When I first became a fan of Doctor Who, back in the mists of time (otherwise known as the late seventies), it was a show that thrived on its Marmite-like appeal. That is, you either loved it, or you hated it. If you loved it, you really loved it and if you hated it, you really hated it and made the lives of your peers who did love it absolutely miserable by ridiculing their devotion to it. Being a Doctor Who fan when I grew up was a pretty tough gig, and so when the Doctor finally returned to television and was greeted with universal acclaim instead of mockery, I honestly thought the Doctor’s future would glow in the rose coloured light of a million erupting stars for all eternity. I should have known better.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, has unlike any other before him (except for maybe Sylvester McCoy’s initial run as the Seventh Doctor), polarised the opinions of fandom. It’s now the die-hard, long-in-the-tooth, there from the days of the classic show fans that have embraced the marmite approach to their once magnificent hero. Having neatly divided themselves down the middle, half of the long established Whovians continue to extol his virtues and those of the show, while the other half repeatedly call for the heads of the Twelfth Doctor and the show runner, Steven Moffat while bemoaning how both have completely ruined the show. And it’s this series, Series Nine, more than any other, that has seen both sides become even more entrenched in their attitudes toward, and about, the Twelfth Doctor and Doctor Who. It’s a series that maybe more so than any of its predecessors, is definitely one of two halves, with the first struggling to find its feet before finally digging its heels in during the second, finding purchase and a sense of self before exploding in spectacular Who style in its climactic, and closing episodes.
As stories go, the first half of Series Nine hits the ground running with a trio of two part adventures that crank the adrenaline pump until the handle breaks off. Opening with The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar, The Doctor is thrown, along with Missy and Clara, into the lair of his greatest foe, The Daleks. Lured to Skaro in the belief that Davros is dying, The Doctor soon discovers that some things, especially mechanised killing machines, never change and he ends up caught in a web of treachery, betrayal and deception, which when you’re facing the Daleks is pretty much par for the course. Incorporating the ultimate time travel dilemma and one of the most touching and well realised moments in the show’s long history, it’s a tale that hits all the right buttons and would have been a glorious home run had it not been for two things. The sonic sunglasses and the Doctor suddenly developing an affinity for the guitar both of which feel like some strange attempt to reinforce the Doctor’s “cool factor” and are completely unnecessary. He’s not some misunderstood, bad boy, rock-n-roll outcast, he’s The Doctor. He doesn’t hide away and pour over riff after riff, he’s the oncoming storm and when all hope is lost, he’s the last man standing between chaos and light. He saves creation, that’s what he does. He doesn’t play Queen songs while straddling the barrel of a tank’s gun. Although, admittedly, the tank was a nice touch, but given the Doctor’s long standing feelings about guns, was a little out of place. That said, the episodes themselves are a wonderful exploration of the fine line that separates love and hate, and the darker side of the Doctor’s nature.
The base under siege scenario has always been a staple of Doctor Who, and Under the Lake and Before the Flood employ, and exploit, the idea to its fullest in a plot involving ghosts, alien warlords and the laws of time travel, and what it truly means to be a chrononaut. Gripping, involving and filled with incredible characterisation and flashes of brilliance (the cards fitting perfectly with the Twelfth Doctor’s personality), it’s another stand-out moment that wouldn’t have felt out of place during the Fourth Doctor’s tenure. Or at least it would have had it not been for the sonic sunglasses. I can’t help it, I hate the sonic sunglasses. It’s a screwdriver; it isn’t a pair of value specs from Aldi. However, that isn’t the only problem with these episodes, if it was, it wouldn’t even be an issue. No, the real bugbear is the Doctor’s relationship with Clara. See, the thing is, the chemistry that’s supposed to exist between the Doctor and his companion just isn’t there and where there’s supposed to be warmth and closeness, it feels, at times, like there’s an ocean between them. Maybe that’s because one minute Clara is a go-getting, no-nonsense problem solving modern hero and the next she’s all a-quiver, whimpering and crying for The Doctor to save her. Is she the Doctor’s companion, or is he hers? It’s a problem, and it’s the elephant in the Tardis that no-one seems to want to talk about. But try as it might to throw a spanner in the works, it doesn’t stop the stories being enjoyable. Which they are. And then some.
Which brings us rather neatly to the final duo of dramas in the first half of the season; The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived, which are among the strongest of Twelfth Doctor stories, and certainly the best of this series so far. With Vikings, alien warlords pretending to be gods, battles, and a little time-lord magic, The Girl Who Died is classic Who by numbers, and it feels like the series is finally hitting its stride. Maisie Williams is phenomenal as Ashilda / Me, and the tragic cliff-hanger that feeds directly into The Woman Who Lived is beautifully realised. Talking of The Woman…, it’s essentially a two-hander in which The Doctor and Me begin to come to terms, and learn to deal, with each other as the ramification of the Doctor’s actions at the end of the previous episode finally dawn on him. A tale of highwaymen (and women) and prospective alien invasion, it gallops along while allowing the strange association that exists between the main players to slowly, but surely, develop and aside from the slightly poorly realised wolf in sheep’s clothing baddie of the week who I kept expecting to tell everyone about his belief in spooks, it’s an imaginative, intelligent slice of good fashioned Who-filled drama.
