“Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win! I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows, it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind!”
It’s (nearly) the end, but the moment has been prepared for. We knew from last week (and, let’s face it, some rather too revelatory pre-publicity) that a regeneration was in the offing for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, a man who seems to have spent much of this year trying to nobly sacrifice himself for the greater good. The Doctor Falls, steeped in the references to the show’s past so beloved of writer Steven Moffat, finally gave him his wish.
But it did so much more. This was a genuinely emotional script, that told a thrilling, quite dark story while never neglecting the characters that drove it. Alongside the action were plenty of quiet, contemplative moments as the various people involved came to terms with each other – and themselves.
Chief among those, obviously, were Missy and the Master. As a baddie, he/she has always been a real showboat of a part, and John Simm and Michelle Gomez were more than up that challenge. Fighting, flirting, dancing and bickering over the best way to kill the Doctor, their interplay was a delight, combining humour with real pathos as it addressed the question of whether this most black-hearted of Time Lords could ever truly be rehabilitated and redeemed.
Simm’s Master, of course, delighted in the fact that he couldn’t. Beard and black jacket clearly channelling Roger Delgado, he stepped back into the part like he’d never been away. Nutty as ever, he even provided a vague, sort-of explanation as to how he’d returned from Gallifrey – more of an explanation than Anthony Ainley ever offered in the 80s anyway.
If he was consistent, though, Missy was anything but. Michelle Gomez played the uncertainty over her motives in a quite masterly (groan) way, with the viewer never sure if her previous self had made her revert to type, or whether all those years in the Vault had truly changed her. In the end, it seemed they had; she redeemed herself in possibly the only way the character could, by actually killing her earlier, more unrepentant self.
Who of course returned the favour with a laser screwdriver to the back. Given their dynamic, it made perfect sense – as the Master put it, “this is where we’ve always been going”. It actually made me wonder whether Missy had been lying all along, and remembered perfectly what had happened – the only true way she could find redemption. Michelle Gomez has confirmed that (sadly) this will be her last hurrah in the part, but I don’t set too much store in the Master’s assertion that regeneration was impossible. He/she is unkillable, and he/she will be back, I’m sure.
Great though those two were, their plotline seemed to almost exist separately from the main one (though informed by it). For that, the main drivers were the Doctor, Nardole and Bill. Oh, Bill. It was a brilliant decision – presumably by both Moffat and director Rachel Talalay – to alternately depict her as she saw herself and how everybody else saw her – a Cyberman.
It also made for a (presumably intentional) bit of misdirection when we first saw her in the barn. After all, with the show’s history of deus ex machinas, and Moffat’s own habit of bringing back the dead, the first assumption was to groan and say, “oh no, he’s pulled off some timey-wimey stuff to bring Bill back”. But as soon as we realised she had been given a mirror, it was clear that hadn’t happened. It was a good dramatic device, but also allowed for a proper, emotional performance from Pearl Mackie, something that couldn’t have happened if she was encased in a Cyber-suit throughout.
To be fair though, any criticisms of plot contrivances are at least a little bit justified. Yes, Bill didn’t, technically ‘die’ (“it’s a different kind of living”), but her sort-of resurrection was bolt out of the blue, just like Clara’s and oh so many of Rory’s. It was a nice callback to the season opener that Heather, the eponymous ‘Pilot’ should reappear to save her (and, as far as I can recall, give her the only same-sex kiss she’s had onscreen). But there was previously no hint that Heather had such godlike powers, and that is the very definition of a deus ex machina.
Still, Bill’s been such a likeable (and thankfully, normal) companion that I’ll give Mr Moffat a pass on that one. Other plot contrivances, though, smacked of the trait that annoyed me way back in The Witch’s Familiar – “the real question is, where did I get the cup of tea? Answer – I’m the Doctor, just accept it”. One such was Nardole’s awfully convenient offscreen find of a shuttlecraft, that just happened to only have enough power to blast through to floor 507, the floor we’d established a previous expedition had been sent to, never to return.
Oh well, at least floor 507 was nicely realised, with the number hanging in the sky, and the apparent rural idyll punctured by Cyber-scarecrows strung hither and yon. That was actually pretty gruesome, if you stopped to think about it; we were shown that they were still alive, and none were wearing the ‘handles’ that Bill was told would dull their constant agony.
Nardole’s use of the ship’s underfloor power lines was also rather a contrivance, though a more forgivable one. Particularly as Nardole has never been better than here. We’d seen hints in previous episodes that Matt Lucas could pull off more than just ‘comic relief’ in the role; here it was used brilliantly in his reaction to the Doctor’s plaintive question, “which of us is stronger?” It was a lovely moment that had a tear welling up in my eye, to show that, despite the constant bickering, this most irascible of Doctors had far more respect for his ‘valet’ than he’d ever let on.
Which brings us to the Doctor. Peter Capaldi’s been a divisive figure, not least because in that first season he really was rather hard to like. But he redeemed himself at the end of that season with his assertion that he was just “an idiot with a box”, and has (in my opinion) been a great Doctor ever since.
Because underneath the crabbiness, and the sarcasm, and the insults, was a truly moral man, always ready to stand up for the downtrodden, who delivered some of the most memorably passionate speeches on the topic in the show’s history. The one I’ve quoted at the beginning was perfect – a restatement of everything the Doctor has always been about. And delivered with such fierce passion that it genuinely brought a tear to my eye.
Having spent most of the episode trying to stave off his impending regeneration (channelling Blade Runner’s Roy Batty as he muttered “time enough”), he was still fighting it as the episode ended, in what seemed like a ‘greatest hits’ tribute to regeneration episodes of the past. “Where there’s tears, there’s hope” was an obvious callback to Jon Pertwee’s final line in Planet of the Spiders; we also got Tom Baker’s first line (“Sontarans perverting the course of human history!”). Then Tennant’s final line (“I don’t want to go”) and Matt Smith’s (“…when the Doctor was me”). All preceded by a John Nathan-Turner style flashback to every companion he’s had since the show returned (let’s forgive the fact that, according to the narrative, he shouldn’t actually remember Clara).
It looks like the next episode, at Christmas, is going to be all about the Doctor reconciling himself to the idea of regenerating, and accepting that, whatever his feelings on the matter, he has to change. It’s a bold move (especially after Tennant’s self-indulgent ‘farewell tour’ at his end), but one that comes with a sweetener. In order to make the point, the TARDIS appears to have brought him to the site of his very first regeneration. Complete with his very first self.
I had unfortunately been spoilered on that twist by the internet, though unlike the surprise-ruining depictions of the Cybermen and the Master, at least it wasn’t by the BBC themselves. Many of us had found David Bradley’s depiction of the First Doctor (at least as played by Hartnell) so good in An Adventure in Time and Space, we’d been hoping for him to play the part on the show proper. And now here he is, with the character defining line from The Five Doctors, “I am THE Doctor. The original, you might say!”
So, one more episode of Peter Capaldi to go, with the truly interesting idea that his companion this time will be… himself. It has a lot of potential, and Moffat has done some of his best work with ‘experimental episodes’ in the twilight of his run (think Heaven Sent). Mind you, I do hope it has a more interesting plot than the two of them bitching at each other in the snowy wastes of 1986 Antarctica…
For now, I thought The Doctor Falls was a superb, thrilling story, with some great characterisation and amazing performances. It’s not without its flaws; aside from the plot contrivances mentioned above, there was the usual Moffat focus so much on the main characters that the guests (Samantha Spiro’s lovely Hazlit and Brianna Shann’s cute Alit) were thin on the ground and didn’t get a lot to do.
It also left a lot of plot threads unresolved in the main story, as though The Doctor/Bill and Missy/The Master were so important we’d forget to care that there’s still plenty of Cybermen in the bowels of the ship, or that the ship itself is still trapped in the gravity well of a black hole. To be fair, the script itself did make that point, with the Doctor’s despairing cry that it was the best he could do. That’s a fitting end for a Doctor who’s wondered since the start whether he was “a good man”; if he ever doubted it, I think this episode proved that he is.
Final thought – I had hoped that, perhaps, Steven Moffat had pulled off the ultimate coup of presenting us with a new Doctor in this ep as a total surprise. Sadly, that wasn’t to be, though we still don’t know who the new one will be. But perhaps there was a tantalising hint:
The Master: Is the future all girls?
The Doctor: We can only hope…