Series 10 of Doctor Who recently culminated in a stunningly good two-part story comprised of the episodes World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. My unreserved enjoyment of these episodes as near perfect television story-telling counts as my full disclosure, as I’m about to defend them and don’t want to give the impression that only logic is in play, here…
Note that here be the dragons of copious spoilers, so stop reading if you’re trying to avoid knowing stuff.
Within minutes of the airing of The Doctor Falls, and since, comments have appeared online that the episode failed and ruined the finale because a significant plot point was resolved by a deus ex machina. Specifically, the Doctor’s assistant, Bill, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, has been turned into a Cyberman through the machinations of the Master and suffered horribly, but at the bleakest moment of failure, she is saved by a near-omnipotent character from earlier in the season, the Pilot.
As most everyone knows, by now, deus ex machina is a critical term that literally means “god from the machine,” and refers, to quote the website Literary Devices, to an author’s solving “a seemingly intractable problem in a plot by adding in an unexpected character, object, or situation” in a way that seems contrived, as if “the author must resort to something that he or she did not set up properly plot-wise.”
Superficially, this doesn’t seem a million miles from what happened when the Pilot saves Bill, then, at Bill’s request, removes the Doctor’s body from the battlefield to the safety of the TARDIS, where, unknown to Bill, he will begin to regenerate. I can understand where the criticism is coming from; I just don’t agree with it.
For starters, the Pilot doesn’t actually resolve any intractable plot problems. The story question here is, Will the Doctor defeat the machinations of the Master and the rise of the Cybermen? That question is resolved purely through the actions of the main characters, their struggles and their considerable sacrifices. Missy brings down the Master and seemingly dies for her efforts. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole save the humans from the Cybermen, and all three understand when they make the necessary choices that the cost will be their lives, or at least their lives as they’ve known them. Not a whisper of deus ex machina there.
Nor does the Pilot resolve Bill’s story question. Bill’s story question is explicitly stated in part one, World Enough and Time. It is: Will Bill survive the Doctor’s rash attempt to test Missy’s newfound goodness? The answer turns out to be: No, and furthermore she will suffer an unfathomably lingering and painful death before sacrificing a tortured half-life in support of the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Cybermen. That is, I would argue that Bill’s story is resolved already by the time the Pilot makes an appearance. She died. In slow, awful stages, her ongoing twilight existence as a cyber-revenant not withstanding. When the Pilot comes, it isn’t to deliver a resolution that Bill is beyond needing, but something else—so still not a deus ex machina.
We’re all critics, these days, and we all have access to a toolkit of critical idiom. Tweet your horror that Steven Moffat committed deus ex machina and very few readers will scratch their head in confusion. But we’re also now inclined to be a culture of hammers who see everything as nails. Working from a checklist of possible literary flaws will guarantee that you often find them, but it will also blind you to the truth that there are other idioms, other toolkits, and I think that’s been the case with The Doctor Falls.
I suspect that an episode which begins with the imagery of crucified cyber-scarecrows, in a story riddled with people sacrificing themselves to redeem others, amid characters who are dying and being reborn through cybernetic intervention or Time Lord regeneration, that the toolkit in play here might be that of religious symbolism.
And at the end, it’s not a deus ex machina that the Pilot brings Bill. It’s grace. It’s the gift of the universe to those who have given their all in pursuit of doing the right thing, and failed because humans are flawed and fail, but sometimes they’re still saved.
There are episodes enough of Doctor Who where the Doctor solves an impossible problem by waving his sonic screwdriver at a contrived Plot Resolution Machine. This isn’t one of them.
This is more like Frodo, who came undone on Mount Doom only to discover that his sacrifices to that point had put in place the elements necessary for providence to finish the job.
It’s a reminder, in dark times that I think could use a few more such reminders, that hope is not foolish because sometimes, however improbably, good things happen.
Of course, enmeshed as we all are in barbed wire cynicism, this will strike many as far worse than a deus ex machina. It’ll be saccharine or cheesy or whatever curmudgeonly dismissal occurs to them. That’s not my problem. Struck me as joyous and uplifting, and I cheered as soon as I recognised the Pilot on the battlefield and understood how her presence had been set up.
I’m just saying, it wasn’t a literary failing, it wasn’t a deus ex machina and it ruined nothing. It was a feature, not a bug.
Bill simply got the ending she deserved, and I’m glad.