Doctor Who Finds Itself a Family in “Empire of Death”

Mrs. Flood out there breaking the fourth wall like it’s made of eggshells…


Image: Disney+

The Doctor and Mel run from Susan Triad, who is now an agent of Sutekh (Gabriel Woolfe). All of Sutekh’s minions begin spreading the dust of death, which wipes out the entire population, Mel manages to get the Doctor to Ruby in the Time Window, and her memories allow the TARDIS within the Time Window to grow stronger so that they can board it. The console room is a very hodgepodge affair of the memory of all previous TARDISes packed into a pretty tight space. Sutekh shows up and tells the Doctor that he has been following him throughout the universe, latched onto the outside TARDIS, and planting his own agents (copies of Susan) that the Doctor couldn’t see due to perception filters. They are now destroying every place the Doctor has been to, taking up the majority of the universe.

The Doctor, Ruby, and Mel escape in the remembered TARDIS. The Doctor uses “intelligent rope” (similar to the glove he made) to keep the ship stable and materializes in space, mourning the loss of the universe. An unknown amount of time passes and the Doctor arrives on a world that is only half-gone, meeting a woman (Sian Clifford) who can barely remember who she is, or the family she’s lost. The Doctor asks if she has any metal and she gives him the last bit in her possession—a spoon. He thanks her and promises to use it to save the universe.

Back on the TARDIS, the Doctor uses the spoon to repair a screen from the Time Window. It only responds to Ruby’s questions and sends her bit of video, including footage of her mother’s blank visage, and interview from Roger ap Gwilliam. The Doctor remembers that Gwilliam made DNA testing compulsory, so they can go to the future and find out who Ruby’s mother is; apparently this mystery has been haunting Sutekh as well. As a being who has been able to see all of Time and Space, not being able to see Ruby’s mother is driving him mad. They land in 2046 and go looking through the DNA records right as Mel finally falls prey to Sutekh’s control, and she transports them all back to UNIT HQ with the answer to Ruby’s parentage.

Sutekh demands the name of Ruby’s mother, and she makes to offer it, but smashes the screen with her identity at his feet and attaches the intelligent rope to his neck. The Doctor attaches the rope to the console and they drag Sutekh through the time vortex, forcing him to undo all that he’s done. Then the Doctor tells Sutekh that he must be life’s champion if Sutekh is the bringer of death, but the God has made him a monster because he must kill him now. He releases Sutekh into the time vortex, where the god disintegrates.

Back at UNIT, the group brings up the file on Ruby’s mother, Faye McKeever—just an ordinary woman who had Ruby when she was fifteen years old. It turns out that Sutekh only believed that she must be the key to defeating him because of the mystery and attention Ruby placed on her; their belief that she was important is what made her so. The reason that she was pointing in the Doctor’s direction on the old tape wasn’t to make note of him, but the street sign: She gave Ruby her name. Ruby wants to go meet her mother, and the Doctor suggests that perhaps she shouldn’t because the woman never attempting to contact her. Ruby ignores him and introduces herself at a coffee shop, prompting a tearful reunion. Faye comes home to meet her family and they get in touch with the man who was her father as well. Ruby wants the Doctor to come meet everyone, but the Doctor knows that she needs this time to herself. He promises that she’s changed him and that he will see her again, leaving in the TARDIS.

Mrs. Flood is one the roof of the building, telling us that Ruby got a happy ending, but the Doctor’s story will end in terror…

Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) and the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) facing each other on Doctor Who, Empire of Death
Image: Disney+


Look, I know it’s convenient (and less gory) to vanish everyone in a puff of dust, but it hasn’t even been a decade since the Marvel Snapture, so it’s still abjectly hilarious to use it.

The mechanics of the episode are pretty downright silly, which is a usual thing for these finales. Of course we could only see the Susans now that Sutekh’s power is reaching some sort of critical point. Of course Sutekh is completely defeated by his own hubris and could have easily avoided this issue if he’d only come into his power a little earlier or a little later. That’s how the universe looks after the Doctor, and we should count ourselves lucky, really. And it still results in a wonderfully neat ending that harbors very few loose ends. The ones that we’ve got will likely be ported to next season anyhow.

The Doctor has to have his moment of agony over the idea of being a murderer, and Gatwa does a beautiful job acting that moment (as always), but it is a little goofy how the character gets caught up in the idea of murder only some of the time. Technically speaking, he murdered Sutekh the last time he defeated him (or thought he did, at any rate)… the only difference is that he thought Sutekh was going to die of old age within that time tunnel, cut off from the universe. That’s still ultimately a form of murder! Just really slow murder, one where Sutekh is pointedly all alone for the rest of his life, which seems crueler? I dunno, it just seems like a thing that Doctor could stand to examine a little more carefully in the future, if they’re gonna get all angsty about it.

