❉ “I don’t want to live if I can’t be me.”
Can I just say “Squuuueeeee!”?
So here we are, almost at the end of Steven Moffat’s tenure. Apart from being the magnificent engine of destruction that 2015’s season finale Hell Bent failed to be, it’s perhaps appropriate that The Doctor Falls exhibited the greatest and weakest aspects of his writing.
On the latter front, there was the tendency to recycle ideas with, as in The Time of the Doctor, the Time Lord defending a rural community where children live against extra-terrestrial invaders, and a companion converted into a monster who still saw herself as human (Oswin-as-a-Dalek in Asylum of the Daleks). That said, the cutting between Bill’s perception of herself as she’d been before Cyberconversion, and how everyone else saw her as one of the earliest Cybermen, was very cleverly done, and realised in a more sophisticated way than in Asylum. A lot less forgivable was the resolution to Bill’s story.
Steven Moffat just can’t let regular characters die (unless they’re bad guys or Doctors, it seems – more of which later). In a plot development that reflected the “they’re dead… oh no, they’re not” dramatic feints of Amy Pond, Rory Williams and Clara Oswald’s apparent terminations, Bill was saved from Cyberdeath and allowed to run off with her handily time and space jumping, water-creature girlfriend Heather (Stepahnie Hyam); even more handily, Heather was able to retrieve Bill’s human form from inside a Cyberman (somehow). The way she turned up just at the right moment was way too convenient and was pretty much a deus ex machina (for those of you out there who don’t speak Latin, an unsolvable problem solved by the unexpected intervention of a new element.)
Although the character had been introduced twelve weeks ago in Series 10’s first episode The Pilot, there’d been no sight or sound of Heather since then, so her sudden reappearance looked like Moffat had, clumsily, set himself up with a get-out-of-gaol free card at the start of the year. Just as frustratingly, it still wasn’t explained who or what had transformed Heather. This clunky plot point was such a shame after Missy’s rehabilitation had been handled so subtly, and written so well, over the preceding weeks.
OK, rant over. Apart from Heather turning up in the nick of time, everything else was brilliant. Director Rachel Talalay delivered some truly unforgettable images – half-converted Cybermen who were still ‘alive’ tied to crosses (very The Walking Dead), CyberBill emerging through smoke carrying an unconscious Doctor, jet powered Cybermen hovering in the sky and, gratifyingly, Cybermen being blown head over heels at the climax – but what really made The Doctor Falls special was the attention given to the characterisation, always Moffat’s strongest area.
The theme throughout all the principal characters was about being true to yourself, and it played out beautifully. Bill hung onto the image of herself as she had been before Cyberconversion and was eventually rewarded with the restoration of her true self. Further down in the dramatic mix, Nardole (Matt Lucas) finally realised he was “stronger” than the Doctor in caring for people long term. There was a wonderful, and subtle, piece of facial acting from Lucas as that realisation finally hit him. Like Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi, he’ll be much missed.
The idea was at its most dramatic in the three (or rather two) Time Lords. There’s a fantastic, dark irony to the Master literally killing himself – Missy knifing the John Simm Master so he regenerates into her, then the Master shooting Missy in the back, making a murderous loop which he, typically, thought was hilarious. Coming good at the last moment to “stand with the Doctor”, it was genuinely upsetting to see Missy cut down at her moment of redemption and her alliance with her old friend never happen. The Doctor Falls offered the best, most nuanced performance by Michelle Gomez in the series – funny, conflicted and, finally, moving.
She was matched equally well by John Simm. The scene where the Doctor bared all emotionally to the Master, explaining his philosophy as “right, decent” and “kind”, and imploring him/her to battle the Cybermen, was stunning for Simm’s matter-of-fact putdown: “This is the face that didn’t listen to a word you just said.” Elsewhere, it was a treat to see the re-emergence of the court jester of The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords, with his risqué flirting with Missy, vanity and comment to an unmoved CyberBill: “Well, doesn’t that take all the fun out of cruelty. Might as well try to rile a fridge.”
And so to the Doctor. There’s something incredibly moving about a lead character who knows he won’t win and might not save every – or anybody – for long, but who does it anyway “without hope, without witness and without reward.” From his prickly, awkward relations with humanity when he arrived in 2014 to the man who’ll give his life in defence for a rural idyll so that a few people might possibly survive in 2017, the Twelfth Doctor has been exemplary in the talented hands of Peter Capaldi, a Doctor cut from the same classic cloth as the first four. Unusually, he had one or two vaguely histrionic moments in his final battle with the Cybermen, but overall the sequence delivered as a suitably apocalyptic finale – and tribute – to his time in the role.
What else was there to enjoy? Samantha Spiro made the most of an underwritten part with Hazran, there was the intriguing idea that Cybermen can evolve anywhere there are humans – like a virus – and, for uber geeks, there were references to former regenerations sprinkled throughout the story. These built up to the just-when-you-think-it-couldn’t-get-any-better, unexpected and literally show-stopping (just before the end titles) appearance of the First Doctor, William Hartnell as played by David Bradley. He did the same thing, very well, five – five?! – years ago in An Adventure in Space and Time. People will remember that last scene for a long time, as there’s something very poetic about the latest regeneration teaming up with the earliest. It promises a lot.
The Doctor Falls would have been a good place to for Capaldi to depart, so we’re lucky that we’ll get one final time to enjoy his remarkable performance as the Doctor at Christmas. Hopefully it’ll be a fitting end to a great year for televised Doctor Who.
❉ Series 10: Part 1 was released on DVD & Blu-Ray 2 May 2017, with Series 10: Part 2 available on 24 July 2017. Complete Series 10 available on DVD & BD later this year.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.