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Doctor Who: Empire of Death

"I had such plans."

Doctor Who finishes up either Season 14 or Season 1, depending on where your personal flavor of pedantry leads you.

It's simultaneously a lot and not very much at all. In an extremely odd way.

I say that because we're given a lot of explanation here. So much so that it feels like there's a million things happening and it's hard to keep up with all the action. But when you really break down what's happening, we have a very simple three act structure, and none of the three acts actually contain a lot of action. There's a lot of explaining, oh lord yes. But at the end of the day, they don't actually do very much.

Let's break the three acts down to illustrate what I mean.

In Act One, Sutekh wins, destroys the universe and kills everyone but the Doctor, Ruby, and Mel.

Said baldly like that, it certainly seems like that's a lot of action, but what do we actually see happen? We have a few minutes of re-establishing what all of the cliffhanger threats were from the end of 'Legend of Ruby Sunday.' The Doctor and Mel are being menaced by the zombified husk of Susan Triad, who's killed everyone else in the TV studio. Kate and the rest of the forthcoming UNIT spinoff cast are being menaced by the actual Sutekh, perched on top of the TARDIS while Harriet Arbinger menaces them with death sand. And Ruby herself is in the time window being very emotional about not being able to clearly see who her mother is.

And once those three cliffhanger threads are properly re-established, what happens? Well, to begin with, the UNIT crew is almost instantly dispatched as they aren't relevant to how things are going to get resolved, so we can lump them in with the other extraneous side characters. Those being Carla, Cherry, and Mrs. Flood. They all get a nice moment to say something tragically poetic before getting turned to sand, and that's that. To be fair, the tragically poetic moments are touching and well scripted. I particularly like Kate's comment about there once again being birds. That's a lovely turn of phrase and expresses a world of defiant hope in a very few words. Russell has always been good at what we might call 'emotional economy' in short poetic phrases, and I don't think he gets enough credit for that.

We'll come back to Cherry and Mrs. Flood in a bit, but I do want to mention here that 'I had such plans' is an absolutely fabulous line to dissolve Mrs. Flood on. Put a pin in that for the moment.

So, again I ask the question. What actually happens in Act One? Looking strictly at the actions, very little. Everybody who isn't needed for Act Two turns to dust in a well realized universal disintegration. We get a nice, if kind of pointless, little chase scene with the Doctor and Mel on her scooter getting to where Ruby is. And then the Doctor steals a bit of TV tech before he, Ruby, and Mel hop in a convenient memory TARDIS nearby and run away.

Put a pin in the memory TARDIS as well. I suspect we might be putting in a lot of pins on this one.

What it basically boils down to in Act One is simply this – Sutekh wins, and the Doctor manages to escape with his two nearest friends. The special effects are all great. Separating Carla, Ruby, Cherry, UNIT, and the Doctor from one another has clearly been deliberately set up in the previous episode so that showing all their individual deaths gives everything an impressive sense of scale, which works well. It wouldn't have been nearly as emotionally effective if they'd all been in the same room and gotten dusted at once. I mean, that would have been horrifying, but it wouldn't have had the same impact as cutting from scene after scene of characters we know being destroyed. That was nicely staged.

That could have been accomplished in a five-minute scene. What Act One is actually interested in doing is much more conceptual. It exists to explain who Sutekh is, and why he's a God of Death now instead of the death-obsessed alien he used to be back in the day.

I freely admit that in the previous episode I viewed the changes to Sutekh as a huge problem for the show, but they won me over here. Sutekh was just a powerful alien back in the day, but after being thrown into the time vortex and latching himself onto the spine of the TARDIS (such a delightfully visceral metaphor) he slowly morphed into the God-level being we see now. That tracks with everything we know about exposure to the vortex, and it works for me. I still have some questions about leaving the explanation until part two of the two-parter, but maybe Russell was just deliberately baiting the original series pedants (of which I am one) for his own amusement, and I can respect that.

The point I've been recklessly circling around is that Act One isn't so much about 'Sutekh finally gets to kill the universe' (although that's certainly the log line from a plot perspective) as it is about explaining 'what' and 'how' Sutekh is. And at this point we're going to put yet another pin in the implications of Sutekh riding along on every adventure since at least 'City of Death' (separate pin in that specific point).

