It was really fun to go back and rank all of Doctor Who series eight, so now I’m back to do the same thing with series nine! And I have to say, series nine was one I connected with much faster than I did with its predecessor. Head writer Steven Moffat brought back the two-parter in a big way, with almost every pair of episodes being tied thematically if not directly through narrative, and almost all of it spoke to my particular favorites in the sci-fi genre.
I’m going to base my rankings on the official story groupings, so some of what I would consider two-parters are listed as separate stories. I’m also including the 2015 Christmas special because it aired just a few weeks after the culmination of the series and is clearly part of that.
Without further ado, let us board the TARDIS for Peter Capaldi’s ever-awesomeing hair and Jenna Coleman’s final voyages.
10 – “SLEEP NO MORE”
I feel like I need to say upfront that I love Mark Gatiss. I think he’s a super smart and talented writer and his insight into horror movies and literature is among my favorite in the field. That said, I also feel the need to say that this episode isn’t merely the least good in a year full of good-to-great things; this might rank as one of my least favorite episodes in this or any year.
I was hoping for a sci-fi take on Shakespeare, given the title, but it wasn’t to be. It has nothing to do with the POV, found-footage gimmick, nor the idea of the Sandman being a real, palpable thing, either. My problem is that every step of the way, the script takes the stupid approach, starting with the monsters being sentient eye-boogers and ending with the entire plot not making sense. Doctor even comments on it not making sense, and then the episode’s narrator tells us that everything we’d seen was an evil plot and we’re stupid for watching, basically. No thank you.
9 – “THE WOMAN WHO LIVED”
Now, this one is an example of a pretty good episode contending with an otherwise really great series. “The Woman Who Lived” finds the Doctor on his own and running back into Ashildr (Maisie Williams), who has been alive and undying for centuries and is now living as a noblewoman called Lady Me who gets her thrill as a highwayman. Catherine Tregeena’s script gives a lot of sadness and depth to a woman who can’t die, but also can’t travel through time the way the Doctor can. The ep only ranks low on this list because of the weird Leonide villain who doesn’t do anything and gets killed by positivity. Nah.
8 – “THE HUSBANDS OF RIVER SONG”
I had wondered if Steven Moffat would give the character of River Song a final end in the show after having her digitized consciousness bid Matt Smith goodbye in series seven’s finale. It’s long been a belief of mine that Moffat intended series nine to be his swan song and it was the BBC that persuaded him to stay on for one more, so it made perfect sense to me that it was his finalfinal episode to close the last loop that really needed closing in terms of Alex Kingston’s out-of-order companion. Most of this story was plain silly, with her somehow not recognizing the Doctor in Capaldi form and him playing dumb for, frankly, way too long, but it ended so beautifully and put such a lovely capper on the Doctor and River’s odd relationship that it ended up being really nice.
7 – “THE GIRL WHO DIED”
While I definitely think Ashildr is way less interesting in this episode, I find “The Girl Who Died” much more enjoyable than its follow-up by virtue of it being a riff on Seven Samurai (and its sci-fi remake Battle Beyond the Stars, in point of fact), for finally giving a reason for the Twelfth Doctor having the face of an old Pompeiian. And because it’s silly and made me laugh. Sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.
6 – “HELL BENT”
In theory, this should be an episode I g-darn love, but in practice it’s only an episode I quite like. It reintroduced Gallifrey and Rassilon and brought the Time Lords out of their other-universe exile, and it did some really fun things like establish in-canon that a Time Lord can regenerate into different races and sexes (come on, Chibnall, don’t be all samey-wamey!). But despite all this, it ultimately was about how the Doctor couldn’t let Clara make her own decision, or at least couldn’t allow it to stay that way, and he was willing to destroy the whole of time and space to save her. While that’s very noble on paper, it’s actually pretty shitty of him, considering ALL THE OTHER PLANETS AND PEOPLE AND LIFE AND THINGS.
5 – “UNDER THE LAKE/BEFORE THE FLOOD”
Toby Whithouse’s two-parter from the early half of series nine is truly terrific, beginning as a creepy undersea ghost mystery and ending as a time travel adventure and parable about the bootstrap paradox. For a show about time travel, they tend not to delve into the scientific implications thereof, but I love that kind of thing. The guest cast in these episodes is really excellent and it was supremely spooky all the way through. And the Doctor talks to us directly, which is weirdly great.
4 – “FACE THE RAVEN”
I’ve always really liked Clara and my favorite thing about her was how she pushed the boundaries of what being a companion was, and what being the Doctor was, and what that dynamic can do to people. If series eight was all about Clara having an addiction to traveling with the Doctor–one that literally put her loved ones lives at risk–series nine was all about her being reckless and ultimately self-destructive because she started to believe she could do anything, just like the Doctor himself. She makes the wrong choice, but one she ultimately decided to live with…or briefly live with. Also, welcome to the show, Sarah Dollard! What a brilliant first episode from a writer; can’t wait to see what she has in store for us in series 10.
3 – “THE ZYGON INVASION/THE ZYGON INVERSION”
I am an unabashed lover of the Third Doctor and his whole era in the first five years of the 1970s (and the first in color, too!). Part of why I loved this was the addition of UNIT, the paramilitary outfit that provided the Doctor with both an allied sparring partner, and a family while he was exiled to Earth. These two episodes, co-written by Moffat and Peter Harness, bring us right back to that feeling, and bring it up to the present with sci-fi treatises on refugees and terrorism and Cold War-era us-or-them politics. It’s amazingly profound, and just gets more and more resonant the further into these dark times we head.
2 – “THE MAGICIAN’S APPRENTICE/THE WITCH’S FAMILIAR”
Now THIS is a hell of a way to start a series! Another indicator that I think Moffat was expecting to leave after this one, we have a brilliant two-parter that takes its time and plays with the extra time it has to unfold in a really satisfying way. It’s got a guitar-playing Doctor, the return of the divine Michelle Gomez as Missy, an indication that Clara is UNIT’s go-to if the Doctor’s not around, the return of the Daleks, and a surprise explanation for the character of Davros. A glorious chess match of wills between the two old foes ensues, and Clara has to contend with the treachery that is Missy. I truly loved this story.
1 – “HEAVEN SENT”
What could possibly beat a premiere that has so much going for it? Only one of the most inventive and captivating episodes in the history of the show. The Doctor is sent to a weird old castle floating in the sea, with no one else around save the thing that most scares him. What follows is an epic of repeating actions, unsure timetables, and slow revelations. Did I ever think an episode with literally one character could be so good? Not at all! But with Moffat’s twisty narrative and Rachel Talalay’s astonishing direction, it all fits together like a Swiss watch. This episode can and should go down with the best the series has ever produced, the likes of “Blink” and “Midnight” and “The Day of the Doctor.” I might go watch it again right now!
And there you have it! The ranking for one of my favorite series of Doctor Who since its return in 2005. Do you agree with my choices? Let me know your rankings in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!