After a run of well-made, entertaining, but hardly top-tier Doctor Who episodes, this week’s “World Enough and Time” sees showrunner Steven Moffat return to form, beginning the wind-up of his last season with a bang. What must surely be the shortest teaser ever for a Doctor Who episode delivers a jolt of adrenaline immediately as we see the TARDIS land in an unknown snow-covered location and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) stumble out, surrounded by the glow of regeneration energy but holding the process back by force of will. Rather than provide a conventional pre-titles prologue to the story of this particular episode, Moffat instead opts to insert a flash-forward to Capaldi’s imminent departure from the series, leaving an aura of impending doom hanging over the Doctor from the outset.
The story proper, though, starts with the Doctor in a cheerful mood as he lands Bill (Pearl Mackie), Nardole (Matt Lucas), and Missy (Michelle Gomez) on a 400-mile-long spaceship that’s been emitting a distress call. The ship has almost fallen into a black hole, and its engines are barely managing to push it away from the threat. Missy takes the lead as they explore the ship’s bridge, as part of the Doctor’s continued probing to see how genuine her apparent desire to reform is. An early flashback sequence, showing him discussing her with Bill to the accompaniment of Murray Gold’s gorgeous “Gallifrey” music (first heard in “The Sound of Drums” a decade ago), emphasizes how much the Doctor yearns for a reconciliation with his oldest friend.
As always, Gomez steals the scene with Missy’s hilarious sarcasm. She can’t quite get the hang of treating Bill and Nardole as her companions; she prefers to call them “disposables” and remains baffled at the Doctor’s ability to be friends with such lesser beings. Her banter over the Doctor’s name (or lack thereof) is a little too forced, but the comedy abruptly ends when they’re confronted by a blue-faced alien called Jorj (Oliver Lansley). He holds a gun on Bill, who has apparently attracted the attention of the other creatures who live on the ship. The Doctor gives one of his patented inspiring speeches which would normally defuse the situation, but Jorj is scared enough to pull the trigger at point-blank range. A graphic shot of Bill falling to the floor with a hole blown clean through her chest, only to be taken away by a group of what look like masked hospital orderlies, leaves a sense of events having suddenly spun completely out of control.
The plot separates into two strands at this point, as Moffat makes clever use of the real-world science of gravitational time dilation in the neighborhood of a black hole. Of course, Doctor Who isn’t a series wedded to “hard” science fiction, and various other black-hole effects that would wreck the story—for example, the tidal forces that should be ripping the ship apart—are conveniently overlooked. From a physics standpoint, the science may not be much more realistic than the last Doctor Who episode to center around a black hole (2006’s “The Impossible Planet”), but it provides a neat way for Moffat to arrange his desired setup of two time streams running at vastly different speeds. It’s a lovely high concept that in the two days that Jorj has been waiting for his crewmates to come back from the other end of the ship, they and their descendants have established an entire civilization that’s grown, flourished, and is now dying.
Whatever happens next week, for the moment the Doctor appears to have lost everything.
As he’s done several times before, Moffat manages to tell a story on a huge scale while using very few actors other than the regulars. In the hospital to which Bill is taken, we see only one surgeon and one nurse. This minimalism allows director Rachel Talalay (once again helming the final two episodes as she did for the previous two seasons) to create a spooky, nightmarish atmosphere, as Bill finds drab rooms populated by silent, motionless patients with their faces completely covered by cloth masks. Mackie is once again compelling as she shows Bill, whose heart has now been replaced with a mechanical chest unit, slowly finding a place in this new world without the Doctor (as weeks go by for her while he’s speaking a single sentence). But finally, she comes to the horrified understanding that she, along with the rest of the people on the ship, will be converted into Cybermen in order to survive.
The Cybermen seen here are based on the very first design used for the creatures, in 1966’s “The Tenth Planet” (a story also notable for being the very last adventure for the original Doctor, William Hartnell). The production team at the time were unhappy with how they turned out, and completely redesigned them for subsequent stories, resulting in the sleek metallic appearance that became an icon of the series. But these original Mondasian Cybermen (named for the planet their people came from) are peculiarly suited to highlighting the body horror aspect of the idea of human beings cybernetically augmenting themselves to the point where they eventually lose all their humanity. With the aid of just a little streamlining of the metallic accessories, the design of 50 years ago is still remarkably sinister.
Thanks to the time-dilation effect, the Doctor only manages to get as far as understanding the situation, rather than being able to solve it. The question of Missy’s reformation is also left up in the air, particularly after the episode reveals its major surprise. The garrulous, bumbling comic-relief character who helped Bill in the hospital and seemed to be her friend—right up until the point when he left her in the surgeon’s clutches for “final conversion”—turns out to be the Master (John Simm) in disguise. Simm delivers a virtuoso performance through the heavy makeup required for the trick to work, and the moment where he comes face to face with Missy and pulls off the mask is a brilliant coup. The episode comes to a wonderfully audacious cliffhanger: the two incarnations of the Master, facing the Doctor together, with a fully Cyber-converted Bill between them. Whatever happens next week, for the moment the Doctor appears to have lost everything.
Next Week: The season concludes, with the ominously titled “The Doctor Falls.”
Classic Doctor Who Recommendation: For another story that takes place entirely on an enormous spaceship which has been traveling for eons of time, see 1982’s “Four to Doomsday,” starring Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, and Matthew Waterhouse.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.