Doctor Who finale recap: 'The Doctor Falls'
“Where there’s tears, there’s hope.”
Well, considering I’ve shed a lot of tears in the last hour and a half, I’m now left with a whole bucket of hope, and more than a tinge of excitement for the upcoming Doctor Who Christmas special. But let’s not jump ahead in time, and instead focus on the here and now.
Last week left us with an impossible situation: Bill is a Cyberman. This week’s hour-and-a-half continues that predicament as we see the Doctor sitting in a wheelchair where he’s being tormented by Missy and the Master, who are jokingly asking if he has any requests for how they should kill him, before revealing Bill’s Cyber-self has been behind him all along.
They poke fun at his missing her conversion by two hours (after keeping her waiting for 10 years). His rebuttal is questioning what happened to the Master after he left for Gallifrey. He guesses they managed to fix his “problem” before kicking him out, after which his TARDIS got stuck in this colony ship, he took over the city where he lived like a king until the Mondasian people rebelled against cruelty, and now he spends his days hiding out in a disguise.
Both Missy and the Master are excited about the Cybermen Foundries that have been created. But there’s a slight twist, as we see in a second flashback: When the Doctor was hit by Missy, he was able to change the Cybermen’s algorithm so the parameters for being human now involve having two hearts. The Cybermen are coming for them. The Doctor also notes that neither version of his frenemy is right. Cybermen aren’t created, they’re just part of parallel evolution. Here we see Missy knock the Master out and reveal she was on the Doctor’s side all along. They both now have the requisite bump to prove it.
As the Cybermen attack, Nardole manages to fly to the rescue in a shuttle. The Master and Missy both join him on board and try to convince him that the Doctor is dead, having been electrocuted by a Cyberman a few minutes ago. Nardole doesn’t listen so the Master tries to take over, but they can’t fly away. CyberBill is holding on to the ladder, having killed the Doctor-attacking Cyberman a few moments ago.
That’s how we get to what will become an iconic image of CyberBill holding an unconscious Doctor surrounded by fog. The shuttle crashed through to another floor — one with a “solar farm” where people have formed small communities and fend off attacking Cybermen, using them as “scarecrows.” They’re near a small abode that houses the children and keeps them safe. Among the rugrats is a young girl named Alit who Nardole now asks for help.
Two weeks later, we see that Bill is back, but she frightens everyone, including Hazran (the woman running that home where they’re all camped) and Alit. Here’s where director Rachel Talalay really shines as we have a Twilight Zone-esque moment where Bill finally looks in the mirror Alit gave her and sees she’s a Cyberman. As the Doctor notes, she hasn’t accepted the conversion yet. Her mind has built a partition from the programming. Kind of like why the Monks didn’t get her. This scene is amazing not only because it lets us see Pearl Mackie again (as well as her splendid emoting) but she also keeps running into little reminders of her new situation, like her shadow.
(Side note: I really thought the Monks would pay off into something bigger, but apparently that whole trilogy just led to… nothing really?)
After the Doctor explains to Bill what a Cyberman is — in what is probably the worst way to find out — she gets understandably angry, shooting a hole through the barn door. The Doctor warns her that she does not have the luxury of getting mad anymore because of that specific reason. She cries out of frustration, anger, and sadness, surprising the Doctor with a tear made of water instead of engine oil.
They then join Missy and the Master as they go looking for the “lifts” (a.k.a. elevators), which are camouflaged in the woods. On the way there, we see the Doctor fight his regeneration and explain to Bill why the Cybermen are after the children (young brains, easier to dispose of bodies). She asks if he can bring her back. He regrettably informs her that no, he can’t. But he points out: “Where there’s tears, there’s hope.”
At the same time, the Master questions Missy’s inability to remember any of this. She cites their combined existence messing with the time stream and not allowing him to even form memories, which means she doesn’t have memories to access. I didn’t actually need the explanation for any of this — beyond this being a long-running science fiction show that has put dinosaurs on a spaceship at one point — but I appreciate writer Steven Moffat giving us one.
