I watched The Power of the Doctor with two people who like Doctor Who, who have often watched it and enjoyed it but who are not fans. Both are women: Claire has watched much of the original series, catching up with it on VHS and DVD and watching The TV Movie on its first broadcast; Helen is a woman in her early 20s, who has seen most of the revival since 2005, liked The Sarah Jane Adventures, but has hardly seen any of the classic series. Both parted company with Doctor Who around the time of The Tsuranga Conundrum and haven’t been back since.
We know what the fans think of the Jodie Whittaker era: what do two occasional viewers like Claire and Helen think? What follows, dear reader, is an account of their reaction to the strange tale of the final battle of the Thirteenth Doctor…
Be warned: strong opinions follow and you might not agree with it all. But that’s being human, isn’t it? We can’t always agree on everything…
I record some of Helen and Claire’s reactions to the episode as it unfolds:
The Cybermen turn up. Claire: “Why have the Cybermen got doilies on their heads?” Helen: “Why have they got ice cream wafers on their heads? Look at the fancy face patterns: do they go to an engraving parlour to get themselves decorated?”
The Master, alias Rasputin, starts his squirming machinations. Helen: “I like the new Master. He’s like Missy: very unstable.”
Claire is confused by Vinder, who crashes his spaceship on the planet. “Who’s this? I’m sure we know him from somewhere. Wasn’t he in Jodie’s first episode?” (He wasn’t, dear reader. Vinder appeared in Flux.)
The Dalek offers the Doctor the power to end the Dalek race. Claire: “We’ve had this before, haven’t we? End the whole Dalek race. Wasn’t it in an old Pertwee or Baker episode?”
The fam move into the volcano. Claire: “Why isn’t Yaz hot when she’s next to the lava?”
Helen: “I hate the new TARDIS interior.” Claire: “It looks like cheap Christmas decorations.”
Claire: “Why aren’t they hot when they’re inside the volcano? This is really starting to bug me.”
The Doctor and the Master confront each other on the metal planet. “I don’t get it. What’s happening?” asks Helen. The Doctor links the two TARDISes together. Helen uses a bad word which we can’t repeat here. Then she uses some more bad words. “I have no bloody idea what’s going on.”
Ashad the Cyberman turns up. Helen doesn’t know his backstory because she hasn’t seen his episode and asks, “Why is that guy a zombie? I thought the Cybermen shredded your flesh when they put you in the metal suit. So why has he got a face?”
Claire is unhappy about the cyber-conversion scenes. “Too nasty. Too much torture.”
Helen and Claire are confused about why the Daleks are drilling.
Jo Martin appears. “Who’s that? What, she’s the Doctor?”
“Who’s the child? Is she the Doctor as well?”
“Why is the Master Rasputin?”
The action moves to Vinder’s ship. “Where are we now?” asks Claire. In Vinder’s ship, I say. “Oh,” says Claire. Helen says, “I haven’t followed any of this.”
Jodie’s forced regeneration starts. Someone (not me) comments, “Regenerate into someone who can act next time.” Snorts of derision from Helen and Claire when Jodie mentions her ‘extended fam’. “It’s funny when the Master says it but it’s ridiculous that we’re meant to take it seriously when she says it.” Helen starts laughing when Yaz weeps at the Doctor’s impending regeneration.
More snorts of derision at the mention of Ryan. Helen is unimpressed at Yaz’s farewell to the Doctor. “Was that the big romantic climax, then? At least Rose got a snog.” The Doctor and Yaz eat ice creams and sit on top of the TARDIS. “How did they get up there, please?”
Cheers as Jodie regenerates into David Tennant.
As the dust clears after the episode, I ask Helen and Claire for their considered reactions to what they’ve seen. Both praise Sacha Dhawan as the Master.
