Doctor Who: “73 Yards” is About Fear and Mortality – Just Don’t Try to Explain It

What exactly was The Woman? Why that precise distance? It's beside the point.

A hillside with a creepy tree and a woman standing alone in Doctor Who episode "73 Yards"
Photo: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who episode “73 Yards”.

When Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies delivers an episode like “73 Yards”, the temptation to pin it down is tough to resist. It’s hard not to want diagrams, flow-charts and footnoted explanations of every slippery element. It’s worth resisting that urge though, because this episode was designed to evade simple answers. No amount of close-reading will reveal its definitive truth. 

That’s a deliberate choice, let’s be clear. If Davies had wanted to pin a single interpretation on this strange, melancholic tale, then he’d have done it. That big brain would easily have invented a sci-fi or folkloric precedent for the phenomenon Ruby experiences, in which she’s followed at a precise distance by an always-out-of-reach figure who makes anybody who approaches her run screaming away from Ruby forever. Davies would have conjured up a fictional fix for his fictional whatever-it-is at the click of his fingers. It’d involve ley lines or mirrors or salt or a Ghostbusters Ghost Trap, and that would be that. 

He didn’t. Instead, he told us this shifting-sands horror story.

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The Woman

At the end of “73 Yards”, Ruby’s death from old age is what finally shortens the distance between her and her “semperdistans” follower. The rule that was keeping them so precisely apart while Ruby was alive, dissolves upon her death. In a hospice bed, 80-year-old Ruby reaches her hands towards her constant companion and at the moment of her death, goes back in time to become The Woman on the Welsh cliffside from the episode’s opening scene (who we see is wearing a scarf in tartan – a fabric Ruby has worn in various forms and at various ages). Ahead of her is the TARDIS, the Doctor, and young Ruby.

The Woman speaks: “I’m sorry I took so long, and I tried so hard. What else could I do? It took all these years, All these long years, and look at me, I was so young.”

Revisit the series of gestures that The Woman has been cycling through over the decades, and you could match them to those words. The Woman reaches out her hands (“I’m sorry I took so long, and I tried so hard”), she shrugs (“what else could I do?”), she rubs her palm (“It took all these years, all these long years”), puts her hand on her heart (“look at me”), clasps her hands together and shakes her head (“I was so young”). 

Then, The Woman whispers the repeated warning “Don’t step” to her younger self. Hearing it, Ruby stops the Doctor from stepping on and breaking the fairy circle in this timeline, which means that he doesn’t vanish from the world, the TARDIS doesn’t become a clifftop memorial, and Doctor Who series 14 continues next week with another adventure. 

Fine, you might nod. So, the Woman was afterlife-Ruby, a ghost or a glitch bound by a bizarre purgatorial law to continually orbit her living self at a set distance. She was benevolent, essentially, and had been trying to protect her living self by stopping the fairy-circle event that made Ruby’s life splinter off along this Doctor-less, family-less timeline. Except ironically, The Woman was the one who caused Ruby’s isolation by inadvertently sending everybody running scared. 

What, we want to ask, was ultimately behind it? Another God from The Pantheon? One of The Toymaker’s cruel games? (The 73-yard rule feels like part of a game, Susan Twist’s hiker character assumed that Ruby and The Woman were playing a game, Ruby’s grandmother describes the Doctor as having a “box of tricks”…) Was it a spell cast in this newly magic-welcoming Doctor Who? Fairy tales and myths, from Orpheus not being allowed to look behind him on his way back from the land of the dead, to Persephone not being allowed to eat in the underworld, are filled with arbitrary and cruel rules designed to trip people up. There’s a whiff of all that here.

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Ultimately: you decide. And you decide too, if you like the explanation above, or not. Perhaps you prefer the idea that the words “I’m sorry I took so long… what else could I do?… I was so young” are those of the mother who gave Ruby up for adoption instead of Ruby herself. They certainly sound like it.

Any explanation of “73 Yards” will sort of work and sort of fail but mostly, it won’t matter. Because this episode isn’t about finding the correct answer, it’s bigger and more truthful. It’s about fear, mortality, resilience, and ultimately, hope.

Stripped back, this is a story about somebody’s worst nightmares coming true, but them finding a way to carry on, and then using the very thing that haunts them to save the world.

Ruby’s darkest fear, having already been left by her biological parents, is losing her family. That happens here in a piercingly cruel way. Mum Carla locks Ruby comprehensively out of her life and sneers that she isn’t her daughter and even her birth mother didn’t want her. And what caused this betrayal? Ruby. Being… what she is. What she looks like. Deep down, Ruby’s childhood abandonment has made her scared that there’s something intrinsic about her that makes people leave. It’s the stuff of therapy sessions and nightmares, and in this timeline, it happens to Ruby again and again and again.

And yet, Ruby perseveres. She lives her life as best she can until she lands on a purpose and sets about achieving it. She befriends her ghostly stalker and transforms her from an object of fear into a sidekick. If she can’t change the fact of her existence, then why not make use of her to do some good? If The Woman symbolises mortality, then Ruby learns to raise a toast to her at every passing birthday. As perhaps, so should we. After all, it’s not like we have the choice to opt out of that particular clause in life’s contract.  

I don’t know whether Russell T Davies meant this story to be about surviving our fears, accepting our mortality, and going on in hope after losing the people we love. Maybe, maybe not. But in the nicest way possible, it’s not up to him now. As long as shows like Doctor Who keep putting ungraspable imaginative ideas like “73 Yards” in front of us, what we choose to take away from them is nobody’s business but our own. 

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Doctor Who series 14 continues next week with episode five, “Dot and Bubble”.