Review by Tim Robins
The Story: In The Power of the Doctor, the feature-length special to mark her last adventure, Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor must fight for her very existence against her deadliest enemies: the Daleks, the Cybermen and her arch-nemesis, the Master.
Who is attacking a speeding bullet train on the edges of a distant galaxy? Why are seismologists going missing from 21st-century Earth? Who is defacing some of history’s most iconic paintings? Why is a Dalek trying to make contact with the Doctor? And just what hold does the mesmeric Rasputin have over Tsar Nicholas II in 1916 Russia?
The Doctor faces multiple threats – and a battle to the death…
The Review: So, Doctor Who returned in a special intended to also celebrate the BBC’s 100 Birthday. No Birthday Best Wishes have been forthcoming from Parliament, but then they have other things on their mind. Given the Conservatives’ hostility to the idea of the BBC being anything more than a propaganda arm for the promotion of highly ideological versions of Britishness, their silence is the best we can hope for.
I must admit that I struggled on first-viewing to work out exactly what The Power of The Doctor was all about and yet at the same time I felt that I knew exactly what it would be like.
Look! Here’s me predicting it in a Personal Message exchange with my friend and an old cove, Paul ‘So-Called’ Mount:
Me: Power of The Doctor Looks like it will be a nightmarish checklist of so much stuff. I can only imagine Chris Chibnall hopes we will overlook the plot!
Paul: I don’t know what the plot is yet
Me: The Master causes things to happen leading The Daleks and The Cybermen to attack. Past companions get involved to save the day
Paul: What things though
Me: Too many things that are explained at great speed
Paul: But what things?
Me: Does it matter? They’ll fly by until all the boxes are checked.
Paul: Who knows?
I think you will agree that I was uncannily accurate in my prediction. As for the “things”, the plot was this: the Master hates The Doctor so much he has enslaved an energy creature to power a planet that will help him force the Doctor to regenerate into himself while turning the Earth’s population into Cybermen whose bodies are being forged by The Daleks who are themselves destroying life on Earth by causing volcanoes to erupt around the planet.
A pre-title sequence kicks things off with (Cyber-Lords invading a CGI Space Train. I know they are called Cyber Masters in the episode, but I think Cyber-Lords sounds a whole lot better). The Doctor discovers the train’s luggage contains a chained, young girl of colour. The Cyber-Lords grab the unearthly child, leading The Doctor to track her to a new planet that has been orbiting the Earth in the past. It is at this very moment Doctor Who has its ‘mic drop’ moment.
The Doctor announces that the girl is an alien who appears in a form most likely to make whoever looks at it feel really, really protective. But it’s The Doctor who is looking at it! Is Chibnall telling me that The Doctor has a hierarchy of people she’s prepared to save? Is a young, humanoid girl of colour at the top of that hierarchy and, if so, who’s at the bottom? At this point, I was possessed by the spirit of the Alt Right and the Anti-Woke. I’ll spare you what would be their rather obvious conclusion. Just remind me not to be lost at sea in a lifeboat with The Doctor at the helm.
And on we sped. I had expected the story to be filled with breathless exposition, but nothing prepared me for the “tin-eared” plot summaries that characters kept dropping. I don’t believe in the adage “show don’t tell” because a lot of television relies heavily on dialogue. But Chibnall has characters explain things that don’t need explaining.
I suppose it is acceptable for characters to shout, “we’re under attack!” and “We’ve been hijacked!” because people in that situation would probably say that sort of thing but I really didn’t need “our boots are connected to the electromagnetic roof!”. Science fiction has passed the need to explain such things.
I wasn’t bothered by the conversation between Tegan and Ace that told us about missing paintings, vanishing seismologists and a mysterious cyber-doll ostensibly sent to Tegan by The Doctor. But lines such as “so everything else was a diversion” and Graham’s explanation to Yaz, “the moment this little lot goes up, we’ve got to get to the surface fast!” and must “get past a load of angry Daleks!” are just summarising the situation. Yaz telling The Doctor “Daleks, on the same day as the Master and Cybermen” just left me baffled – “Day”?
The return of past Doctors and past companions was a welcome surprise. Obviously Chibnall had to go with who was available. Unfortunately, the actors we saw were from periods in the show’s history that I really didn’t enjoy. However, David Bradley reprised his role as William Hartnell’s Doctor, which wetted my appetite for the forthcoming Second Season Blu-ray.
The support group for companions that allows them to talk about their past adventures (and record them for Big Finish?) was a neat idea. It was certainly heartwarming to see Bonnie Langford and Willian Russell in the same scene.
I’m not sure how many stories Dan has to share – weeks down the line I can imagine the other companions rolling their eyes, complaining, “Oh no! Not another shaggy dog story!” Alas poor old “Kabonara” (sic) (the pasta dish that looked like a teddy bear that was supposed to be a dog that walked like a man) was unable to attend due to reason of being dead I guess – in a programme about time travel, that really shouldn’t stop anyone.
Although I tired of Chibnall’s story-telling, the showrunner has had good ideas and there was fun to be had here: The Master’s burping regeneration, the Master’s claim to be human-intolerant and Ace’s insult to him “the last time I saw you, you were half cat!”.
The Master-Doctor costume comprising elements of previous Doctors’ clothes was a nice touch. And the growing “Russian doll” inside UNIT HQ was an exciting visual. Sacha Dhawan has been a hoot as The Master. Here, he was hanging out disguised as the infamous ‘Mad Monk’, Rasputin, in Russia’s Imperial Family’s Winter Palace where he spent his time defacing works of art and dancing to Boney M.
