I know I’m a bit behind the times, but I’ve finally caught completely up on one of my favorite TV shows of all time: the British sci-fi series Doctor Who. With its 10th modern series wrapping up over the Christmas holiday in the yearly special, the entire series is now available on Amazon Prime, and just having gotten access myself, I of course felt obligated to binge watch it last week. The good news: it’s, well, pretty good!
After the lukewarm Series 9, I was really hoping for more from Doctor Who this past year. There were a lot of reasons that series wasn’t all that great: the focus on two-parters that drew more on plot developments than making the characters deeper, a lack of solid stand-alone episodes, the finale that I still don’t really get the logic or point of, and the focus on the Doctor’s companion, Clara, rather than the Doctor himself. I’m not saying Clara was bad at all: rather, I think she will rank as one of the best companions for the Doctor in history. But while it took me quite a while to warm up to him after the departure of my favorite Doctor, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi has solidly taken the place of my second favorite Doctor, and I wish we could have seen more from him than what he was given. I very much feel the Doctor was playing second-fiddle to Clara throughout the season, and as much as I liked the direction they took her character, that should never happen in my opinion. In addition, there was no real sense of risk or danger in the episodes, as too often the classic Steven Moffat writing issues came up where the Doctor at the last minute reveals he in fact had everything figured out from the beginning and there was never any threat at all.
Anyway, enough dwelling. Time to move on.
While Series 10 started off on a mediocre note with “The Pilot” (intelligent space oil? Really?), the episode did a very good job of just throwing the Doctor’s latest companion, university kitchen staff member and part-time student Bill Potts, into our hero’s wacky and oftentimes dangerous world–hey, even the Daleks showed up! And in all honestly, she handles it all pretty freaking well despite not really being eased into the role of the Doctor’s companion like many of her predecessors. I know some fans of the show have been hard on Bill, but I personally think she was a great addition to the cast and a very nice follow-up to Clara Oswald. I’m not sure if it’s credit to Pearl Mackie’s acting ability, good writing, or both, but Bill comes off as someone who’s incredibly perceptive, empathetic, and much more grounded in reality than some previous companions have been, like Clara and Amy. Of course she could have had more depth to her, but I think that’s at least in part due to the fact that she only lasted one season (more on that in a bit). I’m also glad they very quickly established that Bill was only interested in women, and therefore had no possible romantic attraction to the Doctor–not only is it a nice diversity move for a show that’s sometimes seemed stuck in the past with its attitudes toward women (again, more on that in a minute), but it gets rid of the tired Doctor/companion romance dynamic. Is this really the lengths we have to go to stop that from happening though? Can’t the Doctor and his female friends just be friends?
Like I said, I enjoyed how open Bill was to the ridiculous stuff that comes with the Doctor’s world right off, and that she was as perceptive and on the ball immediately as it took Clara, Amy, and several other companions I could name several years to become. It was a refreshing change of pace to not have the Doctor have to stop and waste time explaining things so much, and it was evident how the student/teacher dynamic the Doctor fostered with Bill helped her call him out on his occasionally heartless actions, which she absolutely wasn’t afraid to do. The focus on her lost mother also gave Bill a sense of uniqueness about her, something that was clearly such a force in her life and one that I wish the show had time to dive deeper into. In short, I regret Bill couldn’t stay on as a companion, but I respect the show’s desire for a fresh start completely with a transition between bosses, and with only one season to prove herself, Mackie did remarkably well in the role.
I also liked the addition of a second companion, Nardole, something that doesn’t usually happen in the modern Doctor Who series. It’s always more fun when the Doctor has more people in the TARDIS to bounce things off of, and Matt Lucas’ take on the grumpy, reluctant adventurer who obviously has much more sense of responsibility and duty than even the Doctor does, was awesome as usual. I think Nardole actually got more development than Bill over the course of the season, and the show really peeled back the layers of his character to reveal that he really aspires to be a swaggering, swashbuckling outer-space hero like the Doctor. There’s very good chemistry between Lucas and Capaldi, and it was nice to see that despite their slightly antagonistic relationship, the Doctor trusts Nardole with his life and often gives him an even more important role in his plans than Bill, when the viewer might instinctively assume the opposite. Again, I’m very sorry that Nardole won’t be returning, as he was a great boon to the cast.
On a final casting note, Series 10 was of course Peter Capaldi’s last season in the Doctor role, and I think it’s the one where he finally came into his own in terms of character. Capaldi has always been a great actor, but I think he’s sometimes struggled to find himself and differentiate his character from previous incarnations of the Doctor, as you can see the enormous difference between his uptight, straight-laced portrayal in Series 8 and the freewheeling, guitar-strumming maniac he was in Series 9. Series 10 saw a balancing between this two extremes, something I think perhaps has to do with better overall writing for him personally than the previous two seasons saw. It’s often seemed like a struggle for Steven Moffat to bring Capaldi’s Doctor to life due to his longtime affiliation with Matt Smith, and many early Capaldi episodes seemed like an attempt to shoehorn the older, more intense Doctor into his predecessor’s lighthearted place, with mixed results. The idea of Capaldi’s Doctor as a teacher at a university, and on guard duty over a mysterious vault, was a brilliant one that I think put him more at home than he’s ever been on the show, and offered a great balance between his wild and serious sides.
