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Doctor Who: Fugitive of the Judoon (Review)

“Is there even word for how dumb you are?”

“… Doctor?”

Fugitive of the Judoon is a breath of fresh air. The only question is whether it is blowing in the right direction.

There are obvious problems with Fugitive of the Judoon. The episode is overloaded with fan service, just starting with the returning monsters in the title and bubbling over into an entire subplot that seems to exist to give three quarters of the primary cast something to do. More than that, the episode is deliberately and purposefully ambiguous in a way that makes it impossible to properly assess its more audacious and ambitious twists. Fugitive of the Judoon is an episode that relies heavily on context, context that will be derived from the rest of the season.

The devil you Rhino.

And, yet, there is something exhilarating in Fugitive of the Judoon. This is the most ambitious that Doctor Who has felt since World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. This is an episode bursting at the seams with ideas that seem designed to upend what the audience think they know about Doctor Who, while also boldly reassuring viewers at home that showrunner Chris Chibnall actually has some sort of vision of where he wants the show to go. Fugitive of the Judoon suggests an impressive jigsaw puzzle, even if the pieces are yet to be assembled.

It helps that the episode is fast on its feet and breezy, probably managing to balance the “overstuffed Chibnall era plot” better than any episode since It Takes You Away. If Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II suggested that the season was going to take its cues from Russell T. Davies third season, then Fugitive of the Judoon might represent the best expression of this approach. Fugitive of the Judoon is not so much “season three redux” as “season three remix.” While hopefully there’s more to it than that, it is enough to elevate the episode above most of its contemporaries.

Space police stop.

The Chibnall era feels a nostalgic pull back to the Davies era. During Chibnall’s first season, this nostalgic pull was reflected in formula and structure. The Thirteenth Doctor was characterised very similar to the Tenth Doctor, with a strong dislike of weapons and a tendency to apologise. More than that, the first three episodes of the season followed the classic Davies era present-future-past structure including Rosa as a celebrity historical. Arachnids in the U.K. felt very much like an homage to early-season modern-U.K. stories like Aliens of London and World War III.

Chibnall’s second season has allowed that nostalgia to express itself in more literal terms. The surprise reveal of the Master at the end of Spyfall, Part I felt like a direct homage to Utopia, leading into an underdeveloped “companions on the run” story from Spyfall, Part II that felt lifted from The Sound of Drums. In Orphan 55, the Doctor took her companions to a destroyed future Earth, evoking Rose’s first trip in the TARDIS in The End of the World. The Skrithra in Nikola Telsa’s Night of Terror bore more than a passing resemblance to the Racknoss from The Runaway Bride.

More obviously, the ending of Spyfall, Part II even reset the Doctor’s characterisation to “the Last of the Time Lords”, one of the defining aspects of the Davies era as a whole. There is something very cynical in all of this, as if Chibnall believes that by directly invoking the Davies era he can propel Doctor Who back to the cultural high watermark of The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, when Doctor Who was the most popular show on television. The irony is that television has changed. It’s debatable if Doctor Who could ever be that show again. Even if it could, imitation is not enough.

Fugitive of the Judoon obviously fits within this template. It is very much part of that nostalgia for the Davies era. However, it uses that nostalgia in more playful and interesting ways. One of the big issues with the Chibnall era as a whole has been its dull literalism – its insistence on moving in the straightest possible line and treating its audience like they have never watched an episode of television before. Fugitive of the Judoon marks something of a departure from the nostalgia around it because it assumes a basic level of televisual literacy from the audience.

Mystery box storytelling.

This televisual literacy manifests in a number of interesting ways. Most obviously, the episode assumes that the audience is loosely familiar with the third season of Doctor Who, and so is consciously designed to play with those expectations. Fugitive of the Judoon is nothing as simple as a straightforward homage or extended reference, instead it’s a twisting and turning narrative that cannily uses the audience’s familiarity with the rhythms and flows of Doctor Who against them.

Fugitive of the Judoon deliberately evokes a number of different third season episodes, and uses each of them to wrong foot audience expectations. Most obviously, the arrival of the Judoon deliberately invites comparisons to Smith & Jones. Indeed, the episode makes a point to have the Doctor repeatedly riff on the Tenth Doctor’s “Judoon platoon upon the moon.” While undoubtedly a bit fan-service-y, the joke is clever. Jodie Whittaker delivers the lines with her own northern accent, contrasting the estuary accent that Russell teased the Scottish Tennant for using.

