13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
Want us to let you know when we post a new review? Click here to join our mailing list.
WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME/THE DOCTOR FALLS
WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME
Sometimes when we're slogging through a particularly egregious season of Doctor Who, it feels like there's no relief in sight. And we start to ask ourselves: exactly why is it that we call ourselves Doctor Who fans? If we're faintly bored by that episode, and completely bored by that episode, and utterly outraged by that episode, what is it that we actually like?
This. We like this Doctor Who.
And when we say like, that's like calling Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez a tiny bit talented. We think World Enough And Time is one of the best episodes in all of Doctor Who. Sure, it's nowhere near perfect, but we love it anyway.
Thanks to the heroic quest of the BBC to spoil the entire season for its audience, we already knew there were Mondasian Cybermen in this episode, because weíd seen Ďem. Is the experience of viewing World Enough And Time enriched by being familiar with their backstory in The Tenth Planet? OH HELL YEAH. Weíre not exactly the Cybermenís chief cheerleaders normally, but The Tenth Planet shows us a very different type of Cyberman. One thatís more complex. One thatís more tragic. One that doesnít send us into a coma. If you havenít seen The Tenth Planet, we strongly urge you to do so. Yes, itís black and white, with a companion that screams and makes coffee. Yes, the Doctor doesnít even appear in one whole episode. But itís bloody good all the same. And hey, very first regeneration! Whatís not to like?
In The Tenth Planet, the Cybermen explain that they used to be human but Cyberfied themselves (for reasons we wonít spoil you with if you havenít seen it, because you should see it). They arenít the most reliable narrators, and their story is a bit on the sparse side, but thus far in onscreen Doctor Who history nobody had taken up the baton and fleshed out the origin story. In his last major story for Doctor Who, Steven Moffat has decided that heís going to step into that breach and, whatís more, that itís going to be epic. Heís not going to modestly wait for the acclaim to come to him: instead, he actually has the Master come right out with what he has in mind. ďDonít say, it, donít say it!Ē one of us squeaked, but he does: that this is the genesis of the Cybermen. Equating yourself with justly famous Dalek origin story Genesis Of The Daleks takes quite a pile of chutzpah. Does he carry it off? Not exactly, but it's a damned good try.
The Genesis reference isnít the only fourth wall-breaking device here: we start with a lengthy riff on the Doctor being called Doctor Who. This normally induces an intense skin-crawling sensation and a desire to flee shrieking from the room, but by some mysterious alchemy of her own Michelle Gomez actually manages to make it bearable.
And her test run as a Doctor stand-in is perfectly done by all concerned and completely hilarious, while making in passing some trenchant remarks on the nature of her relationship with the Doctor. She is of course right that only Time Lords can really have a relationship of any equality with each other, even if the Doctor does label his companions friends. And this also brings up the reason the Doctor has spared the Master's life time and again despite his (and her) frequent black villainy: between those two, it's just not that simple. They've always been friends, sort of. And enemies, sort of. And maybe sort of something else as well, disappointing though it is that the Doctor squashes the subtlety out of this by spelling it out in letters of fire as a man crush.
Missy explodes the fourth wall again with "And these are my disposables: Exposition and Comic Relief" and "And then he dropped the Who when he realised it was a tiny bit on the nose", while we marvel at just how very lovely it all is. How often have we seen this type of scene in Doctor Who? This sendup is funny, pointed and still gets the plot machinery creaking into motion as it's supposed to, and it's terrific watching Missy be all Doctor-smart instead of just grandstanding about slaughtering people. Enjoy the fun while it lasts, because while the Doctor's busy outlining his usual who-was-that-man-with-a-blue-box schtick Bill gets a hole through her middle the size of a small asteroid. And thatís when things really get good.
Boom! The lift doors open, faceless white-clad figures emerge and Bill is bundled away. If you don't know the Mondasian Cybermen, we'd imagine these guys are pretty scary anyway, but when you know exactly what the heads with white tights and the crinkly plastic fingers mean, this is a seriously oh shit moment. The nature of the repair they're planning to do on Bill is all too evident. But this is nothing compared to what's coming.
How they do all this, by the way, with the time differences between the different parts of the ship due to the black hole, is terrific. It's such a neat yet completely sciency explanation: real science tacked onto the fiction and used to great effect. We love it.
Anyway, back to the hospital ward, where we're about to get horror we think is unparalleled. The scenes that follow Bill's post-surgery waking, with the relentless and terrible repetiton of "pain", the unbelievably creepy ward with the motionless figures in white, and the moment of supreme horror when Bill realises the only "treatment" they are receiving is having their volume turned down, are astonishing. They're a hymn to the values of restraint, creativity and suggestion over bombast and the obvious. And knowing what's happened to the figures in white, and to Bill herself, turns the whole thing up to eleven.
Meanwhile, there's also a strange figure whose relationship to the whole conversion process is mysterious and whose accent wanders all over the map. He seems to be on Bill's side, but is he?
Course he bloody isn't. Thanks to the BBC yet again blabbing their best secrets, it's all too obviously the Master we knew would be appearing. Tons of prosthetics, disguise like the Master's addicted to and, more than anything, the sheer weirdness of this character in the middle of the hospital setting give the game away instantly. In saying he's recognisable, we don't want to take anything away from John Simm, who does a superb job with the character. We only wish we'd been given the chance to be fooled by him.
Of course, it's not the episode's fault that its best secrets were spilt in advance. But there's a fair bit of room here too for flaws of its own, mostly of a plotular nature. Why is the blue guy afraid of the Cybermen when he already knows they're not interested in him? They didn't know they were going to get stuck next to a black hole, so why do they have the counters showing the different times? They have to reverse the rear thrusters by hand?
And more serious than any of those are the holes in the Cybermen backstory. Let's remind ourselves of why the ship is where it is: it's a colony ship going to pick up the colonists, with an initial crew of 50. They got too close to a black hole, and twenty of them went down to the lowest deck to get out their hammers and wrenches and reverse the thrusters. This worked, but only just: the ship is backing away from the black hole, but even after a thousand years have passed in real time, it's still close enough to the black hole for time dilation to have massively slowed the passage of time at the black-hole-adjacent end of the ship.
Right then. So this crew of twenty is on the lowest deck. Once the thrusters have been reversed, why the flippity heck don't they just return to the top? The backing away part is clearly going to take a very long time, but if they go back up to the top, for them it's only going to take days or weeks. Then once they're free of the black hole they they can zoom away and resume their lives (although the colony ship will probably have to be traded in since the ancient lower end at least is going to need a serious overhaul).
Makes sense, right? But instead of that, these twenty, for some unfathomable reason, decide they're going to wait out the backing away period by settling down right where they are and breeding. The fact that the people now living there are descended from only twenty people at least makes the lunatic decision to Cyberise themselves start to make sense. With that degree of inbreeding they're lucky they can walk straight.
So. Time passes and the colony starts to bugger up the deck they're on with pollution. They decide to deal with this problem by turning themselves into machines. This is the part that really frustrates us, because it doesn't answer the question we thought this episode was setting out to address: why? How do you get from there to such a dramatic and terrible here? For a while we thought they were implying that the Master was behind it, but that doesn't seem to be the case: it's not as if he has a position of influence here. And the explanation that it's needed for the pollution's just not strong enough.
What's more, we don't get the relationship between the colony ship and Mondas. Is it implying that once they get away from the black hole they continue on to Mondas and export their Cybertechnology to it? It's possible, but it's all a bit vague.
Like we said, not perfect. But gripping, atmospheric, horrific - love, love, love.
THE DOCTOR FALLS
When this started rolling, we were very, very afraid. Not of the Cybermen, but of the possibility that The Doctor Falls was going to toss away all the greatness of the previous episode. One of the reasons World Enough And Time is so good is that it's all setup, and resolution is never, ever either as easy or as interesting.
And it's true that The Doctor Falls is by no means in the same class as World Enough And Time. In fact, it's absolutely sproinging with faults, which donít worry, we fully intend to dissect. But before we get to that, it's important to say that when we first watched this, we didn't care about any of the problems. We were engaged. We were intrigued. We were enthralled. We cried real tears. For all of its issues, The Doctor Falls makes an entertaining, touching and satisfying pair to World Enough And Time, and the two of them together make undeniably the best finale since the return of Doctor Who. And we can't say fairer than that.
