❉ The episode that gave the internet a breakdown.
“Follow the light. Break the glass.”
On Sunday night, after the transmission of this episode, certain elements on the internet went into meltdown. Here’s my favourite example:
More on that later…
What’s particularly impressive about Fugitive of the Judoon is how successful it was in terms of the major shock twists it so masterfully delivered. That’s particularly striking when the pacing of episodes this year has varied in quality, from the equally successful – Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – to the alarmingly slipshod – Orphan 55.
The quality of this episode shouldn’t be totally surprising, because co-writer Vinay Patel authored Demons of the Punjab for Jodie Whittaker’s first season. What that lacked in its similarities to the central idea of Peter Capaldi’s Twice Upon a Time, it made up for in its emotional complexity and the twist that the Evil Alien Bastards weren’t actually Evil Alien Bastards. In Fugitive of the Judoon, writing with executive producer Chris Chibnall, Patel took his talent for wrong-footing the audience to an operatic level.
Featuring the return of the “space rhino” Judoon, the interplanetary police invented by Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who’s first 21st century show runner, the episode initially unfolded like one of the Earth-based stories on his watch: a diverting alien incursion into present day England – this time Gloucester – complete with comedy local “All Ears Alan” (Michael Begley), an amusingly jealous cake shop owner. As in David Tennant’s Smith and Jones (2007), the Judoon were hunting an alien life-form disguised as a human.
So far so RTD, particularly with the apparently innocent bystander Ruth Clayton (Jo Martin) watching her unremarkable, but happy, domestic life turned upside down by an encounter with extra-terrestrials. And this is where the fun started: Ruth’s husband Lee was played by Neil Stuke, a marvellous actor well-versed in playing slippery types, so that factor, together with some clever misdirection in the script, made it look like he was the Judoon’s Number 1 Suspect. The fact that he wasn’t set up the major revelation that so annoyed Sword Of Gallifrey.
Before that, Patel/Chibnall threw another curve ball into the standard RTD runaround, with Graham being time scooped to a ship being piloted by none other than Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the grinning omnisexual action man who lit up so many RTD episodes and went on to star in his own series, Torchwood (2006-2011). Like the surprise reappearance of the Master in Spyfall: Part 2, this really shows that Chibnall’s decision to have zero advance publicity for the series has paid dividends. Harkness was his old self, down to every gleaming tooth and shiny button on his great coat, ready to greet the Doctor with one liners like “Loving the grey at the temples – kinda distinguished but still sexy!” It was a shame it was Graham he met, but Jack’s reaction to the news that the Doctor had changed sex was enjoyably predictable: “This I gotta see!” He, uh, didn’t… if anything, that showed up the limitations of Jack’s return scene, as – no doubt to accommodate Barrowman’s other commitments – he was confined to one scene sealed sealed off from the rest of the narrative, delivering a cryptic warning to the Doctor’s companions about “the lone Cyberman.”
The episode really stepped up a gear when the revelation of Lee’s death turned Ruth into “Jackie Chan”, demolishing a group of Judoon with an outbreak of martial arts (like the ticking watch she was looking at at the beginning of the episode, in retrospect it was a clever hint about what her true identity, particularly if you were a Third Doctor fan). Cue the second great – and satisfying – plot twist this week, that Ruth’s human exterior concealed another identity.
So, finally, to the revelation that it would be underestimating to call a Game Changer, and which put the returning star turns of the Judoon and Captain Jack in the shade – Ruth, a black woman in her 40s – is an earlier incarnation of the Doctor, complete with an appealingly retro, First-Doctor style TARDIS.
For me, one of the highlights of the series so far this year were the intercut scenes of Ruth re-acquiring her identity – “Break the glass” – and a shocked Thirteenth Doctor digging up (her?) TARDIS. The interplay between the two was also a pleasure to watch; Jo Martin’s interpretation bullish, superior and just a bit ruthless, while it was a treat to see Jodie on the back foot, introspective and convincingly serious.
As well as being arguably the Biggest Plot Development Ever, the new/old Doctor plot-line – with two female Doctors, and the Jo Martin version perhaps working for an operative from the Celestial Intervention Agency, the young woman Gat (Ritu Arya, impressively steely and gone too soon) – continues the feminising of Doctor Who, with the main three roles of a major new story arc all played by women. No wonder Sword Of Gallifrey was apoplectic. I’m guessing the credit ‘Introducing Jo Martin as the Doctor’ was what finally pushed him – and it must be a ‘him’ – over the edge. Watch carefully, though, and it’s clear that the Ruth Doctor and Gat come from another timeline… or do they?
Back in my review of Spyfall: Part 2, I said that Doctor Who’s creativity had been re-energised. That might have been a tad premature, but Fugitive of the Judoon is, to its marrow, the programme I grew up watching: funny, surprising, shocking, surreal, iconoclastic and controversial.
In short, like nothing else on television.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.