My thoughts on ‘Empire of Death’ – episode 8 of Doctor Who

Warning: do not read this until you have watched or listened to the Doctor Who episode ‘Empire of Death’. Spoilers ahead!

With this blog post, I really wanted to be writing a rave review, euphoric and buzzing after an amazing and satisfying finale. With this series, I’ve been desperately willing it on to be good, to be better. I wanted to love it.

As with nearly every episode this series, plot holes are peppered everywhere and if you think about anything for more than a few seconds, it falls apart and doesn’t make sense. You end up confused and not in a good, mind-blowing way but in an ‘I don’t get it’ way. There is no payoff and it is so disappointing.

I don’t understand. What I always loved about Russell T Davies when he was showrunner and writer before, was that there was such heart, warmth, wit and humour as well as masterful, satisfying plotting that came together cohesively and excitingly to tell great stories. He was so gifted at making us like and care for characters, with many tender and moving moments. With this series though, he seems to have done the exact opposite. There was nothing to the character of Ruby, apart from the ‘mystery’ of her arc; we never came to care about her as a person. She never became a fleshed out, whole character. As a consequence, moments that were meant to be dramatic or emotional, did not have the impact intended. The only fun for us as fans, was to make theories and guess about her origins and about what was going on in the larger story arc. By choosing to go the way he did, making Ruby and her mother “ordinary”, not a big mystery, Russell T Davies stomped all over that and treated us like he treated Sutekh (‘it was only significant because you gave it significance’). Saying that something was only meaningful because we gave it meaning feels lazy and manipulative; he deliberately planted seeds and teased us with mysterious possibilities. It’s like he’s making fun of us, smugly dancing on the corpse of our potential joy and excitement.

We all know that the “ordinary” moments of life are often the special moments and that the ordinary is, in fact, the extraordinary. It’s a point that the Doctor has made many times before. It just doesn’t work well in this instance and is an anticlimax. The sentiment of ‘something/someone is made important by you thinking it/them to be important’ is a trite platitude in this context.

In an interview with Russell T Davies, he calls what he’s doing ‘Internet Age storytelling’ (though I think that he maybe more accurately means ‘Social Media Age storytelling’), he says that it’s for the specific purpose of generating content online. That’s a cynical recipe for disaster, if I ever heard one. I hate that. The focus of a story shouldn’t be on its publicity potential and marketability; write what you love, Russell, and we will probably love it too. His new approach has landed us with gimmicky hooks, episodes devoid of heart and true emotion, uninteresting characters that we don’t care about, undeveloped relationships, and mysteries that do not have satisfying resolutions. I would very much like him to go back to doing storytelling well, like we know he can, instead of just trying to make a buzz around Doctor Who. (Yes, I do recognise the irony here of me writing about the show online!)

There was one brief shining moment when I thought Russell had been pulling one big con by saying in an interview that we would never get answers to our questions from ‘73 yards’. When the Tardis’ 73 yards Perception Filter was mentioned, I thought that we were going to get answers and I saw how that episode could all have been tied together with the larger story but no. So close. Was the Tardis (or something else) projecting the older version of Ruby 73 yards away from wherever Ruby went in that alternative timeline, helping her to save the world? Or was the older version of Ruby herself using the Tardis to do so?

The whole point of ‘73 yards’ was that Ruby saved the world by stopping the Doctor stepping on the fairy circle in the first place so that the spirit of Mad Jack wasn’t released into the world and didn’t enter that Welsh politician, Roger ap Gwilliam. Since Ruby stopped it from ever happening, why was Roger ap Gwilliam still there in their timeline in the future? I actually find that character interesting and want to see more of him but technically, given what happened, he shouldn’t really exist in the same way anymore.

The only moment in the episode when I genuinely got emotional was when I thought Kate was about to be killed off. All I could think was “no, no, don’t you dare, Russell, don’t you dare. Not Kate”. But after she died, when more people started dying and then everyone in the whole of time and space died, it was obviously going to get reversed anyway. It lowered the stakes but phew! Kate is alive. Small mercies.

