Unsurprisingly, this article features spoilers for series 10 of Doctor Who.
It’s hard to know how to judge Doctor Who in general, and series 10 in particular. It’s one of those shows that exists on the line between light entertainment and intentional drama, and is so many different things to so many different viewers. Never mind the gap between ‘young’ and ‘adult’ viewers, even amongst a broad demographic such as ‘adults’ there’s very little consensus on what the show should be. Some (like me) see it as unavoidable that the show should be ‘darker’ given the themes and ideas it toys with. Others recognise the inherent flamboyance, eccentricity and even silliness of a show about someone who travels time and space in a blue police box.
Perhaps the reality is somewhere in the middle, but either way, it makes reviewing it even more subjective than reviewing already is. But the idea of what the show should be is more theoretical than looking at what it currently is. So here are the best and worst aspects of series 10, with a slight injection of my own ideological bias.
The visualsSuch is the quality of CGI and special effects available on a modest budget (at least relative to big TV and Hollywood etc.) that it’s easy to take that quality for granted. Yet compare the visuals of series 10 to those from back in 2005, or even to those of the early Capaldi series of a few years ago, and it’s clear that series 10 marked a significant leap. Whether it’s a result of an increased production budget (unlikely, given Steven Moffat’s comments on the subject in the recent past), an increased emphasis on visuals over other elements, or just a result of riding the tide of universal improvements, who knows, but it shows. Locations – such as the incredible ‘City of Arts and Sciences’ in Valencia, which formed the setting for ‘Smile’ – are crucial too, but the CGI no longer sticks out in such a way to break the illusion.
As referenced during one of the reviews during the series however, there’s an argument that this actually hurts the show, in that it removes the degree of investment a viewer needs to go along with the show. Whereas before, viewers had to almost scare themselves owing to shoddy, unbelievable CGI of SFX (take ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ from Classic Who, or the dreadful Lazarus Monster from ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ for New Who), now, the hard work is done for them, and it’s easier to just watch without needing to be particularly invested. It’s especially true where younger viewers are concerned, those who enjoy playing grand battles between toys and figurines using only their imagination; if the toys did the fighting themselves, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Still, the potential implications of the visuals don’t detract from the undeniable quality on show.
The lead castAnother ‘good, but’ aspect comes in the performances from the main cast, in particular, Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie. That’s not meant as a knock on Matt Lucas, but Nardole was firmly established as the least important of the three during the series. In ‘Thin Ice’, for example, he only appeared right at the end, and in other, prolonged appearances, he was generally back-up to one of the two outright leads.
There’s little to be said that hasn’t already been said about Capaldi’s performance as the Doctor. From his first appearance – actually, from the first moment he was linked to the role – he’s sold himself as the Doctor superbly. Above all the qualities one could ascribe to the Doctor, there’s just the idea of whether you can see someone in the role. Can you really picture Kris Marshall as the Doctor? I can’t. But Capaldi always carried a gravitas and aura of believability in series 10, as in his previous appearances.
In her first (and ultimately, only) series on the show, Pearl Mackie managed to match Capaldi in stage presence. As part of the soft reboot of the show for series 10, starting with the aptly named ‘The Pilot’, her portrayal of Bill had energy and nuance to it, especially in the exploration of the character’s sexuality and ethnicity. Where Clara was built up to eventually be able to out-Doctor the Doctor, Bill was persistently human, right up until her death. Though of course, it wasn’t quite a full-on death, but we’ll get to that…
‘World Enough and Time’ & the return of the Mondasian CybermenI wrote a fair bit about it in the episode review, but ‘World Enough and Time’ really was a great Doctor Who episode. Refreshingly, it took its time to develop, as Bill adjusted to her new life in the ‘city’, and as the Doctor (in real-time) tried to get down there to save her. And of course, it was all leading to the double revelation, of the return of the Master, and of the Mondasian Cybermen, with both playing out in a fantastic last 10 minutes. Would it have been better without the leaks and reveals weeks in advance? Certainly, but as I mentioned at the time, it was still brilliant even without the surprise.
The Doctor FallsUnfortunately, the build-up of ‘World Enough and Time’ led to the disappointment (for me) of ‘The Doctor Falls’. I seem rather alone in my negative opinion of the episode, but all the potential of episode 11 was squandered in the finale. The ‘two Masters’ concept was woefully underexploited, both in the basic amount of screen-time afforded to Michelle Gomez and John Simm, and in what happened during that screen-time. The Mondasian Cybermen quickly became a mindless army with the redesigned New Who model taking precedence, a far cry from the interesting origin story teased in ‘World Enough and Time’. It seemed like we’d get a finale that lead the new Cyberspecies to Mondas, bringing us full circle to ‘The Tenth Planet’, but instead, we got a battle with exploding apples. And after her dramatic, sudden yet effective conversion, Bill was brought back for yet another ‘not quite dead’ appearance from a main cast member.
