The Doctor can't go home again, but he tries.

What is home to a man who runs away? Not an ends, but a means to an end. Nothing that should be permanent is permanent to the Doctor: not home, and not even death. Earlier this season, when Clara thought that she was staring the Doctor’s ghost in the face, she told her friend to set this right. He had made himself “essential” to her, and he couldn’t do that and then die. Now, once Clara is already dead, it’s time for the Doctor to say the same.

It begins with a story. The Doctor rolls up to a Nevada diner in a pick-up truck and meets Clara behind the counter. The Time Lord and his companion don’t seem to recognize each other, but there’s a familiarity between them anyway; you don’t accept just anyone’s guitar riffs as currency. He plays her a sad song (“I think it’s called Clara”) and starts into the tale of his return to Gallifrey — or, for the uninitiated, Space Glasgow.

Back on his home planet after billions of years in the confession dial, the Doctor makes the usual rounds: childhood barn, lunch (with an audience), staredown with a military spacecraft. The Gallifreyan High Council would like a word with him, but he’s got other plans. (“What’s his plan?” “I think he’s finishing his soup.”) On nothing more than the strength of his Time War reputation, the Doctor wins over his would-be executioners, seizes control of the entire planet, and exiles the president to the end of the universe. He never has been one for second chances. But it is odd to see so many people react to the Doctor as a war hero, especially because even the War Doctor didn’t seem the type to “serve with” the troops so much as go rogue — though he didn’t use a weapon, and that sounds about right.

Even the Time Lords who never liked their black sheep are now forced to admit that his unconventional approach saved their lives. They owe him one. And although absolute power is not usually what the Doctor ordered, he’ll take it this time, if only because he’s got an agenda: Clara. Everything he claimed to know about the Hybrid was a ruse. He just wanted the Time Lords to believe that he and Clara had information so useful, it was worth extracting her from her timeline in the second before her death. The Doctor spent billions of years breaking out of that confession dial by hand because he couldn’t tell the Veil a truth he did not know, and the admission that he knew nothing would forfeit his leverage. He wasn’t just mourning Clara; he was trying to save her.

So far, it’s working. The Time Lords agree to pull Clara out for what they think will be a brief consultation, but the Doctor has other plans. He grabs the general’s gun and shoots him right into a regeneration, then takes Clara’s hand and runs, just like old times. They take refuge in the Cloisters, otherwise known as a kind of Gallifreyan hell, where Time Lords’ minds are uploaded to a computer when they die. The computer uses their consciousness to predict when trouble is coming, ringing Cloister bells to sound the alarm. Anyway, what do we care about the technicalities? Clara is here.

The Doctor and Clara slip past the computer’s guard system — dead Time Lords, Weeping Angels, Cybermen, and Daleks — and get to work trying to hack their way out, or at least the Doctor does. Clara is more interested in what it means that she’s here. How long has it been for the Doctor? He won’t say. When a handful of Time Lords and the Sisterhood of Karn surround them in the Cloisters, she demands that they tell her how much time the Doctor spent in his confession dial, and the answer she gets is more than double what the Doctor presumed: 4.5 billion years.

NEXT: It does need saying

Clara never wanted the Doctor to spend any time suffering just to save her, much less billions of years, and she doesn’t accept the old “duty of care” line as an excuse. This is a Clara who’s straight off her big farewell speech to the Doctor; a few minutes ago, she was using her last words to worry about him. The woman who used to pencil in the Doctor on her calendar has been prioritizing his life over her own all season, and she’s devastated to learn what he went through on her behalf. Now that she’s on borrowed time — Clara’s physical processes have been looped in the split-second before the raven strikes, so she is quite literally a heartbeat away from death — she has a few things to say.

We don’t hear her say them; the camera pans away to give the Doctor and Clara some privacy, only to rejoin them as the Doctor makes his escape. He’s got what he came here for, so now it’s back to business as usual: stealing a TARDIS and running away. He even snags one with the First Doctor’s interior. The Doctor expects Clara’s pulse to return once they’ve broken free of Gallifrey, but her timeline isn’t changing, and he’s starting to lose his cool. The sound of four knocks is exactly what the Doctor needs right now. (“It’s always four knocks.”)

In an attempt to throw the Time Lords off their trail, he’s taken the TARDIS the very end of the universe, only to be met by the one immortal who’s still alive: Ashildr. As Clara waits inside, Ashildr confronts the Doctor for trying to change his friend’s fate: Not only does he “have no right to change who she was,” but he’s making it pretty clear how destructive they are when they’re together. Ashildr has a theory. She could be the Hybrid. Or the Doctor could — he’s been running scared since he first heard the prophecy out of fear that it refers to him. (While he stops short of confirming that he actually is half human, he doesn’t deny it, either.) But Ashildr believes that the real Hybrid here is “a dangerous combination of a passionate and powerful Time Lord and a young woman so very similar to him.”

When the Doctor and Clara feed off of each other, they both become the Hybrid. She’s in the TARDIS proving it right now. Clara uses the sonics to eavesdrop on their conversation, so she’s listening when the Doctor admits that he already knows what he’s going to do. He and Clara are too dangerous together; he wants to take her home and erase her memory of him. Clara’s having none of that. In true Doctor-y fashion, she reverses the polarity of the neural block that he plans to use to alter her memories, then informs him when he brings Ashildr back to the TARDIS that he can’t use it on her without erasing his own memories instead.

