Finally, the 12th Doctor is here. A 4.5 billion-year stay in hell, invasions, ghosts, a quick trip home, and death — lots of death: it’s been a rough season for the Doctor, but in the end, it has made him all the better, as Peter Capaldi has finally hit his stride.
Season nine has been great for a number of reasons: first and foremost, there is the simple fact that the writers are trying new things. It’s apparent even in the amount of stories this season; almost every story lasted for two episodes, with the final story lasting for three. This allowed the writers to really stretch their legs (or writing arms, if you will) with the plots. They could take their time to really take a close look at the Doctor and develop the action. Of course, this also means that the episodes had some unnecessary false drama, but nevertheless, you could feel the driving power of the two-part episode at work. Because you’re not going to just stop watching before the Doctor figures out how to save the world, right?
Season nine has also had a heavy preoccupation with the themes of morality, responsibility and loss. The season began with the Doctor trying to decide whether he should save a young Davros or leave him to die. It was a fitting way to start the season; no wild aliens or beasts, no mystery to solve, no adventure — just a moral dilemma. Of course, this distinction in tone is necessary to how we’ve come to know Capaldi’s Doctor. Season eight was tough for Capaldi, though with good reason. He had to follow two significantly younger Doctors who played up similar degrees of goofiness and charm. (Not to mention the fact that the Doctor isn’t the easiest character for an actor to just pick up.) So for a good part of season eight, Capaldi’s Doctor was just defined as “not Matt Smith” or “not David Tennant,” which meant he was old, grizzled, bitter, and callous. Great for character variety but not so great in terms of the broader arc of the character — after all, if we’re to believe that the Doctor grows and changes and regenerates but still has an awareness and memory of his past lives and experiences, then aren’t we also to believe that he should evolve with each regeneration?
In that case, what cause does the 12th Doctor have to be so bitter and callous? Unfortunately, those questions might be too much for the writers, as so frequently the show strives to strike a balance between old patterns and new material to sate fans old and new — and in doing so, they create rules just to break them, basking in their inconsistencies. But that’s nothing new to the veteran Whovian. You just roll with the punches.
Though this season, Capaldi settled into the 12th Doctor, and he became more than just the antithesis of the last Doctor. We got to see Capaldi’s Doctor intimately, in a way we didn’t get to see Smith’s. We got to step into the Doctor’s mind and see how far he can go, how destructive he can be, when racked with such utterly human emotions of sorrow, guilt, fear, and anger.
The first story of the season, encompassed in “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar,” has the Doctor being, well, the Doctor. Capaldi presents the sometimes morally ambiguous Doctor but ultimately proves that he still has compassion — enough to save Davros not once, but twice (as a child and as a dying, old Dalek-type-person).
The next two episodes, “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” are good for a few reasons. Most importantly, they’re two of a few episodes — including “The Magician’s Apprentice” and the final three of the series — that could not have been pulled off by any other Doctor. To begin with, they simply worked off of an interesting premise: underwater ghosts who come out only at night and try to kill you? Sounds good to me. Then we see how Clara is desperately in need of adventure, to the point that she’s reckles s— they were telegraphing her death, also at the cost of her recklessness, quite a bit here, but we saw that coming from last season. We see how, once again, the 12th Doctor fails to empathize with people who are scared and dealing with death. But we also see how far the Doctor will go to save Clara — a more important and subtler way of foreshadowing the series finale.
“The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived” were great not only because Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams did a fantastic job as Ashildr/Me, but because she proved to be a great foil for the Doctor. The ambiguous ending with Ashildr, whose intentions were left unclear, was a great way to end her story, and I would’ve preferred that it was left at that. However, she came back almost as a weak throwback, for one of the weakest episodes of the season, “Face the Raven.”
The Zygon episodes join the rank of episodes that were strong this season, although the clear analogy of the story to real-life immigration issues was a bit too on-the-mark, and not in a good way. Still, the return of Osgood was more than welcome and the Doctor’s Cold War talk with Bonnie and Kate Stewart was undoubtedly the Doctor at his best.
Unfortunately, the next two tanked for me: “Sleep No More” was the only single story of the season and thus felt unremarkably self-contained and lacking in depth, while “Face the Raven” stumbled over its own feet, trying desperately to create an engaging set-up to the finale. The complication of the episode, we discover, is all a ploy to capture the Doctor, but not necessarily a good one or even one that makes sense. Sure, Clara dies, but her death is robbed of its full emotional moment because the cause and set-up is so ridiculous, her goodbyes last for like 20 minutes and the dramatic slow-walk and slow-motion fall to her death are sad cliches. Plus, it’s tough to think that the writers would ever leave a companion on such a sad, stupid note. There’s always a loophole to bring an important character back after death. Always.
