The episode opens with what will obviously prove to be a red herring with the Doctor beginning to regenerate on a snowy peak (Capaldi’s signed through the Christmas special so unless that’s tied into all this, I’m pretty sure he’ll be fine). We then flash back and discover that the Doctor’s been convinced enough by Missy’s behaviour to let her handle an adventure. So the TARDIS lands on the bridge of a seemingly abandoned ark of a ship, where Missy essentially assumes the Doctor’s role. After a painful sequence between her Bill and Nardole, a Blue Man appears and shoots Bill, the only human in the group. Masked figures take her away and when next she awakes, she’s been healed (given an artificial chest-plate) and is near the bottom of the ship where both she and the Doctor come to learn is on a much faster temporal progression than the top. As the Doctor over a quarter of an hour figures out what to do to reach Bill, she spends years in the bottom of this ship, which has become a sprawling city, where she befriends a ragged caretaker called Razor who shows her how the dying masses (descendants of a small crew sent down there hours ago) are preparing for a conversion procedure which could save them, and allow them to return to the top of the ship in a journey called Project Exodus.
To start off, the teaser at the end of “The Eaters of Light” was very misleading. It suggested Missy was going to be as important a part of the episode as the Cybermen. Make no mistake this is a show about the Cybermen -and we don’t even actually see a Cyberman until the end. This episode takes them back to their origins in “The Tenth Planet” but actually shows their origin rather than simply tell it this time around. Steven Moffat wrote the episode, and I’m sure he was heavily inspired by “Genesis of the Daleks”, still one of the all-time great Doctor Who stories. Like “Genesis”, this episode shows the future Cybermen as people -not only people, but people who are suffering. The scene where Bill and Razor are walking around the city seeing homeless and gaunt people in the streets, it really drives home their humanity. They are essentially human, Mondas being Earth’s twin planet and all. And you can understand why they’d be driven to conversion through cybernetic enhancements. This is what always made the Cybermen interesting and distinct from the Daleks, whose origin was birthed in the end result of fascism. So this story is conveyed relatably but also with that twinge of discomfort, and Bill has to live down here, taking on a job similar to Razor’s, only reassured by the Doctor’s words, “Wait for me”. She also has access to a monitor where she can see very slowly the Doctor’s progression up top (when Razor told her she was watching what was happening now, I was hoping she would say “go back to then”). It’s very convenient, by the way, that the monitor seems to have the exact camera angles and shot composition as the audience.
This isn’t quite the first Doctor Who story to showcase the origin of the Cybermen. But this one definitely does a better job of it than “Rise of the Cybermen”, which though good and a nice commentary on our reliance on technology, it featured reboot parallel universe Cybermen rather than the originals, and didn’t really take their new Cybermen backstory seriously with a little too much CG and campiness. Here, we actually see the masked people in hospital beds, something a lot more relatable, and naturally frightful.
The Doctor is more impressive here than the first time he encountered the Mondasian Cybermen. Yeah, “The Tenth Planet” for the history it made in introducing the Cybermen and the very first regeneration, is overall just an okay story largely due to the Doctor being out of commission for a lot of it (William Hartnell’s declining health being the impetus for his replacement in the first place). But the Doctor’s story alone is nonetheless pretty uneventful -it’s almost entirely him formulating a plan over a few minutes. However Capaldi gets a few very good moments, such as when he explains to his companions about the Master, how he was the only person he remotely related to during his formative years on Gallifrey, and thus why he’s so determined that she change. It’s actually rather heartfelt. As is the scene where he reminisces to Bill. Again we have Moffat over-emphasizing that Time Lords can change gender, but it leads to a funny moment where the Doctor goes on one of his superiority tangents about how Time Lords have gender fluidity and don’t have the hang-ups that humans do, only for Bill to point out they still call themselves Time Lords. The relationship between the Doctor and Bill is important to this episode of course, as Bill occasionally sees a vision of the Doctor and his last words to her during her years with the Mondasians. And of course it’s her hope and faith in him that keeps her spirits. Though Bill doesn’t develop a ton through this experience, obviously not living this life as long as Captain Picard in “The Inner Light” for instance, Mackie still plays the mixture of hopefulness and hopelessness quite well. Her relationship with Razor is also believable. Michelle Gomez and to a lesser extent, Matt Lucas get a good line here and there, but don’t have a very substantial presence in this episode (Gomez will for sure in the next).
But let’s get to the elephant in the room and talk about John Simm. Okay, from the moment Razor first appears, it’s more than a little obvious that’s John Simm under the make-up and this is really the sixth Master in disguise. And honestly I don’t mind that obviousness. Because during the 80’s, Anthony Ainley’s Master would often disguise himself as supporting characters in various adventures of the Doctor -and most times it was pretty easy to notice it was Ainley (even when he’d go the extra mile to change his name slightly in the credits). It was one of those goofy devices that never quite worked dramatically the way it was intended to, but had a charm to it. And I think the intention here is to pay homage to that. I like Simm as Razor as well -he’s a very good actor and plays the part with good humour and affability while maintaining a sense of mystery. You know he’s the Master in disguise, but you don’t quite know what his purpose is, and why he keeps some things secret from Bill.
