Nearly a week has passed since season ten drew to a close in The Doctor Falls, a finale – like all that have come before it – has split fan opinion. So what makes a good season finale of Doctor Who? Is it the writer? Is it the Doctor? Is it what’s at stake or who turns up? I’ve asked three Doctor Who fans what they think are the key ingredients for a tasty conclusion to a season. Nick Waight (aka P.J.) from fellow Doctor Who blog “Gallifreyan Ramblings”, Jeph – a painter with an M.F.A. in creative writing – and Paul Mabley – producer of “Oncoming Storm Radio – For The More Mature Fan” – have been kind enough to share their thoughts.
Firstly I asked, “What do you look out for in a season finale?”
Nick: I want to cry. I want to feel things. I want to be left aching for the characters for weeks after I watch a finale. Because for all that Doctor Who is about monsters, immersive alien worlds and infinite narrative possibilities, it’s really a very grounded and human show about grounded, human stories. Modern Doctor Who is unapologetically a very emotional and character-driven show which puts strong, sympathetic characters at the heart of its stories, and is all the better for it. A series of Doctor Who is a personal, emotional journey of two or three characters – the story of a relationship – and a season finale should represent the end or the climax of that journey. Sure, Doctor Who does cerebral and straight sci-fi, too. I like cerebral, and I expect cerebral – I don’t watch Doctor Who just for the characters. Let’s have our Blinks and Flatlines and Midnights by all means, but at the end of the day this is a character show, and the purpose of the season finale is to bring the characters to their designated destination. Other than that, I just want good writing and interesting ideas. And returning characters and villains are always good.
Jeph: I think the expectations of a finale are different depending on the type of show. The expectations for a comedy are different than a drama. The stakes are usually much higher in the finale – instead of the world being threatened, the universe is threatened; instead of the universe being threatened, reality is threatened; instead of reality being threatened, time is threatened. From a writer’s perspective, a common technique is to develop a plot that puts characters into an impossible situation during the rising action so that the climax allows the characters to find their way out. I think Doctor Who works on this premise, especially with finales – a companion dies or is trapped; the Doctor must sacrifice himself to save the universe; the Doctor is trapped and companion must save him to save reality. These are pretty predictable. So since the plot is fairly predictable, in terms of what’s at stake, my barometer for a good finale is the emotional payoff. I want at least one moment where I get teary eyed, for example: Doctor-Donna having her memory wiped; Rose being saved from the void and trapped in the parallel universe; the 10th Doctor crying over the Master after he refuses to regenerate because the Doctor is so lonely; the eleventh Doctor talking to the young Amelia after climbing into the crack; the twelfth Doctor losing his memory of Clara. I’m also looking for those “punch the air” moments – monologues that pump me up or make me think; poetic exchanges with philosophical undertones, which was certainly a heavy theme in Capaldi’s tenure. “Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.”
Paul: I suppose an episode which answers more questions than it asks. One of the main things I’ve found that makes NuWho stand apart from the Original is the use of story arcs (“The Key to Time” aside). Many strands are left hanging in stories that I want to see all tied up in a neat bow at the end of a series, or acknowledged and used as a cliffhanger into the next season. Look at “The Wedding of River Song” and “Asylum of the Daleks”. In the intervening few months between seasons the most loved-up couple ever on the show, Rory and Amy, are hating each other and getting a divorce. What was all that about? At the end of “The Wedding of River Song” they were all happy families, Mummy, Daddy and River. It also had no great bearing on the actual story either. I think I’ve watched it again once since it was aired and the only thing that I recall is Rory thinking the Dalek is asking for eggs and he tries to hand it one of its balls that have fallen off. Oo-er obviously. Back in the day the final story wasn’t as much of a finale; it was only extraordinary if it was a ‘Regeneration Story’. The first one I saw was “Logopolis” which was a brilliant story despite some ropy acting from the extras and some poor special effecrts of The Watcher merging with Tom Baker.
Next I asked: “What are the key differences between the Russell T. Davies finales, and the Steven Moffat finales?”
