Series 9 (Jul 16 - Jul 29)

July 16: "Last Christmas"
July 17, 2016: "Prologue" / "The Doctor's Meditation" / "The Magician's Apprentice"
July 18: "The Witch's Familiar"
July 19: "Under the Lake"
July 20: "Before the Flood"
July 21: "The Girl Who Died"
July 22: "The Woman Who Lived"
July 23: "The Zygon Invasion"
July 24: "The Zygon Inversion"
July 25: "Sleep No More"
July 26: "Face the Raven"
July 27: "Heaven Sent"
July 28: "Hell Bent"
July 29: "The Husbands of River Song"

July 16: "Last Christmas"

Stuart Manning's poster for "Last Christmas"
(from Doctor Who: Exclusive Last Christmas
poster revealed)
Strictly speaking (or going by home video boxsets, at least), this episode is the start of series 9, not the end of series 8.  But "Last Christmas" (which, remember, only aired a month and a half after "Death in Heaven") partly concerns itself with addressing the unfinished business between the Doctor and Clara, as each lied to the other in the belief that it would make it easier for the other to say goodbye.  But it's also a Christmas special, so we get a whole bunch of Christmassy stuff thrown in as well.

But pleasingly, instead of overwhelming us with Christmas imagery and narratives, we're treated to a creepy episode involving an alien crab that latches onto your face and induces a dream state.  Cheekily, the end of the episode displays (most of) its influences on screen, as Shona looks at her Christmas to-do list, which includes watching the movies Alien, The Thing from Another World, and Miracle on 34th Street.  (No mention of the other major influence on this episode, Inception, but perhaps that's making things a little too obvious -- at least with the others we can say that it was Shona influencing the dream, but including Inception would be a little too meta.)  This means that we get a properly scary story that happens to involve Santa Claus.

I have to say, my initial thoughts upon hearing about this episode (well, beyond the obvious jokes about stories now being based on Wham! songs) was a bit of dread as to how they were to going to handle the Santa bit, but there was no need for concern; Steven Moffat has come up with a clever way to integrate Santa and his elves into the storyline without it bringing everything crashing down -- in fact, it just adds to everything.  Yes, there's a bit of a sense that Nick Frost is playing Santa the same way he approaches his other roles, but to be fair, that's exactly what the script is looking for -- and he's clearly having fun doing it.  Meanwhile, his two elves -- Dan Starkey (now out of his usual Strax makeup) and Nathan McMullen -- are just as much fun, commenting wryly on what's going on and with explanations for all the Santa mythology delivered in a condescending tone of voice.

But this is primarily an episode meant to scare you, and it does a good job.  The dream crabs are a combination of being absurd and terrifying, and while, as Professor Albert Smithe (played by Patrick Troughton's son Michael) points out, they resemble the Facehuggers from Alien ("You know, Alien.  The horror movie Alien," Albert says.  "There's a horror movie called Alien?" the Doctor asks, aghast.  "That's really offensive.  No wonder everyone keeps invading you"), they're still very effective for the most part -- although the times when the "mouth" opens and reveals the face underneath are rather less successful.  It's also an episode about dreams in dreams, and there are some clever moments as a result.  "You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart? ... They're both ridiculous," the Doctor says, but nevertheless that's the task that's been set for the Doctor, Clara, and these four scientists at the North Pole.

Santa asks the Doctor if he wants to fly the sleigh. ("Last
Christmas") ©BBC
Clara's dream with Danny is obvious wish fulfillment (both for her and for anyone who wanted to see Danny again), but it also serves a greater purpose: to lull the audience into thinking they can recognize the difference between dreams and reality, when in fact that's not remotely true -- it eventually turns out that everything we've seen has been a dream, which they're able to cleverly prove with the Helman-Ziegler test, where they all look at a copy of the same book and pick a random word to see if they're the same.  (Of course, this would only work with proving shared dreaming, but it's still a really smart idea.)  And so because they can prove it's all dreams, we get an explanation for Santa: it's their subconscious trying to save them from being killed by the Dream Crabs.

So there are thrills and magic coexisting side by side in "Last Christmas", like all the best Doctor Who stories.  And there's also the fake out of the ending, where the Doctor goes to save Clara and discovers that she's become an old woman -- only to find out that this too is a dream.262  But that gives the Doctor enough time to regret not going back for Clara, and since they've admitted their lies to each other and have made peace, they can go off and have more adventures together.  (Although, worryingly and presumably unintentionally, this repeated "it's just a dream" ploy means that the final shot of the tangerine, which is actually meant to make you wonder if Santa actually is real, instead makes you wonder if they're in fact still in a dream.)

It's a fast-paced, exciting episode, with some scary monsters and some mind-twisting mechanics at work here.  There are lots of both fun and suspenseful moments, matched by some lovely acting and clever ideas.  Equal parts magic and fear, "Last Christmas" is a great episode, and possibly the best Christmas special of the Moffat era.

And so with "Last Christmas", 563 days later, I've reached the end of my daily Doctor Who (plus spin-offs) viewing.  And while I suspect I'll be back for future episodes (though I'll likely wait until they're available in a block -- perhaps check back on 17 July 2016 for the start of series 9...), for now this is it.  This, of course, isn't the end of Doctor Who -- series 9 is set to start on 19 September, and not only has series 10 been confirmed, but reportedly Steven Moffat had discussions with BBC Worldwide regarding the future of the next five years of the show.  Doctor Who is as strong as ever (it was the BBC's top-selling programme last year) and it looks like there's no signs of it going away.  (This presupposes the Tory government is unsuccessful in its current attempts (literally current; the government issued a green paper on the future of the BBC today) to dismantle the BBC.)  And the impressive, amazing, wonderful thing about Doctor Who is that through nearly 52 years, the show continues to adapt and change while still remaining, at its heart, the same show about a man in a box travelling the universe and taking in the sights, helping where he can.  Sydney Newman and company probably had little inkling of just how flexible a format they'd created, one that their successors could shape in new ways and still remain true to the core.  It's little wonder the show has endured; it really is the greatest television show out there.  Long may it continue.

July 17, 2016: "Prologue" / "The Doctor's Meditation" / "The Magician's Apprentice"

Hi there, welcome back!  Hopefully you had a good year.  We're back for a couple of weeks in order to tackle series 9 of Doctor Who, starting with the two prequel scenes that accompanied "The Magician's Apprentice" -- a reasonable idea to build anticipation for the upcoming episodes, since it has been nine months since "Last Christmas".  So let's get started, shall we?

The first scene, simply entitled "Prologue", is a somber affair, with the Doctor on Karn, apparently avoiding someone.  "He has asked to see you," says Ohila, the member of the Sisterhood of Karn last seen at Paul McGann's regeneration in "The Night of the Doctor".  It becomes clear that the Doctor has done something wrong, and the item he hands Ohila is obviously something of great importance, and he knows that he has to make up for it somehow.  "You are embarking on an enterprise that will end in your destruction," Ohila warns him.  "You could say that about being born," the Doctor jokes bleakly.  But no, it's time to go face the music.

But not quite yet.  Our next prequel, "The Doctor's Meditation" (which was initially released as a special teaser accompanying the 3D theatrical screening of "Dark Water" / "Death in Heaven" overseas), is a much more light-hearted affair, with the Doctor in 12th century England, preparing to meditate but being completely incapable of sitting still for very long.  One thing to note here that wasn't as obvious in the Prologue scene is how Capaldi's hair has grown -- or, as Terrance Dicks might say, how increasingly bouffant it's become.  It has the effect of making Capaldi seem a bit less severe than in series 8 (well, that and the T-shirt and hoodie, matched with light grey plaid trousers), and the humorous tone of this piece also helps with this -- this Doctor at least seems much more comfortable with himself, even if he's avoiding something dark.  It's a fun little scene, and it does the job of making us curious as to just what the Doctor is running from, what it was that he did wrong.

Stuart Manning's poster for "The Magician's
Apprentice" (from Doctor Who: exclusive
The Magician's Apprentice poster revealed)
That brings us to the episode proper.  "The Magician's Apprentice", despite being a series opener (no matter what the box sets might have you believe), is something of a quiet, slow burn.  Don't get me wrong, there are lots of big exciting ideas and such to make things feel tremendously important, but at its core this is an episode about the Doctor confronting one of the mistakes he's made.  It's a great cold open, by the way, and the way Capaldi's face falls as he learns that the boy he's going to rescue is in fact a young Davros is marvellous to behold.  But it's that decision he made that propels this entire episode, as he comes to terms with the fact that he left Davros behind.

