Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And at long last, this is the end – the last episode of our weekly coverage of series 10. And, to give this piece of fiction a worthy eulogy, we have gathered alone, the three of us, in silence and meditation, ranking episodes through complex mathematical processes (that involved both Excel and darts, as it happens), sharing insight, and crying profusely over a finale that hit, as young people say, #rightinthefeelsbruv.
Thank you all for having followed us so far – we’re not going anywhere, and have plenty of exciting projects to launch during the hiatus! But let’s not wait anymore, and let’s dig right into the finale. Spoilers follow, obviously, both from the episode, the series, and the third series of “Hannibal”.
1) General Thoughts
SCRIBBLES: Well, that was a magnificent triumph, wasn’t it? Unambiguously the highlight of the year, and an absolute tearjerker, as well.
SCARVES: It was rather beautiful, yes. Bill got her happy ending, and I’m thrilled about that. The two masters were delightful together, and ultimately produced some of the best material the character has had in their final scenes together. I was genuinely moved moved by Nardole’s departure, which I never expected to happen at the start of the season. It was stunningly directed by Rachel Talalay. But above all, in its small character scenes, in its unrepentantly joyous ending for Bill, in the many beautiful character scenes and of course in the Doctor’s incredible “because it’s kind!” speech, this episode was a summary of the core tenets of the Moffat era, something that shows the last six seasons to be something poetic, profound, deeply moral, and wonderfully kind hearted. My word, this has been a wonderful era, and it was a joy to see it summarised so beautifully.
TIBERE: Series 10 has been, I think it’s fair to say, a fairly simple series, in a way. It’s not meant as a dig – I really loved it! And this finale sort of embodied that – it’s a very direct story. Not simplistic, but simple – and there’s a lot of elegance in simplicity. It most reminded me of “The Doctor Dances”, down to the title – structurally, they might not be the most complex tricks Moffat ever pulled off, but, by focusing on the characters, and by building slowly towards a great emotional climax, it sort of gets to the essential themes, the essence of Moffat’s writing. Because there are a lot of people going on about Moffat being all plot and no character, all cleverness but no heart, and frankly speaking, that’s bollocks – “The Doctor Falls” is a testament to everything Moffat’s era did right, and everything good and healthy with his approach of Doctor Who. It’s a bittersweet, grim triumph – but it’s that nevertheless. It’s not doing any sort of complex tricks, it allows itself to be the straightforward culmination of three series of Capaldi and ten series of Steven Moffat, and, in doing so, it becomes the best finale the show has ever done, in my humble opinion. It’s not a revolutionary story like “Hell Bent” was, admittedly, but it’s just as good in a different way. If “Death in Heaven” was a statement of purpose, and “Hell Bent” a bold attempt at forging the future of the show, this is a bittersweet look at all the work accomplished, and a sad, soulful adieu.
SCRIBBLES: Certainly there was a tendency to play it a bit safe this year. I didn’t care for that as much, though I appreciate the need for it as a sort of reset button for the show. But, while this finale follows patterns established by the last two, as well as beats from stories like “The Time of the Doctor,” I’d argue it’s a lot more complex and ambitious than that. Every Moffat/Talalay/Capaldi story has been invested, really, in going as dark and as far to the breaking point of the show as possible before asserting an aesthetic of joy and feminism. But I think this one in many ways goes further than the other two. Not content to merely show us the characters at their darkest, it puts them all the way to the brink of death, in extremis, so to speak. The first two thirds of this or so are basically “To the Death” done right, a slow, steady build to a total extermination of every lead character, more or less. The Doctor’s killed within the first ten minutes by the Cybermen! Bill’s still torn apart from last week, and though she’s still in there as we knew she would be, slowly being eaten away and monstered in some perhaps too close to home ways. Missy and her previous self, of course, get the most brutal and ironic fate of all. And all this over small stakes, relatively speaking. It revels in these beats, complete with “Death in Heaven” style washed out palette, my, these finales really have a stylistic coherency. It pushes the show basically as grim as it can be and challenges itself to find hope in that.
TIBERE: I think the most impressive thing about the script is how dark it manages to get while never becoming exploitative. “To the Death” is garbage, but it’s not just garbage because it kills a lot of paper-thin cut-outs – it’s garbage because it does it without caring a single second about it, because it’s essentially a PR stunt, a “we did it because we could”. Here, every moment of darkness is cut by something more uplifting. The beginning in the Mondasian city is dark, but has the Masters dancing and cracking jokes. Bill’s fate is horrific, but it’s an occasion for her to affirm herself and to an ultimate happy ending. The Master dies, but she dies making a stand. Every beat is ripe with meaning, and feels like an evident, perfectly-fitting solution. Death shouldn’t be a shock, really – if you’re going to get dark, you better have some strong points to make, that lean on the darkness and channel it. And this is what this story does – yes, it’s one of those moments, “the darkest day, the blackest hour”, but it’s also in those moments where you see what “you’re made of”, to quote “Death in Heaven”.
SCRIBBLES: There’s two points I think that really make it work. For one thing, there’s moments of grace the whole way through, and suspense. It has firmer pacing, really. Instead of trying to pack as many punches as possible spread out over time, to allow the audience to become numb to it all, it embraces the slow build to the inevitable battle with a lot of small character scenes. We know the Cybermen are coming, and we know how vicious they can be. But they rightfully take the back seat until the characters are all perfectly positioned to fall apart. When the tragedy comes, we’ve been lured emotionally in by the wait, and the focus on all the characters’ different agency and choices in the buildup to oblivion. We are told again and again how there’s no winning this battle, but we’re made to wait, and then it all happens more or less at once paying off all the buildup of the episode. All of it is, ultimately, designed to be true to the characters. And then there’s the rejection of the darkness, too. Just like the Doctor refuses to be killed off so soon, the show refuses to let it all go to hell. Instead, it turns the emotion of tragedy into a message of strength, echoing themes of pieces like “Listen” and “Extremis” that have merged the Doctor Who viewing experience with real life action, resolving in a big gay deus ex machina of joy that feels like everything Doctor Who can and should ever be.
TIBERE: And even in grimness, there’s a sense of weird, off-key poetry to the proceedings. Talalay, in the way she frames the orphanage, deliberately quotes the famous black and white Charles Laughton classic, “The Night of the Hunter” (she talks about it in the aftershow!) – a very dark movie about children being hunted down through the United States by a serial killer dressed as a priest, which also happens to be an incredibly poetic tale about the power of innocence and imagination (down to the imagery, which often channels the supernatural), and the ambivalent nature of religion. That’s the same kind of energy at work here: the final battle is not fought in disease-ridden ruins, but in a prelapsarian forest where surreal scarecrows are sealed in the fields. Moffat chooses to fight on the grounds of the abstract and the metaphorical, as always – and really, the Cybermen are perfect for that. We talked a little bit last week about how they can be read as a metaphor of narrative collapse, as the force that opposes the very nature of Who and its narrative – and it’s exactly what happens here. If the Moffat era is all about comforting a crying child, as “The Beast Below” announced, then it’s only logical that it should end with the Doctor facing the boogeyman that comes from the child in all of us – the grey, uniform, impersonal Mondasian hordes. Really, in a way, this episode is “Legend of the Cybermen”, volume 2 – except the original was a comedy romp, and this one is deep, dark drama. And in a way, the Cybermen succeed – they kill the Doctor. This version of the Doctor, at any rate. Of course, all of this was just filler, because the real important part of my comments is this: watch “Night of the Hunter”, it’s legitimately one of the best movies ever made. And that way you’ll know where that shot of Twelve guarding the orphanage with a gun on his rocking chair comes from!
