Thursday 24 December 2015

A Look Back at Doctor Who Series 9

Since I started writing Doctor Who reviews in mid-series 6, I have generally only reviewed individual episodes. While, within those reviews, I might comment on the overall direction of the series (and particularly on the resolution in my review of a series finale), I haven't previously reviewed an entire series as a whole. I generally haven't felt the need to. However, this year, during Series 9, I noticed an unusual thing happening: I was rating individual episodes quite highly, yet my feelings for the entire series were much lower, and they seemed to sink lower as the series went on, despite the fact that my opinions of the individual episodes were often getting higher. While this isn't entirely unprecedented, it seemed to be a much greater dichotomy than usual this year, and so I began to think that I should write a follow-up review after the series finale that looks back on the entire series. This is that review.

My main issue with Series 9 is the series arc story, which is, to say the least, poor and unconvincing. Series arcs are an interesting phenomenon, a product of modern television storytelling that old, “classic” Doctor Who didn't have to deal with. In those days, seasons of any show on television just sort of ended. They didn't make a big deal of the conclusion. Similarly, there wasn't a continuing story arc joining multiple episodes (or, in Doctor Who's case, serials) together. Each story was distinct and separate from what came before and the only continuity was character continuity (and even characters didn't do much developing from one story to the next).

Doctor Who experimented with a couple of arcs back in the day. There was “The Key to Time” arc of Season 16 and “The Trial of a Timelord” for season 23. Occasionally, a season might have a linking theme, such as entropy in Season 18, or a couple stories in a row might be linked together in some way, such as the Black Guardian trilogy in Season 20. But on the whole, each story was separate and contained, and the final story of a season wasn't treated any differently than the stories that came before it.

It was in the 90s, while Doctor Who was off the air, that this started to change and story arcs that continued over multiple episodes became more common. Babylon 5 was at the forefront of this change, presenting a show that had a continuing story that went from its first to last episode over five years. Other science fiction and fantasy shows began to follow Babylon 5's lead. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and others began introducing ongoing story arcs, some that lasted over multiple years, others that would run a single season before concluding and allowing for a new arc to start the following season. By the time Doctor Who returned to television full-time in 2005, story arcs had become the norm for much of television, beyond just science fiction and fantasy programmes. Doctor Who really had little choice but to take part.

I don't want to make it sound as if I think this is, in any way, a bad thing. I actually think it's been a change for the better in television. Although they have the downside of making it more of an issue to miss an episode, story arcs provide more of a reward for the viewers. They give a direction to the show and to the characters, and allow viewers to travel with the characters through a developing world, one where the events of one episode impact the episodes that come after it, and there's a greater sense of accomplishment when the end of the arc is reached. That said, story arcs were something new for Doctor Who, and I'm not sure the show has ever fully acclimated to the format.


Doctor Who's story arcs have ranged from subtle, background arcs (like Bad Wolf in Series 1) to more overt arcs (like the Saxon arc of Series 3 or the cracks in time of Series 5). Series 9 goes for more of a background arc, although it is certainly not a subtle one. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it is the way it all links together (or fails to link together) that makes it ultimately unsatisfying. Many of the references to the arc throughout the series feel forced and unnatural. Although they're generally background details, the stories make a point of putting them in the spotlight and pointing them out as if to say, “Here's the series arc! Pay attention to it!”

There are actually two story arcs in Series 9. One is Clara's personal journey and fate. The other is the story of the Doctor's confession dial and the Hybrid. Both of them suffer from the problem I mentioned above of not being very well integrated into the stories. I commented frequently throughout my reviews of Series 9 episodes that Clara's story was rather perplexing—not that it was hard to understand what was going on, but that it was treated as such an afterthought. In the majority of stories in Series 9, Clara is sidelined and given very little to do, if she's present at all. Although the titles of the opening two episodes, “The Magician's Apprentice” and “The Witch's Familiar” seem to refer to Clara, the sidelining happens almost immediately (after a brief bit of Clara-centric material in the opening scenes of “The Magician's Apprentice”) and continues until “Face the Raven”, the first story of the series that gives her a significant role—ironically, the story where she dies (or appears to, at any rate). One of the episodes during that time, “The Woman Who Lived”, doesn't feature her at all except during its closing scene, and another, “The Zygon Invasion”, has her replaced by a double early on, so most of what we see of her in that story is actually another character entirely. When she is given some small token moments, the dialogue goes out of its way to draw attention to her becoming more Doctor-like in her behaviour, whether it's the Doctor himself calling her out in “Under the Lake” or another character, such as Cass in “Before the Flood” doing so. The rest of the time, she mostly follows the Doctor around and asks questions like a stock companion of older Doctor Who.

