After an entire 45-minute Doctor Who episode concerned with waiting, here comes another one. Only this week, with fifteen minutes’ extra waiting – and four extra characters to do the waiting.
The Doctor Falls took the premise of the previous Doctor’s regeneration story, The Time of the Doctor, to a whole new level. In Matt Smith’s final story, he found a reason to stay and live out his last life in the service of protecting the people of a planet we viewers at home had no particular reason to care about, knowing his life was coming to an end. It was an episode about what happens to the Doctor when he “retires”, and how the universe – and his companion – won’t let him. The Doctor Falls took each of these elements and shifted them about in some way. Peter Capaldi’s twelfth Doctor once again took a stand – “I do what I do because it’s right, it’s decent. And above all, because it’s kind,” he tells the two Masters in the episode’s signature scene, one that’s undermined a little by the Doctor’s assertion that to do so “hardly ever works”, when for fifty-odd years we’ve been watching him actually saving the day, actually “winning” – as the Masters themselves should have experienced often enough. It’s a statement about who the Doctor is and what he does that might have been more powerful if we hadn’t heard it before, but that just about works because of who his audience is this time around. And this time around, the Doctor was making his speech as he faced finally going into the good night (and not for the first time either), having stuck around not for retirement but for, presumably, guilt. It had been his hubris – or perhaps his over-reliance on Missy (and the final irony was that he never got to hear her repaying his trust) – that had got him, and Bill, and Missy, and Nardole, into this mess, so here he was planting his feet firmly on the ground and accepting his culpability, as well as the punishment, the ultimate self-sacrifice, that was going to come his way.
Which meant the episode was filled with great dramatic – and comedic – performances, and lots of character moments that made the waiting worthwhile. But it did kill all of the episode’s momentum stone dead, to the point where The Doctor Falls became a sequence of terribly long scenes – beautifully, cinematically shot by Rachel Talalay – that reinforced things we already knew about the characters, without really adding very much that we didn’t.
Nardole, for example, gets to stay on the ship and potentially either nobly sacrifice himself in the cause of slowing down the Cybermen’s inexorable march to the top, or else save the day with a little bit of Doctor-like genius, of the kind the Doctor has patently not been exhibiting this week. It wasn’t a destination that made sense of the character, although it did highlight the Doctor’s insistence on sacrificing himself as just that, a deliberate choice, rather than a last option. Remote-detonating a bomb shouldn’t have been beyond the skills of someone as quick-thinking and tech-literate as we saw the Doctor being earlier in the episode. The Doctor’s choice for death was a bit like standing in front of a door and not being able to open it all over again, something the character we know ought to easily have been able to do. Especially after he’d given such a beautiful speech about making a difference.
Similarly Bill’s story, while heart-breaking and despite having been seen before, made less sense of Bill’s narrative than it did the Doctor’s decision. On a number of occasions this year, Bill has been witness to events rather than proactive in them (Oxygen springs immediately to mind, for several reasons), and that’s fair enough; the Doctor should be doing the legwork and the companion should be throwing in where they can. But the line “Where there’s a tear, there’s hope” should have signalled a kick-start in trying to find a solution, rather than merely being a pre-empting of an otherwise fairly spurious resurrection for the character at the end of the episode. The return of Heather as the Pilot was well signalled and emotionally satisfactory, and indeed the means by which the Doctor was also able to be resurrected, but where was she in the final moments of last week’s episode? In the cold light of day, it’s a manipulation that services necessary plot developments rather than being an integral part of their construction.
The inclusion of the two Masters was also anything but essential to the plot, such as it was. It isn’t even clear just how much input the Simm Master had in the development of the Cybermen, and other than the timing, his responsibility in Bill’s conversion lies more in his claims of it rather than any obvious practical involvement. Simm however was magnificent, moustache-curlingly evil without a hint of campery; this is a Master we could happily have seen a lot more of – and it would have been lovely to see him doing something with this characterisation too, beyond of course being the bearer of bad news.
Missy’s story, this series’ arc lest we forget, came to a satisfying climax – “It’s time to stand with the Doctor” a fantastic moment of proper character development, one that we’d witnessed happening and that felt real, natural and earned. And sadly rather wasted; the irony of her realisation being also the moment of her ending was entirely inevitable, but the potential it unlocked will sadly now remain elusive, something to imagine rather than to enjoy. The two Masters made a great double act, easily worthy of the expectations placed upon a finale. It’s a shame they weren’t given something creative to get involved in, as their interactions were as static as they were electrifying.
Equally static was Peter Capaldi, a superlative presence but one who, through injury and resolve, had less light to balance with his shades of determined single-mindedness this week. This was his Androzani, his Logopolis even, and while the Doctor’s culpability made his intransigence logical, it robbed us of the lightness of touch that has charmed us through much of Series Ten.
The Doctor Falls was the story of three Time Lords and two part-humans locked in a prison of their own determination, with none of them showing much of an imperative to find an escape route. It began with an example of Moffat’s sinister creativity in the pre-titles sequence – we might have seen “living” scarecrows before but here it was the why rather than the what that was so chilling – but beyond that point, there was little to genuinely surprise. Your appreciation of it will depend upon what you want from your Doctor Who; emotionally it was resonant and in terms of character development it was fulfilling, but coming after Hell Bent, which managed to smuggle its rewards into a rich and comprehensive metaphorical sci-fi plot, the Series Ten finale saw Moffat throwing the switch back so far in the other direction, it was the simplicity itself that was the surprise. Overall, as a two-parter, this will be among Moffat’s better works but perhaps not among his very best.
He has made good on his promise to do something new with the Doctor’s regeneration, however, perhaps justifiably given that we’re at the beginning of a new regeneration cycle. And it feels entirely appropriate that this first “new” Doctor will come to accept the need for change in symmetry with the other first Doctor, facing the prospect entirely without experience of it. Christmas will see Steven Moffat bowing out forging connections between the new and the old, just as he has so often done during his tenure as showrunner.
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 12: “THE DOCTOR FALLS” / DIRECTOR: RACHEL TALALAY / WRITER: STEVEN MOFFAT / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS, MICHELLE GOMEZ, JOHN SIMM, SAMANTHA SPIRO / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 1ST JULY)