The Power of the Doctor
|Production Code||100th anniversary of the BBC Special|
|Dates||October 23, 2022|
With Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop
Written by Chris Chibnall Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Nikki Wilson
|Synopsis: Dozens of the world's leading seismologists have been abducted, and Rasputin's face has appeared on several famous paintings.|
Escaping bland entropy with audacious fan-pleasing by Tom May 20/3/23
I found this story enervating and moving in about equal measures: a truly odd mix, but such is the late Chibnall era of Doctor Who...! In many ways, this was a continuation of Flux, in throwing everything bar the proverbial public loo in Tooting Bec into the mixing pot. Like Flux, it was ultimately too fast-paced, otiose and lacking in clarity and power.
The narrative was frankly utterly ludicrous, and unmemorable to boot. Too many things happening, too few of them worth caring about. There was the patented Chibbers mix of sporadic dull longueurs and frequent inane rapidity. I have never taken to Yasmin "Yaz" Khan as a companion; Aisling Bea's recent appearance as Sarah made you sad that we couldn't have her brazen elan ahead of probationary police officer Yaz's stolidness. Yaz is overshadowed here not just by Bradley Walsh and John Bishop, but by a range of stalwart companions of yore. The same goes for Jodie Whittaker's Doctor: Jodie, a fine performer, has been badly served by mostly tin-eared, unsophisticated writing from Chibnall. Where we should've had a Victoria Wood-like creation or an extension of Whittaker's Sam in Alan Plater's TV play "The Last Will and Testament of Billy Two-Sheds" (2006), Chibbers gave us a generic Blue Peter presenter. The showrunner finally seemed to give up on his own tiresome plot arc of having Yaz in love with the Doctor in giving this little, if any, pay off. It was as if this whole strand had been included for expedience all along, keeping a section of fandom engaged when, really, the sphinx was without any real secret.
The RTD-anticipating scene where Boney M's disco juggernaut 'Rasputin' is incorporated with arrant silliness actually does justify the ludicrously ill-fleshed-out Russian historical setting. This was an improvement on the dismal, insubstantial Legend of the Sea Devils, which had no such entertainment value at all.
Better still, Chibnall raises his game to give the returning characters some wonderful lines and scenes. There are wonderful lines about parenting, growing up and violence. Chibnall gives Whitaker a line from writer Dennis Potter's farewell TV interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1994, which is wonderful, but also makes you angry he didn't try and be so allusive and profound with the majority of his previous writing as showrunner. Any anger subsides when we get to the support group, which is just an inspired idea.
Yes, we had obligatory monsters, who crop up every other story in Chibnall era DW, used to peripheral, comic purposes in the 'Ra Ra Rasputin' scene. For once, here, there was a pleasing aspect to this era's lack of jeopardy. I thought that, like one of the better episodes of Flux, this story was a good deal more entertaining than most in Whittaker's first two series. It falls apart completely when analysed or thought about seriously, but it does possess a sense of fun and appeals deeply to the sentimental side of long-time Doctor Who fans like me.
Of course, conversely, this would all surely have been utterly baffling stuff to a mainstream BBC1 audience! But Chibnall has upped the pace and nostalgia to try and correct the disastrous course he'd set in 2018-20 of bland entropy. Surely, superior hokum like Doctor Who owes its adherents the occasional indulgence in familiar pleasures? Thus, while I am thoroughly pleased that this particular era of Doctor Who is ending, I'm also happy that it at least does so with tangible feeling. Next, it urgently needs to reassert its place in the British collective unconscious.
"I think we're going to be here for quite some time" by Hugh Sturgess 27/11/23
Well. That was that. The final episode of the Chibnall era and very likely the last episode ever written by Chris Chibnall, going out the way we could have expected, in an incredibly overlong and overstuffed blizzard of characters, plot points, setting and ideas, which all have merit in themselves but are flicked between so quickly and haphazardly that the result feels more like channel-surfing. Amid so many settings, schemes, returning companions and four past Doctors, the actual current Doctor gets exiled from the plot for twenty minutes, and the defining relationship of this era - the Doctor and Yaz - comes to an end, basically because.
