Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

And so we come to the end of the tenth season of the revamped Doctor Who (who knew it would last this long?) as well as the almost-end for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. “The Doctor Falls” is the second half of the two-part finale, which began with the impressive, captivating “World Enough and Time,” but I have to admit I found the conclusion a bit of a mixed bag. As usual, the performances are excellent, from Capaldi to Pearl Mackie to Matt Lucas to Michelle Gomez, everyone brought their A-game. (I very much enjoyed seeing John Simm again, but I felt his Master was underwritten and, for most of the episode, underused. He lacked the charm, menace, and biting wit of his season-three days, in my opinion. Also, at one point two weeks pass and we get no indication that the Master has been up to anything, evil or otherwise!) The Doctor gives another of his barnstormer speeches like he did in last season’s “The Zygon Inversion” that really cements Capaldi’s portrayal for me. “Where I stand is where I fall,” he says, and he doesn’t do it out of anger or vengeance, but out of kindness. I’m so sorry to see Capaldi leave.

But even with everyone giving it their all, this is Missy’s episode. Her interactions with Simm’s younger incarnation of herself are worth the ticket price. (But there’s no way Missy would turn down the Master’s invitation for hanky-panky. You know the Master would have sex with himself every chance he gets!) We get some answers as to where the Master has been since 2010 Tenth Doctor episode “The End of Time” — they fixed his “condition” on Gallifrey, presumably meaning the drums in his head and his unstable resurrected body, and booted him out again, but then at some point his TARDIS got stuck on the Mondasian ship (I’m only sorry we never actually get to see the Master’s TARDIS in this episode, that’s always fun) — and we also get the answer of how Simm’s Master regenerated into Missy, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the highlight of the episode.

It’s worth noting that before the actor Roger Delgado’s untimely death in 1973, the Master’s arc during the Third Doctor era was going to come to a close with the Master sacrificing his life to save the Doctor, showing that there really had been a basis of friendship between the two before (and perhaps even while) things went bad. Missy deciding to help the Doctor in “The Doctor Falls” but getting killed by the Master follows that trajectory, although I would have actually liked to see her and the Doctor team up against the Cybermen even briefly first. But the idea of the Master killing himself rather than standing with the Doctor makes perfect sense in context, and the scene where both Masters are lying on the ground, dying from the mortal wounds each has given the other, and laughing maniacally at the perfection of their fates is chilling, tragic, and superb all in one. If there was a character arc to the Twelfth Doctor era, it wasn’t the Doctor’s, it was Missy’s. Her fate, should it be final, and I assume it is, is impeccable.

I wasn’t sure how the show would handle Nardole’s exit, since I assumed he wouldn’t be in the next season, and I think they did a fine job with him as well. Like Nyssa during the Fifth Doctor era, who stayed on Terminus to help heal the Lazars, Nardole’s travels with the Doctor led him to find his calling and leave the Doctor to go help people who need him. I’ll miss him. Matt Lucas is great in everything he does, but Nardole in particular was a fantastic role, and such a great addition to the Doctor Who companion roster. Here’s hoping for future cameos!

But I can’t talk about the aspects of “The Doctor Falls” that were less exciting to me without mentioning Steven Moffat’s propensity for telling the same story over and over again. In “The Doctor Falls,” the Doctor makes his last stand defending a town with lots of children and relatively primitive weaponry against an advanced invasion force of classic Doctor Who monsters — which is exactly how the Eleventh Doctor went out in 2013’s “The Time of the Doctor,” although it was Daleks then, not Cybermen. (Although “The Doctor Falls” is a thousand times better than “The Time of the Doctor,” which I’d say is one of the worst Eleventh Doctor episodes, of which, it is my opinion, there are many to choose from.) Bill has been converted into a Cyberman but sees herself in her regular body, which is exactly like Oswin Oswald who was turned into a Dalek in the 2012 Eleventh Doctor episode “Asylum of the Daleks.” (Again, I found it much more affecting here, since I have grown over the course of the season to care about Bill and had only met Oswin that same episode.) At the end, Bill, restored but not quite human anymore, leaves the Doctor to go traveling the universe with her space girlfriend Heather from the episode “The Pilot,” which, while utilizing different details, is exactly the same end Clara got last season in the episode “Hell Bent,” in which she went off in a TARDIS with her friend Ashildr to travel the universe.

Speaking of Heather, while her appearance at the end is a total deus ex machina, I was still glad to see her rescue Bill from a tragic fate for two reasons. One, Bill deserved a happier ending than to be turned into a Cyberman, and two, after setting up the possibility of seeing Heather again so well in “The Pilot,” I was worried the show was going to forget about her. (It wouldn’t be the first time Steven Moffat has dropped a plot line!)

There’s a lot of handwaving, too, which at this point I’ve come to expect from the show but still get annoyed by. The way the Doctor reprograms the Cybermen on the bottom level to come after Time Lords as well as humans felt rushed and half-baked. Nardole using his computer to remotely blow up parts of Level 507 didn’t make much sense, nor did the Doctor somehow absorbing that computer program into his sonic screwdriver, which basically turns it into a magic wand to blow up Cybermen with. Missy telling the Master to always carry a spare dematerialization circuit from now on, and then pulling one out of her pocket, is like something out of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and doesn’t deserve to be here. These may be quibbles, but they tend to stick out for me.

Something is going on with the Doctor’s regeneration. At the end of “Empress of Mars,” Missy looks the Doctor up and down and asks if he’s okay, as if she can see something wrong in him, some illness perhaps. In “The Doctor Falls,” we see the Doctor fight off his regeneration at one point when he’s simply walking through the woods with Bill. He fights it off again at the end of the episode. We’ve never seen the Doctor fight off a regeneration before, so something is definitely up. (We did see him sort-of regenerate without changing his appearance in the 2008 Tenth Doctor episode “Journey’s End,” but I always thought that was such bullshit I was surprised it was even mentioned in “The Time of the Doctor” as an expended regeneration.) Was the Doctor mortally wounded by the Cyberman who zapped him on the rooftop at the beginning of “The Doctor Falls,” or is it something else, something Missy saw inside him in that earlier episode? I hope this will be explained in the Christmas special.

One of the true joys of “The Doctor Falls” for longtime fans is the many, many callbacks to the classic series, so how about a heaping dose of Doctor Who neepery? Jeez, where to begin? How about at the start when the Masters are asking the Doctor about the different ways he’s “died”? The Master asks if he’s ever burned to death, which the Master appeared to do in the 1984 Fifth Doctor serial “Planet of Fire.” Missy says she knows the Doctor has fallen to his “death” because the Master basically knocked him off a radio telescope in the 1981 Fourth Doctor serial “Logopolis,” which triggers his regeneration into the Fifth Doctor. The line repeated throughout the episode, “Where there’s tears, there’s hope,” is a version of the last words the Third Doctor said to Sarah Jane Smith before regenerating into the Fourth Doctor (“A tear, Sarah Jane? No, don’t cry. While there’s life, there’s…hope.”) Similarly, his line when he wakes up in the TARDIS — “Sontarans perverting the course of human history!” — are the first words of the Fourth Doctor after his regeneration, a reference to the 1973 Third Doctor serial that introduced the Sontarans, “The Time Warrior.” (Since Twelve is very much a mixture of the Third and Fourth Doctors in my mind, this was perfect.) Right before his regeneration, he has memories of all his previous companions saying the name, “Doctor,” as well as his enemies doing the same, and that’s a callback to the Fourth Doctor’s regeneration into the Fifth, during which the same thing happened to him. Something similar happened when the Fifth Doctor regenerated into the Sixth, although in that instance the images of his companions spoke full sentences of encouragement instead of just saying “Doctor.”

But wait, there’s more! As the Doctor is blowing up Cybermen with his sonic screwdriver, he rattles off a list of all the planets where he has met and defeated them over his lifetime: Mondas (1966’s “The Tenth Planet”), Telos (1967’s “The Tomb of the Cybermen”/1985’s “Attack of the Cybermen”), Earth (1968’s “The Invasion”/1982’s “Earthshock”),Voga (1975’s “Revenge of the Cybermen”), the battle of Canary Wharf (2006’s “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday”), the moon (1967’s “The Moonbase”), and hilariously, Planet 14. Why is Planet 14 hilarious? Because in the long history of Doctor Who, that battle has never been shown. Instead, it’s simply mentioned in the Second Doctor serial “The Invasion” as a previous occasion when the Doctor fought the Cybermen. Though the story has never been told, it’s kind of cool that they include it in “The Doctor Falls”! (The Doctor also lists Marinus as a planet where the Cybermen were, but the only Doctor Who serial involving that planet is the 1964 First Doctor serial “The Keys of Marinus,” which doesn’t involve the Cybermen at all. Maybe this is another untelevised adventure, like the events of Planet 14?) And of course, the biggest callback of all: At the end of the episode the Doctor encounters his first incarnation, which he has previously done on two other occasions: the 1973 tenth anniversary serial “The Three Doctors” and the 1983 twentieth anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” (In fact, the line “I’m the Doctor. The original you might say” is spoken by the First Doctor in the “The Five Doctors.” Additionally, the line, “You may be a Doctor, but I’m the Doctor” is something the Fourth Doctor says to Harry Sullivan in his very first serial, 1974’s “Robot.”) Twelve and One were both present at the climax of the 2013 fiftieth anniversary special “Day of the Doctor,” but I’m not sure we can say they actually met then.

I’m looking forward to the Christmas special. It’s going to be so much fun watching the Twelfth Doctor interact with the First. Of all his incarnations, Twelve and One are definitely the grumpiest!

4 responses to “Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls””

  1. R. Francis Smith says:

    On balance, I really enjoyed it. I don’t deny the Moffatisms, but this time he wrapped them together into a lovely package that makes them forgivable, as opposed to making them the entire basis for a thing that makes no damn sense (I’m looking at you, Time of the Doctor, and you, Angels Take Manhattan, and you, Kill the Moon, and… anyway.) He was always going to go out as himself, Moffat I mean, and this (assuming he doesn’t ruin it all at Christmas) feels like his A game. Good for him and everyone involved!

    Yes, I’m grading on a curve. Hey, I got through the latter JNT years. 🙂

    • Nick says:

      I tend to grade Moffat scripts on a curve, too. If they don’t completely shit the bed, I consider them good. But he’s definitely going out on a high point. For the most part, I thought this season and last season were very good.

  2. Jeff Conner says:

    Great article. A target-rich episode for call-backs, for sure. So, if Clara was wiped from the Doctor’s memory, how can he remember her saying his name? Is the Tardis itself feeding these images to the Doctor, or is the Doctor not seeing them at all, just us, the audience? If the Tardis is responsible, then why didn’t it restore the Doctor’s memory right away (if that’s what it was doing)? Maybe the Doctor is seeing Clara say his name but has no context for it. Still, I liked seeing Clara in the line-up.

    • Nick says:

      I think he remembered her as soon as he saw her picture on his TARDIS at the end of “Hell Bent” last season, or perhaps when he saw her name on the list of Coal Hill School teachers in an episode of CLASS (which I’ve never seen, but I did see a clip of him spotting her name in the list). Anyway, I think his memory is no longer fully wiped.

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