Tuesday 8 December 2015

Season’s Musings!

It's hard to believe that Series Nine is over already. The past twelve weeks seem to have flown by! Regular readers will know that I've reviewed each episode individually, but I thought I'd take the time to wrap up the reviews with my overall thoughts on this years contribution to the universe of Who.
Series Nine got off to a flying start with The Magicians Apprentice, and it immediately became clear, even after one episode, that the tone of the show had changed somewhat. Toward the end of Series Eight, I was fairly close to giving up on Doctor Who. Last Christmas succeeded in peaking my interest, and so, with a much more open mind, I gave viewing Series Nine more consideration. And am I glad I did..!
Peter Capaldi has gone from strength to strength, and episodes such as The Zygon Inversion, and Heaven Sent have given us the opportunity to see him flex his acting muscles. And what mighty fine muscles they are! His performance has been consistently strong since he assumed the role of the Doctor, however this series has tested his abilities to the limit. He is an extraordinarily capable actor, passionate and possesses a remarkable ability to portray a vast range of emotions, often without the need for words. Of all the actors to portray the Doctor he is, perhaps, the most visually expressive.
An accusation frequently levelled at Steven Moffat has been his inability to write female and minority roles satisfactorily. This season does much to address that, and whilst there are still issues, such as Clara's sudden bisexuality, great strides have undoubtedly been made. For the first time in the history of the show, a transgendered actress (Bethany Black) was employed, and not, mercifully, as "stunt casting". No reference to her gender or sexuality was made on screen; this was simply an actress (who happened to be transgendered) doing what they do best; acting.
Similarly, it was a positive joy to see an actress with a disability in a prominent role. The casting of deaf actress Sophie Stone as Cass was inspired, and her disability was simply a facet of her character, one which she was able to use to her characters advantage, by lip-reading the ghostly apparitions as they silently mouthed the repeated phrase “the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple". It would have been all too easy to make her deafness much more prominent, which would have detracted from her performance, however, that it remains only one aspect of her character is laudable.
Behind the camera, women have equally been much better represented, with direction from Hettie MacDonald (who, coincidentally, directed my favourite film), and Rachel Talalay, and writing by Sarah Dollard and Catherine Treganna.
Series Nine isn't without faults. My main issue has been one of underuse. From the opening episode, in which the Daleks were woefully underused, the magnificently designed Fisher King, Cloister Wraiths, and above all, the return of Gallifrey which should have been explored considerably more than the final episode managed, have all suffered from a failure to exploit their aspects to their full potential.
Publicity and the ridiculous amount of spoilers put out by the BBC have been a major issue for me. What happened to the element of surprise? I remember, vividly, the impact of seeing the Cybermen appear in Earthshock, way back in the 80's, and the shock of Adric's death. Now, however, almost every aspect, from the return of Gallifrey to the departure of Jenna Coleman has been plastered all over social media, with enough photographs to cover half the damned episodes! Similarly, the later, and continually shifting, timeslot has done little to aid the series.
Perhaps the biggest issue has been the lack of satisfactory resolutions. This is a common failing with Moffat's tenure, and this season is no exception. The explanation (or lack of) for Hybrid is arguably the most disappointing pay-off to a series arc, and the dénouement is somewhat underwhelming. Consequences seem to go unexplored, or unresolved with the interminably dull Sleep No More providing no resolution whatsoever. The constant foreboding of death throughout the season failed to satisfy, with Clara meeting her expected end, only to return two episodes later, discounting her fleeting appearance in Heaven Sent.
Fortunately, the strengths of the season outweigh the weaknesses. Capaldi has proven to be a positive tour de force. His Doctor has developed from a brusque, distant character, into someone who clearly does care, although I suspect he always did. Some of the spikiness and rough edges have been smoothed down, yet he still maintains a playful arrogance and a distinctly alien quality. He seems to channel Doctor’s past with a natural bearing, and one can genuinely sense the echoes of his former lives in his performance.
It is no secret that I haven't been a particularly big fan of Clara Oswald. It is no reflection on Jenna Coleman, who has always performed admirably with the material she has been given to work with. I found the "Impossible Girl" arc, and the continual insistence on sandwiching her into every aspect of the Doctors past, incredibly tiresome and frustrating. It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that her final season has seen my attitude toward her soften considerably. Once all of the complexities of her character, and her tediously dull relationship with Danny Pink are stripped away, she assumes the role of a more traditional companion remarkably well.
It isn't only the cast who have performed admirably. The costume department has surpassed itself this year, from the Viking era apparel, magnificently designed monsters, such as the Fisher King, to the Time Lords, who look positively resplendent. Set design has been magnificent, and direction consistently strong. Perhaps the strongest "behind the scenes" contribution, however, comes from Murray Gold, who has positively excelled himself this season. Despite the insipid, screechy theme tune, the incidental music has been sublime, and the incorporation of Capaldi's guitar playing abilities have worked well. The all too brief rendition of Clara's theme, by Capaldi, was positively beautiful, and worked exceptionally well in the context of the episode. Similarly, the use of The Doctors theme, from Series One, gently incorporated into the season finale was a positive joy to hear.
In terms of episodes, the vast majority have been strong, well written and a pleasure to watch. No series is without the odd clunker however, and, for me, Sleep No More has been this season’s "Love and Monsters". Experimental episodes are interesting; Heaven Sent is, arguably, one off the strongest episodes in a good many years. Conversely, Sleep No More is arguably one of the worst. Regardless of my, or anyone else’s opinion on the merits of the two episodes, one has to admire the decision to break away from traditional structuring.
It has been incredibly pleasing to see two-parters, and their resultant cliff-hangers, make a welcome return to Doctor Who. Standalone episodes, for the most part, work very well, but there is much to be said for a good cliffhanger, which leaves an audience eagerly awaiting the next episode. Similarly, the longer format which results from two part stories allow for a much more detailed exploration of plot, characters and provides a much more immersive experience. Of all the series, since the show returned, this has, I believe, felt more akin to the Classic era than any other.
Above all, Series Nine has made me feel like a Doctor Who fan again. The past few seasons have left me feeling like a casual observer, rather than a fan. I've been highly critical of Moffat, and have been labelled “a hater” on many occasions. Given some of the work he has produced, it is a label which, whilst mildly annoying ,given my opinion should be no less valid than those of his ardent supporters, is one I've been comfortable wearing. This series has redeemed him considerably in my eyes. At the risk of being labelled a “hater” again, I still think he has outstayed his welcome, and that the time has come for a new showrunner, with a fresh approach to the series. Nevertheless, he has acquitted himself reasonably well throughout this season, despite the rather disappointing finale.
Rating each episode shows a significantly higher number of positives than negatives, and I've included them all below. Each one is clickable, and will take you to my review of the relevant episode.
Heaven Sent - 9.5/10
Hell Bent - 4/10
The next blog post will share the thoughts of some of my Twitter followers on Series Nine. If you'd like to contribute, please feel free to let me know, either on Twitter, or in the comments section. I'm looking forward to hearing, and sharing, a variety of opinions on what, I believe, has been one of the finest seasons in some considerable time.
And so there we are. Series 9 dissected, wrapped up and reviewed. Christmas, here we come!

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