❉ Fatalistic and brilliantly directed, World Enough and Time is a fascinating beginning-of-the-end for the Twelfth Doctor.
“To survive, they are what we must all become.”
Rachel Talalay began her directing career with the horror film Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991), so she knows a thing or two about injecting cinematic spectacle and suspense into Doctor Who. The finales she directed for the 2014 and 2015 series made that clear: she was quite a find.
Talalay didn’t disappoint this time either. From the moment a massive colony ship – “400 miles long, 100 miles wide” – powered past the camera, looking every inch like it belonged on the big screen, it was confirmation that we were in for something special from World Enough and Time. The ominous nature of the story had already been signalled by the jaw-dropping teaser sequence, in which a wounded Doctor appeared to be fighting his regeneration. A flash forward, presumably? By the end of the episode we still didn’t know. One of several high points in the story.
Primarily, the story worked so well because it contained some of Steven Moffat’s tightest plotting for years. His liking for ‘timey-wimey’ concepts was back, but this time there was a fascinatingly clear one: the colony ship was so big that, under the influence of a black hole, time moved faster at one end, an idea neatly conveyed by the frozen black and white video picture of the Doctor, Missy and co. that Bill watched from inside the zone where time was accelerating. Separating the companion into another timeline where she waits for the Doctor has been done before during Moffat’s tenure (The Girl Who Waited, 2011), but like this episode’s time conundrum, its writing and execution was sharper and much more dramatic.
It was great at the beginning of the episode watching Michelle Gomez go through her moves as an apparently reformed Missy, working out what was happening on the colony ship as an ersatz Doctor – her schtick about “Doctor Who” being “his real name” was long overdue, and very funny – but World Enough and Time belonged to Pearl Mackie, who’s been one of the strongest assets in this year’s series. Shot in the chest (very graphically), fitted with an artificial heart and abandoned in what, to all intents and purposes, was a creepy contemporary hospital, she carried all her scenes with a riveting mixture of vulnerability, honesty and brave good humour, lost among colony ship dwellers who were gradually being augmented by synthetic parts. It was heart breaking to see her deceived by the only friend she had there.
I recognised immediately that that friend, the hospital gopher – Mr Raser? – was played by the returning John Simm, despite the clever prosthetics and Eastern European accent. Reviving the Master’s taste for disguises and masks, his sympathetic, Fagin-like shabby old man, befriending Bill over a long period, worked as a character in its own right and made his betrayal of her all the more shocking. As a fan boy, it was great for me to see him rip away the mask in the way the original Master, Roger Delgado, did to reveal the Master’s smiling smugness. There was an equal kick to be had from seeing the Master and Missy together, particularly in Simm’s line “I’m worried about my future.”
It was another sign of how focused the writing was that there were no less than four combined revelations at the climax of the episode, revolving around the Masters, the identity of the colony ship’s planet and Bill’s full conversion into a Mondas-style Cyberman. Shockingly, the Doctor’s companion is now effectively dead – for good? There was only one way out for Danny Pink in Death in Heaven (2014).
I’ve mentioned Talalay’s talent for atmosphere and suspense, and for me the stand-out scenes were the ones where a solitary Bill explored the gloomy hospital wards where bandaged figures sat in anguished silence.
Over the past few years, the horror behind the Cybermen, as half-organic machine men cannibalised from human bodies, has been lost – even in the abattoir-like, production line conversion scene in Rise of the Cybermen (2006). Here, that dread was back in full effect, primarily because of the creeping horror of what was happening to Bill, and also because the hospital she was in could, disturbingly, have been any running-down NHS facility in 2017 (symbolism excusing the rather noticeable discrepancy between the colony ship’s futuristic command deck, and the very 21st century buildings Bill found). The part-converted Cyberman continually hitting a keyboard key to tonelessly transmit his “pain… pain… pain” summed up the horror of the situation: a human feeling robbed of emotion by an electronic mechanism – the Cybermen in a nutshell. I’d argue that these are some of the most convincingly unsettling scenes ever to have appeared in Doctor Who.
Because of the gripping emphasis on Bill’s fate, the Doctor and Nardole took something of a back seat in World Enough and Time, only coming to the fore of events as they began hunting for her. It was worth the wait for their horrified reactions to a Cyberised Bill, flanked by the two Masters. The episode ending of the season, without a doubt.
As a set-up for the final story of the series, the multiple cliffhanger was pretty much unbeatable; as the lead in to the last stand of the Twelfth Doctor, it’s a fantastic scene-setter. With Bill converted and two regenerations of the Doctor’s arch enemy working together, one of whom has orchestrated the (cheekily named) “genesis of the Cybermen”, the stakes have never been higher, or the series so expertly – or grimly – guided into the swansong of its current leading man.
I can’t wait to see how we get to that pre-titles scene at the beginning of World Enough and Time.
❉ Series 10: Part 1 was released on DVD & Blu-Ray 2 May 2017, with Series 10: Part 2 available on 17 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.