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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Doctor Who - World Enough and Time


Doctor Who finales (since 2005 at any rate) tend to be large and epic, often with the fate of the universe at stake. Series 9’s finale took the Doctor and Clara to Gallifrey and to the end of the universe itself. Way back in Series 5, the entire universe had to be rebooted to save it. Series 10 looks set to end quite epically, though perhaps at not quite so large a scale. So far, it is more in the style of the Series 1 finale, which only involved the fate of one solar system rather than the entire universe.

But the entire universe doesn’t need to be under threat for the stakes to be high, and the stakes are certainly high in “World Enough and Time”, the first part of the two-part Series 10 finale by Steven Moffat. While “World Enough and Time” certainly bears many similarities to first parts of previous finales, it also stands apart. It is certainly one of the darkest Doctor Who stories (not just finales), filled with an unrelenting sense of impending doom. Clocks are seen ticking forwards in this episode, yet the feel nevertheless is one of a countdown—a countdown to a terrible catastrophe. Catastrophe is certainly a hallmark of many Doctor Who stories, but rarely does it feel so tangible and so close—not just close to the characters, but to the viewers as well.

There’s a lot to unpack in “World Enough and Time”. It’s a dense script based around some complex scientific topics (and in typical science fiction fashion, not entirely accurately portrayed) and also has a heavy reliance on the show’s past (which is not always to its benefit). Of course, the next episode (the actual Series 10 finale episode) will likely have an effect (either good, bad, or both) on how many of the elements of “World Enough and Time” ultimately work, but looked at on its own, without knowledge of what is to come next (beyond the “Next Time” trailer), it is a hugely enjoyable—if highly morbid—episode that keeps me captivated until the end and has left me eager for the next. Yet it is also a highly problematic episode that also gets a little too caught up in its own self-references.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

World Enough and Time” has one of the most unique titles for any Doctor Who story, which, for me personally, is an initial draw. Doctor Who titles tend to follow the pattern of “The ____ of the ____” or are just a single word (possibly accompanied by an article or adjective). Just looking at Series 10, we have “The Pilot”, “Smile”, “Thin Ice”, “Oxygen”, “Extremis”, The Pyramid at the End of the World”, “The Lie of the Land”, “Empress of Mars”, and “The Eaters of Light”. Only “Knock Knock” doesn’t fully fit the pattern, though it fits it more closely than does “World Enough and Time”. At first glance, “World Enough and Time” doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense and thus immediately grabs one’s attention.

The title comes from the poem, “To His Coy Mistress” by 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell. It’s a phrase that has influenced the title to more than a few books and stories over the years. As Missy’s name is short for Mistress, the meaning of “World Enough and Time” starts to become clearer. The poem begins:
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
In the remainder (which you can read and/or listen to in its entirety here), the narrator attempts to seduce his coy lady by talking about what things would be like if they had infinite time, but since they don’t, they should just give in to their passions now (or rather, that she should give in to his passions—it’s a very one-sided relationship).

Moffat is clearly using the reference to the poem to parallel with the Doctor and Missy/the Master’s relationship. While the Doctor/Master relationship is not a sexual one (that we know of, at any rate), it is one that has long involved both sides trying to tempt the other to switch over. Currently, the Doctor believes thoroughly that he can redeem Missy by helping her to see the true beauty of the universe. Meanwhile, there is also the beginning of a similar struggle, with Missy’s previous incarnation trying to tempt her back onto the path of evil.

Using the specific phrase “world enough and time”, the title also obviously alludes to the colony ship being sufficient as its own world and the effect of the black hole on the passage of time. Steven Moffat loves stories that play with time (though he’s been very restrained in this regard this series until now), so a title that can be made to allude to gravitational time dilation is likely too great a lure to resist (and I don’t blame him in this regard).

