Doctor Who Season 9 Overview
“Now, the real question is: Where did he get the cup of tea? Answer: I'm the Doctor. Just accept it.”
As viewers we’ve been asked to accept quite a lot of things because ‘I’m The Doctor’ during Steven Moffatt’s tenure as show runner so it’s probably inevitable that in this ninth series we begin to question just what ‘Being the Doctor’ might mean.
It’s a well-worn truism that the role of the Doctor is ‘actor proof’. That, with varying degrees of success, “any old fucker with an Equity card” (© Mark Gattis 1999) can have a go at the time-travelling eccentric. Indeed there’s always been an element of the thespian to the character of the Doctor. The casting, two years ago of as well respected and talented an actor as Peter Capaldi in the role has recently tended to spotlight the performativity of the role.
One of the things a lot of actors enjoy is breaking the fourth wall - the direct address to the audience. In classic drama Hamlet’s famous monologue is often played this way. The effect can also be seen in pantomime and most obviously in stand-up comedy. Last year we briefly had Capaldi addressing the audience directly in the episode Listen. This series gave us the most blatant example in the cold open for Before the Flood with his monologue direct to camera explaining the ‘Bootstrap Paradox’. The fact that over the years we’ve had countless Doctor Who stories employing that old time travel chestnut ‘the Bootstrap Paradox’, most often in stories written by Steven Moffatt, without feeling the need to give us a fourth wall breaking mini-lecture must have significance. I think it’s all about agency, showing us the performer suspended inside the narrative and the narrative suspended within the performance.
In The Witch’s Familiar Clara hanging upside down and tied up was perhaps a magickal reference to the Tarot card The Hanged Man, it being an image of initiation. The 'Magician's Apprentice' becomes the 'Witch's Familiar' and is put through various trials before achieving enlightenment. Clara being pushed off a ledge and surviving a twenty foot drop being just one of a number of 'leaps of faith' given her by Missy. But might her initiation also be read diegetically as a preparation for her graduating to the role of the Doctor and outside the narrative to the actor herself achieving that agency? I think this is the key to decoding this series.
Series 9 has been all about the acting. Characters openly playing roles. Playing at Vikings, playing at highwaymen,
The Doctor playing the Doctor -
Missy playing the pantomime drag Master
The Doctor playing Davros
“Proposition. Davros is an insane, paranoid genius who has survived among several billion trigger-happy mini-tanks for centuries. Conclusion? I'm definitely having his chair”.
And a lot of people giving us their versions of the Doctor.
Missy, within Michelle Gomez’s delightfully hat-stand performance showing us what would happen if the Doctor let his madness get the upper hand. Davros demonstrating how love of racial purity is certainly not an ideal for a renegade Time Lord to aim for, Ashildr/Me showing us the lonely immortal, Kate Stewart depicting the Third Doctoresque scientific/military option*, Rasmussen in Sleep No More giving us the teller of dangerous shaggy dog stories and finally Clara demonstrating the Tardis thief and reckless adventurer.
*Incidentally Redgrave is remarkable and what she is doing as an actor is quite subtle. It's nothing to do with any fan-imagined legacy of the Brigadier; who was mostly written as a Monty Python cliche army character for the Doctor to anti-militarily snark at. (That the character transcended this is in the classic series was mostly down to Nicholas Courtney's professional skill) and I doubt she has much knowledge of the fan worship and head-canon that the character enjoyed other than what Moffat has told her. Instead I believe she is attempting something totally in keeping with the traditions of Doctor Who, that is, to juxtapose one genre convention against another to see what will happen. Redgrave is playing Kate Stewart naturalistically (using acting techniques more suited to docu-drama or performed reconstruction using reported speech) as a real person caught up in chaotic and surreal events who is forced to employ an unreal chaotic person (the Doctor) to restore order. Her coping option is to remain calm in the eye of the storm. If she appears detached, that is the result of the juxtaposition she has created. A calm reflection of the Doctor's manic energies. I find it fascinating to watch Matt Smith and now Capaldi clearly enjoying being exasperated at her coolness just as Pertwee and Baker were exasperated by the Brig's unflappability.
Anyway, those themes of performativity and role playing established lets have a look at the series as a whole.
So to start at the end…
The grand finale. Finales are odd things, an old vaudeville tradition somehow clinging on to the TV drama mini-series format, replacing the variety song and dance act with the razzmatazz of explosions, conflict resolution, death and closure. Which is exactly what Steven Moffat doesn’t give us in Hell Bent the final episode of series 9. In a classic piece of rug pulling he changes the kind of story we’re watching from epic revenge tragedy to spaghetti western and leaves us with Thelma and Louise in Space.
