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Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls (Review)

In many ways, World Enough and Time felt like a nostalgic return to classic Doctor Who.

The first part of the season premiere luxuriated in its relaxed pacing, as Bill watched grainy black-and-white footage that moved at a glacial pace. When the Cybermen appeared, they were explicitly classified as “the Mondasian Cybermen” and designed to evoke their earliest appearance in The Tenth Planet. When John Simm revealed himself, he was wearing a “rubbish beard” under an overly-elaborate disguise. There was a sense that Steven Moffat was bidding farewell to Doctor Who with a celebration of the classic series’ eccentricities.

March of the Cybermen.

In contrast, The Doctor Falls is much more of an encapsulation of Moffat’s themes and ideas during his time on the show. Even the title of The Doctor Falls evokes the Moffat era; The Doctor Dances was the first episode to include the words “the Doctor” since Holiday for the Doctor, the first part of the First Doctor serial The Gunfighters. Moffat’s fascination with the Doctor as a character and concept is born out with his repeated reference to the character in the titles of his era; Vincent and the Doctor, The Doctor’s Wife, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.

More to the point, The Doctor Falls returns to the idea of Moffat’s “Doctor trilogy” as the heart of his tenure as executive producer, the narrative running through The Name of the Doctor, The Night of the Doctor, The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. Positioned roughly half-way through his run in terms of seasons and episodes, those stories encapsulated a lot of what Moffat felt about the character and the concept. It makes sense that The Doctor Falls should return to those ideas.

Masters of the Universe.

To be fair, World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls are a veritable smorgasbord of Moffat’s key themes and ideas. The black hole at the centre of the story provides a suitably “timey wimey” element, with particular emphasis on the sort “long way around” two-track time movement that defined stories like The Girl in the Fireplace or Blink. Even the Cybermen are presented as technology run amok, complex systems that turn on their creators due to incomplete objectives, recalling the nanobots in The Empty Child or the repair droids in The Girl in the Fireplace.

Even the minor touches in World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls resonate across the spectrum of Moffat’s work. Bill’s status as a human mind trapped inside a machine unable to identify herself as anything other than a person recalls CAL in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. The decision to suggest a continuity of regeneration between the Master and Missy recalls Moffat’s fixation on capturing all of the Doctor’s regenerations on camera, albeit with just enough wiggle room for Chris Chibnell and later writers to bring back the Master if they want.

“I’ve got a Doctor. Can’t be sure if it’s Pertwee or Capaldi, though.”

However, some influences are more pronounced than others. The poster for The Doctor Falls is consciously designed to mirror the poster for The Day of the Doctor. The episode’s story is designed to mirror The Day of the Doctor, albeit from the perspective of the Master. Once again, a future incarnation of the character finds themselves coming face-to-face with their past self, and forced to evaluate their morality. The Tenth and the Eleventh Doctors confronted the horrors of the War Doctor in The Day of the Doctor, while Missy confronts the Master in The Doctor Falls.

It provides a nice sense of symmetry to Moffat’s run. One of the big recurring fascinations for Moffat has been the question of whether the Doctor is a fundamentally decent person, the same challenge that was iterated in Sherlock, the question of whether it is possible for a great man to also be a good man. World Enough and Time touched on this idea in the disagreement between Missy and the Doctor whether “clever” and “evil” were the same thing.

Listen here, Missy!

During the Matt Smith years, this question of goodness was framed in response to the ambiguities of the Russell T. Davies era. The Eleventh Doctor largely cast off the mantle of the “the Oncoming Storm”, coming to realise the horror of using his own name as threat echoing across the cosmos. As River argued in A Good Man Goes to War, it made little sense for a character who called himself “the Doctor” to take such pride in being a warrior. The Eleventh Doctor repeatedly confronted the fact that his carelessness had consequences, and that he was not a warrior.

After all, the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure came to its climax with The Day of the Doctor, an episode explicitly designed to absolve the Doctor of responsibility for the genocide that was hanging over his head since Rose. Moffat argued that the Doctor could never have been responsible for the deaths of so many children, that he was more heroic than that. The Day of the Doctor allowed the Doctor to reconnect with his past self and effectively re-write that decision, wiping the slate clean.

