Why Doctor Who: Season 9 Worked So Well
Doctor Who is absent from this year’s fall line-up, so in preparation for Moffat’s final Season I have looked back and analyzed what I consider to be his masterpiece. (Spoilers follow)
Moffat has been a very divisive figure during his time at the helm. Some fans love his fun, energetic, and often damaged take on the Doctor, while others have spent the last few years irritated by the overly-complex and overconfident writing. Personally, I have enjoyed most of Moffat’s run, with one notable exception, and I found that in Season 9 he finally struck a perfect balance of tone, character, and story on the eve of his departure.
“The Magician’s Apprentice” kicked off Season 9 with a fast paced episode that introduced and new tone, and more importantly, a new Doctor. Season 8 garnered many complaints, a widespread one being that the 12th Doctor had lost Tennant’s and Smith’s charm. While I enjoyed Capaldi’s performance, Season 9 saw the writers and Capaldi finally discover the 12th Doctor as he should have been from the beginning. Capaldi was still fierce and unapologetic, but both the writing and the performance saw his character soften. His grand entrance in “The Magician’s Apprentice” is proof of that.
Moffat, learning from his mistakes in Season 8, introduced the Doctor playing an electric guitar on top of a tank moving through a medieval arena. In less than sixty seconds, I saw Moffat and Capaldi manage to establish a new Doctor that felt distinctly similar to the one last seen in 2014. But the performance and personality of the Doctor can only carry the show so far, as several episodes from Tennant’s run have proved, and at the time Doctor Who itself was suffering from a much larger problem.
I was very satisfied by Season 8 of Doctor Who, but I am aware that many were not. Taking a step back from Capaldi’s run reveals that the show especially suffers when the writers lose a sense of direction. Moffat had a clear story to tell in Season 5, and for the most part, in Season 6. In Season 7 however, this started to change. While I loved the first tragic half of Season 7, as soon as Clara made her second appearance I started to lose faith in Moffat’s direction. Much of Season 7 Part 2 felt very inconsequential; the writing lacked its typical brilliance and failed to account for the loose story. In Moffat’s defense, he seemed to have finished telling the story of the Doctor and the Ponds that he started in 2010, and was biding time for the 50th anniversary, which, in my eyes, completely delivered.
While re-watching Season 4, I found that Davis suffered the same problem. Having told the story he planned to tell, and facing the end of his run, the writing of Season 4 felt very forceful at times, which culminated in a finale that was very clustered and disappointing to me, although I have found myself facing strict opposition to that opinion.
Season 9, on the other hand, had a clear story to tell, and unlike some of Moffat’s past seasons, it told that story without resorting to constant foreshadowing or a complex narrative. Season 9, at the most fundamental level, was the story of the Doctor and Clara’s golden run together. Through this, it incorporated the return of Gallifrey and the mind-bending plot of “Heaven Sent” (which I will return to). The characters were at the heart of this story, they embodied the themes of mortality and friendship, and showed that when the two are combined and unbound, they can result in a very dangerous mix. This theme is fundamentally tied to the season long mystery of ‘the Hybrid’: a creature containing the blood of two warrior races, powerful enough to destroy Gallifrey itself, which is hinted at in nearly every episode.
As for the individual episodes, not only did Season 9 have a strong overall story, but it was flooded with spectacular one-offs, the quality of which most seasons of Doctor Who would have paid little attention to. The decision to construct two-parters throughout the season paid off, as it allowed the audience to fully invest in the story and characters. “Before the Flood” was a brilliant episode made possible by the episode that preceded it. It was an episode that I loved, and yet it is overshadowed by nearly everything else this season had to offer. That is what Season 9 did so well, it managed to thrill me week by week, and still required me to take a step back to examine the full brilliance of what Moffat and company had done.
Ashildr, the young Viking girl turned immortal, is a perfect example of this. We meet her in a very well written and comical episode involving Vikings and the Mire. And yet when taking a step back, some might view her as the main villain of Season 9, as she leads the Doctor into a trap and has a hand in Clara’s death. And while there are many great episodes to mention, such as “The Zygon Inversion” or “The Witch’s Familiar”, heading straight towards the finale allows us to examine this season in the best light.
The trap that Ashildr led the Doctor into resulted in one of the best episodes of Doctor Who I have ever seen: “Heaven Sent.” “Heaven Sent” is an important episode to examine, because it best expresses the brilliant writing, themes, and characters that the season delivered.
“Heaven Sent” is the darkest episode in Season 9, yet it still presents itself as a Doctor Who story brimming with humor, and just as with the rest of the Season, taking a step back to examine “Heaven Sent” reveals an incredibly tragic story. “Heaven Sent” places the Doctor in a castle, where every second he is pursued by a creature called “the Veil”, and hopelessly searches for a way out. In an episode accompanied by fantastic direction, cinematography, and a great score, the Doctor discovers that he has been attempting to leave the castle for 7,000 years and that, after spending a week or so in hell, he dies after putting a small dent in the exit, only to be reborn and repeat the process again. In the end, the Doctor spends 3.5 billion years trapped in the castle before he finally escapes, finding himself on his home world: Gallifrey.
That alone would constitute a masterpiece, and yet what truly sets “Heaven Sent” apart is that examining it within the context of Season 9, and the series as a whole, reveals a much deeper and personal story. The synopsis is brilliant, but the character of the Doctor is what makes it masterful. “Heaven Sent” gives us more than the Doctor’s charming personality and performance, because at its most basic level it is a story about the Doctor’s best and worst qualities. On one hand, we see his refusal to give in and enduring will to push forward, we see his genius, and we see his loyalty for those he loves. On the other, we see his arrogance, his rejection of mortality, and his uncontrollable rage when faced with loss. These are themes that cannot be found when studying the episode alone: only when taking into account the events that took place before and after can they properly seen.
The Doctor lost Clara in the previous episode “Face the Raven”, and spends the majority of “Heaven Sent” not only trying to escape his own personal hell, but also striving to bring Clara back. It is a motive not revealed until the following episode “Hell Bent”, where the Doctor, after arriving on Gallifrey, saves Clara from her death at the risk of fracturing the fabric of time.
As it turns out, the hybrid was not one person, but two: The Doctor and Clara. Their relationship was unsustainable, as Ashildr puts it the two were “Companions willing to push each other to extremes.” Eventually, Clara would have pushed her luck, and the Doctor would have been unwilling to accept her departure. Given the Doctor’s near-immortal nature, mortality has been a common theme throughout the show. But here, Moffat presented the themes of mortality and friendship in a way that I had not seen before: unchecked loyalty, especially in the face of death, can lead to a disaster.
Season 9 places the Doctor and Clara under a microscope in very clever and entertaining ways. It examines the Doctor-companion relationship, all while presenting fantastic premises and performances. Season 9 was light enough for young audiences, and dark enough to present serious themes for the older viewers, a line which Doctor Who often attempts to walk, but doesn’t always nail.
Putting this all together, Season 9 is my favorite season of Doctor Who yet, and I anxiously await what Moffat and company have in store for us in 2017.