Written by Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall
Directed by Nida Manzoor
Executive producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall
Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Jo Martin, John Barrowman, Neil Stuke
Ritu Arya, Paul Kasey, Michael Begley
Nicholas Briggs, Judith Street, Katie Luckins
A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 26th January 2020
Running time: 49 minutes 40 seconds (source: BBC iPlayer)
Right, yeah. It’s been a long time since I bought women’s clothes.
--The Doctor, The Woman Who Fell to Earth
There it was, low-hanging fruit in the dialogue of the Thirteenth Doctor’s first adventure, a throwaway line spoken without any special weight or significance, a comment remarkable only in that it was so unremarkable. With Graham, Ryan and Yaz, the audience had been through so much in the previous fifty-plus minutes; our perspective on Doctor Who had been expelled from Steven Moffat’s oblique projection of Faerie to an angular and grimy world of concrete and cladding and (above all) steel. The magician-king had been transformed into ‘an engineer… a builder of things’ (to recall The Aztecs), an explorer of and maker in worlds outside more than a contemplative musing on doubts and questions within. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor not so much recoiled from challenges to her identity as was baffled by them. Where Peter Capaldi’s Doctor had been mired in a mid-life crisis, Whittaker’s Thirteenth seemed secure in who she was. Being the Doctor was a strong foundation for action, not a burden of guilt.
That apparent lightness of certainty was balanced by a seeming modesty of ambition, with questionable results. Now the Doctor is forced to look at herself. Fugitive of the Judoon begins (almost) with a previously unknown Doctor, whose identity has been technologically scrambled and who is thus ignorant of her heritage, viewing her reflection in a mirror – hexagonal, no less. It ends with our Doctor feeling that her identity has been poached. The shell of certainty, already cracked by the Master’s revelations, is now shattered.
Although for many viewers this strategy had been anticipated by the previous week’s social media campaign, Fugitive of the Judoon based its revelations upon misdirection. What poses initially as a self-contained problem of the week story (and yes, there was potential for another cold open here, which was lost) turns out to relate to matters which the episode itself can’t contain. In hindsight, of course Ruth (Jo Martin) was being set up to be the person she turned out to be. Her persona as fact-loving tour guide enjoying meeting people and home life with her domestic audience within an anachronistic outer shell is very familiar. So too is Ruth’s gaining at least one worryingly obsessive admirer. It’s tempting to interpret All-Ears Allan (Michael Begley) as the production’s response to the fans who wanted more mythology, more emotional depth, and more sophisticated dialogue after disappointment at the self-conscious straightforwardness of Series Eleven. After showing Lee Clayton (Neil Stuke) a message intended for Ruth (‘You Can Do Better’), he is disintegrated, perhaps because like fandom in search of an author to criticize he’s misunderstood the nature and powers of the authorities which he challenged. If so, it’s a blunt assertion of confidence and control of the ongoing narrative.
Allan’s murder despatches someone set up as a potential commentator or participant in events. He was an eavesdropper and gossip with a passion for Ruth, already established as someone the audience might have concern about. It’s the first indication that this isn’t going to be the small-scale adventure which early scenes might have been read as promising. The comedy of cathedral precinct manners which might have followed, doesn’t. The Judoon, callous in their absurdity, inject a welcome note of bleak comedy into the often overearnest Whittaker era, killing colourful supporting characters with little discrimination. It is difficult to imagine them being sent on their way with a message of hope while they consider the benefits of gradual change. Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall can bring their own ink, but they are filling in an embossed signature. Nevertheless, the Judoon commander (Paul Kasey as Pol-Kon-Don, a welcome gesture in memory of the much-missed Paul Condon) is shown to be alarmed at the way in which Commander Gat (Ritu Arya) breaks the code of conduct on which Judoon conduct depends. For all their merciless killing, there is something endearing and childlike about the Judoon addiction to rules, and the way in which they are treated might lead the audience to question what Chibnall and his colleagues seem to have been about so far. Ruth’s mutilation of the Judoon commander is a reminder of the Whittaker Doctor’s occasional unkindnesses – including her culturally superior goading of T’zim-Sha (‘Tim Shaw’ indeed) – at odds with her minimalist interventionism and moral certainty. Ruth’s battle with the Judoon within the cathedral suggests the hope of persuasion must yield to force, leaving much of the Doctor’s message of the past one and a half series seeming platitudinous.
