Sunday, May 19, 2024

“Fugitive of the Judoon” Shakes Up the Whoniverse

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Lucky we had a breather last week because series 12 is halfway done and writers Chris Chibnall and Vinay Patel gave “Fugitive of the Judoon” their best. The episode has a perfectly adequate start but barely 15 minutes in the first shock comes and it only gets better from there. It’s a big one and there’s a lot to unpack here.

Judoon platoon near that lagoon

Let’s start with the Judoon side of things as that’s the episode’s premise and perhaps the least complicated aspect of it. The irony is that the Judoon are relatively insignificant in an episode that has their name in its title. Even so, after such a long absence from the show, their morality is explored as far as it can be. The Judoon are interesting in their villain-status anyway as they’re usually not the real antagonists of their stories. They serve as lawful neutrals who hunt the real no goods of the universe. As Thirteen notes, though, they’re way too trigger happy and “Fugitive of the Judoon” makes a point of showing their ruthless side.

“Fugitive” effectively sets up Gloucester as its setting in just a few minutes and so when the Judoon arrive and execute their version of justice, we feel the horror of it. They kill two people for incredibly minor transgressions and they’re relentless in their pursuit of the fugitive. Of course, the whole manhunt is commissioned by Gallifrey so that alone makes us question the morality of their search but concerns only become more legit once we know who the fugitive is. They’re not completely monstrous, they’re the Judoon, rhino space police, but through them, we see how authority is not always right and it’s certainly not merciful.

Introducing Jo Martin as the Doctor

Alright, let’s not dance around the biggest revelation any longer, let’s talk about the fugitive herself. The first big shock of the episode was the return of none other than Captain Jack Harkness (and we’ll get to that) but that was soon overshadowed by the reveal of who Ruth (Jo Martin) really is. “Fugitive” opens with Ruth going about her life in Gloucester: it’s her birthday and all she wants from her husband is a cake. A local barista is in love with her and dislikes said husband. She gives guided tours around the cathedral. She’s upbeat, friendly, and utterly confused when the Judoon show up.

Ruth’s introduction was a strong setup for what I thought would be a guest character who gets caught up in the Judoon’s business. Instead, the concept of the chameleon arch is reintroduced and when Ruth breaks the glass at her parents’ lighthouse she remembers that she is the fugitive. She is the Doctor. The audience is just as confused as our Doctor, Thirteen, as the two try to make sense of things. Neither can remember the other so unlike other times when the Doctor met themselves, they’re not sure who came first and where are they relative to one another in the timeline.

The great twist is that we don’t know, either. The episode gives us some potential clues but we can’t be certain until we find out more, presumably in the series 12 finale. There are several theories floating around, one of the most popular ones saying that “Ruth” could be a forgotten first regeneration, a sort of Doctor Number Zero who came before Hartnell. This isn’t impossible, though a huge retcon and addition to the show’s mythology and one that could explain the Master’s actions and words from “Spyfall”. Other theories include Martin!Doctor being in-between the Second and Third Doctors, an alternate universe with an alternate Doctor, and that she’s actually River Song or another Time Lord.

Whoever she is and however she fits or perhaps doesn’t fit into the timeline, unless Chibnall was playing us all Jo Martin is a new Doctor. This is a twist on level with John Hurt’s Doctor which came as part of the 50th anniversary, only even more significant, depending on what the whole truth is. It’s the literal revelation of a lifetime! If series 11 was criticized for lack of larger arcs and lore than this is surely the opposite of that. And let’s not forget that we didn’t just get a new face for the Doctor, we got a black woman playing the titular character. It’s too early to say just how big a role this new Doctor gets, she still might not be the Doctor. But if she is, even if she’s a previous incarnation we won’t get full seasons with, this is truly a milestone in the history of Doctor Who.

Depending on who she really is and when she is, this promises to be a divisive creative decision. It’s impossible to ignore that some of that will come from viewers who already hated Jodie Whittaker in the role and who believe that the Doctor should only be played by men. They’re no doubt already creating petitions to cancel the show for daring to introduce a new Doctor who’s not only a woman but one of colour. These don’t even deserve a response, but there’s perhaps a more legitimate concern if Martin’s Doctor becomes the first Doctor. William Hartnell’s legacy would not change because of this addition but for 56 years he has been the original, you might say, and to change that is a bold move.

In any case, it really is too early to draw conclusions about what this means for the Whoniverse as a whole. As far as the episode itself is concerned, both Martin and Whittaker are delightful and they effortlessly change how their characters interact after the big reveal. The console room scene banter is especially great and it makes me wish Thirteen would meet other Doctors. Things only get better from there in terms of acting as Thirteen becomes traumatized by what she witnesses on the Judoon ship. Martin is sure to come back sooner rather than later and I for one can’t wait to see more of her now that she has her memories back.

