So just what does make a good Doctor Who finale? The really basic answer is the same as it should be for any television show, bring the many stories to their logically and emotionally satisfying conclusions, with a fun twist thrown into the mix for good measure. In its modern era, Doctor Who invites climatic stories with the biggest stakes possible and promises answers to the most impossible of mysteries. To get this show to include any story that goes over the course of a series, considering how the show flits between genres, resetting the narrative every time. This certainly is a tall order and Doctor Who finales are generally a lot better than their reputations would suggest, the Russell T. Davies' finales have cast a fairly long shadow as most of them are forced to give us an emotional impact rather than one that encapsulates all of Doctor Who's strengths.
The Doctor Falls comes the closest to bucking that particular trend, giving us a payoff to several of the long running plot threads with only a couple of small missteps. But given everything that it is supposed to do, it is a towering achievement. Lets look at Missy's attempt to turn good, something which qualifies as a series long story arc, there shouldn't be any good way of bringing this tale to a close. Of course, this is Missy so there is no way that she would really conform to how the audience think she should. Maybe this episode should have revealed that Missy had been lying all along and none of what the Doctor was trying to do actually mattered. Missy pretending to be good is easier to believe in The Magicians Apprentice/The Witches Familiar because of Michelle Gomez's mercurial performance but not so much here, as it is trickier to believe she is being earnest about anything.
This two-part story has the perfect solution to this problem though, there is no need to worry about reverting back to her old ways when he is already standing there. Missy looks like the model of sanity next to John Simm's incarnation, who would rather destroy his own future rather than let her stand with the Doctor when it really matters. With the upcoming Christmas Special being given a very special opportunity to give us a brilliant two-Doctor tale, this story is perhaps the best example of two incarnations of the same Time Lord sharing the screen ever. Simm gives us the showier of the two performances, being cruel and snarly and showing a deeply wrong horniness. More than any of the others, it is his Master who is driven by the deepest of hatreds, no matter who they are aimed at. Just as Missy tells him when she stabs him, he burnt like a screaming world on fire. He is too busy burning to listen to the Doctor's pleas. He can never outsmart the Doctor but he can always spite him by refusing to help and giving the Doctor the satisfaction that his old friend is still in him somewhere. It is that reason he refused to regenerate in Last of the Time Lords and it is for that reason that he kills Missy.
Michelle Gomez's performance is much more subtle. Following three series' worth of characterisation, there is a sense here that her character is complete and that she has said all she needed to say and do all she needed to do. But there is also a deep sadness that underlies her performance, almost like she has had fun being evil but now she notices what she must do and what is right. Her final scene with Simm speaks to the brilliance of externalising her inner conflict. Maybe Missy, maybe from the moment she first locked horns with John Pertwee's Third Doctor, she has always been headed to this moment, the day she choices to stand with her friend. But maybe the Master is right and there was no other way for this to end but by shooting each other in the back. But as the Rani once observed, the Master would get dizzy walking on a straight line, so it is fitting that Missy meets her end, until her inevitable reappearance in the future - with the most complicated and devious betrayal. The Doctor Falls gives us Missy at her best and the Master at his worst and both their points of view are perfectly valid. Their plot line in this episode gives us an example of perfect ambiguity.
And then we've got Bill. I think it is always going to be controversial as to whether or not she got a payoff to her plight at the end of World Enough and Time. I'll get back to the resolution in a bit but the storytelling leading up to that moment is excellent. The device of Bill seeing herself as human and the Doctor's well established perception, gives Pearl Mackie plenty to do. The script picks the best moments to switch between Bill's perception and her actual Cyberman appearance. Of course, it would be hilarious to hear Nicholas Briggs delivering some of Mackie's lines in the singsong voice of a Mondasian Cyberman, especially with her final line to the Doctor about being glad he knows she likes women her own age. But this kind of enjoyable silliness is more than justified when you look at scenes where the Master thinks he has failed to torture the emotionless and unperturbed Cyberman and when she is crying over the fallen Cyberman.
What really makes Bill work in this story is that it undoubtedly remains her story. The end of the previous story was left ambiguous as to whether her conversion mattered in terms of the Doctor's failure. But it is the Doctor, who appears to be the companion as his companion learns to navigate her new reality. It is her own mental fortitude and months spend living under the thrall of the Monks that has allowed her to go against her Cyberman programming. She is the one who displays enough bravery to stand before the three Time Lords and face what might possibly come out of the lifts. And she is the one who makes the Doctor promise not to let her live in her new predicament. As was made clear in The Pilot, Bill is remarkable and her time on board the TARDIS as only served to sharpen and hone what was already there.
Mentioning The Pilot, I might as well talk about how Stephen Moffat gets Bill out of her current predicament. Now, the resolution for Bill worked for me, though it wasn't as clean and affecting as it could have been. I think the reason why this resolution works is that Bill suffers so much over the course of these two episodes that many had wanted to see her released from her torment. This episode takes the real horror of her situation seriously enough that it feels like relief rather than a cheat when it finds a way to undo it. And whether you buy into that depends on how you like your moral logic in Doctor Who. Is this really a show that should show the potentially deadly dangers of travelling with the Doctor, or should it show something kinder, as a reward for those dangerous situations the characters get themselves into in the name of what is right? Can the Doctor and his friends earn their happy endings or is it more important to mention that sometimes, things just don't turn out how we want them to?
I won't claim to fully know the answer to this point but it has been one lurking around the companions right from the beginning of the modern series with Captain Jack and then Rose Tyler. Personally I favour the kinder departures as I love the classic series, where virtually all the companions got their happy endings but I can also understand why people don't like these conclusions where something is undone - even in the most strange choices. Bill really has had such a joyous presence on this series that it feels so right that she gets to travel the universe with the woman she loves. My only problem here is that the conclusion of her arc would have had more of an impact if Heather had stayed around for a little longer than she did. The clue of Bill's tears is slightly too flimsy to bridge two episodes and to make this twist feel fully earned. I am being perhaps a little too forgiving but Bill really did deserve her happy ending but there is no doubt in my mind that this will be the episodes most divisive moment.
Shortly, before we get to the Doctor himself, lets spare a thought for Nardole. Doctor Who doesn't handle a secondary companion very well, unless they are already part of the team like Ian and Barbara were with Susan. The Doctor Falls doesn't hide the fact that Nardole is the fifth most important character in this piece and while his story is a little thin, he does a get a story and he proves himself to be every bit the Doctor's equal. His brilliance at computers come in very handy in dealing with the Cybermen and he notices the heart-breaking speech the Doctor is giving him as a farewell. The Doctor points out that Nardole is stronger than him at dealing with a group of terrified humans. But as with Heather's appearance, Nardole's departure might have had a little more impact if more had been made of his unsavoury past, luckily Matt Lucas's performance was strong enough to really hit home that he was indeed leaving. Nardole was a character I wasn't looking forward to, indeed in The Return of Doctor Mysterio, he bugged me but when he left in this episode, I found myself shedding a tear! What little story he had in this episode had made me realise how much I had come to like him, following Missy's death, this was the second time I cried at this episode.
As with Michelle Gomez, it doesn't feel like there is much more to be said about the brilliance of Pete Capaldi, one of my favourite Doctor's. Through his performance, we get a Doctor who knows exactly who he is as he is played by an actor who knows exactly how he wants to play him. I felt utterly absorbed with the narrative about his refusal to regenerate and to change. We got a little bit of this in Deep Breath, where he has to come to terms with the fact that he isn't the man he was - but no rendering of his character can take away his kindness and love for everyone that ultimately shines through. He shows both of these factors through this episode, from comforting a scared little girl to pleading with the Master and Missy to stand with him to the end. Series eight saw the Doctor hiding from that kindness, series nine saw him beginning to re-embrace it and series ten sees him embodying it whole heartedly.
So it does make perfect sense that this Doctor wouldn't want to regenerate. He has to give up the clarity he has earned over the course of his life. And it also makes sense that Stephen Moffat and Capaldi would want to devote the final episode to an element of the series that has been missing for so long. Even in Time of the Doctor, regeneration was used as a plot point rather than something we can use to understand the Doctor. Having the Doctor refuse to regenerate for a whole episode gives us the unique opportunity to explore what such a state of change means to a person. And just as Missy's redemption made the multi-Master idea more than a gimmick, so too could the Doctor's wish to end make his multi-Doctor episode at Christmas feel more than just a piece of fan service.
But if The Doctor Falls is any indication then Stephen Moffat and Peter Capaldi plan to leave the series on a real high, with each bringing out the best in each other. So for now, it is enough to say they managed to pull off the best series finale in Doctor Who history...