SPOILERS FOLLOW, you know this by now, get into it.
“Nothing’s Sad Until It’s Over” – The Doctor, Hell Bent
So let’s just get in front of the big controversy: Another Doctor Who character didn’t technically die. Two weeks ago I expressed my worries that they wouldn’t keep Clara dead; I thought bringing her back was the wrong decision, and that it would negate all the good work done by Jenna Coleman in the last ten minutes of ‘Face The Raven’. Suffice to say, I’ve not been happier to admit in a while that I was right – they didn’t technically kill her off – but, more importantly, I was wrong. This was the way to say goodbye to Clara.
As I hope becomes traditional in episodic re-caps, here’s the plot and stuff, for the sake of avoiding confusion, we’re going to cover the events in chronological order, not episode presentation:
The Doctor is wandering Gallifrey towards the barn he grew up in, and the Gallifrey high command (no longer including Timothy Dalton, since Rassilon has regenerated into Donald Sumpter) are worried about this because he’s a renegade but damnit he gets results. The Doctor continues to not tell anyone about the identity of the Hybrid who’ll burn a billion hearts to heal his own (it’s The Doctor); Rassillon has a firing squad aim at the Doctor; they refuse to shoot him, they join his side of the literal line in the sand he has drawn, and Rassillon and a high command are all banished from Gallifrey.
The Doctor uses an extraction chamber to pull Clara out of her time-stream miliseconds before she dies, he then shoots General Bald-Whiteman who regenerates as General Buzzcut-Blackwoman and goes on the run with Clara to find the Timelord Matrix, he is trying to steal another TARDIS so he can take Clara away and wipe her memory so that she can live her life and not be found, he hides her briefly at the end of the universe Ashildr/Me is there watching planets burn, she chats with The Doctor and tells him he’s being silly, Clara tells the Doctor the same thing and not to sacrifice the universe for her, Clara reverse engineers the mind-wipe doohickey so that it might wipe The Doctor’s memory of her instead, they don’t know what will happen, the both hold the device, it wipes The Doctor’s memory.
He wakes up in present-day Nevada; he wanders into a nearby diner and initiates the framing narrative as he chats to a waitress that just so happens to be Clara, he tells her the story of what happened, it’s revealed that the diner was actually the TARDIS, it flies away, The Doctor finds his TARDIS, he gets back his Screwdriver (shame really, I actually liked the sunglasses. Shut up, I’m not wrong, this is my opinion) and flies away as well, Clara and Ashildr are heading back to Gallifrey to put Clara back into the moment of her death but, as they have a TARDIS, they’re going back ‘The Long Way Round’.
This time round, the finale took on a lot of pressure as it not only had to wrap-up what’s been a pretty damn good series overall but it had to follow-up what last week was not just a great episode of Who but a great hour of television. Period. This wasn’t quite as brilliant as last week because really, it was that good, but as a capper to a series, it’s probably the best since ‘The Big Bang’ and maybe the best of the entire New Who run, but we’ll have to check back and see how it holds up in a year or two to really say that. Moffat’s best work usually revolves on taking a simple idea (statues are moving, The Doctor is alone in a castle, children in gas masks are creepy) and making it both epic and intimate. This episode takes that and runs with it, having the simple through-line that The Doctor would pull down the entire universe if it meant he could have his Best Friend back.
The smartest move of this Doctor-Companion partnership is not to play it as either to play it as romantic, Capaldi is old enough to be her father, or particularly paternal, that would be too obvious because again, he is old enough to be her father. To The Doctor’s eyes, Clara brings out the best in him (even if he brings out some of the worst in her) and I don’t think he particularly likes who he is without her but I felt like it’s more affecting that this isn’t a relationship that we see enough on television: two people who travel together because they like each other’s company, and it becomes all the more shattering seeing Capaldi’s reaction as his memories of her fade away knowing that it would be easier to watch the entire universe fall apart than have to say goodbye to her one more time.
