All of season 14 has been building up for Empire of Death, the thrilling conclusion of season 15’s Doctor Who. Ncuti Gatwa has had one of the most exciting first seasons as The Doctor since David Tennant’s season 2 entry into the Whoniverse. The fourteenth season’s finale finally explores Ruby Sunday’s (Millie Gibson) mysterious mother and the identity of The One Who Waits.

The eighth episode directly follows the first episode of the two-part finale, ‘The Church On Ruby Road,’ and reveals that The One Who Waits is Sutekh. One of The Doctor’s early enemies, who was featured in ‘Pyramids of Mars,’ Sutekh, revealed that he was hiding in plain sight on the TARDIS.

The God of Death takes on the form of an Anubis-like beast who threatens to bring death to The Doctor, Earth, and every planet the timelord has visited. UNIT, Kate, and her team are in real jeopardy as Sutekh announces his intention to turn them all to dust.

Powerful Acting And Powerful Storytelling

On the surface, this is another Doctor Who episode in which the timelord and friends battle a monster with a selection of homemade gadgets found under the TARDIS console. If audiences think too hard about the mechanics, they will likely find it clumsy. However, the writing is smart enough, and the acting is skilled enough to sell the timey-wimey absurdity.

Russell T. Davies’ is too smart to make the finale simply about defeating a monster. Like his previous seasons of the long-running BBC science fiction show, there are layers to this story. The showrunner isn’t interested in action scenes, this is displayed in some of the unimaginative choices and lack of jeopardy.

Mid-battle, the Doctor finds himself in a wasteland with a mysterious woman (played by Fleabag’s Sian Clifford). Sutekh is rewriting history, causing people to forget and slowly slip away. This scene feels so out of place and, at first sight, pointless, a quiet beat amongst the loud space battle. Clifford and Gatwa deliver powerful performances in a scene that is incredibly beautiful despite seemingly having no connection with the main plot. You may believe you fell asleep and missed a scene with how random this interaction feels within the episode.

A Different Type Of Doctor

Ncuti Gatwa’s The Doctor is probably the emotionally fragile regeneration for the timelord. He isn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve, assisted by the actor’s wide brown eyes and authentic emotions. Whilst other regenerations favored anger and smarm, the fifteenth doctor has so many emotions he barely knows how to keep them under control.

It’s a new type of timelord, who isn’t afraid to admit he’s scared and doesn’t know what to do. It’s clear Davies (who wrote for Eccleston and Tenant’s seasons) prefers a more human leading man, even if he is writing an alien with two hearts. The Doctor is a man who has loved and lost for hundreds of years, and it reads all over Gatwa’s face. The Gatwa-Davies pairing is proving a heartbreaking combination for Doctor Who.                                                

Although he shares DNA with previous incarnations, it’s clear the showrunner and the actor wanted to go in a new direction. Whether the loyal fanbase could hop on board is another matter, but to keep a long-running show fresh these changes are vital.

Ruby Sunday, the mysterious companion, has felt less of a success. Although a terrific actress, especially in her leading role in ’73 Yards’, Sunday’s secret mother made her feel a little distant from audiences. Gibson’s character’s entire backstory, personality, and goals are centered on one woman and how she abandoned her as an infant. The resolution to that story is perhaps not enough to warrant such focus throughout the show.

She and The Doctor also feel like they haven’t formed the same bond as previous pairings. They never seemed to be in the same adventure at the same time, forced apart to overcome the villain. Despite the lack of connection, the climax of the episode is still a tearjerker.

Adding A New Level To Science Fiction

Davies, who brought the world It’s a Sin and the original Queer as Folk, knows how to pull on heartstrings. His attention to detail and ability to humanize alien time travel stories is a feat unmatched in the genre. It’s a shame so many emotional beats of ‘Empire of Death’ are connected to unseen moments and deleted scenes from prior episodes.

This season of Doctor Who has displayed an emotional intelligence rarely seen in this genre. Davies knows the show inside out, having been a fan long before he signed on as a writer. This can be felt throughout the finale, which pays homage to the show and The Doctor’s history. Perhaps it worries so much about nostalgia that it forgets to reward those who stuck through the current season.

While these types of shows thrive on red herrings and easter eggs, Doctor Who’s twist was that there was no twist. Davies used the fans’ thirst for answers to trick them into believing small coincidences could mean huge answers. This isn’t always the most satisfying for fans who have built their own theories over the last few months. Whether this humanized version of Doctor Who is a cop-out or emotional writing at its best is a very personal one. Perhaps some fans want unresolved plots and ambiguous endings so they can make their own theories.

A Villain 50 Years In The Making

While ‘Empire of Death’ struggles with pacing, it will satisfy those invested in the mysteries of the season. While some episodes this season have embraced ambiguity and used the audience’s personal belief system, ‘Empire of Death’ makes its intentions mighty clear. Of course, for every mystery resolved, Davies spreads breadcrumbs for the upcoming season,, which sees Gatwa and Gibson return.   

 When Doctor Who started streaming on Disney + outside the UK, it was sold as a soft reboot, which could be picked up by audiences with no prior knowledge of the long-running time travel show. The opening episodes explained the timelord’s past and how a TARDIS works. It’s almost humorous that after being labeled season 1 of a new version of Doctor Who, the finale ended up being a sequel to a 1975 story.

It is hard not to respect the skills on display in ‘Empire of Death.’ It’s a worthy finale of one of the best seasons of Doctor Who in its six-decade-long history. The closing moments are a gut punch of emotion, but perhaps an unsatisfying one for those hoping they had found answers in the easter eggs.

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