World Enough and Time reviewed by Matthew Kilburn.
In the environment of contemporary television, telling a new Doctor Who story begins long before broadcast. This is especially true of event episodes such as World Enough and Time. The involvement of the ‘Mondasian Cybermen’ was announced on 8 March 2017, over three months before transmission. John Simm’s return as the Master was confirmed on 6 April. By the end of May, Doctor Who Magazine had made it known that Missy would be apparently working with the Doctor and that the episode would be set on a spaceship trying to reverse out of a black hole. The suspicion that the return of the Tenth Planet design of Cyberman (albeit streamlined for ease of wear and viewing) would allow for the development of Steven Moffat’s interest in the body horror aspect of the Cybermen, first seen as long ago as The Pandorica Opens, was confirmed by sight of the ‘topknots’ on location in Cardiff in March. The publicity images for the episode suggested the Doctor was appalled at the Cyberman for a very specific reason. Enough pieces of the jigsaw had been released through legitimate means to suggest the broad shape of the story, but not the detail. For those of us exposed to the media and fandom chatter that surrounds a Doctor Who season, World Enough and Time was a source of apprehension because we were being prepared for a series of betrayals and violations which would unfold before us on screen and which threatened not only lasting damage to our shared imagined world, but the questioning of our own humanity.
The emergence of the Cybermen was managed in a satisfactorily disturbing way. The audience was primed by Jorj the janitor to expect ‘things’ from the lifts, but what emerged was disturbing in its humanity rather than its lack thereof – badly injured people whose reconstructive surgery had been interrupted and who had been sent out into the world regardless. A viewer could infer from what they saw of Bill’s experience of the hospital that there were wards full of such people, being warehoused for a future when the operations could be completed satisfactorily. The society on floor 1056 has a leadership which can’t afford not to start the process of Cyber-conversion, but can’t bear to explain its implications to the population. This is of course common ground with Marc Platt’s audio story Spare Parts, but the Cyberman origin story here takes place in a setting previous Doctor Who lore hadn’t allowed for, a stricken colony ship. Its telling is focused on two witnesses from outside with a limited view of the society in which they find themselves (though more apparent than real in Razor’s case) rather than on the interactions of TARDIS travellers with representatives of different occupations and social classes. The ‘topknots’ chill because every aspect of their existence is forced upon them. When not performing errands they are complaining of their suffering with limited vocabulary and without the use of a human larynx, sitting inertly, or eerily acting in unison like Moffat’s gas mask people of twelve years ago. At the point where the proto-Cybermen have simultaneously noticed that Bill is moving towards the full-length windows and freedom, we know about the use of painkillers but not about the ‘neural net’, mentioned only by the Doctor towards the close of the episode. Turning up the volume knob on the painkiller cylinders is turning down individuality and the right to die. One of the first topknots Bill encounters issues a hideous gurgle which amounts to a death-rattle, but it continues to live. As the episode moves on and the Cybermen evolve, they are allowed more sensory input and expression, with eyes and mouths, as if they can now be trusted not to act independently but only as nodes of their society’s common purpose.