Another thing I’m very surprised this episode got right was the atmosphere, particularly in the Mondasian city. There’s a gloom in the air all throughout, even in the lighter moments of this storyline. There’s a moment where Bill’s looking out the window asking how many more years she’ll have to wait for the Doctor, it almost looks like she’s living in the London blitz. And that sequence where she first awakens, wanders the halls of the hospital hearing robotic voices chanting “pain”, unable to discern where they’re coming from, and eventually finding a room full of masked figures in beds causing the word to emit from buttons on their wheelchairs -it’s incredibly suspenseful, borderline nightmarish for young viewers. The cinematography and music accompanies it well, and with this mystery and isolation, it feels like it could be a scene out of a horror movie. Performing the scene with good, genuine fear, I wouldn’t mind seeing Mackie in a film like that. Not to mention those original Cybermen probably look scarier than any of their successors.
The penultimate episode of series nine, “Heaven Sent”, was so good I seriously had doubts Steven Moffat actually wrote it. That’s not the case here, as though this episode is really good, it definitely has more than a few of Moffat’s fingerprints. The biggest of which is a horrible scene near the start where Missy in leading the adventure refers to herself as “Doctor Who” and it leads to a huge, awkward scene of weird meta references and repeatedly bringing up the show’s title as the Doctor’s name. Clearly Moffat wanted to make fun of the confusion amongst non-fans thinking the Doctor is actually called “Doctor Who”, but it winds up being a huge comic relief fail and one of his worst written scenes. You see, it used to be special and cool when the phrase “doctor who” was used -a cute little acknowledgement of the show’s title. Hell its usage in the last moments of “The Wedding of River Song” may be the one awesome part of that horrible episode (and perhaps the tribute to the Brigadier). But as of late, it’s been really overused to the point of tarnishing the mystique of the Doctor Who title. This episode just about kills it. “Doctor who” is tossed around frequently, drawn attention to, and becomes just a bad joke. Also, just as a comedy bit, it goes on way too long. There’s some surprising dark humour in this episode which I appreciate, but is a little tonally jarring. Like it’s funny how the Doctor seems to be shot in the middle of one of his typical hero speeches, but then it turns out Bill was actually shot and there’s a gaping hole in her stomach. Also, in a flashback Bill asks the Doctor to promise her she won’t get killed, only to cut to a punchline of her after this horrible wound. It doesn’t help that this scene keeps cutting between her terminal condition and the Doctor making fun of human mortality. Again, I don’t mind this kind of humour and it is funny, just maybe not consistent with the episode at hand. In one scene Bill reminds the Doctor Missy is a murderer, while he defends her by pointing out Bill is eating bacon, which is obviously not the same thing. You could have a whole argument about the Doctor’s flawed logic there. I wish for the bulk of the show we could’ve spent a little more time with the Doctor than a just a minute at a time before it cuts away (however that’s really the only transition of time available for the show to use). Finally, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this episodes’ ending relies on familiarity with the classic series, which the current series almost never does. And for good reason. As much as Mondas and the Mondasian Cybermen mean something to me, to the average fan of New Who it amounts to a bit of an underwhelming reveal. This isn’t like in “The Empress of Mars” where Alpha Centauri was a nice easter egg and mark of continuity, this is the cliffhanger of the episode.
That ending however is quite good, if really predictably forecast. Razor eventually betrays Bill by bringing her to the scientists for conversion, assuring her under his same pretence that it’s for her own good (I love the development of the headplate as the specific means to vanquish emotion). The Doctor and his crew reach the bottom of the ship, right outside the lab. The Doctor and Nardole find a complete Cyberman inside and Missy is approached by Razor. And they really milk these two obvious reveals, dragging them out almost a good five minutes. However it’s fitting with the character of the sixth Master that he’d want to savour his future self’s confusion by hinting to her she’s been there before and that she’s already done something horrible to the Doctor’s “silly little friend”. His ultimate revelation comes when he takes off his disguise with a remark about being the former Prime Minister, which is a little disappointing. His Master was Prime Minister Harold Saxon yes, but it’s not a title that can ever work as an awesome reveal. His line “I’m very worried about my future” is pretty cool though. Both Masters then confront the Doctor, Missy seemingly very quickly switching sides, where they drag out a very obvious line about this not being an exodus but a genesis …of the Cybermen! The Cyberman in the room is revealed to be Bill, and the episode concludes on a great shot of Bill’s eye horrified under the Cyber-mask lamenting “I waited for you”.
I liked a lot of this episode quite a bit and am eager to see where it goes in the finale. Though there have been a number of Doctor team-up stories, there have never been multiple Masters appearing together (largely I expect due to the premature passing of the first and greatest Master, Roger Delgado). But I’m really curious how they’ll interact off each other. John Simm’s got the Ainley goatee now, and I wonder what he’ll be like reprising the role after so long. Simm’s Master was good, but I do think Missy is better. I hope he’ll be not quite as over-the-top as he was previously (though that Ninja Turtle mask is very Harold Saxon) for an adventure poised to initiate what’s definitely going to be the Doctor’s next regeneration. It’s not like he can fake it at will right?