In Review: Doctor Who – The Legend of Ruby Sunday/ The Empire of Death

Review by Tim Robins

Doctor Who - The Empire of Death by Fraser Geesin Full

In Doctor Who – “The Legend of Ruby Sunday“, as the Doctor and UNIT investigate Ruby’s past, horrifying secrets from Christmas Eve are revealed, and the mysterious Triad Technology unleashes the greatest evil of all.

In Doctor Who – “Empire of Death”, The Doctor has lost, his ageless enemy reigns supreme, and a shadow is falling over creation. Nothing can stop the devastation … except, perhaps, one woman…

The Review: Much like the start of showrunner Russel T. Davies’s 2005 run on Doctor Who, the first Ncuti Gatwa season ended with a two parter: “The Legend of Ruby Sunday” and “The Empire of Death”. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the story promised to resolve Ruby’s attempts to find, and meet, her birth mother, while bringing back the alien incarnation of the “god”, Sutekh, last seen, on television at least, being defeated by Tom Baker’s Doctor in “The Pyramids of Mars”(1975). 

And if all that wasn’t exciting enough, fans could see the two episodes in the prestigious venue of a cinema, with some cinemas playing the episodes on multiple screens. Doctor Who was back, baby! 

So I decided not to go. 

During my first experience of a midnight screening – Sam Rami’s Spider-Man (2002) – I could barely stay awake and that was over 20 years ago. These days, I reach for pillows and a cup of cocoa at 6.00pm.

I am also all too aware of the way a crowd, buzzing with excitement, can influence critical faculties – although, this time out, online criticism of the season led me to fear I would be surrounded by nothing but “hate-watchers”. Reports from friends proved this concern to be wrong. Apparently, a great time was had by all. Hoorah!

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) advised eager cinema goers that they would see “scenes of horror and fantastical threat involving a creature and his sinister minions. Characters are possessed, making their voices distort and their faces turn sinister and emaciated. A person is transformed into crumbling sand. There are scenes of panic as terrified civilians flee a fantastical threat”.

Also: “Action scenes involve gunfire and explosions. There are undetailed references to the death of a child and to teenage pregnancy, as well as a brief allusion to domestic abuse. Bad language includes ‘oh my God’ and ‘hell’”. 

The BBFC failed to note that scenes included a lotta, lotta, lore and so much timey whimey talk that viewers’ brains were likely to leak out of their ears. 

Doctor Who - The Legend of Ruby Tuesday - Kate Lethbridge Stewart (Jemma Redgrave)
Kate Lethbridge Stewart (Jemma Redgrave)

The Legend of Ruby Sunday” began with The Doctor and Ruby arriving at UNIT HQ – now a low rent Avengers Tower  in London. “Show me some lovin’!” exclaimed The Doctor as he leaped dramatically from his TARDIS. Cringe. My armchair’s cushion wasn’t deep enough for me to vanish into, and there was no chance of me hiding behind the sofa because its back is up against a wall. But, do you know what? After I stopped blushing with embarrassment, I was actually willing to give Gatwa’s Doctor some love, because he is the first actor in many years who has really endowed The Doctor with an appeal to ethos, logos and pathos.

Doctor Who - The Legend of Ruby Tuesday - Susan Triad (Susan Twist)
The mysterious Susan Triad (Susan Twist)

The Doctor went on to introduce himself to the UNIT personnel, past and present. It not only brought us up to speed with their names and abilities, but laid the foundations for a revelation that one member’s name was a play on the word ‘Harbinger’. Yes, she was another servant of “He who waits” – that is, Sutekh. The rest of the UNIT crew included Lenny Rush as a boy genius and the voice of Nicholas Briggs and the body of Aidan Cook as the robot, Vlinx. Returning UNIT cast also included Yasmin Finny as Rose Noble (hooray!), Jemma Redgrave as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (whoopie!) and Bonnie Langford as Mel (rah, rah, rah!)

From there on in, it was The Doctor, Mel and Ruby versus Sutekh. Fans had speculated the Egyptian god would return, but I had taken it with a pinch of salt. It sounded too much like the claims that The Sea Devils would return during Chibnall’s seasons. Come to think of it, they did. Anyway, RTD got to throw himself a bone with a repeat appearance of Sutekh, whose servant was last seen bringing his gift of death on the telly in Episode One of Queer as Folk.

Doctor Who - The Legend of Ruby Tuesday - Ruby (Millie Gibson), The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Mel (Bonnie Langford)
Ruby (Millie Gibson), The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Mel (Bonnie Langford)

I was once asked to select a scene that captured the “magic” of Doctor Who. I picked the scene from Queer as Folk in which Vince, after a disappointing date, watches the scene from “Pyramids of Mars”, in which Sutekh’s servant travels down the time vortex and, with the words “I bring Stutekh’s gift of death to all humanity,”  promptly steams a human acolyte to death. Watching the telly, Vince mouths these words to himself. Having researched fans’ memories of watching Doctor Who, I love the scene included in Queer as Folk, because it dramatizes the way Doctor Who has personal, private, emotionally pertinent meanings for its audience and, clearly, for RTD himself.

Doctor Who - The Empire of Death - Sutekh
Doctor Who - The Empire of Death - Sutekh

As for “The Empire of Death”, there were interesting similarities to the end of the conclusion of Russel T. Davies’ 2005 season. In “The Parting of the Ways”, Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor came face to face with a being with god-like power, intoning “Everything  must come to dust. Everything dies.” Back then, the ‘god’ was Rose Tyler, transformed by looking into the time vortex.  But where Rose brought life and death, Sutekh, empowered by the time vortex itself, brought only his long-delayed gift of death to all living things. 

Where Rose took the words “Bad Wolf” and deposited them throughout her past adventures, Sutekh had been depositing his avatars wherever the TARDIS materialised. That answered the question of who or what were the characters who appeared throughout the season, all played by actress Susan Twist. The twist was: none of them were, as many predicted, The Doctor’s granddaughter , Susan, abandoned to a life of matrimony in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1965).

Doctor Who - The Empire of Death - Ruby (Millie Gibson)
Ruby (Millie Gibson)
Doctor Who - The Empire of Death - The Doctor (Nucti Gatwa) and Mel (Bonnie Langford)
The Doctor (Nucti Gatwa) and Mel (Bonnie Langford)

The concluding two-parter, like much of this new ‘Season One’, were full of sound and fury, signifying excitement, even if the action generally involved a lot of talking and simply moving from one room in UNIT HQ to another, mainly from UNIT’s reception area to a ‘”Time Window” which recreated the very moment Ruby’s birth mother dropped her off in the porch of a church. (I may have missed why Ruby’s mum felt the best option was leaving her newborn outside on snowy Christmas Eve – was she a secret Spartan?).

Doctor Who - The Empire of Death - Mrs Flood (Anita Dobson) and Cherry (Angela Wynter)
Mrs Flood (Anita Dobson) and Cherry (Angela Wynter)

Considering Ruby came from “a broken home” with an abusive stepfather, I’d hope that contacting Social Services would have appropriately dealt with the situation. Never mind, Ruby and her birth mother were successfully reunited at the end of “The Empire of Death”, where Davies yet again revealed one of his strengths, writing naturalistic dialogue and characters that can only help the cast’s excellent performances.

Elsewhere, it was the usual bombast designed to produce a nearly satisfactory resolution. This involved a lot of shouting, continuity points and CGI. Generally, fans loved “The Legend of Ruby Sunday”, but were divided about “The Empire of Death”. Until then, there was everything left to play for, but at the end there wasn’t.

Some of the ways Davies tied together the season’s events together had a belt and braces quality. The question of how Sutekh ended up on the 14th-b (Gatwa) Doctor’s TARDIS and not the 14th-a (Tennant) Doctor’s TARDIS was left unanswered. Is Sutekh’s twin now hanging out with The Doctor and Donna?

