Monday, December 7, 2015

A Critical Review of Doctor Who's Season 9 Finale

On Saturday, the ninth season finale of Doctor Who aired, and already many critics have praised it as a strong finishing episode. Currently, it has an average score of 9.2 on IMDb, accrued from 1,458 viewers. So what I'm about to do in this post - a critical review of the finale - is apparently going to be pretty unpopular. 

Of course, some critics have shared minor disappointments with the episode, and, of course, it's always easier to be negative than it is to be positive. All this is known, acknowledged, etc. My purpose in this review is not to fanboy rant, to be edgy and 'go against the grain,' or to hate on the show. Consider this an exercise in thinking through alternative possibilities, if you will, something of which I like to think the Doctor approves.

Needless to say...


If you have not watched through all of season 9 yet, and you don't want anything ruined, close this window and come back later.

Good?

Good.

First, I want to begin by saying that this ninth season has been a great season. Many of the characters and stories were interesting, we got to see some fan favorites reappear, and the two-parter format brought a sense of anticipation back to the series that felt absent from the previous season. Peter Capaldi also really came into his own as the Doctor, delivering outstanding performances like the climactic monologue in "The Zygon Inversion." Likewise, Jenna Coleman, whose character I wasn't very fond of in the last couple seasons, stood out more here, especially in the unforgettable episode, "Face the Raven."

Then there was "Heaven Sent," the eleventh and last episode preceding the finale. And what an episode it was. Not only did Capaldi masterfully carry the show all on his own for most of it, but the writing and visuals were stellar, too. The Doctor's journey through the confession dial drew you in on the same mysterious, haunting, frightening, confining, and ultimately triumphant journey of self-realization. After Clara's departure in "Face the Raven," episode eleven was a somber and brilliant way of taking the audience along on the Doctor's struggle to overcome his grief, and to confront the numerous questions and implications raised during it.

Season 9 has been alluding to both Clara's death and the Doctor's need to face his own death ever since the premiere. Having been brought before Davros, the Doctor exclaims, "You've brought me to Skaro!" To which Davros says with a tinge of foreshadowing, "Where does an old man go to die, but with his children?" There's the Doctor's ghost in episodes three and four as well, also alluding to his death. Clara's death is hinted at in her entrapment inside a Dalek shell in the second episode, not to mention her death-like stasis in the Zygon two-parter, with her oddly phrased text to the Doctor: "I'm Awake." This is just the kind of teasing we expect from Moffat and company, though, so for some time it was hard to tell to where exactly these allusions would lead.

Perhaps predictably, one of the big complaints I have against the finale is how it undermined Clara's death in "Face the Raven." I'm certainly not alone in feeling this way, either, as Twitter users have made similar comments, the Telegraph notes. Her death was one of self-sacrifice, poignantly complicated by its unexpected inevitability. There was no Doctor saving the day. Some things can't be changed. But some things are also maybe worth dying for. Clara accepted her death, faced it with courage, and it was all to save another person. It was, by all counts, a prime example of a noble death, a theme that has been significant in Doctor Who for years now, the Doctor repeatedly facing death to save other peoples and other species.

Jenna Coleman doing the wild-eyed stare she's become famous for.
If Clara's death had really been the end of her for the season, it arguably could've been one of the best exits we've seen for a companion in the new series. After all, the Doctor regenerates usually when he's injured or dying. Clara could have become one of the first companions to do what the Doctor hasn't been able to do all these years: actually die a permanent and noble death for the values and ideals of the Doctor. And yes, I know, she still will die that death... some day. But prolonging it like the finale manages to do strips it of much of its effectiveness and impact. It turned out that what Clara initially expected, that the Doctor could save her, was true all along. And weren't we much less impressed when it seemed that Clara's motivation was to cheat the raven?

Because of the Doctor's regenerative capability, as well as the time-traveling, the show has had a long running theme of cheating death. The Doctor's own death has, of course, been addressed before, as in the episodes revolving around Trenzalore, yet there is always a way out, a way of cheating death. Season 9 held the promise of something different, for several reasons. The Doctor is older now, more mature, and 12 came onto the scene following a series of episodes that made a great deal about the Doctor exhausting his allotted number of regenerations. The ninth season was poised to finally show a Doctor who could learn to face the finality of death. Instead, we managed to cheat death again for the Doctor's latest favorite companion.

Another frustration I had with the season finale was its abrupt switch in the Doctor's mood from episode eleven. In "Heaven Sent," the Doctor didn't just make his confession, he also went to confront his death untold times, in a strikingly spiritual-seeming act of self-transformation, as if breaking the cycle of rebirth within the confession dial. This moving scene of repeatedly enduring the same moments, punching the same impossible wall, making the same confessions - all of it became moot in the finale when it was revealed that the Doctor snapped under the pressure. What seemed like a desperation to break free and return home to Gallifrey turned into a madman's quest to rescue Clara.

