5 years, 3 months and one week ago, there was much excitement and great expectation as Jodie Whittaker was announced as the first woman to take on the lead role in Doctor Who. Three series and three Specials later, The Power of The Doctor, her final episode as the Doctor, arrived with little fanfare and pretty much a shrug of indifference from the public. Although that was to change by the end of the episode…
Jodie’s swansong, written by departing showrunner Chris Chibnall, had all hallmarks of the problems that had beset the Thirteenth Doctor’s run – as well as what it did successfully.
Poor plotting, clunky dialogue and too many characters reducing the Doctor’s screen time: all present and correct. The Power of the Doctor aimed for an epic, grand-scale storyline but fragmented into a multiplicity of confusing “happenings”. In short, the Master had stolen famous paintings to put his face (or his face as Rasputin) onto them. He also kidnapped the world’s leading seismologists to shrink them for a lecture he would stage for the Doctor in order to be arrested by UNIT. He previously sent a miniaturised Ashad (partially Cyber-converted human) to one of the Doctor’s former companions somehow knowing that she would take it into the UNIT Headquarters so it could be unshrunk and he could be rescued later. Elsewhere, the Master had tasked his Cyber Masters (a hybrid between Cybermen and Time Lord DNA who were killed when Gallifrey exploded but are somehow back) with stealing a child (it’s secretly a Qurunx) – from a train. The Daleks also somehow have formed a pact with the Master to lure the Doctor and capture her via a renegade Dalek. Oh and the Daleks are also drilling into the Earth to, er, kill off humanity by triggering all the world’s volcanoes at the same time. Something something a metallic planet powered the Qurunx – no they’re losing us now. Meanwhile, the Daleks take the Doctor to St Petersburg in 1916 where the Master / Rasputin and the Cybermen are waiting to reveal the Big Plan! Still with us? Here it comes. The Master wants to subject the Doctor to a forced regeneration, charged by the Qurunx-powered planet. Drum roll….to force the Doctor to regenerate into the Master!
Yep, throw a sonic screwdriver and you’ll hit a plot hole. It’s no wonder that Segun Akinola kept the music loud and bombastic and director Jamie Magnus Stone ensured everything moved at a dizzying pace. If you stopped to think about the narrative, it’d unravel like pulling a loose thread from the Fourth Doctor’s scarf.
And even in her final episode, Jodie was given more leaden exposition and info dumps barely masquerading as dialogue. Take this example, all spoken by the Doctor, without interruption: “Wait, there’s more layers to the shield. Oh, not just cloaking. It’s a consciousness shield. A creature trying to evade capture, hiding behind a visual projection shield, and this one shows us what we instinctively want to protect, as a defence. So what is it? Oh, a Qurunx. One of the great mysteries of the universe. I’ve never seen one before, Yaz. Sentient energy enough to power planets and civilisations. They’re so rare. A metal planet with a Qurunx at the heart of it on the edge of Earth in the second decade of the 20th Century. Why?” Take whoever your favourite Doctor is and imagine them having to deliver that making it sound natural / interesting. Impossible! All to explain away the episode’s McGuffin.
Given the episode aired in BBC’s Centenary week, and since Doctor Who is the world’s longest-running sci-fi series, Chibnall was able to play a trump card. Never mind the plot, feel the nostalgia!
We knew from the advance publicity that two Classic era Who companions would be returning. Sophie Aldred, who was the Eighth Doctor’s companion, Ace, in the late 80s and Janet Fielding, who played Tegan Jovanka, briefly alongside the Fourth and then mostly with the Fifth Doctor. Recruited by UNIT as new freelancers, Ace and Tegan were set for a reunion with the Doctor. There is always a moment of frisson for long-standing fans when new Doctors are reacquainted with former companions and this was no exception. Instantly channeling their dominant traits, Ace enthusiastically greeting her “Professor’s” new look while Tegan was all arms-folded, mouth-on-legs and as outspoken as ever.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg of the nostalgia. Returning as vestiges of the Thirteenth Doctor’s consciousness or fragments of her past, David Bradley (reprising his take on the First Doctor), Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor), Peter Davison (the Fifth Doctor), Paul McGann (the Eighth Doctor) and Sylvester McCoy (the Seventh Doctor) all assembled like a decent convention line-up.
