What!? What!? What!??


Okay, let’s back up…

Early on, the signs were promising. The little love triangle between Ruth, Lee and Allan – while it didn’t have the warmth and richness of RTD at his best, nor the topspin of Moffat’s best work – had a few more wrinkles than typical Chibnall fare. These might not have been truly three-dimensional characters, but they had attitudes. They were differentiated. That’s a start.

When the Judoon materialise, it’s pretty much the Smith and Jones playbook, except I don’t remember them being quite so murderously callous, but I haven’t gone back and checked the other episode, so I don’t know if that’s the show rewriting history or me. What follows is exciting enough, but a bit of a run-around, with Segun Akinola’s pulsing music working hard to up the tension. It rankles that Jodie’s Doctor sounds less certain of her deception when talking to the Judoon captain than Yaz does, but I suppose that’s just BAU for this incarnation.

And then we get the first WTF moment of the episode. Graham is whisked away from the action to join – of all people – Captain Jack Harkness as played by John Barrowman. There’s a swagger and what Russell called a “size” to the performance (and the lines, tweaked by Barrowman apparently) which seems very at odds with the Children’s Film Foundation version of the show which we’ve been treated to over the last couple of years, but it works. Hello, mate.

Then things take a real turn for the bizarre. Having pointed the finger very clearly at Lee for the first third or so of the episode – and he absolutely does have something to hide – it turns out that Ruth is the quarry that the Judoon are seeking. There must be some kind of connection between the two of them. I really hope that Chibnall and Vinay Patel aren’t asking us to swallow the idea that two covert aliens arrived independently on Earth, and by sheer coincidence they hooked up with each other, neither knowing that the other was not human.

Ruth is “activated” and suddenly develops ninja fighting skills which are sufficient to see off the Judoon. She and the Doctor travel to her family home – a lighthouse (an old fashioned structure designed to keep the public safe, with a light on top). In the garden, the Doctor’s attention is caught by an unmarked gravestone which strikes her as odd. She’s right. A better hiding place would be a marked gravestone. She starts digging, and uncovers… a police box. It’s absolutely the biggest, most incredible WTF moment in about ten years of the show – immediately topped by Jo Martin striding out in a costume which is sort of half-way between Jodie’s and Barrowman’s. She announces that she is the Doctor.

Wow. What the hell? Where to start?

Pointless speculation time. Regardless of what Chibnall is saying on social media, I suspect that the reset button is going to be hit pretty hard before long. The fact that neither one remembers the other is a pretty enticing thread to pull on, and it wouldn’t be hard to pull on it strongly enough that the whole conceit unravels. It wouldn’t be the first time that showrunners have tried to insert extra Doctors – see also The Brain of Morbius, The Trial of a Time Lord – but to date only one has “stuck”, John Hurt’s War Doctor in The Name / Day of the Doctor. As (most) previous examples of this kind of retconning ably demonstrate, it’s perfectly easy for future showrunners just to ignore this kind of thing if they don’t like it. Been a long time since we heard about the Doctor being half human on the mother’s side, isn’t it?

She obviously can’t be a pre-Hartnell Doctor if she has a TARDIS shaped like a police box, and she claims she can’t be a future version, so I suspect either it’s the Master playing games again or some kind of alternate universe time paradox. I dare say we’ll find out before too long. Possibly not next week though. Also, Jo Martin’s Doctor being “activated” and her instinctive reaction being to judo the Judoon into unconsciousness and then threaten them with a huge gun is about as un-Doctorish as you can get.

So… is this any good or not? Well, to be begin with, it’s very hard to judge a take-off until you’ve seen the landing. I will give a star rating for this episode, but I reserve the right to retcon it in the light of future events. Let’s start with a major structural failing. Not only do the companions have very little to do – once again, they just traipse around after the Doctor, parcelling out one companion’s worth of exposition-prompting lines between them – they eventually get shunted off into an extended trailer for a future episode. If Captain Jack’s storyline had converged with the Judoon storyline, and the whole thing had ended at the 49 minute mark, I would have been ready to give this my second five star rating for the Chibnall era – it’s less ambitious than It Takes You Away but more exciting and just as well done.

But that’s not the story that Patel and Chibnall have in mind for us in any way at all. This is the beginning of a multi-part saga and we don’t know how it will play out. What we do know is that – once again – as it stands, it would have played out exactly the same with one companion, or in fact, zero.

So, let’s just discount all the Captain Jack stuff for now. Looking at the rest, it’s very artfully constructed. I was completely suckered in by the Judoon-pursuing-creepy-Lee feint and never suspected cheerful loser Ruth. This is by far the best structured episode of the whole Chibnall run so far (if we discount the Captain Jack side-quest). And Jo Martin does wonderfully well as ordinary Ruth and as the multiverse Doctor. And her TARDIS interior is gorgeous. The Judoon are fun, with the animatronic head looking and moving better than ever. And Ritu Arya as Gat gives Barrowman some real competition in the cheese-meets-swagger stakes. And Nida Manzoor makes the whole thing hurtle on from ridiculous plot point to the next even more demented one without letting us catch our breath for a second.

Back in the TARDIS, everyone explains their bit of the plot to each other, and there’s time for some contemplation and a character beat for the top-heavy regular cast. Here’s that little scene again. Do you like it? Do you think it’s well-written?

DOCTOR: Something’s coming for me. I can feel it.

GRAHAM: Let it come.

RYAN: You’ve got us.

DOCTOR: Ryan… I’ve lived for thousands of years, so long I’ve lost count. I’ve had so many faces. How long have you been here? You don’t know me. Not even a little bit.

GRAHAM: Don’t talk to him like that!

YAZ: Yeah, I’m not having that. We do know who you are. You’re the woman that brought us together, the woman that saved us and loads of other people.

GRAHAM: You’re the Doctor

RYAN:. Whoever you were in the past or are in the future, we know who you are right now. Right?

YAZ: Right! The best person we know. And whatever is coming for you, we’ll be here. Cos we’re your mates.

RYAN: Well, not just mates. Family.


YAZ: Yeah.

RYAN: So, whether you want to go looking for whatever trouble’s coming, or whether you want to wait here and let it come to you… we’ll be right here, by your side, like it or not, Doctor.

It’s nice to hear them bonding like this, I suppose, but this isn’t writing with any texture or subtlety or sub-text. Everyone just says exactly what’s on their mind. And notice that the attitudes of all three companions are identical, as is the way they express themselves. It’s an old test of good writing that you should be able to cover up the names of the characters and know by the dialogue who said what line. Can you do that here, with any confidence?

In fact, are you even sure that I’ve assigned the lines accurately?

So, what score to give this, then? As a single piece of television, unfurling over 50 minutes, it beats everything we’ve had so far since Moffat left in its sheer exuberant ambition. It’s not without flaw. Apart from the anycompanion dialogue, the return of the shakydoctor and the quarantining of Captain Jack into his own unrelated short film, there’s the fact that as eye-popping as this is, it’s pretty much all an RTD remix. I rather wonder if Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall got drunk and watched a load of David Tennant episodes together. “Wasn’t Utopia great, when Derek Jacobi turned out to be the Master?” “I’d love to do something like Smith and Jones, we should totally get the Judoon back.” “Remember The Next Doctor?, I fuggin loved that episode.” “Cattain Jack Harshness! Has you got John Barrowmum’s nander?”

What the hell. I’ll give this four-and-half stars. This one got me. It really got me.

Let’s see if it can keep me.

4.5 out of 5 stars
So… what did I think of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror?
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