Well! That was Matt Smith’s The Time of the Doctor done right! That was the multi Master story I never knew I wanted! With the exception of the weird deux ex machina at story’s end, that was a near perfect Who finale! Heck! That was Skyfall meets Doctor Who! And I really, really, really liked Skyfall!
This week we start on level 507, a hologram countryside idyll filled with children and their single female adult protector. Mondasian cybermen dot the landscape, bound to stakes in a kind of horrifying version of the modern day scarecrow, trying to upgrade the children. As Simm’s Master helpfully explains, children are easier to upgrade. And there’s less waste.
The Doctor minus his Sonic
This series has had a strong focus on The Doctor sans sonic which has been a welcome change on New Who. I liked the flashback to how The two Masters, cyber Bill, Nardole and The Doctor made it to Level 507. The Master and Missy are equally callous in how they taunt The Doctor, wheelchair bound as he is on a rooftop, as the exodus of the cybermen is set to begin. Of course it’s Missy who violently and cooly slaps him into the computer keyboard (and again because of another nuanced performance from Ms Gomez, I’m still not sure if she did that intentionally or otherwise), but The Doctor is relying on smarts alone when he changes with some careful key strokes just what the cybermen are looking for to upgrade. The Doctor wouldn’t have gotten far without Nardole either, and it was a nice touch to have Nardole turn up with a ship to evacuate everyone from the level.
The Life and Death of Bill Potts
After watching World Enough and Time, my biggest fear was that Moffat would ‘magic’ Bill back from her cyber state straight away. Thankfully, he doesn’t. Instead, Bill spends over two thirds of the episode as a mondasian cybermen, simultaneously tolerated and feared by the children and their keeper. Rachel Talalay has done great directorial work on New Who in the past, and this week is no exception when she carefully cuts between the world from Bill’s point of view (where we see Bill as herself because she sees herself as unchanged) and Bill as the world sees her (first shown through the mirror gifted to Bill by the first child she sees when they come to Level 507). Though this episode is nowhere near as horrifying in a scary hide behind your sofa kind of way, this sequence is pretty damn disturbing.
Simm’s Master doesn’t help matters either. His pantomime villain knows that the best way to hurt The Doctor is to hurt his companion. ‘You missed her by two hours,’ he gloats as he tries to goad Bill into anger knowing that that anger will lead to destruction. But Bill is made of stronger stuff. She hasn’t been around long, but for me, Bill has some of the best qualities of a Doctor Who companion. She’s awfully human, but she’s brave in her own way too. She rises above The Master and his petty games. She wills herself to calmness. She’s better than the bully, and she and The Doctor know it.
Even so, The Doctor doesn’t have much to comfort her or us with later. Will the show reward Bill for her courage and her humanity and her inherent goodness?
For a brief while, it seems the show is going to deny us a happy ending. Capaldi delivers his lines with a melancholy gravity that is very believable.
Bill: You said… I remember, you said you could fix this. That you could get me back. Did you say that?
The Doctor: I did say that, yes.
Bill: Were you lying?
The Doctor: No.
Bill: …Were you right?
The Doctor [sadly]: No.
Still, while there’s tears there’s hope, The Doctor reminds Bill and the audience lest we think things are getting too bleak. It is fitting that Bill stays with The Doctor till the bitter end. That said, I don’t know that Bill’s ending worked for me. This episode would have been a perfect ten score if it had ended with Bill’s battered cyber body lying alongside The Doctor’s ashy flesh as he regenerated.
As it stands, I found the Heather deux ex machina confusing. I’m not sure if Bill is alive or committed suicide and the ending is too similar to Clara’s from a mere series ago. Moffat said he ended Bill’s story the way he did because ultimately Doctor Who is a hopeful story where heroes always win in the end. Though I understand where he is coming from, I agree with an author who was talking last week about what children find in fiction. She said that children can find hope in ambiguity. Even when an ending is bleak or beyond their comprehension, they’ll find a way to make the story fit into their understanding of the world. Then when they’re older, they’ll find the darker layers. I can’t help but think that the story would have been stronger leaving Bill as dead or standing alone with a regenerating Doctor, rather than dramatically changing gear and tone with the reappearance of Heather and the ‘new lease of life’ for Bill. Though I like Bill very much, I hope we don’t see her again.
