DOCTOR WHO: “The Doctor Falls”

As usual, this season finale’s success comes down to the last five minutes.

Pity…no stars. I hoped there’d be stars.

–The Doctor

From that moment, my mind flashed in three directions:

“That’s a pretty great last line.”

Then, “Ah, he’s not going to regenerate yet. What a waste of a last line.”

Then, “Wait, is that…is that David Bradley as William Hartnell’s First Doctor?! NEVER MIND, THIS IS GREAT.”

And thus, another middling-to-decent Moffat finale was redeemed, just enough, by its ending. If nothing else, the man knows how to do that. Doctor Who hasn’t had a truly great season-ender (non-Christmas Special edition) since 2010’s The Big Bang, best remembered not for Eleven’s derring-do — of which there was a lot, including a beloved fez and bootstrap paradoxes galore — but for the pitch-perfect arc of his companion, Amy Pond. With the Lone Centurion reveal and “Something blue,” Amy cemented her place as the companion with the best single-season story, with the fifth series of Nü Who still the high-water mark of the entire Matt Smith era.

You can see how Moffat was going for something similar with Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts, a young woman who wasn’t a puzzle to be solved (sorry, Clara), or a source of unrequited love (sorry, Martha Jones), but just an intelligent companion whose faith in humanity kept the Doctor pointed in the right direction, even if she nearly died every other episode. Some weeks, she felt like South Park‘s Kenny, always falling down holes, getting trapped in her spacesuit, or receiving a laser beam blast through the stomach. In “World Enough And Time,” she got turned into a Cyberman, and to Moffat’s credit, he wasn’t going to wriggle out of this one with some timey-wimey “Power of Love” nonse–

Ah, hang on. That’s exactly what he did. Bill gets another shot as a…water ghost? What’s the proper title for that? Anyway, the girl we barely met in “The Pilot” returns via puddle and gives Bill the opportunity to continue seeing the universe by her side, which Ms. Potts seems to accept. The pair joins Clara and Maisie Williams’s Me — presumably still voyaging inside their diner at the end of the universe — in the recent run of Doctor companions to die but not really die, which is either annoying to you, or a relief. Because I liked Bill, and loved Pearl Mackie’s performance, count me in the latter camp.

Unlike seasons past, which sometimes ran their themes into the ground (“Good Man/Good Soldier,” anyone?), the final go-round for Moffat and Peter Capaldi was something of a “back to basics” year. Series 10 featured a more episodic structure and, despite the looming exits behind and in front of the camera, a lot less dread. The most successful episodes, especially the “Thin Ice”/”Knock Knock”/”Oxygen” run in the middle of the season, were full of what Who does best: monsters, creeps, and running down hallways.

I was feeling really good about the season at “Extremis,” a fantastic mind-bender that kept the Doctor’s blindness in play, introduced one of the more compelling villains in some time with the monks, and unleashed a corker of a twist ending. Unfortunately, the next two episodes fizzled out; the monks didn’t end up being all that powerful or scary, ultimately undone by — say it with me — the Power of Love. While I recognize that, more than five decades into Doctor Who, everything’s been done before, Moffat’s tics haven’t felt this exhausting since Matt Smith was shooting regenerative energy out of his hands.

Needless to say there was a lot riding on “The Doctor Falls,” which, if it wasn’t going to be Capaldi’s last episode — the British tabloids have four extra months to spoil his replacement, it seems — still needed to wrap up stories for Bill, Missy and The Master, and this half-baked but intriguing continent-sized, temporally-afflicted spaceship. The last on the list is the least important and the least interesting; even in an expanded 90 minutes, investment in the new characters on the “solar farm” level is taken for granted by Moffat because they’re women and children. The Time Lords and Nardole get the ball rolling on a Seven Samurai-style defense: plant some pickets, lob some grenades, escape out an elevator and wait for them to attack you again. It’s a whole lot of nothing for the first two thirds, leaving the Doctor’s decision to make this the place where he will stand and die — like Eleven on Trenzalore — somewhat arbitrary.

Much more effective is Twelve’s tug-of-war between his idealism and his guilt; the former is manifested by CyberBill, who he is forced to finally admit he can’t save. Director Rachel Talalay has the tricky job of staging Bill’s scenes both as normal, and in her robot form, because something in Bill’s mind is blocking her from going full Cyberman — i.e., see the reality of what she has been turned into. This has the added benefit of giving Pearl Mackie her meatiest material all season, and like Catharine Tate’s Donna, the drama hits all the harder when it’s delivered through an originally comedic character. (Also, the sockheads simply don’t emote that well.) Bill tears into him with force, and then forgiveness; she waited an entire decade for the Doctor to rescue her, and now she’s about to watch him die.

The idealism comes through the Doctor’s never-ending, love-hate relationship with The Master, to whom Twelve gives his last Big Speech, a succinct mission statement about kindness in an hour that already tossed out a fourth wall-breaking Trump joke:

I’m not doing this to win, or beat someone or blame someone. I’m doing it because it’s right, because it’s decent, and above all, it’s kind. It’s just that…Where I stand is where I fall.

Michelle Gomez has been aces since her very first appearance, and it’s largely on the strength of her performance that her rehabilitation has felt rewarding, not contrived. She and John Simm’s Master are the dark mirror version of David Tennant & Smith in “The Day of the Doctor:” just as playful, just as much bickering, but with an undercurrent of sociopathic malevolence. That’s why it makes cruel cosmic sense for the pair to ultimately stab each other in the back; Missy skewers The Master to force his regeneration into her; he fires back, with the screwdriver on full blast, because he can’t stand the thought of ever helping the Doctor. For some reason, whether it’s her mind cracking in death or she simply appreciates the irony, Missy’s last breaths are spent laughing about it. For the Doctor’s part, he’ll never know what happened, that she wanted to come back, which might be the biggest tragedy of them all.

The Doctor is tired of regenerating; he’s ready to be done. “I will not change!” he yells, pounding his fist into first the TARDIS dashboard, then the snow of where he’s been brought. It’s a great dramatic performance from Capaldi as well, who has been a tremendous Doctor from the beginning. I only wish he had been given better writing to work with. At this point he’s over two thousand years old, in one of his oldest incarnations, and has decided he’s ready for a final rest. Eleven was, too. But he was given an undetermined number of bonus lives, so here we are.

The Original Doctor, though! I can’t begin to guess what Moffat has in store for his final Christmas Special, but the wintry reveal in the closing seconds buys him more goodwill than he deserves. How clever indeed to bring back Bradley, who was superb as Hartnell in An Adventure in Space and Time, the 2013 TV movie about the creation of Who. We’ve seen our fair share of wizened figures stepping out of snowstorms, but this one was particularly good.

Timey-Wimey Stuff:

  • “Knock yourself out!” “Your wish is my command.”
  • I’ll allow for that TARDIS spare part materializing in Missy’s pocket at her behest, because thinking about it makes my brain hurt. How could she have remembered to also keep one handy, when she doesn’t remember anything from her previous regenerations?
  • Also not touching: The Master’s sudden attraction to his female self. I laughed, though.
  • Oh, I basically forgot about Nardole, who gets the thankless job of keeping the kids safe to fight another day, since we weren’t given any indication that the Doctor didn’t give his life to stop more than just a wave of Cybermen. It’s the one loose end that needles a bit, but as I said, I wasn’t terribly invested to begin with. Nardole never quite clicked for me as a secondary companion, but I don’t think that’s much fault of Matt Lucas; the character simply wasn’t very funny as written.
  • “I love being surrounded — it means everyone’s looking at me!”

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