This review contains spoilers.
Well, this is a disappointing note on which to end – or, rather, to begin to end – Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor, and a tenth season which has been markedly better than previous ones.
World Enough and Time is a Moffat episode through and through: I can’t think of a better metaphor for his superficial, sleight-of-hand storytelling than the way that a brilliantly well-judged cliffhanger and two stonking performances from Michelle Gomez and John Simm mask a plot that doesn’t work, some irritatingly show-offy metafictional dialogue and, to round it all off, a dollop of old-fashioned, abusive sexism.
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
The premise: the Doctor, in his infinite wisdom, has decided to set Missy a test. He’s “grazed through” some spacey-wacey distress calls, picked “a good one” and sent her out, with the grudging support of Bill and Nardole, to deal with it, just as the Doctor would do.
The distress call has come from a four-hundred-mile-long colony ship caught in the gravitational well of a black hole. It’s reversing – very, very slowly. That’s not the reason for the distress call, as we find out from the distressed blue janitor who pops up to provide some exposition. The ship, it turns out, is brand new, straight from the shipyards, and is on its way to pick up some colonists. (See also Smile, the second episode of this season, in which, you’ll remember, the robot-city had yet to be populated by the human diaspora.) Two days ago, half of its skeleton crew disappeared to the other end of the ship – the end furthest from the black hole – to, um, engage the reverse thrusters or something. They never came back. Instead, hundreds of new life forms appeared on board the ship: monsters attached to IVs who killed the rest of the crew – except the janitor.
At this point, the janitor shoots Bill, hoping to stop the creatures. The Doctor leaps out of his TARDIS, having given Missy all of five minutes to manage the task he’s set her, only to see Bill being whisked off by the IV monsters to be “fixed”. The Doctor takes up the expository thread, revealing that the unimaginable gravitational energies of the black hole are doing weird things with time: time is running faster at the other end of the ship, away from the black hole, than it is at the end nearest to the black hole.
So, the Doctor concludes, the hundreds of new life signs that have appeared on the ship’s monitors are, in fact, the skeleton crew’s descendants!
Moffat is relying on us all to be too dazzled and confused by the idea that time runs differently near to a black hole (which sounds weird enough to be true, though I’ve no idea if it actually is) to notice that this explanation makes no sense whatsoever.
Think about it from the point of view of the crew who go to the other end of the ship. They obviously managed to engage the reverse thrusters, because the ship is, in fact, reversing. So, what? They get the ship reversing, and then, knowing that it’s still in trouble, they don’t contact their colleagues, or send someone to the top of the ship? They just, what, start having sex? And then completely forget what they were there for in the first place? Presumably driving a colony ship is an important job. Presumably you have to prove that you are responsible and professional before you’re allowed to do it. Logically, all that should have happened with the time difference is that the crew returned in an unfeasibly short amount of time – say, ten minutes to the people nearest the black hole, with the travellers having spent eight hours or so in their frame of reference at the other end of the ship – and, having worked out the issue, everyone stayed together at the top of the ship until it all got sorted out.
I have many more questions about the plot, but I don’t want to spend the rest of the night writing this. Let’s talk about sexism instead.
There are two women in World Enough and Time, both regular characters, both notionally “strong” – going by their backstories and their overt characterisation. The episode passes the Bechdel test. Missy’s supposed to be in charge of the whole party, backed up by a team (Bill and Nardole) that is 50% female.
But this is a Moffat episode. So of course everything goes horribly wrong on Missy’s watch (and it’s her fault – well, her past self’s fault – even though she can’t remember that), and of course the Doctor doesn’t even give her a chance to make it right. Missy spends the rest of the episode following the Doctor around. She can’t even remember the rather vital piece of information that she’s been on this ship before, in a previous incarnation; no, she has to be reminded of this fact by a man (albeit a man who’s also her own past self).
But it’s Bill who really draws the short straw. Stuck down at the wrong end of the ship, she passes years trapped in a grimy hospital with a weirdly 1950s aesthetic, her agency circumscribed by a mysterious male doctor and a male comedy Russian. Oh, and by the Doctor himself, who has planted a message in her subconscious: “Wait for me.”
We’re supposed to read the Doctor’s behaviour as cod-romantic (not real romantic, obviously, because, as the season has been at pains to remind us several times an episode, Bill is gay). At the very least, it’s supposed to be – sweet, I suppose. Caring. Nice.
It’s not. It’s creepy. It’s an invasion of privacy. (Her actual subconscious, remember.) It’s controlling. I’m put in mind again of the Doctor from Knock Knock, the Doctor who refused to leave Bill’s home, even though she asked him to in a way that made it clear she was drawing boundaries.
And it’s ultimately fatal. Bill spends years waiting for the Doctor. She becomes, in fact, another Girl Who Waited; another woman throwing her life away, passive, for a man with so much more in his life. Then she gets turned into a Cyberman (Cyberwoman?); for that’s what the IV monsters are; early Cybermen. The Doctor finds her, and is horrified; her robotic line is, “I waited”. But look at that scene. The reveal, the Doctor’s reaction, the single manipulative tear trickling from CyberBill’s eye. We already know what’s happened to Bill; it’s been teased in the trailers, and the mysterious 1950s doctor has shown her, and us, something that’s obviously that handle across the top of the Cybermen’s heads. This isn’t about Bill, who’s been operated on without her consent and doomed to a life of pain. This is about the Doctor, and how it affects him. This is the literal definition of fridging.
THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON, BY THE WAY.
(Also, if this is the end of Pearl Mackie’s Doctor Who career, it is a sad waste of an interesting character.)
The last thing I wanted to touch on was the metafictional play Moffat’s going for early in the episode, when Missy is essentially filling the role of the Doctor. “I’m Doctor Who,” she says, making fans across the country wince in unison. And when Bill protests – “He’s called the Doctor, so” – she explains:
He says, I’m the Doctor, and they say, Doctor who? See, I’m cutting to the chase, baby. I’m streamlining. I’m saving us actual minutes.
This is Moffat explaining a fifty-year-old joke to us – a joke that a) is the whole point of the show’s title, and b) got stretched almost to breaking point during Matt Smith’s Doctorship.
I get the impression that this is supposed to be clever. And, to be fair, we’ve seen the idea of Missy as metafictional narrator before, in The Witch’s Familiar; but in that episode it was there to do something interesting with the idea of Doctor Who, and the idea of Missy as transgressive and anarchic. Here, it feels like just a smug wink at the camera; though, of course, this episode is only half of the season’s final story, and next week’s episode might expand the metafiction somewhat.
It’s solely because of the Master and Missy that I’m actually quite excited to watch next week’s episode. As I said at the beginning of this post, John Simm and Michelle Gomez are absolutely the redeeming features of World Enough and Time: the Master/Missy is an infinitely more interesting character than Capaldi’s dour, abusive Doctor, and, despite everything, I can’t wait to see what they get up to on Saturday.