Tuesday, December 8, 2015

TV Review: Doctor Who, Series 9

Another series of Doctor Who rolled to a close on Saturday night, with all the attendant trappings that we have come to expect - rampant speculation as to the future of the show, complaints from people who never liked it but watch anyway, and enouogh spoilers to equip the NASCAR racers for a year.  I understand that there was a happy time, once, when people watched Doctor Who because it was fun family entertainment, but that may just be a myth, or perhaps a story, where a memory once was. It's certainly been an interesting season, where the transistion from the tone of the 11th Doctor to the tone of the 12th has been completed. and we can perhaps get a better idea of what this era is all about.

It's difficult to know where to start when talking about Peter Capaldi's take on the Doctor, at least in part because I'm quite cool on him. He's a terrific presence on-screen, for sure, and for all his moments a sweeping, commanding force, but at the same time that anger lies so close to the surface I found myself missing Matt Smith's goofiness or David Tennant's charm. Its an alien doctor, more a throwback to classic Doctors than perhaps any of the post-2005 ones, and whilst that has its merits, it needs a grounding, humanising prescense to balance it. Which I guess brings us to Clara, and the seasons big arc. 

It seems to me that the big theme of the series is that the Doctor-Companion relationship doesn't always have to be totally positive. The idea expressed right at the end of Hell Bent is that Clara and  the Doctor are actually bad for each other, that their connection and dynamic is ultimately a trap through which chaos naturally falls - and why Missy put them together in the first place, presumably as a way of bringing the Doctor over to her way of thinking. Which is an interesting idea. I'm not sure, however, that the show manages to pull it off for two main reasons. 

The first is that the series spends a lot of time with the two of them apart. It's trying to show that Clara is acting more and more like The Doctor, a path that ultimately gets her killed, so the structure often splits them up, giving them both "Companion of the Week" figures to interact with. This works the best in the dynamite opening, of course - either the best Master- and Davros-based based story since the 70s (or both). But even after that it's a bit of trend; limiting their interactions in such a way that it's only at the end that they try to overtly address the theme. 

The second and more substantive problem is that Doctor Who isn't a great vehicle for this sort of storytelling. By it's nature - by the demands on it from an audience and from distributors - Doctor Who is an episodic show and not a serialised one. After the relaunch in 2005, Russell T Davis borrowed the then-popular US format of semi-serialisation; dropping hints through individual episodes then doing an  "arc" finale, with mixed results in some cases, but it did the job. But the sort of gradual characterisation that this seasons plot requires should be teased out over several episodes in quieter moments that the show doesn't really have the time for, and I wonder if the move to all-two-parters was an attempt to create that. But slowing down to do the character work (which I still don't think lands, see above) means that the show generally lost a bit of pace episode-by-episode. 

Look,  I'm not saying this was a bad series of Doctor Who because it certainly wasn't. I only count one clanger of an episode (Sleep No More) which is good going by it's usual run rate. It's also been the best looking and sounding series I can remember with some fantasically directed episodes, most of which seemed to involve Rachel Talalay, and especially the penultimate episode, Heaven Sent. And it was good to check in with Galifrey again, if all too breifly. Hopefully that's kicking the door open for another visit soon!

So in conclusion, I've found this a technically very proficient series of Doctor Who that has someone failed to totally engage emotionally. I've enjoyed most of the episodes, I've enjoyed the performances, and I've liked that they've aimed for a more mature, thoughtful tone. But at the same time I've found myself missing the odd episode when everyone just runs down corridors, where the monsters are monsters, it's all just a good fun time. That said, River is back for Xmas, so I've got that to look forward to!