Another episode, another director, and it’s very hard not simply to dance with glee with this one. And partly that’s due to the fan service: it was such fan service. And if one wanted to level any sort of major criticism at it, that would have to be it. But if that really a bad thing? For a show with nearly 57 years of history occasionally to celebrate the fact and revel in it a little. Especially as this didn’t feel like it would be inaccessible to new viewers, it just felt like a show with a rich past enjoying itself and inviting new and old viewers alike to join in the party.
Because it was a bit of a party. The interplay between the Doctor and the Master was fizzing with playful and at points quite menacing tension. By this point in fan lore, the undertones of their relationship, the “friendship” that’s been lost, the idea of them being “best enemies” and earned all sorts of ships. And to have there on the screens once more, in such an unambiguous way, is a sheer delight.
That scene where the Doctor has to kneel before the Master, rolling her eyes at having to pander to him in this way, calls up all the theories about how his motivation for so long has been to be noticed by the Doctor. And then there’s the way the talked on top of the Eiffel Tower. By this point, the story has actually established him as pretty damn terrifying: the Doctor arriving in the new time zone to find not that he’s chased her there, but that he’s already there, established and deadly, and that scene where he’s searching for her and has the floorboards shot, was a stupendous bit of directing – he didn’t utter a word and the stakes felt high. Yet, come the scene on top of the tower, and you believe they’re friends who’ve gone their separate ways. What’s more is the amount they want to talk, the Master wants to discuss Gallifrey. But what was so delightful about that conversation, and this is reinforced by what comes later, is that for all he keeps saying he wants her dead and that her death or defeat is only moments away, the very words he uses, both the intimacy and the underhand malevolence in his ongoing game, suggests that he knows she’s not going to die. The impression I got more than anything was that they were playing a role play game (or perhaps he way playing). The “obviously you’re going to die” line wasn’t a genuine threat as much as “apologies for breaking character for a moment”. Again, perhaps a little fan service, possibly undermining the Master as a true villain. But, again, hasn’t that really been the point to a lesser or greater sense since the start. Whatever he likes to call himself, he is not the ultimate evil, he’s a trickster: he likes to mess things up in elaborate chaos-creating scenes for the Doctor to fix… and then, sooner or later, things go wrong for him and he has scarper or indeed help the Doctor fix it. He’s not Thanos, he’s only ever been Loki.
So, the Doctor’s running around history with two fantastic female historical figures in toe, taking apart the Master’s overly convoluted plans for world domination. Meanwhile, Ryan, Yaz and Graham are having some really nice character moments as they resolve to take on the Doctor’s mantle in her absence. And they prove to be utterly out of their depth. And I honestly this was a wonderful thing. In the last episode there’s the discussion about how unsuited they are for spy work (very briefly touched upon when they fail to notice the main camera in Daniel Barton’s office). And while there are some moments of ingenuity (after all, they do manage to stay free), they fail to achieve anything significant. Three untrained humans with a few fancy spy gadgets find themselves, unsurprisingly, no match for one of the most powerful men on the planet. The Doctor, however, proves more than a match and turns up to save the day – Ryan, Yaz and Graham were just distractions whilst she clearly spent some considerable time fixing everything.
The end of the episode was interesting. The idea of a season long arc, while I don’t think it’s needed, does feel well placed. I’m keen to know what happens next, I’m looking forward to the next reveal. As such, even from just a cynical marketing point of view, I can see the purpose.
I’m a little concerned about the Master destroying Gallifrey. As a number of people have pointed out, the Day of the Doctor was all about saving their people and the Doctor’s redemption. It was all about how, for all the imperialist, almost Dalek-like moralities of Rassilon, normal gallifreyians we’re innocent and deserved the Doctor’s protection. And in Hell Bent, the Doctor got rid of Rassilon and left genuinely good members of his race to rebuild. So to have the innocents killed by the Master, blamed for the wrongs of Rassilon and his peers from the dawn of Time Lord history feels narratively uncomfortable. But, that said, it feels that the Doctor now has genuinely high stakes and something to be remorseful about…. so, I’m very willing to see where this all goes.