Warning: contains MAJOR spoilers for the episode.
Is there a case to be made for Rachel Talalay being the best director to have ever worked on Doctor Who? With all due respect to the formidable talent that has been a part of the show over the years, I think there just might be. She’s primarily based in North America and has recently helmed episodes of the DC Television Universe (The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow), but those are high volume, quick turnover production lines – big budget, top quality to be sure – in which every instalment has to be stylistically in line with all the others. That’s not the case with Doctor Who, which actually positively thrives on the diversity of writing and direction of each individual story. It not only allows but positively encourages its creative talent to bring their own unique artistic sensibility to the production.
Small wonder then that Talalay is happy to keep crossing the Atlantic to work on our modest little family entertainment, where it seems she’s found something of a creative soul mate in show-runner Steven Moffat who has penned all seven of her Who outings (including the yet-to-be=filmed 2017 Christmas special). Likewise it’s clear that Moffat has come to see her as his go-to director, as he’s selected her to take charge of the final two-part stories of each of Peter Capaldi’s three seasons, arguably the most crucial episodes of the year. And Talalay has never dropped the ball once, with 2015’s “Heaven Sent” in particular one of the all-time best single episodes of Doctor Who in over five decades.
Invoking “Heaven Sent” sets an unrealistically high bar for this week’s latest episode, and it would be silly to expect “World Enough and Time” to match it. But my, does it come close. Even going into the episode with such outrageously raised expectations knowing it’s the latest Moffat/Talalay collaboration, it manages not to disappoint or underperform in any respect. Despite working with a budget that would probably barely cover cast and crew catering over in the DC TV Universe, and working on only four or five small scale sets with just six credited guest stars, Talalay manages to make the penultimate episode of season 10 feel big, bold and epic. She is able to pull out all the best aspects of Moffat’s scripts and ensure that the finished product has depth and class and significance. In fact, if I had to review “World Enough and Time” in a single word (and I’m sure long suffering readers of Taking The Short View wish I would!) then it would be: magnificent.
It turns out that the previous Moffat/Talalay story that is most relevant to any discussion of this week’s episode is not in fact “Heaven Sent”, but rather 2014’s “Dark Water” which was the first time that Talalay directed Who. There are a surprising number of echoes and overlaps between that first joint venture and this week’s latest tale, as I shall attempt to explain. In detail, and of course at great length. Those of you who like more pithy reviews may prefer to simply settle for the aforementioned one-word version and sign off until next week. Honestly, you’ve had the main headline summary so you won’t be missing a great deal.
Still with us? Okay then. Well of course the most obvious similarity is that both stories feature the Cybermen. But it’s more than that: in both cases, the script is trying to keep the identity of the antagonists secret and tease the audience into guessing what’s coming. Talalay’s delicious handling of the final reveal of the Cybermen in “Dark Water” – slowly appearing as water drains out of a tank – was wonderful and memorable. But unfortunately news that the story would feature the Cybermen had leaked out months before (having to shoot scenes with them on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral had comprehensively let the cat out of the bag) and so the impact was somewhat diminished. And it turns out that the same thing has happened here: Moffat and Talalay are doing the same top-notch slow reveal of the Mondasian Cybermen in “World Enough and Time” but the surprise has again already leaked – this time by the production team itself. It was revealed months ago that the original 1966 Cyber model would be returning for the season finale and the BBC has been using the fact in advance publicity for the show ever since. Hence when the word ‘Mondas’ flashes up on a computer screen and is presented as a big surprise reveal, it’s anything but – which is a bit of a shame.
I’m not sure why the secret was given away in the way that it was. It’s not like there was the any central London filming involved this time (although that said, it remains to be seen what happens in the second part of the story next week.) Perhaps it was entirely intentional, since if not for the advance warning to read up on the events of “The Tenth Planet” I doubt there will be many people watching who would have really understood the significance of that word, ‘Mondas’, or even what the Mondasian Cybermen are. For decades, the first Cyberman story was considered a bit of a false start for the monsters that became the Doctor’s second most potent adversaries after the Daleks. Their background – refugees from Mondas, Earth’s dying twin planet – was largely dumped for most of the Classic era of Doctor Who, and when Russell T Davies brought the Cybermen back in the 21st century reboot he decided that the whole Cyber backstory was so confused and contradictory that he’d prefer to junk the whole thing. He come up with a parallel universe origin instead, involving John Lumic and Cybus Industries. To be honest that wasn’t one of RTD’s better efforts, but it still beat attempting to untangle the whole Mondas/Telos morass.
