Like the opening entries of most of new Doctor Who’s two-parters, “World Enough And Time” has to hold most of the really good stuff in reserve for next week’s episode. We get only the smallest taste of John Simm’s Master out of his preposterous disguise, and precious little sense of his interactions with Michelle Gomez’s Missy. There’s just the one short scene with a Mondasian Cyberman—complete with the cloth face and eerily singsong voice that make their original appearance in 1966’s “The Tenth Planet” so uniquely chilling—and while the fact that said Cyberman is Bill means it packs a wallop, it’s still not much more than a teaser for “The Doctor Falls.” But all that counts as downright extensive compared with the nearly non-existent follow-up to the Doctor’s apparent regeneration in the pre-credits sequence, with only the trailer for next week offering any hint that the show will get back to that all-important plot point. This is Doctor Who as promissory note, with the obvious comparison point being the last time Peter Capaldi’s Doctor found himself entangled with the Master and the Cybermen in 2014’s “Dark Water.”
“World Enough And Time” is considerably more fun than that earlier episode, as it has more going on than a slow, slow march to a couple big reveals. (And yes, “Dark Water” also has the death of Danny Pink, but the episode fumbles its attempt to really sit with the emotion of that tragedy.) It’s an episode bursting with ideas, none more fascinating than a massive colony ship caught in different time zones because of the gravitational distortion of a black hole. There’s the mad conceit of having Missy pretend to be the Doctor, with Michelle Gomez pulling off the seemingly impossible by making a whole string of “Doctor Who” gags not utterly cringeworthy. There’s the horrific plight of those stuck at the decaying bottom of the ship, which gets closer than any family-friendly Doctor Who story ever has in understanding the true body horror the Cybermen represent. “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel” could never really find sufficient justification for why anyone would want to put their brain inside a Cyberman beyond the notion that John Lumic was utterly barking mad, but “World Enough And Time” presents a world so diseased and so pain-ridden that the Cybermen start feeling like a legitimate solution.
The official return of the Mondasian Cybermen is a major gift to longtime Doctor Who fans—including Peter Capaldi, who reportedly got these as monsters from Steven Moffat as a going-away present—but it’s fair to say the episode leaves more recent viewers to guess at the precise significance of these strange-looking Cybermen. Mondas isn’t like Gallifrey or Skaro, which were gradually reintroduced in dialogue as the home planets of the Time Lords and Daleks before they made their big returns. The original Cybermen’s planet hasn’t been so much as mentioned since “Silver Nemesis” way back in 1988, so there’s no reason for newer fans to attach any particular meaning to the word, much less to guess its bonkers history as Earth’s twin planet—seriously, watch “The Tenth Planet,” it’s depicted as Earth turned upside-down—hidden on the other side of the sun before it broke orbit and wandered into the depths of space. Yeah, I’m starting to remember why Russell T. Davies elected to reboot the Cybermen in the first place, and I’m intrigued to see just how much “The Doctor Falls” embraces this version of the monsters beyond their brilliantly creepy aesthetic and this origin story, which expands upon what the Cyberman Krail said of his people’s origins way back in “The Tenth Planet.”
While the Mondasian Cybermen’s presence here will necessarily mean more to longtime viewers, Steven Moffat show remarkable deftness in balancing the reintroduction of John Simm’s Master—who we’ll just call the Master from here on out, as opposed to Gomez’s Missy—so that it works just as well for all possible viewers. The original pitch for this season was that it was a back-to-basics version of Doctor Who, with the stories simplified and streamlined so that new viewers could jump on with “The Pilot” and not be utterly lost. Moffat takes pains to give viewers who came aboard this season or even just after “The End Of Time” all the information they need to understand the significance of the Master. The early scenes with Bill and the Doctor establish Missy was not always a woman, and the Master takes such characteristic relish in hinting at his identity to Missy that unfamiliar viewers are given plenty of time to work out the twist ahead of time. Sure, those who haven’t seen “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords” might wonder what this character is on about when he mentions being Bill’s former prime minister, but all is made plenty clear when he introduces himself as the Master and tells Missy he’s concerned about his future, a point we’ll return to in a moment.
As for the Davies-era veterans in the audience, hopefully this episode is long overdue proof of just how much fun Simm can be as the Master. I’ve long been a Simm apologist, but it’s fair to say his incarnation really only properly worked in his original run when he was allowed to play smaller, more intimate scenes against David Tennant’s Doctor. His attempts at Joker-style supervillainy felt forced, whereas Gomez makes it look effortless working with similar material—albeit a bit better written, as Moffat appears more comfortable with the Master as a character than Davies did. We haven’t seen much of Simm playing the undisguised version of his Master, but his work in tonight’s episode is that of an actor having an absolute blast putting on ludicrous makeup and doing an accent of no earthly origin.