Helen: “He’s very like John Simm, when he did his insane thing as the Master. But the way the paintings all changed into the Master’s face was too like the episode where all the human beings got the Master’s face, when the Master was played by John Simm. The dance to ‘Ra, Ra Rasputin’ was excellent but it was too like the scene where John Simm played, ‘I Can’t Decide’ by Scissor Sisters to David Tennant’s Doctor.”
Claire also thought that Dhawan was excellent. “He actually unbalances the story because he’s so good, he outshines Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. When they are on screen together, you look at him. And why make him Rasputin at all? It’s only so that he can dance to the Boney M track – which he does very well and it’s very funny. And so they can show the Winter Palace, which looks very pretty. That seems to be the whole raison d’etre for those scenes.”
What about the return of the old Doctors? Helen likes Sylvester commenting on Paul’s refusal to wear a robe: “There’s always one.” Claire says the other Doctors are so good, “it just shows Jodie up when they cut back to her. It’s like getting a cartoon character after the real thing.” Both Helen and Claire enjoy the nostalgia of seeing old Doctors but wonder how much it will mean to people who are only familiar with the post-2005 revival. Helen: “I just wondered who this episode is made for. Is it for the fans of the old shows? Because I can’t make head or tail of it.”
Both liked the Companions Anonymous scenes and asked who they all were. Helen: “But the scene is too short and should have been developed. In fact, you could do a whole spin off about Companions Anonymous!” Helen recognised Jo from The Sarah Jane Adventures, but not Ian Chesterton from An Unearthly Child.
And overall, what did they think?
Claire: “I didn’t like it. It was confusing and bitty and I couldn’t follow the plot. There were too many settings – UNIT, the metal planet, the volcanos. And why were the Daleks drilling? I didn’t understand that. The Daleks were just presented as another threat but it wasn’t tied into the main plot. What was the main plot anyway? Who was the child? Why didn’t the Doctor rescue the child? The Doctor ignored a child floating in the air, in chains! In previous stories, the Doctor would have thought that rescuing the child was the most important thing in the universe – but Jodie just left her. What about the missing seismologists? Weren’t they important? Why didn’t the Doctor rescue them? She seemed happy to let them go… The Csarina’s child was mentioned and then dropped.
“What were the Daleks doing? Why were they in it at all? As for the good Dalek, we’ve had humanised Daleks before, with Christopher Eccleston…
“There was too much flibbertigibbet technobabble, especially at the beginning. And the episode started with a climax, the massacre on the train, and then there’s no way you can escalate it from that point.
“Jodie Whittaker is a lightweight; when the other Doctors appeared, we had a welcome rest from her, but she was shown up by Davison and McCoy and the other Doctors, and the Master. The nostalgia stuff was nice but not connected to the story. And I hated the TARDIS set – it looked really cheap.
“It was just too busy, too bitty, flitting from one scenario to another. It was exhausting to watch. Previous stories would have spent longer, say, in UNIT HQ, establishing it as a real place. The locations were not fully imagined or explained or realised.”
Helen: “It started on a train, then suddenly we’re in a palace and you wonder what the hell’s going on. All these changes of locations, with big captions – it’s like a James Bond movie. As for the plot, it was just ideas soup. I just kept tuning out because I had no idea what was going on. It was nice to have the old Doctors and companions back but it just seemed there were enough ideas here for a dozen different stories and none of them was developed. It was a bit like David Tennant’s final episodes, where you had the Sarah Jane Adventures/Torchwood crossover, but that worked: The Power of the Doctor and Tennant’s final episode were both big send off episodes, but the Tennant one worked because it had a comprehensible story.
