Friday 28 July 2017

Doctor Who: World Enough and Time \ The Doctor Falls

So, as was partly discussed here and here, I'm not a fan of Moffat's first five seasons. I regard the Matt Smith era as a disaster, and while Capaldi is the finest Doctor ever cast, his first season was weak and his second patchy. Surprisingly, though, his final season was pretty good. The Pilot was the best season opener since RoseThin Ice, Knock Knock (despite some wonky plotting), Oxygen and The Eaters of Light were strong; and, remarkably, the final two-parter was the finest story not just of Moffat's Who but of Modern Who. How did that happen?

We start off with Moffat establishing an arc that is actually  promising for the first time in his era. The Vault is neither irritating as Clara's identity, Amy's bizarre pregnancy and the Doctor's shooting were nor boring as the cracks in time, the "Promised Land" and the Hybrid were. The idea of the Doctor as a university lecturer, sworn never to abandon the Vault but prepared to do so for the sake of  each week's excursion provided he arrives back at the immediate point in time after he left, doesn't restrict the format and yet puts an interesting spin on things, and Bill attending the Doctor's lectures reinvigorates the Doctor\companion dynamic.

Pearl Mackie is a major boon, too: certainly the best performance since Billie Piper in the 2005 season (a performance that Piper herself wasn't able to recapture in subsequent seasons), and possibly better. She has that same luminous quality: an ability to convey emotion and empathy so directly that both children and adult viewers can identify with her, and to really sell her character's natural empathy with or interrogation of those around her in whatever situation into which the Doctor plunges her.

There are three weak stories. With Smile, Frank Cottrell Boyce delivers another dud, in which the Doctor and Bill wander about while not very much happens, and what little does happen happens for not very coherent or consistent reasons, culminating in a literal reset switch climax as the Doctor saves the day by Turning It Off and On Again, IT Crowd-style (the script's making this into an actual joke doesn't make this any less insulting), and Ralf Little appears only to be given the most absurdly underwritten role for a guest star ever in Doctor Who. The monk three-parter is awful, beginning with Extremis, which is irritating in the way so many Moffat episodes are: confusing without being stimulating, indulging in pontification instead of actual storytelling, and relying on a reset-button ending. The Pyramid at the End of the World by Moffat and Peter Harness is slightly better: while the premise is still based on flawed logic, it does at least build to a decent cliffhanger. Then Toby Whithouse drops the ball spectacularly with The Lie of the Land, which is both a dreadful piece of storytelling in its own right and a conclusion that fails to make good on every single setup from its two predecessors. The trilogy also fails at selling us Missy's move towards redemption: the scene where she starts crying comes out of nowhere. Bill, too, is badly served by this story: the laughable scenes of her mother "going viral" at the end mean we lose connection with that part of her past (a shame given how wonderful the scene in which she finally discovers pictures of her in The Pilot is) and emotional makeup, and the decision not to feature her stepmother again is puzzling (as is the decision to make Bill too nervous to come out to her, a cliche which the season never justifies). As for The Empress of Mars...letting Gatiss do another Ice Warrior episode is not what the Licence Fee is for. Let Big Finish handle that sort of thing. I struggle to say more than that. One thing Doctor Who should never do is a story where you know exactly what you're in for. Gatiss's effort felt like a Doctor Who story for Ian Levine.

The World Enough and Time \ The Doctor Falls 2-parter, though, might be this generation's The Caves of Androzani. It's the most moving story in the whole of modern Who so far, and indeed its only rival in terms of emotional power in the entire history of the series is Androzani. Just as that story saw Robert Holmes taking ideas from two of his weaker stories - The Space Pirates and The Power of Kroll - and making them work, this story sees Moffat redo ideas (Oswin's fate in Asylum of the Daleks and that of Danny in Death in Heaven, Clara's exit in Hell Bent, the Doctor protecting a community in The Time of the Doctor) and this time managing to make them work brilliantly.

The Parting of The Ways, until now the the benchmark for finale episodes, was not really about Daleks, and the inhabitants of the Gamestation, other than Lynda, were its weakest aspect. This didn't matter, because it was a story about the Doctor, Rose, Jack, Mickey and Jackie, (the latter two appearing briefly but crucially) and how they react when put in this situation. The Daleks are merely a dramatic tool, a way of getting our heroes to face odds that impress the audience as insurmountable, as only the Daleks do. There are similar parameters here: as a study of the Cybermen, the story doesn't score highly. Both the nurse and the surgeon in the first episode are sketchily drawn and we don't really meet any other Mondasians, and so while we're told what drove them to convert we don't really feel it. Similarly, the inhabitants of the solar farm in the next episode could just as well be from present day Earth: there's no sense of what life onboard a giant spaceship struggling to escape Cybermen has made of them. So unlike most other outstanding Doctor Who stories (Androzani, Ghost Light, Kinda, Carnival Of Monsters, Talons of Weng Chiang, Ark in Space, The Ribos Operation), this story gives us neither a richly drawn world nor a richly drawn set of one-off characters.

