Take a Trip Through Time and Space: Revisiting the Most Recent Season of DOCTOR WHO

And so, another season of the seminal British science-fiction series Doctor Who has come to a close. This year, the wayward Time Lord (played in this incarnation by he-of-the-terrifying-eyebrows, Peter Capaldi) and his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) traveled across the universe and up and down time to interact with everything from scheming Daleks to fugitive Zygons to homicidal sandmen and, in the season’s climactic run of episodes, stood against the whole of Gallifrey and the end of the universe.

Our esteemed Jon Partridge has been doing excellent work writing recaps, but with the season now told in full it seemed like a good idea to tackle the whole of the season. Joining Jon is a more novice-Who fan, Brendan Foley. Join them as they take a look at the good, the bad, and the timey-wimey of Doctor Who.

BRENDAN: I’ll admit to having been very, very nervous after this year’s season premiere. After an inexcusably terrible final season for Matt Smith (my personal favorite Doctor), showrunner Steven Moffat seemed to largely right the ship (or TARDIS, if you prefer) with Peter Capaldi’s first season as the man in the big blue box. And then this season got started and it seemed that all of Moffat’s most played-out habits were back on display. Not only that, but he was doing deep dives into classic Who-lore, of which I am shamefully under-versed.

But as the season really got underway, everything started clicking again. The format of the season (most every episode was a two-parter, at least) allowed the writers more room to develop characters and pace stories out properly, and they were usually clever about how they structured things to make sure that each episode had its own arc and momentum.

As excellent as the season was (and I’ll say it was the best contained season since Matt Smith’s debut, if not the best of the rebooted series) I will admit to feeling a little let-down that the ultimate endgame was a return of the Time Lords and Gallifrey as active players in the series. When Russell T. Davies restarted the show in 2005, he wrote out the Time Lords and returned The Doctor to his core elements. Watching The Doctor now negotiate his way through the tangled web of Gallifreyian politics felt somewhat akin to stepping into Game of Thrones midway through season three.

But Jon, you have a much better knowledge of Doctor Who and its characters and mythologies. Were you happy to see the new series finally pay extended visits with characters like The Master and Davros, and places like Gallifrey and Skaro? And where do you think this series fits into the annals of Who seasons past?

JON: I dug it. You mentioned so many aspects of the Doctor’s past being of note this time out but I think Capaldi’s tenure so far has been a throwback in many ways. His initial season was an embrace of the alien side of himself again. The brash nature something I welcomed after the extended reign of the charming and wonderful but still poster boy material of Tennant and Smith. Far more in keeping with the Classics, vibes of Pertwee, Baker and McCoy, my personal favorite but I bow at the altar of Baker.

I get where you’re coming from with the “stepping in midway” comment. The history of the show adds so much to the potency of certain scenes, long term fans of the Classic series will have had visceral responses to the utterance of “Davros” or the sight of a retro TARDIS control room (ROUNDRELS) but even without this I think the emotional and plot beats hit. The two-parter structure was a success. Episodes felt less rushed or stretched out in some cases. It was a bold season, sometimes feeling experimental (‘Sleep No More’ for instance) but there was still a familiar nature about it. I think my only gripe was how Clara was handled this year. Last season Jenna Coleman was given some stellar material to build her up before her fall. Her ending was pretty perfect for me but the run of episodes after last season and before this season’s finale really didn’t seem to know how to handle Clara and in many episodes technically removed her from the plot entirely.

BRENDAN: It’s interesting you mention Clara and her arc this year. One of my main gripes with last season was that after spending the whole year spelling out that Clara and The Doctor were way too reckless together and were ultimately a destructive force that needed to be stopped…the Christmas Special threw all that out and ended with them happily running off to the TARDIS for more adventures.

So I was glad that this season continued with that thread, gradually charting Clara getting more and more reckless (more Doctor-like, if you like) and ‘Face the Raven’ was a shockingly blunt and brutal final step in that journey. Of course Moffat couldn’t leave it alone and timey-wimey’d a happier conclusion out of the situation, but there’s a melancholy mixed with the triumph of Clara’s final scenes that made me forgive some of the other missteps in her character this year. (Also, given how both Clara and Danny Pink ended up, someone who understands time travel logic better than me needs to explain the potential temporal implications of Orson Pink.)

You mentioned that this was a more experimental season for the show and I would agree with that. Part of what made me kindle to the idea of Doctor Who was the notion that it was a show that could BE anything. The creatives had license to tell stories across literally all of time and space. But even with that carte blanche, previous seasons were demonstrating creative exhaustion and wheel-spinning. This year, even when they were digging up old formats and monsters, there was an energy and a verve to the way things were written and played.

We can’t sing the praises of this season without talking about Maisie Williams as “Me”, the little Viking girl who ends up at the end of all existence thanks to The Doctor’s intervention. “Me” seemed like a character poised to be the Big Bad of the season, but even in her episodes where she was at her worst (like when she was trying to kill a guy to use his lifeforce to power a space portal that would allow lion-alien-people on to earth [this is a weird fucking show, Jon]) the writers and Williams’ performance made sure you understoodd that she was acting out of loneliness and desperation, not villainy. We’ve seen this sort of character on Who before (Capaldi even name-checks Captain Jack) but none with as much inherent sadness and humanity as Williams brought.

In reading about other people’s reactions to the season as a whole, it seems that one of the more contentious subjects is the mystery of The Hybrid that formed this season’s big myth-arc. Jon, how did you feel about how that story played out and paid off. Did you feel cheated by the resolution, or lack thereof?

