Doctor Who episode 8 review: After all the hype and hoopla, this finale is a big let-down

The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Mel (Bonnie Langford) in ‘Doctor Who’  (Sophie Mutevelian/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Mel (Bonnie Langford) in ‘Doctor Who’ (Sophie Mutevelian/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

In a recent interview with The New York Times, returning Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies said that he wanted the latest incarnation of the BBC blockbuster to reflect the positive trend among young people to “express their emotions in a healthy way”. This was in reference to Ncuti Gatwa’s teary, big-hearted Doctor – a Time Lord who isn’t embarrassed to shed a tear or jig with joy.

But as Gatwa’s first season draws to a close with its eighth episode, the one emotion Whoivans young, old and in-between, are likely to share is the sting of anticlimax. After stringing us along since last year’s Christmas special with the so-called “mystery” of Ruby Sunday’s origins, the series delivers the mother of all letdowns: Ruby’s mum is just an ordinary person.

The argument Davies proceeds to make, using the Doctor as a mouthpiece, is that it is Ruby’s average quality that makes Louise – Ruby’s mum – so extraordinary. Or as the Time Lord puts it: “She was important because we think she’s important. That’s how everything happens. Every war, every religion, every love story.” Erm, alright.

There are echoes, here, of the cop-out at the end of the atrocious 2017 Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi – in which writer-director Rian Johnson revealed that the parents of Daisy Ridley’s Rey were “no one” important – thus exposing the much-hyped riddle of her heritage to be tacky sleight of hand.

That feint almost sank Star Wars – there’s a case to be made that the franchise has never quite recovered – but it is hard to imagine Doctor Who suffering the equivalent reputational damage. For one thing, we’ve only known Ruby (Millie Gibson) for one season, so it’s hard to be too emotionally invested in the big mystery of where she comes from.

The other point is that much like poor Jodie Whittaker fighting Chris Chibnall’s terrible storylines in previous seasons, Gatwa is a great Doctor out of the gate – and it is slightly beside the point that he’s been saddled with some ropy plots, exemplified nowhere better than in this finale.

Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

But the key to a great season of Doctor Who is a great Doctor and Gatwa has ticked that box. Sooner or later, everything else is going to fall into place. That, at least, will be the hope of the BBC (and Disney +, which has the global streaming rights) following this damp squib of a season closer.

Beyond the disappointing denouement surrounding Ruby’s origins, the finale picks the action up straight after episode seven with the return of 1970s mega-villain Sutekh, accompanied by an avatar of death in the form of the enigmatic Susan Triad (Susan Twist).

In keeping with Who’s new global profile, the devastation has overtones of Marvel and the “snap” extinction event from The Avengers. “I bring Sutekh’s dust,” says Triad as she unleashes a storm of annihilation that spreads outwards from UNIT’s HQ through London and the entire planet. (Susan is a devoted underling and carries out Sutekh’s orders to the letter – wait for Gareth Southgate to pick her as England’s new holding midfielder). And nor is it just Earth that is in a bad way: the swathe of destruction has hit hundreds of planets.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Back in UNIT’s basement “Time Window”, Ruby uses her recollections of the night she was abandoned to summon a “memory Tardis” – a new time machine assembled from previous incarnations of the iconic blue box.

Mrs Flood (ANITA DOBSON) & Cherry (ANGELA WYNTER) (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
Mrs Flood (ANITA DOBSON) & Cherry (ANGELA WYNTER) (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

The gang’s attempt at a clean getaway is rumbled, however. As Ruby, the Doctor and Bonnie Langford’s Mel are about to escape, Sutekh appears and gives a classic villain monologue. He explains that, while the Doctor thought he had defeated Sutekh back in the Tom Baker era, he has, in fact, been hitching a ride on the Tardis this whole time (the Egyptian iconography of the original Sutekh, the Doctor later dismisses as “cultural appropriation”). Sutekh has also laid the groundwork for galactic destruction by using the Tardis’s perception filter to scatter millions of Susans across the universe – all without the Doctor noticing, because his own “perception” has been filtered”. Now, Sutekh’s band of Susans is awake and spreading dust to every planet the Doctor has ever visited.