So, Sutekh has been invisibly attached to the Tardis all along, for all these years since the 4th Doctor. Why wait until now? (The things that Sutekh must have witnessed since the 4th Doctor’s time! In the episode ‘Utopia’, Captain Jack grabbed on to the outside of the Tardis, causing it to fly to the end of the universe trying to shake him off. So, given that the Tardis can tell when something has attached itself to it, why didn’t it try to shake off Sutekh? Also, Sutekh was there in ‘The Pandorica Opens’/‘The Big Bang’ when the Tardis exploded, causing the universe to have never existed. Wouldn’t that have been a better time for Sutekh to make his move?! Wouldn’t he have been caught up in the explosion?)

There were so many things that made no sense. Ruby’s birth mother wouldn’t have known that there was CCTV watching her or that technology in the future would be able to see that she was pointing to the sign of Ruby Road. So, who was she telling, who was she informing that Ruby was the name of her baby? If she was ordinary, why couldn’t we see her face? Why was she wearing a costume cloak? How could Ruby make it snow and why did the Christmas music start playing if she was just an ordinary being (it doesn’t make sense that there was just a ‘raw, open moment in Time’)? I know that Sutekh gave it significance, therefore giving it significance, supposedly making it an open point in time, leaking through. But why would Sutekh care about a random woman giving up her baby? Why would her identity be an interesting mystery for Sutekh? People give up their babies all the time. Many people don’t know who their parents are. Why was Sutekh so interested in Ruby and her birth mother in particular? There have been far more interesting mysteries in all the years that Sutekh has been attached to the Tardis.

If Susan has been appearing in every single place that the Doctor has landed in the Tardis since the 4th Doctor, why has he only started noticing her in the last eight episodes?

I was also really hoping for answers as to who Mrs Flood is. It’s so frustrating to not have anything answered adequately! It seems that Russell T Davies chooses one of two options: he either refuses to give any answers and explanations or he does give us an answer, but it’s the most boring possible answer.

I think that this series is suffering from being far too short. Why is it so short? I want more! It hasn’t been long enough to build relationships. So when the Doctor is crying, it doesn’t feel earned. The emotion doesn’t ring true. It falls flat and we’re not feeling it with him because it has only been 8 episodes. That’s not enough time! I don’t mind that the 15th Doctor is a more emotional Doctor but when he cries in every single episode, it loses its impact.

I also have to complain about the sound again. There were lots of words and phrases that I didn’t catch. Once, I had to go back and listen to the same 10 seconds five times and I still couldn’t make out what was being said. It turned out to be quite crucial and I only know about it now because I listened to ‘Doctor Who: Unleashed’ and Russell T Davies mentioned the line that I missed (‘I had such plans’ said by Mrs Flood) that I finally knew what had been said! There were several other actors guilty of this. Enunciate please! Or at least make each word distinct from adjacent words so that they don’t merge together into an indistinguishable blur of sound!

There also seemed to be a scene that came out of nowhere, which I guess was because the preceding scene had been deleted. For example, the place from where the Doctor gets the spoon seems very random and he’s just suddenly there without any explanation and without us knowing how much time has passed or how he came to be there.

An interesting thought that we are left with: if Sutekh, by bringing death to death, has brought back all the planets and people where the Doctor has landed, has he somehow, maybe, possibly, brought back life to Gallifrey? That would be an interesting direction to go down.

Overall, the episode left me feeling massively deflated and sad, instead of elated and joyful. However, I still feel hopeful. Russell T Davies is capable of greatness and maybe he is playing the long game over many series. Maybe the seeds that he has planted will gradually pay off and I’ll have to eat my words. I hope so. I love Doctor Who and I want it to be great.

What did you think of the episode? Did you enjoy it? What do you feel about the series as a whole? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I love to hear from you.

1 thought on “My thoughts on ‘Empire of Death’ – episode 8 of Doctor Who”

  1. You nailed it Jenny!

    I shouted ‘noooooooo’ at the tele when Kate died! However, I also immediately thought “well, she’ll be alive at the end because they can’t kill everything and leave it that way…”. So there was some peril, for about 10 seconds; but that was it really.

    The Ruby’s birth mother reveal was just odd. So she was normal and that made her special?! And, as you say, why was Sutekh bothered about it all? And, again, Ruby’s birth mother now knows about the Doctor after knowing him for five minutes?!

    The very end brought me some hope. I’d really like to see Mrs Flood as some sort of hidden in plain sight ‘big bad’. But the fact that Sutekh killed her, just like everyone else, would make it kind of strange/weak.

    Bring on a UNIT spinoff with Mel and Ruby’s adoptive mum – I’d watch that!

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