One of the pleasures of fan fiction is the opportunity to rework the conclusions of story arcs that we find deeply unsatisfactory. Stephen Moffat gets to do this in canon, and very publicly. He’s particularly fond of re-imagining some of Russell T Davies’s most enraging storylines, and does so with audacity and style. The most memorable example of this was retconning the destruction of Gallifrey two years ago in The Day of the Doctor. And in last night’s finale he turned his hand to the other great tragic narrative of the RTD years – what happens when the Doctor loves one of his companions too much to let them go without a fight.
In The Winter’s Tale, faced with a dangerously paranoid king convinced that he’s being cuckolded, Polixenes remarks,
Is for a precious creature: as she’s rare,
Must it be great, and as his person’s mighty,
Must it be violent
So ’tis with the Doctor, but for jealously read grief. This spectre always hung over the love story of the Doctor and Rose – what on earth would he do when he lost her? In Hell Bent, Moffatt follows that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion; we see a vengeful Doctor teeter on the abyss of madness, shoot one of his own people in cold blood and effectively stage a coup on Gallifrey. Those expecting Star Wars space opera were to be disappointed, however. In the second act, with the reappearance of Clara, the epic became a chamber piece. To the Doctor, the destruction of the universe was merely the means to an end; he wanted Clara back from the dead.
The change of tactic was probably the biggest weakness of the finale, and the cynic in me suspects that budget constraints also played their part (the Matrix set had a very reused look). With a bit more build up, filling in the situation on Gallifrey that gave the Doctor such confidence in his supremacy, the switch might have been less jarring. But ultimately, the Doctor tends to check his altruism at the door when he hits home turf. He might like the trappings of guerilla resistance in the badlands, but consolidating regime change isn’t really his thing.
So Clara is snatched from the jaws of death. The Doctor is going through something of an “it’s all about me” phase – that’s natural, if you’ve been banging your head on a very hard wall for billions of years on your own. He’s extremely scary, and Jenna Coleman’s acting conveys her fear overcoming relief, combined with a certain anger at the violation of her parting wishes and the Doctor’s habit of objectifying lesser species. Clara is not the type to become a player in the Doctor’s personal drama. She demonstrates compassion, but demands self-determination.
It’s impossible to view what follows without recalling the fate of Donna Noble, the point at which many of us, even his most ardent fans, turned against the Tenth Doctor. Indeed, the way that Clara turns the Doctor’s planned mind wipe back on him was one of the most strongly feminist scenesI’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. Physician, heal thyself. The world is full of men objectifying women and wearing blinkers, and probably almost as full of women enabling them to do just that. Clara’s having none of that shit, and shows how far Moffat has come since creating the wish-fulfilment fantasy of River Song.
I understand the charges of misogyny levelled against Moffat, but I don’t endorse them. I think he might well be the first to admit that he struggles to write nuanced, compelling characters, particularly female ones, which isn’t the same thing. We live in lazy and strident times when people tend to confuse the inability to convey all the complexities of human diversity with the personal endorsement of prejudice. Moffat under pressure falls back on lazy stereotypes and well-worn tropes – he’s not alone in that. There were times in the 2009 Specials when RTD seemed to be capable of little in the way of dramatic development other than showing David Tennant looking sorry for himself.
Moffat has the ability to recognise his weak points and surround himself with talented people who can do a better job. Series Nine has been particularly strong in female participation, both on and off the screen. Many show-runners would have balked at giving the plum job of a major character exit to another writer; not only did he do that, but he then gave Rachel Talalay a free hand directing the finale.
He also places enormous trust in his actors. Moffat’s scripts sketch in character, so their role in fleshing out is particularly crucial. In Series 9 I think he’s been well-served in having a leading man of Capaldi’s experience and stature. Not every Doctor could have carried so much on his shoulders as silently as Capaldi did in the opening scenes of Hell Bent. (Loved the Morricone callback in the line-in-the-sand scene, by the way). This should go down in legend as the Heinz-Tomato-Soup Western of Doctor Who.
For all his warmth and moments of utter brilliance, Matt Smith never quite nailed it for me. I know he has his fans and I can see why, but I wonder, in hindsight, if he was a little too lightweight to wrest character and presence from Moffat’s sometimes formulaic scripts. Peter Capaldi has become a towering presence, inhabiting the role and showing a deep vulnerability without mawkishness and sentimentality. He also pulled a stellar performance out of Jenna Coleman – it got better and better as the series went on, and I’m sure she will remember her time with him as a career-defining masterclass in the craft of acting.
Ultimately finales are about style as much as substance, and this one delivered. Ironically, for a man accused of misogyny, it was strongest on the traditionally feminine virtues of grounded compassion, comfort and the kind of intimacy that makes it possible to say what must be said without fear or favour (a quality demonstrated by Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, particularly when played by Judi Dench). Plus a subversive little dash of girl power. The universe is filling up with powerful women willing to take the Doctor on, and some of them have their own TARDIS.