Between last year’s final two-parter ‘Dark Water‘/’Death In Heaven‘ and these last two episodes, Rachel Talalay has established herself as possibly the firmest hand of any of the modern directors, combining technical and visual trickery with a strong handling of performances. It’s a difficult balancing act and one that Talalay manages with ease befitting her role as finale director-du-jour. It must also be noted that, style-wise, the episode not only deftly handles the Western-styled wider shots, but that the episode involves some of the smoothest CGI work of the entire series, making the TV budget look better than a lot of more expensive film work. The blending of the more practical effects in the catacombs (including a clever return of the Weeping Angels) with the high CGI of Gallifrey itself is a strong visual contrast and really makes the Wizard of Oz-meets-Coruscant stylings of the city all the more effective.
As often happens with Who, the supreme focus of the main cast leaves little for the supporting cast to work with, Donald Sumpter especially coming off as a tad underwhelming after the joyous histrionics of Dalton in the role and the return of the Sisterhood of Khan only really serve to be another voice telling The Doctor not to be an idiot but really this episode isn’t about Gallifrey, as much as The Doctor has searched for his home planet, he longer needs it as much as it does him, this episode is pretty much entirely about finishing off the story of The Doctor and Clara and the next chapter in that of Ashildr.
It should really go without saying at this point that Capaldi’s performance was practically perfect, Coleman’s arch delivery worked wonders and Maisie Williams has delivered an incredibly nuanced portrayal thus far making Me seem as old as she is while seeming like a part of her is still the young girl they left in the village. But, as I say, such compliments should go without saying. Everything between Clara and The Doctor in the diner is utterly lovely, often saying everything and nothing, plus it helped that Clara’s TARDIS-coloured waitress outfit was a great visual contrast to the autumn oranges in the rest of the colour palette.
I’m going to to jump straight into talking about this series as a whole because, in quite a lot of ways, talking about the way that the series says goodbye to its second longest running companion (Clara has been featured in as many episodes as Rose but spread over a shorter number of years) is exhausting. Overall, I’m not sure about this series. I think that the last three episodes have been spectacular but, up until this point, it’s been a mixed bag with a lot of strong character work ruined by some difficult-to-handle plotting flaws and uninteresting villains (‘The Girl Who Died’, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice‘). There’s been a couple of ‘alien lifeform on an abandoned base’ episodes that maybe haven’t planned out exactly as they hoped for, but at least there was Corey Taylor and Peter Serafinowicz (‘Before The Flood‘, ‘Sleep No More‘) and of course there was the majesty of ‘The Zygon Inversion’ coupled with the mildly fumbling set-up of ‘The Zygon Invasion’.
The problem with the majority of the series is that, beyond the final three episodes, there have been a lot of strong moments without a particularly exciting episode worth revisiting (though depending on what series you classify it as, ‘Last Christmas‘ was possibly the strongest Christmas Special Who has done). It’s hard to classify it as a particularly impressive series overall when it had so many issues, but I will at least commend it for trying new things. Returning to the classic style of splitting stories into multiple parts has helped slow down the pacing and allow the exposition to feel more natural in the first parts and the denouement less hurried in the second. I’d be interested with the announcement of next series being another twelve episodes if they could continue to push things further into four three-parters or even two six-parters.
Who has proven itself to be at its best when it has a unique endgame to work towards. The more it can avoid having too many throwaway or pure filler adventures, all the better it can be. I’m glad that, in the end, they didn’t kill off Clara but they left her with a hanging thread that she has to accept that her death is fixed. There’s no easy way to write out a character but Clara and Ashildr flying away in a diner-shaped TARDIS (My Doctor Who/Resturant At The End of the Universe cross-fic is quickly becoming more canon) is a very fun image.
Adult fans, I think, have to constantly remind themselves that they are watching a programme meant for the whole family and that means accepting that, if it helps kids sleep at night, sometimes we need to give them that hope that their favourite characters aren’t quite dead yet. It’s been a dark end to a dark year for the Doctor, and maybe we all just need that little bit of hope to stop feeling like the universe is collapsing. Maybe, it’s better just to move on and upwards.
Next time: River Song, robots and Greg Davies’ decapitated head star in Doctor Who and the Confusing Return of the Jarring Tonal Shift.