Doctor Who - The Empire of Death - The Doctor (Nucti Gatwa) and Ruby (Millie Gibson)
The Doctor and Ruby travel to the future to try to defeat Sutekh

I must admit to also being totally bewildered about how Roger ap Gwilliam’s short-lived government (last seen in the story 73 Yards) enacted the National DNA Database that allowed Ruby to exactly pinpoint her mum. Excuse me, are we now giving a surveillance state a free pass because it helps you find lost relatives? 

In reality, there are other “work arounds” – like taking an ad out in a local or national newspaper. Locating your birth family by conventional means is enormously exciting, although perhaps not enormously visually exciting. And if Ruby’s Mum wanted to name her daughter, she had only to attach a note to her baby’s clothes. Manifesting as a time-space ghost and pointing at a road sign seemed stretching things, not least credibility. Besides, Ruby was not named “Ruby Road”.

As someone who actually was left in the care of nuns, I found the resolution of Ruby’s “Mum Quest, 2024” incredibly affecting – kudos to all involved – but I began to feel a little unclean having my lived history being milked for “likes” as a trope at the denouement to a kids’ sci-fi adventure.

Still, it was heartwarming and bittersweet to see Ruby’s two families meeting each other, something I couldn’t orchestrate with my own. Narratively, it helped that Ruby grew up with foster parents who had different expectations from those involved in a ‘closed adoption’.

What worked better than trying to tie together all the continuity points, was what might be called “the rehabilitation of Bonnie Langford’s Mel”, who had a difficult time as part of “The Trial of a Timelord” season. Mel was only a great companion in the eyes of the more epicurean of fan gays. For others, she was positively loathed. 

I remember conducting a long interview with Langford, on her birthday no less. She was great, but the fanzine the interview appeared in actually got hate mail for devoting so much space to the actress. Needless to say, Langford was a great interviewee.  

Doctor Who - The Empire of Death - Mel (Bonnie Langford)
Mel (Bonnie Langford) in the Memory TARDIS

But now, Langford’s Mel is back and a member of UNIT. Even I teared up as she held the Sixth Doctor’s coat in her hands (the lighting had considerably toned down its patchwork of garish colours).The scene took place in the “MemoryTARDIS”, a whimsical assembly of recalled console rooms previously seen in Doctor Who’s past. Keener fans, of course, will already be familiar with this, used in a the “Tales of the TARDIS” shorts still available on iPlayer, reuniting past companions and, in some segments past companions with their respective Doctors – albeit aged since seen in the main series.

Elsewhen, Mel could be seen whizzing around on a bright orange scooter with the Doctor on the back, both trying to out motor Sutekh’s dust of death as it swept the streets of London clean of all life. Davies knows the importance of such climactic chaos, a lesson probably learned from Episode Four of Jon Pertwee’s debut, in “Spearhead from Space” (1970).

The end saw Sutekh dragged through the time vortex with an improvised lead, as if The Doctor were taking the god-dog out for a run through time. 

“The Empire of Death” certainly was an RTD final episode. The Doctor managed to restore an entire universe to life. Well, all right!

Doctor Who - The Empire of Death - The Doctor (Nucti Gatwa)

All that was left was for furious fans to x-create all over the internet. The complaints were many, but I’ll stick with my own informants, including a Primary School teacher who said that his students loved it all, but especially the shouting, arm-waving and the humour. 

I appreciate that fans worry about Doctor Who’s accessibility for a non-fan audience, but I think this misunderstands the modern audience and new forms of media consumption. Researching “ore” on-line is easy and part of the fun. 

And for today’s audience, “The Pyramids of Mars” is not over 40 years ago. It is right now – on The BBC’s iPlayer or, failing that, BluRay or DVD. Be warned, the episodes on iPlayer have been edited to cut out, for instance, a racial slur. I’m sure the BBFC would approve. 

Tim Robins 

• Doctor Who – The Legend of Ruby Sunday & The Empire of Death are available now on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and on Disney+ worldwide

Doctor Who – Pyramids of Mars – the first appearance of the “God of Death” in Doctor Who – is also available on BBC iPlayer, and an especially adapted “Tales from the TARDIS” version is available here

Ratings

Empire of Death was once again in the 20 most-viewed UK programmes for the week, per BARB.

