Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor Review
Old friends and foes collide to orchestrate the Thirteenth Doctor’s farewell adventure – spoilers abound in this year’s final Doctor Who Review…
Warning: contains spoilers for ‘The Power of the Doctor’
Here we are again, then. Doesn’t seem like five minutes since Easter, does it? I swear I’ve still got half a chocolate rabbit in the fridge… But time trundles on, and we’re here to bid goodbye to Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor after what feels like an oddly-fleeting tenure in the TARDIS.
In terms of episode count, Whittaker’s run hasn’t been that much shorter than, say, Peter Capaldi’s. But then, both Capaldi and Matt Smith’s Doctors went through a number of evolutions in their time, with marked shifts in their personalities as companions came and went. We glimpsed Eleven’s decades on Trenzalore and Twelve’s exile in his confession dial, watching those Doctors grow old and weary. Ready for their end.
Poor old Thirteen, on the other hand, clearly wants to continue being the Doctor, and it does feel like there’s more that could be done with her. This Doctor has sometimes struggled to be the star of her own series, relying more on the emotional and physical support of those around her, sharing the spotlight with Jo Martin’s marvellous “Fugitive Doctor” in several episodes, and with storylines dominated by the Timeless Child and intrigue of regenerations that aren’t, well, her.
That’s why, when the return of Tegan and Ace was announced, David Tennant was spotted filming and rumours began to swirl around even more cameos — not to mention the triple threat of Cybermen, Daleks and the Master — I couldn’t help be put in mind of the divisive finale of Enterprise. That show, for those who don’t know, decided to frame the final episode as a holographic romp created by characters from the infinitely-more successful Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The TNG characters’ presence dominated proceedings, and left the show’s regular cast feeling decidedly left-out of what should have been their swansong. With everything being crammed into the “The Power of the Doctor,” I wondered if Whittaker was about to be bumped out of the limelight at what could have been her finest hour.
And was she? Well… It’s complicated, and a bit messy, which are words I’ve resorted to fairly often over the course of all these reviews. Thirteen is everywhere and nowhere; the “real” Doctor is literally erased halfway through by the Master’s scheme, but a holographic duplicate means that Whittaker still gets to be a meaningful presence in multiple plot-threads at once, bouncing off companions old and new.
One character who is given unexpectedly short shrift, considering he helped save the universe not so long ago, is Dan. When he almost comes a cropper during the space-train action scene that opens this episode (and refreshes our memory of the Cybermasters), Dan decides enough is enough and leaves the TARDIS behind. Normally this would set a companion up for some Earth-bound antics that would ultimately reunite them with the Doctor, but not here. Dan barely even gets to say goodbye before being shuffled off-screen, but at least he’s notionally still around for future adventures.
This isn’t just Whittaker’s final episode, of course, nor John Bishop’s, nor Mandip Gill’s – it’s also the last outing for showrunner Chris Chibnall, at least for the foreseeable future. For better and for worse, here Chibnall sticks closely to the format of the other big-hitter episodes from his time helming Doctor Who. That means we start with lots of massive on-screen captions as the story flits back and forth across history setting things up, eventually settling in on present-day Earth.
Here, the audience are reunited with both Dorothy “Ace” McShane and Tegan Jovanka, last seen in “Survival” and “Remembrance of the Daleks,” respectively. We don’t learn how the two met (not yet, anyway), and curiously there’s no mention of A Charitable Earth, Ace’s company established in The Sarah Jane Adventures, but they’re still sleuthing away on their own mysteries like so many of the Doctor’s companions tend to. Today’s conundrums: twelve missing seismologists, fifteen missing paintings.
The Doctor, meanwhile, is Having a Day. Hot on the trail of the Cybermasters, she tracks their signal to a cyber-converted planet that’s lingering menacingly next to Earth in 1916, which is also where the Master himself happens to be. The Doctor discovers his TARDIS, hooked up to steer the planet through time and space, and learns that the Cybermasters’ stolen cargo is really a captive energy creature called a Quoronx (also sadly not allowed in Scrabble). Before it can be freed, the Doctor and Yaz are forced to pelt back into the TARDIS when Cybermasters start shooting.
While trying to parse this mystery planet, Thirteen is interrupted twice in succession; — firstly by a Dalek defector who really wants to spill its beans, and then by a summons from Kate Stewart, which leads to an awkward reunion with Tegan and Ace. Tegan in particular seems furious that the Doctor made no effort to stop by over the years, while Ace gloomily alludes to an unspecified falling-out with “her” Doctor that explains the lack of contact.
The mystery of the missing paintings is swiftly solved when Kate reveals they’ve all been defaced — or rather, re-faced, in the Master’s own image. (Thematic foreshadowing!) This was only done to get the Doctor’s attention, so the maverick Time Lord soon makes his presence known and the Doctor heads off to Naples to confront him in person.
After a couple of slightly weird scenes (including the Doctor insisting that Yaz be given a gun to wave around), the Master is taken to UNIT and locked up. The Doctor pat-pats both Tegan and Ace, delivering a static shock to each, swooshes them with the sonic, and runs off towards the next thing on her to-do list: the Daleks.
The Master doesn’t intend to stay incarcerated for long, having already used Tegan to smuggle a Cyberman into UNIT HQ. Not just any Cyberman, but a clone of Ashad, who demonstrates all of the brutality he exhibited in “Ascension of the Cybermen” as he bats aside soldiers and smashes the Master out of his cell so that he can teleport to safety.
This is where the Master’s plan started to unravel for me. What, exactly, was the point of getting himself captured? Ashad was already inside UNIT thanks to Tegan, and the Cybermen are largely left to their own devices for the rest of the story. I was also confused about where exactly this clean-shaven version of the Master teleported off to, since we never see him again — we can suppose that he goes back in time to start masquerading as Rasputin (“I love disguises!”) but it’s all a little unclear.
