Doctor Who Season 10 Review: A Frequently Brilliant, Often Disappointing, Adequate End to Moffat’s Run
Doctor Who’s tenth Season is one of the hardest things I have ever had to review. After I fell head-over-heels for Season 9, part of me thought that it would be impossible for showrunner Steven Moffat to top the work he had already done. And unfortunately, I was right. There was never an episode of Season 10 that I did not enjoy, nor was there ever a moment that made me want to turn it off. This is good television, written by talented writers and performed by gifted actors. And perhaps it is the ridiculously high stand I hold this show to that makes me feel this way, but that just isn’t good enough for me. There are many reasons I feel Season 10 did not manage to match the quality of Season 9, but the main reason is that it lacked a sense of vision. There doesn’t seem to be a broader story that this season was trying to tell, and instead it feels packed full of decently inventive ideas that don’t really work together. If it weren’t for the last two episodes, I would have walked away completely disappointed, but Moffat did succeed in improving the storytelling in his final moments. This season is, as Doctor Who often proves to be, a mixed bag. But it is brimming with bright ideas and phenomenal performances, so even though it let me down, I still recommend it. Spoilers follow.
My concerns regarding Season 10 sprung up as soon as I saw the first episode, titled ‘The Pilot’. This episode serves to introduce the new companion, Bill Potts, in a light-hearted comedic romp. Nothing insanely brilliant or entertaining happened, and the episode really relied on the strength of the performers. Although I was entertained, I recalled the two-part opening of Season 9, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’/’The Witch’s Familiar’, and realized that this episode was sorely lacking in comparison. ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ put us on Skaro, the home planet of the Daleks, and reintroduced the Doctor as a fun loving, guitar playing hero as he faced off against Davros and the Daleks with Missy at his side. It was fast, funny, and brilliant.
By comparison, ‘The Pilot’ was well made but it doesn’t come close to the same level of quality.
There are two especially positive things I can say about the episode though. First, Bill has a crush on a girl, who is later transformed by extraterrestrial engine fuel before she tries to chase Bill and the Doctor down. She follows them throughout time and space, but it doesn’t take long for the Doctor to realize that they aren’t being hunted, and that instead she is following Bill because she likes her. I found this to be a very inventive twist, and the mystery introduced here involving a vault that the Doctor has sworn to guard, which we later learn contains Missy (the Doctor’s archenemy and oldest friend) also intrigued me. But much of the episode is slow and focuses on establishing a relationship between the Doctor and Bill that fails to feel unique when compared to previous companions.
I assumed that this sense of adequacy would disappear as the season continued, but then ‘Smile’ presented a relatively similar experience.
‘Thin Ice’, the third episode, brought a very strong performance out of Capaldi. But the episode is very forgettable for me because it presented an uninspired story: a giant monster was hiding in the Thames river, and it is up to the Doctor and Bill to save everyone. Compared to the third episode in Season 9, which put the Doctor and Clara in an underwater military base and pitted them against ghosts, the story seemed mundane.
I think Season 10 would work very well as a season to introduce people to Doctor Who. It is not my favorite season, but unlike past seasons I would argue that Season 10 managed to maintain a level of quality throughout its entirety. There was not a single episode in this season that I did not enjoy, and I am rarely able to say that about Doctor Who. The problem is, for someone like me who has been watching the show for years, what it did present failed to consistently blow me away.
The performances, as they often are on this show, were incredible, and the visuals are as good as they have ever been. This season’s problems are all in the writing, and I think there is a single problem that held the entire season back: there was no sense of unity.
Season 10 is trying to be many different things at once: it tries to serve as an introductory season of Doctor Who, it attempts to have multiple one-off episodes, it wants to tell a story about the Master and the Doctor, it must introduce a new companion, and it has to successfully serve as Moffat and Capaldi’s final outing.
Unfortunately, this season barely accomplishes most of its goals.
It works well as an introductory season, but towards its end the interactions between the Master and the Doctor are confusing for anyone who isn’t somewhat knowledgeable about the show.
The one-off episodes resemble the two-part episodes in Season 9, because both largely standalone from the overarching plot while exploring their own themes. However, the reason why the two-part episodes worked so well last season is because they had an hour and a half to fully explore their themes and characters.
In Season 10, the standalone episodes have half the time to accomplish those same goals. ‘Oxygen’, the story about the Doctor and his companions exploring a space station which puts a price tag on its air supply, addresses the hardship an individual faces in a cut-throat capitalist system. In Season 9 it likely would have had two episodes to fully examine the questions it proposes about the free market, but here it only has forty-five minutes. Within that runtime, it also spends several scenes showcasing its monster of the week: computers who take over human bodies and turn them into space zombies.
