A Moffat finale episode… that’s good.
It’s nothing short of a miracle.
Alright, all facetiousness aside, The Doctor Falls marks a considerable upturn from not just the prior Moffat-scribed finales for Capaldi, but also being the best closer to a series since Series 5. Not without faults, for sure, but it brings the emotional weight and dramatic heft that its predescessors have been lacking, and actually pays off its ideas rather than finding constant get-out clauses.
Picking up from where World Enough and Time left off, the Doctor must battle a rapidly evolving Cyber army to save a group of children on a higher level of the black hole ship. Of course, he also has to contend with a now converted Bill, fighting for her very humanity, as well as a double dose of psychotic Masters.
What already signals the substantial upgrade (A pun? You be the judge) from past finales is that Moffat actually follows through with the consequences of the previous episode: Bill’s trauma, the Doctor’s desperation as he’s stuck in a no-win scenario, Missy’s internal struggle between her past self and the Doctor’s new path of goodness; even Nardole gets to have a moment, coming to a type of maturity as well as showing off some ace hacking skills.
Indeed, like World, the episode really shines in the middle, where the character dilemmas come to the fore. It’s what a good finale should be: pushing our leads to breaking and stacking the odds, seemingly, insurmountably against them. Seeing the Doctor beg the Masters to stand and fight, or his conversation with Bill as she discovers the truth, is a perfect illustration of this: the Doctor actually feels like he could lose for once and there’s no quick escape plan. No quirky ctacthphrases, sonic waving or big speeches change that by the end, and it had me on edge.
Add to this, the cast offer some of their best work this entire series. Mackie is beyond heartbreaking as Bill, equaled by veteran Nicholas Briggs as her Cyber self, while Capaldi is excellent as a man at the end of his rope, fearful yet still defiant. Simm and Gomez have a ball and share really good ‘evil’ chemistry with each other, though Gomez shows off her more dramatic chops in the last act, which actually turns out to be quite touching. Even Lucas plays a much more reigned in, sharper Nardole here, exuding a cunning mind beneath his goofy exterior.
Talalay’s direction is solid as last time: the idyllic faux-countryside can go from being sweet and cheery, to desolate and unsettling in a pinch, the different Cybermen all look great and she gives her actors room to breathe in their performances without being too manic in editing or compositonal choices. Frankly, the fact that most of her direction is so restrained and unflashy is another point in the episode’s favour.
Of course, not everything is quite fish fingers and custard here: the Masters’ intial plan with the Cybermen is defeated way too easily, and feels like tonal whiplash when compared to how sombre both the preceding episode as well as the rest of the story is. In trying to have his cake and eat too, Moffat does make the drama a little harder to get into at first by undercutting it with such a bombastic brand of comedy. Indeed, the Master-centric poritons, while enjoyable, do occassionaly undercut the tension in the story and maybe being a little gleeful might’ve been the better option.
The Doctor Falls is very symbolic of Series 10 as a whole: some rough patches and odd decisions are levelled out by what feels like some genuine thought and enthusiasm. Twelve has finally settled into a groove as an eccentric tutor, while Bill and her actress have proven to be a much needed breath of fresh air, as well as great find. Consider me a happy fan with this series, and actually interested in how the Christmas Special plays out. If it can match this, then Capaldi’s era can go out on a high.