Underneath Bolivia, Yaz and the Doctor realise that the Daleks are planning to set off all of Earth’s volcanoes — and, too late, also realise that the Daleks know they’re here. The Doctor is captured and teleported off to the Master’s new digs in St. Petersburg, while Yaz takes the long way around in the TARDIS.
Here, the Master’s plan is laid bare. He’s going to use the power of his parked-up cyberplanet to steal the Doctor’s body via a “forced regeneration,” effectively ending her existence and giving some context to the warnings given by the Time entity at the end of Flux. And wouldn’t you know it? He does! It’s an admittedly creepy moment, and Dhawan really sells “I am… the DOCTOR!”
Yaz has her arm twisted into going off with the new “Doctor” on what he considers an adventure, and we see his intentions to forever tarnish the Doctor’s reputation through his misdeeds — at least until Yaz punts him out of the TARDIS while he’s distracted and flies away.
While all of this is going on, what’s left of Thirteen gets to have a conversation with some past selves, which is a fun sequence that doesn’t really amount to much. (Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, and David Bradley make cameo appearances.) Back in the real world, the Doctor’s holographic AI appears to her companions thanks to the static shocks, helping Yaz take full control of the TARDIS and spearheading a companion recruitment drive.
Things are pretty straightforward from here. With the Doctor’s holo-help, Tegan is able to electrocute all of the Cybermen and rescue Kate from imminent conversion, escaping just before the building implodes. Underneath the volcano, Ace runs into none other than Graham and his psychic paper (a welcome return for Bradley Walsh) and unleashes a stash of Nitro-9 to deal with the Daleks. These scenes aren’t particularly enthralling, but both Tegan and Ace get a brief reunion with “their” Doctors thanks to the form-changing hologram, both of which are sweet enough.
Yaz, meanwhile, has bumped into Vinder, whose role in this episode is about as thankless as Dan’s. Together they’re able to bring the Master back to St. Petersburg and goad all of the Cybermasters into shooting one another thanks again to the holo-Doctor (now resembling Jo Martin, not that that makes a lick of sense since the Doctor doesn’t have those memories). Next, they pour all of the ensuing regeneration energy back into the Master, restoring the Doctor to her old self. World saved!
Well, almost. The Daleks, for once, got their part of the plan right. Volcanoes are now going off all over Earth, so the Doctor and her chums pay another visit to the Master’s cyberplanet, shifting it forward to 2022 and using the power of cyber-conversion to zap all the flowing lava with cyber…ness, transforming it into metal. It’s unabashedly silly, a bit like towing the Earth home through space in “Journey’s End,” but given the Doctor positions her six companions all around the TARDIS console in just the same fashion, it seems that’s precisely the vibe Chibnall was going for.
With the Earth saved, the Doctor sets about freeing the Quoronx and, ultimately, it’s this last act of kindness that kills her. The Master arrives and spitefully ensures the Doctor gets a face-full of the creature’s energy before he too collapses. Yaz braves the blasts to carry her back into the TARDIS, and the Doctor murmurs “Extended fam…” before passing out.
When she awakens, it’s just Yaz left, and the Doctor is already regenerating. Curiously for such an inseparable pair, they’ve clearly reached an unspoken agreement that this moment is the end of their adventures together. Maybe Yaz has come to accept that this Doctor, her Doctor, will always keep an emotional distance, and wants to use this excuse for a clean break?
Either way, this regeneration is definitely treated with gravitas, far more transformative and destructive than just a change of face, and more like the imminent death the Tenth Doctor described to Wilf. “I die, and another man walks away.” Even so, there’s just enough time for ice cream.
We at home don’t get frozen dessert, but we do get one last hurrah for all the companions, including three additional cameos from Melanie Bush, Jo Jones, and Ian Chesterton, with William Russell reprising his role on-screen after almost 60 years. Their appearances add not one jot to the story, but it’s hard to deny that seeing them all together is a treat.
Whether or not this episode will hold up once the plethora of call backs, easter eggs, and cameos have been digested is another matter entirely. It’s by no means the weakest script Chibnall has ever given us, but neither is it the strongest — many of his other stories have been more creative, tackled larger issues and posed more interesting questions.
But then, you could argue that’s not the approach a celebration of the show’s “past, present, and future” should take, and that there was never going to be a better time for any showrunner to look back upon their work, and the work of their predecessors, and indulge in a bit of a victory lap. Was the BBC’s centenary special the perfect time to sit back and revel in nostalgia? Time, and viewing figures, will tell.
Personally, though, I wanted more from the bad guys. There’s no real sense of cooperation, nor that the Cybermen, Daleks, and Master are made more dangerous by uniting. Rather, it feels like three different, slightly counterproductive, invasions are happening at once. The Doctor’s enemies should be at least as iconic as the Doctor’s friends when they appear, but they trip over one another throughout this story.
On the whole, though, Whittaker does manage to rise above the noise, take centre stage, and give a solid final performance, even if there’s not as much emotional range for her to play with this week. We don’t see the Doctor furious or terrified; we see her concerned and wistful, with most of the meaty conversation saved for a scene atop the TARDIS, where both Whittaker and Mandip Gill give their best performances of the episode.
And then, after one last sunrise, comes the regeneration, and—well, your guess is as good as ours. The final seconds were trimmed from the screeners shown to the press, meaning we’ll have been watching right along with you to catch the first glimpse of our new Doctor. (Unless it’s actually an old Doctor. Or four new Doctors at once. Anything seems feasible right now.) So head to the comments and let us know your thoughts on whatever it was that just happened!
I’m off to find some ice cream.
The Power of the Doctor is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.