Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor

Well, as with the rest of this particular administration’s efforts, that was a bit of an overclocked mess. Albeit a largely fun mess if you could kind of check your brain at the door. It was nothing so much as a big going away party for the show, and a celebration of the original series that writer Chris Chibnall grew up a fan of. So I can’t actually say that it was good, but I can cop to the fact that it was good enough, and probably more pound-for-pound entertaining than most other episodes in this run.

It’s interesting, in that I feel like the real weakness of the Chris Chibnall era is the fact that the show so often botches the emotional beats. One of the things that was true about DOCTOR WHO since its return in 2005 is that it was an emotional series first and an action-adventure series second. That’s the secret key that made it all work, that returning showrunner Russell T. Davies put into place to make the series connect with modern audiences and that Steven Moffat heightened as he took the series global. But Chibnall’s work hearkens back to an earlier time, a point when the show was primarily about plot and didn’t often touch even in a cursorial fashion. on what the characters were feeling. Emotionality was frowned upon by the fandom of that period, as represented most concretely buy the outrage about “No kissing in the TARDIS” when the 1996 television movie aired. More than anything else, I feel as though that’s been the disconnect between the Chibnall era and the fans who came to the series under its former two showrunners: on the surface, it looks the same, but there’s an entirely different engine at work under the hood, and it has different goals in mind.

This may begin to explain why all of the emotional beats in the series in general and in tonight’s episode in particular never quite land as well as they ought to. For one thing, the episode is dedicated to careening ahead at a breakneck pace at all times, to the point where even trying to keep the plot straight takes a ton of mental brainpower. (I will confess, I was still wondering about the child stolen by the Cybermen by the end of the episode, having zipped past the line that revealed that she was just the glowing tendril-power source in concealment.) That speed of storytelling is perhaps meant to encapsulate this Doctor’s approach to every problem: barrel ahead, don’t explain anything to anybody, never slow down. But it makes it seriously difficult to digest what’s going on and extremely difficult to connect with emotionally. I wish it would be more deliberate in its storytelling. Also, I’ve spoken about this in the past, but once again, the sound mix on the episode seemed to be off, with the music track often threatening to drown out the dialogue being spoken. Maybe that’s a deliberate stylistic choice, but it was annoying just the same. Hopefully, things get back to normal in this regard once the new/old guys take the helm once again.

The show was also a bit overcrowded, with characters being brought back into the mix for really no good reason at all. It felt as though Chibnall was trying to realize every remaining idea he had in his idea bucket, with the result that a number of really solid ideas wind up seriously underdeveloped and pretty well wasted. I was happy to see Graham, but his sudden appearance inside the Dalek volcano base is barely explained at all, and he doesn’t really add anything to the proceedings. Similarly, Vinder’s part could have been excised entirely, as just as in The Flux his scenes ate up screen time but never really materially contributed to the plot. Sure, he shoots the Master, but Yaz certainly could have done that (and frankly it probably would have been better for her character development if she had been the one to do that.) And any story that includes both the Daleks and the Cybermen is going to wind up short-changing at least one, if not both. More successful was the brief appearance of the hologram of the Jo Martin Doctor, who was on point once again and who really showed in no space at all that she would have been a fabulous lead for the program.

The best moments throughout were the smaller bits. While it was a hair truncated (give your scenes some space to breathe, guys!), Dan’s departure following the throw-away pre-title sequence romp was effective and a fine sign-off for the character. It also meant that finally, we were at a point where this Doctor was working with only a single companion–and while Yaz still got underserved by the plot a little bit, that construction worked so much better all around. Likewise, while they didn’t entirely land solidly, completely sidestepping the revelations concerning Yaz’s feelings for the Doctor from the prior episode, that extended bit of the Doctor and Yaz sitting atop the TARDIS eating ice cream in space was really nice. I don’t know that I truly buy Yaz going off to let the Doctor die/regenerate on her own–even if she says that’s what she needs to do, you love this person, don’t you, Yaz? You fight to stay, right? But I get that this would have caused problems for the incoming production team. (The same reason that the extended cast of guest-stars is shuffled out of the TARDIS between scenes, when you can’t imagine a one of them leaving before they know that the Doctor has actually recovered.)

