(Originally posted at Smash Cut Culture.)
My previous ranking of every modern Doctor Who episode had become out of date…until now. Series 9 wrapped up earlier this month, and this year’s Christmas special was the last new episode until probably next fall. Time for an update.
I’ve inserted the new episodes into the overall worst-to-best rankings, which debuted in four parts early this year:
But if you just want to focus on the newest season, I’m including the Series 9–only list below (same text I’m inserting into the full list). Note that this was a more serialized season than previous years. It featured a mix of conventional two-parters (The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, Under the Lake/Before the Flood, and The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion) and episodes that directly continued into each other while each maintaining its own flavor (The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived and Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent). The episodes in the latter category are separately ranked because their different flavors merit individual attention.
This was an excellent season on the whole, a big improvement over the past few years, with no real clunkers in the mix. But, as always, some are better than others.
#10 Sleep No More: The only self-contained episode in Season 9 never reaches a proper resolution. It introduces the fascinating sci-fi concept of technology that can eliminate the need for most sleep and thereby increase productivity, but then the episode decides it would rather play around with generic monsters composed of eye dust. Clever use of the found footage trope gives the story a distinctive look and feel, but the cliffhanger ending prevents it from becoming anything more than an interesting gimmick.
#9 The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar: Season 9 gets off to a decent start, but it carries over the chief flaws of the previous few seasons— an over-reverence for the Doctor and prioritization of what’s cool over what makes sense (why is there a cup of tea on the Daleks’ homeworld?). The inclusion of Missy—the most entertaining incarnation of the Master—elevates the story. She and Clara make an exceptionally fun duo.
#8 The Husbands of River Song: It starts off a bit too silly, which is excusable in its role as a Christmas special. As an episode of Doctor Who, however, it comes dangerously close to riding off the rails until, in the last 15 minutes or so, the wacky antics give way to an emotionally satisfying conclusion to River Song’s story. Granted, this is her third or fourth “ending” at this point, but it’s also her best ending.
#7 The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion: The two-part running time feels slightly too long. Clara getting somehow trapped in her own head a second time in less than a year is one time too many. And the anti-war message is a tad too preachy…until the end. The Doctor’s speech at the climax is extraordinary, and it needed this particular Doctor (an older face combined with the acting chops of Peter Capaldi) to make it resonate.
#6 Under the Lake/Before the Flood: If there’s such a thing as a “typical” Doctor Who story, it’s this two-parter, which features the familiar tropes of a base under siege, an apparently supernatural menace that turns out to have technological origins, and the Doctor facing his own mortality. It doesn’t break the mold, but it fits it very well.
#5 Hell Bent: A different kind of season finale for Doctor Who, in that no external threat is imperiling any world. Instead, the Doctor goes too far in trying to save his companion, thereby jeopardizing the universe in the process. It’s a bit of a cheat that gives us an alternative ending for Clara, one less effective than her death in “Face the Raven” but a happier one that could lead to fun possibilities in either future episodes or viewers’ imaginations.
#4 The Girl Who Died: A bunch of inept Vikings need to defeat powerful alien warriors. What begins as a fun romp takes a serious turn at the end as the Doctor decides to break the rules to save an innocent life…and the question of whether that was the right call remains ambiguous.
#3 The Woman Who Lived: A compelling look at immortality—and, by extension, mortality. Guest star Maisie Williams becomes a viable recurring character as the immortal “Me” as she sells the pain and loneliness of a too-long life. The 17th setting century setting lends additional weight to her melancholy—at this point, the character has only endured through eras of human history when (to borrow from Thomas Hobbes) life was nasty, brutish, and short.
#2 Face the Raven: Ironically, the companion with the least consistent characterization gets the strongest character-based exit (well, her true exit is two episodes later, but her natural life ends here). Clara started as a walking plot puzzle in Season 7, but in her final season she settled into a far more compelling role: the Doctor’s best friend who holds him accountable to be the kindest and most compassionate he can be while she grows more Doctor-like herself. But in this heartbreaking episode, we’re shown how no human could ever be the Doctor. Clara thinks she’s being clever to save a friend, and her heart is absolutely in the right place. But her overconfidence leads to her downfall, and the responsibility is all hers. A textbook example of how to kill a character in a meaningful way.
#1 Heaven Sent: It’s Doctor Who as a one-man show (almost), and it’s phenomenal. Immediately after the death of his closest friend, the Doctor is transported into a strange castle that’s really one massive torture/confession chamber with seemingly no way out. Gradually, he pieces together a solution, the one way to escape and get where he needs to go without revealing a secret he’s unwilling to tell—and the exit is the ultimate torture. He has to punch his way through an incredibly dense, thick wall, and after every few punches, he has to get killed and start the whole thing over, without any memory of his previous attempts, his grief once again fresh, just so just he can achieve a tiny bit more progress chipping away at that mighty wall. But he perseveres nevertheless. The moment when he realizes the hell he has to put himself through might be Peter Capaldi’s finest bit of acting as the Doctor thus far, a bar that was already high.