The Thirteenth Doctor returns for Series 13 in her final set of episodes. Jodie Whittaker announced back in 2021 that she’d end her time as the Time Lord this year. Showrunner Chris Chibnall also announced his exit at the same time. It’s not unusual for a Doctor Who showrunner to exit alongside their star, especially since both Whittaker and Chibnall joined the long-running sci-fi show together for Series 11. But the show already has a new (or should I say old?) showrunner geared up as Russell T. Davies announced his return just in time for Doctor Who‘s 60th anniversary next year. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we? We still have a whole season to review here!
As I did previously with Series 12, I’m lumping the post-series specials in with the series itself. The specials tend to exist as a continuation of whatever set of episodes precedes them, so it’s easier for the sake of continuity. In this case, the latest special marks the last appearance of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor and the final episode written by Chris Chibnall, so it feels fitting to include it.
As for how the episodes stake up this time around, there’s a peculiar phenomenon at play. One could call it the “Reverse-Steven Moffat Effect.” Many Doctor Who fans adore the early episodes written by Steven Moffat, such as “The Empty Child” and “Blink.” But after Moffat stayed on as showrunner for a decent amount of time, the show began to dip in quality and get a bit messy, as Polygon chronicles here. Other folks may know this as the “George Lucas Effect,” when a talented creator stays with a work so long that it stagnates. But in this case, while Chibnall got off to a bumpy start, which continues through these episodes, he really sticks the landing. For this series of episodes, Mandip Gill returns as companion Yasmin “Yaz” Khan, joined by John Lewis as Dan Bishop. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor leads them on her final adventures, consisting of a multi-part storyline followed by standalone specials, so let’s discuss how those stack up.
The Halloween Apocalypse
After the show-changing revelation at the end of the last series, Series 13 gets off to a hokey start. The Doctor and Yaz hang over a pit of lava while a hologram of something known as Karvanista gives a speech about how they can’t escape. The Doctor and Yaz make light of the situation, which proves a little funny. But it also indicates a problem, as the show’s drama often hinges on the semi-immortal Doctor having to protect their not-so-immortal companions. This opening gambit sets the tone for the rest of the drama, or lack thereof, that follows.
“The Halloween Apocalypse” heightens the drama slightly by introducing Swarm, a supposed longtime adversary of the Doctor who has just escaped imprisonment. But then we go back to the hokey humor with Dan Lewis introduced as a wannabee tour guide, before Karvanista breaks into his house, which inadvertently gets shrunk later on when the Doctor investigates. On the way, the Doctor and Yaz get interrupted by Claire, a woman who claims to know the Doctor from her past, and then encounters a Weeping Angel. The Doctor and Yaz reach the dog-like Karvanista, who reveals that he captured Dan in order to help humanity from the Flux, an all-consuming entity sweeping through the universe.
Writing this description out, it all sounds a bit convoluted, and it plays as such watching it live as well. I didn’t even get to the introduction of Vinder, played by Jacob Anderson, or the re-introduction of the Sontarans. The episode proves a bit too ambitious for its own good, juggling many new plot points while strangely avoiding the knowledge gleaned during the Doctor’s last adventure. It does have some genuinely funny moments with Dan mistaking Karvanista for a man in a dog suit. And the introduction of a solitary Weeping Angel at night provides the sole scare of this supposedly Halloween-themed episode. Some plot threads teased prove more interesting than others, leaving a mixed bag of treats.
War of the Sontarans
The second episode here focuses the plot a bit more, with the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan sent to the Crimean War in the 19th century and meeting historical figure Mary Seacole, who set up the “British Hotel” to treat the wounded. While the episode seemingly promises a historical romp, it turns out to hold more alternative history. Instead of Russia, the Doctor finds the British fighting Sontar. Yaz gets sent to the Temple of Atropos on the Planet of Time and Dan to modern-day Liverpool. One may sound more fantastical than the other, except Dan finds Liverpool overrun with Sontarans.
While each character has a clear goal of stopping the malady affecting their given time and place, the episode doesn’t quite make sense. Obviously, Doctor Who writes the rules of its own time travel, and yet the concept that the Sontarans changed history, but all at the same time, doesn’t quite hold timey-wimey water. Dan cements himself as a goofy but likable character here as he teams up with Karvanista to destroy the Sontarans from the inside. Yaz meets Vinder, but they don’t get too much to do other than feel confused about how to repair the temple. And the Doctor storyline works well enough, but pales in comparison to the other historical episodes it mirrors. “War of the Sontarans” narrows its scope somewhat compared to the previous outing, but the three separate plotlines still leave events feeling spread thin.
Once, Upon Time
“Once, Upon Time” kicks off with an exciting conclusion to the last episode’s cliffhanger and then stagnates from there. The Doctor hides Yaz, Dan, and Vinder in their own timelines. We get a better sense of who these characters are, especially Vinder, as we learn of his time assisting a cold-blooded fellow named The Grand Serpent. On a side note, I hoped this would be a giant snake monster and was slightly disappointed by a human man. But he does live up to his name down the road.
