The Doctor Who Season 10 finale begins, as Twelve, Bill, Nardole and Missy find themselves on a stranded colony ship, with several familiar monsters.
Season 10 of Doctor Who largely focused on the series going back to basics. And the season finale is no different, taking some of the basic building blocks of the series’ mythology, weaving them in with an interesting spaceship mystery, and finally bringing the Missy storyline that’s been simmering in the background all season to the forefront of things.
Missy’s quest for redemption not only serves as the genesis for this whole plot, it brings back John Simm’s Master, sees the return Mondasian Cybermen – a gift for Who super-fan Peter Capaldi, who’s always claimed them as his favorite villain – and gives them a satisfying origin story. But more importantly, it forces the Doctor – and us, as viewers – to question not only whether Missy can be good, but whether or not all of this is worth it, even if she is.
"Missy: Time Lords are friends with each other dear; everything else is cradle snatching."
The city on the edge of a black hole
The episode opens with a hilarious sequence in which the Doctor sends Missy off with Bill and Nardole, on a test run of sorts. His goal is to see whether his former friend’s turn toward the light is legitimate. So he sets up an elaborate scheme in which he has the Mistress and her sidekicks “Exposition” and “Comic Relief” investigate a colony ship that’s backing slowly away from a black hole.
Bill’s not incredibly thrilled with this idea. She’s afraid of Missy, and clearly doesn’t understand why the other Time Lord means so much to the Doctor. It turns out that Bill’s concern about this is very warranted, since about ten minutes after the gang arrives on the other vessel, she’s shot through the chest by a blue alien who’s terrified that a human has come aboard. Her body is carted off by some extremely creepy creatures who speak in a monotone. Taken below decks, she awakes in a medical ward straight out of American Horror Story: Asylum, sporting some kind of complicated metal heart we can’t see. Her fellow patients are bandaged figures who constantly moan in pain. And the hospital “staff” constantly uses words like “upgrade”. (Hmmm, guess who these guys are?)
Since this is the opening half of a two-parter, much of the episode devoted itself to set-up. There’s a lot of exposition. And though there’s dramatic musical buildup to every reveal, most of the answers feel as though they were hiding in plain sight. Obviously, the shrouded monsters are Cybermen. Of course, the colony ship is from Mondas. Isn’t it obvious that Mr. Razor is John Simm’s Master in disguise?
Perhaps this is the problem with our constantly churning media environment and its embrace of spoiler culture. Within the episode itself, these reveals are well-handled. But, because most of these twists showed up in Doctor Who-related news reports months ago, we expected them here. We were looking for them, even. To be fair, knowing these twists doesn’t ruin them. In fact, “World Enough in Time” is a satisfyingly tense experience, even if it does feel at times as though viewers are Bill, stuck waiting for the action to get going on the other end of the ship. Will next week provide a satisfying payoff to all the groundwork laid here?
"The Doctor: She’s the only person I’ve ever met who’s even remotely like me."
Missy and the ruthlessness of hope
For the first time in season 10, Michelle Gomez gets to take part in the bulk of an episode. And the question of Missy’s potential redemption is given a much more central focus. After all, Team TARDIS is only on the colony ship because the Doctor wants to test his old friend. And it’s Missy’s evolution into – whatever she is now – that has brought Simm’s version of the Master back into the world. (And I think we have to assume that this Master – willing to don a disguise and play a long con to earn Bill’s trust – has somehow set most of this in motion.) In a way, Bill’s early fears about Missy are now painfully ironic. She feared the wrong version of the Master, in the end, and trusted the one who ultimately brought about her doom.
Best of all, despite everything, we don’t actually know that the Doctor was wrong to trust Missy. We don’t have an answer to the question of whether or not she’s changed. Surely, over the course of the season, Missy’s actions possibly earned her something like the benefit of the doubt. But it’s certainly the question of the finale. Can Missy, faced with the literal manifestation of all her worse impulses, choose her better angels? Is she the person the Doctor thinks she can be? And can Twelve forgive her for what happened to Bill, even though she herself didn’t actually do it? She’s still the Master, after all.
There’s something intriguing about the idea that Missy has inched her way to redemption enough that her progress alarmed her previous self. Let’s face it: As an audience, we’re probably all expecting her to revert to her old ways. But since the introduction of Gomez as Missy, Doctor Who has moved away from the idea – really epitomized by Simm’s Master and his relationship with David Tennant’s Ten – that the Master is merely a dark inversion of the Doctor. Does that mean Missy can choose the light?
"Bill: Promise me one thing. Promise you won’t get me killed.The Doctor: I can’t promise you that"
Bill’s death and the power of too many misdirections
It seems worth noting, that Bill’s death and subsequent conversion would probably have been more emotionally compelling if we didn’t know this was a Steven Moffat episode. “World Enough and Time” is certainly a solid story. But it’s hard to view Bill’s death with the gravitas it probably deserves. And this is largely Moffat’s fault. Because his stories frequently involve fake-outs, reversals, timey-wimey resets or other take-backs, it’s difficult to imagine that this one will stick. This is the same reason Clara’s death in Season 9’s “Face the Raven” felt disappointing. We knew that it probably wasn’t going to last. To be fair, Bill certainly doesn’t deserve this fate. And should she suddenly find herself alive and whole next week, it certainly won’t be upsetting. But Moffat’s constant emotional manipulation in this vein feels tiresome.
In other disturbing trends, while Mackie is fantastic in this episode, and Bill’s story below decks contains moments of genuine horror, the degree to which she loses her own agency to further the Doctor’s emotional pain is disconcerting. And despite her absence from the Doctor’s side, her fate within the episode is still largely determined by another man. Sure, Mackie and Simm have a charming sort of chemistry, and Bill’s interactions with Mr. Razor provide a lot of useful exposition about various plot points. But it doesn’t change the fact that she’s never really in control of her own fate. (Again.)
There’s a lot of ground to cover next week. The Master’s return, Bill’s conversion, the impending genesis of the Cybermen. As well as what looks like the start of Twelve’s regeneration. With all of that going on, can Season 10 – which has seen moments both sublime and terrible – stick the landing? Here’s hoping.