Doctor Who Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jo martin ruth doctor chris chibnall vinay patel nida manzoor

Doesn’t time fly when you don’t have all the answers?

I am, I think, finally starting to understand Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who.

That’s been a point of contention for a little while now, something I’ve spoken about in my review of each part of Spyfall; there’s been, to my mind, a frustrating almost-anonymity to Chibnall’s Doctor Who work, leaving a lot of it feeling like a weak, Davies-era tribute act. I’ve never entirely understood what exactly drives Chibnall, what he thinks Doctor Who is for, what he loves about it. “Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who” has never felt as coherent a concept as “Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who” – much as the latter is often misunderstood, there’s an obvious set of easy to appreciate personal idiosyncrasies that the former very much lacks.

But! I recently read quite an interesting interview with Chibnall (in a magazine, otherwise I’d link it) which I think sheds some light on it all. He described series 12, in contrast to series 11, as “a journey deeper into Doctor Who” – where series 11 was about setting the stage, this is Chibnall finally getting towards doing what he actually wants to do with the series.

Which, actually, makes a lot of sense. Granted, I’m inclined to question just how well series 11 functions as an introduction to how good Doctor Who can be – given that it, uh, was rarely as good as Doctor Who could be – and I’m more than a little suspicious of how in tune his populist instincts actually are, but it makes sense. Series 11, in that sense, almost starts to look like Chibnall’s version of series 10 – not quite treading water, exactly, but a prologue inspired by a popular predecessor in the same way that was an epilogue. Series 12 is what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who should be – as he put it in the interview, “all the treats of the Doctor Who universe and then some”. That, immediately, is much more interesting to me than the (deliberately) simpler, less overtly authored series 11.

Granted, I still don’t know exactly how I feel about this vision – it’s perhaps a little too rooted in established canon and continuity call-backs, even for me – and, more to the point, I’m still not entirely sure where it’s going. Jo Martin’s Doctor is fascinating, though, and introducing her character feels like the most ambitious the show has been since… well, I suppose since casting Jodie Whittaker. For the first time in a long time, to me at least, the series feels genuinely quite compelling – and that’s a pretty nice feeling, actually.

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Which isn’t to say, though, that it’s necessarily actually any good. Honestly, there’s a case to be made that Fugitive of the Judoon is scarcely an episode at all – just an hour of set-up, moving the pieces around the chess board so that they’re ready for (presumably) the finale.

So, it’s probably worth discussing Jack for a moment. On a production level, it’s more or less inevitable that the character would end up returning – he’s the most easily revisited Davies-era character, for one thing, and certainly one of the most popular (like, I’d love to see Martha back – the only other character you could bring back without having to tie yourself in knots to explain how they’ve returned – but I can’t imagine many people are really clamouring for that). Even setting aside the Davies-era nostalgia, though, Jack was always going to return because John Barrowman is something of a household name. In 2005, he was a theatre actor, with a couple of small film roles; now, he’s been on I’m a Celebrity, he’s a judge on Dancing on Ice, he’s hosted game shows and talent contests and he’s a talk show regular. John Barrowman is, if you like, Bradley Walsh after the watershed – of course he was going to return in Chibnall’s Doctor Who. And, you know, John Barrowman aside, I do basically like Captain Jack, as indeed I like, well, everything from Doctor Who when I was 10. Yes, it’s pretty much entirely nostalgia, but it just about worked for me (even if, structurally, it was a bit of a mess).

What was interesting, though, is how much his sheer force of personality – for better or for worse – nearly entirely overshadowed the other companions. There’s something fundamentally really, really strange about Yaz sharing screentime with Jack – the difference between caricature and character writ large in a Bristol Cathedral dressed as a spaceship. Yaz, of course, was already poorly served by this episode, which was already especially egregious given it was the alien space police episode, but Jack’s return threw it into even sharper relief.

Granted, I don’t actually think Jack was especially well-served by Chibnall’s writing either – often feeling more like a memory of the character’s quirks, and too reliant on technobabble that was never Barrowman’s strong suit anyway – and structurally, his involvement in the episode was a mess. (You couldn’t have given the three companions something to do within this – helping Jack somehow, rather than just watching?) But it highlights, I think, the limits to Chibnall’s skill, even now, as we’re starting to get a better understanding of just where he wants to direct that skill.

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On the plus side, though, Jodie Whittaker had one of her best weeks yet. So that was nice.

