“I’m the Doctor, and I save people!”
Series 9 of the relaunched Doctor Who saw the second full season of Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor and Clara adventuring across time and space. Given the critical acclaim but mixed reactions to Series 8, all eyes were on Series 9 to establish the new direction of the show.
After a couple of years where episodes were mostly self-contained, Series 9 took the bold move of having mostly two-parters, with only episodes nine and ten being classed as stand-alone (and even then, episode ten led into the series finale). This format appears to have been a success, allowing for stronger storytelling and character development over a longer time.
The stand-out performance of the series award must go to Peter Capaldi. Having established a spiky and sarcastic personality for his incarnation in Series 8, this time he gives us a Doctor who has mellowed slightly. He still does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, but now he wears the hoodie seen in Last Christmas more often, plays an electric guitar whilst alone in the TARDIS and can even instigate a hug, in moderation. Some have said that in Series 8 he was playing the Doctor, while in Series 9 he was being the Doctor, but I would argue that the Doctor we see from The Magician’s Apprentice onwards is a man more at peace with himself and Capaldi’s portrayal is reflecting this as he has settled comfortably into the role.
He is also given the interesting challenge of a one-handed episode in Heaven Sent, the first half of the finale. Here the Doctor is alone after the events of Face the Raven, having been transported to a mysterious fortification surrounded by sea and haunted by a creature from his own past in the silent Veil. Handled by a lesser actor this could have just been the Doctor talking to himself for almost an hour, but Capaldi puts in a superb performance here in this unusual setting and rises to the challenge with aplomb.
Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald had been through two major storylines in Series 7 and 8 respectively (The Impossible Girl and the Danny Pink romance) so the focus shifted away slightly from her this time, and more onto the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. We saw a more reckless Clara in Series 9, taking chances in the firm knowledge that the Doctor would always find a way to save her. On a couple of occasions he mentions having a “duty of care” towards her but she still rushed headlong into trouble, until it finally caught up with her in Trap Street on 21st century Earth, when she took on the death sentence imposed on old friend Rigsy (Jovian Wade) and the Doctor was unable to save her. Well, until he returned to Gallifrey and broke the rules in Hell Bent anyway.
Of the many guest stars with major roles in Series 9 the one that made the most impact was Maisie Williams as Viking girl Ashildr. Making her debut in the fifth episode as the titular Girl Who Died, she was made immortal by the Doctor in an effort to save her life. The following story, The Woman Who Lived, showed the Time Lord and his TV audience the consequences of his actions, with Ashildr having become hardened and bitter during her 800+ years of life. In that time she had seen everyone around her die, including her children, which brought forth the resolution never to have any more. At the end of that story she had recovered some of her feelings and pledged herself to look after the people that the Doctor left behind. Which is exactly what she was doing when they next crossed paths in the 21st century, looking after and protecting a community of aliens stuck on Earth in Face the Raven. But now she had a secret and her betrayal of the Doctor had the knock-on effect of causing the death of Clara in the process. Their final meeting, in Hell Bent, happened after the Doctor had used Time Lord technology to save Clara. They met at the very end of the universe, as two ancient beings watching the end of everything. Then, after the Doctor’s memory of Clara was erased, Ashildr was seen heading off with Clara aboard a stolen TARDIS, heading for who-knew-where.
Throughout this ongoing story, each new encounter with Ashildr showed her slightly changed by the intervening time, more grown as a character and a person. That this worked so well is down to Maisie Williams as an actress, investing each meeting with a step up in maturity until you could almost believe that these tales had been filmed quite some time apart, rather than in reasonably close proximity, time-wise. Such range in a young actress is hard to find and impressive to see played out on screen.
There were other significant guest performances throughout the series. The opening two-parter, The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar, saw a number of returning friends and enemies, including Michelle Gomez as Missy (the female incarnation of the Master), Jemma Redgrave as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (who would return again later in the series), Julian Bleach’s Davros, and his Daleks.
Again we get a delightfully dangerous and batty, in equal measure, tour-de-force from Michelle as Missy. She puts a great amount of energy into her portrayal and just when you think you know what to expect from the character, she turns things on a sixpence and that makes for an entertaining unpredictability. It was especially fascinating this time to see her paired with Jenna’s Clara for the majority of the two episodes. Their relationship added a certain spark to the storyline, giving it a neat counterpoint to the Doctor/Davros scenes of the second episode.
