The Rankings: Peter Capaldi Year 2, Doctor Who Reviews, 28/12/2015

Now that we've seen all 13 episodes of this season, I can publish my own rankings post on Peter Capaldi’s second year of Doctor Who. In terms of overall quality episode to episode, and story to story, it’s consistent with his first year. About as many middling and bad as before. 

Watching his performance this year, I feel like Peter
Capaldi's performance as the Doctor, already excellent
last year, has improved massively. The material helps,
but he's delivered utterly virtuoso performances.
But I'd actually say that's an improvement because this season was much more experimental than the last one. Many of Steven Moffat's own authored stories were quite experimental as usual, but this was a rare season in that so many new writers were encouraged to push themselves creatively. 

I think it’s an aspect of his succession planning, identifying writers who aren't just good and have production experience, but who are also open to pushing Doctor Who to do new things. 

So I’d put the odds on Jamie Mathieson, Sarah Dollard, and Peter Harness. Less likely for Toby Whithouse. We’ll see what Patrick Ness pulls together with Class in Spring 2016. Mark Gatiss will probably stick around the writing stable.

How the episodes are grouped into stories might be a little unorthodox. Even though the final three episodes of the season proper share an arc (The Death and Resurrection of Clara Oswald), their narratives are so different that I couldn’t treat them as a single story.

1. Heaven Sent (Masterpiece, beyond the meaning of a grade)
2. The Zygon Inva/ersion (A+)
3. Face the Raven (A)
4. The Husbands of River Song (A-)
5. The Girl Who Died and the Woman Who Lived (A-)
6. Hell Bent (B)
7. Sleep No More (B-)
8. The Magician’s Apprentice & Witch’s Familiar (B-)
9. Under the Lake / Before the Flood (D+)

The ghosts' makeup and visual effects design was
frankly brilliant, though.
Under the Lake / Before the Flood makes me hope Toby Whithouse is never asked to return to Doctor Who. The plot adds up to an uninteresting base-under-siege. The black guy dies first. The reiteration of Paul Reiser from Aliens dies from being too stupid to put his helmet back on in the airlock. The villain's motives are nothing more complex than "invade, conquer, destroy.” Utterly generic.

The villain’s underlying concept was stealing people’s deaths by turning them into the world's creepiest signal amplifiers, and the primer for this literally was a magic word that repeated a set of directional coordinates on an infinite loop in their brains. This was the story’s only redeeming feature.

But the whole story so rapidly devolved into a generic base under siege that this genuinely horrifying concept was wasted. And Bennett's unspoken love for the dead O'Connell uncritically validated what in real life would be stalking behaviour. In a realist story style, that’s unforgivable. 

I could do better with just a day to have thought about itBut Whithouse’s was really the only clunker this season. Too bad it was two episodes, making it one-sixth of the main run.

The Magician's Apprentice and the Witch’s Familiar was a fascinating two-parter. Its plot was barely existent. It was a basic kitchen sink story of throwing as much stuff at the audience as possible, then all the stuff had philosophical conversations with each other. 

Let's have the Doctor and Davros talk about the nature of mercy and the necessity of violence. Verbal sparring between Clara and the Master about their differing takes on the time travelling mercenary for two episodes. Epic adventures between UNIT and the return of Skaro’s urban Daleks. The Lovecraftian horrors of living death that stalks Dalek-kind itself.

I know it's the convention to call Michelle Gomez's
character Missy, but she's the Master. Calling her Missy
distinguishes the female Master too much from the
Master as a whole, complex, multi-actor, multi-author,
multi-gender character and phenomenon. Gomez's
Master may like the name Missy, but she is still the
Master. And you are her slave.
All of that is awesome, and its collision creates a solid two hours of television as it is. Too bad none of these ideas and images had a real story to hang from.

