Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Doctor Falls written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

This story in a nutshell:
Battered and bruised from his latest adventure, the 12th Doctor’s regeneration has begun…

Indefinable: Magnificent. Masterful. Unforgettable. Just three words you could point at Peter Capaldi’s performance in The Doctor Falls. Whilst Heaven Sent will always be his magnum opus in Doctor Who (after all how can you top the performance you give in an episode that is devoted entirely to you?), this will come an astonishing second place and pleasingly it is just before his departure. I thought this was going to be another action packed Cyberman blockbuster (understandably given the trailer) but instead it is a vehicle for the actors involved to really show what they are made of. When you are talking about actors of Capaldi’s stature, you’re in for some riveting television. What is especially eye-opening is the new shades to this incarnation that we see in the finale, proving that there is still a great deal of Capaldi to explore. I particularly loved his angry resignation towards the two Masters when he tries to convince them to stand at his side and fight a lost cause. Or the lovely moment when he doesn’t shout at the little girl for giving Bill a mirror that reflects the real horror of her situation, instead choosing to be kind and grandfatherly in that moment. The anger he displays at the climax where he is trying to hold back the regeneration is very different from a similar sort of scene that David Tennant faced in The End of Time. Tennant played his anger at having to regenerate like an arrogant, spoilt teenager who had bought in to his own myth. Capaldi’s Doctor refuses to regenerate (and it is really painfully put across) not because he thinks this guise is anything special but because he’s tired of all this constant change and wants a little consistency in his life. This is the first time it has been suggested that the Doctor is bored of regenerating and going through the whole cycle of change and adaptation. So, when Capaldi punches the ground and refuses the transition, you really feel the centuries weighing down on him. Perhaps he should lead a less stimulating life then. I like how the Doctor is battered in stages throughout the episode; beaten by the Masters, electrocuted by a Cyberman, shot twice and caught in an almighty explosion. It would be enough to bring a much younger Time Lord to his knees and force a new face upon them, let alone this weathered old bird. His impending regeneration in the face of such a hammering is quite understandable. 

Funky Chick: In plot terms, I think they dropped the ball on Bill slightly. But more on that later in the review. In emotional terms, she’s beautifully handled and Pearl Mackie gives her strongest performance in a season of already very strong performances. When she and Capaldi are together in this episode, it sings with quality acting, just like it has at the high points of series 10. Given they never showed the transition between Bill and the Cybermen in the last episode, I wondered if that would be skipped over in favour of focusing on the elements that were piling up in the plot. Colour me impressed then when some of the most affecting moments in The Doctor Falls feature Bill coming to terms with the fact that she has been filleted and squeezed into a ghoulish Cybersuit. Does the fact that Bill can hold on to her mind in the wake of conversion make any sense? Not really, but it would deny us the quietly haunting moments between her and the Doctor here and I did appreciate the mention that the conditioning would begin to seize her mind and take her over fully. This is her chance to emote, because her mind is slipping away. The Doctor tries to be extremely gentle with her whilst still being honest about her horrific situation and Bill responds as anybody would, angrily and wanting answers. The Doctor was in an impossible situation given the ship was in a black hole induced time distortion effect, he couldn’t reach her for ten years. Her fury feels real and justified, she feels as though she was abandoned to a terrible fate. How director Rachel Talalay intercuts Bill and the Cyberman she has become into the scene must have taken a lot of time to organise but the effect is startling. It means we get the chance to see Pearl Mackie emoting beautifully AND believe she has the visage of a ghostly Cyberman to boot. Whilst I think the Cybermen are reduced to stormtroopers elsewhere in this episode, in its treatment of Bill and how she handles the idea of conversion, connecting the idea emotionally and viscerally with the audience, I still think this is the most effective Cyberman story. Spare Parts dealt with a similar notion, getting the audience close to a family and stripping them of one and returning her as a Cyberman. However, I wasn’t half as invested in Yvonne as I was with Bill, naturally given we have had an entire season with this character and have gotten to know her and enjoy her company. 

