The Power of the Doctor is Doctor Who's biggest event for some time. It's been given the honour of representing the BBC's centenary celebrations. It marks not only the end of Jodie Whittaker's tenure as the Doctor, but also the end of Chris Chibnall's time as showrunner, and indeed the change of pretty much the entire creative staff on the series. It is, like The End of Time and Twice Upon a Time, a full stop before a new cast and crew take over to reinvent the series once again. Except that this time, it's not so much the new coming in as the old coming back.
The promise of the future always threatens to overshadow a Doctor's regeneration story, and this has never been more true than now. With the Whittaker/Chibnall era being so contentious among fandom, and having had a mixed reception from viewers and critics, there was always going to be a lot riding on the finale, but those last few moments and the brief teaser for the sixtieth anniversary have threatened to overshadow Jodie's swansong completely.
So, let's get this out of the way first. I'm not terribly keen on the idea of the Doctor regenerating into an earlier incarnation as a way to bring back lost viewers. It strikes me as backwards-looking in a programme that has always moved forward. Tennant's return is also stealing the thunder Ncuti Gatwa as the actual new Doctor. That said, if there's ever a time you can get away with this sort of thing, it's during a big anniversary event, before tidying it all away and carrying on forward.
Enough with the future. Back to the present.
In many ways, The Power of the Doctor exemplifies much of the Chibnall era's strengths and weaknesses. It's a very clear case of Chibnall using his standard trick of chucking everything at a script and seeing what sticks, regardless of how much sense it makes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and certainly isn't unusual for Doctor Who, but it takes a certain verve and panache to pull off. In The Power of the Doctor, to his credit, Chibnall pretty much manages it. While the special – at almost ninety minutes, one of the longest in the series' history – is inarguably messy, confusing and indulgent, it's also tremendously fun and entertaining. As such, it's hard to fault it as a celebratory episode, although it works far better as a celebration of Doctor Who than the BBC as a whole. Indeed, it looks very much like Chibnall is trying to get in as many elements from the series' past as he can and leaving nothing for Davies and the actual anniversary.
Where is definitely works is as a joyous celebration of Doctor Who's twentieth century history – commonly called Classic Who. There's a lot here that originates in the last couple of years, or prior to the programme's great comeback. (Indeed, the central plot, once we get to it, is basically the same as the 1996 TV Movie, which receives several nods along the way.) Yet, for all the focus on the good ol' days of pre-2005, the story is also very derivative of RTD's work. The details draw on earlier stories, but the dazzle and the substance, from the Master's uproarious dance number to the Doctor's unhappiness at going so soon, belong squarely in the 2005-10 era, and often to RTD's less effective indulgences than his best work.
As such, the special is a triumph of style over substance. Doctor Who rarely makes perfect sense as a narrative, and Chibnall mostly gets away with it here by leaping from set piece to set piece quickly enough that we don't notice. The opening on the space train is spectacular, setting the scene for some truly exceptional visual effects. The Cybermasters are back, along with the Master himself, with no explanation for how they survived certain doom in “The Timeless Children,” but it was ever thus. From then on we jump from one seemingly unrelated plot point to another – defaced masterpieces, noble Daleks, miniaturised seismologists and more. “Do I get a prize if I guess how it all fits together?” asks the Doctor, and she's got a point.
There are plenty of elements that had promise but could have been excised altogether to streamline the plot. The concept of a Dalek choosing to aid the Doctor against its own people is brilliant. It's not entirely original either – there've been more than a couple over the years – but this Dalek isn't insane or malfunctional. Instead this rather eloquent pepperpot has come to the reasoned conclusion that the Dalek mission is no longer meaningful. It's a fascinating idea, but it's thrown away as just a method to get the Doctor into the Dalek base, and even that isn't really necessary to the story.
There are a few elements like this that just frustrate. Dan is written out in the first five minutes, and while his decision to leave makes perfect sense, it makes his presence pointless. I assumed he was somehow going to be drawn back into events, but no, he's purely there as window dressing. Why not write out John Bishop at the end of the previous special and allow his exit to make an impact? Equally, it's lovely to see Bradley Walsh back as Graham, but why, really, was he there? Jacob Anderson remains a class act as Vinder, but he really has no purpose to the plot and seems like a leftover from an earlier draft of the script.
Yet so much of the special, while equally arbitrary, works so well. The much-hyped return of Sophie Aldred as Ace and Janet Fielding as Tegan is a perfect way to honour the classic series and give a little something to old school fans. While neither Aldred nor Fielding were ever the greatest actor to grace British television, they slip back into their roles beautifully, no doubt thanks to all their intervening work with Big Finish. While there are a few specific references to past stories, it's mostly fairly broad strokes that will mean something to the more casual viewers of the 1980s, and no time is spent worrying how this all fits with the expanded universe material. (Big Finish will get a few dozen box sets out of this over the next few years, no doubt, so I'm sure they don't mind.)
