The Series (4/5)
Steven Moffat has been at the helm of Doctor Who for 5 full series of the show as of this writing (April 2016). Taking over from previous showrunner Russell T. Davies in 2005 he originally felt like a breath of fresh air. Doctor Who is a show that keeps fresh by constantly changing, and in the series original run the show died after it had stayed in the same cycle for far too long (During the Eighties under the reign of John-Nathan Turner). Over the years I've begun to feel that Mr. Moffat, has stayed on too long, and has worn out his welcome as his narrative bag of tricks for the show began to wear out a number of years ago (Series 7 was the worst of his run in my opinion), but at the same time he was always willing to experiment with Doctor Who as a form, and try certain new things to keep the show fresh.
In Series 8, his introduction of Peter Capaldi as a new Doctor and a much darker tone than the prior few seasons made things more interesting than the season just prior. In Series 9 he has gone and done something akin to traditional Doctor Who, and made almost every episode in the run a 2 part serialized adventure. For those not in the know, Doctor Who from 1963-1989 was broadcast in an episodic serialized format. That means that a series of episodes were used to tell a story. The standard amount of episodes was on average 4, but the range was from 2-7 and in the Troughton era got as high as 10 (The War Games).
During the ninth series, there was a single direct stand alone, Sleep No More, and a prequel to a 2 parter (Face the Raven acts as a prequel to Heaven Sent and Hell Bent). So mostly we were treated to series where stories 90 minutes or longer in length, this allowed the standard story from this season to have room to fully expand on it’s narrative, and not rush to a conclusion as has been the case in prior series.
The Complete Ninth Series Blu-ray box set actually opens with the prior year’s Christmas Special Last Christmas, which we have reviewed prior. However, I will say that as far as Christmas episodes go, it is a triumph. The episode leans less on the holiday as a crutch as in prior years, and tells a sufficiently scary story that is highly inspired by John Carpenter's version of the Thing.
The true beginning of the series is a Dalek two-parter The Magician's Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar. This series of episodes begins in what I believe to be Skaro in ancient wartime. A young child appears frightened on a battlefield, and ends up trapped in a field of "hand mines" that threaten to pull him under the ground and to his death if he moves. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) appears on the scene in time to rescue him. As it turns out, this young boy, is Davros, one of the Doctors greatest enemies in child form. Thus posing the age old question if you knew a child would grow up to be a mass murderer would you kill him when he was young?
The episode that ends up in our present with The Missy (aka the Master) freezing airplanes in flight, and causing a general ruckus in order to find the Doctor with the assistance of UNIT. As it turns out she is in possession of the Doctor's confession dial, essentially the last will of a time lord, and something that only is revealed when a time lord thinks it is about to die. Clara and Missy end up tracking down the Doctor to medieval England. However, upon arrival it becomes apparent that they were followed, and the trio end up captured by Colony Sarff, Davro's assistant, and taken to Skaro. Missy and Clara are put in a cell, but the Doctor is taken to Davros, who remembers the childhood rescue that is now on his timeline. He is also dying, and in his last days, and is looking for a way to survive with the help of his enemy the Doctor.
These first 2 episodes were a great way to start series 9. They were both a great way to reintroduce Davros to the series, and add new dimensions of evil to his character. Capaldi has really come further along into his role since last season showing an immediate confidence that is absolutely contagious, and Michelle Rodriguez as Missy is an absolute delight. I have disliked Jenna Louise Coleman's Clara since the beginning of her run, but starting with Last Christmas the character began to grow on me, and continues to do so here, and throughout the series.
The second two episodes of the series Under the Lake and Before the Flood can be considered the "horror" episodes of the series. In Under the Lake the Doctor and Clara find themselves in an underwater base under a Scottish lake about 100 years in the future. The base is ransacked and the crew are hiding out in a faraday cage during the night. During that time, eyeless ghosts including a ghost of a recently dead crew member haunt the base, and attempt to kill the remaining crew, while also attempting to signal others from the outside to join them. This all seems to be attributed to a spaceship the crew found with ancient writing inscribed in it. The episode Before the Flood sees the Doctor and 2 members of the crew leaving the base, and traveling back in time to 1980 to the town before it was flooded into a lake. When they arrive they find the spaceship, before the writing has been inscribed to it, and one of the ghost before he died. They begin to investigate what caused the ghostly presence in the future, and the flood that created the lake.
The first episode of the series is a highly suspenseful and creepy episode. It takes place in one location, and offers a highly claustrophobic atmosphere. Offered alone, it is probably one of the best episode of the Ninth Series. The creature design of the ghosts are highly effective. While Before the Flood is a solid Who episode in and of itself, it sort of feels like a standard episode of Doctor Who in it's current run. Not enough happens to justify it's running time, and it overly explains the horror of the first part of the story. The creature design of the Fisher King, who ends up being the overall villain of the piece is quite solid, and I do admit I like when the show plays with time in ways like how they use the bootstrap paradox here.
The next episodes don't exactly serialize to tell one story, but rather follow one character across multiple time periods, in this case Ashildr played by Game of Throne's Maisie Williams. The Girl Who Died follows the Doctor and Clara into Northern Europe and into the Viking era where they are captured by a group of Vikings. This group of Vikings has been tricked into worshipping an entity they believe to be their God Odin. However, one day their greatest warriors alongside Clara and Ashildr are taken into the sky by Odin, and it is revealed that they are actually part of a warlike alien race called the Mire, that use the healthy Vikings energy as a food source. They destroy, the groups greatest warriors, and as she watches on in horror Ashildr declares war on them. Clara and Ashildr are sent back to the Viking’s village, but with no warriors left they have to come up with an alternate strategy to defeat them in battle. With the Doctor’s help and some of the Mire’s own technology they find a way to outsmart them, however, in the conflict Ashildr dies. Going against his Time Lord’s moral sense he uses some altered Mire technology, the Doctor brings Ashildr back to life as an immortal.
The Woman Who Lived picks up centuries later in 1600's England. Ashildr has experienced so much of life on Earth, and has grown bored and frustrated with life having seen it all. She wants to leave the planet, and when the Doctor arrives she thinks it is her opportunity, but he declines. However, she has been working on a backup plan with an alien she has met in her travels. All she needs to do is activate an amulet to open a portal, and to do so needs to power it with the death of an individual. She chooses an outlaw who is to be executed as the person whose life force will power the amulet and allow her escape, but not everything is as easy as is to be believed.
These 2 episodes are solid breezy affairs. They are fun and engaging, and Maisie Williams plays both a great Doctor Who protagonist and a similarly excellent villain. Seeing Doctor Who and the Vikings is also quite a treat, alien designs here are interesting, but not formula breaking. Overall the pair are quite enjoyable, and definitely rewatchable.
The Zygons were introduced in the first serial of Doctor Who's 13th series. It was the 2nd year of Tom Baker's run. It was a magnificent series of episodes with an excellent story, and the Zygons made quite an impact themselves making them one of the most memorable creatures never to make a return appearance on the show after their initial offering. That is until they appeared on the 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor though quite briefly. Now the Ninth Series gives them a two-parter that welcomes them back to the show in style.
During the Day of the Doctor, the Zygons prepared to take over the Earth (it's sort of what they do). The 3 Doctors present during the situation would not allow it, and rather made UNIT and the Zygon representatives put together a treaty to share the Earth with the Zygons. They did this, by making everyone in the room not realize who was what race at the time the treaty was crafted (each person in the room was a double of a UNIT member). As the Zygon Invasion begins we find out through Osgood and her Zygon Twin (we don't know which is which), that the treaty has been broken, theoretically through a renegade faction of Zygons that want to invade and conquer the Earth for themselves. The episode follows The Doctor, Clara, UNIT, and various factions of Zygons as they try to figure out who is behind the conspiracy, and how to re-engage the peace treaty and stop the conflict
The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion is Doctor Who at its finest. It is 2 episodes of television that is deeply compelling, suspenseful, and entirely well performed by it's cast. It takes everyone from Doctor Who's London locales to New Mexico, and back. At times it channels the power of 70's conspiracy thrillers like 3 Days of the Condor, Klute, and All the President's Men in it's paranoid atmosphere. The episode concludes with a moment that could be considered Peter Capaldi’s high point as the Doctor, and he may not ever surpass this moment. It also maybe the finest acted moment of Doctor Who since Tom Baker’s “Do I have the right” speech in Genesis of the Daleks.
Following on from the Zygon episodes is Sleep No More, which I'll admit is Doctor Who at it's most experimental. I'll preface this by saying I downright loathe found footage films, not because I can't see their worth as far as expressing a certain type of cinematic visual style, but mostly because they have gone beyond their initial worth, and sort of just feel cheap, and also because I can't watch them without a large dose of Dramamine, which was the case with this episode. Sleep No More aside from being the only ever Found Footage episode of Doctor Who ever aired, also marks the first episode of the show ever aired without title sequence. The episode takes place on a spaceship where most of the crew has died 24 hours before. The Doctor, Clara, and a newly arrived crew investigate the ship for the reason why.
The episode is solid, and offers some a few decent scares, and I can honestly see why they went the found footage route, and and it's actually built into the story. Overall the episode felt more like a stylistic exercise than something fully necessary, and was the overall low point in the series for me as a viewer and a reviewer.
The final 3 episodes of the series proper constitute one full story arc, however, as mentioned earlier in the review the next episode Face the Raven acts as sort of a prequel for the 2 that come directly after it. Face the Raven begins when a friend of The Doctor and Clara's named Rigsy calls freaking out over an interactive tattoo that has appeared on the back of his neck. It has a series of numbers that appear to be counting down. The Doctor determine it is a chronolock, and at its conclusion Rigsy will die. The Doctor, Clara, and Rigsy, begin to investigate where he may have received it, and discover a hidden alleyway (think Harry Potter's Diagon Alley) where a community of misfit aliens have taken up as their home lead by the girl formerly known as Ashildr.
According to them Rigsy committed an act of murder against one of their own, and this is his punishment for the crime. Of course, the Doctor and Clara do not believe it, and attempt to get to the bottom of what actually happen. However, as the true circumstances are revealed tragedy strikes, and as the episode concludes the Doctor disappears.
In the next episode Heaven Sent he reappears in a castle that is constantly reforming itself. While in the castle he finds himself at the mercy of a murderous robot that will kill him him unless he confesses a truth to him. At the same time one room has a wall made of an exceptionally strong, thick material that he begins to dig this way through, unfortunately his constant death and resurrection make it difficult for him to make progress on the wall. As the episode concludes he finally breaks through the wall after many deaths and 4 Billion years of digging, and finds himself in Gallifrey, his home world. and he is angry.
In Hell Bent, the Doctor is convinced that the Time Lords are to be blame for the tragedy from Face the Raven and is out for revenge. At the same time Rasillon attempts to imprison, and execute the Doctor, however the militia of the Time Lords refuses to obey his commands seeing the Doctor as a hero of the Time War, and an overall hero of their planet. The Doctor then goes about sneaking around Gallifrey in an attempt to undo the tragedy that has been done.
These 3 episodes constitute a stellar conclusion to an amazing series. Face the Raven has some excellent neo-gothic trappings that make for some excellent chilly night time viewing. It isn't a horror episode, but it has solid atmospherics that would easily lend it favor to fans of the genre. Because of the chronolock on Rigsy their is a certain element of suspense as time counts down, and the reintroduction of Ashildr is solid, and she plays a well balanced villain role here.
Heaven Sent is another absolute high point of the series. It is filled with wonderfully dark visuals, a singularly powerful performance by Peter Capaldi, excellent atmospherics, and a good deal of twist, turns, and suspense. While I do admit Hell Bent is a bit of a step down, it's interesting to see the Doctor back on Gallifrey, and back in conflict with the Time Lords as he was in days past. I will admit the overall ending of Clara's story arc (no spoilers here) was both a tad too silly and convenient, but also charming.
The final episode in this series run is The Husbands of River Song which is the 2015 Christmas special. I guess after years of putting the Christmas Special on alternating box sets, they figured putting 2 on one set, and getting a clean slate going with the next would be a solid idea. This episode sees the Doctor appear on River Song's time line again during an unconventional diamond heist. However, he is much older, and in a new regeneration that she has yet to meet River concludes that the Doctor is dead, and doesn’t recognize the man in front of her as the Doctor. The episode pays fan service in a way that properly concludes the story line for River in a way that has been expected for quite some time. There will be fans crying at the conclusion of this one.
For years Doctor Who seemed to get better and better. I thought Series 5 was the best series of the show after it's revival, then 6 was better, 7 I thought stopped that progression, but then Series 8 even with it's occasional weak spot brought in Peter Capaldi as a Doctor that felt truly Doctor-like, and that made even the worst episodes watchable. Series 9, however, now on rewatch is the absolute pinnacle for Doctor Who post-revival in my eyes. The two part stories really allow the show to really dig deep into it's narratives instead of rushing through things. Also, the performances from Capaldi, and Coleman have never been better than they are here. Peter Capaldi, I will go on record as stating is my favorite Doctor since the series returned, and he just keeps getting better in the role. Jenna without the Impossible Girl schtick of Series 7 or the Danny Pink relationship of Series 8 to drag her down ends up being quite a dynamic character here, and before she goes really manages to make quite an impact.
It has recently been announced that Steven Moffat will be leaving after Series 10, and I certainly hope he brings the same energy to Series 10 as he did to Series 9, as this was quite an excellent series of episodes.
Doctor Who: The Complete Ninth Series is presented by the BBC series in a spectacular series of 1:78:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer preserving the shows original broadcast aspect ratio. The Doctor Who Blu-ray sets seem to get better by each year, and this one is no different. Colors here are well reproduced, bright where they need to be, natural and toned down in other places. Detail all around is excelent from facial detail in close ups to minor detail in the background. Flesh tones for the characters are accurate, and black levels are inky and deep.
The audio is similarly excellent. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track truly packs a punch, with dialogue, and ambient effects coming through nicely with an excellent separation of sound, and Murray Gold's score coming through very loud and clear.
The Blu-ray release of Doctor Who: The Complete Ninth Series is packed with quite a solid slate of extras. The Blu-ray has multiple commentary tracks, a prologue to the series, deleted scenes, interviews, featurettes, comic con panels, and so much more sure to please any fan of the show.
Peter Capaldi's run on Doctor Who just seems to be getting better and better. The Blu-ray of the Ninth Series looks and sounds astounding. If all you have seen is cable airings or streaming episodes you owe it to yourself to pick up the Blu-ray to see these episodes with the best possible quality with an excellent slate of extra features. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.