It would be inappropriate for a site called “Nerd Bastards” to allow for the tenth season of Doctor Who to come to an end and pass without commenting, and the season finale Saturday night left a pretty definitive end for the Time Lord, his friends, and his enemies while opening an intriguing door to the Twelfth Doctor’s last stand coming this Christmas. In the meantime, Twelve’s second last adventure probably epitomized all the things we love and hate about the Steven Moffat era of Who: big ideas, touching camaraderie, and more than a little timey-whimey sleight of hand to get to the end game.
The shame of basically bidding goodbye to Peter Capaldi here is that it felt like he’d finally found a balance this year between the youthful optimism of other recent Doctors and the crotchety old Scotsman he was born to play. I suppose that was represented by the Doctor’s stubborn and emphatic refusal to undergo regeneration, right up until the final moment of the finale as he recalled great, famous last words of Doctors’ past. But I suppose that’s life, just when you think you’ve got it right, it ends up being over.
At the same time, in the modern run of Who, the Doctor has always seemed to embrace the inevitability of his regeneration once it’s began, like Ten’s goodbye tour, and Eleven very pointedly taking off his bow tie. Twelve, by comparison, epitomized the words of Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” One might make the point that the Doctor this season has been all about raging, raging against the losses of the past, raging about rectifying past mistakes, and raging at his old enemy about doing what they’ve always wanted to do and stand together in common cause.
Speaking of the Master, and the long-awaited return of John Simm, it was worth it because only the Master can test the Master, meaning Missy. In the back of our minds this season, as the Doctor rehabilitated Missy, was the question as to whether or not she’d go back to her evil ways, especially with the “Saxon” Master egging her on. But the Master doesn’t have to do anything really bad because the worst of all of his/her weapons is cruelty, or apathy I suppose if we’re being generous. That’s not just in regards to the Master’s glib treatment of Bill’s Cyberman condition, but glibness in the face of the entire circumstance, and the Doctor, caught between a Cyberman army and the time dilation of the black hole, begging for help…
“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 — maybe there’s no point in any of this, at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it — and I will stand here doing it until it kills me. — You’re going to die, too —someday. When 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. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?”
The Master kind of smirks at the sentiment, and Missy goes along, but in the end, as they were about to escape in the Master’s own TARDIS, Missy surprises by telling the Master that she’s staying, and then stabs him. It seems pointed (pun intended) that the Master can’t even take a stand for what’s right without doing tremendous harm, and the Master can’t take betrayal without committing another greater betrayal. It also seems pretty spiteful for the Master to stop himself/herself from making future regenerations because one immediate iteration doesn’t act exactly how he’d act. But of course this isn’t really the end for the Master. How often has the Master “died” only to come back bigger and more terrible in a couple of years?
Naturally, the Master loses the Doctor’s message entirely. When I first heard the title of this episode, “The Doctor Falls,” it sounded like an admission of defeat, like it could be immediate mistaken as “The Doctor Fails,” but it’s really a proclamation of intent. It’s another one of those great Moffat speeches about everything the Doctor is and everything the Doctor wants to be, and expertly delivered by Capaldi even if it did fall on deaf ears. Well, almost. It turns out that in the end, the Doctor was right, inside the Master, or Missy anyway, was someone that did want to stand side-by-side with the Doctor to do what’s right, even if it was just once.
So given that this was the Doctor’s last stand, he of course found an impossible way out. Nardole got an out leading the humans to safety on another level in the spaceship, he’s safe as houses until he’s called to action again in the future. Matt Lucas was an interesting addition to the adventures of the Doctor this season, because it was fascinating to have someone who wasn’t always exuberant about the next trip in the TARDIS, and to have someone that was holding the Doctor to some level of responsibility. It’s hard to think of a companion, except perhaps Rory, that brought some kind of a wet blanket-like quality to the show.
I give Pearl Mackie credit for imbuing Bill Potts with all the typical qualities of a good companion, but the tragedy of her being turned into a Cyberman is undone by Moffat’s infuriating tick in not letting a companion just be a regular person along for an extraordinary adventure. In another act of “deus ex TARDIS”, Bill is saved from her Cyberman form by Heather, the girl absorbed by the puddle in “The Pilot.” Now Bill is a puddle too because “it’s all just atoms”, and while it’s nice that Moffat managed to subvert the “bury your gays” trope, inferring that Bill and Heather will spend the next several centuries travelling the universe together, we nonetheless have another companion sanctified by destiny, which, if nothing else, has been a trademark of Moffat’s run on the show.
The other trademark is the way Moffat builds no-win scenarios that are easily fixed by the sudden introduction of an all-powerful force. Escape in the TARDIS was ruled out because at the top of the ship it was too close to the time distortions and it would take thousands of years to get there, in which the Cybermen could prepare to stop them. Good thing for puddle powers then. Now the bigger question is if the Doctor’s so firm about making a stand because of principle or because there’s always a way out even if he doesn’t know it yet?
Speaking of which, the Doctor comes face-to-face with himself again at the end of the episode, perfectly setting up Capaldi’s last ride in the coming Christmas special. The TARDIS lands in the ice and snow, and into frame walks the First Doctor as played by David Bradley playing William Hartnell. Hartnell’s final adventure as the Doctor took place in Antarctica, and it was the first time he fought the Cyberman, so it’s possible this is the Doctor, meeting himself before regenerating, right as he, himself, is about to regenerate. This peculiar alignment will surely play some kind of important role in the Christmas episode, and whatever form the Doctor takes next.
In any event, this is the almost end of an era for Doctor Who. Boardchurch creator Chris Chibnall will take over from Moffat starting with series 11, and though we don’t know who the new Doctor will be, we at least know Chibnall’s work from past seasons with episodes like “The Hungry Earth” / “Cold Blood”, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, and “The Power of Three”, which are not perfect entries, but definitely have their moments, and show that Chibnall has a certain mastery of the basics of Who. So farewell Twelve! See you in Christmas for an uncertain future…