Some people have pointed out a later part of the poem that might also have some relevance: “I would/Love you ten years before the flood.” “Before the Flood” is, of course, an episode from Series 9. In particular, the episode contains a thorough description of the Bootstrap Paradox, which could possibly be a hint to how events in “World Enough and Time” are resolved next episode (or not resolved, as the case may be, given the nature of the type of paradox). I don’t know if this is necessarily the case, but it’s an interesting idea. There’s no doubt that there is a lot of meaning hidden in this episode’s unusual title.

World Enough and Time” is also a heavily self-referential episode—which itself is a bit of a time reference. It is packed with knowing winks to fans and references to the show’s long and dense history. Missy’s insistence on calling herself Doctor Who and that it’s the Doctor’s real name is a reference to ever-heated fan debates about the same topic (spurred on by the fact that the credits from 1963 to 1981 and in 2005 listed the character as “Dr. Who” or “Doctor Who”—not to mention stories like “The Name of the Doctor” focusing on the question, “Doctor who?”). Her reference to the Bill and Nardole as, “My disposables, Exposition and Comic Relief,” works as criticism of the Doctor, but also as meta-criticism of the show itself. The Master refers to the “Genesis of the Cybermen”. In-world, the Master is likely drawing on Biblical references to link what is happening to Operation: Exodus. However, it is also a real-world reference to the early 70s story, “Genesis of the Daleks”, which tells the origins of the Daleks. There has long been a desire amongst fans for there to be a story which does the same for the Cybermen. And there are more examples of such meta-textual references.

In fact, I think the episode overdoes it, particularly in the multitude of references to the show’s past that are not easily followed without some knowledge of the past. One of the things I’ve really liked about Series 10 is that it has gotten away from the show’s recent tendency to reference its own past to excess. Of course, the past shouldn’t be ignored, and indeed, Series 10 has had nods to the past—such as the photos of River and Susan in the Doctor’s office, or the appearance of Alpha Centauri—but until now, these nods have been elements that work in the story whether the viewer is familiar with their history or not. “World Enough and Time”, however, floods the viewers with references to the past that require knowledge of them—to the point that it often has to engage in the very exposition Missy criticises in order to explain them. For example, there’s the history of the Doctor and the Master/Missy, including the reappearance of John Simm’s incarnation of the Master.

But while the history of the Doctor and the Master is explained to the viewers, the return of the Mondasian Cybermen is framed in such a way as to expect viewers to already know what they are. “It’s a Cyberman! A Mondasian Cyberman!” the Doctor exclaims shortly after Missy is surprised to learn that the people on the ship are from Mondas. Many viewers will gasp in surprised recognition (or maybe not surprise, since publicity for this series spoiled this quite some time ago), but many other viewers are likely to wonder, “What’s Mondas? Why is a Modasian Cyberman more special than a regular Cyberman?” A show like Doctor Who needs to be cognizant of the fact that there are over 800 episodes comprising nearly 300 stories. Viewers can’t be expected to recognise them all—especially a reference to a story from fifty years ago.

Of course, I can’t deny that, to a fan like myself, the reveal of the Mondasian Cybermen is a moment of pure joy. “Mondasian Cybermen” refers to the original appearance of the Cybermen in the 1966 story, “The Tenth Planet” (note that until “World Enough and Time”, they’ve never actually been called “Mondasian Cybermen” on screen). Over the years, the Cybermen’s appearance has changed considerably, becoming more and more metallic to the point where in the last decade, they have looked like entirely mechanical robots. But their earliest appearance had a more flexible look to it—even having completely organic hands. Of course, special effects technology at the time resulted in extremely heavy, unwieldy suits, which necessitated the first change in appearance in their next serial. For “World Enough and Time”, their design has been very slightly altered to fit what modern-day effects are capable of, yet they remain very true to the originals’ look. They even have the same creepy sing-song-like voice of the originals.

