After that startling opening showing an older, somewhat crumpled version of The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) apparently regenerating, Steven Moffat clearly decided that, as this was his last year as showrunner, he’d use “World Enough and Time” to rattle some cages, bring back The Master (John Simm) and pile on the Cyberman body horror.
He borrows his title from the appropriately named “To His Coy Mistress”, Andrew Marvell’s metaphysical 1650 poem that is something of an ironic love story. It’s full of imagery and symbolism about the encumbrance of mortality, love’s power, and the passing of time — where “the last age should show your heart” — to transcend the grave and escape the “iron gates of life”. I’m thinking Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the vault, as well as the overall theme of trying to outlast time, to “make our sun stand still”. The Doctor trying to hold back his regeneration in the pre-title sequence also seems quite appropriate here. Metaphysical allusions have certainly been a running theme in Series 10.
And yes, ““World Enough and Time” is about holding back time and attempting to preserve the present. Moffat uses the gravitational time dilation theory (the actual difference of elapsed time between two events as measured by observers situated at varying distances from a gravitating mass), as the basis for his story. Set on a massive spaceship, 400-miles long, attempting to pull away from a black hole, events at the top of the ship move much slower relative to the bottom of the ship, where they elapse rapidly. Moments on the bridge of the ship pass as years down in the engine room.
In this week’s Doctor Who, The Doctor sets Missy a test by responding to a distress signal and provides her with Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) as “plucky assistants” or “Exposition” and “Comedy Relief”, as she refers to them later. She introduces herself as “Doctor Who” so Moffat can once again stir up that particular hornet’s nest about what exactly he calls himself. Not that The Doctor, observing from the TARDIS while tucking into a bag of crisps, is bothered, as it’s a joke that’s pretty much worn thin by now and he can spot a wind up at fifty paces.
This debate on semantics is interrupted by janitor Jorg (Oliver Lansley), who arrives on the bridge to warn them at gun point that “things” are coming to take away any humans in their party as “they only come up if they detect human life signs”. The Doctor intercedes but his attempt to persuade Jorg he can help him tragically backfires. Bill ends up with a heart-shaped hole in her chest. Moffat, in a typical bit of non-linear storytelling, then flashes back to The Doctor’s proposal to her to test Missy because “she thinks she can be me”.
The conversation is used to provide some exposition (Bill definitely fulfilling her function here) about The Doctor and The Master’s long friendship. There are shades of the lonely Time Lord here, as The Doctor, more than anything, wants The Master to be good. It’s an interesting reversal of what Missy attempted to do to The Doctor in “Death in Heaven”. There she was the one trying to define him, to see him lead an army and be just like her because she wanted her old friend back.
As The Doctor and Bill eat chips, Moffat returns to that familiar discussion about Time Lords and gender. “She was my man crush,” admits The Doctor to a rather perplexed Bill. Despite their title, Time Lords are meant to be beyond the “petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes” and it’s a possible intimation that when Capaldi bows out we shouldn’t be too surprised to see that long-running idea finally brought to fruition. Either that or it’s just another rattle of the cage for old time’s sake.
The most important aspect of this conversation is that Missy scares the heck out of Bill, and she asks the The Doctor to promise he won’t get her killed. Director Rachel Talalay underlines the irony in a direct cut back to Bill with a huge hole shot through her, as The Doctor reflects on human mortality: “You pop like balloons.” His metaphysical concerns with the heart underline the uncertainty The Doctor can successfully keep her out of harm’s way.
The central story gets properly underway from here on in, as the white gowned “things” arrive and take Bill away. “She will be repaired,” intones the oh-so-familiar voice of what we know are prototype Cybermen. Talalay keeps these figures out of focus when they come shuffling through the doors, dragging their medical drips and stands with them, tantalising us with their barely recognisable shapes. Moffat exploits the body horror aspects of the Cybermen, an area that the series has flirted with but never truly revelled in. What better way to do it than with those original cloth-faced Cybermen from 1966.
A skeleton crew, investigating the engines in order to reverse away from the black hole, have evolved into thousands of lifeforms because of the time dilation effects. As The Doctor goes into exposition mode, Talalay uses freeze-frames to jump between the bridge and the world that Bill eventually wakes up in. We see the relative time spans on display in the theatres and corridors of the hospital to demarcate the days, months, and years that Bill endures as mere hours pass for The Doctor, Nardole and Missy on the bridge.
There’s also a contrast between the sleek, shiny space ship bridge and the almost post-Victorian industrial age sanitarium environment of the hospital and the belching chimneys of the city it stands in. There’s a suggestion of class differences to go with the body horror, the anxieties of failing health care and medical mishaps, the disgusting notion that the only way to survive is to shed the human form and becomes totally prosthetic creatures. It’s emphasised in those scenes showing the poor and diseased being led to their conversion by the drip wielding proto-Cybermen.
Bill enters a world where dying humans are compelled to replace their bodies with prosthetic substitutes and sacrifice identity and emotion to the cause. She’s rewarded with a new mechanical heart, but it’s merely the beginning of her own transformation. Bodies become abstract and reduced and pain is erased by the flick of a dial. Moffat and Talalay take their time, pacing Bill’s exploration of the hospital with due consideration, building up a tremendously grim atmosphere as she visits the wards in her white gown, attached to her own drip, glowing like ectoplasm, and sees the ranks of blank faced patients emerging from the Conversion Theatre.
It’s beautifully photographed, too, with shafts and pools of light cutting through the darkness as she tries to track down the source of the voice calling out “pain, pain, pain.” As she explores the uncanny spaces of the hospital, a vision of The Doctor accompanies her, a telepathic call asking her to wait for his return. How many of his companions have waited like this, haunted by The Doctor’s promise to rescue them?
I suppose we must discuss John Simm at this point. What a real shame his participation couldn’t have been kept quiet. It took me a while to realise the strange Fagin-like character of Mr. Razor was Simm, but slowly his vocal and physical mannerisms gave him away beneath the make up. Imagine if that reveal had come out of the blue and we had another “Utopia” on our hands? Amusingly, Mr. Razor seems a rather appropriate name for him, given he’s at the heart of what turns out to be the “genesis of the Cybermen”.
As many fans have commented, the world of Mr. Razor allows Bill to observe The Doctor as if she was watching an archive episode of Doctor Who itself, on a suitably old black-and-white TV. Couple this with the original creepy 1960s design of the Cybermen and their eerie sing-song voices, and the episode becomes an exercise in hauntology. The new series is visited by the spectre of the old, a temporal and historical disjunction of Doctor Who. When Mr. Razor refers to Bill’s heart chest unit and regrets that for some people the conversion goes all a bit “vending machine” this adds a knowing in-joke about the retro design of the first Cybermen.
The exposition The Doctor offers unfolds like a series of stills, and Talalay cleverly cuts back and forth, the frozen moments leaping back into action as The Doctor, Nardole, and Missy resolve to take the lift down into the ship’s bowels. At the same time it also allows humour to offset the horror of the episode. Meanwhile, Bill’s employed as a cleaner on the wards and sees the strife and suffering in the city outside, where “our world is rust, our air is engine fumes”. Yet, Mr. Razor talks of exodus when everyone has been upgraded like the special patients. It’s a suitably Biblical turn of phrase when, later, it is supplanted by The Master’s description of this operation as a genesis.
Alerted by the imminent arrival of The Doctor, Mr. Razor tricks Bill into believing he’ll take her to one of the lifts to meet him when in fact he hands her over to the surgeons. I love the fact that the disguised Master wears “a burgling mask” when he takes her to the Conversion Theatre. It’s surely a subtle joke about the Master’s illogical proclivity for impersonation. Bill’s eventual conversion is truly horrible as the weird, top-knotted, cloth-faced Cybermen prepare her for the exodus, to survive “in a world not made for flesh.”
The final 10 minutes quicken in pace and provide edge-of-the-seat tension as Moffat lays the majority of his cards on the table. Missy meets her former incarnation just as she discovers the ship originated from Mondas, Earth’s twin planet that attempted to absorb its energy in the Cybermen’s 1966 debut “The Tenth Planet.” How this all fits with the history of the Cybermen is beyond me as there are several origin stories to choose from. You’ve got Big Finish’s superb “Spare Parts” audio drama from 2002, the John Lumic alternate-Earth origin from “Age of Steel”, and various other texts just for starters.
Suffice it to say, if you’re left puzzled as to why Missy doesn’t remember any of this happening to her, when she was the previous incarnation of The Master, then it may have something to do with their time streams being out of sync, as suggested in “The Day of the Doctor”. When he reveals himself as former PM Harold Saxon, we must suppose that he escaped shortly after being sent back into the Time War on Gallifrey in “The End of Time”. He clearly knows who she is, too, so again there’s a question of whether he’s been setting this up to ensnare her and The Doctor, or if it’s all just an unhappy coincidence. His past is about to catch up with her and The Doctor will never forgive her for “what you did to his little friend”.
The chilling climax is perhaps one of the best cliffhangers we’ve seen in a long time. When The Doctor spots a figure standing in the shadows, it’s gradually revealed to be a “Mondasian Cyberman” but the true, utterly tragic reveal is that this is Bill, fully converted and now a figure of abject horror. As Missy and The Master stand gloating either side of Cyber-Bill, Talalay zooms right into the creature’s eye as it intones “I waited… for you” in that sing-song manner, raising an imploring arm to The Doctor. Beneath the prosthetics we see Bill’s human eye shed a tear.
Now, that’s how to end an episode, and particularly one as brilliantly performed and directed as “World Enough and Time”. Special praise must go to Pearl Mackie because, for most of the episode, we follow her and identify with her predicament. She’s quite superb, and it will be a shame if she is, as has been reported, no longer staying with the series into Series 11.
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“The Doctor Falls” will have a struggle to match the power of “World Enough and Time” next week. It has a pile of questions to answer, including whether The Doctor’s regeneration in a frozen wasteland is a prelude to the Christmas special rumoured to feature David Bradley as the First Doctor.