As an excuse to let Peter Capaldi exclaim “a Mondasian Cyberman!” it’s a solid one. This is not an inherently less worthwhile pursuit than getting Ysanne Churchman back to do the Alpha Centauri voice, so let’s roll with it. After all, the other Peladon-related angle to work here is “the Monster of Peladon to Dark Water’s Curse,” and we wouldn’t want to get snarkily contrarian in the first paragraph, now would we?
After all, there’s a lot that’s good to outright brilliant. Stripping the Mondasian Cybermen back to the medical horror that inspired Kit Pedler the weekend after the US Senate unveiled its plan to fund a tax cut for the wealthy by murdering poor is probably the second most audaciously on the nose classic series deep cut that Doctor Who could have done this week. (Third is Brexit of Peladon; first, of course, would be a Paradise Towers sequel with a prominent scene about fire.) It’s beautifully executed – Rachel Talalay nails the horror as you’d expect, and Moffat’s eye for the macabre has never been finer than the volume knob. The Mondasian Cybermen are exquisitely creepy, and the extended buildup of their iconography before Bill’s eventual conversion is absolutely delicious. But past that, pretty much everything there is to say about it hinges entirely on The Doctor Falls.
That, notably, wasn’t true of Dark Water, which hinged on the shock twist of killing Danny in the cold open, delivering the astonishing volcano confrontation in its first half before moving on to its expertly inevitable assembly of the promotional pieces. Here, however, we have an episode that really is just forty-five minutes devoted to getting the audience caught up with Doctor Who Magazine. No, it’s not a problem that the show is made for the other 100% of the audience, but equally, that’s the hundred percent of the audience that doesn’t know who the Mondasian Cybermen are and may or may not remember John Simm’s last appearance eight years ago. It’s just that, well, that’s the episode – the efficient and moody delivery of a cliffhanger by assembling a bunch of pre-announced elements into what’s basically the only shape they could ever have fit into. The only potential surprise is John Simm getting his Leon Ny Taiy on with a comedy prosthetic, which is admittedly absolutely delightful.
If this is a triumph, it’s going to be because of how The Doctor Falls plays with what it’s been given. Certainly the trailer makes it look as though it’s a more complex matter than “Missy is evil after all,” which you’d expect. I mean, Moffat has always been fond of mirroring past lines and structures, so the implicit inversion of Dark Water in which the Doctor is trying to get Missy to be his friend again instead of the other way around is intelligent. And it’s unlikely that the cowriter of Into the Dalek is going to declare Missy beyond redemption. This absolutely has the ability to turn into something extraordinary.
And yet one somehow suspects that the 51.33% of GallifeyBase that were prepared to declare this a 10/10 are going to turn on it the moment it does something that isn’t just horror-suspense and fanwank, which is probably only going to take five minutes or so of The Doctor Falls. Which isn’t to say I disagree with GallifreyBase on the episode. It’s an episode designed to delight Doctor Who fans, and I’m as susceptible to its charms as anyone. If anything, I’m reasonably optimistic: I think the odds are better that this is going to turn out to be extraordinary than not. But equally, it’s a Moffat story, and it’s going to turn completely on its head in some fashion, so what’s good here isn’t necessarily informative. For one thing, we apparently lose the cool Cybermen in favor of the shitty clanking robot ones. But who knows what treats might be waiting for us? Maybe Omega will be in the black hole. Also, the cold open is still a live thread, and we’ve got Christmas to feed into. So Omega and David Bradley.
In the end, we have a buildup to something or other that’s not quite as good as the fourth best episode of Capaldi’s second best season. Like I said, that’s not bad for a going away present for Peter Capaldi. Less a Monster of Peladon than a Planet of the Spiders to Dark Water’s The Green Death. But the overall comparison to Pertwee’s last season is still informative in key ways. Both are epilogues to runs whose natural endpoints came a year earlier, with new companions who are brilliant in their own right but doomed to be the secondary companions of their eras. They’re visibly getting long in the tooth, pulling from a second tier pool of ideas. The capacity for brilliance is still there, but where once it was scattered freely, now it’s summoned up in strategic flashes across large swaths of good enough. This could be brilliant. But The Final Problem could have been too.
- One thing the trailer does make very clear is that The Doctor Falls is going to be about the Master. There’s a certain moderation to its ambition here that feels interesting – as a choice, it feels aware of how many loose ends from Moffat’s time he’s already tied up. Missy is one of the few remaining ones that’s substantial enough to justify a story like this, but it clearly is substantial enough. Perhaps more to the point, it’s going in a very different direction than The End of Time did, going out on a note that’s distinct from chasing the same flavor of “bigger and better” one step further.
- My one worry is where all of this leaves Bill. Unless Chris Chibnall has unexpectedly decided to keep Pearl Mackie on – which would actually be delightful – she needs a satisfying departure woven into a story that’s already about an awful lot of things that aren’t that. After a first half of the season that was very focused on her, the back half, Rona Munroe excepted, has been more interested in other things, and there’s a real danger of her story arc just petering out. I assume not, but Moffat had better have a good idea in reserve here.
- One interesting bit of symmetry that I doubt will be followed up on: Bill as a Mondasian Cyberman crying vs Heather as a dripping Dalek.
- The best bit of John Simm’s extended prosthetics performance, of course, is the fact that the Master disguised himself so none of the Mondasians would recognize him as the Prime Minister.
- Although this highlights something interesting about doing a multi-Master story, or at least about doing this multi-Master story. Countless writers have pointed out that the Doctor doesn’t actually change that much between incarnations. But Missy and Harold (clearly the correct way to distinguish them) are actually quite different, as the trailer emphasizing their different attitudes towards siding with the Doctor makes clear. The other revealing line is Harold’s bit about the Doctor never forgiving her for what she did to Bill, which, coming from him, feels almost aspirational – “finally, I’ve done something bad enough that you’ll hate me forever.” Missy’s motivations, on the other hand, have consistently been to repair her relationship with the Doctor. There’s a real conflict to be had there, in a way that makes this a significantly different idea than, say, a Delgado/Ainley pairing would ever be.
- An odd consequence of the overstuffed banquet of an episode is that after her opening comedy bit, Missy doesn’t actually have very much to do in the story. I’m a little surprised the exposition scene about relativity didn’t work her in. Presumably a timing issue, but it’s a bit weird.
- Also weird – and definitely a drag in a rewatch – is the flashback to the Doctor setting up Missy’s test cut in the middle of Bill’s death, which I’m sure does essential things for the pacing, but really doesn’t advance much of anything other than reestablishing bits of Extremis and The Lie of the Land.
- I’d say that I’m uncertain how this can be reconciled with Spare Parts, but frankly I don’t see how you reconcile the Cybermen beginning on a space ship slowly accelerating away from a black hole with The Tenth Planet, when they’re flying a planet around. (Speaking of which, the Dalek/Cybermen planet flying meetup really needs to happen. Come on Big Finish.
- The Omega suggestion, incidentally, is only half joking – if the Christmas special rumor that it tells the story of Capaldi’s involvement in The Day of the Doctor is true, we’re going to have to pivot to Gallifrey. Harold’s an obvious route for that given when we last saw him, at which point the black hole over the mantle starts looking rather Chekovian.
- Peter Capaldi’s hair, on the other hand, is presumably that his character gets trapped at the bottom of the ship.
- OK. Enough predictions. On to rankings, which are entirely based off of this episode and guaranteed to shift next week.
- Thin Ice
- The Eaters of Light
- The Pyramid at the End of the World
- World Enough and Time
- The Pilot
- Empress of Mars
- Knock Knock
- The Lie of the Land