Doctor Who episode 8 review: "A thrilling climax to a season that has made this 61-year-old TV show feel young again"

Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa in Empire of Death
(Image: © BBC)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Sutekh secures his place as one of the great Doctor Who villains, but Gatwa and Gibson are the stars of this truly epic season finale

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Warning: This review contains spoilers for the Doctor Who finale.

A couple of week's back, Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies teased 'Empire of Death' in the Radio Times by writing, "Apparently DW is coming back for Christmas, but it might just be a white screen on the BBC for an hour, because – trust me – not everyone comes out of this alive." Well, Christmas is safe – it's not much of a spoiler to say that eventually the Doctor does, in fact, win in his battle against Sutekh, the God of Death – but Empire delivers on Davies' promise by being a suitably cataclysmic season finale. 

We pick up immediately after the cliffhanger finale of ‘The Legend of Ruby Sunday,’ with Susan Triad and Harriet Arbinger spreading Sutekh's dust of death across the whole of the Earth. The Doctor and Mel escape and quickly reunite with Ruby, fleeing the planet in the Remembered TARDIS, but the rest of humanity is not so lucky. In the episode's opening 10 minutes we witness the disintegration of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, Morris Gibbons, and well, everyone else on Earth too (including, presumably, David Tennant's "retired" 14th Doctor, but let's not dwell on that can of worms too much). 

In truth, as soon as Ruby's family - and Mrs Flood! - are turned to dust, it becomes clear that there will need to be a reset of some sort before the story's end. Even so, it's a bold opening that really sells the idea that Sutekh is a much bigger kind of threat than we're used to. Sure, the Master conquered the Earth in 'The Last of the Time Lords' and the Daleks tried to blow up reality in 'Journey's End,' but the striking thing about 'Empire' is just how fully Sutekh succeeds in his plan. The Doctor, Ruby, and Mel are some of the last living beings in the universe and that gives the middle part of the episode a real sense of desperation, the only brief spark of hope coming from Sian Clifford's unnamed Kind Woman, in a scene that's a very Doctor Who mix of silliness – the most important object in the universe is a spoon – and genuine heartbreak.

Sutekh's gift of fan service

Mrs Flood and Cherry Sunday in 'Empire of Death'

(Image credit: BBC)

Of course, this is Doctor Who not Happy Valley and 'Empire of Death' is more fun than it is tragic. The episode moves at breakneck speed – where 'The Legend of Ruby Sunday' was content to linger around UNIT HQ for most of its run, 'Empire of Death' races from the fallen Earth to an alien world and then forward in time to 2046, where it offers an unexpected link to the season's best episode, '73 Yards.' Mel's apparent death is a shocking moment – one that really feels like it might stick. And while the Doctor's final defeat of Sutekh is, in true Who fashion, lashed together by handwavey sci-fi technology and a rapid-fire explanation, rather than water-tight logic, it still feels right, bringing everything back to this year's Christmas special and giving both Ruby and the Doctor moments of hard-won triumph. The TARDIS dragging a flailing Sutekh through the time vortex is a glorious image. 

It's also an episode that is absolutely brimming with fan service, from the piles of props in the Remembered TARDIS to countless references to previous adventures - in case you're wondering, the years that the Doctor reels off are 1999, in a nod to the Paul McGann TV movie; 1066, the year William Hartnell story 'The Time Meddler' took place; and 2005, when Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor first met Rose Tyler and Russell T Davies brought Doctor Who back to TV the first time around. Much of that stuff will go over new viewers heads, but for long-term fans, it's a huge amount of fun that enhances the story, rather than getting in its way. 

Goodbye Ruby Sunday

Millie Gibson as Ruby.

(Image credit: BBC)

With the Sutekh storyline all wrapped up it's perhaps a little surprising to see that there's still a good 15 minutes or so left on the clock. This is dedicated to the mystery of Ruby's parentage – and we finally get some answers.

Because I'm the sort of idiot that reads online Who rumors I was primed for the identity of Ruby's biological parents to be something fannish – either a link to the Doctor's past, or a hint at some deadly future plot. The names banded around most often in fandom over the last few weeks have included Rose Tyler, River Song, and even Davros, but the truth is far simpler: Ruby's mum is an ordinary woman named Louise Miller. 

Some will feel short-changed by this revelation, no doubt, but it's absolutely the best possible outcome to my mind. Ruby is special not because she's one of the gods, or because she was created by one of the Doctor's enemies as a trap, but because she's herself – an ordinary person who tries to do good, and who makes people's lives – including the Doctor's – better. "I talk about family in a way I never did before," he admits, shortly before they part ways, in a lovely moment that's both true of the character and a nod to the way that this show has evolved. It is – hail Sutekh! – the absolute antithesis of the convoluted revelations about Rey's heritage in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and a reminder that the best Doctor Who companions are just normal people who have crossed paths with and befriended the Time Lord.

Ncuti Gatwa and Bonnie Langford in Empire of Death.

(Image credit: BBC)

If I have one criticism about the episode and indeed the season, which, for the record, has been my favorite run of Doctor Who since Peter Capaldi's stellar final year, it's that with only eight episodes, one of which was a Doctor-lite story, the relationship between the two leads has occasionally felt a little bit sketched in. Both Gatwa and Gibson are sensational here and those final few minutes between them are real tearjerkers, but I wish we'd been able to get to know them more. It feels like there are missing beats in Ruby's story and, while we know that Gibson is returning at least in some capacity for season two, that will be to share the TARDIS with Varada Sethu's incoming new companion. Another way of looking at that, of course, is that it's to both Gatwa and Gibson's great credit that one season does not feel like anywhere near enough and I'm already sad at not having more adventures with the duo to look forward to.

'Empire of Death' ties some things up and also leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The identity of Mrs Flood is still a mystery – she's presumably another one of the gods, but who honestly knows at this point? We also don't know who "the Boss" is (you can't tell me with a straight face that the Meep was working for Sutekh), or how Ruby is able to conjure snow if she really is just a regular young woman. 

What it does provide, however, is a shocking, thrilling and suitably emotional climax to a season of Doctor Who that has managed the seemingly impossible task of making this 61-year-old TV show feel young again. "Doctor Who will return," an on-screen caption yells at the end, but Christmas suddenly feels like a very long way away.

Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer and Disney Plus now. For more Who, check out our guide to the Doctor Who season 1 ending explained.

Will Salmon
Comics Editor

Will Salmon is the Comics Editor for GamesRadar/Newsarama. He has been writing about comics, film, TV, and music for more than 15 years, which is quite a long time if you stop and think about it. At Future he has previously launched scary movie magazine Horrorville, relaunched Comic Heroes, and has written for every issue of SFX magazine for over a decade. He sometimes feels very old, like Guy Pearce in Prometheus. His music writing has appeared in The Quietus, MOJO, Electronic Sound, Clash, and loads of other places and he runs the micro-label Modern Aviation, which puts out experimental music on cassette tape.