RTD Points Out “Complete Narrative Collapse” in the Doctor Who Finale

“It pains me,” says showrunner Russell T Davies.

Ruby, Mel and the Doctor in the TARDIS transporter beam screengrabbed from "Empire of Death"
Photo: BBC Studios/Bad Wolf

Warning: spoilers for Doctor Who series 14 episode “Empire of Death”.

Does it pain you, too?

In “Empire of Death”, just after Melanie Bush is revealed to be Sutekh’s latest victim, the TARDIS does something it’s never done before – and according to Russell T Davies speaking on the BBC iPlayer in-episode commentary, something it will never do again.

“Bring me the Time Lord and the Child and their precious secret,” demands Sutekh. In response, a cloaked Harriet Arbinger pulls a lever at the console of the TARDIS that’s currently parked in UNIT Tower. As a result of her lever-pull, dead-Mel, Ruby and the Doctor are instantly transported across time and London, from the Department of Health in 2046 to UNIT HQ in 2024.

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Mel’s dead and so doesn’t remark on it, and the Doctor seems totally unfazed, but Ruby does the sensible thing and looks around her with an expression of ‘what?!’ If we could hear her thoughts, alongside all the stress about her mum and the death of the universe, she may well have been thinking ‘I bloody said it was like a Matter Transporter in Star Trek‘.

Ruby’s right to look confused, because, hang about, if the TARDIS can suddenly transport people who aren’t in a TARDIS across the decades, then it’s just turned into an extremely over-engineered wardrobe. If you don’t need to actually be inside the TARDIS for it to chuck you through space and time, then all of Doctor Who’s ‘we must get to the TARDIS!’ peril goes out of the window.

This fact didn’t go unnoticed by “Empire of Death” writer Russell T Davies. Speaking on the finale episode commentary with actor Bonnie Langford and super-producer Vicki Delow, RTD expressed his frustration:

“Because of the absence of the Remembered TARDIS, we have complete narrative collapse at this point, where the TARDIS just invents a “Time Beam” that transports you through time and space.

“[…] We’ve just invented something we’ll never use ever again – I hope we don’t – where the TARDIS can just whoosh you through time and space without a TARDIS. It pains me, I blame everyone else. We’ll just forget it […] Never again!”

At this point in the episode as originally scripted, RTD explains, the Remembered TARDIS had collapsed and disappeared after depositing the Doctor, Ruby and Mel in 2046. That was an SFX sequence too far for this already-packed episode, and so it was cut from the script.

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(It’s good news that it was, because the Remembered TARDIS went on to provide the Easter egg-filled setting for a series of classic-era Doctor/Companion reunions in Tales of the TARDIS. Originally created just for “Empire of Death”, Davies conjured the idea of reusing it as part of Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary celebrations, and having it “floating through the Vortex, giving old Doctors and old companions treats and rewards.”)

In the final episode, the Remembered TARDIS doesn’t collapse, but for some reason isn’t used to get the Doctor, Ruby and dead-Mel back to 2024. “I like to imagine it drifted away,” said RTD on the episode commentary, “lost its anchor, slipped its moorings, drifted away into the Time Vortex and became the Tales of the TARDIS Remembered TARDIS.”

Perhaps making the return trip in the Remembered TARDIS would have taken too long for such a busy episode, or perhaps – as Vicki Delow jokingly suggests on the commentary – it’s all down to Sutekh’s god-like powers. Either way, it apparently won’t happen again.

Doctor Who series 14 is available to stream on BBC iPlayer and Disney+.