Series 10’s finale, The Doctor Falls is all about knowing thyself, and knowing thy enemy. It opens with two halves of the same villain dancing on a rooftop, all grime and smoke and neo-industrial landscapes; a scene from Alex Proyas’ Dark City. It ends in the frozen Antarctic wastes with the Doctor having a close encounter with someone who looks awfully familiar, even if the voice isn’t quite right. In between, there are Cybermen, and there is a needless cameo from a talking puddle, and not an awful lot else.
Am I being unnecessarily churlish? Perhaps. But after a generally stonking set of episodes – it’s no secret that I’ve enjoyed this year’s run more than I have anything since…oh, Series 5 – it was difficult not to view the hour-long 2017 finale with a crushing sense of disappointment. In a way it was inevitable: the whole rarely amounts to the sum of its parts. Perhaps knowing you’ll probably hate it is part of the problem. Perhaps not.
It’s strange that a whole five months have passed since that final, explosive encounter in the forest. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge, and it’s been about as choppy as it gets. We have seen the soul of fandom laid raw and exposed and we have found it wanting. But as the calendar slouches towards Christmas, the units of measurement get smaller – days, rather than weeks and months – and with all the excitement about David Bradley and grim / gleeful anticipation (delete as applicable) about Jodie Whittaker’s casting, it’s easy to forget how we got here. So let’s take a TARDIS all the way back to June, when hopes were high and life worth living; and here’s the Sonic Feedback on The Doctor Falls, for your delight and delectation.
First and foremost: the results of the all-important poll.
It’s fairly unambiguous really, isn’t it? Of the 120 responses, a whopping 100 (that’s 82.3%) rated the episode good or excellent. Only 18 (15%) considered it average or boring, and I think the two who rated it 1/5 were probably me and Phil. But we’re the exception: this is – and I’ve checked – the highest rated episode of the series; in other words, Since Records Began, and you didn’t think you’d be hearing that from someone who wasn’t talking about this week’s cold snap, did you?
Review duties for The Doctor Falls were handed to Mez Burdett, who was quick to pick up on the positives:
“The story has many memorable moments. The Master (John Simm) and Missy (Michelle Gomez) circling the Doctor with ideas of death is wonderful, the Simm incarnation calling the Doctor ‘my dear’ is just too cute for words, the back and forth between the three old friends is wonderful with some great gags – perhaps the most fun is both Masters telling poor Nardole (Matt Lucas) that the Doctor never liked him in quick succession. What wonderful wordplay and how differently it’s used as opposed to when multiple Doctors are conversing.”
It is different, isn’t it? We’ve had two Doctors on plenty of occasions and they usually just squabble, but The Doctor Falls is the equivalent of that Evil Leaper episode of Quantum Leap where we get to see what things are like on the other side of the coin – certainly the interaction between the Master and Missy stood out for many of us as one of the episode’s key strengths. Elsewhere, Mez noted the “wonderful moments of visual play as we dart back and forth between [Bill’s] Cyber form as well as her conjured up human form to help her cope”, and was complimentary about the narrative closure the episode provided for Simm’s incarnation of the Master – although he pointed out that it’s
“odd that the Doctor would see Clara, as she’s been erased from his memory. There’s probably a good reason for that, but it would take too long to explain. Maybe Moffat will one day, in his Production Notes for Doctor Who Magazine. However, the Doctor remembering his last words from other regenerations is pretty good and a nice look back at the past… and doesn’t that just sum up Moffat’s last three years on Doctor Who?”
Curiously, the response amongst the DWC writers was somewhat muted. “My initial reaction: that was dreadful,” wrote Philip Bates (and that was his initial reaction, and I know this because he messaged me straight after he’d watched it, although he didn’t use the word ‘dreadful’). “I don’t believe the Doctor’s plan consisted mainly of ‘I’ll blow myself up and let some humans escape to a higher level’…It was like he was begging for regeneration – and then inexplicably refused to do so. Just bizarre.”
