“I don’t think you are who you say you are – or even who you think you are.”
Well, this season of Doctor Who suddenly got a LOT more interesting. Fugitive of the Judoon, like several of its characters, was a clever episode that was emphatically not what it seemed at first, and undoubtedly the most intriguing story since Chris Chibnall took over as showrunner. And while it’s no disrespect to him, this was in large part because of its deliberate echoes of the previous two showrunners, both of whom loomed large over the concepts, plots and characters appearing here.
A couple of weeks ago, I complained that Orphan 55 didn’t work because the story it turned into was not the story it started out as being. That was even more true here, but this time it felt justified. Deliberately filled with red herrings, misdirections and plot twists, this ep wouldn’t have worked without whipping the carpet out from under the viewer at least once. What was phenomenal was that it managed to do so time and again, and didn’t put a foot wrong in the process.
In Vina Patel and Chris Chibnall’s clever script, even the title was a misdirection. The tone of the ep’s beginning, and the inclusion of the titular Judoon, suggested a fairly light, fluffy episode of little consequence. I mean let’s face it, the Judoon always felt like they belonged more in an episode of the cosier Sarah Jane Adventures than in the show proper, while the contemporary setting of Gloucester and seemingly average, everyday characters suggested something throwaway.
But of course the Judoon weren’t the main villains, or even the point, of the story. It was fairly easy to guess from the opening minutes that the shifty Lee (Neil Stuke, who I fondly remember from 90s sitcom Game On) wasn’t who he seemed. From that, I was guessing that the plot would be fairly predictable – he’d be unmasked as a wrong ‘un, the Judoon would go away satisfied with their prize, and lovely Ruth would end up with someone more deserving of her niceness, possibly that (actually creepily stalkerish) guy from the café. In my head, I was already preparing a review containing the words “likeable but predictable”.
And then bloody Captain Jack Harkness showed up, and suddenly all bets were off. Yes, the actual Captain Jack is back, incarnated by the perma-cheesy John Barrowman like he never left. Well OK, he has actually aged fairly noticeably; perhaps that was the reason for all the low lighting and JJ Abrams-esque lens flare in his scenes. Or perhaps he’s just a few steps nearer to becoming the Face of Boe.
Earlier in the ep, the Doctor had paid lip service to the ongoing arc with her admission that she was actively hunting for the Master, in the hopes of finding out what had happened to Gallifrey. I’d assumed that would be a glancing reference in an otherwise standalone episode, but Jack’s appearance with Dire Warnings of the Future made it clear that the season’s Big Arc was a vital part of this week’s instalment.
So it was, and in even more ways than were clear at first. With Graham, Yaz and Ryan sidelined into Jack’s stolen ship, I’d assumed that the rest of the story would continue as predicted, with this subplot a necessary if clunky way to advance the season’s overall plot. And again, I was wrong. The Doctor’s story, fleeing with Ruth on Earth, went places that were completely unexpected – and enthralling.
So after the not unexpected revelation that Lee wasn’t who he seemed, I was surprised to find that neither was Ruth. But that was as nothing compared to my surprise when I found out who she really was. There were clues, of course – her buried memories, her sudden reversion to Doctorish instinct when confronted by the Judoon in the cathedral. At that point, having noticed the many references to the past, I started being reminded of nothing so much as classic 2007 David Tennant story Human Nature. Even then though, I didn’t guess that the alien disguised even from herself would have the same identity as in that story – none other than the Doctor her/himself.
I’ve seen a few criticisms of this ep on the basis that it wasn’t very original, revisiting old stories and concepts from the show’s past. To be sure, it was full of them – aside from lifting the basic plot of Human Nature, the presence of Captain Jack, and the Judoon (together with the groan-making rhyming lines based around their name) reeked of the Russell T Davies era, while the impossible temporal paradoxes and continual gobsmacking revelations were a signature style of Steven Moffat.
But the show’s retrod old ground plenty of times before – sometimes to good effect, sometimes bad. To me, it felt that this built very cleverly on the concepts it had borrowed; but more significantly, it brought home just how long it’s been running since its 2005 return. Then, references to the past were all recalling the classic series – every reference here was to the past of the last fifteen years. It staggered me slightly to realise that Captain Jack Harkness hasn’t appeared on the show for ten years, no fewer than three Doctors ago.