JON: Maisie Williams was great and her character, which initially looked to be a rehash of Arya, grew into something so much more. The show at times brings to the fore the effects of The Doctor, both in good and bad ways. The latter usually with his discarded or lost Companions. Ashildur/Me was a very real manifestation of his meddling and came back to haunt him accordingly. Compassion, as Davros predicted, was his undoing.

In the end, it is a kids show, albeit one that appeals and doesn’t condescend. There is a temperance with levity, hope and optimism so I can ultimately forgive things being tied up in a neater/kinder manner. I think the impact of Clara’s death remains as do the lessons of how she met her end. I still disconnected from her a little this season because as you say, the writing and cumulation of their arc was so good last season it made this one feel tacked on. Especially as she was either a Zygon or being used by other characters. Less of herself was present this year. Still, she delivered when it truly mattered.

As to the Orson Pink debacle, Moffat himself has given a throwaway comment about him coming from another arm of the Pink family. Maybe, but I think that and the way Clara was handled for much of this year speak to a change in plans. She was meant to go last season and in juggling her extension the show dropped a few balls. When your show deals with time travel shenanigans you can forgive a few loose ends, though; if you don’t you’re likely to go mad.

If we’re giving shoutouts to guest stars, Michelle Gomez as the rampantly insane Mary Poppins-esque Missy has not only brought a crazed smile to my face but even managed to wash away the bitter taste of John Simm’s take on The Doctor’s greatest friend/enemy.

BRENDAN: Yes, the John Simm riff on The Master left me with no appetite to ever see that character again in any form, regardless of whatever reverence the classic Who fans felt for him. But Gomez has been a delight, playing Missy as, essentially, what The Doctor would be if he embraced the chaotic madness of his surroundings instead of adhering to his moral code (so, she’s basically River Song before River Song started sucking).

But if we’re handing out superlatives for this season, much attention must be focused on ‘Heaven Sent’, an episode that might in fact be the finest hour of television this series has yet produced. A one-man show, ‘Heaven Sent’ follows Capaldi as he wanders alone through an impossible prison, and it manages to be funny, terrifying and brilliantly emotional from moment to moment. As I mentioned above, Moffat’s worst habits can be dreadful, but when used properly they can pay off tremendously. ‘Heaven Sent’ builds a cumulative power, and the final act is almost unwatchable in just how beautifully it puts the screws to The Doctor. Hats off to Moffat for conceiving that, to Capaldi for pulling it off, and to director Rachel Talalay for executing the whole episode so darn well (she also did the finale, ‘Hell Bent’ which was messier but still managed to nail its quieter moments once the plotting settled down).

Now that the Time Lords are back as active participants in the universe (albeit ones that are sulking at the very far edge of Time) I’m curious to see if Moffat will feel the need to keep tying them in with story-arcs or if the Gallifreyians will remain tangential at best. The conclusion of this season does a fair job of tying up most every loose end (give or take The Doctor becoming president of his home-world) and giving 12 a clean slate to work from moving forward.

For myself, I’m hoping the next season will move away from contemporary Companions and maybe bring in a character from a more historical setting. It might be fun seeing someone from Victorian London or Colonial America running amok on spaceships and alien planets.

How about you, Jon? What are your hopes and/or expectations for this year’s Christmas special, and what would you like to see in the next whirl around the TARDIS?

JON: Immediate expectations for the Christmas special are a silly romp. It typically airs in the UK on Christmas Day in the evening, after plenty of booze and food has been consumed and tends to play toward the indulgent frivolous nature. The trailer looks a bit farcical and I have a gut feeling River Song will play better against Twelve than Eleven.

After that, yes, the companion of choice will be the key element. I agree a “not 21st Century” companion would be a great shakeup. It’s worked well in the Classic series. I think more than one companion will be the way to go. It’s been awhile since the days of Amy and Rory.

As to the reemergence of the Time Lords, there is much to do. Their pop up in ‘Hell Bent’ was essentially a plot device to resolve Clara’s arc rather than their own. Rassilon having “nowhere to go” puts out an immediate threat, the High Council have always tended to try to curb or direct The Doctor (sending him on missions even) so it will be interesting how that is incorporated. Sure he’s technically the Lord President (a position he’s actually held before) but surely(?) will be removed after events of ‘Heaven Sent’, despite the reverence of the people and military for him. There was also mention in ‘Before the Flood’ of a “Minister of War”. More seeds from Moffat for this next season? We also have Missy out there with a few of the Daleks that survived the season opener.

‘Heaven Sent’ is to Whovians what ‘Blink’ is to general sci-fi fans. An incredibly accomplished piece of writing, acting and emotion that only Doctor Who could conceivably execute. More like this next season please. With his blank slate of sorts and a fully formed personality, Capaldi is probably at the peak of his powers now in the role. I think Moffat’s tenure is coming to an end (Mark Gatiss to take over I predict?) and as such he’ll hopefully up his game and go out with a bang.

BRENDAN: Please baby Jesus don’t let Mark Gatiss take over the TARDIS. Again, talented writer, seems like a lovely guy, but he’s 0-for-way too many attempts at writing a good episode.

Well, wherever the TARDIS flies next, we’ll be there watching, and hopefully Jon can keep up with his excellent recaps. Let us know what you liked, or didn’t, of this past season, and we’ll catch you on the other end of the vortex!

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the author

Brendan Foley lives in Massachusetts, where he has made a habit out of not knowing what he's doing. He'd like to make a career out of it. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter: @TheTrueBrendanF, and his ramblinger ramblings on Tumblr. Three years from now, it will be revealed that he was dead the entire time.