From DWM #515.
It’s not quite the end, but the moment has been prepared for.
World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls – the finale before the finale – is incandescent. It’s a Doctor and a whole philosophy of Doctor Who preparing to go supernova. Even though Steven Moffat insists he’s not letting his own impending departure influence the story, his script does seem informed by it. It gives the impression of liberation, and one can imagine he set to work thinking, “Okay, now I’m going to do this.” That’s because it has unprecedented fun with the programme’s fundamentals (“My name is Doctor Who”) while also making huge authorial statements about it (Missy, on standing with the Doctor: “That’s where we’ve always been going”). It’s maybe everything Doctor Who has ever been under Moffat – and everything it’s ever meant to him.
This old lag, still here, still making notations for DWM, found it the most moving adventure in… I dunno, I think I’m going to say forever. But not as a maudlin experience, it’s spirited. You might want to use the phrase ‘fan service’ – although I’ll look at you like that if you do – but it did indeed serve me. By looping in elements from Doctor Who’s early years and then drawing them through with a revivified Master, scored by the series’ latter day emotional intelligence, it connected to every era of my relationship with the show. From the child, to the teen, to the me today, I could feel all of them responding. My own incarnations coming together like a The Day of the Doctor procession.
Is this an overwrought assertion? No! Go away! This one is special. If you love Doctor Who, it’s talking to you about that love, but in such a way as to also communicate it to those not quite so devoted. That’s part of what’s so clever about this, the series’ most self-indulgent story ever [quick list: referencing Planet 14 and Marinus; jelly babies; “The Genesis of the Cybermen”; the Logopolis-type clips package; “Sontarans perverting the course of human history” etc, etc]. I believe it works for everyone. Here’s an example of how. Like you, probably, I came away from the final scene having assimilated a) the location and b) the year. But all you really needed to have understood was that the fellow emerging through the blizzard is actually the First Doctor. That was communicated to the uninitiated through the foreshadowing of the phrase “the original, you might say”, which is incredibly clever writing, accommodating our secret desire – the continuity reference – while circumnavigating the self-hatred that accompanies it.
Another impetus in this two-parter is to do right by Peter Capaldi and the Twelfth Doctor. Jump back to the opening scene, and it details the shape of what’s to come. This is to be a spearhead. Whatever possibilities there are at the beginning, we know by the end we’ll be left with a singularity, which is that he is dying. And absolutely furious about it.
As the two episodes brutally dispense with the Doctor-Bill-Nardole team, and remove Missy’s opportunity for redemption, the central character comes into sharp focus, and is made to account for himself. “I do what I do because it’s right,” he explains. “Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind.” It equals any other mission statement he’s given us, although in terms of the script, it seems slightly borne from fretfulness, as if Capaldi’s incarnation needs verification at this late stage. Let’s be clear: he does not. Nonetheless, the remarks are perfectly weighted. No histrionics, nothing grand, just a gentle affirmation for decency, which is brilliantly counterintuitive in the midst of huge drama. It’s small, beautiful events that define the Time Lord’s morality.
The tragedy is that the Doctor’s hope kills Bill. As she comes to the realisation she’s just had a huge hole blown out of her chest, there’s the cruel counterpoint in the story flashing back to reveal the weeks of campaigning undertaken by him to let Missy have a chance to run the show. He hears Bill’s objections, but gently presses on: “She’s the only person I’ve met who’s remotely like me.” At the start of World Enough and Time, things are almost right, almost back to how they were in the academy. Yes, the renegade Time Lord is vamping it up as Doctor Who, but there’s every reason to be optimistic…
Then come the Cybermen. Mondasian Cyberman – a regular bit of repartee in Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who PR work, now an unlikely reality. Few will gasp when I assert the monsters haven’t impressed since 1982, however it’s their reversion to an eccentric, potentially risible, costume design that seems to have unlocked their power once again. This is because Moffat’s script has had to interrogate who and what they are in order to sell their piecemeal appearance.
Our first impression of them is something akin to burns victims, trussed up by an under-resourced health service. They’re botch-jobs, lugging along a drip stand, and in doing so tapping into our fear of the injured. Added to this is a 1950s aesthetic across Floor 1056, which provides a sympathetic context to their 1960s design. If we’re still tempted to laugh at these folk with socks on their heads, consider the fact they’re constantly screaming in pain, with the volume down to zero. It’s horrific. Bolts and braces and fabric holding together mushed up bodies. Even worse when one is revealed to be Bill. Finally, we have that sing-song Cyber-voice, once heavy with inadvertent comedy, now another less-than-ideal example of medical making do.
Then comes the Master. John Simm’s return to Doctor Who is a triumph. I’m not going to say his Mr Razor persona had me fooled right up to the reveal, but it got me far enough along. Sadly, it will always be true that a fake nose is a fake nose, but Simm’s performance during that masquerade is a credit to him. He takes on an entirely different shape in the role, which earns him the right to crack that cheeky gag when wearing his pathetic eye-mask, “Ah, you see through my disguise!”