Flashbacks prove the name of the game in this episode. Aside from those from our companions, flashbacks arrive that depict the Fugitive Doctor, played by Jo Martin, arriving at the Temple of Atropos in the past to confront Swarm and Azure. This reveal explains how the Doctor knew Swarm from before, but it’s more “show” than “tell.” The plot thickens a bit back in the Thirteenth Doctor’s timeline, as the Time Lord learns how she led to the creation of Flux and meets someone seemingly from her past, who holds the secret to, well, her past.
“Once, Upon Time” ups the stakes a bit, with the Flux having decimated much of the universe. It’s nice to see Jo Martin return as her iteration of the Doctor. Her introduction last series proved a bit baffling, but here she has more relevance to the plot and Martin has more time to put her unique stamp onto the personality of this Time Lord. That said, the episode jumps from one event to the other, never really coalescing as it shows off events from various characters’ lives and various times in said characters’ lives. Providing exposition is nice, but it has to lead somewhere eventually.
The Village of the Angels
Now we’re talking (but not blinking!). “The Village of the Angels” delivers a better spooky Halloween episode than “The Halloween Apocalypse.” The Doctor, Yaz, and Dan find themselves stranded in a quaint village in the UK in 1967. A girl has gone missing just as an older woman warns the townsfolk to evacuate. Those who know of the stone-like creatures referred to in the title will likely guess the meaning of these occurrences, but they still offer fun in watching them play out.
As the town becomes overwhelmed by Weeping Angels, the Doctor and fam take refuge in the home of Professor Jericho. He has conducted memory examinations on none other than Claire, the woman taken by the angel in the first episode, and can’t figure out why his polygraph test states that she keeps lying about her birth year. Some characters get sent further back to 1901, and the rest barricade themselves in Jericho’s basement against the angel onslaught.
“The Village of the Angels” benefits from the return of a favorite group of creatures. The scene of the characters boarding the house up against the oncoming Weeping Angels, taking turns to keep eyes on them so they don’t move, proves as exciting and tense as any horror flick. The episode shakes off most of the plot tangents that plagued previous parts of the Flux storyline, mainly focusing on one tiny village and the events transpiring there. It seemingly eschews an important part of lore about those who get sent back in time (blame the Flux, I guess?) but otherwise builds on the lore of the Weeping Angels in satisfying fashion.
Survivors of the Flux
If “The Village of the Angels” gets a boost from its horror genre conventions, “Survivors of the Flux” gets one from the adventure genre. Awsok, the mysterious character behind Division, traps the Doctor outside of the known universe. As such, its up to Yaz, Dan, and Jericho, all stuck in 1904, to travel the world in search of the exact date of the end of the universe. Meanwhile (can you say that with time-travel?) in 1958, the Grand Serpent helps to found UNIT and lurks in the organization throughout the years, eventually rearing up to face the formidable Kate Stewart in 2017.
Where to start with this exciting and intriguing venture? “Survivors of the Flux” finally explains Awsok’s identity but doesn’t do too much with it. Doctor Who has a trend of making revelations but then not knowing what to do with the information once revealed. The promise of the Doctor’s hidden past doesn’t have a payoff, at least not in this episode. But while that gets off to a false start, the adventures of Yaz, Dan, and Jericho prove rip-roaring. Their globetrotting adventures add a dash of mischief and mayhem to the plot. Every now and then, the Doctor has an adventure that’s just pure fun, so it’s great to see the companions get that here this time around.
But the episode doesn’t just offer up fun and games, fleshing out the lore by having a villain revealed as a founding member of UNIT. The Grand Serpent finally lives up to his name, dispatching his rivals in a fittingly reptilian way. “Survivors of the Flux” also continues the subplot of Bel searching the universe for Vinder and encountering Swarm and yet another diversion. It’s obvious where this subplot is going, but it at least ties more into the main plot this time around.
“The Vanquishers” takes all the events of the previous episodes and ties them up neatly, with the Doctor evading Swarm but getting fragmented into three copies along the way. One remains behind, forced to reckon with the possibility of getting her memories back. Another arrives on Bel’s ship, finally bringing Bel into the greater narrative. And the third copy makes it to the Williamson Tunnels in Liverpool. There she reunites with her companions, who have teamed up with Joseph Williamson, who was in fact an eccentric historical figure who dug tunnels under Liverpool. Now we know why, thanks to Doctor Who.
The episode employs three copies of the Doctors to tie up all the loose ends, proving satisfying but not allowing for much breathing room. The exception comes with the Doctor cleverly besting the Grand Serpent, literally proving that two is better than one. It’s always fun to see the Doctor interact with another iteration of themselves, or in this case, the same one. Jericho has some heartfelt moments, and I did not expect the character to rise to the place of a semi-companion. Kevin McNally brings both fun and gravitas to the role of the professor, who realizes that it’s never too late in life to have adventures.
“The Vanquishers” wraps up the story of the Flux, and while it has its moments and completes the sixth part narrative, it doesn’t register as one of the more memorable adventures overall. Saving the universe should feel like a momentous event, but even when the Doctor has “only” saved planet Earth, prior episodes have imparted the significance of that occasion. Still, the episode has its moments and concludes each plot thread it juggled throughout the series in fitting ways.
