Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Spoilers Of War

Doctor Who
World Enough And Time and The Doctor Falls
Series Ten, Episodes Eleven and Twelve

How do you feel about spoilers?

If you’re Steven Moffat – let’s face it, statistically unlikely! – you’re on record as not being a fan of them.  He did his nut when someone leaked the Doctor’s “regeneration” at the start of Series Six, and urged said fan to go and be a fan of something else; more recently, when the Series Ten trailer came along he suggested journalists close their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears at the end.  Much of his era has been defined by surprises, regardless of whether they’re worth the wait, and not parading them around in advance is sort of the main ingredient of that.

So it can’t have been his idea to tell everybody that the Mondas (aka original) Cybermen were coming back, as well as John Simm as the Master.  Sure, ratings are down this year (taking a year off probably didn’t help), and a juicy morsel such as that might get a few more bums on seats.  Ye Olde Cybermen?  Cool.  The old Master?  Double cool, provided he isn’t still acting like a cartoon character.  All of this would be fine (sort of) if knowing about them had been the plan from the start, but when you watch World Enough And Time it clearly wasn’t.  These things are twists, and the BBC has meticulously removed any shock value from them.

Whatever could be going on in this creepy hospital?  Cybermen, innit.  Who is that mysterious man that for some reason has a prosthetic nose and is forcing an accent?  Well, John Simm is back this week, and he’s a bit like John Simm now that you mention it, so… that’ll be the Master then.  Tada?  Simm has already lamented this in Doctor Who Magazine: nobody recognised him on set, and it would have been a huge, exciting moment for the show when he pulled off his mask at the end.  Instead it isn’t.  (Okay, some papers were already leaking the news, but so what?  It’s inconvenient, but it’s not as inyerface as the BBC sounding the spoiler horn in the press, then in the launch trailer, and then in the sodding Next Time trailer the week before.  If you remained unspoiled, it was despite their efforts.)

As for whether we would have guessed all this beforehand, with a few blissfully lucky exceptions we’ll simply never know: through the magic of spoilers, the BBC has transported you directly to your second viewing of the episode.  Did they get more bums on seats?  If so, said bums were rewarded with a lethargic 45 minute wait to catch up with the Next Time trailer.  Well done, geniuses.

The question now becomes what else there is to enjoy besides the twists.  World Enough And Time begins intriguingly enough, with Missy and her plucky companions (Bill and Nardole) arriving on a 400 mile long spaceship next to a black hole.  It’s a trial run for Missy, learning to do what the Doctor would do.  Although back up, I’ve missed a spot: it really begins with a flash-forward to the Doctor regenerating.  O RLY?  Only a couple of episodes after faking this for a laugh, a whole week before the end of the series, they’ve got to know only the amoeba-brained among us will think they’re going to see a full regeneration.  So what’s the point teasing it?  If they’ve cried wolf once, what’s to stop them doing it again and hanging on until Christmas?  If there was any chance of a new Doctor a.s.a.p., do you think the BBC would have any hesitation in telling us exactly what to expect?

Best just stick it in the bin and get back to Missy.  This bit, with the Doctor listening in and offering annoyed commentary, is quite fun, with a pretty big caveat.  Missy calls herself “Doctor Who” instead of “the Doctor”.  Ho ho and everything, moving on – but it doesn’t end there.  Bill questions it.  Tee hee, that’s enough now – nope, Missy defends it, says it’s his real name, i.e. he made it up to sound mysterious and dropped the “Who” later as it’s too on the nose.  Ha… ha?  And the Doctor says she’s kidding.  Phew, we’re done.  And then he later adopts it anyway.  Jesus.  All caught up?  That’s not a joke, it’s a relay race.  Making Doctor Who characters say “Doctor who?” is one of the campest gags in the show, and it’s bad enough when it’s just a one-two punch.  I’m pretty sure this took years.

And speaking of time dilation, parking next to a black hole has the unfortunate side effect of making time at the top go a lot slower than time at the bottom.  Fortunately the ship is pulling away very slowly, but the Doctor and co. don’t have time to offer assistance, as the moment Bill’s lifesigns are detected a mysterious something comes up in a very fast lift.  (They must be fast enough to liquefy you to get up there in good time.  Ouch!)   The non-human ship’s custodian shoots her in a panic, evidently fed up with the Doctor’s “you will wonder who I am and why I came here” grandstanding – fair enough, that stuff makes me want to shoot someone.  Shooting Bill is a bit useless now the lift is already here, but that’s panic for you.  Bill is taken away to be “repaired”.  I wonder how that’ll go?