2) Representation & politics
SCRIBBLES: I mean, can we just appreciate how aggressively political this was? I mean, the core of Bill’s crisis of identity, the thing holding her back from living as her and threatening to overwhelm her even as she tries to fight, is painted as a tragedy of human darkness explicitly paralleled with comments threads full of Trump supporters.
TIBERE: Definitely. The episode is less concerned by the whole class aspect that “World Enough and Time” had, admittedly, but there are still a lot of interesting tidbits here and there – most notably, the fact that the Simm Master is said to have been the Prime Minister of the underground city. If the Cybermen are the threads full of Pepe-branded trolls, Simm is the enabler.
SCRIBBLES: Guess that makes the Master the Trump of Mondas. Which is fitting, in a way. He’s a destructive force of sexism and gleeful rage here, the unhinged troll looking to dear people down.
TIBERE: Hell, he should have kept the bleached hair. Would have been so much better. It’s keeping up the theme from last week: the Time Lords and the upper class will always screw up things for the others. Except of course when they are the Doctor, and accept to renounce their privileges and stand in harm’s way to save others.
SCRIBBLES: Of course, sexism isn’t new with the Master. I was reading a piece by Whovianfeminism the other day criticizing “The Time Monster” for leaning too much into that to make him evil. I think what makes it work here in a way it didn’t there is because here he’s a relic. A destructive and powerful one that will tear things down, but one countered by the fact that every other character, including the other Master, atively shuts him down. He’s still more nuanced than pure evil, so it’s not just the cliche problematic coding, but it is a toxic, patriarchal force defining his character and informing the way he is so destructive. It’s in a way the most political Missy has ever been as a result. Because she’s shown as the logical enlightenment for a sexist, Trump-y troll, but one he also can’t help but shut down. Someone on Tumblr commented to me that he’s the kind of Master that’d downvote the female Ghostbusters trailer on YouTube, and I think that sums it up. Missy, meanwhile, is the Who equivalent of the female Ghostbusters, and also the same character. They’re innately poised to find the necessary feminist revelation, but also to destroy themself.
TIBERE: I feel like that kind of coding can be problematic if it’s just here to signify “eh eh that guy is bad” (see: Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones) – but it can be used well when it’s intended as set-up for a political point to be made later on. Which I feel is the case here – plus, it’s just very much in line with who the Simm Master is. He’s a petulant, obnoxious child with surprisingly little dignity, that would do anything just to harm people. Yes, really, the troll metaphor is on point – hell, he even kind of speaks like Paul Joseph Watson (don’t google that, kids). But at the end of the day, all his nastiness is pointless. Really, at the end of the day, what does the Simm Master even accomplishes here? Nothing – he was cast off his throne, the Cybermen escaped his control, he ran away and got killed by herself. To use Trump-like vocabulary: he’s a loser. Sad. Reminds me a bit of the last series of Hannibal, where the odious misogynist Mason Verger gets killed by two lesbians shoving a phallic eel down his throat. Good times. Still – if we’re digging in the metaphor here, there’s also the fact he runs away and refuses to face any consequences for his actions; and obviously the fact he’s presented as a vulgar horndog in a way Missy never really was. I mean, she’s a sexual character, but the way she expresses herself is more over-the-top and off-beat than anything – “is that the emotion you humans call spanking?” -, whereas Simm literally gets boners from being threatened by his future self.
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, we get a beautiful exploration of what that kind of force makes of marginalized people like Bill. The Cybermen not just as the ultimate threat to the narrative, like you say, but as a social one tied to the class themes examined last week and mobilized into a destructive force. Interesting, then, that it comes from the underclass. But then, that’s the people who often voted for Trump, blue-collar workers from more rural areas who thought he’d bring things back to how they used to be, revitalize outdated industries like coal. Basically, who thought for some reason a rich guy with no feelings would genuinely help them survive. It’s all about survival in the end.
TIBERE: I think it comes down to a difference about the way class dynamics are perceived in the first place. Kind of an old left / new left divide – the Cybermen are this perfect answer to, ahem, “economic anxiety”, to this fear of decomposition, of seeing the place you live in rot and decay, of seeing your country “stop being great”. I don’t think it’s necessarily a well-founded fear, but it exists and needs to be dealt with, so it’s good that “World Enough and Time” offered, like, a modicum of compassion in that direction. But it’s not a good solution. Because the price of survival, the price you pay for being this shiny new army of powerful robots that look, for the most recent bunch, like they were designed by Apple, is uniformity. You lose your identity, you lose what makes you unique. Maybe your spaceship is great again, but it’s not “your” spaceship anymore, and you’re not even you anymore, because the system – the Cyber-programming – won’t let you.
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, Russell T Davies already married Simm’s Master with that political divide in the series 3 finale, with him as a sort of Blair-esque New Labour politician figure, offering survival to humanity through a slightly different toxic conversion that strips identity. The thematic precedent is all laid out. But, in the end, we’re given the resolution, and that’s the tears of the oppressed. Emotion’s always been the undoing of the Cybermen, when it isn’t gold or cleaning fluid or bad special effects (“The Moonbase” is glorious for that last one).
TIBERE: Or a well-cooked meal.
SCRIBBLES: Indeed. But here, it’s a bit more complicated than blowing them up with love, though it also sort of comes down to that. By invoking “Extremis,” like I was discussing earlier, with the “without hope, without witness, without reward” mantra, the episode invokes a call to action for the audience. “Extremis” told us we could all be the Doctor, and that he doesn’t have to be real to inspire us to the fight. Here we’re told furthermore that our pain and oppression is a strength that offers us hope.
TIBERE: As a good ol’ series 8 fanboy, I’m especially happy about the way that call to action is framed in a way that specifically echoes the Danny/Promised Land arc, I must say. Because at the end of the day, the Doctor dies as a warrior, as a soldier. He is at peace with himself, and accepts to take up arms one last time. I feel like the series 8’s finale greatest contribution was phrasing military duty, and the act of fighting, as an act of love, of care, of devotion – and this is the culmination of it all. It’s not the beautiful, but ultimately selfish and problematic fight against fate that closed series 9, it’s not even the Doctor going blind in “Oxygen” – because that was still fueled by a degree of selfishness, in a sense, by the Doctor’s desire to go see the stars and galavant. It’s just the right thing to do, the last step in a long process (which also kind of encompasses Class and its political questions, which we tackled here and there) – you can kind of understand why Twelve would be reticent to regenerate after all the efforts he made to better himself!
SCRIBBLES: Love is a promise, furthermore. And that’s what saves the day. Heather promised to come back for Bill so long ago, and here she does, in the darkest hour. Love wins. Queerness wins. Marginalized people come together in love and win. I think it’s worth stressing how much Bill being encased in the Cyberman suit adds to that meaning, too. She becomes an object of fear by the pastoral society, even though they know she isn’t dangerous. It’s very charged with social justice issues, particularly those of race. I mean, even the cyber-conversion’s pathologizing and weaponizing of the just anger of a black woman is extremely loaded.
TIBERE: There’s the lovely, low-key detail of her only friend among the orphanage stage being that little black girl, Alit. The Doctor plays with her at some point, too, in a scene that I thought echoed quite a bit his interactions with Rupert in “Listen” (and really, “Listen” looms large over that script – the Cybermen are, symbolically, the boogeyman that story didn’t have; and both end with an appearance of the first Doctor). The best bit is probably Samantha Spiro grabbing a gun and shooting her as soon as she enters the dining room. A black woman being shot at on sight by a trigger-happy white person. Well that’s just science-fiction.
SCRIBBLES: That was absolutely one of the standout scenes of the episode. I mean, that’s what the problem is. A knee-jerk reaction fueled by racism and unconscious xenophobia that drives white people to fear the people they have marginalized, that leads to far too much violence against black bodies. And Bill is marginalized in multiple ways, being black, queer, and a woman. She is at once an object of social violence and of social fear, both feeding each other. Externalizing that violence and that monstering through the cyber-conversion is harrowing and brilliant. Bill tells us she doesn’t want to live if she can’t do it as herself, and gosh, that is just the truest, most hard-hitting moment. Because that’s what marginalized people want. To be allowed to live normally. But society treats them as monsters.
TIBERE: It’s phrased in very explicitly LGBT terms, too. I mean, what the Master puts her through is essentially misgendering – and while she’s a Cybermen, she’s played by Nicholas Briggs, who is – shock – not female.
SCARVES: On the subject of LGBT specific themes, I saw one tweet saying that this episode was “women in refrigerators: lesbian edition”. Which is an argument that I have a lot lot of problems with. I mean, first and foremost, Bill is literally saved from certain death through the power of her lesbian romance. That’s a pretty blatant subversion of the “bury your lesbians” trope. And while she does suffer in this story, and it’s painful to watch (and I do understand why, for a non negligible number of LGBT fans, it’s an especially painful retread of various shows that put their LGBT characters through needless suffering that straight characters don’t go through to the same degree), her suffering really isn’t there to drive a male character’s story. The Doctor’s guilt at not being able to save her isn’t the focus of “The Doctor Falls”: whenever her conversion is addressed, the episode focuses on Bill’s trauma, and her struggle to process it and hold onto her identity.
TIBERE: I mean, seriously, you can’t argue that the episode is falling into that trope blindly. They literally quote the fridge trope in the text! The Master says hurting Bill is like “riling up a fridge!”
SCRIBBLES: Oh, it is totally, unsubtly played as misgendering. This finale, like all Moffat/Talalay/Capaldi finales, has had a lot of text in it about the idea of a woman taking over as the Doctor. Here more than ever, the message is unambiguous. We can only hope the future is all girl.
TIBERE: Also of note (and, credit where it’s due, that was pointed to me by the most excellent Sam Baker, who was our guest last week) – the fact that Bill escapes the Cyber-conversion by literally turning into liquid. Talk about embracing “fluidity”. Knowing Moffat’s love of bad puns, this strikes me as pretty intentional.
3) Arcs & Endings
SCRIBBLES: Bill’s arc is probably at once the lightest and most heavy thing here, so I want to start with that. I commented ages ago in our coverage of “The Pilot,” as I recall, that Bill is a change from the usual for Moffat because she’s a fully formed character. Her problems are not internal but external, and so naturally, this finale is all about that, and transcending that oppression of class, race, gender, and sexuality. Her life is full of microaggressions by her foster mum and longing of education she cannot have. Bill is utterly sure of herself and comfortable with every aspect of her. It’s the world that shuts her down, and that’s where her anxieties lie. Here, she transcends her oppressive reality through these aspects of herself she has always embraced no matter how much society oppresses and monsters them, and that’s meaningful.
TIBERE: I especially like the fact the last line she shares with Twelve is her just simply reaffirming she’s into young women. I mean, first thing first, it’s a wonderful reaffirming of her identity – at a time where she says she’d rather die than “not be her” (a sentiment trans viewers, especially, seem to really relate to, according to conversations I had post-airing) -, that becomes kind of hilarious when you imagine Nick Briggs saying that in a Mondasian voice; but it’s also a nice occasion to re-emphasize that Bill’s arc is really not about the Doctor, at all. She’s the first companion in a while to have absolutely no interest or romantic tension with him at all, too – which I think is a really nice and welcome change. I don’t have anything romantic tensions – Clara’s easily my favourite companion, and she had plenty of romantically-charged interactions with Twelve -, but I feel like this allows the series to change focus, to be more centered around the real world, and less so about the inner politics and dynamics of Who.
SCRIBBLES: I find it funny that a complaint often against Bill is that she talks too much about her sexuality, that that’s too big a part of her identity. That’s ludicrous. Not only is the marginalized identity one of the key aspects of her characterization, but it’s something society doesn’t let people just live. Society will constantly comment on it no matter how little an issue one tries to make themselves. Bill’s constant affirmation of her own queerness is political and empowering and, again, lets her go off to become a space lesbian cosmic water goddess.
TIBERE: The best five words in the whole English language, I think we can agree there. Also, some appreciation is warranted for some pretty stellar set-up / pay-off with Heather’s tears in “The Pilot”. That is a really, really clever bit of plot wizardry – admittedly, and that’s something many people have singled out as one of the biggest issues with the episodes, maybe Heather’s return could have been teased a bit more throughout the series. I don’t think that’s necessarily an unfair critique, but honestly, Moffat is searching to write something beautiful before trying to make sense, here. And I’m fine with that – really, who tries to point the plot holes in TS Eliot? Plus, really, she’s saved by “The Pilot”. She’s saved by a television narrative, basically – by a purely Who narrative, a purely Who plot device, coming to life and rescuing her. It’s just great.
SCRIBBLES: And then, of course, we have the Master’s arc. We’ve covered a bit the themes hanging over it, but it’s a very fitting final beat for an era. It’s just open-ended enough where the likely survival of the character won’t feel like a cheat and will have interesting directions to go in, but it’s a definitive enough tragic statement that it works as well for a conclusion to an era as the Master telling the Doctor to get out of the way in “The End of Time” did. There’s a slight paradox to the Master, where every writer seems to feel inclined to explain and redeem the character nowadays. The drums, the death stuff Lidster engaged with on audio, there’s a lot of seeking to explain why the Master is such a paradoxically limited character in growth. Moffat’s come up with the best explanation here. Rather than an external force driving the character insane and making them kill, it’s a self-limitation. She wants to redeem herself, but needs to engage with her own internal rot, which will destroy her.
SCARVES: What’s really great is that both Masters offer their own statements about where they’ve “always been going”. Gomez claims they were always going to stand with the Doctor again, whereas Simm claims they were always headed for mutual self destruction. And both are held up as equally true. Doing a meaningful redemption story for the Master, and making it work without breaking the character for future writers, seemed like an impossible task, but dammit, Moffat pulled it off, the brilliant madman.
TIBERE: Moffat’s clever here – he offers a final end for the character, and allows for the possibility of her dying definitely, while still offering some wiggle room to potential future writers by saying she may not be the incarnation following Simm.
SCRIBBLES: And, even beyond that, since when has the Master needed regeneration to cling to life? Crispy Gomez, make it happen.
TIBERE: And yeah, definitely agreed with you on the movement towards a more internal conflict doing wonders for the characters – Lidster’s “Master” is at its best when it’s being abstract and psychological. And really, I kind of like to interpret that whole audio as the Doctor’s telling himself a wild tale about the origins of his best friend’s madness, with a grain of psychological truth, rather than trying to make sense of it.
SCRIBBLES: Nardole, meanwhile, got a bit of a short shrift in an utterly fitting way. We still don’t really know him, and that’s okay, that’s good, he wasn’t supposed to be the focus. The fun of him is in how odd and inexplicable he is. The con man history is a delightful touch. I mean, the guy was working with River to murder a king for a diamond, of course he’s a con man. His fate is bleak but hopeful in a nice Doctor Who way. Hopefully he’ll find peace, but it’ll be every bit ambiguous as he has always been.
TIBERE: I think it was kind of teased back in “Oxygen”, with all the stuff about his multiple wives. And in last week’s episodes, since he apparently has changed skin colour. Also, his ending is a really lovely inversion of the whole “dropping a companion off on an unknown world just because they have found an attractive local” trope. I’m gonna go ahead and say straight Nardole is worth it just for that sweet sweet subversion.
SCRIBBLES: It’s a really refreshing change to see a male companion get dumped off in some hellhole with impending destruction by Cybermen hanging over it over a love interest, isn’t it? I’ve said before I’d love to see Charley Pollard reunite with a new series Doctor on audio and have to leave when he gets married off, the way she’s previously inverted fridging and memory wipe dynamics. This is basically the same kind of thing, inverting the gender politics of cliche companion departures to make something more satisfying and fresh and meaningful.
TIBERE: And of course, the episode ends with Twelve starting to regenerate and One popping up.
SCRIBBLES: Well, really, it kinda begins with it. The realization that the Doctor you see in the pre-credits of “The Doctor Falls” has already received the fatal blow and is holding back the regeneration is chilling. It feels all the more emotional because it springs it on you before you’re ready to see him gone.
TIBERE: Much like “The Eaters of Light” before it, it’s a circular story. It opens and ends at the same point – just like it makes the whole Capaldi era open and end at the same point, if you consider that the Missy you see in “Deep Breath” is just off her stabbing-induced regeneration (by the way, congratulations for the on the nose “stab in the back” joke). And of course, it gets bridges the very beginning of the show and its current iteration by having the first and (for now) last Doctor meet. Both ending up dying in the snow because of Cybermen, incidentally.
SCRIBBLES: Like has been the case the last few weeks, this feels like the thematic culmination of Twelve’s arc. He’s fully formed his ideals, so now we can see him make his stand for them. We don’t really get any new ideals from him. We’ve seen this all before, forming over many stories and coming together probably around “Extremis.” This is more a synthesis, a closing statement. It really does feel like a last great statement from Moffat and from this Doctor, not a new one, but a case of all the old elements put together for one last argument of why it all matters. And Capaldi sells the hell out of it. The episode’s all just built around his one quiet speech to the Masters, the one the Simm incarnation doesn’t even listen to, and it sums it all up. Doctor Who, at least under Moffat, is a series about ideals. Not necessarily ideals one can always make work, but ones one clings to even in the darkest times in the hope that things will be more good.
TIBERE: Part of what makes the episode hits as hard as it does is that you don’t even know how efficient all the efforts you see will be, or are. As you pointed out, Simm doesn’t listen to the speech, and of course, we can still assume, at the end of the story, that Cybermen are still out and on the prowl in the lower levels. There is a shadow of pointlessness thrown over the whole story – much like “Heaven Sent”, in a way (and it’s no coincidence if both the wall-punching and Twelve’s stand-off with the Cybermen are scored with the same leitmotiv, Gold’s “Breaking the Wall”). But even in an absurd situation, in an absurd life where no meaning can apparently be found, what matters is to make a stand, to say what you have to say, to make your own meaning. Hope without guarantees, that’s basically it. It offers transcendence and positivity, but it’s also dark and realistic. It’s never cheap and never sugar-coated in its moments of happiness.
SCRIBBLES: Absolutely. I think the breaking the wall motif speaks to the basic situation, it’s about bravery and sacrifice on absurd, futile levels just in the hope of saving a life. The Twelfth Doctor has learned that being a good man isn’t an internal state, but rather an external act of trying to be good. That’s what’s worth dying for. Like in “Extremis,” the point here is not if the actions mean anything, but what the choices made say about the characters. Nobody finds a victory in this episode, not in terms of making things happen. Nardole is left uncertain with the children, a possible romance, and a possible Cyberman apocalypse. The Doctor would have died left to his own devices. Missy’s attempts at redeeming herself come to no material consequence, and the previous Master’s attempts to avoid that fate similarly come to naught. Bill just tries to stand by her friend when she has nothing left, and even that isn’t enough. In that way, really, it’s inevitable the story has to cheat a bit with Heather to resolve itself. Because it’s a story about a breaking point of futility. It’s a great big statement of the beauty of holding to ideals as one finds oneself on the precipice of the end. The great noble battle of ideals rather reminds me of “The Eaters of Light,” it’s that same kind of valiant, epic fight. It’s not for blood or glory or revenge or land or anything like that. It’s what soldiers exist to, what bravery and heroism are all about. Standing up for love and idealism. It’s hard to imagine a more epic summation of the strengths of all these characters, nor a better final note to declare with them. It is, really and truly, beautiful. In a way, it’s sort of an inverse of Class, which found its drama and beauty in a dark desperation. Whereas that show was about where the ideals of Doctor Who crumble in the face of a need to act, this story is about why we hold to those ideals in the first place. For hope. This story is the hopeful reparative beat for the era that extends its grasp to repairing the hearts of a rather shaken world. So what if the plot cheats a bit by pulling a magic space lesbian puddle out of next-to-nowhere? That’s basically an embodiment of the aesthetic joys of Doctor Who and the hope it brings. As the teasers for series 10 said, we need a hero like the Doctor, now more than ever. And we need a show like Doctor Who. Class is all fine and good for a moment like it came in, in the wake of Brexit and the impending election of Trump, reassessing every ideological basis in the wake of such a failing. But here we are living with those material realities, and it’s time to cling to our ideals and fight harder for them than ever. “The Doctor Falls” delivers on the promise of Doctor Who as a safe space, a show made more than anything else for people in this moment, under this scary reality. It’s something to build us up again. “The Doctor Falls,” but we rise.
TIBERE: And, if I may speak candidly, it’s an extremely empowering watch. Say what you want about Moffat’s alleged prejudices or whatever, but the fact is that this episode, I think, made a lot of people, LGBT people, persons of colour, trans or gender-nonconforming people, feel better and more accepted. And honestly, succeeding in doing that, succeeding in finding beautiful, empowering positivity in the circumstances we face, that would redeem him even if he were an average writer. But he very much isn’t – and “The Doctor Falls” stands, if you pardon that bit of phrasing, as one last proof of his writing being not just good, not even great, but important.
4) Series 10 wrap-up
TIBERE: We’ve covered our thoughts on the general arc of this series so far, but before we leave and end our coverage for now, some quick thoughts on the series as a whole, and our absolutely subjective rankings of the year’s stories!
SCRIBBLES: To be honest, this isn’t my favorite series. It’s not bad by any means. It’s very competent and good. The duds are rather light, on the bright side, but one of them is in a crucial place. And while Bill is absolutely lovely, I don’t connect as much with the external arcs as I do internal. It’s far from the weakest series in my eyes, but I think it aims for a competent middle ground and achieves just about that, with just a couple grace notes elevating it. It feels like a safe, comfortable new life and fresh start, and that’s what it aspires to be. My tastes are always more towards weird, ambitious, radically new Who like series 6, but you do need stories using the aesthetics of Doctor Who to comfort and reassure and rebuild, particularly in times like now. It’s not the Doctor Who I personally want all the time, but it’s the Doctor Who the world needed, and in no way a bad final note to my personal favorite era, particularly with a very very wonderful final beat elevating the whole thing.
SCARVES: Agreed with the above. I’ve loved the Capaldi era, but I suspect this season won’t be one I love as much in the long run as his first two: it is a little too safe for that. The back to basics approach was definitely a valuable way to go, but that doesn’t mean it’s my preferred type of Doctor Who. But there’s a lot to love here: its political themes are right up my street, its TARDIS team is genuinely brilliant, and its high points, while not as bright as those of the previous two seasons, are still genuinely brilliant. It’s also a really good run for guest writers: Dollard, Mathieson, and Harness all gave strong reminders of why they were really valuable parts of the Capaldi era – I really think Chibnall will regret it if he doesn’t bring them back for his run. Munro was a wonderful treat, and Gatiss produced one of his better works: that’s a strong set of contributions from a diverse set of writers, even if Whithouse and Bartlett let down the side slightly. For me, it’s solidly in the top half of Doctor Who seasons without quite being a favourite of mine. But it is a run I’ll greatly enjoy coming back to and revisiting.
TIBERE: I really loved it. I don’t think it’s quite up there with series 8 and 1, which for me are the two absolute pinnacles of the show; and, as much as I love it, it doesn’t have the sparkle of pure, messy genius something like series 6 or 9 had. But it’s just a very, very solid, well-crafted run of Who. And that could be quite a negative – but in that case, it isn’t, because while it finds a really compelling balance that allows it to be classical and safe without ever feeling unstimulating, stale or uninspired. Like, the obvious comparison is with series 4, which is another series that I feel aims more for “strong solid run with a couple of experimental beats”; and while series 4 is beloved, it never did much for me, specifically because it often feels too much like a repeat and retread.
SCRIBBLES: Interesting choice. I’d compare more series 3 or even 1, the latter of which doesn’t sweep me away the way it does you. It’s that kind of slightly scaled back from what they could be, but confidently so, as new starts. There’s a few very much awkward beats as they try to find how to start again, and some that absolutely blow you away as the new perspective on the show finds new gems.
TIBERE: I think what really allows the run to shine is its engagement with politics – on a scale and a consistency you haven’t seen much of in New Who. I don’t think this series has that much of message, or tries to have a big, important conversation in the way something like series 6 or 8 does; it’s entertainment, and it’s very self-conscious about being entertainment. But it tries its hardest to be smart entertainment, to spread a climate of warmth and positivity; to educate people and to engage with the real world. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not the best thing under the sun, but I think it’s exactly the run you needed in 2017 – and it executes its mission almost flawlessly. And while I’m not blind to the flaws of that series, I’ll admit I’ve seldom enjoyed Who as much as I did this year. It was a blast to watch, and a blast to write about. Of course, there’s always an element of subjectivity to that – the year has been absolutely awful for me, especially on the mental health front, so having Who to rest on was a really, really good feeling. But still, I fully expect series 10 to become one of my favourite runs with time; not one of the best, but one of my favourite. It has so much heart you can’t be bothered too much about what goes through its mind – which is ironic coming from the mouth of someone who has spent several hours each week for several weeks talking about it, but still!
SCRIBBLES: That’s exactly it, that it’s the run we needed this year. I expect it’s one that will go down very well in the eyes of the fandom. It gets on with being Doctor Who in a time of adversity and is self-conscious about everythingーor nearly at least, “The Lie of the Land” asideーit does. It’s a well oiled machine of Doctor Who. Not the most daring, but one that knows what the strengths of the show are and plays to them in progressive and inspiring ways. And even Doctor Who just being good at being Doctor Who is enough to be more than anything any other show can offer, particularly when done with this much confidence and knowing progressivism balanced alongside its comforting storytelling and occasional, well-placed risks that give it that edge I love the best of the show for. If nothing else, this year gave us “Extremis” and “The Doctor Falls.” My world would certainly be poorer without them.
SCARVES: This wasn’t a run Moffat planned to make. He could have finished with Series Nine, and that would have served as a great concluding statement for his time on the show. If he could have wrapped up there, he would have. As a result, this was really a season I’ve been looking at as a bonus: the cherry on top of my favourite era of the show. And while it’s not my favourite season, it’s still wonderful: a little bit more of my favourite writer’s work on the show. I’m really glad it got made.
12 – Knock Knock
(Tibère – 12; Scarves – 11; Scribbles – 12)
TIBERE: Well, I said I loved series 10 for its ability to be solid without being uninspired? That’s the counterexample. And boy, what a stellar counterexample it is. It’s not that it’s “just okay”. It’s that it knows it’s “just okay”, and doesn’t even try to aim higher. I don’t especially like “Hide”. But eh, at least “Hide” tries to do something! This is the most basic horror story ever made. It would seem kind of déjà-vu in the 1950s. But eh, that’s not a crime. What makes this episode go from “mediocre” to “actively pissing me off” is that 1) it’s the first script of a new writer, and come on, seriously, that’s the best you can do with all space and time at your disposition? A story that makes Stephen Greenhorn or Stephen Thompson look positively inspired?. And 2) that it doesn’t even search efficiency in its extreme simplicity. It’s not scary. It’s not really trying to be scary – like, it throws woodlice at you and expects you to go “aaaaaaaargh”. If some people do, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it a good story. The direction, the construction of the scares, everything is at a 4, 5/10 level and nothing stands out. Yes, Suchet is great, but I feel like he’s being used as an excuse both by the fans of the episode, and really, what annoys me most, by the writer himself. As far as I’m concerned, this is the worst episode Capaldi starred in. Because the Twelfth Doctor’s run was plenty of things, but boring was certainly not one of those.
SCARVES: I’m actually rather fond of this one. It is very pedestrian, and clearly one of the weak links in a strong season, but it’s sweet natured, has some good material for Bill, and has a fun experiment in its approach to sound design. And there are some interesting freudian themes to read into this episode. Plus, hey, it makes fun of the terrible standards of student housing: that’s more than a little up my alley. But otherwise, it’s a let down: a horror story that fails to scare, or say anything with particular depth. I find it more likeable than my bottom ranked story, but otherwise, it’s a disappointment from a writer I was excited for.
SCRIBBLES: Suchet certainly is wonderful, he’s basically the only thing propping up this lifeless episode. It doesn’t really screw up. That should, I guess, put it above “The Lie of the Land.” But underneath the Whithouse of that episode is some wonderful stuff. Whereas here, no matter what level you pick at it with, there’s basically nothing. It’s not scary. It’s not very visually interesting. There’s not really any character insight. It doesn’t engage meaningfully with the economic realities of Bill’s life. It’s just there. And it just keeps being there for the best part of an hour until it ends. The bread and butter of series 10 is taking Doctor Who past and recycling it into something new and progressive that feels fresh all over again with the new companion’s eyes, and episodes like “Thin Ice” and “Empress of Mars” get how to do it with gusto. This doesn’t. It takes bog standard beats with generally no ambition other than making them bog standard. And that’s frustrating. It’s so ruthlessly functional that the biggest surprise of all is that it doesn’t even function as the horror story it attempts to be. But hey, Suchet’s good.
11 – The Lie of the Land
(Tibère – 11; Scarves – 12; Scribbles – 11)
SCRIBBLES: It’s Whithouse. The plotting is mind-boggling in its poorly chosen nature. The Doctor’s characterization is extremely unpleasant. Bill’s big beats are more or less stripped from being about her. The flaws with this episode are tremendously obvious and easily earn it this low ranking. But for all that, can I just say, there’s something I do find slightly compelling about it? The music is amazing. The direction is amazing. The acting is amazing. And no matter how poorly executed the writing is, the climactic beat for Bill is so beautiful I almost let the idea of forgiving the horribly misjudged first act pass through my brain. I don’t, of course. The bad in this story is very, very bad. But you can see how it should have worked, and would have wonderfully in other hands. And I do appreciate it for that. Seriously, though, Wayne Yip did an absolutely beautiful job. The images of, for example, that Missy transition with her eyes in the sky, or the whole sequence in the Pyramid, particularly with Bill’s attempted sacrifice and that action sequence, have stayed with me long after the poorly written and forgettable dialogue has dropped away.
