Whovian Feminism Reviews “World Enough and Time”
“World Enough and Time” is an episode of Doctor Who that is very self-aware – of its own history, of its own tropes and cliches, and of the community that follows this show so passionately. This results in some truly delightful fan-service that lightens what might otherwise be an unbearably grim and horrifying episode. But that self-awareness falters when it comes to the treatment of Bill Potts and her fans, who were handed a brutal episode that came right to the edge of fridging the first lesbian companion and second black woman companion. With one episode left in the season, there’s still time to pull out a happy ending for Bill. But I’m not sure it will make up for everything Bill and her fans will have been through to get her there.
Even though the end of this episode left me feeling conflicted, I sure as hell enjoyed the ride. Steven Moffat has always been good at creating stories that creatively play with time travel, and parking a massive spaceship right next to a black hole is such a fun way to mess with time. Director Rachel Talalay perfectly paces the transition between the two time zones, creating a story that flows from one timeline to the next instead of giving us narrative whiplash. But what she’ll probably be most remembered for in this episode is making the Mondassian Cybermen truly, bone-chillingly scary. There was always something eerie about their sing-song voices and cold logic. But Talalay brings the body horror to the forefront of their genesis, emphasizing their unceasing pain and letting the audience’s unease build steadily until it’s almost unbearable by the time Bill is converted.
But while the Mondassian Cybermen loom over this episode, this story is firmly about the Doctor and the Master’s friendship and enmity. The Doctor’s test isn’t just an opportunity for Missy to escape her prison in the Vault. It’s the culmination of nearly fifty years of conflict between these two characters. At one point or another, each has believed that the other can be convinced to see the universe as they do. Now the Doctor gets to see if he’s right and if Missy can really be reformed.
Missy is going along with the Doctor … sort of. She’s not actively trying to burn everything down, but she’s definitely going to do things her own way. And if she’s going to endure this exercise, she’s going to poke fun at the mythos the Doctor has created for himself. She calls the companions the “disposables” and names them “Exposition” and “Comic Relief,” which can be read both as a commentary on the Doctor and a meta commentary on the show itself. There’s even a long bit about whether he’s called “The Doctor” or “Doctor Who,” a reference to the insufferably long-running argument in fan circles about how to refer to the character. (The answer is that both are fine; Missy cheekily tells us to “check our screens,” reminding us that in the Classic series, the character was named “Dr. Who” in the credits!)
In contrast, John Simm stands out as the quintessential Master. His portrayal here is a more toned-down version of the Master from the Russell T. Davies years, and he’s leaned hard into the Classic Master tropes. He’s got the beard and the high-collared black jacket. He spends most of this episode disguised in a rubber mask. He even calls Bill “my dear.” Get some hypnosis and the TCE in the next episode and he’ll have checked off all the boxes. I should’ve figured out who he was much earlier in the episode, but John Simm’s acting and prosthetics were so good that I have to admit I didn’t figure out that Razor was the Master until the moment that he snuck in on Missy (and there was definitely a lot of impressed swearing once I finally realized what had happened).
As wonderful as he is, Simm isn’t just there to provide fan-service. He’s also there to encourage Missy’s worst impulses. He’s the devil on her shoulder, their mutual Id – almost like their Valeyard, if you’ll accept the analogy. He reminds her of all the distrust and anger and betrayal they’ve built up against the Doctor. And if the trailer for the next episode is any hint, it looks like he’ll be encouraging her more violent impulses. The Doctor wanted to test Missy to see if she was genuinely reforming herself, but now that test will happen while her previous regeneration is deliberately driving a wedge between her and the Doctor.
And Bill is just another body caught in the crossfire.
Before I dig into Bill’s conversion, I want to start off with one caveat. This is only the first part of a two-part story. I don’t know what ultimately will happen to Bill, and whether or not the next episode will cast this one in a different light. However, I think it is still valid to examine and critique this episode based on the information we have so far. This episode wanted to leave us with feelings of shock and horror for a week, so it’s valid to examine those feelings and the communities they impact the hardest. And regardless of Bill’s ultimate fate in the next episode, it is valid to examine whether the events that took place in this episode were problematic.
I would argue that they were. Although Bill isn’t dead, this episode goes right to the edge of fridging her. She has practically no agency in this episode, and everything that happens to her is in service to someone else’s story. She is shot and converted into a Cyberman to further the conflict between the Doctor and the Master. Everything that happens to her is done so we can explore the Doctor’s feelings – his guilt and pain over pressuring Bill into this situation, his conflict over giving the Master yet another chance, his struggle to forgive Missy after what her previous regeneration has done. This isn’t about Bill, her choices, or her story. Hell, she didn’t even want to be on that ship. Arguing about whether or not we can count what happens to her as fridging because she isn’t actually dead feels a bit like a technicality. She is still violent, graphically harmed for her male protagonist’s story.
It doesn’t help that “World Enough And Time” has some uncomfortable parallels with the Series 8 finale “Death in Heaven,” where another black companion, Danny Pink, is also converted into a Cyberman. Danny was another casualty in the conflict between the Doctor and the Master. And his death and conversion weren’t really about him or his story either. It was about the Doctor’s discomfort with soldiers, and it was about Clara’s guilt over having treated him poorly. Danny does reclaim some of his agency in the end, so perhaps there is still some hope for Bill. But this is now the second time that a black companion has been converted into a Cybeman to further the conflict between the Doctor and the Master.
It’s also worth noting the level of graphic violence involved with Bill’s near-death and conversion. Plenty of companions have died or had horrible things done to them. Moffat is particularly fond of making monsters out of his companions; Rory became an Auton, a Clara echo is converted into a Dalek. But seeing a horrible burnt hole through Bill’s chest and her slow, piecemeal conversion into a Cyberman is truly on another level. I had to think back to some of the things that the Sixth Doctor’s companion Peri suffered through to find any examples that gave me the same visceral reaction – and those are moments you really don’t want to be compared with.
This is a drama and science fiction show, and there’s always been a certain level of risk when companions travel with the Doctor. We were meant to be horrified by what happened to Bill. But the people who were always going to feel this moment the hardest were the most marginalized and underrepresented in this fandom – queer women and women of color. Women of color have had so few non-white companions on Doctor Who to identify with, so obviously this moment would be felt particularly hard. And this would also be especially hard for queer women, who have faced a recent surge in violent deaths of queer characters, largely to further the stories of white, cis, straight protagonists.
The great irony, of course, is that this episode spends a great deal of time cheerfully showing off how self-aware of fandom it is. There’s fan-service galore in this story … just not for the fans who were invested in Bill’s character. And our standards were already set so low. I would’ve been happy if she came out at the end of this season alive and whole. I would’ve given bonus points if she was happy and with a girlfriend.
I don’t think Bill was shot or converted because of any particular animus or prejudice against her character. There was a story that they wanted to tell between the Doctor and the Master, and what happened to Bill was necessary to further that story. I think it just shows the carelessness with which her character was handled. It’s all well and good to represent a black lesbian woman on TV, but that comes with a certain amount of responsibility. And even if this is all magically undone by the end of the next episode, nothing will erase how Bill’s pain and suffering was used to further the conflict between the Doctor and the Master. And nothing will erase the sight of Bill with a hole through her chest or crying in pain beneath the Cyberman mask from the memories of women of color and queer fans.