doctor who fugitive of the judoon review

Well, that certainly was a lot. Doctor Who has been firing on all cylinders this season after a lackluster season 11, and the latest episode “Fugitive of the Judoon” was the most explosive yet. It’s a wildly marked difference between seasons for showrunner Chris Chibnall, who seems to be taking critics’ words to heart after his inaugural season of underwhelming standalone episodes; this time, it’s all season-long mysteries and arcs, baby. But can Chibnall pull off such an ambitious arc that involves the Master, the destruction of Gallifrey, and now a brand new Doctor? Time will tell.

Time Can Be Rewritten

The first half of “Fugitive of the Judoon” gives off a keen sense of déjà vu (it’s like “The Eleventh Hour” and “Smith and Jones” had a baby!) — and it turns out, for good reason. It lulls you into a sense of security, that this is a typical episode of Doctor Who, only to drop on you several earth-shattering twists. Or rather, time-shattering.

Surprise! A new Doctor is in. Or maybe an old one? The revelation that Jo Martin’s sweet Gloucester tour guide “Ruth,” was actually the Doctor in hiding is a jaw-dropping game changer for Doctor Who — one that makes history as the show’s first black female Doctor, and possibly rewrites the entire history of the series as we know it. But it’s a twist that has had plenty of build-up leading up to it, in hints seeded throughout the episode.

The episode opens with a sweet middle-aged couple celebrating the woman Ruth’s birthday over toast, and Ruth (Martin) cheerily heads off to a regular day of work as a tour guide in present-day Gloucester, dealing with your usual variety of uninterested tour guides and kooky old locals. But something is off about this couple, as a smitten barista tells Ruth. Her longtime husband Lee (Neil Stuke) has holes in his backstory and is likely keeping a big secret, one that draws the attention of the Judoon, who are on the hunt for an intergalactic fugitive on the orders of Commander Gat (Ritu Arya). But the barista’s infatuation with Ruth blinds him to the fact that Ruth has similar holes in her background. When the Doctor and Team TARDIS get involved — the Doctor quickly jumping to interfere when the Judoon overstep their bounds by landing on Earth — they soon find out that Lee is hiding this secret from Ruth, who is unaware of her own identity. That is, until Lee (who is later killed after a tense face-off with Gat) sends her a text that triggers her fighting instincts and a series of memories that lead her and the Doctor to a nearby lighthouse that is the source of all her childhood memories.

Hark! The Return of Everyone’s Favorite Captain

Chibnall, for all his love of large ensemble casts, isn’t very good at juggling multiple lead characters in an episode. It’s not too noticeable in “Fugitive of the Judoon” because of the episode’s many game-changing twists and turns, but it is funny when the companions only appear to probe the Doctor on her turmoil over Gallifrey and say a few cheeky lines before getting shuffled off to the B-plot.

Well, you can’t describe the B-plot as plot as much as it a tease for the rest of the season. But that Captain Jack Harkness always knew how to be such a tease. That’s right, Captain Jack is back and he’s as feisty as ever! I’ll admit, I screamed at the sight of John Barrowman, looking ecstatic to be wearing that familiar trench coat and cheesy smile once again. It’s such a relief that Chibnall is walking back his mission statement to divorce Doctor Who of its NuWho past, by reintroducing one of the biggest recurring characters of the Russel T. Davies era, and one who’s been around for as long as the revival itself. Chibnall and co-wroter Vinay Patel (far improved since the clunky dialogue of “Demons of the Punjab) have nailed Jack’s flirty, winking banter, and Barrowman slides right back into the role.

Jack has stolen one of the Judoon ships and used it to try to beam the Doctor on board, but he keeps missing, picking up Graham, then Yaz and Ryan — thinking all of them to be the regenerated Doctor at some point. But he doesn’t get a chance to meet the new Doctor himself, because time runs out and he must relay an urgent message to Team TARDIS before the nanogenes zap him off the ship: “Beware the lone Cyberman.” It’s a little overwhelming to think of how the Cybermen (who, let’s not forget, are the cause of Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor’s tragic death) could factor into all of this, but I guess that’s for us to find out later.

