Note: This post is written with the assumption the reader has watched season eight in its entirety. Spoilers, Sweetie.
The eighth season of the revived Doctor Who concluded Saturday night, which means it’s the time of year so many Who fans look forward to most: arguing over the merits of the finale and the season at large. So allow me to throw my hat into the ring very much on the side of this season being a success, and with the exception of the fifth season, my favorite overall season since the show’s return.
The season promoted this new Doctor as being “darker” than previous incarnations, which really was a bit of an exaggeration. What Capaldi’s Doctor is, though, is a no-frills Doctor. With no cute eccentricities or quirks, Capaldi seemed much more alien than his two immediate predecessors. But the Doctor has always been alien. The difference here is that, unlike the 10th and 11th Doctors, this Doctor is not looking for acceptance. Nos. 10 and 11 wanted to belong and wanted to be liked, and their childlike enthusiasm helped to hide how little they actually understood about human emotion. This season, however, all pretense was dropped, and we were given what appeared to be a much colder Doctor.
Given how entertaining Tennant and Smith were as the 10th and 11th Doctors, it might seem like stripping down the Doctor would be a mistake. But this allowed the season and the show to really deconstruct its hero and mythology in a way that it had never done before.
“Am I a good man?” the Doctor asks Clara early on in the season, and it is a question that the season spends a lot of time shading in. “Into The Dalek,” “Listen,” “Kill the Moon,” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” all find various ways to show the audience how The Doctor isn’t quite the hero we tend to think of him as (especially in “Kill the Moon,” where he literally leaves and refuses to help Clara make a crucial decision). None of the things he does in these episodes is wrong, per se, and there is logic to his decisions. But there are no impassioned speeches to soften the blow or justify the sacrifices of others. Just a man who is making decisions trying to get the best possible result and isn’t all that concerned with whether people agree.
In fact, this season does a lot to show the hypocrisy in The Doctor’s own sense of morality. The Doctor has always been presented as pacifist who abhors military action. Yet, as Danny Pink points out, The Doctor does in fact act like a general. Whenever there is a crisis The Doctor has always been able to convince those around him to follow his lead and instruction, even convincing others to sacrifice themselves if necessary. This bears itself out fully in the season finale, when the Doctor is actually put in charge of UNIT and every military on the planet in order to deal with the rising army of Cybermen. And the Cybermen are only an issue because Missy/the Master wanted to give the Doctor an army, wanted validation that these one-time friends were not actually so different, making the question of whether or not the Doctor is a good man vital to the resolution of the plot.
Some will surely argue that the Doctor’s answer of being neither a good man nor a bad man but “an idiot” is a bit of a cop-out and a dodge. And it is, kind of. But it’s also the most accurate answer you could give considering all the various versions of the Doctor that have come. While he always tries to help, he is able to see a much larger Big Picture than anyone else, and so the decisions he makes do not always benefit those around him. He can try to be a good man, but by virtue of going from crisis to crisis, he will always end up causing harm as well as being a savior. The way this plays out in the final confrontation between the Doctor and Missy/the Master is brilliant in how all these questions of who the Doctor is come together in one glorious revelation for him.
As great as the exploration of the Doctor is, what really holds this season together is Clara. Introduced last season, Clara wasn’t particularly well-written and was initially one of the blandest companions the Doctor has traveled with. But this season gave her a new purpose. While she never had as strong a personality as Rose or Amy Pond, the series uses the fact that she is more generic and allows her to act as a stand-in for ALL companions, and explores how much traveling with the Doctor changes a person.
The fact that she is not a “constant” companion helps to underline these changes. Because she tries to maintain her normal life in-between trips with the Doctor, the show, for the first time, has really been able to shows us how a companion functions in everyday life after traveling with the Mad Man in the Box. This is no more apparent than her relationship with Danny Pink. Unlike Rory Pond, who became a full-fledged companion himself, Danny remained a separate aspect of Clara’s life. This put Clara in the position of juggling her time with Danny and the Doctor, and at one point lying to each of them, in order to have her cake and eat it, too. As is pointed out in “Mummy On The Orient Express,” traveling with the Doctor is an addiction, and she spends much of the season trying to prove she can still function in everyday life without giving up her vice.
And while just about every companion has a character arc and grows as a result of their time with the Doctor, Clara’s transformation is close to literal. Twice during the season she passes herself off as the Doctor. The first time in “Flatline” starts as a joke to annoy the real Doctor trapped in a shrinking TARDIS. But as the episode moves on, Clara truly does find herself in the Doctor’s role not only trying to keep a rag-tag group alive but also coming up with a clever solution to save the Doctor himself. And in the finale “Death In Heaven,” Clara lies about being the real Doctor in order to confuse the Cybermen and prevent them from killing her outright. Being with the Doctor changes a person. What better way to illustrate that then to have a companion actually impersonate him?
The exploration of the Doctor and Clara dovetails nicely in the final moments of “Death In Heaven.” Apparently saying their final goodbyes (that it is “final” seems unlikely, but that’s obviously what the writers want us to think at this point), both the Doctor and Clara lie to each other to try and spare the other from the heartbreak they are experiencing; for the Doctor it’s that Missy/the Master lied about Gallifrey, and for Clara it’s Danny’s death. This puts Clara in a unique position. With both her and the Doctor lying to each other and completely unaware that the other’s happy ending is a farce, they part as equals, which is something no other companion can really lay claim to.
I can see where some fans will be disappointed, especially with the finale. “Death In Heaven” did not have the narrative intricacies of “The Wedding of River Song” or the operatic emotion of “Doomsday” or “Journey’s End.” But it, and the season as a whole, was nonetheless ambitious. It picked apart the idea of the Doctor and his companion, and in putting it back together has given the series a breath of fresh air and the audience a new understanding of who the Doctor is, and why we want to travel with him.