And once again we get a piece of pure theatricality, another breaking of the fourth wall. The Doctor playing Clara her own signature tune, in the American diner set from season six’s Impossible Astronaut. How much more post-modern do you want to get? Capaldi’s guitar playing effectively drags Murray Gold’s Clara’s Theme onto the stage to take a bow, moving it from the extra-diegetic, right into the foreground of the narrative. Just as the Doctor started series 9 himself, entering that most theatrical of settings - the medieval castle - playing a distorted rock version of the classic Doctor Who title theme. The twanging reverb of the electric guitar recalling an Ennio Morricone soundtrack laying the sonic groundwork for the spaghetti western tropes we will be treated to when we finally return to Gallifrey. But we're racing ahead of ourselves.
So, taking each story in turn chronologically, what do we see?
The Magicians Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar
Having the sins of the past or unfinished business from days gone by come back to haunt you must be, not only an occupational hazard, but the most uncanny and disturbing aspect of time travel and the opening two-parter was all about things coming back to bite the Doctor’s arse.
The Doctor had to face and attempt to fix some of things he did or failed to do in his own time-line. Will we ever understand how it all fits together? As the man said -
“I try never to understand. It’s called an open mind.”
We begin with a cold-open to end all cold-opens, the revelation of the child Davros. In last year's Listen we learnt that the Doctor's childhood fear was having his ankle grabbed by a disembodied hand. Now we get hand mines, whose modus operandi is to grab you by the ankle. No wonder the Doctor was so disturbed to witness the kid Davros being scared by them.
Back at Coal Hill school Clara’s outing of Jane Austin was a deliciously throwaway piece of literary name dropping. Once again she’s adopting the Doctor’s traits. This will have consequences.
Moffat sneaking in Missy's reference to the Doctor as a 'little girl' here must shut down once and for all any remaining deniers of the Doctor's trans-gender potential by calmly stating that it's already happened. Yes of course Moffat left it open to interpretation. The "One of those things was a lie" statement was a delicious piece of self-trolling but...we all know it's true really don't we? And now, in Hell Bent we have the General’s regeneration not only changing his gender but his skin colour too.
The whole sewer sequence, as well as being a classic 'journey through the underworld' rescue was also a call back to Ian and Barbara's interminable journey (at least three episodes) through tunnels to the Dalek city with the Thals in the first Dalek story. (A lovely reference to Hartnell to compliment Capaldi's trousers).
The relationship that Missy suggested she and the Doctor enjoyed was remarkable too. For the first time we got a glimpse of how beings who 'walk in eternity' (© the Fourth Doctor) might relate to each other.
Under The Lake/ Before the Flood
Not my favourite story of the season. It seemed like two episodes of Doctor Who written by someone who'd never seen Doctor Who but had only had it described to them. Which, in a way, given the themes of language and translation in the narrative is oddly apt.
There's a really good Doctor Who two-parter to be written where the second part has the Doctor travel back in time to affect the events of the first. Unfortunately this wasn’t it. Also, I can handwave the dodgy astronomy but why would aliens name a constellation 'Orion's Sword' in the first place? Unless we're suggesting that Greco/Roman mythology is universal. Which would be a whole lot more interesting than what we've got in this story. I think, maybe if the fake Soviet village had been a night shoot it would have achieved the atmosphere the director was looking for. Maybe.
I can only assume Whithouse heard a reference to the Fisher King story once, thought it sounded a cool name but couldn't be bothered to actually do any research. Anything, the vaguest reference to Arthurian myth, the wounded God archetype or the Grail legend would have done but no. Nothing. Just a cool name that now, for me because of this, is just that little bit less cool. This outdoes last series’ In the Forest of the Night for gratuitous referencing with no pay off.
Why was Prentis dressed as a Victorian undertaker? This I suspect is the real Bootstrap Paradox - Whithouse has an idea for 'cool' visual, i.e. a Gothic ghost in a futuristic base and then decides to be clever and retcon the plot within its own narrative to explain it. Except the explanation never quite lands and he ends up with an anachronistic visual motif which could easily be explained using time travel but is instead 'explained' using space travel. I mean...why? Whithouse has said in an interview that the original script was even more 'timey wimey' (Gods help us) before Moffat edited it. I mean, can you imagine?
The Girl Who Died/ The Woman Who Lived
The writer of The Girl Who Lived Jamie Mathieson said in an interview "of course this is Doctor Who so we're doing horned Viking helmets even though they're wrong."
