Time to dial up a confession of my own – when the writing credits for this week’s episode resolved and Chibnall’s name was there alongside Vinay Patel (writer of last year’s ‘Demons Of The Punjab’) I feared that he’d decided to meddle in what might have had the chance of being a decent script. And at first, my fears were confirmed as the episode opened with the blandest, most tedious ‘middle-aged Hollyoaks’ style that Chibnall favours when he’s channelling Russell T Davies and for at least half its runtime, the episode continues in quite an unremarkable vein, even with the gratuitous cameo but then…then, well…holy forking shirt as Eleanor Shellstrop might say.
When the Judoon put the city of Gloucester on lockdown, the Doctor finds a way to squeeze through their containment field to see what’s going on. While Graham and then Ryan and Yaz get teleported away unnoticed, The Doctor ends up on the run from the Judoon with Ruth, a normal human with some very abnormal instincts and a secret that will have huge implications for the Doctor herself.
The Judoon are (re)introduced as intergalactic police ‘for hire’, suggesting that Chibbers has chucked The Shadow Proclamation on the scrapheap alongside UNIT and Torchwood. Cut free from their galactic overseers, the Judoon now act as a private militia, kind of like an outer space Blackwater which would be an interesting idea for an episode but this episode isn’t really interested in the Judoon at all. They’re a means to an end – and what an end.
In pre-publicity, a promise was made: “You thought the Master returning was big? You won’t believe what happens this week” and for a few minutes at least, it seemed like the big whoop was the whoopie cushion return of Captain Jack but that turned out to be just a feint, the “Doctor Who” equivalent of Spock’s ‘death’ at the beginning of “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan”, wrong-footing the audience expectations and lulling us into a false sense of security for the rug-pull yet to come.
And let’s be thankful for small mercies because Jack’s cheesy return only served to underline how his creepy sex-pest uncle schtick has aged terribly and somewhat problematically since his last appearance. He hasn’t been onscreen for thirty seconds before he sexually assaults Graham and starts grooming Ryan. Then, to add stupidity to injury, he leaves an unnecessarily cryptic message because he wasted all of his time harassing ‘the Fam’. Never mind Torchwood, the wood Captain Hack should be concerned with is that of the yew tree.
Away from the babysitting the Fam storyline, Jodie continues to show her Doctor is immeasurably more interesting when she’s really being put through the wringer and it’s refreshing to see her not having to put on the goofy happy-go-lucky front for ‘the Fam’ as she deals with the fallout from Ruth’s revelation. Like Sylvester McCoy, the darker her Doctor gets the better she is. And, like Sylvester McCoy , she may possibly be heading towards a “Lungbarrow”-style revisionist re-examination of the history of the character.
Because Ruth (Jo Martin) is The Doctor too – one that 13 doesn’t recognise and one that doesn’t recognise 13. Her presence – in a TARDIS stuck in a disguise as a Police Box no less – raises huge, fundamental questions about the nature of the series and its lead character, questions which reignite ‘The Brain Of Morbius’ debate and seem to reverberate to the Master’s portentous warning that everything the Doctor knows is a lie, although the whole ‘timeless child’ thing still feels like it’s flapping around in the breeze like a sentient dishrag. It’s an enormous, status-quo shattering twist as Chibnall pivots devilishly from aping RTD to out-Moffating Moffat. There’s a lot left up in the air by the end of the episode but one thing’s for sure: Jo Martin makes a fantastic impression as The Doctor and however the paradox is eventually resolved, I hope it’s in a way which doesn’t preclude this incarnation of whoever she is from reappearing in the future. Or the past, maybe?
She’s so good that she actually overshadows the regular cast and its an interesting choice to make Jodie’s Doctor seem so submissive when around her doppelgeist and I hope the next time they encounter each other (as is surely inevitable), 13 is much more assertive. Even in submissive mode, she’s still more interesting away from ‘the Fam’ and especially Tosin Cole who is actively becoming a charisma vacuum of such intensity, he’s in danger of becoming the bland eye of harmony. His monotone intonation, free of almost any hint of emotional life, will surely stand him in good stead for when the gang do meet the Cybermen in what I’d originally thought would be the season finale but now I’m not so sure.
Graham gets the least to do this week and Yaz is cruelly sidelined in an episode which absolutely should have focussed in on her character as one law enforcement officer to rhinother but instead gets a throwaway scene and then gets thrown away. Tosin Cole, though, is actively becoming a charisma vacuum, unable to emote even the most basic sensations. His bland assurance that he and the fam are with the doctor to the end of the line only serves to underline how small the Fam are in the history of who – a history that may be about to expand and make them even more insignificant. You can tell the writers are worried about that because they make sure to make Captain Jack announce that Ryan’s ‘his favourite’.
Visually, it’s something of a mixed bag, aiming for an epic cinematic feel yet dragged down by the domesticity at the start and some unwise drone footage but there are also some stand-out iconic shots, not least the TARDIS buried in the mud. It’s a nice, subtle gag when we learn the lead Judoon is a woman, too and remarkably, there’s much more show than tell this week, adding to the impact of the real reveal.
So, who is ‘Doctor Ruth’? Are we entering the fandom-splintering world of pre-Hartnell incarnations of the Doctor? If so, why is her TARDIS a Police Box? Is it a parallel universe? Is she the Rani in disguise (double chameleon arch)? Who knows but one thing’s for sure – I’m excited to find out. Excited in a way I haven’t been about Doctor Who since the heady days of the 50th Anniversary.
Will they stick the landing? Will they create a new canon without fracturing the old? Will it be wrapped up neatly and satisfyingly? For the moment, I’m just content to sit back and enjoy the ride.
They promised something big, then sold us a dummy, then delivered an amazing cliffhanger which they don’t intend to resolve anytime soon!
Promise made, promise kept.