More on that in a moment, but for now let's focus on everything leading up to the Doctor's inevitable reunion with Davros.  As I said, there are some big ideas in this episode and some fun callbacks, such as a return to the Maldovarium (from a number of episodes, starting with "The Pandorica Opens") and the Shadow Proclamation (from "The Stolen Earth") -- and look, they've even brought back Kelly Hunter as the Shadow Architect, just for this scene.  But perhaps the biggest idea in the first half is the fact that all the planes in the sky on Earth have been halted.  This is just a way for Missy to get UNIT's attention -- and yes, Missy is back with no explanation whatsoever as to how she wasn't killed at the end of "Death in Heaven".  "How come you're still alive?" Clara asks her.  "Death is for other people, dear," Missy replies dismissively.263  It's wonderful to see Michelle Gomez back as the Master, and she shows that she's just as crazy as ever, even if this time she's ostensibly on the Doctor's side, having received his confession dial -- his last will and testament.  The Doctor expects to die.

Which is what makes his appearance in 12th-century Essex all the more fun, as he rides in on a tank, wearing sunglasses and playing electric guitar: he knows he may die, but he's going to enjoy himself before he goes.  It's an unusual sight, but Capaldi makes it seem incredibly natural for his Doctor to play guitar licks.  But as I noted earlier, despite all the spectacle this is being driven by the Doctor meeting Davros.  Getting picked up by a mobile colony of snakes (Colony Sarff) and bringing Missy and Clara along for the ride is just extra.

And it's great to see Julian Bleach back as Davros (who was also in "The Stolen Earth", come to think of it), giving us a weary, accusatory performance.  It's wonderfully nuanced, with little of the ranting that frequently characterizes Davros.  Plus we get some nifty callbacks to conversations he'd previously had with the Doctor -- another opportunity to hear Sylvester McCoy rant about unlimited rice pudding.

The Daleks wait for the Supreme Dalek's order. ("The Magician's
Apprentice") ©BBC
OK, before we continue: even though this is only, strictly speaking, discussing the first half of this story, I'm going to bring in some knowledge from "The Witch's Familiar", so if you haven't seen that yet you should stop reading and go watch that.  Don't worry, we'll wait.


Right, so.  There's one Tom Baker clip that Davros plays to the Doctor to accuse him, from the famous "Do I have the right?" scene from part six of Genesis of the Daleks.  "If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?" the Doctor says in that.  And this is what's great about this: for the Doctor, and for the first-time audience, this appears to accuse the Doctor, to say that because he attempted to, if not kill, at least not save the young Davros, he put Davros on the path toward creating the Daleks; because of that attempt, he grew up be totally evil.  "Do you know why you came, Doctor?  You have a sense of duty.  Of guilt, perhaps.  And certainly of shame," Davros says to him -- and later, when Clara's life is in danger: "Compassion, Doctor.  It has always been your greatest indulgence.  Let this be my final victory.  Let me hear you say it, just once.  Compassion is wrong."  But for Davros, and for repeat viewers, suddenly the situation is turned on its head: Davros is accusing the Doctor of not killing Davros, of allowing the Daleks to be created as a result.  In fact, because the Doctor ultimately saved Davros's life, he ensured a future full of the Daleks who've just killed Missy and are now threatening to kill Clara; thus, according to Davros, "compassion is wrong" because it led to the deaths of the Doctor's friends.  That is frankly brilliant writing, and I'm full of admiration for Steven Moffat, fully intending that reading not to surface until you watch it a second time, with the knowledge of what the Doctor ultimately does.

So yeah, despite the spectacle, this episode comes down to the confrontation between the Doctor and Davros, and it's not about what we see, it's about what we hear, as these two take the time to talk to each other -- a conversation that seems destined to continue, red herring cliffhangers of the Doctor threatening young Davros's life notwithstanding.  (Although even that's brilliant, as it starts to suggest that what Davros has been talking about isn't simply neglect but attempted murder.)  But we'll have to wait for "The Witch's Familiar" to see how that works out.

July 18: "The Witch's Familiar"

Stuart Manning's poster for "The Witch's
Familiar" (from Doctor Who: exclusive The
Witch's Familiar Poster revealed)
Gosh, I made it all the way through the last episode's discussion without mentioning all the gorgeous old-school Daleks on display here, finally making good on the promise that "Asylum of the Daleks" largely relegated to the background in 2012.  And it's absolutely wonderful to see the original Daleks so prominently here (although, while I know the blue bumps are correct, is the pale blue midsection?), and another chance to see my personal favorite, the Special Weapons Dalek from Remembrance of the Daleks.  We also get a bunch of the bronze versions and the Supreme Dalek from "The Stolen Earth" / "Journey's End".  (That's the third "Stolen Earth" callback -- is there a theme here?)  And look, an 80s-style Dalek in the background, and even an Emperor's Guard Dalek from The Evil of the Daleks.  (Although -- nitpicking here -- it should have the "solar panel" slats around its midsection.  Doctor Who fans: never satisfied, huh?)  Although -- curious omission, this -- there's not a single New Paradigm Dalek (the fat iPhone Daleks) to be seen.

And while "kisses to the past" like the old Daleks or the look of the Dalek city (both inside and out) are thrilling bits, this is nevertheless a story that's looking forward as it looks back.  There're some marvellous moments involving Missy and Clara, as Missy explains how she saved them thanks to the vortex manipulators and power conversion (complete with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it callback to Missy's "death" in "Death in Heaven" -- guess that did get explained after all) and then takes her into the Dalek sewers, all combined with moments that make it crystal clear that, despite the fact that she and Clara are temporarily on the same side, the current Master is completely insane and casually callous -- she has no qualms, for instance, in pushing Clara down a hole to see how deep it is.  Plus there's the moment where Missy empties a Dalek shell and then forces Clara inside, with an interesting discussion of how Clara's thoughts are translated into Dalek, as expressed emotions are translated into "EX-TER-MI-NATE!"  "Cybermen suppress emotion," Missy tells Clara, "Daleks channel it through a gun.  That's why they keep yelling 'exterminate' -- it's how they reload."

The Doctor offers Davros a touch of regeneration energy.
("The Witch's Familiar") ©BBC
But the meat of this episode is the conversation between the Doctor and Davros -- yes, there's the moment where the Doctor pulls Davros out of his chair and threatens all the other Daleks unless they bring Clara Oswald back (bit tricky, that, as they think they've killed her), but this once again comes down to two people in a room talking.  What's impressive about this is watching Davros as he puts his plan in motion, to get the Doctor trapped in all the cables by Colony Sarff while Davros drains his regenerative energy.  It starts out simple, with Davros just trying to get the Doctor to touch the cables, allegedly to kill all the Daleks, but then Davros works out that the Doctor's weakness is compassion, and so he changes tactics, trying to make the Doctor feel sorry for a dying old man.  This includes the moment where Davros decides to open his real eyes instead of just using the electronic one in his forehead; there's something endearingly cheeky about the idea that Davros hasn't lost his real eyes but simply hasn't opened them in all this time, and Julian Bleach gives a great performance of an old man who just wants to see a sunrise -- which is doubly impressive when you see how this is just Davros being manipulative, trying to get the Doctor to give up that sweet sweet regenerative energy.  "I thought I would have to tear you apart to take it from you," Davros says, "but, as always, your compassion is your downfall."

It's worth noting how different the Doctor is here with Davros compared with how he was with the Half-Face Man a year ago in "Deep Breath".  That Doctor seemed much sterner, much less inclined toward mercy and compassion -- but here it's an innate part of his character, as he's willing to listen to Davros, to sympathize with him a bit, and to show him mercy.  This, combined with the party scenes in the previous episode, suggests a Doctor who seems much more comfortable with himself; it's as if his moment of revelation in "Death in Heaven" ("I. Am. An idiot!") helped him reconcile whatever personal demons he was wrestling with through series 8, and now we see the after-effects.  It's an interesting contrast.

Ultimately, the way the situation is resolved (all the Daleks are regenerating, including the dying and discarded ones) is somewhat clever, in that they've at least set it up properly ahead of time, and the way Missy tries to get the Doctor to kill the Dalek with Clara inside is interesting as well, but this story ultimately comes down to the discussion between two old enemies, and at that it's a great success.  And the resolution, where the Doctor ultimately rescues the young Davros and helps ensure not only Clara's survival but also Davros's views on compassion and mercy, is a nice moment.  And I don't even mind the sonic sunglasses the way a lot of others seemed to.  This is a strong two-parter, hitting all the right notes but not being too showy about it.

July 19: "Under the Lake"

Stuart Manning's poster for "Under the Lake"
(from Doctor Who: exclusive Under the Lake
and Before the Flood posters revealed)
Hey, a good old-fashioned base-under-siege tale!  We haven't had one of those since, ooh, "The Time of the Doctor"?  Or maybe "Mummy on the Orient Express", depending on your definition?  Perhaps "Nightmare in Silver"?

