The Power of the Doctor
has a big mission statement – to bring to a close Jodie Whittaker’s time as the Thirteenth Doctor, and Chris Chibnall’s time as lead writer, and also, as part of the BBC’s Centenary, to act as a celebration of the show’s 59 years so far.
So, in a fittingly large-scale story, the Doctor is faced with a team-up of her three greatest enemies: the Master, the Daleks, and the Cybermen. But she’s not fighting them alone. As well as companions Yaz and Dan, and UNIT leader Kate Stewart, she’s joined by friends from her past, Ace and Tegan, both last seen on the show in the 1980s.
The episode starts with an edge-of-the-seat heist sequence on a bullet train in space, and rarely drops this pace. It’s 90 minutes long but doesn’t stop for breath, with the Doctor and friends uncovering a sprawling plot that includes the Master disguised as Rasputin in 1916 Russia, a moon made of Cyber technology, and the Daleks blowing up volcanoes across modern day Earth.
As with last year’s Flux
, it’s a very complicated plot that Chris Chibnall has come up with, and not all of it adds up – the Master’s main reason for the Rasputin disguise seems to be to set up a dance number, and Vinder (another returning friend) very conveniently falls through a hole into the plot just when he’s needed. There’s also a brief thing about the Master vandalising a lot of famous paintings with his own face, which doesn’t really go anywhere.
But – unlike Flux
– the story is well constructed enough that, for the most part, it’s the fun kind of dumb rather than the annoying kind of dumb. Ra Ra Rasputin is very catchy, after all. Director Jamie Magnus Stone gives flair and pace to the action sequences, and Segun Akinola’s energetic score ties everything together. This is the best Doctor Who’s ever looked and sounded – the stiltedness of Jodie Whittaker’s first series is long gone, as is the awkward COVID-restricted nature of the previous few episodes.
The Cybermen benefit most from this high production value, and as with their arc in Series 12, continue to be the most threatening they’ve ever been. One gripping sequence sees Cyber-leader Ashad brutally blast his way through the UNIT base in a long camera take that seems to want to shout out how far this show’s come – from the era of wobbly sets to being able to square up to much bigger-budgeted action movies.
But the most interesting part of the villain triple-threat is the Master, and this is down to two factors. Firstly: Sacha Dhawan’s performance, relishing in the camp of the silly bits, bringing maximum sass to his reunions with old companions, and allowing himself to be truly nasty when left alone with Yaz. Secondly: the episode has, for the first time since the Twelfth Doctor’s doomed attempt to reform Missy, a meaty idea of something to do with the Master – his hatred, or perhaps jealousy, of his old frenemy leads him to want to become the Doctor, literally.
There’s a lot to unpack in this ‘forced regeneration’ story, but after the twee fun of him trying on some old costumes, the episode doesn’t have time to scratch the surface of it. Dhawan’s tragic delivery of “don’t let me go back to being me” as the process is reversed is the one insight into the character’s deeper motivations, and it begs the question of what could have been done with the Master-Doctor character had there been fewer other things taking up space elsewhere in the plot.
It’s the Daleks, meanwhile, that lose out. Whereas the New Year special, Eve of the Daleks
, emphasised how threatening a small number of them can be, here they seem to be back to the more generic role they play in bigger scale episodes. There isn’t much at all to their part of the story; they’re here for the sake of it, because this is a Big Important Special and so the producers wanted the Doctor’s main enemies to be in it.
And for something so big, it feels inconsequential; we saw a whole Dalek war fleet get rather easily defeated in Flux
, along with two Sontaran invasions of Earth, and so the Daleks’ latest scheme to take over Earth, via blowing up all the volcanoes at once, feels like yet another recurrence of tropes we’ve seen in various combinations many times before – as inevitable as the Doctor finding a big button to press that will reverse it all.
Meanwhile, the return of Tegan and Ace adds spark to otherwise stock bits of the plot. Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred deservedly get their names in the opening credits, and the fun they have facing their old enemies once again is infectious, while their nervousness at reuniting with the Doctor, and frustration at this Doctor’s lack of time for them, sets up the more interesting moments to come.
You see, they’re not the only returning faces – multiple past Doctors make surprise appearances too. Doctors Five through Eight, plus David Bradley as the recast First Doctor, appearing as the Guardians of the Edge is a nice touch, fitting into the plot without feeling too crowbarred; it certainly makes amends for only Tom Baker getting to do the fiftieth anniversary.
But the real key scenes are those in which Tegan and Ace are reunited with their respective Doctors – touching conversations that allow us to reflect on how far their characters have come, and in Ace’s case, close off a storyline that was left incomplete when the show went on hiatus in 1989.
These two scenes are not just throwbacks but are important to the one big theme of the episode: how the Doctor’s fast-moving life, and changes in face, affect those left behind. Whereas other anniversary stories have focused on the character of the Doctor, The Power of the Doctor
is more interested in the companions, and how the true ‘Power of the Doctor’ is, as Yaz tells the Master, that “she’s spent her life gathering friends”. It’s very fitting that the episode ends with various companions, recent and much older, together in a form of support group.
It's ironic, then, that like a lot of this Doctor’s era, it’s the incumbent companions who are most let down. John Bishop’s Dan was never much more than a third wheel anyway, so him deciding to trot off after the pre-titles isn’t much of a surprise. But Mandip Gill’s Yaz has been present throughout Whittaker’s tenure as the Doctor, and it’s pretty remarkable how casually she’s shunted out at the end of the show.
This is particularly egregious given that the past two episodes have focused on Yaz’s unrequited attraction to the Doctor. Some kind of payoff was to be expected, but across The Power of the Doctor
’s ninety minutes, there’s not a single reference to the storyline. Compare this to Martha Jones’s arc back in Series 3, which was also about her unrequited attraction for the Doctor, and which ended when Martha realised that the Doctor would never love her back and made the decision to move on – taking control of her own ending.
Yaz gets no such agency. Just “I want to be alone now, bye Yaz.” One simple scene of her deciding it’s time to move on could have made all the difference, and it’s a particularly missed opportunity not to deal with this in an episode where several other past companions are present to guide her to this conclusion. And from the Doctor's perspective, to have so much of the episode reflect on her having ended companion relationships on a bad note and avoided the unfinished business, before uncritically showing her make the same mistakes again is... well, actually, it’s an unsurprising ending for the Thirteenth Doctor era’s poor handling of its lead character dynamics.
Perhaps Chibnall is leaving this for a future showrunner in a future anniversary special to write a scene in which a much older Yaz expresses her finally-found independence to a hologram of 70-year-old Jodie Whittaker.
Overall, The Power of the Doctor
is a step up from the past few episodes – an exciting ride which complements its returning villains and companions with a couple of interesting thematic ideas. But its plot falls into some familiar tropes, and it fails to really scratch the surface of those ideas, with its own era’s characters being let down once again. A promising but unsatisfying end to a promising but unsatisfying era.
What the show needs is some fresh new faces to inject some originality back into the show. Or the return of Russell T Davies and David Tennant. That could be good too. Just thirteen months to wait.