Sunday, July 02, 2017

10:12 The Doctor Falls

Oh Steven Moffat.

Oh, Steven Moffat.

You were so nearly there. So nearly there.

I watched The Doctor Falls with my Doctor Who watching head on, I promise. Not with my “I have to make smart remarks about this on the blog” head on. But within ten minutes, the little voice inside my head was saying: "This. This is what New Who was meant to have been like. Always."

It was clear from the beginning that I was watching a piece of television that fundamentally took itself seriously. A bit of television in which the actors were were playing characters and no-one had got around to saying “but you can ham it up if you like because it’s only some shit about robots on a spaceship.” If you were one of those hypothetical people who didn’t know what Doctor Who was, you wouldn’t have definitely known your weren’t watching a new Scandinavian police drama, or Daphne Du Maurier adaptation. Not until the robots came on. It was just TV drama, like any other TV drama, telling a story, as well as it could. 

I spotted no smirk; no “don’t worry kids they are only silly robots” moment. 

The episode was fundamentally interested in Bill’s predicament at having been turned into a cyborg; and the Doctor’s need to do the right thing. If you had Never Watched Doctor Who Before then the horror of the human who has been turned into a robot was absolutely clear from context. And you could tell that the old, wise man had really loved the young woman who had been cyborgized, and was trying to let her down gently. 

But no-one has really never watched Doctor Who before; everyone in the world knows that the Doctor and the Cybermen are old enemies, almost as old as television itself. That's one of the bits of raw material that the story has to work with, just like, I don't know "rich people are moving into the lower class areas of London" is one of the bits of raw material that Eastenders has to work with. Jokes and in-references were there for those of who have watched the old episodes, but they were funny in themselves and not (I suppose) confusing or distracting to people who didn’t get them. When the Doctor shouts "Voga", you can tell that he is (like a soldier) shouting the name of a previous battle against the Cybermen. But I happen to know that it's a reference to Revenge of the Cybermen. That's as it should be. 

The resolution of 50 years of continuity angst about whether Cybermen come from Mondas, or Telos or a parallel earth and why the design keeps changing is genuinely clever. Wherever there are humans, they eventually evolve into Cybermen; parallel evolution. 

Of course, there is a problem with treating the Master as a serious character in a serious drama. Fairly obviously, he isn't. We first met him in the days of Adam West and John Steed. The Radio Times explicitly presented him as a comic book villain. Depth is one thing he can't ever have. He believes in a cruel God who made him in his own image: evil for the sake of being evil. John Simm plays it with camp self knowledge but never descends into camp absurdity. (The ludicrousness of Last of the Time Lords is entirely avoided.) I suppose, in a sense, he and Missy are the “comic relief”, the boo-hiss pantomime villain to be set against the existential horror of the Cybermen. But you can really feel the evil. The Evil Capitalist in the One With the Fish says that the Doctor’s speeches would inspire anyone with a shred of human decency. Here, the Doctor makes a genuinely inspirational speech and the Master casually says that he wasn’t listening. It’s the kind of moment where you actually want to punch him. 

I am not sure whether the handling of Bill’s transformation was very brave or very cowardly: I would like to have had more scenes embracing the absurdity of Bill’s lines coming from the Cybermouth. I suppose this was the whole reason that the Hartnell-era Cybermen were brought back: because we can believe that there is some of Bill left under the gauze mask better than we could believe there was some of Bill left under the silver CGI cyber-helmet. The conceit that we see BIll as herself, while everyone else sees her as a Cyberman is not entirely original. I kpet thinking of that episode of Frasier where the attractive young gym teacher he is dating turns into the abusive coach from his childhood. But it works. And it assumes that the audience is intelligent enough to discern what is going on.

