I have to admit that way back when this series started, with that two-parter with Missy and Davros and Skaro and Daleks from every era, I was somewhat curious as to what was going to happen in the finale. How do you top that? I thought stakes wouldn’t be raised higher than that until we sent cows to Mars! Happily, the writers found a way! Turns out you bring Gallifrey back, bring the Time Lords too and pit them against a Doctor on the verge of throwing that title away completely (again).
So the plot goes thus: after the Doctor went through a four billion-year imprisonment and a few trillion deaths in ‘Heaven Sent’ (a pretty brilliant episode in its own right), he’s found the people responsible. That being the Time Lords, who are currently hiding out at the end of the Universe having somehow slipped free from their pocket universe. So the Doctor sets to work on his revenge: or so it seems. It becomes clear he’s got another plan in mind. And also there’s this prophecy, about a Hybrid destined to stand in Gallifrey’s ruins…
Many viewers will have noticed that it’s never actually explained how Gallifrey came back. The Doctor only spends about a third of the episode on the planet, but it is one heck of a good first third! In a scene mostly done in silence, the Doctor goes back to his childhood home and mingles with some common Gallifreyans, before having a Mexican standoff with Rassilon in the desert, staging a coup, and ordering the President off his planet. It’s all very awesome. We even find out about Cloister Wraiths and the Dry Lands and how a controlled regeneration works.
But if you were looking for a story that the entire new series has been leading up to, with the Doctor who has been continually defined as “the last of the Time Lords” finally going home for some big revelations… well, that plot goes out the airlock the second they bring Clara back from the dead. At which point the episode was temporarily drowned out by the little crackle of my expectations bursting into flame.
Ultimately, then, how much you enjoy this episode is going to depend heavily on how much you liked Clara, and how sick you are of Steven Moffat’s continued inability to never actually kill anyone for real. Personally, I thought ‘Face the Raven’ was a really great end for Clara’s arc; she gets brought down by her own flaws, actually acknowledges them and gets a tearful farewell as she gets to be brave. While she still will have to face the raven, like everyone does, the fact that she now gets to travel the Universe for as long as she wants in a stolen TARDIS sort of cheapens it.
(Yes, it’s odd that a human knows how to fly an insanely-complicated eldritch sentient time-ship, but the Doctor’s been giving her lessons since Series 7 and they have a manual. And admittedly I don’t know if time collapses if Clara trips over a Chumbley on her adventures and breaks her neck, or something like that, though I suppose that’s the sort of thing time can sort out itself. Wibbily-wobbily).
Yet, in actuality, by the end of the episode I wasn’t that annoyed they brought her back. Maybe because the story’s not really about Clara facing her death either… This time, Moffat spends a long time playing coy with what the story of the episode actually is.
Clara’s accepted her fate. She wants to go back. But this is another character episode for the Doctor, who just had two massive traumas dumped on him, got no time to deal with either and who now has to work through four billion years’ worth of grief. Every episode in this finale trilogy’s had a monster in it determined to track someone down whatever the cost, and this time it’s the Doctor, who’s willing to shoot one of his allies dead in cold blood and risk burning the Universe to get her back again. (Yeah, if I were Adric, I’d be feeling a little unloved right now. But I digress).
So instead of our big Gallifrey finale, we get an emotional character study about grief and death and moving on. That does call for some pretty great acting, so it’s a good thing we get that all-round. Sure, Donald Sumpter’s Rassilon wasn’t a patch on Timothy Dalton’s, but Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman knocked it out of the park, hitting emotional beat after emotional beat hard. The saddest part was a horrified Clara finding out about the Doctor’s special hell as he shakily tried to shrug it off. Maisie Williams was on top form as Me or Ashildr or the Knightmare or whoever, I still liked the General (both of them) and even Nicholas Briggs made me feel sad about a Dalek, of all things, trapped in the Matrix and begging for death. Also, no more sonic sunglasses! Get your confetti out, kids!
Miscellaneous praise: if Rachel Talalay can just come back and direct all the big finale episodes forever, that’d be excellent, because she’s done a pretty great job with the last two – we get the Western flavoured Dry Lands, creepy shots from the Matrix Cloisters and some great bits in the default TARDIS – oh yeah, they brought back the William Hartnell console room, which made my inner fan bounce up and down. Murray Gold, between this and ‘Heaven Sent’, has been composing some pretty great music as well.
So Series 9 ends with the Doctor at peace and Clara flitting about through time in the Bistromath and I have to say, it’s been a damn good run. There were some episodes that came out a bit mediocre (‘The Girl Who Died’, ‘The Zygon Invasion’) and one that was outright bad (oh hello, ‘Sleep No More’) but overall I’ve really enjoyed it. Hopefully whatever’s next can keep up that momentum and…oh. It’s a River Song episode. Well, never mind then.