The appearance of the Master as Razor was trailed by a guarded previewer (Paul Jones of a character who manages to impart warmth and plenty of black humour and who you feel may become more significant as the story proceeds’. The Razor persona was certainly designed as someone in whom Bill would find a natural ally in a carefully managed alien society. Without dismissing the influence of other polluted dystopias in film and television (Blade Runner without the advertising and the theatricality, perhaps) costume and set design suggested Second World War Britain as a principal point of comparison for the Mondasian colony on floor 1056, one uncomfortable for someone with Bill’s spontaneity. Although commentators have seen Razor as drawing upon the problematic ethnic stereotyping behind Oliver Twist’s Fagin and Babylon 5’s Zathras, my first reaction was to see an imprecise sympathetic foreignness which reflected both Bill’s outsider status in this society and perhaps enabled her to come to terms with her alienation from herself given that she has been ‘repaired’ with a Cyberman chest unit. This persona helps the Master manage Bill. Perhaps the ‘burgling mask’ which Razor wears when supposedly on his way to the lifts is just one of many clownish entertainments which the Master has put on for Bill, as well as for himself. The Master explicitly tells Missy that he developed the Razor identity so Bill didn’t recognize him as the former prime minister (explaining the reference to Harold Saxon in Knock Knock); this indicates that he was already in a position to see images from the bridge when the TARDIS arrived, but was he already expecting the Doctor? Questions for another episode, perhaps. His enjoyment of Bill’s company and acting the part of Razor is the pleasure of the torturer – his reward is to betray Bill on the eve of the Doctor’s arrival at floor 1056 and then gloat when the Doctor is confronted by the reality of her conversion. It’s a slow build to this moment, but an effective one, delivered by Steven Moffat’s attention to the relationship Bill has with Razor, and the performances of Simm and Pearl Mackie. ) as ‘
Despite my enjoyment of Pearl Mackie’s performance and indeed the way the Razor and Bill scenes were written (and not only because of their fan-pleasing conceit of having Bill watch what might as well have been a telesnap reconstruction but without the benefit of an audio track beyond the viewing audience’s commentary on familiar tropes), it’s difficult to disagree with those critics who thought Bill was badly served here. Her lack of sustained curiosity about her situation and years of inaction amidst suffering patients isn’t the person established in earlier episodes. It’s difficult to imagine Bill allowing herself to go for years without wondering what is under the ‘bags’ which cover the heads of the ‘special patients’, or having more communication with people coming into the hospital as well as those who are already there. As , Bill becomes complicit in the conversion process rather than fighting against it. One might argue that this is realistic, but we need Doctor Who to be heroic drama, and Bill is already established as a heroic character, who wants to help people and improve situations. Here, she assimilates remarkably well.
One consequence of the time dilation – as has been widely noted – is that Missy is sidelined after her acerbic comments have dominated the early minutes. There is little to bridge her early scenes of baiting the Doctor, his companions and indeed fandom with her insistence that the Doctor is ‘Doctor Who’ – building up to the Doctor introducing himself by that very name, vindicating World Distributors, WOTAN and nearly two decades of credits – and her meeting with her earlier self at the computer terminal on floor 1056. This renders the episode more fragmented than it need be; and if there had to be delay built in to the Doctor’s strand of the episode, to stop him following Bill in the lifts immediately, perhaps Missy could have provided some distraction or indeed exposition rather than have the Doctor seemingly waste time giving a lecture before entering the lift.
A further area which invited development is the conflict between the different duties the Doctor owes his friends. As is told in flashback, the need to rehabilitate Missy had overtaken everything else, and Bill and (especially) Nardole (sadly again underused) were swept along with it. The Doctor’s nonchalance about his own authority is found wanting throughout the episode, but the relationship of his failure to convince Jorj not to kill Bill – by repeating lines from Oxygen that aren’t especially relevant to this situation – to his failure to consider his newer friends’ feelings over their projected involvement in the reform of his oldest friend could perhaps have been developed more. As it stands, and without having seen how the story proceeds in The Doctor Falls, the Doctor’s horror at Bill’s conversion is somewhat disconnected from his earlier insouciance.
As often, there’s a lot to infer in this episode. If the society on floor 1056 never heard back from the expedition to floor 507, it’s reasonable to assume that they made expeditions to intermediate floors, and Jorj’s schematic suggests that the lower levels are teeming with life above floor 1056. Presumably this accounts for Razor’s fried breakfast – there must be farms supplying floor 1056 which are closer to it than floor 507. Similarly, development of the Cybermen must have begun early, for the ‘things’ to arrive in the lift as quickly as Jorj suggests. The lower decks of the ship must have been well supplied with adaptable technology as well as the means to grow food. Perhaps the Master was already lurking there, to shape the situation for his amusement.
The Doctor Falls might be the title of the final episode yet to come, but the Doctor has already fallen a long way. He scolds Missy for enjoying performing too much and not focusing on the problem set, but he has ignored his own recklessness in placing her in charge of a situation he can’t control and precipitates Bill’s incorporation into one of the greatest evils he has ever encountered. Can the Cybermen be fought over and within Bill’s undead body as well as through the ship? As Andrew Marvell wrote in To His Coy Mistress, we don’t have world enough and time to do anything else but tear through the iron gates of life. If Bill can be released from her iron gates (and plastic and much else) she might devour time again rather than languish in its slow-chapped power, and the Doctor be reminded of the gap between the perspective he shares with Missy and the mortality of human beings about which he has been too carelessly glib.
The Doctor Falls 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 [check] 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.