Some baffling creative decisions mar an otherwise exciting season finale designed to shred nerves and break hearts

 

Kate Stewart dies. Barely a few minutes into Empire of Death, Kate Stewart dies. And with her departs almost all sense of danger and threat. From that moment on there will have been few viewers not aware she and everyone else would be back by the Doctor Who season finale’s closing scenes. It even seems misplaced within the apocalyptic sequence of Sutekh’s victory. It comes so near the start that the deaths of characters like Carla, Cherry, Mrs. Flood feel empty. Even the panicked fleeing and dying of a good portion of the City of London lacks weight. The audience simply doesn’t have much of a chance to care about any of this. The script so clearly signposted it all as temporary before we even begin.

The nature of villain at the heart of this Empire adds to the sense of a story that feels strangely low stakes by recent standards. Yes, there’s universal death and destruction. Sutekh is one of the great villains of the Fourth Doctor era. 1975’s Pyramids of Mars in an undisputed classic, in large part thanks to the purring menace and tightly controlled mania of Gabriel Woolf’s performance as the Osiran psychopath. Woolf is back, and at 91 as deliciously malign sounding as ever. Moreover, the Doctor only defeated Sutekh last time by stopping him before he could escape his confinement, so what hope now that he’s already free and more powerful than ever?

In most seasons, this genocidal despot from a dead alien race would provide a fitting climax. But ultimately, that’s all he is: a particularly powerful alien. Next to the hyper-dimensional weirdness of the Toymaker and Maestro, their powers restrained only by the rules they whimsically choose to set upon themselves, he actually seems like small fry.

 

Kate Lethbridge Stewart (JEMMA REDGRAVE), faces her inevitably temporary doom in Empire of Death BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon. The UNIT HQ is bathed in sickly green light as Kate looks frightened by determined. Doctor Who.
Kate Lethbridge Stewart (JEMMA REDGRAVE), faces her inevitably temporary doom in Empire of Death BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon

Empire of Death skillfully plays with audience expectations: predicting, and frustrating, every wild fan theory about the arc

It’s a curious misstep in a story that otherwise seems so adept at knowing exactly what audiences, and particularly fans, are like. Russell T Davies expertly toys with expectations and predictions like a chess grandmaster. The script anticipates every thought that passes through our minds and checks and reverses it. Mrs. Flood wearing something like Clara’s most iconic outfit initially feels subtle enough to be probably accidental. People shared memes and theories shared around internet, mainly in jest. But even then Davies shoots back with having her call the Doctor “clever boy,” before she cosplays as Romana instead. At times it feels a real life Blink, Davies joining in with an ongoing conversation in 2024 via a script he wrote in 2022.

Perhaps there’s a similar playfulness in pointing such a huge neon arrow at the Reset Button. He’s delivering the stereotypical ‘RTD finale’ that fans sometimes complain about, even though it’s never quite existed. After all, only Last of the Time Lords actually undoes the previous devastation, and even then the emphasis is on the high price it costs the Jones family, left alone with the trauma nobody else remembers. But it’s a dangerous gamble to give people the exact sort of plotting they love to complain about. It’s not one that pays off for Empire of Death either.

 

Mel (BONNIE LANGFORD) aboard the Remembered TARDIS in Empire of Death ,BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon. Doctor Who. Mel smiles as she clutches the sleeve of the Sixth Doctor's coat and looks around the assembled bits and pieces of the TARDIS in glee.
Mel (BONNIE LANGFORD) aboard the Remembered TARDIS in Empire of Death ,BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon

This script is full of big, fun ideas like the Remembered TARDIS

So, Empire of Death lacks two of the key questions audiences usually ask themselves watching Doctor Who. How much damage will the villain cause before our heroes defeat them, and what will that victory cost in lives? However, it still leave us with two other, equally vital ones. How will the Doctor manage to win this time, and what will be the emotional cost to them and their companions? Fortunately, the story leaves both such questions wide upon to the end, and mostly delivers its answers in style.

The Doctor’s plan to bring down the evil god is full of Davies’ typically huge ideas and audacious moves. There’s the Remembered TARDIS in which he and his companions escape. A memory of a time machine brought to life because a time machine’s entire power is bringing the past to life. It’s more poetry than science but a beautiful idea. Certainly, Mel seeking comfort in the Sixth and Seventh Doctor’s clothes is a deeply touching image amongst all the death. It also ties into the Tales of the TARDIS series in a lovely way, turning them into prequels showing how this memory powered TARDIS keeps itself going after these events.

 

Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON) & the Doctor (NCUTI GATWA prepare to excute their plan to save the universe BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon The two face other solemnly, in combats and t-shirts, the Doctor a whistle around his neck, in a large but dust covered office.
Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON) & the Doctor (NCUTI GATWA prepare to excute their plan to save the universe BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon

The final battle with Sutekh is the peak of Doctor Who season finale energy

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Ruby’s final gambit is the type of laugh out loud, mad brilliance, we’ve come to expect from the Time Lord. They turn the mystery of Ruby’s birth into an irresistible trap for Sutekh. The TARDIS shows its true colours when its one true companion whistles for it (though who else was waiting for a line about a dog thinking it could tame a wolf?) And the dog faced god is pulled through time and space on a leash. Only the notion of bringing death to death bringing life is a bit of a cheat. Mostly because it seems like such a wild bit of guesswork by the Doctor that’s miraculously correct.

