What makes a great Doctor Who finale? The basic answer is the same as that for any show—bring the stories told over the course of the season to their logically and emotionally satisfying conclusions, with maybe a fun twist thrown in for good measure—but the wide-open creative canvas of this show makes that an especially fearsome task. Doctor Who, particularly in its revived form, invites climactic stories with the biggest possible stakes and with promised answers to impossible mysteries. To ask the show to sustain any story or even a mere plot thread over the course of an entire season is asking a lot, considering how the show flits between settings and genres from episode to episode, resetting a part of the narrative every time. It’s a tall order, and while Doctor Who’s season-ending stories are generally better than its reputation for fumbled finales would suggest—the term “Davies ex machina” has cast an unfairly long shadow—most of them are forced to prioritize either emotional impact or storytelling logic, resulting in finales that generally don’t encapsulate the full range of Doctor Who’s unique strengths.
“The Doctor Falls” comes closer than any other finale to bucking that trend, paying off several storylines and respecting the emotional reality of its characters with only a couple small missteps. Given everything it’s trying to do, that represents a towering achievement. Consider Missy’s attempt to turn good, which technically qualifies as the season-spanning story if you count the mystery of the vault. There shouldn’t be any good way to resolve this story. This is Missy we’re talking about, so there’s almost no conceivable way she could reform in a way audiences would properly believe. Maybe the show would have revealed Missy was lying all along and none of this mattered, or she could have been sincere right up to the moment she reverted to her old self. The lone downside of Michelle Gomez’s brilliantly mercurial performance is there’s just no believing anything she says, which is a huge asset in stories like, say, “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar,” but trickier when Doctor Who needs us to buy into her being earnest about anything.
But this two-parter has the perfect solution: No need to worry about her reverting to her old self when he’s already standing right there. Missy can look like the very model of mental stability next to John Simm’s petulant psychopath, who would rather destroy his own future than let her stand with the Doctor. While this year’s Christmas special has a chance to surpass tonight’s episode, the multi-Master material here represents by far the best use of multiple incarnations of the same Time Lord sharing the story. Simm turns in the showier of the two performances, all snarling and cruelty and deeply wrong horniness. More than any other, his is the Master driven by the deepest hatreds, be they aimed toward the Doctor, the Time Lords, or just the whole stinking universe that hurt him enough to turn him into what he is. As Missy says as she drives the knife into him, he burned like a whole screaming world on fire. He’s too busy burning to listen to the Doctor’s pleas to stand with him, and that’s been key to this incarnation going back to “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords”: Maybe he can never outsmart the Doctor, but he can always spite him by refusing to ever, ever give the Doctor the satisfaction of knowing his old friend still exists. It’s why he refused to regenerate in “Last Of The Time Lords,” and it’s why he kills Missy here.
By contrast, Gomez’s performance is much subtler. After three seasons’ worth of character development, there’s a sense that her character is complete, that Missy has said all she has to say and can mostly just be left to react to Simm’s Master and Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. There’s a deep sadness that undergirds her performance, as though Missy recognizes that, for all the fun it is to be in the presence of herself at her most unrepentantly evil, she must now put that aside and do what, at last, she recognizes as the right thing to do. Her final scene with the Master speaks to the brilliance of externalizing her inner conflict by bringing in Simm’s Master. Maybe Missy is right, and where she has been headed ever since Roger Delgado first matched wits with Jon Pertwee is to this moment where she chooses to stand with the Doctor. Maybe the Master is right, and there was no other possible way for this to end than them shooting themselves in the back. As yet another rogue Time Lady once observed, the Master would get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line, so it’s fitting Missy meets her end—at least until the Time Lord’s inevitable resurrection—with a most devious and overcomplicated betrayal. “The Doctor Falls” gives us Missy at her best and the Master at his worst, presenting both as equally valid. This is the perfect kind of ambiguity.
Then there’s Bill. It’s understandably going to be more controversial whether “The Doctor Falls” represents a satisfying payoff to Bill’s plight at the end of “World Enough And Time.” We’ll get back to the resolution, but the storytelling at least up to that point is generally excellent. The device of presenting Bill as she sees herself—and, given the Doctor’s own well-established unique perception, perhaps how he does as well—means Pearl Mackie gets plenty to do here. Steven Moffat’s script generally picks its spots well with the occasional shifts between Mackie and the Cyberman reality. It’s admittedly a bit hilarious to imagine some of Bill’s lines as delivered in Nick Briggs’ Mondasian singsong, especially her last line to the Doctor about being glad he knows she is into women her own age. But that silliness on the margins is more than justified by moments like the shift from the Master thinking he has failed to torture the emotionless, unperturbed Cyberman to the shot of a heartbroken Bill.
