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Steven Moffat has a bad track record with Doctor Who season finales and while “The Doctor Falls” bucks that trend to some extent, it’s still a bit of a mixed bag.
Missy’s slow and somewhat ambiguous journey towards redemption has been the closest this season comes to having an arc. Is she capable of being a good person? In “The Doctor Falls,” she faces her greatest challenge yet – a meeting with her past self.
John Simm’s Master has no remorse, no pity and no interest in redemption, which makes him the perfect foil for Missy. He is a living reminder of sins past and also the devil on her shoulder, tempting her to fall back on old ways. It’s a brilliant setup for a dual Master story and every scene the two share is fantastic. It’s a shame there aren’t that many of them.
Yes, despite how heavily promoted it was, John Simm’s return as The Master amounts to just one of the various subplots that “The Doctor Falls” juggles. He’s only there in a handful of scenes, which is disappointing, especially since the episode definitively states that this is his final appearance before he regenerates into Missy. Between that and spending the majority of the previous episode in disguise (a surprise ruined by the show’s marketing), Simm’s return ends up being a bit of a letdown.
If the dual Masters aren’t the main focus of “The Doctor Falls,” then what is? Well, truthfully, the episode doesn’t really have one. It jumps around a lot in order to accommodate all of its characters and never really settles. For starters, much of the episode is set on rustic solar farm that’s about to be attacked by the Cybermen, so the episode spends some time introducing the new setting.
Then there’s Bill, who’s trying to come to terms with being turned into a Cyberman, which also requires a clever workaround so that Pearl Mackie gets to deliver her final performance. Nardole is busy setting up the farm’s defenses and also developing a romance (yes, really) and The Doctor is busy helping everyone else while also dealing with his own imminent regeneration.
There’s a lot of wrapping up in “The Doctor Falls,” most likely so that the incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall will have a clean slate for his debut. Some of it works, some of it really doesn’t. Missy and The Master do get a fitting conclusion – the biggest problem there is they feel sidelined in a story they should have been the main focus of.
Meanwhile, the resolution to Bill’s story is horrendously cheap, recalling back the worst part of “The Pilot.” Bil’s short-lived alien puddle girlfriend comes back, allowing Bill to escape her Cyberman form. The two are now free to explore the universe as a same-sex alien puddle couple in a forced happy ending so rushed it makes Clara’s exit last season seem graceful. It feels even more like a cop out considering how cruel this two-parter has been to Bill.
Nardole actually has the most graceful exit of the lot. He gets a chance to show off his badass credentials, takes on the responsibility of defending a band of humans from the rest of the Cybermen and might even find love. It’s still a little rushed, but it’s the closest the episode comes to a neat resolution.
Capaldi is in top form this episode, which sees Twelve both at his best and most vulnerable. His speech to Missy and The Master will definitely go down as one of his character’s defining and most memorable moments – even if it is a little weird that he says “it’s not about winning” when past Moffat episodes have repeatedly emphasized The Doctor’s desire to win.
Twelve’s refusal to regenerate at the end of the episode seems to come out of nowhere. It’s not entirely out of character, but it wasn’t properly built up. Regardless, it leads to a heck of a cliffhanger. In his final outing this Christmas, Capaldi’s Twelve will meet the First Doctor, as played by David Bradley.
Bradley played William Hartnell, the original First Doctor, in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time and will now take on the role proper. His return sets a curious precedent with regards to recasting previous Doctors – is it something we’re bound to see more of in the future?
On its own terms, there’s enough that’s great or interesting about “The Doctor Falls” to keep you invested. As a season finale, it swings from incredibly effective and moving to severely underwhelming and cheap, wrapping up some characters’ stories neatly while butchering others. It’s emotionally charged, but lacks a clear sense of focus. In short, it’s a mess, but one that’s well worth watching – which is a good summation of Doctor Who‘s tenth season as a whole.