Well, that was rather unexpected.
When Chris Chibnall took over Doctor Who as showrunner, he had a clear vision to strip everything back and reinvent the show from the ground up. Gone were the recurring or returning characters from the past, or appearances from familiar monsters; no more complicated timey-wimey plot lines dipping into the show’s past continuity for story elements that only long time hardcore fans would understand. Start from first principles and work from there, seemed to be Chibnall’s new approach. But it proved divisive as well as daring, and while it reaped rewards in some areas it also alienated large sections of fans who grumpily declared that it was no longer the show they loved. When the Daleks returned for the 2019 New Years Day special it seemed like the show was throwing a bone to assuage these rabid packs of fans, as a reward for sticking in there.
To be honest, I thought that season 12 would see Chibnall return to his New Model Doctor, which is why the events of “Spyfall” – with the return of a very old adversary, together with a visit to the Doctor’s home world Gallifrey which has seen better times and needs a lick of paint and a truck load of new double glazing – proved such an unexpected shock. But since then the most recent episodes seem to have reverted to the S11 baseline with standalone stories featuring previously unseen characters, with an emphasis on real historical people where possible, and so it seemed that not much had changed after all. The advance publicity of the fifth story, “Fugitive of the Judoon”, seemed pretty much in the same vein with the one surprising aspect being that it’s the first time Chibnall has openly announced that he was bringing back an established character/monster from the past, rather than rolling it out as a hidden surprise.
I was puzzled by Chibnall’s choice of the Judoon for this purpose: they’re hardly from the top shelf of the pantheon of Doctor Who creations. First introduced in the season 3 opener “Smith and Jones”, the oafish and officious Judoon were always a one-note sight gag – Russell T Davies satirising lunk-headed private security guards and neanderthal nightclub bouncers by presenting them as trigger-happy space rhinos in leather skirts. They weren’t even the primary adversaries in their debut story, and more recent appearances have seen them limited to background extras in exotic alien crowd scenes. I suspect they’ve had more regular gainful employment scaring children by prowling around the auditorium at Doctor Who musical concerts and BBC Proms. I certainly hadn’t noticed many viewers clamouring for their return.
Still, fans seemed happy enough at the widely circulated news that the Judoon would be back in 2020, which sees them cordoning off Gloucester of all places in pursuit of an unspecified dangerous fugitive. Among those trapped is local tour guide Ruth Clayton (Jo Martin) and her hapless partner Lee (Neil Stuke) who we meet in a fast-paced, light-hearted montage of a normal Monday morning that reminded me more than a little of the way we were introduced to Rose Tyler (and Mickey too) in the very first episode of the rebooted series in 2005. Shortly afterwards, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) arrives to put a stop to the Judoon’s heavy-handed incursion, together with her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill). There’s a nod to this season’s overarching storyline with an early scene showing how the Doctor’s unshared preoccupation wth Gallfrey is causing a growing rift with her companions, leaving the rest of the running time wide open for some uncomplicated running around. So far, so good – a decent set-up for a fair-to-middling average escapade, I think you’d agree?
And then Graham suddenly disappears mid-sentence into thin air right before our eyes, although unnoticed by the rest of the team. Suddenly it’s clear that something else is going on and there’s a whole other level at work that we had never even thought about suspecting.
Just as S11 splits fans, responses to the rest of this episode have been divisive in their own way: half of the immediate reactions on social media were ‘WTF?!’ while others went for ‘OMG!?’ and I have to say I absolutely agree with both. Moreover, those are about as long and detailed a review as it’s possible to write for this episode without plunging headlong into the perilous pit of plot spoilers. So I’m afraid, dear readers, that this is as far as I can take you before you’ve seen the episode for yourself and are ready to cross the spoiler chasm. But in case you’re wondering if it’s worth your time to do so, then I’ll tease you by bringing forward the star rating which is usually the last line of a typical Taking The Short View post, and ask how a seemingly ordinary middle-of-the road episode can end up with this as the final word:
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Contains hard spoilers
Actually, I have a confession to make. Objectively speaking the episode – strong as it is – isn’t really worth a full five stars. But the quality of the shock twists it offers up, combined with the amazing achievement of successfully keeping them all under wraps (unlike the return of the Daleks in “Resolution” for example, but impressively accomplished with the Master in “Spyfall”) warrants at least an extra half point on the usual rating. That puts it over the top as far as I’m concerned: anything less would be as churlish as a Judoon with a hangover from hell trying to arbitrate an allegation of accidental jaywalking with a five-year-old.
The secret of the episode’s success is the same as that of any stage illusion – misdirection, which is to say, the art of making the audience look one way when all the crucial stuff is happening elsewhere. That’s true here right from the top, with the title: fans got totally sidetracked by the final word and concentrated on the return of the Judoon, whereas we should actually have been focused on the first word and paid more attention to the fugitive. As it is, the return of everyone’s favourite space rhinos successfully persuaded us not to think too deeply about the story at all, or even thinking of looking for anything unusual. A Judoon story meant it would be light, fluffy and frothy, a bit cartoonish but ultimately good entertainment and hardly where you would expect anything significant to pop up. “A fun mystery and mad romp,” said Vinay Patel in advance publicity for the story. He wrote the episode in collaboration with Chibnall, commenting how happy he was to be doing “something a bit lighter” after last year’s “Demons of the Punjab”.
Lighter. Fun, Romp. Oh yes, no misdirection going on there, is there? Pardon me while I pause a moment for some slightly crazed, hysterical laughter.
That was the first piece of sleight-of-hand; the second arrived when the advance publicity in the days before broadcast suddenly started talking up this episode as being a shock unlike any other – “you’ll never guess who’s coming?” – which read like the crazed output of ridiculously young BBC press officers over-stimulated on a heavy diet of caffeine and Haribos, recklessly raising expectations to the point where they could never actually be met. After all, the series had only just pulled off the successful surprise return of the Master a few weeks earlier, and there was no way it was going to top that. Right?
Unlike the return of the Judoon, fans really had been clamouring for the return of Captain Jack Harkness pretty much ever since the end of spin -off series Torchwood (which was co-written and exec-produced in its early days by none other than Chris Chibnall). John Barrowman has even publicly petitioned the current producers on social media to recall him to duty. But after nearly a decade in the wilderness, and with Doctor Who having changed out of all recognition in the meantime, hopes of it ever happening had receded to the point that even when a (subtly disguised) American voice came over the tannoy system I still didn’t see it coming, right up until the Captain exploded back on to the screen in all his cheesy glory. The BBC press office were off the hook after all – the show had more than delivered on their sugar-rush exuberance. That said, the need for complete secrecy meant that Captain Jack’s appearance here amounted to little more than an extended cameo, necessitating as it did a closed set and quickest possible filming schedule using just core cast and crew to keep the numbers of those in the know as low as possible. Even the usual practice of sending out preview copies to the media was curtailed this time, leading to some telling delays in reviews being posted. The scene does gives Jack enough time for some satisfying chat-up banter with the current line up of companions, deliver a portentous warning about “the lone Cyberman”, and promise to be back soon before abruptly disappearing again. Hopefully next time he pops up (and there has to be a next time, surely?) the reduced need for on-set secrecy will allow him to play a fuller role in the story, and he’ll actually get to meet the new Doctor in person – which should be quite a sight to behold.
In fairness, Jack’s return here does contribute one important plot point, by peeling Graham, Ryan and Yas away from the Doctor’s side so that she gets to spend the second half of the episode on her own on a journey of self-discovery, as she tries to work out why the Judoon are after Ruth (Lee having departed the scene after concluding his purpose as the obvious red herring by this point – another bit of successful misdirection on the show’s part.)
However the longer the secret of the ‘fugitive’ was teased out in the episode, the more worried I became that the script wouldn’t be able to deliver a big enough resolution with sufficiently satisfying impact. There was a real and rising risk that the episode could collapse like a soufflé taken out of the oven too soon. I’d even started to wildly speculate and get over-excited myself – from the moment that it emerged that Ruth had initially evaded the Judoon by the use of alien tech that cloaks the user’s physiology, which I realised we’d seen before in the show when the Doctor used a Chameleon Arch to escape from “The Family of Blood” in 2007. But I was sceptical that Chibnall of all people would turn to 13-year-old plot elements – although perhaps if I’d realised sooner that the story in question had taken place in the same season as the Judoon’s maiden outing, the connections would have come swifter and surer.
Even so, despite my doubts, as the story progressed the more it seemed to be following the playbook laid down in “Utopia” in which the Master used the same device to escape the Time War: triggered by seemingly innocuous objects such as a silver alien box or a key phrase delivered by text message, Ruth starts to experience similar sorts of whispered hallucinations and visual flashbacks to buried memories that Professor Yana did as his original personality restored itself. Yet even then, I was doubtful: maybe Chibnall was playing on the similarity but actually planning something completely different? But in that case it would be like last week’s episode, which teased the return of the Silurians, or at least the Racnoss, only to disappoint by delivering the pound land Skithra instead.
In any case, even if it was the Chameleon Arch, where could the story possibly be going with that revelation? “Utopia” finished with the shock return of the Master, but we’ve already been there and done that in season 12 – although it did briefly occur to me that this could be leading to a different incarnation of the Master, maybe one of Sacha Dhawan’s predecessors in the role such as John Simm or Michelle Gomez to pit them against each other and/or explain the order of succession from one to another. But that really didn’t seem very likely, and my fallback position was that Ruth would turn out to be a renegade Time Lord who had escaped from Gallifrey prior to its destruction. That solution would just about meet the expectation threshold, and provide a solid way to progress the season arc.
Well, in a way, I was completely right if you think about it. Yay me. Unfortunately, it’s also true to say I missed the mark by about a million miles. A renegade Time Lord it was – just not the one anyone could possibly have seen coming.
The moment where the Doctor unearths the contents of the grave next to the lighthouse was when the Earth tipped on to its axis and left the rest of us grimly hanging on from that point on. For the life of me, I simply couldn’t figure out how the Tardis – that Tardis – could possibly be there, and I think I spent the rest of the episode reeling and recovering from the ‘WTF?!’ shock. I probably need to go back and watch the rest of the episode again, because it’s all a bit of blur. There was the fantastic scene between the Doctor and Ruth (Whittaker and Martin, both outstanding) played out in a familiar-but-different basic configuration Type 40 Tardis console room with impressive mood lighting; the way the rejuvenated Ruth puts down her counterpart with the same withering condescension that the Doctor is known for when dealing with unhelpful idiots (“Is there even a word for how dumb you are?”); and their growing realisation of what’s happened while being unable to explain it. The final face-off with the Judoon and their client representative (Gat, played by Ritu Arya) was also terrific, and the scenes where Ruth is holding a gun feels like a powerful flashback to the Classic days when the Doctor wasn’t nearly as squeamish about utilising firearms.
Normally at this point I’d put in a mention of the direction, music and other aspects of a production; but I’m afraid on this occasion I’ll have to take a pass. I was so absorbed in what was going on – the script, the performances – that everything else just fell away. To say that Nida Manzoor’s direction was unobtrusive and kept out of the way feels like damning with faint praise, but I certainly don’t intend it like that. In fact it was crucial that the direction didn’t do anything to distract, and in a similar way Segun Akinola’s music absolutely needed not to force its way to the front and do any aggressively overt signalling (in a way that Murray Gold might potentially have done, big fan as I am of his 13 years service to scoring the show).
A few weeks ago the Master taunted the Doctor (and us) by saying “everything you think you know is a lie”, which at the time sounded like his patented brand of typical hyperbole. Now in retrospect it feels like a coy understatement. At the end, the episode did leave a lot of plates spinning and dozens of plot points up in the air, but finishing when it did still didn’t feel artificially truncated, and was more a case of everyone involved – the characters on screen and those of us at home – urgently needing a break to rest and recover and absorb what had just happened, and what it means for the show’s future. Naturally I have a theory (alternative universes, that’s all I’m going to say) but to be honest I don’t really have a clue and can’t wait to find out what Chibnall has planned. It’s the most invested I’ve been in the show for years – possibly since the 50th anniversary episode in 2013 – and the fact that it all came out of no where is the icing on the cake.
Yeah, five stars. You know what? If I could, I’d go even higher – just because.
Doctor Who S12 continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at around 7.10pm, and is available thereafter on BBC iPlayer for 11 months. DVD and Blu-ray versions will be released on April 20 2020.