Fugitive of the Judoon immediately looks and feels just a little bit like a Davies era episode. One of the nicer and subtler aspects of the episode is the way in which it suggests a world around Ruth and Lee, populated by quirky and eccentric characters like Alan the baker or Marcia the knitter. These characters are barely developed, but they add a sense of texture and place that is often missing from the Chibnall era and which informed so much the Davies era. In fact, Marcia even evokes Florence Finnegan from Smith & Jones, the old lady vampire who uses a straw.

More to the point, the episode hinges on the classic Davies era trope of having aliens invade the modern world – the Cybermen and the Daleks in Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, the Adipose in Partners in Crime, the Daleks again in The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. While the Moffat featured its own alien invasions in episodes like Dark Water and Death in Heaven, it was much less interested in the kitchen sink implications of it – the intrusion of the surreal into the mundane. Fugitive of the Judoon feels like a very Davies era invasion.

Case closed.

This comedic juxtaposition allows for a bit more playfulness than the Chibnall era normally affords its leads. The sequence of the Doctor bluffing the Judoon is the sort of banter-heavy scene that the Chibnall era has largely avoided since The Woman Who Fell to Earth, a playful and funny back-and-forth that assumes its audience has seen at least some science-fiction. It’s great to see Doctor Who having a bit of fun with genre tropes and conventions again, particularly the Doctor asserting her authority to arbitrate under “Local Earth Law… 12.”

However, Fugitive of the Judoon then pivots from that set-up not once but twice. This is a very canny bit of plotting, largely because it weaponises the structure of the Chibnall era. So many episodes in the Chibnall era feel like classic four- or six-part episodes compressed into forty-five minutes, to the point where they almost make more sense if reimagined as four half-hour episodes. Ed Himes’ scripts for It Takes You Away and Orphan 55 are good examples, as are Chibnall’s own scripts for stories like The Ghost Monument or The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

Fugitive of the Judoon follows a similar structure. However, instead of rushing through the episodes of a classic four-parter, it feels like it’s hopping dramatically between homages. To make this plotting game of madlibs all the more impressive, each of those episodes is drawn from the third season of Doctor Who. So Fugitive of the Judoon starts as Smith and Jones, before switching suddenly into Utopia as it becomes clear that Ruth is not who she claims to be. It then bounces back into something that more closely resembles Human Nature and Family of Blood.

To give credit to writers Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall, these twists work in the way that good twists are supposed to work. These developments don’t just make the rest of the story more exciting, they invite the audience to recontextualise what they have already seen. In hindsight, it is very obvious that Lee is a companion to the Doctor. Gat describes him as a “faithful companion” before killing him, but the entire episode retroactively reveals that he filled the role similar to Martha in Human Nature and Family of Blood.

Horning in.

This all builds to the revelation that Ruth is the Doctor. It’s an interesting plot development, largely because it is at once mythos-shattering and also deliberately vague. As with the other big surprise in the episode, there is a sense of Chibnall blowing the dust off some of Steven Moffat’s bolder ideas and trying to insert them into Davies scripts for maximum impact. Although fans have been speculating about secret incarnations of the Doctor since at least The Brain of Morbius, the notion of a hidden regeneration obviously owes a lot to The Day of the Doctor.

Fugitive of the Judoon is deliberately ambiguous about where Ruth!Doctor fits in the show’s internal chronology, which is a nice touch. It allows fans to speculate about how Rose!Doctor can be integrated into the character’s timeline. The episode is full of teasing little hints. Is Ruth!Doctor related to the Time War? The episode’s opening shot is a watch at 8am, and Ruth later remarks of King Henry, “He was only nine at the time.” Of course, given that Moffat wrote the regenerations in The Day of the Doctor to complete “the box set”, it would be hard to squeeze Ruth!Doctor in.

