(Since it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, my policy is to do a single full review of multi-part stories unless I think the episodes are distinct enough to justify separate reviews, as in the case of the Monk trilogy; otherwise I do these informal “First impressions” posts for the first part of two-part stories just to jot down my initial thoughts. Expect a lot of this, albeit rewritten, to make it into the full review).
- I thought this episode was phenomenal. I thought everything about this episode was exquisite: writing, directing and acting. I don’t remember being so absorbed by an episode of Doctor Who since, probably, Hell Bent. I haven’t stopped thinking about the episode since I saw it, a good 32-odd hours ago at the time of writing this, and I can’t remember the last time that happened to me after watching an episode of Doctor Who.
- There’s so much to talk about in this episode, but let’s take things chronologically.
- Missy. Missy’s play-acting the Doctor (“Hello, I’m Doctor Whoooh”) was as delightfully funny as I expected it to be. I was a particular fan of the dab, which will forever be etched in my memory as Missy’s finest moment, as well as “Comic Relief” and “Exposition”. The funniest little sequence of this series? Maybe. Probably. What’s clear is that Michelle Gomez owned the part of Missy, owned the screen when she was given the chance, and will be sorely missed when she’s gone. To be honest, I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of Missy being the Doctor — she’d barely stepped out of the Tardis before the Doctor decided to take over again. But that’s absolutely a compliment to Michelle Gomez.
- Bill getting shot. Good. I’m a big supporter of companions getting hurt, ideally permanently, from travelling with the Doctor. Maybe the companion will actually stay dead/injured/cyber-converted this time. That’s not to say that Bill shouldn’t get the emotional sendoff she deserves, though.
- That moment was sensationally directed, though. The Doctor, giving his usual arrogant spiel, absolutely confident that he would save Bill and take control of the situation, only for the blue crew member to rudely interrupt him by blasting a great ugly hole through Bill’s midriff. Cue the Doctor, in shock and disbelief, slowly turning to face Bill, uncomprehending of what had just happened. Brilliant.
- The conceit of putting the Doctor and Bill on opposite ends of a spaceship reversing out of a black hole, so that time is running much more slowly for one than the other, was good. It’s a bit like The Girl Who Waited, except this is a lot more elegant, and a lot cleverer. It doesn’t end up being that central an element of the story (the episode could probably have followed the creation of the original Cybermen without putting the Doctor and Bill in different time streams), but it certainly makes for some really interesting storytelling, and makes possible the tragic transformation of Bill into a Mondasian Cyberman.
- Okay but the genesis of the Cybermen though. In telling a story about the Cybermen this episode was perfect. It’s perhaps the first Cyberman story since the 1960s, arguably even since The Tenth Planet itself, which, in my opinion, has truly understood the Cybermen and got them 100% right. Even though only one appeared in this episode. That’s not actually ironic: the whole point of the Cybermen is that they’re human. Or rather, they’re humans who’ve been stripped of everything that makes them human. They’re a mutilation of humanity. The Cybermen are not supposed to be scary, they’re supposed to be tragic — or, rather, they’re supposed to be scary by virtue of their tragedy. Which, frankly, still makes them a lot scarier than the stomping killer robots in their comic book Iron Man suits the show is afflicted with today.
- To that end, going back to the beginning of the Cybermen was the perfect way to explore what the Cybermen are about. I’m also so happy that the original Cybermen were recreated so faithfully. The ghostly cloth faces, the eerie lilting voices, the wretched patched-together look, all of it. (Shame about the stomping though — the original Mondasians ambled like zombies). Those who haven’t seen Classic Who might not “get” it, but for those of us who remember how creepy and entrancing the original Cybermen were in The Tenth Planet, it really is very special to see them back, straight from 1966. And Rachel Talalay did admirably in making them very scary, not necessarily an easy task given that, admittedly, the models have rather aged since 1966.