Burning desires.

As such, the Twelfth Doctor’s arc as been decidedly smaller in scale. “Am I a good man?” the Twelfth Doctor asked repeatedly during his first season, particularly in Deep Breath. Indeed, The Girl Who Died went so far as to suggest that the Twelfth Doctor wore the face of Cassius from The Fires of Pompeii in order to remind himself to do good on a small scale. Sometimes, good on a small scale is good enough. When Missy and the Master point out that the Doctor could not fight off the Cybermen forever, he responds that he can do it in this moment, and that is enough.

So, naturally, it makes sense that The Doctor Falls should come down to a variation upon that question. In The Sound of Drums, the Master mockingly referred to the Doctor was “the man who makes people better”, but it is an accurate description. The Davies era suggested that the Doctor empowered his companions, whether Jack and Rose in The Parting of the Ways or Martha in The Sontaran Stratagem or even Donna in Partners in Crime.

Field work.

Even in The Doctor Falls, there is an emphasis on the Doctor’s capacity to change others. When Bill gets her happy ending at episode’s conclusion, using a trapdoor very efficiently written into The Pilot, she acknowledges just how much she has learned in the intervening time. She has become familiar in the way of the workings of the universe. When the Doctor asks Nardole to look after the children, Nardole shrugs it off. “You know what I was like,” he warns the Doctor. The Doctor simply responds that the stronger one needs to protect the children. “Which one of us is stronger?”

Moffat has arguably elevated the Doctor’s capacity to inspire good in others even beyond that of the Davies era. River Song went from an assassin to a hero, as demonstrated in Let’s Kill Hitler. The Doctor was responsible for creating a “good” Dalek in Into the Dalek. The Doctor even inspires himself in Extremis, an episode about the inspiring power of Doctor Who. In A Good Man Goes to War, River Song even goes so far as to suggest that the Doctor is the reason why the word “Doctor” is associated with healing and helping. “We get that word from you.”

Mastering mischief.

The Twelfth Doctor’s final season is anchored in the question of whether the Doctor could redeem his greatest foe. Missy has spent the season locked away in the vault, under the Doctor’s semi-watchful eye. In retrospect, it feels like a clumsily plotted season arc, touching on (and squandering) the greatest idea in Scream of the Shalka, a TARDIS team featuring a semi-reformed Master. As it stands, Missy’s redemption is hinted at in Empress of Mars and in the closing scene of The Eaters of Light, but only really developed in World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls.

Still, it is a potent question. In some ways, the plot of The Doctor Falls inverts the core dynamic of The Day of the Doctor. In that episode, a past incarnation of the Doctor was redeemed through the intervention of two of his future selves. In this episode, Missy finds herself condemned by her past self. Missy is ultimately redeemed by the Doctor, but her arc becomes a tragedy. She is doomed by her past self, albeit in a more literal sense than most tragic characters.

The Night of the Master.

It is an interesting, and somewhat bitter, twist on the fairy tale at the heart of The Day of the Doctor. In some ways, The Day of the Doctor is an optimistic story about how the limitless potential of the future might inspire the best in people. In contrast, The Doctor Falls is essentially a story about how the past serves to trap some people. No matter how much people might chance, no matter how different their outlook might become, sometimes the past is as inescapable as gravity.

This is an idea that gets to the heart of Moffat’s take on Doctor Who. Moffat used time travel as a plot device a lot. Although classic adventures like The Ark and City of Death used time travel as a plot element, Moffat had a tendency to write time travel directly into his narratives. However, he also had a tendency to use the show’s mechanics as metaphors. In The Time of the Doctor, regeneration became a metaphor for how people change and evolve over their lifetimes, becoming different people at different stages.

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody door off.”

