Sunday, July 2, 2017

Doctor Who Series 10 - The Doctor Falls - Episode Review



My review of last week's episode: World Enough and Time.

(This is a long review. You have been warned.)

Well, here we are. And I'm conflicted. On the one hand, The Doctor Falls is perhaps the clearest, most concise Steven Moffat finale that we've seen. But on the other, it's deeply unsatisfying.

Mostly because of Bill. Moffat wrote Bill Potts into a corner so dark that he couldn't break her out of it without a Deus ex machina, and that's a problem.

The end of The Pilot broadcast the idea that Bill would meet up with Heather again, and go flying through the universe, in what's basically a repeat of Clara's exit with Ashildr. But then the idea was dropped. Bill's character development went off in other directions, and the logical conclusion of her story didn't seem to be that she, well, gets the girl. Bill's story has been one of courage and tenacity - romance was a subplot. That she's bundled off in an undeveloped romantic relationship feels dismissive to the character.

So that's the first issue I have with how Bill's story turns out. But a bigger one (and for me, one that really sours my whole impression of this episode) is that this ending, ideologically, ends up agreeing with the Cybermen.

The hellish, inhuman thing about Cybermen is that they disregard the flesh, attempting to turn human beings into perfected computers by hacking them into shape and trapping them in a metal shell. It's not just about removing emotions: it's about attacking the entire concept of our physical bodies. Transhumanism, basically.

Bill examines her new face; the new Doctor examines his old face in Power of the Daleks

What this ending does is accept that premise. Bill is so dissatisfied with the imperfections of her new state (which, yeah, is pretty horrifying), that she says she doesn't want to live this way. The Doctor just accepts that. The man who thinks "there is, surprisingly, always hope," accepts that his companion doesn't want to live.

The Doctor talks about doing what's right, even if you're not going to win. Well, Bill learning to accept herself as a Cyberman would've been a difficult storyline to sell, but it would've at least had some integrity. There is always hope. We don't discard people when they're disfigured - we don't discard our bodies because we don't like them. Doctor Who, of all shows, should realize that. I can't help but remember the Doctor's great speech in Death in Heaven about how pain gives us wisdom, and how we can't just delete our pain to make our lives palatable. Doctor Who made an attempt to save Missy, so why not Bill? She's far more redeemable. I don't know. I've been thinking a lot about Charlie Gard this week, I guess.

Even if Bill couldn't be saved, then at least let her final act be active. Instead, Bill's decision to stay with the Doctor feels less like a heroic, defiant stand against the Cybermen, and more like a surrender to the fact that she'll never fit in with humans again. Bill was tormented passively for an episode, then passively accepts her fate. It's a depressing ending to her character arc.


And yet Bill can't stay a Cyberman forever. That would be too grim an ending for Steven Moffat, but he's written himself into a situation so dire that only a miraculous (and therefore, rather cheap) resolution can save the day. Moffat could have come up with a clever solution, or he could have stuck to his guns and given Bill a dignified, heroic death, fighting to retain her humanity. Instead, someone else gives Bill a fake immortality, and the loss of her body is waved away because she'll get a new one from a spacey water creature.

But it's another girl-power, explicit (instead of hinted) lesbian team-up, so Moffat will probably get P.C. points and win Tumblr's love forever.

(Speaking of which, apparently it's an end-of-an-era tradition to really lay the politics on with a sonic trowel - David Tennant bowed out in an episode which called Obama "Proof that the human race can mend it's own problems" - and Capaldi's new thing is snarky, distracting comments about Donald Trump.)

Phew. Now I've gotten all that off my chest, what about the rest of the story? 

I actually liked it quite a lot. Peter Capaldi is outrageously good in this. He starts off with a bit of Matt Smith-style fireworks, reprogramming Cybermen to kill Time Lords (though if the original Cybermen were programmed to do this, why are future Cybermen unable to kill Time Lords?) and saving the day while he's tied up in a wheelchair. That works, though it sadly undercuts the set-up for the episode I wanted to see: The Doctor versus a Master/Missy team of evil. 

In fact, neither the Master nor Missy really have much of an impact on the episode. They're fun, but there's no reason for them to be there. After the first scene, the whole gang hop on a speeder and go a few floors up from the bottom of the ship (the Master, hilariously, attempts to skip out telling Nardole, "The Doctor is dead; he told me he'd always hated you.") They end up in pastureland, where ordinary folk protect their children from a zombie-like invasion of Cybermen. The farmers tie the Cybermen onto makeshift crosses like scarecrows (Human Nature, anyone?)