It was at position 18, behind nine Euro 2024 games, three episodes of Coronation Street, BBC News at Six (Wed, Thu, Tues), and two episodes of Emmerdale.

This episode was higher in the chart this week than all four episodes of EastEnders, Emmerdale (Wed) and Casualty. Just over half of the top 50 this week were Euro 2024 games and News programmes (26 places). Football took the first eight positions.

Other Reviews… and points of note

Tom Brevoort reviews The Legend of Ruby Sunday

Tom Brevoort reviews The Empire of Death

Screenrant: Doctor Who Season 14’s Sutekh Almost Killed one Companion, Mel, In Early Drafts, Says Showrunner RTD

Screenrant: Mrs Flood Is A Classic Doctor Who Character Even More Obscure (& Powerful) Than Sutekh: Theory

Further Reading… and Listening

What’s that? Is there a Doctor Who comic strip inspired by “Pyramids of Mars”, you ask? Well, yes – too many to mention here, but the TARDIS Wiki offers a good round up of both comics and audio adventures of note here.

Most recently, Osirans turn up as part of the Tenth Doctor story written by Dan Slott, with art by Christopher Jones, Once Upon a Time Lord, which has been re-released by Titan Comics, available here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

Doctor Who: Once Upon a Time Lord, written by Dan Slott with art by Christopher Jones - Regular Cover FINAL

Also, try Cutaway Comics excellent Omega & Sutekh – Gods and Monsters, very much drawn from the mythology drawn on for Pyramids of Marsavailable here

Written by Mark Griffiths (Omega mini series and audio, Spy Toys, Doctor Who: Self Made Man) with art by comics legend John Ridgway (Omega mini series, Hellblazer, Doctor Who: Voyager) this is a dramatic introduction to the Eltralla.

Cutaway Comics - Omega & Sutekh - Gods and Monsters #1 - Cover B by Adrian Salmon

In the opening chapter of Gods & Monsters, rapped in his black-hole prison, Omega is surprised to find an unexpected arrival: the Eltralla, a phantom colony ship. For Omega, this is a way out the black hole and a means to escape. For us, it will be the beginning of the end of the universe…

“Following our Omega series, I wanted to do something heroic with Omega. He rarely gets the chance to do more than rant and weep – he’s an engineer, a nobleman and a creator – time to explore some of these facets..” publisher Gareth Kavanagh has said.

Big Finish Doctor Who Audio Adventures

• Doctor Who: The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume 02: The Triumph of Sutekh

Deep below the sand of Mars, an ancient horror stirs. Sutekh, Last of the Osirans, has been reborn, and all humanity trembles at his feet!

The Doctor is powerless, the Time Lords are helpless, and the only hope for the universe is Bernice Summerfield, archaeologist extraordinaire; and it will take everything she has to face the Egyptian God of Death.

Robot Mummies, insane cultists, lost treasures and a chase across time and space await the adventuress in Doctor Who: The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume 02: The Triumph of Sutekh



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3 replies

  1. Tim said: “Returning UNIT cast also included Yasmin Finny as Rose Noble (hooray!)”

    I momentarily misread that as *Ross* Noble. Which would have been a very different UNIT.

    “Aye, let’s use the surreal-ometer against that there dog-like wotsit fella.”

    • Now that would be fun, not to mention surreal and possibly even more inventive!

      By the way, “Researching “ore” on-line is easy and part of the fun.” – is there an ‘L’ missing or have I misunderstood? (I’m open to “getting my rocks” online if that’s part of the fun, though.)

      • Liz,

        I presumed “researching ‘ore’ online” was some metaphor for mining for info. But a typo makes more sense. (Also, round of applause for your “getting my rocks off”! I approve)

        This does open a more general debate about how much back story you include in an episode. Do you give a lot of back story, or do you give the bare minimum and trust your audience to do some homework? Or is there a middle ground? Or does background/re-use of old characters turn an audience off?

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