As an AI-projection of the Doctor (we think, who cares!), this allowed for more, surprisingly emotional reunions. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred got the opportunity to tie up loose ends denied by the show getting cancelled in 1989. Even better, Peter Davison and Janet Fielding’s interaction embraced Tegan’s thorny question about former companions being forgotten. “I never forget any of you, I never forget anything” replied Davison with the sincerity and weight of a more mature performer. When challenged what she was thinking seeing all the Cybermen, “Adric” was the Eighth Doctor’s emotional reply to Tegan – referencing the companion of their era who sacrificed himself in 1982’s Earthshock to defeat the Cybermen. A lovely Easter Egg for older fans.
Having perfunctorily despatched John Bishop‘s Dan at the start of the episode after becoming aware of his own mortality (or perhaps remembering he had a comedy tour booked), The Power of the Doctor gathered a couple of familiar faces of Jodie’s era. The brilliant Jo Martin made an impactful cameo despite having little to do. Jacob Anderson returned as Vinder but had even less to do . Graham, played by Bradley Walsh, made a surprise reappearance – this time without his step-grandson Ryan who we are told was in Patagonia, presumably looking for his character’s second note. Alongside Ace, Graham did a bit of Dalek-baiting under a volcano. Chibnall missed a trick not to have Bradley Walsh in pursuit of a Dalek with the words “The Chase is on!”
That these returnees were somewhat underwhelming is a measure how lacking impact the Thirteenth Doctor’s run has been. To give his finale more emotional heft, Chibnall’s sentimental forage in the show’s past wasn’t finished yet. We dropped into an AA group – Assistants Anonymous, that is – where First Doctor companion Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Jo Jones née Grant (Katy Manning) who travelled with the Third Doctor and Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford) joined the other familiar faces for one final nostalgia hit.
Jodie Whittaker’s casting as The Doctor was heralded as important and inspirational for young girls watching the show. Jodie has certainly done what her male predecessors have: being brave, helpful and kind. It’s been a significant recurring image throughout Thirteen’s time to see Jodie wearing her mechanic’s goggles and actively engineering. Has any other incarnation been so much under the bonnet of the Tardis?
It’s been commendable that in recent years, the show has promoted such positive representation of women with Jodie to the forefront. However, you do think about that younger female audience readying themselves to say goodbye to Jodie – their Doctor – only to find the episode packed with old characters they’ve never seen before. Just as an overcrowded Tardis ‘fam’ often squeezed Thirteen’s prominence out of episodes, so too has the sentimental throwback cast pulled focus from Jodie’s Doctor in her last episode. Yes, they added all the feels but they were not feels relating to her run nor were they ones the showrunner Chibnall had earned during his tenure.
When the tumult of guests and plots died down – the Doctor had been knocked of her feet by the
McGuffin Qurunx triggering her regeneration – and it was just the Doctor and Yaz on one last trip, it gave them (pardon the pun) some space to perform. It was a quiet and tender goodbye to the companion who had been with the Doctor for all of her time in the Tardis. While the claim “It’s been so special” felt more like wishful thinking, the two actors did manage to nail the bittersweet sense of an era ending.
What was beautifully done was giving Jodie’s regeneration having a fresh context. Rather than a stressful, overwrought transformation inside the Tardis, the Thirteenth stepped wistfully outside to smell the “blossomiest blossom” and enjoy one last sunset on a cliffside. As the regeneration energies merged with the ambers and golds of the skyscape, Thirteen’s transformation was one of the most beautiful in the show’s history.
One of the strengths of Doctor Who, and key to its longevity, is the programme’s ability to hit the rest button and reinvent itself. With the much-loved Russell T Davies taking the reins again, with David Tennant (and Catherine Tate) returning for three Specials (due to air in November 2023) before Ncuti Gatwa takes over as the Fifteenth Doctor, hopes are high that stories worth telling and characters you care about are on the way.
The Power of the Doctor saw convoluted scripts and nostalgic guest appearances overshadow Jodie’s finale –
★★★ (3 stars) from The Recs (or 4 if you were a fan of the classic series)