The Highest Nobility Is Our Virtue, Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls, Reviews, 02/07/2017

How much is going on in “The Doctor Falls,” really? Was I right to save the entire entry on this two-part story for the second week? Honestly, I think I was.

Was this also a scheme to boost a little visibility on Patreon once I start promoting my upcoming book of Capaldi Doctor Who essays? Honestly, I’ll openly tell you that of course it is.

The next few months of 2017, leading up to Peter Capaldi’s actual regeneration in the Xmas Special, will see me actually paying some attention to my Patreon page. I’ll be posting old Doctor Who philosophical reviews a couple of times each week, just to encourage some attention, and driving some social media attention to the page as well.

"The Doctor Falls" provides the narrative gravity of the beginning of a
(21st century Doctor Who style of a) regeneration story by bringing
powerful ideas out of a small setting. The Doctor's greatest nobility is
in the utterly innocuous, a setting without spectacle. Not the whole
Earth at risk, but just a small community of people.
Each of these old posts will be reposted through my Facebook fan page, and through Patreon too. The goal will be attracting a larger audience than my current small set of patrons to fund a larger project – re-editing the old essays, expanding some ideas, and ultimately launching my own book on Capaldi-era Doctor Who.

What more significant place to splash the first step of that promotional campaign than in my review of “World Enough and Time,” and “The Doctor Falls.”

The Weight of the Occasion

“The Doctor Falls,” as an episode of Doctor Who, was written so carefully that almost every line was maximally portentous. Steven Moffat has written eleven season finales or stories with the same symbolic importance.* What do I mean here, when I talk about the symbolic importance of a story.

* I'm counting “A Good Man Goes to War,” “Angels Take Manhattan,” all three “X of the Doctor” stories, and “The Husbands of River Song,” as having the same symbolic importance as a season finale. You’ll see why when I answer the above question.

Let’s start from a common theme that tends to occur in a lot of Doctor Who stories these days. Quite often – but especially so under Moffat’s tenure as creative director and in his stories – 21st century Doctor Who stories tend to include ethics statements for the character.

There's no more epic, intense moment in Doctor Who like a regeneration
story. It's when the entire show literally transforms.
There’ll be some moment in the story where the Doctor or some other character will make a big, powerful statement, highlighted by the narrative and the cinematic emphasis,** about why the Doctor does what he does.

** Big, rousing theme music. An arresting change in camera technique, often focussing more on close-ups to showcase emotionally evocative and powerful performances. Usually occurs at a turning point or a climax in the narrative.

This statement may be in the form of a speech, or an event. Here, it reiterates the point that Moffat made in “Time of the Doctor,” that you take a stand to protect people because the gesture of kindness itself justifies who you are. To be fundamentally kind is to put yourself entirely on the line to protect innocent people under siege.

An Improved Second Draft

Matt Smith’s regeneration story was a wonderfully epic statement of that theme, though the experimental format of “Time of the Doctor” kind of obscured the statement itself.

The extended time frame of that story – an entire community of people growing around the Doctor for centuries as he protected them from an intergalactic siege – kept us from building an emotional connection with any characters.

“The Doctor Falls,” makes, as well as excellent


I loved the madness of the structural complexity that Steven Moffat
achieved in "Time of the Doctor," but I did find that it made the
Doctor into more of a fairy-tale himself than a character. That
fit the imagery Moffat was bringing to the Matt Smith era, but
it also showed a limit of where those images could work.
an excellent contrast. Where “Time of the Doctor” revelled in its jerking, piecemeal, patchwork of a narrative, “The Doctor Falls” keeps things simple. There’s one community, and we’re in it for a mere few weeks. We’re introduced to this community first, a whimsical solar farm under regular siege from the primitive Cyber army.

The cast from “World Enough and Time” breaks into this story and change everything. It’s an excellent example of one type of story – a rural horror story with a few BBC-copyright elements – being smashed into by a crew of sci-fi immortals.

We’re allowed to focus on a few key characters of this rural horror story, the girl Alit and the community matriarch Hazran. We get to know them well enough as an hour-long story can for a couple of supporting characters.

