"Doctor Who" just pulled off another outrageous cheat in its season finale, broke a bunch of other longstanding rules, and left me extremely satisfied and ready for more. It's been a great season for our favorite alien time traveler and his band of companions, so I thought I ought to put down a few thoughts. Many spoilers lie ahead.
I enjoyed Steven Moffat and Matt Smith's first year with the Doctor, which was a lot more dependent on plot than character. It left me appreciative of the wild plot twists and reveals, but not really engaged by what was going on. The only episode I found memorable was "Vincent and the Doctor," which ironically was one of those really strong one-off installments that Moffat was always so good at during Russel T. Davies' tenure. I liked all the characters, particularly companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillian) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). The Doctor, as played by Matt Smith, never quite clicked for me though, and I was totally ambivalent on River Song (Alex Kingston), who was described as exciting and adventurous more often than we actually saw her being exciting and adventurous.
This year, the sixth season since the revival, was much, much better. It featured an ongoing storyline, where the Doctor learns that he's going to murdered at a specific time and date, and that Amy, Rory, and most especially River are all involved for very convoluted reasons. Nearly every episode emphasized the development of the characters and their relationships, especially in the second half of the season when the Doctor has to face the inevitable. Matt Smith's Doctor emerged at last as a subtler, quieter, more thoughtful, and less dramatic incarnation of the character, who I grew to like very much. He's as protective and angstful and arrogant as ever, but with more self-control and self-awareness. His emotions are played closer to the vest, and he is better at keeping calm in situations where the David Tennant Doctor would have lost his temper.
So I don't think you could have done the second half of this series with Tennant, where the Doctor grows increasingly guilt-ridden and disillusioned through a series of difficult, horror-tinged adventures that put Amy and Rory through the emotional wringer. The Doctor has his moments of soul-searching and self-castigation, as all the previous ones have, but this time, in this series, we have a Doctor who decides the risk is unacceptable and does something about it. After a particularly trying ordeal patterned after "The Shining," the Doctor simply drops Amy and Rory off at home, and tells them honestly that it's become too dangerous to continue traveling together. Of course the parting with is brief, as Gillian and Darvill remain regulars for the rest of the series, but when you compare this development to the dramatic sendoffs of the last three companions, Moffat's more measured approach to the Doctor stands out.
Amy and Rory also improved some, with Karen Gillian getting one really good episode almost all to herself, and big parts in a few others. Arthur Darvill didn't share as much of the spotlight, but he's so solid whenever he does get a moment or two, his part seems bigger than it actually is. I'm still not sure about River Song as a character, though Alex Kingston is wonderful. However, I have to hand it to the creators that they did very good things with her this year. River becomes more sympathetic as her big secrets start being revealed, including her origins, her purpose, what she went to jail for, and what her relationship to the Doctor is. The big bombshell that gets dropped in the finale was more than enough to make me temporarily ignore all the questions that didn't get answered, and probably won't be in the foreseeable future.
Best of all, the Doctor has been left in an interesting place - presumed dead, no companions, in a very new phase of a very strange relationship, and possibly ready to move on from a lot of guilt and a lot of unhappy thoughts. Plans for the next season seems to be a little uncertain as to who is coming back and who isn't, so there's no telling where Moffat is going to take the Doctor next. After so many overwrought, effects-filled finales, I think this is the best the show has had in a while, because it deals so heavily in all the little personal matters that are monumental only to those directly impacted by them - the cast of characters we've been getting to know better all series long.
I hope Moffat and Smith have a long tenure, and that Christmas (and the next "Who" special) will come soon this year. Oh, and that they can get Neil Gaiman back for another episode. "The Doctor's Wife" was just lovely.