Almost as soon as a new actor takes over in the titular role on Doctor Who, the public starts to wonder how their time will end. The concept of “Regeneration” as a pure storytelling tool was a stroke of genius. The Third Doctor’s final story solidified it as not merely a thing that can happen to Time Lords but a fact of their existence. Still, it’s oddly perverse to always look forward to the ostensible death of the main character. Jodie Whittaker’s final story, “The Power of the Doctor,” did some unexpected things with regeneration as a concept while not doing much beyond that for this particular Doctor’s final story.
Since, perhaps, “The Parting of the Ways” and the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration into the Tenth, the public knew a Doctor was leaving. The pall of death hangs over every one, as the actor’s contract expires and their time on the show ends. How each Doctor meets their end says a lot about who they were. Ten went out kicking and screaming; Eleven literally ran out of time; Twelve softly, defiantly chose kindness. What about the Thirteenth? It says a lot about the muddled ideas of this era that the first woman to play the Doctor has her time marked by loss of agency.
Sacha Dhawan’s Master is a glassy-eyed maniac who always seems to be one-to-nine episodes ahead of our Doctor. If there’s one thing he loved (or loves?) it was telling the Doctor something knowing she could not enact any change to. “The Timeless Children” is literally the Master narrating the Doctor’s life to the Doctor. He tells her the Time Lords used her as a weapon for multiple incarnations prior to her memory of events. It’s a massive revelation. Too bad it means nothing, because he’s already destroyed them. Because, to the Master, the Doctor couldn’t have one over on him.
“The Power of the Doctor” pulls the same trick, it seemed. The whole complicated (read: incomprehensible) plot is to once again fully trap the Doctor and force a regeneration. Not merely that, but force her to regenerate into him. Yaz (poor Yaz) then strands the Master/Doctor on the moon while she goes off with Hologram Doctor and the companions to save the day. Yes, Jodie the actor is around the whole episode. Technically it is the Doctor who helps save the day, but it feels extra weird that it’s an AI of the Doctor’s brainwaves rather than the actual Doctor in her final episode. And that she has to split time with other incarnations.
But everything comes together, Yaz et al manage to revert the Master/Doctor back into two halves. The Doctor herself leads the charge to destroy the Cybermen and the Daleks. She won; surely nothing bad will happen. However, as we all now know, the Master couldn’t have that. In his dying breaths, he changes the trajectory of the Child Squid Energy Beam to blast the Doctor. She’s unconscious for a very long time and wakes up to learn she will soon regenerate.
Not even in the Thirteenth Doctor’s final story could she be the architect of her own fate. The Doctor, during this era, is rarely more than a facilitator of plot, an explainer of events. In all the ways that matter, the Master removes the Doctor’s ability to think and act for herself. The Master’s final words are supremely fitting: “If I can’t be the Doctor, neither can you.” All of his appearances with the Thirteenth Doctor are about stripping the heroic Time Lord of the very thing that makes them such a compelling character: action.
The Doctor should—must—drive the resolution if not the entire narrative. All too frequently during her era, the Thirteenth Doctor is the recipient of action rather than the instigator of it. The Master works so hard to turn into the Doctor only to sit on a planet and do nothing once he has. The depiction is consistent if nothing else.
Regeneration is the hearts and soul of Doctor Who. The show will always—as long as the people in charge see the profit—change and reinvent itself in myriad ways. We also know, new-returning showrunner Russell T. Davies will begin his regenerated tenure with David Tennant as interim Fourteenth Doctor prior to Ncuti Gatwa’s arrival as number Fifteen. The cliffhanger, though brief, coupled with the even briefer teaser for the 60th anniversary specials promised a mixture of new and old to celebrate Doctor Who‘s history and future.
I just wish the Thirteenth Doctor’s final story, in celebrating Doctor Who‘s past and looking ahead to its future, took more than a moment to give the present Doctor her due.