***THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS***
This is it. The big finish. The grand finale. It’s time for The Twelfth Doctor to step up and make one last stand against the Masters and the Mondasian Cybermen…
We said it last week and we’ll say it again now. Please, please, please pay heed to those big red letters at the top of the page. This review absolutely, positively contains massive spoilers for the Series 10 finale. If you’re yet to watch The Doctor Falls, come back here once you have. We’ll be waiting, and this isn’t an episode you’re going to want spoiled.
We’re nice, so we’ll give you one last chance to click away.
Okay then, you ready? Spoilers incoming in 3…
Here we go!
The Lesser of Two Evils
Following the sci-fi setting of World Enough and Time, this episode opens, rather unexpectedly, in the middle of the countryside. There’s a definite Human Nature vibe as the half-converted Mondasian Cybermen are tied up like scarecrows. Turns out this is actually the fabled Floor 507, one of the spaceship’s solar farms. A kindly woman, Hazran, protects a group of children from the terrors crawling up from below. Then, all of a sudden, a shuttlecraft bursts through the ground! When the dust settles, we see a Mondasian Cybermen holding a seemingly dead Twelfth Doctor in its arms. What, what, what?!
And that’s just the pre-title sequence. We then dial back to a little while after last week’s cliffhanger. Missy and the Master have The Doctor right where they want him, toying with ways to bump him off. “Any requests?” they ask. They’re a deliciously evil pairing that is absolute TV gold. Simm and Gomez are on fine form throughout, both completely deranged yet unmistakably different sides of the same coin. Simm retains (if slightly tones down) his manic energy, and we learn that this takes place for him after The End of Time. Back on Gallifrey, the Time Lords “cured [his] little condition” and he thanked them by buggering off again. Typical. Meanwhile, Gomez is a more subdued Mistress, still in two minds about whether to side with The Doctor or her former self. It’s a physical manifestation of how far The Master’s character has come in these last few years.
Then, thanks to some flashback trickery, all three Time Lords come under fire from the Mondasian Cybermen and are forced to flee upwards, away from the steaming Cyber-Foundries. But with their backs against the proverbial wall (or ceiling?), will they stand together in the final hour…?
Slow and Steady Thins the Pace
It’s here that The Doctor Falls switches gears, and we imagine not everyone will be totally on board with the direction. In a way, it’s very much a reworking of the previous two Twelfth Doctor finales. It’s got the washed-out colour palette and look of Death in Heaven plus the emotional, character-driven focus of Hell Bent. Somehow though, it manages to be more than the sum of its parts. For, even if you’re disappointed by the lack of a full-on Master and Mondasian onslaught, what’s here is still very good. The setting scales down and we’re left with a ramshackle war against the rise of the Cybermen. Of course, in the end, The Doctor was always going to meet his maker defending a small group of innocents.
The rest of the episode is a slower and steadier character study that puts personalities over pizzazz. Nardole finds purpose by helping the tiny band of humans prepare for the oncoming Cyber-storm. The two Masters scheme between themselves to ditch The Doctor and escape in their TARDIS, currently buried in a Cyber-sea at the bottom of the ship. And Bill, well, she’s in denial about her Mondasian makeover. The transitions between seeing her in human and Cyber form are effectively done, and a terrific tease that she’s somehow escaped her conversion. Admittedly, the reasoning for her defying her programming (newfound strong-mindedness from the Monk episodes) is a bit contrived, but it’s good to see her resigned to her fate. For now at least.
Assuming this is her final episode, Pearl Mackie’s stellar performance is one she triumphantly bows out on. Whether it’s anger, grief, or total confusion, she sells every single emotion with pure gusto. Not bad for a woman trapped inside a balaclava-clad tin can.
Cracks in Time
That’s not to say there aren’t some recurring foibles from previous finales, though, and if you pick at The Doctor Falls enough, it does begin to wobble. By taking such a sharp turn in tone, a lot of the good from last week is unfortunately pushed aside. The menacing Mondasian Cybermen fall somewhat into the background, eventually replaced by their more modern-looking brethren. There’s a decent hand-wave about the Cybermen evolving quickly, which slots nicely into the time dilation premise. But it’s a shame the original designs don’t get quite the same love here.
