And now, after many moons, the Chibnall-Whittaker era of Doctor Who has come to an end. My thoughts are many.
I have not been the biggest fan of this era of the show. Jodie Whittaker is appealing enough, but I have found her performance too broad to be actually engaging. In spite of the occasional bright spot, Most of the stories have been either underwritten or badly written, and filled with bland characters and uninspiring plots. There have been a handful of “shocking plot twists” that were memorable for all the wrong reasons, which leaves one tempted to rant that the last three seasons haven’t only failed to move the show forward in a positive way, they have actually done the series a bit of harm.
But of course, that’s just a grumpy old fan ranting away. What about The Power of the Doctor itself?
Spoilers Lie This Way
Well, it was certainly enjoyable, thanks to a breezy pace, some nice emotional bits of character, and lots of big ideas. In fact, many of its ideas could have anchored whole episodes all by themselves. We could fill a whole season with stories about a sentient energy that disguises itself as a human child, about aliens trying to cause every single volcano on earth to erupt at once, about the Master trying to literally become the Doctor, about a Dalek attempting to betray his own species, or about the Cybermen invading UNIT.
Here though, they are all crammed into a single script, and even though that script is long it doesn’t come close to do any of them justice. What it does do is touch on all these ideas with such energy and drive that it’s tempting to let it all race past your senses and say, “Hey, that was pretty good.” But if you slow it down, you realize instead that it’s all blithering nonsense. Or at least irrelevant filler. It’s just that the state of modern Doctor Who is such that blithering nonsense told with a sense of style and a bit of characterization that doesn’t get wallowed down in soap-boxing is actually a step up for the show.
The biggest offender to the whole idea of a cohesive story is almost the entirety of the Master’s plan. In spite of his claims that swallowing a brilliant Cyber-A.I. that has turned him into a brilliant strategist, its almost all gobbledy-gook. When the Master repeatedly claims that his plan is amazing, it’s hard to not read it as the writer claiming his script makes sense even when it doesn’t.
But nevermind that–let’s allow for the fact that essential to his goals was the business of turning the Doctor into himself. The only steps of his plan that are actually necessary for that is 1) capturing the energy child, 2) building the Cyber-planet, 3) capturing the Doctor and 4) forcing the regeneration.
What’s not necessary? Everything else. He has no reason to capture and kill seismologists. He doesn’t need to impersonate Rasputin, or to infiltrate the Russian palace. He doesn’t need to put himself into all the paintings. He doesn’t need to purposely get captured by UNIT. He doesn’t need to help the Daleks to turn on the earth’s volcanoes in order to turn it into a foundry. And he doesn’t even need the Daleks’ help to capture the Doctor–he could have easily done it himself on any number of occasions, including the scene in the seismology classroom.
The Master doesn’t need to trick Tegan into bringing Cybermen into UNIT. The Cybermen don’t actually achieve anything there except rescue the Master, who, let us remember, purposely got himself captured and imprisoned there. Once freed, the Master simply leaves, and the Cybermen don’t do anything but attack some soldiers who were not a threat to them. Nevermind that there’s no apparent reason that if the Cybermen did have some reason to attack UNIT, they probably could have just gone through the front door.
It’s all just time-filling, glitzy, nonsense.
What is fun is watching the Doctor and her friends run around and respond to everything. Sophie Aldred’s Ace is especially enjoyable, even though it’s silly that she bothers to put on her old jacket, and there is no explanation for why she has a super-charged baseball bat sitting around. I thought pairing her with Graham was fun, and their first meeting hilarious. I could have stood even more of a hint of romance between them (though it’s strange to realize they are about the same age).
I liked the way the story worked in cameos for former Doctors like Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann and David Bradley. It was particularly nice when they were partnered with their former companions. Both of those scenes–between the Fifth Doctor and Tegan and between the Seventh Doctor and Ace–were amongst my favorites for the episode, and frankly I wish they had gone on longer, and that maybe they had found a way to include Colin Baker in those more “adventuresome” scenes.
I haven’t been a fan of Sacha Dhawan’s Master in any of his appearances (even though I think the guy is a good actor), but I found myself appreciating the burning madness he brought to his portrayal this time around. His “Rasputin” dance was funny even if it was also idiotic. Hopefully, he’s dead and we’ll never see him again, and hopefully it will be a long time before the Master is pulled out of mothballs again.
