The Doctor Falls will have felt at times like a rehash of many of the tropes we’ve come to associate with Steven Moffat: the companion becoming the monster, the miraculous but bittersweet ending, the Doctor’s isolation and vulnerability, the unsubtle ‘meta’ references about the show and its future, the deliberate mixing of the old and the new, and the preference for image over exposition are all well-established features. It all brings a predictability to the episode that for the unspoilered majority only properly breaks down with David Bradley’s cameo as the First Doctor in the closing scene. For that reason, The Doctor Falls is unlikely to break the existing dividing lines between fans and haters of this period in Doctor Who history. If anything it will only reinforce the sadness of those who don’t want Moffat to go and the joy of those who can’t wait for a new start under Chibnall. Is it mere coincidence that Steven Moffat’s final Doctor doesn’t want to be regenerated, or that Russell T Davies’ wanted to carry on forever?
On closer examination The Doctor Falls is actually more like the greatest hits of 2005-2017 than a collection of Moffatisms – a sign that perhaps the differences between 2005-10 and 2010-2017 are not as pronounced as is sometimes assumed. This was the finale to end that entire, extraordinary run of twelve years and so fittingly we were blessed with a Master from each half and a sentimental flashback to all the major companions from 2005 on. We had all kinds of unexpected nods – from the scarecrows in The Family of Blood (one of those image driven scenes that I suppose could be explained in the plot if the Master had been boasting to the pre-converted Cybermen about some of his past exploits), to Amelia Pond’s apple in The Eleventh Hour.
The word ‘reboot’ has been watered down in recent years to mean ‘business as usual with a few twists’, but initial soundings suggest that Chris Chibnall will be taking the show in a radical new direction. So instead of getting bogged down in the tired debates over Moffat’s Doctor Who, this episode is best thought of as a celebration of the revived show and as a fitting climax to an era that now needs to be eclipsed if the show is to survive in the age of Netflix.
For all the pyrotechnics and ‘bigger than ever before’ set pieces that have become so much a part of the finale’s DNA, every single series has closed with a strong character driven narrative. Despite the increasing prominence of the companion, it has always been about the Doctor in the end. Whether it’s the Ninth Doctor learning to see himself as fantastic (The Parting of the Ways), the Tenth letting go of Rose (Doomsday, Journey’s End), the Eleventh finding out how much he is loved and needed (The Wedding of River Song) or the Twelfth embracing his vulnerability (Death in Heaven, Hell Bent), saving the multiverse, the universe, the Earth, or a companion has always been the window dressing to a character study into what makes the Doctor tick. Regardless of the fate of his companions and those he sets himself up to save, will he come out of it ready to fight another day?
It’s been touch and go before – the Eleventh Doctor even made preparations for his own funeral, and then later was ready to die once and for all in Christmas Town. But this time around, the Doctor is more determined than ever to end it all. This is as bleak as it could possibly get for a children’s hero, particularly with the Doctor’s Black Adder Goes Forth-like final stand. Indeed the story as a whole was as dark as Doctor Who can probably get away with pre-watershed. There were times when the dark logic was subverted presumably because of the target audience. Thankfully much of it was restricted to dialogue, such as the horrific notion of the Cybermen targeting children because there is less waste. It would have been a step too far to show a child conversion or Cyberman and yet the fact that we’ve yet to see one makes little sense.
It could be argued that Bill’s salvation shouldn’t have allowed the possibility of her being restored to normality by the Pilot since it was that one line alone that undid the jeopardy and undermined the dramatic impact of the Doctor not being able to fix her. But from a child’s perspective, this is the only happy ending. The Pilot herself, though free to travel the universe is far too unsettling and unnatural for most to accept. The fact that Bill can return home in time for tea might also have been written to deliberately contrast her fate to that of Clara’s whose own extraordinary travels with a human-turned-alien must end with her death on Trap Street.
We’ve spoken before about the difficulties in relating to the Twelfth Doctor, but ironically, it is when he has given up on himself that the Doctor is at his most likeable. Gone are those psychotic grins from The Lie of the Land, and that frostiness and dismissiveness of human bravery we saw in The Eaters of Light. Capaldi does the bad Doctor act brilliantly, but he’s even better on those rare opportunities he’s given to convey warmth and kindness. Forget the fanboy shout out to Tom Baker, it is genuinely touching when he offers the girl a jelly baby from a paper bag. Later we see him using some toys to explain to her the differences between a human and a Cyberman, and at least until he dramatically pushed the toys aside to foreshadow the endgame, it was as if Matt Smith was back.
