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Doctor Who: Sutekh and Ruby both laid traps that worked, and 'Empire of Death' reveals some mystery payoffs as a result

The final episode of the show's first season as a BBC/Disney+ co-production has arrived, and it's full to the brim with human kindness

Doctor Who 'Empire of Death'
Image credit: BBC/Disney+

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And so… now it’s over, and we have our answers to the questions of Ruby’s mother and Susan Triad, and some sense of closure about things… and, because it’s Doctor Who, at least one new thing to think about over the next few months before the Christmas Special, too. So… how did that finale work for everyone?

Spoilers for the Doctor Who episode ‘Empire of Death’ follow. Stop reading now if you don’t want to have the episode spoiled for you, especially because it’s the last chance you’ll have to do this for awhile. Savor it.

A lot of this season echoes, now that we’ve had a chance to see how it all wraps up. And while it’d be easy to quibble about how Sutekh was ultimately dealt with — dragging him through the time vortex feels like it shouldn’t have had that effect, if he’d been hanging around outside on the Tardis for a long time, but that’s bringing logic to an emotional fight, which is always pointless; Doctor Who finales especially are about the feel, not the common sense, of the story — I have to admit: I really enjoyed ‘Empire of Death,’ and it might have made me feel better about the season as a whole, as well. Here’s why.

It’s a trap!

Doctor Who 'Empire of Death'
Image credit: BBC/Disney+

For all that we got distracted by the louder mysteries and recurring moments, this season was all about traps. We had at least three episodes where a character literally stepped into a physical trap and had to deal with that — ‘Boom,’ ’73 Yards’ (which starts with the Doctor stepping into the magical sigil), and ‘Rogue,’ with the transportation trap that both the Doctor and Ruby were caught in at different points of the episode — and additional episodes about emotional or intellectual traps, such as the social media bubbles of ‘Dot and Bubble’ or Maestro in ‘The Devil’s Chord’ playing on the ego of Tim Drake and everything that happened after that trap was sprung. Ultimately, ‘Empire of Death’ wrapped the season up with a story about two traps: the Susan Triad trap set by Sutekh for the Doctor, and the trap of the reveal of Ruby’s mother on the screen that allowed Ruby to tie Sutekh to the impossible rope and pull him into the time vortex.

Both were, of course, traps that were actually set for the viewers of the show, which is what made it so much fun to see the characters in the show lose themselves to them as well; we got to see ourselves reflected in the characters onscreen in a particularly direct manner, which is a very metatextual thrill that’s difficult to ignore. And, wonderfully, the resolution of each mystery trap — that Susan Triad did have an in-story connection to the Doctor’s granddaughter, and that Ruby’s mother was… just a mother, just a regular person trying her best in bad circumstances — felt satisfying in ways that I wasn’t really expecting; both were surprising, but also not too surprising as to feel unearned.

(The Ruby’s mother stuff very much got to me; I got choked up watching Ruby and the Doctor say goodbye to each other, because she wanted to spend time with her family again.)

73 Yards, Huh?

Talking about unexpectedly satisfying: I really didn’t expect to see two separate callouts to ’73 Yards’ in this episode, with one seemingly offering a small amount of explanation for what actually happened in that episode: Ruby’s doppleganger was limited to the distance of the Tardis’s perception filter! But… why? It’s very possible that we’ll never find out… but even the unexpected coincidence being revealed gives me a strange amount of confidence that there’s more to this story in the next season of the show. Is Ruby connected to the Tardis in some particular way that we’ve yet to discover? After all, she literally made a new Tardis out of her memory in the Time Window… just like she can make it snow on demand, as well… Huh.

Mea culpa

Doctor Who 'Empire of Death'
Image credit: BBC/Disney+

I laid it out last week that I thought that Mrs. Flood was the real Susan, and it would be revealed this episode, and… well, nope. Instead, she remains a mystery, albeit one that feels as if we’re going to get some more information on very soon: that outfit that she’s wearing in her final scene seems perfect for a Christmas Special, doesn’t it…?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that she’ll reveal all her secrets if she appears there; Steven Moffat has revealed that he’s written this year’s Christmas Special, and it would be unexpected if Mrs. Flood doesn’t have a Russell T. Davies-written reveal considering she’s only ever shown up in episodes written by Davies in the past…

Something else I was wrong about; this isn’t the most misanthropic season of the show, simply based on this episode alone — seeing the impact that Ruby’s mother Louise had, but also the kind mother on the alien planet (Sian Clifford, from Fleabag, for those who thought she looked familiar). Instead, it connects to another thread I wonder aloud about at the same time about wondering about the misanthropic elements of the season: we can’t always rely on the Doctor, or some outside agent, to save the day. Our behavior, and our actions, matter. Instead of being misanthropic, this was a season that demonstrated the best and worst of humanity, and all but tasked the viewer to make the right choices moving forward. That feels, ultimately, like the very opposite of misanthropy, when it comes down to it.

What’s next?

We have ‘Joy to the World’ coming up on Christmas Day, written as pointed out above by Steven Moffat, and guest-starring none other than Bridgerton’s Nicole Coughlan as the companion-du-jour… and beyond that, a new season featuring Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor, and, despite what it looked like here, Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday. It’s been a wild few weeks following this season, but I can’t lie; I wish I had my own Tardis so I could get to next year’s shows immediately.

This season is available to rewatch on Disney+ international, with the exception of the show’s home country, the UK, where it’s on BBC iPlayer.

If you want to start watching Doctor Who and don't know where to start, check out our handy Doctor Who watch guide. Or maybe you're already finished with the show - We've got the perfect Ten shows to watch when you're done watching Doctor Who guide for you too. If you're already heads over heels for the Fifteenth Doctor and want to learn more about the actor playing him, check out what he's been in before here. Or maybe you just need to figure out how the new series numbering is going to work (Are there really gonna be two series 1s? Yes.) - if so, this is the explainer you want.

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Graeme McMillan: Popverse Editor Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.
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