For those of us who are major fans of Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor, Series 10 is a bit of a bittersweet one. Many fans are calling it his 'first good season,' which may be a reaction simply to the lack of Clara Oswald. I admit that Clara is a character I loved and enjoyed, and her effect on the Doctor and his Doctor-ness is an intriguing part of the canon for me -- to the point that I'm writing an entire monograph on Heaven Sent, coming out next year.
The character of Bill Potts is an interesting one, and I appreciate her a great deal. I've long been a fan of Susan Foreman for very personal reasons: her presence in Hartnell's era gave me a chance to see a grandparent/grandchild as a valid, caring family unit after a childhood of being mocked for not having 'real parents.' So a return to that chemistry (even if only symbolically) warms my heart. Bill has her own journey to make, and I believe that through this season she'll be given a fair chance to make it.
That said, these last few episodes have brought to the surface something extremely interesting to me: despite Clara's absence, she still has a presence -- or, at least, the lessons she taught the Doctor do.
Series 9 saw the Doctor doing pretty much exactly what Missy wanted, even after her initial scheme involving Clara had run its course: we saw the Doctor brought to heel, and we saw him discard a great deal of what he believes and holds himself to for Clara's sake. Some have called this 'out of character,' but it is in fact devastatingly in-character: remember, the person we've followed for decades isn't really The Doctor. It's a name, a set of rules, a persona he inflicted upon himself. There are places where the person and the persona cross, but we've seen what happens when the Doctor leaves the room, and we've seen (throughout his regenerations) the true, scary, honestly self-absorbed person who exists under the superhero persona.
My Black Archive installment will have an entire chapter on this, so I don't want to go into it too much. Suffice to say, Series 9 sees the Doctor becoming less and less Doctor-y to the point that he discards his clothes, shoots a man, and nearly makes a choice between destroying the universe and removing a companion's agency rather than looking inward.
His own mind-wipe is, to be honest, a better one than it could have been. He knows there was a Clara, but he will never be able to find her. Well, not yet. Will it wear off? Probably eventually. But as it stands, he is aware of the Clara-shaped hole in his life. He is completely incapable of searching her out... and it isn't until he finally gives up on doing so that he fully becomes the Doctor again, complete with the Doctor-y jacket and the TARDIS and a shiny new sonic.
Which isn't to say that Clara made him less the Doctor (Day of the Doctor, Listen, and others prove that isn't the case). Rather, his handling of their companionship made him slip. She taught him many lessons to bring him back to his rules. Which he'd... follow enough and then slip back into being willing to let the universe burn. A sweet conceit that breaks my heart, but one I'd be hard-pressed to defend from a moral standpoint.
What we begin to see in the end of The Pilot is something very important for the Doctor, specifically this Doctor: he is making changes with no promise of reward.
In friendships, relationships, anything involving two people... when one person has behaved in a way that drives the other away, a change is necessary. But there's the problem: will the person change for themselves, or will they change to bring the person back? I've been a first, second, and third party in this scenario over the years, and seen it from all angles. It's a painful situation to be in. But when it's been 'cracked,' it's rewarding.
Being pushed away for behaviour hurts. Knowing you have to change hurts, but in the midst of that push-away, your goal is not to change for yourself. It's to 'fix' yourself so the other person will come back. Ultimately, this is a coat of paint on a house that's falling apart from the inside: it will work for a time, but the truth will out and the person will eventually collapse.
Throughout Series 8 and 9, the Twelfth Doctor did grow and develop as a character. Many of the things he learned and changes he made, he stuck by. But the most important lesson he continued to miss was one of agency: that love (regardless of the type of love) is shown by granting the people you care about freedom. Even if you are a colossally powerful, nigh-immortal alien. Heck, especially if you are.
In the aforementioned ending of The Pilot, he shies away from wiping Bill's memory, given the reminder that people's lives and memories are their own, and that he does not necessarily know best just because he knows more. The return of Clara's leitmotif drives that home in case anyone missed it. But the lessons... or at least the signs of lessons... continue.
Series 10, an adventure following a teacher and his student, can be looked at in two respects: the lessons Bill learns as the Doctor's student, and the lessons the Doctor demonstrates he has learned from Clara.
In The Pilot, Bill learns about letting go -- a lesson the Doctor has already learned -- as the Doctor demonstrates he has learned about the rights of his companions to keep their memories and to tell him 'no.'
Smile, the return of Frank Cottrell Boyce to the show, is a bit of an outsider to this reading, but we do see themes of grief addressed -- themes the Doctor and Bill dealt with in the past and will be dealing with a lot in the future.
Sarah Dollard's Thin Ice piles the lessons on hard. Bill is subjected to a heaping helping of Victorian racism, but is called upon at the same time to respect the needs of creatures across the board -- and to understand that there will be occasions when she will be called upon to remove her foot from someone else's face. Meanwhile, we see the Doctor in another Kill the Moon situation. And while his assertion that the fate of humanity still rests in humanity's hands, he teaches the lesson in a far more compassionate, far less terrifying way: a way that potentially would have kept Clara from giving him a tearful brush-off.
And in Knock Knock, Bill is confronted with the reality of life outside the TARDIS (basically that there is no life outside the TARDIS), while the Doctor must actively renounce the actions of the Landlord. Here, there isn't even an attempt at subtlety: the Landlord sacrifices innocents to keep alive the woman who brought him into the world, even past her time. The look on the Doctor's face shows that the parallel is not lost on him.
It's all well and good to say the Doctor is learning, he's learned, he's demonstrating he's learned. He's done that in the past. In the Forest of the Night comes to mind, as do brief exchanges in Last Christmas and Before the Flood. But there's a big different in series 10: there is no reward for change.
For fifty-ish years after leaving Darillium, the Doctor has really not had a 'minder' save for Nardole, and he's characterized more as a nagging nanny than a companion. He's got no reason to change his ways. He's minding a vault and lecturing as he pleases, not attempting to win back a companion. The fact that his actions show, week after week, that he's internalized what he learned in his time with Clara shows that he's earnest. He's not guided as he was in the previous two series by his self-stated fear of losing her. He's changing because he knows he ought to.
In that way, Clara's absence actually accentuates her importance in his characterization. He's not exercising the behaviours she taught him as a way to win her back... because he literally can't. At this point in time -- as we've seen -- even if she were to come back, he couldn't benefit from it because he wouldn't know. Her companionship isn't a slightly-out-of-reach prize that he's flailing for. He's changing because he knows it's right.
And considering how hard that is for humans to learn, it's especially impressive for a set-in-his-ways millennia-old alien.