Doctor Who: THE POWER OF THE DOCTOR Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s making a list. He’s checking it twice.
There’s a rule in reviewing. Well, not so much a rule as a guideline. Maybe a suggestion.

The suggestion is that when it comes to new televised Doctor Who, it’s always best to watch the episode TWICE before you start typing.

It’s a suggestion that stops this review from being a simple, dismissive “2 Stars. Worst of the era except The Battle of Thingummy Doodah” – which was my reaction to The Power of The Doctor on first watch.

Why would I write it off that way and harsh everybody’s vibe? Mainly a combination of the things it didn’t do, and the things it did.

There was an expectation – and really speaking, an obligation – that the final episode of this era would explain that pocketwatch of memories, the Division storyline, the Fugitive Doctor, all that good happy Chibnall-era reinvention, so that it could in a sense be said to be completed, allowing the new team a free hand in where they want to take the show’s mythology next.

Clearly, that appeared either too difficult, too convoluted, or too dependent on having watched the rest of Jodie’s era to go anywhere near in a regeneration story that also had the entirely notional task of celebrating a hundred years of the BBC. It never especially made that celebration part of its DNA either, but let’s not quibble unduly, shall we? They went another way, filled with excitement and adventure and really wild things, rather than battening down the hatches on their new additions to the mythos. OK, fine.

So if what it “didn’t do” was absolutely anything to resolve the three-series arc of the Doctor’s pre-Hartnell history, what it was, how it was, and why we should care, at least what it actually DID that initially disappointed didn’t show up for a good long while.

The part that had me cringing, and watching through my fingers (especially as I was in a room with some non-fans at the time) was the revelation on-screen of what kind of Master Sacha Dhawan was actually playing.

Now, let’s be clear. Dhawan has turned in some serviceable Mastering up to now – though it’s perhaps slightly odd that he’s rarely bettered the Mastering he gave before – and just immediately after – he was revealed to BE the Master. Here, the script served him up some much better opportunities to show the range of his formidable skills.

There was the Rasputin-Master, the Seismology-Master, riffing on both Peter Capaldi’s time as a professor and a score of Roger Delgado plotlines. There was the Doctor-Master, who seemed to be in a fit of post-regenerative self-soothing, and so on. But at the core of his characterization, it turns out, is what feels almost like caricature – the Self-Loathing Master.

While that idea held some water in The Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children as the result of a shocking discovery that his Time Lord nature was all down to the hated doctor’s difference, here it felt twisted into a kind of paradoxical need to ‘become’ the Doctor, and that played like demented overkill that landed in parody, while taking a sideswipe at cosplayers along the way, with an outfit as confused as the notions that informed the characterization on the page.

So, those two things, plus a great deal of fan-service, combined to make my initial reaction an unfavourable one.

Wait – what’s wrong with fan-service? Well, apart from the fact that it’s vaguely antithetical to the rest of the Chibnall era, it can isolate the show in a very particular niche, rather than keeping it open to general viewers. But really, the point is that if you overdo the fan-service, you begin to build a show that smells slightly of desperation. Plot hole? Here, have an Eighties companion to distract you. Plot that makes no sense? Here’s a classic top-ranking monster, look at that for a minute till we get back on track – and so on.

The combination of the Master, Daleks, Cybermen, past companions, former Doctors, UNIT and more was always going to be tricky to pull off – the last time it was all crammed into 90 minutes was in Terrance Dicks’ Five Doctors in 1983, which, while not without its own problems, still stands up to scrutiny today.

Chris Chibnall, it hardly needs pointing out, is no Terrance Dicks.

Which means that on a first watch, while everybody had their fangasms, I was left floundering for sense in the ridiculously huge plot-gaps. Exactly why is the Master pratting about as Rasputin – and what happened to the real one? Why are the Cyber-Masters and the Daleks taking orders from the Master, rather than blasting him to death as soon as looking at him? The whole idea that “the one thing they hate more than each other is you” is a shameless lift from The Pandorica Opens – and you’d think they’d have learned from that. Why are Daleks engaging in a complex seismology plot stolen more or less wholly from The Enemy of the world, when, in case we missed this, they’re DALEKS? Why has a Dalek developed self-loathing – again – just as it did in Into The Dalek, and, to a lesser extent, in Dalek and in Remembrance of the Daleks? And why does the Doctor react as though it’s the first time they’ve ever done that? How can Kate and Tegan run out of an exploding building and simply stand there, less than a yard from it, without getting hit by debris or enveloped in choking dust? Are the Cyber-Masters the campest Cybermen ever? Since when is tissue compression reversible? And does that mean that Tegan’s Aunt Vanessa could be unshrunk? How and why is Graham in a volcano, and where did he get the psychic paper from, etc, etc, etc.

I’m not saying these things should stop you enjoying it. I’m saying they initially stopped ME from enjoying it.

But here’s the thing.

I’ve said throughout Jodie Whitaker’s era that to get the most out of it, you need to stop being a Grown-Up fan, expecting things to make sense. You have to engage with your Inner Child and just go with it. Things happen ‘because they do,’ rather than because of any meticulous plotting, consistent characterization or any such Grown-Up notions. Watch it like a 6 or 7 year-old, and it’s still entirely enjoyable.

Ironically, everyone seems to have taken my advice on this episode – even fans who’ve done nothing but hate the show throughout the Whitaker era – while I myself got caught up in the Grown-Up issues with a script more nonsensical than anything Edward Lear ever wrote.

