DISCLAIMER: This recap of Doctor Who Season 1 Episode 8, “Empire of Death,” contains spoilers. Proceed at your peril. 

What happens when the universe’s fate rests on one woman’s shoulders?

Doctor Who‘s Season 1 finale, “Empire of Death,” brings the Sutekh arc to a close and sheds light on Ruby’s parentage. Russell T Davies pens an episode that doesn’t quite deliver on the buildup established in last week’s outing. The Sutekh plotline is hastily resolved, while the Ruby outcome is somewhat puzzling. That said, I thought her reunion with her mom was very sweet. 

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson deliver powerhouse performances. Gatwa is the Doctor. He’s a force of nature. Gibson churns out tender, heartstring-tugging work. I’m glad we’ll see Ruby again. 

Side note: I’ve seen a theory that Mrs. Flood is the White Guardian. I’m curious to see what happens with her. 

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Doctor Who’s “Empire of Death”

We open with Susan Triad (Susan Twist), now an angel of death for Sutekh, blowing the “dust of death” on everyone. The Doctor (Gatwa) and Mel (Bonnie Langford) hop on Mel’s scooter to return to UNIT. Meanwhile, Ruby (Gibson) is still in the Time Window. However, now she can’t see her mom in the CCTV footage from Christmas Eve 2004.

The Doctor sits behind Mel on an orange scooter as they ride through the streets of London.

DOCTOR WHO Season 1 Episode 8, “Empire of Death.” Photo credit: BBC/Disney+.

Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), Rose Noble (Yasmin Finney), Morris Gibbons (Lenny Rush) and Colonel Ibraham (Alexander Devrient) deal with Harriet Arbinger (Genesis Lynea), who also blows the dust of death on them. While our titular Gallifreyan chats with Kate, the latter and everyone at UNIT vanishes. Well, except Ruby. Mel speeds toward UNIT. We see the streets of London covered in the death dust, destroying everything in its path. As it happens, Carla (Michelle Greenidge) finds herself sitting in a cab. 

Who Is Mrs. Flood?

Elsewhere, Cherry (Angela Wynter) sits in bed, horrified as Mrs. Flood (Anita Dobson) warns of what’s to come. Mrs. Flood apologizes to Cherry, claiming she had other plans as the two vanish. Who the eff is Mrs. Flood? 

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Later, the Doctor and Mel arrive, reuniting with Ruby. Our Time Lord hops into the TARDIS in the CCTV footage, even as the “Time Membrane” in the Time Window fails. He notices the TARDIS looks quite different. It’s an amalgam of all the Doctor’s travels and incarnations. He exits the memory TARDIS and points his sonic screwdriver at the nearby TV, making removing the screen possible. 

Kate Lethbridge-Stewart stands in UNIT headquarters while bathed in a green light on Doctor Who Season 1 Episode 8, "Empire of Death."

DOCTOR WHO Season 1 Episode 8, “Empire of Death.” Photo credit: BBC/Disney+.

The Doctor realizes the Time Window is feeding off Ruby. He urges her to remember the TARDIS — give it everything she’s got. Then, he watches footage from “Pyramids of Mars” with his Fourth Doctor self and Sarah Jane. Suddenly, Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf) and Harriet appear with the present-day TARDIS. The Doctor recalls condemning Sutekh to the Time Vortex. He sent the god hurtling toward his demise. 

Hiding in Plain Sight

However, Sutekh spent decades hiding outside the TARDIS, clinging to its exterior. So, he’s been here this whole time. He knows the TARDIS well enough to bend it to his will. Harriet fiddles with the controls inside it. Then, Sutekh provides more exposition, explaining he planted a version of Susan wherever the Doctor landed. Those versions proceeded to destroy those worlds in the name of Sutekh. 

