‘Doctor Who’ Regeneration Review: ‘The Doctor Falls’ Into A Long-Deserved Guilt Trip

The Doctor Who Regeneration Review is a weekly column cataloging all the times Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor nearly regenerates, or dies, in the latest episode of BBC America’s popular science fiction show. Since this is the Scottish “cross” character’s final season — a fact the showrunners have enjoyed teasing in the promos — we decided to tease back. Most items are serious, some silly, and all measured with the Doctor’s ?.

In columns past, I brought up the season eight finale “Death In Heaven” to make the point that outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat has been regurgitating the same ideas from past Doctor Who episodes. This is especially true of situations in which the Doctor, faced with an insurmountable problem, readies himself for the final battle of his many lives before a companion or supporting character steps in to save the day. Moffat is by no means the only writer to implement this device, as “The Eaters of Light” scribe Rona Munro — a Doctor Who luminary — did just that with her jaunt through ancient Scotland.

Moffat mostly avoided the trope in “World Enough and Time,” which ended on a cliffhanger designed to steer audiences toward “The Doctor Falls.” Yet the “Death In Heaven” comparison remains, for like former companion Clara Oswald’s (Jenna Coleman) boyfriend Danny (Samuel Anderson), Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) finds herself “upgraded.” That is to say, Bill is no longer a human being from the 20th century, but a member of the Mondasian Cybermen‘s ranks. And despite the Time Lord’s promise to make things right, she will never regain the life she lost when a nervous, gun-toting alien blasted her into oblivion.

The Doctor has yet again let a companion down. Sure, both Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Master (John Simm) are there to rub it in, but it’s not enough to distract from the fact that “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls” are singing the same old song. But then something remarkable happens. Moffat and director Rachel Talalay devote a considerable chunk of time to Bill’s perspective, through which we realize she still sees herself as human — despite the new robotic components. As the Doctor puts it, her mind is strong enough to look past the machinery. This better serves Bill and Mackie, as it retains some agency for what appears to be the character and the performer’s final episode. It also serves as an hour-long, and long-deserved, guilt trip for the Doctor. Bill has no choice but to leave when the credits roll. The dying Time Lord raves against his coming regeneration, of course, but the failure reminds him — and Moffat, perhaps — that he too must go.

“It’s the scarecrows” (??????)

At first, “The Doctor Falls” doesn’t even feature the Doctor, nor anything else that happened in “World Enough and Time.” A small community of adults and children go about their lives in an agrarian setting void of anything remotely technological. At least until the camera pans to a field of crops overseen by a bunch of “scarecrows,” which are actually incomplete Cybermen. Up in the sky, the metallic ceiling of the spaceship is seen, and from a level below a spaceship crashes through the ground and onto a field. Out from it emerges Cyberman Bill and, cradled in her arms, an unconscious Doctor who very well may be dead.

“Ugh, granddad’s back” (?????)

Turns out the bloodied Doctor isn’t dead yet, but death is imminent and not far behind that… regeneration. Why? Because the Master and Missy have teamed up against their lifelong Gallifreyan rival and beaten him within an inch of his thirteenth life. In a brief flashback from before the crash, they toy with their victim atop the very hospital that converted Bill into a Mondasian Cyberman. They name all the ways the Doctor may or may not have already died in his past incarnations and, when unable to agree upon precisely how to kill him, ask if he has “any requests.”

“It’s fine” (????)

Missy, confessing she is “of two minds” about helping the Doctor, knocks herself (i.e. the Master) out — allowing the three of them, Cyberman Bill and Nardole (Matt Lucas) to escape in a commandeered shuttle. They make it as high as deck 507, where they stumble upon the agrarian community and set about preparing for war. Through it all, we discover the Doctor is dying — the result of his being beaten by Missy and the Master, and later ambushed by a Cyberman — and has been fighting off his regeneration. Hence why, when Bill sees the familiar flicker of golden light and asks what’s wrong, the Doctor lies.

“Doctors are not required” (??????)

There is nothing the Doctor can do to physically save Bill’s humanity. She is lost to the Cybermen, but her mind and heart prevent her from undergoing a full conversion, allowing her to fight alongside him in the end. He, meanwhile, keeps fighting instead of being sacrificed for — allowing Nardole and the community to escape to safety in another level of the ship. The result is what appears to be a final battle between the Doctor and the Cybermen, complete with fiery explosions, clouds of smoke and a fully weaponized sonic screwdriver. One of the villains nearly takes the hero down, but not before he razes the entire level.

“The original, you might say” (????)

Despite triggering a blast that killed all of the Cybermen around them, both the Doctor and Bill manage to survive. The former, however, is as beaten and unconscious as he was in the first scene — leaving Cyberman Bill all alone on level 507. Or at least that’s what she believes until Heather (Stephanie Hyam), the girl Bill fell in love with in “The Pilot” before the premiere’s titular being absorbed her, reappears to save the day. Heather absorbs Bill, then the two return the Doctor back to his T.A.R.D.I.S. before gallivanting off into the universe together. When he comes to, the Time Lord’s body is fighting to regenerate, but he still won’t allow it — even when another “original” makes a surprise appearance in the final shot.

Peter Capaldi’s final Doctor Who episode will air Christmas Day on BBC America.