There was lots to enjoy in the story. Dan’s decision to leave was well handled, for instance, even if the train-based Star Trek: First Contact rip-off before it was meh. The return of Tegan and Ace was superb, with both actresses doing excellent work – even if there was a whiff of “I just want Sophie Aldred to hit a Dalek with a baseball bat again” about her particular return. But then, who am I kidding, right? We ALL wanted to see that again.

Janet Fielding in particular stormed every scene she had as Tegan, and the scenes between each of the spiky companions and their holo-Doctors were well-judged and good to capture on-screen and ‘in-canon.’

The improvement to the characterization of the Dhawan Master on the page translated to a character from whom it was difficult to tear your eyes – even though neither his Rasputin self nor his Doctor self made annnny sense at all. The grandiosity of his scheme may have been idiotic, but it was in keeping with many other incarnations, from Delgado to Gomez.

The return of Graham – and especially his brief team-up with Ace – was pure joy, and if there are nominations for best lines going around, the combination of -

“I’m Ace.”

“Yes, you are.”

-has to be in the running, along with Tegan’s Eighties air hostess line.

And while we’re accentuating the positive, give it up for Patrick O’Kane as Ashad. Stealing the show here as he did in The Haunting of Villa Diodati, O’Kane gives us something we haven’t had since the days of David Banks – a Cyber-Leader with real speed, efficiency, purpose, and especially arrogance. His whole performance marks him out as different from any of the Cyber-Masters around him, and he’s a joy to watch (though, on another Grown-Up point of order, are the Cybermen who get blown up in 2022 somehow NOT Cyber-Masters, or can we expect them to come, glowing with regenerative energy, crawling out of the wreckage at some point in our imagination’s future?)

Obviously, there were riffs on The Stolen Earth here, with all the companions assigned a task around the Tardis console (and a nod to Mickey Smith in Graham’s question about whether they could stop).

The Master’s Tardis – the first time we’ve been inside one in decades – was gorgeous and twisted and dark, and (let’s say it for the last time we can) significantly better, visually, than the 13th Doctor’s was.

And it was obviously fun to see the return of so many former Doctors, albeit in a sequence that riffed more than a little on the first Black Panther movie, or the last Harry Potter. They had the feel of a VIP Comic-Com, where they all got together at one time to advise their newest self, and while they may have been – a little ironically – better realised in The Day of The Doctor, their inclusion was another significant Chibnall addition to the mythos, in terms of there being a place in the psyche of Time Lords that they have to pass by in order to regenerate.

There has been at least one audio predecessor of that (The Last Adventure, by Big Finish, which seems to give an audio conversation between Doctors Six and Seven in the moment of transition), but it was good to see that nailed to the screen. It’s an idea that immediately leaves the viewer wondering about all the times the Capaldi Doctor stopped himself regenerating, and the Fifth Doctor’s mentality most of the way through The Caves of Androzani.

For a story in which regeneration featured heavily as a mid-section scenery-chewing arc, the actual regeneration of Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor was… odd. Her body was hit by energy, and she slept through the return home of her extended fam. Then the regeneration began, there were words similar to those of the Tenth Doctor, and then – also like him – she seemed to arrest the process so she could have one last ice-cream with her friend, and one last sunset on her own. The change of energy from “I want more time!” to “One last sunset” was jarringly abrupt, but her way of facing the future was much more optimistic than the Tenth or Twelfth Doctors – akin to Matt Smith’s last speech, but with the Thirteenth Doctor’s signature optimism and excitement for onward travel.

The self-help group for friends of the Doctor feels like an idea that’s been around since at least The Sarah Jane Adventures, so the newness of it on screen was odd, too – but it brought the likes of Bonnie Langford, Katy Manning, and the much-longed-for William Russell back to on-screen Doctor Who for the first time in decades, so while it might feel like contrived fan-service, there’s no way to criticise Chris Chibnall for including it.

Because William Russell Rules All, that’s why.

And of course, the final sequence, with the “new” Doctor, was a moment of self-referential fan-pleasing, air-punching fun.

While the overall plot of The Power of The Doctor leaves an impression of weakness, it’s also worth putting on record that almost everything except for almost all of the Master’s demented plot and Graham’s sudden arrival ACTUALLY makes sense on screen. Vinder’s arrival? He was sent through a wormhole tracking the energy creature. The disappearing paintings had at least a notional reason for disappearing – the Master had left a different type of calling card, to lure the Doctor and her friends into his Ashad trap. If we compare that to, for instance, the reason the Zygons appeared in The Day of The Doctor, it objectively stands up rather well, despite leaving that sense of a gaping logic-chasm in the middle of the story and the mind of the viewer.

Ultimately, as a sign-off to the Whitaker and Chibnall eras, it’s a story that takes risks, invents freely, moves along for a movie-length amount of time without necessarily ever letting the viewers’ feet touch the ground, and appears to have been largely well regarded IN SPITE of the many, many elements that made it nonsensical at best.

Brave, colourful, optimistic, and deeply nonsensical – if you were going to characterize the Chibnall/Whitaker era in a handful of words, you’d probably include those few. And if you wanted to pick a single episode that went full throttle and delivered on all of those things, while making you largely shut down your critical Grown-Up thinking and revel in being 7 again, of them all, you’d probably choose The Power of The Doctor as Exhibit A.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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