Well here we are, dear friends: the antepenultimate episode of the Steven Moffat era, and the start of Moffat’s last ever Doctor Who season finale. As has been my wont this season, let’s start with a brief moment of reflection before trying to parse through the episode itself. For his first three seasons — coinciding, not surprisingly, with the Matt Smith tenure — Moffat eschewed RTD’s traditional “parting of the ways” finales and went instead for mostly unambiguously happy, eucatastrophic endings. “The Big Bang” and “The Wedding of River Song” both centered on actual weddings which signifies that we’re in the domain of comedy rather than tragedy. Though undeniably darker, ” Name of the Doctor” ended with both the Doctor and companion alive and together and lead directly into that most eucatastrophic and unifying of episodes, “Day of the Doctor.” Things shifted in the Capaldi era. Clara does survive both series 8 and 9 (sort of) but “Dark Water/Death in Heaven” and “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent” have felt less triumphant and more like narrow escapes contingent on terrible prices. The very titles signify the importance of that most universal experience of death. They have been dark meditations on disturbing themes: the afterlife, body horror and suffering, and grief. The presence of Missy and Rassilon nudges everything into the cosmic conflict of demigods and feels suitably mythic.
This being the end of the Capaldi era, naturally “World Enough and Time” continues the trend. In fact, it has a lot in common with those other Capaldi finales. There’s the horrifying death of the companion. The presence of both Missy and the Cybermen (and the Cybermen’s associated body horror). Even the world at the bottom of the Mondasian ship in which Bill finds herself resembles a grimier version of the 3W “heaven” (and does that make Razor the Seb proxy?). And like Danny Pink, Bill is killed and “upgraded”. It’s also worth mentioning the fantastic Rachel Talalay whose direction gives the three Capaldi finales a visual and tonal unity. People often accuse Moffat of recycling ideas, but that’s the wrong word for it. It’s more like a compositional restatement. These are the motifs and ideas of the Capaldi era. Throw them all together as he Moffat does in the finale and you get one dense and fascinating hour of Doctor Who. But the question remains: Which is the true face of the Steven Moffat era? Is it the joyous happy turn of the eucatastrophe which ends in weddings and dancing? Or the narrow escape from disaster; the inevitability of death averted in a series of long defeats which can be delayed, never truly avoided? Or are they merely two sides of the same coin? We’ll probably have to wait for the Christmas Special for Moffat’s ultimate statement on Doctor Who (and to be fair there’s no rule that says the last episode as to be the final word on anything) but these are my questions going into “The Doctor Falls.”
But to focus on “World Enough and Time” specifically I’ll restate my one-sentence twitter review: Boy, that was messed-up. The episode is permeated with a sense of dread like a slow-motion car crash. The understandable and practical decision to make big publicity announcements about the return of John Simm’s Master and the Cybermen means that nothing that happens here really comes as a surprise. Simm’s performance as Razor is delightfully weird and yet he is recognizable enough under the make-up that the fun is more in watching his performance than in the final Scooby-Doo reveal. Likewise, Bill’s absolutely brutal “death” early in the episode, combined with slow accumulation of Cyberman signifiers — the burn-victim-like bandaged patients, Bill’s mechanical heart, the emotion-inhibiting handles, etc. — telegraph the ending before it arrives. Even the fact that these are Mondasian Cybermen was spoiled in promotional material weeks ago. The pleasure, if you can call it that, lies in what C.S. Lewis called “surprisingness”: the slow-burn of narrative inevitability. Even the way Moffat structured Bill’s death, cutting back and forth from the singed hole in her body to her half-joking, half-serious plea to the Doctor to keep her alive, contributes to this effect. In another script where that roof-top conversation had come first it would have functioned as foreshadowing. Here, juxtaposed with the Doctor’s blatant failure, it communicates a bitter irony.
All of the big spoilers do seemingly apply to this episode, however, freeing up “The Doctor Falls” to indulge in some true surprises. Typically for a Moffat series finale, I haven’t the faintest idea how any of this will resolve itself. If you have theories, let us hear it in the comments. Lacking this surprise in the first half, Moffat packs “World Enough and Time” with ideas and details. The time distortion between the two ends of the ship is an interesting new permutation of Moffat’s timey-wimey storytelling (and how much do you want to bet he got the idea from Brian Cox’s special “The Science of Doctor Who“?). Bill seems a bit cavalier about her excruciatingly long wait for the Doctor, but pairing her with Simm’s Razor was a brilliant idea and lends extra weight to her statement earlier on that Missy “really scares” her.
And of course, the specific choice to use Mondasian Cybermen justifies bringing the Cybermen back yet again. It’s not just the fun of seeing the original flavor design, although that is quite fun. It’s that they work so darn well. These are easily the scariest the Cybermen have been in the new series, which makes you kind of regret the long since past decision to reconceptualize them as a metallic robot horde rather than the far more human, vulnerable, and disturbing Mondasians. Their bandaged faces, the gaping mouths and eye-sockets, the electrolarynx voices… these were hella creepy in 1966 and they’re hella creepy today. If they do end up causing the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration, then there’s also a nice return to first principles with the Mondasians being responsible yet again for the death of the first in a new cycle of Doctors. Capaldi’s Doctor was always a bit of a Hartnell throwback. Plus, Capaldi wanted them back, so how can you deny him?
The big question mark in all this for me is Bill. I admit at this point I’m somewhat baffled by her character arc, or lack thereof. Though easily one of the most fresh and likeable companions ever, she has seemed to me fairly static. That’s not necessarily a problem. Not every companion has to go through the transformation of, say, Donna Noble. Bill seems like someone who had a natural curiosity, compassion, and sense of wonder that didn’t necessarily need the Doctor to make them flourish. And yet there are times where she’s felt a bit sidelined in her own season. Indeed, Missy’s redemption arc has been given more focus than any apparent changes in Bill’s character. After Clara’s gradual three-year development Bill seems a bit underserved. I don’t actually expect Moffat to leave her as a converted Cyberman or anything — that’s a whole other level of bleakness and wouldn’t feel much like Moffat’s Doctor Who. And yet at this point I’m still left with the feeling that most of Bill’s appeal is based on the skill and charm of Pearl Mackie’s portrayal rather than a particularly compelling character arc.
But perhaps this is part of the point. Bill is thoroughly screwed by the Doctor here. She doesn’t want to be part of Missy’s redemption arc and tells the Doctor as much. And yet he talks her into it, choosing his fraught Time Lord friendship over his more fragile human one. The Master is the Doctor’s “first friend” in more than one sense and he does, in fact, get Bill killed. Having Razor turn out to be Simm’s Master even serves as a rather neat metaphor: Can the Doctor love and forgive Missy for crimes committed in her past lives? Clara first voiced this as an accusation after Danny’s death/upgrade in “Death in Heaven,” condemning the Doctor’s unfailing love for this unrepentant mass-murderer. Bill’s more gentle appeal to the Doctor that he has “better friends” falls on deaf ears. Missy declared that she hadn’t turned good in “The Magician’s Apprentice” while engaging in a rescue mission for the Doctor. In retrospect, Missy’s redemption has been a central concern of the Capaldi era, and Bill’s current state is a direct consequence of this. The title of this episode turns out to be double-edged. Though the titular allusion to Andrew Marvell’s poem centers on the fragility and brevity of mortal human lives, perhaps in the end this has all been the Doctor’s love letter to his first man-crush, his coy Mistress.