The things we were dreading the most were massive, clangy battles and ye olde shouty Master, but to our relief we got neither of these. The Cyberman combat, both with the farmers and with the Doctor at the end, is on a human scale rather than a giant boring violencefest.
And the Master, well. The story of Missy's question mark redemption has underpinned the entire season, and there were many ways it could have gone horribly wrong. Instead, we think it takes the most perfect path possible. Shorn of the requirement to rant and caper, John Simm is as great here as the Master as we always knew he had the potential to be. We're still not sure if his attraction to himself is Ö.trying to hold it backÖno, we have to give inÖa masterstroke (snerf!), or whether it's spectacularly ill-judged. On consideration, we think both.
But it's Michelle Gomez who walks away with the awards. She's been mesmerising all season, but her hesitation between good and evil during this episode is a masterclass (sorry) in acting. She's one of the best comedy actors we've ever seen, but here she proves, in spades, that she can kill it in the drama department too. Our absolutely favourite moment is when, in the Master's clinch and as she's slicing him up with the other hand, she fiddles languidly with his collar: so subtle, so telling. We're almost as upset at the end of her incarnation as we are about the Doctor's. Oh yes, and full marks to both Masters for their lack of acting during the Doctor's big speech. Michelle Gomez in particular can steal a scene just by blinking, so we were impressed that while he was talking neither of them moved a single muscle that might have taken the focus away from the Doctor.
And we love the resolution of the Master story too. How great is it that the Doctor does indeed succeed in turning Missy to the light, but that he never knows it? It's dark, it's complex, it's absolutely perfect.
And we've arrived at the faults bit. The Master story is terrific, except that for a thread that's been running through the entire season, it somehow seems a bit throwaway. True, Missy fighting alongside the Doctor would have been horrifically on the nose, so they really had no option but to kill her off the instant she sided with the Doctor. Nevertheless, the whole thing comes across as curiously lightweight when up against everything else that's going on. It should be Missy's big moment, and in some ways it is, but in the middle of so many other things it also falls a little flat.
As for John Simm's Master, it's (supposed to be) a huge reveal when it turns out it was him all along, but in the end, it doesn't add up to as much as it should. When you think about the Master and Bill here, what happens is really quite appalling. We know the Master likes doing evil stuff, usually just for the hell of it, so it shouldn't come as a surprise when he tricks Bill. The nature of this, though, given the way Bill trusts him and regards him as a friend over such a long period, is particularly nasty. Yet the story is played as if the only point of it is the reveal of the Master. Post-Cyberfication on meeting the Doctor, Bill has no reaction to her betrayal: she blames the Doctor for not coming for her, not the Master. The only reference in this episode to the Master's betrayal is when he throws a few taunts at her and the Doctor's only response is to urge her not to let them upset her. This isn't a playground bully: it's her supposed best friend over a decade who tricked her into becoming a monster! The Doctor's shrug and move on approach here is hardly adequate.
The Cybermen are shortchanged, too. After an excellent start in this episode with the creepy scarecrows (not very original, but too bloody bad, because they're splendidly chilling) they're really just window dressing, fizzling out into their usual boring all-powerful Flybermen selves. The Doctor suggests they've got the time and the cunning to come up with plots aplenty to foil the farmers, not to mention to cut off the TARDIS, and yet they do nothing but the bog-standard tromp, tromp, tromp. What's more, they're foiled in the end by a few measly explosions. In an overstuffed episode, after such a brilliant start the Cybermen end up as no more than an afterthought.
Bill's story also leaves something to be desired. The horror of her part-transformation, and what lies ahead of her, is what drives World Enough And Time, but in The Doctor Falls, her story is a bit weaker. The device of her not recognising she's been Cyberfied would have been tremendously effective had it not been for the fact that Clara went through the exact same thing. The pathos of her waiting for the Doctor would have been heartrending had it not been for the fact that Amy went through the exact same thing. And clearly we're terrible people, but despite the tragedy of her story we couldn't help finding a mournful Cyberman trudging droopily around trying to make friends just slightly hilarious.