Credit where it's due, the ideas are actually terrific. The Master forcing the Doctor to regenerate into him, the Cyber-conversion planet, the Master as Rasputin, the bullet train in space, the Qurunx (and respect to Chibnall for going out with yet another insanely terrible alien name), the return of Tegan and Ace... these are all solid ideas with that kind of zaniness that the show is associated with. But this is where the trouble starts. Rather than being a story that naturally supports the realisation of all these ideas, The Power of the Doctor instead employs each as a distraction from the last, as filler to avoid the trouble of developing any of them. None of them are given time to show actually interesting aspects to them. The forced regeneration is so hazily defined it's hard to understand what is actually happening. Has the Master's consciousness jumped bodies and forcibly regenerated the Doctor into his form at the same time? I guess that has to be the mechanics, but once you get past the striking visual and the impact of the line "I am the Doctor", it's hard to see how this is different from the Master just shooting the Doctor and stealing her clothes.
The same goes for the Master as Rasputin. It's a neat visual, and the scene between him and the Tsar and Tsarina is deliciously ominous, but that's literally as far as it goes. Oh, and there's the opportunity for Sacha Dhawan to dance to Ra-Ra-Rasputin.
Perhaps most striking is the treatment of Tegan and Ace. I can't help but feel that Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred were selected as the companions to return almost at random, because what exactly is it about these characters being specifically Tegan and Ace that matters? Unlike School Reunion (or, for that matter, the return of Jo in Death of the Doctor or the first Doctor in Twice Upon a Time), the episode doesn't use the returning characters to say anything about the show as it is now. Tegan introduces herself to Yaz by saying "we used to be you", and rather than use this to raise any troubling questions about Yaz's relationship with the Doctor - after all, the episode makes clear that Ace parted with the Doctor on bad terms and Tegan has had something of a lonely, troubled life post-TARDIS - this appears to be something much more literal: they used to be companions, as Yaz is now. These are just superficially different casings on fundamentally interchangeable plot functions. There is an element of irony here that the episode puts such totemic weight on "the Doctor" and "the companion" as ontological entities, in the form of the Master "becoming" the Doctor and immediately declaring he needs a companion, while also treating the other two companions to play major roles as equally interchangeable.
Nor does the episode have anything to say about Tegan or Ace as characters from the era they appeared in. Tegan's emotional interaction with the hologram Doctor appears to exist so that Chibnall can get the fifth Doctor to say "Adric" on primetime TV in 2022. The episode certainly doesn't exactly extend from where we last saw Tegan - running away from the TARDIS in disgust at the violence around her - since Tegan gets a scene where she picks up a machine gun and shoots some Cybermen.
Meanwhile, Ace's scene with the seventh Doctor shoots past self-indulgent and lands on disgraceful, having her actually apologise to the Doctor for not understanding "the burden" he carried and therefore not tolerating his manipulation of her. The message, clearly, is that the Doctor is always right and does what they do for reasons passing our understanding, and the companion's role is to happily endure whatever manipulating and emotional abuse the Doctor puts them through. It's a repulsive idea in any context, but making said companion Ace, who over and over again challenged the Doctor when he refused to take her into his confidence, is genuinely offensive.
This, at least, seems to have some relevance to Yaz. Because throughout her time on the show, Yaz's relationship with the Doctor has been disconcertingly toxic. Since the beginning of Flux, it appears that the Doctor has grown tired of Yaz as anything other than a silent audience for her brilliance and so ceases to let her in on virtually any subject. In The Halloween Apocalypse alone, there are three separate occasions on which the Doctor decides not to tell Yaz something for no clear reason, apparently because speaking to her is too much effort. She also developed a genuine mean streak, snapping at Yaz or guilt-tripping her ("Haven't I taken you to wonderful places?") whenever Yaz dared to act like she was an equal worthy of respect rather than basically a child being given a day out by an indulgent parent (and note that the Doctor's last scene with Yaz is getting her ice cream). That the show decided to make Thasmin (or, at least, an entirely one-sided romantic devotion on Yaz's part) canon at this point made it all the worse. Ace's bizarre, awful conversation with "her" Doctor sends a very clear message to anyone who found this relationship troubling: actually, it's Yaz who should apologise to the Doctor for all the times she got fed up with her treatment.
