Doctor Who – S10 E12: The Doctor Falls – Reviewed

Original 1960s-style Cybermen...
not sure if kitsch or actually creepy.
Or both.
The Twelfth Doctor era has nearly reached its end with this, his final regular-season episode. But wow, what a finale it is: Peter Capaldi's Doctor could not have possibly had a better main-season sendoff. The Doctor Falls sees him rise to the full height of what his – and any – Doctor can and should be. In the face of an unwinnable scenario in which two lifelong foes and the force of time itself are working against him, he proves once again that The Doctor represents the philosophical force of good and hopefulness that we quite desperately need; the type of hero that can stay on the air for almost 40 seasons and stay totally relevant all the time. Last week's first half of this final two-parter was excellent: a wonderfully mysterious setup with some great twists and turns. This finale builds off of that beautifully, creating not only a near-perfect final adventure for Capaldi, but also providing him with some defining moments for his time on the show, including a beautiful monologue that will not only be how his Doctor is remembered, but that is a perfect summation of the character and his philosophy over all these years. In this episode we see The Doctor clearly, in a sense as an embodiment of the philosophy of existential humanism: to do good and try to make a difference even when it seems pointless and futile and serves no larger end, because doing good is an end in itself, and because making even a small difference is an outcome worth fighting for. And of course, to illustrate this philosophy we need to see the stark difference between The Doctor's worldview and The Master's: if The Doctor is existential humanism condensed into a person, The Master is self-centered nihilism. At both a philosophical and narrative level, The Doctor Falls provides one of the most fascinating Doctor/Master stories we have seen in quite a while.

At the heart of this fascinating dynamic is the fact that this episode does something that Doctor Who has literally never done before: we have gotten several multiple-Doctor stories over the years (The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, The Two Doctors, Day of the Doctor, and a couple shorts and audio serials), but this is the first ever multiple-Masters story. As the character arc of Missy and her transformation from villain to antihero comes to a head, The Doctor Falls brings her together with The Master's previous incarnation, played by John Simm, and seriously puts her possible-redemption to the test. It all comes together as a fascinating exploration of the complexity of The Master/Missy as a character, and the friend/enemy, yin/yang dynamic they have with The Doctor. All that on top of a Cyberman origin story (one of several that we have gotten over the years, with more than a bit of influence from the Fifth Doctor audio serial Spare Parts) which itself takes a few pages from the zombie survival-horror playbook; Cyberman invasion as Night of the Living Dead. Yet somehow this is not too much for one episode; instead these narrative layers build off of each other rather brilliantly, providing the springboards for great character arcs all around, for The Doctor, for Missy and The Master, for Nardole, and perhaps especially for Bill.

"Who the f**k is John Simm?" - The Mighty Boosh

A whole lot of character arcs pay off very well here, including at least one that I hadn't quite noticed happening: Nardole evolving from the comic-relief assistant to a very strong – if still rather goofy – hero in his own right. I was really not wild about Matt Lucas's character at the beginning of this season, thinking that he was just too silly to fit well with Capaldi's sardonic Doctor, but he has totally won me over. Pearl Mackie's Bill, on the other hand, proved almost immediately that she had the gravitas and dramatic chops to match the wonderfully awkward humor that she brought to the table, and her character and performance have just kept evolving ever since. She turned into a great, very multi-dimensional lead who now easily makes my short-list of favorite companions, and this episode may be her finest hour. It really puts her through the ringer, but in the process it gives her some fantastic material to work with, and concludes this season's arc for her character in the strongest way it possibly could. Michelle Gomez continues to prove that her antihero, rather than outright villain, portrayal of Missy is far more fascinating than the usual Master-as-Big-Bad that we've known for decades now, and the arc of whether or not redemption is possible for her is likewise handled in very effective, and very unexpected ways.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, comes from John Simm, returning as The Master as we knew him in series 3 and the series 4.5 specials. I had liked his Master, but I also agreed with the common complaint that he was way too over-the-top and manic for his own good; that he played the character as more of a cartoon villain than the Moriarty to The Doctor's Holmes which he should be at his best. Simm certainly had moments of greatness as The Master during the David Tennant years, but the wildly crazy direction of the character made him very uneven. He has really changed a lot this time around. Gone is (most of) the manic, over-the-top craziness, and instead Simm plays his Master as an older, more controlled, and more calculating version of the character which is far more in line with the original Master from the classic series. He is much more effective in the role this time around: creepy, menacing, and above all very intelligent and patient in his cruelty. This is The Master, in the classic Doctor Who sense, and Simm plays him brilliantly. Even those who really hated him in series 3 should be impressed this time around.

Peter Capaldi - quite possibly the last
Doctor who will have been born before
Doctor Who was on the air.
Even amid all of these excellent character arcs and performances, though, The Doctor Falls remains Peter Capaldi's show. Over the last three seasons we have witnessed a roller-coaster ride of a character arc with the Twelfth Doctor, seeing him go from an angry misanthrope to gradually finding his warmth and humanity again; from being reckless and chaotic to once again finding his moral focus. Through all of it Capaldi has been absolutely brilliant, playing the abrasive jerk and the kind professor, or the temporal anarchist and the voice of reason, equally well. Now it all comes down to this moment where, after all of that, he plays the distilled essence of what it really means to be The Doctor, and he very much rises to the occasion.

There really could not have been a better finale for Capaldi's final season. It didn't really do what I expected, but it did what felt right. It provided enough of the spectacle that we want from a Doctor Who season finale, but far more importantly it focused a lot of attention on its characters. As Steven Moffat's time as showrunner likewise comes to an end, it is not surprising that story arcs are finding their ends as the show prepares to move on to a new chapter. But the elegance and emotional sincerity with which The Doctor Falls works with its characters and closes off certain of their key arcs is rather brilliant. Perhaps most importantly, as his last season ends, Peter Capaldi has gotten the opportunity to once more make the case for why (after an admittedly polarizing start) he has become one of the best and most fascinating Doctors of the new series. To echo the emotions of David Tennant as his Tenth Doctor prepared to regenerate... I don't want him to go.


- Christopher S. Jordan

It will be a long wait until the Christmas special... so keep sharing this review in the mean time!