OK, so maybe there've been a number of base-under-siege tales recently.  But this one feels a bit special because it's actually an underwater base, rather than just a confined area.  So we get lots of lovely corridors to run down and rooms to hide inside, with a small, shrinking cast being attacked by what seems to be ghosts.  Although, in a bit of a twist, once the ghosts kill you you become one of said murderous ghosts, which in some ways is more frightening.

Fabulous job on the ghosts, by the way; the missing eyes and hollow skull are really effectively creepy -- a nice combination of practical and CG effects.  The slight shimmer they have when they move is also well done.  Oh, and if we're praising design choices...the largely empty spaceship is striking in its minimalism (and do I detect a hint of Quatermass and the Pit in the design?), and as I noted above, the base set really is a fabulous, sturdy-looking set.  Plus (exciting, this) we get our first proper look at the newly-added roundels to the TARDIS interior (after some brief glimpses in the last two-parter).

So "Under the Lake" looks gorgeous, and it's also well cast, with everyone giving their all and providing some extra nuances for each character (even Steven Robertson, in the rather thankless role of company man Pritchard).  My favorite might be the paring between Zaqi Ismail as Lunn and Sophie Stone as Cass, though; there's a real affection there that's obvious from the get-go.  (And speaking of Cass, Sophie Stone is the first deaf actor given a role on Doctor Who.)  Not convinced about the "I've deleted sign language" joke though -- obviously this is so everyone else can understand what Cass is saying, but it does seem like a bizarre suggestion in terms of in-universe continuity.  (So he can delete languages now?  Why would he need to?  Isn't it all part of the TARDIS's built-in telepathic language translator?  The underlying suggestion seems to be that sign language isn't really like spoken language, which isn't true; beyond replacing the verbal component with a manual one (literally manual, as in "hands"), sign languages obey all the rules of language and grammar.  In other words, despite their best efforts, this is ever-so-slightly condescending toward signers.264)

The ghostly Moran reaches inside the Doctor. ("Under the
Lake") ©BBC
The other major thing in "Under the Lake"'s favor is that it's not only great to look at, but it's smartly written too.  There's a sense of cleverness in the script, as it sets up the transmitter idea without bringing attention to it until the proper moment (as with Lunn being safe from Pritchard's ghost because he hadn't seen the symbols), and there's also the way Toby Whithouse delights in observing several of the ghost clichés (they're translucent, they can walk through walls (and apparently don't need to obey the laws of gravity, based on a couple shots), they only come out at night (which may not strictly be an actual cliché, but it still helps with the atmosphere of the story)), with even the Doctor at a loss to explain, concluding that they must therefore be ghosts.  Great care is taken to build up the atmosphere of faint dread, with occasional bouts of panic (unexpectedly switching to night mode) to help punctuate the mood.  The stuff with leading the ghosts to the Faraday cage is a fun part, and the Doctor's confrontation with them is pleasingly cheeky.  Speaking of which, this version of the Doctor's cluelessness about human emotions and customs is perhaps the best yet, with his genuinely not realizing he's being upsetting, and needing literal cue cards to properly convey the necessary platitudes; we're light-years ahead of the insulting Doctor early last series.  And here in this episode we also get our first look at the character arc for Clara this series: that of being perhaps a bit too reckless, possibly as a way to fill the void left by the loss of Danny Pink.  And while it's brought up, it's not dwelt on too much, which is a good move.

Clever cliffhanger, by the way; after the Doctor decides to travel back in time to see what started all this ghost business (which is a novel way to break out of the "base-under-siege" format), we suddenly get a ghost version of the Doctor, out in the lake.  Suitably creepy, and it makes you look forward to what's next...

July 20: "Before the Flood"

Stuart Manning's poster for "Before the Flood"
(from Doctor Who: exclusive Under the Lake
and Before the Flood posters revealed)
Definitely an unusual start to an episode, this, with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience about the bootstrap paradox.  (Has that happened since Hartnell's speech in The Daleks' Master Plan?)  It's a sign of a show willing to experiment -- right down to having the main character (appear to) play electric guitar over the main title theme.  Even after 52 years, Doctor Who is still willing to try new things.

It's also worth noting how quickly "Before the Flood" dispenses with the base-under-siege narrative established in the first half of this story.  Even the parts that still take place in the base don't have the same vibe to them; this is no longer a story about being attacked by ghosts, but about what the Doctor can do in the past to avoid having everyone else be killed.  It's about planning and forethought rather than desperation and improvising.

This means that we get a peek back into what the village was like before the dam burst, back in 1980 -- and the Doctor's brought along two of the base crew, O'Donnell and Bennett.  "So, [this is] pre-Harold Saxon," O'Donnell says.  "Pre-the Minister of War, pre-the moon exploding and a big bat coming out."  "The Minister of War?" the Doctor asks.  "No, never mind, I expect I'll find out soon enough."  So there's a bit of a tease for the future that to date hasn't been followed up on.  O'Donnell is quite likeable, all gung ho about the Doctor and travelling in the TARDIS -- so of course she's slated to die.

But before that there's the encounter with Prentis the Tivolian undertaker (with the incredibly cheeky gag on his business card, "May the remorse be with you"), as we learn that the source of the ghosts is the "body" he's transporting, the Fisher King, who once ruled over the Tivoli.  (You may remember a Tivoli as the cowardly alien from "The God Complex".)  It seems the Fisher King isn't as dead as Prentis was led to believe, as he starts killing people in order to use them as transmitters to tell others where he is.  This is why Prentis is killed, and why O'Donnell follows soon after.  This gives Whithouse an opportunity to once again have a character accuse the Doctor of being uncaring or less-than-good: "That list your ghost was saying, that's the order in which people are going to die, isn't it?" Bennett says.  "I mean, I've only just figured that out. But you knew that all along, didn't you?"  "I thought perhaps, because her ghost wasn't there in the future, like Prentis's was, I thought maybe, maybe it wouldn't happen," the Doctor replies.  "Maybe she stood a chance."  "Yeah, but you didn't try very hard to stop her, though, did you?" says Bennett, unmollified.  "It was almost like you wanted to test your theory.  So who's next?"  "Clara," says the Doctor.  "Yeah.  Yeah.  Except now you're going to do something about it, aren't you?"  It seems Whithouse just can't resist the urge to question the Doctor's character and the nature of what he does, even in a story like this where it doesn't quite fit in.

The Fisher King goes to investigate his ship. ("Before the
Flood") ©BBC
It's curious, in retrospect, how straightforward this episode is though.   Despite a bit of extra time-travel shenanigans (which don't ultimately serve any purpose) and the "phoning across time zones" bit, once the Doctor discovers that the source of the markings in the spaceship is the Fisher King, he sets up his plan to stop the King with very little fuss.  And while the Fisher King is suitably impressive, towering over the not-exactly-short Peter Capaldi, he doesn't really get much to do -- a speech about the Time Lords and how he'll rule the universe, and then he gets swept up by the flood waters.  The complications we do get are in the future, with the ghosts stealing Clara's phone and them trying to get it back, and while they are entertaining complications (the stuff with Cass and Moran trailing after her is nicely done), they don't ultimately matter either -- the Doctor doesn't try to call back, for instance.

But, being straightforward isn't the worst of sins by any means, and what we do get is well done.  There's hardly a foot put wrong (about the only real complaint I have is the aggressive color grading, which is particularly noticeable in the 1980 scenes, trying to make everything grey and dreary -- but it's still not as egregious here as it was in "Death in Heaven" and its graveyard scenes, and this seems to be the current style anyway, so they're just following the trend), and there are enough clever moments in this story to be worthwhile.  The air that these two episodes give off is one of confidence; the production team is so comfortable with what they're doing that even a matter-of-fact resolution like this is done with energy and style, and they're confident enough in their audience to provide an opening like in "Before the Flood", with a deliberate paradox to leave them thinking at the end.  "Under the Lake" / "Before the Flood" isn't a knockout story, but it is very good at what it sets out to do.

July 21: "The Girl Who Died"

Stuart Manning's poster for "The Girl Who
Died" (from Incredible set of retro Doctor
Who series 9 posters)
Oh look, Vikings (with anachronistic helmets again), here to capture the Doctor and Clara for some reason!

After two outstanding outings last series, Jamie Mathieson here returns with a tale of Vikings being raided by aliens and challenging those aliens to a war they can't win.  I do note that this is credited as being co-written by Steven Moffat, which means he contributed a reasonable amount to the script.

I wonder if that's why this episode frequently feels so uneven.

It's not that this is a drama with some jokes thrown in, or a comedy with occasionally heavier moments; instead it seems to shift between the two styles from scene to scene, with (for instance) a quiet dramatic scene of the Doctor telling Clara what the baby is saying followed up by a silly training scene with silly names and jokes about blood.  None of this, by the way, is to meant to accuse "The Girl Who Died" of being unenjoyable -- because that's definitely not the case -- but rather that the constant swinging back and forth between drama and comedy is rather noticeable, and it does ultimately give things a rather lightweight feel.