I thought there was just the right amount of emotion between the Doctor and Yaz (Mandip Gill) without it getting distracted by an intrusive romance story, and I liked how understated their actual farewell was. I was excited as any old fan by the support group of companions that we saw at the end, and particularly by the presence of William Russell as Ian Chesterton, a character I am mystified didn’t appear back in the 50th year in any capacity.
And Jodie Whittaker’s actual regeneration was frankly wonderful. Better than Capaldi’s. Better than Tennant’s. Better in all ways except the novelty of it than Ecclestone’s. Not quite as good as Smith’s. It was beautiful imagery and sweet writing as she handed things over to her future self. And of course it was fun to see her turn into David Tennant, although it would have been amazing to see that without having already suspected that that was going to be the story’s conclusion.
But…argh, I can’t talk positively about this story for very long without being reminded of the many disappointments it contained, even aside from all the superfluous activity from the Master.
Since when do Daleks need to set off volcanoes in order to conquer earth? If they want the place, why don’t they just start flying around and shooting everyone?
Why is Graham running around under a volcano? Was there an explanation that just got lost in the edit? Why are there in fact the things that one would need to run around under a volcano, like roads and air and livable temperatures?
Regenerating “Cyber-Masters” was a stupid idea back in the The Timeless Children, and they still are now. The only reason the notion is threatening at all is because the Cybermen are so much easier to kill now. In the old days, the threat of Cybermen wasn’t that they could return to life after you killed them, it was that they were really hard to kill in the first place.
Why does nobody remember that Tegan left the Doctor, and not the other way around? The Doctor pleaded with her to not walk away on such bad terms, but she went and did it anyway. So what is she so upset about all these years later? It’s like the writer remembered watching School Reunion and decided to just repeat the exact same characterization here, regardless of whether it made any sense then or now.
If you’re going to do the work of bringing back a bunch of classic companions–William Russell, Katy Manning, and Bonnie Langford–is it too hard to actually write them a meaningful line of dialogue or two? Ian, Mel and Jo all have one line each, and those lines are completely interchangeable–they could have been said by any character. It’s such a wasted opportunity, and one that probably won’t come again for any of them. Oh well, we always have Big Finish.
And out of all the underdeveloped plots, probably my biggest disappointment is the whole thing of the Master trying to become. the Doctor. The stakes were not strong when the Master’s evil manipulations were basically relegated to off-screen inferences. And the story is flat and one-dimensional because it doesn’t really explore either the Master or the Doctor’s characters. It could have been interesting if it had turned out that becoming the Doctor had unexpected side-effects for the Master, like we saw how he thought differently or felt differently, and had to face something intrinsic to his personality as a result. But what we actually got didn’t deliver anything along those lines. It’s simplistic storytelling–the Master is evil and gets stopped because the good guys push him in a tube and press some well-timed buttons.
The Power of the Daleks is, as you probably know, the BBC’s Centenary Special for Doctor Who–part of the network’s 100 year anniversary. As a result, we get all the fun callbacks to the classic series that I’ve mentioned.
But it’s also the swansong for Chris Chibnall’s involvement in the series as showrunner, and as such it serves as a bit of a celebration to his whole era on the show (we saw the same thing at the end of Russell T. Davies original tenure on the show, and to a lesser degree, Steven Moffat’s). As such, it’s interesting that the writer chose to not going into any major explanations for the big elements he added to the series, such as the origins of the Timeless Child and the exact position of the so called Fugitive Doctor (Jo Martin) in the character’s personal timeline.
I’m of two minds about that. On one hand, Chibnall’s introductions were huge things in terms of shaking up our understanding of the Doctor’s backstory. Both of these elements were developed a little bit in the episodes that followed their debut, but not fully. So on one hand, it seems kind of rude to do all that and never really complete the story. But on the other hand, I strongly and actively disliked both ideas, so relegating them to easier-to-forget passing references actually made the story easier to enjoy. I guess the best thing would have been to provide explanations that I thought were amazing, but since the chances of that were slim, the vague reminders that we got were probably the preferred way to go. But it was surprising because when we first saw the strange energy child that was the focus of one of the show’s plotlines, I assumed that this being would end up going back in time and becoming the Timeless Child. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have thought so.
So to sum up, the Whittaker-Chibnall era has ended with The Power of the Doctor, an overstuffed nostalgia-fest with shallow, inane storytelling that still managed to be better than 95% of the last three seasons. Jodie Whittaker says farewell to the show with a genuinely lovely scene, and while I wouldn’t exactly say the future looks bright, I will say that it looks intriguing with the return of David Tennant to the role, if even just for a little while.