Oh, of course we don’t address the cliffhanger immediately. Instead, we’re treated to a healthy dose of bucolic nightmare fuel as would-be Cybermen scarecrows come to shambling life and attack an isolated farm homestead somewhere halfway up the ship. Admittedly, the annoyance of this discontinuity is ameliorated by the instantly iconic sight of a Mondasian Cyberman holding the (unconscious?) Doctor in its arms.
After the opening credits, its right back to business as usual with the Doctor being gloated over by Missy and the Master with a quick black and white flashback to connect us to the last moments of “World Enough And Time” although there’s something incongruously thuggish and undignified in the Master and Missy simply duffing the Doctor up. The teasing scene does contain a throwaway devastating revelation as the Master reveals the Doctor wasted ten years chatting on the top deck only to miss rescuing Bill by two hours. Thankfully, the Doctor’s cleverness, an ambiguously aligned Missy and a defiantly unconverted Bill turn the tide and, with Nardole’s help escape in a shuttlecraft, crash into the farming level of the pre-credits sequence. Did I mention Missy’s umbrella is sonic? Glorious!
From that point on, this is a series finale which deliberately plots a different course from the bombast and grand scale of previous series finales. Although there is spectacle and legions of Cybermen blown to kingdom come, it’s on quiet character moments that the story focuses on, specifically Bill coming to terms with what’s happened to her while the Doctor plots and schemes to do what he always does: save as many people as he can. His failure to save Bill seems to have taken a heavy toll on our long-lived Time Lord. There’s a melancholy, morbid determination to him. He’s already holding off his regeneration and, as the episode unfolds, we see he intends to hold it off permanently. The loss of Bill wasn’t brought about by a tragic turn of events this time, or last-minute heroism or Matrix deceptions, it was the Doctor’s own cockiness which got her killed. Coupled with Clara’s death (the Doctor does finally remember her briefly before the end of the episode), the Doctor seems to have determined that he must atone for those deaths with his own. No wonder he’s been so focused on trying to save Missy: he desperately needs his friend to carry on his work after he has gone.
Bill’s (inevitable) restoration appears to occur somewhat suddenly and early in the episode but after last week when I was embarrassingly late in figuring out Mr Razor was really John Simm’s Master, I wasn’t going to be fooled again so easily and quickly (and correctly) surmised that Bill’s perception is at odds with her actual appearance. It’s beautifully played throughout the episode as Director Rachel Talalay swaps back and forth between Bill and her Cyber-form giving the audience a poignant and affecting Doctor Who spin on “Shallow Hal”. I do hope this episode wasn’t a sly dig by Moffat at his successor by showing him how “Cyberwoman” should have been done.
Thanks to the timey-wimey effects of the black hole’s time dilation, when the invasion comes it’s not the Mondasian Cybermen but their more recent incarnation but all it does is serve to underscore the fact the Cybermen have become less scary as the years have gone on. I also feel a bit cheated that we don’t even get a glimpse of modern spins on the 70s and 80s iterations of the Cybermen as the accelerated evolution works its magic.
Less successful is the Master/ Missy storyline. The Master is utterly superfluous to the story and ultimately Simm’s return is a hollow gimmick of stunt casting. I’ve never been a big fan of his interpretation of the Doctor’s nemesis and this story’s denouement does little to endear him to me. There’s a fittingness to Missy provoking her own creation that I can understand but the Master’s response, no matter how he tries to justify it, is wildly out of character. The idea that an individual so obsessively focussed on his own survival that he literally survived as a rotting corpse for years before stealing other people’s bodies would decide to shoot ‘himself’ in the back and condemn himself to death is a huge betrayal of the character and seemed put in place just to have a point to Simm being there in the first place.
Of course, this is Moffat’s Doctor Who swansong so there’s no way Bill will remain abandoned, encased in cyber armour which will, eventually, wear down her mental defences and take over. Instead, like all of his iconic companions, she receives a death but not death. As River Song, Amelia Pond and Clara Oswald did before her, Bill finds there’s much more to life after death. It’s curiously satisfying that an alien as powerful as the one from “The Pilot” comes back to put the deus into Bill’s ex machina but it can’t quite make up for the fact that we won’t be seeing Bill help the new Doctor settle in.
Even after he’s saved and placed in the TARDIS, the Twelfth Doctor seems determined to be the last of that Time Lord, holding off his regeneration again and again, threatening to take the Fifth Doctor’s record and easily overtaking the Tenth Doctor’s self-aggrandising going away tour. I wonder what his progenitor will have to say about that at Christmas?
So there we have it, Moffat’s era draws to a close with an appropriately idea-crammed, sentimental, occasionally brilliant, sometimes flawed and very messy finale. Truly nothing in his show running became him like the leaving of it. I hope the Doctors get to have some fun at Christmas. Perhaps the Nativity will afford them an opportunity to change their minds on the subject of resurrection?