But as much as I was annoyed with “Face the Raven,” I enjoyed “Heaven Sent.” Once again, who else but Capaldi’s Doctor could pull off such an odd, depressing episode? This is a great example of the innovation the writers have shown in the season. There isn’t actually that much action in the episode, and in fact, the episode is cyclical, with the few actions that do occur happening over and over again. We also see, as we’ve seen a few times throughout the series, the Doctor’s thought process (though in a way not as jarring or campy as when he broke the fourth wall in “Before the Flood”). All we’ve ever seen of the Doctor are his brilliant solutions that he seemingly pulls out of his head (or ass, depending on how good the writing is for that episode), full of magical faux-science. But now we see exactly how gets there, and having those scenes take place in the Tardis — his home, his safe place — was well done.
It’s a fact that you get to know a person, or character, best when they are at their worst — when they’re scared or angry or sad. The Doctor has always been a character haunted by his demons, particularly his losses, and has always acted according to that. A main reason why this season worked so well had to do with the loss that the Doctor had to face. Clara’s death allowed Capaldi’s Doctor to really come into his own. He’s obsessive and dangerous, willing to fracture all of space and time just to get Clara back. “Heaven Sent” shows what the Doctor is capable of, and wonderfully addresses his grief in a subtle and heartbreaking way — allowing us shots of Clara, always facing away until the end, silent, but still asking him questions and guiding him along. The Doctor allows himself to flail in his grief, but the stakes are so much higher for him.
After all, he doesn’t hesitate to break all the rules of time and space just to bring Clara back. Even his personal morals are at stake, as he grabs a gun and takes a fellow Gallifreyan’s life (they regenerate, mind you, but still) as he tries to stand in his way. The Doctor is always the best when he reaches his darkest depths, because then we see the extremes of his character — the human and the alien, the good and the bad — and understand him so much better. And no matter how far the Doctor falls, he always gets back up and returns, better than ever, the flawed hero — something the 12th Doctor reminded us of this season. …Now on to the next.
What’s going to happen with Clara and Ashildr? So Clara is kinda dead but not really, because she’s extracted from time, from the moment right before her death. And Ashildr is still hanging around being immortal. (Sub-question: How is Ashildr the only immortal left at the end of the universe?) It seems like a pretty obvious set-up for a spin-off series. And if it isn’t, then that’s a pretty large question mark to leave at the end of the season.
What about Clara being the impossible girl? There was that whole plot line about Clara being all jumbled up into the Doctor’s timeline and repeatedly appearing throughout his life. So does this just end? Because this is certainly not the first time Clara has died. Here’s another example of the writers disregarding plots they’ve set up in the past.
Why do none of the Tardises on Gallifrey work? Seriously? The Doctor’s Tardis can only appear as a police box and now Clara and Ashildr’s can only appear as a diner. You’d think with all of that Gallifreyan technology they’d fix that glitch.
We’re supposed to believe that the reason why Capaldi appeared as the Doctor after already having played a character in the Pompeii episode was because he wanted to give himself a reminder that he’s a Time Lord and can do whatever he wants? Dude, you couldn’t have written that down on a post-it note or set a reminder on Google Calendar? The Doctor’s been breaking his own rules for hundreds (thousands? millions? billions?) of years, so I don’t get why he needed to change his face to remind himself of that fact. Are we going to act like “The Water of Mars” didn’t happen? This was lazy writing at best.
How has Gallifrey done everything it’s done so far? We never seem to get clear explanations on how Gallifrey has done all the magical things it’s done. For example, how did it un-freeze itself? The Doctor himself brings it up and says he doesn’t know, so I guess that means we’re supposed to just forget about it and move on. Also, where did this horrible lord-president come from? There was a different head honcho in charge the last time we saw the Time Lords, but somehow this idiot was put in charge. Also, how did they figure out how to lure the Doctor into Ashildr’s clutches? They’re at the end of the universe, frozen — or not frozen — in time, but somehow they figure out who Ashildr is, how she can get in contact with the Doctor, and get her to imprison him within the hellish last will and testament disc. And all that to ask him about a story. Geez.