With only three episodes of Capaldi’s glorious bouffant left before his departure, it was inevitable that we would start to move into game-changing territory. These expectations did nothing to dull the impending sense of dread and the shocking twists that ‘World Enough and Time’ delivered.
True, some of these surprises may have been more effective had the return of John Simm’s Master and the Mondasian Cybermen not been highly publicised for months leading up to their actual appearance. But for the sake of assessing the episode as it is without taking into account real world events, let’s look past these circumstances and appreciate what Moffat has given us: an outstanding demonstration of how to write science-fiction. It achieves this firstly by taking us on an emotional rollercoaster, and secondly by exploring two of science fiction’s most fascinating tropes in unsettling ways – black holes, and human compassion vs survival instinct. Before we delve into these though, let’s look at the context.
Following on from the end of last week’s episode, the Doctor trusts Missy enough to let her run a rescue mission of her own. With Bill and Nardole as her companions, the TARDIS lands inside a 400 mile-long spaceship trapped on the event horizon of a black hole. Michelle Gomez relishes every second of screen time as “Doctor Who”, satirising the character and very nearly breaking the fourth wall on multiple occasions.
The fun lasts for mere minutes before reality sets in. For once the Doctor’s attempt at calming an angry alien doesn’t work, and his overconfidence leads to the unexpected, premature death of Bill. It is a truly shocking moment – perhaps the most brutally graphic manner of killing a companion Doctor Who has ever committed to. The pace is slow and drawn-out, and before we can see the aftermath, a flashback takes us back in time.
The Doctor had implored Bill to trust him on Missy’s test run. While she reluctantly agreed, Bill was rightfully worried that this may be her last adventure. But the Doctor was willing to risk everything to take the opportunity to help the Master be good. He reflects on their childhood on Gallifrey, and Murray Gold works his magic once again by underscoring the scene with a nostalgic variation of This is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home, often heard in the Doctor/Master scenes of Series 3.
Skip back to the present day, and the whole plan has disintegrated. Bill is dead, her corpse is taken away to the lower decks of the spaceship by mysterious figures in hospital gowns claiming they can cure her, and the ship is still being drawn into a black hole. Remember those two prominent science fiction tropes I mentioned before? Well the first comes into play right about here.
There is something about black holes that is utterly irresistible to sci-fi fans. Despite this, there is a very specific attribute of black holes that is rarely touched on – gravitational time dilation. To put this simply, the closer you are to a source of gravity, the slower time flows.
With the Doctor, Missy and Nardole on the top floor closest to the black hole, and Bill (now mysteriously cured) on the bottom floor of the 400-mile long spaceship, the time disparity between the levels is extreme. Where 10 minutes passes for the Doctor, Bill spends years waiting to be rescued, watching a live camera feed of their actions. They are moving at a snail’s pace compared to her, but through a surveillance camera she picks up on every small movement that might indicate they are hatching a plan to rescue her. Due to some clever editing and well-paced scenes, the cuts between Bill and the Doctor on opposite ends of the ship are particularly exceptional in providing a unique spin on the narrative’s chronological structure.
During her adventures spanning years, Bill encounters the other patients of the hospital, each wrapped up in cloth from head to toe. They too have been saved from death, but they are in agony. They can communicate through speech synthesisers, chillingly repeating “Pain” and “Kill me” in monotone, robotic voices. The warden’s response to their cries? Mute their volume.
This is the second point of science fiction that ‘World Enough and Time’ expertly taps into – human compassion versus survival instinct. The patients’ hollow, painful existences are what we become when our desire to survive outweighs our emotional and mental wellbeing. In this state we are capable of logical thinking, but we lack any sense of what makes life valuable. These patients are on their way to becoming Cybermen – Doctor Who monsters who have always scarily represented this dark aspect of our humanity. But here the lingering, disturbing shots of the conversion process makes these Cybermen perhaps the most chilling we have seen them since 2005.
While dealing with life in the macabre hospital, Bill befriends one of the clinic’s assistants, Mr Razor. They spend their days drinking tea and watching the Doctor move painfully slowly, but Mr Razor is reluctant to tell Bill what is really going on.
A few minutes before the credits rolled, I was fully prepared to laud Mr Razor as a sole beacon of hope in a world of despair and hopelessness. His hobbled walk and broken English made him an endearing and memorable character. The realisation of his true identity started to sink in at a very particular moment – as I’m sure it did for every other viewer watching too. It was a horrifying yet completely impressive moment when it clicked that Mr Razor was none other than John Simm beneath several layers of prosthetics. Many people were completely fooled by this disguise, including myself, thus making this a testament to both Simm’s acting ability and the show’s excellent makeup department.
Simm’s Master this time round is much more subdued and restrained than he has been previously, seeming to be much more in line with the classic Masters. It is an absolute privilege to have him back on the show; especially accompanying Michelle Gomez’s own unhinged interpretation of the character. The two make for a powerful dynamic, and it is one of many things that is making next week’s episode so exciting.
Also… Bill is now a Cyberman. That is something I don’t think many people would have seen coming, and at the risk of using this word once too many times and taking away its impact, it is indeed shocking. We haven’t had a companion booted from the show in such a cruel manner for years. It is horrific to think that this character we have grown to love has been tortured and stuffed into a metal suit, ending up to be nothing more than a pawn in a grand, evil scheme.
A lot happened in this episode, so before wrapping up let’s deal with the elephant in the room. If the pre-title sequence is anything to go by, we will be seeing the Doctor regenerate sooner than we expected. How the show will deal with this leading into the Christmas special, we do not know. But the stakes are high, and it is unlikely that this is just another fakeout.
Within Moffat’s two-parters, Part One has always been his strong suit. The real test will be how Moffat handles Part Two of this story. Going off his track record, next week will potentially fall short of its predecessors. However, perhaps leading into the end of Moffat’s run we can expect something consistently enjoyable. All we can do is sit in anticipation, hoping that the Series 10 finale lives up to the precedent set by ‘World Enough and Time’.
What did you think of the episode? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!