Series 9 of Doctor Who is one of its finest. It is ambitious in its scale, has some terrific stories, and the Twelfth Doctor is both in his element and at his peak. Additionally, the Doctor-Companion relationship hasn’t been this consistently good since Series 4, the big questions asked are answered, and characters grow and evolve naturally across the series. There is just so much to take in, and a lot to enjoy, starting on a massive high and finishing with a satisfying twist as well. We’re going to dissect the series and try to get across why it was so exceptional and memorable, but before that we need the set up.
By the end of Series 8, a lot of the dangling questions had been answered. Missy was outed as the Master, the Nethersphere mystery had come to a conclusion, and the Danny Pink plot had come to an end also. A definitive answer to the question, “Am I a good man?” was never reached, but by the end of the season, or at the very latest by early in Series 8, we know him to be good. So with all of that in mind, we have something of a clean slate for Series 9, as the Doctor is coming to an end of his age of darkness, and Clara is back on board and ready to travel. Missy, however, is still out there...
Regarding any changes and developments from Series 8 as we move into Series 9, personnel at least remain the same. There are guest stars across the series that add to its significance, but it very much centres on the Doctor-Clara team, as they come to rely on each other more and more. Perhaps having an established duo at the heart of the show from the start of a series, and seemingly for the whole series, lends itself to giving us a strong collection of episodes.
The big changes really come in the structure of the stories, as the season is dominated with two-part stories. The days of double episodes appeared to be over from about Series 6 onward, but they make a big comeback here. The first eight episodes are four double-stories, and arguably the series finishes with a loosely linked three-parter. Before we dive into the stories, Series 9 like all others features a story arc and some common threads. For this year, the primary concept is The Hybrid. It is alluded to with subtlety throughout, coming to a climax in the series finale.
Before we get into the episodes, for those of you reading these reviews for the first time, they are being written in light of our upcoming Doctor Who tour of Cardiff filming locations. The Welsh capital has served as the backdrop to most of the new stories filmed this century, be it in studios in Cardiff Bay or around the city’s streets and buildings, and a tour of those locations will become a reality later this year, once tours are possible again, of course. Series 9 is no exception, especially in, for example, ‘The Woman Who Lived’ (St. Fagans Museum), ‘Canal Park’ ('The Zygon Invasion and Inversion'), and ‘Face the Raven’ (Basically all of Cardiff city centre). In the meantime, consider these reviews a light introduction into what may or may not feature on those tours in the future, and a fun look back on the individual series’ as well to get us through lockdown.
With the set up and changes all noted, it’s time to dive into the stories. With ‘Last Christmas’ more of a Series 8 conclusion than a Series 9 opening, we can just dive straight into the double-headers...
‘The Magician's Apprentice’ gets the series off to a flying start. Things feel a little bit different already as the Doctor encounters a young Davros in a war zone, Missy is involved immediately, and Clara quotes Dylan Thomas to her in a Spanish plaza. Even UNIT are involved in the action from the start. As Missy has the last will and testament of the Doctor, she and Clara search for him and find the Doctor in an Essex castle in 1138 playing electric guitar. Once Clara and Missy find the Doctor, an agent of Davros takes the three of them to a hospital space station. The space station is really Skaro. Clara and Missy are captured by the Daleks, who ‘kill’ them both and The Doctor returns to the battlefield to do something to Davros...
‘The Witch's Familiar’ finds Clara and Missy alive. They travel the sewers in order to get back to the Doctor, with Clara hidden inside a Dalek. Meanwhile the Doctor uses regeneration energy to power Davros' life support, feeling sorry for him. This turns out to be a trap, and begins draining the Doctor to regenerate Davros and all the Daleks. Missy saves the Doctor, but the Daleks are restored anyway. The highlight of the episode is the stand off between Clara’s Dalek and the Doctor. The connection with ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ made it possible to think she might be left behind. Finally, the Doctor returns to the battlefield, where he does not kill Davros, but sets him free from danger.
A great way to start a season. Basically like 'The Impossible Astronaut'/'Day of the Moon' from Series 5 but it actually made sense. It was full of beautiful visuals, tension, action and uncertainty, while there were hints towards the Doctor finally starting to lighten up a little bit.
‘Under The Lake’ is set inside an underwater base in a flooded Scottish town 100 years into the future. A commander of the team on the base has been killed upon the discovery of an alien ship, and seemingly turned into a ghost. The Doctor thinks the signal the ghosts are transmitting is coming from a church in the village, so decides to go back in time to figure out what the church was. Clara then sees the Doctor back in 2119 as a ghost in the water...
