3 out of 5 stars

This finale showcased the strengths and weaknesses of Russell T Davies’s writing. The sci-fi plot mechanics made little to no sense, while everything that was down-to-earth and based on interpersonal relationships worked brilliantly. Unfortunately, the latter was wrapped up in an extended dénouement that finally revealed Ruby’s (Millie Gibson) mysterious mother. As a result, the vast majority of “Empire of Death” was bombastic nonsense.

RTD is known to be a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and has borrowed elements from that franchise for his second stint as Doctor Who showrunner. The most obvious one is UNIT’s swanky London skyscraper HQ being modelled on New York City’s iconic Avengers Tower. Here, the “dusts of death” that Sutekh’s henchmen disperse across the universe is almost identical to how half of all existence perished thanks to Marvel supervillain Thanos “clicking his fingers” and turning people to dust in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). However, it landed none of the same impact because Doctor Who’s rules are too fluid. You’re never in any doubt that The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) will somehow reverse a seemingly insurmountable problem, but what’s frustrating is that you know it won’t be done satisfyingly and will instead involve a lot of technobabble.

Audiences are these days far more sophisticated, so when apocalypses occur, we expect a semblance of logic in their resolution. Marvel, for instance, had The Avengers use time travel to undo the damage wrought by Thanos, a method foreshadowed years earlier in Ant-Man (2015) with the premise of quantum mechanics. This made their victory feel earned and believable.

Sadly, The Doctor’s plan left me utterly bewildered and increasingly frustrated. Sutekh, the Egyptian God of Death, and according to The Doctor, “the greatest monster I have ever fought,” has entwined himself with the TARDIS, intending to make the time machine the epicentre of his dominion over life itself. So how does The Doctor fight back? Well, by creating a secondary TARDIS using UNIT’s Time Window facility, which inexplicably uses Ruby’s memories of it to magically conjure it into physical existence. Absurd, isn’t it? Especially considering we know another identical TARDIS already exists, as “The Giggle” saw the Fourteenth Doctor retire with his. So why not use the one parked conveniently in Donna Noble’s back garden?

There’s frankly too much “just go with it” hand-waving with episodes like this. While it’s fair to accept the odd daft moment in a fantastical show like Doctor Who, when they start to pile up, it quickly becomes irritating. I don’t enjoy mysteries that encourage audiences to theorise about explanations over many weeks, only to reveal answers that are entirely unpredictable because they’re ridiculous nonsense.

Why did Sutekh use the TARDIS “perception filter” to create variations of Susan Triad (Susan Twist) in every adventure The Doctor has ever been on? Does the perception filter even work outwardly like that, given it’s intended to stop people from noticing a wooden blue box has landed somewhere? And if Sutekh has been latched onto the TARDIS since the Fourth Doctor banished him into the Time Vortex decades ago, then why has Susan Triad only been appearing in the Fifteenth Doctor’s most recent adventures? And how on earth do you seriously explain that these countless illusions somehow birthed a genuine Susan Triad who grew up to become a tech mogul?

I envy people who can dismiss such questions and simply go with the flow of the story. Perhaps, though, that’s also wishing away your intelligence. The larger story was decent fun, if unremarkable. The last major story arc in the recent Chris Chibnall era involved “The Flux,” a similarly universe-destroying event, and there have been several others before this—some written by RTD himself. It seems wrong to keep returning to such high stakes for the season finales, when Sutekh bringing death to Earth (where he’s a recognised ancient god) would have been sufficient. Or just the UK, frankly.

The saving grace of “Empire of Death” is how it explains who Ruby’s mother is, though I know some will be annoyed by how mundane the reveal was. But I enjoyed the subversion of expectations with The Doctor discovering Ruby’s mum is an ordinary middle-aged woman, Louise Miller (Faye McKeever), who gave her up at the age of 15 because she was in an abusive relationship and couldn’t care for her. It was certainly a little disappointing given the weight the show’s placed on this mystery for months now, but RTD works better with material that’s human and speaks to emotions and situations everyone can identify with. The sequence where Ruby is reunited with her long-lost birth mother at a cafe was more tear-jerking than anything else in the episode, as it was small-scale and heartfelt if a little schmaltzy.

That said, it makes no sense why Ruby’s needlessly cloaked mum would enigmatically point to a ‘Ruby Road’ signpost, which no one was there to witness at the time, and yet somehow became the basis for what her baby was named. How exactly? And why did it always snow when Ruby thought about her origins if she and her mother were just ordinary people all along? That was a long-running motif that wasn’t adequately explained. I’m also not convinced by the idea that Sutekh only kept The Doctor and Ruby alive because he’s also fascinated to find out who Ruby’s mum is. But having an Egyptian deity be gripped by the season’s mystery so much that he also wanted answers is too ludicrous to get worked up about.

I also enjoyed the VFX for Sutekh, a sort of cloaked jackal with rubies for eyes and elaborate neck bangles, clutching the TARDIS like a prized pedestal. Ncuti Gatwa also continues to be great as The Doctor, doing his best to give every bizarre plot contortion a sense of making sense because he’s so committed to treating everything with the utmost seriousness. Millie Gibson was also excellent in the final scenes with her three mothers, going through all her childhood photos together as a happy family, but it’s a shame this two-part conclusion barely justified her presence. The story even involved former companion Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford) more significantly than it did the current companion. (Oh, but did anyone else think Mel was going to be revealed as Ruby’s mum, at one point? That would have been a better surprise, really.)

There’s a dangling thread that will carry over into the next series, too. The mystery of who Mrs Flood (Anita Dobson) is remains unanswered, despite seeming like a creepy harbinger of Sutekh’s return during “The Legend of Ruby Sunday.” She reappears at the end of this finale to break the fourth wall again, similar to her closing of “The Church on Ruby Road,” enigmatically teasing about how The Doctor’s story “ends in absolute terror.” Now dressed in white furs carrying a matching umbrella, Mrs Flood is an ongoing enigma… or perhaps a character RTD didn’t find a satisfying explanation for, so he’s kicked the can down the road awaiting inspiration.

Next for Doctor Who, we have to wait for the 2024 Christmas Special starring Nicola Coughlan (Bridgerton), written by Steven Moffat, who was particularly adept at festive episodes during his time as showrunner. I’m excited to see what he cooks up. And then it’s onto the already-filmed next series in 2025, which will bring in actress Varada Sethu from “Boom” as a new companion, who may or may not be playing the same character, Mundy Flynn. And I believe Ruby Sunday will be back, at least for a bit.

I just hope any further mysteries are properly thought through.

UK | 2024 | 54 MINUTES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer: Russell T. Davies.
director: Jamie Donoughue.
starring: Ncuti Gatwa, Millie Gibson, Jemma Redgrave, Bonnie Langford, Susan Twist, Yasmin Finney, Genesis Lynea, Lenny Rush, Alexander Devrient, Jasmine Bayes, Michelle Greenidge, Angela Wynter, Sian Clifford, Aidan Cook, Nicholas Briggs (voice), Gabriel Woolf (voice) & Faye McKeever.