Series 12 Episode 5 26/01/20 Review by Tim Worthington
Other than the baffling and bafflingly enduring Cilla Black vehicle Surprise Surprise – in which ‘the unexpected hit you between the eyes’ courtesy of live link-ups between servicemen and their families and Bob Carolgees getting old women in the street to ‘bring back’ The Twist or something – Sunday Night television never really was anything that anyone would have associated with surprises. Harry Secombe sang about how God made the trees from that grassy bit in the middle of a dual carriageway, Compo, Clegg and Seymour built yet another hang-glider, Esther Rantzen pondered how many more children would have to be injured by sub-contracted plastic bollards before someone took action and then handed over to Doc Cox with a bundle of suspiciously convenient newspaper misprints, and Clive James guffawed at Hale and/or Pace microwaving the Spitting Image puppet of David Steel. There were all things bright and beautiful – and indeed All Creatures Great And Small – but you always knew what to expect and when. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
Spoilers past here...
Although nobody ever really expected it to make the jump to Sunday Nights, for a variety of reasons Doctor Who has increasingly become something that most people wouldn’t normally associate with surprise either. Way back during the original run, of course, it was so much easier to keep a lid on what did and didn’t leak out about as-yet untransmitted episodes, and everyone will have their own equivalent of hearing a shout of ‘Quick! It’s half of a man and half of a Dalek!’ ringing out from the front room; or, conversely, excitedly tuning in to find out what the much-teased The Destroyer looked like, and realising that it was, well, a bit rubbish. When Doctor Who came back, it was still just about possible to make a ratings-smashing virtue of the element of surprise, even if it meant resorting to such measures as trimming a scene with Rose in out of a press preview. There were planks who took advantage of the still relative novelty of the Internet to show off about what they had manged to find out covertly about the new series and become the kid-who-climbed-on-top-of-the-science-block-and-did-a-stupid-bow-type hero to a small contingent of halfwits, but they were easy to avoid and regularly slapped down by forum moderators and even, on one memorable occasion, by Steven Moffat himself. For as long as it realistically could, Doctor Who kept delivering surprises to rank with its more illustrious contemporaries; and, if we’re being blunt about it, they’re probably all better remembered than The Hatch being blown open in Lost, Stringer Bell being ambushed in that warehouse in The Wire, or the zoom in on that manhole cover at the end of the first series of Heroes.
That’s all changed now, though. In another shock in another of those close contemporaries, The Thick Of It’s seemingly unsinkable Spin Doctor Malcolm Tucker – played of course by Peter Capaldi – rounded on a government enquiry that finally had him cornered and roared that “the exchange of private information – that’s what drives our economy… but you come after me because you can’t arrest a land mass, can you, you can’t cuff a country”, which of course was a fairly blunt allusion to certain then-recent real-life political events but in all honesty he may as well have been referring to ‘spoilers’. They’re impossible to avoid in advance, they’re impossible to avoid post-broadcast, and gone are the days when you could get a jolt of excitement from recognising Anthony Ainley’s laugh seconds before Professor Yana announced himself as The Master to the room full of non-fans you were sitting in the middle of.
Except that, somehow, Chris Chibnall has managed to find a way around this in the face of a spoiler-hungry media and outright fan hostility (how dare the production team not share every last sensitive detail with someone who seened The Armageddon Factor once), and while this may sometimes have created an unreasonable and unhealthy level of anticipation for episodes that turned out not to warrant it, it has also allowed him to throw in a couple of genuine curveballs that even the most comprehensively spoilered appear to have been genuinely thrown by. This series we’ve already had the utterly unexpected return of, ironically unsurprisingly, The Master – hiding successfully in plain sight without the need for a cunning anagram like ‘Chad A. A. Shawn’ or ‘Het Remsat’ – and now we’ve got Fugitive Of The Judoon, an episode that might have been rather light on actual plot but you barely noticed that in the face of unanticipated twists and turns that kept jumping out on you like one of those creepy old Fisher-Price Jack-In-The-Boxes.
