There was a reason why I didn’t do a write-up for the Easter special. It’s partly because we were in Liverpool, plaque-spotting on Mathew Street and taking ferries to Birkenhead and noting that when Dan and Diane left the museum in the first episode of Flux, they did so by the fire exit. But it’s mostly because it was incredibly dull, the tale of swashbuckling sea adventure turning out to be a bit of a damp squib. It wasn’t outrageously terrible, but it wasn’t very good, either. It was just mediocre. The inclination to write paragraphs about why this was an outrage – something I’d have done in a heartbeat back in 2015 – is more or less gone these days, and if it’s mediocre, I no longer care.
And yet here we are, some six months down the line in a tour-de-force that takes in active volcanos, dastardly schemes and more old faces than a DVD retrospective. Running just shy of ninety minutes, it serves as a swansong both for Whittaker and the departing showrunner, a target of so much internet vitriol it’s astounging he’s stuck it out this long. Perhaps the most potent criticism of Chibnall’s reign, aside from his inability to write dialogue (something that hasn’t improved) is a supposed refusal to acknowledge the past, whether it’s the absence of classic villains in Series 10 or the whole Timeless Child debacle. Thus, with the plethora of famous faces popping up during ‘The Power of the Doctor’, he seeks to answer his critics. “You want nods to the past? Fine. Have this one. And this one. And this one.”
Nostagia sells. This is an anniversary story – not the show, but the BBC – and the buildup to Whittaker’s regeneration is steeped in the desire to look back, so much so that the Doctor scarcely sees the proverbial (and, eventually, literal) cliff until she’s about to step over the edge. It reads like a love letter to times past, a sort of ‘Day of the Doctor’ lite, the style flapping over substance like one of those Top Gear supercars that look better than they drive. Against all odds, and thanks to some genuinely crowd-pleasing moments, it works. If nothing else it’s a relief to get it out of the way so that we can finally sift through the tabloid rumours – media abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any information the press and the fan pages have had to create their own notes on speculative casting, with everyone from Bonnie Langford to Matt Smith mooted to be somehow involved.
Smith doesn’t show; neither does Capaldi – but they did manage to get most of the others. They play their cameos to a tee, perched atop the edge of a metaphysical abyss like wizened, BBC English gurus; platitudes and received pronunciation. Of the surviving Old Legends, only Tom Baker is absent, which should surprise no one who saw ‘The Five Doctors’. Crucially no obvious effort is made to de-age any of them. which is probably down to budget more than anything else, although it doesn’t stop Chibnall putting in a few lines about how their physical appearance reflects the desire of former companions to watch them growing old. It suffices, at a stretch, but it’s awkard, calling to mind that horrendous clay monkey from the end of Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ video. “This is how I see you…”
But nostagia works like an anaesthetic – or at least a potent variety gas and air, bringing on a euphoric fit of giggles that serves to mask the frantic cutting and squeezing going on down below. This was a story about spectacle, in which we’re expected to applaud first and ask questions later, And thus the sight of McGann alone is almost enough to forgive the writer for thrusting ‘Orphan 55’ upon us a couple of years back (almost, if not quite). Who cares if they got old? We all did. Bringing back former Doctors also allows for closure with their respective companions, the holographic projections washing in and out of the screen like ghosts. It’s a touching moment, although the nod to Ace’s feud with the Doctor has a bit of posturing about it, feeling like a half-hearted attempt at rebuffing all those people who claimed Chibnall didn’t know his Who. He may have been well-intentioned, but this is likely to simply confuse people whose knowledge of Aldred stops in 1989. (And which feud, anyway? There were so many of them.)
Structurally, the whole thing holds up like a house of cards. The opening set piece (an attack on an interstellar bullet train that echoes the opening of A New Hope, including a white-gowned Princess Leia) is there purely to introduce a McGuffin and get rid of a companion – Dan, for whom a cracked space helmet is one brush with death too many. And so they drop him on Granger Street, where his house is still missing (anyone who’s actually visited Anfield will understand why this is funny), in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, and it’s back to a life of food banks, doomed romance and abject poverty. His departure is as swift and awkward as we’ve come to expect over this run, and indeed his entire involvement in the story is a cynical piece of audience-baiting, with Bishop’s general absence from the trailer giving rise to the theory that he would be granted an on-screen death that never came.
In the absence of Dan, the old guard steps up – and it’s to Chibnall’s credit that the involvement of Ace and Tegan extends to something more than a token appearance. Fielding fends off an army of Cybermen: on the other side of the world, Aldred dusts off her jacket and hits a Dalek with a baseball bat. Chibnall also elects to bring back Vinder, simply because he can. The final gambit, on a choked and dusty Cyber-planet that resembles an industrial quarry, is a straight lift from series four, with every available character holding down a different lever, but we have just seen Kate Lethbridge-Stewart saved in the nick of time from forced Cyber conversion, so you don’t notice until the dust settles.
In the midst of all this, there’s a plot of sorts, although it is largely an excuse for general silliness. The story revolves around the Master, who has come up with a convoluted scheme involving seismic drilling, reversible tissue compression (yes, honestly) and a series of Photoshopped artworks that serve no purpose except to act as a Tumblr blog in waiting. The central conceit – stolen bodies, extraneous cosplay – is half Face/Off, half ‘Logopolis’; this was almost certainly deliberate, given Fielding’s involvement, and would be outright preposterous were it not for the performance of its central antagonist. Dhawan deviates between calm, hypnotic resonance during the St. Petersburg scenes and a Joker-like mania just about everywhere else – although the episode’s narrative high point sees him cavorting around the winter palace to the melodic strains of Boney M, in a move that will please Fortnite fans everywhere, even if it perplexes everyone else.
Whittaker bows out on a cliff, having seen off the enemy before getting zapped by a planet-shearing laser, carried into the TARDIS by her doe-eyed companion. The scenes with the Doctor and Yaz are as strained as they ever were, and it’s almost a relief when that ice cream is finished – although we do get a beautiful shot of the Earth from space, as the two friends sit on the roof like Wayne and Garth. And then it’s a flash and a bang (Whittaker’s final words are, pleasingly, a reference to a playground game, emphasising that above all else this is a show for children) and in comes David Tennant, in a scene that everyone saw coming – everyone except my thirteen-year-old, whose eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.
Cue the unanswered questions. Why did the Master go to the trouble of butchering all that art when he could have made a simple phone call? Why would you ship a planet-powering energy source on a high speed train with minimal security? Does the fob watch still lurk at the bottom of the TARDIS? Why does Tennant have a five o’clock shadow? And just why is it called ‘The Power of the Doctor’, anyway?
But then Chibnall never was the show’s greatest writer. Not for him the subtlety of Moffat’s arc twists, or the urban kitchen sink drama that Davies made his own. His dialogue is still clunky, characters still lecture, characterisation is still inconsistent (the scene where Yaz is told to train a gun on the Master is bound to ruffle feathers) and it still feels like Whittaker – doing the best she can – has saved the world more by accident than by design, as if the Doctor is allowing things to happen. But against all odds, and after a rollercoaster couple of years, it was an exciting and fitting send-off for both of them. And for all its structural inadequacies, cringeworthy exchanges and narrative cu-de-sacs, I was left with a warm, fuzzy feeling, a glow that lasted the evening and is still lingering now, like the vestigial reserves of regeneration energy. I honestly can’t remember the last time I got that from Doctor Who.