‘Oxygen’ is an episode that rarely comes to mind, because it never explores its themes as well as it introduces them. The message is simple: capitalism is flawed. And that may be true, but what is the solution?
I often found myself asking that same question throughout most of the one-off episodes, and I really wish Moffat had decided to stick with the two-part approach that worked so well in Season 9.
Moffat often says he tries to change things in a show to keep them from getting stale, and this is an approach that I have seen throughout his tenure as showrunner. A good example of this is how Moffat approached the last episode of Matt Smith’s career and the first of Capaldi’s.
Smith’s final episode, ‘The Time of the Doctor’, had a fairytale setting: a town snow-filled town in which no one can lie. Smith remained funny and child-like throughout the entire episode, and when he regenerated he welcomed the change.
Capaldi’s first episode, ‘Deep Breath’, takes place in Victorian London and features robots which use human flesh to rebuild their aging bodies, a metaphor for the Doctor’s regeneration. Capaldi was far more irritable than his predecessor, and was hinted to have killed the episode’s main villain.
In Season 8, Moffat made the Doctor and his adventures far darker and far more cynical than they had been during Smith’s reign. While I welcomed change, I think Season 8 is an example of when Moffat went too far in the other direction. The Doctor was too strongly against kindness, and the show lost its sense of fun in some of the episodes.
Season 9, in my opinion, saw Moffat discover tonal balance between the dark and light-hearted themes. The two-part approach worked incredibly well, but to Moffat it may have worked too well. It is possible that Moffat chose to abandon the structure of Season 9 because he wanted to try something new, but as he did in Season 8, I think he left behind too much of what made the show great.
Oddly enough, one of this Season’s boldest decisions suffers from the same problem as the one-off episodes.
There is a three-part story right in the middle of this story, which features the Doctor facing off against an ancient evil: The Monks. The first episode ‘Extremis’, written by Steven Moffat, is a brilliant thriller that puts the Doctor and the Catholic Church together to solve the mystery of the Veritas.
According to the members of the Vatican, everyone who has ever read the Veritas (an ancient text) has killed themselves, so they task the Doctor to translate it for them. When the Doctor finally reads the Veritas at the end of the episode, the book gives instructions to write down a random string of numbers. When the Doctor turns the page, he sees that everyone else who has touched the text wrote down that same exact sequence.
After examining the Veritas closely, the Doctor deduces that he is living in a simulation, that the computer has been generating the same string of numbers for every person, and that the people who constructed the simulation are coming for Earth. Within the simulation, the Doctor uses the computer system to email the real version of himself as much information as he could find to prepare for the oncoming attack.
The next episode ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’, places the Doctor as President of the World, a title he assumes whenever the Earth is in complete crisis. The Doctor and his companions know that since the Monks have modeled every moment of humanity’s history, they know exactly when to strike. So they are terrified when the Monks appear in an ancient Pyramid that appears between the three most powerful armies on the planet: the Russians, the Americans, and the Chinese.
The Monks show that humanity is about to end, and offer protection in exchange for command of the planet.
The Doctor refuses and spends the episode attempting to diffuse the situation between the three armies, but he quickly discovers that the apocalyptic event was happening somewhere else. So he scours the globe for a world ending event, and discovers a bacteria experiment gone wrong. The Doctor destroys the disease before it can spread, but accidentally dooms himself in the process.
In exchange for saving the Doctor, Bill gives control of the Planet to the Monks.
The final episode ‘The Lie of the Land’, shows Earth after it has been conquered by the Monks. The history of Earth has been rewritten, and everyone believes the Monks have been guiding humanity for thousands of years. The Monks have created statues across the world to influence people’s minds, while using their Pyramid as the central hub.
The Doctor attempts to plug his brain into the central hub, but even he isn’t strong enough to stop the Monks’ machinery. So how do they win? Bill plugs herself into the system, and uses the love she feels for her mother to beat the computer. It felt far less ridiculous while watching the episode, but the episode never really gives a solution about how to beat propaganda, or more specifically, fake news.
When the Doctor enters the central hub, he even says “Fake news invasion”, but the script doesn’t offer any solutions to the problem it is addressing.
At the same time, although I enjoyed each episode (the first and last in particular) the three do not add up to create a fully satisfying trilogy. The first is about a computer simulation, the second is about geopolitics, and the third is about propaganda. Since there is no real storytelling unity, this trilogy is less than the sum of its parts.
Many of the episodes this season failed to blow me away. So even though I didn’t dislike a single one, I was still disappointed.
Season 10 is very different than most seasons of Doctor Who because it has a very stable standard of quality: Capaldi and the cast are always on their A game, the dialogue really works, many ideas are brilliant, and several stories fade into memory.