But they carry through to the end of the story, and provide a grace point for Nardole leaving the TARDIS crew. It’s a nice return to the old Doctor Who tradition of companions leaving for a new home, as does Bill.

We follow the same five main characters through the episode. Nardole grows closer to the community. Bill comes to grips with her cybernetic zombification. The Doctor and the Masters battle over whether the villain will ultimately turn.

What I loved best about Michelle Gomez's Master was the stealthy
coldness she kept under her quirky, smirking social personality.
Master of Her Domain

I saw some initial reviews of the episode that called it, “the battle for Missy’s soul.” I mean, that rather missed the point of who Missy actually is. Michelle Gomez and John Simm aren’t playing different characters – they are both the same person.

This is why I think it was a mistake to keep referring to Gomez’s Master as Missy. It implies that she’s actually someone other than the Master. It was brilliant move introduce so casually transgender regeneration.*** It was typical to undercut it with the irreverent playfulness of a Steven Moffat who’s so overjoyed with his own jokes that he’ll throw out exactly the wrong number too many.

*** And tease it in a so-not-really-a-throwaway line.

Understanding the true nature of the Master’s storyline in this episode means knowing all the way through that John Simm is Michelle Gomez for the same reason David Bradley is Peter Capaldi. Gomez and Simm are the Master.

This is a battle, of sorts, between the Doctor and the Master over what kind of person the Master will eventually be. It’s the story of a man seeing his own future and doing everything he can to reject it, and the older one has a few last doubts that this change in life is the right one.

John Simm's Master was – aside from being the only credible one
available – the best contrast for Gomez's most empathetic Master
ever. He was, of all of the major Masters, the one more thoroughly
consumed with hate and rage.
It’s an absolutely beautiful Time Lord story to tell, but one that you could never play with the Doctor. There’s been a constancy to the Doctor pretty much since the Daleks, which prevents you from thinking about the character like this.

For one thing, we see so much of the Doctor as a character – it’s their show, after all – that you don’t really get a big enough gap in our knowledge of him to get such a radical break as Simm to Gomez. Simm’s Master is literally from a totally different era – the Davies era.

Simm’s Master is solidly a Davies creation as well. That frenetic, feverish energy – the sheer giddy delight in the possibilities of the universe.**** Gomez’s Master is speaking of Davies just as much as she is of Simm when she whispers how she so loved the flaming power of being him.*****

**** Contrasting Moffat’s era to Davies’, especially being able to take in the entire Moffat era in memory, truly does show how very rooted in the theatrical gay aesthetic the previous era was.

*****Clearly, Moffat also knows that theatrical aesthetic just as well as Davies. He can see it – he just can’t write it.

This is a fitting end to Gomez's Master. Of course, as soon as two
Masters got together, it could only end with the two betraying
each other at the same moment. Betraying their ostensible allies
is an essential part of the Master's character. But maybe not
Gomez’s Master is a cerebral eccentric, a seether. The differences between Gomez and Simm as characters power their story. It’s a story that still, despite the younger man’s intentions, profoundly transformed the Master as a character.

Don’t think that “You won’t regenerate” line is at all sincere. Doctor Who will technobabble its way to a new Master in a few years, whenever Chibnall or some future writer thinks of a good story for her. No, this is the end of Gomez’s Master, and Moffat has given the next writers of Doctor Who a wonderful gift.

What Is a Hero?

Gomez’s Master ended in a moment of genuine goodness – she was at the beginning of an act of kindness, of becoming genuinely heroic. She was already there, and it was utterly justified because she did do it without recognition, as the ethical standard of her season arc said.

To be good without any prospect of recognition or reward is an act of the supreme virtue – kindness. That’s exactly what the Doctor says as the two Masters are leaving the village. Kindness is a good life in itself because of the nobility of kindness – it’s a life without ulterior motive, at its most profound.

You can tell lies, have some hidden motives, because these are petty hypocrisies. It is most profoundly noble to do what you can for others in need with no expectation of your own aggrandizement because you don’t need reputation for the sake of your own self-worth.

