“World Enough and Time” aims to grab your attention from its opening, pre-credits moments. The Doctor stumbles from the TARDIS into a frozen landscape, his hair longer and wilder than ever before, seemingly fighting against his regeneration. It’s a striking sequence, perhaps undercut only by that awful faux-regeneration in “The Lie of the Land,” an episode I’ve grown to despise exponentially since its airing. The series never should have done that knowing a scene like this was right around the corner. But if we can scrub the “Lie” from our brains, this is a hell of a way to kick off the end of an era.
Once the episode begins proper, we’re nowhere near that flash-forward, but instead skimming across the exterior of a vast spaceship that appears to be sitting on the edge of a black hole — and by vast, I mean 400-miles long and 100-miles wide. (Later, we find out it isn’t sitting, but actively attempting to escape the hole.) Between the double shot of openings, we are firmly entrenched in the expansive vision of director Rachel Talalay, who has skillfully guided all of Capaldi’s epic finales. But the enormity of the craft zeroes in on a tiny area of the ship in which the TARDIS appears, and out pops Missy followed by Bill and Nardole.
Missy: “Hello, I’m Doctor Who, and these are my plucky assistants, Thing One and … the other one. We picked up your distress call, and here we are to help, like awesome heroes.”
Moffat is no stranger to playing with the title of the series by working it into the dialogue and story line. Recall him toying with it through Dorium back in season six (“the question hidden in plain sight”), and then again at the close of “Asylum of the Daleks,” where the Doctor pranced around the TARDIS console repeating “Doctor Who” over and over. But here, Moffat goes for broke squeezing every last bit of cleverness and mystery out of it that he can, pushing it so far that the viewer actually begins to question if it was once upon a time the Doctor’s chosen name. Who better to have this information than Missy? As always, Michelle Gomez is a delight, having waited the entire season to break out (both literally and figuratively) and be able to do her thing once again. The dance she does with the camera is one that Gomez has honed to an art during her time on the series.
A blue man named Jorj (Oliver Lansley) shows up waving a gun around, demanding to know who the human in the room is, since something’s coming up the lift and it only comes for humans. The Doctor, having finally emerged from the TARDIS, gives one of his impassioned speeches — in which he refers to himself as Doctor Who! — but it’s all for naught. At the last second, Jorj blows a massive hole through the center of the only human present, Bill Potts. Okay, Moff: If you didn’t have our attention before, you do now.
The Doctor: “We had a pact, me and him. Every star in the universe — we were going to see them all. But he was too busy burning them. I don’t think she ever saw anything.”
Now for a flashback. This one is to the Doctor and Bill at the university, debating the merits of giving Missy the opportunity to prove herself out in the field. It’s a great sequence, cut together via several conversations, indicating how close they’ve grown to one another and how much the Doctor is willing to take Bill’s opinions into consideration. The Doctor has never spoken of Missy/The Master quite like he does here, and certainly not with this level of affection and yearning. He gives such an amazing talk to Bill about how Time Lords have little use for gender and stereotypes, you’d think that a Doctor of a different sex was right around the corner. Or maybe it’s just a setup for a deeper coming together of the Doctor and Missy next week. The flashback ends on the most dually portentous of notes when Bill declares, “She scares me. She really scares me. So promise me one thing, yeah? Promise you won’t get me killed.”
There’s a clever cutting back and forth between Bill’s final words, the Doctor jokingly saying, “I can’t promise you that!” and the action back on the spaceship. Ghoulish, faceless creatures with mechanical voices, each attached to a drip, enter the room and place Bill on a stretcher, claiming she can be repaired but that they won’t be back. The Doctor leaves a message in Bill’s subconscious — “wait for me” — a message that haunts her throughout the episode as she does just that.
Having undergone repairs at the hand of a creepy doctor (“full conversion wasn’t necessary, but it will be in time,” he declares), Bill awakens and a creepy hairy guy hovers over her. Feeling inside her shirt, she realizes she’s got cybernetic parts. She wanders throughout the hospital, seeing a room labeled “conversion theatre” and another room full of creepy patients in agony (“Pain … pain … pain … pain … ”). There’s a whole lot of creepy in this episode, and it might be the most deeply unsettling portrayal of the Cybermen the series has ever dreamed up.
By this point, we’ve all figured out that the faceless ones are soon to be Mondasian Cybermen, and that the hairy guy is the Master in disguise, yes? My wife recognized John Simm under heavy makeup immediately, and I nodded in agreement because old-school fans know that disguises were a gimmick of the classic series Master. Further, I was frustrated over the Doctor not immediately recognizing the Mondasians. On the second viewing, it came into clearer focus: This is more of a problem with the BBC publicity machine than it is with the episode. Had we not known both of these elements were factors in the story, it seems unlikely either of these things would be issues. Who’d have guessed Simm was returning after all these years? Imagine how much more powerful that reveal could’ve been! And the Mondasian Cybermen? The Doctor hasn’t seen them since the end of his first incarnation! Of course he wouldn’t put two and two together.
Remove the elements of surprise, and the rest of the episode is a deeply disturbing game in which the Master, wearing his Mr. Reza disguise, befriends Bill over a period of years (by the end of the episode she’s spent more time with him than she has the Doctor), teasing her with the imagery of the Doctor on a vid screen, moving at an imperceptible speeds, coming to her rescue. Only moments have passed on the other end of the ship: It’s revealed that due to the proximity of the black hole, time is moving at drastically different speeds on each end of the ship. (This is real science!)
The two story lines converge when the Doctor and Co. finally make it down to the bottom of the ship only to discover that Bill has undergone full cyberconversion, delivered into this hell by the Master himself, who has revealed himself to Missy. They might now even be working together. Don’t count on that partnership lasting for long, though. If multiple Doctors argue, imagine the friction between multiple Masters.
What is done to Bill here is utterly horrific, and given that this is a genesis of the Cybermen story (entirely separate from the genesis of the Cybermen story from season two, which took place in an alternate universe), the Doctor seems destined to fail. How can he beat these Cybermen? This is the beginning of their story! After resurrecting Clara from death last season, one wonders if Bill has any chance of returning from this horrible fate. (From a purely dramatic standpoint, do we even want her to?) Will this story conclude next week, or will this be a three-parter that we’ll have to wait until Christmas to see resolved?
Odds and Ends
• “World Enough and Time” is taken from the poem “To His Coy Mistress,” by 17th-century English poet Andrew Marvell. Missy/Mistress … get it?
• It says a lot about Bill’s character that she has no problem still making chips in the school cafeteria.
• The Doctor busts out his Venusian Aikido at one point. Yes!
• Will the cybernetic Nardole play an important role in the resolution of these proceedings?
• The dark, dirty city and its ailing inhabitants waiting to be converted are suitably eerie touches — and a warning to us on the other side of the TV screen. Take care of planet Earth!
• What’s happening on Floor 507, the largest of the solar farms?
• The complete reveal of a Mondasian Cybermen through Bill’s conversion is, no pun intended, a masterstroke. That voice!
• If you’ve never seen the final story of William Hartnell’s era, “The Tenth Planet,” this week might be a good time to do that.