Compared to Season 3, which reintroduced the Master in one incredible episode before it turned the Doctor into a cross between Dobby from Harry Potter and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings which I like to call, the Dobby Doctor (I’m not exaggerating, look it up), I could always expect to enjoy what I saw.
Fortunately, the performances were outstanding once again this year. Doctor Who has casted great actors since its return in 2005, and Season 10 proved to be no exception. Peter Capaldi turned in another phenomenal performance as the Doctor, particularly in ‘The Doctor Falls’, but I will return to that episode later.
Newcomers Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas were great as Bill and Nardole, and had fantastic chemistry as the Doctor’s companions.
Unfortunately, although Pearl Mackie does a great job, Bill is one of the blandest companions we have had since the show returned. Her character is Doctor Who 101: she asks questions, and often serves as the Doctor’s link to humanity, just as a companion should. But unlike Moffat’s previous companions, she doesn’t have much that makes her unique. Perhaps the writers did not have time to fully flesh out her character in twelve episodes (as Amy, Rory, and Clara were all on the show for two and a half seasons), but that doesn’t change the fact that I probably won’t remember much about her.
One of the things that strikes me as odd about this season, is that while Moffat is telling a fairly episodic story, he is also telling a story about the Doctor and the Master.
The Master is the Doctor’s first friend and oldest enemy, sort of functioning as a Doctor Who’s James Moriarty. When the season begins, the Doctor has locked himself to Earth in order to guard a mysterious vault. In episode six, ‘Extremis’, we learn that the vault contains Missy (the renamed female incarnation of the Master) and that the Doctor has sworn to guard her for a thousand years while also attempting to turn her good.
We don’t see Missy until halfway through the Season, and she doesn’t have a seriously important role in until ‘World Enough and Time’, the first of the two-part finale.
Given that so much of this season felt disconnected and forgettable, I couldn’t help but wonder how great Season 10 could have been if it completely centered on the Doctor and Missy’s relationship. Michelle Gomez delivers a phenomenal performance as Missy, only second in my opinion to Capaldi himself. If those two actors had been together every episode, and if this season had deeply and thoroughly explored the dynamic between the two throughout all twelve episodes, this season would have been far grander than almost any in Doctor Who history; a fitting end to Moffat and Capaldi’s run.
Looming over this entire season is the fact that Moffat will no longer be writing for this show post 2017. While Moffat has proven to be a divisive figure during his time as showrunner, most agree that he has some serious talent and has written many masterful episodes.
The top seven highest rated Doctor Who episodes on IMDb were written by Steven Moffat, and fifteen of the top twenty episodes were all written by Steven Moffat.
However, Moffat’s run has often been defined by establishing mysteries so complex and so mysterious that he doesn’t really know how to solve them. The reason why many viewers do not enjoy Moffat is because the season-long arcs he establishes are often very complex, and the answers to the questions he presents often fall flat.
For example, in Season 7 Moffat introduced the companion Clara Oswald in the first episode before killing her off. Then he introduced her again in the Christmas special, before killing her off again. Then, in the first episode of the second half of the season, he introduced her again and made her the Doctor’s companion.
How was this possible?
Apparently, an AI and his army of top-hat wearing ghosts went to the Doctor’s grave (which isn’t a body but a rift in time) and stepped into it. Once they entered his remains, they spread across his time stream and defeated him at every turn. Clara decided to step into the time stream as well, and spread across the Doctor’s timeline.
I did not find this a satisfying answer to the mystery, because Moffat introduced a new piece into the story in order to explain it. When answering a mystery, to make the solution feel rewarding, the audience normally must know everything that the characters do. What makes a solution brilliant is that the writer took elements of the story that seemed unrelated to the audience and rearrange them to answer the mystery. But because Moffat’s mysteries often have impossible solutions, he occasionally invents devices to solve them.
But even when I felt his mysteries fell flat, there was always a sense of brilliance to it. The episode I just referred to took us to the Doctor’s grave (which is a fascinating concept in and of itself), while also bringing out a terrific performance from Matt Smith.
That is why I have loved the Moffat years. Regardless of whether I was let down, I always found something to adore.
It’s also why it was disheartening to see Moffat’s last season void of the boldness that has defined most of his run.
In Season 5 the Tardis exploded, Season 6 opened with the death of the Doctor, Season 7 established a companion after she had already died twice, Season 8 hinted that the Doctor was a murderer, and Season 9 was almost entirely two-part stories, which was a first for the new run of the show.
Season 10 plays it safe for the most part, going for smaller disconnected stories. I would argue this is why it has a more stable standard of quality, but because it took less risks it also had fewer high points.
