‘Doctor Who’ season finale recap: ‘The Doctor Falls,’ but he also finds himself — literally

Last week’s episode of “Doctor Who,” “World Enough and Time,” left our characters in dire straits. The Doctor visited a distressed space station with his companions Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas), along with special guest Missy (Michelle Gomez) — the Doctor was trying to teach his former nemesis to be a hero. But things didn’t go as planned. The space station was trying to escape the pull of a black hole, and the gravity affected the passage of time. When they became separated, Bill experienced 10 years on one end of the station while the Doctor experienced mere minutes on the other. Ultimately, Bill was transformed into a Cyberman and Missy met her former incarnation, the Master (John Simm). Things weren’t looking too good coming into tonight’s season finale, “The Doctor Falls.”

Written by showrunner Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay, “The Doctor Falls” premiered on July 1. Read our recap below for the top five takeaways from the new episode.

Floor 507

After last week’s intense drama, “The Doctor Falls” has a strangely idyllic beginning, with a horse-drawn carriage carrying children across a lush green field. There’s a bright blue sky, behind which we can faintly see the number “507,” which makes it clear that we’re still on the space station. But there are shades of something sinister going on here. The proto-Cybermen from the 1056th floor sometimes find their way upstairs; the townspeople defeat them and string them up as scarecrows.

The Doctor has also found his way up here. When the Master and Missy team up against him, he reprograms the Cybermen to target Time Lords, which forces them all to flee, along with Cyber-Bill and Nardole, in a shuttlecraft Nardole has procured. But they only make it about halfway up the station to this countryside-in-space on the 507th level. But they won’t be alone for long. The time dilation is still in effect, which means time is moving much faster on the bottom floor than it is here in the middle. That means the Cybermen have already had years to regroup, upgrade, and plan an assault on the higher-ups. So the Doctor needs to prepare these isolated villagers for war.

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Why We Fight

The odds are not in their favor, and it’s not clear at this point which side Missy is on — was she just pretending to work with the Master, or has she really relapsed back into evil? The Doctor tries to convince them to stay with a marvelous speech delivered by Capaldi that is no less than a summation of the Doctor’s mission, not just in this adventure but in all adventures.

“Winning? Is that what you think it’s about?” he tells the Master and Missy. “I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. 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 and maybe not for long. Maybe there’s no point to any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it until it kills me. You’re going to die too someday. When will that be, have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help — a little. Why not just at the end just be kind?”

It’s scenes like this that remind me why I appreciate “Doctor Who” as much as I do. It’s unironic and unwavering in its philosophy of kindness. Capaldi delivers that speech with a poignant blend of desperation and hope, and in trying to convince his polar opposite, the Master, we see a clash a fundamental worldviews. Do you choose kindness or self-interest? What’s easy or what’s right? This reflects not just a conflict between the Doctor and the Master, but within individuals and societies the world over.

The ultimate irony here is that the Doctor’s words echo the words spoken to him earlier this season in “Extremis.” His gone-but-not-forgotten wife River Song sent him a message that said, “Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit. Without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.” That message prompted him to choose kindness and save Missy from execution, and in doing so he has given her the power to betray him. If and when the Doctor falls, it’s for the sake of kindness.

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Missy At War with Themself

At first it seems that the Doctor’s words have fallen on deaf ears. “Thanks for trying,” says Missy before selfishly escaping with the Master. But a subsequent scene between Missy and the Master is just as important, and reveals that the most pivotal moral arc of the season may be Missy’s. Here she’s caught between an impulse to do good (the Doctor) and an impulse to serve only her own interests (her former self, the Master).

In the end, at least for a moment, she chooses good. She stabs the Master — a fatal wound, but it will kill him slowly enough for him to reach his own TARDIS before he regenerates into Missy. This is a powerful symbolic act. By killing him she is choosing to take what’s evil within her and regenerate it into something that might be better. “He’s right,” she tells the dying Master before turning her back on who she used to be. “It’s time to stand with him. It’s where we’ve always been going, and it’s happening now, today.”

But the Master is so devoid of empathy he can’t even bear to see it within himself. He kills Missy in return with a blast from his sonic screwdriver. He says that her death will be permanent — she won’t regenerate. It’s impossible to know for sure if that’s true since the Master seemed to have been killed off for good before Missy first turned up in season eight. But even if, for the sake of argument, this is where Missy falls, then like the Doctor she will have fallen for the sake of kindness.

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Where There’s Tears, There’s Hope

Bill is the subject of another heartbreaking story arc, and Mackie gives one of her very best performances of the season. When she wakes up on floor 507 she still thinks she is herself, and is horrified to discover her transformation into a Cyberman. Her mind has protected her from the reality of this transformation, but she may not retain her humanity for much longer. “I don’t want to live if I can’t be me anymore,” she tells the Doctor, “and that’s not possible, is it?”

“I’ll tell you what else is impossible: a Cyberman crying,” says the Doctor. “Where there’s tears, there’s hope.” He’s referring to the fact that Bill is still able to cry real tears despite her transformation, but this also has a more fundamental meaning. Feelings of despair mean there is still hope because it means there is still the capacity to care. This is reminiscent of “The Lie of the Land,” in which the Doctor responded to Missy crying over her past deeds and said to her, “I’m sorry, but this is good.” “Doctor Who,” kind of like Pixar’s “Inside Out,” reminds us here that sadness is an important part of humanity. Where hopelessness lies is in the Master, who has no feeling for anyone and literally destroyed himself — er, herself — at the first hint of kindness within him.

But for Bill there really was hope, and not just in retaining her humanity in her cybernetic form. After the battle with the Cybermen ended with the Doctor sacrificing himself to save the villagers, Bill mourned for him, but then she was suddenly restored to her original self — sort of. The season came full circle with the reintroduction of Heather (Stephanie Hyam) from “The Pilot,” the girl whom Bill developed feelings for in the season premiere before Heather was absorbed by an alien liquid substance that assumed her form — you know, that old story. The alien still retained much of Heather’s thoughts, feelings, and personality, and left Bill with her tears before she departed. That’s how Heather found her again: Bill’s despair over the Doctor drew her back, and she was able to instantaneously free Bill from her cybernetic shackles by making her into a liquid lifeform just like her.

Okay, that’s a stretch, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief on that story point since it already involves a sentient liquid alien traversing the galaxy to save her girlfriend. Heather tells Bill she can restore her to human form. “It’s just atoms, you can rearrange them any way you like,” Heather says, but before Bill makes her decision she decides that she wants to explore the universe with Heather for a while in their current liquid state. It’s hard to say whether Bill will return to the show, but Moffat certainly leaves the TARDIS door open for the possibility.

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The Last Shall Meet First

Heather returned the Doctor to the TARDIS before leaving with Bill to travel the stars. The Doctor is dying, but he resists regenerating. “I will not change!” he insists, willing himself to remain in his current form. But the TARDIS has a mind of her own and has taken the Doctor to an unknown icy world.

“Who is that?” says a voice somewhere in the storm. The Doctor identifies himself, but the voice answers, “No, I don’t think so,” as he starts to come into view. “You may be a doctor, but I am the Doctor — the original, you might say.” He fully appears and reveals himself to be the very first incarnation of the Doctor who appeared on the series from its debut in 1963 until 1966.

The first man ever to play the Doctor was William Hartnell. He died in 1975, so this isn’t the same actor of course, but it is an actor who has a special connection to Hartnell: David Bradley, who played Hartnell in the 2013 telefilm “An Adventure in Space and Time,” which chronicled the early days of “Doctor Who.” I suspect more will be explained about this encounter in the Christmas special at the end of the year, when the Doctor will finally regenerate into his 13th form. Until then it’s a fitting end for the season, first with Bill reuniting with her Pilot, and then with the Doctor finding himself — literally.

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