The Doctor Who Season Where the Doctor Wasn't the Star

Companion Clara propelled the action in Series Eight, even if she was kind of a jerk.

Devastated didn’t even begin to describe how she felt. An act of senseless violence had destroyed her inside. She felt gutted. Violated. Empty.

Worse still, everyone around her told her that nothing could be done about it. Within the bounds of the law, there could be no remedy, no solace. No justice.

But she knew a guy.

This guy wasn’t bound by any law of God or humanity. This guy could fix it. All she had to do was broach the subject in the proper way, and he could right a horrific wrong.

Dr. Jennifer Melfi, of course, did not tell her mobster patient Tony Soprano that she had been raped, that her rapist would not even be charged, and that she knew exactly where to find the man. In “Employee of the Month,” the season three episode of The Sopranos, she chooses not to cross that moral and ethical line. She does not respond to being the victim of a rape by becoming a murderer.

Clara Oswald of Doctor Who, on the other hand, responds to the death of her boyfriend Danny Pink in a car accident by committing grand theft, assault, battery, and extortion—all in service of the even greater crime of ripping a hole in the universe. And then she commits (or at least thinks she commits) murder-suicide—the victims being herself and her ostensible best friend, the Doctor.

The biggest problem with Clara in season seven of Doctor Who was that she had neither a personality nor a character arc. Showrunner Steven Moffat himself admitted regrets about Clara being the object of the story in the seventh season, rather than a subject. In season eight, she has had both a personality and an arc: She’s a lying jerk, and under the tutelage of her lying jerk friend the Doctor, becomes an even more accomplished lying jerk.

As YouTube Doctor Who superfan RitchandSpace declared, “Clara’s kind of an arsehole, and I like it.”

So, progress! Congratulations, Clara, you’re a worse person than a Sopranos character! In terms of giving the Doctor’s companion a story with a beginning, middle, and end, season eight is Moffat’s best effort to date.

All of this gave Jenna Coleman far more to work with as an actress than she’d had previously, and work with it she did. Her lambasting of the Doctor at the end of “Kill the Moon” was an all-time great “The Reason You Suck” speech. At the end of “Mummy on the Orient Express,” she has enough self-awareness to call her traveling with the Doctor “an addiction”—and then she continues indulging her addiction while lying to both Danny and the Doctor. Coleman plays this complex web of emotions perfectly.

Her reaction to Danny’s death in “Dark Water,” part one of the season finale, is an absolute triumph of writing, direction, and especially acting. Anyone who’s lost someone can see themselves reflected in Coleman’s luminous, ink-black eyes at that moment.

In contrast to this utterly human, ever-more-ethically-compromised companion, the Doctor, played lean and mean by Peter Capaldi, was a bit static throughout the season. Clara becoming like him was the story; there wasn’t much movement in the other direction. He could be funny (“Are you my mummy?” … to an actual mummy!), he could be a badass (his monologue to the Boneless in “Flatline”), but he was still pretty much the same pragmatic grump of a Doctor we started out with. But that’s OK; in the best seasons of the revived series, the companion has been the true protagonist.

So the big story, Clara’s story, was a success. In terms of individual episodes, “Flatline” is now on my short list of all-time favorites; The Boneless were a great sci-fi/horror idea, brilliantly executed, and the even-smaller-on-the-outside TARDIS was such a hilarious visual I can’t believe no one had yet thought of it.  “Mummy” is a tick below that, but still very, very good. (Jamie Matheson deserves major kudos for penning both of those episodes.) “Listen” was lauded in many corners as a return-to-spooky form for Moffat, the man who brought us “Blink,” but it fell a bit short for me. It had a strong thesis—the Doctor looking for a sci-fi explanation for his own fear of the dark (and loneliness), and that his efforts were what led to him having that fear in the first place—but all the closed-time-loopiness gave it that nagging lack-of-agency feel.

There were some clunkers. “Robot of Sherwood”? I was not a merry man. And the “sci” in sci-fi was so far off in “Kill the Moon” and “In the Forest of the Night” that, even though I know this is science fantasy and not “hard” science fiction, I found myself channeling that lady in the Esurance commercials: “That’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works!”

Most of the rest of the episodes were somewhere in the middle, with Clara’s progress through Lying to People for Their Own Good school providing at least some interest in most of them—but while interesting dramatically, there wasn’t much of a sense of fun. Really, the season was starting to bog down a bit for me until “Mummy” perked things up again.

Samuel Anderson handled the role of Danny nicely, but though it was missing the unresolved sexual tension of the Amy-Rory-Doctor triangle, the idea “Clara’s Choice” between normal life with Danny and Doctor life felt tediously familiar.

