So many thinks to spoil but let’s launch into the episode a little way and then move into the realm of surprises.
Promotions of this season of Doctor Who had touted the return of the Judoon as characters even while filming was still going on. They aren’t a particularly loved species but they do have the advantage as antagonists of not being a big-bad. They are obnoxious space-cops and bring with them all the complications of obnoxious space-cops.
Given the title, it was clear from the first five minutes of the episode that we were going to get a story about an alien hiding from the law on Earth in a small (if scenic) town in England. The set-up was very nicely done. We got a convincing introduction to Ruth, the central character who was clearly going to get mixed up in Judoon-based law enforcement gone wrong, and her slightly shifty husband Lee. The latter, of course, looking like the most likely person to be secretly an alien on the run from the law. What I liked (on first viewing) was, while it was obvious were this was all going, it was all being done with a confident humanity.
Vinjay Patel who wrote this episode had also written last seasons Demons of the Punjab, which had also a strong emotional centring of the story on the ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. What I really liked was that Ruth was being sketched out very swiftly as a person in their own right, which was going to be important if the episode was going to focus on brutal policing.
A strong set-up for a predictable episode. Not that predictable is bad — following a well worn path can allow for more character development and personal drama. Chris Chibnall’s biggest TV success has been with detectives solving a murder mystery in a small British town, as predictable a genre as you can get on British TV but one that creates space for human drama.
So predictable was what I was expecting. I’m told there was some social media hype brewing around the episode but I missed that. So, I was genuinely surprised when Graham disappeared while looking at some cup-cakes.
And that was only the first surprise. This was going to be Doctor Who in the mode I like best, like their TARDIS, spinning wildly out of control and crashing into everything in the way…
So the first big surprise of the evening (technically the morning for me) was the return of Captain Jack Harkness, played as far over-the-top as he can manage by John Barrowman. Your taste may vary, but I like Captain Jack in small doses and this was a sufficient amount. Jack’s arrival and repeated kidnapping of the Doctor’s companions did not, by itself, knock the main plot off kilter. Instead, it picked up on the theme of the current companions discovering more about The Doctor’s past and underlined some season plot-arc exposition. Beware the lone cyberman! Whatever that might mean.
The ‘fam’ are little more than an audience to Captain Jack’s scene stealing and the literally do little more than stand around and watch. While they aren’t well served by this episode, the secondary Captain Jack plot allowed for The Doctor and Ruth to have a less encumbered story line.
By this point, it had become clear that Ruth was an alien undercover so deep that she herself was unaware that she wasn’t from Earth. With The Doctor and Ruth heading towards Ruth’s childhood home (an unlikely lighthouse) it was still clear what the likely arc of the story was going to be. Ruth would learn her true identity, there would be some backstory and things would resolve themselves somehow with the intervention of The Doctor. If this had been a Steven Moffat episode, I would have been primed to expect a big twist and knowing that there was a big twist coming I think I would have guessed Ruth’s identity. However, this is the much tamer Chibnall era.
So the first genuine surprise was The Doctor attempting to dig up a grave (itself a transgressive idea) and the reveal of the top of her TARDIS. Not just a TARDIS but the TARDIS.
Of course The Doctor has met themselves before and on multiple occasions. However, we’ve never had a proper surprise encounter with an unknown regeneration of The Doctor before (hinted at but averted in The Next Doctor and an ambiguous cameo by Tom Baker in The Day of the Doctor). The whole story goes crashing out of course in exactly the way The Doctor entering an otherwise familiar story setting does. It is both an obvious and brilliant idea and also a risky one. It runs the danger of simply being trite and a lot rests on an actor having to establish themselves believably as The Doctor in only part of an episode (something it takes new versions of The Doctor multiple episodes to do).
Luckily Jo Martin was up to the very difficult task of being both Ruth (mild-mannered tour guide to Gloucester) and unknown-reincarnation of The Doctor. Some of it was down to nice visual touches (flamboyant dandy costume, pretentious spectacles) but also she hit some perfect Doctor qualities that were familiar aspects of the broader character but which neatly contrasted with Jodie Whittaker’s current version.
Of course, what we now have is a season which is blown wide open. Having destroyed Gallifrey in episode 2, Gallifrey is not only back but the Time Lords are loose in the universe and hiring space-cops. But also Gallifrey is still destroyed. It is a timey-wimey nightmare and a beautiful set-up that may flop spectacularly or maybe brilliant or maybe somewhere in between but pulls the series out of is more purely episodic mode.
Fan theories a-plenty have since exploded. The Jo-Doctor didn’t recognise Jodie-Doctor’s sonic screwdriver points to Jo-Doctor being a retconned-in earlier regeneration. As she also has a police-box TARDIS, then that suggests a post-Hartnell regeneration and as Patrick Troughton had a sonic, some are speculating that Jo-Doctor fits between the two or is a an alternate-universe Troughton. Alternatively, as the Time Lords messed around with Pertwee-Doctor’s mind, perhaps there is a missing period of The Doctor’s life between Troughton and Pertwee?
Given the scope for memory-wipes and messing around with regeneration not to mention alternate timelines and parallel universes, actually anything is possible. A substantial hint in Captain Jack’s info-dump was that an attempt to stop the Cyberman-empire involved sending something back in time. Consequently, as time-travel does, the whole of The Doctor’s past maybe utterly changed (it was already less than consistent).
All we can do is wait and see and hope the pay-off is at least moderately satisfying. Meanwhile, we got a fun and confident episode and a new Doctor!