UK TV review: Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor
Mark Harrison | On 24, Oct 2022
This review contains no major spoilers for The Power Of The Doctor – scroll to the end for additional spoilery observations.
“Let’s not say goodbye.” Unlike most other TV dramas, Doctor Who can go on forever, barring accidents, but part and parcel of that is that, every once in a while, it ends. And for the barnstorming end of Jodie Whittaker’s run as the 13th Doctor, it’s not leaving anything on the table. Heck, it feels as though writer and executive producer Chris Chibnall might have tossed the whole table on there at some point too.
This 90-minute special is nominally a special celebrating the BBC’s centenary, as well as Thirteen’s regeneration story, but The Power of the Doctor goes on as if it’s a finale to Doctor Who itself. And to borrow an old catchphrase, its plot ranges from “What?” to “What??” and even to “What???”.
The “What?” would be giving more away than we’ve learned from the pre-publicity, so we’ll keep the story details light. The finale begins with the Doctor, Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) on a simple rescue mission aboard a bullet train in space, but soon balloons to cover simultaneous attacks by the Master (Sacha Dhawan), the Cybermen and the Daleks at different points in time and space.
As we go on, the “What??” drops every time some new fan-pleasing surprise arrives. The return of new series regulars Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and Vinder (Jacob Anderson) is one thing, the great big 1980s comebacks of Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) is quite another, and they’re not all the surprises up this episode’s sleeve.
Together, the convoluted and scatter-brained plotting that’s Chibnall’s been doing since before he became showrunner and the random bursts of fan service that have grown over the last couple of series both crescendo over the course of this feature-length epic. It’s also visited by the ghosts of regeneration episodes past, with numerous plot points seemingly cherrypicked from each of the previous three Doctors’ send-offs, not to mention the series finales of the 2000s.
What’s more, Chibnall’s scripts have observably trended towards big ensemble casts, seemingly for something or someone to cut away to rather than any idea of cohering different moving parts. And in that mix, both Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill have each been underserved in different ways in past episodes.
Happily, Whittaker isn’t lost in the mix of her last episode and, despite some plot wrinkles that shuffle different players around, she’s more active and vibrant here than in last year’s chaotic Flux serial or the by-the-numbers Easter special Legend of the Sea Devils. Whatever you think of the scripts, she’s a hero for absolutely going for it in every single episode and, accordingly, she’s carried the show for the past few years.
Elsewhere, this is hands-down the best episode for faithful companion Yasmin Khan. Before now, we’ve only had a glimpse of the Doctor and Yaz on their own and, while this crowds them both with more supporting characters than ever before, Gill is finally given more to play. It’s only a shame that as the longest-serving new series companion, she’s only been granted this kind of stuff late on.
Dhawan puts in a more multi-faceted turn as the Master than last time, but his hopping and giggling are present and correct. He fronts a lot of the special’s “What???” moments – those bits you wouldn’t see anywhere but Doctor Who. That includes a high-camp comedy interlude that you see coming a mile off but is still funnier and madder than anything else we’ve had in Chibnall’s more earnest take on the show. Thankfully, its creeping grimdark aspects have fallen away too.
There’s no denying that Jodie Whittaker’s era peaked in creativity and bold new ideas in her first series. While this represents the logical (and sometimes illogical) end of the show’s backslide into fan service, the rediscovered sense of humour goes a long way to cut through the stodgy exposition and continuity references that make up a good 80% of the running time.
Unlike in other recent regeneration episodes, the sense of an ending isn’t really there until it arrives. The Power of the Doctor zips off at bullet-train pace but only circles back around to the emotional crux after an exhaustive whistle-stop tour for long-time Doctor Who fans. It whacks up the colour and noise of Chris Chibnall’s vision of the show to exhaustion but, at the last, it dutifully clears the table (wherever it landed) for whatever happens next.
Doctor’s Notes (contains additional spoilers)
– That plot again, in case you missed any – the Master is posing as Rasputin, his souped-up regenerating Cyber-Masters have an enormous conversion planet parked in orbit and the Daleks are planning to destroy Earth with lava. The three coincide in the Master’s plan to force the Doctor to regenerate into him. Yaz and friends rally to force the new Doctor to change back and Thirteen is mortally wounded by the old Master while using the Cyber-planet to turn all the erupting volcanos into steel. Lots of fairly standard Chibnall bobbins, but what about the bits in between?
– The first departure of the episode is Dan’s – it’s a bit throwaway, but this era’s companion departures are somewhere underrated as an aspect of Chibnall’s take. You’re not getting Rose Tyler or Donna Noble or Clara Oswald out of the TARDIS without a fight and that often ends terribly for those characters. This era has normalised the companions having a life outside the Doctor that they want to keep living and, while it’s an early bit of housekeeping for Bishop to get out of the way early on, it comes back around by the episode’s end too.
– Ace and Tegan are just the tip of the iceberg – the Doctor’s old friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Mel (Bonnie Langford), Jo (Katy Manning) and Ian (William Russell) all appear at different points, most of them in the final companions’ reunion. Past Doctors David Bradley (again standing in for William Hartnell), Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann all appear as part of the collective consciousness that stalls the Doctor’s premature regeneration.
– All this is 180-degrees different than the confident, standalone style of Whittaker’s first series, and many of us miss it. Over subsequent episodes, there’s been some interest in her past catching up with her even as she tries to pretend to her new friends that it’s not there, but this isn’t that – she’s even briefly written out of the story by the forced regeneration.
– Some other characters are just passing through (hi, Vinder!) without really getting their due in the plot (bye Vinder!) beyond that Rick Dalton meme moment of pointing at the TV. The unbridled fan service masks a generic and derivative plot and it is to the new series what the story-lite 20th-aniversary jamboree The Five Doctors was to the original run.
– For our money, the Boney M moment was when Chris Chibnall finally became Doctor Who showrunner. Dhawan’s Master-as-Rasputin dancing around in his own Russian court disco while the Daleks and Cyber-Masters watch on, bemused, was a well-placed bit of camp nonsense, brilliantly staged and directed by Jamie Magnus Stone.
– Still, coming back around to the theme of life after the Doctor gives this a happier ending than most regenerations. The matter of Yaz leaving her behind to regenerate is slightly brushed past, especially in the context of the previous specials teasing a romance between them. There’s an unfussy acceptance of death we haven’t really seen since 2005’s The Parting of the Ways, but the subsequent companion hangout should have been played a bit more like a wake and less like a PTSD support group – although it does give a messy special the sense of an ending.
– “Doctor whoever-I’m-about-to-be, tag… you’re it.” The companions’ hangout is intercut with the Doctor’s final moments, teeing up a beautifully staged regeneration scene. Unusually, Whittaker regenerates outside of the TARDIS and there’s a lovely aesthetic to her clifftop changeover.
– “I know these teeth.” More unusually, there’s that other Doctor we’ve seen before – David Tennant is the Fourteenth Doctor! Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble and Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor also appear in next year’s 60th anniversary special. Has The Power of the Doctor left anything bigger for returning showrunner Russell T Davies to do? Well, a fresh start, hopefully…