“AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS THIS WEEK” … Well, yes, I would actually. That Doctor Who tagline was flashed up on telly and all over social media in recent days. Gawd, was that the best you could do, BBC!? When your ratings are dipping, don’t dangle invisible carrots. Put your wares in the bloomin’ window. Or at least some of them.
Keep your exciting new/old Doctor under wraps by all means (more of her later) but flash Jack. That would have had the blue-rinse brigade tuning in, at least. Anyway, Captain Jack Harkness is back. Whoop-dee-doo! I can’t say I find his return particularly unbelievable. Surprising, perhaps, that the writers (Vinay Patel and, more so, Whorunner Chris Chibnall) deemed this undying yet moribund character worth reviving.
Jack was a saucy beggar when he arrived in 2005, pansexing up the tail end of Christopher Eccleston’s tenure. He last appeared in Doctor Who ten years ago, but had already become tiresome from over-exposure in the turgid Torchwood. Mercifully, the spin-off expired in 2011, and Jack simply was not needed in Doctor Who. He’d been outclassed by another, superior pansexual vagabond with a vortex-jumping wristband – River Song.
The role Jack plays in Fugitive of the Judoon could well have been taken by River and is, frankly, bizarre. He has no interaction with the Doctor, though he plants a delicious smacker on Graham’s lips in a moment of mistaken identity. Jack’s dramatic purpose is to abduct Graham, Ryan and Yaz and stop them clogging the Doctor’s journey of self-discovery; and to drop another opaque warning (“Beware the lone Cyberman”) into the season arc.
I don’t mean to sound too down on Jack. I like John Barrowman. In person, he’s a charmer. We met long ago over a supper of cold meats in the Albany. That is not a euphemism (the Albany is an upper-crust residence off London’s Piccadilly). He’s a hugely talented actor and entertainer, terrific in West End shows I’ve enjoyed and on Broadway in the Sondheim revue Putting It Together 20 years ago. Remarkably well preserved, Barrowman has gamely kept puffing at the cinders of Torchwood for a decade. He deserves this reward, bringing much fun and vitality to the episode, and Jack will be back before long for sure.
John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who (BBC)
The Judoon. No Bo Ko! Another return from the Russell T Davies era that few demanded. Yo Wo Doh! The rhino-headed law enforcers are thunderbores – Toh Bo Zzzo! – and have popped up several times, fleetingly, since their debut in the David Tennant episode Smith and Jones. Way back in 2007. Fo Ko Ho! That is a long time ago… I’d only recently re-joined Radio Times and I remember an excited Edward Russell, the Who brand manager, rocking up to BBC Woodlands (RT has changed address twice since then) with the first DVDs of series three. A group of us piled into TV editor Alison Graham’s office to watch Martha Jones’s debut. On the Moon. With the Judoon.
So far, so “fan-pleasing” – if Jack and the Judoon float your boat. What with the Master, Gallifrey and random Time Lords aboard, series 12 is a vortex-jump away from Jodie Whittaker’s first. In 2018, Chris Chibnall’s clear-the-decks approach seemed salutary but it didn’t set the cosmos alight with its novelties. Given the right approach, I see little wrong in being “fan-pleasing”. But then I am a fan and I like to be pleased.
Such is Chibnall’s heart that he goes one further from “fan-pleasing” to “fan-honouring”. In the credits, he’s named the Judoon captain “Pol-Kon-Don” after a Doctor Who fan who died last year. Paul Condon. I don’t recall meeting him, although I know he was a close pal of several friends of mine, so this is a very lovely act. Not a first. Steven Moffat named a teacher Tom in The Day of the Doctor after Tom Spilsbury, the lovely long-time editor of Doctor Who Magazine. And shortly before that Mark Gatiss gave a nod to one of his mates in The Crimson Horror. And maybe tonight’s Ruth Clayton is named after Spilsbury’s predecessor at DWM, Clayton Hickman. I’d like to think so.
Apart from the fact that it’s told at quite a lick and is gorgeously directed by Nida Manzoor (especially at Gloucester Cathedral and that lighthouse), I love the playfulness of Fugitive of the Judoon. The boldness with which Chibnall throws another giant spanner into Doctor Who mythology. The reveal of the buried police box… the realisation that an ordinary Gloucester couple, Ruth and Lee, are in fact another Doctor and her companion… all majestically handled. The retro “white” Tardis is always a joy to see. I love when things are hidden in plain sight. The episode starts with tell-tale close-ups: a timepiece, a wristwatch hitting eight, Ruth’s mystified eyes… I’m amused that our current Doctor is as flummoxed as the viewers. “Is there a word for how dumb you are?” says the new/old Doctor.
Great to see Neil Stuke (one of my late father’s favourite actors) as the secretive Lee, but well, a big welcome to Doctor Who, Jo Martin. I am kind of chuckling at the image of any racists out there spitting feathers that at last we have a black Doctor. And any misogynists choking over the sight of two female Doctors on screen. Oh yes, and this new one is not only a second female Doctor but, mind-bendingly, also now the first female Doctor, somehow predating Jodie Whittaker’s. Haha! Many fans will be declenching their sphincters trying to bash this mystery woman somewhere, somehow, into the programme’s timeline and sprawling continuity.
For me, it’s up there with the divine intervention of John Hurt as the War Doctor in the 50th anniversary; and all the previously unknown Doctors we glimpsed in The Brain of Morbius in 1976. That’s a thrill I remember to this day. For now, let’s enjoy what this promises…
The BBC was wrong. I DO BELIEVE. And this could be the revival the programme desperately needed.
(If we were awarding out of ten, this would be a nine; but I’m not feeling stingy so this is getting an RT top mark of ★★★★★.)