There are some episodes of Doctor Who that contain unambiguously great stories. ‘Human Nature’ is one of them: its tale of a vulnerable, humanised Doctor is sweeping and simultaneously intimate; a vast tour de force of a man who is not the Doctor, and indeed who has stolen the Doctor’s body, and whom we nonetheless grow to love so much we’re reluctant to let him leave it. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is another: a strictly local skirmish that opens a window onto the life of a single, tragic figure, heading irreversibly towards the end of his life, inspired briefly by the encouragement of friends, but ultimately not enough to eclipse the pain. ‘Time Heist’ jumps to the scale’s opposing end, and delivers a tale that is light on characterisation but embroiled in a mystery that is sufficiently interesting to draw you in and keep you guessing.
Other episodes are what we might call Event Stories. ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ (and its immediate follow-up) might be a decent example: ‘The Wedding of River Song’ is another. Monsters and threats are all present and more or less correct, but the McGuffins serve the dramatic purpose of padding out the running time between the twists. Paradoxically these are usually the ones that people remember, because they are the game changers – the ones that kill, that resurrect, that shine a torch onto the identity papers of heretofore mysterious, enigmatic guest stars.
‘World Enough and Time’ is a classic case of an Event Story. This is not an episode that you watch for the meat, because by and large there isn’t any. Oh, there are Things That Happen. Many of the Things That Happen will have the fans talking: one, in particular, will cause the collective dropping of jaws. Simultaneously, the story is essentially a series of sudden peaks amidst periods of comparative inactivity. Much of the point is that time is passing much faster for Bill than it is for the Doctor and the remains of his crew, meaning that the Time Lord is sidelined for at least half the running time, captured in a series of frozen moments, as if in a pocket universe held in a painting (read: TV screen), while for Bill the years tick by. (We do not know, by the way, precisely how many years it is, although there are undoubtedly fans on the internet already doing the maths.)
Essentially what happens in ‘World Enough and Time’ is this: the Doctor begins to regenerate, a flash-forward that serves to tease the finale early. Then Bill is shot dead, the hole in her chest sudden and gaping, with Bill herself seemingly frozen in time in much the same way that her mentor will be later in the story. Five minutes later she is up and about, a synthetic heart installed in the same manner as the reactor that’s kept Tony Stark alive. She lives a sort of half life in a nightmarish, dimly-lit hospital, accompanied only by a heavily-accented janitor, Mr Razor, whose total absence from the cast list ought to be a clue as to his identity.
What’s curious is the manner in which the story actively mirrors ‘Utopia’ but also mimics both Classic Who and the spoiler-obsessed contingent of the viewing audience. There’s a scene in The Phantom Menace which I rather like (now there’s something I never thought I’d say out loud): as Qui-Gonn and Obi-Wan cross the hangar on their way to a fateful meeting with the Trade Federation, Qui-Gonn castigates his charge for failing to concentrate on the gravity of the current situation. “Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future,” Obi-Wan protests, which prompts the response “But not at the expense of the moment.”
If anything, ‘World Enough’ actively fulfils this prophecy, taking a hammer to the fourth wall and spending much of its running time teasing the fans desperate to jump ahead, by introducing a character who will doubtless irritate many people simply because they’re waiting for the Master to turn up. It would be interesting to see how many people were angrily Tweeting at quarter past seven, annoyed as to why the much-anticipated return hadn’t happened yet, oblivious to the reality. Certainly Simm’s disguise is effective and his acting impeccable, and while many people will undoubtedly see through the ruse immediately there will be a great many more who don’t, even if they were around for ‘The King’s Demons’. This is one of those instances where false memory reigns supreme; watching the episode a second time – as I did, Thursday morning – it is impossible to not see it, and I suspect that there will be plenty of fans ready to lie about the fact that they did.
Certainly it’s not the only time. Missy’s early conversation with Bill and Nardole reeks of fanboy trolling – the morally ambiguous Time Lady, when asked why she’s calling herself Doctor Who, replies “That’s his real name”. It sounds precisely like the arguments I read (and frequently attempt to defuse) on Facebook, and Moffat knows it. Next week’s Tumblr prediction: an image of Missy dabbing, with this caption:
There. I’ve done it so you don’t have to. For reference: it is fine to call him Doctor Who if you want to, and it always has been. Such forms of address have been part of the show since 1963 – if it’s good enough for Peter Capaldi, it ought to be good enough for the rest of us.
