Fan service and good storytelling rarely sit well; but when the fan who wants the return of Mondasian Cybermen is also the show’s star it must be hard to refuse. Add in another fan fantasy with two Masters meeting and you could easily overwhelm any story. That’s without a plot involving two ‘time zones’ and a Cybermen origin story, not to mention the climax of the Missy rehabilitation saga… and the trappings of a Red Dwarf…
But Steven Moffat can tell stories with the most extraordinary economy. He uses the remarkable timey-wimey + flashbacks structure to give himself oodles of time for a properly scary and atmospheric story to develop, weaving in a horrifying emotional journey for Bill, spread out over several months. The direction (Rachel Talaley) matches the intensity of the writing, with a turning circle so tight it goes from high jinks (“Quite the beat really, isn’t it”) to high stakes (the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS to intervene in his experiment) to death, back and forth (“Humans are so mortal. you pop like balloons”). The lighting and the soundscape (Murray Gold’s music combined with the Cyber-refrain “pain”) are superb. And Mackie’s performance, as ever, packs so much in. As Bill rebounds from death and disfiguration she clings to her uncertain relationship Mr Razor, her only ‘friend’ in the world she is stranded in, waiting faithfully in response to the Doctor’s instruction.
“Drink it while it is really hot. The pain will disguise the taste.”
And, yes, honestly, I had no idea who Mr Razor was until after he had betrayed her – despite the master-ish name. I thought this was a beautiful performance in its own right, having no idea, but when you know it’s twice as good – so well judged.
I was delighted to be surprised; even if I wondered how it would have been if we hadn’t been spoiled to some degree by knowing Simm would be in it at all. Similarly the episode builds up to the Cybermen reveal despite the fact that BBC publicity deliberately blew that surprise months ago… What might have been.
The Mondasian Cybermen are, of course, properly scary. But this isn’t just down to the design, it’s the way in the sinister suspense underlines the desperation of what the would-be colonists are doing to themselves in a wretched effort to survive. This story capitalises on what Tenth Planet just takes for granted – the complicity, the self-mutilation, the tenacious adherence to life in some form, whatever the pain and whatever the cost.
I did find myself trying to match it up to Spare Parts, the acclaimed audio serial that inspired Rise of the Cybermen and which is set on Mondas itself, telling its own genesis story. However, it seems to me that it’s possible for the two to co-exist – the colony ship being one effort to depart the dying planet, where the Cyberman experiments were another response – if some of the conversion technology had been taken on the ship and dusted off when the colonists started to die. After all, in Tenth Planet the Cybermen are actually driving Mondas around; so they’re clearly not the same bunch who have a perfectly good colony ship. (Mind you – does that timeline even still exists? We’ve not seen many folk on Earth discussing what happened in 1986 lately.)
Moffat manages to encapsulate the Master and his relationship with the Doctor so precisely:
“She’s the only person I’ve ever met who is even remotely like me.”
As he tries to explain her to Bill.
“We had a pact, me and him. We were going to see every star in the Universe.”
That love/hate relationship.
“If someone kills you and it’s not me, we’ll both be disappointed.”
The episode also manages to pack in so many lovely callbacks – the venusian akido, “his real name is Doctor Who“, and the Master’s old hobby
“Do you still like disguises?”
That’s all on top of Michelle Gomez’s performance which sustains the standard set throughout the series. Now she’s got her previous self as well as the Doctor to spar with!
This is the third episode of the series which has appropriated a title (after The Pilot from the show’s 1963 pilot, Thin Ice from the lost story) though this one is, of course, originally appropriated from the Marvell poem. However, more pertinently, it is inconceivable that Moffat wasn’t aware that it was used for an episode from earlier this year of the River Song audio series.
Anyway, it’s a superb episode – economical, atmospheric, shocking, chilling and exciting. There’s a lot for next week to live up to; and I’m worried it won’t. I’m thinking back to the last great surprising Master episode, Utopia, and what followed that, but of course you can’t judge what’s in one episode on what may be in another, and on its own merits this is really rather brilliant.
Anyway, from the pre-titles sequence, it seems (snow, long hair – oh, and regeneration) that we’ve actually just seen the first of a three-parter which will encompass the Christmas special. If so it’s going to be a long six months before we get the conclusion! I do so hope, after this mini-masterpiece, they are good – for they are the last two Steven Moffat scripted Doctor Who we will ever get. We must savour them.