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 it. But 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.
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|
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.