Thomas Tyrrell location-spots his way through The Power of the Doctor, a special episode of Doctor Who to celebrate 100 years of the BBC.
There are few things less appealing than a BBC budget version of a Marvel movie, and as the laundry list of familiar faces due to be returning in this Doctor Who special grew longer, it began to look more and more ominous. The return of the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master? Surely overkill. Not one, but two old companions from the 80s, plus the Thirteenth Doctor’s current pair, plus returning semi-companions Vinder and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart? How were they going to stuff all of this even into a 90 minute special?
In the end, however, The Power of the Doctor turns out to be stranger, camper, weirder and all around better than a BBC budget Avengers movie. It has its wobbles, but emerges as a clear highlight of Jodie Whittaker’s heartbreakingly inconsistent era, a programme I yearned to defend full-throatedly against the misogynist backlash but gradually had to admit just wasn’t very good. Her first season had some clear original ideas, examining historical prejudice in stories like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, but the second season traded that in those nuances for hackneyed it-was-the-Earth-all-along ‘twists’ and overly complicated lore reveals. The third season, Flux, was an intermittently entertaining mess of plotlines that fizzled out in a less than epic finale.
The Power of the Doctor drops the remaining baggage from last season, seeing off recently acquired companion Dan (John Bishop) shortly after the credits have finished rolling, and thus freeing up space for old favourites like Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Tegan (Janet Fielding). It’s astonishing quite how good this pair are, returning to a show they’ve not appeared in for thirty years and making us feel like it was yesterday Tegan in particular mixes pluck with vulnerability, delivering the hell out of a laugh-out-loud speech about all the Daleks, Cybermen and alien invasions she’s dealt with—on top of working as an air hostess in the Eighties.
In one of his more enjoyably crazy bids for the Doctor’s attention, the Master has crudely photoshopped himself into the fifteen most famous paintings on Earth (his girl with the pearl earring is particularly hilarious) while simultaneously masquerading as Rasputin and lecturing on Geology in what is supposed to be Milan but is clearly the upstairs room at the Gate arts centre where I used to have dancing lessons.
All this sets up the joyously silly scene where he dances to Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ while the Daleks and Cybermen give each other side-eye. Having the Doctor at his mercy, he’s not content with killing her, but instead forces her to regenerate into him, a version of the character I can’t help but think of as the Demented Cosplay Master. Sacha Diwan, who had a tendency to lapse into pantomime villainy in earlier seasons, manages to reign it in just enough to give us an immensely enjoyable camp psychopath. Playing the Master as totally insane has been part of the playbook since the character was brought back in 2007, but Dhawan takes full advantage of the chance to bring another twist to the character’s pathology as the super-fan who wants to steal your skin.
Meanwhile, Whittaker’s Doctor is exiled to an barren interior landscape, populated only by the face-morphing relics of former Doctors. This is a lovely touch, allowing cameos from familiar faces without raising the stakes into a time-fabric-threatening, multi-Doctor event, or turning the actors into digitally youthened mannequins. With the Master in control of the TARDIS, the Daleks planning to blow up all the planet’s volcanoes at once and the Cybermen ready to swoop in and convert everyone, it’s up to companions past and present to restore the Thirteenth Doctor to her own body.
There’s not much that’s new here, as you’d expect at the end of an era, but the elements come together better than they have previously, to give us a quality capstone to an inconsistent era. A genuinely striking final twist meant that for the first time in a very long time, I was hanging on until the end of the credits, crossing my fingers for a Next Time trailer. Too bad we’ll have to wait until November 2023 to find out what happens next.
The Power of the Doctor is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.