Doctor Who: 10-12 “The Doctor Falls” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Aboard a 400-mile-long, 100-mile-wide spaceship pulling away from a black hole, with Bill converted into a Cyberman, The Master returned and Missy seemingly teaming up with him, it’s fair to say the situation for The Doctor at the climax of last week’s World Enough and Time was a bleak one. With his duty of care to his current companion failed and his arch-nemesis back, there have certainly been better positions that The Doctor has been in leading into the series finale (already?!) of Series 10, The Doctor Falls, which had more than its fair share to deal with in the extended hour long runtime.
Outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat has delivered a mixed bag of quality finales in terms of fan reaction during his time, with finales that most were satisfied with (The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang), finales many were not so (The Wedding of River Song) and ones that some felt squandered the opening parts potential (Heaven Sent/Hell Bent). So, it was only a natural expectation that there would be some reservations about the widely adored prior episode to The Doctor Falls, in terms of how Moffat would wrap up the two-parter and indeed the series and the many arcs and themes it has dealt with over our twelve episodes. Two Masters, a companion in severe danger and Cybermen everywhere, the temptation must have been there to write a grandiose epic involving all-out war. But again, Moffat has opted against that, in favour of another tightly character focused finale.
Taking our attention away from last week’s spectacular cliff-hanger for a moment (one of Moffat’s favourite things- see the museum visit with young Amelia in The Big Bang), we begin our journey on a farmland plantation, where a group of young children and villagers live under the supervisor of Samantha Spiros’ kindly Hazran, and you question for a moment what you’re watching. Then you see the scarecrows are early conversion stage Cybermen, and that the sky is the roof of the spaceship. A craft crashes through from below, and out steps Cyber Bill, holding The Doctor in her arms. From this point, we’re treated to a story that feels like your classic protection against impossible odds tale, in the vein of The Magnificent Seven or real-life stories like that (Nardole even quips “remember the Alamo!” at one stage). The Doctor Falls forgoes bravado in favour of character.
What we get in The Doctor Falls is an examination of the characters it presents us with, from the two Masters, to Bill, to Nardole and the Doctor himself. Shying away from the virtues of a whiz bang climax full of explosions and set pieces, this episode shows us the characters involved at their most vulnerable, and the stakes at play feel higher than ever because of it. The feeling of great consequence is keenly felt because of the episode’s resistance to deal with anything cheaply- nothing is left on the wayside, and the way the various arcs and stories that this series finale closes is exemplary. John Simm’s return to the show has been vaunted since publicity for this series began, and he doesn’t disappoint.
A more underplayed, calmer yet by result far more cruel Master than what we saw in the Last of the Time Lords trilogy and The End of Time, his throwback goatee isn’t the only classic reminder of former Masters- Simm’s Master delights in the long, tortuous fate he subjected Bill to, mocking The Doctor at every turn. As an older version of this Master than the one we saw in prior stories, he is far more manipulative and relishes in his scheme, but he feels just as vulnerable as all the other characters on display here. He seems truly terrified of his possible turn to the light as Missy, and small moments such as his attempt to apply eyeliner paint a picture of a Master who has lost control of his situation and will act every bit the petulant child to remain control. It’s this portrayal that means Simm leaves the show (for good?) with a much scarier Master than his prior appearances.
However, his role in The Doctor Falls is more of a foil to the story of Missy. As Missy is faced with a physical manifestation of her past disgraces, her mental anguish over doing what’s right reaches the natural conclusion. The standout moment comes when The Doctor orates to The Masters passionately to get them to stand with him, and The Master shrugs it off completely. Yet this is the revelatory moment for Missy, who is clearly moved by this and as The Master saunters away, we see Missy as a storm of anguish. How heart-string pulling is it then to see her accept her fate and leave The Doctor, before then double-crossing The Master only to be killed by herself, for The Doctor to never see her true choice. Of course, the scenes with The Masters together are delicious, a dark inverse of times when Doctors meet each other, with even simple moments such as Gomez and Simm chilling together on a wall pulled off expertly. They sizzle with chemistry, and it’s easy to believe they are one and the same. How fantastic is it also to then see them not just involve in the usual past/present incarnation banter, but also to be each other’s fate, the beautiful irony that they killed themselves. The Master will be back, of course, but for now, what a fitting end.
On Team TARDIS, Nardole completes his full transformation from Christmas special comedy relief to fully developed character. The late teases of his past life as a black-market dealer bring weight to his previous action hero man of all trades characterisation, making him not just a character River Song lumbered The Doctor with but a character who could truly have been bettered by being around him, and has been. His final words to The Doctor and ultimate fate are tremendous to watch, as is his final moment waiting by the door for his friends to come back. He even gets his own chance at romance too with Hazran, which is fitting given they’re both action-oriented folk. The completion of Bill’s story is equally as heart-breaking, with Pearl Mackie selling every single scene she is in to the highest degree. It’s an ingenious trick to have her portrayed in the episode as she sees herself, as still human, and it’s incredibly effective when it cuts between her believed self and her Cyber form. Bill came into the show as its first openly gay companion, and watching her struggle with her identity, even as to such much admitting she “doesn’t want to live if I can’t be me” is crushing. And by the time Heather returns from The Pilot, the emotional full circle of her arc provides us with a wonderfully bittersweet exit for her that still leaves the door open.
