“World Enough And Time” is a quote from the love poem To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, in which the speaker wishes he had a longer lifespan in which to woo and admire the object of his affections. It’s a suitably timey-wimey frame of reference for Doctor Who, especially for a Steven Moffat episode. But seeing as how this is also the first part of a finale, we’re automatically in dangerous territory for a spoiler-free review. So, in the interest of keeping things as secret as possible at this point, let’s talk about Missy instead.
Michelle Gomez appeared throughout the eighth season, Peter Capaldi’s debut run as the Doctor, but wasn’t revealed as Missy, a new incarnation of the Master until the finale. As written by Moffat, the character has gone back to her roots, more like the former friend who had sword-fights with Jon Pertwee for a laugh than the psychopath who tried to kill every other Doctor he met from Tom Baker to David Tennant.
Her arc over the past few seasons, and particularly Season 10, has been focused on trying to reconcile with her first best friend, even in spite of her own evil tendencies. In Extremis, the start of her redemption was enforced by the Doctor agreeing to look after her, keeping her under lock and key in a vault. Starting with her show of remorse in The Lie Of The Land, she’s been allowed more and more freedom by the Time Lord over the last couple of episodes.
That comes to a head at the start of Episode 11, on a 400-mile spaceship that’s reversing away from a black hole. The sheer size of the ship means that time passes differently at opposite ends of the ship (much like how spoilers will flow much more quickly at the bottom of this review, after the episode’s broadcast), and when the TARDIS arrives to answer its distress call, the Doctor sends Missy out to try her hand at saving the day, with a reluctant Bill and Nardole in tow.
The two major flaws of this episode come on either side of that decision. Firstly, although Gomez is marvellous as always, and less restrained than she has been in the rest of the season, Missy winds up being a little passive in the events that unfold, as a result of her recent story arc. On the other hand, the Doctor is far more reckless than he has ever has been at the top of this episode, and after circumstances start to get away from him, the episode leaves a hell of a lot of work for Part 2.
In the main, however, this is a really striking start to the two-part finale, with directorial MVP Rachel Talalay ratcheting up the horror and Murray Gold rising to meet the existential stakes with his score, doing his best work since last season’s Heaven Sent. The stakes of this first instalment would easily be more thrilling if its publicity (including last week’s trailer) hadn’t given so much away, but it’s objectively impressive work all the same.
World Enough And Time may be the peak of Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who – in tone, if not in quality. For better and for worse, it has all of the writer’s imaginative tenacity for scares, but just as much of his obsession with throwbacks too. To say any more would give away what surprises remain, but it hurtles along mercilessly. For the first time in this season, you can hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near for this era of the show.
Photo: BBC Worldwide / Jon Hall
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– What on Earth were they playing at with last episode’s Next Time trailer? There have been a few very dodgy giveaways in this season’s trailers anyway, but given how this cliffhanger relies so much on the reveal of the genesis of the Cybermen and John Simm’s Master, it’s nigh unforgivable that both have been openly flaunted since the beginning of the season. Nonetheless, those last scenes are still Doctor Who at its most bleak and chilling…
– That said, the Cybermen get the better end of this. Seasoned fans will recognise the subtle shift in language from “repair” to “upgrade” and “convert”, as the episode goes on, but the suspense, building the reveal of the classic Mondasian Cyberman almost piece by piece, is still mortifying in all the right ways. This is Moffat’s best Cybermen episode to date, taking them back to their gruesome conception, which was inspired by creator Gerry Davis’ anxiety about artificial medical implants. No Cybermites or Cyber-clouds in sight here, just a patient warbling “PAIN”.
– Poor Bill. Pearl Mackie has been absolutely wonderful this season and we were holding onto our slim hope that new showrunner Chris Chibnall might inherit her character next year, but this episode literally blew a hole in that. In the run of Moffat’s companions being universally significant, our lovely everywoman turns out to be the first ever Cyberman instead. It might not be all over – the last time we had a Missy and Cybermen finale, Danny Pink shook off his conditioning, but the change remained permanent. We don’t know how the story will end yet, but we’re fairly sure that Bill Potts deserved better than this.
– Razor is a delightful throwback to the classic series, in which the Master’s many returns would often be concealed by crediting his disguises as anagrams of actor Tony Ainley’s name for the Radio Times listings, like “Neil Toynay” or “Leon Ty Naiy”. What’s frustrating is that we honestly don’t know if we would have recognised Simm, with his indeterminate accent and his dreadful tea-making skills, if we didn’t know he was going to be in it. Maybe that’s not possible in these days of saturation TV coverage, but he could always have been played by “Jim Nohms”!
– Although there are plenty of stories in which the Doctor meets up with past incarnations, this is the first ever multi-Master episode. If Missy is going teetotal on evil, then Simm’s Master is her selfish mate, haranguing her to come out for a pint. But in any case, it’s not Missy’s failure that leads to Bill’s death. That’s all on the Doctor and his far-from-ideal exam conditions, and the flashbacks that rationalise his attempt to test Missy (and that repeated bacon sandwich joke from The Pilot) don’t justify that.
– The pre-titles sequence was cut from early previews of the episode. Given the weather, it feels like the Doctor’s arrival on a snowy planet, alone, trying to stave off regeneration, might be what connects next week’s hour-long finale to the Christmas special. Either way, next week, The Doctor Falls…