However, like many Doctor Who finales before it, Empire of Death delivers its coup de grâce with incredible verve and joy. It’s impossible not to let it sweep you way in the fun.

 

Family reunions for Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON) & means another sad farewell for the Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) ,BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon Doctor Who. The two hug sadly in the TARDIS console room
Family reunions for Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON) & means another sad farewell for the Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) ,BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon

The revelation of Ruby’s birth mother is quintessential Doctor Who, in the tradition of a show that always champions the extraordinariness of the ordinary

Entwined with the fight back against Sutekh is the quest to identify Ruby’s birth mother. On the one hand, the solution to this season long mystery calls to mind that old Terrance Dicks quote. “Talent borrows and genius steals, but Doctor Who writers get it off the back of a lorry, no questions asked.” Especially since Davies has so cheerfully admitted in interviews he took the idea that Ruby’s parents should be perfectly ordinary people, not gods or Time Lords or heroes, from Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Yet, on the other hand, it’s simultaneously the most pure Doctor Who answer imaginable. The Doctor says that Ruby’s mother is important because we say she is. This time it’s more than just another wink at the wild theorizing of fans. It’s a restatement of the show’s credo.

It frequently champions the idea that there’s nothing more important in the universe than regular people. The bride and groom in Father’s Day (“Who said you’re not important?”) Abigail in A Christmas Carol (“In nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before!”) The Doctor tells the passengers of the 200 in Planet of the Dead that an alien planet “all three suns and wormholes and alien sand” is “nothing” compared to their ordinary lives. In Thin Ice he argues that we shouldn’t define a society’s progress by technological advancement, but by the value it places on “an ‘unimportant’ life. A life without privilege.”

 

What awaits,Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON),in the Time Window? ,BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon Doctor Who Legend of Ruby Sunday Empire of Death. Ruby holds up her arm protectively against the wind and snow.
Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON) faces down gods and monsters to reunite one ordinary women, her birth mother,BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon

A regular woman becoming the centre of events which save the world has been one of the show’s recurring motifs for decades

So of course Ruby’s Mum was just a scared 15 year old getting Ruby out of a dangerous house. She was always going to be. Just as the all powerful Bad Wolf turned out to a retail worker from a south London estate trying to save her best friend. Just as the entire Dalek Empire was always going to be brought low by a temp from Chiswick. And just as that same ordinary woman was going to survive by letting go of higher powers in a way the Doctor never could. For decades, Doctor Who has placed ordinary women on a narrative trajectory to godhood. Louise Miller was one child only trying to protect another from a dangerous man, braving danger and heartbreak. But in doing so defeated Death himself and saved the entire universe.

That is Doctor Who.

 

Doctor Who - The Church on Ruby Road - BBC Studios 2023, James Pardon
Louise walks past one of several distinctly street-sign-less lamp posts in The Church on Ruby Road- BBC Studios 2023, James Pardon

Some unusually clumsy misdirects spoil the reveal, like hinging it all on a signpost that simply wasn’t there in the original episode

It’s a beautiful reveal muddied by the clumsiness of some of the misdirects. The implication that the snow and music was actually being created by the TARDIS’s perception filter as Ruby’s telepathic link triggers the time ship’s own memory of the night works well enough. (Though even then Blogtor suspects a more explicit line or two of explanation was cut somewhere along the way.)

However, the huge, dramatic spin and point by Louise at a street sign we can’t see feels like a cheat. Who is she pointing it out to? The Doctor? How can she be sure he’ll take “call her ‘Ruby'” from that? Why point in such a weird, accusatory way? Why, in an age where television is made for revisiting again and again, hinge a major plot point on a sign that’s obviously not there in The Church on Ruby Road? Besides all of which, why does she not point in the original timeline? What caused that moment to change when the moment is revisited? Could it really be nothing more than Davies not deciding on the point until after location filming on Ruby Road had finished?

 

Mel (BONNIE LANGFORD) is possessed by Sutekh, god of the Empire of Death ,BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon. Mel stands, in long black robes and cowl,, her face like a skull, in a spotlight in the former UNIT HQ, now Sutekh's throne room
Mel (BONNIE LANGFORD) is possessed by Sutekh, god of the Empire of Death ,BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon

The clumsiness of the execution is doubly odd for a season three years in the planning

The best mystery novels are those which allow the reader to realize the solution at the same moment as the protagonist. But Empire of Death stumbles in the direction of some of the worst. It’s more like those which depend on keeping obvious and important bits of information from the reader.

It would have been so simple to lay the sort of clues that would go clear over people’s heads at the time, but become obvious in retrospect too. It snowing for old Ruby one last time but only when she returned to the TARDIS in 73 Yards. The Ruby Road street sign being featured as an establishing shot in Church, even if where it is in relation to the Doctor and Louise is never clear.