The Doctor is trying to find the lift doors so they can evacuate the children to safety. Missy goes ahead and calls one, which is a big mistake, as the Doctor notes. Not only could it be full, but now the Cybermen know where they are.
When the elevator finally does arrive, and the doors open, a Cyberman — one we’re more accustomed to seeing — steps out. Turns out they’ve managed to get their suits a weapons upgrade.
Missy, who has sonic-ed the elevator to keep it there, suggests they take it up to the bridge and get on the TARDIS. But the Doctor argues because of time dilation, the Cybermen will have thousands of years to work out how to stop them. So they’re only going to go up a few floors.
Speaking of our Cyber foes, a quick check-in reveals they don’t even need the lifts. They’ve learned to fly now. And they’re coming. Also, because they don’t feel fear, they’re using an alarm to announce their arrival and frighten the people they’re coming after. However what they don’t know (or maybe haven’t realized) is that these people are surrounded by technology under all this nature simulation. And Nardole’s clever self has programmed a lot of it to be weaponized, as we see with how he has one of their regular guns blow up a windmill and a bush. It’s a great reveal, because I must admit even I was a little fooled by the quaint country setting.
Elsewhere, Missy asks the Master, who’s trying on eyeliner, about using his TARDIS on the bottom of the ship. He argues that it’s his and that it’s in a city filled with Cybermen. Missy points out that it’s theirs, and the Cybermen are coming up. He then reveals that he blew the dematerializer. Luckily for him, Missy remembers a long time ago, when a scary woman threw her up against a wall and told her to always carry a spare. She then takes a spare dematerializer out of her pocket. The Master asks if it’s wrong he’s attracted to her. She says yes.
Meanwhile, people are preparing for the impending attack. The Doctor and Alit are using her toys to come up with a strategy, Hazran is hitting on Nardole (which is just Nar-LOL), and the Doctor gives Alit an apple to throw at the Cybermen on account of her ace throwing skills.
When the Doctor goes to speak to Missy and the Master, they want to know his plan. He says he’s going to get all the children to a solar farm a few floors above. They say the Cybermen will follow them there. He replies that it’s the best he can do. So he’s doing it. They then argue that he can’t win, leading him to deliver an amazing speech that not only reveals a lot about the Doctor — and especially Capaldi’s portrayal of him lately — but feels like Moffat’s thesis statement at the end of his run with this character:
“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.”
But despite what is a powerful moment from the Doctor, turns out the Master does not care or has not even been listening. The same can’t be said for Missy who is Missy-ty-eyed. The Doctor notices and acknowledges her change, but she says sorry and leaves.
But something he says has stuck because when the Master’s about to step in the lift, she calls him in for a hug and stabs him in the back (thus triggering his regeneration into her). She tells him that her standing with the Doctor is where their self was always headed in the end. He gets mad and blasts her in the back. He tells her not to bother regenerating because it was a full blast. He then heads back to his TARDIS to become her. Missy laughs as she lays there on the ground.
Back in the war, Alit’s apple turns out to be a grenade, thus triggering the Cybermen to go into a war campaign. At the house, the Doctor wants Nardole to lead the evacuation. He tries to argue, saying he’ll start a black market (among children?) and sell their ship back to them. But the Doctor says one of them has to stay here, the other has to be strong. This hits Nardole in the feels.
When he tries to take Bill with him she disagrees. She says she’s staying with the Doctor. She feels this is the end for her. We then get this exchange, which only makes the tears come harder and faster:
NARDOLE: “I don’t know what to say.”
BILL: “You’ll think of the right words later.”
NARDOLE: “You’re wrong you know. I’ll never be able to find the words.”
With that, he goes off to lead an evacuation, while the Doctor and Bill head out front. They say goodbye to each other after noting they need to stall just long enough to get all the kids in that one elevator. Bill takes the moment to remind the Doctor that she’s gay, and for a moment it seems like she’s going to declare her love for him anyway, but Moffat subverts the moment by having her reiterate that she is indeed a lesbian. LOL. She then goes round back so they can attack from two sides.