Then at the start of the second half of Series Nine, something changed, there was a discernible shift in the direction of the show and it finally felt like everything had fallen into place, Doctor Who began to fire on all cylinders and Peter Capaldi irrevocably and decisively stamped his identity on the role and at long last, made it his own. The Doctor was, from that point onward, well and truly in.
Beginning with the rather good Zygon secret occupation two part story, The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion, which not only brings back UNIT and Kate Stewart, but also sees the previously deceased Petronella Osgood (with a believable, or more accurately, as believable as things get in the Whoniverse, explanation of why she didn’t really die despite the fact that we saw it happen) return to the fold. Filled with betrayal, treachery, this fifth columnist drama returns to the social commentary that’s as much a part of Who’s history as the Tardis. It critiques immigration policy and champion’s integration, understanding and the sharing of cultural identity while lambasting any, and all, ideas of segregation. It’s a classic Who story, and let’s be honest, who doesn’t love the Zygons? I’m a sucker (I know, it’s awful, but just go with it) for them, and I’m pretty sure most of you are as well. The shape-shifting horrors are followed by Mark Gatiss’ atmospheric “found footage” tribute to the halcyon days of fifties and sixties extra-terrestrial conquest films and monster movies, Sleep No More in which humanities favourite nocturnal activity becomes the enemy thanks to the vilification of its previously harmless by-product. Then it’s hankies at the ready time, as Clara makes her exit and becomes the first long-time companion to die on screen since Adric caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Face the Raven finds The Doctor and Clara once again entrapped and inveigled in the machinations of Me (formerly Ashildir) while attempting to save old acquaintance Rigsy from the fate dealt to him by a strange tattoo. Clara, determined to do slightly more than investigate the cause of her friend’s woes, sets in motion a chain of events that not only results in her own end, but also condemns the Doctor to an eternity of torture at the hands of a most unexpected foe. And it’s here, in Heaven Sent, where Peter Capaldi stands tall and delivers a frankly remarkable performance in a, for all intents and purposes, solo story that sees him spend four billion years as a prisoner of his own people. Caught in his confession dial, he becomes determined to escape and seek Justice for himself and Clara despite the best efforts of his captors. The series finale, Hell Bent, sees The Doctor enact his retribution as he inflicts his punishment on Gallifrey, attempts to save Clara and comes to realise that in doing so, he’s become everything that he once feared and stood against. And as the dust settles and he reaches the end of his voyages with his companion, he readies himself, once again, to turn the page and begin a new chapter. As endings go, it’s up there with the best of them.
All of that, all of those remarkable episodes by themselves would be more than enough reason to own this, but that’s not all you get in The Complete Ninth Series. This release is crammed full of extras, from the inclusion of the prequels and the prologue to the series, trailers, the collected instalments of Doctor Who Extra, Clara’s Journey, which examines her role in the as a companion, The Adventures of River Song which charts the life of a time travellers wife and Dalek Devotion, the Moffat and Capaldi led special that contemplates and discusses the important of Davros’ creation to, and why they’re so beloved by fans of, Doctor Who. And then there’s the full length Comic Con 2015 Panel and the extended interview with Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman that was conducted in the run up to Series Nine by sometime crew member of The Enterprise, Big Bang Theory regular, host of TableTop and Geek Emperor Wil Wheaton, which is easily one of the most well-informed, articulate and interesting that I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Oh, and did I mention the retro-Target novel style, fact packed, information booklet that’s included? I didn’t? Oh, my giddy aunt, how did I forget that? It is, after all, a lovely addition to an already overwhelming package, and one that’ll almost definitely find favour with that quarter of fandom who, like me, are a little longer in the tooth.
Where was I? Sorry, after geeking out and submerging myself in all of the additional material, I’ve completely lost track of where I was. That’s right, I was talking about Series Nine wasn’t I? Let’s get back to it then, shall we? Good, let’s do that.
Trying to pinpoint exactly why all of the stars in the Whoniverse aligned during the second half of this series and made Doctor Who great (don’t get me wrong, it was always good, but now it’s more than good, in fact as a cereal obsessed tiger is fond of saying ‘It’s great!’) again is next to impossible. Because it isn’t just one thing, it’s a combination of factors. The writing is tight, driven and purposeful and the plots, characterisation and story development are focussed, interesting and enjoyable, but most of all the Twelfth Doctor has discovered who he is. He’s a wonderful amalgamation of the first four Doctors, possessing the irascible nature of the First, the childlike curiosity and eccentricity of the Second, the determination, loyalty and courage of the Third and the tenacity, stubbornness and slightly mad, and definitely dangerous way of looking at the Universe and solving all of its problems that were so essential to, and engrained in, the Fourth Doctor’s personality. He’s the Doctor and he’s here to save us… Tim Mass Movement