Season nine of Doctor Who is finally here and what a way to start! After season eight was met with, let’s say … “mixed reactions,”, the new season certainly hit the ground running. Literally. The opening of this season is over a smoky battlefield with combatants running through a desolate field. It doesn’t take long before a traditionally odd touch from the mind of Steven Moffat comes into play as a young boy and one of the soldiers realize the ground around them is covered with hands protruding from the ground, hands with eyes in the palms (is this possibly a reference to “The Fires of Pompeii” episode, the one Peter Capaldi appeared in before he was the doctor?). As the soldier tries to reassure the boy, he’s grabbed and torn down into the soil and swallowed up. Then, of course, The Doctor shows up. Though confused about where and when he’s landed, The Doctor is keen on saving the young boy, that is until we get our first gut punch of the season. This young man in peril is Davros, creator of the Daleks and one of the longest running villains of Doctor Who.
I’m loving this return of classic Who villains. Davros hasn’t been seen since the Tennant years. They also managed to add a little freshness to an old villain by giving him his own right hand man, a hooded figure who hisses and slithers around. Of course this mysterious henchman turns out to be, as Capaldi so eloquently puts it, a “snake nest in a dress.” He’s one of those great Who villains who is both scary and silly at the same time.
It seems that after that exciting opening scene, The Doctor left Davros in his predicament for we are told through the rest of the episode Davros is dying and he wishes to speak with The Doctor one last time, “Davros knows, Davros remembers.” The rest of the episode becomes about a man dealing with shame, the shame of leaving an innocent boy’s fate up to chance because of what he will grow up to be. It’s the classic “Would you kill Hitler as a baby?” scenario. Is it valid to treat someone for what they will be rather than for what they are?
Apparently The Doctor regrets the choice he made, since he soon goes into hiding as well as having something of a midlife crisis, but we’ll get to that. Next we come to the classroom of Clara Oswald who is quickly summoned to U.N.I.T. and we find that every plane on earth is frozen in place in the skies. Another return to form for the series. While Steven Moffat has tended to try and and make darker episodes about more deep-rooted psychological fears, this plot point feels like it came right out of the Eccleston/Tennant years when Russell T. Davies was running things. Something that is absolutely silly on face value but treated with utmost seriousness.
It seems that nods to the past both in style and substance are the running theme this episode. It will be interesting if this is merely fleeting nostalgia or a continuing trend through the season.
Our next step down memory lane is a return of Missy, the Master’s regenerated female version, who I absolutely loved when she was introduced last year. After seemingly dying last season, she shows up (with a wonderfully delivered “not dead, back, big surprise, nevermind”) and presents Clara with The Doctor’s last will and testament, which is to be delivered on the eve of his death to his closest friend, Missy. Michelle Gomez as Missy is as wonderful in this episode as she was last season, playing the Master’s latest incarnation as sort of a deranged Mary Poppins. As callous about death as she is silly and smartass, I really hope we get to see lots more of this version of Who’s version of Lex Luthor.
From here we get to see a Missy/Clara team up which ends up being as interesting as it is prickly. After losing her boyfriend to Missy’s machinations last year, Clara is understandably hurt and befuddled learning that The Doctor still considers Missy his closest friend. Best friend, worst enemy, being a Time Lord sure is complicated.
Once Missy and Clara have tracked the Doctor’s whereabouts with, err, science or something, we get The Doctor’s grand entrance. In a medieval arena, riding a tank, sporting shades and playing his “Axe.” If Tennant was the ladies man, and Smith was the brain, Capaldi is definitely the punk rock Doctor. Playing “Pretty Woman” for his newly arrived friends and regaling the crowd with chants of “dude” and jokes that are bad by any time periods standards, Capaldi’s Doctor is as charming as he is odd, as The Doctor should be.
From there our team gets summoned by our snaky friend from earlier and brought to Davros’s ship, or as we find out in another great Doctor Who misdirect, is actually the cloaked planet Skaro, homeworld of Davros and birthplace of the Daleks. The Daleks who here are back to be vicious murderers rather than just silly, yelling tin cans. The Doctor watches helplessly as the Daleks exterminate Missy, Clara, and the Tardis in quick succession, though this being Doctor Who, you know they’ll return through some timey wimey way.
In another nice nod to Doctors past, Davros plays clips from the various incarnations of The Doctor’s interactions with Davros from over the years. Then we come full circle to the beginning, the young boy on the battlefield just after The Doctor had abandoned him, but now he’s back and announces he’s there to save his friend the only way he can and points a weapon at the child announcing “Exterminate!” and then … “To be continued”? Yes this year Moffatt announced that most of the season would be comprised of two parters, both to surprise viewers’ expectations as well as giving them more time to develop characters and stories. So far, it’s working.
The ninth season of Doctor Who is off to a promising start. With a clever balance of modern sensibility and classic Who, Moffatt is both pushing forward while looking back. Any time traveler would be proud. Silly yet serious, scary yet funny, this is Doctor Who firing on all the cylinders that have made it a fifty-plus year institution. With an added air of impending doom with the announcement that Jenna Coleman will be leaving the show at some point this season and the two-parter format, it’s clear that the writers are looking to shake things up and I for one am excited to see where we end up.