Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
with Michelle Gomez, John Simm, Briana Shann,
Rosie Boore, Samantha Spiro, Simon Coombs,
Nicholas Briggs, Stephanie Hyam, and David Bradley
Produced by Peter Bennett
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin
A BBC Studios Cymru Wales Production for BBC ONE
First broadcast 6.30pm, Saturday 1 July 2017
Last week Matt Hills described World Enough and Time as ‘the bleakest and darkest that Doctor Who has been for quite some time’. The Doctor Falls, befitting the second part of World Enough and Time’s story, maintains if not deepens this atmosphere. Nothing that is done in World Enough and Time is reversed. At times many of the lead characters seem to be competing to find which of them has the most profound death wish. The plan the Doctor comes up with can only obtain a minor respite for the embattled humans on floor 507. Indeed, when the Doctor argues that the emergence of Cybermen is inevitable in any human society, and where he also points out that in this closed and time-dilated environment their advantage is overwhelming, what point can there be to fighting on? It’s this question which The Doctor Falls seeks to explore, and in doing so say more than we have heard for some time, if ever, about both Steven Moffat’s and Peter Capaldi’s understanding of who the Doctor is. The result is oddly uplifting. My first reaction, as messaged to one of the editors of this page, was ‘Shining, brilliant, beautiful’; but I added that I think I needed more words to do the story justice. So:
Floor 507 displays a placeless but vaguely mid-Atlantic rusticity, neatly juxtaposed with the gas-choked dystopia over five hundred floors below. It’s an agricultural community where children are central and guarded against the predations of the topknots by a thin line of defenders. It recalls Russell T Davies's idea from his 2003/4 pitch document, that outer space stories should feature human pioneers so the audience have points of identification, perhaps unconsciously also recalling the western. In contrast to the masculine universalism of the Cybermen – both male in that there are no Cyberwomen, but genderless in that the Master insists Bill is now an it – the community has a matriarchal bent, with Hazran as its leader. The chief cook and chief executive are the same person, unproblematic and brought to the screen with authoritative warmth and human fear by Samantha Spiro. The character reminded me a little of Lucy Cohu's Deborah Goren in Ripper Street. There are at least nods to the New England orphanage of The Cider House Rules, and to the pioneer communities of Little House on the Prairie, but theirs are not the stories being told.
Introducing a child viewpoint character is an old familiar Moffatism, here used self-consciously. Briana Shann’s Alit recalls Caitlin Blackwood’s Amelia Pond; apparently parentless, independent, willing to confront her fears, and bearing enough of a resemblance to Pearl Mackie’s Bill (exaggerated by the hairstyling) to make one wonder if there is a direct connection between the characters. Perhaps this is Moffat once more embodying the child audience and acknowledging its link with the companion. Alit is the first person Bill sees when she arrives on floor 507, and the first person to make an empathic connection with her when she wakes up from the ‘sleep’ induced by the Doctor. Alit perhaps embodies the audience’s hopes that Bill can be restored to humanity, as well as the wish of her community and the Doctor for a non-cybernetic future. In reminding long-term viewers of lost friends, and present lookers-in on the current predicament, Alit helps to highlight the optimism underlying what could otherwise be read for much of its length as an overwhelmingly pessimistic episode.
The Doctor Falls follows the non-linear structure of World Enough and Time in its first act, containing flashbacks within flashbacks. However, opening the main narrative with a scene where the Doctor is undergoing torture and ritual humiliation is a good choice. There’s something Christ-like about suffering enabling the Doctor to restate his values, though I’d be cautious about following this parallel too far. The scene and the Doctor’s speeches also help divorce the episode from the detail of the setting: there will, the Doctor says, always be Cybermen, wherever there are human beings. The origin of the Cybermen is a tale Doctor Who has told elsewhere in other media, and it’s a legend which this episode supposes will be told again and again in different ways. Hence the nod to Doctor Who Magazine's The World Shapers with the mention of Marinus, and why it is perfectly acceptable in this context for the Cybermen to blast death rays from their headlamps in a way which they never managed before on television, but did on the back cover of the first paperback edition of Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet. Cybermen created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis; but with embellishments by Chris Achilleos, Grant Morrison and many others. Moffat, like Russell T Davies, has never been reluctant to draw from non-television Doctor Who where it helps develop a concept. Likewise his attitude to the programme’s lore: the importance is not in the detail of where the Cybermen come from, but that the Cybermen’s conviction that turning people into Cybermen is a dead end for all the natural and moral sciences. As someone once said, they must be fought.