He already feels far more comfortable in the role than he did in his first two rounds, which hopefully bodes well for his more straightforward appearance as the Master next week. It’s intriguing to see him freed of his original brief, which was to play the Master as a dark inversion of the 10th Doctor, with him instead set to tangle with Missy and Capaldi’s Doctor. Plus, the Master’s renewed love of disguise—which I’m sure plenty of you saw through straight away, but I’ll admit it took me several minutes to clock what was going on—is a lovely callback to the endless, alternately paper-thin and fiendishly elaborate guises of the Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley incarnations.
But this brings us back to the most intriguing narrative decision of this episode, which is that there’s an actual, definable reason for the presence of two Masters beyond it being fun. (Which, for the record, is also a perfectly valid reason.) As the Master says, he’s worried about his future, and his presence is a literal manifestation of the past Missy seeks to leave behind in her effort to reform. One of the actual benefits of how ludicrously over-the-top Davies’ Master stories were is that this incarnation really might be the most irredeemably evil of them all, yet Simm has played his tortured madness with something approaching petulance—he intimated in his past stories that he was the way he was because he couldn’t imagine being anything else. The BBC was just having a bit of fun when it made a poster for this episode based on that for “The Day Of The Doctor,” but the dilemma before the Master really does recall that facing the War Doctor: If this is what his future looks like, can he bear it?
And, on the other hand, is the Master right when he says the Doctor will never be able to forgive Missy for what she did to Bill, even if she seemingly can’t remember doing it? Exactly why Missy is experiencing selective amnesia remains to be seen—though the most obvious explanation is we’re dealing with the out-of-sync timelines of multiple incarnations of the same Time Lord encountering each other—but the fact remains her past incarnation ingratiated himself with Bill at her most vulnerable, protected her and earned her trust over at least 10 years, and then led her to conversion when rescue was at last at hand. It makes a brutal irony of Bill’s early fears about Missy: She was right to fear this Time Lord, yet she ended up placing her trust in a different incarnation that betrayed her in the most heartrending fashion.
That brings us back to the central question hanging over next week’s season finale: Can the Doctor ever truly trust Missy? He is now in the presence of a living reminder of all her past misdeeds, and she in the presence of the ultimate temptation to revert to her old ways. The Doctor exposed Bill to the most terrible hardship and harm because of his need to prove Missy could turn good, yet perhaps the worst of it is that the Doctor hasn’t yet been proved wrong. He has every reason next week to keep trying to prove that Missy can be his one true friend, the one person in the universe who is really, properly like him. That desperate need is enough to get him to have a proper emotion, as Nardole cheekily observed, it’s enough to get Bill converted into a Cyberman, and it might be enough to cost him his own life before all is said and done.
- One thing I didn’t really touch on here is how the episode treats Bill once she ends up in the bottom of the ship. Pearl Mackie is reliably great, and the disguised John Simm proves a fun foil for her, but it’s worth pointing out the degree her fate strips her of her agency to further the Doctor’s own emotional arc. I’m not getting into this too much because fellow TV Clubber and my Debating Doctor Who cohost Allison Shoemaker got into this in much greater detail in our latest episode, and she felt this a lot more viscerally than I did. For those who don’t want to pay to hear the episode right now or don’t want to wait until it posts in a couple days, Allison talks through a lot of these similar issues in her reviews of the most recent season of Sherlock.
- The surgeon says the iconic handlebars stop people from “caring” about their pain, and I really hope that specific word choice is a direct homage to one of the most famous lines from “The Tenth Planet.” When the Doctor’s companion Polly demands to know why the Cyberman Krail doesn’t care about some lost astronauts, he responds, “Care? Why should I care?” It’s the very first indication the Cybermen are emotionless creatures, and all the more chilling because of that melodic voice.
- The depiction of a dying world and a vaguely 1950s aesthetic puts this episode in the debt of the Big Finish audio story “Spare Parts,” which is the other major effort to provide a genesis of the Mondasian Cybermen. Doctor Who previously credited that story as the (very, very loose) inspiration for “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel,” but this feels like a much closer spiritual successor to “Spare Parts,” which is still probably the best Cybermen story ever written. I’m really hoping there will be a way to reconcile that audio story with this one once all is said and done that doesn’t requiring invoking “The Time War changed a bunch of stuff,” but we’ll see.
- Speaking of Big Finish, it’s worth noting they were the first to do a performed multi-Master story, with last year featuring Geoffrey Beevers’ desiccated incarnation from “The Keeper Of Traken” teaming up with the company’s original incarnation, played by Capaldi’s Thick Of It costar Alex Macqueen. I still hold out the faintest hope Macqueen’s Master could someday pop up in the actual show, or perhaps this is just something to wait for if and when Capaldi ever revives his Doctor on audio. Oh, and the other new series Master hasn’t been left out of the fun, as Big Finish just announced Derek Jacobi is reviving his Master for a series set during the Time War. It’s a good time for everyone’s favorite evil Time Lord, is what I’m saying.
- The Doctor and Bill’s little conversations are some of my favorite interactions between Doctor and companion ever, with tonight’s back-and-forth on Time Lords and gender a particular highlight. Anytime a flummoxed Doctor tells Bill to shut up is a good moment in my book.