Sunday, 25 June 2017

World Enough and Time

In some ways World Enough and Time was a collection of Steven Moffat's greatest hits. The toying with time travel1, the two drastically different settings that turn out to be linked2, the friendship of the Doctor and the Master-slash-Missy3, a series regular transformed into something less (or more, depending on your point of view) than human4, and the twist in the closing moments that turns everything we've just seen on its head5. It was all familiar to anyone who's been watching the show for a while and could have been boring or uninteresting. It wasn't. In fact it was the sort of script I was hoping would be the standard under a Moffat showrunnership when it was first announced he was replacing RTD way back in 2008. 

Moffat's strength as a Doctor Who writer has always been thinking of an interesting central idea and working out how to showcase it to its fullest within the show's time and budgetary constraints. Writing one story a year under RTD allowed Moffat to stand out and ensured he didn't get burnt out by producing too much. He was obviously never going to be able to keep the same degree of inventiveness going across outside of a single story a year but the hope I had (that I suspect a lot f others shared) was that he'd find a way to make his approach work on a series level, using individual stories to contribute to a larger whole that would become clear in the season finale. He groped towards it with series five and the opening sequence of the finale that saw callbacks to a number of events that had happened in earlier episodes. But he dropped it after that and shifted his focus to the infinitely more tedious idea that was the River Song plot and such plays for attention as "starting with the finale."

His time in charge has always felt like it's fallen short of what it could be, like Moffat doesn't quite have the tools or ability needed to make his approach to writing the show work outside of a single story a year. That changed with this episode, as though he'd finally understood how to make all his favourite subjects work on the season scale instead of the episode scale6, just as he's leaving. It's a pity.

While I'm talking about Moffat as showrunner I'll make an additional (infuriatingly) vague comment. Before he took over he was asked in Doctor Who Magazine if there were any stories he planned to write that Davies had never allowed him to. His answer was that he had an ambitious idea for the Cybermen that would alter the way we'd see them forever. I know, typical Moffat hyperbole. Except that WEAT certainly seems like an ambitious Cybermen story that has the potential to alter the way we see them forever. I'll tentatively say this was worth waiting for and hope it's as good next week as it was this week.

That's enough talking about the lead writer for now. Him finally realising his potential as  showrunner after a years-long wait isn't why I liked this episode. It was the ideas. A spaceship reversing out of a black hole, creating different time zones moving at vastly different paces is the sort of thing that could support an entire series. The way it was realised on-screen was very good, making it clear what was going on but keeping things light with gags and character moments (the latter mostly for Bill). Doing a Cybermen origin story is a little cheeky but it made more sense than any other retroactive origin story in Doctor Who that I can think of7. Casting them as damaged humans just looking for a way out of a savage, broken society they were accidentally trapped in is a suitably tragic starting point for them.

The idea of the Simm version of the Master winding up on a stranded spaceship is an interesting one too. There's a strong chance we'll find out how he escaped his duel with Rassilon in The End of Time but I really wouldn't mind if we never did. It's not like it would be out of character for the Master to escape absolute certain death and return to antagonise his bestie, is it? The dystopia of the ship's bottom is a perfect fit for that incarnation of the character.

Which brings me smoothly to Simm's performance. It was very good, although that he spent most of the episode playing a different character and doing a funny accent meant we didn't get as much of his Master as had been implied. The minute or two he spent as the Master at the close of the episode were mostly entertaining because of the writing and the sense of confusion that had been built up over the previous forty-five minutes but Simm put the work in too. His glee at outwitting the Doctor was obvious, a nice reference back to one of his centra motivations opposite the Tenth. 

The other Master got most of her good material towards the beginning of the episode. The bulk of it was humorous and centred on Moffat playing around with Missy knowingly tinkering with the tropes of Doctor Who. There was weightier stuff but not much. I suspect most of her more serious material is being saved for next week as Missy and the Master seemed primed to have a discussion both about their nature, whether or not they can help being "evil", and their friendship with the Doctor, if it's ultimately worth it and if he's been a good friend to them. As things stand now Simm's Master seems to be fully prepared to embrace stark-staring madness and villainy for its own sake while Gomez's Missy, having been mentored and tutored in the ways of hashtag heroics by the Doctor, is our view into the character's more relatable, human side. Gomez deserves some more substantial material as Missy before she leaves, and Simm's Master works best when he's encouraged to chew the scenery. In hindsight Moffat's been setting up the Master's nature as one of his pet projects for a while, at least in part since Missy's introduction. That, along with Simm and Gomez, should hopefully make the Master element of the story's closing half compelling. 

Both Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie were excellent. I mean, that shouldn't be a surprise at this point. Despite having some duff scripts on this show over the last few years Capaldi has never been less than totally watchable. Meanwhile Pearl Mackie has turned Bill into one of the show's all-time great companions and done such good work that she should be in high demand whenever she leaves the show. 

Yes there were things I could have done without in this episode. This is the second time this season the Doctor's been shown regenerating. It's not the ludicrous excess of season six, where just shy of half of the episodes featured some element of the regeneration effect, but it's still too much. It's possible, perhaps even likely, this is all going to tie into Capaldi's exit. The Mondasian Cybermen being introduced in the First Doctor's final story and Capaldi being so close to leaving, along with this episode starting with him seemingly regenerating, invites comparisons and the drawing of parallels8. If this is all tied into Capaldi's exit the regeneration becomes easier to overlook. 

Essentially what I'm saying is that this episode was very good. The best we've had in series ten. Possibly the best we've had since Moffat took over, though that's a bigger claim and one I'd need to rewatch for things before stating absolutely. But it's clearly up there amongst the best work Moffat's done for Doctor Who. If he's driven you away with his nonsense since 2010 come back for this.


1 He's been doing this since The Girl in the Fireplace in 2006 and it was particularly prominent during the Matt Smith series.

2 The Girl in the Fireplace again. See also  the Library two-parter where a little girl who appeared to be living in suburban England had an alien planet, and the Doctor, inside her head.

3 This has been a recent development. It's a rarity amongst Moffat tropes in that it's not designed to show how clever he is and is more about exploring the backstory and nature of a supporting character.

4 The most obvious example is Rory becoming a plastic centurion. It's worth mentioning Danny Pink though, because he got turned into a Cyberman too. Redoing exactly the same thing with Bill (albeit in a far more effective manner) has to qualify as a new low even for Moffat, right? He's not even tried to hide the fact that it's the same thing done again.

5 Basically any of his two part stories. It's not a criticism of his work. It's actually a good trick to be able to pull off with modern Who cliffhangers. But that doesn't change the fact that it's something associated with Moffles more than any other writer on the show.

6 The key, unsurprisingly, was making better use of characters. A big part of what made this episode work was the reveal of the Master in a story alongside Missy. It works well because it's a returning character interacting with a recurring character from the last few years. Another element of this episode's success was the fate of Bill, who spent years waiting for the Doctor at his request, only to die just before he arrived. That's not something that would work without Bill having been such an engaging character over the last couple of months.

7 Yes, that includes Genesis of the Daleks. It's good but not as good as its reputation makes out. I'm also including Listen, Moffat's "secret origin" of the Doctor. But that was awful so it's not really much of an accomplishment.

8 Never even mind those David Bradley rumours.

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