With “The Doctor Falls,” showrunner Steven Moffat caps off not one, but two story arcs which have run through the entirety of Doctor Who’s 10th season. One of these arcs has been so hidden in the background that its rising to the surface and resolution comes as a great surprise, while the other has been gradually developed throughout the 12 episodes. It all began as the mystery of what the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) were guarding in their secret vault in the basement of the university where they met Bill (Pearl Mackie). After we learned that the vault contained Missy (Michelle Gomez), the focus shifted to the Doctor’s attempts to rehabilitate her and resume their old friendship. The result of that effort was still in the balance when, in last week’s episode, they landed on a 400-mile-long spaceship containing both Cybermen (who captured and converted Bill into one of them) and Missy’s own prior incarnation, the Master (John Simm).
In Moffat’s usual deliberately roundabout way of starting off the second half of a two-parter, the opening shots are of a sweeping rural landscape of a small farming community that’s periodically attacked by the zombie-like proto-Cybermen seen in the previous episode. Director Rachel Talalay creates some particularly macabre images in the scenes of the creatures being mowed down by the defenders’ rifles and then fastened to wooden crosses like scarecrows while children look on, inured to the sight.
Suddenly, a shuttlecraft piloted by Nardole breaks through the ground, and a flashback efficiently fills in the details of how he and the others escaped from a swarm of Cybermen and made it to this agricultural level, about halfway down the length of the massive ship. The Doctor decides he must stay and help these people fight off the Cybermen. Most of the episode’s focus is naturally on the regular characters, but a couple of villagers rise above being reduced to mere cannon fodder: the young girl Alit (Briana Shann) and Hazran (Samantha Spiro), the leader of the community who takes a shine to Nardole.
When a “Two weeks later” caption is followed by a shot of Bill in her human form, it seems at first that her Cyber conversion has been, disappointingly, easily reversed. But it’s soon clear that she’s still in Cyber form; it’s only her own mind that shows her as she used to be. This device (previously employed by Moffat in 2012’s “Asylum of the Daleks”) ingeniously allows Mackie to make a full contribution to the episode even while her character is encased in a restrictive Cyberman costume. In her final performance for the show, Mackie is as good as she’s been all season, effectively capturing Bill’s growing resignation to the fact that even the Doctor has no hope of reversing her condition. Eventually, while Nardole leads the humans to another, safer level as an overwhelming force of Cybermen arrive, Bill opts to stay with the Doctor as he prepares a last-ditch defense which he doesn’t expect to survive.
Meanwhile, the Master and Missy are working their way through the maneuvers of the other plot arc that spans “The Doctor Falls.” Most of the humor in this otherwise grim episode comes from these two, as Moffat exploits the comic possibilities inherent in two versions of the same person being present simultaneously. But there’s a serious purpose to their scenes, too, with the presence of the old, unambiguously evil Master serving to externalize the emotional debate playing out within Missy.
Showrunner Steven Moffat caps off not one, but two story arcs which have run through the entire season.
Simm and Gomez are compelling together, pushing Capaldi to great heights when the Master wants to know why the Doctor persists in futilely resisting the Cybermen. The desperate passion in the Doctor’s voice as he says that it’s the right thing to do, no matter whether or not he ultimately succeeds, seems to finally get through to Missy. But after she stabs her previous self to bring on his regeneration into her, his last act is to blast her in order to prevent her from joining the Doctor. This story arc comes to a beautifully ironic end, with both of them laughing hysterically even as they’re dying.
Nardole’s time with the show is also wrapped up, as he’s left behind with Hazran and her community. It’s a more perfunctory departure than Lucas perhaps deserved after his excellent contribution to the season, but even this extended, hour-long episode has no more room for him, spending its extra time on a pair of lengthy epilogues for Bill and the Doctor (separate ones for each, since the Doctor remains unconscious during Bill’s final scenes).
Bill is ultimately saved from her Cyber-converted state by the alien entity that took the form of her friend Heather (Stephanie Hyam) in “The Pilot,” returning to fulfill its offer of taking her with it to see the universe. On the one hand, Moffat has once again (as with Clara in 2015’s “Hell Bent”) arranged for a companion to suffer a dramatic fate and then abruptly reversed it; on the other, the ingenious callback to the end of “The Pilot,” as Heather describes how she found Bill through her tears (the otherwise unexplained tears seen earlier emanating from Bill in her Cyber form), creates a story arc for Bill that helps to bind the entire season into a satisfying whole.
Alone again in the TARDIS, the Doctor wakes up. He’s been limping and badly injured all through the episode, and has been holding back the regeneration process by force of will. Finally, the scene from last week’s teaser is resumed, with the Doctor arriving in a snowy landscape, still refusing to regenerate again. But as the episode reveals its final surprise, it suddenly becomes clear—for classic series fans, at any rate—exactly where and when we are. Through the snow appears none other than the original Doctor, heading toward his own regeneration in the last moments of 1966’s “The Tenth Planet.” David Bradley, who brilliantly portrayed William Hartnell in the docudrama produced for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary in 2013, An Adventure in Space and Time, brings the first Doctor back to life as, in his final moments, he comes face to face with his own later self. It’s a tremendous way to leave us in suspense until the next Christmas special, which will bring down the final curtain on both Capaldi’s Doctor and the show’s Moffat era.
Classic Doctor Who Recommendation: For another story featuring a pair of male and female Time Lords—the Master and the Rani—who bicker and scheme against each other as much as against the Doctor, see 1985’s “The Mark of the Rani,” starring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, with Anthony Ainley and Kate O’Mara as the two Time Lords.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.