With series ten wrapped up, let’s revisit the series nine finale trilogy, as it’s always worth talking about. We’ll do so in three separate blog posts, a series rather than in one go: I think regardless of whether you like to read them as a multi part story or three one parters, the best way to approach what these episodes of television are doing from a critical perspective is to read them one episode at a time. That said, just to record my position: they’re one parters, that are linked closely enough to form a wider trilogy. Think “The Hunger Games”: each part tells its own distinct story (the mystery on Trap Street, The Doctor’s escape from the castle, and Clara’s goodbye to the Doctor), while the three parts together form a wider story. It’s the natural culmination of Moffat’s attempt to make each part in a multi part story distinct from the one before it: the individual episodes are now self contained dramas, in spite of the “To be continued” at the end of each part.
And it’s an outright superb story, one of the many high points in season that is full of them. It’s built around a clear three act structure, switching to a new genre with each act, enabling Sarah Dollard to show a lot of range over the course of one script. The first act covers the search for trap street in act one, exploring a fun sci fi concept, and neatly exploring how such a place could exist within London. The second act follows the “whodunnit” mystery on trap street, exploring the culture of the street, and building enough elements to maintain an interesting, engaging, and well put together mystery. The third act concludes the episode with the “Doomsday” style apparent companion departure. Each act and genres require a lot of skill, and all are done very well. It’s fair to say Dollard can be added to the list of exciting new writers who have emerged over the course of the Capaldi era, alongside Jamie Mathieson and Peter Harness, as this episode demonstrates a range of skills necessary to writing good Doctor Who in the mid 2010s: strong sci fi concepts, skilful plotting, the ability to switch between genres, while grounding these elements in very strong character work.
For all that “The Zygon Invasion/ The Zygon Inversion” is known of as the big political piece of Doctor Who in 2015, this episode is arguably even more politically engaged, albeit in a less overt way. First, we have Rigsy, wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to death based on incredibly flimsy evidence. He faces harassment from police figures, and is used as a political weapon by a politician, something the population of Trap street mostly widely accept, for complicated reasons. There are pretty heavy implications come from giving that plot to a black man in the context of 2015: one can fairly assume that Dollard had the events of Ferguson, other viral filmed examples of street harassment, and outright murder by policemen in America, and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests, in mind when she wrote this part of the story.
The episode’s politics are also explored through trap Street and Refugee camps, which raises another recurring theme of this season: the difficulty of achieving cooperation between cultures, and the different ways people try to achieve it. Mayor Me and the Doctor both explicitly reference “The Zygon Invasion/ The Zygon Inversion”, with Mayor Me asking if the arrangements the Doctor made for the Zygons are any better than the ones she has made for the aliens on Trap Street, highlighting the return to the themes of that story, and acknowledging that the arrangement with the Zygons is not ideal, doing a little to help alleviate what seems to be the former story’s slightly dismissive attitude towards the plight of the Zygons. The Doctor also references that story when he threatens to use the Zygons against Mayor Me’s refugee camps, a nice moment that further evidences the thought put in to the implications of the Zygons and Trap Street living in secret on Earth, and what could potentially happen. Most interesting of all is the portrayal of the balancing act that goes into maintaining Trap Street. The idea that someone in the street could commit murder, specifically the murder of someone as empathetic as Anah, threatens the peace of the street, so the citizens latch onto the opportunity to blame someone from outside of their society. This all builds to create the sense of a makeshift society that addresses real world issues through parallels, but has its own distinct identity that enables it to work in the context of this story.
Also significant is the exploration of gender politics through the character of Anahson. She has to present as male to maintain her personal safety, as female Janus are more in danger of physical attack due to their inborn abilities: Sarah Dollard’s script shows an empathetic awareness of the kinds of things real women in vulnerable situations (such as those living in a refugee camp) have to do to survive, such as presenting as male gendered to ensure safety from assault and possible death, but has the subtlety to address these issues through a particular danger only faced by these fictional characters. This subtlety enables the thread of the story to address other related issues: Anahson even claims she would rather hide her gender, a note that has a slight “in the closet” subtext. Anahson is reluctant to use her abilities against Mayor Me, as that would risk outing herself as female, when she feels safer hiding her true gender, which rather nicely captures the complexity of the closet for many LGBT+ people. Plenty of LGBT activists have talked about the way the closet is often, though pretty much only in the short term, a form of protection, something that takes its toll if you are forced to go through it for too long, but that in certain situations, such as being financially dependent on bigoted parents, or living in a society where being open is to outright risk death, is an outright necessity. Ultimately, Anahson does accept the Doctor’s request to use her abilities, making some peace with her true identity, although it is unclear whether she will have to live openly as a woman going forward: she doesn’t out herself to anyone on Trap Street, and the script doesn’t argue that she is in any way obliged to until she is ready.
