Doctor Who – The Empire of Death on BBC One review: after all that, this is the reveal we get?

 (Sophie Mutevelian/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
(Sophie Mutevelian/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

Ncuti Gatwa’s explosive first season at the helm of the Tardis comes to an end in this sparky, uneven finale.

And hasn’t he been good? Gatwa’s brought all the gravitas, enthusiasm and sadness one could wish for from the role – and the series ending more or less delivers on all that potential.

After last episode’s killer cliffhanger, we start in the middle of the action – this being a two-parter. Dusty old death-god Sutekh has just rocked up, with some ominous skull-faced henchmen in tow.

“I bring Sutekh’s dust of death,” those henchmen hiss, and with that, kick-start a massive wave of sand that rolls across the earth (and the universe), vaporising anybody it touches and thereby bringing the stakes down considerably – because if everybody starts dying, of course the Doctor is going to find a way to bring them all back.

As he and his pals go on the run, we also get to work through a bit of lore about Sutekh’s return. As we discover, the god didn’t actually die when he was banished by Tom Baker’s Doctor back in the day (cue some lovely archival footage) – instead, his ghost hitched a lift on the Tardis and proceeded to sow the seeds for his grand reappearance.

Considering everything that’s happened to the Tardis in the last 900 years or so, this strains the credulity slightly, but let’s hand wave that in the name of plot.

Fortunately, there’s also excitement in spades. This episode has all the Russell T Davies finale hallmarks. There’s London being annihilated (seriously, what has he got against London?). Innocent civilians being brutally offed. Stirring farewells. The Doctor calling Sutekh “the greatest monster I have ever fought” and proceeding to have a dark night of the soul where he blames himself for everything that’s happened.

 (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
(James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

There’s also the issue of Ruby’s birth, which the pair spend most of the episode trying to solve – because apparently the thing Sutekh wants to know most in the world is who her parents are.

So do we. The showrunners have been assiduously dropping hints about this all season, with snow and Christmas bells ominously appearing every time Ruby’s birth parents are mentioned.

And yet, after all that hand-wringing, it turns out her mother is… absolutely ordinary. Just a woman from Coventry who wore a hooded cloak to leave her daughter at the steps of a church on Christmas Eve.

Sorry, what? After all that? “She was important because we think she’s important… we invest things with significance. So while the whole of creation is turning around her, it made her sheer existence more powerful than Time Lords and gods,” Gatwa helpfully explains.

It’s all very sweet, but watching, it’s hard not to feel a little bit robbed. All those tantalising clues, to basically be told that we shouldn’t have bothered caring?

In case that bit of heartstring-tugging schmaltz didn’t make it clear, we do get a very happy ending. Ruby is reunited with her birth parents. Everybody comes back to life. And then we wave farewell to Millie Gibson, as she leaves the Tardis to bask in the glow of her newfound family.

“You have made my life bigger and better,” the Doctor tells her as she leaves. It’s been short and sweet, but don’t think we’ve seen the last of either of them yet.

And who is Anita Dobson’s mysterious Mrs Flood? That’s one mystery we haven’t solved yet. Here’s hoping she’s not an ordinary woman from Coventry...

Doctor Who is streaming now on BBC One and iPlayer, and on Disney+ abroad