Speaking of which, much kudos should be given to Julian Bleach for providing us with an understated and universe-weary Davros, not the ranting maniac from the past but a man worn down by time and expectation from his ‘children’. That he makes the audience feel sorry for the evil creator of the Daleks is the true power of his amazing performance. He bounces well off Capaldi’s Doctor in their segments together and gives depth to the character of Davros, a depth that hints that it might be possible for the Doctor to finally have a hand in his redemption. That it was (mostly) a trap for the Doctor adds an extra layer of cunning and manipulation that comes almost as a shock after what has already passed between them. Bravo!
The casting of a deaf actress, Sophie Stone as Cass in Under the Lake/Before the Flood, could be seen as a stunt but it is weaved neatly into the storyline of the episodes in such a way as to make it a significant part of the tale. In the scene where Cass is stalked by the ‘ghost’ of Moran in Before the Flood, it is the vibration of the axe dragging behind him that tips her off to the danger, as she cannot hear the sound of it. Also the fact that Lunn (Zaqi Ismail), Cass’ translator, isn’t allowed into the shuttle and therefore doesn’t receive the message that is central to the story becomes pivotal. Cass is also shown to be a strong leader of the group when she takes over after the death of Moran in the first couple of minutes.
As mentioned above, Jemma Redgrave returns as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, along with UNIT, for a more substantial part in the story The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion. This picks up the threads left dangling after the 50th anniversary tale The Day of the Doctor by giving details of the peace deal hammered out between UNIT and the Zygons at the end of that story. Ingrid Oliver also returns as Osgood, despite us having seen her ‘death’ at the hands of Missy in the Series 8 finale, Death in Heaven. This it turns out was one of a pair of Osgoods, one human, one Zygon, who had been established by the Doctor during the negotiations as the guardians of the peace. Keeping the uncertainty of whether the Osgood who survived is the human or Zygon is a neat twist and fits neatly into the story concept of it not mattering who belongs to which species, that their actions determine who they are. Both Jemma and Ingrid give their usual superb turns as their respective characters and hopefully we shall see them again in future stories.
The Zygon two-parter also gave Jenna Coleman an opportunity to stretch her acting muscles in an unusual direction as she plays Zygon duplicate Bonnie for most of the story. Bonnie is a cold and precise creature and Jenna gives her a chilling edge through most of the second episode, after she is revealed in the approach to the cliff-hanger. The interactions between Bonnie and Clara are also very well played in their intensity.
Looking at the writer’s for Series 9 it is a mixture of the experienced (Steven Moffat obviously, Mark Gatiss, Toby Whithouse), more recent conscripts (Peter Harness, Jamie Mathieson) and those completely new to Who (Sarah Dolland, Catherine Tregenna). Of these probably the most impressive is Harness with the Zygon two-parter, after his innovative Series 8 debut episode Kill The Moon. With speculation increasing about Moffat’s replacement when he does decide to step down, Peter Harness must surely be putting his case forward with these much appreciated episodes, with the fans at least. Worthy of mention also are Dolland and Tregenna, the first two female writers employed on Doctor Who by Moffat, both of whom turned in interesting and thoughtful scripts.
On the whole, despite the drop in the ratings experienced across the whole twelve episodes, Series 9 has been a critical triumph. Even the episodes that might not have been so well received, such as Sleep No More, have been bold and experimental in their telling. Also, some new ideas worked better than others. Capaldi looks very natural with an electric guitar, which featured in about half the episodes of the series. Less successful with fans were the sonic shades, which was possibly why right at the end of Hell Bent we got a new sonic screwdriver. But the positives bode well for Series 10, to which both Moffat and Capaldi are committed, though a filming schedule has yet to be confirmed and it appears currently that at least part of it will stretch into 2017. A new companion has also to be announced and that will attract much interest and speculation from the fans and the media.
So, the future (and the past and present) look bright for the Doctor Who with a spiky but mellowing 12th Doctor out in the universe. Long may he pilot the TARDIS into new and challenging adventures!