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I love it when a Doctor Who finale embodies the season’s theme.
Subtler than an arc mantra (such as “Bad Wolf” or “Silence Will Fall”) and more effective, a theme that is gradually developed over the season and made explicit in the finale multiplies retroactively the satisfaction of having invested time in all the previous episodes, including the ones that upon first viewing seemed inconsequential.
My favorite two examples are Martha Jones’s series 3, which ended up being about the potential of the human species, and Donna Noble’s series 4, which ended up being about the value of ordinary people. (Seriously, rewatch every episode of those two seasons and you’ll notice the theme in all of them.)
In comparison, the Matt Smith era feels flat. Its three seasons were all about the Doctor’s place in the universe, which went against one of the most important uncodified rules of writing a superheroic plot: the one being rescued should not be the superhero. However, I can understand why his stories were so centered on the Doctor himself: his time coincided with the show’s 50th anniversary, which mandated visiting decades of canon history.
This gravitational pull toward self-contemplation reached its climax in The Day of the Doctor, when the Doctor and the Doctor teamed up with the Doctor to help the Doctor redeem the Doctor. Once past that point, the writers were free to return to what the Doctor was supposed to be about: helping others.
Peter Capaldi’s series 10 has been the perfect examination of that theme, which could be summed up as: honor your dead, but keep on living. It began with last year’s Christmas special The Return of Doctor Mysterio, with the Doctor having just said his last goodbye to River Song. As his caretaker Nardole explains in this episode, from now on the Doctor needs to find a way to live with the hole she left in his life.
Learning to let go of your dead becomes the theme for the whole season:
- In the first episode, The Pilot, new companion Bill Potts needs to learn to let go of her crush after she is accidentally transformed into a sentient mass of liquid.
- In Smile, the last survivors of humanity need to make peace with the service robots that murdered their friends and relatives.
- In Thin Ice, the Doctor teaches Bill not to linger on the death of one child when she has the opportunity to save a dozen more.
- In Knock Knock, the mysterious landlord needs to abandon his destructive refusal to accept his mother’s death.
- In Oxygen, spaceman Ivan needs to accommodate his gratefulness with his grief when his dead girlfriend’s spacesuit gives him her air tank to keep him alive.
- In Extremis, the inhabitants of a simulated Earth choose death over an inauthentic life.
- At the midseason point, The Pyramid at the End of the World reverses this lesson: the Doctor could sacrifice himself to save Earth from a bioweapon, but Bill estimates that the Doctor will be needed for future crises, so that’s one death Earth cannot afford.
- In The Lie of the Land the theme is brought to the foreground by showing one positive way to honor your dead: the special place Bill’s deceased mother holds in her mind is the memetic defense that brings a totalitarian dictatorship down.
- In Empress of Mars the theme is reversed again: Captain Catchlove volunteers to die to save his soldiers, but Empress Iraxxa, who has just discovered she lost her entire species, rejects his offer of a meaningful death and gives him the chance of a meaningful life.
- In The Eaters of Light, two proud armies choose a meaningful death so that their fallen comrades won’t have died in vain.
- And finally, in World Enough and Time, the Doctor must learn the lesson he stubbornly refused to in the previous season: to accept the death of a companion.
Let’s briefly review what lines the Doctor crossed in his obsession to save Clara in series 9: he subjected himself to billions of years of mental torture until he forced his way into Gallifrey, deposed the government, pulled Clara out of her timeline to keep her perpetually suspended before her last breath, stole dangerous technology, murdered another Time Lord, took Clara to witness the death of the universe, and almost deleted her memory to keep her from danger. Clara’s choice? Let go of the Doctor.
She had experienced her own growth with this theme in series 8, when she had to let go of her boyfriend after he was turned into a Cyberman. He, too, made a choice about his own death, sacrificing his chance to live again and preferring to revive the child he had killed by accident. Taken together, this means that honoring your dead has not only been the theme for season 10, but for the whole Capaldi era.
Missy’s plot to weaponize the dead in series 8 is the dark version of this theme: she understands how death is a force that can be used, but she defiles it by making it literal and turning the dead into tools. Danny Pink’s arc, made more salient by contrast with the Doctor’s disgust for soldiers, is the heroic version: even if you have killed, you can still make it mean something.
On its own, series 8 is about what you do when you are forced to decide on other people’s lives (more clearly shown in Listen, Time Heist and especially Kill the Moon), but as a contribution to the overall theme, it is about how you make that decision in a way that respects the one you’re deciding for.
Series 9 is about the cost of keeping your life. Consider Last Christmas, where abandoning a fantastic dream land can sometimes force you to deal with a very harsh real life. This theme is foreshadowed as Davros steals the Doctor’s lifeforce to sustain his own, but can’t live with the result—the pariahs of Dalek society returning to life. It is fully expressed in the tragic saga of Ashildr, the Woman who Lived (with a beautiful parallel in Osgood, the Woman who Lived On).
By the end of the season, the Doctor is so opposed to allowing one more death that he believes he has the right to decide on Clara’s life, and she has to remove herself from his mind in order to keep her autonomy. As part of the overall theme, this season is about the need to not only give meaning to the lives you leave behind, but also to the one you have to keep living. This lesson falls heavily on the Doctor’s shoulders as he heads for The Husbands of River Song.
This all brings us to The Doctor Falls, the stupendously written season 10 finale. Bill tells the Doctor she would rather die than live as anything other than herself. For a Time Lord, this decision isn’t as straightforward: a time always comes where you have to become someone else. The Doctor hasn’t yet learned this lesson, so he refuses to die. Nor has the Master learned it, so he refuses to live. In the brilliant speech he gives to the Masters, the Doctor brings together the themes of meaningful life and meaningful death. He professes to believe in their synthesis, but he hasn’t really seen what it means when put together. He’s learned to give due respect to the deaths of others, but not his own.
Here the parallel between the Doctor and the Master loops into itself in the most timey-wimey way: after the Doctor spared Missy’s life for the chance of making it worth something, the Masters kill each other because they don’t want to live as each other. We are left to imagine Saxon dragging himself back into his TARDIS, soon to wake up in Missy’s body, surrounded by a whole city of Cybermen and ready to fly back into series 8 and start enslaving the dead. We have already seen how she tried to turn the Doctor towards evil, but now we know it’s because her former self already witnessed how he turned her towards good.
Whereas her encounter with her previous incarnation dooms Missy to never grow, the Doctor certainly will, because the TARDIS, which doesn’t take him where he wants to be but where he needs to be, makes a jump across all his lives so he can learn to die with dignity from the first Doctor who had to die. All this time, the death he has needed to learn to honor has been his own.
We’ll see how it unfolds this Christmas, which, after all, is a celebration of birth.