❉ ‘The Power of the Doctor’ was the good and bad of the Chibnall/Jodie era distilled into 90 minutes, writes Rob Fairclough.
“Leave behind the impressive set pieces – all great fun for the kids and kids at heart – and The Power of the Doctor was really about relationships, with so many nods to the past, from the subtle to the heart-breaking.”
‘Can you go through it again? Slowly?’
After the implied omnipotence of the Doctor in Flux – as part of a “universal” balance between good and evil – and before that The Timeless Children – as the foundation stone of all Time Lord civilization – for Jodie Whittaker’s swan song it was refreshing to see writer Chris Chibnall step back from his previous mythologizing of the title character. He asked a simple question: “What is Doctor Who about?” (Appropriately enough, as the story was part of the BBC’s 100th birthday celebrations). Rather beautifully, he concluded in The Power of the Doctor that the series was about friendship.
While this sentiment was the story’s beating heart, as a production it wasn’t without flaws. The info-dumping from characters, mainly the Doctor, that has marred this era to varying degrees, was back, as was an avalanche of plot-twists that left your head spinning. Then there was the garbled technobabble, which was usually hard to hear because of whizz-bang-wallop action scenes.
Perhaps this is as it should be, because The Power of the Doctor was the good and bad of the Chibnall/Whittaker era distilled into 90 minutes. The constant jumping between time zones and locations and the use of the Doctor’s handy “interactive AI holo me” was very Flux which, for me, was the Thirteenth Doctor’s most successful outing (at least artistically). Clearly Chibnall thought so too, as he returned to that story’s frantic pace and even revived one of its best characters, Vinder (Jacob Anderson, sadly underused here).
Leave behind the impressive set pieces like Cybermen hijacking a space train, Daleks manufacturing volcanic eruptions and a “conversion planet” forcing the Doctor’s regeneration into the Master – all great fun for the kids and kids at heart – and The Power of the Doctor was, as I said at the start, really about relationships. Relationships with the Doctor that have been left hanging (c.f. former companions Ace and Tegan, brought to believable, fan-pleasing life again by actors Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding), the Doctor’s relationship with her extended “fam” – as Yaz said when Dan (John Bishop) unexpectedly left, she’s “not one for goodbyes” – and, the crux of the story, the Doctor’s relationship with the Master.
Which was fascinating. While the Master’s let’s-destroy-everything ambitions for the Earth were run-of-the-mill and a bit contradictory – the planet wouldn’t be a global “Cyber foundry” for long with volcanoes erupting all over the place – and there was no good reason for him to be billeted in Russia in 1916, his motivations regarding the Doctor were very revealing. The Master clearly envied and hated her at the same time, modelling his TARDIS on her own but branding the ‘Pull to Open’ door panel on the police box exterior to read ‘HA HA HA HA…’ – a memorable, unsettling image. The impression was that he’d gone even further over the edge mentally after the events of The Timeless Children, to the extent that the Master actually wanted to become her – effectively, transforming himself into the thing he hated the most. It came as no surprise that for all the Master’s casual, homicidal bravado, he was mired in self-loathing. His key, killer line? “Don’t let me go back to being me.”
And there it was: For all his cleverness and ability to get the Daleks and Cybermen to co-operate (a temporary alliance at best), the Master was fundamentally alone. Yaz hammered home the point by telling him the Doctor had “spent her life gathering friends. And she is loved.” No wonder he wanted to take her place.
Sacha Dhawan’s performance as the Master was one of the joys of The Power of the Doctor. He barrelled through a whole gamut of emotions and expressions, among them arrogance, self-pity and anger, a school bully delivering lines with whispered intensity and dancing to Boney M like their biggest fan. The moment when he started gleefully twirling around to Rasputin by the 1970s disco funksters, made me think that perhaps this sequence was the sole reason Chibnall had written in the Master’s disguise as the Russian mystic. It was also one of those “WTAF?” moments only Doctor Who can deliver.
And it was consistent with The Power of the Doctor’s salute to the programme’s history: The Master previously demonstrated his love of pop music in Last of the Time Lords/The Sound of Drums (2007), revealing that Here Come the Drums by Rogue Traders and I Can’t Decide by the Scissor Sisters were on his playlist. From the Master’s Rasputin routine to the reappearance of Ace and Tegan on down, there were so many nods to the past – which, admittedly, might have left casual viewers none the wiser – from the subtle to the heart-breaking.
Of the former, the whole Master-becomes-the-Doctor plot was a riff on 1986’s The Trial of a Time Lord, in which the Valeyard attempted the same thing. At the other extreme, the cameos of the First, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Doctors, the last four of whom were allowed to show the age of their human actors, were truly touching. Especially when the Fifth and Seventh, via the Doctor’s endlessly adaptable AI hologram, made their peace with Tegan and Ace respectively. Say what you like about the Doctor: They might annoy the hell out of you, but in the end you’ll be friends again.
Which is why the ‘Doctor support group’ near the end wasn’t a refuge for traumatized victims of time travel. It was a haven for people privileged to have their lives touched by this extraordinary person and who wanted to share their experiences with each other… Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford) and, the real tear-jerker, Ian Chesterton (William Russell) from the 1960s. His polite “Sorry, did you say ‘her’?”, more than the reappearance of David Bradley as William Hartnell’s First Doctor, showed you just how far this old show has come since its black and white days recorded in a cramped Lime Grove studio.
Jodie Whittaker could have been lost amid all the noise and celebratory jamboree, but she was dignified and less manic here than she has been in the past. In the scenes with Dhawan, Whittaker raised her game – as on the two occasions they’d previously met – quietly and effectively staring him out while he preened and gloated. It was a shame she wasn’t blessed with an epic, dramatic monologue to go out on, but, as in Legend of the Sea Devils earlier this year, she was at her best in the intimate moments she shared with Mandip Gill’s Yaz. The could-have-been lovers perched on top of the TARDIS, looking at the Earth as they ate ice cream on “one last trip”, will stand as the defining image of this era. When the Doctor said “I loved being with you, Yaz. And I loved being me”, you can’t help thinking that Chibnall wrote those lines in tribute to Whittaker and Gill.
With Doctor Who’s sixtieth anniversary year on the horizon, a cynic might say that the reappearance of David Tennant’s Tenth (Fourteenth?) Doctor at the end of the Thirteenth’s regeneration was an attempt by the BBC to reset the series to its most popular 21st century iteration, after an uneven four years with the first female Doctor. Yes, some of the stories could have been better, and the characterisation of the lead could perhaps have been stronger, but the significant thing is that such a dramatic step forward in Doctor Who’s format happened at all.
For better and not worse, Jodie Whittaker was – and always will be – the Doctor.
❉ The Doctor Who Centenary episode ‘The Power of the Doctor’ was broadcast on BBC One at 7:30pm on Sunday 23 October 2022 and is available to stream on BBC iPlayer with episodes of the classic series also available on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here. Doctor Who is a BBC Studios production for BBC One and a BBC America co-production. BBC Studios are the international distributors for Doctor Who.
❉ Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk