Monday, 3 July 2017
Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls (Episode Review)
The Moffat era has seen extreme highs and lows from start to finish. Rarely finding any middle ground, it all too often either succeeded with flying colours or proved to be the kind of disaster that nearly killed the show back when Colin Baker was involved. It was always a massive question just how it would end, but the good news is that The Doctor Falls is one of the best tales we have seen in a long time. In fact, it's probably the single best finale we have seen since The Big Bang. Not because it tried to do everything, but because, for once, the writing team tried to keep things simple for a chance
The Cybermen are on the move throughout the ship, rapidly converting everything on their deck and preparing to move up through the ship one area at a time. With the Master having revealed his hand at last, the Doctor awakes bound to a chair with only a terrifying vision of a city gone mad before him. Yet, the Doctor is not done yet. Even as he lies defeated, his companions having abandoned him or become the very thing he fights, he readies himself for the worst. For if this is to be his fall, he will make certain that everyone and everything horrifying on board this ship goes down with him...
For starters, let's just focus upon the fact that this is simple. Really, for a long time now we have seen a bizarre addiction to complexity harm the stories over and over again, to the point where it was actively harming the show. While Moffat's ability to weave insane time-travel paradoxes and fairy tale-esque fantasies was always a major strength, it seemed at times he was doing it purely for the sake of being complex. There was no meaning to it, no greater idea, and sometimes it even hurt the story by opening up gaping plot holes in what was supposed to be a smart script.
Where is this going? Well, The Doctor Falls is smart, but it's smart in the right way. It opens up elements like Bill being resistant to the Cyber-conversion and writes in a few extremely clever ties to past stories in order to justify certain turns. It then opts to also execute this as much through the camera as the script itself, while also devoting time to just about every companion involved. Even when it does open up possible plot holes, the fact it's not trying to force itself to be intelligent (No, sorry, INTELLIGENT!!!!) means that you can put some concepts down to what came before. It's earned that good will, and they make basic logical sense in some regards.
Take the actual setting of this episode itself - a farming deck a couple of levels above the city the Cybermen are being produced in. There are people there who have forgotten that they are even on a spaceship, but the setting itself and the time dilation (where possibly several generations have passed since the ship arrived) and perhaps even a few twisted facts might help them to gradually forget that. Plus, even their basic presence could be put down to the expedition which was mentioned in the first part, where a group was sent up to find somewhere else and never came back. Only, in this case, it was because they couldn't return rather than a massed slaughter. Yes, some of this involves joining the dots, but at least it's not much of a stretch to join the two together,
Breaking away from the story not screwing itself over though, this is a situation where it manages to be fast paced but very satisfying. The episode spends just enough time on the lower decks to give you some insight into how bad things are, before it moves elsewhere. It never over-exposes anything, never forcibly pushes an idea too far, but it always leaves just enough to be satisfying. Barring one or two exceptions admittedly, but we will get to those later on. This definitely helps given that this was set up and promoted as a finale months in advance, giving the Doctor a moment to revel in one last, truly final moment to reflect upon who he is. This is executed in a brilliant speech to the Master(s) where he finally tries to make his old rival understand just why he does what he does, and convince them to remain. Combined with Bill getting a decent level of closure and Nardole getting a chance to quietly snark in the background while showing off his skills, it's a nice ending to a TARDIS crew who really deserved better stories than what they got.
The actual action here is fairly damn good for a BBC budget, with the director (Rachel Talalay) pulling off more than a few smart tricks to disguise the limited numbers of the army involved. We see massed troop formations, basic reactions and a few great money shots, after which the action itself is either tightly cut or limited to enclosed environments to hide their limited numbers. Honestly, this is the sort of thing which should be shown to most film students on how to execute a big scale action piece on a very limited budget. It makes the finale all the more satisfying as, even when it's clear that there.s only a relatively small number of foes surrounding the Doctor, it's delivered brilliantly enough to help you forget about that.