The revelation of Jo Martin’s Doctor recalls aspects of Vinay Patel’s first Doctor Who script Demons of the Punjab last series. The Judoon have disintegrated expectation of structure, but Patel is a past master at misdirection, having tantalized with a possible major alien intervention in Yaz’s family history in Series Eleven. By the time Ruth looks in her suspiciously hexagonal mirror, the viewer has already been treated to at least one bluff as Ruth is introduced staring as if hypnotized into her watch, only for tension to be broken by her toast popping up. Where Demons of the Punjab made the alien witness to the domestic and the domestic succumb to political prejudice and conflict, here the domestic is a cover for the alien. The political still intersects with memory, though. Where Yaz’s inherited memories turned out to be edited, here the Doctor’s are brought into question, and with them a set of assumptions cherished by a small but significant proportion of the viewing audience.
There is of course a little evidence for incarnations of the Doctor before we joined their adventures on television. The Brain of Morbius featured images of several past Doctors who preceded William Hartnell’s. Perhaps when the Time Lords in The Three Doctors asked to be shown ‘the earliest Doctor’, this was only the earliest Doctor of which these Time Lords knew. Perhaps something stopped Clara – and the Great Intelligence for that matter – going back beyond the Hartnell Doctor when re-engineering the Doctor’s timeline in The Name of the Doctor. Perhaps Clara wasn’t asking for something unprecedented when, in The Time of the Doctor, she requested that the Doctor’s regeneration cycle be renewed. Of course, these are only possibilities and others have their own answers. The questions add dramatic potential to the Doctor’s history, and the effect this has on the Doctor now. Whittaker-Doctor shows disgust at Martin-Doctor’s sabotaging of her laser rifle to kill Gat, but the incident echoes the action of an earlier ancient Doctor, the one who programmed the Hand of Omega to turn on the Daleks and destroy Skaro (Remembrance of the Daleks), and whose actions were revived by Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. When Ryan (Tosin Cole) insists that he knows the Doctor and that who she is now matters more than who she was in the past, his dialogue recalls Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor’s insistence in The End of the World that only his present self was worth discussing. The contrast and continuity between the two moments is striking – Eccleston’s Doctor separated from and grieving for his past, Whittaker’s Doctor’s identity besieged by an unknown history, both defensive and distant in their vulnerability. It’s here that the ‘fam’ come into their own, now connected through Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) with a chain of faithful companions (and I missed Gat’s mocking tribute to Lee first time round) that stretches back further than we knew. Rose was someone conscious that she hardly knew the Doctor; Ryan, Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) are confident that they know the Doctor better than she allows and that they can defend her when things go badly, a challenge to the second half of this series.
Having mentioned Remembrance of the Daleks, it’s worth noting other allusions to 1980s Doctor Who too. The Martin-Doctor’s ease with a gun contrasts with Peter Davison’s Doctor’s failure to use one on Davros in Resurrection of the Daleks, an instance open to the interpretation that writer/script editor Eric Saward lacked confidence in the Doctor’s professed pacifism. The militarized Time Lords represented by Commander Gat (and Lee, and Jo Martin’s Doctor herself) were anticipated by – or perhaps narratively anticipate – the Time Lord military of Steve Parkhouse’s Fifth Doctor comic strips in Doctor Who Monthly. especially The Stockbridge Horror. Whether conscious references or not, the way they are realised serve to raise questions about the Doctor’s character which one feels this Doctor doesn’t want asking – what made her the person she is, who has made the choices she has. They have more in common with the agenda of Series Eleven than might first be thought, providing or promising answers which don’t require the viewer to search through relevant streaming services or invest in physical media to find out the Doctor’s history, instead suggesting this series will rely on new revelations using the icons of the old.