Faithful Sidekick: I have a confession to make. I have rather fallen in love with Nardole in series 10. For me he has been a definite highlight. Was it because I had low expectations of this character and so how he has been expertly weaved into the series has surprised me? Not entirely, I think it has been down to Matt Lucas’s ability to play a consistent character (cute, blasé, useful) in all kinds of situations. Nardole hasn’t been explored like Bill has, I don’t think we have touched on his motives, his emotional wellbeing or what he would like to do beyond travelling with the Doctor. What he has been is a rock for the Doctor; somebody he can trust implicitly, someone whose knowledge and ability is far ranging and somebody who is committed to their mission to guard Missy. He’s been used for comic relief but it has mostly been underplayed and genuinely very funny. I don’t think Nardole can disappoint like Bill did in the Monks invasion two parter because expectations for him aren’t especially high. He’s in the rather fortunate position of being able to delight because I never expected anything particularly great from him. Moffat shows precisely how you can allow a character to exit with great dignity and strength without going to any crazy lengths like forcing him back into the 50s by the Weeping Angels or killing him and having him taken from his timestream at the point he died by the Time Lords. Nardole is given something precious to protect, just as he has done all season. He objects to the task but ultimately he has a big heart and he knows this community will suffer if he doesn’t look after. With compliant resignation he accepts his task, upset that he would be able to watch the Doctor’s back anymore. Who would have thought in Husbands that we would be treated to a scene as touching as the one here where the Doctor says goodbye to his loyal friend and Nardole has no words adequate enough to say back. It’s beautifully understated and moving because of it. That’s not before Nardole catches the eye of Hazran in what has to be one of the most moving mini romances I’ve seen on the show. The whole thing is played out with looks, gestures and only the slightest of advances. I really love how Nardole resists throughout and that never stop her making a bee line for him. The act of moving her cup to touch his I find really rather elegant, a very subtle way of showing that you’re interested. I hope they have a happy future together. 

The Two Masters: It’s wanky but like the Daleks and the Cybermen coming together in an epic battle, it’s also a great deal of fun. I can understand the criticism that neither of the Master’s get a great deal to do when it comes to the plot…but let’s be honest the plot never had a chance when these two shameless scene stealers were in the room together. Simm’s Master is looking very Delgado (black suit, beard), which is a look that I have heard Phil Collinson deride for its lack of subtlety but actually he looks far more the part here than he did during Tennant’s reign. He’s also sucked in the maniacal laughter and naughty schoolboy antics and as a result he is a much more menacing character. I’m not going criticise what Simm or Davies did with the character because I was rather fond of the juvenile schoolboy Master, railing against the universe and doing terrible things just to hurt people. He was a really nasty, giggly piece of work. But this is a brand-new approach with the character and it’s almost a shame we won’t get to see more of him because he’s a lot less pantomime. However, as good as Simm is in resurrecting the role and playing against Capaldi, the plaudits have to go Michelle Gomez who is something of a revelation in this story. I said in previous reviews that should Missy simply revert to form and turn back to villainy then the arc this season would be null and void, a bit like the hybrid last year. But Moffat doesn’t go down that route and it makes things much, much more interesting, Oh Missy gets to beat up the Doctor, to walk away from him when he begs for help, she’s witty and silly and irreverent and everything we have come to expect from her. However, the look of regret on her face when she follows the old Master and leaves the Doctor to his fate says everything you need to know about what is coming. The Doctor has made an impression on her, her time in confinement has forced her to come to terms with her horrific misdeeds and it is finally time for her to stop battling with her old friend and to stand with him. It’s been playing out over a whole season so it doesn’t feel like a rash decision or a betrayal of the character, but a natural progression. The fact that Moffat pays this arc of so stunningly and yet so subtly through a character choice makes it one of the most triumphant things he has achieved as showrunner. The fact that Missy doesn’t get to fulfil her character arc and help the Doctor (leading to his regeneration) is bitterly tragic and unfair. I cannot think of a more appropriate ending for the Master than the two of them stabbing each other in the back. Who else would be worthy of killing the Master than him/herself? It’s the highlight of the episode, exceptionally well played and refusing to devolve into anything mawkish or melodramatic. They murder each other and laugh at the irony and how perfect that end is for both of them. Missy has always been a highlight of the stories she has appeared in and Michelle Gomez has delivered a stunningly fresh take on the character. At the end of her time I think that she is the greatest innovation of the Capaldi era and I can certainly see myself revisiting his era just to watch her stories again. It goes without saying that the two Masters share incredible chemistry. I would have loved to have seen more of them together…always leave your audience wanting more. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I suppose what we’re really asking, my dear, is…’ ‘…any requests?’
‘People are always going to be afraid of me, aren’t they?’
‘It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. Just that. Just kind.’

