TV REVIEW: ‘Doctor Who’ Series 10 oscillates between bland and exciting, but ends with a bang
There’s very few moments in a TV show’s lifespan that get closer scrutiny than its ending. Sometimes, a show’s whole legacy may hinge on whether storylines received satisfactory endings, on whether characters were left in a spot that felt like a natural goodbye. Maybe it’s coded into our brains in a way that it’s not when we watch a movie - after all, we often spend a lot more time with TV characters, and without getting carried away, the experience of a show can feel like a relationship - in the case of really good TV.
For its part, Doctor Who gets the special distinction of throwing a splashy ending every few years, whenever the lead actor playing the Doctor decides on a career change. Fans and critics alike focus in: what will the show leave us with to remember a particular actor’s interpretation of the character? How will the handoff to the next Doctor work? More pointedly, what kind of show was Doctor Who with Peter Capaldi in the lead, and what will keep us watching as we continue into the sixth decade of Who?
These are the questions that the most recent series of the show - its tenth since the New Who era began in 2005 - had to grapple with. And it was made doubly interesting by the departure of Steven Moffat (also of Sherlock fame) who’s been driving the ship since 2009.
Moffat has arguably seen his star fall slightly with certain pockets of Whovians, going from being the clever writer behind “Blink” - one of the greatest episodes of the show, period - to an executive producer accused of conceiving terrible female characters and instituting a repetitive formula for episodes. For my money, I’ve never been angered by Moffat’s tenure, but I shared many fans’ frustration with the Clara Oswald character, especially her appearances in Series 8. It’s also hard to dispute the predictability of recent seasons, which almost always involve “An Episode Where They Go To Historical England”, “An Episode Where They Go To A Futuristic Spaceship”, and “An Episode Where England Becomes a Totalitarian State”.
Series 10 also bore this out, starting us off with an introduction to the newest companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) and a modern-day story designed to establish the central premise of the series. The Doctor has vowed to keep watch over a vault of some kind underneath a university campus (and avoid using the TARDIS), and poses as a professor to keep himself busy. This brings him across Bill, who begins by auditing his eccentric classes and eventually gets drawn into some Adventures in Time and Space™.
While I enjoyed Bill in the time we got with her, I never felt as connected to her as I did to some of the other more short-term companions, like Donna Noble or Martha Jones. Maybe it was because Moffat knew his and Capaldi’s time and on the show was coming to an end. Or maybe it was because the show didn’t really come up with a good way to truly bond Bill to the Twelfth Doctor, in the way that Donna or Martha did to Ten. Lest you forget: Donna searched for years for the Doctor after their one-off adventure in “The Runaway Bride” and Martha harboured unrequited feelings for the Doctor that led to their parting. By contrast, Bill was simply someone who wanted more from life, and the Doctor saw something in her willingness to learn. A fine sentiment, but hardly stirring.
So as the rest of Series 10 played out, the partnership worked but it didn’t soar. The episodes weren’t helped by their similarity in some cases to older Moffat-era stories: “Smile”, while benefitting from a great location, felt a little too much like “The Silence in the Library”, as did “Oxygen”. “Thin Ice” was one of those historical-London episodes with an alien run amok that come up once per season, but it did benefit from some strong writing (including a great speech by Twelve) in its latter half.
“Knock Knock” was one of the strongest episodes of the series on several fronts. It came up with a creepy premise for the villain (helped by the masterful David Suchet) and allowed Bill to chafe against the Doctor’s guidance in a more substantial way than the usual Doctor-companion bantering. The pre-finale episode “The Eaters of Light” also had a cool concept (especially the use of time distortion to take down the villain), even if the design of the alien itself was less than inspiring.
But one of the biggest missed opportunities in Series 10 had to be the three-episode arc involving the new enemy known as the Monks. The whole affair felt like an assembly of leftover components from other stories, including the Zygon episodes from Series 9, the Harold Saxon arc from Series 3, and a touch of the Silents thrown in to inform the look and behaviour of the monsters. (They even had weirdly twisted-up faces and lightning powers, like the Silents!).
Perhaps what was most frustrating about the Monks storyline was the wasted potential: the setup with the Veritas book and the secret vault under the Vatican, paired with the Doctor’s blindness, could have elevated a story with better monsters into an all-time great. It was, perhaps, a more obvious indicator of Moffat’s interest winding down on the show than his other more controversial decisions.
But happily, that finale was one for the history books. Doctor Who rarely closes out a Doctor’s tenure without a powerhouse story, and “World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls” easily fits the bill (pun not intended). The concept of a colony ship so massive that time moves at different rates at each end (helped by a black hole) was a taste of delicious hard sci-fi. Incorporating old-school villains, the Mondasian Cybermen, was another fun touch. And tossing in a double helping of Master characters (Yay John Simm!) tightened the screws on the Twelfth Doctor even more. Better yet, it prompted a speech that felt at once like a true distillation of this incarnation and a moving statement about every regeneration before him.
And what about the ending for Bill? I kept expecting her transformation into a Cyberman to achieve some closure by finally sacrificing her in some way to revive the Doctor. And while she does play a role in waking him up and starting up his regeneration cycle, Moffat devised a far less tragic, more warm-and-fuzzy goodbye for Bill. To bring back the entity known as Heather from Bill’s first appearance, and rescue Bill from the Cyberman enclosure and allow her to continue her spacetime travels, was a satisfying way to let Bill depart on her own terms. While you could make the argument that it “magicked” away the terrifying implications of a companion doomed to life as a Cyberman, part of me still wanted the best for Bill. And it would be nice to see her pop up again (maybe even in an antihero-type role with full use of her new powers) in an episode with the new Doctor.
As for that transition - who knows what the show has in store for us? Capaldi uses the last moments of “The Doctor Falls” to echo many of his predecessors’ regenerations, in particular their regret at having to “go”, as Ten famously put it. In Capaldi’s case, he swings this into the vicious anger that Twelve is known for, stuffing his hands into the snow to try to quell the process. The Christmas special will now have to use the appearance of the First Doctor (as portrayed by David Bradley) to remind Twelve of what he realized in “Deep Breath”. He chose the face of Lobus Caecilius for this incarnation to remind him to temper his anger, and to go back for people in peril even when it seems unwise. The Doctor’s big speech to the Master and Missy suggests he’s learned that lesson - so which face will he take on next?
Speculation on the next Doctor is still running rampant. I’ll try not to participate, except to echo the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage that Phoebe Waller-Bridge would be a fine choice (if she weren’t taking on a second season of Fleabag) and that Kris Marshall might be a little dull. I’d prefer it if the BBC skewed to a relative unknown again, if only to let fans be as open as possible to the Thirteenth Doctor. If previous series are any indication, we can’t get episodes like “The Doctor Falls” all the time, and we’ll need a strong Doctor-companion partnership to keep us on board.
What did you think of Series 10? Did it try your patience, or are you as committed as ever? What do you make of Moffat’s legacy on the show? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!