Is Ruth!Doctor a product of the much-speculated “Season 6B”, a hidden incarnation between Troughton and Pertwee? That would perhaps explain the old-fashioned TARDIS set, which looks very much like the set employed for Hell Bent and Twice Upon a Time. More to the point, Ruth!Doctor hints at an interesting relationship to Gat and the Time Lords. “I worked for her once,” Ruth!Doctor explains. The Thirteenth Doctor is confused. “You’ve got a job?” she asks. Ruth!Doctor replies, “Sort of. Not one you can apply for, and not one you can ever leave. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Alternatively, Ruth!Doctor may predate the William Hartnell incarnation of the character. There were rumours of this before the season began. It fits with her lack of awareness of the sonic screwdriver. This is the most interesting and risky possibility. It would be great to affirm that the Doctor was a black woman before she was an old white man. It would retroactively incorporate the diversity of the Chibnall era into the show’s history. However, it would also be very hard to reconcile with the characterisation of the First Doctor as a hermit who needed to grow into the role.

A close-knit community.

Indeed, the smart money is probably on a non-reveal, especially if this sort of twist is borrowing so liberally from Steven Moffat. Moffat’s stories often hinged on narrative substitution, on the reveal that the story the audience was expecting was not the right story to tell. Some fans and critics were disappointed not to receive the “epic” stories that they wanted in episodes like The Time of the Doctor, missing that this was the entire point. It seems possible – probably likely – that Ruth!Doctor may be revealed as an alternate or fragmented version of the Doctor.

It is hard to assess Fugitive of the Judoon without having the answers to these questions. Fugitive of the Judoon hinges greatly on the sort of “mystery box” plotting that Moffat was frequently accused of employing. Of course, Moffat’s episodes tended to stand relatively well on their own terms; even if A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler were part of a larger arc, it was possible to ascertain what each individual installment was about. In contrast, Fugitive of the Judoon is very much a mystery, with Lee holding a literal mystery box. (Although we do find out what it contains.)

Still, taken on its own terms, there’s a lot to like about the introduction of Ruth!Doctor in Fugitive of the Judoon, down to the delightful decision to give Jo Martin the coveted “… and introducing…” credit. Martin introduces a character who feels recognisable and yet unique, who gets the moments of clever showing-off-ness associated with Doctor (“… so no laws, and no crimes…”) with individual touches like the glasses she wears at the console.

Indeed, the episode even offers a nice tension between the Thirteenth Doctor and Ruth!Doctor over the use of guns. Ruth!Doctor sabotages a rifle and then lets Gat vapourise herself attempting to fire it. It’s a ruse, but it is very similar to the sort of tricks that the Doctor has employed in the past. (It is ultimately a less grossly offensive variation of the Doctor weaponising Nazism against the Master in Spyfall, Part II.) It feels in character for certain iterations of the Doctor, but it also makes sense that the Thirteenth Doctor would react so strongly against it given her aversion to guns.

Gat-ling gun.

A weaker episode might more clearly side with the Thirteenth Doctor in this argument, refusing to call her on her hypocrisy. It would use that sequence as an opportunity to draw a distinction between the Thirteenth Doctor and Ruth!Doctor, to present the Thirteenth Doctor as a hero and Ruth!Doctor as a fundamentally broken iteration of the character. Instead, Fugitive of the Judoon uses the beat to close the gap between the two. Standing between Ruth!Doctor and the Judoon, the Thirteenth Doctor asserts, “The Doctor never uses weapons.” Ruth!Doctor whispers, “I know.”

As such, Ruth!Doctor’s use of the blaster as an empty threat recalls various earlier iterations of the character; the Fifth Doctor threatening Davros in Resurrection of the Daleks, the Tenth Doctor using a pistol in The End of Time, Part II, the Eleventh Doctor picking up a gun at the climax of The Time of Angels. It isn’t that Ruth!Doctor is broken or defective. She is just different. She operates according an internal ethical code that is distinct from the Thirteenth Doctor, but not irreconcilable with the Doctor as a whole.

There are other clever little touches, such as the way in which the lighthouse at which Ruth was raised recalls the TARDIS, with the light jutting out at the top. More than that, Ruth’s memory of growing up at the lighthouse provides a nice thematic mirror to the Master’s experiences in Utopia. There, Professor Yana lamented his childhood discovered as “an orphan in the storm. I was a naked child found on the coast of the Silver Devastation. Abandoned, with only this.” It is a clever parallel. Ruth was also raised on the coast.

