Friendship drives the Doctor into the rashest decision of his life. Trapped on a giant spaceship, caught in the event horizon of a black hole, he witnesses the death of someone he is pledged to protect. Is there any way he can redeem his mistake? Are events already out of control? For once, time is the Time Lord’s enemy…
When the Cybermen returned to Doctor Who in 2006 Russell T. Davies neatly sidestepped their rather convoluted history by creating a new race of the silver warriors on a parallel Earth, affectionately known as Pete’s World. It was a bold but necessary move short of a complete reboot. The Cybermen had become increasingly less menacing both in appearance and substance. During the 80s whilst the mutants inside the Dalek casings were brought into focus, the humans behind the Cyber-suits had been virtually forgotten. Later classic series Cybermen might just as well have been robots.
The idea that behind every Cyberman is somebody like us ought to make them the most terrifying of all the Doctor’s foes. Davies made a valiant attempt to bring back that fear factor by emphasising the conversion process. This laudable approach however had a major Achilles heel. The conversion although horrifying was swift and total, immediately reducing the Cybermen once again to emotionless robots with nothing left of the humans within. True, the Tenth Doctor defeated the first wave of Cybermen by immobilising their emotional inhibitors and Yvonne Hartman briefly fought against the process, but generally speaking they were an army of anonymous clunky cyborgs, mocked by the Cult of Skaro for being pests instead of serious opposition.
Thankfully however, though Steven Moffat might not have been able to surpass Russell T Davies’ superb reimagining of the Daleks (abandoning as he did further plans for the new paradigm), when it comes to the Cybermen he has succeeded where his predecessor failed. After having tested the water with the dismembered lone Cyberman in Stone Henge (The Pandorica Opens) and later with the controversial conversion of the dead in Dark Water/Death in Heaven, Moffat has finally injected some much needed horror into the converted human foes.
Moffat ups the ante with the conversion process by extending it out over several months and by using one of his favourite settings – the spooky hospital ward (The Empty Child, Last Christmas. Though on this occasion there’s also a definite hint of Doctor Hugo Strange’s experiments in Gotham). A return to the original less robotic Mondasian design last seen in The Tenth Planet may of course be leading to a timey wimey link between the Twelfth Doctor and the First Doctor’s regenerations, but it fits in beautifully with the showrunner’s aim to foreground the humans behind the masks.
The half-converted victims only able to communicate their pain by using single syllable words – “pain, pain, pain. Kill me, kill me. Die me,” are some of the most terrifying moments ever seen in Doctor Who. The fact that on their bedside monitors the sound can be turned down but the pain cannot be anesthetised gruesomely highlights the effects of conversion. If that wasn’t enough, Moffat eschews accepted Cyber-lore by revealing that even when fully converted the earliest Cybermen still experience pain. It’s likely that the future Cybermen seen in the next time have perfected the technology, but as far as Bill is concerned she is both still saveable and in intense pain.
Moffat may have effectively reinvented the Cybermen with a genesis story to rival Genesis of the Daleks, but his treatment of the Master is even more revolutionary. In Missy, not only has Moffat canonised the frankly long overdue notion that a Time Lord can change gender, but he has also brought the character as close to the point of redemption as she will ever be. Don’t be fooled by the theatrical playfulness of Gomez’ performance, Right up until the final scene Missy is following the programme and trying to think and act like Doctor Who (or the Doctor – a point teasingly left open to interpretation here). When Missy is apparently marginalising Bill and Nardole, we shouldn’t forget that the acerbic, often impatient Twelfth Doctor is her role model.
The Cybermen reveal was made obvious right from the moment Bill was taken away for ‘repairs. Without any knowledge of spoilers it will also have gradually become clear that the Cybermen in this story would turn out to be Mondasian, However, the much publicised return of John Simm was a spoiler too far and took away the impact of Razor’s reveal. How many of us were waiting to hear the Master’s signature Murray Gold theme? We might not have noticed it in an early scene with Bill and Razor had the BBC not already confirmed Simm’s return. Consequently it made the disguise seem unnecessary, especially as only Bill would have recognised him as the former prime-minister Harold Saxon. The Fagin-like Razor gives little away of his secret agenda other than a joke about the horrors of his tea, but the telling of this tale across two separate time-streams, though a neat injection of real science, restricts the opportunities to fully illustrate how his relationship with Bill develops.
Instead of focusing on the passage of time from Bill’s perspective we get lots of cuts back to the Doctor, Nardole and Missy. As a result Bill comes across as passive and accepting of her situation. We will probably never know how much of this was an act, whether she had made aborted efforts to escape or save the other patients, or if and how Razor manipulated her into being so submissive. The other tragic possibility is that the Doctor’s unnatural implanting of the ‘wait for me’ message holds some kind of psychic influence over her. It’s as if the message comes back to Bill at precisely those times when she has an opportunity to break free. Contrast this to the positive impact of her other imaginary friend, her Mother in The Lie of the Land, strangely forgotten now (unlike in Oxygen where nearing death she has another vision of the mother who never was). The lack of references to earlier points in the series takes away a layer of believability to Bill that will hopefully be addressed next week.
The final scene with Missy, the Master and Cyber-Bill standing opposite the Doctor, might indicate that Missy has switched sides, but it’s too early to tell. Trailers for The Doctor Falls suggests that all three of the Time Lords will be joining forces to defeat the Cybermen. The little we did get to see of Gomez and Simm together was delightfully scripted and performed and hopefully there will be plenty more moments between just the two of them. That said, the Doctor has been largely in the background of the finale up to now and the title of the episode suggests Capaldi will quite rightfully take centre stage in his penultimate outing.
With so much going on in the episode it’s a shame that Nardole is almost reduced to the ‘comic relief’ of his initial outings. There has to surely be a payoff to this character’s role in the series and his part organic, part robotic status must surely come into play in one form or another. Matt Lucas has been a revelation in series 10, but since the conclusion of the Monks trilogy during which he had much more to do, it’s almost like his character has been tagged on.
Perhaps in order to provide one surprise in this overly spoilered episode, a last minute decision was made to use a scene filmed only two weeks ago for the pre-credits sequence. Complete with his biggest hair yet, Capaldi steps out of the TARDIS into a blizzard, falls to his knees and tries to fight against a regeneration. Whether this is a prelude to the Doctor’s fall next week and will be used to bookend the two-parter remains to be seen, but a surprise reveal of the Thirteenth Doctor at the end of The Doctor Falls would arguably be the only way to make this pre-credits scene significant.
The reaction to World Enough and Time has been almost unanimously positive, but ultimately the episode can only truly be judged after next week’s conclusion. There are many fans fearing that Moffat will pull a big reset button out of the hat, but a time reversal akin to The Last of the Time Lords, or the revelation that it’s all taking place in another Monks simulation will significantly undermine the jeopardy. It seems unlikely given that the events here will at least trigger the start of the Doctor’s regeneration. We are though on safer grounds to assume that Bill’s story is not quite over yet. Her gruesome Death Becomes her/Mortal Kombat injury looks pretty irreversible but there are plenty of ways in which she could be healed that don’t require a reset or negate the consequences of the events of World Enough and Time. If the pre-credits sequence is anything to go by, we should be more concerned about the Doctor’s fate.
As it stands, this is a sumptuously directed piece from the safe and dependable hands of Rachel Talalay, but it is very much the prelude to the main event. Despite being unnecessarily undermined by the heavy spoilers and a noticeable lull in the middle, World Enough And Time still manages to provide an edge of the seat viewing experience as befitting to a major finale.