‘Before The Flood’ is where that set up gets a little bit complicated. The Doctor discovers the leader of the ‘ghosts’ is the Fisher King, and figures out that the King’s intention is to send out a signal to the universe to call in the armada. However, the doctor’s ghost tells the base team in the future the order in which they die. Essentially by changing the ‘signal’ or the message of the supposed ghosts in 2119 to something innocuous, the Doctor manages to reduce their signal to meaningless. So, as a result he uses the Bootstrap Paradox that he explained to us in the guitar-strandling pre-credits scene.
Again, another engrossing two-parter. A bit more complex and a little slower than the opening one, but one that offered something new, some interesting side-characters and a thinker of a conclusion.
‘The Girl Who Died’ brings the Vikings to NuWho for the first time, portrayed in a potentially more realistic and less glamorous manner than we are used to. Also, amusing for once for our heroes to actually be captured on arrival rather than just being accepted by the locals so easily. The Mire are taking the Vikings for their adrenaline and energy, but Ashildr declares war, played by Maisie Williams in a season-long cameo. She dies though, and Doctor uses a Mire medical chip to bring Ashildr back to life, which makes her immortal, Captain Jack style. It is during Ashildr’s death that the Doctor finally realises that he has Caecilius’ face from ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ in Series 4, and thinks this is a sign/reminder that people can be saved. He refers to Ashildr as a "hybrid", thinking she is what Davros was referring to.
‘The Woman Who Lived’ brings a future Ashildr, who is now known as Me, back into the story already, albeit in 1651 England this time. She is a thief, on the trail of Lucie in order to satisfy her alien friend, Leandro, so that she can travel with him in space. She even kills someone to make that happen, but it’s all a ruse as Leandro plans to open a portal to allow invaders of Earth to come through. She reverses the death of Sam Swift using her second helmet chip from the previous episode, which closes the portal and saves the planet. Me swears to look after those that the Doctor leaves behind and the story closes with Me in the back of a photo of Clara in the school yard back in the present day.
Probably the weakest of the opening three stories/two-parters, although it is also the least double-epsiode style of all of them, because they are just two stories that happen to have a couple of the same characters. That is therefore also the problem. These two stories didn’t need to be back to back, and could have been separated by a few episodes. When was the last time we had a guest-star, or any new temporary character, go through so much development in such a short space of time. As interesting a character as Me is, a lot happened for her, for us, in too short a space of time.
‘The Zygon Invasion’ is next up, which sees a return of the Zygons from ‘The Day of the Doctor’, and the return of Kate Stewart and the two Patronella Osgoods in prominent roles. Zygon splinter groups emerge around the world from the 20 million of them on Earth following the death of one of the Osgoods. One of the Zygons is Clara, or Bonnie who has Clara’s body. Bonnie even shoots at a plane that the Doctor and Osgood are on, while Kate is captured in New Mexico by the splinter group in the US.
‘The Zygon Inversion’ of course, sees our heroes overcome all of the obstacles thrown out them in ‘Invasion’ and return things to how they once were. Getting there is a little trickier though. Firstly, the Doctor and Osgood didn’t die in the plane explosion, having escaped with parachutes, while Stewart also finds her way back to England, and Bonnie locates the Osgood Box, that will return all the Zygons to their original state rather than just being hidden among the population. The boxes are a bit more complicated than expected, as there are two; one which would either unmask the Zygons or make their human forms permanent, and the other which would destroy either every Zygon or everyone in London. The Twelfth Doctor gives one of his most iconic speeches and convinces everyone to maintain the status quo, even though the boxes are ineffective anyway. Bonnie becomes a second Osgood, the Doctor thinks that maybe she is The Hybrid, and life goes on.
Another high point of the season, especially for Clara/Jenna Coleman, who is totally convincing as the evil Bonnie. Beyond that the settings are fantastic, especially in ‘Invasion’, Osgood is always a great addition to the show when she’s called back in, and Peter Capaldi is in his element for the big finale. A story that adds to the overall arc and maintains the strenght of the series.
‘Sleep No More’ is the only real, 100%, standalone story in the entire series. The Doctor and Clara arrive on a ship, upon which sleep pods are reducing the amount of time that people need to sleep, but at the same time are also using something from their eyes to create ‘Sandmen’. Seemingly the main man on the ship, Rassmussen, is revealed to be a Sandman himself, who orchestrated the events to use footage collated from people's vision to create a video that people would watch to transmit the signal across the solar system to create more Sandmen. The episode is filmed as camera-held footage, which is a little unsettling, and hard to enjoy as a result. It’s as if they tried it, it was a filler episode anyway, it didn’t quite work but at least it was something different, and in the end it doesn’t matter anyway because we have a big finale on the way.
‘Face The Raven’ has a lot of highs and intrigue. It brings back Rigsy, from ‘Flatline’, who has a countdown on his neck, symbolising his death, apparently as he is believed to have killed someone on the mysterious, hidden, Trap St. It is also one of the most Cardiff heavy episodes of all time. Perhaps only ‘Boom Town’ from Series 1 is more consistently Cardiff, although this may have more locations, albeit in a shorter time. Above all else, Clara also dies! Even though it was real it seemed hard to believe, surely it is two episodes too soon....but why did she die? Clara took the neck-counter from Rigsy, believing that Me, the Mayor of Trap St, wouldn’t possibly kill her. That wasn’t part of the deal though, and she had to ‘face the raven’ of death, even though he was innocent anyway.
‘Heaven Sent’ is one of the most iconic episodes in Who history, with only really one character, the Doctor, in one location, and filmed mostly in just two places, Cardiff and Caerphilly Castles. Within which, he is being followed by a mysterious creature with intentions to torture him. After over 7,000 years trapped within the castle, numerous forms of the Doctor eventually beat their way through a crystal wall, getting through what is his confessional dial, and he ends up back on Gallifrey.
In ‘Hell Bent’, the Doctor usurps Lord President Rassilon. Now the new President, he learns that Rassilon imprisoned him in the dial to force him to confess about the Hybrid, which is prophesied by the Time Lords to unravel the Web of Time. Clara is retrieved from her timeline immediately prior to her death so they can discuss what the Hybrid is all about. They come to the conclusion that together, the Doctor and Clara are the Hybrid. As a result, the Doctor wants to erase himself from her memory to keep her safe from the Time Lords, but the process is reversed and he forgets about her, in what is the big surprise twist. Clara, with Me, goes back to her timeline in order to die as she originally did.
A loose trilogy of a story, with massive consequences. Part One establishes Clara's death, Me's presence in the modern world, and the Doctor's grief. Part Two then follows his grief . Finally, Part Three brings what happened across the first two parts to a conclusion, says goodbye to Clara and Me, explains the Hybrid and ends with the Doctor back to 'normal', albeit with a customary season-finale twist.
‘The Husbands of River Song’ is the end of year special, coming only about three weeks after ‘Hell Bent’, on Christmas Day 2015. It’s a decent special as these things go, mainly because of its nice ending. The Doctor is on a Christmassy planet, at the same time that River is looking for an actual Doctor. Absurd slapstick comedy ensues, as there is surely just no way that she wouldn’t realise that the Doctor is the Doctor, at least for as long as the joke continued. Following a sequence of events, regarding River’s personality and her ‘husbands’, the Doctor starts to see a different side of her life while he is not around. Ultimately, the general story is fairly insignificant as it is all about the climax, and the long mooted final date, the span of a night on Darillium overlooking the singing towers, first mentioned in the ‘Library’ double-header from Series 4.
Firstly, just to reiterate, this was a great series. It was the best since Series 4, easily, and the most consistent and enjoyable performance by a Doctor since Series 1, arguably. The stories were almost universally strong, and there are some that might be high on people’s all time list, such as the opening Davros two-parter and ‘Heaven Sent’. It feels like it has been a while since we have consistently had such strong episodes. A lot of that may be down to the scaling back of themes and arcs in this series. The Hybrid is essentially the only series long plot device. On top of that, if we want to focus on any other common threads, it’s safe to assume that we knew that this would be Clara’s last series, and of course, Ashildr/Me, came and went across the series too, so we needed satisfactory conclusions to both of those stories. Missy was even put to one side following the opening story, which left us free to focus on the fun-filled adventures of the Doctor from there, without any Daleks or Cybermen, in some new and fantastical scenarios, with a lighter touch and a tighter bond between the Doctor and Clara. So with all of that considered, it was a strong set up for the series, with just one question to answer, and one major character arc to bring to a close in Clara.
All of that allowed this series to shine, both with its stories, that all contributed to the finale, and with its characters, who all had room to breathe and were developed strongly. That was so, due to there being less characters to spend time with, and with there being more longer, two-part, stories.