However, this small-scale approach paid off in one tremendous fashion: the finale.
‘World Enough and Time’ places the Doctor, Missy, Bill, and Nardole together on a 400-mile-long colony ship attempting to escape a black hole. The Doctor wants to test Missy and see if she has turned good, so he sends out Missy, Bill, and Nardole to save the ship while waiting in the Tardis.
Within minutes, Bill is shot and taken to the other end of the ship. As Nardole analyses the spacecraft, he discovers that the other end now has thousands of life readings even though the ship only had a crew of fifty.
The Doctor realizes that since one end of the ship is closer to the Black Hole, time is passing much more slowly for them because the gravity is far more intense. Two days at their end of the ship has translated to one thousand years at the other end, so by the time the Doctor, Nardole, and Missy reach the other end ten years have already passed.
Life at the other end of the ship has become completely mechanical, and because of this, people have started to become Cybermen. When the Doctor finds Bill, she has been turned into one of the first Cybermen, but he also finds something far worse.
The previous incarnation of the Master was waiting for them to arrive in the hopes of turning Missy evil to ensure his future.
The Doctor, Missy, the Master, Nardole, and what remains of Bill are forced to flee up the ship as the Cybermen chase them. They make it up to the next level, and find a small group of humans hiding from the Cybermen as the machines march upwards.
But as the Doctor ran, a Cyberman attacked him, and his regeneration began.
For those who are unaware, the Doctor can revive himself after suffering a fatal injury, but when he does his appearance and personality change completely.
This is where ‘The Doctor Falls’, the final episode of this season, places the 12th Doctor: outmatched, unprepared, and on his deathbed.
Whereas ‘Hell Bent’, the finale of Season 9, showed us the Doctor after he had been pushed to insanity and had lost his moral compass, ‘The Doctor Falls’ shows us the complete opposite.
The Doctor decides to protect the small group of humans and fight off the army of Cyberman, even though he knows there is no way he can win. The Master and Missy are both baffled by this, and the Doctor responds by explaining that he plans to fight not because he expects to succeed, but because it is right.
I can see here that Moffat learned some clear lessons from Russel T. Davies, the previous showrunner. In Davies’s last season, he brought back all his previous companions and characters to face off against an army of Daleks. The finale was titled ‘Journey’s End’ and I hated it. There were bits of brilliance sprinkled throughout the episode, but there were far too many characters for any single one to standout. Many people disagree with my opinion, but I feel that the episode imploded under its own weight.
‘The Doctor Falls’ places the Doctor in a barn, trying to save thirty or so people with no chance of victory. It is small, and allows us to see the Doctor at his best.
The title suggests that this episode will show the Doctor defeated, from a moral or strategic standpoint. But having watched the episode, I know see why Moffat chose this title.
This episode is about the Doctor facing his end as a hero, not about him being defeated by a villain.
As the Doctor explains in the episode, “Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.”
The Doctor does ‘fall’ in this episode, as he is forced to detonate an entire forest and destroy himself to fend off the Cybermen. But he doesn’t fall from grace, instead he embraces kindness and morality, as he says: “Without hope, without witness, without reward.”
The Missy subplot is also resolved tremendously. As Missy and the Master flee, Missy decides to poison her previous self in order to return to the Doctor and fight by his side. When the Master learns she plans to work with his enemy, he shoots Missy with so much energy that she will not be able to regenerate.
I loved this resolution because characters in Doctor Who are rarely punished for doing the right thing. Missy’s fate shows that people can suffer for making the right choice, but the episode as a whole still argues people should act on the basis of morality. It is a thematic decision I wish the show made more often.
The Doctor does manage to survive the fight, but he is left companionless (as Bill and Nardole manage to survive, but are forced to live away from the Doctor) and on the verge of regeneration.
Doctor Who’s tenth season is not as amazing as I wish it was. Much of it is forgettable, and I wish I had seen more of the Master and Missy.
But it does have moments of brilliance, and there is a standard of quality under Moffat’s direction. Moffat’s run has been brilliant and fun. Ever since he took charge I have always been excited to see the next season and I have always looked forward to the episodes he wrote.
Steven Moffat has stated that he will no longer write for Doctor Who, and I will sorely miss him. Sometimes his ideas went nowhere, sometimes he went off the rails, and sometimes he scripts were nowhere near as clever as he thought they were. But he brought a brilliance and an emotional core to this show that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and I will always remember his time as showrunner.
I don’t think he was trying to describe himself in these lines, but Missy’s description of her previous incarnation summarized the feeling of Doctor Who under Moffat’s leadership perfectly.
“Oh the way you burn like a sun. Like a whole screaming world on fire. I remember that feeling, and I always will. And I will always miss it.”