DOCTOR WHO: “Empire of Death”

Posted on June 22, 2024



“What happens if you bring death to death?” asked The Doctor of the death god on a leash. “You bring LIFE!”

Wait, what?

We tried to warn y’all in the beginning of the season that returning showrunner Russell T Davies doesn’t like to explain things too much, but even we were unprepared for how defiantly inexplicable everything was in this season finale. We said “Wait, what?” so many times out loud that we’ve started thinking of it as the episode title. We’ve rewatched it, sat with it, let half a day go by as we let it cook, and now we’re ready to declare this episode…just about the worst season finale in the history of the franchise. Honestly, we think it may be one of the worst season finales we’ve ever seen.

Look, the emotions were there. Sort of. Davies has always been pretty good about sentimentality and the tugging of heartstrings. There’s no denying that Ruby’s reunion with her mother was beautifully acted and emotionally satisfying. Sort of. There’s no denying that her goodbye to The Doctor was heart wrenching and sad. Sort of. It’s just that the emotions didn’t feel particularly earned this time. We simply haven’t spent enough time with Ruby to feel all that strongly about the apparent resolution to her storyline. We haven’t spent enough time with this duo for us to feel all that sad about their parting (never mind that we already know it’s temporary since Millie Gibson is returning next season). It sometimes feels like the show relies a bit too much on Ncuti Gatwa’s ability to scream impotently or let one tear slide down his cheek dramatically, letting these acting tics suffice for true emotional engagement in the writing. If Davies had really nailed the emotional components of this episode, we might not have gotten so hung up on how insultingly flimsy the plot was.


To be fair, maybe nothing could have equaled the buildup of the previous episode. Maybe the anticlimactic way they defeated the supposed most powerful enemy of all time was part of the point. The Doctor rarely solves problems by punching them or shooting them, which is a big reason for his appeal, but even for this show, defeating an omnipotent death god with some rope, gloves and a whistle is stretching… we won’t say “credulity,” since that was already tossed out the window when the dog puppet showed up. It’s a fool’s errand to apply too much logic to a story such as this one – and Davies all but taunted any viewer who would attempt it. But simply from a storytelling perspective, if you spend an entire season building up a big bad, there should be some sort of payoff for the viewer. Instead, everyone in the entire universe died, which immediately removed any sense of stakes from the story, and the omnipotent god was quickly defeated and all of his evil deeds undone because he couldn’t unhook a bungee cord from his collar. There was no sense of despair or triumph in the telling of the tale. Things just happened, and then other things happened, and then there were hugs and then it ended. It all felt so flat.

We’ve held off on this next bit because we needed to gather our thoughts to make sure we didn’t just spew an incoherent rage rant, but the resolution to the mystery of Ruby’s mother wasn’t just a let down. We’re afraid we’re going to have to deploy a phrase here that we have never used before and which we are absolutely loath to do right now, but we can’t think of a more accurate one. The reveal of Ruby’s mother was … a slap in the face of the fandom. Davies seeded hints and mysteries about her all throughout the season only to tell us in the end that our own interest in her was a fluke. “She was important because we think she was important” is a somewhat nonsensical way of wrapping up the mystery of Ruby Sunday’s mother, but it’s also an infuriating one. She was important to the viewers of this story because the storytellers told us over and over again that she was important – not just verbally, but through inexplicable mysteries like the snow and the caroling that followed Ruby her whole life, the Doctor’s memories of Ruby Road changing, the Maestro announcing “This creature is very wrong,” the fact that no one could find any trace of her perfectly ordinary mother; not Davina McCall, not UNIT (until they did), not the Doctor and not the database from the future accessed by the ambulance in “Boom.” The Doctor claimed that her face was “shadowed” somehow in the CCTV playback, but we guess we’re just supposed to assume that he meant “in the shadows” or something, just as we’re supposed to assume that the playback kept glitching because… playbacks just glitch every now and then.

And sure, if you want to do the work, you could simply explain every supernatural event surrounding that night to be the result of Sutekh’s presence. There was some sort of attempt to tie the events of “73 Yards” to the TARDIS’ perception filter, and we have no doubt that the fandom could spin out a theory if it tries hard enough, but Davies all but said that any interest in Ruby’s mother was a fluke and a waste of time. Sutekh is a stand in for obsessive fandom; forced to watch all of the Doctor’s adventures against his will, becoming obsessed with theories and mysteries, but missing out on what really matters: love and family. It might have been an interesting twist if it wasn’t so insulting and sloppily handled.


We truly enjoyed the energy that Davies, Gatwa and Gibson brought to this season, but it would seem that the story of Ruby Sunday was offered by Davies as a sort of corrective to the relentless “Impossible Girl”/Most Important Companion storylines of the last decade and a half. “In the end, the most important person in the universe was the most ordinary” is a lovely sentiment, but it has virtually nothing at all to do with how the story unfolded and if you spend an entire season telling the audience that a character is extremely important, you don’t get to act smug in the end when you reveal that she wasn’t. We weren’t fooled. You lied.

And if you think we’re being too hard on the episode, just remember that she was pointing at a road sign with absolutely no one around to see it because that’s how cloak-wearing teenagers in 2004 named their babies.

Wait, what?

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