The thing that manages to anchor this story, to stop it from falling between two stools, is the performances.  Peter Capaldi does an outstanding job, balancing the sillier aspects ("He hasn't even got a yo-yo!") with the more somber ones ("Do babies dies with honour?") in a way that makes it all feel like the same characterization.  Jenna Coleman continues to do well, reminding the Doctor that some things should be fought for, and while Maisie Williams as Ashildr doesn't have too much to do (she's essentially just here to be the wide-eyed young girl with more of a gift for storytelling than anything more practical), she does a good job with the material she's given.  And even smaller performances, like Tom Stourton's Lofty, are well judged -- no one's veering too far into sending it all up.  This is reinforced by some of the conversations between people, such as the Doctor and Ashildr in her home ("Because if you make up the right story, then you think it will keep them safe and they'll all come home"), or, in particular, between the Doctor and Clara:
CLARA: I keep waiting to hear what your real plan is.
DOCTOR: Teaching them to fight, that's the only plan I've got.
CLARA: Turning them into fighters?  That's not like you.
DOCTOR: Yeah.  I used to believe that too.
CLARA: What happened?
DOCTOR: You.  Oh, Clara Oswald, what have I made of you?
It's a nice little look into the idea of Clara becoming more accustomed to danger, more willing to behave like the Doctor, and whether or not that's a good thing.  And these are the sorts of scenes that maintain interest through some of the more uneven moments.

"Odin" and the Mire teleport down. ("The Girl Who Died") ©BBC
It also helps that the Mire are a neat design, looking like giant walking tank things, all scuffed up and scored metal and things.  I dunno, they just look so ungainly that seeing them move is a pleasant surprise, with not nearly as much clunkiness as one might have guessed.  And the idea that they're leeching off of warrior races, convincing them they're gods, isn't too bad either.  David Schofield is a fun villain in Odin, chewing up the scenery (although he's probably the closest this story gets to tipping into camp).  And the way the Mire are defeated is fairly clever, and the bit with the recording is rather wonderful.

I do question everything after the natural resolution of the storyline, with the Doctor realizing why he looks like Caecilius from "The Fires of Pompeii" (it's so he won't forget to help people) -- again, I'm not convinced anyone besides Steven Moffat was actually worried about this in the first place (after all, did people demand an explanation for why the sixth Doctor looked like Maxil from Arc of Infinity?  And none of this explains why both Caecilius and the twelfth Doctor look like John Frobisher from Torchwood: Children of Earth...), and this seems like a rather perfunctory explanation anyway.  Especially since it smacks rather of the whole "Time Lord Victorious" speech from "The Waters of Mars" (and the Doctor's already seen how well that worked out).  In short, this is just a clumsy way to get the Doctor to make Ashildr immortal, so that she can show up in later episodes without having to go back to the 9th century every time.  Oh, and another mention of something being a "hybrid", this apparently being the keyword for series 9's arc (well, sort of, but we'll discuss this plot thread's nonresolution when we get to "Hell Bent").  And is it just me, or does Ashildr look rather cruel in that final shot (when the spinning thing finally ends)?  Deliberate foreshadowing, perhaps?

So I dunno.  There're a lot of good things happening in "The Girl Who Died", but that underlying unevenness does mean that this ends up feeling lightweight -- it's not funny enough to be a comedy episode, but it's not tense or thrilling enough to be a proper drama.  It's not bad by any means, but this inability to settle on a style does mean that this ends up being one of the less memorable episodes of series 9.  Another entry for the "pleasant but forgettably average" list of Doctor Who episodes.

July 22: "The Woman Who Lived"

Stuart Manning's poster for "The Woman
Who Lived" (from Incredible set of retro
Doctor Who series 9 posters)
After 7 years (not since 2008's "The Sontaran Stratagem" / "The Poison Sky" 2-parter, to be precise), we finally get a female writer on Doctor Who proper again (although apparently not, as Steven Moffat stressed, for want of trying).  This is Catherine Tregenna's first story for Doctor Who itself, but you might remember her name from some of the better episodes of the first two series of Torchwood.

So, despite the similarities in names between this and the previous episode (and the "TO BE CONTINUED" thing at the end of "The Girl Who Died"), "The Woman Who Lived" doesn't feel like part 2 of a 2-parter so much as a sequel that happens to directly follow the original story.  I can't quite decide if that's a good thing or not; on the one hand, it's rather jarring to go from Ashildr's characterization last week to Me's characterization this week, and so perhaps putting a story in between (maybe the "Under the Lake" 2-parter?) might have helped smoothed things over; on the other hand, part of me wonders if this disconcerting feeling isn't in fact the point of the exercise.

Because make no mistake, the intervening 800 years have changed Ashildr/Me, and not for the better.  If the person we saw last week was kind and caring, the person she's become is bitter and cruel, seeming to blame the Doctor for her woes and believing him to be a coward.  "So you intend to fix me?" she says bitterly to the Doctor.  "Make me feel again, then run away?  I don't need your help, Doctor; you need mine.  Just this once, you can't run off like you usually do."  Scenes like this are probably meant to be somewhat accusatory toward the Doctor, to make us question him and his motives, but since we've already had plenty of that up to this point (see just about every episode Toby Whithouse has ever done), this didn't really engage me; instead my primary feeling was one of pity for Me, seeing her brought to this state.  She's exhibiting an all-too-human reaction, yes, but it's still sad to see how much pain and anguish she had allowed to enter her heart.  Mind you, the script isn't unaware of this, as a later exchange makes clear:
DOCTOR: Oh, Ashildr, daughter of Einarr, what happened to you?
ME: You did, Doctor.  You happened.  ... You still won't take me with you.  You gad about while I trudge through the centuries, day by day, hour by hour.  Do you ever think or care what happens after you've flown away?  I live in the world you leave behind, because you abandoned me to it.
DOCTOR: Why should I be responsible for you?
ME: You made me immortal.
DOCTOR: I saved your life.  I didn't know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating.  I didn't think your conscience would need renewing, that the well of human kindness would run dry.  I just wanted to save a terrified young woman's life.
ME: You didn't save my life, Doctor.  You trapped me inside it.
Leandro is killed by his people while the hangman, the Doctor, Me,
and Sam Swift look on. ("The Woman Who Lived") ©BBC
These are obviously some heavy moments; so heavy, in fact, that the comparative lightness of the rest of the story feels slightly unbalanced.  It probably doesn't help that the alien plotline with Leandro the Lionman isn't terribly compelling, and in fact doesn't actually take up much screentime, despite its ostensibly driving much of the story.

What does help, though, is Rufus Hound's performance as Sam Swift the outlaw, who gives a fun performance, with a generous dose of gallows humor that intentionally feels slightly desperate, as he knows that once he stops telling jokes they'll hang him.  In some ways Sam Swift is the antithesis of Me; Me says she steals for the adventure of it, but she never seems to be having much actual fun doing it, while Sam Swift seems so happy to be alive (both before and after he's pardoned) that it's hard not to get swept up in his spirit a little bit.  In fact, I wonder if the story had focused a little more on the contrast between the two, if that might not have sharpened some of the points being made.

So while I can see what they're all trying to do, and I think they do a good job of it, nevertheless it's hard to say I actually liked "The Woman Who Lived".  This is, for me at least, an episode that is much easier to appreciate and respect than it is to actually enjoy.

July 23: "The Zygon Invasion"

Stuart Manning's poster for "The Zygon
Invasion" (from Incredible set of retro
Doctor Who series 9 posters)
Peter Harness's story last series - "Kill the Moon" - didn't exactly impress me with its writing (it was in fact my least favorite episode of series 8).  So it was heartening to see just how much of an improvement "The Zygon Invasion" was over that entry.  Perhaps that's because there's less frustrating pseudo-science in this episode; one of the major problems with "Kill the Moon" was the feeling that it was an early draft, with events connected by the barest of threads that were never properly resolved/technobabbled away; the underlying idea wasn't too bad.  Fortunately, there's very little of that unfinished feeling here.

It's also good to see the show finally address the major dangling plotline left unresolved from "The Day of the Doctor": what exactly happened with the Zygons at the end of that story.  The opening of this episode gives us a bit of expository-heavy but necessary background: a resettlement opportunity was created where 20 million Zygons would take on human form (so as not to unsettle the humans) and would live peacefully on Earth.  "[The Zygons'] shape-changing ability should not be considered a weapon," one of the Osgoods says.  But should the ceasefire between the humans and the Zygons break down, there's something called an Osgood Box that will resolve the situation, although we don't know how.

