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Is Doctor Who's Once, Upon Time a pilot episode for a Fugitive Doctor spin-off?

Jo Martin's Doctor made a surprise return – and gave us a taste of what her own show might look like.

Published: Sunday, 14th November 2021 at 7:20 pm

Doctor Who fans had everything crossed that Jo Martin's "Fugitive Doctor" would have a part to play in showrunner Chris Chibnall's final episodes following her triumphant debut in last year's series 12 – and their hopes were fulfilled in Once, Upon Time.

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Martin made a surprise appearance in Flux: Chapter 3, reprising her role but playing the Fugitive Doctor at a point in time before the events of Fugitive of the Judoon, which saw this incarnation hiding on Earth under the guise of a human named Ruth Clayton. Here, we met the Doctor during the forgotten era when she served the Division, the Time Lord's branch of secret police / temporal enforcers.

In the almost two-year period since the Fugitive Doctor made her Doctor Who debut, loyal viewers have been crying out for just such a comeback – but more than that, some have been calling for Martin to be given her own spin-off series. For her part, the Holby City and Back to Life star is open to the possibility. "I think there’s so much more story," she told RadioTimes.com earlier this year. "What they set up opens up a world that we’ve not fully explored with Doctor Who yet.

"You can have a world of different spin-offs and things happening, and they’re all part of the same world – like Marvel. Chris, get me a spin-off. I’m ready!"

The hard truth, though, is that much as we love the Fugitive Doctor and delighted as we were to see her reappear in Once, Upon Time, the odds of the character getting her own TV spin-off now are slim. In many ways, she's a victim of poor timing – with Chris Chibnall looking to wrap up his tenure on Doctor Who and tie up any loose ends, the last thing he'll be looking to do is launch a spin-off show, with any character. With Russell T Davies picking up the showrunner baton and no doubt looking to once again put his own stamp on the flagship series – he's a "man with a vision" for the next iteration of Doctor Who, according to Head of BBC Drama Piers Wenger – it's doubtful he'd want a spin-off he didn't commission to form part of the new era (even if, broadly speaking, he does seem to be in favour of the Marvel-esque Doctor Who shared universe concept put forward by Martin).

That doesn't mean, of course, that we'll have seen, or rather heard, the last of the Fugitive Doctor once Chibnall bids farewell to Doctor Who in late 2022 – audio drama producer Big Finish has built an entire business on expanding the Whoniverse and revisiting characters that the TV series has left behind, often granting them their own set of spin-off stories. Again, earlier this year, RadioTimes.com even put the notion of a Jo Martin-led series to Big Finish executive producer Nicholas Briggs, who insisted that "all possibilities are open."

If we were to ever be blessed with a Fugitive Doctor spin-off, in any medium, now at least we have a sense of what it might look (sound?) and feel like. Once Upon, Time fills in some of the gaps in the Doctor's memory, showing her as part of a military-type squad who actively hunt down miscreants seeking to disrupt time – the Fugitive Doctor we see here is no-nonsense, takes no prisoners, but is clearly conflicted about what she's doing, with reassurances that she'll be "free of all this" once she's stopped the Ravagers. It's a far cry from the eager young recruit who originally signed up to join the Division (providing that aspect of series 12's twisted "Brendan" flashbacks was accurate, of course).

The Fugitive Doctor (Jo Martin) in Doctor Who

Though we don't learn a huge amount about the Doctor's fellow operatives, they do seem to have been together long enough to have struck up a camaraderie of sorts – making quips back and forth about the Doctor's "time hazing" – and we also know that "man's best friend" Karvanista (Craige Els) was among their number, though in Once, Upon Time he mostly takes the form of John Bishop's Dan Lewis (for wibbly wobbly, timey wimey reasons).

The scenes featuring the Fugitive Doctor thwarting the Ravagers and ending the Siege of Atropos are actually relatively brief, part of a jam-packed episode that also involves Dan being thrown back into his own personal history and encountering a laser-blasting Joseph Williamson (Steve Oram), Yaz having an uncomfortable family reunion and being stalked by a Weeping Angel, and Vinder's past "shame" and relationship with the deeply dodgy Great Serpent (Craig Parkinson) being exposed, but what we see here is enough to whet our appetite for a fully fleshed-out spin-off, however and whenever it might materialise.

The opportunity to see more of Jo Martin as the Doctor and to sketch in some of our Time Lord hero's missing history was already appealing, but Once, Upon Time gives us a flavour of not only how entertaining this series could be but how different it might feel to the flagship show, set against the backdrop of action-packed skirmishes across all of time and space, with a conflicted Doctor beginning to pull away from her Time Lord masters and potentially a series regular role for Karvanista. At this point, you may consider us 100 per cent sold. Now when can we pre-order Volume 1 of the Fugitive Doctor adventures?

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Doctor Who airs on Sundays on BBC One. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.

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