So … “The Fugitive of the Judoon” was a hell of an episode.
The 12th season of the revived Doctor Who has been enjoyable. From opening the season with a new Master (Sacha Dhawan) and another change to Gallifrey’s status quo, the new year promised a stronger throughline for the program than Season 11. Both choices were, of course, intentional, as showrunner Chris Chibnall wanted the series to behave more like Classic Doctor Who with each story standing as a discreet adventure. But as modern viewers found that format lacked a certain narrative thrust, The Doctor’s visit home at the conclusion of “Spyfall” offered something truly meaty for fans to consider.
We refrained from saying anything about it last month because, honestly, Gallifrey’s new fate felt like a retread. We’d been here before in 2005 when The Doctor (then played by Christopher Eccleston) told his then-companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) that his world was gone and he was the last of the Time Lords. Consequently, we felt the visual shock of Gallifrey’s second fall — apparently at the hands of Dhawan’s Master — was less appealing than the Master’s message suggesting everything they knew about themselves was a lie. Gallifrey’s past and the Doctor’s role in it is one the great mysteries thanks to the odd throwaway line in episodes like “The Five Doctors” and “Silver Nemesis.” The “New Adventures” novels took these suggests further by tying the Doctor to a previous, ancient Time Lord who worked alongside Rassilon and Omega, the founders of Time Lord society.
But after “Spyfall,” Season 12 went back to the standalone episodes. “Orphan 55” was an interesting enough story; reminding viewers the Doctor has long been an eco-warrior (also, it felt to us like a 1980s episode of Doctor Who with all the fat and some of the sense cut out). “Nicola Tesla’s Night of Terror” was a strong history-based thriller with a winning performance by Goran Visnjic as Tesla. But each episode felt less vital after “Spyfall” suggested something larger than the roaming we saw in Season 11.
Which isn’t to suggest we disliked Season 11. In fact, we found the standalone format refreshing after years of meta-arc plots fizzling out by the time the series felt ready to address them. Impossible Girls and Gallifrey itself felt less interesting in those situations. Nonetheless, Season 11’s runners — like Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) becoming family — lacked a certain amount of momentum and spark even as they deliver some emotional satisfaction.
The notion the Doctor does not know her own past, though, is the the sort of story we want to see and “The Fugitive of the Judoon” delivered on the promise of “Spyfall” by introducing us to the Doctor (Jo Martin); a fugitive Time Lord on the run from the glory of Gallifrey and, apparently, a forgotten part of the 13th Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) past.
This is the sort of shock Doctor Who is built to pull off.
We’ll be debating the hows and whys — and how it relates to the Timeless Child first mentioned in the second episode of Season 11 — for the rest of the season, but Doctor Who has won back one of its original and most compelling elements — it once again feels unpredictable.
And that it occurs within an episode which starts as predictable is worth lauding. As it opens, you fully expect Ruth (also Martin) to be one thing, but as you get closer to the chameleon arch, her identity drives the tale into a new, wonderful space. As long-time watchers of Doctor Who, we expected to finally see The Rani; another renegade Time Lord from the Classic Series who has been absent for far too long. But then the buried TARDIS and Ruth announcing herself as The Doctor takes things to a completely different frame. Add to that the surprise return of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his grave warning about the “Lone Cyberman” and you have a century’s worth of narrative momentum for the show.
Nonetheless, it is interesting Chibnall and co-writer Vinay Patel waited until the season’s half-way point to do this. It’s a good format as it allows him to continue with standalones while building to something huge. And, let’s face it, season finales on the modern Doctor Who should be about the Time Lord herself and something epic. Based on “The Fugitive of the Judoon” it seems we will also have plenty to discuss in five week’s time.
Of course, there’s plenty to think about now: Does the Martin Doctor predate William Hartnell or does she fit into the “Season 6B” concept? In either event, how did the Doctor’s memories of this incarnation vanish? Or is the Doctor wrong and this is from her far future? Alternatively, does all of this tie back into the Master’s suggestion that everything she knows is wrong? In this case, did the Doctor live another life before their presumed birth in Hartnell’s form? Is the Cartmel Master Plan back in play?
Oh, and since we’re headed in this direction, will the Doctor need to confront Rassilon and Omega before too long? These questions definitely energize Season 12 and leaves us to wonder if the show can stick the landing with compelling and entertaining answers.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC America