Since its restart in 2005, the modern version of Doctor Who (or “NuWho,” as it’s cheekily called by fans) has become a bona fide global phenomenon, with its fanbase exploding outside the U.K. to find a rabid following in the U.S. and around the world. Whovians are everywhere now, and though they might be of a different mold than classic Doctor Who fans, they are no less fervent in their love.
But for a few seasons now, there have been rumblings of unhappiness with the series. Yet, after this weekend’s season finale, many fans were saying that it was the most satisfying finale they’d seen in years.
So why was it so well-received? Some fans praised the acting in the episode. Some, that Clara and the Twelfth Doctor finally got a proper goodbye – well, as proper as one gets in Doctor Who. Some, that Peter Capaldi is hitting his stride, finally seeming fully comfortable in the role. While all of those things certainly contributed, I’d argue that it was because, for the first time in a great long while, Doctor Who rediscovered the quality that endeared it to so many fans in the first place: joy.
See, the thing that makes Doctor Who great, what makes it endure, is that at a time when television is a glut of grimdark and gritty, where television is in the midst of a love affair with bad people doing bad things, it reminds us that there’s good in the world, too. That there’s light. Hope. That there are also good people doing good things, none more than the Doctor himself.
But for far too long now, Doctor Who has been steadily getting darker, more hopeless. With a near-immortal alien who has been through a horrific war, seen awful things, and who outlives everyone he’s ever loved, one can expect moments of angst or rage. We’ve certainly seen that with the modern incarnations of the Doctors, particularly David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, who summed up the loneliness best with the now-famous quote (at least for Whovians):
“They leave. Because they should or because they find someone else. And some of them, some of them… forget me.
I suppose in the end, they break my heart.”
Yet even with Ten’s moments of darkness, there was still a whimsy to his character that endeared him to fans. There was a joy in exploration, and the show celebrated knowledge and adventure and friendship in an open-armed way that no other series did.
At some point in the middle of Matt Smith’s run as the Eleventh Doctor, however, a certain intangible something started to creep into the tone of the show, a weary ennui that started to permeate throughout. Rather than continuing to be the determined, plucky optimist the Doctor had always been, Eleven continued on living and saving the world not because he truly seemed to want to, at points, but simply because he had no other choice. He was, as he said to the infant, Stormy, “so very old.”
“Stop crying,” he comforted the fussy baby, “You’ve got a lot to look forward to, you know. A normal human life on Earth. Mortgage repayments. The nine-to-five. A persistent, nagging sense of spiritual emptiness. Save the tears for later, boy-o. Oh, that was crabby. No, that was old. But I am old, Stormy. I am so old. So near the end.”
The weariness in his voice was palpable. It was understandable. He’s seen too much, lived too long, lost too many. No fan has ever begrudged the Doctor his episodes of despair and moments of sadness. Except the existential bleakness never really stopped once it got started during Eleven’s time as the Doctor, and it continued into the Twelfth Doctor’s incarnation.
Twelve is one of the angriest Doctors we’ve ever had. Gone is the boyish charm of both Ten and Eleven, gone is Ten’s enthusiasm, Eleven’s awkward coltishness. Twelve does not suffer fools, his tongue is acidic, and he is on a goddamn mission. Woe to anyone who should get in his way. And he is a great Doctor; I truly love what Capaldi is bringing to the role.
But with that anger has come the quiet loss of hope and joy. Particularly in this past season, even when the Doctor saved the day, as he always does, it wasn’t saved clean. People died – many of them. And the Doctor bore the brunt of the blame when they did. Endings were left messy; so were hearts and lives. The failures of the Doctor were emphasized so much more than his triumphs, the recurring theme of the series being the mistakes of the Doctor’s past coming back to haunt him in his future. “There is no escape from pain,” the season drummed into our heads over and over. “Any reprieve is temporary; the Doctor can and will never truly be happy.” For a long-time Whovian, while I deeply appreciated the excellent acting this season from main and recurring cast alike, it was a hard series to watch.
It was an experimental season, as well: Every story was told in two parts, with each two-episode story being more or less standalone. There was no unifying storyline weaving throughout, as there had been in previous seasons. The only constants were the impending sense of doom hanging around companion, Clara, and the Doctor’s increasing fear he’d lose her, and the aforementioned mistakes of his past haunting him in the form of Maisie Williams’ Ashildr/Me, determined to see the Doctor not as a savior, but as a dangerous threat to the universe. The only single episode story was that of Clara’s death. It was fitting, as her death is the singular event that defined the Doctor’s life – for the next four and a half billion years.
So dark and hopeless it got that in the second-to-last episode of the season, “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor found himself, quite literally, in Hell. His greatest failures, darkest secrets, and most shameful moments used against him to create a custom-designed Purgatory from which it seemed impossible to escape. It was a low point for the Doctor and faithful fans alike.
Yet just when it seemed the series would never embrace optimism and hope again, it flipped the script. At the very end of the episode, it became clear why the Doctor allowed himself to be trapped in this hellish nightmare for billions of years rather than give in and save himself. It was because for once, just once, he wanted to be able to have a happy end – he wanted his companion and best friend back. For once, he didn’t want the pain of saying goodbye, and it was a hope that sustained him throughout those lonely eons.
In the season finale, the Doctor finally got his wish: He didn’t have to say goodbye to Clara. He got to revive her, save her, and let her know, once and for all, what she had meant to him as his best friend and lifeline. And in the end, for the first time ever with a companion, the Doctor didn’t have to say goodbye. For once, he didn’t have to watch a companion he loved die, or have her memories of him wiped, or blink out of existence, or be ripped from him. In a twist, it was his memories of Clara that were wiped clean and Clara that had to carry the pain of him forgetting with her. It may seem bittersweet, or even cruel, to those unfamiliar with Doctor Who, but longtime fans know it was the most merciful ending the Doctor could have had. No pain. No regret. No loss. No hole in his heart. He was left with only a faint, happy impression of a girl named “Clara” who had once been dear to him.
And the season ended not with the Doctor, but with Clara herself, because even she, hurting as she was that the Doctor had forgotten her, quite literally ended her story in the series – thus far – by becoming the captain of her own ship, both literal and metaphorical. Her spunky, impulsive, optimistic nature had not dimmed a bit, nor had her determination. If Clara Oswald was to die once and for all then, by God, she was going to accept it with grace and do it on her own terms, going off to one last grand adventure. Perhaps the grand adventure – Gallifrey.
It was a noble end for a companion who had meant so much to the Doctor, who had been designed eons ago to save the Doctor over and over again throughout time. Any other would have been an insult to Clara’s memory and all that she’d done, the one companion as much like the Doctor in spirit and temperament as any had ever been.
For the Doctor, who has had to sacrifice so much, who has given and given up everything to save the universe so many times, it was a small gift from the universe back to him. The Doctor never had to say goodbye, the thing he hates most. And while he may not have been able to remember his beloved friend, if he could, he would have her as she existed: hopeful, determined, and whole.
Just like the Doctor and Clara, for the first time in a great long while, Doctor Who feels like it’s getting back on track and rediscovering its joy. Has the Doctor finally exorcised the ghosts of his past? It’s hard to say. But I can only hope this means that next season will find the Doctor looking forward and recognizing the possibilities of the future once again, instead of continuing to look backward and seeing only pain.