Doctor Who – “73 Yards”, “Dot and Bubble” and “Rogue” Review

With the last Doctor Who review, I noted the idea of fans and critics saying that “Doctor Who is back” with the Steven Moffat-penned episode “Boom”, a great episode that felt like the greatest hits of what Moffat does as a one-off Who writer. Well, I think I can confidently say that Doctor Who is NOW truly back with the following three episodes “73 Yards”, “Dot and Bubble” and “Rogue”. Back in the way that Doctor Who is supposed to feel: episodic in the best ways that TV should be, with efficient emotional stakes and remarkable twists and turns that push this show’s boundaries in perhaps the best way we’ve since the 2005 revival.

73 Yards

Directed by Dylan Holmes Williams and written by showrunner Russell T Davies, it perhaps caused the most amount of online stir because of how WEIRD it is. Taking a cue from the companion-lite and Doctor-lite 2008 episodes “Midnight” and “Turn Left” (filmed simultaneously to maximise production), stories that are easily argued as the very best of what Davies did as a Who writer, “73 Yards” has the Doctor and Ruby Sunday land on the mysterious and terrifying realm of…Wales. The Doctor suddenly disappears after stepping on a fairy circle laid out in the nearby grass, and Ruby is left on her own as a strange woman stands at an ominous distance, always following Ruby but never getting closer. There is no alien invasion, giant robot, or spaceship above London to fight off. It is only Ruby and the woman, always at a distance of exactly 73 yards, always scaring off anyone who gets close but never letting Ruby be alone. What may at first seem like the cheapest episode yet of the show, using only its real-life filming location and only using the companion as the lead, proves just how brilliant Doctor Who is when given a challenge. Strip away all of its iconic elements like the Doctor character, the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, and even the opening title sequence, and what are you left with? 

It is a challenging, ambitious, perplexing, incredible 45 minutes of brilliant character-building drama, a feat that Doctor Who can do better than many and most. Millie Gibson is shouldered with the responsibility of a Doctor-lite episode, and it was her first episode shot as her character due to Ncuti Gatwa’s Sex Education commitments. She comes out of the episode fully defining who Ruby Sunday is. Someone who stares directly at her fears, no matter how close or far away they are, and uses them as a superpower. “73 Yards” has a few thematic shifts that feel slightly underdeveloped, notably Aneurin Barnard’s character of a right-wing political candidate gaining horrible power whilst being a sexual predator, and the elliptical ending will surely confuse many more than it will instantly satisfy them, but how Davies as a writer, Williams as director, and Gibson, as star navigate them overall, is marvellous. This, much more than “Boom”, has brought Doctor Who back to a realm of captivating strangeness, not afraid to take risks and push itself even 60 years on.

Dot and Bubble

Regarded, or instead disregarded, at first as the “Black Mirror episode” of Doctor Who from its early marketing, “Dot and Bubble” does share a few similarities to Charlie Brooker’s influential sci-fi anthology show, but ends up coming out on top because of WHAT kind of show Doctor Who is anyway. Set on an Earth-like planet inside a domed city called Finetime, the episode is centred on Callie Cooke’s Lindy as she is helped (reluctantly) by the Doctor and Ruby through digital communication to escape the city as giant man-eating slugs are roaming around, killing off anyone they find. The digital communication used is the title of the episode, being a small flying dot that hovers around a person and then projects a social media bubble around their head at all times of the day, to the point where a person’s movements are only controlled by the dot and bubble. As far as metaphors go, it’s perhaps one of Doctor Who’s most blunt, an obvious take on the infantilising effects of social media in our world that reminds one of the future of humanity seen on the cruise ship Axiom in the Pixar film WALL-E. But again, Russell T Davies is not satisfied with just letting this episode be a send-up on social media. Focusing on Lindy while the Doctor and Ruby only pop in on screens inside Lindy’s bubble is a bit of a hard ask for the audience, but we end up being almost literally inside her head as she is somehow abrasive to the Doctor but more accepting of Ruby. We question why that is, while still wanting her to survive because she’s still human, and that’s only natural for us. The Doctor still tries and helps, threatening by Lindy to be punished by the authorities of Finetime due to his bubble interference, but Lindy gives in due to the danger and listens to his advice, managing to survive until the end. Along the way, there are, of course, twists and turns about what these slugs are, where they came from, why people are being eaten by them, and showing quite brutally what Lindy will do to survive when given a chance. When safety is finally found, the Doctor and Ruby are there to help anyone left escape in the TARDIS as there are more deadly creatures outside of the Finetime city dome, but when face-to-face with a literal saving grace, Lindy and all of the Finetime survivors refuse. 