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Next, our trio runs into the memory TARDIS. It’s a smorgasbord of Doctor Who Easter eggs. Seriously, It would take too long to list them all. Mel reaches for the Sixth Doctor’s colorful coat. She grins. My heart. Our gang flies the memory TARDIS away from Earth. After stabilizing it, they open the door, watching as the dust of death wipes life off the planet. Not only that, but it also eradicates the neighboring planets in the universe. The Doctor screams. He feels utterly helpless. 

Meanwhile, on Earth, we see Sutekh and Susan Triad in UNIT. Sutekh reveals that one thing keeps living despite him—the Doctor. He’s a priority kill. Elsewhere, the Doctor, dressed in a cloak, walks the barren landscape of an unknown planet. He meets a kind woman (Sian Clifford) who states that “memory is dying.” That’s why she doesn’t recall who she is or where they are. A man informed her that “facts were dying in the death wave.” That’s also why she doesn’t know her daughter’s name or that she’s been dead for a while now. 

Ruby Sunday shields her face from a blizzard of snow with her hand while standing in a dimly lit room on Doctor Who Season 1 Episode 8, "Empire of Death."

DOCTOR WHO Season 1 Episode 8, “Empire of Death.” Photo credit: BBC/Disney+.

Always a Spoon

The woman gives the Doctor a spoon, which reminds me of the Twelfth Doctor and his trusty spoon. Once he returns to the TARDIS, he breaks the spoon and lodges one of the pieces inside the TV screen. The spoon repairs the screen, showing it’s still connected to Ruby via the Time Window. At the same time, Mel is dozing off in the corner. She and the Doctor talk about their travels together. They met Einstein. 

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Ruby asks why Sutekh didn’t go on the attack if he was hidden for years. Suddenly, the screen shows a flash of Ruby’s biological mother as she walks away from Ruby Road. The Doctor urges her to ask that question again. Sutekh has seen all of time and space, yet one woman, Ruby’s mother, eludes him. He’s keeping our heroes alive so they can figure out the answer for him. Who is she? 

Meanwhile, Sutekh communicates with Mel, courtesy of Susan Triad’s search. He wants to turn her over to his side. Bits and pieces of Ruby’s adventure in “73 Yards” bubble to the surface. Ruby inexplicably (well, to her) knows that the TARDIS’s perception filter extends 73 yards past it.

Ruby Sunday stands in front of a screen with crisscrossing white lines on it on Doctor Who Season 1 Episode 8, "Empire of Death."

DOCTOR WHO Season 1 Episode 8, “Empire of Death.” Photo credit: BBC/Disney+.

73 Yards 

Secondly, the screen shows a video clip of Roger ap Gwilliam on that talk show. The Doctor notes that he will become the worst prime minister in history. He wonders why Gwilliam has popped up if he’s connected to Ruby’s memories. Then, our titular Gallifreyan realizes that, in 2046, Gwilliam made it a nationwide mandate to have rigorous DNA testing. If Ruby’s mom is alive in 2046, her DNA will be on record. 

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So, our trio lands in 2046, which is a fixed point because the Doctor traveled there. Of course, everything looks desolate and debris-filled. They head to the proper room in the government building for the DNA records. After initiating the search process using Ruby’s DNA, our Time Lord asks Mel to stand watch in case Sutekh’s angels of death track them down. 

Unfortunately, Sutekh’s influence extends to Mel. We hear “Carol of the Bells” play as snow reappears, falling around Mel (Ruby’s snow). She shivers. When she reunites with the Doctor and Ruby, she’s officially one of Sutekh’s death angels. The Doctor realizes his friend is dead. RIP, Mel. 

The Doctor and Ruby Sunday wear military garb while standing in a dimly lit hallway.

DOCTOR WHO Season 1 Episode 8, “Empire of Death.” Photo credit: BBC/Disney+.

Leashing the Dog

Mel brings the Doctor and Ruby to Sutekh in the present. He’s still wrapped around the real TARDIS. Sutekh asks for the name of Ruby’s mother before he kills them. The Doctor refuses to disclose that woman’s identity. Suddenly, Sutekh attacks the Doctor, freezing him in place. Ruby begs Sutekh to leave the Doctor alone in exchange for the info he craves. However, upon approaching the god of death, Ruby smashes the TV screen. Then, she attaches a leash to Sutekh. 

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The Doctor and Ruby whip out the former’s intelligent gloves. You might recall them from “The Church on Ruby Road” — the first time they met. Next, the Doctor blows a whistle he retrieved from the memory TARDIS. His real TARDIS reacts to it, opening the doors and kicking Harriet Arbinger out. He and Ruby attach Sutekh’s leash to the TARDIS console. 

Next, they drag Sutekh through the Time Vortex as he hangs out of the TARDIS. His claws seemingly leave a rift in time and space, like the crack during the Eleventh Doctor’s run. Meanwhile, everyone on Earth, everyone in the universe, is restored. Kate, Rose, Morris and the others wake up in UNIT. The Doctor does something he usually wouldn’t do. He cuts Sutekh’s leash, letting him die in the Time Vortex. The god burns away. So … that’s it? I guess killing a god is pretty simple. 

Ruby Sunday and The Doctor wear military garb stand in a dimly lit hallway while locked in a serious conversation.

DOCTOR WHO Season 1 Episode 8, “Empire of Death.” Photo credit: BBC/Disney+.

Everyone Lives 

Then, our time-traveling duo returns to UNIT, having saved the day. The Doctor is thrilled that all planets in the universe, including the Ood Sphere, are back in business. Kate asks Susan Triad if she’d like to work for UNIT. Susan is eager to help out. Carla thanks the Doctor for saving her baby girl. Finally, Morris and the Vlinx reveal that the DNA retrieval for Ruby’s bio mom is complete. 

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We learn her mom’s name is Louise. She is a 35-year-old woman who had Ruby when she was 15. She had an awful stepfather, so she did what she thought was best—gave Ruby up. Now, she’s a nurse. Her father, William, was also 15 at the time. Ruby can’t believe that her mother is so ordinary. So ordinary that a god couldn’t see her. We learn when she pointed in the footage, it was at the signpost behind the Doctor. It was for Ruby Road. Louise was naming her daughter. 

Later, the Doctor and Ruby see Louise at a coffee shop. She looks content. The Doctor wonders why she never sought out Ruby. Ruby heads inside and reunites with her. It’s an emotional reunion for both women. Louise apologizes profusely for giving Ruby up. As someone with mom issues, this made me weep

Mrs. Flood sits beside Cherry Sunday on the latter's bed in her bedroom on Doctor Who Season 1 Episode 8, "Empire of Death."

DOCTOR WHO Season 1 Episode 8, “Empire of Death.” Photo credit: BBC/Disney+.

Only Beginning

Then, Louise meets Carla and Cherry. Louise admits she thought Ruby might hate her, so she didn’t reach out. Ruby wanders into the TARDIS. She urges the Doctor to meet her biological mom. She’s told Louise all about the Doctor. Ruby gets a text about her biological father. They’ve found him. Ruby is elated. The Doctor claims that her life is out there now. He’s shown her monsters, legends and planets, but her adventure is only beginning. 

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Ruby cries, knowing this is the end of their travels. She attempts to persuade him to stay, but the Doctor has made up his mind. Something tells me he still doesn’t feel worthy of happiness. Our Time Lord vows he’ll see Ruby again. Ruby reminds him of his granddaughter and how he never visited her. The Doctor admits that was a mistake. However, he knows he’ll see Ruby again because she changed him. 

Ruby exits the TARDIS as Carla, Louise and Cherry embrace her. The TARDIS vanishes. After this, we see Mrs. Flood standing on the roof, all in white, with a white umbrella. It’s snowing. She claims that the Doctor’s story “ends in absolute terror.” 

Then, she ends her statement with, “Night, night.” Oh, that’s not creepy at all. 

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Doctor Who Season 1 is now streaming on Disney+

New on Netflix in July 2024

Melody McCune
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