Everybody knows that everybody dies. And nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment, accepts it.
That’s been the constant theme in Series 9 of Doctor Who. He’s the Doctor, and he saves people.
He’s the one who spends all his lives raging against the dying of the light. He’s the one who would tear the entire universe apart to save just one friend.
But what would happen if he really had to?
The answer takes up three episodes, and it brings an incredible season to a beautiful finish.
The story that encompasses “Face the Raven,” “Heaven Sent,” and “Hell Bent” has a lot of work to do. Besides ending the season and setting us up for both a Christmas special and Series 10, it has to resolve the three major arcs of the season. It has to reveal what’s in Twelve’s confession dial/last will and testament. It has to answer the question of the Hybrid, that dreaded creature of Time Lord prophecy. And of course, it has to settle Clara’s fate.
That’s where Sarah Dollard’s “Face the Raven” begins. After a desperate call from their old friend Rigsy, Twelve and Clara find themselves on one of the lost streets of London, a haven for alien refugees ruled by their even older friend Ashildr (who’s still Me after all these years).
It’s quickly revealed that Rigsy has a death sentence on his head (almost literally – there’s a tattoo on his neck that counts down to his demise). Of course we know it’s false. And Clara, being the carer, immediately shifts into Doctor mode, observes, asks, and forms a plan to save her friend’s life by taking the sentence upon herself.
But Clara’s plan proves too clever for her own good. By walking onto the “trap street,” she and Twelve have walked into a trap, set for The Doctor by Me. (We’ll find out why, and for whom, before it’s all done.) And Clara’s actions have disrupted Me’s plan. Now, she’s powerless to escape her fate. And even Twelve is powerless to save her…
It goes without saying that Clara’s final moments are powerfully acted by both Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi, as she pleads with him to choose peace over vengeance, and as he does all he can to contain his grief and rage. But the end itself, Clara’s death, feels strangely muted. It doesn’t have the impact I expected, as if it’s just the beginning of a larger story.
Of course, it is.
It’s funny. The day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.
Which brings us to the incredible “Heaven Sent.” Written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay, it’s one of the finest hours of television I’ve seen this year.
The plot is simple enough. Twelve is trapped, almost entirely alone, in a mysterious castle. He’s forced to face his worst fears. He’s forced to face his darkest truths. And for billions of years, he’s forced to face his grief, with only his memories of Clara to bring him anything like hope.
It’s an absolute tour de force by Capaldi, exceeding even his magnificent turn in “The Zygon Inversion.” He finds the dark places even The Doctor is afraid to go, he goes there, and he brings you with him to understand and feel what he’s going through. It’s another performance of great passion, great will, great conviction. It’s another reminder that he doesn’t simply portray The Doctor. In so many ways, Peter Capaldi just is The Doctor.
Through sheer force of will, seemingly sustained only by the force of memory, Twelve fights on. He wins. And he escapes from his prison (in the confession dial itself!)…
Which brings us to “Hell Bent,” a stunning finale from Moffat and Talalay that brings all the season’s threads together.
Home at last (the REALLY long way round), Twelve quickly and silently enacts his vengeance, deposing the Lord President who imprisoned him (classic Who veteran Donald Sumpter) without firing a shot. Once that’s done (and I have to say that watching Twelve tell Rassilon – freaking RASSILON – to “Get off my planet” is a serious air-punching moment), the new(ish) Lord President uses his power and authority to pull Clara out of that fixed point in time, leaving her conscious, ageless, and in a strange state between life and death.
It goes without saying that this is something you’re really not supposed to do. But Twelve has lost himself. After nearly five billion years, he’s almost forgotten how to be a Doctor. And he just cannot accept that things end, that friends go away (sometimes forever). So watching him surrender to his madness (even to the point of shooting one of his allies) is rather frightening.
Twelve keeps fighting. He keeps going (stealing a gorgeous old-school TARDIS in the process). He can’t let go. Until he finds Me, one last time, just before the end of all of time and space.
The conversation between Twelve and Me would be the high point of any other episode. It’s written and performed with delicacy and tenderness, as Me gently convinces The Doctor that endings can be beautiful and sad at once – it’s never just one or the other. And not only is it natural to say goodbye, it’s often necessary.
This is where the question of the Hybrid is especially important. Twelve believes it’s Me, but Me suggests it’s something else: Twelve and Clara, together. And that makes so much sense. Three strong hearts. Two strong wills. Each inspiring and driving and pushing the other, without even seeing it. Each going too far. Together, threatening to tear the universe apart.
That’s when Twelve realizes he must do something unthinkable. To truly save Clara – to save himself – he must let her go.
And that’s the hearts of the story, the moment this entire season has prepared him, and us, for. The one man in the universe who can NEVER let go must do just that. And more than that, he must let Clara have a say in her leaving.
Which leads to the kind of goodbye we all hoped “Face the Raven” would be. Twelve has decided to erase Clara’s memory, but Clara will have none of that (“Tomorrow is promised to no-one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that. It’s mine” – it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for since the cruel pain of Donna’s fate). And he knows she’s right. So he turns the neural block on himself, and wishes her the life she can no longer have with him.
The last moments of the episode are at once heartbreaking and hopeful. Twelve has put the pieces together. He’s found Clara. Though he can’t truly remember her, he knows he’s found her. And when she leaves (in that same old TARDIS, with Me at her side), he does not pursue her.
We feel the sadness of his loss, the bravery of his choice. But we also feel hope. Clara and Me are off on their own adventures (though we know, and Clara has accepted, that she must face death one last time). And maybe Twelve will always wonder after her. But he has his own adventures ahead of him. And even in losing Clara, he’s found himself. He’s The Doctor again:
“Run like hell, because you always need to. Laugh at everything, because it’s always funny. Never be cruel, and never be cowardly. And if you ever are, always make amends.”
It’s a great way to end one of the finest seasons, and one of the finest performances, Doctor Who has yet seen.
But more than that, it’s just a great way to live.
Thanks for following along this season. I’ll be back for the Christmas special.
Until then, keep running…