Nick: I think there are more similarities than differences – which is to be expected. When Russell T. Davies brought the show back in 2005, he set the tone for what the ‘new’ Doctor Who looks and feels like, and it’s difficult for any successive showrunner to move starkly away from that (although Moffat has gradually been steering the show in a more mature, cerebral direction). Both Moffat’s and RTD’s finales are very character-driven, although RTD’s more explicitly than Moffat’s, it must be said, and tend to feature big character moments as the climax of a finale. Moffat, at least during the Matt Smith era, liked to write complex multi-season arcs which culminated in a tangle of exposition and revelation in each season finale. There was always the danger of it all being just a bit on the impenetrable and incoherent side, eg. “The Wedding of River Song”. RTD wanted none of that. He did arcs too, but his arcs took the form of simple, unobtrusive motifs—‘Bad Wolf’, ‘YANA’, ‘Torchwood’—hinting the finale. It made for cleaner and more coherent finales, but I still think I prefer Moffat’s schizophrenic, idea-congested messes. I’m just a sucker for a good arc.
Jeph: Before I answer, I should start with the admission that I love Steven Moffat. He’s not afraid to make something complicated. But I also love Russell T. Davies. I think both are effective in their way. One of the best parts about Doctor Who is the fact that it makes space for different styles and can succeed in both. So Doctor Who seasons are like a compilation of short stories – each episode has its own independent plot with unique characters. The finale is no different, except that the stakes are higher and some details of exposition are introduced in the earlier episodes, allowing the viewer to dwell on the “bigger story” throughout the season. So the difference between RTD and Moffat is in the complexity of the plots and the amount of exposition delivered in the episodes. RTD had simpler, straight forward plots, and he was subtle with how the exposition was delivered. For example, in season one, he only repeats instances of Bad Wolf and he uses an episode mid-season with the news station to set up exposition in the finale. He does the same thing in season two, making subtle references to Torchwood while using the parallel world mid-season to provide expositional footing for the cybermen in the finale. With Moffat, more time in each episode is spent on exposition for the finale, usually delivered in the denouement of each episode. Because he spends more time on the season arc, these moments can get into the inciting action of the finale’s plot – pulling a piece of the Tardis exploded creating a crack in the universe. This makes it more difficult to watch the finales independently of the season. With RTD, you can pretty much watch the finales without having watched the previous episodes and still follow the plot. Moffat requires more attention. Some people don’t like that, and for good reason. But like I said, I’m glad they’re different. And as much as I like Moffat, I’m ready for Chibnall and I’m excited to see how he does it. That’s the beauty of Doctor Who. It doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, the same show all the time.
Paul: Russell T. Davies liked his ensemble finales, it seems. Look at “Journey’s End”, talk about a TARDIS-ful! I liked the little throwaway line about the console having six sides because it really needs six operators. I had read this years ago and I wish I could remember where. It was just a nice little nod to the UberFans like me who’ve collected loads of trivia over the years. It may have been in the FISA Doctor Who RPG I have stored away somewhere which I bought in the late 80s. I should really have prefaced this with the admission that I’m not a huge fan of Moffat (well, that’s an understatement but I’ll keep this nice) or his chum Gatiss. If you look at the production team who created the original series you won’t find a show runner who wrote most episodes; rather they had a pool of talent from which they could draw and that was only to the shows advantage. Moffat (and Gatiss) have been promoted to a position above their ability, and when they missed a season of Who to concentrate on Sherlock, I got the impression of the kid with the football who takes it home so no one else can use it. So, the Moffat Finales – there always seemed to be too much of the ‘and in one bound he was free’ or ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’. Many strands were left hanging, or new ones introduced for no reason, like the Amy and Rory thing I mentioned before. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any Stephen King books but I find he can write a brilliant story but has no idea how to wrap it up. ‘It’ is one such example, and ‘The Stand’ is another. The only way I can sum it up is RTD’s finales had a sort of ‘roundness’ to them that left the viewer with a ‘phew! That was a close one!’ feeling while Moffat is a ‘What? How did that happen…hang on a minute!’ jaggedness that didn’t sit right or ‘feel’ right. A sense of ‘this’ll do, I’m off now, I’ve finished’.
