SEASON RECAP: 'Doctor Who' completes its comeback with a slow-burn Season 9 finale
In the last minutes of the Doctor Who season 9 finale, a character explains that they’re about to travel somewhere important, but they’re going “the long way round”. Rather than go directly to their destination, the two travellers plan to stop off here and there, and postpone their fate for a while. Nothing like a little procrastination in time and space, right?
The line is a satisfying exit for one of the characters, but it’s also an allegory for the show. Like any series on TV, Doctor Who must end eventually, but it seems to have a knack for finding new stories to tell along the way. And during its long history, the show has had its ups and downs - for every landmark episode like season 3’s “Blink” is a filler story that merely checks off the boxes of what a Who episode should be.
When the latest season premiered in September, we were coming off one of those formulaic dry spells, only this time it had been pretty consistent through much of season 8. Having just introduced us to a new Doctor (Peter Capaldi), showrunner Steven Moffat stumbled when he tried to define who this Twelfth Doctor was. Capaldi’s portrayal was a lot angrier than we’re used to, and his chemistry with Jenna Coleman as Clara seemed far more forced than it needed to be. And none of it was helped by a decision to have Clara inexplicably and bitterly part ways with the Doctor part-way through the season, or by the distinct lack of two-part episodes, which left a lot of stories feeling rushed.
Needless to say, I was a little skeptical going into this new season of the show. I was worried enough that I avoided covering it on a week-by-week basis; I wasn’t sure if the show could still inspire me to watch and review on a regular schedule. It even crossed my mind that we were witnessing the fading of a venerable piece of pop culture.
Happily, Season 9 proved me wrong. I’m not sure what happened behind the scenes, but the show burst back into life in its premiere episode ‘The Magician’s Apprentice”. It featured a Twelfth Doctor in sonic sunglasses astride a tank, playing electric guitar for a baffled medieval village. Almost immediately, it felt like the writers had gotten a hold on who Capaldi’s Doctor was, and how the stories could challenge him.
The pace continued through the premiere, which turned into a two-part story with high enough stakes that it could be mistaken for a climactic finale. It starred not one, but two of the Doctor’s greatest enemies - Davros and Missy - along with an army of Daleks. And it set up a theme for the season as a whole: the depth of the Doctor’s anger. Davros taunts the Doctor with the ability to wield ultimate power over his nemesis, and it foreshadows the tone in the final episodes of the season, which also center on the devastating consequences when the Doctor oversteps himself.
The adventures that followed varied in quality (as the show often does) but they were all more confident in approach and tone than in season 8. “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood” was an example of this - it was a little too similar in premise to earlier episodes like “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” or “The Waters of Mars”, though it did introduce the idea of the Doctor directly addressing the audience; it's a trick the series hasn't tried before, and it freshens up the experience a bit.
The arc of “The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived” introduced us to perhaps the most mysterious character the Twelfth Doctor has encountered so far: Ashildr, also known as Me (Maisie Williams). The creative team struck gold in a certain sense with casting Williams; she takes all the methodical work she’s put into Game of Thrones and applies it to playing Ashildr, and it gives the character a preternatural maturity that’s perfect for an immortal girl. Ashildr fills the role previously occupied by River Song (Alex Kingston), as one of those characters who can pop in and out of the show and catalyze all kinds of stories (not to mention banter).
We returned to Earth and the fallout from the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” with another double episode, “The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion”. This was yet another arc with the amped-up energy of a finale, and the show benefitted from it. It also had the good fortune to air in the middle of a real-life global discussion about refugees. It’s a topic that echoed (if not inspired) the Zygons’ plight in the story and proved that the science fiction in Doctor Who doesn’t have to be a kooky flight of fancy - it can be a direct extrapolation of real issues.
After a brief pause for a single filler episode ("Sleep No More", which followed yet another group of futuristic soldiers being chased through a ship by monsters), the show launched into what ended up being a three-part finale. The seemingly Earth-bound story “Face the Raven” broke the hearts of Whovians across the Internet, but set up the surprisingly high-concept episode “Heaven Sent”. Most notably, that story provided one of the most crushing revelations about the Doctor, and the impossibly extreme lengths he will go to when he grieves.
And then came the final episode, “Hell Bent”. Though it meandered a bit and contradicted itself more than it should have, it was all in service of a final few scenes which, as Charlie Jane Anders of io9 rightly said, “retroactively made the whole thing great.” The episode left us with a far more uplifting, empowering exit for Clara Oswald and (maybe) Ashildr, and sent us flying into the Christmas special and Season 10, excited for whatever comes next. Considering the fairly depressing quality of the Season 8 finale and the episodes that preceded it, “Hell Bent” capped off one of the most successful seasons of Who in at least a year, if not two. There’s some palpable energy in the show once again, as though it was granted a few more regenerations. Here’s to taking the long way around.
What did you think of Doctor Who Season 9? Did you also pick up on a different tone from Capaldi’s debut season? Do you think it’s the right direction for the series? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!