The two-part finale of Series 10 of Doctor Who, which aired on June 24 and July 1, has now had a chance to settle in our minds a bit, so I thought it might be advantageous to look back on it to examine its themes and messages. It delivered a lot of flash and action, but much also in the way of a point-of-view. It’s always interesting to see how a television series responds to the current social, or cultural, or political climate. They all in some way deliver a specific view of the world of their day—both the way we view ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. It can’t be helped. But sometimes it presents a message on purpose.
The two episodes, “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls,” are often seen as the great swansong for Peter Capaldi, but even though the Doctor is referred to in the title of the second episode, this is very much Bill’s story. She is the protagonist, as can be seen from the fact that she gets the most air-time, even in comparison with the Doctor.
We follow Bill through the story, from her assisting the Doctor in Missy’s reformation, to her getting shot by the blue man, to her being in the hospital, to her friendship (and later betrayal) by Razor, to her conversion into a Cyberman, to her rescuing the Doctor, to her helping to save the people of the 507th floor from the other Cybermen, and to her own deliverance by Heather. The story is very much in the horror genre, and even though Steven Moffat (the writer) uses many of the common tropes, Bill doesn’t just succumb to them as would a typical throwaway character in a horror flick. Through it all she shows an inner strength, a resilience, that the average person would never exhibit.
Our journey is always a series of ups and downs. Challenges come and become obstacles. If its one thing that we all are is inconsistent. Sometimes we have the ability to cope with the stressful situations that life throws at us and sometimes not so much. The one constant is you, and how you deal with all the change. If you are weak inside, you will be batted about like a rowboat in a hurricane. But those who cultivate inner strength are able to weather any storm and can travel great distances at speed when the seas are calm.
Bill knows who she is. Her personality is the foundation of her power. Before she became a Cyberman, she was comfortable in her own skin, so that even when her “skin” was changed, she did not lose herself. As the Doctor tells her, “You are so strong. You’re amazing. Your mind has rebelled against the programming. It’s built a wall around itself. A castle made of you, and you are standing on the battlements, saying no. No, not me.”
Think of all the people who have been converted into Cybermen who were not able to resist (basically everybody else). This says something about the extraordinariness of Bill. The absolute worst is thrown at her (and it has to be, so that the degree of her resilience can be demonstrated), and she defies it all. This is why she tells the Doctor she is glad he remembers “how I’m usually all about women and, and kind of people my own age.” She wants to emphasize to him that she is still in there. Despite the soulless-looking Cyber exterior, inside she retains her loves and her interests, the things that are at odds with Cyber thinking. We see Bill as she sees herself, as human; this was a nice way to show the mind of Bill in the story. Long before this Bill centered herself in the universe and understand her role in something bigger and worthy. She is optimistic in the face of negativity, and she resists the messages that try to make her act or feel a different way. The fact is, the happier you are with yourself, the less the outside world can damage you. The Doctor theorizes, “All that time, living under the Monks, you learned to hang on to yourself.” Insecurity is an inner-strength killer. Bill exhibits little of it.
So Bill, not the Doctor, is the hero of this particular story. Note how she retains her agency even as a Cyberman. Who is the one that grabs hold of the shuttle, as the Masters are trying to escape, in order to rescue the Doctor from death? Bill. Who do we see carrying the Doctor’s body from the smoldering wreckage of the shuttle? Bill. Who does not simply go along with the Doctor’s order to follow Nardole and instead remains to fight the other Cybermen? Bill. Who goes back to get the Doctor’s body on the battlefield at the end in order ensure his survival? Bill does. She saves the Doctor not once, but twice in this story. He saves her zero times.
Think of how her resolution compares to the other main characters. None of their story threads end well for them. The two Masters kill each other. Nardole leaves to assist the remaining humans in fighting the Cybermen, but we are told this ultimately will only delay the inevitable: they all will be converted. The Doctor himself is killed by the Cybermen. No one has a happy ending–except for Bill. And that happy ending occurred through her own doing. Heather did not show up because the Doctor called her. She didn’t show up because she just so happened to be passing by. She showed up because of Bill’s proactive behavior in the earlier story, The Pilot. If you recall, Bill sought out Heather’s friendship, not the other way around. The Doctor is not to thank for this. Bill ‘cast her bread upon the waters’ and ‘found it after many days,’ as the saying goes.
Judging by the Outer Appearance
In the second episode we get to see how people react to Bill. Even after learning that Bill is not a threat, the gut reaction of Hazran, an otherwise nice woman, is to shoot her on sight. Bill has to stay in the barn–and if you think it is a coincidence that she is hiding in a barn as runaway slaves in America had to do prior to the Civil War, you’re fooling yourself. The imagery of Bill in the barn is supposed to evoke this memory. People who were deemed scary had to be kept away from sight, so as not to upset anyone. This is deliberate.
On the inside, Bill is Bill, as the audience can see clearly. But for the characters, it is different. They see a Cyberman. This teaches kids that we should never be afraid of someone just because of the way they look. We shouldn’t judge them as bad or as threatening, just because of their appearance. In fact, it was an excellent choice by Steven Moffat, the writer, to have a child, rather than an adult, appreciate Bill for who she really is, as this not only shows that children can often be more perceptive (and less judgmental) than adults, but also it is aspirational for the children who observe it.
The Right Motivations for Our Actions
This message is not difficult to miss, as the Doctor explicitly gives it in a speech to the two Masters. In probably the most quoted lines from the entire 10th Series, he says, “Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind.”
The point, of course, is that even though this show has its share of violence–it has action scenes, explosions, killings, and the like–when the Doctor engages in these sorts of actions, it is not for reasons that others might engage in them, even those we call heroes. For him, victory for its own sake is not a motivation. He doesn’t fight in order to get revenge, or even to punish an evildoer. His motivations are rooted in his empathy for others. At the risk of his own life, he will help, simply because it is the right thing, and the kind thing, to do.
Even the Worst Can Reform
In this story, we finally get to see the end of a thread that has run through all of Series 10. We wondered whether the Doctor did the right thing in saving Missy from execution and giving her the chance to change. It could very well have gone the other way: we wouldn’t have been surprised at all if she decided to side with her former self and continue along the road that she has long traveled. But that is not what happened. She sided with the Doctor.
When the Doctor gives the speech above, it was not for the benefit of the John Simm version of the Master. His hearts are too hard, and he quips: “This is the face that didn’t listen to a word you just said.” And initially, Missy tells the Doctor no, but we can see in her face that she is conflicted. Later, she tells her other self she is going to join the Doctor, “because he’s right. Because it’s time to stand with him. It’s where we’ve always been going, and it’s happening now, today. It’s time to stand with the Doctor.”
Keep in mind that the Master is probably the most evil character that has been portrayed in the show (with perhaps the exception of Satan). And here we see this person take the first step toward redemption. The message is clear: even the worst of the worst are capable of reform. There are echoes of Return of the Jedi here. If Darth Vader can change, anyone can, right? Well, same goes for the Master. Missy is even willing to go so far as to kill her past self to do this (a symbolic act that shows she is rejecting her previous ways).
One might conclude that once a person has been given a chance and rejected it, no further chances should be offered. But here we see that, even though the earlier Master explicitly and gleefully refuses to take the Doctor’s offer, his later self makes a different choice. It just goes to show that sometimes it’s all about the timing. At one point in a person’s life, they may not be ready to turn around. But at another point, they may be. And that is why we never stop trying. The Doctor is not one of those people who say, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” He doesn’t mind being fooled over and over again, as long as there is hope. In his mind, no one is past the point of no return.