That's the setup.  The actual storyline deals with this "Nightmare Scenario", with a small faction of Zygons demanding the rights to live without hiding, even though it seems that's only possible if the human race is destroyed.  The story doesn't shy away from being political; with pointed references to radicalization of a splinter group who nevertheless believe they're acting in the best interests of their entire race, it's not hard to draw parallels with groups like ISIL/ISIS or Al-Qaeda.  Fortunately, however, this isn't turned into the focus of the story, but rather is used to draw a parallel for the audience.  What the story wants to make clear (although, honestly, it'll be more obvious in the next episode) is that this group (called Truth or Consequences, it seems, after the name of the town in New Mexico where relations between the two species first broke down) only represents a small proportion of the Zygons living on Earth; this isn't the standard monolithic alien race bent on conquest, but something more nuanced.

There's also a more global feeling to this story; we get scenes in London, New Mexico (in reality filmed in Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands, but they've done a decent job making it look like a town in the American Southwest), and the fictional country of Turmezistan (presumably somewhere in central Asia, near the other similarly-named former Soviet republics), which does expand the scope of things.  And the use of a more global cast for UNIT (Colonel Walsh is fairly obviously British, but others like drone operator Lisa and soldier Hitchley are American) helps with this as well.  And so the combination of these global elements, combined with the radicalization plot, gives "The Zygon Invasion" the feel of a contemporary political thriller -- something of a different style for Doctor Who, but one that's very effective.

And of course it wouldn't be a Zygon story without doubles.  Here we learn that Zygons can now reach into people's memories to take human form (no more need to refresh the bodyprint à la Terror of the Zygons), which leads to lots of memorable moments, like a whole group of UNIT soldiers' family members emerging from a Turmezistan church or, charmingly, the revelation that the Zygon High Command have been operating as two little blonde girls.  But the most impressive of all is Jenna Coleman, who's taken over early on (though we don't learn that until the end of the episode) and then pretends to be Clara -- although her pulling her hair back (something I can't recall seeing the real Clara do) is a bit of a sign that something is different.  But she seems so much like Clara ("Did you just call yourself 'Doctor Disco'?" and "Everybody middle-aged always thinks the world's about to come to an end" being two of her more memorable lines) that when that façade drops, and we see just how cruel she is as "Bonnie", that's genuinely chilling and impressive.

Osgood and the Doctor question a Zygon captive. ("The Zygon
Invasion") ©BBC
That's not to belittle the other actors by comparison, mind; Peter Capaldi continues to impress (and he seems to be going for a '70s theme in names, calling himself both "Doctor Disco" and "Dr. Funkenstein", after the Parliament song), Ingrid Oliver is wonderful as Osgood (and it's nice to have her back in a clever way, after she died at the hand of the Master in "Death in Heaven"), and Jemma Redgrave does a good job as Kate Stewart, investigating what happened in Truth or Consequences (which includes a scene, as she drives up, with a clichéd tumbleweed rolling by -- until you realize after the fact it's not a tumbleweed but the remains of a Zygon victim265) -- even if she seems a lot more trigger-happy than before.  (What happened to "Science leads"?  But I guess if you suddenly had to monitor Operation Double all the time, you might become more inclined to violence too...)

In other words, this is an incredibly strong episode, one that has a good chance of being one of the standout stories of series 9 -- so long as the second episode can keep things going, that is.  And what a cliffhanger!  "I'm sorry, but Clara's dead.  Kate Stewart is dead.  The UNIT troops are all dead," Bonnie says to the Doctor.  "Truth or consequences," she adds, as she shoots the Doctor's plane out of the sky with a missile launcher.  If that doesn't get them tuning in next week, I'm not sure what will.

July 24: "The Zygon Inversion"

Stuart Manning's poster for "The Zygon
Inversion" (from Incredible set of retro
Doctor Who series 9 posters)
The thriller vibe continues with this second half, although now we're done globe-hopping, in favor of zeroing in on the London area, dealing with the next phase of Bonnie's plan.  And what's immediately clear is just how much we hate Bonnie and loathe her, with her superior, cruel smile and her smug sense of self-righteousness, even as she destroys innocent lives in her plan for conquest.

In other words, holy hell is Jenna Coleman good in this.

The most impressive part is the confrontation between Bonnie and Clara, who's trapped in a dream state inside her Zygon pod but still subconsciously connected to Bonnie.  At no point (even ignoring the different setting each character finds themselves in) is it ever unclear which character is which.  Clara is so much warmer and kinder, even as she fearlessly faces down her doppelgänger, that there's no question that she's not the same person as Bonnie.  Bonnie may control Clara's bodyprint, but she can't control her soul.  It's a fabulous performance, one that Coleman justly deserves heaps of praise for.

Of course, since the real Clara is out of the way, that leaves Osgood to take the place of the companion surrogate this episode, which she seems to be a natural at -- helping the Doctor work through the clues (such as the fact that Clara is still alive) while providing him with the sounding board he needs to work through things, to figure out what Bonnie's plan is.  There are some lovely moments here, from the early scenes ("Why do you have a Union Jack parachute?" Osgood asks the Doctor, after they land on the beach, walking from the wreckage of the plane Bonnie blew up.  "Camouflage," the Doctor replies.  "Camouflage?" Osgood responds, no less confused.  "Yes, we're in Britain," the Doctor explains) to their exchange about names ("What's your first name?" Osgood counters, after the Doctor asks her the same name.  "Basil," he replies, after a hesitation) all the way to the final scene ("Oh, and you should know, I'm a very big fan," the Doctor tells Osgood before he leaves).  Peter Capaldi and Ingrid Oliver have such good chemistry that it's a bit of a shame she doesn't take him up on his offer of TARDIS travels at the end.

Now the focus of "The Zygon Inversion" is narrower than the first half, but we still get pointed comments about Bonnie's group.  "Don't think of them as rational," the Doctor tells Osgood.  "They're different.  They don't care about human beings, they don't care about their own people.  They think the rest of Zygonkind are traitors."  This is an obvious comment on radicalized groups in our world, but the more telling exchange comes later, between the Doctor, Osgood, and the half-converted Etoine: "I'm not part of your fight," Etoine tells the two of them.  "I never wanted to fight anyone, I just wanted to live here.  Why can't I just live?"  "We're on your side," the Doctor assures him.  "I'm not on anyone's side!" Etoine replies in anguish.  "This is my home."  In other words, the Truth or Consequences group don't care about how anyone else might actually feel about their positions or what they're saying; they know they're right, and that's all that matters.

The Doctor tries to convince Bonnie to stand down. ("The Zygon
Inversion") ©BBC
This of course all leads up to the climactic scene, of Kate Stewart and Bonnie, each at an Osgood Box that could either give them everything they wanted or destroy it -- in Kate's case, one button releases Sullivan's gas, which turns every Zygon inside out,266 while the other sets off a nuclear bomb under the Black Archive; for Bonnie, one button changes every Zygon and starts a war, while the other prevents them from ever changing back.  The confrontation between the two sides, with the Doctor in the middle trying to convince Bonnie (and, to a lesser extent, Kate) that it's better not to press either button than to take a chance, that it's better to talk your way through your problems, is really good.  Peter Capaldi is rarely better than in this scene, as he alternately goads and pleads with them not to press a button.  It's frankly so good that you just want to quote the whole thing, as the Doctor asks Bonnie what the world will be like after her group wins, or explains that the boxes are a scale model of war, ultimately there to show just how futile it is, how much easier it is to talk instead.  It's a tour de force performance, but perhaps the best thing about it is how the direction and the music get out of the way to let these actors perform -- there's almost no incidental music through this entire scene, which is an excellent (and somewhat unexpected) choice.  This is one of the all-time classic scenes of Doctor Who.  Is the underlying argument perhaps a bit simplistic?  Sure.  Does it really matter?  Not at all.  And does Bonnie get off fairly easy and make a sudden change in her thought processes?  Well, yes, but that's the point: as the Doctor says, "Well, here's the unforeseeable.  I forgive you," and later, when Bonnie asks how he can forgive her, he says, "Because I've been where you have.  There was another box.  I was going to press another button.  I was going to wipe out all of my own kind, man, woman and child.  I was so sure I was right."  "What happened?" Bonnie asks.  "The same thing that happened to you," the Doctor replies.  "I let Clara Oswald get inside my head.  Trust me.  She doesn't leave."  And that's the point; that's why Bonnie goes off to become a new Osgood.  Because she stopped to think, and found redemption as a result.  That's not a bad message at all.

So this two-part story has an absolute knockout scene as its resolution, but the preceding 75 minutes or so are no slouch either.  With its willingness to take one of Doctor Who's classic monsters and use them not as standard aliens but as a way into a much more interesting, nuanced story, "The Zygon Invasion/Inversion" is a fabulous tale from start to finish.  Definitely one of the standout tales of not just series 9 but Steven Moffat's entire tenure.

July 25: "Sleep No More"

Stuart Manning's poster for "Sleep No More"
(from Incredible set of retro Doctor Who
series 9 posters)
I have a suspicion that this is one of those polarizing stories Doctor Who occasionally puts out, the ones that people either love or hate, with few falling in the middle.  (The stories sometimes referred to as "Marmite" stories.)  I have to confess, I'm not really on the "love" side for this one; I find "Sleep No More" to be pretty frustrating.