And I recognize that it was nothing more than weaponized nostalgia, but it was pretty lovely to see all of those Old Who characters and actors back again, even if the reasons for having them were a bit spurious and even nakedly manipulative. Because I was a part of the generation that watched those characters and their stories in real time, mostly, and so seeing Ace and Tegan again was nice (as was their momentary reunions with their different past incarnations of the Doctor.) Likewise, the other Doctors (including David Bradley, who really has become the First Doctor to this generation far more than William Harnell ever could, being consigned to dusty black and white reruns.) And in the final somewhat-gratuitous round table of former Who companions, I was delighted to see William Russell momentarily reprise his role as Ian Chesterton from the earliest episodes–his exclusion from the 50th Anniversary story was one of my minor complaints about it. Having been a part of the show since its earliest days, it is fitting to see him take to the stage once more, even if the role is only a momentary one.

The Regeneration scene itself was quite nice. I’m very fond of Jodie’s final words to her successor being “Tag. You’re it.” The death itself seemed somehow unearned, especially after having done and undone the Master’s forced regeneration of her form just moments ago, and the fact that she lay there unconscious for what must have been hours if not days before finally committing to the deed–the better to get Yaz and everybody else out of the picture and leave Russell a clean slate coming in. But at this point, I suppose every regeneration is a bit perfunctory, as we know that’s what’s coming before the episode even starts. It does seem as though lots of people were surprised by David Tennant’s reappearance as the brand-new Fourteenth Doctor at the end of the show. that surprise had seemingly been so spoiled by reports and images of the filming making their way across the internet that it seemed unlikely that anybody wouldn’t know that it was coming. Either way, David stepped back in seamlessly (though I was a hair troubled by the fact that somehow Jodie’s clothes transform into his as well. A minor thing to call fault with, but one that violated the established way-of-things even from earlier in the same episode.) Tennant’s return was also perhaps a bit blunted by just how many old faces were brought back in this episode, whereas if he’d been the only one, it might have been a bigger deal rather than just the cherry on top.

Still and all, this was a decent enough way for the Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker era to draw to a close. I thought she was a fine Doctor who often wasn’t well-served by the quality of the writing. And now, it’s time to settle in for the year-long wait for the first of the three Specials that will begin the new Russell era in 2023.

9 thoughts on “Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor

  1. An excellent analysis. I’d heard that Tennant was going to pop up in the new series somehow, but luckily, I was one of the fortunate few who had no idea he’d actually be the next regeneration, and I whooped in excitement and surprise at the reveal.

    As you say, as is usual with Chibnall (thank God our nightmare is finally over), there’s ten pounds of plot in a five-pound bag, and it never, ever, ever comes together properly. (For instance–the only reason the energy creature was disguised as a little girl was so that Chibnall could give the Doctor an excuse to follow her. There was no other reason, as it makes zero sense to the story, and I hate hate hate when writers cheat like that. Oh, and WTF with the defaced paintings? Missing seismologists weren’t enough of a reason for Kate to call the Doctor in?) Davies knows how to plot. With Chibnall, he likes to throw as many jigsaw puzzle pieces on the table as he can and thinks he can reassemble some overall picture by the end of the episode, and he fails constantly. Work harder, Chris. For the love of God, no one knows better than I do that if you *just put enough brainpower to it,* you can *always* find some way to tie together however many random moments you tossed into the story just because they were cool. (“I know! Defaced paintings!”)

    I didn’t go back to look at which volcanoes were identified by location, but my educated guess is that they’re not all in the same hemisphere, so thank God for bendy rays of magic light. Also, turning erupted lava into solid steel is about the dumbest fix possible–plugging volcanoes in a way that gives them no way to vent is a recipe for global catastrophe. At the very least, you’re trading volcanoes for tsunamis.

    All that said, even though I have no emotional attachment to any pre-2005 characters, I appreciated their presence and think the morphing hologram idea was a clever way to reunite the Doctors and their companions. It helped make the episode feel special in a way that it just wouldn’t have without all the nostalgia plays.

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    1. I was also one of the fortunate few, so Tennant’s appearance landed as it should have. All I knew was that he was returning in the 60th anniversary special, which I assumed – as we were clearly supposed to – would be a two doctor tale. Instead, it now looks we have three specials with Tennant reprising his role before the new guy comes in. As a way of righting the ship and hopefully getting viewers to come back to the show that’s actually kinda brilliant.

