10 July 2017

The Doctor Falls

2017 Series Episode 12 - tx 01/07/17. Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Rachel Talalay. Episode reviewed by Matthew Kilburn.

Steven Moffat at his best is very good at treating characters and events as symbols whose interaction as principles not only shapes but often overtakes conventional narrative. Looking back after over a week of rewatches and reviews, the success of The Doctor Falls lies largely in how this coded writing works, laying emphasis on specific aspects of character and setting which sometimes confound expectations which World Enough and Time might have encouraged. What follows isn’t quite another review but a set of reactions considering some of the opinions I’ve come across since The Doctor Falls was broadcast. In case anyone is in any doubt, I greatly enjoyed the episode; there was a tense fatalism throughout, leavened by statements of optimistic principle. I realised while watching it that kindness was probably the factor that kept me watching Doctor Who in the first place. The Doctor has not always been kind, but he tries to be kind to the greatest possible conceivable number of people, all the time. This is his virtue and periodically, in limited ways, his downfall.

It’s difficult to find it articulated in any detail, but there seems to have been a sector of fan expectation after World Enough and Time which envisaged the Doctor fighting a rearguard action against the two Masters enthroned, reigning with acerbic crosstalk over a Cyberman city. The promise of this scenario is addressed in the first post-credits sequence. Moffat’s Master is not a grand strategist but a brutal opportunist with a grasp of tactics and superior knowledge and abilities to most other beings, but for most of the time he is simply bored if the chances don’t present themselves. Furthermore, once power is achieved all he can do is seek to deter boredom with acts of cruelty until he is overthrown by collective action his personality doesn’t allow him to empathically understand. Missy has made huge strides towards change but the old patterns of thought and action still comfort her. The Master and Missy have become symbols of different psychological states: one rejecting growth and the possibility of a better world, the other cautiously and confusedly embracing that there can be consequences to compassion other than disappointment. Perhaps Steven Moffat remembered a line from Castrovalva which provided one of the rare glimpses of the Master’s inner life in 1980s Doctor Who: ‘If escape were that easy, we would all be free of this nasty world.’ If Missy is persuaded that she doesn’t necessarily live in a nasty world, then so much changes and constructive action becomes possible.

The revelation that the Master was in disguise because he had been ‘prime minister’ of floor 1056 suggests that he was caught in a narrative trap, repeating in new situations the scheme he used between Utopia and The Sound of Drums to become prime minister of the United Kingdom. If a character can be said to be aware of their predicament within a story, the Master is frustrated by and perversely satisfied by this turn of events. There is an old fan argument that the Master was the only character in Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who to be aware that he was a fictional entity being portrayed by an actor in a television series. This is arguable – the sheer performativeness of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor might suggest that he was aware of an audience if anyone was – but John Simm’s Master in this two-parter is certainly self-consciously theatrical, following up the baroquely latexed Razor with a demonstration ballroom dance and later his much-remarked on application of eyeliner. This is someone who likes to be watched even if he is hiding.

While the Doctor debates with the Master/Missy on the rooftop, another argument is being played out in the same scene, but entirely unvoiced and with little action bar a crucial intervention. Bill, converted into a Cyberman, stands impassively behind the bound Doctor, not collaborating in the great effort to convert the population of the city into Cybermen, but not acting in the Doctor’s interest either. The progress of the Doctor’s argument, correctly guessing the Master’s history on floor 1056, confirming the Master’s lack of imagination (and the Master acknowledges that his face is stupid, but not round, by omission of outrage), wins over Missy and probably lays the ground for Bill’s awakening and her attack on the Cyberman. There’s a strongly dramatic parallel here. Missy seems unable to use the Master’s laser pencil; she can’t remember it, is frightened because the situation is out of her control, or is still torn, consciously or unconsciously, over whether she can act in the Doctor’s interest. Bill is waking up from her state of dormancy, as her personality disentangles it from Cyberman programming. In the midst of this confusion, the need to rescue the Doctor and eliminate the threat takes over, and takes her ‘third eye’ weapon and her mechanically-aided physical strength in its stride even though, after the Cyber-programming is entirely boxed off, both will be unfamiliar to her. Bill has certainty as a result of the Doctor’s conversation with the Master; Missy doesn’t. They are almost representation of different stages of faith.

I wrote in my Doctor Who News Page review that the Doctor had already fallen by the start of the episode, his hubris having cost Bill all but a trace of her humanity. He still has further to go. Although the Masters planned to kill him time and time again for their own amusement while the city mass-produced Cybermen around them, it’s a Cyberman who electrocutes the Doctor while his back is turned. Once he is unconscious, Missy deserts him, being too quick to accept defeat. Arguably, it’s Bill’s rescue of him which allows the Doctor to turn a corner and recover his purpose.

There are several incidents in this episode open to interpretation through Arthurian legend. The one which first sparked my interest was Hazran’s line spoken to Bill in the barn, that the Doctor’s injuries are being tended to. This reminded me of the description of King Arthur being carried to Avalon after the battle of Camlann. Floor 507 functions as an Avalon, a place for recuperation and taking stock of decisions. The shuttlecraft which carries the Doctor’s party to floor 507 is a little like the boat which carries Arthur to Avalon, with the three queens of some versions of the legend being the Master, Nardole and Bill, all somewhat ambivalent in their relationships with the Doctor. The barn where the sleeping Bill is kept is approached by one camera shot over water, suggesting that it might be on an island, an Avalonian citadel. The hour of the space station’s greatest need, though, is now, and the Doctor can’t allow himself time to sleep. 

