“You will run, it will walk”: Grief and the Twelfth Doctor

My favorite incarnation of the Doctor is the twelfth.

Peter Capaldi.

Bottle-top crunching eyebrows and grumpy Scottish accent.

When I first started watching Capaldi’s take on the Doctor, I was somewhat indifferent and had to adjust quite rapidly to the sudden mood shift.

First of all, allow me to explain that until I watched Capaldi’s era, Smith’s era had been my favorite three seasons of Doctor Who. Series five was fun, series six was intense and utterly poetic television, and series seven brought on a heavy sense of grief and loss, which triggered the arrival of the Twelfth Doctor.

The Twelfth Doctor is a continuation of Eleven’s character arc.

Eleven is known primarily as “the Man who forgets.” His predecessor, the Tenth Doctor, is “the Man who regrets,” and while Ten’s regret is what powers him into Eleven, Eleven tries to carry through his adventures by burying the regret and forgetting what he did.

As Eleven progresses through his era, Ten’s shadow is hardly seen on his new face. His adventures are light-hearted, he giggles, he laughs, and he pulls the Ponds into a fairytale adventure. He falls in love with River Song, he dons a fez and bowtie, and he manages to become the most important (and yet nonexistent) being in the universe.

He has forgotten the past, his scars, and his pain. However, he hits a particularly emotional patch in series seven that forces him to come to terms with his mistakes, grief, and inability: the deaths of Amy and Rory at the hands of the weeping angels.

Following this point, Eleven faces continual struggle. He travels alone for an undisclosed amount of time after Amy and Rory’s deaths, he stays away from people entirely, and he only manages to be drawn back into civilization again by the Victorian Clara Oswald.

Then come his adventures with Clara, but most importantly, the siege of Trenzalore. After defending Trenzalore for nine hundred years, the Doctor is tired, weary, and broken, and it is at this point that he regenerates.

And out pops our Grumpy Scottish Museum Curator™.

Up until this point, the Doctor has not had to cope with his grief. Ten felt regret, but then he forgot it. Eleven (at the end of his life) begins to feel the same regret and the fierce desire to remember, but still…the grief has not come to a resolution. He still bears a burden that is transferred onto the shoulders of his next self: Twelve.

Emotional pain and grief is the entire summary of the Twelfth Doctor’s era.

But this is why I have come to love him so much.

For the entire eighth series of Doctor Who, it is pretty painful to watch. Twelve is grumpy, a wee bit self-obsessed, and dreadfully insensitive toward Clara’s feelings and the emotional consequences of his choices.

He reminds me of an emotionally out-of-touch mad scientist who has no time for attachments but finds himself being continually poked and prodded by hugs, people who need saving, and the frequent Psychological Clara Breakdown™ (no thanks to her underdeveloped-boyfriend-character).

Anyway, we see his resistance to affection throughout all of season eight, and this is the response we should expect: the Doctor has endured so much grief on account of his love for humans. Everything that had ever happened to the Doctor—everything that had ever scarred and bruised his tender heart—happened because he loved the people involved. When they died, or were forgotten, or had their memories wiped, or were trapped in another dimension, he could not get over it because he loved them.

So, Twelve distances himself from people in series eight. He shuts down emotionally and builds a wall around himself.

But at the end of series eight, he has to come to terms with this decision for the below reason:

Exhibit A: Twelve and Missy being adorkable

Missy brings back everything the Doctor left behind, and now he is forced to come to terms with all the grief that he has carried. He cannot help feeling for Missy, because he thought she was a memory he had forever eradicated. But now his best and greatest friend/enemy was demanding his attention and threatening to turn good.

Missy played a significant role in bringing Twelve back emotionally in at the end of series eight and beginning of series nine. Davros’s appearance in “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar also played a significant role in Twelve’s emotional arc, and I wish I had time to talk more about Missy and Davros’s contributions to Twelve’s arc, but for the sake of time, I will restrain myself.


Series nine is when the grief comes in full force and the Doctor actually reckons with it instead of trying to bury it and distance himself.

The first of the most poignant moments in series nine when Twelve comes to terms with his grief is in “The Zygon Inversion,” when he gives his powerful speech begging the humans and Zygons to make peace.

But why does he beg?

Because he feels his own immense guilt on his shoulders, when he closes his eyes he can “hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count,” and it tortures him.

You know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight, till it burns your hand. And you say this: “No one else will ever have to live like this! No one else will ever have to feel this pain! Not on my watch.”

The Twelfth Doctor

Then you understand the role that grief has played in creating the Doctor. No longer is he in denial over his grief, but he is choosing to let his grief propel him toward goodness. Instead of being repelled by his regret or burdened by his grief, he uses it to push him forward and to run ahead.

He chooses vulnerability in love. He chooses to let his heart get broken. He chooses to open his hands and to embrace those around him, no matter what it will do to him in the end.

Then, this new facet of his character development comes under fire in “Face the Raven,” when Clara dies and he is forced to accept it. Here is new grief, fresh from the heart, and he has to stomach it, let it change him, and embrace it just as he has resolved to do.

While Clara was not much of a sympathetic character for me in series nine, I actually did cry when she died because not only was her death morally satisfying, self-sacrificial, and beautiful, it was so difficult for Twelve to stand and watch his best friend choose death without a fight.