Eve of the Daleks
I consider 2021 to be the year of the time loop, which others have pointed out as well, since the year saw several stories of characters reliving the same time over and over. So “Eve of the Daleks” fittingly tells the story of Sarah, who owns a storage facility, and Nick, the only customer of said facility, who find themselves stuck in a time loop on New Year’s Eve. Of course, the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan also find themselves trapped in the loop while the TARDIS resets, alongside some vengeful Daleks.
In each iteration of the loop, the heroes learn from their previous mistakes in order to outsmart the Daleks. This conceit adds a fun cat-and-mouse game to the proceedings, as the Doctor and fam have to avoid the Daleks while attempting to figure out a way to break the loop and escape the locked-down storage facility. Sarah and Nick add another wrinkle to this plan, as they don’t know who to trust at first, even unsure of whether they trust each other. A further layer comes from the fact that the loop shortens each time, an intriguing idea that gets explained haphazardly, but adds some pressure to the proceedings.
Outside of the overarching narrative of the Flux that dominated the thirteenth series, “Eve of the Daleks” can tell a standalone story that nevertheless ties into greater Doctor Who mythos. The Daleks here set the trap to make the Doctor pay for the events that unfolded at the end of the Flux phenomenon. As such, the episode feels both interesting in its own right and relevant to the show as a whole. The episode also makes room for actor Adjani Salmon and comedian Aisling Bea and their awkwardly endearing banter. Doctor Who hasn’t had a guest star-driven episode in a hot minute, so the arrival of one makes this a time-loop episode worth repeating.
Legend of the Sea Devils
New Who only had one pirate themed episode before, so it proved high time for another. Spring special “Legend of the Sea Devils” begins with a village in 19th century China bracing itself for the pillaging of pirate captain Madame Ching. The exhilarating opening culminates with Madame Ching unwittingly unleashing a Sea Devil trapped in stone, who the brash Ying Ki and his family had tried to keep entombed. The plot doesn’t slow down there, with the Doctor and fam arriving on the scene to investigate, finding out about the hidden pasts and motives of the episode’s characters. Forging an unlikely alliance with Madame Ching and Ying Ki, the fam battle a giant sea monster, engage the Sea Devils in nautical combat, and resurrect a fabled seafarer.
Sound familiar to any live-action Disney movie fans? Yes, the episode appears to take inspiration from the first couple of Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But while that franchise went on to feel meandering and bloated with each installment, “Legend of the Sea Devils” moves efficiently like a wind-blown ship at full sail.
Aside from working as a thrilling pirate tale in its own right, the episode makes good use of the TARDIS, as the crew uses it in one instance to get to the (literal) bottom of a shipwreck mystery. Across the board, the cast seems to have fun with their piratical performances. That said, the relationship developments of the core fam here don’t prove as compelling as those of the pirates. Overall, “Legend of the Sea Devils” not only sails high with its enjoyable plot and characterizations but also delves deep into themes of forgiveness and redemption with characters who wish to atone for past mistakes.
The Power of the Doctor
Traveling with the Doctor through time and space would sound like the chance of a lifetime for many people, right? Well yes, but also no. The opportunity presents its own inherent problem: once one leaves the Doctor’s company, nothing will ever seem as fantastical. The newer iteration of the show has occasionally touched on concepts around how the Doctor doesn’t like goodbyes and how companions rarely ever see them again once they do part. But “The Power of the Doctor” thoroughly examines those ideas. Oh, and did I mention it’s exciting too?
That’s right, “The Power of the Doctor” opens with a heist on an interplanetary bullet train, takes us to a Cyberman attack on UNIT, and then a Dalek sabotage of Earth’s volcanoes. And it doesn’t slow down there. Did I mention the Master returns, masquerading as an infamous mystic from history? He even dances to the popular song about him, no less.
“The Power of the Doctor” comes packed with twists and turns, including one final revelation that should have many fans cheering—or stunned by disbelief. The movie-length episode does in fact feel like a Doctor Who movie. Returning faces abound, and the show brings in previous Doctors and companions in a meaningful ways, even if some only make cameos. Ironically, this set of episodes that started by trivializing the Doctor’s relationship with her companions ends with the affirmation that yes, this bond really is the power of the Doctor. “The Power of the Doctor” isn’t just the best episode of this set; it’s one of the best episodes in the entire contemporary run of the show.
Doctor Who Series 13 Review
Saved by the Specials
They had us in the first half, not gonna lie. The final set of episodes of the Thirteenth Doctor got off to a rough start, but the following three special episodes batted three for three and ended Jodie Whittaker’s run with a win. Series 13 benefitted from many of the classic Doctor Who villains and monsters returning, but Chris Chibnall sticking to the multi-part format didn’t quite gel. “The Flux,” as a six-part narrative, juggled too many plot points and buckled under its own ambition. But Chibnall redeemed himself with standalone specials filled with both engaging stories in their own rights and satisfying narrative beats for the Doctor Who mythos. The final episode in particular, “The Power of the Doctor,” truly felt like it could have served as the 60th anniversary special. But we’ll get several episodes commemorating that next year, and hopefully they will keep the momentum going. Allons-y!