Lastly, I asked “What’s your favourite modern-era finale, and where does “The Doctor Falls” rank in comparison to the previous nine?”
Nick: “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” remains my all-time favourite. As I’ve said, I’m a fan of Steven Moffat’s style, with his penchant for “timey-wimey” narrative devices and intricate, interwoven plots. The season five finale is the epitome of Steven Moffat’s style, and it’s actually really, barnstormingly good. And it’s not just that it does all the clever “timey-wimey” backflips that Moffat wants it to do, it does all this to the end of telling a really involving and genuine character story, with numerous intimate and touching character moments throughout. It all comes together as something quite wonderful. It’s also partly because it’s from my favourite era of the show, the early Eleveth DPonds era, and features my favourite Doctor and companion. I do have a special place for anything with Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in it.
I thought the season ten finale was superb, and the best finale we’ve had at least since season five. I’m not sure exactly where I’d put it in a ranking of all the finales, but it’d definitely go somewhere at the top. But here’s a *very* tentative ranking:
1) The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang
2)Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways
3)World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls 4)
The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End
5)The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords
6) The Wedding of River Song
8) Dark Water/Death in Heaven
9) Army of Ghosts/Doomsday
10) The Name of the Doctor
Jeph: I’ll answer this in the same way I usually answer the “Who’s your favorite Doctor?” question – the one that I’m watching or leading up to watching. It changes. The finales of Doctor Who are so great. Better than any other show I’ve watched, so it’s difficult to nail down a ranking. That said, when I introduced an old friend to Doctor Who last summer, I showed him “The Pandorica Opens/Big Bang”, along with “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent”. As someone with a background with innovative fiction, “Heaven Sent” is one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who. “The Parting of the Ways” was the first finale I watched and I can pinpoint the moment in the episode that made me go “I think I’m going to be obsessed with this show” – when Rose dismantles the Daleks with the phrase: “You are tiny. I can see the whole of time and space. Every single atom of your existence. And I divide them.” This moment was preceded by her emotional outburst in the chip shop when she slams her hands down on the table and runs out of the shop in frustration. Billie Piper’s performance is so genuine and convincing. It made the climax so epic that I wonder how someone couldn’t watch that scene unfold and not become obsessed with the show, especially considering the denouement ends with a regeneration. The only finale that doesn’t make my heart flutter a bit is “Dark Water/Death in Heaven” from season eight. There’s a lot from these episodes that I like. I don’t hate the stories. And I’m a big fan of Rachel Talalay’s directorial style. But I never felt like Danny and Clara’s relationship developed enough for his death and the Cyberman ending to have any significant emotional payoff. I also didn’t feel like Danny’s character was developed enough for his guilt (for killing a kid in the war) to have any significant resonance with me. I mean, I get the tragedy. It’s a big tragedy. Huge guilt. But it didn’t have the emotional resonance that it should have had.
Seeing as I just watched it for the fourth time, “The Doctor Falls” is my favorite right now. I cried when Missy died. I cried when Heather/the pilot came back and took Bill away. I cried when Nardole realises the Doctor and Bill sacrificed themselves. It had the emotional payoff that I look for. I love that the universe/reality/time isn’t at stake, just a relatively small community on a huge spaceship entering a blackhole. It’s a good change of pace and emphasises the philosophical undertone of saving people “Without hope. Without Witness. Without reward.” I loved the flashback to all the modern companions. He remembered Clara! That’s something I didn’t catch the first time. And I especially love that it ends with the first Doctor. And, having just watched “The Tenth Planet”, I’m expecting the Christmas episode to take place during that break in the story when the first Doctor falls ill and isn’t seen in most of the last episode. As one who has dived into the classics over the last two years, I love the connection, though I know a lot of casual viewers are probably not going to be as excited for it.
