Sunday, 2 July 2017

TV Review: Peter Capaldi ensures his legacy in Doctor Who's flawless season finale

S10E12 - "The Doctor Falls"

Contains Spoilers.

Doctor Who as a show is fundamentally scattershot. There are so many genres it can take on, so many different styles and moods and tones. It's one of the things that makes this show so special yet so frequently uneven - how can you craft a suitable, fitting finale to a show that can offer so much in any given season? I guess the question I'm really asking is, at the end of the day, what is Doctor Who?

After a run of highs and lows, we've reached the time for Doctor Who's tenth season to pinpoint its identity and wrap things up. I honestly cannot think of a better way to do so than everything that happens in "The Doctor Falls". This is an episode of unimaginable emotional power, but also one that doesn't sideline last week's major threat or abandon its central sci-fi concept. It wraps up any lingering threads from the whole season, it bids farewell to an unforgettable character in Bill, it brings a multi-Master episode into genuine focus and finds a way to please both new and older fans of the show - but what's more is that it does this without ever sacrificing Doctor Who's core principles.

Peter Capaldi has spoken in numerous interviews about Doctor Who's being a show of kindness, a story that finds the best in humanity even in its darkest corners. It's about togetherness and happiness and the unlimited potential of life. Kindness is also an element that really connects with Capaldi's Doctor, a man who has endured his own journey to discover this quality and to radiate it to those around him. Think back to series 8's "Deep Breath", an episode that found a Doctor stripped of his charm and eccentricity, grumbling his way to a conclusion. Just one episode later he finds himself asking Clara a pivotal question - "Am I good man?". And so the Doctor's journey begins.

Now, "The Doctor Falls" is the beginning of the end for Peter Capaldi, as the episode concludes with him fighting off his regeneration in time for one last adventure with the man he once was, many many years ago. But the cliffhanger ending isn't important right now, what we need to focus on instead is the depth of Capaldi's performance here. Many have criticised this Doctor for lacking an identity, but I fail to see the argument. This Doctor is a man searching for his place, trying to locate peace and kindness in a universe that threatens to pull it away from him. Capaldi tells this story with every word in "The Doctor Falls" - his heartbreaking revealing of the truth to Bill, his desperate plea for Missy to stand alongside him, his final anger at the universe for trying to take this body and life away from him yet again.

It's tough not to be filled with disappointment that we lose Peter Capaldi after just one more episode, but he can be confident that he's ending on a high. I've expressed frustration that series 10 hasn't allowed him to demonstrate his real talents, but these last few weeks have fulfilled my wishes. This is the Doctor that became my favourite back in series 9: the one who brokered a peace treaty between humans and Zygons; the one who calmed a scared young child and inspired the rest of his future; the one who caused unimaginable grief and pain to a Viking girl who only ever wanted to help. Capaldi's Doctor is a flawed individual - he makes mistakes a lot - but that's what makes him the most interesting version of the character that new Doctor Who has offered so far. Peter Capaldi has been crafting his legacy since series 9, but here he completed it.

"The Doctor Falls" is really an episode of standout performances. Michelle Gomez is notably more subdued here than usual, but that makes sense when she stands beside John Simm's Master - an unhinged, borderline psychotic character this time around, and probably the best version of Simm's Master we've seen. Missy's potential "turning good" has been a lingering thread all season, and "The Doctor Falls" concludes the arc in ways both smart and devastating. Missy does indeed "turn good", but the only person to stop her from letting the Doctor know this? The old version of herself. It's a brilliantly clever way of completing Missy's season-long arc without sacrificing the very core of the character. I highly doubt we'll see any version of the Master for a long time now, but "The Doctor Falls" is a perfect way to leave the character.

Doctor Who has always been about the companions, though, and boy was Bill put through a lot here. Moffat's framing device of showing us how Bill sees herself is heartbreaking - we watch people back away from her in fear of the Cyberman standing before them, but all we see is a confused Bill not understanding the truth. Bill's resolution with Heather is sure to cause controversy - it's admittedly very sudden, and I'm not sure "The Pilot" put in enough work for this to really hit as hard as it could've done otherwise - but it's hard to fault this episode's telling of the story. It's a fitting end for Bill, who has been a delight to watch all series. Pearl Mackie has really grown as a performer across the year, and her performance in "The Doctor Falls" is the pinnacle of her Doctor Who work.

Look, "The Doctor Falls" is going to be a polarizing episode for a number of reasons. The ending has questionable logic to say the least, and Bill's sudden reunion with Heather does come completely out of the blue, but storytelling isn't about logic - it's about emotion, and feeling. "The Doctor Falls" is subtle with its emotional core, never screaming it in your face nor holding it out of reach. It's an episode that is tasked with an awful lot but is paced expertly, never dropping the ball on any of its five central characters - they all get pitch perfect endings. I'm not quite sure if it lives up to the unmitigated triumphs of series 9's "Hell Bent", but "The Doctor Falls" is a brilliant episode nonetheless, and an even better finale.

Notes -
  • It's always nice when the finale is the best episode of the season, I'm not sure that's ever happened for Doctor Who before this one. Series 5's "The Big Bang" comes close, I'm not sure if "The Pandorica Opens" just edges it out.
  • Missy and the Master's sexual tension was weird. Just plain weird. But so are they, I guess. Gomez and Simm played it wonderfully.
  • I didn't get to talk much about Nardole in the review, so here goes. At his core Nardole is essentially little more than a lovable child, but the season has done a stellar job of adding depth to him, demonstrating his intelligence and his courage. For him to leave with the town of Floor 507 and act as their guardian is simply brilliant. Matt Lucas has been great fun all series, but he made his final moments really hit home tonight. Genuinely affecting stuff.
  • Capaldi's solo moment in the TARDIS in the final scene was beautifully realised. His magnum opus for Doctor Who remains "Heaven Sent", so it was nice for him to get one more big, showstopping solo piece before his final series wraps up. Again, legacy.
  • I really nope Rachel Talalay stays on as a director into the Chibnall era. The scale she brings to this episode is breathtaking, but the softer moments never lack heart or soul in their appearance. Without a shadow of a doubt, she is the most impressive director Doctor Who has ever had.
  • Well, that's it for another year! Thanks to everyone and anyone who's read one or two or maybe even all of these reviews. I'll be back with an episode ranking in a few weeks time once I've processed everything and maybe re-watched some of the earlier episodes, and then it's straight on through to Christmas for a multi-Doctor episode. How exciting!
  • Well no we're saying goodbye to Peter Capaldi so it isn't exciting at all really. Is it too late to convince him to stay?

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