But that doesn't matter because that isn't what it's trying to do. What it sets out to do is place the Doctor, Bill, Missy, the Master and Nardole in fertile soil for great drama, and on this level it succeeds magnificently. This is the first time since 2006's Army of Ghosts \ Doomsday that all the principals assembled, whether regular or recurring, are convincing characters played by well-cast actors. Matt Smith simply didn't have the dramatic weight that Capaldi invests his scenes with (he couldn't even shout convincingly). Clara never recovered from the disastrous Impossible Girl arc, nor from the jarring about turn in which her Mary Poppins-esque job - along with the two children in her care - was forgotten and she was suddenly an English teacher. Coleman's winsome performance is also clearly surpassed by Mackie's refreshing naturalism. Let's not even get started on Danny, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, Martha's underwritten family, Catherine Tate, Osgood, the dull Timelords of Hell Bent and the hideous experience of watching Chris Addison say "SQUEEEEE!" You might have enjoyed some of the above, of course, but they surely pale compared to Capaldi, Mackie, Gomez and Simm's powerhouse turns here.

Michelle Gomez is ideal casting for precisely the reasons Alex Kingston wasn't: she radiates charisma, an unnerving Tom Baker-esque use of disarming, energetic humour and an otherworldly quality. While Kingston is excellent in straight roles she doesn't have this energy (Consider how Gomez sells the "Doctor Who" scene at the start of the story in a way Kingston really couldn't have done), and tending when the stakes are raised in her scenes as River Song to stray towards melodrama, as in her unintentionally comical declaration of love for the Doctor at the climax of The Wedding of River Song. Missy also works as a character because Moffat is not blind to her moral failings, in contrast to his lack of awareness of the gun-toting River's, which harmed the integrity of the series.

Simm is perfect in his return as the Master. While the Master has rarely worked well, the basic mythology has always remained compelling. Two friends at the Time Lord Academy, who found each other's company so much more exciting than anyone else, become the Ying and Yang of the universe. It's an idea that comes across effectively in The Sea Devils - helped by Roger Delgado's charm - but which got lost when Anthony Ainley took over. In his two Russell T Davies stories, Simm's Master struggles to truly resonate, but here, like Ainley's surprisingly effective final appearance in Survival, he makes sense. The pairing of Gomez and Simm is smart because they resemble the two sides of the Master we've previously seen: Gomez is the Delgado side, who, as she said in Death in Heaven, wants her friend back, while Simm is the Ainley side who has left that behind him. Science Fiction or fantasy often works at its neatest when a relatable idea - here an awkward friendship - is given a conceptual twist: here two versions of one of the friends at different points in time with different attitudes towards the other friend are present. This results in the Doctor's final speech to them both, in which Capaldi delivers what might be the finest piece of acting in the series's history and Moffat manages to pull off one of the show's finest dramatic moments. The Master's ultimate fate - shooting him\herself in the back - is so perfect that one hopes we never see the Master again in subsequent showrunner's takes on the show, as he\she will never be done as well as this. It's long been said that Barry Letts and Robert Sloman planned a story in which the Master died saving the Doctor's life (and let's face it, they didn't have the writing chops to pull that off) but what happens here is vastly more moving: she decides to stand with the Doctor, but her centuries of malevolence catch up with her, and so the Doctor never knows.

Simm's performance as Mr Razor in the first episode of this story is also a triumph, coming at us from left-field. He makes him genuinely engaging and funny, which for viewers who see through the disguise (and Moffat cleverly writes these scenes with the expectation that many will) works as a new take on the bizarre way that warmth and malevolence exist side by side in the Master. He's someone that we accept Bill would feel comfortable watching Doctor Who with, as they sit watching the security camera footage of the ship's slower end. This makes his taunting of Bill in the next episode all the more devastating: the Master has never been more loathsome than at that moment.

The understated loyalty and gentle humour of Matt Lucas's Nardole has been effective all through this season. His instructions to honour River's wishes and kick the Doctor's arse if he steps out of line make him a companion different to any we've seen before while also providing a strong spine for this particular season's arc. Offscreen, River Song finally becomes a character that works. Nardole is also pleasingly unobtrusive, getting on with things in the background rather than dominating so much that the show falls prey, as it did with River and Clara, to CS Lewis's dictum that to tell us  how odd things struck odd people is an oddity too many. His final scene is as effective an exit as a companion has ever had in Doctor Who. He agrees to spend the rest of his life protecting a group of people, a good deed with no reward. As with the Doctor's final speech to the Masters, the emphasis is on helping others because they need it, not in order to be lauded as a hero. This is a much-needed shift after the tendency of UNIT and other characters to hero-worship the Doctor in modern Who, culminating in the absurdity of the Doctor as President of Earth ("Without hope. Without witness. Without reward" is a major ethical improvement). The scenes between Nardole and Hazran are delightful: she's not his ideal choice of partner, he's not even the same species, but in the face of the challenges before them they will need each other's company, and he will probably be too kind not to reciprocate her affection.