The Doctor faces his fate uttering the same words we saw him tell Missy as he prepared to “kill her” in “Extremis”: “Without hope. Without witness. Without reward.”
While Nardole is getting all the kids into the elevator for their one trip, the Doctor goes to war. Using his sonic, which has absorbed all of Nardole’s programming, he sets off a series of explosions. He declares that the Cybermen have failed each time they’ve gone up against him (Mondas, Telos, Earth/Canary Wharf, Planet 14, Marinus). But that’s when he gets shot in the back and the chest.
“Doctors are not required,” declares a Cyberman.
“I’m not a Doctor,” says a gravely injured Twelve. “I’m the Doctor.”
He starts regenerating but stops it. Instead, he uses his sonic to cause one big explosion. He whispers to himself, ‘No stars… I hoped there’d be stars.”
A few floors later, Nardole stares at an elevator as Alit reassures him his friends might come. He nixes that idea while noting that the Doctor destroyed most of the Cybermen so it’ll take a while for them to regroup and come after this group of Mondasians. Another kid comes over and calls them in for dinner. They note that Hazran might have a thing for him. He quips, “She’s only human.” NEVER CHANGE, NARDY.
Back on the Doctor’s floor, CyberBill finds him. Thanks to Talalay, we’re shown Pearl again. This is followed by a shot of an eye that has a familiar star pattern in it — mirroring the Doctor’s eye (and reflected explosions) from a few scenes ago. Heather’s return frees Bill from being a Cyberman. Talk about a Hail Mary! She’s now water like her once-crush.
They get the Doctor on the TARDIS, the only place he might be able to rest in peace. Bill notices Heather flying the TARDIS, which she can do because she’s a “pilot” and can fly anything. Big H says she was able to find Bill and come to her through time and space because not only did she promise her to never leave her behind, but she left Bill with one of her tears so she could find her again. Then Heather offers to make Bill human (she can rearrange atoms apparently) but says she wants to show her the universe first. Here Bill asks, “Back in time for tea?” It’s a sweet callback (within a callback) to her first meeting with the Doctor.
Bill kisses the unconscious Doctor goodbye (“It’s a big universe. But I hope to see you again.”), leaving a tear on him in the process, potentially to keep track of him, but also because, “Where there’s tears, there’s hope.” With that, she takes Heather’s hand and decides she will show her new lady love a thing or two.
And just like the Doctor with her conversion, our beloved Bill misses the Doctor springing back to life. Here we’re treated to a montage of every person who may have traveled in the TARDIS with the Doctor before. If you haven’t cried before this point, this moment might elicit a few drops of face rain. But the reminder of all his former companions reminds the Doctor that he does want “to go.”
Following that declaration the TARDIS does her thing and takes him to the snowy planet we saw at the start of last week’s episode. Yet again the Doctor is reluctant about his regeneration. He insists that he’s staying. He then hears someone quoting and commenting on it.
“I’m the Doctor,” he calls out.
That’s when the stranger finally steps out of the mist wearing a very familiar outfit, and an even more familiar face. “The Doctor? No, I don’t think so. No. Dear me, no. You may be a Doctor. But I am the Doctor. The original, you might say.”
That’s right. It’s none other than the First Doctor (played here by David Bradley a.k.a. Argus Filch over in Harry Potter, filling in for the since deceased William Hartnell). Thus, we get a title card announcing that the Christmas special will feature none other than two Doctors. After all, who better to help Twelve through his regen-hesitation than the figure who started it all: One.
I don’t know what’s more tear-inducing, that Twelve inadvertently quoted One, or the fact that it’s quickly growing on me that we’re so close to saying goodbye to Capaldi, who’s quickly become my second favorite Doctor on the strength of this season alone.
