interior, monster cameos, and most surprisingly of all Gallifrey. Some of the returnees had already made less than satisfactory reappearances in previous series and it was as if they were back this time to show how it should have been done in the first place. The classic Daleks whilst not at all central or pivotal to the plot, get more screen time than they did in the overhyped “every Dalek ever” of the Dalek Asylum. The extended scenes in the classic 60s TARDIS console in Hell Bent, finally fulfilled many fans wishes, including Capaldi’s. And design wise, the Zygons were back to their horrific best after their underwhelming new Power Rangers villain look in The Day Of The Doctor, largely due to the better lighting effects. But it was the introduction of a new recurring character that was the more memorable aspect of Series Nine, as Steven Moffat continued to add to the mythos of the Doctor Who universe and the range of spin off possibilities: Maisie Williams’ Me/Ashildr.
Ashildr’s story became extraordinary as like so many before and after, she was brought back from the dead, but we first meet her as someone who is already exceptional from others in her society not ontologically, but because of her imagination. She represents the child who doesn’t quite fit in at school, the day dreamer and storyteller; the type who very often find themselves bullied or singled out by their peers. Doctor Who has always appealed to those who find themselves similarly at odds with the bland conformity of the crowd and it’s pleasing to see a character from another time and culture who shares such an identifiable trait. The woman who emerges from the Doctor’s interventions is not nearly so loveable. She becomes another of his guilty secrets, another reason for him to curse his ‘always win’ mentality. The Girl Who Died is one of the highlights of the series, perfectly paced with notes of humour and tragedy brilliantly interspersed. It is unlikely to feature in clip montages, but the scene with Ashildr fighting a make belief dragon only to be interrupted by the Doctor is one of the most touching moments of the series. Parents and children across the world will identify with the awkwardness of that intrusion on the imagination at play. If only her future battles were similarly played in the realm of fantasy. Instead she becomes a tragic character who like the Doctor and Jack Harkness experiences the pathos of a life of endless years, with the added indignity of being marooned on Earth for the first 800 years of it.
Maisie Williams’ performance is understated even when she is being deliciously callous, and hits the right tone in all four of her appearances. Story wise The Woman Who Lived failed to match the other three but it offered the best exploration of her cursed immortality. Some of the dialogue between the Doctor and Ashildr is up there with the strongest in the show’s entire run and indeed these intimate one on one conversations are a defining feature of Series Nine as a whole (cf. the Doctor and Davros, Missy and Clara in The Magicians Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor and the Fisher King in Before The Flood, the Doctor and Osgood in The Zygon Inversion, the Doctor with himself in Heaven Sent, and the Doctor and Clara in Hell Bent).
Steven Moffat periodically shakes the format up to keep the series fresh, and this year marked the return to two-parters, with a twist. In reality the only classic two parter was The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion which was so reminiscent of Russell T. Davies’ global threat stories, all that was missing was Trinity Wells from the formulaic TV news montage scene. Although the language and themes reflect real life global issues in a similar vein to Malcolm Hulke and Robert Sloman’s Pertwee stories, over analysing the story as political commentary leads to some fundamental inconsistencies. The Doctor’s message of non-violence and welcome to the stranger fits ill at ease with the efforts of the peaceful Zygons towards cultural appropriation. Doctor Who does politics far better through satire and allegory (The Sunmakers, The Happiness Patrol).
The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar came the next closest to being a linear two part narrative but tonally the episodes were quite distinctive and didn’t really lend themselves to the omnibus repeat on the BBC. Heaven Sent and Hell Bent were so different that aside from the clever association of titles and the final dramatic scene in the former as the Doctor steps onto Gallifrey, they are best treated as distinct stories, a trilogy in fact with Face The Raven. Under The Lake and Before The Flood, though penned by the same author (Toby Whithouse) were a victim of trying to be clever with the format. The excellent Under The Lake culminating in a grotesque if predictable cliffhanger created a buzz of expectation for part two, which was soured by the ill-judged opening explanation of the bootstrap paradox, virtually killing any suspense that had been effectively built up in Under The Lake. Fortunately, typical of Toby Whithouse’s writing, the memorable and well-crafted supporting characters deserved the added screen time of a two parter, and our investment in them, especially Cass, gave us enough reason to continue watching.
Continue watching was something that Rassmussen explicitly tells us not to do in Sleep No More knowing very well of course that we will. Ironically it was this single episode oddity that sorely needed a second episode. The sudden resolution was a great twist to end on in a story meant to be disturbing, and refreshingly, just this once the Doctor doesn’t save the day. But there was nonetheless, a sense of incompleteness – there are surely more tales to be told of Rassmussen and the Sandmen. Watch out for a sequel at some point in Series Ten or beyond. Although it was heralded as Doctor Who’s first example of the found footage approach, it is not the first time the form of the story has been part of the story itself (cf. The God Complex). Such stories are ambitious and bold examples of Doctor Who at its most inventive.
The quality of stories in Series Nine were consistently strong with incredible performances to match throughout. There are a few off moments, Coleman is out of form in Sleep No More, perhaps because of the rather insipid role Clara plays in that story, and Jemma Redgrave still needs to be given something more substantial to develop the character of Kate Stewart on screen (But her delivery of the five rounds rapid line will live long in the memory). On a final note, though his Doctor is unlikely to win the forgiving affections of the nation as enjoyed by Tom Baker and David Tennant, he is at this rate unlikely to need such grace. Peter Capaldi has clearly established himself as a fan favourite through sheer hard graft, pushing himself to the limits of his craft. And if his critically acclaimed performance in the stand out episode of the series, Heaven Sent is anything to go by, it will take some doing for his work to be surpassed.
Overall Series Nine was bold, inventive and more character driven than we have been used to in recent years. Not surprisingly given Jenna Coleman’s eleventh hour decision to stay for one more series, it suffers slightly from knowing exactly what to do with her character post Danny Pink and the resultant concept of the hybrid is a little underexplored. But overall it has plenty of grounds for being justly remembered as one of the strongest series of all time, if not the best.