Can the Doctor undo his own death?

By Kelly Connolly
October 10, 2015 at 02:36 PM EDT
BBC America

Doctor Who

S9 E4
  • TV Show

For a man who didn’t believe in ghosts until about an hour ago, the Doctor is terrified of his own. He lets it rule him. When a wide-eyed Clara reveals over the phone that his spector is looming outside the base, the Doctor is quick to accept defeat: Oh well. That’s fate. If the first half of this two parter exposed the risks people will take for the Doctor, this half is more concerned with the risks the Doctor will take on his own behalf — or won’t take, as the case may be. He’s more likely to bend the rules of time to save his friends than to save himself, even when his own ghost is staring him in the face.

This isn’t the first time this season that the Doctor has seemed a little too ready for his own death. (“This regeneration — it’s a bit of a clerical error anyway.”) But if people are willing to die to save him, the least he can do is live. Clara is not letting the Doctor give in to his “bloody survivor’s guilt” on her watch. “If you love me in any way, you’ll come back,” she pleads, giving him enough of a kick in the pants that he promises to try. He asks Clara to let him take a look at his ghost, but it’s just as unresponsive as the rest. It is, however, reciting something different. It starts by listing everyone’s names, then comes inside the base and changes its tune: “The chamber will open tonight.”

That ghost is all about opening chambers. It unlocks the Faraday Cage, releasing the other ghosts and forcing Clara, Cass, and Lunn to hide inside. There’s no cell signal in there, so Clara props her phone outside the door and waits as the Doctor, now in 1980, tries to make sense of the spaceship. He, Bennett, and O’Donnell have already met the Mole, a sniveling Tivolian named Prentiss who’s come to bury his former enslaver, the Fisher King. In the time it takes the Doctor to chat with Clara, the Fisher King rises and kills Prentiss — which, for Prentiss, is honestly a step up. He’s less annoying as a murderous ghost.

As the Doctor points out, Tivolians and the Fisher King are really two sides of the same coin. Whether by surrendering or conquering, they’ll both do anything to survive. The Doctor has lived long enough to know better. He isn’t in this to fight for his own life — he just wants to save Clara, and time is running out. The Fisher King hunts them down, and O’Donnell — who refused to stay behind in the safety of the TARDIS, who just wanted to follow the Doctor’s lead — is his next victim. I was worried when the Doctor asked the only woman in the group to stay inside, but he wasn’t being sexist: He just knew she was next on the list.

It takes Bennett a minute to work it out, but he gets there: The Doctor’s ghost was naming each of them in the order that they died. And as much as the Doctor hoped that O’Donnell had a chance — her ghost wasn’t there in the future — he still used her to test his theory. This Doctor has always been more focused on the big picture than some of his other regenerations. He mourns O’Donnell now in a way he wouldn’t have when we first met him, but he still does what has to be done.

He’s taught Clara that same practicality. Locked in the Faraday Cage with Cass and Lunn, she watches as O’Donnell’s ghost makes a grand entrance and then carries away the cell phone. Clara works out why the ghost let Lunn live — he doesn’t have the words in his head. He can go get her phone. Lunn is willing (though not thrilled), but Cass protests. Lunn translates: “She said to ask you whether traveling with the Doctor changed you, or were you always happy to put other people’s lives at risk?” It’s the former. Clara is becoming more like the Doctor every day, and at this point, there’s no way that ends well.