I’ve assumed that the Doctor is Arthur, but perhaps he is a Lancelot, too late for the main battle and making the best he can with the aftermath. There are no kingly heroes here. Even Bill continues her struggle for agency. Some commentators, particularly in North America, have been troubled by the presentation of Bill as a black woman made to sleep in a barn and told by a white male authority figure that she must not be angry, apparently the object of racism and sexism. However, the Doctor is explicitly a deeply flawed authority figure by this point, whose continued existence in this episode to the bravery and kindness of others more than his own ingenuity. As for Bill’s dehumanizing, enslavement-recalling placing in a barn, surely the offence is deliberate. Bill’s predicament is beyond horrific. The audience’s discovery of her in the barn is designed to provoke, both in the setting and in the gradual realization that Bill, after all, has not been restored to human form. The barn sequence is immediately followed by the first of the Master’s taunts, recalling Bill’s role as a cleaner in the hospital – ‘Robo-mop’ – and suggesting that despite his praise for her strength of character, the Doctor has acquiesced (whether through illness or oversight) in her being stored in the barn as an object, something to be feared, a potential enemy or weapon. The audience is right to feel uncomfortable, but I’m not sure that Steven Moffat would have been right to have introduced the fully-conscious Cyberman-Bill any differently.

One strand of discussion I’ve liked – best developed at the relevant instalment of the podcast Verity! – is the idea that this episode exposes the Master as a gender essentialist. He is utterly dismissive of the idea that Bill can be described as ‘she’ – Bill is purely a Cyberman, and an ‘it’, assuming ‘man’ to be both a masculine and a neuter descriptor. He retains the misogyny he displayed in The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords, seeing empathy as a weakening, female and feminizing trait. The Doctor doesn’t see feminizing as weakening, of course – his ‘We can only hope’ to the Master’s question about the future being all girl is a general rebuke to the Master’s prejudice as well, perhaps, as a wish that Bill will be restored to human form, perhaps also suggesting that if behaviour is to be gendered, the Doctor himself would welcome being female. Confused signals? Yes, but the episode’s hearts are in the right places.

Bill still suffers from being often out of focus more than would be ideal. I’d have liked to have seen her playing her part in the defence of the farmstead and the Doctor, holding off the Cybermen until Nardole and the settlers had escaped to the upper floor. Explaining how she survived isn’t necessary and out of keeping with the episode; she survives because the symmetry of the episode demands it, and because Doctor Who’s underlying optimism also requires that she does. There remains the observation that Bill remains someone who has things done to her in this story rather than someone who takes charge; her fate is to endure a series of violations which arguably includes her transformation into a Heather-like creature. I’m one of those who would have liked to have seen more of Heather earlier in the series; her manifestation here could have formed part of a wider character arc involving Bill and perhaps also the Doctor, much as Rose’s sudden appearances and the glimpses of something on Donna’s back in series four led up to the events of that series’ finale.

Reviewers have also been appreciative of design. The collision of elements on floor 1056, with art deco and utilitarian elements reflecting different decades of twentieth-century Britain within a haze of choking fumes, recalls cumulatively the environment of the 1960s in which the Cybermen first appeared. On floor 507 the buildings recall both the clapboard of much of rural America – at least, as Britons might imagine it – and a lost era too of British agriculture in the large stone barn. The children don’t wear Victorian garments (unlike Hazran whose clothes do recall the nineteenth century) but clothes which suggest more recent eras. Sometimes I expected to see a halo around them, from 1970s adverts for Ready Brek. There’s something authentic about them, worthy of protection.

In my first review, I said that the Doctor’s suffering seemed designed to recall the suffering of Jesus before the crucifixion. It’s not the only biblical allusion. Indeed, the script specifically points out the use of the apple; the Doctor wants to make the Cybermen remember what it is like to be afraid, and so has Alit offer them an exploding apple. Here is another fall – the Doctor as serpent, and Alit as Eve – but it’s a necessary fall. Without knowledge, says Doctor Who, we are nothing; and the Cybermen exist in a warped state of ersatz grace, with so many senses and ordinary mortality torn from them. 

I wrote earlier that Steven Moffat writes in terms of symbols. He borrows from others – the ‘scarecrows’ which the primitive Cybermen become are reminders of Paul Cornell’s scarecrows in Human Nature/The Family of Blood – and recalls himself. Doctor Who, and the Doctor’s life, are cyclical. The repeated motifs include the companion departure: Bill’s union with Heather and their departure to explore the universe together leaving behind a prone Doctor, not too far removed from Clara’s flight through time and space with Me in a TARDIS. It’s a shorthand for remarking on how far the Doctor changes someone’s life so that they can no longer function in what was their everyday. Even Amy and Rory, stuck in another country in another time, are covered by this. Russell T Davies’s brand of magic realism forced Donna’s transformation to end in a choice between death and deliberate crippling, a choice which the Doctor didn’t allow her to make for herself. In every companion departure under Steven Moffat, the Doctor has had his attempts to decide his friends’ fates taken from him. Bill’s rescue by Heather is an undoing of the Doctor’s intervention in The Pilot, but also a revelation that the Doctor’s exclusion of the Heather-spaceship entity from Bill’s life was not complete. The Doctor’s omnipotence is confirmed at one level – he separated Bill from Heather, asserted his role as Bill’s mentor and quasi-parental figure, and Bill and Heather together at the end reunite the Doctor and the TARDIS so he can either die in dignity or resume his travels. On another level giving Bill a similar departure (if it is a departure) to Clara suggests the limits of the Doctor’s powers. The climax asserts the series’ determination to overcome the lead character’s attempt to determine his own destiny. The Doctor awakes to find himself not dead as he had expected and hoped, but regenerating. The episode’s drama arises less from the action and the need to defeat the Cybermen, but from the effect of events on the Doctor’s sense of who he is and why he does what he does. His attempts to escape his predicament fail, but his continued rebellion against inevitability the series and his character too demand is to be faced in the Christmas special.

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