TIBERE: It’s not good, at all, but it has a lot of good bits, that’s basically the idea. I’m not going to blame everyone for thinking the good is not worth the bad, but personally, I sort of tend to try and find redemptive readings for everything – probably because my initiation to media and stuff was done to fairly exploitative genres. And there are a lot of really interesting concepts and ideas floating around in this story – the Monks and their civilization, the reasons behind the Doctor’s “betrayal”, Bill and her mum … Let’s put it that way – I can’t say I like this story or say I enjoy it, but I cannot simply dismiss it the way I could with “Knock Knock”. And for me, that’s better – at least there’s something to be said about it. Offensive beats boring, in my humble opinion.
SCARVES: I don’t have much to add to what you guys have said. Where I can let the failings of “Knock Knock” slide because it’s competent at its core, here, the pluses don’t outweigh the negatives, hence why it places last in my season rankings. The direction is gorgeous, though.
10 – Empress of Mars
(Tibère – 10; Scarves – 9; Scribbles – 7)
SCRIBBLES: I really do rather enjoy this one. Sure, it doesn’t do as good a job at the competent classic story with amazing social awareness and fresh perspective as Sarah Dollard does with “Thin Ice,” but it still competently delivers what this series aims to be. It could be more, but it could be a lot less, too. After the wonkiness of “The Lie of the Land,” it’s really the episode series 10 needed. It’s a back to basics Ice Warrior run-around that gives series 10 a chance to pause, recalibrate, and move into the end-game. The fact that I enjoy it at all speaks a great deal to how competently it is done and how efficiently it fits into the core approach of series 10, because, generally speaking, “traditional Ice Warrior story” is not a concept that in any way gets me excited to watch. It works. It’ll never be a classic but it does a very admirable job of keeping the series on its track the way it needs to be. And while I may not be particularly a fan of Pertwee or Peladon, how can an Alpha Centauri cameo not make me smile?
SCARVES: Reading this month’s DWM, I learned that a line blatantly parodying Brexit sadly missed the final cut, but I do like that Mark Gatiss responded to that event by writing a story about the Ice Warriors joining Doctor Who’s metaphorical EU. It’s good natured, fits into the season’s themes nicely, and is solid, simplistic fun. Not one of Gatiss’s best pieces, it never achieves a particularly striking moment, but it is solidly entertaining throughout, and there is thought put into the little details. Good job, Mark.
TIBERE: Mark Gatiss is just really comfortable within the space of series 10. “Intelligent entertainment”, that’s a good brief for him – he always nails the entertainment, and series 10 gives him the framework required for some good thematic work. It’s a low-key, but strong story that comes just at the right time in the series, bridging two fairly experimental episodes with a big dose of no-nonsense trad. And honestly, that should not work as well as it does, but still, Gatiss founds a weird alchemy here – “The Crimson Horror” and “The Unquiet Dead” are still his best scripts, for me, because they are the best tuned to the ethos of the new series, but this kind of feels like the script he has been working towards for years – an alliance between Classic and New. It’s not Mathieson, who mixes both of those to create something new and magical; but honestly, it’ll perfectly do.
9 – The Pilot
(Tibère – 8; Scarves – 7; Scribbles – 10)
SCRIBBLES: The weakest Moffat script of this year, but still an enjoyable re-entry point for the show. It gains some greater poignancy in the aftermath of “The Doctor Falls,” but it’s a shame the premise of the story being that the Doctor is more or less wrong about everything and the threat being utterly benign isn’t seized upon. Rather clever how the whole gambit of the year is seeded right there in this episode. The Doctor and Nardole spend all their time worrying about yet another threat to the precious vault, when it’s not that story, but rather the story about a student being pursued by a gay alien puddle god. Still, as an episode in of itself, there’s some problems, I think. Moffat, much as I love him, is not at his best just imitating the style of Russell T Davies, there’s some awkward pacing to this no matter how brilliant and lived-in the early scenes with Bill are. Even so, there’s some absolutely beautiful moments here. The Doctor’s lecture is outright wonderful, Bill seeing photos of her mother is utterly lovely, and the TARDIS introduction scene is a delight, probably would be the very best if “The Eleventh Hour” didn’t exist.
TIBERE: I think this one might prove a grower hit, especially with the finale under our belts. And I do feel like I might have under-estimated it a bit – it’s a really strong script, and, in my opinion, probably the best companion introduction we ever had. Everything that has to do with Bill is just wonderful – it’s a perfect showcase of her potential as a companion and of everything she brings to the show (and it hits us instantly with all that, too). The plot, eh, not so wonderful, but it’s a powerful conduit that allows for some truly spectacular direction (Lawrence Gough might be the unspoken MVP of this year’s directorial ensemble) and well-paced, entertaining action. It’s definitely not Who firing on all cylinders, but even then, the stylistic exercise of Moffat trying to write a Davies opener is totally worth it. And I don’t know, there’s just something about the tone and setting of the episode I love – maybe it’s just the relatability of a college environment, but still, good, lovely stuff.
SCARVES: I really love this one, actually – that it’s in the bottom half of my season rankings says more about the quality of the stuff above it than the quality of this episode, which was rather beautiful: it’s a superb introduction to Bill, and the Doctor’s lecture and the callback to Clara when the Doctor tries to wipe Bill’s memory stand out as particularly gorgeous scenes, and I suspect will be looked back on as some of the season’s best bits.
(Smile: Tibère – 5; Scarves – 10; Scribbles – 8)
TIBERE: I’ll admit, I’m salty. Were this not a democracy, and were I to decide the rankings alone, it would be muuuuuuuuuuch higher. Because this is one absolutely fantastic slice of Who. Admittedly, it’s one whose biggest virtue is catering to a target audience virtually composed only of me and Janine Rivers. Which may or may not lack widespread appeal. But anyway – this is my jam. The off-key aesthetics, the complex, messy, relentless political engagement, the will Boyce shows to question the language and the future … It’s a layered, wonderfully intricate and dense episode. And yes, the pacing is wonky and the resolution is jarring; but damn it, nothing will be more Who this year than a bunch of killer emoji robots turning people into fertiliser because of capitalism. Also, it’s a damn good teaser for the finale. Yeah, it’s just great. You know I’m right. You know it. YOU KNOW IT. I AM NOT INSANE. I AM NOT!
SCRIBBLES: It’s so endearingly odd, isn’t it? I can’t say the pacing works as well as “In the Forest of the Night,” which justifies itself by making the plot a non-issue in the end and focusing on some phenomenal character resolutions, which are among my favorite moments of series 8. The last third act just isn’t quite as solid as the first two, which were delightful and full of perfectly delivered wonder. And I’m very disappointed Bill doesn’t get much to do in the resolution. Still, those first portions are truly amazing. Bill and the Doctor investigating a weird mystery with amazing design work and location filming, clever visual gambits, and delightful cute robots. You’ve gotta love it for that, even if some of its character moments, themes, and plot get tangled up as it reaches the finish line.
SCARVES: It’s really fun, this one. The two hander approach is to its benefit, serving as an excellent way to get us used to the dynamic between the twelfth Doctor and Bill, and the emojibots are surprisingly adorable and brilliant. The third act, while containing some admirable revolutionary politics, is a little weak, but I can forgive that.