Here's where Peter Capaldi will make his last stand (Moffat has a soft spot for Western-inspired, protect-the-children finales). And it will be the last, because all of this comes after the Doctor is electrocuted. This is the first (but not the last) time in the episode that he's wounded badly enough to begin regeneration, but for some reason, he keeps suppressing the urge.

At first, I thought this was because he didn't want to alarm a fragile Bill with regeneration hijinks - plus, he had to stay strong to save the homestead, and finally, he doesn't want to ruin the rapport this particular incarnation has with Missy. And that makes sense. Capaldi's great in his attempts to reach out to an emotional, defeated Bill. His last stand is an incredibly acted, shot, and scored long take (featuring the return of his sacrificial hero song), blasting Cybermen and dropping Classic Who references left and right. 

The Doctor's emotional and moral high point comes earlier, with a heartfelt speech to Missy and the Master about why he does what he does. It's the very basis of who he is: doing the right thing, the decent thing, the kind thing - without hope, without witness, without reward. We all die, he points out, but we should all have something worth dying for. This defense of principle, and staking one's self on a principle, is straight out of A Man for All Seasons and I love it.

His argument is not without effect. Missy takes it to heart(s) - and goes one step further than the Doctor. She actually dies for it. Can I just say how much I love this? The Master and Missy have a magnificently poisonous relationship that ends in a proper, character-driven tragedy. Gomez and Simm are hilarious together - flirty and twisted and mustache-twirlingly evil. He's nowhere near as bonkers as he was in the bad old days, but he makes up for it with sociopathic malevolence and a dash of sexism. Gomez, meanwhile, is as unpredictable as ever, and what goodness she shows is still goodness accomplished by deceit and betrayal. They make a great double act - "the genius twins."



Not that I think Missy's dead for good, even if she doesn't appear to regenerate. The Master has a habit of dying and rising again in usually demented and unnatural ways (one time, he pinched the body of a companion's father). But this is a good cap for the story of Missy. It's an ending that rings true to who she is and who she was.

Speaking of regeneration, though, it turns out the Twelfth Doctor really, really doesn't want to change. "I don't want to live if I can't be me," says Bill, and the Doctor says he understands.

Now, this I don't get. The reasons I gave for Capaldi holding off on regeneration  make sense, but they don't explain his ultimate refusal to regenerate. I don't see him suffering from fear of change, or from love of self. I don't see him being a vain Doctor. And this incarnation has taken more physical abuse than any other in recent memory: surely he wouldn't mind swapping out for a new body.

Maybe it's because he looks so poetic when he's dead. Director Rachel Talalay is at her best in this episode, giving us a number of indelible images, from Bill carrying the Doctor through a field of mist, to a spearhead of Cybermen rocketing across the sky in formation, to the Doctor on a porch with a shotgun, to Bill crouching over his blackened body on a field of ashes, and later in the dim light of the TARDIS (mimicking the first Doctor's collapse in The Tenth Planet - and I thought I saw another similarity: when Bill saw her Cyberself in the mirror, it mimicked the Doctor checking out his second face in Power of the Daleks). 


There are plenty of poetically arranged bodies in this story. The Doctor looks nobly heroic with his somber clothes and flash of red silk, the Master's hunched body crumpled in a claustrophobic elevator perfectly mirrors his madness, and Missy's soft passing in the forest highlights her tragic beauty (one review notes that Simm "descends into hell" while Missy is arranged "Ophelia-like.") This is truly stunning direction.

And the references aren't just visual: there are plenty of hat tips to the show's history, from Capaldi offering a kid a jelly-baby, to paraphrasing the Fourth Doctor - "I'm not a doctor; I'm the Doctor - the definite article, you might say" and repeating his first words - "Sontarans perverting the course of human history" - while parroting the words Doctors Two, Ten, and Eleven said before regenerating. He's dressed as the third Doctor. No references I noticed to Doctors 5-9, but everyone else is represented, especially Capaldi's favorite Doctor - "the original."

So it turns out the rumors were true! David Bradley will be playing William Hartnell's Doctor in the Christmas special. My hunch about an interim companion turned out to be accurate: the Doctor will guide himself through his own regeneration. Honestly, I think they'll both have to lean on one another, because for the first Doctor, this would be right before he regenerates for the first time, which has to be a bit of an intimidating prospect. I think we'll probably see a Carole Ann Ford cameo. It was the first Doctor who promised he'd come back to see her. And come back he has. I'm fairly optimistic about this. Yes, it's self-indulgent and is hardly pushing the show into new territory, but Bradley's a great actor, and everybody loves multi-Doctor stories. 

Between now and Christmas, I guess I'm going to have to catch up on Hartnell (I just finished Troughton: he's delightful, everybody go watch him now). 

Longish

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