Doctor Who specials have to walk a fine line between pleasing hard-core fans (like myself) and not being so dense that the casual fan tuning becomes lost and frustrated with the viewing experience.
Like many specials designed to celebrate something – anniversary, holiday, etc, “The Power of the Doctor” also faced the climb of sending off the Jodie Whitacker era. Given how I feel that Chris Chibnall is like the Doctor (good at starts, not great at endings), my biggest concern going into the episode was that Chibnall wouldn’t be able to stick the landing – just as he hasn’t in three previous series finales.
For the most part, “The Power of the Doctor” did well enough, though even at close to ninety minutes, it felt like it needed about five more minutes. Of course, that could be the classic Whovian in me who’d gladly take as much time for the Doctor’s former companions meet to share stories time as they wanted to give me.
“The Power of the Doctor” isn’t a perfect episode, but it still leans heavily into the strengths of this era – namely, Sasha Dhawan as the Master and the give and take between the Doctor and the Master. I’ll admit that the 80’s weren’t exactly kind to the Master and the new series take on the character has been hit or miss. But what Chibnall did with the Master during this era really resonated, simply because Chibnall made the Master into a legitimate threat again. The big criticism I have of Ainley’s Master is that too many of his plans were half-baked at best – and while the Master not thinking things entirely through goes all the way back to Roger Delgado, it just felt a bit too campy many times in the JNT era.
Chibnall restored the balance between the two characters so that it felt like Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado. The line here where the Doctor says they used to be friends felt like something out of the Pertwee era. As did the reaction of “what have you done this time?” as the Master’s latest plan unfolded. It does eventually turn out that the Master hasn’t thought all this through in his desire to defeat the Doctor – but it doesn’t feel overly campy and over the top.
It also felt like Chibnall was checking off the box of having Dhawan get to play the Doctor, since I know there is a group that feel like he would have been a great choice for the role.
On the whole, “The Power of the Doctor” leans heavily into nostalgia – but in the best possible way. Whether it’s bringing Ace and Tegan back or seeing multiple classic Doctors on screen, I give Chibnall credit for finding a way to bring everyone back for some fun. And that’s all before we see so many classic companions in the final moments.
But that said, I still feel the biggest criticism from the Chinball era is on display here – the lack of pacing. I get having Dhawan just go for the gusto and toy with the Doctor and Yaz works, but it felt like some of those scenes went on too long. Then, there’s the issue of sticking the landing, which the episode doesn’t feel like it did. Again, Chibnall is great at beginnings, not great at endings. And it showed up again here, even given a longer run time.
I guess there’s part of me that wants to see Ace bash another Dalek or two and is less interested in the emotional departure of Yaz. Part of that boils down to the fact that I never felt invested in any of the TARDIS team in this era in a significant way. Heck, I got more choked up with the fifth Doctor’s image bringing up Adric to Tegan and promising he won’t let that happen to her than I did at Yaz leaving the TARDIS.
Now that the Whitaker era is complete, I look forward to rewatching it and seeing if and how my assessments change. I still think her era is the equivalent of the Colin Baker era to new Who – good actor who didn’t get the stories to really showcase what she can do.
I’m grateful to Whitaker and Chibnall for a female Doctor, though. My little girl loves that the Doctor was a girl – and that she was smart and defeated the Daleks a lot.