This is lovely. It’s my opinion that when the TARDIS leaves ‘Space’ and moves back into ‘History’ it time travels psychochronographically. Not to ‘real’ historical times but to a kind of collectively agreed upon version of history and most often a peculiarly British one that has more to say about mining the stories we tell ourselves than any attempt at digging for truths. For instance, the various WWIIs the Doctor has visited are formed from a kind of gestalt British folk memory of the era (Churchill in Victory of the Daleks, the “Are you my mummy” gas mask kid and barrage balloons over Big Ben in The Empty Child, etc.) and a quite child oriented one at that due to the show's origins as a children's 'educational' series. The Tardis' first voyage was from Coal Hill school to a prehistoric Britain straight out of a year 6 history primer. Last year’s Robot of Sherwood addressed this issue well, I thought, albeit within the confines of a not very good story. Remember Amy's childhood picture book of Roman centurions being the memory that created the Pandorica setting and Rory's resurrection? Probably not very historically accurate, but a vivid image that every British school kid is taught.
I'll have to admit I struggled to enjoy the second half of Ashildr’s story. I really wanted to love it but it was let down by so many things. Maisie Williams gave it her best shot but was sometimes a little out of her depth. The writer, Catherine Tregenna, was clearly aiming for a 'Wicked Lady' meets 'Interview with a Vampire' vibe but unfortunately Williams doesn't yet have the experience to negotiate the swift turns of the script from haughty immortal to rollicking highwayman. This often left her looking vulnerable and exposed, though Capaldi did a generous job of catching her each time and giving her plenty to react to. As to Leo the cuddly space lion with laser eyes...if ever there was an argument for ditching unnecessary alien invasion plots from the 'Historicals' this was it.
The overall tone was strangely one-note and the pacing was also all over the place but Ed Bazelgette's direction overall was superb, particularly the interior scenes. I feel a lot of the blame for the weakness of this episode should be aimed at the editing which, in some instances, was positively amateurish. A number of instances of 'crossing the line', badly matched reverse shots and clumsy transitions. The sound design was murky too apart from Murray Gold's musical score and I think the 'girl does man's voice' conceit would be less concerning (it was expertly and cheekily handwaved diegetically) if the voice had matched the ambiance of Maisie's own voice rather than sounding like a guy sitting in a recording booth. There was the same problem with the Fisher King's voice in Before the Flood. Oh and the tacked on coda in the TARDIS was appalling. Who gives a selfie as a present? Why does Clara show it to the Doctor on her own phone rather than send it to him? Was this bit written by Moffat? Does he know what a selfie is?
The Zygon Invasion/ The Zygon Inversion
Just when I was beginning to lose faith in Doctor Who's ability to still deliver the goods Peter Harness gives us the Zygon Invasion/Inversion and it certainly doesn't disappoint.
On first viewing what really stood out for me was the beautiful brazenness of its metaphors. To the extent that I see the main complaint among its detractors is the 'obviousness' of the 'immigrants/radicalisation/assimilation allegory. As though a message somehow loses potency by being easy to read and that could somehow be a valid critique. I fear the real reason people are annoyed by the story's simple theme is that, in fact, they don't agree with its implications.
I love how the Osgood/Zygon question is not only sidestepped (the fact of her being alive is as obvious as the rest of the allegories and really not an interesting puzzle to obsess over, any more than where the Doctor got his cup of tea or how he escaped the invisible clones) but pressed into service to unexpectedly make the most political point in the story. No it shouldn't matter whether you identify the person you are talking to as human or alien, Christian or Muslim, male or female. Perhaps listening to what they're saying is more important than value judging.
I think a child watching this story might actually take away a vague echo of the concepts of 'morality' of 'decency' and 'fair play' which, while obvious paper tigers and false ideals here, are nonetheless not inherently bad things to wish for. As the situationists say ‘Be reasonable – demand the impossible’. Moffatt and Harness here are ascribing entirely to keeping politics childish but I think the attempt falls down because the writers have built a ridiculous straw man argument and attempted to clothe it in 'concerns torn from today's headlines'. Equating an invading force of octopoid, electro stinger wielding, sucker covered blobby creatures FROM ANOTHER PLANET with concerns around immigration in the UK and the US and then also throwing in ISIS for good measure is at best naive allegory and at worst bloody stupid.
I still love Doctor Who but they do make that hard to justify sometimes.
It's easy of course to argue that the politics were (with I feel I can safely say the best of intentions) a little skewed but this was always going to be inevitable given the show’s fun-for-all-the-family remit. The decision to shift the dramatic tension from the epic to the personal was the only way the various potential pitfalls of an oversimplified dialectic could be avoided. (And I'm not saying all of them were). This was effortlessly handled in the first few moments by having the cliffhanger be resolved within Clara's struggle to control her own identity. Mirroring the main theme of assimilation v the violent assertion of individuality and of course, bringing into focus again the main themes of agency and role playing.
