The world didn’t end in this finale. The world didn’t come remotely close to ending. There was no apocalyptic threat to Earth, the universe, time or the human race. No reality bomb, no cracks in time, no return of the Time War, no pestilential Dalek swarms, not even a mythical universe-devouring Hybrid. There were a dozen and a half farmers in a homestead on a farm on the 507th floor of a spaceship stuck in the gravitational pull of a black hole. No one knew they were there, no one would miss them, and it wouldn’t matter to the universe if they were absorbed into the ranks of a newly-minted Cyberman army, or died. They were no one. The Cybermen almost certainly wouldn’t be able to get off the ship anyway, without being sucked into a black hole. Everyone on that ship was doomed. It was only a matter of time. None of them mattered.
It’s an interesting choice of setting for Steven Moffat’s last ever finale. Just compare it with his predecessor. Russell T Davies went as big as he possibly could in his last finale. The end of all reality at the hands of the Daleks. He brought back every companion from his four (going on five) years’ time as showrunner and delivered what remains probably the most high-stakes and epic finale since Doctor Who came back in 2005. This isn’t like that. This is nothing like that. This is deliberately as low-key and low-stakes as possible. It’s literally the Doctor holed up on a farm defending a handful of unimportant inbred farmers against an unstoppable army of Cybermen, who are almost certainly going to die whatever he does and, in any case, whose whole world is doomed.
But actually, that’s the whole point. The choice is very, very deliberate on Moffat’s part. And, frankly, it’s the only appropriate way Moffat could have ended his tenure. Moffat has done the big, epic, high-stakes finales. He’s done the end of the universe and/or reality – four times, by my count (two of those times more explicitly). No doubt he could have done it again, and done it more convincingly and more spectacularly than it’s ever been done on the show before, by him or anybody else. I believe, considering the form he’s been at the last couple of seasons, that he could have delivered the best Big Finale we’ve yet seen. But somehow, that wouldn’t have been right. It would have been reliably stunning, and the reviews would have raved, but it wouldn’t have been the right note on which to end Moffat’s tenure. Moffat isn’t about that. Never has been.
Because this was a love letter to Doctor Who and the Doctor, a tribute to the show and the character Moffat has been writing for twelve years, and which has been his life for the last seven years. Moffat likes to say, half-facetiously, that in his opinion the companion, not the Doctor, is the main character of this show, that the companion is the most important character in Doctor Who. It’s a silly idea, of course, but it’s a nice one, and it’s nice to look at the show that way. However, this finale shows that Moffat doesn’t really believe that. For Moffat, the character of the Doctor and what the Doctor represents is the beating heart of this show.
Because this finale was all about what the character of the Doctor represents, and what this show is about. The Doctor is the man who will die defending a handful of farmers from an unstoppable army of Cybermen because it’s right. The Doctor is the man who does what’s kind and good in the face of almost certain failure because it’s right. It didn’t need to be a planet or a species the Doctor was defending, let alone the universe. The Doctor will die for the sake a few inbred farmers because that’s who he is. You can practically condense Moffat’s conception of the character to: the Doctor is the man who always does what’s right. That speech Twelve delivered to the two Masters, one of the most genuinely moving and passionate ever delivered by an actor as the Doctor, and I think my new favourite, basically encapsulated the essence of how Moffat conceives of the character of the Doctor and what he represents. It’s Doctor Who in a verse of passionately-delivered prose, a loving salute to the Doctor and Doctor Who.
Practically everything in this two-part finale revolved around that compelling theme. The Doctor’s mission to turn Missy good, into someone like him, was symbolic of the idea that being the Doctor isn’t an inheritance or an instinct, nor either nature or nurture – it’s a choice. It’s the choice to do what’s right and good, always, in the face of insurmountable odds, in the face of certain failure, without hope, witness or reward. Those opining that the presence of the twain Masters in this finale, especially John Simm’s Master, was rather pointless and that they played something of an irrelevant and peripheral role in the story are wrong. Missy’s struggle, between following the Doctor and being the person the Doctor wanted her to be, and being the person she had always been, represented by John Simm’s Master, represented the idea that being the Doctor was a choice. That, in the end, Missy made the choice to follow the Doctor, where she was without hope, witness or reward, was a vindication of what the Doctor represents. Which makes it all the more tragic that the Doctor never found out that she turned to follow him.
I keep putting all this in terms of Moffat’s conception of the Doctor because there is more than one showrunner’s interpretation of the character. I say that this finale is the appropriate way for Moffat to end his tenure as showrunner because Moffat’s interpretation of the character, his conception of the Doctor and what the Doctor is about, has always been the central theme of his Doctor Who. The Fiftieth Anniversary special was the apotheosis of that vision. More relevantly, in the climax of the Series 8 finale the Twelfth Doctor stood in a graveyard with a Cyberman army at his command and made another speech to Missy which was the culmination of a whole series of angst-ridden rumination about what being the Doctor meant. Two series later there’s no equivocation, no sliver of doubt at all about what he, the Doctor, stands for – and, in a symbolic reversal of roles, it’s Missy who’s been undergoing angsty self-reflection all season, and the Doctor who’s offering her the climactic character-defining choice.