The Good:
· There was something of a touch of Human Nature/The Family of Blood about The Doctor Falls with several scenes feeling as though they had jumped directly from one to the other. The sackcloth partially converted Cybermen tied to the stake like scarecrows and attacking the barn are extremely reminiscent. And the scenes of everybody in the barn preparing to defend against the Cybermen in screaming silence share a similar intensity to the attack on the school in the series three masterpiece. Talalay is simply too talented to copy somebody else’s work and gives these moments her own distinctive style and for once I don’t see the problem in one very good episode mirroring another very good episode. It doesn’t detract from this story (because these scenes work in context) and it reminds us of glories of Doctor Who’s past. Top marks for letting the rousing music bleed away when we are afforded the close up on the chillingly converted Cyberman.
· Moffat just loves opening with something spectacular (this time it is Bill as a Cyberman emerging from the crash shuttlecraft holding the bleeding Doctor) and then skipping back and revealing how we reached that point, doesn’t he? It’s a narrative hook he has done to death. It works here very well, and it’s his last ‘normal’ episode so it feels very fitting too. Another great musical sting too, that ghostly female scream as the Cyberman steps out of the mist. Very effective.
· Does anybody remember the series Bugs? A high octane, well budgeted 90s techno thriller series that veered from science fiction to drama alarmingly. At the beginning of series four they had to explain away the cliff-hanger to the previous year and in flashback the director chose an arresting, black and white noirish, which was extremely effective (and unusually stylised for that show). Talalay does the same thing here and it is just as powerful. I particularly like the cut to Nardole, looking back in horror at the mistreatment the Doctor is suffering at the hands of the Masters. We’ve never seen material quite like this in Doctor Who before, which makes it worth talking about. Cut to the nightmarish sweep over the hospital in an apocalyptic setting with wartime music warbling out of a gramophone and I was certain I was in for a good time with this episode, particularly in the hands of such a unique director.
· Hooray for the shuttlecraft that appears in a triumphant moment, looks just like it has stepped out of Star Trek and inside it features the best gag of the episode (‘The Doctor’s dead and he said he never liked you’).
· Bill looking in the mirror and seeing a Cyberman staring back is like the nasty alternative to the Doctor staring into the mirror in the first episode of Power of the Daleks. It’s filmed in a very similar way and is just as powerful.
· The Master touching up his eyeliner. Genius.
· In the face of the Doctor spitting out continuity references like an encyclopaedia of the shows greatest moments, he sends the Cybermen up in a bloody great explosion that almost finishes him off. The subsequent scenes of him lying in a scorched battlefield with a Bill falling to her knees in agony at the thought that he might be dead look and feel unlike anything we have ever seen in the series before. It should be frightfully melodramatic but it’s pitched perfectly, it’s an ugly wilderness, a beautiful score and Pearl Mackie delivers the sort of pain on her face that broke my heart. It’s another standout moment from the whole team executing this episode.
· The last scene was unexpected, despite possible rumours. I don’t think anybody thought they would have the chutzpah to pull it off. But no, here’s David Bradley, magnificent as ever, playing the first Doctor. The Christmas special promises to be a memorable one.

The Bad:
· Wank. Wank. Wank. Wank. This whole episode is basically a load of old wank. Albeit expertly written and directed. If you are going to forgo pioneering storytelling in favour of a story that features two Masters and the Cybermen then you better be damn well sure of what you are doing because just writing that sentence makes me shudder a bit. In an era that has spent a great deal of time exploring the past, this is the ultimate expression of that approach. The Doctor mis-quotes himself on more than one occasion. There are references back to The End of Time. Discussions of how the Doctor has regenerated. Two Masters at play. The Doctor blowing up Cybermen and throwing down continuity references to previous Cybermen stories like they are going out fashion. A potential regeneration on two occasions. And then the final appearance of you-know-who at the climax. This is ridiculously indulgent on the part of a fan boy who wants to fulfil all of his dreams whilst he is still in charge of this storytelling behemoth. I don’t think any of these elements are badly handled, I am a massive fan of Doctor Who and so I was smiling my way through most of them. I don’t even think a show with a history like Doctor Who needs to apologise should it occasionally choose to indulge in some self-love. However, I do think this is indicative of an era that has failed to add anything significantly ground-breaking to the Doctor Who ethos. It hasn’t forged its own way or developed its own identity. It has been so mired in the past that it has failed to push the show forwards. That could be why it has failed to capture the kind of audiences that the show used to. It could be why the show isn’t water cooler conversation anymore. It has spent too many seasons provoking the interest of fans that it has rather left the casual audience in the dark at how to have a relationship with Doctor Who. Looking back to series 5, 6 and 7, whilst I was less enamoured with the fairy-tale approach, there was far more novelty and invention in any one of those seasons (be it series five with it’s radical new take on the Doctor, series six which was practically serialised or series seven that introduced a companion as a mystery and changed the lineage of the Doctor’s in a pretty permanent kind of way). Aside from the odd episode (Listen, Dark Water, Heaven Sent and Extremis are the only four examples I can think of off the top of my head), the Capaldi era has played it safe and relied on the shows history to pull in the punters. The World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls are superb episodes, brilliantly delivered pieces of drama. But they are fanwank of the highest order and there is no getting around that. The show NEEDS to push away from this self-obsession now, in order to survive.
· The Master’s plan is revealed at the end The World Enough and Time and the Doctor defeats him eight minutes into The Doctor Falls. Thank goodness there are two Masters in this story otherwise he would be pretty redundant from this point.
· How the episode skips over the whole ‘genesis of the Cybermen’ that was promised in the previous instalment is masterful (hoho)…by basically just ignoring it. In fact how this episode refuses to fit this story into established continuity with The Tenth Planet and Spare Parts, refuses to even elucidate on the how the Mondasians came to be on an exodus ship or give the scenario any kind of closure should be very irritating. There is something to be said about having interesting characters after all, they can distract from the weaknesses in the plot elsewhere.
· I had a disagreement with my other over whether the appearance of Heather at the climax to save Bill and the Doctor was a deus ex machina or not. I thought not, given she had been established in the season, and he thought so. We both agreed it was a complete cop out and another example of Moffat refusing to follow through on a promise to polish of a companion. Actually, he’s rather written himself into an impossible situation here – did anybody hate Bill enough to want to see her remain as a Cyberman for the rest of her days or possibly sacrifice herself by the end of this story to bring her pain to an end? Of course not. But that would have been the fitting conclusion given the direction previous episode undertook. On the other hand did anybody want a fairy-tale ending where a magical water sprite popped up out of nowhere, cured Bill of her woes and took her on a romantic exploration of the universe? It’s a trite and easy and frankly threatens to take away all the bravery of having her converted in the first place. I think my question is this…do you prefer Doctor Who to be a programme that takes risks by killing off its characters and suggests there is a human cost to these adventures or do you prefer it to be a series where no matter what horrors are suggested that there will always be a happy ending for the characters? You tell me.
· In a random moment, Bill mentions one more time that she’s gay. Just in case the series hasn’t established it enough yet. I would have loved to have heard those words spoken by a Cyberman.

