To say that The Power of the Doctor, Doctor Who‘s Centenary Special has a lot riding on it would certainly be an understatement. Not only the swan song for current Doctor Jodie Whittaker, but also the final outing of co-stars Mandip Gill and John Bishop, head writer Chris Chibnall and the entire production team, the episode also has the challenge of tying up multiple hanging story threads from the last five years of the show – a monumental task if this era is anything to go by! Throw in countless returning faces good and bad, and you have an episode practically buckling under the weight of expectation.
Despite all its clearly evident best intentions, The Power of the Doctor fails to balance the sheer overwhelming number of characters and plot elements that it throws into the mix. Despite an extended running time, the episode is so overstuffed that nothing here really gets the attention it deserves. The return of 80’s companion favourites Sophie Aldred (Ace) and Janet Fielding (Tegan) is the main headline moment here beside Whittaker’s regeneration, but both characters struggle for space in and amongst the drama of her impending departure, and whilst its great to see them reunited with the Doctor onscreen, there’s very little for them to do beyond a few action scenes. The characters feel like caricatures of their former selves, and despite some sweet reunions with their respective Doctors, their presence here is never truly justified beyond the need for nostalgia.
Underwhelming returns aside, the main plot is ultimately the key issue here, especially in how it fails to properly tie up any of the lingering story threads that have come to define this era. The Timeless Child, the Doctor and Yaz’s romance, the Fugitive Doctor – none of it is properly addressed, leaving every single arc unsatisfactorily resolved or completely abandoned. Nothing that came before this episode wrapped those stories up adequately, and nothing here does either. The lack of pay-off to the relationship between the Doctor and Yaz especially grates. Having had their relationship grow exponentially over the course of the last series, one would expect an emotional end to the storyline, especially in light of the fact that this is the last episode for both actors. But nope, Yaz just leaves the Doctor with little-to-no explanation, the relationship is left unrequited, and any sense of closure is gone in a puff of smoke.
The sad result is that unsatisfying character pay-offs like the one above do very little for the clearly talented regulars. John Bishop‘s Dan is written out early on with nary a blink from the other characters (possibly down to a scheduling issue, but still), thus leaving Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill to carry a rather limp sci-fi runaround that careers from random plot thread to random plot thread at a speed that leaves the viewer with whiplash. The Master (Sacha Dhawan)’s ultimate plan to steal the Doctor’s body is an interesting idea in concept and Dhawan is a delight to watch as ever, but the concept never goes far enough (again, too much else going on and eating up the screen time). The messy dialogue, choppy pacing and Chibnall’s awkward exposition hinder more than they help. One could ultimately be forgiven for liking the episode thanks to the various cameos and references to past glories, but there’s surely no denying that the main storyline isn’t quite up to snuff, which really leaves the whole endeavour feeling all for nought.
Arguably though, there’s no denying that the multiple cameos of past Doctors and Companions provide a thrill or five, despite the episode’s shortcomings. Seeing the likes of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann onscreen as the Doctor again is a delight, despite the inadequacies of the plot, and the scene between them and Whittaker is both visually and emotionally engaging (kudos to director Jamie Magnus Stone who finds new and interesting ways to pepper the episode with visual flourishes that feel out-there and strange). The scene of the ex-Companion support group is also simply lovely (Ian! Mel! Jo! Ian!), and despite how fleeting some of the cameos are, it’s a nice opportunity to see some much loved fan favourites onscreen together, even if the episode doesn’t really need it).
But despite the warm glow of fond memories revisited, really it’s all just an unwelcome distraction from what should have been Jodie Whittaker‘s defining episode in her tenure as the Doctor. It’s fair to say the show hasn’t always done her Doctor justice, but throughout the last five years, she’s been nothing short of superb in the role, regardless of the material she’s been given. That the episode sidelines her so much is frankly criminal, and there’s no escaping the feeling that she could have been given more to get her teeth into dramatically speaking so as to really go out on a high. Here’s hoping we’ll see her back in an anniversary special or two sometime in the future, with plenty of great scripts that really showcase her for the talent she is.
All things done and dusted, The Power of the Doctor is the absolute antithesis of the Chris Chibnall era – a cascade of good intentions and interesting ideas, but all of it is awkwardly executed and lacking in substance. Once the warm nostalgic feeling wears off, the episode feels hollow, its emotional beats empty and lacking in any real feeling. As a farewell to Jodie Whittaker‘s Thirteenth Doctor, it’s underwhelming and disappointingly bland. But at the end of the day this is Doctor Who, a show that does change better than any other show on television, and where a new adventure is just around the corner. There’s no doubt that the future of Who looks very bright indeed…