Have you recovered yet? Are you ready to come out? Have you come to terms with last Saturday’s gut-wrenching end to the beloved onscreen partnership of the last two years? Are you able to hear Clara’s name spoken without breaking down in tears yet?
Or, alternatively, have you chewed away all your frustration and exasperation? Have you stopped muttering “f*cking Moffat” under your breath every thirty seconds?
Yes, it’s been almost a week since Series 9’s grand finale, Hell Bent, aired, and has reliably left the fandom in as dazed and sucker-punched a state as always. Perhaps by now we’ve processed the dizzying blows of Hell Bent and are ready to articulate our thoughts in something approaching coherent form.
So how does Hell Bent measure up against all the other finales of the revival? I’ve decided to set out, definitively, how the finales stack up against each other. This post will detail my assessment of the ninth to fifth-ranked finales. Tomorrow (probably) I’ll post the final four.
So without further ado…
9. The Name of the Doctor (Series 7)
I don’t dislike any of the finales so far, but The Name of the Doctor works for me the least. To be sure, I think it’s a good episode. At the time, I was really impressed; it had one of the best pretitles sequences in the show’s history, and I thought the idea that Clara had entered the Doctor’s timestream, broken herself into a million echoes scattered across the Doctor’s timeline to save him from the devices of the Great Intelligence was nothing short of awesome. I thought that was a spectacular resolution to the Impossible Girl arc, and seeing that montage of Clara manifesting herself in scenes from the Doctor’s adventures was exhilarating. I love that this finale bound together the Doctor and Clara on a cosmic level, so important had Clara become to the Doctor. I love the emotional “goodbye” between the Eleventh Doctor and River Song, and I love the wonderfully enigmatic introduction of the War Doctor, leading into the 50th Anniversary.
No, what leaves me somewhat unsatisfied about this episode, as a series finale, was that not all that much actually happened. It was very much an episode about an idea (Clara = the girl who was born to save the Doctor) rather than a substantive story, and most of the episode was written as material leading up to the big, flashy montage at the end. The stakes in the episode were just as high as any other finale (the end of the universe, as usual), but it did feel a lot like it was mostly style over substance, or a really cool idea over a proper, satisfying story. I don’t know, I guess I just want something meatier to sink my teeth into in a series finale.
8. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (Series 2)
Okay, let’s be honest here. The only thing the Series 2 finale is ever remembered for is Rose’s farewell. Rightly so, it’s the best thing about this finale, arguably the most heartbreaking and memorable companion exit of all, a traumatising parting of the ways that never fails to move me. The acting of David Tennant and Billie Piper in those moments is some of their best in their respective terms, both of them mustering up everything they’ve got to eke out as much emotion and pain from the audience as possible. It’s justly considered one of the show’s most memorable ever scenes.
But there’s a lot more to this finale than Ten and Rose’s breakup, and it’s that that brings this finale down for me. It’s not a bad finale, by any means, but it all feels a bit sloppy. The Daleks versus the Cybermen was one of those ideas we could all fantasise about, but which we knew would never work onscreen. And this finale doesn’t really do justice to the idea — there’s some amusing banter between the Daleks and the Cybermen, but the actual battle scenes were never going to be as good as the idea of a Dalek-Cyberman standoff merited. No, apart from the emotional goodbye between the Doctor and Rose, and Tennant and Piper’s fantastic performances throughout the finale generally, this is a pretty nondescript finale for me.
7. Dark Water/Death in Heaven (Series 8)
Maybe I’m still smarting from the wholly underwhelming letdown that was the second half of last year’s finale, but I can’t bring myself to rank the Series 8 finale any higher. My enduring impression of Dark Water/Death in Heaven is that it was a big two-part finale that set itself up so well — my first viewing of Dark Water is one of my most treasured memories watching this show — but failed so thoroughly to follow through on the great work of its first half. Death in Heaven was a disappointing letdown if there ever was one. I find it really hard to forgive that, probably more difficult than if it were just rubbish from start to finish.
