The second half of series 10 of Doctor Who was in many ways an absolute joy to behold, but in other ways it was incredibly frustrating.
To recap, we had ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ and ‘The Lie of the Land’ as the second and third part of the ‘Monks trilogy’, which feature a mysterious and novel alien threat which when they previously appeared in ‘Extremis’ seemed to have a new level of power that the Doctor should reasonably be scared of. Entering this half of the series, the Doctor was still blind from the fifth episode of the series, ‘Oxygen’, and it was forming into a nice and previously unexplored arc for both the character and the series. Following the trilogy there was ‘The Empress of Mars’, feeling the 1970s Mars-dwelling aliens, the Ice Warriors, and ‘The Eaters of Light’, a semi-historical episode set in Rome. These took place before the grand two-part finale, ‘World Enough and Time’ and ‘The Doctor Falls’ which saw the Doctor test his old frenemy, Missy, as to whether or not she was genuinely seeking to redeem herself, reintroduced John Simm as one of Missy’s previous incarnations, and provided an origin story for the Cyberman, reintroducing the original design from 1966. Oh, and the First Doctor turned up at the end.
It’s a little bit difficult to evalute the success of this series. Steven Moffat, Doctor Who’s outgoing showrunner, marketed the series as a ‘soft reboot’ which would help indoctrinate a new audience. In that respect, it was a bit poor for the second half of the series. While a new audience may have been able to both understand and enjoy the episodes, a lot of it was very continuity-heavy and the real payoffs were for the long-term fans.
Multiple articles are probably needed for a full evaluation of these six episodes so rather than go episode-by- episode, I’ll discuss just a few points. Firstly, the characters in this series have been top class. Secondly, the series may be repeating itself in some ways but it is using this in a good way. Thirdly, the series’ biggest problem is that it has not been devised in a coherent way and required more redrafts and attention. Finally, the series really let itself down in spoiling the finale.
In the first instance, I went into this series thinking we’d get a Doctor who’d forgotten Clara, a companion he was obsessed with, and risked playing up the tropes of his initial stories; Bill who didn’t obviously stand out from the others; Nardole, who had failed to impress in his previous appearances; and Missy who, while constantly delightful, probably wouldn’t appear until the finale. I was wrong on all four counts it seems. The Doctor is a tour de force when he is at his most passionate and riled, and we got to see this throughout the latter half of the series when he was motivated to reconcile with Missy and in trying to come to terms with both dealing with Bill in the Monks trilogy and in trying to save her in the finale. When he explains that he does what he does out of kindness to both Gomez’ Missy and Simm’s Master in the finale, it is heartbreaking to watch and stands head-and- shoulders above other speeches the Doctor gives throughout all series. Bill echoes Donna in many ways as being a companion who does what she does because she wants to, rather than out of a particular attraction to the Doctor himself or because it was some form of ‘destiny’. In that respect she unknowingly is quite similar to the Doctor in doing what she does ‘because it’s right’. Matt Lucas’ turn as Nardole rightfully gave a lot of fans cause for concern, but he has been praiseworthy both in his comic relief and his dramatic scenes and he has opened the scope of the show in a way that has mitigated the damage done by the Doctor’s narrow relationships with Amy, Rory and Clara. Then finally, Missy, who has been seeded throughout the latter half of the series in a series of cameos before her centre stage in the finale, has been pivotal in helping the audience see that the Doctor is flawed. He loves his friend, his oldest friend. But she has taken a path that is morally unacceptable and while she is in his life, as she has been in 46 of the show’s 54 years, he has yet to effectively realign her with his morality, try as he might. Add to that that Gomez provides charisma, wit and pathos, and you have the perfect secondary character for the series.
For better or worse, it’s been for the fans.
Before I explain my second point, I should say that I’ve been effectively a Doctor Who obsessive for over a decade now. As well as exploring the Doctor Who encyclopedias, I also pay attention to what episodes might look like structurally and on what themes each episode tries to explore.
It’s hard, then, for me to watch ‘The Lie of the Land’ and not get instantly reminded of ‘The Last of the Time Lords’ where a companion having been separated from the Doctor does all she can to reunite and ultimately uses love to save the day. While many fans have compared ‘The Doctor Falls’ to ‘The Time of the Doctor’, I think it is much more similar to Christopher Eccleston’s finale ‘The Parting of the Ways’ in that the Doctor faces a single iconic threat, accepts his fate and the story itself is able to explore more than just the
Doctor but also his allies and their inevitable fate. It works well though, because our heroes are seen in similar situations but we get to see how they’re handled differently. While Martha was able to rally the human race against the Master in the Doctor’s favour in 2007, Bill in 2017 was so committed to what the Doctor was that she was willing to shoot the Doctor himself to uphold his philosophy. Though the Ninth Doctor evacuated his companion and fought along others to try to defeat the Daleks at all costs, the Twelfth Doctor now seeks to evacuate as many innocents as possible and accept his companion’s determination to fight with him to the last. The paralells invite greater observation of the differences and whether or not Moffat intends it, it plays to the episodes’ advantage.
I’ll try not to dwell on my third point too long, but when thinking about it, it’s quite obvious. A lot of the scenes prior to the finale seem a little sellotaped together, for want of a better metaphor. The scenes with Missy could have easily been in entirely different production blocks than the rest of each episode, the Monks appear to have been retroactively fitted into ‘Extremis’ and are much less threatening than their initial appearance, ‘The Lie of the Land’ is three 15-minute episodes within itself. It’s a shame, because had their been several more drafts the stories would have flowed much better. In fact, were it not for the Missy scenes tacked on at the end, ‘The Empress of Mars’ and ‘The Eaters of Light’ thematically fitted in much smoother in the first half of the series.
Finally, the spoilers. Some context is probably needed here. I genuinely think that series 9 was the best series of the show since it returned. It provided strong stories, the Doctor at his best, a strong balance between plot and character development, and pathos that even Russell T Davies couldn’t have pulled off in the golden years. However, the marketing was atrocious. You’d have been forgiven for not knowing it was on in those three months. There was nothing to pull in the audience, with the trailer itself highlighting that it was more of the same. Its audience figures suffered as a result.
This year, they tried to counter that by revealing the Cybermen’s inclusion and John Simm’s return when it wasn’t really necessary and they made what could have been event television into what is just a retrospectively strong episode. If I hadn’t known as much as I did when viewing the episode, I think I’d have had a childlike excitement that’s yet to take hold of me since the Time Lords came back in Christmas 2009. Never mind.
Discount the finale. Prior to that, I’d say that the series provided some of the best scenes and concepts that Doctor Who has had since its renewal in 2005, but it didn’t have very good stories. However, the finale itself is the finest I have known. While being separate in itself, it can be viewed as a celebration of Capaldi’s era, a celebration of the series since it was renewed, and a celebration of the series since it began in 1963.
Move over kids, this series hasn’t been a reboot. For better or for worse, it’s been for the fans, and as a fan I have to say I loved it, but it did require a little more thought.