The Doctor Falls and The Day of the Doctor use the “timey wimey” nature of the show as a similar reflection on the human condition, an exploration of the way in which time can change people and in which time itself is inescapable. The Master and Missy acknowledge this in their mutual death scene. Because they don’t have the assurance of an eleventh season and a regeneration under a new showrunner, they can be trapped by time. “This is where we’ve always been going,” the Master assures Missy. “This is our perfect ending.”

The time dilation in World Enough and Time was arguably a plot device, a way to separate Bill from the Doctor long enough for the Master to work his crazy scheme and to allow the audience to witness the slow-motion birth of the Cybermen. However, the time travel elements in The Doctor Falls are more metaphorical than mechanical. They are thematic elements rather than plot points. The plot itself is largely incidental, of secondary concern to the story of the Doctor and Missy.

A screwdriver loose.

The Doctor Falls works better as a metaphor than a story. When Nardole suggests that the crew retreat to the bridge, the Doctor dismisses the idea due to the time dilation; logically, taking the elevator to the bridge would give the Cybermen time to come up with a fiendishly clever counter attack. Of course, this glosses over the fact that the Cybermen would have to experience the same time dilation in order to catch them. In theory, the race to the bridge would play out like the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. Of course, it doesn’t, because this is not that story.

Indeed, most of the actual plot of The Doctor Falls is dealt with in a few lines of exposition. How the Master came to be on the colony ship and how he came to be responsible for this crisis is dealt in an off-hand piece of exposition, but one that also functions as a nice boomerang to a clever gag from World Enough and Time. In that episode, the Master seemed to imply that he disguised himself as Mister Razor to trick Bill into trusting him, but the Doctor quickly deduces that he installed himself as ruler on this colony ship as well. The Master has his routines.

Tied up in loops.

The Doctor Falls rushes through plot incredibly quickly, which is par for the course with a Moffat two-parter. Like The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, not to mention Dark Water and Death in Heaven or Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, the mid-point of the two part serves as something of a pivot point. So The Doctor Falls rushes away from the hospital and city incredibly quickly, reverting to a very generic Cybermen invasion story in such a way that allows for a lot of nice character scenes between its central characters.

This is stock Moffat sleight of hand, a clever bit of narrative substitution. It would be easy enough to imagine World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls as two very unrelated episodes, rather than as a single two-parter. Indeed, the big epic Cybermen story teased at the climax of World Enough and Time barely materialises in The Doctor Falls; the Cybermen seem to start rounding up regular people for conversion with nothing more than a single line of exposition.

Silver linings.

There is something slightly frustrating in all of this, as a result of the effort to cover so much ground so quickly. For an episode with an extended runtime, and with a heavy focus on character, The Doctor Falls feels almost overstuffed. The Doctor Falls starts racing to the finish line from the teaser, which is at once exhilarating and infuriating. Moffat throws out ideas with almost reckless abandon, including the striking visual of Cybermen-as-scarecrows that could power an entirely different episode.

However, things get lost in the shuffle. The Doctor Falls never manages to capture the enormity of what is happening in the city at the bottom of the ship. World Enough and Time kickstarted a Cybermen origin story, but the entire city is committed in a few long-distance shots in the first act of The Doctor Falls. There is never a sense that the Doctor could try to save the city, nor any pity for those citizens who have already been converted. Then again, The Doctor Falls is not an “epic” Cyberman story in the style of Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel.

Conversion therapy.

The Doctor Falls acknowledges this narrative trickery with Nardole’s clever plow involving the ship’s circuitry. The Doctor is able to outwit the Cybermen through misdirection and manipulation, and The Doctor Falls is designed to do something very similar. At the end of World Enough and Time, it had the rough appearance of a high-stakes action adventure about the end of the world, but it is really the story of three old friends arguing about what to do when faced with impossible odds.

The Doctor Falls also owes a lot to The Time of the Doctor. In particular, the episode returns to the idea of the Doctor allowing himself to be trapped in a single place in order to protect the innocent. This is something that interests Moffat, to the point that it was arguably incorporated into the Vault subplot that ran through the first half of the season. Moffat is very invested in the idea of the Doctor as the archetypal hero, the wanderer who decides to stay to protect something worthwhile.