The Doctor decides to let Tegan and Ace join in on the Yaz Experience too, implanting hologram emitters into their bodies without telling them, again for NO REASON AT ALL. Why not tell them what she was doing? Does she think UNIT is being bugged? If it is, that's certainly neither stated nor even suggested in the episode itself. (And what, exactly, is the point behind Tegan believing the Doctor doesn't want to let her and Ace into the TARDIS? Is she correct? If so, why does the Doctor not want to?)
The depiction of the Doctor as capricious, manipulative and intolerant towards their companions is so consistent that it seems impossible it isn't being done deliberately. And it would be a different matter if this was in the pursuit of, you know, drama. "The Doctor is inhumanly inaccessible and thinking you're her friend is a mistake" is certainly a distinctive take, albeit a thoroughly unpleasant one. Fertile ground, to be sure, for a lot of conflict between the Doctor and Yaz. And yet it appears that if Chibnall is conscious of the subtext he's written at all, he thinks this relationship is right and proper. Beyond one or two thirty-second grumbles across, what, thirty episodes of television, Yaz never clashes with the Doctor's preferred form of their relationship. Scenes like that between Ace and the seventh Doctor send the clear message here that the unassailable form of the Doctor/companion relationship is one of absolute authority on the one hand and happy servility on the other.
This episode stars a companion whom the Doctor appears to barely tolerate as anything other than company, then reintroduces two companions it characterises as damaged by the way the Doctor treated them. It ends with what Chibnall himself compared to AA or group therapy for ex-companions. But rather than this be in the service of interrogating the Doctor/companion relationship, Companions Anonymous is a place for them to "share stories about the Doc". There's a truly bleak moment when Tegan asks Yaz if she's OK and Ace cuts in to ask if the Doctor is OK... and Yaz of course ignores Tegan's question and only answers Ace's. (To give Chibnall his credit, he has depicted Tegan throughout the episode as the companion of the two most resentful of the Doctor, so it's a good character moment to have Tegan ask about Yaz and Ace insist that the only person they should be concerned about is the Doctor.) There's something almost Old Testament-y about Yaz's response. ("Of course she's OK. She's the Doctor."). The Doctor, aloof and alone, unchanging and unquestionable, is always the only one who matters. The role of the companion is to meekly and unthinkingly obey the Doctor's arbitrary commands and no matter how damaged and lonely the experience leaves you, your proper role in retirement is just to swap stories about the Doc.
In a way, this implicit hierarchy is the original sin of the Doctor-companion relationship, either from when the first Doctor kidnapped Ian and Barbara because he didn't trust them to keep their mouths shut or when he locked Susan out of the TARDIS because he figured he knew better than she did who she loved. (El Sandifer calls this, after Neil Gaiman, "the Problem of Susan".) In the final three episodes of Series 9, Steven Moffat directly criticised the Doctor's habit of making decisions on his companions' behalf because he assumes he knows better than them. In Face the Raven, Clara makes a terrible costly mistake but after all the reckless lengths the Doctor goes to to undo it, she says the choice was hers and he should respect that. This was part of the joy and genius of the Capaldi era: it examined the staples of the show we'd previously taken for granted and reworked them to be better. Chibnall is rewinding the show back to a point where the hierarchy of the Doctor-companion relationship is absolute. It's truly bizarre that his era began with the "flat team structure" of "the Fam" yet has come to so unquestioningly reiterate that the team structure is, to quote a speech ridiculously considered by many fans to be Jodie Whittaker's best, "mountainous".
