As I’ve written in past seasons, Steven Moffat two-parters tend to be composed of two very different types of episodes. While “The Doctor Falls” indeed follows that pattern, it was refreshing that the important plot points set up last week pay off; “The Doctor Falls” is indeed the second half of “World Enough and Time” in most every respect. The biggest questions I had (which didn’t even occur to me until after I filed my recap) were: Why was the Master on the spaceship in the first place, and why was he in disguise? Early on here, the Doctor offers up a lengthy theory that the Master neither confirms nor denies, and whether or not it’s on the nose is irrelevant — at least some method was given for all the madness. (Late in the episode, the Master does reveal to Missy that he blew his dematerialization circuit after arriving on the ship and that he’s essentially been stranded ever since.)
The thing that concerned me most going into “The Doctor Falls” was that, based on the previews, it would be a raucous affair loaded with battles and explosions. While the episode does have both of those, it manages to place intimacy and character front and center, rarely allowing the battles to take center stage. Moffat has frequently said things like, “We don’t have the money for that anyway,” and thank goodness for that because nobody tunes in to Doctor Who for the fight scenes. High among the things we do tune in for are tears, and “The Doctor Falls” is loaded with them on both sides of the screen. After the big Beeb-sanctioned spoilers of last week, pretty much everything about this one was closely guarded, so there were no shortage of surprises.
The early scene set atop the hospital in a quickly dying city (only to be reborn as Cybermen) sets the stage for everything and everyone to come. The Master and Missy poke and prod the Doctor, trying to decide what might be the most appropriate way to kill him. This might feel like quite the betrayal after everything we’ve seen from Missy this season, but the episode is so much more complex than it seems at first glance. The Doctor deftly reprogrammed the Cybermen definition of human to include two hearts, so now not even the Time Lords are safe, and the two Masters must work with the Doctor to survive. They get help from CyberBill and a terribly heroic Nardole, who shows up in a shuttlecraft to whisk them all away … but not before the Doctor is badly injured by a Cyberman, which CyberBill saves him from.
Fast-forward two weeks to Floor 507, which was first mentioned last week. Turns out it’s something of a paradise, at least by comparison to what we’ve seen of the ship previously. It’s a countryside solar farm with a hologram sky, made all the more peaceful by the image of Bill asleep in a barn. Has she been “cured”? Bill remains CyberBill for the bulk of the episode, and despite the Doctor’s promises there is nothing he can do about it, she retains her sense of self entirely — so much so that she can’t even see the creature she’s been transformed into. This allows us to see Bill as she sees herself (and gives Pearl Mackie plenty of screen time).
We get periodic glimpses of the true CyberBill, but only when necessary and dramatic, such as the shocking moment when she sees herself in a mirror for the first time or when she spies her shadow on the wall. It is one of the most heartbreaking things Doctor Who has ever done to a companion — and that’s in a series that routinely does heartbreaking things to companions. It isn’t tragic simply because she can’t be Bill again; it’s heartbreaking because she does not allow it to change her core person. It is quite possibly the most uplifting tragedy this series has ever delivered. Pearl Mackie, you will be terribly missed.
While a battle brews — the loss of which will mean the conversion of dozens of children to Cybermen — there is friction amongst all of our main characters. One of the best aspects of “The Doctor Falls” is that it barely features any guest cast, really just Samantha Spiro (Hazran) and Briana Shawn (Alit), and neither of them takes up much screen time. This is squarely a story about our primary five characters.
This Master and Missy story line could have gone so many different ways, and yet I’m almost at a loss for words over what Moffat accomplished here. For starters, Simm’s Master has been cured of the sound of drums, which is a nice flourish given that it never played a part in the Missy character, but more importantly it gives us a Master far more grounded than he was back in the David Tennant years. Sure, he’s still a real bastard, but he’s a damn near likable one, or least far more relatable. How about the brilliant moment where he’s applying eyeliner, seemingly preparing for his next incarnation? There’s some wonderful gender-bending going on here, and in one moment, the Master asks, “Is the future going to be all girl?” and the Doctor replies, “We can only hope.” (Yes we can!)
Missy is so much more complex, and Gomez has arguably the toughest acting job in the episode, as she’s required to veer back and forth between allegiance to the Doctor and allegiance to her (other) self, often from one sentence to the next. This is a serious high wire act that could’ve gone terribly wrong in the hands of someone less skilled, but she pulls it off marvelously. In the end, she finally decides to stand with the Doctor, and in order to do so, she slyly stabs her previous self. He is aghast and yet admiring of her skills. As she turns to leave, he shoots her “full blast!” It is a moment as shocking and devastating as anything else in this episode.
The two Masters revert to doing what they do best, which is killing, and I’m reminded of the scorpion and frog fable. The Master has died and been resurrected so many times in this series, but there has surely never been a finality as final as this one. I don’t know how you bring the character back after this, or if it should ever even happen. This is quite simply one of the most perfect character moments in all of Doctor Who.
I’ve given some crap to Matt Lucas this season here and there, never being able to concretely decide on my feelings about Nardole, but “The Doctor Falls” cements it: He’s a hero worthy of travelling with and looking out for the Doctor, maybe even the most faithful friend the Doctor has ever had. Here, he becomes a sort of Doctor himself, tasked with looking out for and protecting the people of Floor 507, leaving behind his grumpy savior for a new life.
And then there’s Peter Capaldi. That speech! That grand speech he gives to the two Masters! If that doesn’t deserve to go viral, then I don’t know what does. That’s the speech we need for today, delivered with passion and vulnerability in the same episode that dares to name Donald Trump an inevitability. Throughout this entire episode he’s regenerating, and Capaldi makes us feel it in every line, every gesture, every step he takes. I do not know how he can possibly top his performance here at Christmas, but damn I hope he gives it everything, assuming he’s got more to give. Of course he does — the man’s been a revelation. I dig Tennant. I groove on Smith. I love Peter Capaldi. He has without a doubt been my Doctor for this new incarnation of Doctor Who that’s wrapping up its tenth season, and we have been nothing short of fortunate to have been blessed with his talents.
After destroying a legion of Cybermen in an explosion, the Doctor cannot regenerate. He dies. His lifeless body is found by CyberBill, and she mourns his passing and the impossible tears flow. Suddenly, the most magical thing of all happens: Heather (Stephanie Hyam) appears, at a point in which all hope is lost, instantly transforming Bill into a new and improved version of herself, and the Cyberbody falls to its end. The pair travels to the TARDIS and leave his body there. Bill says her good-byes and a tear falls on the Doctor’s forehead, bringing life back where there was none. After the two celestial beings depart, the regeneration starts again. When he howled in refusal I bolted upright in agreement, tears streaming down my face. I don’t want you to go either, Peter.
In the snows outside the TARDIS, a familiar figure emerges from the dark, played by none other than David Bradley, and from now to Christmas becomes the longest wait this fan has ever had to endure.
The Doctor: “Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone … or because I hate someone or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live … maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, and I will stand here doing it until it kills me. You’re going to die, too, someday. When will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.”