Yes, Moffat certainly gave us "unpredictability" in the ending episode of season 9, as Ross Ruediger calls in an article for Vulture, but what precisely makes that in itself worthy of praise is a bit cryptic. An unpredictable story isn't necessarily a good story, nor is a predictable one necessarily terrible. A lot can be said for execution mattering far more than originality, and it's why, for example, films like The Godfather and Goodfellas stand out among so many other flicks about mobsters and gang violence.

While we're on the subject of Gallifrey... oh boy. After so many seasons of the Doctor pining for a return to his homeworld and to his own people, we get an incredibly anti-climactic homecoming. The man who fought to save Gallifrey in "The Day of the Doctor," and became so excited at the prospect of it being spared in a frozen moment of time, came back not even with a vengeance, but more of a meh. 'Gallifrey? Whatevs, I'm only here to save my friend.' Oh, and that frozen moment in time plot point? Dismissed without explanation in a single sentence. How did the Time Lords unfreeze themselves? How did they arrange for the Doctor to be sent to the confession dial? "They must've found a way."

Furthermore, the Doctor proceeded to shoot one Gallifreyan standing in his way, to threaten several others, and hijacked Gallifrey technology to pull Clara out of time. Mind you, 12 was one of the many Doctors we saw working to save Gallifrey in "The Day of the Doctor," and although it never made reference to when that was in his timeline, it's hard to believe he suddenly forgot all the effort he's put in to mourning, repenting for, and trying to save his homeworld over the centuries. The Doctor may have snapped from his confession, but his arrival at Gallifrey still seemed to have zero impact on him emotionally.

Granted, all of these issues I've talked about mostly revolve around the prophecy of the hybrid, which was clearly the focal point for the two opening and two ending episodes. Admittedly, I went back and forth on the idea of the hybrid throughout the season. It was kept intentionally vague, but also did not seem to really get fleshed out much until the very last few minutes of the very last episode. Clara and the Doctor together being the hybrid was not entirely a bad idea, though it did feel like it could've been done better. All during season 9, Clara pushes the Doctor to be a better person, and then suddenly she's causing him to push himself too far. It could've been nice to at least build up to that concept over the duration of the series.

But let's talk about how things are resolved in the finale. Me/Ashildr served as both a good reminder of the Doctor's need for moderation, and as a contrasting immortal for him to converse with about the pain of eternity. It was maybe an interesting development to have the Doctor's memory wiped instead of a companion's, though yet again this seemed like a dilemma that didn't need to be there. It was really only posed because Clara wound up cheating death, thanks to the Doctor. And frankly, I'm not so sure having the first older Doctor in a very long time wind up forgetting his close friend in a bout of self-induced Alzheimer's was a great choice.

"Anyone seen my TARDIS keys?"

Clara and Ashildr flying off through space in a TARDIS felt like a mix of indecision, childish fancy, and poorly-done fan service. We didn't need Clara to survive, and we didn't need her to become her own Doctor, either, especially when the option was there, right under everyone's noses, of having her do something surpassing even the Doctor in its meaningfulness. Sure, this point could be argued, since her death was only delayed, not avoided altogether, but this is in actuality the case with everyone the Doctor rescues. They all die some day, and Clara was not the first companion to endanger her life for other people.

As other reviewers have observed, this raises a big question about what made Clara different enough for the Doctor to risk ending the universe. Was Rose not that important? Donna? Amy and Rory? Danny Pink was able to die and stay dead, despite the glaring inconsistency of Orson Pink appearing in the future for an episode of season 8. I suppose that possible afterlife reunion of Danny and Clara will just have to wait a few billion years, though.

To wrap up this review, I have to confess that I don't get the love that the season 9 finale has been receiving from critics and fans alike. True, the season has been quite good overall, but that's also part of what I feel made this ending episode that much more of a letdown. So much got glossed over rapid-fire in the Doctor's senseless quest to resurrect Clara, including a throwaway line about Missy bringing together 12 and the Impossible Girl (it would've been nicer to see her in the finale). In all honesty, the season could have concluded on its strongest note with "Heaven Sent." What we got for a finale felt rushed, unnecessary, and, at its worst moments, almost incoherent.

That said, I'm still absolutely rooting for the Doctor. There have been bummer episodes before, and even downright awful ones. The season 9 finale may not beat out "Daleks in Manhattan," with its ridiculous penis-headed Human-Dalek, or the unbelievably abysmal "Love & Monsters," but sometimes it's nearly worse when a season comes so close to nailing it, then punts at the last minute. At least we have the return of River Song to look forward to with the Christmas special, and here's to hoping season 10 will be able to pull it together better.

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