The Cybermen themselves, and the subject of conversion followed by adaptation is core the the story. In fact, their ability to rapidly adapt and upgrade is what ultimately makes things worse and better for all involved, as the situation still spirals out of the Master's hands despite his best efforts. He forgets just how crude their technology is in every regard at first, before promptly underestimating their sheer diligence and capacity to rework anything they have on hand into a new weapon. This allows fans to see a multitude of different generations of Cybermen fighting alongside one another for the first time - with several having been reworked to be a more familiar battle armoured design - and it's a nice touch to be sure.
Oh, and there's the use of Bill and Ted time travel theories at one point. It's small moment, but it's enough of a fun little time-loop to just let the episode get away with it.
So, what went wrong then?
Despite the Bill and Ted moment, there is still some bizarrely stupid decisions at points in regards to time travel and the effect of time dilation. This is most evident when it comes to the elevators themselves and the Doctor tries to justify the fact they can't just race to the very top, but you end up with so many questions that it becomes difficult to justify some of his actions. The same goes for the use of two incarnations of the same character meeting up, as it tries to make sense of a few things and make proper use of what they have on hand, but there are just a lot of questions left by the end.
Another big problem is with the Master himself, as he really doesn't do much here. At all. John Simm is hardly bad as he's veering much closer to the traditional Master over his usual demented self, and his chemistry with Michelle Gomez is one of the big highlights of the story. Equally, the subversion of your usual expectations when it comes to her twist is brilliantly fitting of the character. The problem is that, between him setting up the Doctor's death and then leaving, he doesn't do much. He makes a few spiteful lines, has a few conversations, and even twists the knife purely for the fun of it, but that's it. It honestly seems he showed up for a ratings boost and not much else, as you could remove him from this half of the story and it would have very little impact. Missy herself is equally mistreated as her entire intended storyline is abruptly ditched at the last moment, and then just forgotten about. The moment itself is actually fine, but when you look at all that was leading up to it, there should have been a lot more to do with her rather than just burning a few narrative bridges.
A much bigger failing of the story is often how the script seems to forget some very basic things, both long term and brief concepts that it has set up. Cybermen are supposed to be emotionally blunted, and yet this story shows them using rage to fire their main weapons. The actual presence of the prototype patients seemed to be something largely conserved to a few locations, yet all of a sudden we have masses of them up and about, wondering the upper decks as well, acting as drones. Then, you have it ditching a few story elements which seem to be forgotten in the conclusion. Take the janitor upstairs. Take a look into the comments section of the last review, and you will find a few very good points on the problem with the character. Personally, I was holding out hope that this was going to be a big twist - That the janitor was a minion working with the master or something of the sort. Instead, he's just forgotten by the end and that's that.
In an act of perfect irony, just as the script itself seems to focus upon characters forgetting they're on a ship, you then have the writer promptly doing the same. The Doctor ends up inflicting such a massive level of damage it could well break the entire thing in half, but it seems to be completely forgotten in the conclusion. Then, to top this off, nothing is done to actually save it. Even with millions left on board and a perfectly functional Cyberman producing factory left on the lower decks, it's still left on the verge of destruction with the Cybermen ready to recover at a moment. The ending ignores this in favour of trying to make everything happy.
This is something of a switch off your brain and enjoy it story, but it's not nearly as dumb as others we have seen. You have great action, acting, character moments and some fantastic directorial choices to help keep things fun, and the Doctor's actual "death" - or what will lead to it - is very fitting of this incarnation of the character. So, on the whole, despite everything that has happened this series will end on a high note thankfully. At least until we get to the Christmas special, because damn that could be very fun or very stupid depending upon how it's handled.
This will be it for Doctor Who for a while. As it sort of tends to take over the blog while it's on, we'll be moving back towards a few of our more typical articles for the time being, and hopfully finishing off a few long-running ones. Perhaps actually getting to the rules on a few Games Workshop books for once.