(Pyramid: Tibère – 9; Scarves – 8; Scribbles – 5)
SCRIBBLES: I really love this one. Stylish, well-directed suspense, well-deployed broad strokes with military characters for some very Doctor Who political themes, and a breathtakingly good final beat for Bill. Sure, the whole consent approach is a bit weird and thematically muddled, but gosh, I must say it’s worth it for me. I think this is probably my favorite Harness episode. It by far has the least unfortunate implications, instead welding his political examinations in Doctor Who to a very strong character complication moment. I think it being the middle part of the trilogy helps it a lot. It’s basically a cliffhanger you know will be coming somehow, just set up so you know one character will be personally responsible. It provides a good red herring for that before hitting you with an emotional gut punch that really works. The whole thing is just delightfully mixing grand and intimate. It offers wonder and scope to hit where it matters, which in my opinion is exactly what it needed to do. Shame the trilogy didn’t work out well in the final installment, but I find “The Pyramid at the End of the World” to be a very worthwhile exercise all the same.
TIBERE: Probably not my favourite, that one. I feel like Harness has found much more of a balance here, and I appreciate his more polished approach to writing, but it’s hard to feel entirely satisfied and fulfilled by this episode when it’s followed by “Lie of the Land”. Mind you, it’s also a perfect showcase for the virtues of the connected episodes format – it can be its own independent thing and explore its own themes without its ideas being undercut by other stories. It’s just a bit frustrating – but when you get past that frustration, there’s a lot to like; the creeping sense of inevitable doom, the really cool idea of consent applied to the Monks, the general, absolutely fantastic aesthetics … And of course, the central concept of the simulation, which is used in a completely different way here than in “Extremis”, but which still manages to hit and fascinate. Much like “Smile”, it’s kind of worth more as an abstract collection of character moments and themes than an actual full-on story – but I don’t think it’s as provocative as “Smile”. Still, very good.
SCARVES: It’s very good, another story that’s only in the bottom half of my rankings because of the season has a high quantity of very strong episodes. Also, unlike “Extremis” before it, this episode doesn’t stand alone enough to do well in the season in spite of its place in a storyline that ultimately fizzles out. But its themes of consent, and its carefully structured nature, using our knowledge of the true threat to the world to build tension in a unique way, works nicely. Erica stands out as one of the better guest characters of the season, too.
(Tibère – 6; Scarves – 5; Scribbles – 9)
SCRIBBLES: The core concept is good, isn’t it? Capitalist exploitation of air. Zombies being preferred to workers by an uncaring and unseen elite. Shame is, I don’t actually think it quite manages to be everything it should be. Part of the problem, of course, is that Jamie Mathieson has been so consistently wonderful that it’s easy to get unreasonably high expectations of him. This, unfortunately, is my least favorite from his pen. That’s in no way a bad thing, he’s brilliant! “The Girl Who Died” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” were two highlights of their respective years for me. But in the midst of a year of Doctor Who that prioritizes character to plot, it’s disappointing that this episode focuses on some of its less interesting aspects and cuts the characterization of the supporting cast. It’s a well-crafted, tense thrill ride of an episode, but that’d be all the more effective if it gave you a firmer basis upon which to care about the violent and explosive events. The story is, at heart, about horror and tension as people are exploited by an uncaring system. It develops the system very well and connects strong messages to it, but it’s a shame we don’t get a good look at the people within the system, which to me are by far the most important element.
TIBERE: I hear your points, and I answer with the constructive argument: “but it’s a Jamie Mathieson script!”. Which basically sums it up – yes, it doesn’t hit bull’s eye every time, and it’s definitely one of his weaker scripts, but even then, there is such an energy to it, such a beautiful mix of dark horror and comedy, of Classic and New Who to it. In a way, with “Thin Ice”, I feel like it’s the apex of series 10’s brand of Who; it’s maybe not trying to hard, and it could help a bit more layers and more thematic ambition, but it’s fun and delightfully unsubtle with its political message. Even if the finer details need polishing, I can’t help being enraptured by it, by its pacing and execution, by the wonderful oddness of Mathieson’s writing (that monologue about space, such a good scene …). It might be nothing but a showcase for Mathieson’s aesthetics, but it’s a great showcase and I adore Mathieson’s aesthetics, so …
SCARVES: This has gone down in my rankings since we first watched it, dropping below “Thin Ice” due to its thinly characterised guest cast, but it’s still absolutely brilliant. Both Bill and the Doctor are put through the ringer in this story, and Nardole really starts coming to his own: the cliffhanger gives Matt Lucas a real chance to show off his acting chops. And it’s properly scary, in a way the horror story before it wasn’t: I like how it makes space feel dangerous and uncaring. The central thematic threads of the dangers of space and the pitfalls of Capitalism dovetail in a really satisfying way: both are portrayed as utterly uncaring, and liable to kill you not out of malice, but because of their very nature. That’s some cracking, potent stuff. I take it back, can I bump this up the rankings? *looks at what we’ve got to come* Actually, you know what, we’re good. But this is excellent. More Mathieson episodes please, Chibnall.
5 – Thin Ice
(Tibère – 7; Scarves – 4; Scribbles – 3)
SCRIBBLES: I love it. Love it, love it, love it. It’s just utterly charming and full of conviction. Is it the most nuanced exploration of racism ever? No. But it’s the most nuanced within the vocabulary of Doctor Who, the most active engagement with the implicit politicized identity of Bill within the traditional, comfortable storytelling of series 10. And it offers wonder in spades along the way. The past is full of horrors, some of which extend to the present, but this also reminds you why you’d want to go, too. The Frost Fair is beautifully realized and fun to hang around with Bill and the Doctor in. The kids are cute and sympathetic and a great aesthetic fit. The humor is delightful. Bill’s big moral dilemma soars. It’s not the most ambitious in the way “Oxygen” is, and I understand preferences for that over this, but I really just love this. It’s Doctor Who full of love and wonder at everything the show can be, and it manages that with some real meaning behind it. More than any other episode this year, it’s just an ultimate comfort episode, with enough thematic and character heft to not feel disposable but enough lightweight charm to be easy to revisit again and again. It’s this year’s “The Girl Who Died” for me.
TIBERE: I’ll admit, I’m a little bit colder on it. Much like “Oxygen”, it feels, above all else, like a showcase of the writer’s aesthetic and politics, on full display. I’m fine with Mathieson doing it, because he has three stories prior to that one; with Dollard, there’s this slight frustration where you feel all the ideas and the politics and the concepts bubbling under the surface, but “all” you get is a really strong traditional Who episode. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it might be “the” strongest traditional Who episode ever, or at least it’s up there, but what can I say, you always want more of the good things. Still, at the very least there’s one thing you can’t take away from it – it might be the definitive Bill/Twelve story. I don’t think their dynamic shines as well in any other episodes; it just establishes it perfectly, and makes the characters truly sparkle, interacting with and confronting each other in wonderfully stimulating ways. And a great story, really, I’m just a grump.
SCARVES: I’m with Scribbles, this is a lovely episode that completely won me over. I think Sarah Dollard deserved a chance to write a traditional episode after the big event episode of “Face the Raven” last series: she got to show that she can do nuts and bolts Doctor Who: that there’s substance to her as a writer. I keep coming back to the scene where the Doctor bluffs the foreman into giving away important information: it’s a stock Doctor Who scene that lets the Doctor be doctorish and witty and clever, but it isn’t lazy, it relishes in the detail and the chance to add in some delightful lines (“I can see that you are a man of intelligence”). And yeah, the dynamic between Bill and the Doctor is rock solid in this one: the companions all get moments where they question or stand up to the Doctor, but the “how many people have you killed?” scene feels like a moment really specific to Bill and her set of morals. Oh, and the Doctor punched a racist. How can I not love this?
