I just watched the latest Doctor Who special, “The Power of the Doctor,” and I’m not entirely sure what is that I just saw. I’m aware of a 90-minute story involving Daleks and CyberMasters (that name sounds like hi-tech exercise equipment) teaming up with the Master himself to activate all of Earth’s volcanoes in order to wipe out humanity… or something like that. Little of this sloppily-written, deus ex machina-reliant story made much sense to me, nor did it have to. The story is simply a means to an end; an excuse for a big, syrupy, Doctor Who reunion special. “The Power of the Doctor” is a Doctor Who convention coupled with something resembling a plot.
Normally I’d do a detailed breakdown of this latest episode, but with every character in this overstuffed story serving as a nonstop stream of exposition and technobabble, it’s virtually impossible. Instead, I’m going to discuss the hefty collection of villains, companions and even Doctors who manage to show up for Jodie Whittaker’s going away party.
What big splashy Doctor Who sendoff would be complete without an appearance from the Doctor’s most celebrated foes? A single renegade Dalek realizes that his species’ original function was to help the Kaled race of the late planet Skaro survive a nuclear war. Realizing how far its genocidal species has strayed from that original purpose, the lone Dalek goes rogue; warning the Doctor of a plot by its race to annihilate humanity by triggering volcanoes throughout history Other than the lone renegade Dalek, the rest of the Daleks seen in this episode are standard issue, with no distinguishing traits.
Note: One interesting bit of business; the robotic casing vacated by the vaporized renegade Dalek is used as a means of capturing the Doctor herself (its tendrils reach out to ensnare her for capture). Of course, the Daleks (once again) never think to simply vaporize the Doctor on sight. And the plan to exterminate humanity via vulcanism seems overly laborious and inefficient, like a bad 1970s Bond movie plot.
The Cybermen–er, CyberMasters.
Renegade ‘CyberMaster’ Ashad (Patrick O’Kane), who was introduced in “The Haunting of Villa Diotati,” acts as this new, Cybermen/Time Lord-hybrid race’s leader, but even he is shortchanged in service of this overstuffed story, which sees the CyberMasters allying with their mortal Dalek foes to help the Master eliminate the Doctor. This new generation of CyberMasters are not developed at all, beyond their newfound mastery of time travel and embellished costumes.
Note: Once again I have to ask; why don’t the CyberMasters simply ‘delete’ the Doctor when they have the chance, as they do (countless times) throughout the episode? Did they not imagine that the Daleks and the Master might just screw them over at the first opportunity? Sadly, the villains of this story are little more than two-dimensional cardboard cutouts.
Sacha Dhawan returns as “The Master,” who was once the Doctor’s oldest friend from childhood, and is now a sadistic, highly intelligent madman (and sometimes madwoman) who fashions needlessly complex plans to belittle, humiliate, defeat, and yet never quite destroy his adversary. In short, the Master is Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock. In this special, the Master’s latest scheme involves pretending to be Imperial Russia’s infamously dark monk Rasputin, in 1916 St. Petersburg. He then plans to impose his current self’s template onto the Doctor’s immortal body via a forced regeneration. With the aid of the Daleks and CyberMasters, he nearly succeeds. Occupying the Doctor’s body for awhile, the Master is eventually overthrown and forced to become Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor once again. However, the triumphant Doctor is then mortally wounded by an alien energy beam directed by the Master, prompting her regeneration by the story’s end.
Note: Sacha Dhawan has done a solid job with his ‘bad little boy’ take on the Master, even if it’s not quite as delightfully fun as Michelle Gomez’s ‘Missy’. Sacha Dhawan also played original 1963 Doctor Who director Waris Hussein (“An Unearthly Child”) in the 2013 Doctor Who making-of TV movie, “An Adventure in Space and Time.”
The Return of Ace, Tegan, and other classic Companions.
“The Power of the Doctor” sees the return of classic 1980s-era Companions, Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) and “Ace”, aka Dorothy Gale (Sophie Aldred), who are now working with UNIT (UNited Intelligence Taskforce; the organization popularized with Doctor #3, Jon Pertwee). That organization is led by Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), the daughter of another legacy character, the late Brigadier, Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (played by the late Nicholas Courtney).
Note: While excitable, motormouthed Tegan has gone jeans-casual in her later years, Ace has gone full-power suit—though she still has her old patch-laden aviator jacket and her knack for demolition; both of which come in handy in her current work. The character of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart finally gets her first look inside the TARDIS, something she’d been hoping for since her introduction in 2012’s “The Power of Three.”