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  2. The morphing costume during regeneration is something that did happen in the classic series (Patrick Troughton’s Doctor threw off the cloak his predecessor had been wearing to reveal his different baggy costume, and the fifth Doctor is wearing shoes in Castrovalva after his predecessor wore boots in Logopolis– a production error but it still happened on screen). And while the Master did regenerate into the Doctor’s existing costume, I think the unsaid thing here is that Sasha Dwahan is an inch or two taller than Jodie Whittaker… but David Tennant is a LOT taller than both. I don’t think anyone wanted the awkwareness of the fourteenth Doctor wearing the thirteenth Doctor’s jumper like it was a crop top. It could magically enlarge, or it could magically just change. I can see production needs trumping plot– particularly as the first regeneration in 1966 did something similar!

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    1. I would guess that this was less a choice about practicality and more a decision based on wanting Tennant to look instantly iconic upon his regeneration. The point of his return is to help recapture a departed audience and those images were guaranteed to be circulated throughout media the moment after they aired.

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  3. My first smile of the show was seeing Dan leaving and I smiled again seeing the character who should have been companion in his place show up. I just didn’t realize there was no reason at that point to include Vinder. Ace and Tegan’s reconnection with thei Doctors had me misting up, especially when davison used the brave heart line. (Oh and I definitely want Ace and Graham to hook up!)

    You didn’t say anything about Chibnall almost never giving the Doctor an earned win. At the forty minute mark I even yelled at the screen ‘let her succeed at something!’ I haven’t been this frustrated since Moffat made the Doctor a bumbling idiot in order to make us think Amy was a better character than she was. (That episode with the famous painter was especially egregious)

    And why isn’t anyone pushing for an episode a seies where we get an untold adventure for Doctor Ruth? (yes, I know everyone else likes Fugitive Doctor but with her cover identity being named Ruth, Doctor Ruth has just stuck in my brain)

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  4. I watched the special last night, rather than y’know sleep and found much of the same problems with the plot that the characters had with the Doctor. There was no sense of flow to the story, it all seemed to happen at breakneck speed and none of the myriad story elements were given space to exist on their own. Regenerating Cybermen, the Master living as Rasputin, regeneration into the Master and a Dalek betraying his people. All of these could have been there own story, but it was all stuffed in, like someone packing for holiday as the taxi to the airport pulls up outside.
    I remain as impressed with the performance of Whitaker as ever, as well as the returning companions, but the writing once again proved a more threatening menace to the Doctor than the monsters arrayed against her. I am sorry to see Jodie’s tenure as the Doctor, but the showrunner is not someone that I will miss. As for the spoilerific regeneration at the end, well I miss Tennant as the Doctor. He cemented a lot of what made Nu-Who great and seeing him again, even if only to welcome someone new to the role makes me want to watch again, rather feel like I should.
    I did however like the old companions showing up at the end. Particularly William Russell as Ian Chesterton as I am currently watching the 1st Doctor’s adventures and it’s nice to see he was here for this. Overall I am glad that the madman (or madwoman) with a box is going strong and perhaps the best is yet to come.

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  5. I was in holiday when the show screened and deliberately avoided reading your blog (and the comments) until I’d had the opportunity to watch it. You’d think that at sixty I’d have more sense than to spend a week letting the anticipation and, yes, excitement build, but when we finally got home last night all I wanted to do was settle down and watch Dr Who.
    Shades of childhood: a windy Autumn Saturday night and Dr Who on the telly. Magic.
    Except it wasn’t.
    I shan’t rehearse anything that everyone else has had to say; I cannot disagree with any of it. As far as I’m concerned, I find myself reminded of a line from a song by Counting Crows: “It [was] all a lot of oysters and no pearls.”
    Maybe, with a new showrunner in place, the pearl of British TV sci-fi will once again find its lustre.

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  6. Despite all the valid criticisms of the storytelling, the nostalgia appeal won me over, particularly seeing Ace is as hellbent for leather as ever (“I’ll show you how I smashed Daleks in ’63!”). I am surprised Tegan lost her accent. More surprised William Russell is alove, but that was indeed cool.

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