As I have written in my reviews of the previous episodes of Series 10, the best stories of the run have attempted to recapture a classical feel while incorporating modern thematic elements. In short, this series has worked best when it’s tried to be old-school, fun and scary, straight-forward Doctor Who; when it has actively sought to distill the classic programme’s best qualities and marry them with skilful execution. And “World Enough And Time,” with its superb performances, strong script, and brilliant direction, winds up being perhaps the best of the Series 10 thus far.
The story opens with the TARDIS arriving on a snowy wasteland. A scruffy, bedraggled Doctor (Peter Capaldi) stumbles out and collapses in the snow, and as he begins to glow with regeneration energy, the Doctor screams into the sky. That’s a hell of a cold open, but the episode that follows doesn’t refer back to it at all. Instead the episode proper, like many of writer and show runner Steven Moffat‘s most inventive scripts, plays with nonlinear storytelling.
We begins with a sequence that intercuts between the TARDIS arriving on an enormous space-ship in distress, trying to escape a black hole. The Doctor has chosen this situation as a test of fellow-Time Lord and persistent enemy Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) attempt at redemption. Can she, in effect, be the Doctor and save lives instead of take them. With Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) as companions, we’re going to try and find out. This is intercut with flashbacks (within a flashback, given the cold open is set in the future of both these storylines) to Earth, as the Doctor tries to explain to a baffled and reluctant Bill why this mission to redeem Missy is even worth doing.
Things on the ship quickly spiral out off control, as Bill becomes separated from the others and embroiled in horrific dangers. Will the Doctor manage to save his friend? And what terrifying revelations with both he and Missy face as the true nature of the threats facing them come to shocking light?
There’s a plentitude of riches to this story that showcase all the best attributes of the Moffat era of Doctor Who, and the best attributes of the series as a whole since its relaunch. Without spoiling anything, there are two big twists to the story, and even though a relatively web-savvy Whovian (or indeed anyone who has watched the various trailers over this series) will know what they are, the twists are executed so well that that resonate and land with tremendous success. Like a lot of great Moffat stories, there’s an aspect of the episode that plays with time and the way characters relate to it, which works well. It also embraces the bombastic reveals and operatic emotions of the Russell T Davies era. These elements dovetail nicely, giving us a tone that feels absolutely right, given the immensely high stakes of the story.
The Doctor’s attempt to “save” Missy, to reclaim a friend who is perhaps the only person in the universe truly like him, is one of the main tentpoles of the episode. The success of the script is how Moffat makes this plan of the Doctor’s equally relatable as it is ill-advised. We the audience can see how fraught and misguided the Doctor’s aims are, and Bill is the character who speaks out our fears. And Capaldi’s performance is brilliant enough to convey that even the Doctor knows this might be folly, and come to a tragic end, but both he and the viewer also know that it would be impossible for him not to try. Michelle Gomez is great at playing Missy on the knife’s edge throughout the episode, indeed the series, thus far. She might be sincere in her efforts to try and be something other than the villain, but as this episode’s major twist illustrates, a villain might be what she is truly designed to be best at.
The other storyline, which finds Bill waiting for a long time for reduce in nightmarish and doomed society, provides the episode with most of its thrills and chills. And this story is chilling indeed, perhaps among the most unsettling the series has been in some time. Pearl Mackie plays every moment perfectly, and even though her reliance on waiting for the Doctor to rescue her does somewhat strip her of her agency, Mackie is skilled enough to never let Bill feel weak, dumb, or without power. She instead comes across as smart and patient, biding her time in a situation scary and hopeless enough to warrant her inaction. Once again, I don’t want to spoil things for those who really want to come in knowing nothing at all, but I will say that “World Enough And Time” takes a familiar foe and manages to distill them back to there perfect, most horrifying and resonant essence. What Bill goes through gives both us and the Doctor the most visceral and devastating shocks of the episode, and the result is one of the most disturbing episodes in quite some time.
And while the script is one of the most well-rounded and well-executed of Moffat’s tenure, the real star of “World Enough And Time” is returning director Rachel Talalay. She is maybe the single strongest director the series has seen since its reboot, certainly the best of the Capaldi era. Not only does she bring a real cinematic eye to the series that opens it up far beyond television quality, but she is perhaps the best at capturing the exact ratio of scariness to adventure that Doctor Who thrives on. She knows how to enable her actors to give even greater performances than they regularly provide (and with this cast, that’s saying something) and she makes any kind of budgetary restraint unimportant, choosing shots and staging sequences in ways that maximize production values. If Chris Chibnall has any sense, he’ll do everything he can to get her to return for the next series. And if she chooses to move on, here’s hoping it’s to bigger and better things.
As the first part of the coming finale, indeed the finale of the Capaldi era perhaps, you can’t ask for more than what this episode delivers. Admittedly, the episode winds up be ing largely set-up, but it’s so masterfully done and so much creepy fun, that by the time we reach the cliffhanger you’ll be cursing the week’s wait for the conclusion. This has all the elements to set up a gigantic climax to the Capaldi era, and if “The Doctor Falls” delivers as well as “World Enough And Time,” we’ll have one of the most satisfying finale stories in Doctor Who history. 9.5/10