- The hospital and its ghoulish patients, by the way, was wonderfully creepy. It all reminds me a bit of Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who story, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and I’ve no doubt I would have been terrified by this just as 10-year old me was when I first saw The Empty Child. Never mind children, though, the sight of heavily-bandaged and mutilated people using an electronic voice simulator to say “Pain” and “Kill me” will get under any appropriately sensitive grown-up’s skin. This is the US President committing suicide over an ancient gnostic text levels of dark, and it’s brilliant.
- The revelation of John Simm’s Master was suitably jaw-dropping, even though, along with everyone else paying the remotest attention to Doctor Who news, I knew it was coming. I do feel that the revelation of both the Master and the Mondasian Cybermen would have been so much better if the BBC hadn’t spoiled us all for the publicity. I think an unspoilered revelation (I’m sorry I refuse to use the word “reveal” as a noun) of John Simm’s Master in particular would have been sensational, and we’d all probably have died right then and there.
- Oh well. It was still fantastic, and I’ll admit, even with foreknowledge, that I didn’t know Mr Razor was going to be revealed as the Master. Even as he was asking Missy if she remembered being there before, when it was pretty obvious the Master was about to appear, I thought John Simm was about to stroll around the corner—I wasn’t expecting him to pull off a (very convincing) mask with all the flair of Anthony Ainley.
- So I’m very much looking forward to The Doctor Falls, although, to be honest, the next-time trailer actually looks discouraging (even with two Masters and hordes of Mondasian Cybermen). I saw lots of explosions, lots of modern Cybermen (yech), not much that looked like it might make for properly interesting storytelling, and I saw a publicity poster where the Mondasian Cybermen were flying (for fuck’s sake). I have a feeling The Doctor Falls is about to pull a Death in Heaven, that is: fuck up a phenomenal finale opener by following it with a conventional, lazy, phoned-in, trope-ridden second part. I really hope that isn’t the case.
- Oh yeah, the regeneration. To be honest I was more dazzled by Peter Capaldi’s magnificent Pertwee-esque hair. I don’t really have much else to say or speculate about other than that this is probably a preview of the Doctor’s regeneration in the Christmas special, and that he begins to regenerate in The Doctor Falls. I do like the idea that Twelve has been holding back a regeneration all series, though (hence Missy’s “Are you all right, Doctor?” from The Empress of Mars), possibly since he exposed himself to the vacuum of space in Oxygen, or possibly even since he saved Missy from execution (maybe because he had to substitute himself somehow in her place?).
In other news
Now that I’m free from exams, I’ll be getting round to my belated reviews of The Empress of Mars and The Eaters of Light over the next week. But I just thought I’d get this one out first while the impressions and emotions are still raw.
Reading yours and other reviews, I feel very alone in not enjoying this episode! That said, I do agree that some of the things you mentioned were handled well. It does have its merits when viewed on its own, and I’d probably like it a lot better if it was part of another season. But in the context of this season, with various elements that I’ve either gotten sick of or never got into from the beginning, I didn’t like it.
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Yeah, I was surprised to read in your review that you were so unimpressed by it. It’s a legitimate perspective of course, but for me this was one of the best things this show has produced.
I get what you mean about this being a disappointing season though – this episode has gone a decent way to redeeming for me what has otherwise been a pretty unremarkable season. This one, Oxygen and Extremis have been the standout episodes. Thin Ice and The Pilot were rather good, too, but everything else has been pretty thin gruel, and the Monk trilogy (at least parts 2 and 3) looked set to sabotage the whole series if the finale weren’t any good (which still remains to be seen, depending on how The Doctor Falls plays out).
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Hi P.J. I’m going to be writing a fan piece this week about what makes a good season finale. Would you be interested in contributing? Thanks.
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That sounds cool! I’m interested – I assume it’s a piece where you’re going to have a number of different fans contribute their opinions? I’d be happy to contribute to something like that.
Yeah it will be. What’s easier for you to give me your answers? Twitter or email?
I can do either, whatever you think is appropriate, but I like to ramble so maybe email would be better? Maybe add me on Twitter at @Npinkpanther and I’ll DM you my email
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