(Tibère – 2; Scarves – 6; Scribbles – 5)
SCRIBBLES: Lovely. With really superb thematic connections to the finale and strong character moments for Bill, it feels pleasantly moody and engrossing and poetic. The opening sequence is a great signifier of everything this story is. It’s a nice bit of poetry of ancient legend and wonder, in a vein Doctor Who often invokes but rarely ever properly plays with. It’s off-kilter in the way “Vincent and the Doctor” was in series 5, it utterly breaks away from the general aesthetics and format of a Doctor Who story in a way that creates intensely personal poetry and informs the surrounding stories in an additive way. It’s just so easy to get swept up in the magic of it, and why wouldn’t you want to? I think the choice of the ravens talking is the most telling aspect of it. It doesn’t have the slightest interest in technobabble or explanation. It’s a story about wonder, my favorite aesthetic this show has to offer. And it delivers.
TIBERE: Well, it’s sublime. Not much to say here, I already went on far too long in that talk we had. But yeah – if “Thin Ice” is the definitive Twelve & Bill episode, this is maybe the definitive Twelve episode; in terms of aesthetics and mood. The will to fight for a good cause, the engagement with stories and legends, Scotland – even his character seems, throughout the episode, shift through all the facets and roles the Twelfth Doctor might embody. It’s the heart of the series, really – if “The Doctor Falls” is the final triumph and the redemption of Missy; this is the point where she actually turns to good, so to speak, where she hears the music. Because of that, it needs to make you feel that kind of beauty, of wonder, of energy that’s at the core of Who. It needs to convince you, just like it convinces Missy. And it does. Ignoring the real-world stakes that are at the heart of the finale, it manages to make what pretty much is the best case for Who’s existence using only myths and legends, and the aesthetics of the Classic series. It’s a masterstroke.
SCARVES: A little wobbly plotwise, but I love the way this episode continues the critiques of Empire we saw in “Thin Ice” and “Empress of Mars”, and it’s just so damn poetic and strange in all the right ways. I can’t not love this episode: it pushes all of my buttons, and for the most part, pushes them brilliantly. It’s an example of the way this season has done “back to basics” Doctor Who really brilliantly after the twisty and complex Twleve/ Clara era.
(Tibère – 4; Scarves – 3; Scribbles – 4)
SCRIBBLES: Doctor Who probably neither can nor should get darker than this. There’s an argument to be made that it shouldn’t even go this far. But gosh it does a good job of it. Bill being such a fully formed person from the off, without the same sort of internalized struggles as other Moffat companions, means plopping her down as the anchor in an experience of outright exploitation and torture pays off wonderfully, connecting the visceral horrors of her experiences to the greatest possible dramatic stakes for her. Really, this is the kind of story the character is meant for, merging real world working class life to uniquely Doctor Who iconography and extremely political storytelling. And it picks exactly the right Doctor Who icon to toy with. The Cybermen have always been an underutilised tool in the Doctor Who arsenal, and this story wastes no time digging into the most compelling examination of them ever. It’s difficult to watch and I understand niggles with it, but equally, I am very glad it exists.
SCARVES: It’s dark as anything, and won’t a favourite of mine to rewatch, but my word it’s good at what it does. You daren’t look away, and while I still have some qualms, I feel like “The Doctor Falls” redeems most of those. The Cybermen have never been scarier, and have never been so successfully stripped down to the core horror of their central premise. Superb work all round.
TIBERE: I discussed at length my issues with it. I think it pushes Moffat’s engagement with progressivism to a breaking point, really – I’m not sure he really “can” write what he wants to write here. But hell, it’s a damn fine attempt nevertheless, and I’m not sure it could have been better. As it stands, it’s a great, bitter story, and probably the most political and angry Moffat has ever been in his writing (and we’re talking about a man who had Rupert Murdoch shot on camera!); it’s not really fun to watch; it’s actually really unpleasant and not always in the right way – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a daring move and a fantastically well-written story.
2 – Extremis
(Tibère – 3; Scarves – 2; Scribbles – 2)
SCRIBBLES: Have I mentioned how much I love this one enough yet? Because it’s absolutely marvellous. The two crosscut plotlines add so much weight to each other, the concepts and themes soar higher than ever, and we get a tease of what is left of these characters when stripped to their barest, in preparation for the finale to come. “The Doctor Falls” is easily the highlight of the year as far as us three are concerned, but this is the episode that earns being held alongside. A Doctor Who episode that makes a statement about the show’s place within our reality and of what the Doctor as a fictional character means, to provide strength to the desperate to keep on fighting even in extremis. It’s everything I hoped series 10 would have to offer and more. I adore it.
TIBERE: Aaaaah, I do love Moffat’s increasing engagement with horror as a genre in his twilight years as a showrunner. Really, it all comes from a genius concept – you take his “pick an ordinary thing and make it scary” method, but instead of using it on everyday sights and objects, you apply it to philosophical concepts. It’s the kind of premise that’s so good and so clever you don’t really have to care about the episode underneath. But you should, because there’s one – and the constant reductions people on the internet make, reducing this story to a plot or an enigma, miss the point big time, in my opinion. It’s a wonderful statement on struggles and ideals, and the power of narratives; it’s a great character showcase for everyone involved; and it’s at the core of this series’ arc and themes. Also, fantastic mood, concepts and directions. It’s a gem, what is there to say!
SCARVES: Philosophical, Existential, strange, and stylish. The “two stories that are basically unconnected in one episode” approach is something the show hasn’t really done before, and is done very well: always an exciting moment in Doctor Who. It’s the last experimental Moffat story we got, and I’m really glad we got it. If Moffat hadn’t stayed on for series ten, we wouldn’t have gotten this, and Doctor Who’s tapestry of stories is all the richer for having this woven in.
1 – The Doctor Falls
(Tibère – 1; Scarves – 1; Scribbles – 1)
SCRIBBLES: Ah, feels good to finally have one we all agree on. Absolutely wonderful. I think I might prefer “Hell Bent” overall, but this packs an emotional punch that one can’t hope to achieve to couple with its political and aesthetic statements of Doctor Who. Really, this could very well be the most emotional Doctor Who story ever. I haven’t cried at Doctor Who since the Ponds, personally, so that gut punch was shocking and powerful. The plot becoming a ticking clock to exposing all the characters and then eliminating them is a savvy choice, adding a coherency and urgency to all events involved, even with quite disparate elements like Bill and the Masters. The Doctor’s regeneration being brought about earlier than expected in events gives an amazing entropic tone, like “Logopolis” but grounded in character. Bill’s ending for the series, if not forever, is repetitive, but it also marks a triumphant beat and one that deals directly with socially relevant tropes. Really, the whole thing just works. Even when elements should feel disconnected or recycled it manages to create a cohesive and powerful new piece of drama. This just works, and I’m glad Moffat had one more year to put it out into the world.
SCARVES: I was moved, I was entertained, I was thoroughly satisfied by the way the episode wrapped up the various loose ends left to wrap up. It’s epic in scale, but at its core it is made up of the small moments that make Doctor Who, and this era in particular, utterly wonderful. Bravo.
TIBERE: Well you have a few thousand words of opinion just at the top of that article for more detailed thoughts, but yeah. What a story, what an episode. It’s a strong contender for my favourite Who story of all time, I think – I feel like “Listen” will still prevail, because it has a sort of immaculate perfection in its plotting, it’s kind of the platonic ideal of a Who story for me; but this touched me in a way few other stories did, and it did it while offering relentless action, perfect pay-off, splendid, poetic imagery, and empowering kindness. If series 10 is comfort food, this is what happens when you elevate the “feel-good” format to pure art. And it’s glorious.
And this concludes our series 10 coverage!
We’ll be back for the Christmas special and series 11, and have some new cool projects we’ll share with you very shortly. Thank you again for having followed us through this, and in the meantime, watch Who and be happy!