On the front of individual episodes, there were really very few weak links in this season, with the worst episodes probably being “Thin Ice”, “Knock Knock”, and “The Empress of Mars”. In the case of “Knock Knock”, which was probably the worst overall, it was just that the ending was way too convenient and nicely wrapped up with a bow for my taste, but then again, I guess you couldn’t just kill off all Bill’s friends like that without seeming a little heartless. “Thin Ice” and “The Empress of Mars” weren’t bad, just middling and simplistic, with clear lines drawn between good guys and bad guys and not much room for getting into the gray areas the show handles so well.
In contrast, the amazing three-parter of “Extremis”, “The Pyramid at the End of the World”, and “The Lie of the Land” nailed so many different aspects of storytelling and character development that I could spend a whole column describing them all. The Monks were an enemy with a real sense of menace, and the fact that their conflict with Bill and the Doctor was so epic in scale and yet so personal was very satisfying. “Oxygen” was probably the best episode of the season, as it showed just how far the Doctor is willing to go to save people and do what needs to be done, including nearly killing (on purpose) his own companion and blinding himself permanently (which of course was undone in a few episodes, but still made for a great plot point). “The Eaters of Light” was also a strong standalone installment, and is the point where I think Bill really gained the authority, leadership, and moral high ground to come into her own as a companion to the Doctor.
The series finale, “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls”, was a bit more divisive. On one hand, the show put Bill through the wringer and took an interesting direction by turning her irrevocably into a Cyberman–not new because we saw it with Danny Pink, but still intriguing–which probably made for the darkest end for a companion, like, ever? Although it was entertaining to see Cyber-Bill dealing with the fallout of her conversion and using her new abilities to help the Doctor and his friends. And hey, Heather came back from the first episode and “saved” her in the end, so I guess everything’s cool now? Yeah, that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but whatever. Hooray for callbacks and story relevancy, I guess.
Also, raise your hand if you were surprised that it was Missy (aka The Master) in the vault. Yep, me neither. To be fair, Michelle Gomez once again gave a fascinating and powerful performance as the Master in all her appearances, most of which were themed around how the Doctor, after saving her from execution, struggles to turn her good. Missy’s eventual conversion to the light side was quite touching at times and nicely done, but are we trying to say that after eons of wiping out whole civilizations and generally being horrible, 70 years in isolation is what made the Master realize the error of her ways? Not really buying that logic, even considering Peter Capaldi’s several sermons to her on the virtues of goodness. Her team-up with the Master’s previous incarnation, John Simm, in the finale was absolutely awesome. Is it too much to ask to hope for a multiple-Master special at some point like the Doctor has gotten several times? Simm has been my favorite Master since his last appearance in Series 3/4, where his gleefully evil take on the character was such fun to watch. He’s calmed down a bit more since then obviously, and I really liked how his version of the Master had more gravitas and menace this time around, as it brought much more depth to his portrayal characterized by his violent resentment and hatred toward the Doctor. Counterbalanced by the growing sympathy and empathy Missy showed, it was also I think yet another shove toward the inevitable regeneration of Peter Capaldi into Jodie Whittaker.
I won’t say much about the past Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time”: it wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t anything to write home about and was really just a vehicle for two things. One was for Capaldi’s Doctor to bid his past companions a proper farewell, and the other was to bring back David Bradley as William Hartnell’s First Doctor, who I have to say once again nailed the imitation perfectly. In any case, the season capped off with Capaldi’s final scene (a fine one, but not my favorite in the history of regenerations), and reveal of the female 13th Doctor, who may only have had one line upon seeing her reflection (“Oh, brilliant!”) but whose overjoyed expression really said it all.
One last point to make: I know many have criticized Steven Moffat’s writing and leadership of Doctor Who at times because of his treatment of female characters. Sometimes I see it, sometimes I don’t. But I think overall the Moffat years have been pretty good for the show. His Doctors have both been very popular, and while the storylines have struggled at times with large arcs, it’s overall been a very enjoyable ride. But I did like how pretty much everything over the last several years–Bill’s preference for women, a female Master, the John Simm Master’s sexist attitudes–have all kind of been pointing toward the appearance of a female Doctor. And let me tell you, that’s something I’m very, very excited to see.
My Rating: 8/10
Sorry for the several tangents there! Sure, Series 10 had its ups and downs, but the swings in quality were significantly less severe than Series 9, never quite reaching the level of awesome that Series 8 did from a story perspective but coming pretty darn close. As I said, I also think this series topped the past two as Peter Capaldi’s Doctor got sent off in fine fashion after a year where he definitely finally found his niche in the part. And if you’re not thrilled about what’s to come on Doctor Who, I think you’re crazy. Personally, I can’t wait.