And so ends one of the most problematic seasons of Doctor Who since the show returned in 2005. Split in half, and screened across two years to accommodate the exit of fan favourites Amy and Rory, and the introduction of new companion Clara, there's been an unmistakable feeling that the show has gone off the boil.
The episodes have always been fun, and Matt Smith continues to excel as The Doctor, but the spark that made the early episodes of his run such a blast has been missing over the last eight weeks. Plots have felt undercooked, character development has been hurried, and there's been a distracting sloppiness to the conclusions of too many stories.
That's especially worrying, since the new Who has traditionally struggled with season finales. Certainly in the days under previous showrunner Russell T Davies, potentially interesting arcs would come crashing down in gooey lumps of cheesy sentiment and clumsy deus ex machine plotting.
There were worrying hints that the so-called mystery of Clara would fall into that category. It's certainly been the most poorly deployed ongoing saga since the days of Bad Wolf, with every episode taking time to remind us that the Doctor's latest companion has died twice before in unrelated stories, but doing nothing to move that basic premise forwards. We finally got an explanation in this episode, a better one than it probably deserved, but was it worth it?
We open with a blatant bit of fan service, as Clara recounts a journey through time, trying to warn every incarnation of the Doctor. It's accomplished through some slightly clumsy editing of old footage, and a lot of people in Who costumes running away from the camera so we don't see their face. It's cheap and silly, but somehow that seems appropriate. As always whenever Who reminds us of its weighty fifty year history, the geek goosebumps can't help but rise.
Post-credits we're back in Victorian London, which means we're once again in the welcome company of Silurian detective Madam Vastra, her lover and assistant Jenny and their aggressively stupid Sontaran butler, Strax. Vastra visits a condemned serial killer in prison, who bargains for his life by dropping The Doctor into the conversation. The Doctor has a secret that he will take to his grave, teases the man, and it has been discovered.
This prompts a psychic conference call between Vastra, Jenny and Strax, which requires them all to be unconscious. Also summoned is Clara, as such mental meetings are apparently the only way to communicate across the years without time travel. Finally, up pops River Song, or at least an archive memory of her, providing a much-needed connection back to the pre-Clara Doctor. Vastra reveals that the convicted man mentioned just one word to prove his information was valid: Trenzalore.
Before the mystery can be solved, Jenny announces that she's been murdered. Eerie faceless creatures have entered Vastra's home and attacked them while in their trance. Everyone is forced awake, but rather than the sinister “Whisper Men,” Clara finds herself back at home where the Doctor is waiting for her.
There follows a great scene for Matt Smith, as the mere mention of the word Trenzalore causes him to break down in tears. Sadness is an emotion that got a little too much play in the David Tennant years, but Smith's Doctor has been stoic enough that this brief breakdown feels incredibly powerful. Trenzalore, it turns out, is the one place he can never go: the site of his own grave.
Needless to say, that's where he now must go, in order to save Vastra, Jenny and Strax. It's a journey that even the TARDIS refuses to take, shutting down in orbit around the desolate, volcanic planet. This forces the Doctor to shut down the TARDIS completely, including its anti-gravity, causing it to tumble from the sky and crash on the surface. Luckily, they crash right next to their destination – a giant TARDIS that marks the Doctor's final resting place. In a rather ingenious twist, it's not a monument of the TARDIS, but the actual TARDIS, the circuits that make it larger on the inside now scrambled by decay, making it enormous on the outside.
Waiting for them is The Great Intelligence, the foe reintroduced in The Snowmen last Christmas, and once again played in human form by Richard E. Grant. He wants to get into the Doctor's tomb, and uses his Whisper Men to threaten the Doctor's friends to force the Timelord into uttering the word that will open the door. Speak friend and enter? Not quite. It's River Song, still present in an inexplicable ghostly form, who does the deed.
Once inside, rather than a body the group finds a swirling vortex. This, the Doctor explains, is his timestream: the scar tissue his travels – past, present and future – have left on the universe. This is why he mustn't be here, as it means crossing his own timeline in the worst way possible and, like Superman mainlining Kryptonite, he's almost fatally weakened by its proximity.
The Great Intelligence reveals its plan. It steps into the Doctor's timestream, destroying itself but scattering echoes throughout the Doctor's many lives. These echoes then begin changing history on an epic scale, turning every victory into defeat. Every life, every world, that the Doctor saved has its fate reversed, his good works completely unwritten. This means Jenny dies for the second time in this episode, vanishing from sight even as Strax reverts from ally to enemy. In the sky, dozens of galaxies and stars disappear, a simple but effective reminder of just how many times the Doctor has triumphed over evil.
