Warning: contains MAJOR spoilers for aired episodes.
And so we reach the end of the tenth season of Doctor Who since its revival in 2005. This latest run of 12 episodes has simply flown past and it’s hard to believe that it’s already over. It seems no time at all since we were being introduced to Bill Potts and wondering who or what was in the vault being watched over night and day by the Doctor and his acerbic aide Nardole.
But all too soon we’ve come to the moment where we say our goodbyes to Bill, and Nardole, and even Missy. It’s not impossible that one or more of them might show up for a cameo in the Christmas special in six months time, but it seems unlikely. Their tales are told, for now at least, and the decks are being cleared for a new regime to come in and make itself at home. All that remains is one final contribution from Peter Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffat, and then the curtain will come down for the last time on this particular era of the world’s longest running science fiction show.
So, did the season go out in style or with a whimper? Last week’s story “World Enough and Time” raised expectations sky high for the second part of the finale, and it’s rare for a two parter to sustain high quality across both outings. There was a real risk that “The Doctor Falls” would prove to be an anti-climax and leave us all feeling a little deflated. But fortunately that didn’t prove to be the case on this occasion, not by a long way, and we find ourselves going into the summer on an emotional high.
Moffat has a tendency with cliffhangers not to do a straight follow-on, but rather to effect a big change in tone and story between instalments. Initially that seemed to be the case here as well, with a pre-title sequence set in tranquil farmland that was very much at odds with where we left off seven days ago. Only the presence of some sinister, familiar-looking scarecrows in the fields links us back to last week’s story. And then suddenly a space shuttlecraft bursts up from the ground, and out steps a Mondasian Cyberman holding an unconscious Doctor in its arms. It’s quite the arresting image.
Once the titles have played out, Moffat doesn’t make us wait any longer than necessary to find out what’s going on. Instead, he rewinds the action right back to the moment that the previous episode left off, with a clever little computer trick allowing the Doctor to get the better of Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Master (John Simm) even as they’re debating how best to kill him. Then we leave the industrial setting of the Cyber foundries and arrive back at the farmlands of the pre-title sequence, and from there it’s a remarkably calm and clear story progression for much of the remainder of the 60-minute episode that follows.
Inevitably the change in locale means that the doom and gloom and creeping dread of “World Enough and Time” is put to one side. However director Rachel Talalay manages to maintain the tension, as Moffat switches from last week’s hard science fiction concepts to this week’s classic Western movie trope of a small ranch under siege from an overwhelming hostile force that’s closing in fast. Think The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, High Noon or The Alamo. We even see the Doctor on the front porch, in a rocking chair, nursing a shotgun as he waits for the threat to arrive, looking for all the world like Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. He and the homesteaders make the best defensive preparations possible, with Nardole (Matt Lucas) proving particularly effective as the rallying force, but everyone knows that it’s a hopeless cause. The Doctor appeals to Missy and the Master to stay and help, but his entreaties appear to fall on deaf ears. When the Cyber force arrives, it is overwhelming: and the Doctor does indeed fall.
Generally, Moffat tends not to go for the typical crowd-pleasing finales. However as pyrotechnics light up the fields and woods around the farm house and Cybermen old and new are sent flying through the air in beautiful, balletic explosive scenes composed to perfection by Talalay whom we rhapsodised about last week, this is as close as Moffat has ever got to the sort of rousing finales that Russell T Davies always delivered during his tenure. But it is also so, so much more than that, as the episode also concentrates on character and pays off each and every one of the storylines that have brought us to this point over the last three months.
There is for example the question of whether Missy was ever serious about her attempts at redemption. She seems to go over to the Master’s side with alarming speed, but Gomez’ hugely impressive performance leaves us wondering what the truth of the story is right until the final moments, when the two sides of Missy/the Master do the only thing that they could ever do and remain true to their character – which is to say, they betray each other with lethal effectiveness. As Gomez lies in the undergrowth, possibly dead or dying, the audience knows that her final act was to try and actually follow the Doctor and do good for possibly the first time in her life. It’s a wonderful, cathartic conclusion to Missy’s arc in season 10 but sadly the Doctor himself will probably never know about it, as he himself is soon lying lifeless elsewhere in the burnt forest.
Then there is Bill, whose life journey has been the lynch pin of this season. At the end of “World Enough and Time” she found herself converted into a Mondasian Cyberman, a truly chilling and nightmarish moment. She opens “The Doctor Falls” in the same state – indeed, it’s Bill holding the Doctor’s body as we crash to the opening titles – but then we cut to Bill lying in a barn and looking perfectly human again, seemingly cured. Only she’s not: we’re seeing Bill how she sees herself, but in reality she’s still a Cyberman. You may remember Moffat doing this before with the character of Oswin Oswald in “Asylum of the Daleks”: in this case, Talalay’s handling of the different perceptions of Bill during the episode are absolute strokes of genius. It lulls us into a sense of hope for Bill’s situation, and then repeatedly chills us with a glimpse of the metal reality of her plight. As she soon tells the Doctor, she doesn’t want to live like this if she can no longer be herself – and no one watching could possibly disagree or argue the point. Even the Doctor soon accepts it. It seems that Bill’s time with the Doctor is unequivocally over.
Switching continuously between Human Bill and Cyber Bill means that we’re still able to see Pearl Mackie on screen, and she gives a searingly good performance that will rip your heart out with every word and gesture. She’s been good all season, growing even better with each passing episode, and she reaches the pinnacle here. It’s just too hard to accept that Bill is going to be left as a Cyberman, or killed off, when we’d barely got to know her.