I think the problem for me is the basic concept.  Not with the "found footage" aspect of it (although I have some reservations about that, as I'll discuss below), or even the idea of a machine that eliminates sleep -- that's a neat idea.  No, my problem is that we're asked to be afraid of monsters made of sleep dust.  Sleep dust.  The crud that builds up in the corner of your eye.  How on Earth are we meant to take this seriously?  That sounds like something someone would come up with if they were trying to parody Steven Moffat.  "Let's see, we've done ticking clocks, statues, shadows, gaps in your memory, WiFi...what other common everyday things can we make people scared of?  I know!  How about sleepies?"  I mean, yes, the Sandmen are sufficiently creepy and menacing and such, but they're killer eye boogers for heaven's sake.

Rassmussen addresses the camera. ("Sleep No More") ©BBC
Now, if the rest of the episode were more light-hearted, maybe this wouldn't matter.  But other than an odd Hitchhiker's Guide-meets-Portal moment where Deep-Ando has to sing "Mr. Sandman" to the computer to get it to open the door (even though we never see anyone else have to go through this to enter a room), this is an episode that is definitely taking itself seriously.  Part of this is because of the "found footage" approach, which seems to naturally lend itself to scarier narratives, with unfocused or half-in-shot monsters and the "startled" effect of having monsters suddenly appear out of seemingly nowhere.  And I do applaud the use of this technique; it's nice to see them trying something new.  What I don't like is how the script decides to undermine this by making it a plot point that there aren't any cameras to be found and that in fact it's the sleep dust floating in the air and such that's monitoring people; a nice idea from a creepy surveillance point of view, but a terrible one for what they're actually trying to accomplish.  If any dust mote can potentially be a camera, then that means we can suddenly have a camera anywhere -- but then what's the point of doing "found footage", if you can place the camera in the same places you'd put it if you were shooting this as a typical episode?  To his credit, director Justin Molotnikov doesn't take advantage of this until the Doctor mentions it, and even after that he doesn't use it much, but it still takes away from the documentary feel they're going for.

In fact, if this episode succeeds at all it's because of what's happening on camera.  Molotnikov does an excellent job with this style of directing, and all the actors are doing fine (with the possible exception of Reece Shearsmith, who sometimes seems like he's playing things up a bit -- but as that's rather the entire point of his character, it's easy enough to forgive), acting appropriately scared and all that.  And as I said before, the underlying idea of a machine that removes the need for sleep by rewriting your brain chemistry is a neat idea, one that hasn't been done on the show before.  Although I can't decide if the idea that Rassmussen has been arranging everything as a story, with appropriate bursts of excitement here and there, is clever or not.

But still.  Sleep in your eye that wants to consume you.

So if you can get past the sheer ridiculousness of the monsters, I suspect there's quite a bit here for you to enjoy.  But for me, they're so silly that they ruin the episode; worse, this means that I find large stretches of this story fairly boring, as I don't really believe in the monsters or the threat they entail.  "Sleep No More" just isn't my cup of tea.

Although despite that it's kind of a clever ending, I must admit.  If you'll excuse me, I think I've got some sleep in my eye...

July 26: "Face the Raven"

Stuart Manning's poster for "Face the Raven"
(from Incredible set of retro Doctor Who
series 9 posters)
Our second female writer for the series -- this time it's newcomer Sarah Dollard, who's provided a really well-scripted story about hidden streets and refugee camps, in what sort of appears to be the first part of a three-part finale.  ("Sort of" because this installment is written and directed by people different from the last two parts, but the story really does seem to carry on directly into the next part (which is itself very distinct from the final part, and those two are generally accepted as being the same story), and with repercussions that will be addressed in the final part.  And even Steven Moffat notes that this feels like part 1 of 3 in the Doctor Who Extra accompanying "Face the Raven".)  And while we're here, can we just take a moment to acknowledge how gorgeous that dark red jacket the Doctor is wearing is?  That color fits him to a T, with a slight Pertwee vibe to it.  It may be my favorite look so far for the twelfth Doctor.

We also get to say hello again to Rigsy from last series' "Flatline" -- and now we see he has a wife and a baby that the Doctor seems completely enamoured with.  But it's not a social visit; no, Rigsy needs help with a mysterious tattoo on the back of his neck that's slowly counting down.

I have to say, the idea that a trap street is real is quite clever, and the efforts to find such a street in London are nicely entertaining.  And we get some more evidence that Clara's starting to be a bit too cavalier about what she and the Doctor do, as she enjoys herself despite nearly falling out of the TARDIS as it hovers above London.  "She enjoyed that way too much," Rigsy remarks.  "Tell me about it," the Doctor replies; "it's an ongoing problem."

But once the trap street is located the emphasis shifts to the alien refugee camp inside, hiding from the humans and being governed/ruled over by their mayor, Ashildr/Me.  (She keeps calling herself Me, the Doctor keeps going with Ashildr -- and this time around the credits agree with the Doctor.)  What's notable here is that, 365 years after the last time we got to chat with her, Ashildr seems less bitter but still just as cold.  Now, part of this might be an effort to seem like a proper mayor, above it all and such, but she still comes across as uncaring and still blaming the Doctor for several of the world's woes.  So while she's not exactly the Doctor's enemy, she's hardly his friend either.

What's clever about this part of the episode isn't just the way the tension mounts as time begins to run out, as the three of them begin to unravel the mystery of what Mayor Me is really up to.  It's the way Clara's actions, the way she believes she's acting just like the Doctor would when she takes Rigsy's chronolock tattoo, ultimately lead to her downfall.  But we don't know that until it's too late; here it's just another matter-of-fact move, a way for Clara to laugh in the face of danger.  Only this time it backfires.

The Doctor realizes Clara is going to die while Me and Rigsy
look on. ("Face the Raven") ©BBC
It's a hell of an affecting eight minutes at the end, as the Doctor realizes that Clara has signed her own death warrant ("Clara, you didn't!") and there's absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.  Ashildr was trying to hand the Doctor over to some unseen party (ostensibly in order to protect the trap street), but Clara's actions mean that the mayor can't remove the chronolock, like she would have done with Rigsy.  "You cut me out of the deal," Me tells her; Clara is going to have to deal with the Quantum Shade, to face the raven.  ('Cos the Shade takes the form of a raven, remember.)  "This is my fault," the Doctor says.  "...I let you get reckless."  "Why?  Why shouldn't I be so reckless?" Clara demands.  "You're reckless all the bloody time.  Why can't I be like you?"  "Clara, there's nothing special about me," the Doctor replies.  "I am nothing, but I'm less breakable than you."  (And more knowledgeable too, although he doesn't say that.)  And so the Doctor can do nothing but watch as Clara decides to face her death with bravery ("Well, if Danny Pink can do it, so can I") and tells the Doctor not to be a warrior.  And so she dies, facing the raven.

And it's a very strong ending moment from the Doctor right after.  "What Clara said about not taking revenge," he says to Ashildr, visibly furious.  "Do you know why she said that?"  "She was saving you," Ashildr says.  "I was lost a long time ago," the Doctor replies.  "She was saving you.  I'll do my best, but I strongly advise you to keep out of my way.  You'll find that it's a very small universe when I'm angry with you."

"Face the Raven" is an impressive début for a writer who clearly understands Doctor Who and can easily write for these characters.  It's smart and sad and affecting and brilliant; thank goodness Sarah Dollard is writing for series 10, because if it's anything like this it'll be a knockout.  This definitely makes you want more -- not just from Dollard, but from the next episode as well.

(And the final tag scene after the credits is sweet.)

July 27: "Heaven Sent"

Stuart Manning's poster for "Heaven Sent"
(from Incredible set of retro Doctor Who
series 9 posters)
The clues are there fairly early on.  "When I was a very little boy, there was an old lady who died," the Doctor says.  "They covered her in veils, but it was a hot, sunny day, and the flies came.  It gave me nightmares for years.  So, who's been stealing my nightmares?"

Of course, if you've seen the episode then you know the answer (and if you haven't, you should go do that now), but "Heaven Sent" gives us a Doctor trapped in his own personal hell.  (Incidentally, am I the only person who thinks it would have been better if they'd swapped the titles of this episode and the next one?  What exactly does "Heaven Sent" mean in the context of this particular episode anyway, other than as a cute parallel with "Hell Bent"?)  He can't really rest, he has no one to interact with (and therefore no one to persuade or impress), and there doesn't seem to be a way out -- just a series of odd puzzles instead.

