Doctor Who has form with anniversaries. For its 10th birthday, the Third Doctor found himself rubbing elbows with his former selves in The Three Doctors, while for its 20th, Fifth Doc Peter Davison headlined, yep, you've guessed it, The Five Doctors.
Then, for its golden jubilee in 2013, David Tennant buddied up with his successor Matt Smith (and a previous unaccounted for incarnation in the shape of John Hurt) for the 80-minute Day of the Doctor special.
As 24-carat as Steven Moffat’s 50th knees up was, though, it was one with a short memory, mainly casting its eye back through the show’s post-2005 revival rather than its creakier 1963-89 run, so much so that those OG Doctors had to resort to making their own BBC Red Button special – The Five-ish Doctors – so as to gatecrash the party.
Given that Chris Chibnall is bowing out a year before Doctor Who’s 60th (with the returning Russell T Davies inked for that one), this episode was clearly the outgoing showrunner’s way of satisfying his inner fanboy and giving us the anniversary special he’s always wanted to do, using the BBC’s centenary celebrations as a nifty excuse.
If that last anniversary special in 2013 leaned more into Nu Who, The Power of the Doctor almost completely shuns every era of the revival save for Chibnall’s own. This, then, was played like a starry-eyed love letter to Doctor Who’s original run while also capping off the showrunner’s own, admittedly bumpy time on the show.
Chris Chibnall started his tenancy in 2018 by jettisoning much of the knotty mythology that had built up during Steven Moffat’s stewardship (“Doctor **who**??”), intent, it seems, on making the show less intimidating for newbies. But with the end in sight (this was Chibnall’s final episode as showrunner), this one wasn’t about comforting casuals but rewarding the faithful. This shower of fan service comes at a price, however. The characters of Tegan (Janet Fielding, back for the first time since 1984) and Ace (Sophie Aldred, 1989) don’t exactly have the star wattage of a Rose Tyler or Amy Pond, just as Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy don’t have the recognisability factor of a Christopher Eccleston or Matt Smith, and there were likely more than a few baffled faces at the blizzard of cameos from old Doctors and companions. This sometimes gave The Power of the Doctor a feeling of being handsomely-budgeted fan fiction, something that Chibnall, who as a kid was a member of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, might have rustled up as a teen.
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Course, this wasn’t all about nostalgia, it was also about bidding adieu to the Thirteenth Doctor. It’s to Chibnall’s credit that the various kisses to the past don’t eclipse Jodie Whittaker’s farewell turn, and in fact, probably enhance it, knitting her into the long continuity of Doctor Who and giving her some quintessentially Doctor-ish scenes to play and lines to say (“Look at it, how could you not love a planet like that?”).
It must be said, though, with nostalgia grenades exploding left, right and centre, they almost camouflage quite how messy the narrative was. “It’s all happening so fast,” the Doctor says at one point, prompting at least half the audience to nod in furious agreement. Chibnall’s ADHD storytelling can be exhausting (at least Moffat, no stranger to a mazy story, mostly kept his location-hopping to the pre-title sequence) and this one zig-zags around the globe like it’s an episode of Planet Earth on fast-forward, taking in Siberia, Romania, Russia, Naples, Bolivia and blink-and-miss-em trips to Ecuador, Indonesia and Iceland. Even the Marvel flicks that Chibnall seems to be in thrall to have moments of calm, but The Power of the Doctor moves at such an unrelenting lick that there’s barely time to catch your breath.
Chibnall’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to his final episode means that some elements inevitably come off worse than others. The Daleks’ inclusion seems especially redundant, crowding up an already heavily sardined story, while the AI-assisted return of Jo Martin’s ‘Fugitive Doctor’ seemed one cameo too many, especially considering it wasn’t even her. In fact, the story was so stuffed, the episode had to unload a regular – John Bishop’s Dan Lewis – in the first 12 minutes, while former companion Ryan’s absence (it’s been a trend that each Doctor’s former companions return for their regeneration episode, even it is for a spit and a cough) is explained away in just two lines (“Where’s Ryan?” the Doctor asks. “Patagonia,” says Graham).
There’s much to cherish here, though, from the powerful nostalgia punch of seeing Peter Davison’s Doctor reunited with Tegan and Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor making peace with Ace to the weird but welcome Boney M interlude (a musical moment straight out of the Russell T Davies playbook), but it’s the last 10 or so minutes, when the narrative finally decelerates, that the episode is at its most magical. There are few more Doctor Who-ish images than that of the Doctor and Yaz sitting atop the TARDIS and looking down over Earth while slurping ice cream, while the surprise reappearance of a host of the Doctor’s former companions, including the now 97-years-young William Russell returning to the role of Ian Chesterton for the first time since 1965, was a poignant reminder of those whose lives the Doctor has touched.
And then there was the regeneration itself. The choice to take it outside the TARDIS for the first time in the revived series, gave a fresh look and feel, and it’s difficult to fault those final lines of Jodie’s. Most previous Doctors have spent their final moments talking about themselves (“I don’t want to go”; “I’ll always remember when the Doctor was me”; “Doctor, I let you go”) but for Thirteen it was unusually about who was coming after her. It was a characteristically upbeat and magnanimous gesture from a Doctor who was probably the least haunted and most ferociously buoyant of the modern Doctors.
And so that’s it for the era of the Thirteenth Doctor. Sayonara Jodie Whittaker, au revoir Chris Chibnall, the series is now in different hands. Russell T Davies, Ncuti Gatwa – tag, you’re it!
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