Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest starring Michelle Gomez and John Simm
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Executive-produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin
First broadcast on BBC1, Saturday June 24th, 6:45pm
This review is based on a BBC preview and discusses major spoilers from the very beginning
From its specially-shot 'A Time for Heroes' promo trailer onwards, Series Ten has raised the question of Bill's fate. And although Steven Moffat's writing is famed for reversing and undoing the loss of key characters, this episode has the feel of something truly irreversible. It's the bleakest and darkest that Doctor Who has been for quite some time, and hopefully it won't provoke audience complaints. But the Mondasian Cybermen are incredibly spooky and unsettling, thanks both to their authentic, old-school voices and the very visible remnants of their humanity. Moments such as a pre-Cyberman intoning "pain" over and over again seem a world away from stereotypical 'children's TV' (either that, or I need to adjust my sense of the stereotype). Bill's predicament is treated in a full-on stylized fantasy mode, though, as if to render it less shockingly 'realistic'. Of course, there was never going to be blood - Doctor Who has to make sure that it doesn't transgress BBC guidelines - but the impressively striking visual of Bill (and us, and the Doctor, and the camera) realising that there was gaping, empty space where flesh and blood should have been was a truly startling sequence. And this in an episode packed with reveals and surprises, right from the pre-titles.
Seeing the Doctor fighting his regeneration suggests that this must be the beginning of a three-parter that will only properly conclude at Christmas. Yet featuring a flash-forward (if that's what it is) to the Doctor's moment of regeneration doesn't quite seem to fit with recent publicity discussions of the regen's "complication" this time round. There must be more to it, I would have thought. And the opening's impact also felt a touch reduced thanks to the game-playing of Lie of the Land earlier this series: is this just another tease and fakeout, or is it the real deal? Hopefully the latter, but in a provisional world of stories and simulations, doubts can linger.
However, there's enough 'meta' and self-referential commentary on show to stock a supermarket shelf's worth of easter eggs; the Master seems passingly familiar with conventions of Doctor Who episode titling, for instance. He prefers 'Genesis of the Cybermen' to World Enough and Time, though is less familiar with the Big Finish story Spare Parts that this appears to supersede in canon. And Missy enjoys teasing her "disposables" (and the fan audience) with tales of the Doctor's "real name", resulting in the fourth wall at times appearing to have a ragged SFX hole punched right through it. Putting Missy and the Master together risks overloading the density of camp quippery, but sadly they share relatively little screen time during this outing.
For an episode marked by the science of time dilation, there's an odd kind of temporal distortion going on throughout. In effect, 'time' has already passed much quicker in Doctor Who's hype and marketing than it does within the story: we already know that the Cybermen will show up, and that the Master is somehow behind proceedings. Consequently, World Enough and Time frequently feels like an episode striving to catch up with itself, yet remaining focused on almost pure delay (the emphasis on arriving elevators captures this perfectly well, along with the near freeze frames of Mr Razor's TV). This must surely count as one of Who's great set-up episodes. Even the Doctor gets in on the act, settling down to watch with a packet of crisps.
Despite much grumbling about the recent (final?) series of Sherlock, one thing I thought it did extremely well was to mislead the audience into believing that a particular actor was actually a number of different characters. Prosthetics skill aside, the device is far less successful here. Depending on your facial recognition capabiities and knowledge of past Doctor Who, it may seem fairy obvious what trick is being pulled for the sake of a Masterful cliffhanger, and this aspect struck me as the least well achieved element of the episode. But given how hard-hitting the reveal of Cyber-Bill was, the Master's ornate scheming was always going to be left slightly in the shade, and it could be argued that its "dah-dah, it's me!" daffiness offered a lighter counterpoint to the terrifying narrative of Bill's situation. (As an aside, presumably part of the BBC's strategy behind live-streaming a Pearl Mackie Q&A right after this episode must be to reassure younger audiences that Pearl is fine in real life). And as a lead-in to episode 12, this multi-cliffhanger does its job perfectly.
'New' Doctor Who (though of course, it's not-so-new now) tends to be at its strongest when it intricately melds intimate moments of characterisation and emotion with epic science-fictional conceits. World Enough and Time displays this quality of 'intimate epic' by combining the vast Colony Ship with moments such as the Doctor and Bill discussing his history with Missy. This suffers slightly from the old 'show don't tell' maxim; a lot of the emotional weight behind the Doctor's fateful decision to test Missy's redemption/'goodness' relies on what we are told rather than what we're shown, and on how invested audiences are in the Doctor-Master/Missy backstory. Yes, the Doctor's hope was sharply delineated at the very end of last week's episode, but it still feels as if more emotional scene-setting would have been valuable for the Doctor-Missy storyline. As ever, though, Missy is a joy to behold, and her introductory sequence as she steps out of the TARDIS and shares her newly adopted name is simply brilliant. Michelle Gomez makes the absolute most of Moffat's zinging dialogue, whilst Missy's companions/pets look on, suitably aggravated.
If the Master-Third Doctor era was marked by the 'UNIT family', then this moment in the show's history also carries a strong familial sense, and not just because Missy's continued presence echoes that of the Delgado Master. Bringing Rachel Talalay back behind the camera for another finale means reassembling a crack team, whilst Bill and Nardole have gelled extremely well across this series, with Capaldi's Doctor undoubtedly benefitting from Doctor-companion relationships designed to suit his characterisation.
Talalay's direction makes the Mondasian Cybermen genuinely scary; the decision not to directly show Bill's partial conversion is also a sound one, as it ramps up the tension when we realise that a cyber chest-unit must have been installed, whilst the eventual 'full' Cyberman emerging from shadows is a memorably familiar sequence. Although the body horror that could have been pursued is dialled down somewhat, the partial conversions' monotone cries of anguish remain bleakly forceful. Who has rarely been this disturbing or this existentially raw. Thankfully, Talalay also has some fun with the time dilation (assuming this wasn't purely an editor's choice), as various sequences cut stylishly in and out of freeze frame. It is only the treatment of Mr. Razor that feels a little curious; he is featured so directly, even in relative close-up, that it's difficult not to discern the stunt being entertained, even though this kind of disguise has a well-established history in the programme. Presumably it was decided, directorially, that it didn't really matter when the penny dropped for audiences as they'd be waiting for the cliffhanger pay-off in any case.
Given that the 'iconic poster image' for this episode so strongly echoes that from Day of the Doctor, next week's title seems equally likely to refer back to the "Gallifrey Falls" strand of Steven Moffat's overarching plot. Will we see more of the Doctor's regeneration... perhaps even a number of different possible new faces starting to coalesce as the twelfth Doctor progresses towards the thirteenth? This transition has been more of a tease than ever before, and no doubt the showrunner hasn't run out of tricks yet.
Bring it, as the Doctor would say.