Farewell Jodie (and a family note on Rasputin)

So, the Thirteenth Doctor era came to an end last Sunday, with the slightly unexpected return of David Tennant to the title role. Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall, the showrunner, were the subject of a lot of toxic commentary from the more entitled end of the fan base, much of which was undeserved. The worst of their thirty episodes were not as bad as, say, Kill the Moon, or Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, let alone The Twin Dilemma. But I am not alone in wishing that the high points had been higher and more numerous.

I have previously written up the first season, the second season, Revolution of the Daleks, and briefly noted Legend of the Sea Devils here. In terms of other media, there’s a great BBC audio story here, I’ve really enjoyed the Thirteenth Doctor comics that I have read (here, here, and here) and liked the books (The Witchfinders, The Wonderful Doctor of Oz, The Good Doctor, Molten Heart, Combat Magicks, Sophie Aldred’s At Childhood’s End); on the other hand the recent annuals have been very poor indeed (2019, 2020 and 2022).

So. The 2021 six-part story, Flux, was a mess. There’s no kind way of putting it. I actually like John Bishop as new companion Dan Lewis; I love Barbara Flynn, whatever she is in; I was really thrilled by Thaddea Graham as Bel, the first semi-regular Irish character in almost sixty years; and there were some good spine-chilling moments, such as the destruction of Dan’s house and the Doctor being transformed into a Weeping Angel.

But unfortunately the plot made very little sense, and the climax took place largely offscreen. Of course it was filmed under serious constraints due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t excuse the writers from sitting back and thinking about what they were really trying to convey. For all their faults, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt generally remembered that they needed to please their audience as well as indulging their own inner impulses. I felt that Chibnall had lost the run of himself.

This year’s New Year special, Eve of the Daleks, was a lot better. (And not just because it had not one but two Irish characters, played by Aisling Bea and Pauline McLynn.) The basic time loop story, where you get the chance to get it right next time, is a long-standing sf trope, as seen for instance in Groundhog Day and in Steven Moffat’s first published Who fiction, “Continuity Errors”.

I thought it worked well, it was not self-indulgent and showed what Chibnall could actually do on a good day. As previously noted, I also enjoyed the Easter special, Legend of the Sea Devils – I cannot claim it was Great Art but it was at least entertaining, and the cast were clearly having fun; Whittaker being allowed to be the kind of Doctor she wanted to be, perhaps.

And so to the end, with The Power of the Doctor and its mildly unexpected denouement.

Actually, no, before we get there, here’s a brief note about Rasputin, his murderer Dr Lazovert, and my grandmother.

Rasputin was a sinister monk who worked his way into the affections of the Tsarina/Empress of Russia. The Power of the Doctor featured Sacha Dhawan as the Master posing as Rasputin and playing Boney M. Those of us with older memories recall that one of Tom Baker’s biggest pre-Doctor Who film roles was in Nicholas and Alexandra as Rasputin.

Rasputin was murdered in December 1916 by a group of Russian nobles who resented his influence. The doctor who they recruited to administer poison to him was Stanislaus de Lazovert. (In fact the poison didn’t work and in the end they shot Rasputin.)

Four and a half years later, in summer 1921, my American grandmother (aged 22) was sharing an apartment in Paris with Colette Blanc, daughter of Irina Procopiu, a lady in waiting to Queen Marie of Romania.

My grandmother and Colette went on holiday in July 1921 to Sinaia, the Romanian royal family summer retreat, by train from Paris. Madam Procopiu asked an old friend of hers to keep an eye on the girls on the train.

My grandmother wrote, “Col and I were exhausted when we caught the 5.30 Orient Express at the Gare de Lyons on July 12th. Madame Procopiu had asked Dr Lazovert to keep an eye on us, and I think it was at dinner that first evening that he told us, with some pride, that he was one of the murderers of Rasputin. It sounds as though I were very stupid and ignorant, but I had no idea who Rasputin was; it seemed to me rather odd, though, that a murderer should have been asked to look after us.”

Dr Lazovert was of course a completely respectable member of the Russian exile community in Paris, involved in the Romanian oil trade. He lived to 1976 and is buried in Père-Lachaise. I doubt if my grandmother ever saw him again.

Anyway, putting all that aside, I really enjoyed The Power of the Doctor. The plot was still a bit rambling, but mostly it hung together well, and a lot was packed into it. The Master’s desire to transform himself into the Doctor is completely understandable, and knowing as we did that this was Jodie Whittaker’s last episode, there were all kinds of options for how the hero might escape; and I was satisfied by the ride.

We old school fans were of course watching it for the return of old favourites; we had been well prepared for Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred as Tegan and Ace…

…and it wasn’t a massive surprise to see McGann, McCoy, Colin Baker, Davison and Bradley back again, or some of the other old companions. But I think there was a collective gasp from many of us as we realised that the chap sitting on the right in the final scene was none other than Russell Enoch, William Russell for stage purposes, Ian Chesterton in the very first episode in November 1963, and turning 98 next month (96 when the scene was filmed last year), beating Ysanne Churchman’s record as the oldest actor ever to be on the show and beating the world record for the gap between first and last appearances in the same role in any TV series.

I confess I was a little sorry that the Doctor and Yazz didn’t end up a bit more overtly sapphic, after the hints dropped in previous stories, but you can do a lot without saying a lot.

And the Fourteenth Doctor’s shock at the end paradoxically reassures us that we are in good hands again with Russell T. Davies, and indeed Disney, who can be expected to bring a lot more in terms of resources to the show. Roll on 2023.