We seem to be expected to see Clara as reckless, that she's trying to copy the Doctor without really understanding how and why the Doctor does what he does. Yet she doesn't really do much that could be considered reckless (at least, no more reckless than what people in adventure shows, including Doctor Who, do all the time). About the only truly reckless thing she does is hang out the door while the TARDIS is flying over London in “Face the Raven”, and it is the Doctor who puts her up to that. Even the action that leads to her death in that story isn't really all that reckless. In fact, her plan makes a good deal of sense given her lack of information, and it is the kind of thing the Doctor might do. So, while she does become more Doctor-like, she's not really reckless.

Yet even her more Doctor-like behaviour seems an afterthought throughout Series 9. We see it in a few token moments, and are simply told about it most of the rest of the time. In Series 8, Clara has a much more developed journey, which includes her learning to understand the Doctor and even become more like him. When she is forced to take over his role in “Flatline”, it works naturally because we have seen her approach this point throughout the series, and even here, we see her still learning. Keeping her in the sidelines throughout Series 9, only to get those few token moments, simply doesn't develop her in a believable or satisfying way.

I am planning a retrospective on Clara's time on Doctor Who (from “Asylum of the Daleks” all the way up to “Hell Bent”) and will go into more detail there on her role in Series 9 (and how it compares to her roles in Series 7 and 8). Expect that in early January. For the rest of this review, I am going to focus on the other part of the arc of series 9—the Hybrid and the Doctor's confession dial (although I will certainly mention Clara again when talking of the resolution to the series).

The Doctor's confession dial is introduced early in the first episode of the series, where it plays a significant role in getting the action started. The Doctor sends it to Missy, who then decides to seek Clara's assistance in finding the Doctor, who has gone into hiding. There is something of an odd feel to the series right from the start, and I think this comes about because despite those opening moments playing up the importance of the dial, it ultimately plays very little role in the story and there doesn't really seem to be a reason for the Doctor to have a confession dial in the first place. We are told that he creates one because he is expecting to die, but the Doctor has gone into many other situations in the past expecting to die and hasn't felt the need to make a confession dial. So why does he do so this time? What's different about his upcoming encounter with Davros? By the end of “The Witch's Familiar”, there really doesn't seem to be anything different about it at all—not even in the sense of an ongoing mystery. What the Doctor's confession is is the mystery, but the fact that he's made a confession at all (or actually hasn't as we learn much later in a twist that does not seem well set-up by the opening events at all) is not really questioned at all.

There's also the fact that this is a brand new aspect of Time Lord society that the show is introducing, one that initially seems at odd with what we know of Time Lords. Of course, this isn't the first time Doctor Who has reinvented aspects of its alien cultures, and it likely won't be the last either. This is a new aspect of Time Lord society that could probably fit in quite seamlessly, but it's confounded here by the fact that it's introduced in an episode which expects viewers to keep up with a whole pile of other things as well. As I commented in my review of it at the time, “The Magician's Apprentice” contains many elements that are more typical of a series finale than a series opener. It throws things at viewers very fast, particularly a succession of characters they are expected to know (despite some not having appeared on the show for literally decades), and it doesn't take much time to develop the themes it is dealing with, preferring instead to rely on a lot of spectacle and eye-candy. “The Magician's Apprentice” is a very enjoyable episode for people who are well-versed in the history of Doctor Who, but is not particularly accessible to new viewers, and the confession dial ends up lost amidst a whole pile of other details. It's mentioned again in “The Witch's Familiar” (along with the first mention of the Hybrid), but by then it's more of an afterthought as it no longer has any real impact on the action.