And generally speaking, this all works. The Sutekh explanation, while it might be a little long winded and unnecessary for viewers who only know new Who and couldn't care less about 'Pyramids of Mars,' it works. But it's this emphasis on explanations over plot that we're going to – you guessed it – stick yet another pin in while we move on to Act Two.

In Act Two, the Doctor, Ruby, and Mel bum about in the wasteland a bit, pick up a spoon, and pop to 2046 to get a DNA test. This accomplished, Mel is revealed to have been corrupted by Sutekh, and the Doctor and Ruby are captured and about to be taken back to Sutekh for Act Three. Again, that's not a ton of action, because again the act is much more concerned with explaining the concepts to us than it is in plot mechanics.

Specifically, Act Two really wants us to understand exactly what the deal is with Susan Triad. So much so that it devotes about ten minutes of screentime to carefully parsing it out. And to be fair, the deal with Susan Triad turns out to be much more interesting than we thought last week. It turns out, she hasn't just been dream-projecting into whatever adventure the Doctor and Ruby were having at that moment. Sutekh has been literally creating an entirely new and unique Susan Triad at every single place that the Doctor has landed since at least 'City of Death.' (We already have that one pinned.)

What's more, every single time that the Doctor lands on a planet that already had a Susan Triad from a previous visit, Susan Triad was reborn more powerful than the previous version than that planet had had. And once Sutekh finally made his move, all of those Susan Triads transformed into death zombies and destroyed all life in their vicinity utterly. That's a lot to take in, and I appreciate that they really want to make sure we understand the scale of it, but by God there was a lot of Act Two dedicated to really spelling it out.

Also, in Act Two we're introduced to the idea that the only reason that Sutekh hadn't killed the Doctor and Ruby was that he was Star Wars fanboy-level curious about who Ruby's mum would turn out to be and just couldn't let the whole of creation settle into silent death until he got the answer. Once again, sing it with me, we're putting a pin in that for the moment.

Because in Act Three the Doctor tricks Sutekh into being snared by some intelligent rope that was very blatantly set up earlier in the episode and drags him through the time vortex to his death as if he was the tiny dog from National Lampoon's Vacation. Menace thwarted, the end. How this resolves the whole 'the entire universe has been destroyed' issue, another pin.

That's the plot summary of Act Three. But what Act Three is really interested in is explaining the reveal that Ruby's mum was literally no one special. Sutekh could have killed them all with no big loss, because there was literally no big mystery to be revealed. She was just a scared 15-year-old girl who did what she did to try to keep her daughter safe.

It feels like there's a lot of high concept stuff going on in this episode, but at the end of the day it's: Act One, the universe is destroyed while the Doctor escapes. Act Two, the Doctor gets recaptured while picking up some lab results. Act Three, the Doctor drags Sutekh through the time vortex and everything gets put right.

And following this we have an entirely too long epilogue into which we're going to stick one final pin. My, how many pins is that? Seven? Eight? We should get to the Bits and Pieces section and start dealing with them.

Bits and Pieces and Pins:

-- Pin one. Mrs. Flood. I know we were all expecting to get resolutions for our big three mystery women in this season, and in the end, we only got two. We know who the Susan Twists are, and we know who Ruby's mother was. I was surprised by the decision to dust Mrs. Flood early on in the episode, as I thought the reveal of who she was was going to be a big factor in how things were resolved. All I can really say at this point is that they're still being surprisingly cagey regarding where Mrs. Flood's DND alignment might fall. She's kind of a bitch to Cherry, true. She's open about having long term schemes and seems to have very specific plans for grabbing power in the future. And yet she also crawls into bed and holds Cherry when they're both about to die, and when they're brought back, she laughs with Cherry in a clearly joyous way. Whoever she is, she can't be a sociopath. I'd still put no money down on where Mrs. Flood will land.

-- Pin two. The Memory TARDIS. Look, it kind of works in isolation here. The Doctor gives the same explanation we see him give in the Tales of the TARDIS series that rang in the 60th anniversary celebrations last November. But at the end of the day, Tales of the TARDIS is only available on BBC iPlayer (and various YouTube channels of questionable repute) so making so much of the plot function here dependent on making the Tales of the TARDIS set a canonical thing feels like deliberately leaving a lot of your audience out. Also, having that set magically conjure up a convenient magic rope and whistle that specifically pulls your TARDIS out from underneath Dog Gods feels like a cop out.

