This year began with a lecture from the Doctor that told us that Time meant LIFE.
The arc that ran through the season’s middle third began with another lecture, the Doctor warning us that Space meant DEATH.
There’s no lecture this week, but there’s a clear theme that, together, Time and Space mean PAIN.
“World Enough and Time” opens with a shock, something we knew was coming but didn’t expect to happen just yet or quite that way. Many Steven Moffat scripts play with time, narratively as well as scientifically, with episodes flipping forward and backward between days, hours and seconds in character’s lives very much like the city made of moments the Doctor lectured about at the very start of the season. But even for him it’s audacious to dump us straight into the middle of the Doctor’s regeneration this Christmas and then, as Capaldi’s features are obscured by energy, flashback to the decision that, we can only assume, took him there – the pebble that, as in “The Pyramid at the End of the World,” start the inescapable causal avalanche. This makes the opening surprise flash forward to the regeneration not only a cool moment in its own right but part of a neat tying together of the season’s major themes. Small, seemingly trivial, errors of judgement can have massive consequences, and Time is an inextricably linked concept to Life.
But the most significant thing about that first scene is that, by episode’s end, it’s driven from your mind by all the other mind blowing, perfectly judged, revelations and twists. Such big revelations, in fact, and such severe shocks that it’s almost impossible to discuss the episode without revealing them. So beware spoilers from here on out.
“World Enough and Time” sets out its stall as an episode where anything goes, and the normal rules are off the table, very early on. It begins by encouraging a false sense that this will a funny, silly romp with a preposterous idea. Missy’s reformation is going to be tested by having her ‘be’ the Doctor and both Missy the character, and Gomez the actor, have tremendous fun with it. Arriving on a vast colony ship in distress as it attempts to escape a nearby Black Hole, the Time Lord formerly known as pure evil goes around introducing herself as ‘Doctor Who’ (to cut to the chase of the ‘I’m the Doctor’/’Doctor who?’ exchanges) and her assistants/companions/disposables/pets/snacks as ‘Exposition’ and ‘Comic Relief.’ And the witty metatextuality continues with the Doctor effectively watching Doctor Who on TV, eating crisps, and complaining about the plot.
And then Bill Potts is shot in the chest and killed.
No! Not the vintage Prince t-shirt! Nooo!!
It’s the sort of moment that could only really have power at this point in the season. No matter what danger the Doctor and companion are in, you always know they’re not going to kill anyone off in Episode 4, or 7 or 9. But the penultimate episode? Perhaps they would. And the hole in her chest is so very, very big after all.
The Doctor is in grim humour as he struggles against the laws of physics to reach Bill
What immediately follows in the setting up of the episode’s two parallel concerns – the Doctor’s guilt and Bill’s fate. When Bill is killed, the Doctor, in another marvellous bit of tying together the season, is right in the middle of the very same self aggrandizing, self-mythologizing ‘when I save your lives, you will spend the rest of them wondering who I was,’ speech he gave in “Oxygen” before he was humbled and blinded. So confident in his ability to talk down the twitchy locals he’s come to save, the same as he does every Saturday, his reaction to failing this time is primarily… bewilderment. We then see a series of flashbacks where Bill tries to talk the Doctor out of this trip as too dangerous, has to be strong-armed into coming with him, and makes her mentor promise to at least try and not get her killed. It’s light and jovial rather than a dark and heavy conversation, but that only makes it worse for the old Time Lord. He both acknowledged the dangers and laughed them off. And now she’s lying on the ground staring at the ceiling with lifeless eyes.
And so for the rest of the episode we get a Doctor more fraught and less jokey than normal; one who really is in the slowest race against time in history to undo the damage he’s caused.
Separated from this by the length of the ship – and by a time dilation from the Black Hole that causes time to travel hundreds of times faster at one end than the other, the other main strand of the episode is Bill awakening in a hospital to find she’s been converted into a cyborg. With a chunky, mechanical chest unit in place of the destroyed chunk of her torso, she then spends month, even years, cleaning hospital floors, striking up a friendship with the kind but eccentric handyman and growing increasingly curious about the patients who’ve been through the ‘Conversion Theatre’ and sit in the dark, typing “Pain. Pain. Pain,” over and over on their Stephen Hawking style communication units. But, more than anything else, waiting. Waiting in absolute faith that the Doctor is coming for. That the Doctor will save her.
Bill settles in to a long wait as a dogsbody in the mysterious hospital
It’s this faith that allows her to be blasé about her situation. To even accept the horrors of this strange world as normal. She never stops seeing herself as a visitor, as a tourist who can’t really be touched by the dying and desperate city around her. She’s warned from the start that she’s slated for full conversion one day, that her new friend even thinks it will be a good thing for her, but she never allows herself to be concerned. Not until, with shades of the climax of classic Rock Hudson horror Seconds she enters the Conversion Theatre and finally fully wakes up to what’s in store for her. It’s particularly cruel that after all those endless days of waiting it’s just before the Doctor is on the cusp of rescuing her. But that cruelty is more than just dramatic. It’s deliberate. Bill could have been tricked into that operating room at any point, but it’s timed with one thought in mind – to cause the Doctor maximum pain. Who could be so sadistic?
“World Enough and Time” gives us two Masters for the price of one
The Master, that’s who.
And not Missy, either, but her predecessor as played by John Simm. In a wonderful homage to the worst, and most fun, excesses of 1980s Master stories, kindly, silly, old caretaker ‘Mr. Razor’ pulls off his face to reveal he was the Master all along. It’s only short of crediting him as ‘Josh M. Min’ in listing magazines. It’s just a shame the fact Simm was in this episode was so heavily trailed and promoted. Even though the surprise worked perfectly on me (it was only when Razor met Missy and began dropping heavy hints that I realized I wasn’t waiting for an eleventh hour cameo by his Master but that he’d been in plain sight all along) I can’t help wondering how many other viewers would have shared that if they had been completely ignorant of Simm’s return to the show. Similarly, it would have been wonderful to not know in advance that the experimental patients were “Tenth Planet” style Cybermen but the realities of filming on the streets of Cardiff made that impossible. But it’s testament to the strength of “World Enough and Time,” and the skill both in Moffat’s script and Rachel Talalay’s direction that this reviewer was swept along by the NOW of the story, without time to spend playing ‘guess the twist.’
The only genuine quibble is that the initial ‘Missy becomes the Doctor for a day’ concept is so strong it could have easily supported an entire episode by itself. Instead it’s shelved very quickly, leaving the superb Gomez little to do in the episode’s middle third.
Some previous seasons have promised to make the Doctor pay a price for his hubris and incautious attitude to health and safety but none have genuinely followed through on that. But if Series Ten has had a unifying idea it’s been that small failures of judgement can snowball into disaster, and none more so than the Doctor’s. Will next week leave Bill a Cyberman forever? Will the Doctor’s need to believe Missy can be his best friend again doom a world? Probably not. But in a season about consequences I’ve faith the Doctor won’t get an easy out and will have to lay a lasting price for his errors.
Unlike Bill, we won’t have long to wait.
[Five TARDISes out of five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan