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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Whoa, tonight’s iDoctor Who/i is a game-changer
Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)
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Premieres, finales, and specials. Those are the places where Doctor Who usually delivers massive reveals about its own mythos. So while I was ready for this mid-season episode to provide an opportunity to wax nostalgic about the return of a Russell T. Davies-era alien, I certainly wasn’t prepared for “Fugitive Of The Judoon” to rival “The Name Of The Doctor” and “The Day Of The Doctor” in terms of sheer number of game-changing reveals. As a measure of just how much happens in this episode, consider that John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness makes his glorious return after a 10-year absence from Doctor Who and it’s somehow not the number one thing I want to talk about. That’s because there’s a new (old) face in town, and her name is the Doctor.

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Jo Martin couldn’t have asked for a better global debut than an episode that allows her to transform from a cheerful Gloucester tour guide to an authoritative, impeccably dressed version of the Doctor—one who impossibly, improbably seems to pre-date the Doctor’s known history. We’ve had major Doctor Who retcons before, including the reveal of the War Doctor, the rescue of Gallifrey, and the fragments of Clara that got scattered throughout the Doctor’s timeline. But the introduction of Doctor Ruth (I see what you did there, show!) feels arguably even more substantial, especially because there’s every chance it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Why doesn’t the Doctor remember this part of her past? Are there more secret regenerations? And just how bad were things on Gallifrey that the Doctor felt the need to use her Chameleon Arch to wipe her memory and disguise herself as a human? (A move we previously saw the 10th Doctor pull back in “Human Nature”/“The Family Of Blood.”)

“Fugitive Of The Judoon” cleverly uses the return of the Judoon, the return of Jack Harkness, and the red herring of Ruth’s suspiciously cagey husband Lee Clayton (Neil Stuke) to throw us off the scent of just how big of a mystery it’s planning to unspool. I’ll fully admit that this is very much going to be a “still processing” review, both because we don’t know what this is all building to and because there’s just a lot to take in. As with the (re)destruction of Gallifrey in “Spyfall, Part Two,” this regeneration retcon could either be a bold new storytelling engine or a shift that breaks the show’s world.

Illustration for article titled Whoa, tonight’s iDoctor Who/i is a game-changer
Photo: James Pardon (BBC America)

What works best about “Fugitive Of The Judoon” is the exhilarating sense that anything can happen, which starts with Jack’s reappearance but really picks up steam as the Doctor digs up the TARDIS on the grounds of Ruth’s lighthouse childhood home. Between the pointed opening shot of a watch (an object associated with Chameleon Arch disguises) and the reference to Lee as Ruth’s “faithful companion,” there are subtle hints as to what this episode is building towards. But even while watching Ruth break the memory glass and breath in regeneration energy, I couldn’t quite believe the show was actually going to commit to such a bold twist. Watching Jo Martin stride across the lawn and announce she’s the Doctor is as thrilling as any moment in Doctor Who history.

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Admittedly, it would be more exciting if she were a future incarnation of the Doctor. I briefly thought this was Doctor Who’s way of announcing Jodie Whittaker’s successor and having her make an early appearance à la Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows in “The Day Of The Doctor.” That really would’ve been thrilling! Adding Doctor Ruth to the Doctor’s past is a bit more of an unknown variable. My biggest fear is that Doctor Who will use this retroactive diversity as a way to justify not casting diverse Doctors in the immediate future. Having a black woman play the Doctor is incredibly cool (this is the first time we’ve ever seen a person of color in the role), but will Doctor Ruth actually get meaningful screentime moving forward?

That’s a concern for the future, however. My biggest critique of this episode itself is that I’m not sure it entirely locks into the right dynamic between our Doctor and Doctor Ruth. There’s often an element of rivalry or cheekiness when two Doctors meet, but that plays differently when those two Doctors are women, particularly a black woman and a white woman. In particular, the moment our Doctor asserts that Ruth can’t also be the Doctor plays very strangely given that multi-Doctor stories aren’t that rare of an occurrence. (The 13th Doctor came into existence on the heels of a 12th Doctor/First Doctor adventure!) It might’ve worked better for the Doctors to be curious or excited about meeting a future regeneration (think the 10th Doctor in “The Next Doctor”), only to grow distrustful as they each refuse to accept they’re part of the other’s future. As is, it feels like we’re missing a beat of camaraderie between them, which is usually another hallmark of a multi-Doctor story.

