Warning: Potential spoilers for the episode below.
In the review I wrote a week ago for World Enough And Time, I praised that episode but wondered at the end of the day if showrunner Steven Moffat would actually be able to deliver on its promise in the actual finale. There have been times in the past where finales failed to lived up to expectations after a strong build-up (Wedding Of River Song in Matt Smith's era and especially last season's Hell Bent which followed the instant classic Heaven Sent). What would Moffat do with his final finale episode given he had two versions of the Master, a companion who had been turned into a Cybermen, and a Doctor preparing to exit the series? Would he deliver or would The Doctor Falls turn into “Moffat Fails (Again)”?
Almost from the moment it starts, Moffat uses his last finale episode to constantly keep the viewer on edge. From an incredible shot that ends the teaser sequence, few things in this episode go quite as you might expect from the handling of the two different incarnations of the Master to the Cybermen (and which ones turn up in the episode) and indeed the meaning of the episode's title. All things considered, this could have been an RTD era “throw everything and the kitchen sink in!” finale where style trumped substance to the detriment of the story being told.
Thankfully that isn't the case here. For all the feeling of this being a spectacle driven hour of television, Moffat keeps the episode firmly grounded with the characters. From the Doctor trying to do his best in an increasingly terrible situation, Bill's reaction to her new status as one of the Cybermen (nicely performed by Pearl Mackie and Cybermen voice actor Nicholas Briggs backed by some nice visual work from director Rachel Talalay), and two Masters being present, it's all about those characters. That is who they are, what their reactions to the situations they find in are, and the effects they have on those around them.
Even better, Moffat makes real use of those returning elements from Doctor Who's past. The presence of the two Masters pays off the season long story arc involving Michelle Gomez's Missy and closes a gap in the character's history left open by Simm's previous appearance in the role nearly a decade ago. The Cybermen, all the different kinds that appear, are well represented here and the time dilation set-up in the previous episode allows for the different kinds as well as wiping away fears that a certain Cybermen origin story might not be canon anymore. For all the recent criticism from certain quarters of Moffat and Doctor Who as a series in general being too interested in “fan pleasing” in recent times, The Doctor Falls shows that isn't the cast at all.
There is some sense of deja vu to the episode though. Bill's status as one of the Cybermen harkens back to Danny Pink in the finale to Capaldi's first season, though done through the eyes of the companion rather than a never firmly established love interest. Bill's send-off in the closing minutes is one that calls back to Clara's final exit in Hell Bent yet improves massively upon it but not finding a cheat around her previously established fate and tying back into something introduced with the character to begin with. Even the presence of Missy and the Cybermen hearkens back to the aforementioned first Capaldi finale but the episode turns that on its head thanks to Simm's presence and a plot twist early in the episode. It is almost as if Moffat as a writer has looked back over his era, taken note of some of his flawed finales, and given himself a chance to let those ideas shine properly.
Though if this is anyone's shining moment, it is Peter Capaldi's Doctor. After a rough first year in the role where the writers seemed unsure what to make of his Doctor to a more secured footing in his second year, the Scottish actor (and life-long fan of the series) has been knocking it out of the park in his final season. The Doctor Falls is a prime example of that as Moffat gives Capaldi a wide range to cover that highlights everything that has made Capaldi's Doctor what he is: charming, often putting on a brave face in spite of impossible odds, a man who will stand up and speak his heart with a speech any actor who would kill to deliver. Capaldi shines throughout from his first scene on a rooftop tied up to a wheelchair to that final, jaw-dropping scene which sets the stage for Christmas and the episode is all the better for it.
Performances are solid all around with virtually everyone getting something akin to a send off in terms of main cast. The aforementioned Mackie hands in perhaps her best performance as Bill as she comes to term with her existence with plenty of shades of the creature from Mary Shelly's Frankenstein which gives the actress some of her most powerful material. Matt Lucas' Nardole never quite escapes his having sidelined for most of the season yet gets some nice moments here. The two Masters are also a highlight of the episode, wonderfully playing off of each other both in a comedic and dramatic sense which shows the real differences between them. Indeed, one almost wishes there had been more of the two together but it is perhaps better to leave viewers like children with candy: wanting more rather than risk giving them too much.
More than anything else, The Doctor Falls feels like the beginning of the end for the Moffat/Capaldi era. It nicely ties off so much of the Capaldi era while also paying homage to and bringing back elements from its past. It sees Moffat turning tables one more time and even improving upon elements he had used far less successfully in previous finales. It also sets the stage for one last hurrah at Christmas that will see showrunner and leading man alike finally leave the stage.
If it's as good as this was, then we're in for a treat.