How this plays out is likely to be one of the more contentious aspects of “The Doctor Falls”. Moffat has a tendency to kill off companions only to then have them snatched back from the brink in some miraculous way: the many deaths of Rory are just one example. Here, he reuses what he did with Clara at the end of the previous series and finds a way to suspend Bill’s death and send her off on a wonderful adventure of her own travelling through the universe. And the way he does it is a whisker away at best from being a whopping great deus ex machina, using a stray line of dialogue from the first episode of season ten to reintroduce an alien with superpowers capable of restoring Bill to herself in the blink of an eye. I could get very grumpy about this, but I won’t for two reasons: the first is that Moffat clearly set this moment up in “The Pilot” and while he might not have played entirely fair in how he did so, you can’t argue that the basic framework was there to be called upon when required; and secondly, because the alternative – having Bill die or remain a Frankenstein monster – is simply not palatable. Faced with the options, on this occasion I’ll opt for the deus ex machina and simply choose not to examine it too closely.
In any case, we have more pressing matters: the Doctor is dying. Actually, he’s pretty much already dead. He has, quite simply, had enough: he’s done all that he can, he’s given all that he has to give. He’s been the hero time and again, he’s died so many times, and now he feels he’s reached the end of the road. He can’t keep doing this time and again, pushing the boulder up the mountain every day only to have to do it all over again tomorrow. And so when the regeneration cycle we know and recognise starts to kick in, he suppresses it much as the Master refused to save himself at the end of “The Last of the Time Lords”.
At the end of the episode, it seems that it’s going to happen anyway. All the familiar televisual trappings of a regeneration kick in – we even get a parade of past companions swimming before his eyes, much as happened in classic regeneration sequences at the climax of 1981’s “Logopolis” or 1984’s “The Caves of Androzani”. Any fan of the series will be left with tears in their eyes at the sight of Rose, Donna, Martha et al. It really feels like we’ve reached the end and that Capaldi is going out earlier than expected and that the big reveal of who will take over is at hand. But no: the Doctor refuses again, and the regeneration subsides. He stumbles out of the Tardis and finds himself in the snow-swept icy wasteland that we saw at the start of “World Enough and Time”. Only this time, there is someone else there with him. Someone familiar. Someone out of time…
Unfortunately this is another example of a moment somewhat ruined by spoilers in the media, much as was the case with the return of John Simm or the revival of the Mondasian Cybermen last week. On this occasion, at least the spoiler in question hadn’t been actively deployed by the production team for the sake of publicity, but most people will probably have come across it months ago. I did, and I really try and avoid spoilers for the most part. As a result the final scene was not a shock or a surprise, but a “Oh, so that is happening, then.” Which is not to say that I’m not eagerly looking forward to seeing what happens next in the Christmas special, of course.
For me, the surprise of the episode is what we didn’t get. I really had expected the show to use the opportunity to reveal who the next Doctor would be: this is the one big secret that the show has managed to keep to itself so far (unless it turns out to be Kris Marshall after all, in which case everyone’s been pretty sure of it for the last six months.) Since season 11 will have to start shooting relatively soon, the secret will have to be out within a matter of weeks; indeed, it feels rather overdue compared with the timing of Doctor casting news in previous years. It was for this reason that I had assumed that we would get a glimpse of the new Doctor in the season finale, but it was not to be.
In hindsight it’s the correct decision not to try and do that. If they had then the revelation would have overshadowed everything else about “The Doctor Falls,” and that would have been a huge disservice to Peter Capaldi who gives one of his all-time best performances as he appeals to Missy and the Master to stand by him by explaining to them in a rush of heart-felt emotion that it is never about beating someone else, or about being a hero, but instead was about doing the right thing, about being kind, about being able to live with oneself in the days after. It’s a hugely powerful moment – excellent writing by Moffat, brilliant acting from Capaldi – that not only defines who the Doctor is but also explains to us all what a truly good man really is, looks like and acts. It’s a fitting culmination for this incarnation of the Doctor, who started his tenure in the Tardis asking himself that very question – “Am I a good man?” – and who on his penultimate outing not only answers in the affirmative but even vividly defines what that answer looks like in the first place. Capaldi’s Doctor has occasionally equalled such heights – “Heaven Sent” comes very much to mind – but I don’t think he has ever been better than he is right at this moment. He is going out on a high to be sure.
Such bursts of brilliance make “The Doctor Falls” a truly memorable and outstanding contribution to the Doctor Who canon. They make up for the few aspects of the story that don’t rise to the same level – the aforementioned deus ex machina outcome for Bill for example, or the fact that the Doctor giving up his life fighting in defence of a small isolated village is a clear re-tread of 2013’s “The Time of the Doctor”. With regard to that latter point, at least “The Doctor Falls” is an example of Moffat taking the opportunity for a do-over and getting it right second time around. After Matt Smith’s disappointingly confusing and over-stuffed swansong, this time Moffat nails it: it’s all much more emotionally and dramatically satisfying. Practice, as they say, makes perfect.
That said, the amount of story recycling that’s been on display in the final episodes of season 10 does rather suggest that it’s time for a change, for new ideas and a fresh approach to telling the stories of our favourite Time Lord. Once Capaldi and Moffat make their final stand on Christmas Day, it will be for Chris Chibnall and his designated yet-to-be-revealed lead actor to have their opportunity to take up the reins and hopefully provide the rejuvenation that the show needs if it’s to move on with the same creative energy and success that has marked its first 54 years. And while I’ll be deeply sorry to see Capaldi go, and will always hugely appreciate all that Moffat has brought to the show in recent years, it’s surely about time for that change to take place.
All that’s left is for it to actually happen. Next time, on Doctor Who.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who returns on BBC One on Christmas Day 2017. The first six episodes are already available on DVD and Blu-ray, with the second half of the season due for release on July 24 2017. A complete series 10 boxset is expected later in the year.