Sleep No More was bold and daring in its experimentalism, and quite subversive of audience preconceptions and Doctor Who itself. Found footage storytelling was a tired gimmick by the mid-2000s, but Gatiss turned the concept on its head with a multi-layered meta-fictional approach.

We don’t have helmet cams.” And you realize that the entire story has been the construction of the villain himself. Rasmussen’s defeated the Doctor because his total control of the storytelling medium prevents the Doctor from taking over the story. It’s a jaw-droppingly brilliant concept. 

But the story Rasmussen tells is a pretty generic base-under-siege, barely sensible future culture and horribly uninteresting supporting cast included. 

As for Hell Bent, the return of Gallifrey sets the stage for a huge number of fascinating and brilliant adventures in the future. Unfortunately, none of those adventures appeared in Hell Bent, whose Gallifrey setting was all setup and no real elaboration. 

The conclusion of Clara’s character arc was quite touching, though. And the Doctor’s encounter with Ashildir/Me was a wonderful conversation as usual.

Yes, Ashildir. Both the Girl Who Died and the Woman Who Lived. The first episode of this disconnected two-parter was a brilliant adventure-comedy which turns to philosophical tragedy on a dime, a perfect script from Jamie Mathieson. I suspect that Moffat's co-writing credit means this was an education for a likely future (co-)showrunner. 

Ashildir makes great use of Maisie Williams, a brilliant
actor who I suspect will have some trouble finding
parts as good as Ashildir or Arya Stark down the road. I
hope she does, though.
The second episode contained a fascinating meditation on the nature and consequences of immortality, whether you can maintain an ethically meaningful connection with the world while outliving everyone in it. 

However, it also contained a silly plot involving a lion that shoots fire lasers from its eyes and a cheap comic relief highwayman with all the subtlety of a Restoration Comedy fart joke routine. Which is a shame. But it doesn’t overpower the force of the rest of this fascinating story.

This year's Xmas Special was largely flawless. It's a perfect execution of Moffat's best genre, farce. At the same time, it makes a moving conclusion to River Song’s character arc, having unfolded in chaos along the margins and implied off-screen spaces of Doctor Who. 

Its only problem was that you needed to have done so much archaeology of Doctor Who and River Song for The Husbands of River Song's emotional beats to land optimally. 

Those watching over the last six years without maximum attention would be a little lost. Those who’ve seen less than the last six years would be even more lost. But that’s a problem of River Song as a character and an experimental piece of Doctor Who, which I talked about in more detail in my post on The Husbands of River Song itself. 

The best part of Clara's death scene was her explicit
refusal of the Doctor to put her in a fridge, reducing
her entire story – that of the longest-running
companion in Doctor Who's history – to a trigger for
some tired, overly-masculine revenge plot.
Face the Raven needed no knowledge of previous continuity to land. It didn't depend on any details of Clara’s life from previous seasons. You didn't even need to know who Ashildir or Rigsy were. The story itself explained all you needed to know: Ashildir was the ruthless manager of this multi-species camp, and Rigsy was an old friend of the Doctor and Clara’s who had gotten into trouble. 

The pathos of Clara's end arose from her personality – her recklessness and aggression – and the beauty of her deep friendship with the Doctor. All of this was openly on display. Add to this, a tightly told story packed with beautiful imagery and fascinating ideas, and I'd say that Sarah Dollard created the single best script of this season. Among the contract writers, that is.

The Zygon Inva/ersion was the best action-horror Doctor Who story of the Capaldi era so far and the best UNIT story in history. On top of that, its political attitude, perspective, and weaving of philosophical exploration with suspense could not have been more smoothly assembled. 

It's all the more impressive for all the ways that even a moment of thinking on it could reveal all the ways it could have gone completely off the rails.

But then a story comes along that takes Doctor Who to a whole new level. If television sci-fi were taken as seriously as it should be in our culture, Heaven Sent would be studied as a successor to the great works of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Harlan Ellison. 