Using the Mondasian Cybermen in the episode not only allows for that “Genesis of the Cybermen” story, but also allows for a much better visualisation of the body horror that is at the basis of the Cybermen. While many Cybermen stories have included humans being converted into Cybermen, their solid metal bodies have placed a distance between the original person and the resulting Cyberman. It’s easy for viewers to dissociate one from the other. Yet the Mondasian Cybermen have a far more human-like appearance, making this dissociation more difficult. Adding in the intermediary stage of the “special patients” makes it virtually impossible.

And there’s no doubt that the build-up to the creation of the first Cyberman is morbid and horrifying, and it’s helped by the bleak appearance of the hospital. The plight of the patients—with their pain being addressed by simply turning down the volume and muting them, or later the headpiece that “won’t stop you feeling pain, but will stop you caring about it”—is tangible and heart-wrenching. Like the best Doctor Who horror, it takes something very real—patients in pain in a hospital—and makes it into something utterly terrifying.

Of course, adding to the horror is the fact that it is also happening to a character that we have come to know and care about: Bill. First, she is shot (in a manner that is incredibly gruesome for Doctor Who, resulting in a hole being blasted through her chest); then she is partially converted and has to carry around a heavy metallic add-on for what would appear to be several years. Finally, she is converted into what would seem to be the very first full Cyberman—a fact we are reminded of, not just because she says, “I am Bill Potts,” but also by the final zoom-in to her face behind the silver covering and her shedding of a tear (that intriguingly comes out the front in the same location as where later versions of the Cybermen have a tear-shaped extension to their eye).

The final cliff-hanger moment is an unbelievable tangle of emotions. It’s horrifying, thrilling, heart-wrenching, exciting, and a ton of other things. It’s incredibly effective storytelling. Unfortunately, it’s also rather problematic.

Bill is only the second/third (depending on whether you count Mickey) non-white companion and the first/second (depending on whether you count Jack Harkness) LGBTQ companion. It is an unfortunate fact that POC and LGBTQ characters are subjected to a higher proportion of violence than straight, cis, white characters in media. There’s a reason why “black guy dies first” and “dead lesbian syndrome” are tropes. While they may not always die first anymore, they still have a tendency to die—often saving the straight, white characters. It’s somewhat disheartening to see something like this happening on Doctor Who, especially since in the last couple of series, Doctor Who has been making huge strides forward in representation and diversity. It is also quite surprising in an episode that is otherwise so self-aware in its criticism of the show’s own shortcomings.

There’s also the fact that Bill is essentially “fridged” here as motivation to propel the Doctor and Missy’s story—to provide the tension in whether or not they can ever truly be friends. On top of that, throughout the story, Bill has no agency whatsoever. She doesn’t want to be part of Missy’s test, but the Doctor thrusts it upon her. She is shot early on and placed in a hospital that she can’t leave without dying and is left waiting there for literally years for the Doctor to show up. All this is to provide motivation for the Doctor to come rescue her, although he gets there too late.

Now, I’m not saying that POC and LGBTQ characters should never have anything bad happen to them, but there should be a better balance than there is, and it’s unfortunate that Steven Moffat and the rest of the production crew didn’t consider this before going forward with this direction to the story—or if they did consider it, that they then didn’t think it a large enough concern to come up with something different.

Of course, this may all be undone next episode. In fact, I fully expect it to be. Moffat never really kills off lead characters. If they do die, they either come back or they get their death delayed indefinitely so they’re effectively not dead after all. I fully expect that something “timey wimey” will happen that will undo what has happened to Bill, perhaps involving a Bootstrap Paradox if the line in “To His Coy Mistress” is really some sort of clue. However, even if it is undone, it doesn’t change the fact that Bill has still had that violence enacted upon her.

Also, if it is undone, it creates another problem, where yet again, there are no consequences for actions in Doctor Who. This has been a major problem throughout Steven Moffat’s run and it is perpetuated every time someone comes back to life. All sense of threat is completely removed, and that’s a shame because this episode is full of threat. It is also absolutely riveting television. But being really, really good does not excuse it of its problems. It’s possible to enjoy something and still acknowledge its problems.

Of course, it may seem a bit early to be criticising this since I haven’t seen the next episode yet and Moffat might have come up with an ingenious solution that removes all the problems completely. However, that kind of argument can be applied to any episode since a future episode can always change things. The story here may not be complete, but there are valid reasons to critique it on its own.

All that said, since there are problems either way, it would probably be best for her to survive as the problematic tropes of her dying ultimately outweigh the consequences problem. I also really, really like her. She’s such a great character and one of my favourite companions.

Putting all that aside for now, there are a lot of other great things about “World Enough and Time”. For a start, there’s Missy—two of them! This is the first ever multi-Master story. There have been many multi-Doctor stories over the years, but there’s never been a multi-Master one. It would have been difficult to do during the original series’ run due to Roger Delgado’s death. Since then, Anthony Ainley has also passed away and there haven’t been a whole lot of other incarnations of the Master to bring together. However, it was bound to happen eventually.

For the record, I loved John Simm’s Master during David Tennant’s time and his performance is just as great now. It’s a thrill to see him back, and I think his version of the Master is the perfect one to put opposite Michelle Gomez’s Missy. I will be honest and admit that I did not catch on that Mister Razor was the Master until after he betrays Bill, even though I knew John Simm was appearing in this episode (honestly, the trailer for this episode was much too spoilery—although admittedly, spoilers can enhance enjoyment). On repeated viewings, it’s very much possible to recognise the Master’s mannerisms behind the disguise, making this a truly masterful (pun intended) performance from John Simm.

As well as being a great performance from the real-world actor, we also see how good a performer the Master can be, as he takes in Bill and pretends to be her friend for several years before ultimately betraying her. Intriguingly, this does kind of mean that Bill has spent more time being the Master’s companion (albeit unknowingly) than the Doctor’s. I have to wonder if this will have any effect later (assuming she regains her humanity).

The appearance of John Simm’s Master has another purpose as well. As I mentioned earlier, his presence provides an opposite temptation for Missy to the one the Doctor provides. Where the Doctor pulls Missy towards goodness, her previous incarnation pulls her towards evil. The Doctor and the Master are like an angel and a devil on her shoulders attempting to control which way she goes.

What I find remarkable is that Missy really does seem to be trying (if not fully successfully) to reform. While it may yet turn out to be some devious deception on her part, even the Master says that he’s worried for his future. I think this is a fascinating direction to take the character. While I don’t think she should actually achieve redemption, her trying makes for something completely new to do with her character.

I have purposely left the opening moments of the episode till last to discuss, since the opening scene is clearly a flash-forward to later events. Given that Peter Capaldi is staying in the role of the Doctor until this year’s Christmas special, I have to wonder if this is another fake out, a flash-forward really far (in which case, what’s it doing in this episode?), or something else entirely. Perhaps next episode is not the conclusion to the story and it actually concludes in the Christmas special? Or maybe the Christmas special somehow takes place during these two episodes? Steven Moffat has said that the regeneration is going to be unlike any other regeneration, so who knows?

Regardless of how it plays out, however, I think it’s impact has been diminished by the fake regeneration in “The Lie of the Land”. It’s a bit like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. We’re less likely to believe it to be real. Honestly, when I first watched the opening, my hopes for the episode sank quite a bit. Thankfully, the episode turned out to be far better than I began to suspect. That said, I still think the opening scene is completely unnecessary and doesn’t add anything to the episode. It serves no purpose other than to tease the audience with a sort of false tension (whether the regeneration is real or not). The episode would be better without it.

And so I wait with baited breath to see “The Doctor Falls”. I do have some worries. Steven Moffat is much better at set-ups than he is at resolutions. However, on its own, “World Enough and Time” has some problems, but it’s still an extremely good episode of Doctor Who. It has its eerie and terrifying genesis of the Cybermen, John Simm and Michelle Gomez turning in electrifying performances, and more. No matter how the resolution turns out, it can’t change that.

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