Quiet! Settle down at the back there! It’s time for your half-term report.
Well, not yours exactly – today we’re exactly halfway through the current series of Doctor Who (excluding the Christmas special or if you’re reading this a bit late, in which case see me after class), so we thought it was high time to step back and have a look at how this final run for head writer Steven Moffat and lead actor Peter Capaldi is going.
Now, I won’t keep you in suspense. The short version of this article is that series 10 seems to be a return to form for the sci-fi series after a much-needed rest year, with the format, actors and writers all feeling fresher than during their last outing in 2015.
Fans may not have welcomed it, but the Doctor’s gap year might be looked back on as just what the series needed – even if it does put a lot more pressure on Chris Chibnall when he takes over next year. Sorry Chris.
Just looking at Radio Times’ own star ratings for each episode you can see the positive outlook – they average out at about four stars per episode – and generally speaking critics and fans across the board have been happy with the new start.
Still, we know that for the real Whovian helicopter parents out there (OK, this metaphor is getting stretched pretty thin) such a broad brush analysis simply won’t do – so read on for our more in-depth assessment of the Doctor’s senior year.
A fresh start
Before this series of Doctor Who started Steven Moffat frequently claimed that this year would be a sort of soft reboot for the sci-fi stalwart, a jumping-on point for new fans that would reframe the old story for the next generation.
And while this seemed a little unlikely at the time – why reset the series right before a new cast and production team came in to do it all over again? – from series 10’s first episode it was clear that he’d been speaking the truth.
Harking back to the first 2005 series of NuWho (helmed by Russell T Davies), the majority of series 10’s stories have been character-led and easy to follow, while still tackling the challenging and complex ideas the series is known for. Who-ray!
A new companion
Of course, a lot of that freshness can also be attributed to new companion Bill, aka actress Pearl Mackie. While many had low hopes when Mackie was announced in the role (partially due to a clip of her character in action that divided fans), it’s fair to say that her full performance has been a big success.
As discussed by Steven Moffat in a recent Radio Times interview, early episodes of this series focussed on building up the relationship between the Doctor and Bill, and the idea has paid off handsomely. Seeing the Doctor Who universe through Bill’s fresh eyes has definitely helped in the format’s revitalisation, with Mackie’s chemistry with Capaldi also shifting his Doctor into a more grandfatherly role that fits well with his incarnation.
It’s been a few years since Doctor Who had a properly wide-eyed, ingénue companion – both Amy and Clara felt more like superheroes who were more or less on the Doctor’s level – and while you couldn’t introduce a character like Bill or Billie Piper’s Rose every year, after a run of less grounded companions it works again here.
Oh, and we should probably mention Nardole in this section. Like Mackie, Matt Lucas’ inclusion in this series was slightly controversial to fans, but after toning down his performance and Moffat reframing the character as a sort of butler to the Doctor (rather like how Dan Starkey’s Sontaran Strax interacted with Matt Smith’s Doctor, showing Moffat had an interest in this idea back in 2012) he’s actually ended up a decent addition to the Tardis team too.
It’s hard to pick a favourite episode from this series so far – personally for me it’s between The Pilot and Thin Ice – which is probably a sign of the great run Doctor Who has been on lately.
So it’s perhaps easier to pick out a mix of good moments, performances and plot choices instead, and with that in mind I have to single out David Suchet’s creepy turn as the Landlord, the ‘Doctor is blind’ twist from fifth episode Oxygen and the ongoing series theme of monsters being more complex than evil as my personal highlights from this series.
Oh, and Pearl Mackie of course. I still think she’s a real breath of fresh air.
Causes for concern?
Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a report if we didn’t also include a few negatives. While every episode so far has had a compelling set-up a few have fizzled out slightly towards the end without fulfilling their potential (we’re looking at you, Knock Knock and Oxygen), and some of the denouements have been less “Aha!” and more “A-Huh?”
(Look, I still don’t understand the difference between the Smile robots malfunctioning or consciously deciding they could stop sadness by killing people, or the ethics of mindwiping them once deciding they’re sentient. But I’m learning that I might just have to let that one go).
Meanwhile, latest episode Extremis seems to have bucked the trend slightly for the stripped-back season, returning to the complex plots and serialisation that has tended to divide fans during Moffat’s tenure on the series.
Only time (and space, har har) will tell whether this is a permanent reversion or just a momentary dalliance, but it’s looking likely that both episode seven The Pyramid at the End of the World and eighth episode. The Lie of The Land will continue Extremis’ story, suggesting that it will be less of a jumping-on point for newcomers.
Then again, episode 9 and 10 both look like a return to standalone stories before the series finale, so you could argue that there’s something for everyone still to come.
What’s coming up?
Speaking of which, this series’ biggest moments are almost definitely still ahead of us. We’ve seen very little of Michelle Gomez’ returning Missy, nothing of John Simm’s Master or the Cybermen-heavy finale that will more or less cap off the Capaldi era of Who (we’re expecting the Christmas special to be a quieter, less epic affair) and we’ve definitely not seen the teased regeneration scene set to pop up late in the series.
We also still have episodes to look forward to from Mark Gatiss, Peter Harness, Toby Whithouse and classic Who series writer Rona Munro (back after last writing for Sylvester McCoy), dealing with ideas as varied as mass delusions, Victorians on Mars and modern warfare.
All that, PLUS the spectre of a brand-new Doctor that we’ll surely start to find out about in the coming weeks and months.
Overall, this has been and will continue to be a banner year for Doctor Who – and it’s almost enough to make you wish that the end of THIS summer term would never come.
Yep, I twisted that school metaphor right back in there. Class dismissed.
Doctor Who continues on BBC1 this Saturday at 7.45pm