This Saturday, “Mummy on the Orient Express” will air as the eighth episode of the current season of Doctor Who, placing us squarely in the homestretch of Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor. Prior to the beginning of this season, we were repeatedly told by show-runner Steven Moffat and also by Capaldi that the 12th Doctor would be “darker” and less patient than the incarnations we have seen thus far in New Who.
Seven episodes in, I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. Capaldi’s Doctor is a fascinating man, or at least he seems to be in the relatively few moments when we’ve had an opportunity to see exactly who he is now. Much of what we do know about 12 is revealed in the first episode of the season, “Deep Breath,” where we see an unprecedentedly vulnerable and frightened Doctor who is worried that his companion will leave him just when he needs her the most.
“Deep Breath” remains the emotional core of the season thus far, and it is impossible to evaluate the continued conflict between Clara and Capaldi’s Doctor without keeping that Glasgow scene in mind. The Doctor begs Clara to “just see” him, to see beyond the flirtations and the youthful apparitions he has chosen in the past, and instead recognize him as the centuries-old, lonely alien who is the last of his kind. What I hoped, and what I imagine Clara hoped as well, is that this might mean we get to see just who this new Doctor is when he has cast away all the lies and illusions that protected him in the past.
Instead, most of what followed has been a Doctor who continues to make the same mistakes and who holds himself in the same high esteem he always has – except he now feels no need to be dishonest about it. Where previous Doctors may have at least feigned interest at the most mundane of human activities, like Clara getting ready for a date, this Doctor wastes no time to spare Clara’s or anyone else’s feelings. His agenda is forefront, even more so than it always has been when it comes to the personal lives of his companions, because he has asked Clara’s permission to be himself and to be honest.
I had hoped that the Doctor’s honesty would lead to some soul-searching once he began to realize just how perilous, detached, and callous he truly is when he is not hiding under the faces and flirtations of David Tennant or Matt Smith. While I enjoy seeing the Doctor sloughing off some of the more artificial aspects of himself that he maintained because he thought it was necessary for his companions, I assumed that doing so would require some sort of introspection and self evaluation. We and Clara have seen the Doctor’s many faults exposed this season, but he has yet to recognize any of them. Granted, we have 5 episodes left in which perhaps the 12th Doctor will finally begin to do so, particularly after Clara’s condemnation and banishment of him in “Kill the Moon,” but it feels a little late in the season to really begin a development arc like that.
Clara’s completely understandable and righteous anger with the Doctor at the end of “Kill the Moon” strikes me as even more poignant because it comes from the companion who has sacrificed the most for the Doctor. Both original Clara and the dozens of copies created of her during “Name of the Doctor” last season have lived, and in many cases died, to save him over and over again. It is paramount to her that the Doctor be worth that sacrifice.
Yet repeatedly this season we have seen Clara out-Doctor the Doctor. Early on in “Into the Dalek,” the Doctor describes Clara as his carer – “She cares so I don’t have to.” Clara carries the emotional burden that used to be at the forefront of the Doctor’s characterization when he was portrayed by Tennant, and yet she does so with only a fraction of his experience or history. Clara checks in with Courtney Woods repeatedly throughout “Kill the Moon” in the same way that the Doctor should check in with a companion to ensure that what they are experiencing is not overwhelming or terrifying. Clara accepts the burden of overriding the Earth’s decision to blow up the moon because she knows that the Doctor would have found another way. Clara has taken on all of the enormous responsibility of making moral decisions for the Doctor, a man who is so close to being omnipotent that he must construct rules for himself lest he become too detached. Clara is God’s conscience.
This season has done a lot of work toward deconstructing our (both viewers’ and companions’) notions of who the Doctor is at his core. We want to believe that his emotion and moral code, however flawed they may be, are a fundamental part of who he is, and challenging that idea has sent the series in a new and interesting direction. Unfortunately, it has done so at the expense of Clara Oswald’s emotional well-being. While I would hate to see Jenna Coleman leave the show, especially now that the show’s writing has finally given her something to actually use her incredible acting talents on, I cannot imagine how her character could be expected to continue amid this.
Ideally, what I would love to see in the final 5 episodes of this season is that emotional weight shifted back to the Doctor, where it rightfully belongs. While the Doctor has come a long way this season in terms of exploring and accepting who he is, it is now past time for him to consider the impact he has on the people around him. His appeal to Clara at the start of this season, both in “Deep Breath” and again in “Into the Dalek,” is that he needs a friend. It is no coincidence that Clara also appeals to their friendship when she chastises him in “Kill the Moon.” Clara has presented to the Doctor a mirror of what she believes his behavior should look like, both as her friend and as an incredibly powerful protector of the universe. He asked Clara whether he was “a good man,” and since she could not answer that question with certainty, she has instead demonstrated to the best of her ability how a good person acts. The Doctor need only follow her example.