This season has done nothing to help the Donna Noble mourning process, has it? Clara says everything I would have wanted Donna to have a chance to say before the Doctor wiped her mind: “Nobody’s ever safe. I’ve never asked you for that, ever. These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine. Tomorrow is promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that.” And the Doctor, of course, knows she’s right. One last defiant Clara Oswald speech has saved the day. But here’s where things take a turn: When everything seems to point toward Clara returning to the moment of her death, the Doctor decides instead that they should both press the button on the neural block and see what happens.

It doesn’t make sense. Yes, they both get to live, and their connection can’t be used against each other if one doesn’t remember the other. But Clara has to die facing that raven; her pulse isn’t back, which means that her death is a fixed point. By now, she and Ashildr have argued so passionately in support of accepting the end of Clara’s life that anything less feels like a cheat. She’s far less afraid of the raven than she is of watching the Doctor become someone else; he should respect that. But the same Doctor who could spend 4.5 billion years in the confession dial to save his friend can’t watch her die again, and Clara, apparently unable to resist taking one last risk with him, goes along with his plan.

NEXT: Guitar hero

So they press the button — and, after a few seconds of painful delay, it hits the Doctor. Slipping into unconsciousness, he gives Clara his last words of advice: run like hell, laugh at everything, and don’t eat pears. She worries that this is her fault for messing with the neural block in the first place, but she did that because she learned from him, so the Doctor accepts this as his punishment for becoming the Hybrid. He promises that he’ll remember Clara’s smile, only to wake up in Nevada and ask, “Clara who?” Talk about Clara becoming the Doctor.

The Doctor has always been the one forced to remember and move on, but that’s Clara’s role now. It’s been our Clara in the diner this whole time, feigning ignorance as the Doctor tells his story and plays his song, hoping that his memory will return if she can just guide him to it. When he looks her in the eye and tells her that he’s sure he’d know Clara’s face if he saw it, she has to hide a few tears. He knows the basics of what he and Clara shared — time travelers know the stories of their lives in too tactile a sense to ever lose them completely — but even though he can feel the hole she left, he can’t remember the person she was.

He can, however, play guitar, and Clara hears everything she told him in the Cloisters in the tune he’s now playing — which is her theme, obviously. “You said memories become stories when we forget them,” she says. “Maybe some of them become songs.” The Doctor doesn’t have the specifics, but he hasn’t lost his sense of what Clara meant to him. With that, she disappears; the diner is just attached to the exterior of the TARDIS that the Doctor stole. Ashildr waits in the control room. Clara has to go back to her death eventually, but, Hybrid that she is, she might as well take the “long way ‘round.” They fly off to delay the inevitable.

As for the Doctor, he finds his TARDIS outside, still painted with Clara’s face — but he doesn’t seem especially broken up to realize that he just lost her for a second time. There’s a note waiting for him on the TARDIS’ chalkboard: “Run, you clever boy, and be a Doctor.” It couldn’t very well be “and remember me,” now. Clara left him his most Doctor-y velvet coat, and the console has made him a new sonic screwdriver (which, to be honest, I’ve never missed less), so he’s ready to go. The memorial to Clara chips off as the TARDIS disappears.

There’s something very appropriate in all of this: Clara told the Doctor to remember her, and now he can’t — but she can, and she is now living the Doctor’s life. She’s on the run, with no home but the point of her own death. But as much as it makes a (tragically) fitting end to their story, the leap it takes to get here makes the experience less satisfying. This is an awfully long way to go just to carry “Run, you clever boy, and remember me” full circle, and I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all happening because of a decision that didn’t need to be made.

Taking Clara back to the point of her death felt like the only logical decision, but the Doctor couldn’t do it. That shouldn’t be a victory: The Doctor is supposed to be the one who makes the difficult choices and finds a way to keep going. Maybe we should retire memory erasing as a plot point; it feels contrary to what Doctor Who is about. Or maybe I’m just sad. It would be easier if we could erase our memory of the fact that this is how the Doctor’s time with Clara comes to an end — but maybe that’s why we shouldn’t.

Background radiation:

  • “Every story ever told really happened. Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.”
  • “I know that there was an Ice Warrior on a submarine and a mummy on the Orient Express. I know we sat together in the Cloisters and she told me something very important, but I have no idea what she said or what she looked like or how she talked or laughed. There’s nothing there. Just nothing.” I’m FINE.
  • “You been traveling?” “Yeah, from time to time.”
  • How did Clara know about the diner that the Doctor visited with Amy and Rory?
  • Welcome back, Ninth Doctor’s theme.
  • “I was a completely different person in those days. Eccentric. A bit mad. Rude to people.”
  • “On pain of death, no one take a selfie.”
  • “Not from you lot! No, you’d cramp my style. Look at your hats.”
  • So is the Doctor just really bad at reading the stars?
  • Love the round things.
  • “Don’t you think the universe owes me this?”

UPDATE: I’ve figured it out. Upon further reflection, I’ve realized that what bothered me about this objectively brilliant season finale wasn’t actually rooted in the finale at all. If Clara hadn’t died in the first place, returning to the point of her death wouldn’t even be an option here — pressing the button on the neural block would be the only logical way to ensure that she and the Doctor stay apart. As it stands now, the fact that they voluntarily erase one of their memories just to delay a looming inevitability makes the sacrifice feel a bit more avoidable. Then again, when does the Doctor not delay looming inevitabilities? And Clara is the Doctor now, too: an empowering ending that deserves all the praise a bigger-on-the-inside Police Box can hold.

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