One episode that many people, including some Moffat critics, point to as a particularly successful character piece, “The Caretaker,” to me failed on both plot and character. The monster was terrible, and the Doctor endangered a school—and his best friend—for no reason. It also featured the theme of the Doctor hating soldiers, which I found to be a forced contrivance to set him at odds with Danny. And of course, we ended up with two men arguing about which of them was best for Clara. The worst part: She actually seemed to care what they thought.

Ah, there it is again. The gender thing. For all the progress Moffat made with giving Clara a story—and a morally complex one, one in which the narrative does in fact hold her accountable for being a lying a-hole—the season still held flashes of the kind of sexist ugliness that has been a blot on Moffat’s tenure. Likely by way of reinforcing the “I’m not your boyfriend” declaration from “Deep Breath,” the Doctor was constantly making negative comments about Clara’s appearance. Now, Moffat often has women make comments about men’s looks—gray hair, big chins, skinny build, that sort of thing—but those two things are not equivalent. We are not a society struggling to emerge from thousands of years of oppressive matriarchy, now are we?

The scene where Clara decides to do crimes to force the Doctor to undo Danny’s death is effective (if you ignore the fact that both of them can open the TARDIS without using a key), but ends with a reversal that undercuts it. It only seemed like she had the upper hand. It was all a dream! When she tried to roofie him, he roofied her right back! And then forgave her! Agency, schmagency.

The finale was chock full of both the good and the not-so-great stuff that permeated the season as a whole. Missy turned out to be short for the Mistress, because she’s the next regeneration of the Master (called it, and I was far from the only one). So, the first on-screen, canonical male-to-female regeneration: Yay! Who then plants a non-consensual kiss on the Doctor. Ehhhhh. Still, while the implications of how Moffat handled Gallifreyan gender fluidity are debatable, Michelle Gomez was deliciously unhinged as Missy, very believably the same person who has been battling the Doctor across time and space.

But as the plot turns twisted, the stupid just kept piling up, especially in part two, “Death in Heaven.” Missy’s inevitably easy escape from capture—a la The Dark Knight, Skyfall, The Avengers, Star Trek Into Darkness etc.—has become such a cliché that making fun of it has become a cliché. And the Cybermen, even though they were made of dead people this time, were once again defeated by the power of love.

The endgame of Missy’s Master Plan was actually a lot like former showrunner Russell T. Davies three-part climax to season three: The Master weaponizes the human race, conquers Earth, and gets ready to use our planet as his base for conquering the universe. Another unfortunate thing “Death in Heaven” has in common with “Last of the Time Lords”: Both Davies and Moffat had written themselves into a corner. The Master/Missy had totally won. So… how does our hero get out of it? In Davies’s case, he has to turn the Doctor into a Tinkerbell Jesus. Moffat has Missy simply hand her Cyberzombie army over to the Doctor.

This idea wibbles on the edge of being interesting, even oddly touching. It’s like Missy is trying to prove a point about the nature of her evil, much like The Joker did in Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke. The Joker kidnaps and tortures Commissioner Gordon in an attempt to show Batman that “one bad day” can turn anyone into a monster. So, Missy hands the Doctor an army to prove that he will become as big of a power-mad megalomaniac as she is.

The problem is, the Doctor has already taken this test. He’s passed it (season two's “School Reunion”), and failed it (the 2009 special “The Waters of Mars”)—but when he failed it, he knew he had failed. For all this season’s ruminations on whether or not the Doctor is a “good man,” even an incarnation as grim as Twelve knows where the line is that separates him from the Master—and it’s not just the fact that he doesn’t go around incinerating adorable scientists for no reason. (Seriously, if you’re cute and sciencey, basically, run.)

Some other stuff happens toward end of “Death in Heaven” that adds to the heap of nonsense. Like, wait, hold up, there actually is an afterlife? From which one can physically return? Wha?

But the final scene brings the season around to the part that actually, really worked: Clara. She and the Doctor give each other a sort of “Gift of the Magi,” and that gift is a matching set of lies. Danny stays dead. (Consequences!) Gallifrey is still lost. Clara lies to the Doctor about the former, and the Doctor lies to her about the latter.

On first viewing, I rolled my eyes. I mean, what kind of messed-up relationship is this? When I watched it again, I saw something else: I might be imagining things, but it seems to me that they’re both such expert liars now that they have to know that they can’t get over on each other. Perhaps their exchange of lies is actually an acknowledgment of how messed-up and unhealthy their relationship is, and that it has to end.

Clara will be back for the Christmas special, and I’m hopeful this one will be a lot better than her last, with all its dumb jokes about being naked, etc. Unless … unless she’s pregnant with Danny’s child (it’s strongly implied that the character they met from the future in “Listen” was related to both Danny and Clara), and that’s somehow central to the plot. Someone please tell Moffat that the Worst Muse is supposed to be satire.