The Shallow Bit: Given this is a Moffat script and that the Master is both male and female I think it was inevitable that they would wind up flirting with each other. Is the universe ready for that kind of self-gratification? Probably not, and at least it will give the shippers something to write about for the next couple of years. I’m glad we never actually saw them kissing, it would have given Blinovitch a raging erection before he blew a hole in this corner of the universe. It’s just on the right side of gross, and I’m pleased that it was the Simm Master who fancied a bit of me-time and that Gomez metaphorically slapped him down.

Result: ‘Without hope, without witness, without reward…’ Not at all what I was expecting and all the better for it. Moffat has previous form in promising a great deal and delivering a less than satisfying finale so how is it at the last hurdle he has produced such a surprising hit? Actually, let’s get the few reservations out of the way first because this episode deserves a great deal of praise heaped upon it. One thing I was expecting was for Bill’s condition to be reversed and it was, in the most agonisingly fairy-tale manner imaginable and a repetition of Clara’s departure just one series previously. As if it wasn’t bad enough the first time around. Also, I was a little unsatisfied with how irresolute everything was left, with Nardole being abandoned with no knowledge of how the Doctor and Bill wound up, Bill leaving the Doctor to his fate and the Doctor with no clue that Bill isn’t a Cyberman anymore. Life doesn’t always tidy things up, but in fiction it is much more satisfying if toys are put away in the box neatly. Built out of continuity this episode might be but Moffat finds some chilling things to say about both the Cybermen (particularly Bill’s nightmare at being turned into one) and the Masters (who depart the series in an unforgettable scene of celebratory slaughter). More importantly he has gotten the tone and the emotional content of this episode spot on, tightly focussing on the characters and giving the plot a rest. Series 10 has, on the whole, done a great job of delivering an engaging group of regulars (and I would include Missy in that line up) and so splitting the Doctor, Bill and Nardole up comes with real poignancy. Capaldi gets the chance to shine in a series of brilliant scenes (his quiet moments with Bill in the barn, begging the Masters to stay with him and help, his wonderful farewell to Nardole and his anger at the climax at the approach of another regeneration), Pearl Mackie acts her socks off and reminds us once again why she has made such an impact this year and Matt Lucas gets to the chance to be casually cool in the face of romance, a Cyberman attack and a daunting responsibility. They are the most unlikely trio, but they’ve emerged as the strongest set of regulars in the Moffat era thanks to some highly engaging performances. The trailer promised a lot of bangs and flashes and when they come it feels like they have been earned. In a smart move Moffat holds back the action to the last possible moment, recognising that the promise of action and the characters reaction to it is far more enthralling. I would have loved to have seen more of this in the previous six series, far less plot complexity, more riveting character work. Responsible for the execution of this episode is the one of the most accomplished directors Doctor Who has been lucky to secure and so much of what makes The Doctor Falls impact as much as it does is Rachel Talalay. As a pair, The World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls are her greatest achievement; chilling, exciting, revelatory, poignant and tragic. Visually she brings something quite memorable to the show, it feels like every scene has been carefully considered to make a filmic impact. I cannot praise her highly enough. I recognise this is fanwank of the highest order but the look of the episode, the characters and how they interact, the impetus of great moments and genuine sentiment that rises to a powerful pitch make this a terrific finale. A huge round of applause for Steven Moffat at the eleventh hour: 9/10