There are certain perks of being a viewer in the Golden Age of Television, and advantages to having access to so much international culture in modern times. For me, Doctor Who exists at the intersection of these categories. The show (“Nu Who”, that is) was in peak form with Series 9 in 2015, and these are just a few of the reasons why. Fair warning if you’re not caught up: As I’m sure River Song will say at least once during the upcoming Christmas special, “Spoilers.”
1) Peter Capaldi Is The Best Doctor Of The Modern Era
We’ve known since the beginning of his run a year and a half ago (or 4.5 billion years ago, but we’ll get there) that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor had angry eyebrows and colorful kidneys. But it took two full seasons to really understand the depths of his character, and now we can see that he is the best Doctor we’ve seen since Classic Who.
And I think we can all agree that “Attack of the Mirrors” was among our favorite adventures.
Now, this is going to be a somewhat controversial position, and I can understand why. Like many other Whovians, I’ve loved the performances of the four Doctors that came before (yes, John Hurt counts as the War Doctor). Christopher Eccleston brought the series back and established the character in a brilliant way, and played serious and silly scenes equally well. David Tennant masterfully played up the tragic hero side of the character and was the most human of the Doctors. Matt Smith had loads of fun in the role and excelled at playing the outsider. Like all of the classic Doctors, they each brought something new to the role and the show is better for it.
ERMAGHERD, NERNTH DERCKTER
But Eccleston didn’t have time to do enough beyond spectacularly introducing the character to a new audience. His was inarguably the most important Doctor, but not the best. Tennant, while possibly still my favorite lead, portrayed a Doctor who couldn’t even heal himself. He needed the love of Rose Tyler (among others) because he was so incomplete. Smith’s Doctor was entertaining to watch, but lacked any real gravitas until the very end because of the character’s self-delusion about what sort of person he was.
“Lack of gravitas is cool.”
He claimed to be a mad old man with a box, but played at being his companions’ boyfriend. Which brings us to…
2) The Twelfth Doctor Knows Who He Is Now
Series 8 was not the greatest year of Who, despite a few standout episodes, and some fans don’t think much of it. But looking back, it was absolutely necessary to take this Doctor on his season-long, villain-assisted vision quest to discover his identity. We had to let him develop his dynamic with Clara, with Danny Pink, and ultimately with the Master (er, Missy). Now, finally free from the self-hating angst that underlined every previous season of modern Who, we have a Doctor who can turn his attention outward. He makes threats more than once that carry weight – “Words are his weapon,” notes Rassilon. This Doctor has a strength at his core that shines through in times of trouble, behind those angry eyebrows. It doesn’t hurt that Peter Capaldi is the most accomplished dramatic actor the series has seen since William Hartnell as the First Doctor – dude is an absolute badass!
I’m pretty sure his sonic screwdriver just vaporized a guy.
For most of this series, we don’t know what the Doctor might be capable of, but he does. We finally see it in the penultimate episode “Heaven Sent”, when he goes through four and a half billion years of agony inside the confession dial rather than let on what he suspects about the Hybrid prophecy, just for the possibility of bringing his dearest friend back to life. After all, he has a duty of care. It will be interesting to see what happens with the next companion, with whom we’ll be able to explore the complexities of our main character in a different light. But wherever we go from here, Clara is irreplaceable in a major way.
3) Clara Was The Most Important Companion Of All Time
Notice that I didn’t say “best”. From the moment the mystery of the Impossible Girl was resolved in the Series 7 finale – Clara jumps into the Doctor’s timestream, splitting herself into numerous copies in order to save the Doctor (and everything he has saved in turn) – Clara Oswald was established as the most important person in the Doctor’s history. Rose Tyler was more of a key to the show from a meta-perspective, since she was the reason people flocked to the new series for the first year or more, and the show nodded to this by including her (after a fashion) in the 50th anniversary special. Meanwhile, classic companion and spin-off star Sarah-Jane Smith might be the character that older fans are most nostalgic about. And for my part, Donna Noble was the person who brought out the best in the Doctor. But as part of the mythos, Clara is most important by a landslide.
Even though there were people who just wanted to see Clara buried in a landslide.
Not only did the different reflections of Miss Oswald appear to the Doctor at key points in his 1200ish years, including his initial exodus with the TARDIS, ‘Clara Prime’ was the one who ultimately convinced the Doctor to reverse his decision to pull the trigger on the Time War – the biggest moment of his life. If that were the end of Clara, it would be enough – but then we got two more series of her becoming the Twelfth Doctor’s best friend, and the most important person to him. It’s no coincidence that she was the one he went through hell to save; for all the love in his hearts, the Tenth Doctor never did anything like that for Rose!
Still too soon? Come on, man.
Clara was the one whose death spurred the Doctor to finally return to Gallifrey after all this time, and that trip became unimportant to him except as the means to an end. And Clara, in turn, shaped the Doctor more than anyone else in her two-and-a-half seasons on the show (longer than any other modern companion), helping him come to the understanding that was necessary to create the story we have today. And there’s a reason they could fit so much characterization in during Series 9 in particular…
4) Multi-Part Episodes Are Superior
Quick, think of your favorite episodes of Nu Who. For me, the best episodes are often finales, where everything from the season is brought together. Until this year, I held up the end of Series 4 (“The End of Time”) as the best the show had to offer. How about your list? “Blink” doesn’t count, because Steven Moffat (the episode’s writer) admits that while everyone loves that one, it isn’t a proper Doctor Who episode – it’s an episode of Sally Sparrow. According to the Telegraph, then, the top four remaining Doctor Who stories are all two-parters, with two of the remaining five favorites being specials that were longer than a standard episode.
If this wasn’t on your list, the Internet has already decided that you are wrong.
The most epic stories and the best characterizations come when this show’s writers are given time to fill. You get the occasional swing and miss (“The Hungry Earth” / “Cold Blood” was one), but there are many more standalone episodes that fail because they don’t have the time or attention necessary to devote to their big ideas, or because the writers didn’t believe that the ideas were good enough to spend that time on. “Sleep No More” is almost unanimously considered the worst story of Series 9, partly because it didn’t bother to do more than paint the characters in broad strokes (and because the rest of the year was so sphincter-clenchingly awesome, as I’ve explained). It’s essential to a great Doctor Who story that the side characters be well-developed, even if they’re never going to turn up again.
Because sometimes, this can happen.
There are shows where the plot drives the characters and shows where the characters drive the plot, and I’m always going to insist that this show – at least since its 2005 revival – needs to be in the latter category. Short stories are great for helping us see the characters in different situations, but great stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Multi-part stories, with the extra time to make the universe feel lived in, capture the greatness of the show better than most one-off episodes can do. That’s why much of Series 7 was among the weakest the show’s had, and why Series 9 – where Moffat really committed the show to this idea – is its best.
Update: It’s not all rainbows and time butterflies in the Doctor Who world, though! Any idiot with a sonic screwdriver can talk about what’s already happened, but I go a step further in my next article and let you know what’s to come! (Spoiler: 2018 is going to suuuuck.)