As I noted last week, Whittaker has always done best in the role when she’s had to play against a strong guest actor; the reason, I think, is that it draws out her otherwise fairly passive take on the character. Pushed to the margins, she’s forced to try and reassert herself over the narrative – so in that sense, pairing her with another Doctor is sublime. Here, the challenge to her place as lead is, by necessity, much stronger that it ever is with Tesla or King James – because Jo Martin, and Jo Martin’s Doctor, offer a very different vision of what the programme could be. It’s not a huge surprise that there were people left sort of wishing the series stayed with Martin at the end – that means it’s working!

(Although, of course, I suspect the two Doctors will eventually find themselves a little more closely aligned by the end. It’s surely not a coincidence, after all, that the Ruth Doctor evokes Grace – who was very consciously, explicitly paralleled with the Doctor in The Woman Who Fell to Earth.)

In places, yes, I do still wish Jodie Whittaker was being given more to do. She’s plainly capable of so much, and the show is often so close to giving her things to do – that confrontation with the companions at end, where she brushes them off and insists they don’t know her, has a bitterness and an edge to it that’s almost entirely unlike anything she’s got to do so far. That’s brilliant! I’d love to see more of that! But it was resolved, so, so quickly, it didn’t really go anyway. A shame.

At the end of my review of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – an episode that, I think, is actually probably better than Fugitive of the Judoon – I commented that it’s perhaps not a good thing that it was the best Doctor Who could do. This week, though, I welcome the ambition on display – even if it doesn’t always add up to much, it feels like Doctor Who has regained a certain sense of momentum. I’m really, really glad of that.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Stolen Earth

I came here when I was just a kid.

I love this one.

I also love the next one (arguably more, though I don’t tend to think of these two in discrete parts), but we’ll get to that in time.

I used to have all these Doctor Who action figures – no, collectibles – nah, action figures. A couple of David Tennants, quite a few of them missing hands; Rose from New Earth and Rose from Rose, a strange thing that looked like it was about to start a fight most of the time; Daleks, invariably missing their manipulator arms (alright, plungers) or guns or eyestalks, each one totally broken by the siblings and never by me. (That’s not, like, an attempt to talk around it or laughingly suggest it was me and I pretended it was them; it was them and they know it.) Judoon, Slitheen, Captain Jack from The Empty Child and Sarah Jane from her Adventures, complete with a little Graske, Martha from Smith and Jones and Mickey from Army of Ghosts, complete with half a Cyberman.

But, anyway, I collected them over the years, and played with them, obviously.  Always ridiculous, over the top narratives, with exterminations and resurrections and epic, galaxy-spanning stakes, and, of course, every companion ever. (Well, no, not every companion ever, because I never had a Donna figure.)

You can, I imagine, see where this is going. The Stolen Earth is Doctor Who as it always existed in my imagination, writ large across the screen. It’s sprawling and excessive and fun, Doctor Who taking joy in simply being Doctor Who. There was no way I wasn’t going to love it. Watching it at nine years old (probably) it was, genuinely, event television in a way I’d never really experienced before. Watching it ten years later, there’s still such a rush of giddy joy to it all. Across these reviews I’ve written about how I sometimes worry my opinions are based too firmly on how I first watched it, but with this one, I’m not worried about that. I know it, and I don’t care – this was the most amazing episode of Doctor Whoever then, and in more ways than one it still is now.

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There’s still, I think, a kind of… conversations about Doctor Who are still basically lead by the same types of people, and arguably in some cases the same people full stop. It’s people who grew up in the 70s, talking about Weetabix and Target novels and Tom Baker pants, and then being terribly ashamed of it all in the 80s and 90s (and in some cases still, bizarrely, carry the imagined weight of that around with them).

Less common – and to me, more interesting – is accounts of people talking about growing up under the revived series. Probably the obvious reason for that, I suppose, is that they’re mostly just not old enough yet; we’re still kinda at the point where it’s people who were teenagers when Rose aired are talking about it, as opposed to the 7 and 8-year olds. Maybe in a few years’ time we’ll start to see the stories of Cyber-strawberry frubes and Totally Doctor Who and David Tennant pants, which I would just like the record to state that I always found kinda weird and never had. Anyway, though, we’re definitely getting there. It’s something I’d like to have a go at myself one day, I suppose.

If, and when, people start getting around to it, I suspect The Stolen Earth will loom large in those accounts. It feels difficult, now, to quantify quite how big it was at the time. I remember that it was one of the last episode titles to be revealed; at that point I was following production news and stuff, albeit mainly through the Doctor Who Adventures magazine, and listing the title of episode 12 as CONFIDENTIAL (or TOP SECRET or what have you) – alongside, I think, what became The Sontaran Stratagem – really set me off. The anticipation! (Mind you, I was always pretty confused by the theory that Harriet Jones was the Supreme Dalek, though I’m pretty sure I found out about that after the fact.)