In practical terms, this was a strikingly executed episode. Sound design was remarkable, from the echoing spaces of cathedrals – not only Gloucester, but Clifton Cathedral in Bristol where Jack’s stolen spaceship was created – to Ruth’s ticking watch and the discordant otherwordliness of Allan’s coffee machine. Shots of cathedral spires reaching heavenwards and juxtapositions of old and new in urban architecture related well to the episode’s theme of Ruth’s spiritual and physical renewal as the Doctor. As a design note, the tarpaulin part-hiding the lighthouse’s lamp as Ruth edged closer to uncovering who she really was in the building beneath raised a wry smile in hindsight, and the Doctor’s looking out from its balcony over the time-weathered sands of the Severn estuary must have suggested to some of those who didn’t remember the Chameleon Arch from its previous uses in the 2007 series a connection with the dusty desolation of Gallifrey.
Of the performances, Neil Stuke deployed various kinds of shiftiness to arouse the suspicions of the audience and the on-screen investigators, as well as the worry of Ruth, as well as achieving a certain rough-ground nobility when facing his fate. John Barrowman’s Jack, of course, was overjoyed to be in the Doctor’s life again, even by proxy; his lack of respect for the Doctor’s personal space (and thus Graham’s) brought back not only Jack’s omnisexuality, but remembered celebrations of the removal of traditional inhibitions in the 2000s, for many in a new generation now superseded by questions of personal autonomy and nuances of polite behaviour. If Jack Harkness is an anachronism to some watching in 2020, then he’s as proud of that as he is his devotion to the Doctor. Barrowman injects a measure of performance appropriate to a matinee idol in a mid-century technicolor epic, into a version of Doctor Who whose colours are more muted, even grimier. The contrast is well-played. He opens worlds to Graham, Ryan and Yaz, who have a space adventure in one room which is both very Doctor Who in its economy and with which the Doctor is not involved. Their horizons are broadened and they gain some sorely-needed authority in their relationships with the Doctor which must have an impact on the series going forward.
Of the Doctors, it’s always refreshing to see Jodie Whittaker use more of her wide range. Her assured and reassuring Doctor of the earlier part of the episode is familiar, but put to use here in a crisis which feels more urgent than many thanks to the pace of events and the quality of script and performance. Credit not only to Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall’s script but to Nida Manzoor’s adept management of people and image. On the Judoon ship, Whittaker blazes furiously: this is a Doctor just bearing up fighting the urge to succumb entirely to self-examination and still keeping control of events, blazes furiously, and her broken walk along the canal a striking portrayal of delayed trauma. From a Doctor who has shown less sign of an inner life than her recent predecessors, this is a welcome development.
Jo Martin, of course, has lots to do. Ruth's gun-wielding acrobatics were unexpectedly of the moment given a similar ‘activation’ scene given to Isa Briones as Dahj in the first episode of Star Trek: Picard, released just two days earlier. Martin’s Doctor is a rebel from within the Gallifreyan military establishment, uniformed like a disciplined sea captain but with flashes of fire emerging from beneath. Martin’s Doctor foregrounds the dangerous swagger which Whittaker’s seeker of fair play suppresses, but she also has rougher edges: her admission that the Doctor doesn’t use a gun is a surprise and seems ambivalent in the wake of her part in Gat’s self-immolation. This is a rough-edged Doctor, her alternations between authoritative warmth and cold steel suggesting perhaps less integrated a personality than the Whittaker Doctor’s. As a way of examining the origins of the character without recreating the already broadcast past, Martin’s Doctor is good for the series to have around.
For most of the last two series of Doctor Who, it feels we’ve been seeing the more perilous highlights of the Doctor’s generally undramatic travels. The direct lead-in to Praxeus tempts me to suggest that this might now be changing, with remaining episodes tying more closely in to the arc. Whether or not this is the case, Fugitive of the Judoon (it should have been Fugitive from the Judoon really) has made its core audience understand Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who as much more adventurous, and the challenge to keep that respect has now been set.