Whatever you say about “The Power of the Doctor”, you can’t accuse it of not having enough ideas. The Master, the Daleks, not one but two old companions, that regeneration scene, and to top it all off, it turned out to have a celebrity historical element thrown in for good measure.
Well, kind of, anyway. For while we do see someone who is referred to as Rasputin early on in “The Power of the Doctor”, it quickly turns out to be a familiar Time Lord in disguise.
The real Rasputin, also known as “the mad monk”, was a mystic and holy man who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II, gaining a great deal of influence over him and his family, and some would say, becoming a malign force.
Frankly, it is a surprise he’s not been on the show sooner. In fact, with his rumoured mystic powers, ability to insert himself among a bunch of powerful historical figures, and as we’ll see, how hard he is to kill, it’s a wonder he’s not been accused of being a Time Lord before.
So of course, it turns out he has…
The Real Rasputin
Grigori Rasputin began life as a peasant in a Siberian village. At the age of 28 he had a religious conversion after taking a pilgrimage to a monastery, and began describing himself as a monk, despite never holding an official position in the Russian Orthodox Church.
However, Rasputin would go on to charm church and society leaders in St. Petersburg, eventually meeting Tsar Nicholas II and being taken on as a healer for their son, Alexei, who suffered from Hemophilia.
Naturally, as a weird, beardy stranger from peasant stock who had somehow been placed in charge of the Prince’s welfare, opinions on Rasputin in court were mixed. Some regarded him as a visionary, a mystic, even a prophet. Others suspected he was a con-man who’d talked himself into the highest halls of power.
As well as being Alexei’s healer, the Tsar appointed him “lamplighter”, charged with ensuring the lamps were lit in front of all the religious icons in the palace, which pretty much gave him free reign to roam the royal grounds at leisure.
His influence led to him being a near mythological figure within his own lifetime. He was accused of spreading heresy, and was denounced by the local clergy. There were rumours he had an affair with the Tsarina, that he behaved inappropriately with the Tsar’s teenage daughters, and there were accusations that he had assaulted his female followers.
As World War I was going badly for Russia, and the popularity of the Tsar was in rapid decline, Rasputin was often cast as the dark, mysterious power behind the throne.
The Regenerating Monk?
It’s the kind of reputation that gets a person enemies, and the intrigue around Rasputin soon grew dangerous. One priest, named Iliodor, was part of a group of figures who tried to drive a wedge between Rasputin and the royal family. His efforts resulted in him being defrocked from the priesthood and banished from St Petersburg.
Only a few years after that, one of his followers waited outside Rasputin’s home and stabbed him in the stomach. In what would turn out to be a trend, for a while it looked like Rasputin would die, but he recovered. The assassin was found not responsible for her actions by reason of insanity, while meanwhile Iliodor himself fled the country.
A couple of years later another group of nobles, led by Prince Felix Yusupov and right-wing politician, Vladimir Purishkevich, also came to the conclusion that Rasputin’s influence was a threat to the Russian Empire. Knowing he’d survived being stabbed in the stomach, this conspiracy was taking no chances.
Prince Felix invited Rasputin to his palace, and offered him tea and cakes laced with cyanide. After initially refusing them, Rasputin ate the poison cakes, but seemed perfectly fine. He asked for some wine, and was given some, which was also poisoned. He drank three glasses and showed no ill effects.
By now it was 2:30am, and Felix decided to go upstairs to his fellow conspirators, fetch a gun, then came downstairs and shot Rasputin in the chest.
The assassination completed, one of Felix’s co-conspirators disguised himself as Rasputin and Felix drove him back to his house to create an alibi. When he came back to the basement where Rasputin lay, Rasputin leapt up and attacked him. Felix sensibly escaped Rasputin’s grasp and ran away. As Rasputin chased him he was shot again, by another conspirator. Ultimately he was shot three times, once at close range to the forehead.
Rasputin collapsed into a snow bank, and was wrapped up in cloth, driven to the nearby Petrovsky Bridge, and dropped into the freezing cold Malaya Nevka River.
The autopsy of the body concluded that Rasputin died by drowning implying he was still alive when they dropped him into the river.
So, we’ve got a mysterious man, with a big bushy beard, who insinuates himself into powerful circles and is accused of having a strange hypnotic hold over people, and he’s virtually impossible to kill by normal means.
Frankly, it’s astonishing “Rasputin” isn’t an anagram of “Master”. (To be clear, this joke was written before the author had actually seen “The Power of the Doctor” – that’s how obvious it is that he’s the Master in disguise)
He is exactly the sort of historical figure you would expect to get the Doctor Who treatment. And so it’s not really surprising that he has, multiple times.
The Whoniverse History of Rasputin
Until “The Power of the Doctor”, Rasputin hadn’t yet had a direct appearance in the TV show, but he has been mentioned before. During “Let’s Kill Hitler”, the tiny time travelling crew on board the robotic Teselecta mention that they “don’t want another Rasputin”, implying that at some point the mad monk was replaced by a robotic duplicate. A green one.
But Doctor Who, the TV show, is but the thinnest layer of skin over the giant bowl of custard that is Doctor Who continuity, and Rasputin has turned up many more times in other media.
In the Big Finish audio, “The Wanderer”, the First Doctor companion Ian Chesterton runs into a young Rasputin, leading to the monk encountering a device that shows him images of the first and second World Wars, the Holocaust, the computing revolution, the Cybermen and more. The Doctor removes these memories, but implies that they may return to him as dreams.
The Third Doctor encounters Rasputin a good deal later down the timestream in the novel, The Wages of Sin, by David A. McKintee. In this story, the Doctor’s companion Jo Grant meets Rasputin and finds him to be a pretty sound bloke, but to protect the time stream Liz Shaw still gives him Prince Felix’s dinner invitation anyway.
There was even a brief window of time when “The Power of the Doctor” might not have been Rasputin’s first Doctor Who appearance on screen- and as we’ve already mentioned, this story would have seen Rasputin revealed to be a rogue Time Lord in disguise. Just… not the one you were expecting.
In “How The Monk Got His Habit”, Peter Harness, the writer behind “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” pitched a story that would have seen the 12th Doctor encounter a previous version of his erstwhile nemesis, the Meddling Monk (from the First Doctor story, “The Time Meddler”). While “Time Meddler” saw the Monk interfering with the Battle of Hastings as part of an epic to do list of interfering with known history, this version (which would have been played by Matt Berry) only wanted one thing: to go backwards in time and meet Gregori Rasputin, and play him the song, “Ra Ra Rasputin” by Afro-German-Caribbean vocal group, Boney M. It turns out that song appearing in Doctor Who is a fixed point in time.
In the story he does this, accidentally sending poor Grigori completely insane.
In a panic, the not-yet-Monk phones up the only other rogue Time Lord he knows, accidentally skipping a few regenerations and getting Peter Capaldi’s version. 12 and the not-yet-Monk team up to try to put history right, but when this doesn’t prove possible, the Doctor tells the not-yet-Monk that he will have to pose as Rasputin himself, and play out the life of the historical figure.
It would turn out that the Monk would get a taste for it.
You can still find the first page of Harness’s attempt to novelise the idea online here.
Of course, in “The Power of the Doctor”, Rasputin’s story turns out rather differently, and the Tsar and his family were sent on holiday right before the Russian Revolution. Time will tell if that has any lasting consequences on history…
Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor is available to stream on BBC iPlayer. Read our review.