Image Credit: BBC (Fair Use)
Image Description: Tegan, The Doctor and Ace together at last
You’re warned of spoilers, and emotional moments, as John Salway reviews the finale of the Chris Chibnall era
It’s taken a while for me to get to grips with writing this review. My initial viewing experience was one of joy and adrenaline as the plot ricocheted along at high speed and in unpredictable directions. In combination with the increasingly substantial ‘kisses to the past’, it caused my fan brain to overload. By the end, I suspect the entire street may have heard my banshee-like wail of: “IIIAAAN! It’s IIIIAAAANNN!” On the other hand, after the party is over, there’s no denying that if you stop and think about The Power of the Doctor for any period of time it is obviously full of massive flaws. Like a house of cards, the whole thing is liable to collapse if examined too closely.
From the moment the loony, cringey and wonderful Rasputin dance sequence began, I realised this was going to be a story where the vibe was more important than the actual plot details – at least to me. Shortly afterwards, this was confirmed when that very dead “lone Cyberman” Ashad was reintroduced with a clunky cloning explanation.. I can see that this would be an insurmountable problem for many Who fans, and I respect and understand that. But despite my numerous complaints, and unfulfilled wishes, I had a wonderful time watching The Power of the Doctor. In the simplest possible terms, I got its vibe.
Let’s get one key disappointment out of the way first – the absence of Thasmin content. In my optimistic naïveté, the one thing I thought Legend of the Sea Devils got right was preparing this plot line for a grand finale. There, the Doctor seemed to be repressing or simply ignoring her hidden feelings for Yaz, who in response encouraged the Doctor to be courageous by expressing herself. This seemed the perfect set-up for a crowd-pleasing, emotional climax in the final episode as the Doctor embraces her own emotions and does something brave to show her love. I obviously read that all wrong, however, as The Power of the Doctor has very little interest in exploring Thasmin beyond a series of subtext-laden ambiguous looks from Yaz. With hindsight, Legend of the Sea Devils now seems even more disappointing, and the whole thread seems like a missed opportunity.
I won’t talk any longer about what this episode isn’t – so what is it? Structurally, The Power of the Doctor is very much following in the footsteps of Flux, and in particular its final episode, The Vanquishers. The Doctor spends the first half being bounced around like a pinball, pausing only for the low-key and strangely timed departure of Dan, before the crux of the plot is revealed. After this point, the story begins to settle down into something more closely resembling a traditional plot, though narratively remains a bit of a mess. Elements like cyber-planets, kidnapped aliens, and reMastered paintings come and go like leaves in the wind as we rush towards what is the real inciting incident, the actual point of the whole thing – the Master taking over the Doctor’s body and leaving her friends to save the day.
Once it is revealed, the Master’s master plan feels audacious even while it is pleasingly barmy. Removeall the extraneous layers of plots, however, and it is surprisingly easy to grasp. It’s a violation of the Doctor, and an exceedingly petty one at that. Where another episode might make some of these themes explicit, be they the Master’s jealousy of the Timeless Child’s eternal life, or renewed self-loathing after discovering that key parts of himself (and all Time Lords) were modelled on his sworn enemy, The Power of the Doctor lets them slide. There are strong motives and key character beats that are hinted at, but aren’t pushed as strongly as they should be.
With the Doctor out of the way (which, in her final episode, is an unusual choice), it falls to Yaz, Kate, Ace and Tegan to save the day with a little help from some other surprise appearances. As a special centenary treat, the reappearance of Tegan and Ace is a delight. Both are well characterised, with Ace in particular being handled surprisingly deftly. The CEO element of ‘new Ace’ is wisely kept out of sight and mind as a somewhat polarising aspect of the character, while the exact details of how she left the Doctor are kept vague so that as many of the extended universe explanations as possible are kept valid. Is anything particularly ground-breaking done with this pair? No, but that’s not really why they’re here is it? It’s pure fan-pleasing nostalgia-bait, and a special episode like this is one of the few occasions where I’m open to such coddling.
But even better is the marvellous decision to include David Bradley, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann and Jo Martin as various holographic and/or metaphysical echoes of the Doctor, turning The Power of the Doctor into a true celebration of Doctor Who’s history. A little cheer went out as each attendee was revealed. Is it a bit cheesy and self-indulgent to have old incarnations come back to cheer the current Doctor on, and offer advice in her hour of greatest need? Of course it is! Why shouldn’t it be? As long as it doesn’t do so too often, Doctor Who has a right to revel in his own history, and I’m particularly delighted that those older Doctors who didn’t get a chance to appear in the 50th Anniversary story finally got to appear here. It’s especially smart to let Davison and McCoy talk to their companions of old, and deal with some of the baggage that (particularly in Ace’s case) they’ve not had the opportunity to deal with before.
After plenty of action and plot shenanigans, the Doctor is restored once more and the Earth is saved. The Master has the last laugh, however, as she is struck by the energy beam of the very alien creature she was trying to rescue. This is a strangely unfocused scene, a plot hiccup that makes the Doctor’s death seem incidental rather than a crucial moment in the plot. It would have made more sense for her death to tie more strongly into the main plot of restoring the Doctor’s body from the Master’s control, but the strong scenes that follow make up for this confusion.
After Yaz drops off the ever-increasing group of returning companions, our two leads are left alone to come to terms with the Doctor’s impending regeneration. As the two of them eat ice cream, perched on the TARDIS roof as it hangs over Earth, there’s a gorgeous bittersweet atmosphere to match the beautiful imagery. Jodie Whitaker and Mandip Gill are at their very best as both try to put on a brave face and enjoy their last moments together. They’re so good, it almost makes sense when the Doctor decides to send Yaz away before her regeneration. Nevertheless, there is still the itch that this is less an understandable narrative choice, and more a necessary product of contract expiration.
The Doctor’s last gift to Yaz is to drop her off at a companion support group where she is reunited with all the old friends we’ve seen so far, and a few more besides. I found it an emotional scene, and not just for the nostalgic thrill of also getting to see Jo, Mel, and especially Ian – our living link to the very first episode of Doctor Who. It’s also such a lovely idea to officially bring the past companions together on screen to share the experiences they can’t divulge to anyone else. It solves the age-old conundrum of how these characters come back to a normal life on Earth, with the Doctor providing them with the help they need. It also works as a suitable metaphor for Doctor Who itself. If the Doctor’s power is their ability to draw together disparate people from various walks of life, then isn’t that also what Doctor Who has been doing for nearly 60 years?
The episode closes on my favourite regeneration scene since the Ninth Doctor declared both Rose and himself “fantastic” before blasting into the Tenth. With the angst already dealt with, the mood is optimistic and forward-focused as the Doctor regenerates. It makes a change from the big, melancholy speeches that shamelessly attempt to pluck at the heartstrings which have become a hallmark of regeneration over the past decade and a half. Alone and content, in a beautiful location, the Thirteenth Doctor passes the baton with good grace and a big smile on her face. I couldn’t really ask for anything more. If this had indeed been the end of TV Doctor Who for a while, as some have suggested may apparently have been the case, then this would have been a fitting conclusion.
As for what happens next? Well, I’ve said enough.
“Tag, you’re it.”