Okay, we get it. The Twelfth Doctor’s time is coming to an end. DO we really need this many regeneration hints, though? Hang on, though. That snowy landscape looks oddly familiar…and oh, my Doctor…what long hair you have…
“World Enough And Time” starts out with a cliff-hanger and doesn’t really let go from there. [Eventually] evidently a teaser from either next week’s episode or even the 2017 Christmas Special, it’s not hard to join the dots between the events of this week’s adventure and the familiarity of the TARDIS’ landing site. So obvious is it, that I strongly suspect we’re being hoodwinked and we may end up with something far more unexpected.
When the TARDIS materialises on a colony ship slowly escaping the event horizon of a black hole, the Doctor sends Missy out to respond to the distress signal, testing her newfound altruism and willingness to atone. Through no fault of Missy’s, it does not end well. Confronted by the horrific consequences of his own overconfidence, the Doctor races to save Bill but for once, time is not the Time Lord’s ally.
First off, the production values of this episode are fantastic, the black hole on offer here easily eclipsing the one at the heart of “The Impossible Planet”. The special effects team have clearly seen “Interstellar”. But it’s within the spaceship and not without the real horror lies. And it’s a horror unlike anything “Doctor Who” has tried before. After last week’s Guillermo Del Toro-esque dark fairy-tale “The Eaters Of Light”, Moffat takes the series straight into Cronenbergian body horror, exploring the macabre truth at the heart of the Cyberman concept. There’s a genuine terror to the creepy hospital setting and the sheer cruelty of turning down the volume of the patients’ voice boxes is a chilling and boundary-pushing story choice for an early evening family show.
The early stages of the episode seem breezy and carefree by comparison to later events, especially as Missy struts about the empty control room trolling the Doctor, Nardole and Bill hard. I don’t think the words ‘Doctor Who’ have ever been said so often in a single episode (not even by Dorium Maldovar in “The Wedding Of River Song”) and ultimately this episode does raise some big questions about who the Doctor thinks he is.
As the hard sci-fi of black holes and time dilation gives way to the creepy hospital horror, the episode becomes a tonal chimaera as Bill’s eldritch existence in the lower decks counterpoints with the frantically upbeat Doctor at the very top of the ship, frozen in time from Bill’s perspective. Veteran Who finale director Rachel Talalay handles the dichotomy expertly, using the contract to fuel rather than dampen the horror.
Thanks to tabloid threats of spoilers, we’ve long known what the episodes’ two big reveals were going to be. But the episode is so atmospheric and nail-biting, that I wasn’t waiting for John Simm to appear at all and finally twigged to his presence far later than I would like to admit. By far the episode’s greatest triumph, though, is the return of the Mondasian Cybermen. On paper, you’d expect their return in their original designs to be a risible throwback but in the hands of the current production team, their ‘make do and mend’ primitiveness is utterly terrifying. Never before has the visceral, dehumanising nature of the Cybermen been as well realised. You can keep your Daleks, your Zygons and even the terrible Zodin for that matter; the Cybus Industries Iron Man knock-offs and the spray painted cricket glove wearing cyber Saturday morning cartoon villains of the eighties can pack it in, the Mondasian Cybermen are my new all-time favourite Doctor Who monster. Credit, too, to Nicholas Briggs for making the monotonous yet sing-song voice so disturbing.
I’ve seen a lot of complaints that the trailered appearance of the Mondasian Cybermen and The Master undermined this episode but for me, the foreknowledge was a – excuse the pun – masterstroke. By drawing the focus to the expected, the episode managed to deliver so much that was unexpected. Bill’s fate now hangs in the balance, the Doctor’s hubris punished in the worst way and his passion project of rehabilitating Missy teeters ruinously on the edge thanks to a very physical relapse of her old ways. The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been on Who, in achingly personal ways and it only remains to be seen whether Moffat can finally stick the landing given his tendency to never quite deliver in the second part the promise of his first parts. There also seems to be a sense of disappointment that this story seems set to overwrite the superb Big Finish adventure “Spare Parts” but let’s wait and see, just in case. Moffat’s a huge admirer of Big Finish’s work so he may yet provide enough room for a parallel but separate origin for the Cybermen, the same procedures being adopted by Mondasians on the colony ship and planetside. I guess we’ll find out next Saturday. In the meantime, in an episode of standout moments, it’s the Doctor’s creeping horror as he realises what’s happened to Bill that lingers longest in the mind. I don’t mind admitting I’m genuinely torn between wanting Bill somehow restored and for the power of that moment to be preserved for all time.