During the wilderness years, the faithful would sometimes sit round their great log fires and wonder what a 21st century version of Doctor Who might look like.
“Maybe not 25 minute episodes” we said “Maybe short seasons of 100 minute movies, like Inspector Morse.”
I think this episode proves that we were right. Pacing has been the ruin of many a good story; this story is superior to pretty much everything else in the season because it gets the pacing right. I don’t think Eastern European Guy (”very fast bottom”) would have worked if we had been trying to gallop to the climax in 45 minutes. I don’t think the idea of the different sections of the ship running at different speeds would have nearly so interesting if we hadn’t had to wait around to find out what was going on. And obviously the cliffhanger ending had to be a cliffhanger ending; it would have been a bit ho-hum as a premise. If I had one thing to say to incoming producer Chris Chibnall, it would be “More two part stories.”
Even that’s a bit retro, of course. We are now in the era of 10 hours boxed sets and binge watching.
OK, we’ve seen most of it before. Moffat really does only have a very limited number of ideas, which he shakes up and assembles in different orders. The Doctor and his companion caught in different time streams - check; a spaceship comprising different time-zones - check; characters watching other characters on TV screens - check; giant spaceship with retro city in the hold - check; nasty surgeons turning people into [SPOILERS} Cybermen - check; companion turned into Cyberman - check; Cyberman weeping beneath the mask - check. I think we are beyond saying “We have seen some of this before.” It’s more a case of saying “This is what Doctor Who is now comprised of”. Some TV shows go on for decades with only one or two ideas, in fairness.
I don’t know if a Black Hole would really behave like it does in the episode. I thought that the point of them was that nothing, not even really really really big spaceships — and this was Doctor Who outdoing Red Dwarf outdoing Star Wars outdoing 2001 big — could escape their gravity well? But it doesn’t matter — a Black Hole is allowed to do whatever the writer says it does, provided it carries on doing it consistently. (”For the present purposes, your honour, a Black Hole is that astronomical phenomenon that can trap, but not consume, a really, really, really big spaceship and which causes time to pass at a faster speed on the lower levels than on the bridge.) I will only start to complain if it turns out that the Black Hole’s gravity can be reversed by the power of love, or is caused my midichlorians, or something.
I do not think that the Cybermen, in this context, were either fanwankery or pornographic. A person who has seen clunky new Who CGI Cyberman will be able to look at this one and immediately say “Ah — an old fashioned, primitive, retro Cyberman.” That the old fashioned, primitive, retro Cyberman happens to be what the Cybermen looked like in 1966 is a little nod of the hat to the fans, and why not. I don’t know how you reconcile the Cybermen who evolved on Mondas and flew the planet around the universe sucking other planets energy with the Cybermen who were created by the Master on a colony ship on its way to Mondas. I don’t particularly care. I expect there will be a sort of an answer next week. If it is a sufficiently good answer then no-one will ever have watch Attack of the Cybermen again.
It is a pity that the story was spoiled by, well, spoilers. The episode released the information about what was going on on the colony ship and Razor’s true identity rather subtly: we didn’t definitely know that the patients were being turned into Cybermen until the surgeon shows Bill the headpiece, about 35 minutes into the story. This should have been a really good surprise. Unfortunately, the BBC had been circulating publicity pictures of Peter Capaldi facing off against Hartnell era Cybermen since last year. And John Simm had appeared in two different trailers. The appearance of Missy’s previous incarnation is obviously intended to fall like a bolt from the blue and obviously doesn’t.
The question about how much to reveal in the trailer or the blurb or the Radio Times listing is not unique to Doctor Who. Some people think that it would not have mattered if a certain 90s suspense movie had gone out under the title of “The One In Which Bruce Willis Turns Out To Have Been Dead All Along”; other people objected to “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” because it gave away the ending. Somewhere in between is a sensible middle ground. I am happy not to trust the mysterious count in a movie called “Guest of the Vampire”; but I’d just as soon not know exactly who committed the “Murder at the Vicarage” until the detective works it out.
It’s a particular problem for Doctor Who, because Doctor Who is so insistently non linear. We see Missy pretending to be the Doctor, and then we see the Doctor explaining to Bill and Nardole his plan to allow Missy to pretend to be him for a while. We see Bill getting killed, and then we see Bill making the Doctor promise not to get her killed. And the very first thing we see in the episode is the Doctor regenerating which we assume must be flashing forward to the end of the story. So Moffat wants us to watch World Enough and Time in the knowledge that it ends with a Regeneration just as much as Thomas Hardy wants use to read “The Life and Death of the Mayor of Casterbridge” with a pretty good idea about who won’t make it to the end of the final chapter. But then we get a post-cred trailer that (we assume) zooms forward to the end of the story, and again shows us the Doctor (apparently) regenerating. But the pre-cred is “part of the story” and the post-cred isn’t. And we’ve already once this season been “shown the Doctor regenerating”, only to have both the characters and the cast saying “Ha ha! We fooled you!”
This can’t possibly be a proper review, because we only have the first half of the story to talk about. I liked nearly everything about it: the ship, the atmosphere, the pseudo-science, the relationship between Bill and Razor and Missy and everyone, the scenes of the dying city. The whole thing. And if these really are the Cybermen and that really is the Master and Bill really has been Cyberized and the Doctor really is going to regenerate — or if none of these things are true and the explanation is more exciting and brilliant and surprising than the set up — then I’ll call this the best story ever. The best Peter Capaldi story ever, at any rate.
But if the Doctor turns Bill back into a human with magic love rays from his sonic screwdriver, and if these aren’t the real Cybermen at all but just trick Harold Saxon is playing, or if, perchance, none of this has happened and we’re all still in a simulation being run by the meddling Monks — then I reserve the right to call “foul” and give up watching Doctor Who.
Until Christmas, at any rate.
Moffat is going to pull another War Doctor stunt. The Doctor is indeed regenerating, but the person he is regenerating into isn’t the person who’ll be in the role in 2018, because that is for the incoming producer to decide. We’ll get a very short lived interim Doctor and the Christmas one will have both her and Capaldi in it.
But there really will be a magical power of friendship reset button which will make Bill didn’t become a Cyberman at all. Because Moffat loves tears, but he really doesn’t like killing off characters, specially not pretty lady ones.