Indeed the general consensus appears to be “sub-par, with some nice moments”, to quote no one in particular. It’s no secret that the Mondasian Cybermen appear to have been dropped in largely at Capaldi’s request, but Moffat clearly saw an opportunity for an origin narrative, which wouldn’t be a problem if we didn’t already have one. “If everyone accepts that Big Finish’s Spare Parts is one of the great Doctor Who stories,” wrote Jonathan Appleton, “why doesn’t someone just commission Marc Platt to adapt it for the TV series rather than continue to nab bits of it for inclusion in less good episodes?”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Andrew Hsieh called it “a new Moffatian classic,” and even the more cynical among us acknowledged that “There was so much to love about this year’s finale – Nardole, CyberBill, the Missy/Master love-in, Cybermen of different eras, Capaldi’s performance, the Master’s swansong, the thrill of that snowy epilogue…” (Simon Mills, although to put this in context, this sits in a paragraph that contains the sentence “I also hated it”). Still, the general feeling was one of frustration. “I was really hoping they didn’t throw away [World Enough and Time’s] superb setup this week” – Simon again – “but that is exactly what they did! The creeping tension, the body horror, the mind-bending physics of gravitational time dilation – all thrown away so we can blow up masses of Cybermen… again!”
A mixture of dismay, ambivalence and begrudging appreciation for the episode’s strengths, then. Given the general reaction online, with many claiming that Moffat’s produced the best series finale since…well, ever, it does seem a little strange that the review team reacted in this way, presumably with every contributor believing that theirs would be the sole voice of dissent among an otherwise undisturbed sea of adulation. It didn’t go down like this, but it’s a collective mindset that ruffled one or two feathers in the community. “I think the DWC are being a bit harsh about The Doctor Falls,” wrote Peter Rabytt – sentiments also echoed by bar, who added “I think the real issue is Moffat has just stayed a little too long, and with his very particular subset of writing obsessions and working methodologies, most are seeing the cogs whirring around by now.”
Yes, ratings aside, what did you all think? Generally the feedback was very positive, although one or two remarks echoed those of the DWC. “Bit of an anticlimax after last week’s episode,” wrote FrancoPabloDiablo, “but it did certainly have its moments.” Comment of the week, incidentally, goes to The Lazy Womble, who remarked that
“Normally the Bill conclusion and the fannish elements would irritate the blazes out of me. Tonight they delighted me. Has someone been putting something in my tea?”
The sudden reappearance of a certain watery character – joking referred to as “Wet Heather’s Mad McGuffin” by bar – caused a few eyebrows to raise. “It really didn’t fit with the rest of the episode tonally,” wrote daft, “even if slightly inevitable giving it’s family entertainment.” It’s something that Mez echoed in his review. “She’s suddenly, bizarrely back at the end of The Doctor Falls and has apparently been tracking Bill the whole time. She was so keen to get to Bill in the first place and has now waited… Why, exactly? And Bill, after building a strong friendship with the Doctor, leaves him possibly for dead?”
The episode’s conclusion, of course, opened up another can of worms – which you were keen to revisit. “Could it be that the big bad in the Xmas special be the Valeyard?” daft considered. “If you are going to have a geek out finale, why not go the whole hog?” Meanwhile gambit410 called the Whittaker regeneration early, asking “Am I the only one who thought right at the end after the last bit of regeneration that the doctor’s hand looked feminine for a few seconds?”
Personally, I’m liking the Valeyard theory – particularly given that the production team have been even more cryptic than usual about exactly what dastardly villain is responsible for the frozen time that Capaldi spoke of in the preview clip we saw a couple of weeks ago. And what’s happened to Bill? Is she human now, or will the Doctor need to earth himself before prodding her with his sonic screwdriver? All these questions will possibly be answered in a few short weeks, when Peter Capaldi takes his final trip in the TARDIS – at least until that inevitable multi-Doctor story a few years down the line – and whatever happens, we’ll be there to pontificate, cogitate and masticate, all with the help of the loyal community of readers that make the DWC such fun to produce.