All rainbows and trousers that don’t reach

As far as the Thirteenth Doctor is concerned, this is arguably Whittaker’s strongest episode yet. She truly gets a chance to show what she can do and does it all wonderfully. She’s the Doctor through and through and her “all rainbows” persona gets tested more than ever. The Doctor got a fresh start in series 11 and she didn’t want the fam to know too much about her past but series 12 so far has been about challenging that. First, the Master comes and destroys Gallifrey and then other Time Lords, including another Doctor appear, supposedly from a past she can’t remember. On top of all that, she doesn’t know how the Timeless Child connects to all this and she also has to keep an eye out for the “Lone Cybermen”, now that Jack came back and warned her companions. What a season she’s having.

The very best in terms of acting but most unsettling in terms of the Doctor comes right at the end. She’s been on edge ever since the Master returned and even at the beginning of the episode we see how focused she is on him. The fam is now actively aware of the fact that she doesn’t share anything with them and the tensions building. After the revelation of Martin!Doctor, she’s more lost than ever before. Even hearing that her companions met Jack only earns a faint smile. She’s been looking for the Master but it’s much bigger than him and she sees that now. And how does she cope with it? Still not by relying on her friends.

Even her sharing the identity of the fugitive with the team was somewhat surprising. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she kept the Ruth revelation from them so it is a good sign that she didn’t, but there’s still tension in the TARDIS. It’s a touching scene when Thirteen snaps at her fam but they insist on standing by her side, on knowing who she is and being her family. It’s an outstanding moment between these four characters we’ve been following for a while now. And yet the tension remains, despite the heartwarming words of encouragement. Yaz tells the Doctor she can’t talk to Ryan like that and we see how their view of her is changing, we see how she’s falling ever so slightly from that pedestal. Not because of what she might have done or who she might have been but because she insists on keeping them from finding out.

An old friend

Speaking of the fam, they’re sidelined after the Doctor runs off with Ruth and Jack transports them to his stolen ship. I did like Yaz and Ryan dealing with the Judoon and that Yaz’s job was brought up. It’s a shame that she and the others didn’t have a bigger role to play but seeing as we had a monumental reveal it’s understandable that there was only so much time for the Judoon plot. This way, Whittaker could have her scenes with Martin and the fam had their TARDIS moments at the beginning and very end. I expect next week’s “Praxeus” to feature each of them more heavily as the team gets separated and they have to find their way back to each other.

Then there’s Jack, finally Jack. Not that there’s an awful lot to say, he only has a few scenes in which he’s confused about who the Doctor is and then it’s time to say goodbye to the fam. In retrospect, his appearance was barely relevant to the episode itself and his main role is foreshadowing the Cybermen threat of the finale. It’s, again, understandable why it was like this, John Barrowman’s secret return hardly would have been a secret had he filmed in Gloucester or on the streets of Cardiff. And on that note, let’s just take a moment to appreciate how good Chibnall is at keeping his surprises a surprise. From smaller things like the TARDIS interior reveal to the Master’s and now Jack’s return, he doesn’t announce things before their time. If only John Simm’s return in series 10 could have been a surprise.

It’s funny how the episode made me so excited for the Doctor and Jack reunion scene that never came and I all but forgot amidst the other huge twist. But fear not, Captain Jack will be back again and we can only hope that he can make it this season. A finale involving the Master, Gallifrey, the Cybermen, another Doctor, the mystery of the Timeless Child and Captain Jack Harkness would be on a new level of epic. It’s possible that Chibnall only brought Barrowman back for this episode but come on, would he not give us the reunion we’ve been waiting 10 years for? Still, even though Jack’s return wasn’t essential to the plot itself, his scenes were still hugely enjoyable as fanservice and it’s pure joy to watch him interact with Graham, Yasmin, and Ryan.

Some said this episode is like Chibnall trying to copy Steven Moffat but it didn’t feel Moffat-y. Sure, it’s wibbly-wobbly and the twists are on level with those of the previous era but it seems like Chibnall is going in a different direction than his predecessor did. With Moffat, longer arcs always eventually boiled down to the Doctor being the single most important person in the universe and the convoluted plots surrounding him. I’m hoping that Chibnall’s Timeless Child plot will involve the Doctor but not be entirely about her, and that we’ll get answers to our questions in the end. Funnily enough, if anything, “Fugitive of the Judoon” gave me massive series 3 nostalgia. Between Jack, the Judoon, the chameleon arch and the Master’s threat lurking somewhere off-screen, I half expected Thirteen to introduce herself as Martha Jones on the Judoon ship.

Whatever the conclusion of the arc will be, “Fugitive” is such a unique viewing experience. No doubt the shock value of the reveals is part of that and perhaps it won’t age well as the Judoon plot itself is adequate but only a setup for the real meat of the episode. Even without the twists, though, we have a well-paced plot, excellent acting, and character dynamics. We’re only halfway through the season so here’s hoping the rest of it is just as exciting.

Images courtesy of the BBC

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