NEXT: Time is a flat circle

The ghosts can’t kill Lunn, but they can lock him in another room with the phone, leaving Cass increasingly anxious. Clara agrees to go with her to find Lunn, but as soon as she turns around, Cass is gone. Cass walks the hallways of The Drum alone. Moran’s ghost trails behind her, dragging an axe along the floor. It’s making an awful nails-on-a-chalkboard screech, which, of course, Cass can’t hear. The whole sequence is horror-movie tense in a way that would be delicious if I weren’t so worried for Cass’ safety. But this isn’t a horror movie, in the end. It’s Doctor Who, and the only thing more certain than everybody dying is everybody using their strengths to survive. Anyway, Cass is smarter than all of us. She kneels down and puts her palm to the floor, feeling the vibrations of the axe, then ducks out of Moran’s way just in time. Cass finds Clara, they both find Lunn, and all three of them make a break for the room with the suspended animation chamber.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is still doing what he can to save the only life he cares about: Clara’s. She’s next on the list, and that’s all the motivation he needs to go a little Time Lord Victorious on everyone. Dragging a still-angry Bennett back to the TARDIS, the Doctor determines to break the rules: “What if I don’t die? What if I refuse? I’m going to go back to the base, and I’m going to save Clara, because that’s what I do. And I don’t see anyone here who’s going to stop me.” But there is one player in all of this who will: the TARDIS. She refuses to let him leave, sending him instead 30 minutes back in his own timeline.

The Doctor takes that as proof that his death is still set. “You can’t just go back and cut off tragedy at the root,” he tells Bennett, who wants to warn O’Donnell and Prentiss. They’re already ghosts, and the Doctor is starting to look more like his own: He’s just torn his jacket. Clock ticking, the Doctor sends Bennett back to the TARDIS and confronts the Fisher King — who really is not all that scary. He’s imposing and odd, but he sounds like Peter Serafinowicz and he looks like a Halloween costume, and maybe that’s kind of the point. The idea of him looms larger than he does. The Fisher King is convinced of his own importance even more than the Doctor is, but even if the Doctor is occasionally too protective of time, “willing to die rather than change a word of the future,” at least he respects death.

The Fisher King doesn’t, so the Doctor loses his fear of him — and of the ripple effect he’s been hiding behind. “You robbed those people of their deaths, made them nothing more than a message in a bottle,” he says. “You violated something more important than time: You bent the rules of life and death. So I am putting things straight.” The Doctor respects time more by “changing” it than the Fisher King does by assuming to know how it plays out. It’s the bootstrap paradox: Sometimes history can’t be changed, but sometimes trying to change it is exactly what ensures it. The attempt to change history can be a part of history. The Doctor was always in that suspended animation chamber after all.

So he lies and tells the Fisher King that he’s already changed his timeline: The words scratched into his spaceship are gone. The King goes out to check, finds the words still there, and gets caught in the flood as the Doctor blows up the dam. Back in the 22nd century, the chamber opens, and the Doctor plugs his sonic sunglasses into The Drum’s control panel just in time, calling the ghosts to the Faraday Cage with a recording of the Fisher King’s roar. He locks them in, and his own ghost disappears — it was just a hologram the whole time. But he created his ghost because he’d already seen it, and he programmed it to say what he already knew it would say. Who gave him the idea in the first place? Play this one out with a guitar solo: Time is a trip, even for the Doctor.

Background radiation:

  • Is it a little convenient that everyone on this base is in love with each other? Yes. But Cass and Lunn for the next companions, please. Sophie Stone’s performance as Cass has been a treat.
  • Say what you will about sonic sunglasses, but they’ve been used creatively these past few weeks. Today they’re retinal scanners, erasing the sight of the symbols from everyone’s head.
  • O’Donnell was demoted for dangling a colleague out the window. I feel like she’s an alternate-universe Amy.
  • She’s also all of us. “It’s bigger on the inside.”
  • Shout out to Rose Tyler, always.
  • “Listen to me. We all have to face death eventually, be it ours or someone else’s.” “I’m not ready yet.” Please don’t let this be foreshadowing.
  • I love the way everyone who travels with the Doctor gets a little possessive of him. Sure, he’s traveled with other people, but no one has ever traveled with him like this. And they’re almost always right about that.
  • “You’ve made yourself essential to me. You’ve given me something else to be. And you can’t do that and then die. It’s not fair.”
  • “Though you might find you’ve lost a couple of other memories too, like people you went to school with or previous addresses or how to drink liquids.”

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