Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls”

There’s so much happening here, and so little. We could talk about the eerie use of proto-Cyberman corpses as scarecrows. We could talk about how fast those lifts are, and whether the Doctor’s claim that the Cybermen would be able to work out how to stop them before they made it to the TARDIS really holds water. We could talk about the apple as humanity’s original weapon. We could talk about the oblique reference to a Doctor Who Magazine comic written by Grant Morrison that presented the Voord, villains of the 1964 adventure “The Keys of Marinus,” to be evolving into Cybermen. We could, and probably should, finally give Nardole his due, that never-quite-explained somewhat-Cyberized-himself Frankenstein’s-monster of a non-human con man turned quiet hero, Matt Lucas nailing the role as he has all season even when he’s just hilariously deadpan muttering “shuttle craft.”

But in the end this boils down to three people. So let’s talk about them.

1. Missy
“I loved being you….And I will always miss it.”

Was Missy “reformed”? No more and no less than you would expect. Something changed in her, that much was clear, but up until the very end her past self maintained a grip on her present, and probably every instant the two of them were together and most of the instants when they weren’t, she was conflicted. Gomez plays all this with excellent subtlety, just looks and line readings you’ll miss if you blink. It’s probable Missy doesn’t know until the moment she sticks her (sonic? really?) umbrella in the ground and beckons the Master over for a hug that she’s going to stab him in the back. And it’s probable that the Master doesn’t know until she declares her intent to betray everything he’s chosen to be that he’s going to shoot her in the back. After all, Missy’s mere existence is the proof he survives the stabbing, so why would he cut short his own future…unless it means he stops being himself?

It’s remarkable that we get what sounds like a credible explanation of the Master’s escape from “The End of Time” — this hasn’t always been a courtesy we’ve received. He’s often escaped from what seem like certain death traps without accounting in any way for his survival. So no matter what he says about the “full blast” of the laser screwdriver, and regardless of the fact this really is the “perfect ending” for the character, it’s more than likely that the admonition to carry a spare dematerialization circuit isn’t the only precaution Missy retained from her previous death. I’d put the odds we’ll see her again, in one incarnation or another, at about 98%.

2. The Doctor
“I can’t keep on being somebody else.”

I’ve never been in the camp that enjoys criticizing the behavior of a 2000-year-old effective immortal who spends most of his time saving short-lived humans from apocalyptic situations. It’s become a cliché to complain about the Doctor’s arrogance, or his hubris, or his alien sensibilities, or his habit of putting his best friends in mortal danger. But it’s hard to deny that the Twelfth Doctor has, even compared to his more self-castigating prior selves, given this camp a lot of ammunition.

He promises to save Bill, but he can’t. At least he admits it. He pushes down whatever grief and guilt he’s feeling over her condition because there’s a pressing crisis: first the Missy/Master situation, then the Cybermen preparing to invade level 507. And maybe it’s better this way — maybe no scene where he looks her in the blank Cyberman eyes and apologizes for ignoring her reluctance to participate in Missy’s test, apologizes for thinking his braggadocio could talk the janitor out of shooting her, apologizes for leaving her downstairs for ten years while he taught the room about black hole physics, or for taking the lift when he could have taken the TARDIS, or even just for leaving her alone in the barn, would ever be enough. But Moffat’s a good writer, Capaldi’s a good actor — they might have pulled it off.

What we get instead is the final culmination of a death wish that’s been building all season, manifesting in his attempted self-sacrifices in (e.g.) “Extremis,” “Pyramid at the End of the World,” and “The Eaters of Light.” The Doctor’s decision to stay on 507 and burn along with it is about doing what’s right and decent and kind, yes, but it’s also his inability to live with himself. This is the second companion in a row (that we know of) who’s effectively died on his watch, performing a small act of heroism she didn’t realize would be fatal, and while he doesn’t consciously remember Clara, there must be a level on which he does. This is not out of character for him — it’s basically the same doomed last stand in a bucolic little town he took in “The Time of the Doctor” — but it is, in some ways, as selfish a move as any, this unsung final charge intended to be the last help he gives anyone, ever.

If he’d given in and regenerated, he could have helped the “Waltons” for many more years than Nardole will be able to. He might even have worked out a way to get to his TARDIS. He could have saved many more people on more worlds. But he’s had enough. He’s lived too long, failed one too many of his friends, this time a young woman who wanted nothing more than to learn and to love and be loved, and who got her heart burned out of her chest for doing nothing more than being human. He knows, as we know, that if he changes now, he’ll become a different man (or woman), remember these things as if they happened to someone else, start fresh and maybe never stop.