Most of us probably thought that Missy had not reformed, but was pretending to be good to fool the Doctor. A few of us may have thought that she had genuinely stopped being evil, and that she was going to be the Doctor's friend or companion for a few seasons — at least until some future producer comes up with “What if Missy turned evil?” as an idea. The actual resolution — Missy kills her previous incarnation, to ensure that she comes into being, but he kills her, because she really has turned good — was not one I had predicted. Comic books have mostly stopped pretending that a this months story is the definitive, final, one-lives-one-dies confrontation between Batman and the Joker or Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. Readers know that however thoroughly the villain is killed, a few months down the line, the status quo will have to be restored. If Harold Saxon didn’t stay dead after the funeral pyre ending of Last of the Time Lords, she is not going to stay dead after being zapped by her past self. But for the minute I’ll pretend that I believe she's dead and enjoy the elegant finality of the scene. 

The Doctor’s last stand, farewell to Nardole, dozens of exploding Cybermen. I liked absolutely everything about the first fifty three minutes and seven seconds of the episode. 

And then, as exclusively predicted in this channel, someone activates the My Little Pony magic lilac love ray and makes Bill becoming a Cyberman didn’t happen. 

If at the very last moment the Water Nymph had popped up and held Bill’s cyberhand, just for a second, dropping a teeny weeny little hint that Billy Potts body is a rusting in the grave but maybe her soul is going to go dripping on  I wouldn’t have minded. Not that much. But Moffat doesn't know when to stop. He can't leave things alone. Never have one good bye seen if six will do. We had to go through definitely revivified ethereal Bill and a definitely physically present Heather physically moving the Doc back to the TARDIS and floating off round the universe with silly music playing much too loudly in the background and although it only lasted for a few minutes I. Just. Wanted. It. To. Stop. 

The puddle monster absorbed Heather’s physical body; Bill’s physical shape has somehow been extracted from the dead Cyberman and turned into magic lilac pony water — despite that fact that most of her remains have been long-since destroyed. What is the magic puddle meant to have done? (Moffat is a little vague about minds and bodies and hardware and software: we found out in Death and Heaven that it if you upload someone's mind to a computer it becomes possible to retrieve their physical form.) 

I hope that this is the last we see of Bill and that we won’t have to  see her corpse endlessly violated in the way that  Wonderful Clara's was — killed and unkilled on a weekly basis. Clara was never really a character, so it didn’t matter so much, but Bill was enough of a person that I’d like her to be allowed to rest in peace and not be reincarnated as an onion to make us cry over and over again. 

I didn’t properly get the coda about the Doctor. I understood that he was prepared to die to save the Mondasian colonists because it was the right thing to do, but I don’t know where the not wanting to regenerate idea suddenly came from. David Bradley was good enough at doing Hartnell’s lines in the docudrama but I could honestly have missed that fact that the person who shambles on at the end was meant to be the First Doctor. 

Maybe there’s a fabulous idea for a two-Doctor Christmas special with a light touch and witty repartee between the First and Last Doctors, just like there was between the Two Masters. Or maybe Moffat is going to bow out with a terribly ill-judged attempt to overwrite Doctor Who mythology from the ground up. 

“How did you find me?”

“I left you my tears, remember.”

Oh, Steven, Steven, Steven. What were you thinking of?


Anonymous said...

I liked that the My Little Pony Magic was at least foreshadowed (if not exactly justified) this time.

Mike Taylor said...

A rare occasion where I agree with literally everything in your review -- both good and bad. I know I've said this before but the lesson of Buffy is "when someone dies, they have to stay dead". (Exception: the start of Season Six, but they really pay for that.) Bill as a genuinely tragic and heroic character is epic, dammit. Bill on holiday forever with a puddle is simply lame. It undermined everything that went before.

SK said...

Maybe there’s a fabulous idea for a two-Doctor Christmas special with a light touch and witty repartee between the First and Last Doctors, just like there was between the Two Masters. Or maybe Moffat is going to bow out with a terribly ill-judged attempt to overwrite Doctor Who mythology from the ground up.

I hope that it turns out that the TARDIS has landed in Ealing Studios in September 1966.

Mike Taylor said...

Oh, one other thing that a I lament in this episode: the sonic screwdriver's transition from a tool to a weapon is now complete.