The Xmas Special is clearly going to be extremely entertaining, and
the collision of these two Doctors will make for remarkable new
story possibilities. It'll probably be the happiest regeneration
story that we've ever gotten since at least John Hurt's Doctor.
The Doctor has always been this kind of character – pretty much since the second-last episode of “The Daleks.” That’s why such a complex multiple-Doctor story as what the Master went through here ever happen? No matter what can happen with a multiple-Doctor story, the Doctor never stops being a decent person.

The Master has chosen that kind of nobility. From now on, she can no longer be a villain because she has been kind. The Master always had kind of a limited act before now – the same kind of cartoonish villainy Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts thought of. Doctor Who’s very own scenery-chewing Snidely Whiplash.

Overcomplicated evil schemes, the quest for power over the universe, the ruthless embrace of destruction, the gloating obsession with the Doctor. It was as reliable as Daleks shouting “Exterminate!” while they conquer and destroy.

The Master is something different now. An ex-villain in Doctor Who. Someone who has the capacity to commit horrifying acts, who has a history of doing so, but has now turned against it.

The next Master doesn’t have to be a villain. She can be a chaotic, devious sage. A demented and depressed blend of Kali and St. Francis of Assisi. A mad inventor tearing worlds apart in absent-minded enthusiasm. A dedicated revolutionary in too much love with her own violent zealotry.

Michelle Gomez is probably the most significant actor to play the
Master in the character's entire history, simply for incubating so much
more possibility for the character than has ever existed before.
All those are possible directions for the Master’s character that I could think of in a minute’s thinking three hours after seeing where Moffat’s story and Gomez’s performance took her in “The Doctor Falls.” Chris Chibnall is being handed a beautiful present to play with in his era – a Master with more potential than the character’s ever had!

The Weight of the World

Season finales, companion departures, and regenerations are stories that, in the 21st century era of Doctor Who, are moments where the entire ethic of Doctor Who as a show and the Doctor as a character are summed up.

That format gets a slightly different mix every time, depending on what kind of event is the primary reason to maximize symbolic weight. Most sensibly, symbolic power gets its maximum hit from regenerations or companion departures.

The entire show has anchored itself around these characters, so the departure of a lead actor requires a moment of thematic summation. Their story climaxes, giving us the perfect moment to hear what Doctor Who is for this moment, for this companion, for this Doctor.

I could say many wonderful things about Bill. Pearl Mackie is
brilliant when she plays maximum soul-shattering emotional
intensity. Those moments were essential to Bill's story arc
throughout the season. Her transformation into an interstellar
proteus alongside a same-sex life partner already sounds like
the most awesome ending for a companion in the history of
Doctor Who. More about this arc in the book version, I think.
Bill's transformations will be the focus of my "World Enough
and Time" essay.
It wasn’t always this way. But our era of television has viewers that watch it with a special eye toward thematic resonance and meaning. Television literacy understands ideas and symbols with the same ease as plot, performance, and music. We’re pretty much all critics now, in the very good sense of the term.

What does the Doctor say? Not just those words about kindness, but a very existentialist version of them. Where you stand is also where you fall. Stake the possibility of your life or death on one moment.

What kind of person will you be in that moment when you face the possibility of death? That’s the core question of nobility. What is the most impressive and awesome character to embrace at such a critical moment?

Such a character is most inspirational to us ethically – in terms of our virtues – what makes us the best kind of people we can be. What kind of character uses all of humanity’s capacities in their optimal arrangement?

The kind person. That’s the entire ethical message of Doctor Who.
• • •
Read the full set of essays on this year's season of Doctor Who.
The Pilot / The Girl With the Star in Her Eye
Thin Ice
Knock Knock
The Pyramid at the End of the World (1)
The Pyramid at the End of the World (2)
The Lie of the Land
The Monks Trilogy
Empress of Mars
Eaters of Light


  1. I like this very much, especially your thoughts on the Master's arc. If you're interested, my own reaction is here:

    1. I'll check that out tomorrow – and thank you for the kind words. I hope you'll keep reading