There is also something potentially interesting about the introduction of the first person of colour to play the Doctor in an episode that is explicitly concerned with police brutality. The Chibnall era has lacked the biting social commentary that defined the Cartmel, Davies and Moffat eras, so it was refreshing to see the show still harbours disdain for the Judoon. The Thirteenth Doctor is more deferential to authority than many of her predecessors, but even she has little patience for their thuggishness. “I though you said they were the police?” Graham inquires at her frustration. The Doctor replies, “Trigger-happy police.”

Platoon town.

As such, there’s something very powerful and pointed in the introduction of Ruth!Doctor in this context. This is the first iteration of the character on screen to have dark skin, and she is immediately subject to police brutality. Indeed, this adds some nice layers to the tensions between Ruth!Doctor and the Thirteenth Doctor. As Ruth!Doctor brandishes a blaster to defend herself, she chides the Thirteenth Doctor, “Don’t take the moral high ground with me.” It seems like Ruth!Doctor is (justifiably) more skeptical of the possibility of peacefully resolving this crisis. (It is ultimately resolved relatively peacefully.)

Of course, there is a question of what all of this exists to accomplish, what this is all about. The Chibnall era has had no shortage of fan service, and there is every possibility that all of this might be a narrative dead end. After all, the weakest and most cynical part of Fugitive of the Judoon is the part that has generated the most excitement online. It is the return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack, a character absent from the audience’s screens since Torchwood: Miracle Day and from Doctor Who since his brief cameo in The End of Time, Part II.

To be fair, the most charitable reading of Jack’s appearance in Fugitive of the Judoon is that it exists as part of the episode’s elaborate misdirects. After all, a lot of the pre-release publicity around Fugitive of the Judoon involved the promise of the return of a familiar character, tied with assurances that “you won’t believe what happens this week.” In fact, eagle-eyed fans noticed that Barrowman had been very active on social media teasing the episode.

Like the reappearance of the Judoon, Captain Jack’s reappearance works as a red herring to distract from the episode’s biggest twist. After all, in a show that is so eager to recycle the Davies era that it brought back the Judoon as central players, the return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness is a straight-up nostalgia hit. It is perhaps the fourth biggest deal imaginable – and likely the biggest deal practical, given that Chibnall seems unlikely to have been able to convince Eccleston, Tennant or Piper to return for the episode.

Graham can have a little cake, as a treat.

As such, the congratulatory appearance of Captain Jack (“you can get excited now”) feels like the requisite amount of shock and surprise for an episode of Chibnall era Doctor Who. After all, Spyfall, Part I built its cliffhanger around the surprise return of the Master, a character who had last appeared (in two separate incarnations!) only thirteen episodes prior. This allows the reveal of Ruth!Doctor to land as a genuine surprise. Placing a potentially mythos-shattering twist on top the reappearance of Captain Jack is more than audiences have come to expect from the Chibnall era.

There is also something charming in seeing Barrowman reprise the role. After all, the shortened season orders, the split seasons and the gap years have a way of compressing time. The End of Time Part II aired more than a decade ago. There are children watching Doctor Who who have only seen the character in old episodes on Netflix or in photographs in merchandise related to the show. This is equivalent to seeing the Brigadier return in Mawdryn Undead or Battlefield. Indeed, the passage of time is marked by the subtle – but welcome – tweaking of the Judoon design, giving them (a little) hair and more expressiveness.

Barrowman serves as a living artifact, and piece of the show’s history. Fugitive of the Judoon is almost as far removed from Barrowman’s first appearance in The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances as Rose was from Survival. Time moves so fast, even for actors reprising their roles as fixed points in time. There is something to be said for acknowledging that past, and for bringing it into the present. Doctor Who has been on the air (mostly) continuously for over a decade and a half at this point.

The return of Captain Jack might offer a chance to reconcile past and present. Indeed, Ryan’s reaction to Jack reflects some of the Chibnall era’s anxieties over the Davies and Moffat eras. So much of the Chibnall era has been updated to updating the production aesthetics of Doctor Who, making it look more like modern cinema and television. Fugitive of the Judoon present Jack as alien to Ryan, a relic from a campier past. Ryan describes Jack as “kinda cheesy.” Yaz clarifies, “But good cheesy.” Jack is a museum artifact. As a concept, he’s older than the target audience.

Rhinoes best.