-- Pin three. The implications of Sutekh having been riding on top of the TARDIS since the 70s are a near infinite source of amusement. Just for starters, try playing a lovely game of 'Who was Susan Twist in this one?' in literally every story since 1978. I've been doing it nonstop since this episode broadcast.

-- Pin four. 'City of Death.' That's the earliest episode that we see in the still photos that the Doctor reviews as being 'Post-Sutekh riding on top.' The episode never specifies that Sutekh immediately latched onto the TARDIS after 'Pyramids of Mars', all we have is the still photos to go by. The complete list as far as I could tell was 'Mindwarp,' 'Paradise Towers,' 'City of Death,' 'The TV movie,' one I don’t recognize, 'Daleks in Manhattan,' and 'A Town called Mercy.'

-- Pin five. My actual point. This episode feels far more interested in explaining interesting concepts than it is in telling an actual story. Not that I hated that. I really enjoyed the detail about 66.7 (66.6 repeating, just to make it more obvious) meters is 73 yards, which is why the phantom Maybe-Ruby was entangled with her at that distance. It does make me a little sad though that this makes explicitly clear that Ruby didn't actually stop Roger ap Gwilliam in the real timeline and her entire struggle was for nothing.

-- Pin six. The Ruby's Mum non-reveal. I love that the ultimate solution to that mystery was that it's only an interesting mystery because people we care about care about it. Russell has stated that he more or less lifted this from the best Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. I liked it as a plot point there too, even if they did take the cowardly route and dial it back in the next film. That's right, I'm being deliberately provocative here. That said, I absolutely hated, hated, hated, the episode's instance on referring to Louise as Ruby's 'Real Mum.' Look, I'm not adopted (as far as I know, and at 51 I'd like to think it would have come up by now), so I realize that mine isn't the most important opinion on this matter, but I feel like that showed an almost infinite amount of disrespect to Carla. You know, Ruby's actual real mum.

-- Pin seven. The never-ending epilogue. I had never before seriously considered all the rumors awhile back that Millie Gibson had been written out for being difficult. After all, Russell's seasons have almost all had the current companion just last the one season. But this all went on so long, and seemed to be going to such extraordinary lengths to tie off her story so we could say goodbye to her... I did at least begin to wonder.

And just a few last bits:

-- The very nature of having act one be 'The villain wins and destroys literally the entirety of creation' means that we all know they're going to have to come up with some sort of reset button at the end of the episode. That is, if they want to keep making the show in future. The resolution that Sutekh always brings death, therefore if we drag him through everything he'd already brought death to, it would bring 'death to death' and make everything alive again... Well, it just about works poetically, but it's perilously close to 'stab him back to life again,' which – if you weren't clear – doesn't actually work. Please do not run your own experiments on this.

-- I loved that Morris' segue had machine guns. And I continue to not care at all about the Vlinx.

-- The look on Mel's face when she held the cuff of the Sixth Doctor's coat was worth this entire episode. And how wonderful that after all this time they're finally giving Bonnie Langford good material for her to work with.

-- I didn't hate Ruby's farewell to the Doctor scene, but it really did feel like a late addition. Yes, I know she'll be back for a couple of episodes next season.

-- I'm loving the 'Mrs. Flood must be Romana because her final coat looked a bit like Mary Tamm's' discourse.

-- I adored the way that Sutekh rotated the TARDIS so that the doorway was pressed against his belly in a defensive maneuver. It was kind of adorable.


Ibrahim: "The bullets turn to dust, ma’am."
Kate: "Oh, one day."

Kate: "I have to believe that birds will sing again. There will be birds."

Mrs. Flood: "Do you believe in the power of prayer?"
Cherry: "I most certainly do."
Mrs. Flood: "Then tell your maker I will come to storm down his gates of gold and seize his kingdom in my true name."

The Doctor: "And why... am I still alive?"

Ruby: "Wait, does this thing work? Can it fly?"
The Doctor: "No idea."

The Doctor: "Funny things happen at 73 yards."

The Doctor: "Every world that I ever stood upon. All dead."

