And so we come to the end of another series of Doctor Who, this one all the more momentous as it marks the end of the last full series under star Peter Capaldi and show runner Steven Moffat. There’s a Xmas Special still to come but for all intents and purposes, “The Doctor Falls” marks the end of an era, and all that remains is a coda. The episode has a lot that it needs to pull off, and being Doctor Who, there’s a lot of emotion at its heart. Though this is definitely one of the more downbeat and elegiac finales, “The Doctor Falls” is one of the most emotional and affecting ones, a quietly haunting and heartfelt goodbye to one the programme’s most innovative, experimental, and bold eras. This review will be contain more spoilers than I typically allow, so consider yourself warned.
The episode resolves the previous one’s cliffhanger fairly quickly, showing us via flashback how the Doctor outsmarts Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Master (John Simm) and then showing them all escape (with Nardole and the Cyber-Bill) to another floor of the massive spaceship which lies on the edge of the black hole and is rapidly filling up with Cybermen. This new section of the ship resembles a pastoral village (another inventive way to make the spaceship setting not feel like a spaceship setting thanks to the ship’s vastness), and the bulk of what follows deals with the Doctor preparing to make a final stand against impossible odds while pleading for help from his two best enemies and trying to help Bill (Pearl Mackie) hold on to her humanity.
“The Doctor Falls” is remarkably cohesive from a thematic point of view. Moffat approaches the episode knowing that it marks the beginning of a period of huge change for Doctor Who; its star, supporting cast, and main creative force are all departing imminently. Therefore Moffat places the idea of change at the heart of the episode. It asks whether the Doctor’s efforts to change Missy into a better person has succeeded, it asks how long Bill can prevent her own change into a full-on Cyberman, and finally it examines a Doctor who is refusing to give in to change (in the biggest moment that kind of didn’t work for me. More on that in a minute). Each character has to struggle with accepting or rejecting significant change, and the brilliance of the script is in how each of them deal (or refuse to accept) the consequences of change.
There’s so much in “The Doctor Falls” that works and is hugely affecting. It’s an episode that goes for the heart over the mind in a lot of ways, and that’s probably the best approach. The threat of the Cybermen, though ever-present and imposing, is hardly complex or resolved via twists and turns. The structure of that part of the episode never gets more complicated than your basic Western; that is, a stranger comes to town and defends the townsfolk from invading baddies. Like many classics of that genre, much of the story is build-up, a sense of impending dread, with the action reserved for a brief climax. The best part of the episode that deals with the Cybermen as a concept comes in a throwaway explanation of how Cybermen evolve anywhere there are humans. Whether it’s Mondas, Telos, or Planet 14, there will be Cybermen. It’s a brilliant piece of meta-textual commentary from Moffat, a lovely sentiment to fans that suggests continuity is whatever you love, and that things don’t always have to fit into some grand plan; it’s all part of Doctor Who regardless of whether things follow a straight line.
The most rewarding aspects of “The Doctor Falls” come in a series of scenes that allow its characters to shine. There’s the wonderfully twisted interplay between Missy and her previous self that is rife with complexity and perversion and fun. John Simm turns in a far more classic iteration of his character than he was ever permitted to in his era’s stories, and yet he still comes across as the same Master he always was. And his petulant adherence to his cruel relationship with the Doctor throws into relief how much more conflicted a character Missy is. Her journey this series winds up being both interesting and sad, as both Moffat and Gomez show us a person who yearns to be more than she is, even as it becomes tragically clear that redemption isn’t really possible. Gomez and Simm are each iconic in their own way, Simm for how epically committed he is to being a petty bastard to the Doctor, Gomez in how much her motivation is rooted in a sense of loss of a best friend. The roots of each of their motivations is pain and loss, albeit each of them use that motivation in totally different ways. And each iteration of this character gets perhaps the only ending appropriate.
The two Masters offer a chance for Peter Capaldi to have perhaps his finest moment as the Doctor, which is saying something given how brilliant an actor he is and how spellbinding he’s been in the role. Pleading with them to stay and help defend the townspeople, he gives a stirring and emotional speech that sums up not just this Twelfth Doctor, but the Doctor as a concept. It’s yet another moment the offers proof at how spectacular an actor Capaldi is; every Doctor is given great speeches whose purpose is to save the day, but no one does them in quite the same personal and affecting way Capaldi has regularly done. Moffat knows if you give this actor a beautiful speech, Capaldi will mine it for every interesting and rich moment, and he delivers that here in what may be his best, most heartfelt and tear-inducing moment in the series.
Bill’s journey is similarly well-handled, kicking off the episode in her Cyber-form. Moffat plays interestingly with point of view in the story, as scenes from bill’s point of view feature an altered Pearl Mackie, a visual manifestation of her inner self, struggling to deal with everyone’s reaction to her. That reaction comes from the fact that to them, she is a Cyberman. It’s a nice way of keeping the Bill we know and love an active presence. The resolution of Bill’s journey is bittersweet, and I won’t spoil it except to say that features the resumption of a plot element from earlier in Series 10. I can’t quite decide if this comes out of absolutely nowhere and is therefore a bit of cheat or not. On first viewing, I leant more towards the former, but I’m beginning to come around on Moffat’s approach. In any case, the resolution is bound to be controversial to some fans, given it’s a recurrence of a common Moffat motif, but I felt that this might be the best example of this particular Moffat trope, so I liked where Bill ended up.
Even Nardole got a satisfying arc to wind up his time on the series. He was a character I always thought was incredibly funny and very well performed by Matt Lucas, even in episodes where he seemed to be little more than comic relief. So it’s nice to see him in what may be his final outing as on as important a personal journey as the other characters as he morphs into a hero at last.
If there was an element I’m still not sure worked it was the Twelfth Doctor’s staunch refusal to allow his regeneration to commence. Given his beautiful speech about his mission in life being falling where he stood, I’m not entirely certain the script or Series 10 as a whole effectively set up the Doctor’s motivation to so vehemently refuse to regenerate. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about regeneration as a concept is that the Doctor almost always does so after choosing to sacrifice himself in service of something larger than himself. I’m not saying he should have no feelings about an impending death, but if you’re going to show me the Doctor railing against this, it’s better if it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere. Even when Russell T Davies took this approach with the Tenth Doctor, an approach I detested both then and now, we got a lot of motivation leading up to David Tennant’s Garden of Gethsemane moment. Here, the Twelfth Doctor’s steadfast refusal to change still doesn’t seem to come from anywhere, and I would have gotten behind it more if the script had spent a little more time setting that up.
The direction of the episode by Rachel Talalay is, of course, superb. Each moment is mined for all it’s worth, and she moves seamlessly from quiet moments of emotional intensity to action set pieces on the biggest canvass Doctor Who can achieve on television. Her episodes continue to be among the most wonderfully textured cinematic episodes, and she makes sure that each moment lands with maximum impact.
“The Doctor Falls” may be slightly divisive in that it opts for heart over bombastic adventure, but with its strong and well-structured script and magnificent performances, it’s kind of the perfect capstone to the tenth series of Doctor Who, and the Capaldi era as a whole. It’s bold and innovative, heartfelt and engrossing, a bit uneven and maybe too ambitious for its own good. And, as its final mind-blowing moments prove, it can be a joyful and affecting surprise. 9/10