The story’s political threads and themes surrounding gender culminate in Clara’s death: as Janine Rivers brilliantly points out, the increased political engagement of the Capaldi era reaches its clearest expression hen we get a story in 2015 about a young woman dying in a refugee camp. And as has become common for the Moffat era, and season nine in particular, the episode is aware of the gendered tropes surrounding Clara’s death: fridging very nearly explicitly referenced in the text by Clara, who basically instructs the Doctor not to turn her story into a fridging when she tells him not to turn her death into a reason to take revenge. “Don’t insult my memory” she says, memory of course having already been discussed as a key theme throughout the Moffat era, particularly in Clara’s story. Only here, it’s not about what Clara remembers, but how she is remembered: she doesn’t want to be remembered as the prompt for the Doctor’s revenge, but for the way that she lived, to “die right”, like Danny Pink did. However, the value Clara places on her own memories is also stressed here: her dislike of memory wipes is, made clear through the juxtaposition of her and the Doctor’s reactions to Rigsy’s retcon: the Doctor is quite casual about it, while she is clearly deeply angered at the thought Rigsy has had twenty four hours of his life stolen from him. Similarly, she reacts angrily to Mayor Me’s suggestion that her memory will be wiped to: both these moments are important foreshadowing for “Hell Bent”.
At the heart of the episode’s conclusion is, of course, the relationship between Clara and the Doctor, something underpinned by both the text and the visuals of their final exchange. Phil Sandifer has argued the direction is blatantly trying to hide the limited amount of time they had to get Maisie Williams for filming, but I’m less sure of that argument. Mayor Me is present throughout the scene, even in shots towards the end. However, as the scene moves from the Doctor and Clara’s desperate bargaining with Mayor Me to their goodbye, the camera moves towards close ups of their faces. As the scene becomes more about the two of them, the visual focus moves towards the two of them.
The core of their exchange is rooted in Clara’s claim that she “never asked” for the Doctor’s protection, and the Doctor’s response that she “shouldn’t have to”. Once again, the season focuses on the Doctor’s paternalism towards Clara, and her desire to not be defined by that paternalism, even if she understands the genuine love and care that motivates it. Clara does not want to let him make her death about a perceived mistake on his part when it is her death, and she wants it to be about her: she has always looked for control in her life, and her story, and as such, tries to gain as much agency as she can have in the way it ends. The story is built to make sure that Mayor Me’s plan wasn’t meant to hurt anyone, that none of the characters in “Face the Raven” are truly villains, and that Clara’s death is something that comes out of decisions Clara made as an active agent in the plot, and then faces on her own terms.
What’s really telling about series nine’s attitude to fridging is its determination to show the range of alternative stories to just killing a female character to give a male character some angst. In “The Witch’s Familiar”, Clara gets a faked death to show the folly of the Doctor’s grief fuelled reaction while she and Missy come to rescue him. In “The Girl Who Died”, Ashildr has her death reversed, and gets a character arc where we see the consequences of that reversal. Osgood, meanwhile, really does die, but that death becomes part of her story, and her legacy in the world, her name living on through other Osgoods after her death, which becomes about more than Missy’s petty attempt to mess with the Doctor: the character dies, but lives on due to the way she acted in her life. This episode shows how a female character’s death can be a part of her own story, and a genuine ending, instead of something that turns her into a prop in someone else’s story.
Except the imbalance in power between the Doctor and companion means that this ideal isn’t fully possible for Doctor Who in this scenario. “Why can’t I be like you?” Clara asks, and the Doctor responds by pointing out that he is nothing special, he is just “less breakable” than her: he can regenerate. But the phrase “less breakable” is a telling one for the Doctor to use, and has metafictional implications: the narrative can afford to kill off the main companion, because the show can keep running with a new character in her (because the main companion is usually female, even in the Classic series) place, but even if the Doctor regenerates, he can remain the same character with the same history, and set of experiences. The structure of Doctor Who’s narrative is built to favour the Doctor over the companion. The underlying issue here is not that killing female characters is always bad storytelling: this episode has just shown how to do so with respect to the character in question. But the power imbalance (and as the Doctor has always been male, it is a gendered power imbalance) between the show’s two leads remains. And that is something the remainder of the trilogy will seek to address.