Paul: Probably “The Parting of the Ways”. The first season (of NuWho) had got off to a slow start, in my opinion, but the tension and drama increased throughout the run until the final two parter. The end of “Bad Wolf”, when the Dalek army was revealed, made my jaw drop and I just thought ‘how’s he going to get out of this one?’. It’s a pity that everyone knew this was going to be Eccleston’s last story. The story didn’t feel contrived, even the Deus-Ex-Machina of yanking open a TARDIS panel and drinking in the Vortex was handled well. The ‘Bad Wolf’ arc wasn’t obtrusive either. In fact you could take it or leave it without spoiling your enjoyment of the season, something which I dare say appealed to younger people to whom this was a brand new TV program, knowing nothing of the previous 40 years. My nephew loved it just for the excitement and minor horror. It was, sometimes, the old fashioned ‘hide behind the sofa’ program.
The first part of the story, last week, I thought was reasonably good. I’ll confess to not knowing Razor was The Master, so the reveal was a bit of a surprise. I grabbed a calculator and worked out the base was 1700 years, more or less, ahead of the top bit. When the episode ended I was actually a bit excited and looking forward to the finale, but the chance of it all going to pot was bouncing around in my head, remembering how disappointed I had been when a second part didn’t live up to the promise of the first (step forward ‘The End of Time’). The first indication that made me think that this finale was going to be bad was when I looked through the TV listings and saw the episode was an hour long. There was going to be either a lot of padding or a lot of emotional nonsense, and I was right on both counts. Bill had been converted into a Cyberman – good. It was a clever technique they employed by having Pearl act out her scene with the Doctor ‘out of costume’ as it allowed for the emotions in her face and voice to be realised properly. Had this scene been played out with the blank face and cyber voice it would have been pretty hard going and not have any emotional impact. However there were certain story elements that harked back to earlier episodes, and one which was almost a line for line rip off – recall ‘The Day Of The Doctor’ and the bit with the Sonic Screwdriver taking hundreds of years to perform an algorithm (or something) and the little bit of trickery timey-wimey where the Doctor had told himself to start it years ago so it was available now, and compare that to Missy telling The Master there was a dematerialisation circuit in his pocket and she had told herself too… oh, it’s all too complicated for me. And the ending. An immortal girl shows up to rescue a ‘dead’ girl who then fly off to see the universe. Wasn’t that last season’s conclusion as well? Despite it being one of my most hated and ‘in one bound they were free’ story components, it showed eminently that Moffat was way out of ideas. Either that or he had written himself into a corner and wouldn’t or couldn’t seek assistance from a writing partner. I was annoyed when it was used last year, but to repeat it so blatantly in what is Capaldi’s swansong was an insult to both the audience and the actor himself. I actually feel sorry of Peter Capaldi; a fan from childhood he finally got his chance to be The Doctor but was served up scripts ranging from the reasonable ‘Listen’ to the abject nonsense of ‘Kill The Moon’, ‘Robots Of Sherwood’ and that terrible one about the sand that I couldn’t watch it was so bad. There were so many questions ignored. The CyberScarecrows for instance, how did they get up to that level?Unless things change drastically under Chibnall’s command, and the death spiral halted, I think the show has another two seasons, at most. Of course I hope not, but another run of sub-par episodes like the majority of Capaldi’s have been will be the final nail in the TARDIS My final words are a plea to any scriptwriters who find themselves commissioned to write an episode :please, if you kill of a companion can you make sure they stay dead?
So, as you can see, finales are a pretty divisive topic? What’s your favourite? What do you think makes a good finale?
Check Nick’s blog out: https://gallifreyanramblings.wordpress.com/ and follow him on Twitter @Npinkpanther
Follow Jeph on Twitter @jephWHOart and take a look at his paintings: jephwho.com
Listen to Paul’s podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/oncoming-storm-radio/id1041699389 and follow him on Twitter @OnStormRadio