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Doctor Who Finale : ‘Empire of Death’ Pulls a Satisfying Emotional Conclusion From a Vortex of Intrigue & Misdirection

Photo Credit: BBC/Disney+

Last week, Whovians learned that classic villain Sutekh, an Osirian super-being who fancied himself a god, never actually succumbed to his fate at the hands of the Fourth Doctor and companion Sarah Jane Smith. Apparently, he was able to weave himself into the fabric of the TARDIS and hitchhike his way across the cosmos. Fortunately, showrunner Russell T. Davies and the creative team took a lesson out of Sutekh’s playbook for the finale.

‘Empire of Death’ is a bit weighed down under its self-imposed layers of intrigue and misdirection, but fortunately, a satisfying emotional arc is woven into the fabric of the episode and hangs on for dear life to deliver a satisfying conclusion to Ncuti Gatwa’s first season as Doctor Who’s titular Doctor. This review will unpack the emotional punch of the episode before delving into the Pandora’s box of the lore; expect heavy spoilers ahead

We pick up where ‘The Legend of Ruby Sunday’ left off. It turns out that Sutekh’s minions have more than a deadly touch; they also churn out “Sutekh’s dust of death,” endless clouds that kill everything in their path by reducing them to dust à la Avengers: Infinity War. Our UNIT team, having forgotten that time The Toymaker turned all of their bullets into rose petals, collectively unload every round they can into the sand before getting dusted themselves (even child genius Morris Gibbons shows off his Segway-mounted machine guns).

The Doctor, Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), and Melanie “Mel” Bush (Bonnie Langford) manage to escape into the “time window” and use Ruby’s potent, snow-manifesting memory to generate a ramshackle memory-TARDIS and escape into space. We learn that all of those Susan Triads we’ve been seeing since ‘Wild Blue Yonder’ are evil photocopies waiting to dust every planet and timeline the TARDIS has encountered since Sutekh latched onto the hood. 

Our memory-TARDIS is an Easter-egg-laden Doctor Who Eras Tour with nods to every single chapter in the canon. It’s a fun set that visualizes the Doctor’s waning confidence with its small size and cramped, chaotic interior; similarly, the concept of a TARDIS built out of memories embodies the thematic center of this episode: the power that comes with keeping our memories alive rather than bottled up and locked away. Perhaps more importantly, Fifteen gives out his third primal scream of the season as the weight of his complicity in Sutekh’s plan settles in. He believes his worst fear is true: he is Death incarnate. In a moment of self-doubt, the Doctor says, “Every world that I ever stood upon…all dead…it is my fault, because I traveled to all those worlds. I thought it was fun.” 

We get a fairly clunky transition to a makeshift tarp-tent on a makeshift planet where we learn that the dust of death also sometimes spares people for a while….or kills their memories first….or works backwards through the timeline….it’s a bit of a mish-mash, but we are here for the memory motif so it’s all good. Fifteen gets a touching moment with a mother grasping at her final memories, and this reviewer is always happy to watch him comfort someone.

We also learn that metal is apparently particularly precious and valuable in this new universal hellscape; soon-to-be-dust mom gifts the Doctor a spoon. It’s unclear why this cutlery is such a vital tool, but the performers sell the significance of the gesture. Plus, Seventh and Twelfth Doctor fans get another Easter egg out of the exchange! The Doctor also sneaks in a very fun jab at Sutekh for his crime of cultural appropriation: first with his Egyptology-inspired getup from 1911, and more recently for going full Anubis in his current massive jackal form.

In any case, thanks to the addition of this humble metal spoon, Ruby’s magical mind unlocks one of her latent memories from the ‘73 Yards’ timeline…and a possible path toward a DNA match with her mother from the future fascist regime of Roger ap-Gwilliam. As the Doctor and Ruby track down this lead, Mel somewhat abruptly succumbs to Sutekh and becomes another one of his crypt-keeper thralls so that she can whisk our heroes through time and space for an audience with the big bad. They trick Sutekh by implying that they have the answer to the question of Ruby’s parentage and then use some “intelligent rope” inspired by the Christmas special goblins to leash Sutekh, drag him back through the time vortex, and “bring death to death (two negatives make a positive, baby!).” Team TARDIS zaps the god of Death into oblivion once and for all (probably)!

Everyone lives and we get a Wayne’s World mega-happy ending! The Doctor goes from calling himself a monster to absolving himself: “Surely that’s what I am! Life!” UNIT is back from the dead and ready to blindly fire off rounds of ammunition another day. Even Susan Triad becomes human again so that Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) can fling a UNIT job offer in her direction as quickly as possible (despite the irreverent tone here, this reviewer would like to say that Jemma Redgrave is very talented and does incredible work as Kate that lands so much better when they give her human interactions instead of putting her in charge of a firing squad). 

