What’s the Show? Jodie Whittaker’s final, 90-minute epic turn as the Doctor.
What’s It All About, JG? The Doctor, Yaz and Dan attempt to stop a space-train getting hijacked by a bunch of Cybermen (alright: CyberMasters). Unsuccessfully, as it happens, and the CyberMasters steal the cargo – what appears to be a young girl. Dan, having had enough of nearly dying, decides it’s time to call it quits while he’s ahead of the game and leaves. Oh yes, and a Dalek wants to give the Doctor the key to destroying his species, like you do. Meanwhile, Tegan (Tegan!) and Ace (Ace!) are investigating the abduction of seismologists and artwork, and the Master is at work in Russia, posing as Rasputin.
He’s brought the Daleks, the CyberMasters and himself together in an attempt to finally defeat the Doctor – he wants to take over the Doctor’s body, then destroy everything she stands for. And he uses the child – actually a Qurunx, an enslaved energy being – to do it. The Doctor fights back from the inside with the help of the 1st, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th in phantom form, and on the outside Tegan and Ace help defeat the CyberMasters while Yaz forces the Master to reverse his takeover of the Doctor and forces him back into his own body. As the Qurunx escapes its bonds, the Master directs its energy towards the Doctor in a final act of revenge, mortally wounding her and forcing her to (not very surprisingly) regenerate into David Tennant. Again.
Why Did You Give It A Go? doesn’t seem relevant, so let’s go for What Were You Expecting And/Or Hoping For? What I was mostly hoping for was, “don’t fuck it up”. As should be clear to just about everyone by now, Jodie’s been fantastic even when the series around her very much hasn’t been. Legend of the Sea Devils was a pathetic, damp fart of an episode and the Flux season was extremely variable – sometimes great, sometimes very much not. But this was the big one – the one that couldn’t go wrong. So that’s what I was hoping for – that it gives Jodie the exit she deserves.
Is It Any Good? It is a considerable relief to answer that question in the positive. Yes. Yes, it is any good. Sometimes frustrating, occasionally brilliant, at times head-scratching, but overall yes – it’s good! Thank fuck for that!
It does have a lot of the characteristics of the Chibnall era, though, that’s pretty unavoidable. Which is to say, it’s messy. Sometimes very messy. The script mostly gets away with this, however, because it has one characteristic that has very much not been much of a feature of the Chibnall era – it’s propulsive. From the entire, action-packed pre-credits sequence on the train, through to throwing Daleks, CyberMasters, UNIT, returning companions, unexpected returning Doctors, an energy creature, the-Master-as-Rasputin… There’s so much going on it can be hard to keep up, but what this does is give the whole story a huge sense of narrative pace. On a first viewing this can be bewildering, but a second viewing shows that most of it – if not quite everything – does follow logically and clicks into place.
That doesn’t always mean successfully, but generally speaking, explanations are there. Vinder, for example, gets to come back for one last go-around. His inclusion is perfunctory, but there is actually a script-level reason he’s there – he’s been sent to hunt for the stolen Qurunx, and because that’s what the Doctor is also investigating, gets caught up in the adventure. He doesn’t do much, and the reason for his inclusion is easy to miss on a first viewing, but it is justified. There’s a fair bit of that going on.
Tegan and Ace’s inclusion is similarly explained – Kate has “recruited freelancers” to work for UNIT, and who else is she going to turn to but former companions of the Doctor? This is actually rather well utilized, and there’s a rather pleasing logic to the idea of Ace and Tegan working together. They both get plot-relevant stuff to do, they both compliment each other, and they’re both performed magnificently by Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred respectively. Incidentally, there may not be more more genuine a Tegan moment than when she asks the Doctor why the Doctor never returned, after it was Tegan who walked out back in Resurrection of the Daleks. Yeah, that’s Tegan alright. She left, then complains the Doctor never came back again!
Anyway, there’s the odd cheesy moment of course, like Ace putting on her old bomber jacket, or Tegan saying “rabbits”, but when are you not going to have that? And, crucially, both Tegan and Ace get to address the time they spend with the Doctor without it being a re-tread of “School Reunion”. Ace gets to apologise to the Doctor for the distance that grew between them (McCoy deserves some real praise here, as does Aldred), and Tegan gets to make peace with her incarnation too. Neither scene feels gratuitous and gives pay-offs for long-term fans without getting in the way for newer ones. That’s a hard act to pull off, so praise is very much deserved.
It’s all incredibly touching, basically, and the cameos from the past Doctors are expertly deployed here. The little technique of the Doctor (Jodie Version) deploying an AI so the companions see “their” Doctor is neat little bit of storytelling that allows those moments to land. It’s not contrived – well, any more than Doctor Who always is – and because the beats rest on the companions and their emotional reaction rather than “oh look, it’s the Xth Doctor!” it works. The companions are allowed their own space, and if the closure has been decades in the making, at least it arrives.
And those beats can rest on the companions because we’ve already encountered the Doctors in the void where the current Doctor meets her past selves and they tell her to keep fighting. We’ve had the unexpected thrill of the old hands being back, so when they encounter their companions the focus can be on on the companions. Saying that, those first moments with the past Doctors are gorgeous. The scenes of the Doctors flicking between each other, even arguing with each other (“I don’t do robes!” “There’s always one…”) are gloriously lovely, and having the 8th Doctor in there just makes it all the more wonderful.
Still, parts are unquestionably a mess and could definitely do with clarification. The “rogue Dalek” who wants to betray its own species is actually a fascinating idea – the thought that one of them could break free and understand that the Kaled race had been replaced and so therefore the Dalek’s mission was no longer valid is a great idea. What a shame, then, it’s reduced to about five minutes on screen and basically works as an exposition dump and a way of the Doctor getting captured.
Something else that needs clarification – why the two different time zones? I mean, the Master dicking around and pretending to be Rasputin is perfectly in character (as anyone who has the misfortune to recall “The King’s Demons” will attest, to say nothing of “World Enough and Time”/ “The Doctor Falls”), and at least he gets the line, “I love disguises!”. But… still, why are the Daleks and CyberMasters there? (Though arguably the funniest moment in the whole episode is the Dalek and CyberMaster exchanging a baffled glance as the Master dances away to Bony M’s “Rasputin”.) What difference do the time zones make? Though, as ever, full praise to Sacha Dhawan’s unhinged, genuinely unpredictable version of the Master – if RTD retains any part of Chibnall’s time in charge it should be Dhawin. He’s incredible.
The Qurunx is a bit of a McGuffin as well. Hey, you know this thing you’ve never heard of before? Kinda need the episode to revolve around it! Er… OK. It works well enough, especially with the Doctor choosing kindness to rescue it and set it free over the Master’s enslavement, but y’know – you could have done the same with a Big Power Generator. It’s thematically consistent, and showing the Doctor’s wonder as it’s released is very effective, but the themes could have been elucidated throughout the episode much better.
So while there’s much to praise here, there’s certainly a fair amount to criticise. But for once during Chibnall’s reign, the balance is actually on the side of things to praise. Yes, there are loads of questions that come up, but somehow they never quite get in the way of the story, or, perhaps more relevantly, enjoying the story. At. Bloody. Last.
Would You Recommend It? Yup. It’s probably about the best we could have hoped for, at the end of a messy, frustrating period of the show. It’s narratively fleet-of-foot, there’s no massive clangers that derail things, all the nods to history are well handled, and overall it’s a solid, entertaining slice of Doctor Who.
Although there are two things it’s worth mentioning which aren’t in The Power of the Doctor, both of which improve the episode for not being there. Firstly, there’s no Timeless Child bullshit. It’s fair to say that the whole Timeless Child plot ranks somewhere alongside “half-human on his mother’s side” in terms of Things That Need Never Be Spoken Of Again. And Chibnall makes the entirely correct decision to just leave that well enough alone. There’s enough going on on in this story without weighing it down further with all that nonsense, and the lack of Timeless Child plots is of huge benefit to the story. It’s actually quite a smart piece of misdirection when the CyberMasters open the cargo on the train, it turns out to be a young child, then it’s not anything to do with the most hated plotline of the 21st century.
Secondly, no Gallifrey. With the Daleks, the CyberMasters, the Master himself, and the Doctor (and past Doctors), there was every chance we would wind up back on that benighted, who-gives-a-shit planet once more. For the fact that we are spared that, I could not be more grateful.
One might argue that there are two other things missing – closure for Dan and closure for Yaz. Dan’s departure is pretty abrupt, there’s no doubt about that. He’s in the pre-credits sequence, has had enough, and off he goes. Honestly… I mean, I don’t want to sound too harsh, and John Bishop has exceeded all expectations, but it’s maybe not the worst thing in the world? The script is cluttered enough without another companion, he gets a goodbye moment at the far end of the story, and it’s hard to say he was missed all that much. Dan’s been enjoyable, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that maybe he should have been in Flux and that’s it.
As for Yaz… she’s great in this! She gets a lot to do, she gets to shove the Master out of the TARDIS and piss off without him (genuinely very funny), and she gets to have her final scene with the Doctor on top of the TARDIS with ice-cream, which is very touching. Some have lamented that there wasn’t a kiss between Yaz and the Doctor, but that misses the point – the Doctor kindly, but unquestionably, stopped anything developing further at the end of Legend of the Sea Devils. Not that I blame anyone for not remembering anything about that particular story, but still – it’s quite clear and also the best thing in that episode. Not everything has to be a Grand Romance in the RTD mould. Not that there’s anything wrong with the RTD approach, of course not, but Other Options Are Available, and the message that people who love each other can also be friends like that is important too.
It’s low-key, but then Whittaker’s Doctor and her entire run has always operated low-key, so that feels consistent. Low-key Doctors weren’t a feature of 21st century Doctor Who, but Whittaker’s time in the role is a reminder that not everything has to be histrionic and dialled up to 11. And even when the writing has struggled for her, her approach to the role – so very like Peter Davison, and underplayed in the same way – remains true to her interpretation of the character.
And yet there’s so many fun moments scattered throughout this that just ask to be called out! The companion support group is a lovely conceit (nice to see Mel made it back to Earth eventually, after “Dragonfire”), and seeing Ian there is simply lovely. The very silly line, “the Master’s Dalek Plan!” Graham being back reminds you want a warm, reassuring presence Bradley Walsh is (anyone miss Ryan? Didn’t think so) and it’s sweet that he gets to be there. Ace gets her baseball bat and gets to blow stuff up. Tegan gets to be Tegan, which is all I ever want out of Tegan because Tegan is awesome. Kate Stewart’s in there, with not a lot to do but enough to justify her presence. And we get a brief return of the Renegade Doctor, who remains simply brilliant. And so on.
This isn’t perfect. And it definitely isn’t flawless. But while it may not be the best regeneration story ever, it’s certainly not the worst. Chibnall’s era has been a confounding period where great ideas and worthwhile artistic impulses have been frittered away (no recurring monsters in the first season was a good idea!), and great swings have been made and entirely failed to connect (the Timeless Child, of course). It will always feel like an era of wasted opportunity – because it has been – but at least as she heads out of the TARDIS for the last time, Jodie Whittaker gets to say goodbye in an entertaining, enjoyable and – if sometimes messy – fun final outing.
Tag. You’re it.
To be replaced by David Tennant. Good?
Scores On The Doors? 8/10 – really, it’s worth a second watch! It makes a whole heap more sense!