Doctor Who is, and always has been, a family drama, so in theory it should be palatable and accessible to all points of the age spectrum at all times; in practice it’s always oscillated wildly between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. There are some episodes a little too silly or garish for my tastes, but which my son adores. Equally, there are episodes I consider mature, thought-provoking and insightful that my son considers confusing, boring or terrifying, or sometimes all three at once.
The show’s tone can change between and within seasons, and sometimes even within episodes themselves. From its inception the show’s been on a tone rollercoaster: from the stern and semi-educational stylings of William Hartnell’s grandfatherly doctor, to the karate-chop hijinks of Jon Pertwee, to the Mary Whitehouse-bating body horror and gothic grizzliness of Tom Baker’s early years, to the girny slapstick buffoonery of Sylvester McCoy’s maiden season, to the multi-layered, sometimes senselessly intricate and confusing pseudo-nonsense of Steven Moffat’s stewardship.
Season 10 of Doctor Who (or season 37 if you’re that way inclined), its most recent, has grappled so ferociously and frequently with love, loss and the haunting spectre of death that it’s hard to imagine the gooey cuteness of the Adipose, Pex of Paradise Towers or the farty menace of the Slitheen existing in the same universe. While the show has also never been funnier – the impromptu appearance of the Pope in Bill’s living room being an especial highlight this season – Capaldi’s impending departure has cast a death-shaped shadow over the season that’s introduced a heavy, inescapable note of sadness to the show. If this sounds like a criticism, it most definitely isn’t. The marriage of mirth and melancholy has been a godsend for the show, as has the marriage of Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, who have been uniformly excellent together. And let’s not forget Matt Lucas, who was an incredibly pleasant surprise – almost a revelation – as Nardole.
Steven Moffat is occasionally guilty of over-loading his narrative, throwing more elements and novelties into a story than its structure can bear, until the episode collapses in on itself, or disappears through a wormhole up its own arse. ‘The Doctor Falls’, however, was pretty much perfect in terms of pacing, mood, dialogue, plot, emotion, the loops and links within the double-episode finale and to the series’ own past, and the deft handling of some of Doctor Who’s most iconic monsters and villains. The Doctor Falls – haunting and affecting; immersed in hope, horror, sadness and goodbyes, and all draped in the cold white of death – was a fitting swan-song for Bill and Nardole, and a somberly satisfying sort-of send-off for both the twelfth doctor and Steven Moffat himself.
David Tennant’s pre-regenerative parting plea – ‘I don’t want to go’ – is regarded with a sneer by a vocal minority of fans, who consider it a particularly egregious example of Russell T Davies’ over-fondness for schmaltz and sentimentality. The Doctor would never behave like that, they snipe. He never greeted any of his previous regenerations in such a spirit of whiny arrogance before. It’s not death, just change.
But it is a death. How could it be anything other? When we move towns, countries or houses, when we leave school, get divorced, become parents or start a new job, our changing brains and circles (of both friends and influence) and circumstances and stances and outlooks change so drastically – albeit slowly over time and not finger-click quick like a regeneration – that the new people we become are almost entirely disparate entities, with perhaps only a tangential connection to our ‘true’ or ‘original’ self. We break with our pasts, our youths, our lives, in a dance of perpetual reinvention. Imagine how we would feel if we routinely changed our entire body: face, physiology, biochemistry, height, weight, age (gender?), everything. Who would ‘we’ be?
Moffat managed to make the Doctor’s impending regeneration feel like the most final of goodbyes, despite the fact that we all know it isn’t. His handling of both the Doctor and the Master/Missy really hammered home the point that each new version of these characters is so distinct from the others as to be wholly separate beings. The Twelfth Doctor has moved away from the exquisite alienness of his first few years to embrace a deeply earnest sense of humanity and kindness. Missy found redemption, of sorts, through death at the hands of her previous incarnation. With that in mind, it makes sense to arrive at the conclusion that if Time Lords can counter their core instincts, if regeneration can favour revolution over evolution, then each regeneration is certainly a death. But the final message needn’t be fatalistic. Perhaps the feeling we should take away from the finale is that the power, and hope, of change resides in all of us.
The Doctor Falls lends legitimacy to Tennant’s farewell, and adds a greater poignancy and sadness to Capaldi’s upcoming exit, an exit I’m already very, very sad about. On the strength of this incredible episode (both of its parts) I may even miss Moffat, too.