Now, here we arrive at the crowning glory of Capaldi’s time as the doctor: “Heaven Sent.”

Arguably one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes of all time, “Heaven Sent” sees the Doctor psychologically tortured for billions of years (the exact number I cannot remember) in a time loop, forced to remember Clara’s death and his own broken past with his people: The Time Lords.

I just want to talk about “Heaven Sent” for a moment.

It is the final moment where all of Twelve’s grief is attacked, resolved, embraced, and battled ferociously. He does not give up, he does not forget, he chooses to let it haunt him and follow him, and he is in an endless cycle of letting it live him to death.

And then he does it all over again.

This is one of the reasons why bringing Clara back in “Hell Bent” was such a horrible decision, because in “Hell Bent” he has to let her go, he has to cope with his grief, and he has to learn how to let it change him and shape him.

Letting Clara live and having the Doctor’s memory wiped added so much more emotional trauma that we just didn’t need, and it did not advance the Doctor’s grief arc in any way.

Anyway, I digress.

Let’s just pretend “Hell Bent” didn’t even happen for the sake of my argument.

In “Heaven Sent” the Doctor is followed by a grim reaper-esque creature, and I think the entire Doctor Who fandom has come to the reasonable analytic conclusion that said creature is the personification of Grief. Some say death, but I say grief.

As we see throughout “Heaven Sent,” it is only in confessing himself to this Grief that the Doctor is able to escape its monstrous clutches. If he does not face it and confess to it, then he cannot continue his fight to emerge victorious from the confession dial. Confessing regret and grief to a personification of Grief makes more sense to me than doing so to the personification of Death, but you could argue it both ways.

Moving on—

The Doctor has to fully realize everything he has done, everything he has experienced, and he has to let it change him. He must confess his weakness, his regret, and his pain. He must embrace his new, weather-beaten self. He must understand that his life experience has changed him, but not for the worse—for the better. That grief and regret will propel him forward into goodness. Trying to hold on to his past self (the jumpy, energetic Giraffe Boi™) will not work, nor will simply brooding and being emotionally distant.

Because to live a life like the Doctor lives, vulnerability is required.

I come back to this time and time again, but C.S. Lewis puts it so brilliantly in The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Twelve tries to “lock [his heart] up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness,” but this winds up fracturing his relationship with Clara (which is already a hot mess as it is), his own personality, and his motivation to be who he is: the man who stops the monsters.

If you have no love for the one you save, then there is no point in saving anyone except feeling hopelessly self-righteous.

Twelve learns that to love is to face grief, to love is to suffer, but to love is to be a living example of everything you believe in.

Of course being free from emotional pain would be a beautiful thing, but a life without love…what a horribly drab life that would be!

It reminds me of John Lumic’s vision for the Cybermen—no emotions = no pain.

But Ten knew otherwise:

LUMIC: You are proud of your emotions. 

DOCTOR: Oh, yes. 

LUMIC: Then tell me, Doctor. Have you known grief, and rage, and pain? 

DOCTOR: Yes. Yes I have. 

LUMIC: And they hurt? 

DOCTOR: Oh, yes. 

LUMIC: I could set you free. Would you not want that? A life without pain? 

DOCTOR: You might as well kill me. 

From “The Age of Steel”

See, the Tenth Doctor understood this…

But then as the Eleventh Doctor he forgot, and as the Twelfth, he even tried eliminating his emotions. And it almost did kill him.

The Twelfth Doctor may have forgotten for a brief period of time who he was meant to be, and he may have been a grumpy, sour old man, and he may have made some pretty interesting decisions at the beginning of his time as the Doctor, but the way grief transformed his character and made him back into what he was made him my absolute favorite.

Besides, his experiences with grief made him ready to take on Dad Mode™ with Bill Potts (I love her so much) in series ten!

Series ten felt like the madam with a box was back.

And *squeals* how I wish I had time to talk about the beauty that is series ten! Missy and Nardole and “The Doctor Falls” and just…GAH. Series ten was amazing.

But friends, that is why this pudding brain loves the Twelfth Doctor. He is my Doctor, and if I could travel with any one of the Doctor’s incarnations, I would inevitably choose my Grumpy Space Grandpa™. I would give him all the hugs he deserves, and I would try my very hardest not to die on him so we could be happy and chase Daleks all the live long day.

Three cheers for the emotional rebirth of the Twelfth Doctor!

Until next time,


P.S. Don’t be lasagna. 🤪

4 thoughts on ““You will run, it will walk”: Grief and the Twelfth Doctor

  1. Agh, you’re just making me want to watch Doctor Who even more… *sighs* Someday. Someday I will.

    (By the way, I’ve only seen two episodes and they both had David Tennant. Which Doctor is that?)

  2. Ahhhh, Emily, this was such a delight to read!! Interestingly, my sister Carolyn is watching the Twelfth Doctor for the first time, and her feelings/sentiments/thoughts have been almost exactly the same as yours! I’m gonna pass this along to her–I think she’d really enjoy it ❤

    1. Ahh! I’m so sorry for getting to my comments so late these days. I am so glad you loved this post! I hope Carolyn did as well! I would love to hear her thoughts on how she’s loving our grumpy Dad Mode boi. 😉

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