Doctor Who Series 14 Episode 3 Review: Boom

Simple, audacious, exhilarating, with excellent lead performances. Steven Moffat, and Doctor Who, are back. SPOILERS

Millie Gibson in a red jacket on a war-torn planet in Doctor Who episode "Boom"
Photo: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

Warning: this Doctor Who review contains spoilers.

It’s all fun and games until someone steps on a mine.

There has certainly been peril in Ruby Sunday’s first few adventures with the Doctor. Being briefly erased from history, babies abandoned to die in space, nuclear winter brought on by chaos god – you don’t just shrug those things off. But even the darkest moments have occurred in the context of fairly light-hearted romps.

With the tense, riveting “Boom”, however, we have the first real example of this new companion going through a genuinely traumatic ordeal. It’s sort of Ruby’s “The Fires of Pompeii”, albeit with a much cheerier ending – the episode where the companion realises that travelling with the Doctor can get pretty rough. By its nature, it’s the kind of adventure that comes after some bedding in – you can’t start a companion’s tenure with “The Fires of Pompeii”, or else they’d never get back in the TARDIS, and who could blame them?

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These darker, more stressful episodes must tread a fine line. As viewers, we don’t want to see the companion traumatised (or shot and dying, pleading to know who their next of kin is). At its core, Doctor Who is concerned with the joy of adventure and discovery, so not every episode can be an ordeal, and the ones that are still need to be fun. Tone is critical, especially if the episode has some other heavy lifting to do – like, say, the surprise introduction of a future companion. More on which later.

Enter: Steven Moffat, who attentive viewers may remember as the 2010 – 2017 showrunner and head writer for six series of Doctor Who, having previously been arguably the star guest writer of the first Russell T Davies era. Moffat is a thoroughly uncontroversial figure, no discourse there whatsoever, no strong feelings on either side of the divide, so it feels safe to proceed under the assumption that he is a competent writer who is worth discussing. Have fun in the comments!

Moffat told Digital Spy of early Peter Capaldi-era episode “Listen” – the first standalone story he penned as showrunner after a multi-series run of big ‘event’ episodes – that he wanted to write something smaller and more contained, “because I’d like to prove that I can actually write”. And while “Boom” is not as thematically ambitious as “Listen”, a widely acknowledged classic, there is a similar feeling here of the writer cracking his knuckles and really getting down to the nuts and bolts of writing. In a more recent Radio Times interview, he said that he was inspired by a brief moment from iconic Tom Baker-era serial “Genesis of the Daleks”, where the Doctor steps on a landmine. What if that moment were stretched out into a whole episode? The result is a taut single-location thriller that enables Moffat to try his hand at pure suspense, something he hasn’t really attempted before.

Though that’s not to say that the episode is entirely unfamiliar territory. The Anglican Marines return, having first been introduced early in Matt Smith’s tenure. The idea of medical equipment turned deadly echoes the cheerily murderous Handbots from “The Girl Who Waited”, and the subversion of familiar phrases like “sharp scratch” and “thoughts and prayers” definitely shares a lineage with “this is a kindness”, or even “are you my mummy”. Moffat has also long been fascinated with the idea of people trapped in imperfect digital forms, and the accompanying questions about consciousness and memory, as seen in the likes of “Silence in the Library”, way back during David Tennant’s run. Even the minefield setting has echoes of Capaldi-era two-parter “The Magician’s Apprentice” / “The Witch’s Familiar”, which were themselves explicitly in conversation with “Genesis of the Daleks”.

All that being said, we can surely forgive a veteran writer for returning to some favourite tropes and images, because the high concept here – simple yet audacious – makes for an exhilarating watch. The episode is expertly structured, balancing efficient and interesting world-building, horror, suspense, comedy, emotional character moments, the aforementioned future companion and some compelling themes, without any one aspect overwhelming the others. The cold open quickly gets us up to speed on some essential details about the setting and the guest characters, the Doctor rushes in to help with a recklessness that is perfectly in character, and by the time the opening credits roll, he’s already standing on the mine. Boom. Off we go.

After that, the episode is a relentless ratcheting up of tension. Moffat methodically introduces new complications, giving us brief moments to catch our breath before another problem rears its head – every time it seems like a solution has presented itself, there’s something else to worry about, and with the Doctor’s predicament a constant focus, we always know what the stakes are, which means that that those stakes can continually be raised. First, the Doctor’s life is in danger. Then it’s the Doctor and Ruby’s lives. Then there’s a child in danger too. Then it’s the whole planet.

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It’s a hugely effective structure, well supported by Julie Anne Robinson’s direction, which keeps the energy up while never being flashy – it might be the best pairing of writer and director since Moffat and Rachel Talalay (“The Doctor Falls”, “Heaven Sent”, among others). The repeated close-ups of Ncuti Gatwa’s face, his shaking hand and the glowing lights of the landmine keep the danger constantly in our minds, and needless to say the episode looks fantastic once again (considering that single-location stories often function as cost-cutting measures, this is probably the most expensive-looking bottle episode ever made). 

The episode’s structure also allows for lots of excellent character work. Gatwa continues to impress, his performance full of precise peaks and troughs as the Doctor continually tries to manage his fear – and by extension Ruby’s – and keep control of the situation, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. He also gets some vintage Doctor rage to play, his contempt for the marines, their faith, their war and its corporate sponsor palpable as he sneers at Mundy. There are too many electrifying moments to list, but Gatwa’s vicious delivery of “Seriously? Now you need proof, faith gyal?” is a highlight, as is his wordless, guttural cry of anguish when Canto shoots Ruby. Oh, and “I’m a lot more explosive than I look – and honey? I know how I look”. This is threatening to become a list, so let’s move on.

Having had less to play with in “The Devil’s Chord”, Millie Gibson gets a lot to do here, and once again she knocks it out of the park. To restrict myself to just one highlight, the scene where she refuses to throw Vater’s remains to the Doctor, insisting on getting close enough to hand it over – dismissing the Doctor’s “I forbid this” with a wonderfully casual “Yeah good luck with that” – feels like a key development, both for her character and their dynamic. It’s beautifully played by both, Ruby quietly resolute, the Doctor barely keeping a lid on his emotions. Even though they’ve not been travelling together that long, the emotions feel genuine and completely earned.

Amazingly, amongst all this, the episode not only finds space to introduce Varada Sethu as future companion Mundy Flynn (assuming she keeps that name), but gives her enough definition that she feels well-rounded and important. A lot of this comes down to Sethu herself, who gives a great performance. She’s warm and caring with Splice, more forceful with the two weird strangers who have landed in the middle of her warzone, conflicted as the true nature of that warzone becomes more apparent – and the way she pushes defiantly back against the Doctor hints at a compellingly tempestuous future dynamic. Her appearance here hasn’t been trailed at all, as far as I know – much like Jenna Coleman’s surprise debut way back in “Asylum of the Daleks” – but it’s brilliantly done, and I’m excited to see how the show handles her eventual return.

Admittedly there are some aspects that don’t fully come off. The thwarted romance between Mundy and Canto, while played well by both actors, feels perfunctory, and without wanting to sound cruel, putting so much emotional heavy lifting on the shoulders of a child actor might not have been the best decision. The ending also feels a little too happy considering what’s gone on – we didn’t necessarily need everybody lying around sobbing, but the triumphant ‘love conquers all’ climax is a tad over-egged.

These can be forgiven, though – partly because the episode is otherwise so effective, but also because of how badly a man in his sixties writing about the dangers of ‘the algorithm’ could have gone. Steven Moffat has previously suggested that he might write something about ‘cancel culture’, and even as a fan of his work, my only response to that is please don’t – but the themes of algorithms and automation are cleverly deployed here in the context of futuristic warfare. It’s brutal and sadly very topical, and definitely appropriate fodder for Doctor Who, and it allows Moffat to get angry, which is a compelling register for him. The episode’s points about devaluing human life and the overreach of the military industrial complex may not be subtle, but they’re certainly effective, and as with “Space Babies”, it’s good to see the show unequivocally condemning inhumane systems.

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Speaking of subtlety – these reviews haven’t mentioned Susan Twist yet, partly because I’m not given to speculation, but also because her cameos have been so nebulous. But after appearing briefly as a space station crew member in “Space Babies” and a tea lady in “The Devil’s Chord”, she’s much more prominent here as the face of the ambulances. Does that mean we’re on the brink of a big reveal? It certainly feels like this particular narrative bomb has been primed for a while.

It might well be time for it to go off…

Doctor Who series 14 continues next week with “73 Yards”, on BBC One, iPlayer and Disney+