It's been a strange few years to be a Doctor Who reboot fan. From the show's award winning first season back in 2005 which pulled in nearly 11 million viewers for the premiere episode to last season's comparably lacklustre performance where the show dipped to a viewership average of less than 7 million it's been a wild ride, with moments of genuine brilliance and those sadly less so.
Indeed Seasons 6 & 7 were largely a pretty mixed bag. Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor with companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) and Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) had a generally strong run across Seasons 5 - 7, particularly in terms of audience reaction to the characters. But the writing rose and faltered across Smith's last couple of seasons and his final hurrah in 2013's Christmas Special The Time of the Doctor felt more like a bang than a whimper, especially following the wonderful Anniversary Special The Day of the Doctor.
The news that Peter Capaldi was going to take over as the Twelfth Doctor was met with a very positive reception, Capaldi had previously proven himself to be a powerful actor and The Thick of It jokes aside, it was shaping up to be a really exciting Season 8.
But something happened, or rather didn't happen. It wasn't an overall bad season by any means, but it felt like there was a spark that wasn't quite there. Whether it was Capaldi finding his feet or more troubles with the consistency of the writing, something didn't quite gel the same way it had previously. For every great episode the likes of Listen or Mummy on the Orient Express we had an underwhelming Robot of Sherwood or Kill the Moon.
It wasn't really until towards the end of the season that things started to pick up. The two-parter finale - Dark Water and Death in Heaven - finally revealed the truth of Missy/Mistress, a.k.a. The Master (Michelle Gomez) and gave us a pretty heavy storyline in the form of Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson)'s death and the zombie-Cybermen uprising. This felt like more of a return to what made the first few seasons work so well, though it did mean that the season was left on a particularly dark note.
The very tongue-in-cheek Christmas episode worked too, even if it only served to provide a means by which Clara would rejoin the Doctor. The introduction of the Dream Crabs allowed for multi-layered storytelling and the reveal of the lies they had told each other at the conclusion of Season 8 was a catharsis that needed to happen, and it allowed Season 9 to start on a clean slate.
The concept to do Season 9 in a series of two-parters was a risky move as it left the season in danger of getting bogged down, and one weak narrative could collapse two episodes. Some of the biggest issues with the Tennant and Smith era seasons were narrative arcs that stretched on just that little bit too long, becoming dry and repetitive before they could come to fruition.
And yet so far Season 9 has been pretty great. Sure, it got off to a bit of clunky start with yet another "Death of the Doctor" plot, but it was worth it to see ex-punk band rocker Peter Capaldi actually playing electric guitar as the Doctor.
Last week's Under the Lake featured a classic trope of Doctor Who: the Doctor and his companion stumbling into an isolated, inescapable base under siege by monsters. The claustrophobic, water-logged building recalls the award winning Tennant-era episode The Waters of Mars (though without the Tenth Doctor's underlying megalomania) and it proved to be a fine example of a classic Who story.
It ticks the cliche boxes sure, but that doesn't mean that those cliches don't work. Even the ghostly antagonists which recall those of The Waters of Mars (as mentioned above) seem invigorated here. Like other elements of the episode it's a trope that is about ready for retirement, but the straightforward high-stakes storytelling is well-paced and well acted. (On that note it's also nice to see Sophie Stone (Cass) here, who gained recognition for becoming the first deaf person to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts).
The dialogue is humorous, often poking fun at the Doctor without erring too far on the side of cringe, and the TARDIS being "afraid" of the ghosts was an amusing addition, as is the Doctor's reaction to them:
Doctor: "So what have we got? Moran dies and then those… things… appear. They can walk through walls, they only come out at night, and they’re sort of see through. They’re ghosts! Yeah, ghosts!"
Clara: "You said there was no such thing. You actually poo-pooed the ghost theory."
Doctor: "Well, there was no such thing as socks, or, or smartphones, or banjos, until there suddenly were. Besides, what else could they be? They’re not holograms. They’re not flesh avatars. They’re not autons. They’re not digital copies bouncing around the nethersphere. No! These people are literally, actually dead! Wow. This is amazing! I’ve never actually met a proper ghost."
And how can we forget the cue cards Clara made for him in order to interact with people in an appropriate manner?
The twist ending, as predictable as it was, sets up the next episode well. And actually seeing Capaldi's ghostly features with the gouged out eyes was unsettling to say the least. Although this is yet another "Death of the Doctor" trope, that horse has been beaten for years now - it might be time to get another.
But this is the first season in a few years that I've actually been excited to tune in each week. The last few I got bored with quite quickly and ended up watching marathon-style after the season ended instead, but Season 9 has so far proved able to hold attention and hopefully will be able to bring those viewer figures back up over the rest of it's run.
Normally I'd say what Doctor Who needs to avoid is over-saturation of classic villains, and I certainly do believe this to be true in terms of the Daleks and Cybermen who deserve a bit of a break from being menacing about now. But Gomez's Master/Missy is too good a character to keep on the sidelines for long, and I have no doubt she'll be returning to terrorise her "best friend" sooner rather than later.
And then of course there's Maisie Williams' appearance to look forward to in Episode 5: The Girl Who Died...
'Doctor Who' Season 9, Episode 4: 'Before The Flood' will air on Saturday Oct 10th on BBC One at 2025 GMT.