Well, here we are. Almost at the Doctor Who season finale. And it’s a big one. Not only will we be bidding Peter Capaldi goodbye (sniffle), but we’ll also saying farewell to showrunner Steven Moffat — a.k.a. he who has given us episodic gems such as “The Girl In the Fire Place,” “Blink,” and even season 8’s “Listen.” As Mark Gatiss said a few weeks ago, “It’s the end of an era.”
So, of course, in grand Whovian fashion, the Powers That Be decided to end this season, like the last couple, with a two-parter. Having wrapped this week’s episode, I’d say it’s a smart decision. We’re going to need the additional week to process some of this hour’s big reveals — because, boy, are they big — and possibly, to mourn. But first, we open with a spot of levity. The TARDIS is aboard a large colony ship (400 miles long, 100 miles wide) that’s trying to reverse away from a Black Hole. (Smart thinking.)
With the Doctor to guide her through their spot of “My Fair Time Lady,” Missy must save the day, along with some help from Bill and Nardole, whom she nicknames “Exposition” and “Comic Relief.” Thanks to our second “Doctor,” we learn that perhaps the Doctor’s name has been “Who” all along. It’s one of Missy’s attempts to bait Bill and while riffing on the many “Doctor. — Doctor Who?” exchanges we’ve had over the years. Then things take a dire turn. A blue humanoid alien named Jurj, (like our friend Dahh-Ren back in “Oxygen”) joins them, panicking because there’s a human aboard.
This gets the Doctor’s attention. He springs into action trying to convince the man to remain calm. But with three elevators speedily making their way to this cockpit, that is nowhere near happening. So Bill admits she’s the human, and despite the Doctor’s speech (which I’m pretty sure he also gave in “Oxygen”), ends up with a big hole in the middle of her chest as she gets shot by Jurj for her honesty. Right before she falls (in slow motion, because director Rachel Talalay really wants to stick this knife in), she reminds the Doctor that this had been a bad idea.
Cue flashback: Bill isn’t onboard with the Doctor’s decision to test Missy. He wants them to ride around in the TARDIS scoping out distress calls. She’s his oldest friend (and “man crush,” though the Doctor isn’t sure what gender either of them were then), and the only person even remotely like him. That’s when Bill gets it. He wants Missy to be good so that he’ll have some confirmation that he’s good. She makes him promise her that she won’t die (sigh) before agreeing. It’s reminiscent of his whole “Am I a good man?” debate in season 8, which after 3 seasons of Capaldi, and 10 seasons of Doctor Who in general, I’m comfortable saying, “Yeah. Dummy.”
That’s when 3 American Horror Stories with face masks who’ve emerged from the elevators — which, by the way, I’ll be calling “lifts” for the remainder of this recap — say they’ll “fix her.” The Doctor doesn’t try to stop them (probably in shock), but leaves Bill a message in her subconscious, saying he’s coming for her.
Eventually, Bill wakes up to this creepazoid doctor (who looks like he’s straight from a Bond film) who tells her he didn’t go through with the “full” conversion. She’ll need it, but for now, he repaired her heart. It’s a cruel joke considering the Doctor had commented on humans only having the one. That’s when she meets “Mr. Razor” who looks like Igor by way of The Hobbit.
They quickly become friends after he covers for Bill during her initial exploration (now with a weird heart chest box) around that floor of this hospital. She discovers a whole room full of patients who repeatedly say they’re in pain, and that they want to end their lives. As her new friend explains it, they’re at the bottom of the colony ship which, thanks to the gravity bending features of the Black Hole, means time is moving at a different pace down here. He also has a monitor displaying what the Doctor, Missy, Nardole, and My Least Favorite Member of Blue Man Group are up to, but they appear frozen thanks to the “wibbly wobbly timey-wimey-ness” of this whole sitch.
As the years go by, Bill and Mr. Razor become closer and he tells her that the bag-faced things she’d seen are the future. There’s a whole city of people down here, but thanks to artificial air and no access to the solar floors (they’d sent a team to explore), they’re all dying and in pain. So they’re embarking on Operation Exodus, which sees them getting that kind of conversion treatment so they can all become strong enough to storm the top floors together. Bill’s chest hurts because she’s been away from the hospital, so she and Razor return.
Bill eventually notices that her friends will be boarding a lift and heading downstairs. Excited, she asks Mr. Razor to lead her to their entrance. He dons a burglar’s mask and sneaks her into the Operation Theater. But it turns out to be a trap. She is to undergo the full conversion procedure now. She argues that everyone who’s gotten the procedure is in pain. That’s when Dr. Truly Evil shows her the rod-like headgear they’ll be adding as part of this “procedure” to help with that (“Won’t stop you feeling pain but will stop you caring about it”). It confirms what’s been hinted at all along… Bill’s going to be turned into one of the Cybermen.
Back all the way upstairs — and technically in the past — the Doctor’s figured out that Jurj is only a janitor (“good job”), and that 20 of the 50 crew members on board disappeared when they went downstairs. Now, he’s the only one left. Also, there’s been a population explosion downstairs, which the Doctor explains as being the descendants of his former crewmates.
When Jurj tries to stop the Doctor from sonic-ing the lifts, the Time Lord puts on a display of Venusian aikido and knocks him out. So he, Nardole, and Missy board the lift and head downwards. Once there, Missy is put on computer duty, despite that being Nardy’s job. Meanwhile, the Doctor and his remaining companion head off to try to find Bill.
And they do. Only as we well know, she’s become a Cyber-woman now. (You just know Bill would have asked why that’s not what female Cyberman, like “Time Lords,” are called.) Through her new get-up she tearfully tells the Doctor she listened to his subconscious message and waited… (Oh, and if you’re wondering, this isn’t reversible by just traveling back in time to before all this began; the Doctor mentions that they’re too close to a Black Hole for it to be exact enough to return.)
