And that is how you end a series. Not with a universe-ending threat, or cheap attention-grabbing tricks, but with a story that packs an emotional punch and sends off beloved characters in poetically appropriate ways. The name ‘The Doctor Falls’ aptly captures the essence of this episode; everything that has given the Doctor a drive over Series 10 is lost, and the effect that this has on him is devastating and sincere.
Simply due to the character-driven nature of this story, this will be structured by digging into the individual journeys of the story’s main players.
As much as I have enjoyed Michelle Gomez’s performance as Missy over the past years, there was always something that seemed to be Missing (excuse the pun). I came to the conclusion during Series 9 that it was perhaps the fact that she was never directly trying to harm the Doctor – a motivation that typically underlies Master-driven stories. This series we not only got an explanation for this, but we even got to focus on this development with an in-character justification of why her motivations have evolved.
In her final story, Missy is as morally ambiguous as ever. We begin by seeing the immediate aftermath of last week’s ‘World Enough and Time’; the two Masters have teamed up to take down the Doctor once and for all, torturing and incapacitating him. Her constant flipping between the two sides leaves a heavy sense of uncertainty. As such, Missy’s final decisive action to side with the Doctor and literally stab her previous self in the back, with Simm’s Master returning the deed, is the perfect self-destructive demise for her captivatingly deadly yet tragic character.
John Simm’s Master is a real bastard. Continuing on from last week’s ‘World Enough and Time’, he is quietly smug, suave and mischievous. With his increased screen time in this episode, we also discover that he is a terrible bully. He gives the Doctor a good beating, and he sadistically rubs his fake friendship of the last 10 years in Bill’s face just to get a reaction.
With the Doctor thwarting his big bad plan in the first 10 minutes, the Master is forced into cooperating with the Doctor and Missy to save his own life. Despite getting some fantastic insights into his character, it’s hard to not feel a little robbed of John Simm’s potential contributions to the story. He is given disappointingly little to do with the main plot, and spends most of his screen time concocting a plan to escape the oncoming Cyberman onslaught.
Casting aside this minor disappointment, Simm demonstrates well that he doesn’t always need to be the centre of attention to be an excellent Master. He is perfectly comfortable simply being a selfish, cowardly villain looking for a way to escape.
There is a part of me that has always wanted to see a companion killed off for good, and yet after watching this episode I am incredibly grateful that Bill wasn’t the one to be given this fate. She is one of the sweetest, most endearing companions of the revival, and it would have been a great shame if our last memories of her were of suffering and pain.
Instead Bill was given an appropriately bittersweet send-off that pays respect to a companion who has been built up as a fully autonomous and confident woman. She begins ‘The Doctor Falls’ as the tortured Cyberman we glimpsed last week, and yet she maintains control over her mind to some extent due to the self-control she practiced during the months the Monk’s were in control. These nods to previous adventures were small but touching, and helped cap off her time in the TARDIS as a fully fledged companion.
This is the pinnacle of Pearl Mackie’s performance as Bill for Series 10 – and that is not said lightly. It would have been a shame to end Bill’s story by keeping Pearl hidden behind a mask, and so for much the episode we see Bill as she sees herself – not as a Cyberman, but as a human. This device helps us see her at her most vulnerable, and yet when we observe her through strangers’ eyes the daunting mask is put back on for the audience.
The Doctor maintains desperate optimism in his quest to save Bill from succumbing to life as a Cyberman, but in the end it is Heather who saves her. That’s right, remember Heather? Episode 1 of this series? Well done to anyone who guessed that she would make a return (very few people I’m betting). By bringing Bill’s story full circle and leaving her future with a glimmer of hope, the implausibility of this resolution can almost be given a pass. It is a fitting end to a beautifully developed companion, and Pearl Mackie should certainly be praised for her wonderful contribution to Doctor Who lore.
It would be unfair to not touch on Nardole’s farewell, because while it is a minor side-note to the main story, it succeeds in delivering some peace of mind about his future. With a potential love interest in Hazran and a duty to protect the colonialists as they move up the ship, we can be sure that Nardole’s life will continue with renewed purpose and loyalty to those he is pledged to defend.
Matt Lucas’ return to Doctor Who was received with outrage from fans, and yet he has turned out to be one of Moffat’s most loved characters. His comic timing with amusing hints of a shady past brought some much-needed humour to some of Series 10’s darker moments, as well as bringing to the TARDIS the feeling of a family that hasn’t been around since Amy and Rory.
Finally, Capaldi. If this is anyone’s story, it is his. In the space of an hour we see every aspect of Doctor number twelve: his hope, wittiness, poignancy, desperation, devastation, and so on ad infinitum. The Twelfth Doctor in his final moments is a far cry from the Twelfth Doctor that greeted us in Series 8. Gone are the days of his apathy and anti-socialism. We have arrived at an empathetic version of his Doctor who will sacrifice everything just to get a friend back. Not in the rash, vengeful spirit that drove him at the end of series 9, but in a rather more considered and thoughtful manner that shows the true extent of his character development over the years.
At the crux of ‘The Doctor Falls’ is the Doctor taking a definitive moral stand for kindness in the face of adversity.
“Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.”
For a Doctor who has spent his entire reign questioning his own goodness, he has finally figured out the sort of person he is – a man who isn’t always good, but at least one who always tries to do what is right. Upon arriving at this key point in his growth, it is all too unfortunate that he has to leave so soon, having been shot down by several Cybermen mere seconds before blowing them up.
Only adding to the tragic irony of the Doctor’s experience is that he is left clueless to the fate of his friends. Unaware of Missy’s final redemption and Bill’s survival, he is left weary with loss and grief.
Unlike every other threat in the Doctor Who universe, this time the only thing stopping him from living is himself. The Doctor is suicidal, reluctant to regenerate, and we finally grasp just how long and difficult the Doctor’s life has been. He has carried thousands of years of guilt with him, and there is no hope in sight – save for a single voice emerging from the snow.
Yes, the First Doctor, played by David Bradley, is back this Christmas to give his twelfth incarnation a lesson on the importance of life and change. After his masterful portrayal of William Hartnell in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time, Bradley makes a welcome return to our screens, ensuring that this coming Christmas we are going to get a multi-Doctor story to remember!
This episode has been a perfect finish to a Doctor Who series that ranged from disappointing to outstanding. With one episode left for Moffat and Capaldi to give us all they’ve got, let’s hope this Christmas is worth the wait!
What did you think of the episode and Series 10? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!