On board a spaceship that is so large, time travels faster at the bottom than the top, the Cybermen are building recruits at break-neck speed. Not only the old Mondasian type, but also weapons-grade Cybermen, fully armored and ready to fight. Their mission is to find all the humans on the ship and upgrade them. The Master has been helping them along, but his plan to kill the Doctor personally is foiled by the fact the Doctor updated the ship’s software, expanding the definition of human to include beings with two hearts. The Time Lords, and Bill, now a Cyberman, manage to escape with Nardole’s help to another floor. Here there are lush fields, woods, and a solar farm. But they need to prepare. The Cybermen are coming, and, being lower down in the ship, time is on their side. Can the Doctor possibly fend off a relentless attack of Cybermen? If the odds aren’t stacked against him enough, the Master and Missy have their own agenda. Will even Missy, who seemed to be turning to the side of right, abandon him in his hour of greatest need? With his own time drawing to a close, growing weaker by the hour, this might be the Doctor’s last stand…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
This was definitely an explosive finale, and a set-up for what could be an interesting Christmas episode. We’ll talk about that in a moment. My main disappointment was that the Doctor didn’t regenerate, so we still have no idea who Thirteen will be. We came close–we got the glowy hands and even a bit of facial fire, but no. He held it back like a full bladder in the movie theater. But he can’t hold off the inevitable, no matter how much he complains. And I guess that will be the theme of the Christmas story: letting go and moving on. But not until you get to the bathroom.
We start the episode establishing that the Doctor is not in good shape. He’s been beaten around by Master Missy, and hugged by a Cyberman that Bill put paid to with her snazzy new head weapon. One could ask how a laser on the head is an upgrade to humanity, rather than enhanced intelligence, for example, but maybe this version of the Mondasian Cyberman has moved beyond the portable light set they used to use for killing people (see “The Tenth Planet”). Missy tells the Doctor she was really on his side all along, and knocked herself out–I mean, knocked the Master out, to prove it, thus aiding their escape.
Throughout this episode, Bill is a Cyberman. But we don’t always see her as a Cyberman; much of the time, we see her as she thinks of herself–human. Except when she looks in a mirror, and then she sees herself as everyone else does: a Cyberman. It’s a good effect, and gives us one last chance to bask in Pearl Mackie’s amazing talent as an actress (at least in Doctor Who–I’m sure we’ll see her again in other things). The scene with the Doctor as he tries to break the news to her that she’s been Cyber-ized is so well played. Pearl owns the dialog and makes it emotionally real. I have to say, the whole Bill/Cyber-Bill switching was very effective, and managed to evoke sympathy for her, without losing sight of the fact that the Cybermen are really bad creatures that need to be defeated. Indeed, Bill gives the Doctor permission to kill her if and when the Cyberman programming takes her over completely.
Once more, Nardole is a gem, and provides the lighter touches to what is really quite a grim story. His parting speech was suitably Nardole, but also quite touching. “I’ll never find the right words” sums it up perfectly. Hats off to Matt Lucas, probably the biggest surprise of the season for me. I’ve said it before, but I didn’t expect to like Nardole, yet he grew on me. In many ways he reminds me of Ace, the Seventh Doctor’s companion for most of his tenure. Down-to-earth, witty, not afraid to question the Doctor’s judgment, but fundamentally loyal to the end.
I know Steven Moffat relished the opportunity to write for both the Master and Missy. And they were very good together, especially as Missy plays turn-coat on him-her-self. Just this past week I learned that Michelle Gomez had decided to leave the role, so with the demise of both the Master and Missy, that leaves open the question of whether the Master will return. How can he return? The Master shot Missy will a full dose of his lethal laser screwdriver which means she can’t regenerate. But this is the Master we’re talking about. How often has he come back from certain death over the past 46 years? Plenty. And, as if in parallel to that, the Doctor was shot multiple times by a Cyberman such that even he believed he was dying. The fact he didn’t regenerate until Bill’s tear triggered the process leads us to believe that, without Bill’s unintentional intervention, he would in fact be dead. Deceased. An ex-Time Lord. Could something similar happen with Missy? I imagine it will. And the next Master will come with a clean slate, and all this talk of standing with the Doctor long forgotten.
So Bill is dead… but not quite… or not really. The return of Heather the Pilot from episode one was a surprise, and she was a useful plot device to get the Doctor and Cyber-Bill back to the TARDIS. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised; Moff likes this self-referencing, bringing back characters from earlier stories we had forgotten about, and using them to save the day. Maybe a bit deus ex machina, but I suppose we had to get the Doctor back to the TARDIS somehow, so I can live with it. In my review of the previous episode I said I hoped that was it for Bill, as much as I liked her as a companion. While Moff didn’t somehow magically un-Cyberman her, through making her a water-entity like Heather, he opened the possibility that Bill could return, though not as a regular companion. Moff’s intention was to keep Doctor Who an optimistic, positive show in the midst of so much negativity. Previous companions have died without a happy ending (Katrina, Sara Kingdom, Adric, Peri–at least for those who don’t buy the whole King Yrcanos story), but this is NuWho, and in NuWho, even companions who die move on to something nice (Rose with her human Doctor, Amy and Rory together, Clara with her diner). Some may object, but I’m okay with that–as long as they stay gone. Let’s have finality and closure. Of course, with Moff departing, it’s unlikely Bill will return, and I hope Chris Chibnall will only bring her back if a story demands it. Maybe the 60th anniversary story?
Now let’s talk about the ending, and the teaser for Christmas. The TARDIS has taken the Twelfth Doctor to a snowy wilderness. He stumbles out of the TARDIS, falls to his knees, and fights against regeneration. A figure in the distance comes closer. His voice is familiar. Why… it’s David Bradley reprising his role as the First Doctor from “An Adventure in Space and Time,” Mark Gatiss’s brilliant docu-drama on the origins of Doctor Who made for the 50th anniversary. The set up for Christmas, then, is the Twelfth and First Doctor… doing stuff! Since there will be a regeneration at the end, I expect the episode will be an hour-long dialog/adventure convincing the Doctor to let go and change. But I understand what Moff’s up to–at least I think I do.
One of the problems having a leading character who can regenerate when he dies is that the Doctor is never really in any life-threatening danger. Spider Man could be shot. Batman could fall and break his neck. Even Superman could overdose on Kryptonite. The Doctor would just change into a new person. What the new series has tried to do is introduce the idea that regeneration is not an easy way out. It’s painful. It means changing into someone you don’t know. The Doctor gets comfortable with each persona, so a change is like moving house: an enormous upheaval to go through, and it takes ages to settle in and get to know the new surroundings. The Tenth Doctor loved his incarnation, and didn’t want to leave it. Eleven seemed okay with the change, though he had just been granted a new regeneration cycle by the Time Lords, so it would have been a bit churlish to get uppity about it. Twelve, now, is resisting. He’s not done. Or maybe there are other reasons he wants to stay as Peter Capaldi. I expect we’ll explore this more at Christmas. I hope there’s more to the story than just Twelve and One chatting about life for an hour, as interesting as that might be. Good theater, perhaps. But as Steven Moffat’s final Who, I’m looking for a strong story, explosions, and plot twists. In other words, no Bill the Snowman. Please!
To sum up, I think this was a fitting conclusion to an excellent season. A “Must-See” for Whovians–this and the previous episode, and for everyone else, great acting, great effects, and everything you could want from good television. Definitely not a waste of your time.
What did you think?
Program Note: The Who Reviews are taking a break for the rest of July. We’ll pick back up with my review of the Classic Fourth Doctor story, “Destiny of the Daleks” the first Tuesday in August.