We know that has to happen. But he doesn’t want to face it. And right now, I don’t want to either.

3. Bill
“I don’t want to live if I can’t be me anymore.”

Last week I left the similarities between “Dark Water” and “World Enough and Time” as an exercise to the reader. Did you do the exercise? We won’t check all your answers now, but the most obvious one has to be “one of the few black companions we’ve had receives a fatal trauma and is held captive by the Master until they can be converted into a Cyberman.”

I’ll admit, I expected this to be undone. It seemed cruel, and not nearly as unusual as it should be, for this to happen again. Mickey and Martha fared relatively well, but the Moffat era has been less kind to companions of color; even Mels, Amy and Rory’s childhood friend who turns out to be their daughter, is shot dead by Hitler a short time after she first appears (to regenerate into Alex Kingston, but still). I’m not sure it’s my place to say that this is an objectively troubling trend, but I’m troubled by it personally, and hoping (though not expecting) Chris Chibnall to be the showrunner who finally remembers that companions used to choose to leave the TARDIS like mature adults and don’t have to be killed off.

It’s all the more dismaying to see this happen to a companion as thoroughly appealing as Bill. If there’s any division among fans between those who love Bill and those who hate her, I’ve apparently only heard from the first faction. Making a character everyone loves, on purpose, is almost impossible. If the intent was to make her so likeable that her fate is a total gut-punch, they’ve succeeded, and it’s a testimony to excellent scripts, certainly, but also and perhaps first and foremost to Pearl Mackie.

Thank goodness Moffat has Bill under the illusion that she’s still human, or we might have lost out on a terrific last performance by Mackie. Her anguish as she slowly realizes she’s been turned into a literal monster is all the more heartbreaking as we imagine each of her lines as everyone around her hears it, in the Cybervoice. I said last week that her situation was sad, and it gets worse the more you think about it: she has the one act of heroism (pointing out she’s the only human in the room so she’s the only one who gets shot), and that’s it — she doesn’t even get all the credit for sticking it out ten years in the nightmare hospital, since we don’t know to how much she’s acting under the Doctor’s “wait for me” mental suggestion. That’s something I could have done without — it’s his biggest mistake, pacifying her when she could have taken action of some kind, and it robs her of any credit we might have given her for having faith in him. Then she gets to be taunted by the Master, kept in the barn like a horrible secret, shot at by Ma Walton.

And yet — I said last week she was resilient, and we keep seeing it here. She doesn’t succumb to the Doctor’s death wish and make a suicide run at a bunch of Cybermen, zapping as many as possible before they overwhelm her (even though arguably that would have been pretty spectacular; and since all the Cybermen are connected, and Nardole is a computer expert, was there never any thought of sending some kind of signal from her brain back through the net to infect them? Maybe the same image of her mom that defeated the omnipotent Monks in almost exactly that same way? Oh well). She sticks with the Doctor and Nardole, until she’s able finally at the end to find him on the battlefield and, with a little help, save his life. He doesn’t deserve her. He never has. He’s lucky to have her.

But she’s luckier to have someone else. The one remaining fear I had from last week — that Bill, our first lesbian companion, would also be the first companion of the new series denied a happy romance in the end — was fortunately premature. This ending makes me wish even more that “The Pilot” had taken just a little more screen time to flesh out that relationship between Bill and the girl with the star in her eye, but better late than never. Like Clara and Me, Bill and Heather are now effectively immortal, traveling the universe without the Doctor for as long and as far as they want to. They could be human again — according to Heather, “it’s just atoms” — but given what they’re apparently capable of now, human seems such a small thing to try and be.

This is a strong contender for the saddest ending for a companion we’ve had since the new series began. But an equally strong contender for the happiest.

“Is the future going to be all girl?”

“We can only hope.”

Doctor Who: “Extremis”

I was going to put a spoiler warning at the top of this, even though I usually don’t, because it seemed like an episode where much of the appeal would be undermined by knowing all the surprises from the outset. As it turns out, the opposite is true: it’s better the second time. Nevertheless, maybe don’t read this until you’ve seen the episode.

I’ll stall a little bit by noting some of the things that aren’t surprises. For instance, the sonic sunglasses finally have a purpose. The Doctor can use them as sonar, and for augmented reality features like identifying vital signs and characteristics of people around him. This explains how the Doctor can walk around without bumping into things, but he still needs Nardole to cover for him by describing things he ought to be able to see, with the side effect of making Nardole’s habit of stating the obvious into a tactical asset. What else? Well, we see more of Bill’s love life, which I’ve noticed seems to bother some people with how “in your face” it is, and I have to wonder if they had the same complaints about how “in your face” Clara and Danny’s love life was, or Amy’s and Rory’s. I think it’s exactly as in your face as it ought to be, and while the bit where Bill’s foster mum still doesn’t realize Bill’s gay probably strikes some people as being played for laughs, in fact as you know if you’ve ever been in that situation, it’s mainly just a depressing and difficult fact of life. I have no complaints about how Moffat’s handling this aspect of Bill, even if the shtick with the Pope in her kitchen is a bit of a reach.

Ah yes: the Pope. This is Doctor Who doing Dan Brown: ancient secrets in the Vatican, a heresy tied to mysterious deaths, a particle physics research center wired to explode, a sinister order of horribly scarred monks. On the first viewing it looks like gratuitous absurdity, wacky genre crossbreeding for the sake of appearing fresh, taken a step further with a “consulting the Doctor” scene straight out of Sherlock. The “Veritas” pitch, that of a secret untranslated truth that drove all who read it to commit suicide, seems impossible to pay off, and Monty Python fans may find themselves thinking of the sketch about the “funniest joke in the world,” a joke so hilarious that anyone who heard it died laughing (eventually translated one word at a time into German to be used as a weapon in World War Two). And yet the truth, when revealed, really does seem like it would have the advertised effect. And here we can avoid spoilers no longer: the revelation that proves beyond doubt that one is merely a tool aiding an alien invasion would indeed lead most brave souls to end their own complicity in the most final way possible. The wild, improbable, ridiculous plot actually kind of works.

It mostly works on paper, though, because in practice it leads to quite a lot of “ooh, that looks like a portal, doesn’t it?” and “these strange alien devices are simulating Earth” and so on — basically a metric ton of exposition, punctuated by perfunctory interjections like “it can’t be! this table feels real” and “you can do nothing to stop us!” and that sort of thing to break up the speeches. In a lesser season this wouldn’t show as much, but since the rest of Series 10 is so strong with dialogue and performance, this story’s seams show where it gets too excited about its cool Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons setup to be dramatically convincing. I thought the aliens themselves looked reasonably creepy, but my girlfriend happened to be watching with me and found them ludicrous, so that might be another seam showing. Perhaps the pyramid from next week will be related to why the aliens look mummified.

And of course now we know who’s in the vault, and as everyone has been assuming, it’s Missy, or at least it’s supposed to be Missy. The fakeout at the beginning works rather well, where we think she’s going to be executing the Doctor, and he ends up executing her. She gets a few witticisms in there, but she’s not her usual sparkling self, clearly at the end of her rope, or wanting us to think she is. We also learn that Nardole was sent by River Song to follow the Doctor, and he has her diary, the significance of which I’m leaving as an exercise to a reader with a better memory for her convoluted timeline than I have.

Is all this runaround any good? I still can’t quite decide. The question almost seems irrelevant, given that the story’s primary role is to answer some important questions (what was the Doctor’s vow, what’s with the vault) and to set up the antagonists in the next episode; it’s glue, binding the season together and moving the arc along. In this it’s a lot like “A Good Man Goes to War,” which is similarly difficult to talk about as a standalone story. The central concept, artificial people trapped in a villain’s computer simulation, is of course reminiscent of The Matrix, right down to the allusions to gnosticism, but it’s also been done in Doctor Who, at least as far back as 1982’s “Castrovalva,” but also as recently as “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven.” The alternate universe serving as a warning for what could happen in ours harks back to 1970’s “Inferno.” These are impressive relatives, next to which this story seems like a bit of a hyperactive nephew. So far it seems like the weakest story of the season, but we won’t know for sure until we see the payoff.

Incidentally, one of the first clues that we’re not dealing with “our” universe is the reference to Pope Benedict IX, about whom many surprising things were alleged (according to Wikipedia, repeating rumors that may or may not have been politically motivated slanders), but as far as my cursory research has so far determined, one of those things was not “he was a woman who had a way with castanets.” This might also be a clue that the aliens’ simulations are not a perfect match for actual Earth events, which might result in them being the first Doctor Who monsters defeated by subpar grades in history. Unless you count the Terileptils.