Empire of Death

Posted in Episode by - June 22, 2024
Empire of Death

Aired 22 June 2024

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Sutekh reigns supreme with a shadow falling over all of creation in ‘Empire of Death’ by Russell T Davies, ending Ncuti Gatwa’s first run as the Fifteenth Doctor on an emotional high that just about manages to answer all of this season’s lingering mysteries in the process.

The Doctor from the start refers to Sutekh as the most powerful and dangerous foe he has ever encountered, and within moments this god of death proves why he has earned the Doctor’s fear and respect as everyone on Earth turns to dust as a cloud sweeps across the planet and then the cosmos. With a startlingly effective visual of the TARDIS hanging in space against a backdrop of dead planets, the universal effect of Sutekh’s all-encompassing power is overwhelming and visceral, and tying his influence directly to the Doctor’s travels and attempts to do good throughout space and time as he furtively clung to the TARDIS for so very long along the way creates a resonant and truly dire crisis of introspection for the Doctor who has rarely been put in such a tumultuous emotional state. Of course the Doctor has always stood for principled morality in the face of evil in its many forms, but having him confront the possibility that he has been the means of delivery of such death and devastation allows Gatwa to showcase an incredible range of emotion as the Doctor must consider all of the countless lives on countless worlds that are now lost in the wake of his travels.

Strangely, however, having Sutekh be so completely victorious so early in the episode means that there is no sense of building conflict between the Doctor and Sutekh and no possibility of any sort of burgeoning resistance that so often features in the face of seemingly total defeat. Death is final, and though this is an emotionally stark and draining fact that again highlights Sutekh’s utter power, it also ends up being somewhat anticlimactic from a narrative standpoint which Davies seems to realize and attempts to alleviate by focusing very much on the human toll of such loss. Whether or not the concept of memory being a time machine works on the level needed here, the remembered TARDIS blending together so many elements from the past of Doctor Who is an effective means of conveyance, allowing the Doctor to see the extent of Sutekh’s power in person as even memory itself begins to die. Guest star Sian Clifford is brilliant in her short time on screen to highlight the very intimate turmoil as the wave continues to spread, her character remembering that her child is dead as the wave horrifyingly passes backwards from child to parent proving to be one of the most powerful scenes precisely because of Clifford’s understated but beautifully emotive performance that makes Sutek’s reign all that more palpable.

Though from the moment that everyone in UNIT is reduced to dust it’s clear that some sort of reset button will be involved to effectively eliminate any sense of consequence, the fact that Sutekh has become obsessed with the mystery of Ruby’s mother- a fact that ultimately leads to his downfall since he could have killed the Doctor and his friends at any time- is an intriguing tie to the season’s overarching mystery. It’s a relief that Ruby ends up being nothing more than a regular human with a regular human mother instead of some shrouded all-important figure with latent powers that emerge in a time of crisis, and the idea that someone like Ruby’s mother becomes important and even impossible simply because other people make her important and impossible is as profound as it is prosaic. However, despite some nice ties to ’73 Yards’ both with the effects of the TARDIS’s perception filter and with population mandates within that future, determining the identity of Ruby’s mother was never an all-encompassing motivation for Ruby to make her that important until recently. The small teases and the strong recurring snowfall motif have worked to continue to layer a sense of mystery around Ruby, and it’s great that Ruby finally does get to connect with the woman she has longed to meet for so many years, but hinging the gap in Sutekh’s plans around this woman doesn’t quite work despite the obvious narrative strength that comes form a regular person being able to stand up to a god. Less important but also falling somewhat flat is the purported reason that Sutekh names Susan after the Doctor’s granddaughter in order to create a perfect trap for his foe since the Doctor did not even know about Susan Triad’s name until the last episode despite already being invested in her identity after seeing her face throughout his journeys.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a finale without some grand and visual climax, and ‘Empire of Death’ certainly delivers in that regard with the ludicrous but effective idea of the Doctor bringing death to death as he drags Sutekh through the vortex. This is the type of idea that only Doctor Who can manage, and Gatwa is superb through these moments as well as the Doctor frames his own existence in comparison to Sutekh. Indeed, this episode is filled with plenty of emotional moments for Gatwa, Millie Gibson, and Bonnie Langford that each actor delivers powerfully to truly drive home the stakes of and dangers of these events that become all too personal for the Doctor; while the reset is inevitable, the journey to get there is a satisfying one that ultimately sets the Doctor and Millie on new trajectories going forward as the intensifying mystery about Mrs Flood and her familiar reference to the Doctor as a clever boy again emerges before the story’s close.

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