This review is spoiler-free, but refers to plot details from last week’s episode if you’re not fully caught up. Check back here after Episode 12 is broadcast on BBC One at 6.30pm for additional spoilery notes.
“Without hope. Without witness. Without reward.”
Over the last 10 seasons, Doctor Who’s season finales have somehow gotten bigger and bigger. For Steven Moffat, whose first season as head writer ended with the entire universe being erased from existence and then rebooted, that’s no mean feat. To find another episode anywhere close to the scale of Season 10’s personal, devastating finale, you would have to go all the way back to Season 1’s The Parting Of The Ways.
Like that story, The Doctor Falls also takes place entirely on a huge spaceship, with old enemies gathering below and plotting to finish off our hero. When we left the Doctor last week, he was facing down Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Master (John Simm), as they revealed that the ship was the birthplace of the Cybermen, and that they had converted poor Bill Potts into one of them, after her friends took a decade to rescue her.
That cliffhanger is as much as we really want to tell you about the story of this episode (read on below after you’ve seen it), because this is really something special; perhaps the most uniquely emotional finale since 2005. If you’ve been underwhelmed by the conclusions of Moffat stories in the past, this feels entirely different from what has gone before, because it’s resolutely not about defusing the stakes, as much as it is about waiting for them to blow up.
From the indelible early image of half-finished Cybermen being put up as scarecrows, as if guarding a ragtag group of colonists on a floor in the middle of the ship, this is really bleak stuff. As in last week, there’s clever use of the time pressures on different parts of the ship, but there’s an air of crushing inevitability that, for once, isn’t as easily waved away.
It’s still recognisably Doctor Who, and that’s due in no small part to Peter Capaldi’s towering performance. We’re used to the Doctor having “darkest hours” by now, but this hour-long episode is a tour de force that perfectly sums up this particular incarnation’s qualities and contradictions, as he approaches the end of his run.
Capaldi knows his way around a good speech, but there’s more raw emotion in his turn here than we’ve ever seen from him. Standing up to the truly foul Simm and the unpredictable Gomez, this is more like the Twelfth Doctor’s finest hour than his darkest. His passion is the immovable object against the unstoppable force of the emotionless Cybermen, and it’s incredibly powerful stuff.
Director Rachel Talalay pulls an absolute blinder too. The script gives her loads to work with, as she shifts gears from the Silent Hill survival horror of last episode to a more dramatic and wistful war movie aesthetic. The comedy is a little thin on the ground, but there’s some welcome levity, particularly from the always-great Matt Lucas. In his penultimate episode, Steven Moffat has given his era one heck of a send-off, with an earnest quality that feels rare from him.
It’s fitting that a season as eclectic as this ends with The Doctor Falls, a grand, gut-wrenching finale that loves its characters, but puts them through tragedy anyway. It’s remarkably unforthcoming with the usual hopefulness that gets our heroes out of supposedly hopeless situations, and the drama that comes out instead, while very sombre, is undeniably moving. Your mileage may vary on the way it ends, but for me, it’s the kind of finale I’ve wanted to see again ever since The Parting Of The Ways – an unflinching emotional blockbuster that hits all of the most important beats beautifully.
Additional notes (spoilers)
– When did you start crying? For me, it was pretty much consistent from the Doctor’s speech about why he does what he does (which was as beautiful a reminder of why we love this show as anyone has ever written) to the traditional pre-regeneration remembrances of companions (with just about every regular companion since 2005, this time). This is Doctor Who at its most moving, because there’s never even a single mention of how this might affect the rest of the universe. It really feels as though the Doctor dies for a small group of strangers.
– “We were always going to shoot ourselves in the back.” In contrast, the end of both Missy and the Master is almost sad, but tragically inevitable. John Simm’s ex is unapologetically cruel throughout the episode, and Michelle Gomez’s Missy is finally damned by changing her mind too late. Both incarnations cackling as they die, friendless and destined to screw each other over, might be a perfect end for that character. It feels more like a definitive end for the Master than any other we’ve seen, and future writers will have a heck of a job topping their last scene.
– World Enough and Time was pretty much the full extent of this story’s interest in the genesis of the Cybermen, although Pearl Mackie is marvellous with Bill’s horror at what she has become, and there’s the gruesome reveal that they want to convert the children of floor 507, because their bodies are smaller and easier to dispose of. Once they come in en masse, against the Doctor alone, they’re terrifying. On another note, the first time we saw Missy, she had evolved Cybermen in tow – maybe, post-regeneration, she goes straight from the ship to her plan from Dark Water, closing her character’s story in a loop? The episode’s priorities are elsewhere, but that feels logical without being made explicit.
– It would be remiss of us not to mention Matt Lucas one more time. He’s been a revelation this season as Nardole, playing in equal parts as “comic relief” valet and voice of reason to Capaldi’s Doctor, and his exit here makes him the only regular character who survives the season. His final episode gives him a moving farewell to the Doctor and Bill and his clear discomfort with flirting, as Hazran (Samantha Spiro) takes a shine to him. I didn’t know what to expect from him this season, but now, I think he’ll be missed.
– Moffat sticks to his guns so long with the bleak finality of all of this that you can’t really begrudge the final saving grace. Heather (Stephanie Hyam) returns from The Pilot, with flashbacks niftily showing us that her tears were set up to save Bill from the beginning of the season. It just about holds up because from the Doctor and Bill’s point of view, they’re already dead. In some ways, Bill and Heather’s exit is comparable to Clara and Ashildr at the end of the last season, but it at least gives Bill the send-off she deserves after such a dreadful fate.
– For the Doctor, though, enough is too much. Even as the familiar glow kicks in repeatedly, he rejects the possibility of being “somebody else” again. This marks the first time the Doctor has been killed by the Cybermen, even though they’ve appeared in other regeneration episodes, including The Time Of The Doctor and the very first one, The Tenth Planet. It’s fitting, then, that the episode’s final callback to that story comes with the introduction of David Bradley as the First Doctor, presumably during his snowy walk back to the TARDIS at the end of that story, as a cliffhanger into the Christmas special. Steven Moffat’s got one last story to tell…
– Here’s the first official picture of the Doctor and the First Doctor for the Christmas special:
Photo: BBC Worldwide