Meet the New (Or Old) Doctor

Meanwhile, Ruth is driving the Doctor to her childhood home at the nearby lighthouse, the two of them contemplatively chatting about growing up. Ruth even tears up as she recalls her life, but as the Doctor continues to test Ruth’s identity, she gets more flashes of another life. When they arrive at the musty long-abandoned lighthouse, the Doctor explores the nearby area while Ruth is lead by whispered voices to a fire alarm with text that says, “Break the glass.” She hits the alarm and is hit with a red bolt of energy, just as the Doctor happens upon an unmarked grave that is the site of…a buried TARDIS. “Ruth,” wielding a giant gun and newly acquired swagger, appears behind her. “Hello, I’m the Doctor,” she says with a smug smile.

“You’re probably a bit confused right now,” she tells a baffled Doctor in an understatement of the century. This is not our first multi-Doctor story, of course, but it may be the first that has blindsided us with an incarnation we’d never heard of. Throughout the episode, there had been hints that Ruth had been using the Chameleon Arch, a piece of technology first introduced during the David Tennant era that allows a Time Lord to modify their DNA and memories to seamlessly blend in with another race. It was the perfect hiding tool that the Doctor only resorted to once under the most dire of circumstances. Or so we thought.

The Doctor at first denies that Ruth could be either a past or future incarnation of the Doctor, but the episode takes great pains to make clear that these are two incarnations of the same person: the colorful clothing, the overlapping dialogue (“same brain!”), the slightly insulting personality clashes. Ruth-Doctor (as we’ll call her from now on) insists that the Doctor must be from her future, but the Doctor has no memory of ever being this version of herself. And indeed, Ruth-Doctor is far more ruthless and quick to action than most any other Doctor we’ve seen before. She wields a gun, she barely mourns Lee, she tricks her fellow Gallifreyan, Commander Gat, into getting killed by a faulty weapon, and she scares off the surrounding Judoon by threatening total destruction. But there are several hints that Ruth-Doctor could be from early in the Doctor’s timeline, as she insists, and perhaps even from before the first Doctor, William Hartnell. The interior of her TARDIS looks like a high-tech version of the first Doctor’s TARDIS (complete with the round things) and she seems to have Hartnell’s habit of referring to the TARDIS as her “ship.” She also seems not know what the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is, a tool that was first created by Patrick Troughton’s 2nd Doctor. But there are already some inconsistencies with a pre-Hartnell theory: the Ruth-Doctor’s TARDIS is already stuck in the shape of a police box, which the 1st Doctor claimed to have happened when he landed in the very first episode in 1963.

I naturally leaned towards my first thought that this is a false Doctor who has somehow got a hold of a TARDIS and the Doctor’s memories like in “The Next Doctor,” but recent seasons heavily suggest this is the real deal. In season 11, the Doctor had suggested she had been female before, while in the season 10 episode, Capaldi’s Doctor recalled his childhood friendship with the Master with the line, “I think she was a man back then. I’m fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.” Even back in Classic Who during the Tom Baker, it was hinted that there were regenerations before Hartnell.

Doctor Who has played fast and loose with canon before — the supposed “12-regeneration” limit was bypassed in a Matt Smith episode when the Time Lords granted him infinite regenerations, but even then, that didn’t explain the introduction of John Hurt’s War Doctor — but this opens so many new doors for the series. Not only will we have the opportunity to expand the show forward, but backward. Which is fitting for a show about time travel. “Time is swirling around me,” the Doctor solemnly says after she reunites with Team TARDIS. “The master, Captain Jack, Ruth. Something’s coming for me.”

What does this all mean? Could the Ruth-Doctor have something to do with the long-hinted “Timeless Child”? Will we ever find out if Jack got his spaceship bar? Whatever the answers, you have me intrigued and in it for the long haul, Doctor Who.

Tidbits in Time and Space

  • I’m going to admit: I kind of hate the Judoon. They’re funny as a one-episode monster created by Russel T. Davies to rag on David Tennant’s Scottish accent, but they’re a one-line joke.
  • I want more pairings of detective duo of Khan and Sinclair, as the Doctor dubs them.
  • “Think I’d choose this look? It doesn’t even have a bar!”  They really nail Jack’s dialogue, it’s like he never left.
  • Nanogenes — another fun nod to Jack’s very first appearance in “The Empty Child.”
  • This is another stellar episode for Jodie Whittaker, whose Doctor feels more assured and fleshed out when she’s got someone clash with or something to grapple with. Her indignant delivery of “I am little?” is my favorite line.
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