Really, this is rewinding the show back way past the Moffat era. Because no New Series companion would accept this treatment. Martha's whole character arc was about realising unrequited love with the Doctor was bad and she needed to get out! Rose saves the day in The Parting of the Ways! Meanwhile Yaz's great triumph here is... listening to what the holo-Doctor tells her to do. The model Chibnall is following is a much older one. It's appropriate that the Doctors and companions he brings back are from the 1980s, because his era has more than a few similarities. It, like JNT's era, began with a conscious effort to divorce itself from the past, but both found themselves returning to fan-pandering and nostalgia-fixing soon enough. And there's the same hollow recitations of obsolete story conventions because that's "just the way Doctor Who does things". And just as JNT's "no hanky-panky in the TARDIS" rule inadvertently created a heap of gay subtexts, I think the incredibly ugly implications of the Chibnall era are entirely accidental.
Because I'm not saying that if you were to sit Chibnall down, feed him truth serum and ask him if this is his genuine view of the Doctor-companion relationship, he'd say yes. I don't think he would. Partly because it's an insane thing to believe, but mostly because if his intention was to depict the Doctor as a sort of jealous God who demands total loyalty while being totally opaque and emotionally inaccessible to her adherents, then surely you'd dramatise that? Because that's not how most people interact with their friends. If Chibnall truly wanted to show that the one kind of friendship you can have with the Doctor is absolute uncritical devotion, then surely he'd acknowledge that's pretty tough and show the many, many companions he introduced rebelling against that before realising their place? But far from leaving open the idea that it's hard to properly serve the Doctor, the text actively pushes back on that. In Fugitive of the Judoon, the Doctor basically tells Ryan to piss off because "you don't know me, not even a little" and the Fam angrily take his side... in saying she's wonderful. She tells them she's emotionally and intellectually inaccessible, and they argue she isn't!
No, I think this is an entirely inadvertent product of Chibnall being a bad writer who doesn't care to think critically about the basics of the show (this is the guy who described his approach to the show as "just do that") and is doing it basically on autopilot. There's nothing actually going on here beneath the surface of "just do that", and from that howling void comes this monstrous mirage. There's just so much of this in the Chibnall era, half-ideas that at best produce startlingly bleak implications or usually just create aimless ambiguity.
This leads to something I have found very strange and striking about the Chibnall era, which is the way fan theorising and head canons have been a much bigger part of the enjoyment for fans who like this era than for the Moffat or Davies eras. Fans of the Chibnall era are a veritable factory of reasons for why it's actually good, reasons that do not exist in the text itself. My favourite is that the thirteenth Doctor deliberately kept her relationship with her companions distant and shallow because she didn't want to recreate the pattern of co-dependency the twelfth Doctor had with Clara or Bill. This, to the fans who have voiced this utterly unsupported claim, made the fact that the thirteenth Doctor's relationship with the rest of the cast was undoubtedly shallow and distant OK to them - because they could imagine an explanation that made it good.
It seems to me that the very thinness of the era, the way it is made of half-ideas and maybe-subtexts sloshing around in a soup of content, creates a void into which fans project whatever they like. In short, there is much more subtext to imagine in this era than for Moffat's or RTD's, where subtext was always rather more textual. (Sometimes this is made explicit: I've lost count of the number of times I've seen fans of this era say they like the way it lets them draw their own conclusions about what it all means.) The trouble is that it makes it impossible to discuss the era's shortcomings in good faith because you're forever arguing over different things: the episode that was broadcast versus the episode that was created in that particular fan's head. The very character of the thirteenth Doctor herself is conceived by fans in totally different ways - some say she's deliberately the most human, vulnerable and empathetic of the Doctors, others say she's deliberately inaccessible and distant - stemming from over-readings of the soup of contradictory character beats Chibnall has written her.
