With a Christmas Special yet to close Steven Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who’s showrunner, “The Doctor Falls” still has plenty of work left to do as a series finale. Fortunately, he manages to tell a reasonably coherent story and tie off some unresolved narratives in the allotted hour without it feeling rushed. However, two-part finales do tend to suffer from the syndrome of having an extremely good opening and then a weaker closing episode. “The Doctor Falls” suffers, marginally, in comparison with the superb “World Enough and Time”, in that respect, primarily because handy plot contrivances pop up to drive the narrative and many elements feel too familiar.
“The Doctor Falls” does ensure Peter Capaldi’s last lap as The Doctor is a fitting and memorable lead in to his regeneration, despite The Doctor’s obstinate refusal to let it happen until December. Essentially, the episode swaps last week’s body horror for a riff on Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (1959), as the plucky homesteaders of the solar farms on floor 507 of the 400-mile spaceship (still trying to reverse from the black hole to no-one’s real concern it seems), fend off the evolution of the Cybermen.
The opening scenes deftly introduce us to the colony, lead by Hazran (Samantha Spiro), as they protect their children from the Cyber patients who’ve escaped from the hospital hundreds of floors below in search of humans to convert. I felt a bit sorry for the patients, as they were gunned down and had the ignominy of being strung up as scarecrows across the fields. There was something vulnerable about them, even though they were one conversion away from becoming fully fledged Cybermen.
Into this pastoral frontier crash lands a ship, witnessed by Alit (Briana Shann), and from its smoking wreckage emerges a Cyberman carrying The Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) crumpled body. It’s another example of Moffat’s use of in media res, to drop us into the story and then relate the events leading up to that moment in flashback. It’s suitably macabre that he starts this off with The Master (John Simm) and Missy (Michelle Gomez) interrogating a semi-conscious Doctor about how many times he’s died and how. “I know you’ve fallen” offers Missy’s counterpoint to the episode’s title and shades of The Doctor’s fate in “Logopolis”, and “have you felt the blade?” is a foreshadowing of the fate that awaits The Master later in the episode.
The Doctor’s too busy remembering the significant moments of his fight — all blurry monochrome quick pans describe the struggle, a collision with a computer keyboard and Nardole’s retreat— after The Master and Missy gang up on him. Missy’s potential redemption isn’t forgotten either, despite the tendency to go for laughs with the face-to-face Masters encounter, and is addressed later in the episode. We get a few titbits covering The Master’s return to, and taking leave of, Gallifrey after some therapy for those incessant drums (“well, I didn’t stay, why would I stay?”) and their inability to share their memories because of the time sync issues.
One of the best lines is when they decide against throwing The Doctor off the roof because, unsure how many regenerations he has left, “we could be up and down the stairs all night!” The real tragedy is that The Doctor has to be reminded Bill (Pearl Mackie) has been converted into a Cyberman, “doomed to spend an eternal afterlife as a bio-mechanical psycho-zombie”. To rub salt into the wound it was done on the whim of a psychopathic Master hiding his “stupid round face” from those who rebelled against him, as he turned the city into a swathe of satanic mill and foundries to mass-produce Cybermen.
Missy is exhilarated by this genesis of the Cybermen, but The Doctor reminds her that they have emerged from many places where there are people: “Mondas, Telos, Earth, Planet 14, Marinus.” The last is an acknowledgment of a 1987 Grant Morrison comic strip “The World Shapers”, where the Voord evolved into Cybermen. There’s a lot of this sort of stuff thrown around in the episode as Moffat clearly unburdens himself and goes continuity mad.
It’s at this point that the first of the plot conveniences kicks in to enable the Rio Bravo scenario to include Missy and The Master. Were the Cybermen only hunting for humans then they’d be left to gloat like cruel landlords over this industrial revolution, and not get an object lesson from The Doctor on the virtues of kindness. Ironically, The Doctor fell against a computer in his struggle. He managed to push a few keys and include the Time Lords in the Cybermen’s algorithm to convert flesh.
Receiving this news, Missy clearly wants to be on the winning side. The Doctor’s still convinced she can change, and the moment he holds her hand and simply hopes it is true is a lovely touch. “I’m in two minds. Fortunately the other one’s unconscious,” she offers, having trounced The Master on the head with her brolly. Gomez and Capaldi play that glimmer of hope so expressively and it pays off big time.
Nardole (Matt Lucas) has been useful (a meta comment on the usefulness of companions if ever there was one), and procured the ship that eventually crashes down on floor 507. The getaway is a riff on the escape by ladder to the zeppelin in 2006’s “Age of Steel” and it’s Cyber-Bill that saves the day as The Doctor’s incapacitated and Missy, back to her true self, abandons him. The concept of the Cyberman with a conscience takes us back to Kroton in Steve Moore’s comic strip “Throwback: The Soul of a Cybermen” and to other films, from RoboCop (1987) to Ex Machina (2014), where the essence of humanity struggles against the dehumanising effects of technology.
The Doctor claims he can fix Bill, but her true fate is the heart of the story when they arrive on floor 507. To underscore Bill’s dawning and tragic realisation she is a Cyberman — so brilliantly performed by Pearl Mackie — the episode takes cues from Shelley’s Frankenstein and, by extension, from 1973’s The Spirit of the Beehive, directed by Victor Erice. The scenes between Cyber-Bill and Alit do remind me of Erice’s film about a little girl who becomes fascinated by the Frankenstein monster after she sees the 1931 James Whale film in a travelling cinema. The film used the monster as a way of exploring the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the after effects of Franco’s fascist regime.
It’s also a parallel to the scenes in Whale’s Frankenstein where the monster befriends a little girl by a lake but, through a tragic lack of communication, accidentally kills her. In The Spirit of the Beehive, the little girl projects her feelings about that scene from the 1931 film onto a Republican soldier she finds hiding in a barn. Cyber-Bill’s scenes with Alit focus on a child’s rationalisation about monsters and the reasons they can exist in such a rural setting while the Cybermen prepare to stamp their own authority on the community.
Monsters can be a salvation or damnation it seems, and even though “you’d frighten the children”, Alit is unafraid of Bill as the community prepares for war and brings her a mirror to see her proper appearance. Again, there are echoes of Karloff’s monster seeing his true self reflected back at him in the lake. Director Rachel Talalay cleverly switches back and forth between Bill and Cyber-Bill, emphasising how much of Bill is still fighting to surface, is still confident of her own corporeality.
The scenes in the barn between Bill and The Doctor are also some of the finest of the series. He doesn’t chastise Alit, and recognises that she was “being kind” by bringing the mirror, then gently informs Bill that she’s become “a technologically augmented human being” when she questions what a Cyberman is. The theme of kindness develops into the major speech The Doctor gives when facing Missy and The Master but the seeds of it are here as The Doctor tries to help Bill remember what was done to her even though she repeatedly claims she’s fine.
Bill’s strength, empowered by her time under the Monks regime, has enabled her to temporarily reject the conversion. The nature of human consciousness, caught in The Doctor’s emotive “you still see yourself as you used to be”, where being is a relationship of the mind with the body’s physical appearance, is evocatively explored through dialogue and specific visuals: Bill’s gloved Cyber-hand, her Expressionist Cyber shadow on the wall. It erupts into anger because after all The Doctor left her in the ship for ten years and she has a right to be angry. But it’s anger channeled through programming and it results in destruction. Her sorrow that people will always be afraid of the monster she has become creates a symbolic tear that “shouldn’t be”, one shed in an act of kindness.
As The Doctor and Bill accompany The Master to the lifts he and Missy have uncovered, we’re reminded of that raging against the dying of the light as The Doctor stumbles and his regeneration is stalled again. Mortality and corporeality reemerge as themes, from the Cybermen targeting children because they’re easy pickings for conversion with their disposable bodies to a Time Lord holding onto his body and owning up to Bill that her body can no longer be fixed.
“I can’t hang on forever,” says Bill, as the conversion swamps her brain and body. Ironically, despite doing “whatever it takes…” to keep them both going, neither can The Doctor. “I don’t want to live if I can’t be me any more. Do you understand?” she pleads. Yes, he understands more than Bill could possibly know. To paraphrase the Third Doctor, “where there’s tears, there’s hope” and when they’re shed on the battlefield the future’s going to be all girl.
The weapons grade versions of the Cybermen finally arrive, flying through the floors of the ship to hunt their human quarry. The Cybermen have had thousands of years to plan ahead and it’s apparently a mathematical impossibility to get safely back to the TARDIS because of the time dilation effects. The situation is hopeless but The Doctor doesn’t give in.
It’s a similar situation to The Doctor’s defence of the town of Christmas on Trenzalore in “The Time of The Doctor”, prior to his last regeneration. As he plans for the colony’s escape through a service duct to the next few floors up, Nardole gives the ranchers some added firepower and taps into fuel lines to ensure the episode has lots of scenes featuring exploding Cybermen. There’s even time for a blossoming romance in his relationship with Hazran.
On the other hand, The Master and Missy do a bunk and try to escape in his TARDIS, abandoned in the lower levels of the ship. They reason that whatever The Doctor’s plan, it’s not worth a jot. The Doctor is outraged and gives them both a piece of his mind in a superb speech delivered by an emotional Capaldi at his most imperial. It’s sad that just as he’s nailed how to play The Doctor he’s decided to pack it in.
It’s not about winning, says The Doctor, it’s not about blame nor beating someone, nor because it’s fun. “I do what I do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And, above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind.” It might be pointless in the end but it’s the best he can do. And it’ll kill him because “who I am is where I stand and where I stand… I fall.” He appeals directly to Missy to stand with him to defend these people, in the hope she can prove to him she has become a reformed character. She guards her tongue and it seems her conscience has been pricked while The Master refuses to listen. Missy might have changed but even now she has second thoughts. They hold hands and she thanks him for at least trying to make her see the good in herself.
The battle is furious and it gives The Doctor enough time to delay the Cybermen and evacuate the colonists. He remains behind, the last stand and his final fall, and demands Nardole leads them to safety. Nardole frets about his plan, because even he knows that the controlled explosions can’t be triggered remotely: “I think as soon as soon as this place is evacuated, you’re going to blow the whole floor, killing as many Cybermen as you can.” No arguments there as he’s the strongest of the two of them and is packed off to look after a gang of smelly humans. We do get hints of his past black marketing activities but Nardole remains a bit of enigma right down to the bittersweet farewell to The Doctor and Bill.
The two Masters, meanwhile, turn against each other when Missy feels a pang of regret for abandoning The Doctor. Using her feminine wiles, she locks The Master in a deadly embrace, putting the knife in. “I loved being you, every second of it,” she murmurs in his ear, alluding to the same mutual admiration between the Fifth and the Tenth Doctors in “Time Crash”. It seems The Master’s future incarnation was the cause of his regeneration into… his future incarnation. And the unpleasant icing on this cake is that he shoots her in the back and denies her a further regeneration. How sad that The Doctor didn’t know she elected to stand with him in the end. Effectively cancelling him/herself out in “our perfect ending. We shoot ourselves in the back” are we to believe this really is the final end for The Master?
“Without hope. Without witness. Without reward,” invokes The Doctor as he takes to the battlefield in the name of the ice tombs of Telos, Voga, Canary Wharf, Planet 14, and even the moon. Until those fateful blasts from the Cybermen kill him stone dead because, as the Cybermen so coldly rationalise, “Doctors are not required.” Yet, in an echo of where his regeneration is going to take him, he quotes the First Doctor: “I’m not a Doctor. I’m The Doctor. The original, you might say.” And with that he destroys the whole floor, regretful in the throes of his death that “I hoped there would be stars.”
Bill is magically restored and transformed by a kiss from the unexpected appearance of Heather (Stephanie Hyam), her significant other from “The Pilot”, who miraculously emerges from the field of battle. Much as the sentiment is appreciated — a long lost love returns through the power of a promise — it feels a little bit convenient. I’m not sure it completely works as a way to write yourself out of a corner, after an immensely effective and very powerful conclusion where the sobbing Bill stands over The Doctor’s inert body.
Bill’s fate is somewhat hamstrung by it being too similar to Clara’s in “Hell Bent”. Moffat has always steadfastly refused to completely kill off companions, and would rather resurrect them from their fate. A death-defying Clara saved The Doctor and was sent off into time and space in a TARDIS with immortal Ashildr… and now an undead, all powerful Bill returns The Doctor to his TARDIS and pops off for adventures with Heather, the proxy Time Lord.
Bill’s lament for The Doctor is moving and those powerful tears come in handy again as they kick start his regeneration cycle, ushering in an homage to the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration in “The Caves of Androzani” as many companions drop by for a final flashback salute to the 2005-17 era. Even Missy sticks her oar in. Capaldi also gets a rehash of David Tennant’s poignant “I don’t want to go!” and Matt Smith’s heartfelt remembrance of “when The Doctor was me…” before angrily refusing to regenerate.
The TARDIS, perhaps making a point about his time being up, promptly lands him in the frozen wastes of the South Pole (assuming the Twelfth arrives during the events of “The Tenth Planet”) and a close encounter with The First Doctor (the original, you might say) in the form of actor David Bradley. Sadly, this has been an open secret for a while and it’s another spoiler, like John Simm’s return, that would’ve had far more impact if it had been kept quiet.
It will make for interesting Christmas viewing, and I’m still not sure if it will work. There’s still something a bit odd about an actor who played a real person, William Hartnell (playing The First Doctor in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time), now returning to play The Doctor within the series itself. Bradley was superb as Hartnell so it’ll be down him and Capaldi to sell the concept completely. I hope we get to see Pearl Mackie again as she has been an exceptional presence in this series.
Despite Moffat’s reliance on retooling bits of “The Time of the Doctor” and “Hell Bent”, and using some plot vouchers such as the computer and the return of Heather, “The Doctor Falls” was a good, often moving, finale. Despite some delicious sparring between Gomez and Simm, I’m just not convinced the two Masters team up added an awful lot to the scenario in the end. As an exploration of what makes the Master tick it was interesting, but it’s a concept that really deserved its own episode.
Director Rachel Talalay clearly has an affinity for the show, turning the swansong for the Twelfth Doctor into an epic about the human capacity to care and be kind and to never judge by appearances. I look forward to how she handles the Christmas special, Capaldi’s eventual secession and hand over to a new Doctor because, much as we love the Twelfth, he must keep on being somebody else.