If the story hadn’t succeeded in providing him with a convincing rationale for spending so long in-character, it would still have been entirely justified by the way he dispensed with it when he met Missy. As I got wind of the direction of this scene, I was aching for him to reach under his chin, for the camera to momentarily cut away, and then come back to find him going, “Aha!” with a fistful of latex and wig. Which is exactly what he did. What a thrill. It’s fascinating how, after avoiding them for over a decade, such flourishes still work well in Doctor Who. To the extent that I felt Simm’s Master finally came of age. Again, the series dares to embrace once-derided idioms, with the black costuming and the goatee (my, how Simm loved that, mussing it up like his pet guinea pig). This is the blackguard not as a tormented soul, but being evil, because that’s what turns him on. I concede the approach is only permissible because it provides a contrast to Missy’s moral growth, but it gives his incarnation a welcome clarity.
So, it continues. While the (re)interpretation of the Cybermen is radical, Moffat discovers equal wealth in the renegade by going trad. He puts the two incarnations together, and then just allows them both to be the Master, eventually seeding their own destruction.
That starts with the two swaying together on the rooftop to a wartime smoochy, bringing to mind the romance between Captain Jack and Rose in The Doctor Dances. This is the Master’s monstrous self-love made physical – very much so in that later scene where we must only conclude he had a tissue compression eliminator in his pocket. But already, there have been the usual calamities, including breaking his dematerialisation circuit and then losing control over those he’d subjugated. Meanwhile, Missy is cutting a deal with the Doctor (“I was secretly on your side all along, you silly sausage”) while the Master is finally caught on camera doing his between-episodes eyeliner top up.
What finally destroys them is his unwillingness to let her grow. The Master is potentially speaking for a section of the audience in his disgust that Missy has scope for rehabilitation. But I don’t think that lessens her. Instead it adds a tragic dimension, of someone who wants to change, is fearful of it, but finally willing to give it a go… at which point she is shot in the back by her unreconstructed former self. That’s some metaphor. It’s also poetry. As ‘twas ever thus, the Master’s latest ally has turned the tables on him. No wonder the pair of them go out laughing.
A theme of this year’s series has been the notion of doing right “without witness”. That’s how it ends for Missy, her good intentions only revealed to herself. As we take our leave of her and her brother, it’s notable we don’t see either of them definitively pass away. It suggests there’s scope for more from Simm and Gomez – although that’s unlikely. The evil Time Lord is a past master at cheating death, but I’d imagine neither actor would be keen to pop their head back through the veil after such a perfect curtain call.
It is also the end for Pearl Mackie’s Bill, the most instantly successful Doctor Who sidekick since Rose. It’s likely an accident, but still fitting, that her fate works as the culmination of the key companions created by Steven Moffat. We see her separated from the Doctor in a different time stream, a la The Girl Who Waited, then subsumed into a monster (Asylum of the Daleks) before heading off for new adventures in a deathless state with a companion in tow (Hell Bent). There are even hints of the Doctor’s own journey, with the Cybernised Bill finding refuge from season finale trauma in a barn. Perhaps these are places Moffat’s imagination just goes to, but as we’re near the end now it’s permissible to explore them one more time. A sentimental journey. And how perfect, their last real exchange, as the Doctor wonders “if there’s anything we ought to be saying.” She replies, “No”. There’s a veracity in that. True friends don’t say it. As Nardole’s puts it in his farewell: “I never will be able to find the words.”
This has been a very restless review, jumping here and there, trying frantically to match up to the story. I’m also aware of my constant failing over the last few months in DWM in not commending the directorial contributions. Let’s at least try and do a little of that now.
Rachel Talalay will be considered the definitive helmsperson of this iteration of Doctor Who. The dexterous way she compiles her scenes compliments Moffat’s scripts. In this story, she holds on the wide shots, but then sends the camera roving in, scurrying to bring us the details, just as we’re hungering for them. Until they’re ready to be seen, she has the Cybermen in darkness or out of focus, but then changes it all up once we reach floor 507, wherein we find light, hope… and Cybermen carcasses as scarecrows. Across that second episode, night falls again, and the drone shot of the Doctor on the dead battlefield is almost sepia. Light, colour and hope have gone. That kind of thematic thinking, plus her undoubted excellence at marshalling large-scale action, means that, even if everyone else is to go, let’s hope Talalay will be retained when our new masters arrive.
Here’s our last port of call, the Doctor himself. As I’ve already intimated, the tale is dedicated to Peter Capaldi’s portrayal, and he brings everything he has – guilt-ridden and tentative with Bill, alternately powerful and fearful with Missy and the Master, and by the end, so, so sad. This has been the story of his death, fuelled with allusions to past regenerations – “I don’t want to go” – meaning it’s difficult to fathom where else the final special will be able to take us after such a definitive statement. Perhaps it’ll all hinge on “I can’t keep on being somebody else”, as both he and his first incarnation face up to that.
His first incarnation. There were rumours, of course. There always are, but his arrival remained a lovely indulgence, and something that would have been unimaginable before 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time. In playing the man (William Hartnell) David Bradley also earned the right to portray the definitive article. It’s a crazy, unlikely and completely wonderful end to a completely wonderful story. But it’s not all over for Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who.
In fact, it’s far from being all over…