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Death Comes to ‘Doctor Who’ in Spectacular Season Finale

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The anticipation for the first season of the new phase of Doctor Who, following the BBC’s deal with Disney for the global rights to the series, was palpable. The wait between Jodie Whittaker’s final special and the arrival of Doctor Who in its new home felt like an eternity, but now we’re back in the saddle and off to the races, reinvigorated by the return of our beloved show. So where did the series leave us at the end of its eight-episode season, the first with our newest Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa?

The season finale, “Empire of Death,” written by showrunner Russell T. Davies and directed by Jamie Donoughue, is a high-stakes battle that pushes The Doctor to the brink of sanity and existence itself. The greatest adversary he’s ever faced, Sutekh (voiced by Gabriel Woolf), is alive, and Death is coming for everything. The Doctor and his companion Ruby (Millie Gibson) face an impossible task. Will Sutekh’s doom reign supreme, or will they be able to save the day? And how is Ruby’s past involved in the destruction of Earth? Could it be the key to saving the entire universe? 

RTD left so many questions in the balance of the penultimate episode, “The Legend of Ruby Sunday,” and he doesn’t disappoint with his initial return to Doctor Who. How does he manage to wrap up the season in a pretty little bow(tie)? Read on to discover what I thought of this most recent reinvention of the classic sci-fi show.

[Warning: Spoilers from Doctor Who’s season finale are below!]

Death comes knocking in Doctor Who season finale “Empire of Death”

The penultimate episode left audiences on an exciting cliffhanger, finally revealing who was behind the impending doom that has hung over The Doctor and Ruby the entire season. While initially, the duo and Unit believed the mysterious woman who has popped up in across time and space to be The Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan, it is revealed that the head of S Triad Technology was just a puppet for the evil Egyptian Bat-dog that has been pulling strings for quite some time.

The Doctor is confused, as he had previously banished Sutekh into the time vortex when he was in his fourth incarnation as Tom Baker. However, Sutekh, the cunning villain he is, survived by latching into the TARDIS and joyriding through time and space in the weirdest game of piggyback ever, unbeknownst to The Doctor. Thousands of years and millions of galaxies later, Sutekh reveals his master plan, hinging on the placement of Susan Triad (Susan Twist) on every planet they’d ever visited.

Ruby Sunday and The Doctor
Ruby (Millie Gibson) and The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) in “Empire of Death”. Doctor Who (Disney+/BBC).

Like a trail of breadcrumbs spanning the universe, Sutekh brings death to every place and civilization The Doctor has ever encountered, heralding the end of everything as we know it, except for The Doctor, Ruby, and former companion Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford). The trio makes a desperate escape in a makeshift TARDIS constructed from Ruby’s memories, but their flight feels futile in the face of a seemingly inevitable doom.

With nowhere in the universe to hide, the Doctor and his companions must figure out how to right Sutekh’s wrongs before it’s too late. While the stakes appear higher than ever, there’s no time to waste, and at the core of the mystery is Ruby and her mother’s identity. Why is this single event so important to Sutekh? The Doctor will have to figure that out, as the night at Ruby Road might be the only thing to rid the world of Sutekh once again.

A worthy villain for a brilliant new season of Doctor Who

I understand that some people have had issues with the closing chapter of this new season of Doctor Who, but I loved it. Sutekh was the perfect villain who had ties to the wider Doctor Who lore, but not enough that you needed to know an encyclopedia to appreciate. Having only appeared on-screen in Pyramids of Mars, there’s just enough to appeal to seasoned fans of the series without alienating new viewers to the show. 

Sutekh
Sutekh (voiced by Gabriel Woolf). Doctor Who (Disney+/BBC).

Part of the reinvention of Doctor Who through this partnership between Disney and the BBC is that they wanted to expand the appeal and viewership of the series. After 60 years, it’s probably difficult to keep the numbers up, so a slight reset is essential occasionally. In doing so, you want to make sure there’s a blend of the old with the new, and in doing so, you simply explain the stuff that new viewers might not understand. Jumping into a villain such as The Master, who has cropped up for nearly every Doctor, might overwhelm some new viewers and stop them from continuing on when it returns for the Christmas special.

As a result, a monster like Sutekh is perfect for a situation like this because it gives a small taste of that larger Doctor Who lore without the need to go back and watch 60 years of episodes. Sutekh is this foreboding force that challenges the Doctor in a way he isn’t unprepared for. This isn’t the flux, which also wiped out civilizations at exponential rates, as this creature is hell-bent on destroying the universe to get back at the Doctor and not just a force of nature. 

He’s scary, even if it was obvious the stakes weren’t as large as those behind the series thought they were. It’s known that another season is on the horizon, therefore, the death of everything and everyone in the universe doesn’t hold any weight. For a second, watching Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and Rose (Yasmin Finney) disintegrate on-screen hit hard, but the knowledge of another season of Doctor Who and the upcoming spin-off series took away that immediate danger. This may be why some viewers took offense to Sutekh because the weight of his threat was nuked by knowing what’s to come.

Doctor Who Villains Guide: Who is Sutekh?

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Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson lead an exceptional cast

The emotional crux of the episode made up for any problems I felt with Sutekh, both from Gatwa and Gibson. When first introduced to Gatwa’s 15th Doctor, the concept of the bi-generation was so that the 14th Doctor (David Tennant) could heal, so Gatwa’s Doctor could go off on guilt-free adventures. But the current Doctor has shown just how much trauma he still harbors in his soul.

Gatwa’s performance in the final episode is gut-wrenching, having to feel the soul-crushing loss of the entire universe. Their acting this season has been exceptional, but “Empire of Death” is entirely different. It hurt so bad to see them completely broken, feeling guilty about what occurred, and unable to do anything about it. Gatwa gives an Emmy-worthy performance, proving that they are indeed the perfect person for the role of The Doctor.

Millie Gibson gave an impressive performance this season as well. Ruby Sunday is easily one of the best companions in recent years, who ended up just being your average girl. That’s right, she wasn’t just a plot point, but her story went the way of Rey Skywalker. She’s exceptional because she isn’t someone special. I enjoyed that so much more than making her another impossible girl or something of the sort because it shows that humans can be amazing just for being themselves.

Ruby’s story also provides emotional catharsis through the journey of finding her mother. This has been one of the connective tissues threaded through the new season: a carrot dangled in front of Ruby that she’s told she can’t have. When her mother’s identity becomes integral to the larger mystery, audiences (and Ruby, for that matter) finally get the emotional release that comes from closure.

While this isn’t the end of Ruby’s journey on the TARDIS, it easily could be and everyone involved would feel alright. She got her happy ending, and she knew where she came from, which was all she wanted in the first place. This season’s ending left me satisfied, which is all I can ask for from one of my favorite television shows.

The Doctor Who season finale is now streaming on Disney+ along with the rest of the season! Let us know your thoughts on this season on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord!

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

Brian Kitson has 368 posts and counting. See all posts by Brian Kitson