The regenerating Time-Lord Cybermen, led by the “Lone Cyberman”, Ashad, provided a lot of the action. But did we have to be told that the reason UNIT’s bullets were failing to kill the creatures was that Cyber-Lords were now immune to gold bullets? How about not covering some fannish continuity problem in a way that just calls attention to it? How about leaving it at: the Cyber-Lords can regenerate so UNIT CAN’T kill them?
On the subject of UNIT, there really is no need to explain that every room in UNIT HQ has floor panels concealing weapons when all that does is call attention to the fact the panels that are raised contain, by a massive coincidence, exactly what is needed at that particular moment.
Another difficulty for me was that the music didn’t help the rhythm of the story. The score kept trying to break into Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and galloped along without reaching a satisfactory pay-off. This made the story more exhausting than it needed to be.
Chibnall is better at quiet moments such as the wistful conversation between The Doctor and Yaz while eating ice cream on top of the TARDIS and looking down on the Earth. Given her love for The Doctor, Yaz must have been gutted to hear The Doctor would only commit to saying that her hearts, “are so full of love for all of you.” Awwww. Otherwise, this was a charming scene. Its whimsical nature also underlined the Chibnall era’s play for younger viewers.
Whittaker’s regeneration, apparently (but not really) atop the Dorset coast’s Durdle Door 200ft, limestone arch, has already caused controversy. According to “The world’s most popular free newspaper” (sic), Metro (10/26/2022), the owner’s of Dorset’s Lulworth Estate have complained that they would never have given the BBC permission to shoot such a scene, as it will encourage fans to climb Durdle Door noting that, in May 2020, three people were seriously hurt leaping from the rock formation.
Then there was the return of David Tennant, a bold move and a desperate one. But the past decade faffing around with continuity had rendered this regeneration a bit stale in terms of story-telling. We’ve seen that The Doctor can revisit previous regenerations in Tom Baker’s role as The Caretaker, and we’ve even had an explanation, thanks to Stephen Moffat, of how Time Lords can sometimes look like people we and s/he has previously met.
So, while I know that for many viewers, for whom Russell T Davies and David Tennant were the pinnacle of Doctor Who’s appeal, were eagerly watching for Tennant’s return, it was nothing super-special. The new Tennant Doctor even reprised his familiar “What? What? WHAT?” refrain that ended each of his seasons and led into its subsequent Christmas special.
Tennant’s comeback over-shadowed Whittaker’s departure, as did the news that Doctor Who will now somehow be part of some as-yet unspecified deal with Disney+ allowing Doctor Who to be a global brand.
Funny that. I’m pretty sure Doctor Who was already a global brand. Wasn’t the 50th Anniversary story simulcast in over 75 countries? However, now we are talking about over 150 countries. Gosh.
But I can’t help feeling the “Global Brand” being talked about will be a very different kind of thing. At least Doctor Who isn’t being made by HBO, so we’ll all be spared the sight of sagging Time Lord bottoms and Thal on Dalek orgies.
Some will greet any final reflections from Chris Chibnall with the same eye-rolling and jeering that greeted Liz Truss’s resignation speach. But I think the Chibnall era was marked by considerable successes. One was simply keeping the programme in production when the BBC were seriously considering letting it rest (in peace?). When Chibnall counts the programme not being cancelled among his achievements he is reflecting on a real possibility.
Another of Chibnall’s achievements was his decision to cast a woman as The Doctor; about time! Hear! Hear! Jolly Good Show! Etc. But it really did give Doctor Who a much needed kick in the pants and certainly secured my interest.
I’m not sure Jodie Whitaker was always particularly well served by the scripts or the direction. Too often, The Doctor seemed infantilised, positioned literally as a child in The Timeless Children. The revelation of The Doctor’s multiple past lives together with The Doctor being the source of Time Lords power to regenerate added complexity without being profound.
In short, The Doctor fell into “the special/chosen one” trope, that ultimately came to nothing of note. The fugitive Doctor (Jo Martin, making what’s likely to be her last appearance in Doctor Who) was given dialogue that seemed to presage her fate- “I guess that’s me done”! A pity. The Fugitive Doctor was a much more interesting addition to the canon than an entire play-pen of hundreds of other Doctors .
Chibnall’s run on the show was not without ambition. It was unfortunate that he made it clear at the outset that he wasn’t that fussed about working on the series and gave a sense that he was already planning when he would leave before he had even begun.
It was also unfortunate that Whittaker arrived at the height of the “culture wars” frenzy. The often disgusting commentaries that sought to smear Doctor Who from one end of the Internet to the other were more than anyone should have to endure (#notmyfandom).
Time, I hope, will be kinder to Whitaker and her stories, especially in the face of ‘The Global brand’ Doctor to come. “I have loved being me,” The Doctor tells Yaz and I too have loved Whitaker being her, albeit not unconditionally so.
The Doctor – Jodie Whittaker
Yasmin Khan – Mandip Gill
Dan Lewis – John Bishop
The Master – Sacha Dhawan
Ace – Sophie Aldred
Tegan – Janet Fielding
Kate Stewart – Jemma Redgrave
Voice of the Daleks and the Cybermen – Nicholas Briggs
Director – Jamie Magnus Stone
Writer – Chris Chibnall
Executive Producer – Chris Chibnall
Executive Producer – Matt Strevens
Executive Producer – Nikki Wilson