And, I mean, I’ve already said how much I loved this episode at the time. That picture of all the companions assembled together, ‘The Children of Time’, that was my computer background for years. It was then, and in many ways still is, such a wonderfully intense episode of Doctor Who, and one that’s really quite deeply bound up with the ways I watched Doctor Who at the time, the way I experienced Doctor Who, and, sure, the way I lived it.

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It still stands up today, I reckon.

The oft-repeated refrain when I write about the first part of any two-parter is, you know, that that’s quite difficult for all these reasons, which I recount mainly to fill up my own arbitrarily set wordcount, and as a bit of a caveat for the fact that I’ve not really said anything. Admittedly, a lot of this review is me talking around the fact, discussing what The Stolen Earth is and represents as opposed to anything that actually happened in it. On the flip side, though, it is mostly set-up and OMG moments and the cliffhanger of modern-Who, still yet to be topped, so maybe that’s not so bad.

Still, though. There’s a lot of great moments. The obvious bits, like any moment where Bernard Cribbins is on screen, have been rightfully discussed, but what stood out to me about this episode most of all was Elisabeth Sladen. It feels odd to say it, but she’s a much, much better actress than I ever realised –  not that I ever thought she wasn’t, or anything, but it really struck me that every emotional beat of the Dalek invasion works because of her. It’s her fear of the Daleks, at Davros, and for Luke, that makes it work – it’s genuinely the most impactful performance of the episode.

It’s quite the episode, The Stolen Earth. Quite the episode.

These days those action figures are all neatly displayed on my shelves – lovingly displayed, in fact. (I’d have to concede they’re actually maybe not that neat, and they pick up dust like mad.) I feel like maybe I should try and construct some metaphor out of that, that the things you love as a child start to hold a different place in your life as you grow up or whatever, but nah, that’s nonsense. Or it’s nonsense here, anyway.

I just wanted to tell you about them. I really love those things

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Smith and Jones

doctor who smith and jones review title card title sequence anne reid roy marsden russell t davies charles palmer david tennant martha jones

We’re on the moon. We’re on the bloody moon!

Back once more with another series of Doctor Who reviews, this time I’m looking at Smith and Jones. We’re quite firmly entrenched in the period of Doctor Who that I remember, and was an active fan for – not that I’ve ever been an inactive fan, I suppose, but this is definitely an era that I recall fondly. Actually, probably quite a lot of my Who-watching memories are from around this point – if not the material substance of the episodes, a lot about what surrounded them.

For this episode, it’s those publicity photos – David Tennant in the flowery shirt for Freema Agyeman’s casting announcement, and of course the picture below of the Doctor (in a blue suit!) and Martha on the hospital roof building. It’s also the DWA previews, and discussing the episode with my friends on the Monday morning (the teacher told us off for dawdling after assembly). Oh, and the episode of Doctor Who Confidential that accompanied it, where they talk about how David Tennant suggested the Doctor could mouth “it’s bigger on the inside” as Martha said it.

All of the above, admittedly, has absolutely nothing to do with the actual episode itself. But I find it interesting to try and contextualise these episodes in terms of how I would have experienced them the first go around; after all, I suspect that this whole age based re-evaluation of the episodes is the most unique angle I’ve got going for these reviews, so I should probably lean into it a little more.

It’s quite interesting to try and remember what I thought of the episodes on their first broadcast – in lieu of any detailed notes or reviews (those didn’t really start until series 7a) I’m really only going on hazy recollection. And, to be honest, I liked basically every episode of Doctor Who back in the day (the first one I remember feeling genuinely let down over was Midnight, but we’ll get to that next year) so there’s not exactly much of a view to counter.

But then, I guess, that’s probably the theme of these reviews in a nutshell anyway – is the thing I’ve loved for most of my life (indeed, loved for longer than I haven’t) actually as good as I thought it was? Is it as good as I want it to be? Or has all of this just been a bit of a waste of time really?

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The most interesting thing about this episode is Martha. Obviously, it is, because this is her debut episode, and she’s the new companion – although, rather crucially, she’s also the first new companion. That can be difficult to remember sometimes, I suspect, because we’re looking back on this episode with the lens of history – five more companions down the line, this sort of cast change is clearly part of Doctor Who. But after so long of the show having been Rose’s programme, really moreso even that it was the Doctor’s, this could be quite a jarring shift.

And I think, generally, the consensus is that Martha is a bit of a problem companion; the one who never worked, exactly. I’ve always felt that’s unfair, and at times I’ve referred to her as one of my favourite companions for that very reason – I love all of Doctor Who, and I’ll champion even the bits people are less fond of. (This, I suspect, is also part of the reason why I’ve said the Sixth is my favourite Doctor, and Love & Monsters my favourite episode.)