Which brings us to The Doctor himself. We say this to ourselves every time, but truly, whoever replaces Peter Capaldi has the most thankless task. After being kept to the side-lines slightly last week to allow Missy and Bill focus, Twelve is resolutely imperious in The Doctor Falls. As he makes his final stand, even moments such as sitting on a chair outside the farm are owned completely by Capaldi. If it weren’t for Heaven Sent, this would be the pinnacle of his performance- a tour de force of who his Doctor is, summed up in an ecstatically powerful, unbelievably written monologue where he begs the two Masters to stand with him, “without hope, without witness, without reward”. It puts a line under all of Twelves standout themes and stories, with his characters struggle to be a good man and discover who he truly is all underlined by his final resolution that it’s not about winning or the joy about it, it is simply about being kind (a lesson we could all use in today’s world.)
In truth the final acts of The Doctor Falls may be some of the most heart-breaking, emotionally resonant moments that Doctor Who has ever produced, with The Doctor’s final stand bringing about masterfully directed and powerfully performed scenes, with The Doctor’s lone battle against the Cybermen as he furiously reminds them of all their failures against him, eventually brought to his knees and sacrificing himself making my hairs stand on end, as a revamp of Season 9’s standout track Breaking The Wall plays out in the background- Murray again excelling himself in this episode. The Doctor’s speech alone is so stunningly written that it could contextualise the show itself and just who The Doctor is. As characters make their individual final bows, it leads to a literally fallen Doctor on a desolate battlefield as Cyber Bill staggers and falls herself at his feet, finally passing on. These closing scenes are simply gorgeous, as Bill escapes her Cyber form to her new future, with The Doctor unconscious. As The Doctor lies there, the slow opening of a A Good Man? (have I mentioned how much I love this? Because I’m going to again- I love it) playing as Rachel Talalay sweeps around the TARDIS console- yet another tour de force directorial stint by her this week- we see flashbacks to the Doctor’s companions calling his name (and Missy- although no Rory, poor him) as he staggers to his feet, quoting former Doctor’s regenerations, holding back his regeneration energy as he eventually stumbles out of the TARDIS and stumbles into David Bradley as the First Doctor. Capaldi in these final scenes owns the screen completely, commanding your attention, before that breath-taking cliff-hanger.
I could spend many more words on my superlatives for The Doctor Falls, but I think my most prominent praise is this- that Steven Moffat has managed to craft a two-part finale that will likely be the most crowd-pleasing in a long time, and not in a pandering sense- he’s managed to write a story that captures imaginations completely about The Doctor, incorporating everything from two Masters to a behemoth spaceship and everything in-between. Crucially though, it’s a finale that has true weight and consequence for its characters- Bill has died, albeit able to carry on with Heather in a bittersweet fashion, Nardole will stay as protector for the farm, Missy has seemingly died, The Master is regenerating and The Doctor is beginning to. Yet the fact there’s still a strong undercurrent of hope throughout The Doctor Falls is a testament to the writing and performances on display- Bill can be herself again, Nardole is doing what nobody else could do better, Missy did what was right despite The Doctor never knowing, and The Doctor finally understands for sure just what he does. It’s the completion of the themes of faith and arrogance for this series, acting as a partner for the good man arc, with The Doctor’s monologue actualising that it is all about himself, that he never acts out of self-satisfaction but only that it is the right thing to do. Bill’s faith in him ultimately lost her human life, but she was ultimately happy that The Doctor understood her for who she was, and was simply a good man and a friend.
And with that, brings the end to Doctor Who Series 10 and an end to this TARDIS team of Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas. While some may think, this series has ranked rather average on the scale of it all, I feel this has been one of the strongest regarding the brilliant trio we’ve had onboard the TARDIS and subtler, more nuanced arc that’s developed regarding Missy and before that the Vault. Mackie couldn’t have been a finer successor to Jenna Coleman, and Lucas soon saw off the doubters he had. They’ll be sorely missed! As for Capaldi, he’s got one last ride at Christmas before his departure, and it looks like it’s truly going to put the special into Christmas special with David Bradley as the First Doctor. With Bradley back and as Moffat and Capaldi’s last, with Rachel Talalay again directing, this could develop from one of the best two-part finales in Who history to one of the best trios.
While this Doctor clearly now knows who he is, he’s regenerating. And he clearly doesn’t want to, given his reluctancy here and his admission in Heaven Sent that he’s afraid of death. Perhaps he’s simply tired of it all, and his new losses may put his thought of being a good man at risk. He may be alive, but he’s got a whole lot of unfinished business, and he might need some persuading from a Doctor to change again after his long identity struggle. The original, you might say. Hurry up Christmas!