Doctor Who: A Show About Things That Will Take “Thousands” of Years but Don’t

WTF happens in the 10th season of Doctor Who?

In the tenth season of the second version of Doctor Who, the twelfth Doctor locks the eighth Master in a vault for “a thousand years” while he travels with two new companions. They go on all kinds of crazy time travel adventures that I don’t really remember, and then literally everyone dies.

Meantimes, the only important story happens off screen, while the Doctor repairs his friendship with the Master and stops her form being evil by doing stuff that we don’t get to see or hear about. He then claims that it will take “thousands of years” to ride an elevator through a mild time distortion, into a black hole.

The part where the Doctor guards the vault for “a thousand years”

So, the Doctor is summoned to the Master’s execution and manages to save her life while promising to keep her in a vault for a thousand years and teach her to be a good person. It doesn’t seem like saving her from execution is really contingent on locking her in a vault, but he does it anyway, because why wouldn’t you? He hides the vault in the basement of a university where he poses as a professor and meets his new companion, Bill Potts, who tempts him into abandoning his post several times to have adventures.

In between all of Bill and the Doctor’s adventures, the Doctor returns to the vault to visit with the Master and do nobody knows what, but the cumulative effect is that the Master does, indeed, start to become a good person, which is primarily communicated to us by the fact that she can’t stop crying. Maybe tears are the evil leaving her body, or maybe she hooked up with a puddle alien that gave her its tears like what happened with Bill in the only Bill story line I remember – I don’t know. All I know is that she plays piano, and he talks to her about his problems, and she cries a lot, and then she’s good enough that he lets her out of the vault after an indeterminate amount of time that is definitely not a thousand years.

The two-part season finale – which is the very best set of episodes this season – introduces some complications wherein the crying Master is tempted toward evil, but, ultimately, the Doctor’s miracle undepicted psychopath cure succeeds!

Needless to say, I’m very curious about what that cure was. I also notice some eerie similarities to Sherlock’s “The Final Problem,” in which the series’ main antagonist is turned into a sister-figure who really just wants to be friends but does a murder every time she tries to show it.

… which could have been an awesome story, if we’d seen it

The obvious reason we never see what the miracle psychopath cure is is because it’s wishful thinking and you wouldn’t be able to de-evilize someone like this in real life. People are complicated, and everyone’s a mix of weird, conflicted motivations, but we also all get really committed to the ways we’ve chosen to be, and there’s very little that could happen in this time vault that would break the kind of commitment we’ve seen from the Master.

That said, the two episodes that make up the season finale hint at an alternate story line that might have been. Near the beginning, the Doctor tells Bill that he and the Master promised each other they’d go on adventures together and he thinks that, if they actually had, and she’d seen all the wonders of the universe with him, she wouldn’t want to blow everything up. He then sends the Master on a hilarious forced adventure with his sidekicks where none of them want to be there, and she just keeps mocking everyone until somebody dies. The sequence lasts less than ten minutes, but it already presents a much more convincing scenario for how the Master might have been rehabilitated – and one that would have been more fun for the audience to watch.

Failing that, I would have been a lot more willing to live with the vault story line if the Doctor had actually watched over it for a thousand years. You know, like that time Rory watched over Amy’s time cube for thousands of years – one of several obvious call backs this season. Unfortunately, whereas Rory actually guarded the cube he was charged with, forsaking anything else he might have wanted to do in that time, and making a grand, heroic gesture, the Doctor stuffs the Master in a vault and then repeatedly abandons it, before saying, “Okay, never mind.” Even if you ignore the part where it’s creepy for him to keep a woman looked up in his basement for hundreds of years, abandoning his epic vow to watch over her makes this a much less convincing act of love.

The part where the elevators take “thousands of years”

As I said, the last two episodes of the season are, by far, the best, but they’re also kind of confusing. The main idea is that the heroes end up on the bridge of a very long spaceship that’s flying into a black hole, which means that time is moving slower on the bridge than it is on the lower levels of the ship. The only real metric we get is a ticker in the basement that shows the number of seconds passing on the bridge vs the number of seconds passing at the bottom of the ship – once you do the math, the general idea is that one day on the bridge is worth 400 years in the basement.

The characters get separated, and then reunited, and then the civilization in the ship’s basement evolves to the point of creating Cybermen, and then everyone has to fight the Cybermen, and then the Doctor tells them they can’t take the elevator back to the top of the ship because it will take “thousands and thousands of years” of basement time to do that, and the Cybermen will evolve and be able to stop them.

That’s not true, and here’s why.

The ticker in the basement probably doesn’t represent what the real time difference would be if a ship of this size was getting pulled into a black hole nose first and time was slowing down as a function of gravity – this is a science fiction show, so I don’t really care about that. What I care about is that the ticker does map onto the internal logic of the episode, based on everything else we see and hear, except the Doctor’s assessment that it will take “thousands and thousands” of years to ride the elevator.

Without getting super nerdy about it, it seems like, based on what the ticker tells us, an elevator ride from one end of the ship to the other should take something like three years of basement time (or ten minutes of bridge time) – not anything close to a thousand.

We can argue about whether my math is good, but we don’t have to, because thinking that it takes “thousands and thousands of years” to ride the elevator also goes against everything else we see before that. Particularly, the scenes where people actually do take the elevator from one end of the ship to the other without any significant problem.

In order to look at that though, we have to start with the understanding that people who are actually inside the elevator will experience the elevator as going at its normal speed, no matter which way it’s going – for them, it should take about half an hour to make the full trip. People standing outside the elevator, no matter where they are on the ship, will perceive that it goes faster as it moves toward the basement and slower as it moves toward the bridge. From a bridge POV, the elevator starts out super fast and slows to normal speed as it approaches. From a basement POV, the elevator starts out normal speed and slows to a crawl as it moves away. The basement POV is the only one we care about, because that’s where the Cybermen are.

The first time we see somebody use the elevator is when the proto-Cybermen from the basement take the elevator all the way up to the bridge to kidnap Bill. After they have Bill, they get back in the elevator and take it all the way down to the basement again. If a one-way trip in the elevator takes a thousand years of basement time, then the round trip to get Bill would have taken two thousand years. However, when Bill looks at the ticker, some months later, she sees that the basement civilization is just over a thousand years old. And, even if the ticker were wrong, the civilization is not advanced enough to be much older than that, and the proto-Cybermen have not evolved enough for two thousand years to have passed since they first got in the elevator.

The second time we see someone use the elevator is when the Doctor takes the elevator all the way down from the bridge to the basement in order to rescue Bill. It’s clear that more than a few minutes pass for Bill while he’s in the elevator, but nothing we see or hear indicates that it would be anything close to a thousand years. Again, the Cybermen are more evolved when he arrives, but not that much more evolved. Also, even though there are plot reasons why Bill could have waited a thousand years for him, it never comes up, and it strains credibility, given some other things that are happening with her character.

In conclusion, “thousands and thousands of years” might actually be closer to what would happen in real life – I honestly don’t know – but it’s a really bad estimate relative to the way time seems to work in this episode; and it’s important that it’s a bad estimate, because that estimate is the whole reason the last act of the finale even happens, and the whole reason everyone dies.

In conclusion, this season felt uneven to me and I’m ready for the thirteenth Doctor

There are other things I could say about this season – like how much I like that Bill being gay is NBD, or hate the “I have never had the luxury of outrage” speech the Doctor gives – but, overwhelmingly, my feeling as I watched was that I was ready for somebody else to start fresh. Season 10, more than anything, felt like a remix of ideas we got in the past four seasons, and I didn’t hate that remix, but I liked the original better.

It will be cool to see what happens with a new showrunner and new characters.

Image: Doctor Who; BBC | January 19, 2018