And speaking of Jack… there’s a good deal of speculation from both sides of the infantile fifty pence piece right now about the moment when ‘it’ all went ‘wrong’. Was it when the Prime Minister was made to apologise for calling a bigot a bigot (a charge that must be regularly refuted via the airing of bigoted statements through every news outlet imaginable)? Was it when the chairman of a comedy panel show was ousted to the nauseating delight of his co-stars for outrages that pale next to those of his most popular temporary replacement (who still went on to climb the career ladder relentlessly regardless)? Was it even when the ‘politically correct brigade : (‘ forced the biased lefty anti-Corbyn BBC and their sinister hat-manipulating NEWS ROBOTS into making Doctor Who be one of them BERDS to be politically correct for all them different labels for sexuality we have now that somehow affect people they have nothing to do with in some unspecified way instead of repeatedly smashing your face into a big plate of lumpy mash and rusty nails like yer nana used to have IF IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR HER ITS GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU AND IT NEVER DID US NO HARM you centrist melt or something, usually uttered by the sort of individual who believes that you have no right expressing an opinion in a field where they believe themselves to be an expert but still expect everyone to pay attention to their hot take on Doctor Who? No, it’s all down to the sheer lack of John Barrowman on our television screens. In better times, if he wasn’t actually literally in Doctor Who or Torchwood, you could almost certainly find him helming a game show after having rampaged across three others without permission, removing his pants for the audio-only benefit of radio listeners, cheerleading a group of cats racing towards food bowls while dressed as an actual cheerleader, or suddenly adopting his ‘Scottish’ accent and doing a Highland Fling around some austere sports reporters, and that was usually just in a single evening’s viewing. He’s been an all too infrequent sight for too long now, and while it remains to be seen whether his surprise reappearance will herald a long-overdue swing back to normality – and let’s face it, he has tended to herald just about every kind of other swing so it’s not entirely beyond the realms of feasibility – it’s fantastic to see him back as Captain Jack, clearly enjoying himself mightily and as larger than life as ever. In fact, fittingly, many viewers will most likely have recognised him by his voice before he actually showed up in person. Hopefully he’ll be showing up again later in the series too, but, well, they’ve managed to keep that a secret too.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s the reveal that nobody saw coming that ‘Ruth’ is actually some sort of continuity-taxing undocumented incarnation of The Doctor, who disguised herself as a human and buried the Tardis on Craggy Island for some mysterious reason we just don’t know yet; and neither, it seems, does she. Yet. Casting Jo Martin (who, in case you weren’t familiar with her, is fantastic in the BBC Three comedy-drama Back To Life) as this mysterious interloper has been enough to send the #NOTMYDOCTOR cement-heads into somewhere between overdrive and meltdown, as if a production decision made in contravention of their proudly-expressed dubious ideologies will somehow prevent them from ever watching Meglos again, but fans with more sensible and less hysterical concerns will already be asking themselves far more pertinent questions. Is this all some kind of Red Dwarf-style alternate timeline hoedown, and if so, are we about to be treated to Graham, Ryan and Yaz’s cover of Om? Will it be some variety of riffing on the ‘First Doctor wasn’t the first Doctor’ conundrum hinted at by those faces in The Brain Of Morbius (“How far, Doctor? How long have you lived? Obviously I have no prior incarnations at all because that would interfere with inexplicably angrily expressed fan theories!”)? Is the business with the Tardis being a Police Box before it can possibly have been a Police Box going to get as complicated as the Past Gamora and Present Day Nebula teaming up against the Past Nebula in Avengers: Endgame? Who knows, but any logistical posers that anyone is currently ruminating on were very clearly planned, and will have both been expected and accounted for by Chris Chibnall.
This is the bit, then, where I have to come out of character and talk about how and why I’m writing this review. I offered to contribute a review to John’s website as I always do because he was someone who would run my off-the-wall ideas for features back when nobody else was interested, and I have enormously fond memories of putting together our Doctor Who fanzines like Faze and This Way Up over the course of ridiculously absurdist evenings in the pub and excitedly plotting ideas for articles in the gaps between bands at rat-hole indie venues. John wasn’t the first person to encourage me to write about Doctor Who, though – that was Paul Condon, a friend of ours from Doctor Who Local Group days, who was editing the group’s newsletter and not so subtly encouraged me to pen a few words about the likes of Paradise Towers, Turlough And The Earthlink Dilemma and the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip Claws Of The Klathi. I don’t have any of those early efforts any more, and highly suspect that I would not enjoy seeing them again, but as a mark of acknowledgement to Paul and to those days I have deliberately written this review with the same approach I would have taken in those days; free-form, scattershot, unpolished, long rambling sentences, shouty to an extent that people are likely to tell me off about, and focusing on unfocused pop culture references at the expense of actually saying anything about Doctor Who itself beyond the most obvious surface details. Well, this is where the story gets really odd. Somewhere between the usual round of jokes about the 86 Bus, the Auton that comes out and goes WAYYYYY LADS! when Channing is showing General Scobie around the factory, and the copy of Fury From The Deep on VHS that John has stashed away somewhere, we somehow randomly alighted on the fifth episode of the new series as the one I was going to review. The very same episode, it turned out, that Chris Chibnall – another former member of that Local Group – had chosen to make his own tribute to Paul with. Doctor Who may be surprising people again, but it’s never surprised me like that before.
So, I might as well end this review in the same way that I would have done back then – by actually remembering to say something about Fugitive Of The Judoon itself. It wasn’t exactly the most heavyweight of episodes, but it didn’t need to be; the surprises were more than enough. I was pleased enough to see The Judoon back as they’ve always been favourites – “Pyrovillia – cold case!” still always has me in stitches – and even more so with the unexpected bonus of Captain Jack, who however daft Torchwood might have become at times was a character that very much represented everything that was new, modern and exciting about reinvented Doctor Who and appears to have lost none of that in the interim. There’s a hinted return for The Cybermen, who hopefully might just be big scary logical cyborgs again instead of hiding in antique vases for centuries holding a copy of The Usborne Book Of Ghosts or whatever it is. Then there’s the whole mystery of the new Not Notmydoctor Doctor, the three companions actually working together well for once (especially when they are joined by Captain Jack), and most of all Jodie Whittaker, who clearly relished the opportunity to play the character on the kind of back foot that’s teetering on the edge of an active volcano with dinosaurs in it. Jodie is unequivocally my Doctor; she was definitely Paul’s, and she’s yours too. Admit it. Unless you won’t admit it, in which case you should probably go and watch seaQuest DSV instead. Royce D. Applegate is definitely your Chief Manilow Crocker.