There is something to be said for Doctor Who making peace with its sillier elements. After all, the Davies and Moffat eras devoted considerable energy to reconnecting with the goofier elements of the classic series, such as the reintroduction of K-9 in School Reunion or the Ice Warriors in Cold War. Still, even allowing for this, the reappearance of Captain Jack might be more satisfying if the Davies era felt more distant, if the Chibnall era hadn’t already invested such energy in necromancy. The Davies era doesn’t feel distant enough because the Chibnall era holds it so close.

In truth, the appearance of Captain Jack seems largely cynical. The plot is just grafted on to the episode. It looks like Barrowman’s scenes were all shot over the course of a single day, with the actor only appearing on a single interior set in order to prevent spoilers from getting out. More than that, Captain Jack’s involvement in the plot of Fugitive of the Judoon is kept just as vague as the details around Ruth!Doctor. However, that ambiguity feels less justifiable applied to Captain Jack, where the entire point of his character is that he is a know quantity.

Outside of nostalgic pandering, Captain Jack’s reappearance serves two major functions, both of which are very calculated and cynical. Most obviously, Jack exists to tease future developments. Jack hints at “the lone Cyberman”, which suggests the upcoming episode focusing on Mary Shelley. He delivers a lot of awkward exposition that is largely unnecessary. “You don’t know what a Cyberman is yet, do you?” he asks Graham, Yaz and Ryan. This naturally ignores the fact that anybody with casual awareness of the show knows what a Cyberman is.

To be fair, this use of Jack as an exposition machine to foreshadow future plot developments might be excusable if it were treated as a tangent or an add-on. After all, Doctor Who has a long history of tacking cameos on to episodes in order to set up season arcs, such as Rose’s late appearance in Partners in Crime or Missy’s brief appearances in episodes like Deep Breath or Into the Dalek. However, Captain Jack doesn’t just make a cameo. He receives an entire subplot. It feels like an unjustifiable use of narrative real estate in order to tease future episodes.

“I didn’t blow up Gallifrey this time!”
“I don’t care!”

This gets at the other function of Captain Jack’s reappearance. Over the course of the episode, Jack snatches away the companions. First, he snatches Graham. Then he snatches Yaz and Ryan. The gradual nature of these abductions – and the need for introductions that they generate – explains why Jack takes up so much space. However, he also serves to remove the three companions from the bulk of the plot. He takes them out of action, so the primary narrative of Fugitive of the Judoon can focus on the Thirteenth Doctor and Ruth!Doctor.

To give the episode some credit, it is a marginally more effective way of splitting up the cast than Spyfall, Part II. However, it just demonstrates how hard it is to write Doctor Who with four regular characters. (“There are three of you now?” Jack gasps in surprise, before his imagination grasps the possibilities.) There’s a sense that a single scene of exposition has been expended out to an entire subplot because it provides a nice place to dump the supporting cast while the regular plot progresses.

Even allowing for this removal of the three companions, there is a sense that Fugitive of the Judoon is overstuffed. Notably, as much as the opening act draws on the trappings of the Davies era, the rest of the episode is largely free of any real emotional grounding. There is, for example, no opportunity for Ruth to mourn the end of her own existence as she is folded back into Ruth!Doctor. There is also no proper opportunity for either Ruth or Ruth!Doctor to mourn the passing of Lee, despite the fact that he clearly meant a lot to her. (Indeed, it would be interesting to get a bit more on their relationship.)

Fugitives of the Judoon is an episode with a lot of energy and verve, powered by a lot of clever decisions that build towards a provocative central twist. It’s debatable how much substance there is underpinning all of this. It’s hard to make an argument about what Fugitive of the Judoon is actually supposed to be “about” in a larger sense and what it is actually saying. However, it has more ambition than a lot of the episodes around it and moves with a purpose that has been largely absent from the past season and a half of Doctor Who.

That counts for something.

2 Responses

  1. Bringing back captain Jack is also pretty cynical given the signal it sends wrt to rewarding john barrowman’s dickishness & giving credence to his dumb conspiracy theoris about moffat standing in his way

  2. The show finally remembered that Yaz is a police officer! Only took a year and a half. Pity that her skills (“I can speak her language”) only allowed her to delay the Judoon commander for all of about 7 seconds.

    Still sometimes think that different parts of the show aren’t talking to each other. How much more effective would the “Judoon dramatically removes her helmet in front of a scared human” scene had been if we hadn’t just seen a Judoon without a helmet two minutes earlier?

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