In one her first outings in the TARDIS, Bill learnt the harsh lesson that the Doctor was well accustomed to seeing death – even the death of a child. We even got to witness with her the horrific fate of one boy (Spider) as he falls through the ice to become a victim of the beast below (Thin Ice). In stark contrast to the Doctor’s inability to intervene on that occasion, by giving the Cybermen cause to turn their ‘mercy’ mission into a war, the Doctor sacrifices his life to save the children. It is a touching and much needed reaffirmation that the Doctor will always be on our side.
For all of Steven Moffat’s fondness for pithy and effective one-liners, his Twelfth Doctor will surely be best remembered for his wonderful speeches. The Doctor’s effort to convince the Master and Missy to be kind might not have ended with the righteous indignation of the stand out appeals for peace and justice in The Zygon Inversion and Thin Ice, but the fact that he nearly breaks down in tears makes it all the more powerful.
The series finale is expected to tie up various loose ends, and The Doctor Falls partially succeeds on that front. We have an effective if predictable explanation for the mystery of Bill’s vicarious tears in The Pilot, one which neatly brings her story full circle. Moffat also ties the finale into the Monks trilogy, but only in the most economical of ways. It turns out there was no need for a long and complicated reveal that the Monks were Cybermen or that the whole thing one of their virtual realities. Bill’s ability to resist full conversion was learnt from all those months resisting the Monks. It does however leave one unanswered question – what happened to Bill’s imaginary Mother? She played a crucial role in Whithouse’s story, and the Doctor has hardly proved to be a better real life role model since. Exactly why when faced with certain death Bill doesn’t think of her mother again begs the question of why this plot point was necessary at all.
Less problematically, we never do find out who Nardole is and confusion remains as to how, when and by whom he’d been rebuilt. Secondly, in the homage to Davison’s regeneration when the Doctor sees his former companions and the Master/Missy (who significantly is now on the side of his companions, unlike Ainley’s Master), it is odd that Clara should be there and not acknowledged in some unique way, given that in The Pilot we were reminded that the Doctor’s memory of Clara was wiped. But these are relatively minor issues in a series that has stepped back from the arc heavy approaches of previous years.
We noted above that despite all the special effects and battle scenes The Doctor Falls is predominantly a character piece. Thankfully the main players are all at the top of the game. Pearl Mackie conveys with absolute believability the feelings of being trapped in the wrong body, the fear and misunderstanding of others, and the horror of knowing she is slowly succumbing to the conversion. It is slightly awkward that we flit between seeing Bill as she sees herself and seeing her as the Cyberman (how did she not already realise the truth when she’d killed the Cyberman on top of the hospital?), but the emotion of the drama would have been hard to convey had Pearl Mackie not appeared until the Pilot showed up. Like the notion of the different speeds of time from one end of the ship to another, Bill still being Bill even as a Cyberman is almost impossible to realise effectively on screen.
Matt Lucas as Nardole has been the biggest surprise of series 10, and to all those who questioned what the character was there for, he gets one of those meta lines we referenced above when he says to Hazran “for a moment then I was feeling a glimmer of purpose.” In the presence of greatness, playing alongside Capaldi, Mackie and Gomez, Lucas adds a subtlety to his performance, best evidenced in his non-verbal reaction to Cyber-Bill’s “I understand” after being shot at by Hazran. The image of Nardole waiting at the lift, knowing that the Doctor and Bill will never come back, will live long in the memory.
John Simm’s Master is mostly overshadowed by Michelle Gomez as Missy, but largely because her character is far more nuanced, torn as she is between being like her former self and being like the Doctor. But even so, this is a more subdued performance than many would have expected, with his signature laugh the closest we get to the Harold Saxon of old. Simm’s role is largely restricted to comedy lines such as his description of Bill as Cybermop. His final scene with Gomez is however another highlight of the episode. There is pathos here with Missy finally deciding to side with the Doctor, only to be killed by her predecessor who can’t bear the thought of turning good. It is a sad and ignoble ending and one that suggests a finality to the character consistent with the rumours of a total reboot to come under Chibnall.
But the star of the show is Peter Capaldi who arguably manages to even eclipse his performance in Heaven Sent. That incredible mix of bravado and fearlessness alongside self-loathing and raw emotion has surely cemented his place as one of the best Doctors we’ve ever had.
On the strength of this episode alone and the tantalising teaser for the Christmas special, the new showrunner may well be questioning the need for a reboot. If this it to be the beginning of the end for Doctor Who as we know it, then one thing’s for sure – the 2005-2017 run is going out in style.