This review contains spoilers after the squirrel
12.5 Fugitive Of The Judoon
There’s a tendency to try and catalogue Doctor Who episodes into eras; neat little binders that fans of the show can use as convenient shorthand when we talk about the kind of atmosphere and tone a particular adventure evokes. Is it a gothic horror with a high body count and lots of brooding menace? We’ll call it a ‘Hinchcliffe’. Is it a breathless, brain-scrambling romp with some sort of paradox at the heart of it and a lot of weirdly flirty dialogue? That’s a ‘Moffat’, and so on.
Well, tonight’s episode is something of a chimera, considering that its headline act is the stompy, stampy Judoon – the officious mercenaries who debuted alongside Martha Jones far too many years ago for my liking. As episode premises go, that’s so Russell T. Davies, and if you tune in that’s exactly what you’ll get, at least to begin with. Everyday domestics on present-day Earth interrupted by the arrival of a silly alien that seems tailor-made for playground impressions at tomorrow’s break-time.
By the time the credits roll, things will have moved on a bit. And then some. Suffice it to say there’s not much more that can be discussed without incurring the wrath of Daphne, so before we press on into spoiler country, I’ll say this: however much or little you might be anticipating the return of the Judoon, you will want to watch and enjoy tonight’s episode for yourself. And with that said…
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of realising you’ve been played. Russell T. Davies, in his book The Writer’s Tale, tells Ben Cook that it’s part of a good showrunner’s job to lie to the audience, BBC codes of practice be damned. First and foremost, in his opinion, the job is to surprise and entertain.
Our first glimpse of Series 12 way back in 2019 was a set photo of the Judoon, best remembered as a serviceable alien menace in an episode where we were meant to be concentrating on a new companion. We took the return of the horn-nosed heavies as a sign that the show was going to be a bit more willing to engage with past eras and filed them away. At some point, we knew the Judoon would come back to provide us with an entertaining, if unsurprising, hour of television and that was that.
Or… not, as the case may be. This week’s instalment uses the veneer of police-rhinos marching through Gloucester to disguise its true purpose, which is to deliver an episode that readies an almighty kick and punts the show’s mythos so far down the road that by the time it’s over, we can’t remember where we’ve parked. The Judoon aren’t the antagonists, really, they’re just a background menace to distract us. Much like the first part of Spyfall, this is an episode that’s determined to blindside us with revelations, questions and ramifications that potentially shake up the canon forever.
Things begin innocuously enough as we meet Ruth and Lee Clayton (played by Jo Martin and Neil Stuke, respectively) trying to make the best of a birthday that also falls on a strapped-for-cash Monday morning. The chirpy montage of Jo struggling as a jobbing tour guide to the wonders of Gloucester feels suitably like something we’d have gotten in a Davies script, even if something doesn’t sit quite right. And so we’re lulled in: this is going to be another decent if unspectacular middle-of-a-season episode, then. Have I got enough biscuits?
That’s why, when the Judoon appear and go through the same motions, beat-for-beat, as they did in Davies’ Smith And Jones, there’s a temptation to roll your eyes and reach for another chocolate digestive. They’re stamping people’s hands. They’ve put up some sort of isolation field around the area. They’re shooting a civilian whose only crime is being scared. We’ve seen it all before, but–
Wait, where’s Graham gone? Is he on the Judoon ship? Blimey, that voice! Whoever they’ve cast as the captain of this alien spaceship doesn’t half sound like John Barrowman.
Before we get to that reveal, however… Having spent the last two episodes barely mentioning the renewed trauma that the Doctor experienced, this episode belatedly delivers the aftermath to the destruction of Gallifrey. Watching the companions sit on some really uncomfortable-looking hexagons, we learn that the Doctor has been dumping them on planets to “explore” while she heads off in an effort to hunt down The Master and find more answers about what happened to her homeworld.
There are a number of engaging scenes where the companions no longer seem to be star-struck by the Doctor’s existence and are more than ready to call her out on her flighty behaviour. Jodie Whittaker, in turn, gets to display more range for her Doctor as she starts to butt heads with Team TARDIS, sullenly refusing to open up to them with a growled “It’s personal.” The Tenth Doctor lied and the Eleventh Doctor deflected, so it’s interesting to see a regeneration who’s so raw with her grief. Thirteen hasn’t had time to build up her emotional defences yet, and her scowling reaction to being confronted about it all is a fresh take on suffering that’s been present in one form or another since 2005.
Little do the companions know, they’re about to get a crash-course in the Doctor’s history when they’re unceremoniously snatched out of the adventure and brought into the company of Captain Jack Harkness. Well, it’s just Graham at first, continuing the running gag of people assuming that as the older gentleman in the party he must be the Doctor. My god, though, it’s nice to see Barrowman again.
Jack’s every bit as cheesy as Ryan accuses him of being, and he doesn’t have a huge amount to do here, really. He does get more screen time than his role of “delivering the portentous message” really requires, though, and the episode is all the better for it. We shouldn’t forget that although Doctor Who may have given birth to Captain Jack, it’s Torchwood – a show partially helmed by Chris Chibnall – that raised him, and the dialogue just feels Right with a capital R. John Barrowman infuses fun into his interactions and each of the companions feels a little bit more rounded now that we’ve seen how they deal with his unashamedly-gleeful banter.
While we’re talking Torchwood, though, we should also talk about Ruth – I’ll keep calling her Ruth for simplicity’s sake – because while we’re flipping through those binders, the scenes where she gets ‘activated’ and single-handedly takes out a squadron of Judoon are very reminiscent of the Torchwood episode Sleeper – a supposedly ordinary human woman turning out to be anything but.
Although it’s always weird to see the Doctor in a car, the scenes she shares with Ruth momentarily slow the story down and allow us to see a calmer, more cynical Whittaker as she picks, picks, picks away at the core mystery: who Is Ruth, and why do the Judoon want her? For a couple of minutes it feels like the episode might be about to run out of steam, since the Judoon have been sent skulking back to prepare a Plan B and we’re looking at lingering exterior shots of a lighthouse, and then—It happens again. The rug goes out from under us for the second time.
We’ve barely finished reeling from the idea that Ruth might be a Time Lord when we see what’s buried under the blank gravestone and realise just which Time Lord she is. This is an episode review so I’ll refrain from delving too deeply into what Jo Martin’s “Impossible Doctor” means for the show as a whole, but this is the second time this year that this has happened – a straightforward alien invasion episode turns out to be a forgettable side-line for some seriously huge shake-ups to the lore of Doctor Who.
Like Spyfall’s opening salvo, this is a “must-watch-once” episode. The ‘main’ story of the dynamic between Lee and Ruth (and the Judoon stomping through Gloucester Cathedral) is paper-thin. It doesn’t matter, and it’s not meant to. It’s not the Judoon’s story. Likewise, the companions don’t do much beyond beam onto a spaceship, meet Captain Jack (who likewise really doesn’t do much) and beam home again with a cryptic message to set up the rest of the season.
And yet, as a piece of event television, as a roller-coaster of the unexpected, Fugitive Of The Judoon absolutely works. Yes, it’s laying a bunch of groundwork and that comes at the expense of a satisfyingly rich narrative this time around. Honestly, though, I was too busy being smacked in the face with multiple revelations to notice, at least right away. It’s fifty minutes of fan-servicing, plot-weaving, eye-boggling lore stuff, and it used the Judoon to make us think it was going to be an episode we could safely punt to a DVR to watch over dinner.
This is not a timeless episode, not by any means. I won’t be hurrying to re-watch it. But in that first, crucial viewing, I was absolutely hooked. Lie to me more, please.