Doctor Who World Enough and Time review: “macabre and riveting, it coldly metes out a fate worse than death”

Pearl Mackie’s Bill faces a lingering horror, Michelle Gomez is a riot as “Doctor Who” and John Simm’s Master dons a silly disguise

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★★★★★ Did I like this episode? That’s what I was asked by someone in BBC Cardiff, someone at the top of the Doctor-Who-making tree. Haha, no, I did not like it. I couldn’t like an episode that apparently kills off two beloved characters. I feel like howling “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” just as Peter Capaldi does at the beginning as he stumbles out of the Tardis in the snow. But in this case, not “liking” an episode is a peculiarly positive thing. It’s good to be challenged by a predictable old friend once in a while. 

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World Enough and Time is riveting (mostly), macabre (deliciously) and it quite coldly metes out death – or a fate worse than death for someone we’ve grown to love.

Let’s deal first with that shock Scene One. The Death of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. The pre-titles Big Moment which was so top secret it was withheld from the earliest previews. In fact, it had to be, because it hadn’t actually been filmed! Most of this two-part finale was shot months ago, but the Doctor Who team returned to the studio less than two weeks ago to film this crucial scene. As exec producer Brian Minchin told me: “We’re going very close to the wire on this!” 

We’ve long known this regeneration was coming. Steven Moffat has gone on record saying it would happen differently this time, but few anticipated seeing it at the start of episode 11. Six months prior to the Christmas special! I’ve relished Peter Capaldi’s take on the Time Lord so I’m far from pleased that he’s going. I do not like this. That is Shock One.

Shock Two. In April, Steven Moffat warned Radio Times readers in his Series Ten Episode Guide that the Doctor “witnesses the death of someone he is pledged to protect”. Step forward the candidates: companions Nardole and Bill and their fellow traveller, Missy. Very early in World Enough and Time we see Bill shot. A trigger-happy blue alien blows a hole clean through her middle. I stress “clean” not quite in complaint. I don’t need Quentin Tarantino levels of gore in this Kill Bill. I don’t wish to see blood and organs spewing forth; but even if Bill’s innards have been cauterised by the blast, the wound does seem a tad unrealistic. Tame, necessarily, for the family audience. 

Poor Bill! Still a newcomer. Such a popular character. Such a horrible, protracted, lingering demise. Stuck in a hospital from hell. Kept alive by a cybernetic chest unit she can’t bear to look at. Only those creepy patients, a Mengele-like surgeon, a tubby Nurse Ratched and the feral Mr Razor for company. “How much longer, Doctor? How many more years?” (We learn how many in Episode 12.) And then she’s forced into full Cyber-conversion. 

It’s a sickening reveal when the Cyber“man” emerges at the end and bleats in that singsong voice last heard in 1966: “Accessing Bill Potts. Locating Bill Potts. I am Bill Potts. I waited. I waited for you.” It packs even more punch than Jackie Tyler’s Cyber-conversion 11 years ago, or when Oswin Oswald realised she’d mutated into a Dalek in Asylum of the Daleks. It puts the body horror back into the Cybermen. Which is just as it should be. Is there any coming back for Bill…? Again, you’ll have to wait till next week to find out.

The sinister surgeon, the soulless hospital, and the tormented souls crying out “Pain… Pain… Pain…” – a howl that can be dialled down… I sense this milieu may be more disturbing for grown-ups than for little ones. What horror, what disfigurement lurks beneath the knotted bandages of these proto-Cybermen? It really is clever how Steven Moffat embraces the perceived weaknesses of the original 1966 cloth-and-plastic design – scorned and abandoned after their only screen outing in The Tenth Planet – and makes them sting.

The head “handles” are explained by the surgeon thus: “This won’t stop you feeling pain but it will stop you caring about it.” Even the “tear ducts” that featured in some Cyber masks are made sense of in that beautiful final shot, zooming into and out of CyberBill’s eye. We feel her anguish. We may shed a tear too. 

“Had we but world enough and time” is the first line of Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century poem To His Coy Mistress. Ah, Missy! “She’s my oldest friend in the universe.” The Doctor’s grand folly is that he’s put his faith in his old sparring partner. “She was my first friend. So fast, so funny. She was my man crush.” Foolhardily, he’s given Missy free rein in the desperate hope of rehabilitating her. Even by the end we cannot be sure if it’s succeeded.

Michelle Gomez is a riot waltzing around the spaceship, announcing herself as “Doctor Whhooo!” and cheesing off a legion of fans who abhor the idea of the lead character being referred to by the programme title. It doesn’t bother me. At the end of days Steven Moffat is saying the unsayable. Bully for him. Through Missy, he states that Doctor Who was indeed once the Doctor’s chosen name and he sends the series up with a much-needed moment of levity, dubbing her “plucky assistants” Bill as “Exposition” and Nardole as “Comic Relief”. I wish she hadn’t used the word “disposables”.

I’m waiting to see where I stand on John Simm’s Master. Of course, his return is exciting. A coup. During David Tennant’s time, his Master had immense charm despite careering off the scale into lunacy. I look forward to sparks flying between him, Gomez and Capaldi in episode 12. Yet I remain bemused and unconvinced by the Master’s penchant for disguises. 

OK, it’s a handy way to surprise the uninformed viewer, who might possibly recall him from seven years ago. OK, he’s decided to keep hidden from Bill who’d recognise her former prime minister. But Mr Razor’s heavy costume, latex mask, wonky teeth and dodgy accent are presumably in use for months, years even. It’s inherently ridiculous, a reminder of the silly disguises worn in 1980s Who by Anthony Ainley’s Master and Kate O’Mara as the Rani. The whole shtick is easily shed like a Scooby-Doo villain in one theatrical flourish, but it’s directed and performed with such bravura that it doesn’t actually detract from the final moments. 

The close of World Enough and Time is sublime. Steven Moffat’s script deftly cuts between two scenes of revelation, expertly shot by director Rachel Talalay. I love Peter Capaldi’s appalled reactions. Registering that, for the first time in half a century, he’s dealing with the cloth-faced Cybermen from Mondas. That this particular one is – or was – Bill. That he has very badly let her down. And that a deranged former incarnation of the Master has just walked into the room behind him.

Multiple Doctor stories are old hat. I’ve longed for a multiple Master adventure. Here it is. With two superb actors. And great writing from Steven Moffat. Events take a biblical turn as Operation Exodus is eschewed for the Genesis of the Cybermen. John Simm’s Master revels in his Davros Moment as the creator of a monster.

And yet Old Testament aside, this is actually a mash-up of Mary Shelley, of James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. You’ve got Simm as Henry Frankenstein… Nardole lurking on the sidelines as the manservant… Combine Missy and bandaged CyberBill and there’s Elsa Lanchester’s Bride… And Capaldi couldn’t look more like Dr Pretorius if he tried. D’you know what? I am liking World Enough and Time.

Every story since 1963 reviewed in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide

Series ten reviews: 

Episode one: The Pilot ★★★★

Episode two: Smile ★★

Episode three: Thin Ice ★★★★★

Episode four: Knock Knock ★★★★

Episode five: Oxygen ★★★

Episode six: Extremis ★★★★★

Episode seven: The Pyramid at the End of the World ★★★★

Episode eight: The Lie of the Land ★★

Episode nine: Empress of Mars ★★★★★

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Episode ten: The Eaters of Light ★★★★★