Sleep No More
I'm genuinely at a loss to say what I felt about this episode. I know it's going to divide opinion but I'm oddly unsure what side of the divide I'm falling on. Which probably means it's great. Certainly a surprising bit of writing from Gattis. I liked the lack of a credit sequence which effectively made the entire episode a cold open; or the way it turned the, (much used in the classic era particularly by Second Doctor Patrick Troughton), 'staring directly at us out of a TV screen' trope (itself a kind of visual fourth wall breaking) into the mise en scene of the story. The Sandmen, dust golems made of eye gunk, are probably the best and simultaneously the most ridiculous pseudo-science monsters we've had but, as such, seemed to belong more to season eight with the Foretold and the Boneless and the moon egg hatched space dragon. Didn’t Gattiss get the memo? ‘Fairy Tale’ was last year, this series it’s ‘Agency’ and ‘Role Playing’.
Face the Raven
So Clara gets her own 'companion' in Rigsy and the question becomes, will the Doctor be able to wrest control of his own character from Miss Oswald 'curing' Clara of her reckless bravery before it kills her?
See, the thing I like about experimental theatre (and I've been responsible for quite a bit of it in my time) is often not the end result (the 'product' of the experiment if you like) but the odd, quirky, imagery and juxtapositions thrown up along the way. Experimentation (in drama terms) is not just about gratuitously 'being weird' but in the creation of hybrids. New forms of discourse formed by rubbing disparate concepts together to make fire. Or gold. Alchemy. Sometimes this must be achieved by smashing through the tougher than diamond wall of control to challenge the authorities on the other side.
So, while Heaven Sent is, in many ways, an experimental take on experimentalism it's also very much a traditional Doctor Who experiment of rubbing one genre up against another. In this case A Beckettian existential one hander (The confession dial as Krapps Last Tape) and a classic locked room mystery (with the added twist that the victim is also the detective). Add a touch of Edgar Allen Poe (I thought 'BIRD' was a clue about Facing the Raven) and you've got Doctor Who gold.
And here we are back to the finale ( the long way round)
Without being a total re-reboot the final episode pretty much rewrote the Doctor's history as we knew it, put it back together a bit wonkily, twice and then added some Clara/Me shipping fanfic. I bloody loved it. I loved that the Hybrid could still be Susan or River or the Doctor or Me or Harry bloody Potter and it really doesn't matter because the Time Lords and their obsession with their idiotic prophecies turned out once again to be barking up the wrong tree.
My personal theory is that the Sisterhood of Karn are an analog of the Bene Gesserit in Dune and are playing a long game. They've been trying to create the Hybrid for millennia in order to take down the Time Lords and rule the multiverse. The Doctor, like Paul Atriedes in Dune is one of their experiments gone rogue.
Incidentally, those who are, inevitably, calling for a Clara and Me spin-off series are misinterpreting the nature and purpose of the open ended character escape. As long as we never see them, Clara's adventures in Space and Time preserve her character, suspended like a fly in amber between her last heartbeats. Just as she was suspended upside down in The Witch’s Familiar. If we show them it devalues the currency and she becomes a lesser character. She needs to remain a tantalising might-have-been out there somewhere in the swirling vortex of the Land of Fiction along with Jenny, Susan and the Meddling Monk. Of course your reaction to this retcon of Face the Raven depends entirely on whether you consider Clara’s character to be running away from her death or towards a new life. If nothing else the Russian Roulette of who gets mind-wiped seemed to be a lovely redemption of the awful fate of Donna Noble, forced against her will to forget the tenth Doctor and all their adventures together, but I’m not buying this. No-one lost any memories here did they? There are too many clues that suggest the Doctor and Clara ended this season just like they did the last one – playing their roles and lying to each other.
I thought it was a fitting end for Clara as a character and a suitable tribute to Jenna Coleman as an actor.
So we end as we began, with Clara taking agency as her own version of the time-travelling eccentric Tardis thief along with her own immortal travelling companion in Ashildr/Me. It’s hard to say which one is playing ‘The Doctor’ though.
They might both do well to remember Clara’s own advice from Face the Raven –
“You. You listen to me. You're going to be alone now, and you're very bad at that. You're going to be furious, and you're going to be sad, but listen to me. Don't let this change you. No, listen. Whatever happens next, wherever she is sending you, I know what you're capable of. You don't be a warrior. Promise me you'll be a Doctor."