Opinion on the most recent seasons of Doctor Who is subjective to say the least. For every fan that thinks that the series, under showrunner Steven Moffat, has become a string of woolly, lumbering, navel-gazing, repetitive, one-note stories devoid of thrill, excitement or incident, there’s one who thinks he’s elevated it to a higher form of art. Regardless of opinion, though, what’s inarguable is that this most recent season is where the show’s casual audience finally started losing interest in the latest incarnation of TV’s most enduring Time Lord’s adventures in Space and Time.
It’s frustrating because the ingredients are all here and, as ever with Doctor Who, there’s potential for something very special if only the alchemy can be made to work. In Peter Capaldi we have an astonishingly versatile and enthusiastic actor – and long-time fan – gifted the role of his dreams but often given half-hearted material to work with and an inconsistent characterisation, thanks to whoever’s tasked with piecing together the latest underwhelming adventure. He’s not helped this season by the terrible desperation of a production team who refashioned his first year’s grumpy, snappy but generally unpopular persona into a vaguely-embarrassing Rock God, much given to brandishing an electric guitar, sporting sonic shades (a temporary replacement for the much-abused sonic screwdriver) and wearing hoodies, in the mistaken belief that kids will identify with him because he looks and behaves like them. It demeans both Capaldi and the Doctor. But the actor sometimes rises magnificently above the mediocrity of the material; he’s been rightly applauded for his bravura delivery of the ‘anti-war’ speech in The Zygon Inversion and he carries Moffat’s pompous single-hander Heaven Sent, with a zest and verve it doesn’t really deserve.
Other regulars in the series make little impact. Jenna Coleman’s Clara remains a blank page (her ‘death’ in Face the Raven is uncomfortably unemotional and, when it’s reversed a couple of episodes later, utterly pointless), Michelle Gomez’s Missy returns too soon in the dreadful two-part season opener and has already worn out her welcome, now recrafted into a typical Moffat quip-machine and, despite enthusiasm from the dustier corners of fandom, it’s hard to get worked up about the reappearances of new UNIT stalwarts Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Redgrave) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) – the latter killed in season eight but, predictably, resurrected here and with a twin sister to boot – because despite a number of appearances in the last few years, no attempt has been made to put flesh on their bones or make them seem like real, believable people in a real, believable world.
But of course Steven Moffat isn’t interested in real, believable worlds. His vision for the series remains pure fairytale and in series nine we’re treated to stories about ghosts, sleep-monsters, comedy Vikings and an immortal teenagers drifting through Time. Fortunately there’s nothing as insultingly appalling here as season eight’s twee In The Forest of the Night (although 2015’s Christmas special The Husbands of River Song, included here along 2014’s tiresome Last Christmas, comes dangerously close) but neither is there anything to match the wit, invention and pure joy of much of the work of Moffat’s predecessor Russell T Davies. The structure of the series relies largely on two-part episodes but there’s really little enough story for one episode and even the gimmick of shifting the tone and even the location of the second episode of some of these extended stories, can’t disguise the thinness of the narratives. The best episodes are those not written by Moffat – the showrunner’s efforts now constantly revisit old themes, and he just can’t leave the show’s history and chronology alone – but even those episodes can’t escape the sense of ennui and stagnation, which now permeates a show which has, temporarily we hope, run right out of steam. Change is in the air, of course, for the 2018 season but for now season nine may be a must-buy for completists but casual viewers are likely to give this one a miss, just as most of them did when it was screened on TV.
In fairness, the box set does boast a generous four hours of special features. Most of them are BBC puff-pieces; the online ‘Doctor Who Extra’ making-of snippets for each episode, some DVD-exclusive pieces on Clara’s ‘journey’, the Daleks and an interesting but brief segment on how new writer Sarah Dollard came to contribute her first script Face the Raven. Add the 2015 ComiCon panel, Star Trek’s Will Wheaton interviewing Capaldi, three breezy commentaries (including Mark Gatiss and Reece Sheersmith on Gatiss’ Sleep No More), trailers and deleted scenes and you’ve got plenty of Who bang for your buck - but you might want to take a pass on ‘The Fan Show’ compilation, hosted by an irredeembably smug fan, who really has far too much access to the Doctor Who Team than is really healthy, and has far too high an opinion of herself, clearly thinking she is a comic genius. Word to the wary; she isn’t.
DOCTOR WHO – THE COMPLETE NINTH SERIES / CERT: 12 / DIRECTORS: VARIOUS / SCREENPLAY: STEVEN MOFFATT, TOBY WHITHOUSE, JAMIE MATHIESON, PETER HARNESS, CATHERINE TREGENNA, MARK GATISS, SARAH DOLLAR / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, JENNA COLEMAN, MAISIE WILLIAMS, MICHELLE GOMEZ, JEMMA REDGRAVE / RELEASE DATE: 7TH MARCH