No Doctor Who season is perfect. Every season, from 1963, has a clunker. Or two. Or three. So possibly the most remarkable thing about this most scintillating of seasons has been waiting, through brilliant episode after brilliant episode, for the wheels to fall off and slowly gaining confidence that this time we’ll actually manage a perfect score.
If “The Doctor Falls” disappoints, it’s only in that context. Flawed, it would be a standout episode in any other year but it doesn’t quite manage to be the finale this most remarkable season deserves.
It does have a list of things to recommend it as long as Tom Baker’s scarf. It features huge emotion. It has fantastic actors at the top of their game giving it their all in scenes that should have them in the ER, battered by all the awards being thrown at them. It has hugely clever ideas and grand speeches that act as the grown up brother of last week’s “I’m Doctor Who” metatextuality - cutting straight to the heart of who the Doctor is as a hero and to the ethos of Doctor Who as a show. It’s courageous in its experimentation too, giving us a stripped down soundtrack and long, lingering shots of rural domesticity.
But it also never escapes a curious sense of being disjointed. Every great scene seems to live on a little island, adrift from a firm sense of narrative direction. And, come the end, it’s so eager to put the chairs on the tables of the season arc and turn off the lights, and to set up the admittedly audacious concept of the Christmas Special, that character fates seems arbitrary and half finished. Worse, it leaves the characters feeling somewhat inauthentic. Very little of what they do in the last five to ten minutes of the episode sits right with everything we’ve seen of them before now.
Nardole, last defender of the humans in their new home of Floor 502
Nardole (Matt Lucas) gets a curiously downbeat and depressing end. It’s well established that the successful escape he leads to a higher floor is only a stopgap. The Cybermen will shortly regroup and kill him and everybody else. This ties in with one of the core themes that fighting a hopeless fight against certain death in defence of others is noble but that was based on regaining the TARDIS being impossible. At the end the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has the TARDIS back but abandons Nardole and the humans on the ship without a backward glance. Bill (Pearl Mackie) seems to be infected with this odd lack of concern too. Reborn as a near omnipotent space oil being alongside Heather (Stephanie Haym) from “The Pilot," she too doesn’t spare Nardole or the others a second thought. She almost certainly could save them all. She just can’t be bothered, too busy thinking about her own new lease of life. Even the Doctor simply gets dumped on the floor of his TARDIS, with a vague regret that he’s seemingly dead. It’s so at odds with the Bill we know it’s hard not to wonder if she got all her bits and bobs, emotions wise, put back in the right places after her time as a Cyberman.
A surprise return by Heather sees Bill ready to start a new phase in her life
The Doctor’s actions at the end also serve to set the scene for Capaldi’s final episode at the expense of undercutting the rest of this one. Early on the Doctor makes an impassioned plea to the Masters to stand by the people trapped on the ship and not leave in their TARDIS but at the end as soon as he gets his own back, he runs off himself. When he begins to resist his regeneration it’s with the words “give it up, Doctor,” fitting with the episode’s depiction of him as tired of fighting and ready to finally lie down and die with the satisfaction he did it without witness or hope of reward. That he’s sick and tired of the endless hamster wheel of fighting, dying and being reborn to fight again is a heartbreaking idea and there would be a lot of dramatic mileage in convincing the Doctor that he needs to go on. But this is switched at the last moment to his simply wanting to stay the Twelfth Doctor forever. It reduces it to a kind of petulance and puts in the shade the Tenth Doctor’s almost momentary regret at having to change.
These are more than just quibbles and they do significantly detract from the many good things in this episode but those high points are well deserving of praise.
Though the Doctor’s arc throughout this episode seems to curve back in on itself in a contradictory way, Peter Capaldi gives a thoroughly mesmerizing and powerful performance all the way through. His pain and guilt about losing Bill is written across the weary lines of his face like braille, and his pleas to Missy are so heartfelt that not only do you completely believe in these ancient beings’ once deep friendship, but it makes it seem inevitable, rather than improbable, that he gets through to her and reawakens that bond. And if moments of his patented fiery joy in victory are few and far between the glee with which he delivers “Welcome to the menu!” is a delight.
Pearl Mackie also turns in a great job with a very difficult role this week. Though Bill has been converted into a Cyberman and therefore played a lot of the time by the body Kevin Hudson and the voice of Nicholas Briggs, we frequently get to see Bill’s impression of the world with Mackie taking her place in the scenes. But even then she’s restricted in reflecting the Cyberman’s range of movement. She spends much of her time standing quite still, or moving carefully and slowly. It’s a balancing act between not appearing robotic and not visibly doing things the ‘real’ Cybernized Bill couldn’t be doing, but Mackie makes it look effortless and natural.
The Doctor and Bill both struggle to adjust to her new life as a Cyberman
Writer Steven Moffat aims I think for the sort of tragedy of miscommunication beloved of Shakespeare. Nardole winds up thinking the Doctor and Bill are dead. Bill leaves the Doctor for dead. The Doctor thinks Bill is dead. And most tragically of all, the Doctor believes all his efforts to reform Missy (Michelle Gomez) were in vain and she’s returned to her evil ways, doomed never to know that she went to her death with good intentions on her lips.
“Stand with me.” Missy wavers on the border between good and evil
In fact, the two Masters are by far the most successful element of the episode. From the opening scene, where they banter with each other about the best way to kill the Doctor, they spark off each other wonderfully. Simm clearly revels in getting to play the Master, now cured of the eternal drumming implanted by Rassilon, in a style just as arch, but much less manic, much more ‘classic’ take on the character. Following on from the rubber faced shenanigans in “World Enough and Time,” the homage to the past continues this week as the Masters discover the alien army they’d made an alliance with to act as cannon fodder for them inevitably turn on them - leading to an alliance of convenience with the Doctor. This precarious team up creates some great tension too, from the Master’s petty cruel baiting of Bill to the Doctor practically begging the two to stay once they calculate their own escape plan. Missy at the heart of what reads almost like a perverse love triangle, with goateed devil and shockhaired angel on her shoulders, whispering in her ears. The key difference between Missy and the Master, it turns out, is that she shares that sense of a friendship gone wrong that Delgado brought to the role in the 1970s. She sees herself as the Doctor’s real best friend and, when push comes to shove, can’t abandon him when he needs her most, even if it means setting aside her own evil tendencies to do it. But Simm’s Master clearly hates that he and the Doctor were ever friends and would literally rather die than stand by his side once more. Gomez’ Missy started as almost a comedy turn way back in “Deep Breath,” but has steadily grown in complexity and emotion until Gomez ultimately can take her bow for turning in one of the finest, deepest performances in all of Doctor Who history.
The season ultimately leaves us where we started this last week - with the Doctor on the edge of regeneration in what now looks distinctly to be the South Pole in 1986. If pivoting into the setup for the Doctor’s final bow messily pushes against the grain of the rest of the story’s message, it promises compelling drama this Christmas. The alignment of such huge talents as Capaldi and David Bradley alone is a guarantee of a masterclass of acting and high drama.
[Four 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