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.

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jo martin jodie whittaker jack harkness john barrowman vinay patel nida manzoor chris chibnall

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.

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jodie whittaker jo martin doctor ruth gloucester

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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Doctor Who Review: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

doctor who review nikola tesla's night of terror nina metivier chris chibnall nida manzoor jodie whittaker goran visnjic

The present is theirs. I work for the future. And the future is mine.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is, immediately, one of the best five episodes of the Chibnall era – which perhaps says altogether more about Doctor Who of late in general than it does about this episode in particular.

The trouble with reviewing Chibnall’s Doctor Who – or, one of the issues I’m starting to have, anyway – is that I’m never quite sure how much to approach a given story in terms of what’s going on around it. Does Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror demand to be read in isolation, or should it be contextualised by the rest of series 12?

The answer, I suppose, is surely ‘both’, but I can’t help but feel the latter places a certain unfair weight on the story. As ever, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is a dismal episode for Yaz; the occasional flash of charm aside, poor Mandip Gill is given such utterly thankless, banal lines I continue to feel sorry for her. (“It’s sensing it’s surroundings, like a scanner” has to be one of the more egregious bits of Chibnall-era hand-holding exposition: for all that the series emphasises scientific thinking and curiosity in its current iteration, there’s an odd unwillingness to trust in its audience’s ability to understand a concept the first go around.)

I’m not wholly sure, though, how much Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror deserves critique for that. Clearly, it’s an endemic problem – the issue is with Doctor Who as a whole right now, not this episode in and of itself alone. Any other year, it likely wouldn’t even warrant a mention; it doesn’t matter particularly that Rose is a little underserved in The Long Game, because Dalek and Father’s Day fall on either side of it. There are a few episodes in Series 9 where I wish Jenna Coleman was given a little more to do, but I’m more or less inclined to forgive them given quite how good Face the Raven and Hell Bent are for Clara. If Spyfall or Orphan 55 had found more space for Yaz, then it wouldn’t matter quite so much that she’s sidelined here – but they don’t, so it does.

Yaz isn’t the only issue you could highlight, of course; generally speaking, few of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’s problems are uniquely its own. Perhaps, I suppose, it’s time to stop drawing attention to them. (Or, you know, less so – you can probably take it as read that Yaz is underserved by an episode, so it doesn’t always need to be mentioned, but if she’s still side lined in Fugitive of the Judoon, it probably warrants a mention.) Still, though, at a certain point I think there’s a need to forgive Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, or any given episode really, for being part of Series 12, and just take them on their own strengths.

And, freed of the obligation to be a good episode of series 12, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror ends up being… well, basically quite enjoyable actually.

doctor who review nikola tesla jodie whittaker goran visnjic nida manzoor nina metivier chris chibnall

Tesla, of course, is self-evidently a good idea for a Doctor Who celebrity historical – “brilliant Victorian inventor”, after all, is exactly what the Doctor is half the time. If you’re inclined to position the celebrity historical as a way to interrogate your lead characters, it’d hard to think of a character better than the archetypical eccentric inventor. He’s particularly a good fit for this iteration of the Doctor, who is (nominally speaking) an inventor herself – and, although they didn’t touch on it, Tesla’s slightly idiosyncratic view of women might’ve been an interesting thing to draw on as well.

And he’s great here! It’s a depiction that really works – in no small part to the strength of Goran Visnjic’s performance, who absolutely nails the charisma needed to centre the episode. It really makes a huge difference to the rest of the cast, too, in giving them someone to actually play off – this is perhaps one of Jodie Whittaker’s best performances in the role (not entirely surprisingly; she’s always at her best when paired with a strong guest star). There’s a moment or two where it looked like it might start to riff on The Girl in the Fireplace. I’d love to see Whittaker given something like that, actually.

Perhaps my only qualm, though, is the way the episode tries to position Tesla as a great man forgotten by history. Bluntly, no, he’s not. Not as well known as Shakespeare or Churchill or Rosa Parks, no, but hardly someone whose achievements haven’t been celebrated. Sure, The Current War didn’t make much of an impact, and I suppose The Prestige – where Tesla was played by David Bowie! – is probably one of Christopher Nolan’s less famous films, comparatively speaking, but they’re very much just the tip of the iceberg in terms of pop culture depictions of Tesla. Even in his own lifetime, he didn’t cut an especially anonymous figure: TIME magazine celebrated his 75th birthday by putting his face on the cover and had a huge party in his honour. Einstein was there! Vincent van Gogh he was not, is my point.

Granted, there’s rarely much merit to picking apart these stories in terms of their historical accuracy – Rosa aside, that’s just not really what they’re for. (Which does I think create more of a need to pick Rosa apart, but that’s another matter.) I’m not even especially bothered by the way they elided some of Tesla’s more reactionary views; after all, if that’s the line of critique you’re making, the queue surely starts with Churchill.

There’s something a little off, though, about the narrative this episode tries to build around him. Because that’s just not true of Tesla! There’s a value to doing stories about great achievements forgotten by history – the Rosalind Franklin, Mary Anning types, for example, or even Ada Lovelace, who was much more than just Byron’s daughter even if Chibnall doesn’t realise it – but I’m not sure that “the white man who deserved to be a billionaire” fits this particular story.

doctor who review nikola tesla night of terror anjli mohindra queen skithra scorpion

Everything else, of course, is basically entertaining. It’s the sort of episode that I almost want to review in bullet point form, admittedly, covering individual clunky lines and particular highlights one by one – but they all largely balance each other out, anyway. The direction is a little flat at times, yes, but this TARDIS has genuinely never looked better (an impressive feat, considering the design). The Skithra are actually quite fun – I love how clumsy they are – and Anjli Mohindra is clearly having the time of her life, even if scorpion aliens maybe don’t quite cohere with the themes of the rest of the episode. In any case, both Nina Metivier and Nida Manzoor are surely due a return. (It’s a very alliterative episode I’ve realised, isn’t it? Nina Metivier, Nida Manzoor, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. That’s a nice little coincidence.)

Still, though. It’s taken me a while to write this one (I’ve backdated the post, shh), in part because… well, it’s unfair to say nothing is going on in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Indeed, for a genuinely quite compelling read on the themes, ideas and contradictions of the episode, I’d point you to this article here, on a website that’s routinely doing the most interesting Doctor Who analysis around.

Nonetheless, though, there’s something a little frustrating about Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Setting aside the fact that it has surely the best episode title we’ve seen in a long time, it’s hard not to think that at any other point in the past decade this would’ve felt average at best – something akin to Fear Her or The Curse of the Black Spot. Which, in fairness, isn’t necessarily indicative of much – I rewatched Robot of Sherwood recently, an episode that’s largely in the same vein, and loved every minute of it. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror certainly feels like it might age well in the same vein. (And, of course, I have little doubt that Fear Her and The Curse of the Black Spot are someone’s favourite episodes. Well, maybe not Fear Her, but someone other than Karen Gillan must love The Curse of the Black Spot.)

But if this is still the best we can hope for, if this is obviously and immediately one of the best episodes of the Chibnall era, then I can’t help but feel that Doctor Who is perhaps not at its healthiest.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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