Sutekh (voiced by 91-year-old Gabriel Wolf, who played him back in 1975) has won, then. Game over, thank you, and good night, right? Not exactly – amid the CGI devastation, one mystery remains unanswered, and it’s driving Sutekh crazy (it turns out he’s both a megalomaniac demon-dog and the nosy neighbour from hell). Who is Ruby’s mother – and why did she abandon her daughter amid that Christmas snow shower? Until that teaser is untangled, he will allow the Doctor to live.

While Sutekh is twitching the figurative curtains, the Doctor has landed on a storm-ravaged planet where a depressed woman, played by Fleabag’s Sian Clifford, hands him the spoon he needs to power the Tardis’s computer (metal is a precious currency following the apocalypse). She then turns to dust. The scene adds little – presumably, it is a gesture to all those Fleabag fans who also enjoy vintage sci-fi and giant killer space dogs.

Empire of Death,Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) & The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
Empire of Death,Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) & The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

Resuming their travels, then, the Doctor, Ruby and Mel receive a hint from the Tardis. It’s footage of Roger Ap Gwilliam (Aneurin Barnard), the evil Prime Minister from the “73 Yards” episode who will set Britain on a course for nuclear oblivion in 2046. The Doctor recalls that, before he went nuke-happy, Ap Gwilliam forced everyone in the country to submit a DNA sample as part of his dictatorial takeover. So, they zoom to 2046 and download Ruby’s mum’s DNA – shortly before Mel is revealed to have been possessed by Sutekh.

With the gang whisked off to Sutekh’s lair, all appears lost. At least it does until the Doctor reveals that actually he knew Mel had been body-snatched all along. In a confusing sequence in an overall confusing episode, which you may need to watch more than once to fully grasp, the Doctor uses a yard of “intelligent rope” to essentially lasso the confused Sutekh before travelling the time channels in his ship. There’s some wonky logic about “bringing death to death” and we see life restored to the universe as Sutekh hangs from the back of the Tardis. The Doctor proceeds to then cut the rope and jettison his nemesis into the void.

It’s a decently enjoyable carnival ride – though it’s a shame the Sutekh special effects aren’t more accomplished. By the time the Doctor gives him the heave-ho, he looks like a Wallace and Gromit Claymation puppet left in the damp for too long.

Empire of Death,Rose (YASMIN FINNEY) & Colonel Ibrahim (ALEXANDER DEVRIENT) (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
Empire of Death,Rose (YASMIN FINNEY) & Colonel Ibrahim (ALEXANDER DEVRIENT) (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

Back on earth, with the UNIT team restored to life, the Doctor delivers the big bombshell. Ruby’s mum wasn’t a Time Lord or a superhero; she was just a frightened 15-year-old named Louise who had left her daughter on the church gates in a panic. Again, what an underwhelming twist – one that straight-up contradicts the portrayal in previous instalments of the mother as a haunting, hooded figure out of a dark fairytale.

Plausible or not, the Doctor and Ruby track down Louise where, against the Doctor’s advice, Ruby introduces herself. The Doctor is still full of positive vibes but having parked the Tardis at Ruby and her stepmom’s London flat, he seems eager to make his excuses. “Your life is out there,” he tells Ruby, nodding towards her family. “I’ve shown you monsters and planets and legends. Your adventure is just beginning.”

He obviously means “adventure” in the boring, non-adventurous sense of Ruby catching up with her birth mother and living a normal existence. That said, this isn’t the end of the character. Davies has already confirmed she’ll be back in 2025, when the Doctor will be joined by a second companion, played by Varada Sethu.

There is at least a sting in the tail as we see Ruby’s creepy old lady neighbour Flood (Anita Dobson) cackling on the roof, as she promises that the Doctor’s story ends “in terror”. Let’s hope so - anything would be better than this bland sign-off, which squanders Gatwa’s charm and fails to give Gibson’s Ruby the farewell she deserves. After so much hope, hype, and hoopla, it’s all a bit of a letdown.