He needed a disguise, he enjoys The Hobbit dwarf cosplay.  What of it?
Around here we’re treated to some zingy back-and-forth flashbacks, as the Doctor plans this little jaunt with Bill beforehand and admits how badly he wants Missy to be good.  This sort of zig-zagging is in Steven Moffat’s fossil record by now, but it’s well done, offering a bit of breathing room in a rather cramped and short-on-plot episode, and highlighting the friendship of the Doctor and the Master and what it means.  Unfortunately Moffat can’t resist showing off, so he does add the phrase “man crush”.  (Gosh, how incredibly hip and down with da kids he is!)  In the present, the Doctor’s job is to distract the panicky blue dude long enough to get into a lift and reach Bill.  Bill’s job is to wait for him, which she does for ten years.  Did someone mention Moffat’s fossil record?  Yeah, Companions Who Wait is in there too, along with ticking off years in seconds.  Kind of loses its shock value when you keep doing it – rather like faking a regeneration – so we’ll have to make Bill’s situation worse.  She ends up working in a creepy hospital with a mysterious bearded gentleman; say, he looks a bit odd, I wonder if that’s important?  It turns out the people here aren’t just living quicker, they’re dying; of what, I didn’t entirely catch, but they’re being “converted” so they can survive.  Survive what, exactly?  Ah, who cares, are they Cybermen yet?

The hospital stuff is suitably eerie, with faceless patients only able to croak words like “pain” electronically, and the “nurses” doing nothing more than turn down the volume.  It doesn’t really mean anything that the staff here are absolutely evil since we don’t get to know anyone, just as it’s a bit of a shrug that people from Mondas automatically start converting into Cybermen when the going gets tough.  (Old habits?)  It’s also a big ask that Bill does nothing of note for ten years, and as far as we know her beardy chum Mr Razor doesn’t do anything either... but it’s suitably sad that she has to wait all that time, and sadder how it all turns out.  Eventually the Doctor and co. secure a lift, so Razor ushers her into medical theatre.  Surprise, he was planning to turn her into a Cyberman all along!  What a… masterful rotter he is.

Okay, so the Master is unveiled and meets Missy, who apparently switches sides.  (Hmm.)  Bill is now a Cyberman.  Behold, the sum total of the episode: a mixture of stuff you already knew and stuff you could put together like Duplo blocks, and we got here via the Moffat trope of a story that progresses years and hardly at all in the same go.  With three big reveals it really ought to pack a punch.  Instead it musters a pretty good pat.  Kudos to John Simm for investing Mr Razor with an eccentric air of the sinister; I like that the Master has gone back to wearing disguises, although ten years is a long con even for him.  When it comes to mask-off time he relishes the opportunity to be properly nasty, even if it’s not the surprise it should be; there are no more scenes of him laughing his head off, thank god.  Rubbing in how this is “the genesis of the Cybermen” is a bit on the nose, but hey, at least it’s not the “Doctor Who” joke again.  And we’re off to the next episode.

There aren't even any snarks to make.
Michelle Gomez has great material.  At last.  And it's glorious.
The Doctor Falls starts off with a sudden change of scenery, which you won’t expect if you’ve never seen a Moffat two-parter before; ditto back-filling the information to get us to that point, since it’s slightly more interesting than doing everything in order.  (It just isn’t a new way of doing Doctor Who.)  Simm and Gomez are a delight together, the former toning it down (at last) in a black suit and goatee, the latter, well… come back, Missy, all is forgiven.  There are moments here when Missy says she’s on the Doctor’s side and seems to be in actual pain trying to figure out if she means it.  Missy’s soul has been the real arc of Series Ten, and that could be a very cheesy development, besides which Moffats past form suggests it won’t go anywhere anyway.  Well, we’ve got Michelle Gomez.  Watching her imprint out of habit on Simm and then evil it up, only to wobble back uncertainly when she’s with the Doctor, is (ahem) a masterclass.  She underplays and steals every scene, which is all the more impressive considering who this Doctor is.  (Conversely he’s doing more of that tiresome grandstanding that you’ll either love or hate: “You know the stories.  There’s only ever been one way to stop that many Cybermen.  ME.”  Oh, sign an autograph to yourself and be done with it.  I’m sick of this particular record.)

Battle lines are drawn soon after: having turned the Cybermen against the Master(s) and ensured their begrudging co-operation, and then escaped to floor 507 of the spaceship, they know the Cybermen are coming and must stop them.  They can’t get to the bridge (and the TARDIS) because by the time they do, the Cybermen will have had “thousands of years to figure out how to stop them”.  That’s sort of bollocks really – if you all get in lifts right now, which are designed to get you up there really quick, the Cybermen will still need to go even faster than them to catch you up, and it’ll be harder for them to catch up the closer they get.  If anything, its impossible for them to get you, not for you to escape!  But you probably knew the whole “slow/quick time” thing would be a strictly “good idea on paper” affair, so save yourself the bother of thinking about it.  The rest of the episode is, like a lot of Moffat finales, mostly talking.  And those are the best bits.