Like I said last week, these two episodes have given Moffat and Capaldi one heck of a swan song, while also clearing the board somewhat for Chris Chibnall, who’ll be following after. Luckily, there are enough seeds planted in here in case he wants to take those saplings and use them for his season. After all, even Missy has been bid goodbye to. (Though there’s a chance she, too, could find a way around her death. This is Doctor Who after all. We just had the Master on.)
Overall though, I think this episode did a really good job of paying off last week’s hour. I know everyone really loved “World Enough and Time” but I genuinely think “The Doctor Falls” is a stronger episode largely because of the many emotional pay-offs. Moffat can be a very, very smart writer, but his best episodes also have a current of underlying emotion that make them hit home. “The Doctor Falls” fits in with that.
A lot of this emotion came from the fact that the show and its characters were dealing with a larger scale of change than they’re used to on a weekly basis. They’re in the midst of a large war, with no real hope of “winning,” and each of them is questioning who they are going forward. The Doctor isn’t ready to regenerate at all; Bill is grappling with becoming a Cyberman; Nardole must cope with no longer being by the Doctor and Bill’s side (and having to serve as the leader for a large group of kids); Missy is realizing she’s developed empathy; and even the Master can’t believe he’s going to be a woman next.
THE MASTER: “Is the future going to be all girl?”
THE DOCTOR: “We can only hope.”
(On a related note, was this a hint that the next Doctor is female? I would like for that, but I’m also not keeping my hopes too high. We’ve seen Moffat joke about this before. But last episode did have the Doctor comment on Time Lords and gender and how inconsequential it is to them.)
In this way, it’s fascinating that this episode hinged a little on whether someone could truly change or if it’s a metaphor for the fact that deep down we still remain who we are. After all, Nardole, a mixture of parts, is still himself at the end of the day. It relates back to the hallmark of the show: regeneration. Eventually, change is going to come, but who will you be at the end of it? When Capaldi’s tenure started, he kept questioning if he was a good man; in this episode we technically saw “A Good Man Go To War.” Because at the end of the day, he chose to try to be kind and stick around to save the Mondasians. And really, that’s all we can ask from our heroes.
It’s funny. If you’ve been reading my recaps, (which first of all, thank you) you know I’ve been wondering if everything would tie together. Was the blue janitor on the bridge related to “Oxygen“? Were the Monks? Was Bill the key to something bigger? Would Susan’s picture hint to that? Did the Colony ship from “Smile” have any relevance? Turns out all of that was for naught. The only callback we did get was Heather. It was a bit of a deus ex machina moment, but I didn’t mind because Bill deserved a happy ending. (Though it is awfully similar to that of Clara and Ashildr/Nobody’s ending last season: two young women blasting into space. But with much fewer romantic undertones.) A small part of me is hoping Bill and Nardole and the two Doctors in the Christmas special might reunite, since they’re down both companions (though it’s nifty that the Doctor might accompany himself) and Nardole is still stuck on that ship with a whole horde of Cybermen ready to attack.
Nonetheless, all the performances were on point, with Mackie and Capaldi selling the hell out of every scene they shared together. Matt Lucas was both funny and heartbreaking, while Michelle Gomez captured every nuance of Missy’s slow transformation throughout the episode. Even John Simm got a great moment of restrained madness, preceded by one of utter callousness. A small part of all of these can be attributed to Talalay’s directing, which drove each scene for maximum emotional impact.
Not everything was perfect in this episode, but Steven Moffat managed to craft an episode that showcased everything it is he was able to do in this series during his time on it. He expanded the Doctor and the Master’s histories (and futures). He dug into the psychology of our favorite Time Lord and his relationship to war (something the series has always skirted around). He gave what was a classic villain (the Mondasian Cybermen) a more tragic backstory, while also making them more brutal. And now, it seems he’s going to give us two Doctors for the price of one. All I can say to that is, Geronimo!
The Doctor Who Christmas special airs Dec. 25 on BBC America.