“The Power of the Doctor”
Doctor Who: BBC Centenary Special
Written by: Chris Chibnall
Directed by: Jamie Magnus Stone
Synopsis: 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.
From its psychedelic train heist opener to the volcanic eruptions of its finale, no one can deny that “The Power of the Doctor” had some visually impressive sequences as Chris Chibnall and James Magnus Stone continued to develop a big-budget cinematic tone for the Thirteenth Doctor’s adventures. However, all this style was without substance as the actual story beneath the flashy CGI felt flimsy and built on weak foundations. Cameos of previous doctors and past companions seemed more of a distraction from the clumsy and long-winded narrative that effectively boiled down to the Master attempting to take over the Doctor’s body through a forced regeneration. His reasoning felt flawed – he wanted to use her body to ruin the Doctor’s reputation, but if she no longer existed, surely it doesn’t really matter? Besides, he still looked like he did as the Master, so he had no real benefit aside from removing the Doctor from the equation. I’d have preferred him wanting to get ahold of her body because of her unlimited regenerations, or because he was at the end of his own cycle. Still, it was worth it to see Sacha Dhawan’s Master dressed up in a medley of Doctor Who costumes.
It also gave Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation of the Doctor the opportunity to meet some previous regenerations in some weird dreamscape environment, her own subconscious or a heaven for her past selves, it wasn’t exactly clear which (a common complaint of Chibnall’s scripts). Still, it was enjoyable to see the past Doctors in a cameo that explained away their age growth since their last appearances. I also really enjoyed the moments that allowed the classic Doctors to interact with their former companions, even though it was a little on the nose at times. As a child of the nineties, it was cool to see Ace return complete with baseball bat and Nitro-9. I’m less familiar with Tegan, but the episode was accessible enough to people who were unfamiliar with these past companions. The ‘Companions Anonymous’ meeting at the end of the episode offered further cameos, including William Russell’s Ian Chesterton in one of the more surprising moments of the episode.
A curious blend of the nostalgic-driven cameos seen in “The Day of the Doctor” and the end of an era reprises seen in “Journey’s End” and “The End of Time”, “The Power of the Doctor” was a celebration of both the classic era and Chibnall’s own, bringing back some of his best creations; Sacha Dhawan’s Master, the Cyber-Masters and Ashad, the Lone Cyberman. There were some inexplicable returns too, such as Vinder – who appeared out of nowhere and returned just as pointlessly – and Bradley Walsh’s Graham O’Brien, who also randomly appeared (although more egregiously so, since there was no earthly reason why he would be in a volcano) to give Ace a hand with some Daleks. I’d imagine Captain Jack Harkness would have also turned up (possibly alongside Graham?) if John Barrowman wasn’t currently sitting on the BBC’s naughty step. It felt like an attempt to tie off his era with a nice bow – much like Russell T Davies’ own revisiting of past companions in “The End of Time” but annoyingly, he left the one thing that needed answering – the Timeless Child mystery – unanswered. Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor did make an appearance, although rather tellingly not in the dreamscape/heaven with the other past incarnations, but as an AI interface to assist Yaz. Aside from a few pithy comments, she didn’t really add anything to the story and it felt like a wasted opportunity to delve deeper into this mysterious, and frankly under-developed, incarnation of the Doctor.
After all the chaos and turbulence caused by “The Master’s Dalek Plan” (a genuinely amusing fourth-wall breaking reference to the First Doctor serial, “The Dalek’s Master Plan”), the Thirteenth Doctor eventually meets her end at the hands of her frenemy and begins the regeneration process – something it appears the Master also undergoes. It would never happen, but imagine if Jodie Whittaker returned as The Master as the ultimate role reversal. In fact that would have been a much better plan than the one he came up with, if he’d forced a regeneration on himself to turn into the Thirteenth Doctor (or another past Doctor), he’d have been in a much better position to ruin her reputation! Anyway, in terms of her regeneration, Whittaker is much more low-key and focused her goodbyes on Yaz with a surprisingly tender ice cream atop the TARDIS.
Having seen behind-the-scenes footage of David Tennant filming for the 60th anniversary specials, I wasn’t overly surprised when he reappeared at the end of the episode, although I am more surprised that they seem to be acknowledging him as the Fourteenth Doctor as opposed to the Tenth Doctor, although this could be misdirection. From the brief glimpses seen in the trailer, it seems like Ncuti Gatwa’s incarnation of the Doctor is being held in some sort of purgatory, suggesting that someone is preventing him from regenerating into his proper form. Whenever the Doctor undergoes a regeneration there is a sense of rejuvenation for the series, and hopefully Russell T Davies can reinvigorate the show and make it into must-see television once again. He certainly has captured the audience’s imagination by bringing back one of the most iconic modern Doctors and the brief two-second clip of Ncuti Gatwa’s incarnation seems extremely promising as well.
On paper, “The Power of the Doctor” has everything that a regeneration story should have; plenty of cameos, a world-ending threat and an emotional goodbye, but it felt superficial and hollow at times. The initial half hour was well-paced, offering plenty of mysteries and breadcrumbs with the expectation that it would all come together to form a satisfying big picture, but it didn’t. There was no reason behind the Master being Rasputin – aside from the admittedly amusing Ra-Ra-Rasputin dance sequence – nor his imprinting on the paintings. Also, the appearance of the little girl on the bullet train, only to be later revealed as the alien Quoronx, felt like an additional plot wrinkle put in there to confuse and distract. Those not paying careful attention could easily get lost in the fast-paced and multi-layered mystery, especially when some of the pay-offs and reveals were found in the dense dialogue that the Doctor had to deliver.
“The Power of the Doctor” encapsulates Chris Chibnall’s era as showrunner surprisingly well, in that it has all the right ingredients but somehow doesn’t quite come out looking like the picture in the recipe book. The most fascinating (and divisive) part of Chibnall’s era has been the Fugitive Doctor and the Timeless Child retcon, and those are the elements that he seems to have actively avoided following up on. Chibnall seems to work well on establishing a mystery, but fails to capitalise on his premise – often sweeping it out of the way to focus on the next one, leaving plenty of unanswered questions for the likes of Titan Comics and Big Finish Productions to pick up on in spin-off materials. As a result, his grand finale seems incomplete and lacks the same sense of closure seen from previous showrunner finales. Despite the uneven writing that has dominated her era, Jodie Whittaker ends her tenure as the Doctor as best she can, wishing the next one in the hot seat better luck (or better scripts!)