While I’ve generally re-evaluated this stance – albeit to more or less reject the choosing of favourites altogether – I am still quite fond of Martha. And quite interested in her status as a problem companion, because I remain largely unconvinced that’s actually correct.

One critique I remember in particular was of Martha’s introduction, and the phone call to her family – basically suggesting it was unwieldy and overly complicated. I’d reject that entirely; as a piece of shorthand across one scene, it’s actually a really effective way to create a deft sketch of who Martha is as a person. In some ways, it tells us as much about her as the montage at the beginning of Rose did about Rose; we can see Martha’s the mediator in her family, which in turn shows us different sides of her character. Then at the hospital, we’re seeing different sides to her again – it’s a really nice way of giving us a character who’s quite well rounded. Yes, it’s still only a starting point, but very quickly Martha’s gone from someone entirely new to a character we’ve got a decent sense of.

The other interesting part about Martha – and this is far from a new observation – is that she’s being set up as a direct mirror to the Doctor. He’s a Doctor, she’s a medical student. It’s an interesting mirror that presents a lot of potential across the rest of the series, in terms of her development as a character. Crucially, and this adds to those parallels, Martha is also a character who’s from a sci-fi world in a way that Rose wasn’t; understandably, because the audience is a lot more used to sci-fi than they would have been in 2005. Martha comes along and she’s from the Doctor’s world; when she references the Battle of Canary Wharf and aliens and so on, it’s because she’s someone who has lived in Doctor Who for the past few years.

So, yes, I think this is quite a good introductory episode for Martha. Her character is grounded quite well; she’s someone who’s going to make a good companion, and that’s her starting point. She gets how to do it – she’s going to become a Doctor herself. She’s going to earn that title; her arc is clear from here on. And the potential, moving forward, is exciting.

(Admittedly, yes, there’s a few scenes in which Freema Agyeman’s performance is a bit patchy, but I’d stress that is only a few scenes; for most of the episode, she’s great. I checked online, and this was the first episode she filmed – so it’s understandable that she’s not quite getting into the part completely yet. And also, just to address the other perennial concern – I wasn’t particularly impressed by the kiss in this episode, no. Not this time, or when I was 8! I did like Martha’s teasing flirting with the Doctor at the end though. More on all this in the coming weeks, of course.)

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In terms of the rest of the episode, I was surprised at how fast paced it was. I don’t ever particularly remember these episodes as being that fast paced, but they rattle along surprisingly quickly. In some respects, I think it’s probably because of all the criticisms that have cropped up in the last few years about Doctor Who being too fast paced, or not letting everything breathe enough – you forget that the show has been fast paced for a very long time.

Which isn’t to say, incidentally, that Smith and Jones doesn’t let the episode breathe, or is too fast paced; I’d argue it’s actually quite well constructed, as an episode. While it might rattle along very quickly, it does so in such a way that it’s quite economical with the script – there’s almost a ruthless precision in terms of how it moves.

Certainly, the piece is structured very well, and makes a nice implicit distinction between the monsters (the Judoon) and the villain (Mrs Finnegan). It moves between plot beats quite effectively, setting them up in a nice, almost Chekhovian way – Mrs Finnegan drinking the Doctor’s blood is a clever conceit, particularly as the episode allows Martha to figure it out just ahead of the audience, again cementing her as a good companion. (We can see another mirror to the Doctor as Martha arguably makes a similar sacrifice to him, giving up the last of her oxygen – potentially dying – to save him. Admittedly, that this was only so the Doctor could unplug the MRI does cheapen it a little.)

In fact, Mrs Finnegan is a rather wonderful character, because of how utterly perverse she is; the defining aspect of her villainy is the same juxtaposition of the mundane and the otherworldly that gave us a hospital on the moon. That an innocuous old woman, seemingly harmless, can be so dangerous is part of the frisson of her character – particularly when you throw the bendy straw into the mix. Actually, that straw is fantastic, because it grounds the horror in a more mundane way, yet at the same time being quite gleefully sickening. So, yes, Mrs Finnegan is a particularly perverse villain (especially considering her “she was asking for it” speech to justify her actions) and a very effective antagonist for the episode, even if everyone does only ever remember the Judoon.

So! Smith and Jones. It’s actually a very good episode; while I’ll concede that it wasn’t brilliant in places, it clearly demonstrates that Doctor Who can continue without Rose. And – more to the point – it demonstrates that I wasn’t so wrong to like this show, all those years ago.

8/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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