Mackie makes Bill's ordeal genuinely wrenching. Just as Gomez sells her scenes  more powerfully than Kingston, so does Mackie achieve something more affecting than Jenna Coleman would have managed. Her work is complemented by Rachel Talalay's superb direction, which brings us some of the most haunting images ever seen in the programme: the incredible opening shot giving us a sense of the immense scale of the colony ship, the bandaged patients, the scarecrows. Doctor Who has never been more visually rich. 

Particularly wonderful in terms of imagery is the use of tears. In The Pilot we have the marvellous exchange between Nardole and Bill after Bill's farewell to Heather - "That's the Doctor for you. Never notices the tears." "I don't think they're mine." - which turns a former menace (helped by superb special effects: we totally buy the idea that the Dalek was no match for that creature) into a vivid depiction of love. Here, after the Doctor has noticed Cyber-Bill's tears (which resemble the tear-marks from the Cyber-design from The Wheel in Space onwards), he's says "Well, I'll tell you what else isn't possible. A Cyberman crying. Where there's tears, there's hope." The latter line is a callback to the Pertwee Doctor's final line before regenerating: "A tear, Sarah-Jane? No, don't cry. While there's life, there's..." Ultimately, Heather comes to Bill's rescue because "I left you my tears, remember? I know when you're crying them." This is some of the most masterful use of imagery ever seen in the series, managing to link so much together - hope, the body horror of the Cybermen, the Doctor's farewell and the love between Bill and Heather. Fantasy stories are often at their best when they enclose characters in nightmares that seem inescapable and irredeemable; when all seems lost and the characters' limits are pushed to the edge; when it seems there can't possibly be a happy ending. As Terry Pratchett observed, the darker and scarier the hero's encounters in the forest, the more thrilling is the moment when the hero emerges from the forest. A key text here is Richard Matheson's magnificent The Shrinking Man - one of the most harrowing novels ever written, culminating in one of the most joyful endings in all of fiction. With the tear\Cybermen idea, Moffat achieves something similarly powerful: a way of taking Bill right to Hell, to a trauma from which she and the audience surely can't escape, only to provide salvation that doesn't feel like a cop-out.

This story is also about progression. The Doctor is someone who learned to become brave, who learned to put others before himself, who learned how to make a stand. The Master is someone who swears he never will, Missy is someone who just might. Overlapping this is the need for the show itself to embrace change of a kind of it has previously not embarked upon. Before Bill, the main companions  were heterosexual, and all of the Doctors have been male. Both of these points are present in the script. We begin with a lovely exchange between Bill and the Doctor:

Doctor: She was my man crush.
Bill: I'm sorry? 
Doctor: Yeah, I think she was a man back then. I'm fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.
Bill: So, the Time Lords, bit flexible on the whole man-woman thing, then, yeah? 
Doctor: We're the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We're billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.

It's not just an ingenious reworking of the show's mythology: It's also playful, fun, transgressive and character-building in its own right. We get an equally wonderful exchange between the Doctor and the Master: "Is the future going to be all girl?" the Master sneers. "We can only hope," the Doctor replies. 

Then there's the final exchange between Bill and the Doctor: 

Bill: But, hey er, you know how I'm usually all about women and kind of... people my own age? 
Doctor: Yeah? 
Bill: Glad you knew that. 

 This is a splendid, epoch-changing moment, especially considering Moffat's problematic attitude towards Amy and Clara. The Doctor understands the importance  of Bill's sexuality and so does the show: unlike her two predecessors, she is not in any way defined by the scriptwriter's male gaze.  Russell T Davies achieved something groundbreaking when he put Captain Jack on our screens: as Paul Cornell put it at the time, children in playgrounds were playing at being Jack because he was a cool action hero, and it made no difference to them that  he kissed boys as well as girls.  However, a gay main companion was the step still to be taken.  When Heather rescues Bill it is, fabulously, gay love that saves the day, and a gay kiss that literally means the difference between life and death. Then, as the Doctor starts regenerating, he must face change himself, finally declaring that he will never undergo this trauma again, and coming face to face with the First Doctor as he makes the same vow while being faced with the prospect of changing for the first time. And as we know now, the change the Doctor will undergo in the Christmas special will be the most significant change in the show's history.