Sticking with it.

When Missy and the Master point out the futility of the Doctor’s decision to protect the parochial community, the Doctor dismisses their rationality. “Who I am is where I stand,” the Doctor argues. “Where I stand is where I fall.” This is a decision that is meaningful precisely because it appears to be meaningless. It is a return to the question of goodness as articulated in Extremis, and perhaps even to the rejection of the various qualifications on love in The Pyramid at the End of the World. Goodness is not tactical. Decency is not strategic.

This also perhaps the most optimistic reading of Missy’s character arc. Missy eventually chooses to do the right thing, but never gets the opportunity to follow through. The Doctor will never know that she decided to come back and support him. However, this feels like a logical conclusion to her arc as it began in Extremis. Missy vowed to good without reward or without glory. The Doctor will never know that she made the decision to assist him, but that does not invalidate her choice. Missy chose to do the right thing. That is perhaps all that matters.

Master Bation.

After all, as the Master and Missy point out, it is arguably only a matter of time before the Cybermen mount another assault upon the farming community without the Doctor to stop them. The Doctor has no way of knowing whether Nardole can really keep those children safe for any extended period of time. The Doctor’s sacrifice in The Doctor Falls could very easily be in vain, buying nothing more than a few days of life. However, that does not make the gesture worthless.

As the Doctor argues, he does the right thing because it is the right thing. His philosophy amounts to little more than “be kind”, which feels like a distillation of Terrence Dick’s classic description of the Doctor as “never cruel nor cowardly” that was explicitly woven into The Day of the Doctor. The Twelfth Doctor does not surrender his life to save the universe, as the Tenth Doctor arguably did in The End of Time, Part II. The Twelfth Doctor does not even give his life to save the Earth, a planet to which he has a strong emotional attachment.

Bill is a shadow of her former self.

The Twelfth Doctor dies to protect a bunch of children, which feels like Moffat returning to his conception of the Doctor that was so hard to reconcile with the destruction of Gallifrey. The Doctor Falls reworks the Cybermen yet again as something akin to fairytale villains, as living scarecrows that plot to snatch children away from their parents. “Those things,” the Doctor explains, “the make it up here sometimes. They try to take the children.”

As such, The Doctor Falls reinvents the conflict between the Doctor and the Cybermen as something much more archetypal than the recurring battle of wits that has been playing out since The Tenth Planet. This is the most archetypal Doctor Who story, Moffat seems to suggest. The Doctor is a hero who promises to protect children from the monsters lurking in the darkness. It is a very simple story, and a very simple regeneration narrative. However, it is also very powerful of itself.

Shot through the heart.

The Doctor Falls works hard to contextualise the Cybermen as the defining antagonists of the Moffat era. After all, two of Peter Capaldi’s three season finales have been Cybermen episodes, which suggests that they are as integral to Moffat’s tenure as the Daleks were to that of Russell T. Davies. There are a variety of reasons why the Cybermen are well-suited to Moffat’s aesthetic, not least because the early scenes of The Doctor Falls makes a point to argue that the Cybermen are more of a concept than a single race, an idea rather than an alien.

More to the point, The Doctor Falls makes a firm statement about the Twelfth Doctor by insisting that his defining characteristic is kindness. It is telling that the trait that Missy has learned from the Doctor, and which most repulses the Master, is “empathy.” While it might be tempting to think of the Daleks as the perfect foil, they are not. Daleks are all about hatred and rage and screaming. However, hatred is not the enemy of empathy. Apathy is the enemy of empathy, and apathy is perfectly embodied through the Cybermen, particularly those explored in World Enough and Time.

Bill comes due.

The Cybermen do not feel hatred. The Cybermen do not feel anger. The Cybermen do not feel their own pain, so they have no capacity it in others. Moffat has repeatedly returned to the symbolic importance of the idea of the Doctor as a man with two hearts. World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls juxtapose him with the Cybermen, who have their hearts surgically removed. Tellingly, when Bill is shot in World Enough and Time, she is shot through the chest. She ends up with a literal hole where her heart should be.