The reveal that Ruby’s mother is just a person, that they are responsible for giving her power, is a great theme that Davies in particular loves to highlight in Doctor Who. The Doctor himself always has a love for people, but it is fun to track the balance on that scale, and how often they counter by railing against their pettiness and stupidity. (Eleven and Twelve were not Doctors blessed with much patience for humans, which is saying something when you consider how grouchy Nine could also be.) But bringing the point out here, in this story, at a point where the Doctor has been connecting with his friend over the idea of needing family, of wanting to understand where he comes from, of longing for those reunions himself, is a gorgeous place to end the season.

Of course he doesn’t want to stick around for the aftermath, but he says it outright—Ruby has taught him about family in a way that no one else could. And she’s coming back at some point in the next season, according to promotional materials, so he’s not going to leave her be forever, another comfort to take from that teary ending.

The clue as to who Ruby’s mother is ultimately came from Carla in the last episode, and I still think it’s a such a powerful choice: She’s the one who notices a scared young woman in tears, and she’s the one who talks to her like a person across time and tells her what she needs to hear. Carla always knew that she was probably just some scared kid and never loses sight of that, no matter how magic or otherworldly the situation gets. Absolutely beautiful.

And I love that the Doctor tries to stop Ruby from connecting with her mother when they find her. It’s… such a perfect mistake for him to make. One that he thinks is fair and pragmatic and kind, but is actually selfish and a bit jealous and centered around a decision that he should absolutely not insert himself into.

It’s so in keeping with what we know about the Doctor throughout his entire history: trying to stop Amy from going to find Rory in the past; attempting to hide that they’ve (finally) landed at the airport from Tegan; sulkily dropping Sarah Jane off across the country from where she needed to be. The Doctor is terrible at letting people go—and that’s without taking into account that some small part of him must fear never getting this moment for himself. Never finding out where he comes from and whether or not there are people out there who love and miss him.

Ruby doesn’t let him stop her and I have such respect for it. For knowing what she needs and deserves, and taking the chance that this encounter will go poorly. For being that brave despite her very best friend telling her not to be. That might say more about her character than the entire season has, when all is said and done.

There are so many great little bits in this episode. The hodgepodge console room that I want to be real at some point in the future. The intelligent rope acting as a leash? The “cultural appropriation” comment to hang a very large lantern on the racism in the original serial. The suggestion that the Doctor might be coming around to the idea of seeing Susan again one day.

But my absolute favorite? Mel cuddling the Seventh Doctor’s sweater vest and clutching at the sleeve of Six’s rainbow coat.

Bonnie Langford is an absolute MVP all the way around of late, but these moments in particular really zero in on one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the show in a way that nothing else can: that the Doctor is always the Doctor, but when they regenerate, that piece of them is truly gone. It is an actual death, the way the Doctor always insists it to be. Mel isn’t napping with Seven’s sweater under her chin because Fifteen won’t let her snuggle up—she’s doing it because she misses him specifically. Those Doctors were hers, and she loved them, and they’re gone now. When Fifteen is gone (and Fourteen too), if she’s around to see it, that will also hurt. Being in the position to be a friend to this strange immortal being comes with all sorts of weird grief built-in. While it’s painful for the Doctor to feel unseen when they change, there’s another kind of sadness that happens on the other end. And all they had to do to communicate that was focus on Mel’s need to touch a few pieces of clothing.

Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford) and the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) on Mel's orange scooter on Doctor Who, Empire of Death
Image: Disney+

Time and Space and Sundry

  • The one major mystery left over is Mrs. Flood, of course. I’m guessing that Cherry barely remembers anything the woman said (Kate claimed she only recalled flashes of the end), which accounts for her being so happy to see her when they both reconstitute, but it would have been much funnier if she’d shoved the woman out of bed. She’s dressed very Mary Poppins there at the end, which has echoes of the Master, of course—Missy loved the Poppins look. But Flood also has godly connotations as well as nihilistic ones. Après moi, le déluge, and all that.
  • The Doctor riding on the back of Mel’s orange scooter. That is all.
  • So Sutekh has just been clinging to the outside of the TARDIS all this time, which means that when Jack Harkness was doing the same thing, he was probably pretty displeased to share the space.
  • Kate kvetching about the bullets dissolving to dust is a callback to her father, the Brigadier, who always complained that bullets never work on alien threats. Which is good for UNIT, honestly. Be more creative, y’all.
  • Okay, but the idea of Ruby’s mom pointing to the road sign to indicate her name was a bad idea, though. Come on, you could’ve given us something more interesting than that. How would the monks even know she—you know what, I’m leaving it alone. It will only upset me if I think too hard about it.
  • Moments like this in fiction are everything to me: Ruby gives her name for the coffee. The whole conversation with her mother is prompted by the guy calling out her name to hand her the drink. Which means that while this tearful reunion is taking place, that guy is still probably standing there like… do you want me to hold on to the cappuccino? I—you know what, you’re busy. All good. I’ll just… leave it here.

And that’s the season! See you over the holidays, I suspect… icon-paragraph-end

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