For all its structural inadequacies, ‘World Enough’ gets an awful lot right. The hospital in which Bill spends the bulk of her time is dark and frightening, echoing the visual design of Silent Hill (the normal Silent Hill; the ‘other’ version would just be too much to cope with). The only thing that jars during these scenes is the fact that she seems so comfortable: it could be a mild form of Stockholm syndrome, but there is something implausible about her acceptance of the situation in which she finds herself, and something atypically mundane about her conversations with Mr Razor. If anything, the Doctor’s companion is perhaps a little too happy with her lot; perhaps it’s the presence of an artificial heart that’s caused her to basically lose her own.
Then there are the Cybermen: shadowy, shuffling and shambling, emerging from the darkness in cloth-covered stages of gradual exposure until the moment we see one of them up close for the first time (and, of course, it’s Bill). Most pleasing of all, the Speak & Spell voices are back, even at the prototype stage, the partially converted patients tapping away at buttons marked ‘PAIN’ like of those V-Tech laptops or talking phones my children have cluttering up the toy basket. The whole thing is a bit Stephen Hawking, and will undoubtedly alienate those fans who prefer the bland, metallic tones of Nicholas Briggs, but it looks like they’re probably back next week, so at least they won’t be whining for long.
Come the episode’s conclusion, the Master is back in the frame – reunited with what is almost unambiguously purported to be his future self (not that this will be enough to silence the naysayers) and Bill is a newly-converted Cyberman, weeping real tears instead of oil as she advances on the Doctor. It is a mistake that may not be undone, and that in itself is what makes it so terrifying, but it follows thirty-five minutes of meandering, punctuated by occasional flashes of brilliance. There are – once more – conversations about the Doctor’s eyebrows, although their supposed mightiness is thankfully left untapped. This is clearly an episode in which Moffat intended to drop several radical plot twists and decided that he add comparatively little of substance in between. The net result is not bad, in the way that, say, ‘Death In Heaven’ was – just rather disappointing after the character pieces we’ve had for the past few weeks. There is nothing to match the Doctor’s fire in ‘The Eaters of Light’, the fatherly reassurance he offers when Bill ventures into the TARDIS halfway through ‘The Pilot’, or his weary speech about moving on that provided the unexpected high point to ‘Thin Ice’.
I’m assuming all that’s coming. Certainly the trailer for next week indicates a maelstrom of mayhem and explosions and, I daresay, at least one scene where the Doctor stares at Bill and says “I know you’re still in there”. Whether Bill will actually emerge from her shell, perhaps tearing at the bandages like Jack Napier does in Batman, or whether the Doctor will somehow be able to open the armour, or whether the whole thing will simply be retconned somehow remains to be seen. ‘Redemption’ is mentioned as part of the Twelfth’s closing character development: does this mean saving her later? Is it too much to ask that Bill might actually endure the most horrific of fates without its instant undoing at the behest of the chief writer’s handwavium?
Then there’s ‘Spare Parts’. If we had the time we could find a way of making it fit, but it really doesn’t, and we might as well avoid that argument now, along with the whole question of whether or not Big Finish is canon. There will be some for whom the rewritten backstory is nothing short of sacrilege, but that’s the problem with an origin story that was committed to audio before it was televised: do you ignore it, as Moffat has done? Or do you work in a narrative that half the audience won’t have encountered and risk landing in Ian Levine territory? (Paradoxically Ian doesn’t like Big Finish anyway, so I can only assume that he will view tonight’s retcon with the sort of ambivalence that is liable to make your head explode. Well, we can dream.)
The bottom line (he he. ‘Bottom’) is that Moffat really didn’t have a choice, unless he’d told an entirely different tale – and I’m starting to find the whole ‘urinating on the legacy of Doctor Who’ argument fiercely dull, despite being, until recently, one of its most embittered advocates. Because everyone puts their own stamp on Doctor Who: you’re just a little kinder to the stuff that happened before you got the chance to watch it. No one questions the rewritten Time Lords in ‘The Deadly Assassin’, or. the notion that two Doctors can appear together at once. We shouldn’t question this. I just wish it had been within the confines of an actual story, instead of a collection of vignettes and moments, stitched together into a Frankensteinian whole, much like the shambling abominations that haunt the corridors of the Mondasian spacecraft.