What generally makes Bill’s part of the story work is that it really does remain her story. The end of “World Enough And Time” left it open whether Bill’s conversion mattered primarily in terms of how it signified the Doctor’s failure, but he proves only a supporting player as his companion navigates her new, terrifying reality. After all, it’s her remarkable mental fortitude, sharpened by those months of living under the Monks, that allows her to remain free of her programming. She’s the one who displays sufficient bravery to move in front of three Time Lords and face down whatever might come out of the lift. She’s the one who makes the Doctor promise not to let her live as something else. As the Doctor made clear in “The Pilot,” Bill was remarkable from the very beginning, and her time in the TARDIS has only enhanced and sharpened all that was already there.
Well, I mentioned “The Pilot,” so I might as well get into how Moffat brings Bill back from her fate as a Cyberman. Overall, the resolution of Bill’s story works for me, though I’ll admit it’s not as clean or as affecting as it might have been. The basic reason I think it succeeds is that Bill suffers enough over the course of “The Doctor Falls” that I want to see her released from her torment. The episode takes the horror of her situation seriously enough that it feels like a relief rather than a cheat when it ultimately finds a way to undo it. Whether you buy into that depends to some extent on what you want the moral logic of Doctor Who to be. Is this a show that should show the potentially dreadful consequences of what can happen when traveling with the Doctor—if not all the time, then at least sometimes—or is this a show that is fundamentally kinder, that rewards those characters who like the Doctor are willing to do the most difficult things because it’s right? Can the Doctor and his companions earn their happy endings, even against the longest of odds, or is it more important to acknowledge that sometimes things just don’t turn out the way we want?
I won’t claim there’s a right answer to this question. It’s one that has lurked around every single companion exit going back to Rose Tyler’s in “Doomsday,” or perhaps even Captain Jack Harkness’ resurrection in “The Parting Of The Ways.” I favor the kinder vision of Doctor Who, even if I do understand people’s frustrations with the show’s tendency to undo its most extreme choices. Perhaps some of that is the classic Doctor Who fan in me, as the older version’s serialized nature taught me the fun of a cliffhanger is seeing how the show gets out of the trap it set for itself. Bill has been such a brilliant, joyous premise this season, and so it feels right to let her go off with the woman she loves to explore the universe. What issues I have with this mostly go back to issues I originally had with “The Pilot,” as Heather’s return would mean more here if her and Bill’s love had been more fully realized in the season premiere. The clue of Bill’s impossible tears is also a bit too flimsy to properly bridge the two episodes and make the twist feel fully earned—again, I’m fairly forgiving of these shortcomings because I want Bill to get a happy ending, but this figures to be the episode’s most divisive element.
Before we get to the Doctor, it’s worth sparing a moment for Nardole. Doctor Who has still yet to do a story focused on the secondary companion—Rory came the closest at a couple points in series six—and “The Doctor Falls” makes no secret of the fact Nardole is the fifth most important character here. But even though his story is more thinly sketched, he does get a story, as he proves he’s every bit the Doctor’s equal. His computer brilliance proves essential to turning back the Cybermen, while he recognizes the heartbreaking tribute the Doctor pays him when the Time Lord points out the stronger of the two of them must go on and protect the humans. As with the return of Heather, Nardole’s big scene with the Doctor might mean a little more if the show had more clearly developed the unsavory past to which Nardole refers, but Matt Lucas’ performance is more than strong enough to compensate. Unlike a lot of Doctor Who’s past extended-length episodes, “The Doctor Falls” uses its extra time to let the story breathe, to give the characters and viewers alike a chance to sit with all that’s unfolding. As such, it’s easier for the story to keep track of an ancillary character like Nardole and to give him the sendoff he deserves.
That just leaves the title character. As with Michelle Gomez’s work as Missy, it doesn’t really feel like there’s much left to say about Peter Capaldi’s Doctor at this point. This is a Doctor who knows exactly who he is, played by an actor who knows exactly how he wants to play the part, facts that are ultimately absorbed into the narrative with the Doctor’s refusal to regenerate and turn into some new person. There was this idea way back in “Deep Breath” that the brusque, remote Doctor we met there was the character stripped of all his quirk, as though that harshness weren’t its own affected defense mechanism just like the 10th Doctor’s dashing charm or the 11th Doctor’s endless eccentricities. No minimalist rendering of the Doctor can be true or complete without the kindness and the compassion he shows throughout “The Doctor Falls,” whether he’s comforting the little girl after her encounter with Bill, gently breaking to his companion her situation, or pleading with the Master and Missy to stand with him. It took time for the Doctor to recognize that. Series eight was the Doctor hiding (and hiding from) that kindness, series nine was the Doctor loudly reembracing it, and series ten has been the Doctor embodying it in defiance of all who would call it selfish or pointless.