So it seems very strange indeed for Moffat – in his final scripts for Doctor Who – to want to dive into such an arcane and archaic piece of Who history. Was it really just because the show’s current star Peter Capaldi rated the original Cybermen from “The Tenth Planet” as one of his favourite monsters of all time? If nothing else, it reiterates just how much Capaldi is a true Who geek. But looking at the surviving episodes of that serial (sadly, episode 4 is missing from the archives) you can see how basic the Cybermen were in that story: lacking any real budget, the costume designer had the actors wear stockings on their face and then kitted them out with handlebar helmets and cheap-looking plastic chest packs. When the Cybermen returned for their sophomore story “The Moonbase” they had been comprehensively redesigned in every department with only the basic silhouette of the handlebar helmets being retained, and they looked a lot better for it. The tinkering continued from there and the Cybermen rarely looked the same from one story to the next, with a particularly big leap forward in 1982’s “Earthshock”. When the modern series brought them back in 2006, the Cybus versions were finally realised as proper fully-metallic suits of armour, arguably as they had always intended to appear in the first place.
And yet it’s a strange thing: sometimes less is more. The modern Cybermen are impressive costumes to be sure, but they also look like generic large stomping robots. It’s too easy to forget that they’re supposed to contain the remains of humans (or Mondasians) inside, slaves to the technology that was supposed to allow them indefinitely extended lifespans. Without the touch of ruined humanity to their appearance they lack any sense of the eerie or the tragic to them. Not that the original 1966 versions achieved this any better: the stockings looked silly, and the weird electronic sing-song voices elicited more laughs than dread. Really, why on earth would you go back to a version of the Cybermen which had so manifestly fallen flat even at the time? Surely not just to give a sentimental parting gift to your leading actor.
But the genius of Moffat and Talalay – and the reason why “World Enough and Time” is such a terrific episode of Doctor Who – is that they recreate the appearance of the original Cybermen and even retain those daft voices, and despite that still succeed in giving them meaning and real impact together with a proper sense of dark horror that has long been lacking from the Cybermen over the decades. There’s no hint of cheapness to them, even though they are painstaking copies of what was seen on screen 51 years ago when times and television production values were so very different. For anyone who does remember the Mondasian Cybermen (or who has watched the DVD release in the meantime) it’s all a powerful and hugely effective jolt to the system. It even retrospectively boosts our appreciation of those vintage Hartnell and Troughton stories as a result, since they are no longer merely relics of the 1960s but a vital part of the here-and-now of modern television all over again.
Perhaps the reason why the return of the original Cybermen was ‘spoilered’ so far in advance is because if they had simply returned out of the blue then only a very small, especially hardcore group of dedicated Who fans would have recognised them when they did arrive. Anyone else would have arrived at the big reveal and gone: ‘Huh?’ By revealing the news in advance it feels that Moffat was setting the audience homework to go away and read up on that first story and watch the DVD before it was time for “World Enough and Time”. If so it’s an audaciously ‘meta’ way of going about things; but then, ‘audacious’ and ‘meta’ are words hardly unfamiliar when it comes to talking about Moffat’s oeuvre. There are additional examples of such tendencies in his writing to be found in this episode.
Moffat is never knowingly ploddingly linear in his plot construction, and the start of “World Enough and Time” jumps around back and forth. It starts with a pre-titles lookahead to this Doctor’s impending regeneration, which is apparently going to happen somewhere snowy. Unfortunately the show played this same card just a few weeks ago in “The Lie of the Land”. We already know Capaldi is leaving and this scene does nothing to advance, change or enrich our knowledge of what’s in store: instead of being a shocking moment, it’s almost yawn-inducing in its familiarity.
