Doctor Who, finale review: Ncuti finds his oomph at last, but Russell T Davies has work to do

The usual mix of high drama, mild camp and nonsensical plotting: Ncuti Gatwa and Bonnie Langford in Doctor Who: Empire of Death
The usual mix of high drama, mild camp and nonsensical plotting: Ncuti Gatwa and Bonnie Langford in Doctor Who: Empire of Death - Sophie Mutevelian/BBC

Now that was more like it. The debut series of the new-look Doctor Who (BBC One/Disney+) reached its climax with scary monsters, thrills, spills and slightly hokey sci-fi. There was even a good gag about cultural appropriation. Extended 55-minute finale Empire of Death ended an iffy series with a bang.

It teemed with knowing nods to the show’s 61-year lore. We saw clips of Elisabeth Sladen, Carole Ann Ford and Tom Baker. We heard name-checks for previously visited planets. There was even an Aladdin’s cave of old props – a “remembered Tardis, full of bits and pieces of every Tardis there ever was, held together by hopes, wishes and luck”.

From Colin Baker’s cravat to Bessie’s “WHO 1” number plate, there was plenty to make longtime fans gasp with recognition. It was like Emily’s shop in Bagpuss, starring the most magical saggy old Time Lord in the whole wide world.

**Spoilers for episode 8 below**

The adventure itself was the usual mix of high drama, mild camp and nonsensical plotting. Following on from last week, the Doctor’s immortal enemy Sutekh, the ancient god of death – voiced by Gabriel Woolf at the grand old age of 91, reprising his role from 1975 classic Pyramids of Mars – had blown his deadly dust all over the universe. Stakes were raised by seeing several familiar faces crumble to sand, including UNIT’s Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave). I was less sad to see tedious talking computer The Vlinx bite the dust.

The 15th Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) hopped onto Mel’s moped and escaped into space on that Heath Robinson-style Tardis. The secret parentage of companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) turned out to be the key to restoring order and reversing all those deaths. Never mind. We’ll have to sneak into UNIT HQ and unplug The Vlinx instead.

Anita Dobson as Mrs Flood and Angela Wynter as Cherry
Anita Dobson as Mrs Flood and Angela Wynter as Cherry - James Pardon/BBC

Along the way, there was an affecting cameo from Sian Clifford as a kind woman on a post-apocalyptic planet with the last spoon in existence (don’t ask), but the quality dipped in the final act. The reveal of Ruby’s birth mother proved a damp squib, as was how they defeated all-powerful hellhound Sutekh – basically by putting him on a lead and dragging him outside like a bad doggy who’d soiled the carpet. The Barbara Woodhouse school of plot resolution.

Still, this was a wild ride with impressive scale, barrelling pace and plenty of plot twists. Reunited with her long-lost mother in a lump-in-throat scene, Ruby said farewell to the Doctor and stayed on Earth. She bows out (for now) as a decent companion who had more to give. Mrs Flood (Anita Dobson) delivered a sinister post-script, teeing up the festive special like a Christmassy Cruella de Vil.

Overall, Gatwa’s first full series has felt underpowered and passive. He has a nice face, as people keep pointing out, but we’re no nearer to knowing who his Doctor is. Having cried almost every week, we know he’s emotional. We know he’s gay (thanks to that kiss in Rogue) and righteously angry about racism (thanks to that plot twist in Dot and Bubble).

Yet due to uneven writing and too many Doctor-lite episodes, it still doesn’t feel like he’s fully settled into the role. This is hardly helped by the fact that, for the first time in Who history, the Doctor wears a different outfit every week. How are children supposed to dress up as their hero when even he can’t decide what his costume is?

The production might be bankrolled by Disney dollars but, so far, showrunner Russell T Davies’s second tenure isn’t as strong as his franchise-reviving first stint. We need less blubbing, more swashbuckling. Fewer costume changes, more consistency. Dial down the preaching, ramp up the excitement. Then it really will be a Happy Whomas.

Episode eight of Doctor Who is available now on BBC iPlayer and Disney+, and will air on BBC One on Saturday 22 June at 6.40pm