There’s a danger that becoming too self-referential will alienate the casual viewer, who won’t understand references to the past that are vital to the plot. But Patel and Chibnall, just as with RTD and Moffat (most of the time) were clever enough to make them non-essential in understanding the plot proper. Yes, young viewers of today may have no idea who Captain Jack Harkness is – but it doesn’t matter. The script made it clear enough; he was an old friend of the Doctor’s, come to deliver a Dire Warning. That’s perfectly comprehensible even if you’ve never seen the character before.
It was a relief to find out that Jack was back to being ‘omnisexual’ (after the dreadful final season of Torchwood, where he was just gay), and his glee at the prospect of a female Doctor was marvellously in keeping with that. But I wonder what he’ll think if he ends up meeting two female Doctors? If you’re one of those fans who still can’t accept that the Doctor is now a woman (I’ll refrain from using the words in my mind to describe them), your mind may have been blown to find that there’s another one now – and she’s not white, either.
But to take our usual Doctor first, this was a sterling ep for Jodie Whittaker. There’s been some criticism that she hasn’t quite got the part right yet, but I’ve always maintained that was because she hadn’t been given the material to properly do so. Yes, she can do the zany, irreverent humour, and the empathic moralising; but until now, she’s been given little opportunity to showcase the character’s darker side.
Yes, there were hints at that in Resolution, where her guilt and trauma about the Daleks and the Time War started to manifest themselves to good effect. This ep, however, gave her far more to work with, showing us a Doctor who can be evasive, cold, haunted, and even baffled when she’s wrong – exactly as the character should be. Finally given the material to do this, Whittaker was more than up to the task, and I’d be surprised if anyone still finds her performance lightweight after this ep.
But Jodie wasn’t the only Doctor in this story; and once revealed to herself and us, Jo Martin’s Doctor / Ruth (haha) was superb. Instantly authoritative but with all the necessary eccentricity, she was more than a match for Jodie Whittaker. Indeed, I’ve heard some fans guiltily whispering that Martin’s Doctor was actually even better, with more than a hint of Whoopi Goldberg’s classic portrayal of Guinan on Star Trek (just check out her look with those shades).
I certainly hope we see her again; even if not, I’m sure Big Finish Audios are scrambling to write a range based around her even now. She truly felt like a ‘proper Doctor’, even down to her bluff with the backfiring gun, and slightly dodgy self-absolution of the fatal consequences of ignoring her pleas not to fire.
A bonus of her impossible existence was another chance for the show to revisit the classic TARDIS set first knocked up for Hartnell biography An Adventure in Space and Time. Retaining this set has certainly paid off, with its appearances in Hell Bent, Twice Upon a Time, and now this!
Crucially though, it also clearly signified that the Ruth Doctor was one from the character’s past. Except of course it can’t have been. We’ve seen the show’s past, and we know she wasn’t in it; and so does the (regular) Doctor. So we’re not just dealing with a temporal paradox here, we’re dealing with a whole alternate timeline that shouldn’t exist in our universe. Aside from being a (presumably intentional) echo of all those twisty, turny Steven Moffat stories like A Good Man Goes to War, this may make the apparently impossible alternate timeline of Earth in Orphan 55 justifiable. In hindsight, I may have been wrong to criticise it for that (though it doesn’t invalidate my other reasons for disliking it, which still stand in spades).
So just what the cruk is going on here? There are no answers yet, and Fugitive of the Judoon is obviously just a prologue to an even more complex story yet to come. But what a prologue! It may be that later developments and resolutions to the questions here don’t live up to the buildup, as is so frequently the case. Viewed in isolation though, this felt like an extraordinary episode, one complex enough to reward at least a second viewing to fully understand – not something I’d expected on the strength of Chris Chibnall’s tenure so far. Aside from Orphan 55, this season has felt far more self-assured than the previous one, barely putting a step wrong; if this is any indication of things to come, I may end up enjoying ‘the Chibnall era’ far more than I ever expected to.
Finally, as has been widely reported, this ep was notable for paying a heart-warming tribute to a well-loved real fan who was a friend to me and so many others. Judoon Captain Pol-Kon-Don was named in honour of the larger than life Paul Condon, truly one of the nicest guys in an often bitchy fandom, who died last year at far too young an age.
I’d known Paul for many years; impossibly kind and good-hearted, he never had a bad word to say about anyone and would always be there for you if you needed advice, or a sympathetic ear, or a shoulder to cry on, while never asking anything in return. Well, except a turn at karaoke or a dance at one of the convention discos he DJed at so well. Paul was taken from us far too soon, but I’m sure he would have been delighted and laughed out loud at the idea of being immortalised as an alien space rhino. Enjoy it Paul, wherever you are – we all miss you.