The Doctor: "I did this."
Ruby: "You did not."

The Doctor: "I might save the universe with this spoon."
Kind Woman: "That would be nice."

Ruby: "I never really understood. What was all that Egyptian stuff?"
The Doctor: "Cultural appropriation."

Ruby: "Maybe this is for you… You great big God of nothing."

Cherry: "There is no hatred in this house, darling."

This was a fun and clever wrap up of either Season 14 or Season 1, depending on your preference. A little more in love with explaining its concepts than telling its own story, but to be fair, they were some very clever concepts. I choose to try to be more like Cherry. There's no hatred in this house.

Ten out of fifteen Doctors. And many, many pins.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.


  1. I liked this episode. In fact I liked the entire season a LOT. There has been a fair amount of people critical of the finale and the season, but I think it has been the strongest in years. The only thing that hurt it was the relative lack of Ncuti due to the scheduling conflicts between this and Sex Education, but the stories were great and his absence was well handled in the 2 episodes that were Doctor light.

  2. Yeah, I really enjoyed this season too. I don't entirely get the negative reaction to the finale.

    I can't wait to see what season two looks like now that Ncuti's schedule is cleared!

  3. I like Ncuti's Doctor and I'm glad I started watching again. That said, I wasn't wowed by this episode. I think I need to watch it again.

    Mikey, thank you *so* much for another season of reviews. It's kind of overwhelming how much Who we have on Doux. (Does that sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan lyric to anyone else?)

  4. Empire Strikes Back has been my favorite Star Wars movie since I had that bedspread as a kid! Last Jedi was ok. I didn't hate it like some did, but it wasn't particularly engaging for me either.

    I do like that they explained why Sutekh became an actual god instead of just a very powerful alien, but this kind of 'he's been with us the entire time' thing never sits well with me, and part of why I went from liking Clara to loathing her for very similar reasons.

    The magic rope thing sounds very dues ex machina to me, which admittedly, Doctor Who has been doing at times since it started, but it sounds really abrupt here, maybe it's better if actually watching it? But your description makes it sound very last minute.

    Ncuti seems like a good Doctor, and I kind of like that Ruby's mom was just a normal (if young) mom who wanted to care for her child. I also generally like it when new Who references the classics, and Pyramids of Mars is one of the best, and City of Death is as well.

    Billie, Doux does have a lot of Who! It's mostly how I found the site in the first place.

  5. I've thought about this episode for awhile now, and I still don't know how I feel about it. The episode itself is... good? I guess? The scene with the woman and the spoon dragged. A lot of scenes felt like they dragged. But it was fine. I was entertained. For a second, I thought that they really had killed all of the UNIT people off, but then they killed everyone on Earth so I knew that they would be back. Kind of killed the tension and emotional weight of that. Seriously, what was the point of sending Carla away (or bringing her to UNIT to begin with) if she would just be dust? Give Mrs. Flood room to be scary and mysterious with no witnesses?

    I think that my predominant emotion is kinda annoyance? I really didn't like Ruby's Mum reveal. The whole "a mystery is only a mystery because you care" thing always feels so insulting to me/to fans who spend the time and dedication to theorize and try to make predictions. Especially when the story itself deliberately puts clues in there to theorize and make predictions about! Like... no, RTD, we did not just suddenly decide that Ruby's Mum was important. YOU told us that she was. And like, seriously, all of the time that Sutekh riding around the TARDIS, and a 15 year old was the one person that he could never see? Really? What was the snow? Or the song that scared Maestro? And why the heck did she dramatically point at a street sign when there was literally no one there at the time? Was it all just Sutekh's unwitting influence? That's... lame.

    As a whole, I enjoyed the season a lot. It just really didn't stick the landing for me. Also Ruby's goodbye felt like it dragged on really long, especially since I already knew that she was sticking around because of all of the gossip and rumors and clickbait about how she had been, gasp, fired! I don't know.

    I'll revise what I just said: I really, really enjoyed individual episodes of the season. But taking the season as a whole... I'm feeling a bit colder about it. Maybe because I feel like that I still don't really know who Ruby is as an actual person, or had any real, genuine buy in to her deep friendship with the Doctor since all the bonding seemed to happen off-screen. The parts were greater than the sum for me.


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