After that we drop straight into the action, with the Doctor deciding to give Missy’s new-found redemption a test drive by allowing her to take the lead responding to a distress call from a spaceship caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole. Michelle Gomez has a whale of a time dancing around pretending to be “Doctor Who” and Moffat indulges in tweaking the noses of fans who have long furiously insisted that the lead character’s true name is actually ‘The Doctor’ and absolutely not ‘Doctor Who’. It was listed as the latter in the show’s end credits for almost two decades, and the Doctor even used ‘Who’ as a part of aliases over the years, but die-hard fans get incandescent if the uninitiated dare to refer to their hero as ‘Doctor Who.’ Except that Moffat’s dialogue now establishes that, actually, he really was called ‘Doctor Who’ all along – all those pedantic fans were wrong after all. I suspect that will not go down well with the fan base who will see it as Moffat once again impressing himself too emphatically on areas of hallowed ground for the series where he has no right to meddle, merely on the flimsy grounds that he’s the incumbent showrunner. For a few more months at least.
To be honest I thought the whole ‘Doctor Who’ section was a bit forced and strained, and I could have done without it – although it didn’t irk me in pedantry terms. I’d much rather have seen more of Missy’s attempt to play the hero. As it was, her references to Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) as ‘disposables’ (rather than companions) and as ‘Exposition’ and ‘Comic Relief’ (which she says are genders rather than functions) are perhaps a little too on-the-nose in terms of meta-comment and risk laying bare too much of the show’s underlying mechanics than is perhaps healthy. There was also more discussion on the nature of Time Lord genders, which seemed to be there purely for Moffat to shout loud and proud one last time that the Doctor could (and apparently might already once have been) female and that such things were never thought important on Gallifrey anyway. It’s all been covered in the series before (and Missy’s most recent regeneration is in any case the ultimate proof) but on this occasion is feels like Moffat wants to hammer home the point one last time so that none of his successors as showrunner will ever be able to roll back on it.
Talking of Missy, here’s another point of comparison between “Dark Water” and “World Enough and Time”: both feature shock reveals of the Master. But again, in both cases the moment was undercut in advance by the news having already leaked out. In “Dark Water”, pretty much everyone I know had come to the conclusion that Michelle Gomez’ recurring character throughout season 8 was meant to be a female version of the Master, and that was exactly how it turned out to be. Surprised? No, we really weren’t by that point. And in “World Enough and Time” we have another end-of-episode cliffhanger which relies in part on a guest character being revealed to be the Master, but once again the moment had been too-well prepared for. The production team had been trumpeting John Simm’s return to the role for months in advance. Not only did he appear in the ‘next week’ trailer for the episode, but the main advertising image being used pretty much everywhere to promote “World Enough and Time” shows Gomez and Simm standing back to back. There is no way anyone could have missed this ‘surprise’.
Why did the production team decide to blow the big moment? Perhaps the news that Simm had been on set in Cardiff had begun to leak out and their hand was forced. Or maybe there was the feeling that it had been so long since Simm was last in the show – 2010’s “The End of Time”, which was also David Tennant’s final appearance in the title role – that the younger elements of the Doctor Who audience might need to be read in to the existence of Missy’s previous incarnation – that way they could go and watch their parents’ DVD boxset of the relevant stories. All I know is that – rather as with the return of the original Cybermen – it seemed a shame that the surprise had been spoiled by the show’s own promotional activity.
Actually despite that, the episode still manages to come close to having its cake and eating it. While everyone knew Simm would arrive at the end of the episode, he actually shows up much earlier albeit in disguise. As fans of the Classic era of the show – when the Master was portrayed by the great Roger Delgado and the silkily malevolent Anthony Ainley – will know, a good disguise is a very Master-ful character trait. And it very nearly works: if I hadn’t known in advance that Simm was returning, I don’t think I would have seen it. I did feel there was something familiar about the actor playing Mr Razor; I even looked up the cast list in the Radio Times to see it was, and it’s a shame that they hadn’t circulated a pseudonym to obfuscate the matter. Even when I was pretty such it was Simm, the make-up and the performance made it impressively hard to be sure. I almost decided I was on the wrong track and that the familiarity I had detected was due to the character’s similarity with that of the alien Zathras played by Tim Choate in the 1990s science fiction series Babylon 5. (Interestingly, Zathras appears on a large space station that is many miles long which becomes stuck in powerful time eddies where past and future are getting mashed together. Not unlike the basic plot of “World Enough and Time” in other words.)
The setting is one of the main areas of divergence between this week’s episode and that of “Dark Water.” This was a proper grown-up high concept science fiction story – which Doctor Who does surprisingly infrequently, mainly opting for smaller space adventures and a more fantasy feel rather than hard SF which might scare off viewers. You can tell Moffat was slightly worried about this because he goes to great lengths to explain clearly to the viewers how the black hole is causing time to move differently at the opposing ends of the giant colony ship. Not only does the Doctor go into lecture mode with the help of diagrams on a transparent board, we even see Bill and Mr Razor following events watching on an old black and white television set. To them the Doctor is moving incredibly slowly, a different still-frame snapshot every week. It makes for a wonderful image, the sight of Bill literally watching Doctor Who on TV every week just like the rest of us. As a result Moffat manages to pull off this difficult set-up with aplomb – so well that it almost seems effortless, if you haven’t been carefully watching just how much thought and effort has actually gone into pulling off the trick.
By contrast, “Dark Water” had more of a metaphysical setting. If you recall, for much of that episode the Doctor and Clara thought they had travelled to the afterlife. There was some desperately near-the-knuckle material about death and burial and cremation (not to mention medical research) and I thought then and still believe now much of it was desperately misjudged and would have been too disturbing for a young audience. Or a middle aged one, come to that.
You can argue that “World Enough and Time” is even darker and more grim and horrifying – I was certainly surprised that the BBC felt comfortable airing this before 7pm at night in the UK. The suffering patients on the hospital ward (whose agonised pleas for help are ‘treated’ by having their voice speakers turned off so that they don’t disturb anyone) is particularly traumatic. However this time around Moffat avoids linking the bandaged patients with anyone the audience might identify with in the ‘real world’ as had been the case in “Dark Water”, and for this reason I didn’t have any of the same issues with this week’s story as I did with its predecessor.
“Dark Water” memorably began with a fatal accident for a recurring character who had been carefully built up over the course of season 8. Danny Pink ended up being converted into a Cyberman, while retaining aspects of his previous existence. And in a final strong resonance between the stories, “World Enough and Time” does exactly the same: in this case it’s Bill, shot by a panicked crewmen and left with a devastating (and chillingly rendered) injury. It’s a shock played out in slow motion over more than a minute, as though the episode is daring us to believe it’s still somehow all going to be alright and that it didn’t really happen. It’s written, directed and performed to perfection by everyone involved – but at the same time, the moment has also been slightly spoilered in advance.
It’s been rumoured for some time now that Bill Potts is a single-series companion (like Martha and Donna before her) and that Pearl Mackie would end up leaving the show at the same time as Capaldi and Moffat, to give new showrunner Chris Chibnall a clean slate when it comes to series 11 just as Moffat himself was able to start with a new Doctor (Matt Smith) and a new companion (Amy Pond) in 2010. It’s not even as if the advance publicity for “World Enough and Time” did anything to help dispel this sense of impending doom. Moffat himself was quoted as saying that the Doctor “witnesses the death of someone he is pledged to protect.” I thought there might be a twist and it would turn out to be Nardole or Missy, but no – it really was Bill all along after all, just like everyone had presumed. At least “Dark Water” had managed to keep Danny Pink’s similar fate a genuine out-of-the-blue surprise.
You’ll be relieved to hear that we are arriving at our destination, and the end of our epic review of a momentous episode of Doctor Who. For those who have skipped over the last few paragraphs, I’ll conclude with a summary of the findings: that while “World Enough and Time” is an incredibly well written and well directed story, with great performances as ever from all concerned, it does suffer from the fact that (a) so much had already leaked out which reduced the impact, and (b) the story stuck so close in so many respects to “Dark Water”.
Did I just hear you say in response that ‘those are very minor criticisms of something you called magnificent at the start’? If so, then I quite agree.
And for that reason my initial one-word review of “World Enough and Time” also proudly stands as the final verdict of one of the best episodes of this or indeed any other season of Doctor Who. That is, unless by some chance the second part of the story – “The Doctor Falls”, next week’s super-sized final instalment of season 10 – manages to be even better. If it does, then I’m hoping to get to use the one-word review ‘Masterful’ for obvious punning reasons. You have been warned.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes are now available on DVD and Blu-ray, with the second half of the season following on July 17 2017. A complete series 10 boxset is expected later in the year.