Like I said at the start, the show has to cater to a variety of viewing interests, but while I’m sure many viewers enjoy the ‘neat’, farewell tour endings every main cast member has to receive now, it severely weakens the dramatic value of their departure. Just let someone actually die, otherwise their ‘death’ means far less to the viewer. See a certain character hiding under a dumpster in season 6 of The Walking Dead (before TWD became even more cynical and cowardly). Her reappearance also reduced the impact of her death upon the Doctor, whose state of shock at the loss of his friend and the reappearance of the Master at the end of penultimate episode suggested that the Doctor of the finale would be in no mood to take prisoners.
DeathThis area could include Bill, but really, it’s more about the series’ approach to background death throughout. I’m certain it’s always been this way (though why I’ve only noticed it now is questionable), but it was made more egregious this year by attempts to explore it as an issue in ‘Thin Ice’, only to revert to near-total indifference soon after. ‘Smile’ was particularly bad, ending as it did with the Vardi effectively demanding rent (through dollar-eyes on the Emojibots) after disintegrating scores of the colonists, depicted with a weird sort of sitcom-style ‘happy-funny’ tone. And while the Doctor would’ve known it was the Movellans being killed by the Daleks in ‘The Pilot’, Bill certainly wouldn’t, yet displayed a similar indifference to something that was ultimately background noise to the ‘main’ plot with water-Heather. This improved later on, with ‘Empress of Mars’ and the general ethos of ‘World Enough and Time’, both of which treated death as something significant to both those doing the killing and those under threat of dying, but those two episodes were interspersed with less successful exploration, returning to the earlier issues.
The Monks TrilogyClassic Who had the structure of four-part serials, though their overall length (four 25-minute episodes) effectively matched that of the New Who two-parters of 45-minutes each. But beyond ‘Utopia’/‘The Sound of Drums’/‘The Last of the Time Lords’ (which was more a two-and-a-half-parter, with ‘Utopia’ a lead-in to the final two-parter rather than the first of three parts), we’ve never had a proper ‘three-part’ serial of New Who.
Step forward, it seemed ‘The Monks Trilogy’. Three episodes, one villain (well, multiple villains, all Monks). Two of the three episodes weren’t bad – ‘Extremis’ got the ball rolling, and ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ was interesting enough – but as a whole, the arc was a bit… meh. The Monks simulate all of Earth’s history to work out how to invade, only to very visibly reveal themselves pre-invasion during the second part, before being defeated by ‘the power of love’ in the final part. It’s contentious to call it a three-parter, really, with similarities to many multi-part Moffat stories like ‘The Girl Who Died’/’The Woman who Lived’ with independent stories and partial connections, rather than the multi-part stories of the Russel T Davies era, where a two-parter would see one story span multiple episodes.
If The Monks Trilogy is a three-parter, then it’s a weak one, with an anti-climactic ending and no real sense of escalation across the three episodes. Each one of the three stories – the reveal of the world as a simulation, the threat of extinction through a crop-destroying virus, and the sudden dominance of the Monks as rulers of the Earth – would have worked better as its own multi-part storyline. As it was, it didn’t work quite so well.
CharacterisationReturning to the performances of the lead cast, while there’s little to add on the quality of the central performances, there is something to be said about the characters they’re portraying. For the third series running, Capaldi’s Doctor became almost a different person, not so much through growth as through spontaneous change. Post-Trenzalore, the newly-regenerated Twelfth Doctor was an angry incarnation of the character, mentally scarred by the 900-year war he endured, and irritable towards Clara. Series 9 saw him play guitar and make fantastic speeches about war. And now, series 10 saw him somewhere in between, at times as jovial as series 9, at times as gruff as series 8, with an added element of weird ignorance thrown in at times. None of these personalities have been inherently ‘bad’, but it’s never really felt like we’ve had a settled Twelfth Doctor; even now, three series in as he approaches his final episode, it’s felt like Capaldi is only really establishing who his Doctor is, even if all three portrayals have been sold well.
Similarly, there didn’t seem to be a clear progression to Bill’s character across the series. Mackie always did well with the material she was given, but Bill largely reached her character model by ‘Smile’. Perhaps her arc of adjustment to travelling with the Doctor had to be compressed to fit into a single series of appearances – even though Martha and Donna both had single ‘series’ as the secondary protagonists, both also appeared before or after that series to build their character further – but still, that compression meant a lack of diversity to her roles in stories.
While subtlety has its place in Who, if Bill’s love for her mother is strong enough to defeat the Monks, then it really needed even more prominence beforehand. And again, while there were stories that looked at her life outside the TARDIS – primarily ‘Knock Knock’ – there weren’t enough moments of non-danger calm about her life. We didn’t, for example, get to see an actual, non-simulated, not-interrupted date with Penny play out, or get a return to where Bill actually ended up living after ‘Knock Knock’. As above, some of this is down to the single series appearances, yet some of it could have been tweaked to work better. And for goodness sake, how is it that another companion has departed the series by cheating death to travel the universe with an immortal friend? If Bill had to cheat death, could she at least be written so as not to do so in the exact same way Clara does? And, to end, you’ll notice I am insisting on saying ‘single series’, because if Bill does somehow return for Chris Chibnall’s run on the show, all hope is lost.