Bill is a Cyberman now.  She still sees herself as she was – the Doctor pegs this on her ability to keep her mind during the Monk occupation, but let’s face it, it’s probably just habit after Cyber-Danny and Dalek-Oswin.  Pearl Mackie is fantastic though, keeping just enough mechanical body language to suggest something isn’t right, and otherwise only just keeping it together.  Yes, it’s a bit of an eyeroll that as soon as we’ve brought the Mondasian Cybermen back we’ve got a “nice” one, but it’s an excuse for some very compelling scenes with her and the Doctor.  And whoever the guy is in the baggy robot suit; it sounds like a snark, but there’s something quite affecting about a Cyberman impassively holding a rescue ship in place so the Doctor can get on.

The Doctor is doing his best under impossible circumstances, as is Peter Capaldi in some ways.  There’s no real “win” here as he can’t get back to the TARDIS (hush, we’ve decided he can’t, shut up, shut up I said), so there’s many an impassioned moment as he rallies the (totally interchangeable) people of Floor 507, not to mention the Masters.  And yeah, pause the rant: much like the people on floor 1056, you won’t give a rat’s arse about anyone here.  Which is a bit of an issue, if you can be bothered to focus on it.

For all his self-aggrandisement, the Doctor relies on Nardole to repel the Cybermen, mostly using some very vaguely explained explosions (something about fooling their monkey brains – or is it the thing Nardole said about fuel lines?), before relying on him to take care of the survivors on a different floor.  And that’s a series wrap for Nardole.  Plenty of people find him scintillating; I think he’s harmless, but I’ve never seen a third dimension there.  He occasionally grows new traits when they’re useful, like his apparent license to arse-kick, and the bit where he laments that if there’s more than three people in a room he’d start a black market.  And that’s based on...?  What about the bit where one of the locals haphazardly comes onto him, setting up a suggested romance later: “I’ll try anything once” will have to do for explanation, I guess.  Matt Lucas has done sterling work this year, but really, K9 had a more solid personality.

All the while, the Doctor’s got a regeneration on the go, and hes keeping it down like a bad burp.  Not enough is made of this; annoyingly, when Bill sees him do the glow-hands, she doesn’t remember seeing it in The Lie Of The Land, which might actually have put that bloody stupid moment to some use.  By the end of the episode he’s alone in the TARDIS, regenerating-and-talking-to-himself-a-go-go, whereupon he decides he never wants to change again.  Which is... fair enough, I suppose, but it isn’t really seeded in the episode as a theme.  He just seems fairly sure he’s going to die.  Is he depressed because in the end, Missy didn’t stick around?  Is he just knackered?  Does he know that the last time someone he knows refused to regenerate, they died?  Perhaps he’s bored of trying on new trousers.  On the available evidence, it just seems like a random-ish repeat of David Tennant’s last days, crammed into a slightly awkward scene at the end.  I imagine the Christmas Special will shape it up, but thus far there’s a slightly forced bit of emoting going on where there probably ought to be a full blown regeneration.

Fair’s fair: the Doctor is often enriched by the quality of his enemies, and he’s up against the Cybermen in all their boring glory.  For all his impassioned speeches (Twelve’s trademark at this point), he defeats them with explosions.  Kind of sells his apparent all-encompassing “kindness” short, doesn’t it?  He spends all this time with Bill, a Cyberman, only to happily kaboom the rest of them.  (She’s off doing something in the middle of all that.  Deleted scene?)  It’s not just incredibly dull to make all the nasty things go bang in place of a clever solution – and no, having the Doctor admit he has no plan doesn’t put a plaster on it – it’s also continuing that very odd Series Ten trope of the Doctor answering threats with explosions.  There’s even a bit where he helps blow up a Cyberman by zapping it with the sonic.  Oh, so it’s a straight up laser gun now?

And speaking of Cybermen.  Oy.  I’ve often moaned that they’re basically less interesting, standy-uppy Daleks, and here – despite the goldmine opportunity of bringing back proper creepy Cybermen and going back to their roots – Moffat and co. simply default to that again.  Worse: the Mondas Cybermen, with their almost daringly clumsy costumes and odd sing-song voices, do exactly the same “You will be upgraded”, stomping, zapping, flying shite as their daft New Who counterparts.  Thanks to Bill, you can add crying-human-tears to the list.  (Not to be outdone, the Cybusmen are still clenching their fists and going hilariously OTT on the stomping.  Boing!  Boing!  One of them looks like he’s skipping off to market.)  After Bill, no one is converted on screen; all the Cybermen are is a stomping menace that needs to be exploded.  Despite all the effort of bringing them back and that laborious reference to the “genesis of the Cybermen”, this still isn’t in the same league as Spare Parts.  (Which you can hear for £2.99 here.  Go on, it’s the best thing that ever happened to them.)  I hope the next era of the show figures out what to do with them.  Or failing that, puts them away.

