He’s a bit like that there Doctor Who – and yes, we think we can call our eponymous character that now – is Steven Moffat. There will be a lot of unnecessary running around, and we will have seen much of what he does before. Hell, we’ll have seen him being the one doing it. There will certainly be an attempt to make sure everybody lives, and there will be a number of rabbits being pulled out of hats – whether expected or not. Oh, and boy he does – despite himself – love a tragedy. A tragedy that he’ll try and manipulate to create something bold, bittersweet and beautiful out of.
We’ll have to wait till next week for that last one.
This was definitely a case of him saving the best until (next to) last, though. Series Ten has felt just a little bit of a plod in getting here; fantastic TARDIS team, but the stories themselves a little too obvious, a little too safe, a little too lacking in colour. World Enough and Time (and by the way, what a brilliant title, one of the series’ best), on the other hand, exploded onto our screens – almost literally, in the pre-titles flash-forward’s case – in a blaze of muffled grey tones and surprisingly reined in performances. Well, but for old Fagin over there at any rate.
This was a case of generating a creeping sense of terror, rather than going for the simple shocks – which were nevertheless all present and correct. Even John Simm’s Mr. Razor, an ostensibly comic creation, existed to engender unease. Whether you spotted who was underneath all that latex or not – and the mask beneath a mask scene was one of the funniest and most disturbingly so jokes this year – his every line and action served to rubber stamp Bill’s fate with a peculiar irony that was quite chilling. In fact, as much as the double cliff-hanger might have been obvious for some (and we’re willing to bet a huge majority of the watching audience didn’t twig one or both of the reveals until they were nearly upon us), it was the sense of inevitability that produced the tension. We saw Bill die. There was a bloody great hole right through the middle of her body – in a shot nicked right out of Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead – so we knew there wasn’t going to be a simple solution in the offering; no easy resurrection here. In fact, it was a good job Jorj waited until the proto-Cybermen had pretty much arrived before pulling the trigger! Moffat’s ethos this year has been, “Here’s what’s going to happen, now sit back and watch us getting there.” Except there was no sitting back this week; everything about World Enough and Time was designed to put the viewer on the edge of their seat. Assuming they weren’t hiding behind it, that is.
In many ways, this was Moffat revisiting some of his earlier two-parters and revising them, approaching their themes or topics from a new angle. Forest of the Dead had given us two mismatched but simultaneous time-lines, The Empty Child had revolved around a creepily half-deserted hospital with scientifically inappropriate patients, and Dark Water had provided an alternative origin story for the Cybermen that had been all about the ultra-deliberate disclosure of detail. Moffat loves to take his favourite themes and find new ways to play with them, though; while the plots might seem familiar – and from Marc Platt’s Spare Parts too, of course – it’s the substance of the stories that marks them as distinct. And this wasn’t really about the Cybermen, any more than Death in Heaven was; this was an aperitif to the main course, the story of Missy’s redemption and the past that comes back – quite literally comes back – to spoil it.
“My name is Doctor Who” was a brilliant scene, a comedy rejoinder to Clara’s entreaty to the Time Lords at the end of The Time of the Doctor, and a bit of a two-fingered salute to the kind of people who worry about these things. It was Missy taking the Doctor’s lifestyle frivolously, before realising the gravity – again quite literally – of what he does. It was an essential way to introduce Missy’s rehabilitation, demonstrating that reformed or not, she still has an exhibitionistic playful side; in fact, if she’d toed the Doctor’s line we’d have been set up to think she was deceiving him. The flashbacks to the Doctor formulating his scheme were equally well conceived, his enthusiasm proving his undoing even as we watched. It’s an obvious Moffat trick but it’s never been better played or more pertinent.
The acting was staggeringly good from everybody on the screen, and with Alison Lintott’s nurse and Paul Brightwell’s surgeon, there was a heightened, Jeunet-esque quality to the horror and the performances that allowed Simm’s Mr. Razor not to seem misplaced. The Master’s disguises have sometimes felt too obvious, but here he was right at home – making him less culpable in his choices and less easy to spot. His scene with Missy was electrifying, and his unmasking hilarious. Terrifying and hysterical at once. We’ve been a long time waiting for an on-screen two Masters story, and Moffat’s apparent choices in what kind of such story would be worth telling appear impeccable.
Was World Enough and Time fan service at the expense of regular viewers? Not at all. Whether Moffat ties the episode in explicitly with The Tenth Planet or not, the concepts and the creepiness still work remarkably well – especially as a sub-texture to Missy’s story – and Moffat has even made some of the hokier aspects of the Cybermen’s debut less absurd along the way. It’s the series’ very first attempt to show us the horror of the creation of the Cybermen, demonstrating – if Dark Water had left us in any doubt – Moffat’s understanding that simply enclosing characters in metal suits doesn’t expose the situation’s full monstrosity. And the substance of the episode was in how it will tie its two plots together; this week we had a thesis on the mechanics of an enforced metamorphosis, which will no doubt foreshadow – as suggested in the cold open – at least one if not several more to come.
World Enough and Time left us with a promise, that the character’s journeys are going to end in painful and complicated, and transmogrifying, ways – that despite the trailer, The Doctor Falls will really be about its people. And, just maybe, that next Saturday we’ll find out who Peter Capaldi’s replacement is going to be. If being blasé about Simm’s return and the Mondas Cybermen has distracted attention away from bigger secrets to be revealed, then wouldn’t that be a thing? Steven Moffat might be about to bow out of Doctor Who with his most comprehensive and fulfilling series finale yet. On this evidence, it has very much been worth the wait.
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 11: “WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME” / DIRECTOR: RACHEL TALALAY / WRITER: STEVEN MOFFAT / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS, MICHELLE GOMEZ, JOHN SIMM, OLIVER LANSLEY, PAUL BRIGHTWELL / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 24TH JUNE)