There’s probably a few people who wanted something more like Blink (or, more plausibly, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang) out of Moffat’s last finale, but it’s hard to imagine what more you could actually ask from it. It’s an episode that has at least one big moment catering to virtually every sensible aesthetic of Doctor Who and one or two of the dumb ones too - the rare thing that manages to solidly delight both GallifreyBase fandom and queer Tumblr fandom. (Although the Moffat Hate crowd is managing to treat Harold’s misogyny as the voice of the author because of course they are.) Entirely separate from any questions of ranking or comparison, it’s self-evidently successful as a finale, anchoring Series 10 as firmly in the “good” column.
Now for comparisons. The obvious point of comparison is The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, the equivalent “finale before the era-ending regeneration” story from the Davies era. It’s not that it’s quiet per se - it’s a multi-Master story, after all. But it’s quiet in comparison. Its defining decision, in many ways, is having the Doctor’s big speech be delivered to Missy and Harold, a quiet speech about kindness and decency in which the Doctor explains why this is the hill he’s going to die on. It’s not aiming to outdo Hell Bent or The Day of the Doctor. Like Extremis, it is visibly a work of late style. It’s aiming small and careful, relishing in its details.
Which isn’t quite everything. The Doctor’s reluctance to regenerate is unearned - there’s a line of dialogue with Bill that’s clearly there to set it up, but it’s a pro forma bit of foreshadowing as opposed to something that feels genuine. Heather probably should have come up somewhere, even if only in dialogue, since April 15th. And, perhaps most fundamentally, there’s not actually a reason for Missy and Harold to be here other than so they can listen to the Doctor’s speech - they’re not actually part of the same story as Bill’s salvation. But these are all small problems. It’s not like Missy and Harold clash with the Bill plot, after all. This is an episode that moves between two things, deft at both of them and, for that matter, at the transitions between them. The parts don’t quite add up, but that’s kind of how the whole being greater than the sum of its parts works.
More to the point, though, the whole is more than the sum of some absolutely astonishing parts. This is a story where the details are exquisitely crafted. The switches between the human and the Cyberman versions of Bill were done perfectly, maintaining the agonizing horror of it while not getting in the way of Mackie’s farewell performance. There’s a lot of coasting on the body horror of World Enough and Time, but the point of a forty-five minute windup is surely that you can coast on it after, wringing vast amounts of emotion out of a few seconds of carefully deployed Tenth Planet voice. The fate of Missy and Harold is brilliantly conceived and executed, although putting “I will never stand with the Doctor” in the trailer was probably a mistake.
There’s a case to be made that this is grading on the curve. It’s not as good as Hell Bent, although it’s considerably more invested in being palatable. It doesn’t reverse the general trend of Series 10 being Capaldi’s weakest season (though far from Moffat’s). It’s satisfying and none of its flaws are too damning, and after a rocky season that was already thoroughly out of contention for the title of “the best” a solid finale that tops the season rankings feels like a win regardless of how it stacks up in the larger sense. But that’s unfair. There’s a fundamental sense in which this can’t be compared to Hell Bent or Death in Heaven. Simply put, it really is the finale, explicitly framed as this Doctor’s last stand and quietly, against his furious insistence, framed as Moffat’s. The decision to go small carries its own weight specific to that context, and it’s not a flaw to trade on it instead of trying to play the same game as all your other finales.
What stands out, then, is the decision to end on a story about principles. For Capaldi’s Doctor, this is the speech about kindness - a matured and even wiser version of his “I’m an idiot” speech in Death in Heaven. He goes out by answering the question that so troubled him in Into the Dalek and declaring that he will be. For Moffat, this is the salvation of Bill - his steadfast refusal to give his female characters anything other than honorable, joyful endings that leave them on equal standing with the Doctor. And, more broadly, it’s notable that if we assume (no doubt correctly) that Missy in some fashion escapes being dead, unable to regenerate, and presumably having her body incinerated in a gigantic explosion this is a return to Moffat’s “everybody lives” approach - a story with no visible casualties in which the Doctor saves everybody.
I’ve observed before that the central tension of a lot of Moffat’s work is asking what kind of story this is going to be. World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls does not answer this question in the sense of a manifesto for the show going forward, or a demonstration of what it should be. Nor does it seek to be the final, definitive version of a particular answer to that question. Instead it looks back at what the show has been doing over the course of the Moffat era and seeks to take the core of that and give it a straightforward and effective platform on which to shine. The platform has Mondasian Cybermen and John Simm putting on eyeliner. The core is kindness and space lesbians. And the era is the single greatest one in the history of Doctor Who.