These final episodes are always the toughest to write about, as I’m sure they’re the toughest for the production team as well. This one even more than usual as it’s hard to avoid the feeling, justified or not, that the final episodes of an era have to bear an exponential amount of weight, functioning as the summary or concluding argument for everything that’s come before. Although for me “Listen” stands as the most eloquent and concise “thesis statement” of what the Moffat era is about, this two-part finale and the impending Christmas special will inevitably seen as the keystone of his tenure. The pressure of that epochal change from one writer to the next, even more than from one Doctor to another, pushes the writers to go big and sure enough “The Doctor Falls” resembles “The End of Time” in its high emotion and risk-taking as well as in some smaller details, and will no doubt result in mixed reactions from viewers. As my twitter friend @hammard_1987 observed, “One thing you can rely on. At the end of a season of Doctor Who some people claiming it’s perfect, others saying they’ll never watch again,” and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Knowing how to even break it down into digestible chunks for blogging purposes is difficult, and I can feel a larger, more broadly-encompassing Moffat Era post brewing, so perhaps the simplest way is to tackle the different character story-lines within the episode. Pretty much all of the plot and situational set-up was accomplished in the efficient (if predictable) part 1, resulting in a part 2 that spends all of its time on the fates of these characters.
Let’s start with that quirky sidekick, Nardole. I feel as though I haven’t talked much about him this season. Like the Paternoster Gang, he’s a character I enjoy watching and don’t find myself thinking about at any depth. He certainly turned into a far less twee presence than the past two Christmas episodes would have suggested, so I think it’s kind of great the way he developed this kind of bitchy, not-quite-antagonistic rapport with the Doctor. There were a few lines that felt a bit unearned (are we sure he’s stronger than the Doctor? what was his thing about setting up a black market, again?) but those are minor complaints in the light of a character who came in with basically no goodwill and ended up carving out a place for himself as a proper companion. The smiley, goofy persona being a thin layer over a more jaded sense of humor works well with Matt Lucas’ delivery, and I kind of liked that the Doctor and Bill had time to focus on the emotional stories given Nardole blowing shit up in the background.
Where to start with these two? While I was taken with Michelle Gomez’s Missy from the start, the gradual softening of her incarnation becomes much more apparent when placed alongside John Simm’s Davies-era Master who has never been darker or scarier than in this episode. I say that having quite liked his earlier appearances, but Moffat took the themes and motifs that signified his Master and doubled-down on them here. His cruel misogyny, implicit in his treatment of Chantho and Lucy Saxon, becomes almost unbearable when turned on the sensitive and long-suffering incarnation of sweetness that is Bill. His sneering dismissal of empathy and snarky fear the the future “will be all girl” highlight the ways in which his brutality and his contempt for women (and therefore his underestimating of them) have always been related.
As for Missy, Gomez finally sold me on her redemption arc. I have to put this down to the sheer power of the acting because I’m not sure those weird mid-season episodes featuring Missy ever really conveyed why Missy might change. But here, Gomez’s slightly crazed and desperate performance conveys her misgivings even without writerly motivation. And perhaps we are given an answer after all in the presence of the Master. This in the end is the biggest difference between the two incarnations: the Master wants to dominate the universe, including the Doctor. Everything from his misogyny to his racism to his actions toward the Doctor is about control: putting the Doctor in prison, eating the world, creating the Master Race. Missy doesn’t really want control; she wants chaos. This makes her like the Doctor in a way and allows her motivation to shift toward reclaiming their friendship. In her mind they could BFF TARDIS buddies traveling the universe together: It’s just those pesky companions and that boring morality stuff that get in the way. For all that the Master is consistently arch and villainous and funny (loved the repeated “he told me he always hated you” gag) these really are opposite motivations and so they cancel each other out. The mutual murder/suicide was just brilliant. Missy kills her old being so that a newer, better version of herself can emerge (and how wonderfully alchemical is that?). The Master, nihilistic and suicidal as ever, destroys his future self utterly. I absolutely love the echo with “Last of the Time Lords,” with the Master committing true suicide rather than give the Doctor the satisfaction of being right. “How about that?” he muttered the first time. “I win.” Rachel Talalay directed the bleakness of those moments, with their hysterical laughter and the Master’s oddly-framed descent into the darkness below, exquisitely. In typical Moffat fashion, he gives them perfect endings which are in no way definitive. Is Missy actually the next regeneration after the Simm Master? Is Missy truly and finally dead? Obviously these are questions for someone other than Moffat to answer.
Part of me wants to end this blog with Bill, as in a way the end of a season is always the companion’s story and my feelings about her are the most complicated. Thank goodness they cut between CyberBill and regular Bill, and they really couldn’t or shouldn’t have done anything else. As finale episodes these are extremely powerful. Bill is really put through the wringer here, and what’s more they emphasize that fact. Companions have suffered terrible fates before but rarely are we given the time to just sit and dwell on their emotional suffering. The British stiff upper lip really doesn’t apply here. Bill tries to be her cheerful old self but it’s very clear that she’s distraught throughout. Her crying at the Master’s stupid insults, her tearful realization that “people are always going to be afraid of [her],” and her resigned capitulation when Hazran shoots at her… these hit an emotional register we don’t often see from the often “feisty” companions. I’m half-wondering if Moffat is playing with some kind of metaphor here about the gentle soul who is feared mistreated by others due to her appearance. That fits uncomfortably well with New Who’s unfortunate habit of converting black characters into Cybermen, although I’m not sure I like what it suggests about the associations between blackness and deformity. Bill says that she doesn’t want to live if she can’t be herself, which seems to validate her blackness as an integral part of herself. And yet when the Doctor tells her to control her temper lest it provoke others into attacking her, I can’t help but wonder.