Farewell to Nardole
Matt Lucas surprised me as Nardole. I’m not one for his comedy and I didn’t like his character on Who at first, but he has grown on me over time in a quiet, understated way. I liked that it was Nardole who helped protect Hazran and her children by figuring out how to set off explosions through his laptop. I liked that he befriended the children. I liked that he took their plight so seriously. And I especially liked the exchange between him and The Doctor when it became apparent that The Doctor was going to remain on Level 507 on a kind of kamikaze mission.
Like River Song who became a hologram inside a computer to protect hologram souls ‘saved’ into the drive, Nardole will see out his duty to look after these children in a hologram world until death or the cybermen come for him and for them. I like the parallel to River there, and like Bill, I hope this is a definite ending for this character as there is a kind of poetry to it.
The Master vs. The Master
After this episode aired, I ended up in a three way twitter conversation about all of the reasons why Missy is the best essentially. Don’t get me wrong, I think John Simm is as talented as the next person, but he never captured the heart and soul of the character of The Master in the same way Gomez did. His callous heartlessness for villainy’s sake is far less interesting, and comes across far less nuanced, then Missy’s conflicted battle between doing what is right and what is hard wired. Whether on the rooftop with The Doctor captured, in the empty barn leaning in far too sensually to her previous self or stabbing herself, Gomez’ Missy is at once chilling, nasty, terrifying, beautiful, tragic and human. Gomez’ performance as she teeters between hero and villain is perfectly ambiguous, allowing for multiple rewatches and multiple different interpretations. Gomez was the perfect Master, the incarnation I never knew I wanted till she twirled her way across the screen in Deep Breath in her messed up version of heaven. I am terrible sad Gomez has left the show, but oh what a way to go…
To His Coy Mistress
Without witness, without hope, without reward, The Doctor begs Missy to redeem herself, to edge back from the precipice, to end the coy game she plays. But time is running out.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
As The Doctor faces off both Missy and The Master, he makes another Moffat speech which cuts to the heart of The Doctor’s essence.
The Doctor: I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.
On a second rewatch, this scene reminded me of Sally Lockhart and the deformed pirate Ah Ling in The Tiger in the Well. In a final showdown, Sally tries to explain to Ah Ling why she tries to make a difference to the pain and poverty and wrongness she sees in the world. And how does Ah Ling repay her for her pretty speech?
‘He just couldn’t understand her. And she saw how right she’d been; he was a coarse, brutal, limited man whose manners and graces and fine connoisseurship were no more than perfume sprinkled over garbage. She’d confessed to him. She’d opened her heart to him in the acknowledgement of the hurt shed done him. She’d offered him that – and he was bored. ‘ pg 374
Simm’s Master is like Ah Ling; one dimensional in his villainy. He is callous and bored by The Doctor. He hasn’t been paying attention to The Doctor’s ‘pretty speech.’ But Missy? Missy is visibly moved, but then she walks away. Coy to the last.
The first time I watched this episode, I was so upset at Gomez leaving, I was too busy shouting at my TV to enjoy the cleverness of The Master double murder. This time around it felt right. There was no other possible way to end this redemption arc. Missy destroys her past self to go stand with The Doctor. Her past self prevents her.
What beautiful lines and delivery as Missy seductively wraps an arm about The Master to stab him.
Missy: I loved being you. Every second of it. Oh, the way you burned like a sun, like a whole screaming world on fire. I remember that feeling. And I always will. And I will always miss it.
It’s like a strange echo of Eleven regenerating into Twelve (I’ll never forget the time when The Doctor was me). And then the horror as The Master shoots Missy in the back. But then fittingly, they both go down, both stabbing each other in the back for blood begets blood and self knows other self too well. The Doctor tragically never finds out that at the last Missy aimed to stand with The Doctor, but we as the viewers know and will remember…
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
And That Ending…
Three knocks as Twelve leaves his TARDIS behind? A snowy landscape? One and The Doctor? What will happen in the Christmas Special and just who will Twelve regenerate into?
The Doctor Falls: 9/10 inky stars for a near perfect finale marred only by the confusing deux ex machina in the final ten minutes which sees Bill reunited with Heather