For a season where planning began three years in advance, it’s a shocking lack of joined up thinking. It results in a magic trick provoking not whoops of delight and applause, but a murmur of dissatisfaction rippling through the stands.

 

Even with the help of Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON), The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) struggles under the weight of his own actions in Empire of Death BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon. The Doctor crouches inside the TARDIS doors, crying, as Ruby hugs him
Even with the help of Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON), The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) struggles under the weight of his own actions in Empire of Death BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon

Empire of Death rests on the shoulders of three great actors, proving themselves some of the finest performers in the show’s history

This season that made Doctor Who accessible to new audiences, and provided a perfect jumping on point for new fans. Yet, Empire of Death feels curiously inaccessible to them. Usually such stories operate at two levels. It might be a fresh new big, bad, monster for new viewers to meet.  But simultaneously the nostalgic return of an iconic old foe for long time fans. Yet this story seems almost perversely determined to make sure half the audience know they’re missing out on something. It’s a perplexing strategy underlined by the Bad Wolf team feeling the need to put out a special Tales of the TARDIS last week to catch people up between the two episodes, yet only making it available in two countries. (Yes, two! Irish fans like Blogtor fell out of our chairs in amazement at actually finally getting a Tales of the TARDIS.)

However, more than anything else Empire of Death gives us some undeniably fantastic performances. It’s built on the foundation of three of the strongest actors to ever pass through the TARDIS doors. That’s probably not a group anyone would have previously expected to include Bonnie Langford, but not a surprise to anyone who’s followed her career since her Doctor Who stint in the 1980s. She brings us on a delicate journey from the firecracker of the early scenes. “There’s only one thing we can do: fight!”

It deepens the later melancholy of Langford’s equally convincing defeated hero, taking comfort in old memories even as they fade. Before finally being genuinely creepy as the skull faced servant of Sutekh, eyes ever staring, like a watchful bird of prey.

 

Will Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) uncover the secret of her birth? BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon Legend of Ruby Sunday Empire of Death Ruby stands in the Time Window chamber, her hand pressed against the cracked glass.
Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) uncover the secret of her birth in Empire of Death BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon

 

Millie Gibson again proves herself an outstanding talent for whom Doctor Who will likely only be the beginning

Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor isn’t actually any more emotional than the others, but he is more willing to admit his pain. His anguish at his role as an unwitting pawn in Sutekh’s plans is raw and pure. Even when he does relapse into the traditional ‘everything’s fine’ mode, his grief at Ruby’s departure, no, at his own inability to share her, is barely hidden below the surface.

But it’s Millie Gibson who shies brightest as Ruby Sunday. Her heart seems to fill up every room she enters. It’s no wonder Ruby’s need to know where came from turned the whole of time and space around it. The sheer emotional power performance is almost unprecedented from a companion. A high point of the entire episode comes when she approaches Sutekh, time window in hand, like a humble penitent. When she flips like a coin, snarling “you great big god of nothing,” it’s a moment worthy of the Doctor themselves.

Gibson delivers the line with every ounce of Ruby’s love for what she’s lost, hate for the creature that took them, and determination to put it right.

But even that pales next to her reunion with Louise. Gibson and Faye McKeeve’s performances create a scene that ranks up there with Billie Piper and Shaun Dingwall’s goodbyes in Father’s Day. It’s more than just good Doctor Who. It’s fantastic television, that should see Gibson nominated for every award going next year.

 

Empire of Death was shown at screenings across the UK. Photo (c) Peter Nolan The Doctor Who logo on a cinema screen, crowded seats just about visible in the darkness
Empire of Death was shown at screenings across the UK. Photo (c) Peter Nolan

Ultimately, despite its flaws, Empire of Death was worth the 500 mile round trip Blogtor Who took to see it in the cinema

Blogtor Who actually travelled north, across the border, to find the nearest midnight screening at the Queen’s Film Theatre. We sat in a sold out showing full of excited fans with excellent, friendly, staff openly thrilled about how good the turn out was. We even cosplayed in our recreation of Tom Baker’s Disney Time appearance, where he presented the show in character as the Doctor in a cinema. Fedora, scarf, waistcoat, coat. In June. Because, well, how could we not? It wound up being a 500 mile round trip just to watch an episode of Doctor Who (like the Doctor, we took the long way round).

And for all its imperfections, Empire of Death was worth every mile. It provides so much of what people love about this show. There are the huge concepts and wild action you’d expect. It gives us witty banter and the Doctor delighting at finally pulling a rabbit out of a hat to win the day. There are tears alongside the laughs, and some of the best actors on British TV today.

Empire of Death may not rank among the truly great Doctor Who finales. But it’s a jolly good one, all the same. If next year’s finale is in cinemas again, we’ll be packing up the car once more…

 

Nicola Coughlan as Joy in Joy to the World - BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon Doctor Who Christmas Special 2024
Nicola Coughlan as Joy in Joy to the World – BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon

Doctor Who returns with Joy to the World this Christmas to BBC One  in the UK and Ireland, and Disney+ everywhere else

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.