Speaking of characters, this was Capaldi’s time to shine. He was already outstanding in Series 8 anyway, he just had a more downbeat Doctor to work with. From the get-go in Series 9, it’s as if the Doctor has had a personality transplant, and he’s suddenly more fun, funnier and more energetic, and has a much tighter relationship with Clara now. He essentially brought aspects of himself into the character, and the Doctor is now more of a reflection of him and how he envisages the character. We can’t ignore the acting either. This series, more than either of his others, is the one that defines his Doctor. The performances with Davros, with Bonnie, in ‘Heaven Sent’, for example, will live long in the memory, especially in the latter, as he carried the episode on his own. Arguably no other Doctor could be watchable for 45 minutes straight without any support characters.
The Doctor’s relationship with Clara was also a highlight of the series, and was a real positive outlet for the Doctor and Capaldi to relax into the role. Basically, you can tell that they’re mates in real life and if we were spending a lot of time with just the two of them this year, then it was totally fine, as they are a joy to be around.
Speaking of Clara, her departure was interesting to say the least. She has been the longest serving companion of NuWho, and first appeared three full series ago. Whether you like her or not, her death was going to be a scrutinised moment. As a result, it happens a little too fast, and in such a manner that was anticlimactic. It didn’t seem like a grand enough stage for her death really, but perhaps that just adds to the surprise of this series. Of course, because her death is so sudden, coming a couple of episodes earlier than the average viewer would expect, surely she would have a role to play in the finale, and that proves to be the case. She gets to perform one final twist, saving the Doctor one last time in a sense. In the Series 8 review, it was mused that she may be a Time Lady herself in some form, especially following her role in ‘Flatline’, and ultimately that was not far from the truth, as she comes to make up half of The Hybrid.
And, of course, we had a decent conclusion to the overarching thread of the series as well. Therefore, taking into account ‘The Husbands of River Song’, Series 9 has really left us in a pretty nice place. We have an amazing Doctor still, but otherwise most of his story lines have been concluded, particularly Clara and River. So going into Series 10, we don’t know where we are going next, and perhaps the only story that needs some concluding is that of Missy. But going ahead, who will be the next companion, where will the show be set, and how will the Twelfth Doctor’s story eventually end?
For now though, we assuredly know for certain, that he is a good man.
Best Episode - 'The Magicians's Apprentice'
Just a spectacular opening to the series, as described above. The Doctor seems refreshed, energetic, the supporting actors are on top form, and the drama and the settings are spectacular. A sign of the great things to come.
Worst Episode - ‘Sleep No More’
This is not necessarily bad, just not as good as everything else. The worst episode in a great series it may be, but it did try something different at least.
Best Character - The Doctor
Choosing the Doctor in this category feels like a cop out sometimes, as if it reflects badly on the rest of the series. Thankfully, over the last nine weeks of reviews, this is only the second time, and first time since Series 1, that the Doctor has been chosen.
Favourite Moment - Clara the Dalek, The Witch's Familiar
This was just a moment of great drama and tension. It really felt like it could be the end of Clara for a moment.
Best Villain - Bonnie, 'The Zygon Invasion & Inversion'
Speaking of Clara, or rather Bonnie, the Zygon stories really allowed Jenna Coleman to do something a little different. It wasn’t a series with too many villains compared to other years, but Bonnie was one that stood out.
Favourite Guest Star - Maisie Williams
This was a series with not many guest stars, but a series with one reappearing guest star. More famous for Game of Thrones, Maisie Williams was a welcome addition to the series mostly. Her character was interesting, she was developed well across the year, and Me reached a satisfying conclusion.
Best Welsh Reference: Dylan Thomas, 'The Magician’s Apprentice'
Clara and Missy are sitting in the town square early in the opening episode. Clara learns from Missy where the Doctor is, and says the Welsh poet’s most famous line.."Do not go gentle into that good night".
Obviously Cardiff/Wales Location- The Hayes, 'Face the Raven'
As described in the episode summary, Cardiff makes an absurdly prominent appearance in ‘Face the Raven’. The Doctor, Clara and Rigsy stand on The Hayes in Cardiff as they prepare to find Trap St. The camera pans up from behind the John Batchelor statue and you can see the length of Cardiff’s most central street down towards the Central Library. Anyone who has been to Cardiff once should instantly recognise it. Coincidentally it is also where our free walking tours of Cardiff start from.
Location Not So Obviously Cardiff - St. Fagans, ‘The Woman Who Lived’
A little more subtle this time. The Doctor and Me are in a sixteenth century pub having a chat, which just happens to be part of St. Fagans National Museum of History. The name of the pub in the episode is the nicely named, Ye Swan With Two Necks (pictured above in the episode summary).
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