Leaving her as a Cyberman would have been ballsy, but it's fair enough that they didn't want to do that. What they do, though, really is unforgivable. Steven Moffat unleashes his signature move: a clever-clever twist that puts surprise ahead of organic plot development, logic or sense. Yep, it's the return of Puddle Girl! Never mind that last time we saw her she was no more than a shell for an alien with vague memories of Bill and her stupidly out-of-context promise to her not to leave. Yes, we know Steven Moffat has kept throwing tears into this season, but it's not enough to justify this. PainÖpainÖpainÖpainÖ
Nor is the deus ex machina thing the end of it. As well, Bill leaves with Heather to explore the universe - again, exactly as Clara did. What's more, there are some irritating loose ends to her story. If she's so keen on dying, why doesn't she set the explosions off and let the Doctor escape? How does she survive the explosions, anyway? (How, come to that, does the Doctor just look lightly toasted around the edges?) And it doesn't look the greatest when she just swans out of the TARDIS leaving Nardole and the farmers to an exceedingly uncertain fate. Heather is clearly powerful enough to have saved them - if only someone had asked.
Nardole here is exactly as he's been the rest of the season: underused. We like that he has the opportunity to save the day, and he's as terrific as ever, but here as everywhere else we just wish he'd got more screentime.
And the Doctor?
Do we even need to say this? Peter Capaldi plays a blinder. The key moment, the speech he makes about being kind, really isn't necessary: no matter how cold he sometimes seems on the surface, if you don't know all of that about the Doctor already, you don't know the Doctor at all. Nevertheless, he absolutely aces it and he made us cry. (A big round of applause, too, to whoever made the decision to keep Murray Gold and his sugar plantation well away.)
But aside from the brilliant performance, the Doctor's story isn't the strongest here. In fact, he actually has very little to do. He starts off taking a crisp-eating back seat at the beginning of World Enough And Time and things donít change much. He faffs about all through that episode while Bill is getting on with the plot elsewhere, and in this episode it's Nardole who comes up with the goods. Aside from his far too town-called-Christmas-alike looking after the little people and the this-season business-as-usual blowing everything up, his job is mainly to react to things, so just as well Peter Capaldi makes a stonking job of it.
React to things, and regenerate. Nearly. Because after an endless tease that starts with the first scene of World Enough And Time, by the end the Doctor's still not finished. So we'll leave any comment until the time he actually gets round to it.
There are a lot of things to admire here, particularly the way the story deftly sidesteps yer usual hulking battle scenes full of sound and fury signifying nothing in favour of very personal, human-sized drama. And sure, there are many missteps too, like the reuse of devices we've already seen and the overstuffing which leaves some plots and characters underchanged. Overall, though? For all its faults, we can't help liking it. Team it with the exceptional World Enough And Time, and for us you've got a finale that easily outdoes all the others. Result.
REVERSE THE POLARITY
"Pay attention", the Doctor says, so we did. When the Doctor first glances at the time counters it shows the time on his deck as 2 days, 10 hours, 45 minutes and 17 seconds. Much later, when Bill checks the counter, time on the Doctor's deck shows as 2 days, 10 hours, 45 minutes and 00 seconds. Whoops! Black holes are good, but they're not that good.
LET IT SNOW
We love the way that when the Master and Bill are watching the Doctor on the monitor, the shape and size of the screen and the black and white low-quality picture recall the First Doctor inThe Tenth Planet.
The Doctor is all thunderously warny about the amount of time the Cybermen have to come up with plots against the farmers. This is apparently the excuse for them not fleeing to the TARDIS, although the Doctor's pronouncements about how time is slower in the lift for them, faster for the Cybermen and a mathematical impossibility are a load of horsewash. But two weeks pass on the farm with no attack, which is approximately an aeon and a half in lower deck time. Not exactly gagging for a fight, are they?
KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT
Isn't the Doctor being a bit hypocritical saying "I don't like guns" and handing his over as if it's radioactive when he's just used the sonic screwdriver to waste a Cyberman and is, moreover, about to blow them to smithereens?
OTHER BOMBS ARE AVAILABLE
Nardole's pun on "the ultimate apple upgrade" really skirts the line on the BBC's obligation not to mention brand names. Tsk, tsk.