Tegan is furious at the seeming abandonment of her younger self by the Doctor (Peter Davison), over three decades ago, while Ace is a bit more sentimental about the return of the “Professor“, as she used to call him (Sylvester McCoy). During the story, their hurt feelings are reconciled, and they eventually channel their mixed emotions into a therapy group for former Doctor Companions. In this therapy group (which feels more like being in a green room at a Doctor Who convention) we see other familiar faces, including “Jo” (Katy Manning), “Mel” (Bonnie Langford) and even original, 1963-era Companion, former schoolteacher “Ian Chesterton” (William Russell). Ian gets the best line of the de facto therapy session, when, after overhearing another Companion refer to the current Doctor as a her, says “He is now a she?”
Note: Original Doctor Who actor William Russell is 97 years old at the time of this writing, and still going strong. I met him a few years ago at a convention, and he was still spryly cracking quips with the best of them.
Despite this virtual avalanche of warm fuzzy memories and cameos from Doctor Who Companions past, one of the current Companions is sadly shortchanged. Everyman Dan Lewis (John Bishop) abruptly asks to be dropped off at home, following a harrowing pursuit of hijacking CyberMasters aboard a spacetime-warping cosmic train in the first act. I found it odd that Dan, who’s already been on plenty of dangerous adventures with the Doctor and Yaz, decides that this was one too many.
Note: Dan’s abrupt departure is a clumsy piece of patchwork storytelling, though he does make a brief reappearance in the Companion group therapy session near the episode’s end. Dan could’ve just as easily remained till the end of the story, choosing to depart more gracefully, after the Doctor asks to be left alone before her regeneration.
Then there’s Yaz Khan. Like Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and Dr. Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) before her, Yaz (Mandip Gill) is left brokenhearted by the end of this story. She makes the same mistake as several other companions before her—falling in love with an immortal. We know going in that it will never work, since it never has. Rose’s time with the Doctor had a somewhat happy ending, as she ended up with a human clone of her Doctor (David Tennant). Martha later falls in love with former Companion Mickey “the Idiot” Smith (Noel Clarke), so she eventually finds happiness as well. Yaz, however, has no such prospects on her horizon, and her future is left up in the air. While some fans have complained about Yaz’s love for the Doctor remaining unrequited, this has been the way of the franchise since Doctor #8 first kissed Dr. Grace Hollowell (Daphne Ashbrook) in 1996. Yaz does have some advantages over other Companions; she learns to fly the TARDIS (by herself), and she gets to share a final ice cream with the Doctor (before her regeneration), as the two of them sit atop the TARDIS, orbiting a beautiful blue Earth…
Note: Given the fact that Doctor is both immortal and gender-fluid, falling in love with such a being would be a potentially rough ride for any human being. Could Yaz still love the Doctor if she regenerated into a much older man, for example? Mandip Gill also gives a powerhouse performance in this sendoff, easily elevating the otherwise so-so story.
The Doctors Are In.
In addition to a cluster of Companions vying for screen time, we’re also introduced to a psychic space where the Doctors’ consciousnesses from previous regenerations reside. Within this nether-realm of her previous selves’ souls, the Doctor is able to seek guidance from Doctor #1 (David Bradley), Doctor #5 (Peter Davison), Doctor #6 (Colin Baker) and Doctor #8 (Paul McGann). The Doctors all appear aged, as that’s perhaps the way the current Doctor sees them… aging shadows of her former lives. These discorporated Doctors also wear Gallifreyan-style robes—that is, all but Doctor #8, who is clad in the same 19th century-looking garb he wore in 2013’s webisode, “Night of the Doctor.” His reason? “I don’t do robes.”
Note: It’s delightful to see all of these Doctors again, especially Paul McGann, the under-appreciated actor who first played the role in 1996’s “Doctor Who: TV Movie” before returning to the role in the Big Finish audio adventures and the aforementioned “Night of the Doctor.” Actor David Bradley (“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”), who played original Doctor Who actor William Hartnell in the 2013 TV movie, “An Adventure in Space and Time” (along with Sacha Dhawan) and would later return to the series as the first Doctor himself in “The Doctor Falls,” and “Twice Upon a Time,” (which also saw the departure of Doctor #12, Peter Capaldi. The appearance of these actors, however contrived, somewhat makes up for this story’s many shortcomings.
There is also a new device introduced in this episode where the Doctor implants holographic emitters (via a jolt of electricity) into her various Companions, allowing them to trigger hologram-versions of the Doctor for words of wisdom and advice. These holograms are fully interactive AIs, and appear to each Companion as the Doctor they remember best. For example, Tegan sees Doctor #5 (Peter Davison), while Ace sees Doctor #7 (Sylvester McCoy). The actors’ aging is dismissed by a retort from Peter Davison’s Doctor, after Tegan tells him he looks ‘different’… to which he replies, “Well, so do you.” The holographic devices also come to play in the climax, as Yaz foils the Master’s plan with a hologram of Jo Martin’s Doctor; the mysterious Doctor who existed long before the 1963 version of the character, in a train of previous lives the Doctor herself knows little-to-nothing about.
Note: With all due respect to Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, I find Jo Martin far more compelling (and commanding) in the role. I honestly wish she had been the first female Doctor of the series. Jo Martin has a confidence and presence that owns any space she occupies. Here’s hoping we see her return in a future Doctor Who story, or series.
The reason for this virtual reunion of the Doctors is, of course, the departure of current Doctor Jodie Whittaker. I’ve had issues with Whittaker’s version of the character, who was too often played as flighty and lightweight, especially when compared to her predecessors (or even Jo Martin’s previously unknown Doctor). That said, Whittaker manages to bring it home in her final episode. While some may lament the lack of a firm conclusion regarding her almost-relationship with Yaz, I think she ended her reign honorably enough. Parking her TARDIS on an oceanic cliff, the dying Doctor hopes to see one final sunrise as herself before her inevitable regeneration. It’s a poignant and bittersweet moment, as well as an appropriate sendoff for a pioneering Doctor. It also makes a great setup for the biggest surprise of the entire episode… a surprise well worth waiting for.
As the dawn breaks, the Doctor immolates with regenerative energy flooding from her extremities. After the fiery transformation subsides, we see that she has changed clothes (somehow), as well as sexes (once again) to become David Tennant (!). Appearing in his familiar suit, tie, and pompadour, the Doctor instantly recognizes his old teeth as well. Doctor 10 returns as Doctor 14.
Note: It’s not unprecedented for a Doctor to return to a familiar face, as we saw with “the Curator” (Tom Baker) in “The Day of the Doctor” (2013). The Doctor’s new, yet familiar face also underscores the passing of the showrunning baton from Chris Chibnall back to Russell T. Davies, who ran the series from its 2005 return until 2009 (when writer/producer Steven Moffat took the reins). Chibnall’s turn as showrunner (2018-2022) was certainly fraught with challenges, including the COVID pandemic, as well as characters and stories which weren’t exactly among the series’ best (to put it charitably). Tennant has already confirmed that his return to the role of the Doctor will be brief; Rwandan/Scottish actor Ncuti Gatwa is slated to become the 15th Doctor, as well as the first Black (and 4th Scottish) actor to lead the series.
Summing It Up.
Written by exiting showrunner Chris Chibnall, this is Jodie Whittaker’s swan song in the role of the Doctor, and I enjoyed this special, almost in spite of itself. The story is largely ‘sound and fury signifying nothing,’ almost self-consciously designed to be a big emotional sendoff, and little else. The overstuffed, exposition-heavy plot (typical of the Chibnall-era) is simply a means to an end.
There’s also an odd, isolated feeling to this story as well, despite its global scope. We rarely see or interact with any characters who aren’t directly in the Doctor’s orbit. We see early early 20th century Russia, yet we see no Russians. We go to Bolivia, yet we see no Bolivians. The only characters we see in the story are the villains, the Doctors, UNIT personnel, and a virtual “Who’s Who” of the Doctor’s Companions.
With so few civilians or even extras in the story, “The “Power of the Doctor” has the feel of a Doctor Who convention, where attendees and guests fill the venue, but almost no one else. This may be yet another side-effect of the ongoing COVID pandemic, but it still feels odd for a globetrotting, centuries-spanning ‘epic’ adventure (then again, Chibnall also produced a pirate story with damn few pirates, in the recent “Legend of the Sea Devils”).
Story and logistical issues aside, I enjoyed “The Power of the Doctor” despite its obvious shortcomings. The fan service was delightful, and Whittaker’s typically superficial take on the Doctor seems a bit more grounded than usual. The myriad companion/character cameos from the entirety of Doctor Who history are all appreciated (even if one needs a spotter’s guide at times). However, such unapologetic fan service does feel like the tail wagging the dog, and casual fans might feel a bit lost. “The Power of the Doctor” relies very heavily on Doctor Who lore and nostalgia to work.
The episode’s final moment, an almost-literal cliffhanger, accomplished the episode’s single greatest feat; it left me wanting more. As the Doctor herself says when she regenerates, “I wanna know what happens next. Doctor-whoever-I’m-about-to-be? Tag, you’re it!”
Goodbye Chris Chibnall, and welcome back, Russell T. Davies. Allons-y!
Where To Watch.
“Doctor Who” is available to watch on BBC, and BBC-America (and their streaming services). Some seasons of the series are currently available to stream on HBOMax, and will be migrating to Disney+ in 2023.