‘Doctor Who’ Finale Recap: Answers Through the Tears

If Ncuti Gatwa’s first full run of episodes manning the TARDIS has been characterized by anything, it’s big swings.

Over the course of this season, the “Doctor Who” showrunner Russell T Davies has explored racism, queer love, the threat posed by technology and even fandom itself, with episodes ranging from the abstruse (“73 Yards”) to the strangely saccharine (“Space Babies,” which I have largely advised friends skip).

The season has, at times, felt overstuffed, but it’s been the overhaul “Doctor Who” needed after losing some momentum under its previous showrunner, Chris Chibnall. Davies’s ambition is undeniable, and the penultimate episode — in which the evil god Sutekh returned after nearly 50 years — was one of the boldest, scariest “Doctor Who” episodes in years.

While the finale doesn’t quite maintain the tension, “Empire of Death” is still an effective and satisfying end to the season. The episode opens with several loose ends to tie up: Sutekh needs to be stopped, and we still need to discover the identities of Ruby’s mother and her neighbor Mrs. Flood (Anita Dobson).

The action picks back up in medias res, with Sutekh’s hollow-faced, red-eyed servants Susan (Susan Twist) and Harriet (Genesis Lynea) uncurling their palms and blowing out a brown dust that turns everyone it touches to ash. Kate (Jemma Redgrave) and her team at UNIT, Britain’s supersecret extraterrestrial task force, are quickly destroyed.

Mel (Bonnie Langford), who was one of the Doctor’s companions in the 1980s, pulls him onto her orange scooter and a swerving camera follows them through the streets of an apocalyptic London. In UNIT’s Time Window, Ruby (Millie Gibson) is still trying to recreate the memory of the night she was abandoned as a baby, but the Doctor arrives and informs her they’ve got “worse problems.”

Sutekh (voiced by Gabriel Woolf, who also played the villain the first time around) has captured the TARDIS, and he greets the Doctor as an “old friend” before dropping a bombshell: Sutekh wasn’t destroyed by Tom Baker’s Doctor back in 1975, but clung onto the TARDIS during the Doctor’s subsequent travels through time and space, biding his time. Wherever the Doctor landed, Sutekh replicated and deposited new versions of the mysterious woman now known as Susan to bring unending destruction to every planet, in every timeline.

The Doctor, Ruby and Mel take refuge in a “remembered TARDIS,” made up of previous iterations of the spaceship. It’s held together by a technology, first seen in the recent Christmas special called “intelligent rope,” and it is packed to the rafters with trinkets from Doctors’ past.

The Doctor usually puts on a brave face and hides his emotion, but throughout this season, Gatwa’s Doctor has embodied the full spectrum of human feeling. As he watches the destructive dust blowing across Earth from space and blames himself, he emits a guttural sob of anguish.

The unanswered question of Ruby’s origin still hangs in the air, and Sutekh demands the answer. The Doctor and Ruby want to know, too, and travel with Mel to the year 2046, where they track down her DNA records in a Department of Health database.

When Ruby reads her mother’s name on the screen, she looks more perplexed than ever. She turns around to the fearsome sight of Mel, who now has the same skull-like face as Susan and has been possessed by Sutekh as a proxy through whom he can also learn Ruby’s mother’s identity.

Mel transports the Doctor and Ruby back to Sutekh, where the god uses his powers to bend the Doctor to his will. Angrily branding Sutekh a “great big god of nothing,” Ruby hooks the Doctor’s intelligent rope onto Sutekh’s bejeweled collar, while the Doctor blasts the original TARDIS away from Sutekh’s grasp.

“I’m back!” trills the Doctor in a playful singsong tone, as he clips the intelligent rope onto the TARDIS and he and Ruby fly off, dragging Sutekh along with them like a dog on a leash. It’s a climactic moment, only undermined by some distractingly rudimentary visuals. I can only assume that Episode 7 used up the green screen budget.

The Doctor watches through the TARDIS’s open doors as Sutekh’s claws catch on the fabric of time, reviving all the people previously turned to dust. The Doctor and Ruby celebrate — but now the Doctor must destroy Sutekh and lower himself to the monster’s level. “You win, because I pride myself that I am better than you,” the Doctor shouts. He cuts the rope, and Sutekh is consumed by flames.

Next, the question of Ruby’s mother. The answer is a little underwhelming: She is an ordinary woman, called Louise, who was just 15 when she gave Ruby up.

Ruby is, of course, joyous. But she is also confused. How could the fate of the universe hinge on this woman? Well, the Doctor explains, Louise was important “because we think she’s important.” She was important to Ruby, and therefore the Doctor, and in turn, Sutekh.

After so many complex theories throughout the season, it’s a somewhat simplistic answer. Ruby reunites with her mother at a coffee shop, in a true tear-jerker of a scene.

“I’ve shown you monsters and planets and legends, but this? Honey, your adventure is just beginning,” the Doctor tells Ruby as she leaves the TARDIS, but he promises that he’ll see her again.

And that, declares a voice over, is how “the story of the church on Ruby Road comes to an end.” Ruby is gone, for now, although casting announcements from the show’s producers have stated that Gibson and Varada Sethu, another returning actress, will both be companions next season.

There is one remaining unanswered question: Who is Mrs. Flood? She is the one speaking to us in the voice over, it turns out. The camera pans up to the roof of Ruby’s house, where an older woman is standing in a white fluffy coat, holding a parasol as she stares down the lens.

Of the Doctor, she teases: “I’m sorry to say, his story ends in absolute terror.” The shot zooms in on Mrs. Flood’s darkly rimmed eyes and red lipstick-smeared mouth. She grins, and ends the episode with a chilling “Night, night” — a promise of more creepiness to come when “Doctor Who” returns for Season 2.

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