“It was good to see older women action heroes and I liked Ace and Tegan. I didn’t know who they were because I haven’t seen those episodes. I did recognise Jo from The Sarah Jane Adventures and I had more of a sense of who she was, like [I did when] Sarah Jane when she returned in School Reunion. This was trying to do the same thing, bringing back an old companion, but it didn’t do it so well. Tegan had more to do than Ace, which was a shame: the scene with her and the Davison Doctor was good. To be honest, I thought that there was no differentiation between Tegan and Ace. They might as well have been the same character and they might as well just have brought back one of them. I did like Ace’s jacket, though. I assume that Ace and Tegan were talking to their own Doctors? Those scenes were sweet. It was good when they told Yaz, “We were you,” but it wasn’t developed. It was [a similar scene that was developed] in School Reunion, when Sarah Jane and Rose talked about their time with the Doctor. Yaz wasn’t given a role in the meeting with Ace and Tegan and you thought, well, how is she feeling? Does she feel insecure? Nothing was developed enough and I felt sad for the actors.”
Claire: “Jodie is a lightweight Doctor. I don’t believe in her. She has no variety of facial expressions, she always looks the same, she doesn’t give you the sense that the Doctor is old, or sad, or aghast, or terrified: she’s just boring to watch. All the other Doctors had so much more range: Tennant had rage and a haunted look; the Doctor has always had world weariness, and rage, and an understanding of evil, and a horror of it. Jodie just hasn’t got the range. She just does the technobabble. The other Doctors didn’t always get on with everyone: they could be awkward and cussed. Jodie just gets on with everyone: the Doctor’s range, the horror at evil – it’s all gone. Whittaker just plays at being the Doctor.”
Helen: “I’m willing to forgive a lot because I’m on the side of gender blind casting but Jodie just isn’t any good as the Doctor and we shouldn’t pretend she is out of fear of giving succour to those who say you shouldn’t cast a woman as the Doctor. A better writer or director would have got a better performance out of Jodie Whittaker.”
Claire: “I liked Jo Martin in Back to Life but I had no sense of what she was like as the Doctor from this episode.”
Helen asks Claire if she can explain the story in two sentences.
Claire: “Well, the Master had a plot and I couldn’t understand it. What is forced regeneration anyway? Is that a thing? Has it been in the series before? This was 90 minutes long, the same length as the Paul McGann TV Movie. Now that had a good story, with developed characters. With this, I was thinking: slow down. What’s the point of the plot here? What’s the centre? What’s most important? Don’t just put all your ideas down in one episode! It was like watching a mind map of lots of ideas, crammed into 90 minutes. You don’t have to use all your ideas! Helen, what do you think the plot was?
Helen: “No idea. Nothing was clearly developed. They should’ve lost the Daleks, the earthquakes, the Russia scenes – then maybe you have a story. Strip it down. The plot at the centre was the face off between the Doctor and the Master. You could have based the story on that. And you didn’t need the Cybermen either. I didn’t get why the volcano went to metal. What was the metal planet about? Why were the two planets shooting at each other? What was the mushroom planet? Was that inside the volcano? Just too many ideas, not developed. Jodie Whittaker is not as good an actor as Sacha Dhawan and doesn’t put everything she’s got into the part, while he does, and looks exhausted and gives everything to his performance as the Master. She just skims the surface.”
Marks out of 10? Final remarks?
Claire: “Three out of 10. If you drop into an episode of Doctor Who, as I did tonight, out of the blue, you should be able to identify the Doctor as the same character as ever and the show should have the same heart. I didn’t get that sense at all. Jodie doesn’t come across as the Doctor, she just doesn’t have the range. Not like Matt Smith, who was my favourite Doctor of the revived series: his old, old eyes, that he was not of this world, that he had seen horrors. Jodie doesn’t convey any of this. You have to be able to drop into an episode and say, that’s the Doctor, that’s the same character. The monsters are the same, the Daleks and the Cybermen, but that’s not enough. Sacha Dhawan stole the show. This episode wasn’t as bad as The Tsuranga Conundrum, which was when I ceased to be a regular viewer, but only because Chibnall threw everything he had into it.”
Helen: “One out of 10. No, three. I liked the companion support group: that was sweet, that was a really good idea. But David Tennant is back! For the first time in years, I am excited about the next episode of Doctor Who.”
Well, there we have it: a very small selection of casual viewers catch up on Doctor Who. At least Helen’s excited for the future, right?