There is something very powerful in the idea of Bill having her individuality and personality stripped away as she does in The Doctor Falls. Much has been made of Bill as the first gay companion, and she is also one of relatively few minority companions over the fifty-year history of Doctor Who as a franchise. (Even if viewers opt to include Mickey as a companion.) As such, there is something very evocative in the erasure of Bill’s individuality that there wouldn’t be for Amy or Donna or Rose.

Mastering that criticism.

Indeed, for all that Moffat has been criticised for his handling of female and gay characters, his stewardship of Bill has been decidedly on-point. Bill has continuously and repeatedly asserted her sexual identity over the course of the series, from Knock Knock to The Eaters of Light. Tellingly, her last exchange with the Doctor is another assertion of her orientation and identity, reaffirming what her conversion had taken from her. (It is worth noting the parallels to modern real-world conversion therapy.)

Indeed, Bill’s conversion even allows The Doctor Falls to make some small comment on the treatment of black bodies. She arrives in a very white world where everybody is inherently afraid of her because of what she looks like. “Anger is a luxury that you can no longer afford,” the Doctor advises her at one point, recalling discussions about stereotypes of black people as dangerous because they are angry and hyperemotional. At another point, Bill is shot by a panicking white character, although at least her body is bulletproof.

Sparks fly.

There is something very powerful and evocative in this imagery. The horror genre has a long history of portraying queerness and diversity as monstrous, of presenting anything other than a white heterosexual body as something repulsive or inherently unsettling. The use of the Cybermen, and the conversion of Bill in World Enough and Time, is something of a clever inversion of that premise. The Cybermen are treated as an encroaching force of heteronormativism, seeking to remove diversity and make everybody the same. (To be fair, the Davies era suggested as much.)

Although the last-minute reintroduction of Heather from The Pilot is a slight narrative convenience, in the sense that it was always a boomerang waiting to circle back around but which was never really set up as something paying off within this particular narrative, it works very well as a thematic counterpoint to the Cybermen. Bill’s trauma at the hands of the Cybermen is overcome by the love of a good woman, true love between two women overcoming a literal patriarchal construct. (After all, Bill’s Cyberman costume disguises even her gender.) It is a good ending.

Table this for later.

The imagery of the episode seems designed to consciously hark back to The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. The Cybermen attacking the farmhouse recalls the siege of Trenzalore, the hostile invasion of aliens into a very innocent (and idealised) rural community. Rural imagery is very important to Moffat’s Doctor Who, with the Doctor literally growing up in a barn in Listen and returning to that barn in The Day of the Doctor. It seems fitting that the Twelfth Doctor’s final stand should come so close to a barn in The Doctor Falls.

As much as The Doctor Falls is a celebration of the themes and interests of the Moffat era as a whole, it also fits with the season’s larger return to the aesthetic of the Davies era. Dating back to The Pilot, the season has seen Moffat consciously channelling some of Davies’ recurring fascinations, with an emphasis on social class and diversity that had perhaps been missing from the other seasons overseen by Moffat. Even the structure of the season seemed to hark back to the four years overseen by Davies, moreso than any season since Moffat’s first year as showrunner.

“Are you feeling lucky, Cyberpunk?”

There are elements of The Doctor Falls that feels very much informed and shaped by Davies. Most obviously, John Simm returns in the role of the Master, once again installing himself as a brutal dictator over a human population and then trying to harness them as an army of cybernetic monstrosities. However, there is also the suggestion that the Twelfth Doctor does not want to regenerate. “I don’t want to go,” the Doctor states, quoting his younger self. “I’m staying.” He insists, “I will not change.”

This obviously mirrors the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration in The End of Time, Part II, in which the character effectively gave expression to the anxieties and the trepidation of both actor David Tennant and showrunner Russell T. Davies. However, those were the last five words spoken by the Tenth Doctor, making them somewhat controversial and potentially undercutting the new creative team. Moffat instead positions this anxiety at the end of the Twelfth Doctor’s penultimate episode, allowing him to build an entire Christmas special around it.