Not only is it a story perfectly told, it’s a puzzlebox whose solution is probably the most terrifying idea that's ever been developed in Doctor Who. It’s a horrifying confrontation with the fear of violent death, and a demonstration of the fullest extent of the Doctor’s ethical dedication to never giving in to cruelty or those who’d inflict it.

The horror. That's why I think it's a masterpiece. It is
perfect horror.
On top of all that, it’s soul-shattering in how viscerally it show us the perspective of someone who can literally think and plan at cosmological scales. All the usual ways of trying to get this across are inadequate. 

The Doctor’s social awkwardness, alienation from people, obliviousness to human details, occasional ruthlessness? Just human-like qualities anyway. The out-of-nowhere declarations of having travelled large numbers of years? Just words.

The Doctor dedicates himself to a plan that will move at the pace of one raindrop at a time wearing away the Rocky Mountains. And the unfolding of the Doctor's near-infinitely repeating story loop, Heaven Sent, lets the audience feel something more approaching the full duration of that cosmic time.

It’s a bloody masterpiece.


  1. My rankings, with quick summaries, in reverse order:

    Under the Lake/Before the Flood (D)
    There's a baseline of competence here, but nothing interesting or new that Whithouse has to bring to the show. You've listed its biggest flaws, but I was also continually frustrated by the way it raised ideas (some of which were potentially interesting, some less so) and then did nothing with them other than tie them up. Compare to the opening two parter, which was a structural mess, but took its big ideas, themes, and character pairings, and pushed them to their breaking point.

    Sleep No More (C)
    You're right, the metatextual stuff is fascinating, and really well done. But my word it's drab to look at, and Gatiss's inherent safeness as a writer stops him from pushing the story to interesting places in all parts of the script.

    The Woman Who Lived (B)
    The Immortality stuff is good, and Capaldi and Masie Williams play off each other brilliantly. The Leandro plot was needed to liven things up, IMO, but it could have been better integrated into the story. I hope Treganna gets ore chances to do character pieces like this, though.

    7) The Husbands of River Song (B+)
    It's lovely, really. In many ways, I think the first half is Moffat in his more cynical Joking Apart mode, and the second half is him in his more hopeful Coupling mode. The Darillium stuff is perfect, and while the farce stuff hits a few bum notes due to a slight sense of cloying Christmas Doctor Who (a version of the show I'm actually quite fond of), it's mostly hilarious. The only reason I've ranked this so low is because I love what comes above it

    6) The Magician's Apprentice/ The Witch's Familiar (B+)
    You're right about it's complete lack of structure, but the episodes are still loads of fun, and taken together make up a fascinating two part story packed with thematic depth that will make them well worth revisiting.

    5) The Girl Who Died (A)
    Easily the most fun I had with a Doctor Who episode this year, it's excellent comedy, with serious underlying themes about toxic masculinity, warrior culture, and the power of stories. The turn to drama at the end is beautifully handled, and the final sequence is nothing short of sublime. For me, it's Mathieson's best script, and would be higher up in my rankings if it weren't for the quality of the stories come.

    4) The Zygon Invasion/ Inversion (A)
    Great to see Doctor Who grappling with modern concerns and politics - it's on the button in a big way and utterly gripping. Jack Graham's right about its political letdowns, but it's still got some important and valuable things to say, is terrific drama, and represents an approach I feel Doctor Who should revisit more (though not all the time) going forward.

    3) Face the Raven (A)
    Dollard's an exciting writer to have on the team, and this was superb. She shows a real ability to grasp a range of the skills that are needed to write good, interesting Doctor Who, and that bodes well for (hopefully) future returns.

