'Doctor Who' Offers a Chaotic, Heartfelt Farewell to Thirteen in "The Power of the Doctor"
Its the end of multiple eras on Doctor Who as the series says goodbye to Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker, showrunner Chris Chibnall, and its fifth decade, all while celebrating the 100th anniversary of the media corporation that made it all possible in the first place.
"The Power of the Doctor" is a feature-length special that has to serve many masters (pardon the pun). While it doesn't succeed in every aspect of that brief, it's a big, chaotic spectacle that provides enough fan service to paper over most of its narrative cracks.
Granted, its story specifics fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. The episode brings back so many supporting and ancillary characters that it often struggles to give them anything worthy to do. (Poor John Bishop is barely even present, and as much as I love Jacob Anderson in other things, I have no idea why Vinder exists in the world of the show.)
But, largely thanks to its deft deployment of classic characters and nostalgic throwbacks, even the most hard-hearted of fans will find plenty to love here, even if you might end up thinking that as outgoing Doctor Whittaker deserved a bit more of the episode's focus in her final outing.
As an episode, "The Power of the Doctor" is full of many things we've come to expect from the Chris Chibnall era.
The show looks incredible, with fantastic cinematography and visual set pieces. Its narrative is overstuffed with so many pointless twists, secondary characters, and rapid-fire lines of exposition that you'll have a hard time explaining the plot of the story you just watched to anyone who hasn't seen it. There are moments when the Thirteenth Doctor feels like the least important (and often least active) part of her own show. And Whittaker's talent in this role is such that she manages to convey writing that often feels painfully thin into something emotionally meaningful.
I've spoken elsewhere about how frustrating I've found a lot of the Thirteenth Doctor era, which has often felt like one step forward, two steps back both in terms of the story it's telling and in the way it has treated the entire concept of having a female Doctor in the first place. Still, Whittaker has been a wonder throughout her tenure and frequently done great things when given very little, and that's certainly something that happens in this episode at various points.
She gets several solid moments here as the Doctor is forced to confront various pieces of her past and face down her regeneration. Whittaker is asked to play a couple of different versions of the character throughout the episode. Her delightful chemistry with classic companions Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding is a delight, as is their wonder over the fact that the being they once traveled with is a woman now.
And, of course, she gets one last face-off with all her greatest enemies, including Sacha Dhawan's Master.
Dhawan's Master has always been more about bombastic showmanship than anything else, and he gets plenty of opportunities to take big swings, from cosplaying as Rasputin to attempting to steal the Doctor's life through forced regeneration and spending a third of the episode running around in a costume compiled of multiple Doctor looks. (Although I'm sad to report that the Chibnall era has now, officially, never bothered to explore the Master as a character in his own right in any real way, let alone explain how we went from Michelle Gomez's Missy to this more revenge-fueled version.)
Even though the Master technically erases her halfway through the special, the episode figures out a neat way to insert Whittaker's Doctor into every story. Yet, Thirteen still somehow feels either absent from or mainly reactive to the things happening around her as the Master, Cybermen, and Daleks, all team up to destroy and take over the earth using a complicated plot involving volcanoes and cyber conversion. (Why? It's never made super clear.)
Even her regeneration feels like an afterthought, coming not from the forced body swap with the Master but from a faceful of Quoronx energy thrown at her by her best frenemy. The process takes enough time to allow her to say goodbye to her extended fam and for one last trip for ice cream with Yaz. The duo's goodbye is both heartfelt and sweet, even though Doctor Who completely wusses out on committing to any actual resolution to the sort of bizarre romance the show set up between the two.
But, in the end, what makes this episode work is that it's as much about its past as its future. When the news broke that former classic companions Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding would be returning for this episode, many of us likely assumed they'd be blink-and-you-'ll-miss-it cameos, nuggets of fan service thrown out to mark a significant anniversary. But that's not what happens at all, and Tegan and Ace get emotional arcs that carry more weight than almost anything that happens to this current era's Doctor.
Seeing Ace and Tegan onscreen again was delightful from start to finish, both in terms of watching them get to know one another and watching them each get the chance to deal with the emotional trauma left over from the ways their specific experiences with the Doctor ended. There are so many little moments to love, from Tegan's lingering fear of Cybermen to Ace's continued love of explosives. (And she gets to put her trademark jacket back on.)
Thanks to a holographic version of the Doctor that can change shape, both are granted time with their respective Doctors—Peter Davison's Five and Sylvester McCoy's Seven—and given a chance to heal some old wounds. It's honestly lovely and a git to longtime fans that I'm glad we got to see. The addition of a sort of TARDIS Companions Anonymous at the episode's end, where characters like Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Jo Grant (Katy Manning), and Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford) can mingle with Graham O'Brien (Bradley Walsh), and Yaz, freshly home from Thirteen's regeneration, is so utterly perfect I would watch a spinoff about it.
And as for the regeneration itself, well. Visually, it's lovely, with Thirteen getting to welcome one last sunrise before "tagging in" whatever Doctor she'll be next. Most people probably aren't surprised by the twist that Whittaker technically regenerates into former Tenth Doctor David Tennant, given the filming reports surrounding the upcoming 60th-anniversary special. But that does make the moment feel like any less of a fanfic-esque copout, an excuse to bring back one of the franchise's most famous members simply because this era has struggled in the ratings and amp up the nostalgia vibes before what I assume will be a significant timeline-spanning event in the world of the show.
No, it doesn't make any sense from a narrative standpoint, and yes, we all know in advance that he's not sticking around for Season 14. But...I guess this is what we're going with anyway. At least the new coat looks fab.
Farewell, Jodie. Thanks for being the woman who went first, even if you sometimes deserved better than this show ever bothered to give you, even here at the end of all things.