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Illustration for article titled Whoa, tonight’s iDoctor Who/i is a game-changer
Photo: James Pardon (BBC America)

On the other hand, maybe that’s the point. Doctor Ruth has clearly lived a very different life than our Doctor remembers, one that seems to involve serving as some kind of conscripted solider for Gallifrey. Perhaps that’s meant to be the source of the instant and largely unresolved tension between them. Elsewhere, Ruth’s antagonism with Commander Gat (Ritu Arya) and her romantic relationship with Lee—who also turns out to be a Time Lord in hiding—raise their own lingering questions. Though both Gat and Lee wind up obliterated, I wouldn’t be surprised if we learn more about their importance in the future. (I also wouldn’t rule out either of them being The Master.)

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With so much going on (and I still haven’t even really touched on Captain Jack yet!) there’s a risk of this episode feeling overstuffed. Indeed, the sheer amount of Doctor Who mythos Chris Chibnall has brought back in these first five episodes could be read as a panicked course correction to last season’s standalone approach. But there’s one line that gives me confidence that this is all building to something cohesive and purposeful. Upon hearing Jack’s ominous warning about a lone Cyberman and the importance of not giving it what it wants, the Doctor observes, “Time is swirling around me. The Master, Captain Jack Harkness, Ruth. Something’s coming for me. I can feel it.”

It’s not a ton to go on, but it at least implies there’s a greater story at play, rather than just a bunch of scattershot fan service. This episode also unlocks some fascinating new dimensions for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. We learn that in between adventures with her companions, she’s been searching for The Master and visiting the ruins of Gallifrey, clearly still haunted by its destruction. Her unsettling experience with Doctor Ruth causes her to snap at Ryan that, no, actually, he doesn’t know everything about her because she’s a two-thousand-year-old regenerating alien and he’s a mere human. It’s a biting moment, and one I wish the episode had the courage to stick with for more than a few moments.

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Illustration for article titled Whoa, tonight’s iDoctor Who/i is a game-changer
Photo: James Pardon (BBC America)

Maybe the biggest problem with Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who is the lack of specificity in the Doctor’s relationship with her companions. That’s one thing this season hasn’t course corrected, and it proves to be a problem here as the Doctor’s understandably grim mood is far too easily lifted by a speech about how the TARDIS team is a family. If we’re meant to buy that Graham, Ryan, and Yaz are three of the most important people in the Doctor’s very long life, then the next few episodes are going to need to prioritize those central relationships as much as the game-changing reveals. Because while “Fugitive Of The Judoon” itself is buoyed along by a fantastic sense of suspense and surprise, the season will need some emotional heft if it wants to stick the landing.

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Stray observations

  • Captain Jack Corner: Kudos to the Doctor Who team for being able to pull off such a massive surprise! It’s an absolute joy to see John Barrowman return to the series, and I love that Ryan and Yaz’s discussion of his endearing cheesiness lampshades just how much Doctor Who’s tone has changed since Captain Jack last appeared in 2010’s “The End of Time, Part Two.” Jack’s role is basically an extended cameo, but it’s an awful lot of fun to watch him mistake Graham for the Doctor and greet his old friend with a big kiss. Though Jack doesn’t get a chance to meet the 13th Doctor yet, his final speech suggests the show would very much be open to that happening in the future. (UPDATE: I actually got to interview Barrowman all about his experience filming this episode, which you can read right here.)
  • Assuming Doctor Ruth isn’t from an alternate dimension or something, it seems like it would make the most sense for her to pre-date the First Doctor, since I’m pretty sure we’ve seen all of the other regenerations occur onscreen. If that’s the case, it’s interesting that she already has a TARDIS when we know the First Doctor stole his. Regardless, Doctor Ruth’s existence almost certainly ties into the “timeless child” mystery, right?
  • “Fugitive Of The Judoon” at least recognizes that the Judoon’s arrival on Earth would seem like the perfect opportunity to flesh out Yaz and her career as a police officer. Alas, with the episode’s real focus elsewhere, Yaz once again falls to the wayside. Her plan to cause a diversion by speaking to the Judoon in police jargon amounts to literally nothing.
  • Though the Doctor is willing to tell her companions that Doctor Ruth is another version of herself, she’s still yet to inform them about the destruction of Gallifrey.
  • Allan winds up being a red herring character, but his “You Can Do Better” cake for Ruth is bizarre and hilarious. As was his exchange with Lee: “You want to take this outside?” / “Stop asking me that every time I come in here for a latte.”
  • I also enjoyed the Doctor’s complete inability to negotiate with the Judoon about her arbitration time.
  • “You don’t know what a Cyberman is yet, do you?” What a great Doctor Who line and a great delivery from Barrowman!
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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