And so we're treated to something unique in (televised) Doctor Who.  We've had episodes without the Doctor (such as the various ones in the '60s where Hartnell or Troughton were away that week -- or "Mission to the Unknown", if you want one without any of the TARDIS crew), but this is the first time we've gotten an episode that only has the Doctor.  (Well, all right, there's that quick cameo from Clara, but as that's in his head anyway that's still technically the Doctor.)  Just the Doctor and the Veil, a silent, slow-moving, implacable force, trying to get the Doctor to confess something or die.  And what this means is we get an astonishing and incredible performance from Peter Capaldi.

I mean, to be fair, it's not necessarily that Capaldi is doing anything that different from other episodes, but he definitely has to do a lot more than normal.  "Heaven Sent" is focused solely on the Doctor; there are no cutaway scenes to other locations, no sinister figures outside monitoring his progress.  Every scene involves the Doctor; there are no moments (save the opening ones, which bear witness to the aftermath of the last go-round) that don't include him.  That's a hell of a burden to place on an actor, but Capaldi is magnificent.  He makes a 45-minute monologue as compelling as anything else, and it's a tribute to his skill that the audience is never bored by this.  And the range of emotion on display (such as anger, puzzlement, and fear) give us a fascinating insight into the mind of the Doctor.  We see him use the TARDIS as his own mental palace267, where he shows off in front of an imaginary Clara as a way of figuring out how he's going to get out of his current predicament.  We see him confess things to the Veil ("I didn't leave Gallifrey because I was bored!  That was a lie!  It's always been a lie!  ...  I was scared!  I ran because I was scared!"), but only as a way to make the puzzle-box castle move.  We see him try to figure out the prison he's inside, with copious notes in his notebook.  And that's how he slowly works out what winning actually means, and what he's endured: going through this whole process for 7000 years, just to punch at a wall 400 times harder than diamond a few times, and then doing the whole thing again.

The Veil kills the Doctor once more. ("Heaven Sent") ©BBC
That of course leads to the completion of the circuit as the Doctor burns himself up to provide the energy to bring himself back, his pattern still in the "hard drive".  And that leads to the montage as the Doctor gets further and further through the azbantium wall, in a process that takes over two billion years.  It's an impressive, affecting montage, seeing how long it takes.  It also makes you wonder what the first few (thousand?) times were like, before he left himself clues like "BIRD" in the dust, or "I AM IN 12" in the grave -- indeed, how long did it take him to discover that the way out was in room 12 in the first place?  When did he paint the picture of Clara?  What was it like, those first moments of the first second of eternity?

And that, I think, is the true brilliance of "Heaven Sent".  It's not just Peter Capaldi's performance, or Rachel Talalay's direction, or even Steven Moffat's script.  It's the fact that, despite the fact that Moffat has provided us with another puzzle box storyline, where all the pieces have been aligned to fit just so in order to make everything make sense (such as "The Girl in the Fireplace", "Blink", or "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang"), he's provided us with so much canvas to fill in the details around this particular cycle for the Doctor that you can't help but be impressed by the sense of scale and scope.  And so taking a script like that and then putting Peter Capaldi in the middle of it, with Rachel Talalay supervising the look?  That's brilliant.

(And this doesn't even address the final moments, as the Doctor steps out on Gallifrey and announces that "The Hybrid is me."  Or possibly, "The Hybrid is Me [aka Ashildr]."  That's another hell of a cliffhanger.)

July 28: "Hell Bent"

Stuart Manning's poster for "Hell Bent"
(from Design by Stuart Manning)
It starts in a diner that the Doctor walks into, carrying a guitar and playing Murray Gold's Clara theme on it.  The diner is being run by Clara (although I have to admit, my first reaction upon seeing this was, "I wonder if that's one of Clara's splinter selves from 'The Name of the Doctor'?"), and the Doctor doesn't appear to recognize her, as he tells her the story of his final adventure with Clara Oswald.  That's the framing narrative that "Hell Bent" takes place in, but after the opening credits we pick up where "Heaven Sent" left off, with only an occasional interjection from the diner into events.

It's a great scene, as the Doctor returns to that old barn from "The Day of the Doctor" and "Listen", while Rassilon (played by Donald Sumpter, who takes from Arthur "The Dominators to 'The Eleventh Hour'" Cox the title of longest time between appearances on Doctor Who, as Sumpter's last appearance was 43 years ago, in The Sea Devils) tries to figure out what it is the Doctor wants.  "We could talk to him," says the General (last seen in "The Day of the Doctor").  "Words are his weapons," Rassilon replies, but what's noticeable here is that we don't actually hear the Doctor say a single word until Rassilon appears; this is a Doctor who's so angry that he's gone beyond words, who now wields silence as a weapon.  And when Rassilon does personally appear, the Doctor's first words to him are, "Get off my planet" (even though Rassilon is Lord President of the Time Lords), and the Doctor's able to convince the Time Lord troopers to move to his side and lay down their weapons without saying a single word to them.  It's an impressive moment, and the way director Rachel Talalay frames it like a Western (right down to a whistled version of that Time Lord theme, à la Ennio Morricone), is an inspired move.  This is the Doctor facing off against his opponent and winning without firing a shot or uttering a word.  "There was a saying, sir, in the Time War," the trooper, Gastron, tells Rassilon.  "The first thing you will notice about the Doctor of War is he's unarmed."  And that's proven true here.

But while that's impressive, what's more fascinating is the lengths he will go to to save his best friend Clara.  All that time spent in his own confession dial ("We think [he was in there] four-and-a-half billion years," Ohila states), trying to convince the Time Lords he knew all about the Hybrid (whether he actually did or not), was just so he had a bargaining chip that he could use to rescue her.  He's willing to get rid of Rassilon and the High Council (although, admittedly, the Time War stuff is also part of the reason -- "The Doctor does not blame Gallifrey for the horrors of the Time War. ... He just blames you," Ohila tells Rassilon), to break the rules and bring Clara back through the use of an extraction chamber (a Time Lord thingy that pulls you out of time right before the moment of your death) just to save her.  That's his entire goal.

Gorgeous TARDIS, by the way, with the new stolen TARDIS having the classic Hartnell theme, right down to the plate under the console and the sound effects of the door opening and such.  (Although I wonder why they made the walls and doors so much smaller in scale than the original.)  And it's a great backdrop for those climactic moments, after the Doctor goes to have a chat with Me, who's apparently the last person in the universe, sitting in the ruins of Gallifrey and watching the universe die.  Here Me seems far more accepting of things, and while there's a core of steel present she no longer seems cold or bitter -- indeed, she seems to enjoy challenging the Doctor as to the identity of the Hybrid.  "That's very very easy," he tells her, "the Hybrid is you," but Me is having none of it.  "By your own reasoning, why couldn't the Hybrid be half-Time Lord, half-human?" she wonders.  "Tell me, Doctor, I've always wondered.  You're a Time Lord; you're a high-born Gallifreyan.  Why is it you spend so much time on Earth?" (One can imagine Steven Moffat giggling to himself, slipping in that reference to the controversial half-human thing introduced in the McGann TVM.)  The Doctor pooh-poohs that though: "That's your best theory?  I'm the Hybrid?  I ran away from Gallifrey because I was afraid of myself?  That doesn't make any sense."  Ah, but Me has a better theory.  "What if the Hybrid wasn't one person, but two?" she says.  "... A dangerous combination of a passionate and powerful Time Lord and a young woman so very similar to him.  Companions who are willing to push each other to extremes."  After all, they were brought together by the Master, "the lover of chaos."  "Clara's my friend," the Doctor protests.  "I know," Me replies.  "And you're willing to risk all of time and space because you miss her.  One wonders what the pair of you will get up to next."  It's an interesting conversation, even if it ultimately doesn't tell us anything at all about the Hybrid or why we were supposed to care this series.

The Doctor begins to feel the effects of the neural block.
("Hell Bent") ©BBC
But you know what?  That doesn't really matter.  Because the best thing about "Hell Bent" is the resolution of Clara's storyline with the Doctor.  The BBC Wales version of Doctor Who has had a tendency of making its companions more and more like him and then not knowing how to say goodbye to them, and so Rose gets shunted off to another universe, while Donna gets her mind wiped, denied all the growth she'd experienced.  But when the Doctor tries the same mind-wipe trick with Clara, she's having none of it: "These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine," she tells him.  "Tomorrow is promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past.  I am entitled to that.  It's mine."  And so it's the Doctor who forgets, while Clara gets to essentially graduate.  (And although the neural block thing is treated as a toss-up, one does wonder if the Doctor knew that it would wipe his memory, if he decided to sacrifice himself to allow Clara to continue.  The dialogue certainly points in that direction, as the Doctor starts talking about the neural block maybe not being reversible after he admits to Clara that she's right, that she does have the right to her past.)  Clara gets a TARDIS and a companion and is allowed to go off and have adventures, and while she'll have to go to Gallifrey at some point, to make sure she dies at the right moment, she doesn't have to do that right away.  She gets to be the hero of her own story.  I have to say, I haven't been the biggest fan of Clara's "increasingly reckless" storyline this past series -- it's sometimes felt like they didn't quite know what to do with her character after the Danny Pink storyline last series -- but this was absolutely the best way to resolve it.  There's something wonderful about the idea of another TARDIS out there, exploring the universe and doing the right thing.  Fantastic.

