TV Review / Recap: “Empire of Death” Wraps Up This Season of “Doctor Who” in an Exciting, Yet Unsatisfying Fashion

After eight stellar episodes of Doctor Who, it all comes to a head in the grand finale – “Empire of Death.” With many mysteries to be solved, will the season stick the landing? I’m going to let you in on a spoiler: I don’t think it did. But with that, let’s see just what happens in my spoiler-filled recap of “Empire of Death.”

Prior to the opening title sequence, we get a recap of the events of last week’s episode, “The Legend of Ruby Sunday,” which ends with the return of Sutekh in the guise of Susan Triad (Susan Twist). Following the titles, we pick back up on Sutekh bringing his “gift of death” to the room, blowing a dust which kills all within. The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Mel (Bonnie Langford) quickly escape thanks to Mel’s motorbike. Sutekh’s death wave begins to spread across the city and eventually the whole planet, as Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) of UNIT reports in just before she is wiped away. Ruby’s mother, grandmother and Mrs. Flood (Anita Dobson) are also wiped away by the death wave.

The Doctor and Mel reunite with Ruby (Millie Gibson) within the time window, where he discovers a functioning copy of his TARDIS as a “Memory TARDIS.” Sutekh, with the help of his harbinger, now has full control of the Doctor’s actual TARDIS. He reveals that he has been clinging to life on top of the TARDIS ever since he was first defeated in the Fourth Doctor serial “Pyramids of Mars.” That means Sutekh has been traveling with the TARDIS, unknown to the Doctor, for thousands and thousands of years. Sutekh reveals that he discovered a slew of secrets, laying the perfect trap for the Doctor through the anagram of his granddaughter Susan’s name. We see a clip of Susan, as well as some moments from the Doctor and Sutekh’s first encounter.

Susan Triad’s multiple incarnations were laid in place by Sutekh, his “angels of death,” each bringing his dust of death to every single world and time the Doctor has ever visited. Despite his immense power, one thing has avoided Sutekh’s ever-watchful eye – the identity of Ruby’s mother – something that he is now desperate to find out. Barely escaping Sutekh’s clutch, the trio escape to the Memory TARDIS, and successfully manage to pilot it away from Sutekh. In an emotional and beautifully shot scene, the Doctor sits on the edge of the TARDIS overlooking the Earth, while Sutekh’s death wave spreads across the entire planet. The Doctor lets out an anguished scream, while comforted by Ruby and Mel.

We then pick up on the Doctor traveling under a cloak, where he meets a woman on an abandoned planet, with no other life seemingly present. Even her own child is dead, but her memory won’t let her remember. In places, Sutekh’s “gift of death” is working backwards, from child to mother. The Doctor is attempting to retrieve a piece of metal, something real and tangible from outside of the Memory TARDIS. The woman offers him a spoon before fading away.

Back aboard the TARDIS, using a screen still connected to the time window, memories are reaching out to Ruby – including images of her mother, as well as her experiences with Roger ap Gwilliam in “73 Yards” – an experience Ruby had forgot, but with memory still lingering. Meanwhile, Sutekh attempts to find the living through time and space, bringing up Mel’s name on a UNIT computer. Mel then begins to hear Sutekh’s voice, as he attempts to control her mind. She is given the instructions to bring the Doctor to Sutekh and find the mother’s name.

The trio land in 2046, where the events of “73 Yards” took place in an attempt to match Ruby’s DNA to that of her mother’s. They are successful, but not before Mel is completely controlled by Sutekh, her face transformed like that of Susan Triad. Mel returns them to Sutekh at UNIT HQ, where Sutekh brings the Doctor to his knees with his immense control. Ruby, not wanting to see the Doctor suffer, offers up the name of her mother to Sutekh. Just when we think all is over, Ruby smashes the screen and attaches a super-powered gravity rope to Sutekh, using that and the Doctor’s gravity gloves to attach the other end to the TARDIS. The Doctor had actually realized Mel had been controlled by Sutekh before she fully transformed, giving he and Ruby a chance to formulate a plan.

Sutekh is dragged by the TARDIS through the time vortex, passing through every time and space that they had visited before, but this time his gift of death brings life through what can only be called a deus ex machina. Life is restored throughout time and space, of course including all of the Doctor’s friends and comrades. The Doctor proclaims to Sutekh that if the god represents death, then he represents life. The Doctor lets go of the rope holding Sutekh, which causes him to fly off into the vortex, appearing to perish forever.

Returning to UNIT HQ, we find out that despite Susan Triad being a creation of Sutekh, she still has a life all her own, and Kate even offers her a role within UNIT. The team are finally able to track Ruby’s mother, revealed to just be an ordinary woman named Louise, who left Ruby at the Church when she was teenager. Louise is ordinary, but the importance given to her by the Doctor and others appears to be what made her extraordinary.

We then cut to the Doctor and Ruby outside a pub, where inside Louise awaits. The Doctor recommends against Ruby going inside to talk to her mother, because they don’t know why she gave Ruby up. Ruby still goes in, and they end up meeting in a wonderfully emotional scene. We then pick up in Ruby’s mother’s house, where her birth mother meets her adopted mother and grandmother. The TARDIS is once again parked inside Ruby’s house, and Ruby goes to visit him. With the identity of Ruby’s father also discovered, they both realize that she needs to be at home and not traveling with the Doctor right now. Ruby is worried that the Doctor will forget her, but he says they will definitely meet again (which we know to be true, as Millie Gibson is already confirmed to be returning) – and that she made him talk about his family in a way he was never able to before.

As Ruby’s family embraces her, the TARDIS dematerialises and we hear the voice of Mrs. Flood saying that Ruby’s story is complete. But as for the story of the Doctor, his story ends in absolute terror. Wearing a wonderful white coat, the mysterious Mrs. Flood looks directly at the camera and says “night night” as the credits begin to roll on the season’s end.

I will give “Empire of Death” props for actually answering most of the mysteries of the season, but I don’t think they were all done that satisfactory. I was a little disappointed with the resolution of Ruby’s mother just being an ordinary person that ended up being extra powerful, for basically no reason. Sutekh’s menace was well displayed in the beginning of the episode, particularly with his wiping out of all life and control of Mel. But the solving of his plot did feel somewhat in the realm of deus ex machina. One scene that made little sense to me was the random woman the Doctor talks to in the mid-point of the episode. I suppose it’s trying to showcase the depth of Sutekh’s destruction, but it really just felt like the momentum of the episode ground to a complete halt.

I was also disappointed that after all of the callbacks to the Doctor having a granddaughter that we didn’t end the episode with him visiting Susan. The actress, Carole Ann Ford, is still alive – and I think it would have been an emotionally poignant and satisfying way to conclude the season. Of course, maybe Russell T Davies is building things up for this to happen next season.

Sadly, I was disappointed by the conclusion to this season, and I think “Empire of Death” is probably the weakest individual episode of the season – which is disappointing, as I truly loved the set-up in “The Legend of Ruby Sunday.” I just don’t think the second part delivered on the goods. Still, we have the mystery of Mrs. Flood that is sure to be expanded upon further in the upcoming season. I remain excited as ever to see what awaits the future of Doctor Who as the Doctor returns in “Joy to the World” this Christmas!

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Luke Manning
Luke is a fan of all things theme parks and self-proclaimed #1 fan of Joffrey’s Coffee, who lives in Kissimmee, FL