Well, that wasn’t Chris Chibnall putting a cat amongst the pigeons, so much as a bomb. Literally so, it seems.
As promised, he blew up pretty much everything we knew – or thought we knew – about TV’s venerable Time Lord, the mad (wo)man in a box, and it was in equal turns shocking, mystifying, enthralling, staggering, gut-wrenching, sheer madness, breathtaking, audacious, and utterly glorious. Whether any of what happened in this season finale will matter one jot to Joe Public remains to be seen. But seeing as how the basics of the show – running away from Gallifrey, stealing a TARDIS, etc. – are pretty much widely known, this big ‘reset’ button shouldn’t be too much for them to cope with.
It’s the fans I worry about. Maybe this was the episode which needed a helpline number at the end, not ‘Can You Hear Me?‘.
Even with the extra 15 minutes of running time, there was a heck of a lot of ground to cover in this episode, and it seems that for every question answered, another one sprang up in its place. Look, the show’s called Doctor Who, and it seems that we need a certain amount of mystery about the lead character in order to justify that title. Whatever you may think of Chris Chibnall as a writer, he definitely restored that central mystery at the programme’s core, and pretty much delivered it in spades. This is certainly as monumental as 1969’s ‘The War Games’, when we found out for the first time who the Doctor was, and where he was from.
Well, we thought we did, anyway. Chris Chibnall hasn’t as much upset the apple cart as torched the entire orchard, cackling wildly as he goes. In fact, in the same manner you might imagine Sacha Dhawan’s Master doing it. Let’s be honest, even if the rest of Series 12 had been a complete write-off (and some might argue that case), Sacha Dhawan is easily the best thing to come out of it. The description of Lord Byron (who we saw only two weeks ago) – “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – is easily applied to Dhawan’s Master, who’s been a malevolent delight, filling every scene with gleeful menace, and posing a real, credible threat not only to the Doctor, but the whole universe.
It’s just an awful pity the material he was give to play with wasn’t especially original, particularly as far as season finales go. Featuring the Master and the Cybermen? Been there. Twice, in fact. Having the Master reanimate dead bodies as a new race of Cybermen? Yep, old hat. Having one of the Doctor’s old enemies threaten to destroy all life in existence with a doomsday weapon while the Doctor’s immobilised? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. However, that’s not to say that Chibnall’s take on themes or story ideas previously used by Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies is without merit, and in some aspects, he manages to deliver in a more satisfying manner. Still, more of a remix than an original composition, all the same.
For casual viewers, there was enough here to signpost that this was A Big Important Thing, and that they should sit up and take notice. There were also plenty of things blowing up, and bad guys to boo and hiss at. For the fans, there was almost – appropriately enough, given what the Doctor did to escape at one point – sensory overload, with a quick flash through all of the Doctor’s lives as we’ve seen them over the last 56 years, plus a glimpse at ones hinted at way back in 1976, when it was first suggested there had been Doctors earlier than William Hartnell’s incarnation, back when canon was still fairly fluid, and certain things had yet to be carved in stone, seemingly immutable as far as fans are concerned nowadays.
Actually, it won’t necessarily be the fact there were earlier Doctors which some members of the fan community will be unhappy with – it’ll be the revelation that the earliest (as far as we know, anyway) incarnation of the alien child who became known as the Doctor was a little girl. Yes, for the self-proclaimed #NotMyDoctor online community, this must feel like a bit of epic trolling by Chris Chibnall – not content with the current Doctor being a woman, he’s now shown that the pre-Hartnell incarnations freely swapped gender and race. After growing up (or not) on the notion that the Doctor was – and seemingly could only ever be – a string of white men, for those fans this will be the final insult.
Good. We don’t need possessive little gatekeepers, trying to keep the show to themselves, and only have it done the way they like, to the exclusion of everything – and everyone – else. To be honest, anything that manages to enshrine Jo Martin’s place in the show’s lore as the Doctor (as seen in ‘Fugitive Of The Judoon‘), I’m all in favour of it.
Given how momentous this episode was in the history of the series, it’s an awful shame that it wasn’t free from flaws. For example, after building up the lone Cyberman, Ashad (Patrick O’Kane), to be so significant to the overall story, he ended up literally being turned into a deus ex machina, and was terribly wasted in the process. We should have ideally found out more about his background, to discover why he ended up only being part-converted, and how he managed to get his near-religious zeal, which made him an extremely interesting character as a Cyberman; sadly, however, it seems that all of that was just incidental and mere window dressing, which seems a terrible waste of a great opportunity.
It also seemed to be just thrown in at the last second that Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney) was the person behind setting the whole plot in motion of sending the Cyberium back in time in the first place, just to give the Doctor a convenient ‘get out’ clause of not having to make the difficult decision to do the unthinkable, and letting someone else do what needed to be done. For the most part, it also felt like the companions had very little of significance to do, other than extricate themselves from trouble, and it seems to demonstrate ever more strongly that the current TARDIS line-up is simply too crowded, as nobody seems to be getting particularly well-served, so a bit of judicious pruning is in order.
In addition, we’re no nearer knowing how the Master managed to destroy all life on Gallifrey, and it seems firmly as though this time round it’s irrevocable, with no magic way of resetting or restoring everything (until the next showrunner comes along, that is, and decides they want to put everything back as it was and restore the show to factory settings). On top of all that, we’re none the wiser as to just exactly what part the Ireland story from last week played in things overall, although it’s very strongly hinted that it’s tied into the Doctor’s new hidden past. Maybe we’ll get answers going forward, maybe we won’t. After years of having Steven Moffat weave increasingly intricate and complex storylines before casually dropping threads, it’s probably not unusual to be twitchy, but let’s give Chibnall the benefit of the doubt. For now.
Oh, and then just as we’re trying to catch our breath after everything that’s just happened, we get propelled straight into the mother of all cliffhangers, and a nine-month wait until we find out how it’s resolved. Talk about a pregnant pause. Let’s hope a big festive special (let’s have it on Christmas Day this year, please) will be enough to draw in the punters, and get a bit of buzz going again. After all, based on the current information, it won’t be until Autumn 2021 before we get to see the Doctor again after that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be sitting under my desk in a foetal ball, gently rocking back and forth in the meantime.