Doctor Who season finales are typically loud, busy things. In the Russell T. Davies era they aimed for big emotional jolts; in the Steven Moffat era they’ve been attempts to make sense out of increasingly convoluted puzzle plots. They almost always involve some sort of big villain team-up and an end of the world threat. Dark Water/Death in Heaven, the two-part finale to the most recent season, fulfills those expectations (the Cybermen and the Master return in new forms to, you guessed it, end all human life on Earth) but it exceeds them. Despite the huge stakes and the requisite cornball speech about the power of love, it’s more grounded and focused, less about grand action than about the ways in which the characters have influenced each other, not always for the better.
Despite Moffat still holding his position as showrunner, Season 8 of the new Who has been a significant shift from the 11th Doctor era. Much of that is due to Peter Capaldi’s acerbic turn as the 12th Doctor. Capaldi, a longtime Whovian, has firmly made the Doctor his own and seems to have exercised some veto power of Moffat’s worse ideas (no Doctor-companion romance here!). His threatening unpredictability and rough attitude manages to enliven even a retread story like Into the Dalek and is one of the only things preventing a mediocrity like In the Forest of the Night from becoming unbearably twee. He’ll take harsh action with the confidence he’s right in the big picture, but in Listen, the season’s best episode and a callback to the Davies era when a Moffat-written episode was guaranteed to be a mind-bending good time, we get to see what happens when the Doctor’s wrong. In Kill the Moon, perhaps the most quintessentially “Doctor Who” episode in its mix of idiotic science and brilliant drama, we get to see what happens when he’s called out on it.
The biggest improvement this season, however, hasn’t been with The Doctor, but with companion Clara Oswald. Season 7 was so tied up in mysteries surrounding her it forgot to give her characterization. Season 8 gives her an arc. In Deep Breath, she’s scared of what The Doctor’s become. Yet in her assertiveness, her desire for control, her willingness to lie to her loved ones for some greater purpose, she becomes more and more like him as the season goes along. Flatline, the season’s most visually inventive hour and one of its most entertaining, plays with this by locking the Doctor up in a shrinking TARDIS, allowing Clara to become, in essence, “the Doctor” in confronting monsters from the second dimension. The opening scenes of Death in Heaven present a culmination of this arc in a way that’s both an elaborate joke and not actually a joke at all.
Death in Heaven is Clara’s final episode, and with the semi-exception of Martha in Season 3, companions don’t leave this show in a good place. Yet Clara’s fate isn’t as extreme as Rose’s or Donna’s or Amy’s. The final scenes of the episode are devastating, but in a surprisingly subdued way. She’s not without hope, and neither is The Doctor, and its those very slivers of hope that make their final scene together so incredibly powerful. A fitting cap to what, on average, might be the best overall season this show’s produced.
The Doctor returns, as usual, for Christmas. Based on the mid-credits teaser, it should be quite a Merry Christmas for the fans.