Amazing Performances Saved A Tropey Doctor Who Finale

The season 10 finale of Doctor Who opens on an idyllic scene. Beautiful farmland stretches as far as the eye can see. While walking through a field, a child sees a spaceship burst through the ground before falling. From the smoke, emerges a Cyberman holding the Doctor in its arms. Cue opening credits. Earlier, the Doctor is being held captive by the Master and Missy who taunt him as they dance. “Ten years you spend up there chatting. You missed her by two hours,” the Master tells the Doctor while pointing to Cyber-Bill. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor engineers a situation where not only do they have to let him go, they are now dependent on him for their survival.

Cue opening credits. Earlier, the Doctor is being held captive by the Master and Missy who taunt him as they dance. “Ten years you spend up there chatting. You missed her by two hours,” the Master tells the Doctor while pointing to Cyber-Bill. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor engineers a situation where not only do they have to let him go, they are now dependent on him for their survival.

We flash back to earlier, when the Doctor is being held captive by the Master and Missy who taunt him as they dance. “Ten years you spend up there chatting. You missed her by two hours,” the Master tells the Doctor while pointing to Cyber-Bill. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor engineers a situation where not only do they have to let him go, they are now dependent on him for their survival. Nardole shows up with a ship but before he can get on, the Doctor is given an electrocution hug from a Cyberman. Cyber-Bill saves him.

The plot of this episode is relatively simple and a common one on Doctor Who. An unstoppable force threatens a group of innocents. The Doctor steps forward to defend them. In this case, the force are the Cyberman, the Doctor’s companion is now one of them, and there are two versions of the Master to contend with.

Missy (MICHELLE GOMEZ), The Master (JOHN SIMM) Photo Credit: Simon Ridgway

This episode gave me the opportunity to use so many movie terms. A MacGuffin is something that happens to progress the plot but has no other explanation for why it’s happening. Why was the Master on that ship? We know why he was stuck there but why did he go there in the first place? Because the plot needed him to be there. Chekhov’s Gun is a seemingly meaningless event or thing that later plays a significant role. After saying goodbye to Heather in the premiere, Bill touches a tear on her cheek. “I don’t think they’re mine,” she says. In the finale, the Doctor keeps referring to Cyber-Bill’s tears. “Where there’s tears, there’s hope,” he tells her. That tear suddenly becomes significant because it allows Heather to track Bill. Deus ex Machina (God in the Machine) is when an unsolvable problem is resolved in an unlikely way. Bill is a Cyberman. No one can put the pieces back together to make her the person she once was. She was going to die that way. Then Heather unexpectedly shows up to save the day.

Are many elements of this plot contrived? Yes. Is it a stretch to say the ending was earned? Yes. Do I care?

Not really.

The plot was a vehicle to give me amazing performances from this group of actors. That’s what saved this episode for me. Mackie and Capaldi acted beautifully against each other. Michelle Gomez had small but powerful moments with Capaldi and John Simm. Ultimately, I didn’t care about the plot, but it emphasized how much I love these characters.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t see what was wrong with this episode. I can’t ignore it.

The Doctor (PETER CAPALDI), Cyberman, The Master (JOHN SIMM) Photo Credit: Simon Ridgway

Through most of this episode, we don’t see the Cyberman, we see Bill. The Doctor gently explains what happened to her, while Bill grows increasingly horrified. There’s a long history of Black women having no autonomy over their bodies, of women who have survived horrific acts done to them – beatings, torture, rape, being used in experiments, etc. So many of them got through it because they were able to keep some part of themselves protected from the cruelty surrounding them. “You are so strong,” the Doctor tells Bill. “Your mind has rebelled against the programming. It’s built a wall around itself, a castle made of you, and you are standing on the battlements saying, ‘No. No, not me’…You learned to hang onto yourself.”