What I really do like this finale for, though, is its willingness to delve into very dark and grown-up themes, that is to say: death and the afterlife. Dark Water got Doctor Who into a bit of trouble for the whole “Don’t cremate me!” thing, and, to be sure, it was very disturbing. But, at the same time, that was easily one of the best moments of the episode. Dark Doctor Who is always absorbing Doctor Who. I also loved Missy — I felt the Cybermen were, again, portrayed poorly, but Michelle Gomez as Missy was just mesmerising. In addition, I found very satisfying and gratifying the way the Twelfth Doctor’s character arc over the series was resolved in Death in Heaven, with the Doctor coming to the realisation that, no, he’s not a good man, but he tries to be, and helps out where he can, which is what matters. It was really uplifting, in the finale’s denouement, to see Capaldi’s Doctor finally assured of his own identity after a series of a self-doubting, brooding new Doctor.
6. Hell Bent (Series 9)
The recent Series 9 finale improves every time I watch it. As a character piece centring on the Doctor’s attachment to Clara Oswald, showing how far the Doctor was prepared to go for Clara’s sake, it was incredibly powerful and affecting. We were all expecting, I think, an epic, blockbusting Doctor v. Time Lords standoff, the Doctor’s historic return to Gallifrey for the first time since the Time War, filled to the brim with mythology development and revelations about mysterious hybrids. That would, I admit, have been awesome, and I’m a tiny bit disappointed that that’s not what we got—but in the end, Hell Bent was a far more, intimate, emotional and character-driven piece about the extent of the Doctor’s love for Clara, his grief over her fate, and his anger at the Time Lords.
There were many wonderful, powerful and emotional moments in there, such as the scene between the Doctor and Clara in the Cloisters, the face-off with Rassilon, and, of course, the final, tear-jerking goodbye between the Doctor and Clara. Whatever you thought about Clara’s death being reversed, or “qualified”, surely we would all agree that the Doctor forgetting Clara, one of his closest and most beloved ever companions, was utterly heartbreaking. What brings it down, for me, is that it did feel a bit messy and busy, as though there was too much going on, and it took a few attempts to cut through it all and discern what this finale was actually about. I think that was due to the decision to feature the return of Gallifrey and the emotional, character-focussed narrative in the same script. They both, to an extent, rather crowd each other out.
5. The Wedding of River Song (Series 6)
The Series 6 finale is often spoken about in a tone of exasperation and derision by fans. I think the popular view of The Wedding of River Song among the fandom is that it’s a somewhat incoherent ejaculation of arc-resolution, mostly incomprehensible and inaccessible if you’re not intimately acquainted with the multifarious and confusing Series 6 arc. I think there’s some truth in that, but that’s never been my impression. True enough, you need fairly good prior knowledge of the Series 6 arc to understand The Wedding of River Song, but, equally, the series finale is not there to appeal to the casual viewers who tune in and out when it suits them—it’s to reward the committed viewers who’ve come back and followed the show week-to-week. That’s always been the nature of Doctor Who’s series finales, and, at least in the modern show, it couldn’t really be otherwise.
With the requisite background knowledge of the Series 6 arc, then, The Wedding of River Song, I’ve found, is a really rewarding, engaging and satisfying culmination of Series 6. It’s unusually arc-dependent, even for a series finale, but I don’t think the arc material is dealt with in a way that inhibits the telling of a genuinely engaging and beautiful story about two fated lovers, the Doctor and River Song, and how one’s love for the other nearly ripped all of time apart. There are scenes, like those between the Doctor and River, especially the actual “wedding” of the Doctor and River, that are properly chilling, and constitute the actual heart, the essence, of this finale, when you cut through all the arc and timey-wimey stuff. It’s similar to Hell Bent in a way, in that Moffat has made a conflict of sweeping, all-consuming scale out of something profoundly personal and intimate: it’s River’s love for the Doctor that threatens all of time. I think that’s beautiful, and it’s a beautiful story.
Make sure to check back tomorrow for my top 4!