Bill is herself a battlefield. The Master likes to remind everybody (but particularly the Doctor) that she is a Cyberman, the result of a conversion process which stripped away anything deemed useless to Operation Exodus. From his point of view, Bill is dead. The programme shows the Master to be wrong, or at least that it disagrees with his view of the individual as nothing more than an organism. As long as Bill recognizes and believes in herself, she exists, even if the programming of a Cyberman rages like a hurricane in her head. The continuing presence of Pearl Mackie in the credits and her voiceover in the trailer tantalized exactly what role she would play, and doubtless many hoped or expected a speedy and conventional resolution. The Master’s brutal taunting is a reminder that we can obtain neither. The device of allowing the viewer to see, most of the time, Bill as she understands herself, not only avoids practical problems surrounding the uniformity and inflexibility of the Cyberman costumes, but allows Pearl Mackie’s talents to be displayed in a way they haven’t been so far. Mackie's physical awareness makes her fill the space of a Cyberman while remaining visibly Bill to us. We often see Bill as a Cyberman only when she is reminded that a Cyberman is what others see – such as when she walks in on Hazran and Nardole unannounced and Hazran blasts away with her shotgun. It’s a jarring, heartbreaking moment.
Also breaking hearts is Missy. Those hoping for an hour of multi-Master malevolence will be disappointed, but I think this episode does better with the scenario it presents than it would with the one some seem to have hoped for. Michelle Gomez plays Missy in the manner of an addict who keeps slipping from the wagon, deliberating giddily between new and old hits and guessing at some kind of peace beyond the spectre of withdrawal. It’s an irony that the Doctor never knows for certain that Missy was luring her former self into a trap which would have made her feel free to help the Doctor. In the meantime Missy and the Master flirt like bad fairy nobles making sport in the woods. Shakespeare scholars will know better, but their bickering seemed to me a sort of self-obsessed fusion of elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. Gomez and John Simm are very good at this, especially as there’s a genuinely disturbing undercurrent to their bantering. Simm in particular, with his beard, is a poisoned Pan, a violator whose lust for his next self reminds one of the brutality with which the Master treated his wife Lucy.
Despite his very real and effective threat (and history) of violence, John Simm’s Master is a hollow malevolence, harmful, damaging, self-consumed, but overall an evil with no point to it. I’ve been looking at academic Doctor Who books for another project, and remembered that in an interview with the writers of Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, Douglas Adams complained that the Master’s plans had no meaning. The Doctor theorizes the path of the Master’s career on the ship in a way which assumes the emptiness and self-defeat in the pursuit and exercise of absolute power for its own sake. In return, later, the Master critiques the Doctor’s course of action on his way to floor 1056, arguing that if the Doctor hadn’t given his lecture on time dilation he would have arrived early enough to save Bill. This line of reasoning is possibly flawed in story terms, but anticipates (or echoes, depending on where one stands) the criticisms made by several reviewers of World Enough and Time. It’s an old fan observation that the Master often seems like a character who realizes that he is in a television series and behaves accordingly, but here his criticisms flag up his own powerlessness; he’s not willing to act in a way that helps anybody or contributes to the main narrative, so stands on the sidelines and plays critic until he can escape. It's tempting to think of this aspect of him as a departing showrunner who knows his successor is already in the office.
The Doctor Falls is a good episode for Nardole, a character whom we never really got to know and who has probably suffered from never having been the focus of an episode. A friend explained him to her enquiring mother as the Doctor’s butler, and perhaps that’s why he remained semi-visible, his full properties a secret. Here, though, Hazran makes her discovery of him one of her missions and Matt Lucas’s depiction of Nardole’s awkwardness must resound with everybody who has felt unworthy of another person’s esteem. It’s natural and credible and also very much part of Moffat’s observational writing of male self-effacement and overconfidence as a mask for doubt. How one greets it will depend on one’s patience with Moffat’s themes, but for me, here, it works unobtrusively, the Doctor and Nardole competing over their relative usefulness, or lack of it. Nardole’s departure doesn’t give him a chance to say a long goodbye; he leaves as part of an operation in much the way he might have done if he’d expected to see the Doctor again, but as he never had a conventional introduction this is appropriate.
As a title, The Doctor Falls intrigued me more after World Enough and Time because in one sense the Doctor had already fallen; he’d hubristically reduced his way of living to a formula by which he thought he could test Missy, and where stock phrases had replaced psychological insight. Instead we have a heroic fall which (like much else, as Matt Hills noted last week) calls back to the series trailer. The Doctor says he is a man of peace, but walks in war, and here he accepts the fate of the warrior, picking off more Cybermen than logic would perhaps expect with his absurdly versatile screwdriver until a Cyberman blasts him down through the chest, a wound which is one of at least two ways in which Bill’s fate has anticipated his own. The devastated landscape which the Doctor’s bomb leaves behind is as much a design achievement as anything Michael Pickwoad has hitherto accomplished – a landscape we’ve got to know has become a devastation of a kind previously associated in his time on the series with Skaro or Trenzalore, and this time the Doctor is the immediate cause.