With so much publicity around the special, it's amazing just how much was kept secret. Bringing back David Bradley, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and, for only his third TV appearance as the Doctor, Paul McGann, was a wonderful touch, and the twin approaches of the Doctor's subconscious mind and her hologram interface taking earlier forms meant that the actors' inevitable ageing didn't matter. In the final moments, we get that delightful get-together of former companions, most remarkably with William Russell returning, aged 97, to play Ian Chesterton one last time. (To my mind the one thing desperately missing from the fiftieth.) It would have been nice to have a companion of the Sixth Doctor involved to allow Colin Baker a proper farewell (Mel was at the meeting, so she clearly got back to contemporary Earth somehow), and Tom Baker was missed, but then he's getting on these days. Still, these inclusions would have made a ridiculously busy story even busier.
The Power of the Doctor is, primarily, a Master story, with the villain once again backed up by the Cybermen, which seems to be a standard pairing now. The return of Ashad, the Lone Cyberman, is both pointless and fairly inexplicable, and the Daleks are, frankly, surplus to requirements. When it comes to the Master himself, though, this is one of the strongest and most unsettling battles in years. Dhawan's manic style as the Master may not be to everyone's taste, but he puts in a magnetic performance here, seething with barely contained rage. His plan, seeing him finally steal the Doctor's body and remake her in his image, is both a bizarre extrapolation from previous plans and absolutely in keeping with his progressively more deranged obsession with the Doctor. His desires to stop being himself and take the Doctor's place, yet also to trash her reputation, are seemingly contradictory yet sum up his obsessive attitudes to the Doctor.
Regenerating the Doctor into the Master plays with the audience's expectations in a wicked way. We came here for a regeneration; in the end, we got three, and none of them were what we were expecting. This is, perhaps, the best legacy of the Timeless Child retcon: with as many regenerations to play with as you like, the concept can be messed around with and pulled in new directions. Sadly, in an episode so busy there simply wasn't much time to dwell on the Doctor-Master or his cosplay crusade, just as there was little time to explore him posing as Rasputin. Again, this seems entirely pointless to the plot, merely there as a set-up for a set piece, which at least suits the Master's grandstanding style. (Had he merely taken Rasputin's place, or was he always the real Rasputin? Has the Master been shagging his way through the Russian aristocracy?) Given that, why set the historical segments in 1916, rather than 1922, which would have at least matched with the centenary event?
While there's a focus on the Master-Cybermen pairing from “The Timeless Children,” there's virtually no exploration of the central revelation of that story. The alien energy being (the Qurunx, according to the subtitles) initially appears as a young girl, hinting that perhaps we're seeing yet another version of the young Doctor. This is nothing more than an aside, a seemingly accidental misdirection, and the only other nod towards this plotline is the brief appearance of Jo Martin as a form for the Doctor's hologram. It makes little sense in story terms, but she owns the scene as soon as she strides in, and it would have been remiss to not include her. Yet so much of the Whittaker Doctor's story is left unresolved after the events of Flux. Previous showrunners, RTD in particular, left plot threads dangling when they left, but never as carelessly or brazenly as this. Still, we were spared the rumoured reveal that Vinder and Bel's baby was actually the Doctor, which is a blessed relief.
The focus is more on the personal for the incumbent Doctor, and her faithful companion. Yaz is the first companion to stick with the Doctor through an entire regeneration from start to finish (side trips excepted), and their bond has become the core of the series, albeit more through the actors' chemistry than writing. Both Whittaker and Mandip Gill are excellent here, with the latter showing just how talented she is and how strong a companion Yaz is when given the chance. After many adventures refusing to let her friends in and trying to keep control of her own destiny, the Doctor is left helpless and is forced to rely on her friends to restore, Yaz especially.
Whittaker herself gives some of her best work as the Doctor. She is, like McCoy and Davison, far better in the quiet, heartfelt and thoughtful moments than in her frequent manic excitement. Faced with her mortality in a way that she's never had to before, her Doctor is vulnerable but defiant. Sadly, with so much else going on, Whittaker is almost sidelined in her own farewell story. When Moffatt had to tackle both the fiftieth anniversary and Matt Smith's exit, he wisely kept them to two separate episodes. Here, all the pomp and celebration obscures Whittaker's last hurrah.
Fortunately, her final scenes, after the Master's abrupt and spiteful attack following his defeat, are excellent. While there are, as mentioned, hints of Tennant's departure, it's a far quieter, nobler goodbye. Quite rightly, the focus is on how her impending death affects her relationship with Yaz. Their last moments, sat upon the TARDIS, watching the universe and eating ice creams, are rather beautiful, and all the better for being understated. I'm not alone in wishing we could have finally seen the two kiss, but then, this was a different sort of romance for the Doctor, far removed from the excitable, kiss-everything-in-sight days of Tennant and Smith. Whittaker's very last moments as the Doctor are a spot-on balance between sadness and hopefulness, summing up both her version of the character and her time in the role. In the face of enormous criticism (some justified, much not), she has been a tireless ambassador for the show. Her final story might not hold up to much scrutiny, and unfortunately takes too much focus away from her as the star, but it goes down as one of the most solidly entertaining stories in the programme's long history.
KISSES TO THE PAST