We’re also a little underwhelmed by how Nardole makes his exit. It’s not bad, he just deserved a little more. Matt Lucas is given a surprising amount to work with here, and does an excellent job with it too. There’s still the classic comic touch, but also a lot more severity. The one-time coward becomes brave, leading the children up the ship to fight another day. It’s a simple, effective arc. It’s just a shame he isn’t given more significance in the wider scheme of things.
Then, the biggie. The ultimate fate of Bill is sure to cause quite a few stirs. We were so, so close to death finally having some permanence. But, agonisingly, Moffat is Moffat right to the bitter end, sparing her from Cyber-torment at the very last moment. Heather’s shock reappearance is an unexpected twist, and it’s lovely to see Bill getting the girl at last. However, that doesn’t make it feel any less ‘been there, done that’. In fact it’s almost a note-for-note re-tread of Clara’s exit, flying off with a recently introduced character to see the universe. For all the complaints about Jenna Coleman’s departure, at least it didn’t come quite as out of the blue as this.
For all its flaws though, The Doctor Falls undeniably lives up to a lot of its promises. There are certainly a lot of endings. We’ve already covered Bill’s and Nardole’s, but we also get not one but two Master departures. Missy’s uncertainty results in the Masters engaging in mutually assured destruction, literally stabbing each other in the back. It was inevitable really – how else was a multi-Master story ever going to resolve? Even they agree that “this is our perfect ending”.
We’re left with bated breath as to what happens next though. John Simm descends back down to his TARDIS, about to regenerate into Missy and presumably kick off the events of Series 8. Missy, having taken the full blast from a laser screwdriver, lays dying in the grass. We’re sad to see Michelle Gomez leaving the show, but this is a fitting way for her to depart. Her trademark cackling fades out, replaced by thoughtful silence. We expect he/she will be back before long – however, whenever, and whoever that may be.
Of course though, the real star of the show here is the outgoing Twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi. He steals every scene he’s in, completely owning the desperation and finality of his dire situation. The Doctor Falls reassesses who The Doctor is and what he stands for. Capaldi’s dialogue sizzles, and he delivers a particularly winning speech to the two Masters as they try to flee. “I do what I do because it’s right”. It lands an impact on one of them, at least. The Doctor knows he’s probably not getting out of this one alive and fights on to the finish, all in the faint hope of saving the lives of a few people he’s never met before. That’s the hero we admire.
Backwards to the Future
However, all good things must come to an end. Twelve is eventually overwhelmed and unceremoniously gunned down by a Mondasian Cyberman. It’s the way Capaldi would have wanted to go. But this Doctor isn’t quite ready to give up the ghost just yet. Stubbornly staving off regeneration, he detonates the area in one explosive blast. In doing so, he sends the Cybermen packing and seals his own fate. That’s another promise that The Doctor Falls keeps. There’s no fake-out or title ambiguity here, as there was with The Name of the Doctor. The Doctor definitely falls, and he falls hard. His almost-final words are beautiful: “A pity… no stars… I hoped there’d be stars…”
So, after Bill goes from Cyberman to walking puddle and departs, The Doctor is left to rest in peace aboard his TARDIS. Miraculously, his regeneration is still ongoing. Flashes of old companions fill his head, reinvigorating his mind… heck, it even seems to rekindle memories of Clara! But he’s still refusing to give in. Whether he’s sick of changing or just plain accepting death remains to be seen. All we know is, the TARDIS thinks it knows what he needs, bringing us full circle to the snowy planet from last week’s pre-titles. As he punches the golden glow down into the ice, a familiar voice calls out. It seems, before The Doctor can look to his future, he must first look to his past. But the question is: Will(iam) it break our Hart(nell)…?
All things considered, The Doctor Falls is an imperfect but emotionally stunning penultimate story for an equally spectacular Doctor. We don’t know about you, but we’re not ready to say goodbye just yet…