For the rest of the series, the confession dial remains mostly unmentioned, though mentions of the Hybrid show up repeatedly, and generally in ways that again feel forced. Davros brings it up somewhat randomly in “The Witch's Familiar” and from that point on, mentions of something or other being “like a hybrid” occur several times throughout the series, each time in an ominous manner. The problem here is that there have been numerous examples of hybrids on Doctor Who throughout the years and none of them have ever made the Doctor think of the Gallifreyan legend of the Hybrid before. Of course, that's because the Hybrid is an idea added this year and that's okay. However, adding something new like this needs to be done much more organically, rather than with forced mentions every time a potential Hybrid shows up.

I think the biggest problem, however, comes from the fact that these mentions of the Hybrid never seem to lead anywhere until they get there, and even then, they don't really arrive at anything. The series ends unsatisfyingly by not revealing exactly who or what the Hybrid is and suddenly downplaying the Hybrid's threat. We learn a few possibilities and the most likely seems to be the one Me suggests—that the Hybrid is both the Doctor and Clara travelling together. It's actually a very intriguing idea, but we never see any actual evidence that the Doctor and Clara travelling together is so dangerous. It ties back into Clara's arc of becoming too Doctor-like, but what does she ever do that is actually so bad?

I've commented before, most recently in my review of “Hell Bent”, that Doctor Who has a problem with telling, rather than showing. We are told repeatedly that the Hybrid is a terrible threat, but we never see any example of this. Perhaps the threat is that the Doctor is willing to go so far to save Clara that he will risk the destruction of the entire universe to do so. Indeed, we are once again told that extracting Clara and not putting her back will cause this, yet the universe doesn't seem all that badly off. Well, the time period “Hell Bent” is set in is the very end of the universe, but you would expect it to be badly off by then. The rest of time, on the other hand, doesn't seem affected. Supposedly, Clara still must go back to her death, but since she has an apparently unlimited amount of time before doing so, the threat is kind of nullified, making the Hybrid no threat at all.

The story of the confession dial and the Hybrid also ties into the search for Gallifrey arc that began in “The Day of the Doctor”. Not much has been done with that arc since then, but “The Magician's Apprentice” and “The Witch's Familiar” do seem to set that arc up as being important to Series 9. And indeed, the series does end with the return of Gallifrey. Yet what should have been a climactic resolution of that arc ends up a complete anti-climax. The Doctor doesn't really find Gallifrey. He just ends up there. And it's not lost any more. It's just hiding at the extremes of the time continuum.

The problem here is that the circumstances keep changing and we don't see them change. Once again, we're just told about them. In “The Day of the Doctor”, Gallifrey is caught in an alternate universe and frozen in a single moment of time. In “The Time of the Doctor”, it's apparently not frozen any more, though we never learn why. Instead, while it's still in another universe, the Time Lords are now capable of interacting with the Doctor's universe—even causing the cracks in time. They can even grant the Doctor a new set of regenerations. In “Hell Bent”, Gallifrey is no longer in another universe, and once again we don't get to see how it got out. On the one hand, it's nice to know that the Time Lords are actually capable of getting a few things done on their own and aren't complete idiots. Yet having all these things happen off screen and covered in one or two lines of exposition just makes for unsatisfying storytelling. And previous developments that the Time Lords had become just as bad as the Daleks by the end of the Time War? Discarded when the Doctor tells Rassilon and then the High Council to leave Gallifrey—as if that will make Gallifrey a good place again. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they apparently just do as the Doctor says. They need to make way for another idea.

Steven Moffat seems to suffer from a strong case of “I've got a better idea” syndrome. It's something that I'm sure every writer has experienced to some degree or another. I certainly have. It's when you're working on a story and partway through, you come up with an idea for something else. That new idea starts taking over your thoughts and it becomes difficult to stay focused on the story you were working on. There's a temptation to drop that story and start the new one instead. Of course, once you're halfway through the new one, an even newer idea forms and the cycle starts again.