Redemption and the chance of new beginnings come in part because the Doctor was wrong. There was hope and there was a witness, perhaps even a reward. I’m sure that in earlier seasons we’d have had glimpses of Heather now and then, as the series piled arc upon arc. None of Steven Moffat’s companions have been allowed to return to anything approximating their old lives; travelling with the Doctor means incorporation into the mythic substrata of the universe, and so it proves with Bill, reunited with a Heather whose personality has now re-emerged and seems dominant in the watery spaceship. It's good to see Stephanie Hyam once more; there's still a note of wondering in her performance but the dislocation has become the confidence of the explorer. As all the interaction between Bill and Heather is seen from Bill’s narrative point of view once Bill has been remade as a Heather-like creature, perhaps what we see is all a translation convention. Whatever, the choice to become human again is open; it’s intriguing that the door is not closed entirely on Pearl Mackie’s return. However, if this is a farewell, it’s a good one. There's irony in the Doctor’s regeneration being sparked by a tear (a rearranging of the meaning of grief expressed for the third Doctor in The Monster of Peladon and Planet of the Spiders, of course) from a protected friend who has now turned twice into a creature he has previously fought against. It recalls Russell T Davies’s theme of the Doctor as agent of liberation rather than reinforcer of parental authority. However, this year the Doctor has forgotten that lesson and become guardian and tutor to both Bill and Missy, with Nardole as an unteachable voice by the wings. The Doctor's efforts to protect people have not succeeded in the way he sought. As the first Doctor realized at the conclusion of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, beneficial change can come from taking the risk of being brave enough to let go. That was the real lesson of Susan's portrait seen on the Doctor's desk in The Pilot, and he had forgotten.
The problem, of course, is that the Doctor doesn’t want to let go. Bill, as a Cyberman, wanted to die if she couldn’t be herself any more. The Doctor wants to die too. Peter Capaldi’s performance of a fragmented Doctor, repeating the words of his earlier selves while holding on to his current physical form, was dizzying, helped by a camera which located him at once from several angles and levels in the TARDIS interior. Perhaps this Doctor’s changes of persona across series reflect an ongoing uncertainty about who he is which stretches beyond the ‘Am I a good man?’ interrogations of series eight. Back in 2010 Frank Collins wrote (in a review of The End of Time) of the tenth Doctor’s life as a Bildungsroman; the Doctor’s reward for personal development and the achievement of self-knowledge, was however to be returned to adolescence to begin the process again. Perhaps this older Doctor is about to change without having reached the point his two immediate predecessors did, and worse, can’t see any prospect of doing so.
What, then, can be made of the first Doctor’s emergence from what presumed convergence of narrative (over fifty-one years) leads us to believe is an Antarctic blizzard? I’d thought earlier this series that Steven Moffat’s valedictory notes weren’t only for the period he’s been showrunner, but for the entire period he’s been involved, from the time Doctor Who returned in 2005. The Logopolis homage of companions suggests this too in content, as well as calling further back in form. If nothing else, the montage will open up arguments about who counts as a companion again, which will keep a lot of people happy and angry at the same time. The first Doctor said, if only in the script of The Tenth Planet, that he would not go through with the change to his next self, and the meeting of the two Doctors benefits from that level of fan knowledge while I hope still working as a confounding moment – a ‘suspended enigma’, it was once called – for those who don’t know. In the brief time we see him, David Bradley gives a performance which is very much the first Doctor as opposed to his William Hartnell or his Hartnell as the first Doctor from An Adventure in Space and Time, which augurs well.
I’m always conscious that I tend to emphasize what works for me in these reviews, and they are often moments which leap out rather than broader themes or more thorough analysis. This article is based on one viewing of the episode and I’m still not sure why I found it so positive an experience. Throughout I imagined that the director, rather than the Doctor, must have the hidden arms of a Venusian Aikido practitioner; Rachel Talalay conducting with at least three batons like a hexapod, but with many more eyes than Alpha Centauri. The open vistas of floor 507 come to mind; the fatally wounded Doctor’s monologue about stars, too, was uplifting despite its note of disappointment, perhaps because it acknowledged that the Doctor’s belief and perhaps hope that this was the end for him was false. Heather’s return was a reminder that hope, even if apparently lost, can never be written off. Yet throughout there are sacrifices unappreciated and only postponed, with the sense that the inevitable is only being delayed. Perhaps the episode can be read as a musing on mortality, especially given that Cybermen, Time Lords, unconverted humans and indeed puddle-spaceship-creatures are all seeking to delay the inevitable, unless they are the Master, which is in a sense to be nothing at all because he can’t adequately empathize with others’ conditions. If so, it’s also the second part of three. The twelfth Doctor’s finale is begun, but it is not over, and we have to wait almost six months to conclude our verdicts on the whole.