So "Hell Bent" provides the cap on a story that's been affecting and astonishing, and even the bittersweetness of the diner scenes, where the Doctor doesn't know he's talking to Clara (although, after the diner dematerializes around him and he (presumably) sees Rigsy's portrait of Clara painted on his TARDIS, he surely must know that was Clara, right?), is tempered by the knowledge that everything worked out in the end.  (Well, except for the Rassilon bit -- I wonder if that'll come back to haunt the Doctor...)  "Hell Bent" is an excellent end to an excellent story.

And while that's technically the end of series 9 proper as it was broadcast, we still have a Christmas special left -- one that's coming up so soon that there's even a "Next Time" trailer at the end of this episode...

July 29: "The Husbands of River Song"

Stuart Manning's poster for "The Husbands of
River Song" (from Design by Stuart Manning)
For the first time since, ooh, "The Runaway Bride", we get a Christmas special that's designed to be a comedy.  There's a sense that, after saying goodbye to Clara, the show wants to shift gears and do a nice, fun romp this time around.  And, on the whole, it largely works.  That's not to say it's perfect, mind, and parts of this are in fact deeply silly.  But what makes this work is the underlying tone of, "Let's just have a laugh", which means that this might be one of the funnier stories Steven Moffat has written for the show.

The opening stuff, with the TARDIS in a redressed Trap Street set, might actually be the weakest moments, but this is quickly addressed with the introduction of River Song.  I know some people aren't fond of her character, but I don't mind, and this story makes a virtue of her, showing us how she behaves when the Doctor isn't around.  And the answer isn't as virtuous as the Doctor might expect -- we get lots of back and forth between River and the guy she doesn't realize is the Doctor (since she doesn't know he got a new set of regenerations) as she tells him to kill King Hydroflax: "Is this what you're like when I'm not [around]?  ...  You're talking about murdering someone," the Doctor protests.  "No, I'm not," River replies cheerily, "I'm actually murdering someone.  Cheer up!  Get a saw, I'll kill the lights, you kill the patient."  The chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston is really quite good, and even while it's perhaps slightly uncomfortable to see River so morally ambiguous (she must put up more of a front while the Doctor's around), it's still great fun.  And interestingly, the Doctor largely just rolls with this, even if he disapproves -- it's like he just wants to see where this goes.

The rest of the guest cast aren't exactly slouching; Greg Davies seems like he's having a good time ranting as King Hydroflax, even though he was probably rather uncomfortable with his head stuck through tables and such (and apparently his head is so heavy it's distorting the TARDIS telepathic circuits -- aka the foam rubber is rather obvious here), while Matt Lucas does a cheery job as Nardole, who always seems to realize what's going on just a bit too late.  (His best moment is probably with the Doctor, starting to wail like a modern-day Stan Laurel in Hydroflax's chamber after the Doctor says to him, "This might be an alarming question in the circumstance, but you really do think I'm a surgeon, don't you?")  And Phillip Rhys walks just the right side of the slightly dim pretty boy line as Ramone, another of River's husbands.  Really, it's only the subplot of the robot who keeps cutting people's heads off to upload them that threatens to tip this over into pure silliness, but even that is handled fairly well -- although the bits with Nardole in the robot (like "It's really very whiffy down there") are the moments that threaten to unbalance everything.  Still, this is a cast clearly enjoying themselves.

Flemming takes the Doctor and River to the onboard restaurant.
("The Husbands of River Song") ©BBC
But no, it's Capaldi and Kingston who steal the show -- from Kingston's revelation that she's frequently borrowed "Damsel"'s TARDIS without his knowing to Capaldi's deliberately overacted reaction to entering the TARDIS for the "first" time to the two of them trying desperately how to figure out how to explain to the buyers of the Helassi Androvar diamond that said diamond is lodged inside the disembodied head of the king they worship, they're having so much fun that we do too.  And even when things get a bit more serious (as when River explains that the Doctor doesn't love her and isn't around to save her), they quickly shift back into a lighter tone:
DOCTOR: Hello, sweetie.
RIVER: (after a moment) You are so doing those roots.
DOCTOR: What, the roots of the sunset?
RIVER: Don't you dare.
DOCTOR: I'll have to check with the stars themselves.
RIVER: Oh, shut up. I was just keeping them talking till it kicks off.
It's nice to see River be the hero of her own story, with the Doctor relegated to companion status for most of this, and even when she learns that this is the Doctor she's still largely the one calling the shots ("I'm an archaeologist from the future.  I dug you up").  But ultimately this is a story designed to be nothing more than a romp (the script even goes to pains to say that literally everyone aboard the ship Harmony and Redemption is a killer of some sort, so that we won't feel bad when they die in the crash), purposefully shallow and something to smile at without too much trouble, and at that it largely succeeds.  Which is why it's a bit odd how the story suddenly takes a hard left in the last 10 minutes or so into a melancholy drama, as we see that the Doctor and River have finally made it to Darillium, where we learned way back in "Forest of the Dead" was the last time River saw the Doctor before she died.  It's a bittersweet moment, and it's handled deftly, but it doesn't really match the previous 45 minutes in content or tone.  But I think that's OK; it's a chance to give River's story some closure (even if it seemed we'd already done that in "The Name of the Doctor"), and the cheeky reveal that a night on Darillium lasts 24 years lessens the sting a bit.

So no, it's not a perfect episode, and depending on how you feel about River Song her inclusion in a pretty shallow story might not make this your cup of tea, but I don't mind it.  It's not the best Christmas special ever, but it might be the jolliest.

And that brings us to the end of series 9, which really has been an impressively strong run for the show; I'd wager this is the best run of stories since Matt Smith's debut in series 5.  I noted at the end of series 8 that, while I generally enjoyed that run, I sometimes felt you had to work a little harder at it, even if there wasn't as heavy a reliance on the overarching plot to deal with.  But series 9 offers no such reservations: the overarching plot is minimal (you could have missed every previous "Hybrid" comment up to "Hell Bent" and have been just fine), the stories are interesting, and the Doctor here seems far more accessible than he did.  In series 8, he was a bit prickly and brusque, but it seems that that epiphany at the end of "Death in Heaven" really did have an effect: he's so much more relaxed and comfortable this series, playing guitar, wearing sunglasses, and dressing in less formal-looking versions of his series 8 outfit.  This is on the whole a good thing, as it makes us that much more happy to be in his presence.  These things, combined with all the other things I've mentioned over the past couple weeks, makes series 9 a really outstanding run.  It makes you look forward to series 10.268

And once again, thanks for joining me on this little trip through space and time.  I'll be back on July 30, 2017, most likely discussing the latest (still upcoming) Doctor Who spinoff, Class.269  See you then, and cheers.


262 Reporters kept asking Jenna Coleman and Steven Moffat if Clara would be back for series 9, but they were both tight-lipped, telling people to watch the show and find out -- which led to all sorts of rumors either way.  It turns out this was the escape valve: if Coleman wanted to leave, the "old woman" version would have been the reality, and if she wanted to say, what we eventually got would happen.
263 Steven Moffat apparently intended this be something of an homage to the way Anthony Ainley's Master would keep popping up, with no explanation as to how he'd survived his previous story.  Knowing that doesn't make this any less vaguely irritating, though.
264 Fun fact to counteract that bit of crankiness: when the Doctor says he can speak sign, as he says to her "Go ahead" he actually signs "You're beautiful", which explains Cass's slightly surprised reaction.
265 Unless I'm reading too much into this, but I don't think I am.
266 This and the mention in the previous episode is a subtle reference to fourth Doctor companion Harry Sullivan (who, as those who remember Terror of the Zygons would know, has a vested interest in stopping the Zygons), as well as explaining an offhand reference in Mawdryn Undead that Harry was "doing something very hush-hush at Porton Down" -- now we know what that something was.
267 A technique that also shows up in Moffat's other big series, Sherlock, which was written not terribly long before this series of Doctor Who.
268 Even if they did delay it a year, with some handwavy explanation about there already being enough big events going on in 2016 that they wanted to delay things to 2017 to give Steven Moffat's final series a bigger impact.  My guess is the real reason was scheduling (maybe incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall wasn't going to be free until then) and/or budgeting.
269 OK, yes technically speaking I haven't discussed "Friend from the Future", the quick 2-minute introduction to brand-new companion Bill, played by Pearl Mackie, but that's because we don't yet know where or how this scene fits into series 10 -- it might be part of an episode for all we know.  Bill looks like she'll be fun, though.