While it's okay to give into this from time to time (sometimes those new ideas can improve upon the old ones), it seems to me that Moffat gives into it far more often than he should (it's also harder to do it in an ongoing television programme when the old ideas have already been presented to the public). It's one reason why I think he's much better at writing single, self-contained stories than he is at longer series arcs. As a result, there have been numerous sudden shifts to arcs over Moffat's time as showrunner and even more plot threads that are left hanging—sometimes for years—until they are discarded in a line or two of dialogue. In “Let's Kill Hitler”, Amy and Rory suddenly have a best friend that they grew up with, but viewers have never heard of before, all so Moffat can throw in the idea that they grew up alongside their daughter. “The Time of the Doctor” suddenly clears up the mystery of the Silence in a couple lines of dialogue with the mystery having been solved entirely off-screen. Gallifrey is frozen, then it's not, then it's free—all because the current story, the latest better idea, needs it to be free, so why bother spending time freeing it? Let's just jump to it already being free. From a writer's perspective, it can be very fun to leave old ideas behind and jump straight into new ideas; from a viewer's perspective, it's just frustrating, especially if the viewer has become engaged in the old idea.

This same problem of a better idea seems to inflict the story of the confession dial in Series 9. As I mentioned earlier, the end of the series suddenly reveals that the dial never had the Doctor's confession in it to begin with, but never bothers to explain why. If the Doctor hadn't made his confession yet, why send the dial to Missy? There's no suggestion that the Doctor was engaged in some sort of deception or ploy. Rather, it just seems that the “rules” of the confession dial have changed, as though Moffat had a better idea along the way—that the Time Lords could use the dial as a torture chamber to wring the Doctor's confession out of him. “Heaven Sent” is an amazing episode. I love it to bits. But the changing rules are frustrating.

There's also an inconsistency to the Doctor's character in Series 9. Although this isn't really related to the story arc, it does play into the problems with the series as a whole. It's clear that the intent was to soften the Doctor somewhat from how he was in Series 8. The addition of the guitar and sonic sunglasses help to establish this change. While I really like the Doctor in Series 8, I agree that a softening of his character was a necessary development (although I would have preferred if it happened a little more gradually). However, while his character in Series 9 is definitely softened, the writers seem uncertain how much he should be softened and in what ways. And so, sometimes he's more clownish and comical. Sometimes, he's cold and calculating, letting someone die so he can test a theory one episode, and then in the next, he's sick and tired of all the death around him. At the end of “The Girl Who Died”, he comments on the terrible risk he's taken bringing Ashildr back to life and how immortality can negatively affect a person. Then, next episode, he's shocked by the person Me has become.

And so I am left with this dichotomy concerning my feelings for Series 9. Part of me wants to rank it as a weak series, one of the weakest of Moffat's time as showrunner. Yet individually, I really like most of the episodes. I would rank “The Woman Who Lived” and “Heaven Sent” amongst the best of the best. Even the weaker episodes, like “The Girl Who Died”, “Sleep No More”, and “Hell Bent”, are still quite entertaining. But I suppose that's Doctor Who. It can be both brilliant and frustrating simultaneously, and perhaps that's even part of what makes me love it so much. I look forward to a (hopefully) stand-alone Christmas special in “The Husbands of River Song” and then a fresh start next year in Series 10.

Addendum 25 December, 2015:

It occurred to me that I should mention a few more positive aspects of Series 9 in addition to the individual episodes (I had intended to, but managed to forget to include them). One really notable thing about Series 9 is the increased diversity in casting. Indeed, Series 9 may well be the most diverse series of Doctor Who so far (although I haven't actually done a close comparison to be certain). There are many roles for women and people of colour. This series also has the first deaf actor (Sophie Stone) and first transgender actor (Bethany Black) to appear in Doctor WhoThere were also women writing for Doctor Who this year for the first time in seven years. Catherine Tregenna wrote "The Woman Who Lived" and Sarah Dollard "Face the Raven".

These are very positive changes and hopefully reflect trends that will continue.

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