It's now that Clara works out why the Doctor has encountered her before. She must follow The Great Intelligence into the timestream, and counteract its sabotage, warning or saving the Doctor thousands of times in order to put things right. The Doctor is too weak to protest, and she takes the plunge, leading to the montage of previous regenerations from the top of the show. As weak as the Clara mystery has been, it's actually an effective end and one that feels appropriate in the show's fiftieth anniversary year.
But then things start to wobble again. The Doctor, now restored to health, decides he must enter his own timestream to save Clara. River Song tries to talk him out of it, and the two share a long overdue goodbye. Then it's into the timestream once more for the sort of deus ex machina solution that the show really needs to move away from. Clara's sacrifice makes sense. It's powerful. Bringing her back cheapens the enormity of what she did, but also fudges the rules of what can be done. As in "The Rings of Akhaten," it's the leaf that drove her father to meet her mother, thus ensuring she'd be born, that acts as a vague “just go with it” lifeline, allowing the Doctor to pluck her back into normal existence.
The episode has one last sting to deliver, however, and it's a good one. Before they leave Trenzalore, the Doctor and Clara encounter a mysterious figure – a generation of the Doctor that we've never seen before. It's here that the meaning of the title comes into focus. We're not here to learn the Doctor's real name, but the reason he took the name “The Doctor.” It's a promise he made, to look after the universe, and the figure before them is the incarnation that broke that promise. This is the version of the Timelord with blood on his hands, the version of himself that presumably fought in the Time Wars, which took place off-screen between the Paul McGann TV movie and the Christopher Eccleston incarnation that launched the show again in 2005. This is the version of himself that wiped out the Daleks and Timelords alike, a destroyer rather than a healer, and thus could never claim to be The Doctor.
Then he turns around and holy shit it's only John Hurt. One cheeky title tease later - “Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor” - and we're left to wait until November for the 50th Anniversary Special to see just what this means for the future of the show.
It's a great ending, but one that doesn't quite wash away the disappointment of this batch of eight episodes. The revelation of Clara's purpose is handled quite well, but that doesn't excuse the poor development of it over the season. The best Steven Moffat finales have led to a moment of realisation as you understand the answers were there all along. Think of the superb The Pandorica Opens, or the Melody Pond/River Song reveal. This, by contrast, is an explanation where the nature of the question is only introduced at the end of the story, an upside down sort of narrative.
It certainly doesn't help that the Doctor then undoes Clara's martyrdom. Not only does this feel like the sort of soppiness that Russell T Davies specialised in, but it means that Clara gets to stick around even though her role in the show is now spent. Maybe they thought that letting her die so soon after losing Amy and Rory would be too much, but that doesn't stop it feeling like a cheat.
The enemies, too, fail to impress. The Whisper Men are barely even explained and are clearly just there to offer a few cheap chills as the plot gets underway. Both visually and in terms of their power, they feel like weak copies of The Silence, which in turn serves to remind us of the far stronger Impossible Astronaut storyline from the previous season.
And while its fantastic to have a talent like Richard E. Grant as a returning villain, The Great Intelligence hasn't been built up enough as a credible threat to justify the sort of extravagant revenge being attempted. A legacy monster from the second Doctor's era, it's only appeared twice before the modern incarnation of the show so it's hard to really accept the seething malice it seems to feel towards the Doctor, and that would prompt it to utterly destroy his entire existence.
Clearly, this needed to be a story with The Master, but that character has already been reintroduced – and somewhat squandered – in the David Tennant run. You need an iconic nemesis to sell a plot like this, and The Great Intelligence just doesn't have the weight to make it work. It feels a lot like seeing Batman almost utterly ruined by Killer Moth rather than The Joker.
So this was far from the best season finale the show has enjoyed, but it was also better than the patchy episodes leading up to it would have suggested. Does the general dip in quality mean the show has run its course? Not really. Thanks to its unique longevity, Doctor Who has endured more ups and downs than almost any other show and every regeneration has balanced out superb peaks with awkward troughs. Whenever I try to think too hard about the flaws in this episode, I find myself thinking instead of that final image of John Hurt and what it means for November. Something suitably fantastic, I hope. Onwards and upwards, then.