Based on the fact that showrunner Chris Chibnall had taken a co-writing credit on this episode, I had assumed going in that we were going to get some more of the architecture of the season-long arc story in tonight’s episode, and I was braced for that. The timing seemed to be about right as well–you open with a two-parter that sets up your storyline, do a pair of one-offs in different time periods to reassert the parameters of the show, then steer back to pick up the threads of your mystery before the audience forgets about them.
But I wasn’t expecting anything quite so seismic as that.
This one’s a deep dive back into the mythology of the show. In some ways, it makes me feel sorry for any viewers who may have hopped on board during the Jodie Whittaker era, as there must be a ton of stuff flying past them that they have no reason to know about. But for anybody who’s been around for a longer haul, this episode is chock-a-block full of references and callbacks guaranteed to carry an impact. It also, as promised, does serve to ramp up the ongoing mystery. Everything we think we know is wrong, indeed, it would seem.
To be honest, I was pretty in the bag for this episode even before most of that stuff started breaking. The opening fifteen minutes alone were pretty grand, with very nice time spent to introduce and establish Ruth and Lee and their community as well as the Judoon platoon that is hunting them. Boy, the Judoon really have taken the place of the Sontarans, haven’t they? And I quite enjoyed the fact that the opening scene with the Doctor and company was about the ongoing situation. It’s been a long while since it’s really felt like DOCTOR WHO episodes were meant to be watched in a given sequence rather than being so sequestered that you could watch them in any order. It was also nice to feel some consequences of what we witnessed in the opening two-parer and see it affect the members of our cast. All of that was great.
And in those same opening fifteen minutes, the production gave Jodie plenty to do as the Doctor! She immediately sweeps in and takes charge–this is perhaps the most like the Doctor she’s ever been presented! Also good was the way the way the strengths of the supporting players was used, in particular at least a little bit of talk tossed towards Yaz’s background as a police officer. That’s something that I’d be using a hell of a lot more often were i working on the show. Even the fact that nobody immediately noticed that Graham had gone missing because he’s always bringing up the rear felt genuine to me. (Though I confess, the effect when he was teleported away was so like the one in which the old woman was disintegrated by the Judoon containment field that my first thought was that she must still be alive as well.)
Speaking of Graham, once again he and the rest of the chorus really didn’t have very much to do this time out again–but they at least got a wonderful and nostalgic distraction to keep them and the audience busy. I recognized the voice from the very first line he said, but it was still tremendous fun to watch Captain Jack Harkness materialize and run roughshod over the scenery. Nothing had so made this seem like the show of years past than these moments. It’s a bit of a shame that Jack’s involvement this time really just amounted to keeping the other main players busy during some crucial moments elsewhere and didn’t really add up to much. But it feels as though it’s virtually been promised to us that we’re going to see him again before the season runs its course, so I’m perfectly all right with that.
And also, that surprise reappearance of Jack was an excellent swerve. All throughout this past week, BBC America has been touting that this episode contained something massive, and Jack’s return seemed to fit that bill. So I was about half-wrong-footed when we got to the big reveal of the episode, Jodie dug up the box and Jo Martin broke the glass on the Chameleon Arch and came striding out. Until she made her introduction, my mind was racing to try to nail down just who she was–I recognized the Chameleon Arch energy just as soon as the glass was broken, but I assumed that she was some other Time Lord–the Rani, the Valeyard, the Meddling Monk. I wasn’t prepared for her to be the Doctor, nor for her to not recognize Jodie as the Doctor.
And it must be said, whether this turns out to be the truth or just some elaborate fiction, Jo Martin cut a fine form as the Doctor. In a lot of ways, and I hate saying it (and it’s not really fair given the length of screen time) but I think I preferred her to Jodie. The look, the swagger, the attitude–that whole package fit the bill pretty well. It probably didn’t help matters that Jodie was forced by the story back into the kind of muddled behavior that has defined a good deal of her tenure as the Doctor as soon as Jo was driving the Tardis, especially since she’d come across so strong in the opening half. A lot of that is just a requirement of the story, though, so I’m willing to give them a pass on it–especially since everything in that back half of the episode was so electric.
So what does it all add up to? Hell if I know. I will say that of Jo Martin was simply a different Time Lord who was using the Doctor’s name as an alias out in the universe doing whatever she had been doing, a lot of the questions here fall away. But I somehow doubt the truth will be that easy or that streamlined. In any event, this is as excited as I’ve been about DOCTOR WHO in a long while (I was lamenting my lack of engagement earlier in the week after viewing the first episode of PICARD, which gave me many of the feels I used to get from WHO) and I can’t wait to see where this all goes next. Though, to go back to my very first point about the rhythm of a season, there is every probability that next week’s episode will again be a one-off without a whole lot of connective tissue to the larger narrative.