It makes sense then the Doctor wouldn’t want to regenerate, to give up the clarity he has earned over the course of this life. It also makes sense that Steven Moffat would devote his and Peter Capaldi’s final story to deconstructing the one last major bit of mythos he hasn’t really dealt with. Even in “The Time Of The Doctor,” regeneration was more a plot point than something essential to understanding the Doctor’s character. A Doctor refusing to regenerate for an entire story is a unique opportunity to explore just what this unimaginable process of renewal means to the person experiencing it. And much like how Missy’s journey to redemption made a multi-Master story more than a gimmick, so too could the Doctor’s wish to end make his multi-Doctor adventure with his original incarnation more than a bit of fan service. If “The Doctor Falls” is any indication, Moffat and Capaldi figure to exit at Christmas on a real high, with each bringing out the best in the other. For now, though, it’s enough to say they just pulled off the best series finale in all new Doctor Who.
- As generally seems the case these days, the Cybermen end up being largely ancillary in a story where they are theoretically the main threat. Then again, “World Enough And Time” devoted a lot of time to the origins of the Cybermen, and at no point tonight did I feel I was missing out from the show’s decision to prioritize character moments over monster stuff.
- The setting of the solar farm is a wonderful sci-fi conceit, especially with the time dilation problem continuing to hang over all the characters’ heads. The supporting players didn’t make too huge an impression—again, there was so much emphasis on the main characters that it’s hard to see this as much of a fault—but the setting in generally managed a more effective job of creating that moody, Western-style siege story that last season’s “Hell Bent” also tried for.
- So, here’s how I’m reconciling this with “Spare Parts”: At some point before the events of that audio story, the Mondasians were able to make contact with Jorj’s people and arrange for the creation of a massive colony ship to save them from their existence as a rogue, starless planet. The ship and the 49 original humans were lost when it got stuck in the black hole, and Mondas continued wandering the universe on its way towards its people becoming Cybermen and returning to attack its sister planet Earth in “The Tenth Planet.” The Master crashed onto the ship and, once his run as dictator ended, decided to manipulate events toward the creation of Cybermen for kicks. Given the Doctor’s statement about parallel evolution, it probably didn’t take much maneuvering on his part.
- Two stupid bits of trivia around David Bradley’s appearance as the First Doctor! First, Bradley’s path to the role is much like Capaldi’s, as he too played an unrelated character in a Doctor Who episode (Caecilius in “The Fires Of Pompeii” and Solomon in “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship”) followed by an appearance in a spin-off (John Frobisher in Torchwood: Children Of Earth, William Hartnell in An Adventure In Space And Time) before finally playing the Doctor. (Bradley also voiced the villainous Shansheeth in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode “The Death Of The Doctor,” but still.) Also, this now means Steven Moffat has written original material for a whopping eight of the Doctors: the Fifth Doctor in “Time Crash,” the Eighth Doctor in “The Night Of The Doctor,” the War Doctor in “The Day Of The Doctor,” the Ninth Doctor in “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances,” the 10th Doctor in multiple stories, and then of course the bulk of the runs of the 11th and 12th Doctors. That doesn’t even count Tom Baker’s turn as the Curator or any of the stock footage appearances from the other incarnations. I think the only writers who come even close to matching this are Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks, who both wrote for five of the classic Doctors and Mark Gatiss, who has written at least one story for each of the four new series Doctors.
- That ludicrously nerdy note feels as good as any to say this is my final Doctor Who review for the A.V. Club, as I’ll be starting a new job at Inverse in a couple weeks. I’m happy to say I’ll still be writing these absurd reviews over there, so starting this Christmas you’ll have a chance to read both my thoughts and that of my successor here on the A.V. Club beat, which sounds like a pretty great deal to me. I’m pretty sure I might pop up here and there over the next couple weeks (SmackDown might need a fill-in reviewer, basically), but this feels as good a time as any to say my goodbye to you all, almost five years exactly since my very first Gravity Falls review. It’s been an amazing run here, and I’ll miss it greatly. While it might seem more appropriate to think of this in terms of regeneration, there’s really only one final thought I can leave you all with. That the Doctor who said these lines actually showed up at the end of tonight’s episode makes it that much more perfect.