For now, we can at least put something away.  Could this be the end of the Master?  Amid all the waiting (and later, exploding) there are two Masters on the periphery: they don’t do much, which might be a tad disappointing if (for some reason!) you’ve been aware of this team-up for months.  But there’s plenty of interesting stuff going on here, as Missy tussles with her conscience and the Master becomes more affronted at what he might become.  Gomez does amazing work with just half-seen glances, or a frustrated grimace, or a phonier-than-usual smile, and manages to humanise an at times ridiculous character without breaking it.  When it comes time to escape with Simm to their TARDIS, she makes her choice, stabbing him and sending him on his way to become someone else.  She will stay with the Doctor.  Incensed and unable to change, Simm kills her.  She dies a better person; he disappears laughing that his final end is to shoot himself in the back.  And really, this is how it should be.

You probably can’t fully redeem the Master, all heroics and quips, without it seeming too easy after all these years, not to mention naff.  Having Simm on hand accentuates that.  But it is still, as Missy says, where this has been going forever.  (Roger Delgado’s Master would have gone out this way if real life tragedy hadn’t intervened.)  The Master gets his/her perfect ending without over-egging it, and the door is left open for more Simm, or even more Masters filling the gap.  Gomez gets the material she always deserved and a stagnant character grows; Simm gets to go in a direction other than random, and revels in the Masters worst excesses, also getting a brilliant exit that works far better than The End Of Time.  In a somewhat laboured story, this is the bit they get most perfectly right.  And the Doctor goes on his way knowing nothing about it.  It’s perfect and dark.

Savour it, because there’s bollocks incoming.  Emerging from the chaos, Cyber-Bill finds the dead-ish Doctor and weeps.  And – here it comes, stomping its bollocksy stomp! – Heather the puddle girl returns, summoned by Bill’s tears.  (Yes, the tears thing was set up previously, but I doubt it’s the first time Bill’s cried since then, and also, urgh.)  Heather was a shadow of herself in The Pilot, a screaming mechanical husk that dimly remembered a fascination with Bill, all of which leant their brief romance a bit of tragedy; she’s (somehow) a full person again now, complete with the power to make Bill human again (of course) and, I suspect, do whatever a script might throw at her.  Bill and Heather promptly zoom around the cosmos, which ought to sound familiar since it’s how Clara left the show.  And this is only moments after she gives the Doctor a restorative (magic) tear that will shortly wake him up.  Now, I like Bill, Pearl Mackie’s great, and I’m not enough of a bastard to long for an unhappy ending here, but yeesh.  The degree of magic wand make-it-all-nice-again contained in these final minutes borders on parody.  One last jab in the fanbase’s ribs?  I guess it depends on whether youve built up a tolerance by now.  Here’s a test: isn’t there something just a wee bit hilarious about Bill and Heather having life-changing conversations over the Doctor’s splayed out corpse?

The original, you might say.
And… we’re done.  Almost.  Because we’ve got to revisit that totally-gonna-happen regeneration from last week, haven’t we?  Cut to the South Pole, where he switches his regen off again (oh) and a spoiler the BBC didn’t foghorn rears its head at last: David Bradley is the First Doctor, for real this time.  (I still heard about this one in advance, despite the Beeb’s restraint.  Ah well, it’s still a “WHAT?” moment.)  Bradley still doesn’t strike me as Hartnellesque in any particular way, but we’ll see how it goes.  It’s not as if he’s the first Hartnell stand-in, and theyll never be him.

Another Moffat finale down – his last one ever.  Huh.  It’s certainly not his worst, eschewing tedious arc-answering questions that tend to result in disappointment with, I’ll be damned, a satisfying one for a change.  I guess it helps if your giant questions aren’t about the one character who never changes – and he, naggingly enough, doesn’t quite sell his big development, though Capaldi is could-do-this-in-his-sleep brilliant throughout.  The story doesn’t do much else that you haven’t seen before: the Doctor’s vigil on Floor 507 is a lot like him looking after the town of Christmas; Bill’s fate is quite a bit like Clara’s, with added fairydust; the Cybermen are as exciting as placeholders, as usual; and there are still the requisite “Wait, what?” holes, like whether the ship is going to escape the black hole after all (since it was a distress call that started all this), whether the Cybermen are going to get Nardole and co., whether the Doctor will go back to save them, and why Super Heather can’t just rescue everybody and fix the Doctor.  You can hope these bits will be tied up at Christmas, just as you can hope the Monks are coming back to justify their naff ending.  (No, seriously, was that it?)  Personally, after the miracle of Missy, ditching all her goofy comedy bullshit and rounding off the Master’s often disastrous story with something like elegance, I suspect one impossible thing is all we’re getting.  This late in the game, that’s a win.