It's fitting that the thirteenth Doctor's final episode has her taken out of the plot for such a long period of time, given how throughout this era she has been depicted as passive. Doctor/Master scenes are usually a delight because it's two campy actors going nuts overacting at each other. Pertwee/Delgado, Davison/Ainley, Tennant/Simm and Capaldi/Gomez are iconic for a reason. And previously some of Whittaker's best moments have been her interactions with Dhawan's Master. But here she spends her central scene with him sitting sullenly in a Dalek casing occasionally gasping "no, no!". You want to shake her as the Master staggers around dancing and cackling, and she just looks aghast waiting to endure whatever he's got in mind. Dramatically, it's dead, it's just empty space that Dhawan (a talented actor who shows he has really thought about the Master character) fills up with goofy "craziness". Part of the fun of the Master is the Doctor matching wits with someone as intelligent but also (crucially) as campy as they are. But Whittaker is given nothing to do in these scenes but stare in horror.
One of the best terms I've heard to describe Chibnall's unique way of writing Doctor Who is "Chibnall's Gun". Like Chekhov's Gun, it clearly establishes a plot device that everyone naturally expects to be deployed to resolve or at least alter the plot, but unlike Chekhov, Chibnall breezily sails past it and invents some entirely new, spurious way of doing the same thing. My favourite example is from Flux, which in the space of two episodes offers two obvious ways the Flux could be reversed - the Doctor identifying the Flux as "spatial conversion" that can be reversed, and Azure saying the Ravagers intend to destroy the universe and then reverse time to undestroy it - and instead of these Chibnall... doesn't reverse it. He just forgets about it, so that fans aren't even sure whether 90% of the universe is meant to have been destroyed at the end of the season or not.
Here he well and truly loads and cocks his Gun with the Doctor's forced regeneration. After all, this is a regeneration story. We know that Whittaker is regenerating at the end. So when the plot centres on the Doctor's being forced to regenerate and victory is defined by unregenerating her... you kinda assume these two regenerations will be connected. But as it is, that the Doctor regenerates twice in the same story is a giant coincidence. There's no reason why this story couldn't have been in the Easter slot and a brand new story for Whittaker come after it. More than that, her regeneration isn't for any reason other than that she couldn't resist gloating at the Master's failure so much that she couldn't get out of the way of a laser in time. Not sacrificing herself to save Yaz or to release the Qurunx (you know, something that would extend from her character). It's just a contractual obligation - Whittaker Must Go - and despite a totally obvious way it could have stemmed organically from the story, Chibnall just hastily wrote her the sci-fi equivalent of stepping into traffic.
None of this comes together. Trying to follow the Master's timeline in this story from clean-shaven in the present day to bearded Rasputin is close to impossible. His plan to take over UNIT hinges on sending Tegan the miniaturised Ashad but relying on her not mentioning it to the Doctor for some reason. What exactly is Vinder doing in this episode? He fulfils no important plot function, so it can't be that Chibnall needed an extra character and hence picked him. Did Chibnall just like working with Jacob Anderson? Honestly, it's funny remembering now the fan theories that Bel and Vinder would turn out to be the Doctor's parents. Fans have spent the Chibnall era assuming that this all means something. But it never did.
So that was the Chibnall era. That it was almost entirely terrible is, in my opinion, as close to being an objective fact as anything in the intrinsically subjective world of art and entertainment. But I will say that after Series 11, Chibnall at least started being terrible in a highly unique way. No one else in the history of the show - or frankly in any TV I can think of - has produced something like The Power of the Doctor. But this vast, sprawling, seething mass of undeveloped ideas, one-note characters, inadvertently warped morality and irrelevant subplots adds up to precisely nothing and goes nowhere. Trying to process Chibnall Who in terms of "what does this mean?" and "what is the point of this?" is entirely the wrong method of analysis. None of this means anything, and there was never any point, beyond filling an hour or so of a Sunday evening on BBC One with vaguely Doctor Whoish things. Who exactly is this all for? It's hard to imagine the intended audience is anyone other than an absolute anorak who genuinely thinks that if an episode of Doctor Who features a random classic-series companion it's by definition pretty good.
The final irony of Chibnall's notorious appearance on TV in the 80s denouncing Doctor Who in the era of JNT and Eric Saward is that when I think of who his intended audience is, I think it's the same as JNT's.