Bill was torn apart, pieces of her deemed unnecessary thrown away, and was forced into a machine against her will. Bill, like too many Black women, was forced to be strong enough to keep going when everything is telling her to lay down and give up. I can’t ignore the optics of a white man telling a Black woman who is justifiably upset to not get angry because now her anger is dangerous. I can’t ignore the optics of having a Black woman sleep in the barn because she frightens the children or having her treated as a threat to the point that she’s shot at until a white man can vouch for her. “Are people always going to be afraid of me,” Bill tearfully asks the Doctor. This is our history and this is our present without the excuse of being a Cyberman. And throughout all of this, she is forced to work with the man who did this to her. The Master strips her humanity and takes every moment to emotionally abuse her. I can’t ignore these optics, but I wonder if the show thought of it at all. Bill endured more in the past two episodes than anyone should. That anguish was laid out in Pearl Mackie’s expressions and body language. Watching her go through this was painful.

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Bill Potts (PEARL MACKIE) BBC/BBC America

Overall, this episode is a perfect encapsulation of how much the relationship between the Doctor and Bill has built over this season. It pains him to see how much she’s hurting. Knowing that there’s nothing to be done, he will still fight for a way to save her because that’s who the Doctor is. He has a duty of care, a duty to be kind. He’s not lying to her when he says he’ll get her out of this, but he knows he’s wrong and admits to it when she asks. The Doctor who often holds his cards too close to his chest and will say everything is okay when it obviously isn’t, told the truth because that’s who this Doctor is with her. Bill trusts him enough to kill her if she loses herself to the programming and though it will break him to do it, he will.

This was a fitting ending for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. Everything that drives him was laid out. He cares for people he just met, enough to die for them. He tries to explain this to Missy and the Master, and it works to a certain extent on Missy. He finally got through to his oldest friend. The Doctor is always saying “Without hope. Without witness. Without reward.” Missy did what she thought was right, knowing how it would end for her. In that last moment, she decided to stand with him — though he would never know. Without witness. Without reward. What is she willing to die for? In the end, it’s him. Nardole, who would be the first to deny he’s a hero, is influenced by the Doctor to protect the villagers from now on.

Alone on the battlefield, the Doctor shoots Cybermen while reciting the names of places they’ve destroyed. Ultimately, the Cybermen deal the killing blow, but he’s not going to go out alone. He lays waste to the entire the field. He lays dying, wishing that he could see stars. Up on the higher level, Nardole stares forlornly at the lift door, knowing that no one is coming back up. Back in the wasteland, Cyber-Bill walks to the Doctor’s body and cries over him. A puddle forms and Heather reveals herself. She saves Bill, making her a Pilot too. Black women so often have to save themselves and sometimes everyone else too. We’re the caretakers. It was nice to see Bill get rescued by the girl she liked even if that rescue was highly unlikely and resulted from Heather leaving her with what amounted to a tracking device. She even gave Bill a new outfit. Heather can make Bill human again, take her back home.

Bill (PEARL MACKIE), Heather (STEPHANIE HYAM) BBC/BBC America

They lead the Doctor back to the TARDIS, a fitting last resting place for him. Bill’s tear drops on the Doctor as she says good-bye. She goes to wipe it away but stops. “Where there’s tears, there’s hope,” she says echoing his words from earlier. Then she leaves with Heather to travel the universe. The skin under the tear begins to glow followed by a montage of all the New Who companions calling for him ending with Missy. Then he’s back up and fighting the regeneration. He doesn’t want to change again. He’s tired of being someone else. He leaves the TARDIS and stops the regeneration again in the scene from the beginning of episode 11. In the distance a voice calls out to him. A figure emerges from the wind and the snow, we see it’s the First Doctor.

Soon we’ll lose Capaldi and I’ll miss him and what he brought to the Doctor so much. If you ever wanted to know who the Doctor is, remember his speech to the Master and Missy:

“Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or cause I hate someone or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it it, and I will stand here doing it till it kills me…Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.”

BBC/BBC America
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