And that’s not the only revelation coming our way. While Missy was doing her computer thing, she runs into Mr. Razor, prompting a few big discoveries. First, the people Bill saw on this ship aren’t humans. They’re from Earth’s “twin” planet, Mondas. This means all the Cybermen we’ve met thus far are Mondasian Cybermen. Secondly, Mr. Razor’s just a disguise… Turns out, he’s Missy’s past self: The Master (returning guest star John Simm).
Together they approach the Doctor, Nardole, and Cyber-Bill, and Missy reveals that it’s not exactly Operation Exodus that’s been happening… Instead, it’s a genesis… A genesis of the Cybermen. Cue the sound of (dramatic) drums.
There’s a lot to unpack in this episode, so let’s get started. First up, from the get-go it’s clear this is an episode Moffat has wanted to write for a while now. Why else would he save such an iconic villain, and gift it to super-fan Peter Capaldi for his final two episodes of his very last season? But it’s not just that. There are little flecks of references to things Moffat’s been asked about or even poked fun at during his tenure on the show.
We see it in how he jokes about the Doctor’s name really being “Who” (a question fans stopped asking a long time ago) and even at the Doctor having been a woman once. Sure, he’s skirted around the issue of casting a female Doctor by giving us a female Master, but this is really the first time we’ve seen the Doctor discuss Time Lord gender bending with a companion. In a way, it’s significant that it’s Bill. As we’ve seen all season, the new companion has a fresh perspective on every aspect of the show so far, including this, given their little exchange:
BILL: “Time Lords, a bit flexible on the man-woman thing then?”
DOCTOR: “We’re the most civilized civilization in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.”
BILL: “But you still call yourselves Time Lords?”
It’s part of what makes Bill’s fate at the moment sting. Before the season even started, it was teased that perhaps Bill wouldn’t survive to see the end. And while it certainly seems that way for now, I’m hopeful that with three Time Lords involved (I’m not sure how helpful either versions of the Masters will be) they’ll be able to come up with some kind of solution. Though I will say, I wasn’t particularly affected by this particular twist. Seeing Bill shot was affecting. Seeing her be turned into a Cyberman… not as much as it should have been.
Part of this is because we’ve known that the Mondasian Cybermen were coming for weeks now, and seeing Bill get shot made it seem like an eventuality rather than a twist. (Especially after she was carted off to be “fixed.”) Another part of this is because we’ve seen Danny Pink experience something similar back in season 8. The same for Ianto Jones’ girlfriend over on Torchwood (though this was before the series started), but at this point fans (or maybe just me) have experienced enough beloved characters get transformed into Cybermen for it to really hit home. I will say that getting a flashback montage of Bill so soon after her getting shot — and the episode focusing on her experience so much — was nice, and served as a solid reminder of how good an actress Mackie is.
Speaking of transformations, we also get a glimpse of what could be the Doctor’s next regeneration — though that won’t be coming until the Christmas special, hence all the snow. (I say what could be because as we saw in “Lie of the Land,” the Doctor’s regeneration has been used as a red herring a few times this season.) But it is interesting to note that Capaldi’s hair looks possibly like Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor’s hairdo in the future. I wonder if this has something to do with John Simm now sporting a Roger Delgado-esque goatee in this new appearance, which I’m pleased to note is all at once restrained and still madcap, kind of like Missy’s in this episode. Something I did find interesting about his return is that he’s genuinely concerned for his future self, which could have to do with the Doctor’s attempts to rehabilitate Missy. Perhaps he was concerned that Missy really was changing for the better.
But the fact that we now see the Doctor go up against two Masters and a classic villain once again relates back to this being Moffat’s swan song, while also speaking to his impact on the Doctor Who mythos these last couple of years. As a showrunner, he’s given us a 50th anniversary special that saw the Doctor meet his past incarnations, and episodes that saw Missy and the Master interact. He’s also brought back Gallifrey (taking us there in the process), taken us to Skaro (and introduced us to young Davros), and explored the Doctor’s youth somewhat. Heck, we even saw the Alpha Centauri come back and visited the Ice Warriors on their native Mars a few episodes ago.
Now, he’s delving into the psychology of the Mondasian Cybermen (back on the show for the first time since 1966), which is quite heartbreaking but fits in with the larger themes of this season and the series as a whole. In their efforts to escape their painful existence, the Mondasian people have started modifying their bodies to the point of living in excruciating pain, all in the hopes of being strong enough to take reach the top of the colony ship and take charge of their lives. (It’s similar to the Daleks, who are encased in armor, but that has nothing to do with escaping pain as much as keeping them battle ready.) The reveal works well to highlight the painful origins of these specific Doctor Who villains who haven’t been as effective as they could have been in the recent series.
But the fact that these Mondasians (who look quite human) and Jurj’s blue self are on this ship, makes me wonder if these are callbacks to earlier episodes in the season. Could the people on the colony ship in “Smile” have been Mondasians? After all, their planet looked quite similar. (Probably not though seeing as it was Earth events referred in that big book Bill encountered.) In fact, I may have griped that I wanted Bill to be a normal companion, and not particularly special in the way Amy and Clara wound up being in the end. But faced with a distinct lack of Bill next season, I’m actually hoping Moffat finds a way to save her.
Next week’s hour is titled, “The Doctor Falls,” but considering he’s got Nardole and two versions of the Master on his side as he faces off against a hoard of Cybermen, maybe he’ll be able to pick himself back up again. At least until the Christmas Special.