Doctor Who

Doctor Who: Full of Feelings and Very Confused

One of the best moments in a jumbled finale.
One of the best moments in a jumbled finale. Screencap from Doctor Who: Empire of Death
As we close the door on the first full series of the Disney Who era with “The Legend of Ruby Sunday/Empire of Death,” it feels like the first major stumble from showrunner Russell T Davies.

Spoilers Ahead: Here’s your usual bit of trivia to read so you don’t feel you’ve wasted the click. The villain Sutekh in this episode is voiced by Gabriel Woolf, who first portrayed the character 48 years ago in “The Pyramids of Mars.” He also voiced The Beast in “The Satan Pit,” planting the seeds long ago that the two characters were connected.

As much as I enjoyed this two-parter season finale, it was not very good writing. This is especially aggravating when you consider Davies is the writer that had “Bad Wolf” pay off perfectly in the 2005 season and who expertly wove all the threads of Series 4 together to craft the immensely satisfying “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.” “Empire of Death” makes “Flux” look like Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame, which is embarrassing because it’s pretty clear someone told Davies to make this episode as much as those two films as possible right down to having characters disappear in a pile of dust.

All the season’s mysteries fail to pay off. The identity of Ruby’s (Millie Gibson) mother and the reason she was so hard to track down is downright nonsensical. As someone still mad about “The Rise of Skywalker,” I appreciate leaving Ruby’s biological parentage unconnected to a major figure in the show’s mythos. That said, there is no way in Hell that a nurse working in the 2024 British healthcare system hasn’t left some sort of easily trackable genetic footprint. As was the idea of her pointing to a road sign to name her daughter. There was no one there to see it, though the fact that a 15-year-old with a full body cloak might be just overdramatic is always a possibility.

That said, watching Ruby meet her mother was intense. An adopted friend of mine said that it deeply moved him, and for all its bad plotting, it was an emotional perfect end to Ruby’s time in the Tardis.

But even here the ball gets dropped so badly. An undercurrent of the season is that The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) feels terrible about having abandoned his granddaughter Susan (Carol Ann Ford) so many years ago. He and Ruby even discuss it in a tearful goodbye, but The Doctor still balks at returning to see Susan. How hard would it have been to have a final post-credit scene where the Tardis lands next to an elderly Susan and that classic speech from William Hartnell plays as the doors open?

But even then it’s, ugh. The season establishes that Ruby is something special. It snows when she’s sad. Maestro is afraid of her. You can’t wave that all away by saying the whole mystery was important because we thought it was. Sure, this show has beaten a lot of monsters with the power of friendship and other tropey stuff, but expecting the audience to accept the god of death is afraid of a girl because everyone made a big deal out of orphan story is a bit much.

The episode is just full of these. When The Doctor is dragging Sutekh (who I’ve been calling Clifford the Big Goth Dog) behind the Tardis like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vacation, he gives this impassioned speech about how now he has to become a monster. He never states why. Is it because he has to leave Sutekh in the world because death is a part of life? Is it because The Doctor’s actions revive the Dalek planet of Skaro?

Even Gatwa, who has already cemented himself as one of the greatest of Doctors, seems to stumble in this episode. Gatwa lacks his usual force when delivering the mandatory hammy lines to villains about why The Doctor will stop them. He seems almost hesitant, like he wandered into an audition he wasn’t fully prepared for. For a man that literally just played a plastic doll with all the cojones of a Shakespeare character, Gatwa hit several sour notes.

Luckily, he has his companions around him. I’m not being a dick when I say that Melanie Bush is probably not in most people’s Top 5 lists, even if you keep it just to the Classic Who era. That’s nothing against Bonnie Langford, who always did the best she could with some weird scripts.

Here, she has been the absolute glue holding the finale together. Her relationship with The Doctor is still tender, but she has also developed much more as a person in her own right. Fond as I am of the return of Sarah Jane Smith in “School Reunion” and her subsequent spin-off, Langford leaves her in the dust. Whether it’s quietly telling The Doctor to pull himself together or sadly cuddling the Seventh Doctor’s vest, she commands every moment the camera is on her.

Gibson’s Ruby is also up to the task. Her last remark against Sutekh (“You big god of nothing”) was a moment well-earned and expertly delivered. Plus, it’s nice to see a companion conclude it’s time to leave the Tardis rather than exiting under trauma. Throughout the entire season, Gibson has played all the roles of a companion perfectly, whether as an exposition dump for the audience, the plucky assistant, or the guide to The Doctor’s evolving soul, all while holding onto her own character’s growth. It’s a phenomenal performance, and I’m sad to see her go.

“Empire of Death” excelled in its quiet moments. Subtly linking Sutekh’s dust of death to Alzheimer’s was an inspired choice. Everything that happens on Agua Santina is ten times more exciting than all the Disney money CGI. The scenes in the Memory Tardis were magical. My heart lurched all over the place every second of the last two episodes. I just wish it made more sense.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner