In the twelfth and final episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, if there are tears, there is hope. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of body horror and death
Holy shit, y’all. This is truly one of the most emotional episodes of this show, and I spent like half of “The Doctor Falls” with tears in my eyes. It was so intense? There were so many good monologues? What have y’all done to me?
The Doctor Stands
So much of this episode relies on the notion of the Doctor’s morality: What does it mean to do the right thing? At what cost will this be done? Who becomes collateral damage, and who chooses to be apart of the final stand? Who have these people become while traveling with the Doctor? I should note upfront that while there is hope in the second half of this episode, I found the tone of “The Doctor Falls” to be decidedly grim and upsetting for the first half. Which I get! The stakes are so high here, first of all, but Moffat’s script also does not lean away from the horror of Bill’s transformation. (More on that in a bit.) So we’ve got a situation that seems hopeless. That’s by design! It’s a way for this story to address the concept of hope in the darkest of timelines.
So why do anything? If the Cybermen have force on their side, evolution on their side, and the effects of time dilation on their side, and if this struggle is just an endless cat-and-mouse game, why not give up? Why not escape with your own life if the inevitable end is that the humans will die by the hands of the Cyberman? As dark as this episode gets, the prevailing theme is that you can always hold out hope for another possibility, no matter how terrible things get. Maybe the humans will never escape, and maybe the Cybermen will eventually get them; but the Doctor and his companions worked to give them more life. Why?
Because it’s kind.
But what does kindness mean in this context? It’s fascinating to me that the Doctor begs the Masters to choose kindness in an episode where Bill has to struggle with the kindness offered to her by the humans while she’s been converted to a Cyberman. Alit (who is a child!!!) is the first of the humans to offer Bill kindness, and later, so does Hazran. But what of the others? How can they offer kindness when Bill looks like their greatest enemy? Intentional or not, there’s a metaphorical reading of this whole scene, especially since Bill is both Black and a lesbian, and so often, people from those groups and at the intersection of those identities are treated monstrously by others who judge them on sight. And yet, Bill still tries to offer kindness. She still tries to do her very best to help these people and save their lives, even if they’re terrified of her. It’s the right thing to do, yes, but I think there’s another context here as well: Bill is clinging to every last shred of humanity in her, and I feel like her actions are beautifully human in this regard. Without witness or reward, Bill, who slowly accepts over the course of this episode that she’ll never get to be human again, still chooses to help others. That’s who she has always been: a nice, joyous human being. And she has to hold on to that because if she doesn’t? Well, we know what she’ll become.
But the major focus for this theme comes in the depiction of The Masters. I truly cannot overstate the surreal joy I felt at seeing Michelle Gomez AND John Simm get to play their versions of this iconic character WHILE STANDING NEXT TO EACH OTHER. Simm disappears so fully into this villain, and it’s an incredible spectacle, but I really, really have to compliment Gomez once again. Her ability to convey complex emotions without a word spoken is immense. Watching her struggle with the Doctor’s impassioned plea for her to choose kindness was a damn privilege, y’all! That whole sequence was beautifully written, and all three actors killed it. It was so RAW, y’all, and it had to be. We had to believe that the Doctor was truly convinced that he probably wasn’t going to be able to save himself, Bill, or any of the humans. There might be a slim chance, but even then, the Doctor knows that he can’t act because he will win. This is never about winning and it never has been.
Oh, it’s such a great distillation of what Doctor Who is about.
The Doctor Falls
Hi, still going to fight you all for the end of the previous episode and the ENTIRE LAST HALF HOUR of this episode. Oh my god, I’m still so emotional about this! Missy made her choice, y’all, and it turns out that she AGREED WITH THE DOCTOR. She is responsible for the previous Master’s incarnation into herself! Oh, that whole scene was too much, and I love that it was played so quietly, so that we wouldn’t know what Missy had done as she sent her previous regeneration to his death. Y’all, the Doctor did it. He fundamentally changed the Master, so much so that she KILLED HERSELF to make a statement about what she believed in.
And then she fell. Killed by… well, technically herself. And look, this show has always found ways to bring back characters who are “dead,” but this did have a final ring to it. Missy is dead, and the Master looks to be dead, too. And she died laughing.
Then there’s Bill, whose mind fought the Cyberman programming so much—and I loved the explanation of this by referencing the Monks—that she was able to see herself in her human body. From a visual storytelling perspective, this was so effective and chilling, and also IT BROKE MY HEART. Pearl Mackie is just incredible here. This performance is… well, it’s just so crushingly human, y’all. Bill stands beside the Doctor to help buy the humans more time, all while knowing that it buys no time for herself. This is who she is now.
Or is it?
I feel some type of way about the fact that two of the Black companions on this show got made into Cybermen. (Danny Pink in series eight.) Here, though, I found myself less bothered by Bill’s fate because her conclusion leaves a door wide open. She’s not dead, and she is certainly not gone, though that doesn’t necessarily negate the criticism I brought up before about how much her character suffers in this series. But when Bill falls, the context is very different. Missy fell as she died, but Bill “fell” as her Cyberman body plummeted to the ground, her consciousness removed by Heather from “The Pilot.” This twist is more sentimental than bittersweet, in part because it’s now canonical that Heather could turn Bill back into a human at any time that she wants. But knowing that the Doctor is about to die—and not knowing that he can regenerate—she bids goodbye to the Doctor and becomes a different kind of traveler. Even though Bill doesn’t know Heather all that well, I found this conclusion to be strikingly romantic, and I don’t just mean that because Heather and Bill kissed. There’s something grandiose and beautiful in Bill choosing to experience life in a new form of existence, in choosing to lead Heather around the universe instead of the other way around, in how this show gave a story like this to queer characters when we’ve seen it so many times with straight characters.
And they’re not dead! Either one of them! I don’t know that Bill will show up again, and if this is the last episode she’ll ever be in, I would be… somewhat satisfied with her arc. As it stands, there’s so much I love about her character, but I would have liked to explore her life in depth. What is she like outside of these adventures? These last few episodes have focused more on Bill’s reaction to the things that have been done to her or have happened to her, and I think there’s room for more outside of that.
And then we have the Doctor, falling as he blows up the entire level full of Cybermen, and he does it knowing he’ll be forced into a regeneration, one he is not thrilled to experience. I was reminded of Ten’s refusal to change, but granted, this is not nearly that prolonged and intense. This isn’t “The Waters of Mars,” you know? But the Doctor saves the humans, and Nardole becomes their protector, unsure if his friends will ever show up again. Even his arc comes to a place of uncertainty in this sense. Will we ever see any of these characters again? Even if we do, they’ve all been changed so dramatically. Nardole is not the person we met in “The Pilot” and he is DEFINITELY not who we met in “The Husbands of River Song.”
But who will the Doctor become? That question already has an interesting clue of an answer, since the TARDIS took the Doctor to his FIRST incarnation. Why there? Why that Doctor? Why are we going back to the beginning before we plunge into the future? Oh, I can’t wait for this Christmas Special!!!
The video for “The Doctor Falls” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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