Regardless, this is a might bleak time for our beloved Bill. I’m not quite of the school of thought that takes issue with Moffat putting her through this kind of hardship, and yet there does seem to be a slight disproportion between these finale episodes and the rest of the season in terms of Bill’s character development. Simply put… I’m not entirely convinced that she changes all that much in her travels with the Doctor. She starts out a sweet, humble, curious student who wants a bit of adventure and that’s kind of what we see throughout. This isn’t necessarily a problem, especially given the charisma and nuance of Pearl Mackie’s performance, but I’m not convinced that it worked as well as Russell Davies single-season companions. When you look back at Rose in season 1, Martha in season 3, and Donna in season 4 you see very clearly the arc of where they started and ended and the change they went through in just 13 episodes. Granted, those early RTD seasons probably had a lower batting average than these more sleek Moffat seasons, and yet I wonder if some of the more clunky filler episodes served as opportunities to put in those quieter character beats and nudge the development along. Moffat seasons tend to go from one high-concept episode to another, leaving little time to just check in with where Bill is emotionally. As it was, these episodes kind of slammed her out of nowhere and left me feeling like only Bill of all companions could be this well-disposed toward the Doctor after all this bullshit. The fusion of RTD-style companion with Moffat-era ending didn’t entirely fit, even if it was powerfully written and acted.
That said, of course I’m glad she wasn’t killed outright and the door was left open for a return to mundane humanity if she wished. Her sobbing over the Doctor and the horrible thud of the Cyber-body were bad enough: a truly dead Bill would have been too much. Naturally Heather returned, as everyone guessed she would, and whisked Bill off into their own adventure. Perhaps we can have a spinoff with Clara, Lady Me, Heather, and Bill flying around in the diner? That would be dope. Let’s hope the future’s all girl.
In a twitter debate with my podcasting co-host Curtis Weyant and a few others, the question of “surprisingness” in stories came up again. In the last post, I noted that every single major plot twist had been either spoiled by the production team/BBC or was very easily guessable by an attentive fan audience and therefore the plot twists must serve some other function for the viewer than mere surprise. The answer, usually, is what Lewis called “surprisingness”: the quality of surprise which doesn’t rely on the mere fact of the plot twist. In the hands of a masterful author, one can enjoy with pleasure the process of seeing how a story unfolds as much as the shock of the plot itself. While the fates of Bill, Nardole, and the Masters were more uncertain, the Doctor’s is less so and so lends itself to a kind of surpringness. We know he will regenerate soon: the question is when and how. While Curtis and others felt that Moffat teased out the “fake-out” regeneration energy a few too many times, I have to confess it never really bothered me. Doctor Who has never successfully pulled off a surprise regeneration before (except in the case of those that weren’t true regenerations, like Ten’s, or in the case of one-off characters/arcs, like the War Doctor). Know that we have a Christmas special still to come, that Capaldi would be appearing in that special, and that the Thirteenth Doctor’s casting had not yet been announced I was reasonably confident that we wouldn’t see Number Thirteen in “The Doctor Falls.” True, I would have been delighted to have been proved wrong, but I was in no way surprised or disappointed when we didn’t. Instead, what we get is the long, slow build-up to the inevitable. This is Moffat’s riff on Ten’s regeneration in “The End of Time,” complete with the Simm Master and the homage to the line “I don’t want to go,” yes, but more than that in the elegiac tone. One could successfully make the argument that RTD did it better. Gut-wrenching melodrama is really in his wheelhouse, whereas the bizarre and audacious Eleventh Doctor regeneration really feels more like Moffat’s style. But after some notable departures from the RTD era, it’s still interesting to see Moffat take a stab at riffing on what’s come before in his own way.
And as gut-wrenching melodrama goes, this was pretty great. Capaldi’s Doctor gets some nice speeches summing up the thematic virtues of his Doctor: the virtue of fear, the value of kindness, the importance of doing good “without hope, without witness, without reward.” When it comes time for his last stand, the at times bleakness of his interpretation of the character give it true apocalyptic weight. It’s an interesting twist on the “I don’t want to go line” to make it not about the regrettable loss of a beloved incarnation and more about the Doctor’s general weariness. In his first episode, “Deep Breath,” Twelve wondered about the “Ship of Theseus” broom paradox. This anxiety was restated at the end of series 9 in “Heaven Sent”: “How long can I keep doing this? Burning the old me to make a new one.” This Doctor mirrors the Master; maybe he doesn’t want to go on. He’s starting to wonder if he’s had enough. He’s the oldest Doctor and yet the first in a new cycle of regenerations. He’s an ancient old man expected to start fresh.
And so, beautifully and fittingly, he is placed alongside that other oldest of men who was also the first. Who else should come shuffling through the snow muttering about his distaste of change but the Doctor? Not the First Doctor, mind you, but the Doctor. The original, you might say. It’s perfect. Except that it’s nonsense. This is the delicious irony, you see. Here we have the Doctor confronted with his first, original incarnation…played by someone else. David Bradley is a national treasure, one of Britain’s great character actors. I’ve loved him in everything I’ve seen him in, and he was excellent as William Hartnell in “An Adventure in Space and Time.” But he’s not William Hartnell but a guy playing him playing the Doctor. And so in that wonderfully metatextual way that Moffat writes Who, he’s set us up to explore the necessity of change both within the story and outside. There is, after all, something of a tradition of other actors playing the First Doctor. Doctor Who has only survived these fifty-four (!) years by this process of actors passing the torch. This is why we, and the Doctor, bear with the pain of regeneration: the promise of something new. And we’re subtly reminded of this fact by the mere presence of an actor doing an impersonation of an actor playing a role. What a weird, wonderful show.