First’s on Who.

Indeed, The Doctor Falls quite heavily teases the Christmas Special in a way that has not been done since the end of the Davies era. Davies would typically end his seasons with a cliffhanger leading into the Christmas specials, with David Tennant appearing in The Parting of the Ways before properly debuting in The Christmas Invasion or Donna materialising in the TARDIS at the end of Doomsday to set up The Runaway Bride or the Doctor crashing into the Titanic at the end of The Last of the Time Lords to tie into Voyage of the Damned.

The surprise appearance of David Bradley as the First Doctor is something that has effectively been teased across the season, with lots of sly references to the First Doctor; the picture of Susan in The Pilot, the references to the Doctor as Bill’s grandfather in Knock Knock, the Mondasian Cybermen in World Enough and Time, and even the Master’s pithy dismissal of the Doctor as “granddad” in The Doctor Falls. However, the decision to tease his appearance at the end of the season is something that feels in keeping with the Davies era flavour of the season as a whole.

Heavy metal.

That said, The Doctor Falls feels like a logical conclusion to Steven Moffat’s final season as showrunner, returning to some key themes and allowing the author the opportunity to restate his particular interpretation of the character and the show. There are certainly worse ways to go.

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12 Responses

  1. I wish I’d liked and appreciated this as much as you did. I felt it was all over the place and whooshed from character to character with too much confusion. I love this show, but I didn’t love this episode.

    • I really enjoyed it. Not as much as Dark Water and Death in Heaven, and I think Heaven Sent elevates Hell Bent, but I really enjoyed it as a season finale.

  2. Well, now my mind is reeling with re-castings for classic Doctors. Hugh Laurie as Two? Gordon Ramsay as Three? Russell Brand as Four? Dan Stevens as Five? (Nah, too obvious.)

    This is more fun than the finale was.

    • To be fair, the recasting of the First Doctor is the kinda thing that’s protected by a… grandfather clause. The Five Doctors set the precedent, and it seems like Moffat is just following that. Plus, I’d argue that the First Doctor never existed until The Three Doctors, and is largely an illusory construct of memory desired to paper over the gaps in continuity. Hartnell wasn’t playing “the First Doctor” in the same way that Troughton played “the Second Doctor” or that Pertwee played “the Third Doctor.” He was playing “the Doctor”, a time-traveller from the forty-sixth century who had retired to Earth with his granddaughter, who had never heard of Time Lords and Gallifrey. So this gets a pass from me.

  3. I liked it though I think you’re a bit kinder to the the episode than I am. I’m probably less inclined to give credit to the show on diversity because it still hasn’t cast a South Asian character – Britain’s largest non-white minority by far – in a significant role.

    I liked Bill’s ending though the fact that it was almost an exact copy of Clara’s ending weakened it for me. That’s a shame because in many ways I think this is a much stronger beat; Clara’s arc consistently diminished the Doctor to stress how awesome she was. Bill gets to be awesome in her own right without another character being dumbed down to help her.

    • The damage from Clara’s tenure is still ongoing.

      • In fairness, I did think the series had an audacious and brilliant idea with Clara… that they wasted on a brief gag in ‘Death Heaven’.

        (I’m not remotely kidding: I sincerely would have loved ‘Clara’ to have turned out to be the real Twelve after all.)

    • I would strongly disagree with the idea that Clara diminished the Doctor. I thought their co-dependent relationship was a more interesting take on the Doctor/companion dynamic than any I’d seen in a while. It played kinda like a much better version of the Rose/Doctor dynamic for me.

      That’s a fair point on the lack of major South Asian characters, though.

      • Leaving aside Clara – and I know you’ve said before that you have a much higher opinion of her than I do – what do you think about my suggestion that Bill’s exit was diminished by coming across as a bit of a retread of Clara’s exit?

      • Not really. No more than constant escalation of world-ending woe in the Davies era or that “hm… the actor’s leaving, quick, write in a love interest or something” approach of the classic series.

      • Don’t get me started on those! 😉

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