This was always going to be a good one, wasn’t it? Even if the actual plot had been lacking, any Doctor Who season finale which details (at least one possible version of) the origin of the Cybermen, the return of John Simm’s Master and perhaps even, as the trailers have teased, the regeneration of the Twelfth Doctor, ahead of Peter Capaldi’s final episode this Christmas, was going to be a winner. And that absolutely holds true here, as writer Steven Moffat delivers one of his best ever finales, one that’s brimming with excitement, pathos, shocks, humour and, above all, heartbreak.
Moffat is known for subverting our expectations and he doesn’t disappoint with this instalment. Instead of jumping in during the midst of all the action that was unfolding at the end of last week’s episode, “The Doctor Falls” begins in a deceptively harmless scenario, with a farm full of orphans in the picturesque English countryside. Of course, things aren’t as innocuous as they appear.
From there, the plot is strangely similar to another Doctor’s last stand – Matt Smith’s final episode, “The Time of the Doctor,” which also saw the Time Lord defending some innocent humans from an oncoming alien army. The storyline is probably employed better this time around, however, as the episode is stuffed with some terrific character drama which makes up for the rather static progression of the plot. As, when it comes down to it, a lot of this outing is spent waiting for the Cybermen to arrive.
Speaking of the Cybermen, with their scary side dealt with last episode, this week showcases their status as an unstoppable force, killing and converting everyone in their path. Moffat also definitely proves himself a hardcore fanboy with this one, as “The Doctor Falls” is stuffed with quickfire references to previous adventures of the Cybermen from all over their history. There’s even a brief nod to an obscure alternate origin for the Cybermen from a 1980s comic book (which surely only about ten people in the audience understood).
Still, fun easter eggs are all well and good, but it’s the aforementioned great character work that brings the episode to life. The big question that fans will be asking going into this finale is will Bill survive? However it ends for her, being turned into a Cyberman has to be the most tragic thing to ever happen to a companion in Doctor Who and the episode makes sure that you feel that. As a Cyberman isn’t the most empathetic of monsters, there’s a clever storytelling device used to allow Pearl Mackie to appear and deliver her most powerful performance on the show yet.
On the villain side of things, the dynamic duo of the Master and Missy is as terrific as we hoped it would be. Now that he’s out from under his latex mask from last week, we can see that John Simm’s performance is much calmer and colder than his appearances opposite David Tennant back in the day. He might be less manic, but he’s just as entertaining. You can’t help yourself from snorting at his blackly comic jabs, even when they come at the expense of poor Bill.
It’s Missy, however, who has the greater arc across the episode, as she finds her loyalties tied between the conscience-free evil actions of her past self and the brave new world of doing good and standing at the side of the Doctor. Whether she does or not, her eventual decision is one of the best handled elements of the episode, which feels perfectly in character considering the decades-long history of the Master.
But it’s the Doctor, of course, who’s the hero of the hour. There’s so much going on that the character is mostly reactive here, but Peter Capaldi is as tremendous as always. In particular, he gets to do one more (last?) grand, impassioned speech that acts as a wonderful testament to the Doctor’s enduring selflessness and incredible courage of spirit. If the Doctor had to fall, at least he fell in style.
Overall, “The Doctor Falls” isn’t perfect, as the pacing is either a little slow or a little too fast in places, but on an emotional level, which is really the most important criteria for a good finale, this outing is a complete success. If you’re not simultaneously crying and grinning by the final moments, you must be as emotionless as a Cyberman.
Doctor Who's season 10 finale is one of the best of Steven Moffat's era and is brimming with excitement, pathos, humour and, above all, heartbreak.