So it was only right that Moffat ended his run this way. It was only right that he made the Doctor’s final stand a symbolic embodiment of what the Doctor represents. He went down fighting in the most mundane and inconsequential of circumstances, where, for once, no one would have blamed him for high-tailing out of there. It would have made the most trivial of difference. But that’s why this was such a heroic fall for him, and it’s why it’s such an emphatic vindication of the character. He went down being the Doctor where no one would have blamed him for not being the Doctor. It made for a death scene as rousing and emotional as any we’ve seen yet. It rivals the Tenth Doctor’s “So much more” death scene in terms of its raw emotional punch. It’s definitely one for the ages.
Before I tie up this rambling, messy not-really-a-review, any discussion of this finale would be incomplete if it didn’t talk about Bill’s fate, so let’s just talk about that. Before I saw The Doctor Falls I was sort of, without really thinking about it, hoping that Bill would either die or remain a Cyberman. I’m of the school of thought which believes that death is as important a part of Doctor Who as life and the saving thereof. Life is not as treasured, and saving lives is not as warranting of celebration, if no one ever dies and the significance of death, by experiencing the death of characters we love, is never appreciated. Death is the other side of the coin to life, and the show cannot have one without the other. Although I made peace with Clara’s fate in Hell Bent, I think she should have died. It was the appropriate logical and emotional end for her character and for that Doctor-Companion relationship.
But Bill is not Clara, and her arc was not Clara’s arc. This was an instance where the appropriate end for the companion absolutely was that, against all odds, even if it meant being magically resurrected by the power of the tears of her immortal undead celestial water girlfriend, Bill should have lived, de-cyber-converted. It would have been a bleak and jarringly cynical note if Bill had not survived in a story about how the Doctor saves lives – if, in the Doctor’s last heroic stand, he had failed. Bill never deserved that, she didn’t ask for that – Clara did. I don’t care that Bill’s salvation at the hands of waterbending angel Heather makes absolutely no sense and I don’t understand it, that it’s sentimental and mawkish and that, even for Doctor Who, it taxes the ability to suspend disbelief. Actually, this is one of the rare instances where I would be unsatisfied if it weren’t all that. Because it’s the right ending and this is Doctor Who. And Doctor Who can and, in select instances such as these, should do anything to make the right ending happen.
I’m looking forward to this year’s joint Twelfth Doctor/First Doctor Christmas special. Seeing the First Doctor again in itself promises to be very special, and somehow very apt, given the numerous self-conscious analogies made over Capaldi’s run between his and Hartnell’s Doctors. But it also promises to be another rousing tribute to a central aspect of the show, given that this finale just ended with the Doctor furiously repressing his regeneration, adamant that he would not change. If I’m correct, it’s going to follow the Doctor struggling to reconcile two instincts, which represent two constants of this show. He has to change, he has to move on, to live: change is life – it’s who he is. But to live – that is, to change – is to die. The old him dies and the new him is born. Everything he was, everyone he loved and everything he felt is forgotten. The new man goes sauntering away as though the old man had never been. The Tenth Doctor in The End of Time touched on this these themes, but, if I’m right, it looks like we’re going to see a more intimate exploration of those themes in this year’s Christmas special, featuring, like a visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Past, a guest appearance from the Doctor’s past life. It should be fun. And emotional, always emotional.
So this wasn’t really a review as much as a messy commentary which I largely made up as I went along, mostly of my, frankly recklessly subjective interpretation of this finale’s themes. But these pieces aren’t explicitly intended to be conventional reviews anyway, which is why they’re called “Thoughts on” Doctor Who stories, not “Reviews”. They’re a space for me to ramble to my heart’s content on Doctor Who episodes and put an arbitrary and risibly subjective rating at the end. When they do cross into review territory, it’s usually when I don’t have anything original or interesting to say about an episode, or at least when I can’t be bothered to think of anything original or interesting to say.
But, if you hadn’t already guessed, I really liked this finale. I liked it a lot. Thematically, it was a triumph. That much I think I’ve expressed. This finale’s themes, and the success with which it executed them, were what absorbed me and excited me most about it. I’m not sure I can think of a finale which has been more thematically profound, and which has been more unabashedly a tribute to the show itself (apart from The Day of the Doctor, which doesn’t really count as it’s not a finale). For that it gets high marks. Otherwise the character writing and the acting was perfect, and Rachel Talalay’s direction was reliably magnificent. I’ve already praised World Enough and Time verbosely here, and I thought the story’s treatment of the Cybermen was perfect. I’m not sure this is a complaint, but The Doctor Falls felt a bit slow in the middle. Maybe it actually would have benefited from being cut down. That’s about it. This finale wasn’t perfect, but the best Doctor Whos rarely are. I’m not sure yet where exactly to put it in a ranking of the finales, but it would go somewhere near the top – possibly even the very top. Well done, Steven Moffat.