    2) Heaven Sent (A+)
    You're right. It's a masterpiece. As a technical achievement, I don't think Moffat will ever do better. But I had a little bit more love for:

    1) Hell Bent (A+)
    I honestly think this is just as masterfully put together as "Heaven Sent". The steady shift from epic to personal, the critiques and subversions going on, the brilliant use of the Diner scenes as a framing device, are all beautifully done. While I liked the Gallifrey scenes, I'm far more invested in Clara and the Doctor's relationship than I am Gallifrey, so the shift from Gallifreyan epic to a story about the two of them letting each other go worked perfectly for me.

    1. Definitely with you on The Girl Who Died. The only reason it doesn't rank higher in my own list as well, is because this year was generally so fantastic. Jamie Mathieson, in that script, is the closest Doctor Who has come to replicating the giddy energy of City of Death, but in the context of 21st century concerns about masculinity and violence. I do hope Moffat is readying him for a more powerful role in Doctor Who's creation. My ideal would be a dual showrunner – Mathieson and Sarah Dollard – with a featured script and regular editing advice from Peter Harness.

    2. That does sound like a lot of fun as a vision for the show, I'd genuinely love to see those three working together as the creative team driving Doctor Who. But I can't help but think Phil Sandifer's prediction will be right: that we'll get an era with Whithouse as showrunner (delivering something a lot safer and less interesting, but probably successfully popular), before Dollard, Mathieson, and Harness emerge as really credible candidates after him. I'd love to be proven wrong, though. I can see Whithouse being as good as Davies was at making Doctor Who crowd pleasing, but Davies had a far more interesting and distinctive vision for the show. Nothing would make me happier than getting a successor to Moffat who I'd be genuinely excited about, and I can definitely get excited about Doctor Who run by Harness, Mathieson, or Dollard.

    3. The thing is, I don't think Moffat himself wants Whithouse in the producer's chair, and it's weird to think that the current lead producer would have no input into the decision process of his replacement. Moffat is frequently most enthusiastic about decisions that Whithouse wouldn't make (consciously hiring more women after a testosterone-blocked writers' stable last season) and writers that aren't Whithouse (Mathieson's pitch for Flatline, Dollard, Catherine Tregenna, Harness' creativity).

      And wasn't The Game kind of a damp squib? Cara Fi and Johnathan Strage seemed – at least from my watching the UK from Canada – much more successful pieces of television.

    4. “Cara Fi” was the welsh miniseries Dollard created, wasn’t it? I haven’t seen that or “The Game”, but I loved “Strange and Norrell”, which from what I can tell was critically well revcieved but not hugely watched.
      Re. The other two, based solely on what I’ve heard from critics I respect, and my knowledge of the premises, I think I’d probably like “Cara Fi” and hate “The Game”. The only reason I can see the BBC going down the Whithouse/ Chibnall/ Gatiss direction is that, between “Being human” and “The Game”/ “Broadchurch”/ “Sherlock”, each of those three have some experience that is the equivalent of Davies doing “The Second Coming” and Moffat doing “Jekyll” (on top of plenty of writing and showrunning experience before those shows) before stepping up to Doctor Who.
      Harness, Mathieson, and Dollard have far more interesting takes on the show, that I suspect do gel with where Moffat would want it to go after he leaves, but I can also see him advocating for a more experienced pair of hands, while wanting to keep those three around for a potential future succession when they have more experience. From what Andrew Ellard was saying on the last Eruditorum Press podcast, Harness’s role in writing for “Jonathan Strange” wasn’t quite the same level of experience as a head writer/ executive producer role, and I’d imagine the same is true for “Cara Fi”.
      But as I’ve said, I’d love to be proved wrong. There’s no reason Moffat’s successor would have to follow the same model as him and RTD, and your proposition is a good potential alternative, which I’d love to see happen. There’s also the option of picking an experienced candidate who’s never written for the show before, which could bring a good fresh perspective to the franchise (another reason I think someone from the new group of writers would be more interesting than Whithouse or Gatiss). It’s just that Doctor Who seems to be a hellish task for someone’s first showrunning gig, so I can see the BBC playing it safe, and Moffat agreeing to that approach.