Most importantly, Ruby is finally able to track down her birth mother, Louise Miller (Faye McKeever). This is where the episode really cooks and delivers an arc that is worthy of the ride it took to get there. This moment lands for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, Millie Gibson and Faye McKeever play the reunion scene perfectly with patient timing, subtle looks of recognition, and a powerful hug; we don’t get a single line of overwrought or clunky dialogue. This moment also works as a moment of defiance from a companion. Fifteen gives Ruby incredibly emotionally mature, thoughtful, and respectful reasons to leave her mother uninterrupted and at peace with her privacy. Ruby doesn’t care. She insists on greeting her birth mother with a message of thanks for protecting her from a rough domestic situation and putting her in safe hands. Fortunately, this is a joyful development for Ruby’s mother, who was trying to respect her daughter’s space despite a desire to know the child she abandoned in the past. 

In the closing moments of the episode, it’s clear that Ruby needs to put her life in the TARDIS on hold for a while to explore her new family. Fifteen tries to allow his beloved new companion a safe and easy exit, but he also reveals the depth of her impact: “You, Ruby Sunday, I will see you again because you changed me. I talk about family in a way that I never did before. It’s because of you. You’ve made my life bigger and better.” This isn’t simply a nice thing to say to a sweet companion who has only had limited time in the TARDIS to bond with the Doctor, it’s a callback to her moment of defiance and her decision to meet her mother. The Doctor has bid farewell to many companions, including his granddaughter, Susan Foreman, who served as his very first companion. Sometimes the Doctor’s companions don’t survive their adventures, and sometimes they move on to other lives, but the Doctor never feels like he should track them down again. It seems that Ruby has gifted him some new perspective here. Perhaps this Doctor, who speaks the language of healing so well, can move forward to mend some fences from the past. 

Of course, Susan Foreman is also one of the many Easter egg, mystery-box teases of the season. The Doctor’s final interaction with Ruby provides a compelling emotional reason for the creative team to consider bringing Susan back to Doctor Who, but not every mystery box tease gets the same nuanced treatment in the finale.

This reviewer feels like one flaw in this season of television, and in the finale itself, is the nonstop mystery-baiting. While it’s emotionally compelling and exciting to learn that Ruby is a regular human with regular parents, this reveal doesn’t necessarily match up with the deployment of the mystery throughout the season. Sure, the Doctor’s reasoning that the power of the moment at that church on Ruby Road came from everyone’s belief in the power of the moment can explain most of what we saw this season, but it feels almost silly to suggest that the sinister pointing from a mysterious figure in a murder cloak is just the innocent act of a mother “naming” her child, a child she has already abandoned. This is either an egregious instance of intentionally misleading the audience, or clear evidence that we still have some mystery to unpack. 

Fortunately, it’s still possible to further explore the mystery of that night on Ruby Road without undoing Ruby’s human origins, but whether or not we return to that sinister pointing, we will certainly have more mystery to unpack from the finale. Our girl Mrs. Flood is clearly up to something, unless you happen to find it super chill for her to threaten Ruby’s grandmother and say things like, “Tell your maker I will come to storm down his gates of gold and seize his kingdom in my true name!” Again, this reviewer can’t help but point out that Mrs. Flood’s creepy behavior didn’t start until after the Doctor visited Ruby Road to save Ruby from goblins. It still feels like we almost have to return to Ruby’s origin story.

…and of course, if you still aren’t compelled, there are the closing moments of the episode to consider. Mrs. Flood mocks our mega-happy ending: “a very happy ending for little Ruby Sunday.” Then, she threatens our beloved new Doctor: “I’m sorry to say, his story ends in absolute terror. Night. Night.”

Mrs. Flood further activates our mystery-box brains with her own offering of Easter eggs. In the finale, she evokes a couple of former companions. Early in the episode, she rocks a Clara Oswald fit and refers to the Doctor as a “clever boy.” During her creepy closing monologue, she is rocking a furry snowsuit reminiscent of former companion and Time Lord Romana from the Classic Who era. 

Is Mrs. Flood a former companion? A fellow Time Lord? The Trickster? Some other member of the Pantheon!?

We’ll just have to wait to find out.

Overall, this reviewer had an absolute blast with the latest season of Doctor Who. Please check back in with us at The Pop Break for more Who coverage in December when Disney+ drops their Steven Moffat-penned Christmas special: ‘Joy to the World!’

The Doctor Who Season Finale, ‘Empire of Death’ is now streaming on Disney+

Randy Allain
Randy Allainhttps://randyallain.weebly.com/
Randy Allain is a high school English teacher and freelance writer & podcaster. He has a passion for entertainment media and is always ready for thoughtful discourse about your favorite content. You will most likely find him covering Doctor Who or chatting about music on "Every Pod You Cast," a deep dive into the discography of The Police, available monthly in the Pop Break Today feed.

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