Why? Well…while the social media metaphor was blunt, a more subtle and crushing one was worked into the very fabric of the episode without notice until the end. Simply put, everyone in Finetime is racist. They look at the Doctor and see only a threat, an “infection”, a means for them to be tricked, so they take their chances anyway with the outside world that will surely kill them all. The Doctor has put on the faces of white men and women for 2000 years or more at this point, so this revelation comes as a straight dagger to the heart. Still, despite their horrible prejudices, he pleads with them to listen to him when he offers them salvation. It falls on deaf and dumb ears. So, in turn, the Doctor and Ruby just walk away, leaving these racists to their fate. Ncuti Gatwa’s performance in these final few minutes was yet another piece of proof that he was perfectly cast, as he can be playful and charming with Ruby and exude magnetism so crucial for the Doctor, but his breakdown at the notion of not being able to save people who won’t save themselves, at realising what racism truly feels like, it’s a tour-de-force moment for the character, the actor, and the show in general. “Dot and Bubble” may take some time to get one fully invested and some key revelations feel underdeveloped or unclear, but the ending effect of twisting your very understanding of the previous events makes it a winner in a series so far that has yet to have a dull moment.

Rogue

“Rogue” is the second episode of Series 14 (or ‘Season One’ if you go by what some of the marketing suggests) to be written by someone else other than showrunner Russell T Davies, this one being done by Loki and Sex Education director Kate Herron and her writing partner Briony Redman. Set in the stately early-19th century English manor of Pemberton at a fashionable party for all the lords and ladies, the Doctor and Ruby are having a hell of a time living out their Bridgerton fantasies, dancing along in perfect step with everyone else and enjoying the best cosplay anyone could imagine. And cosplay, it seems, becomes a major part of this episode. Of course, there are alien invaders in this picturesque and classic setting for many a melodramatic high society soap opera because this is Doctor Who and there just has to be. The invaders, named the Chuldur, are bird-like shapeshifters killing specific members of this high society and living out their lives like the world’s most deadly and dramatic game of cosplay, attracting the attention not only of the Doctor but of dashing intergalactic bounty hunter Rogue, played by Jonathan Groff. The Doctor confronts Rogue, who then in turn arrests the Doctor under suspicion of him being the culprit of the murders that seem to be happening more and more around the manor’s grounds, while Ruby tries to help and protect Lady Emily Beckett (Camilla Aiko) from those who wish to live out her tumultuous life as an unmarried woman still in love with a man who cannot commit to her. Ruby’s side plot is a bit of an afterthought in this episode, but “73 Yards” was entirely her show to command and “Dot and Bubble” had to be Doctor-and-companion-lite for scheduling reasons; it’s nice to have this adventure be VERY Doctor-centric. The Doctor is taken prisoner by Rogue, but there is an instant chemistry and level of attraction between the two characters that we rarely see from the Doctor but is always there because…well, look at him. He’s gorgeous. 

The playful back-and-forth between Gatwa and Groff is charged from minute one and leads to one of the show’s funniest moments yet aboard Rogue’s ship as the Doctor discovers his penchant for Kylie Minogue and Dungeons & Dragons. This exchange leads to Ncuti Gatwa’s first “I am the Doctor, I’m a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey blah blah blah” speech whilst surrounded by his many faces over the last 60 years of the show, in a moment so overwhelmingly powerful and cool it instantly converts Rogue and very well makes him fall in love with the Doctor. Who wouldn’t? This scene also broke a bit of Doctor Who canon by including the face of Richard E. Grant, who played a version of the Doctor in a 2003 animated story called Scream of the Shalka, an incarnation never officially acknowledged as the Ninth or Tenth Doctor but I honestly live for the wild fan speculation as well as the writers refusing to give clear answers. It’s more fun that way. Anyway, more danger and death abound as the Doctor and Rogue plot to trap the Chuldur in an interdimensional prison, leading to them doing a massive show of emotional drama for the enemies to salivate over, a scene that moves from cheeky and delightful to genuinely moving. More mistaken identities and dramatic stakes are layered on for good measure until the big finale shows off just how multi-faceted the Doctor is as a character, ready to love and enjoy what the universe has to offer but also ready to let anyone who hurts his friends burn for all eternity. It’s a quality totally lacking in the way that Chris Chibnall wrote Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, and it is beautiful to see return. The ending of “Rogue” is a fitting finale for an adventure that initially seemed like a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the Bridgerton, Brontë and Austen aesthetic but ends up being a tragic love story your heart breaks for.

Final Thoughts

With the two-part finale of “The Legend of Ruby Sunday” and “Empire of Death” on the horizon, one hopes with all they have that Russell T Davies and his cast and crew stick the landing for what has so far been one of the very best series for this long-running show. Ncuti Gatwa, even when he isn’t on screen that much for two whole episodes, has become one of the very best Doctors we’ve seen because of his energetic aura, an inviting and welcoming presence, a willingness to love and be loved, and a consequential darkness that brings so much weight with only a few sharp looks. Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday has also been one of the best companions to date, shaking off early unfair comparisons to Rose Tyler and becoming her own person, complicated and afraid but eager, insightful, and decent. This Series 14 has pushed the boundaries of what Doctor Who can be without ever alienating the audience by overloading it with lore and canon details and all that guff. Doctor Who needs to challenge you, make you think about your place in the universe, and make you fall in love and be heartbroken all over again and again. It’s the best and the worst. I love it.

You can stream Doctor Who on Disney Plus.

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