Friday, March 27, 2020

12.5 Fugitive of the Judoon

The Two Doctors

I enjoyed Fugitive of the Judoon in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. It was the first episode of this season—the first episode in Doctor Thirteen's run—which I might have enjoyed if it had been part of a brand new TV show that I didn't have any investment in. It was the first episode in I don't know how long—since Matt Smith's first season, perhaps—that made me think: "Well, that was fun."

It's easy enough to see why it worked. It followed a perfectly standard structure of escalating tension. Introduce the main plot; escalate to crisis; cut away to subplot; escalate to crisis; repeat for tertiary plot. Then return to first plot; escalate crisis to a higher pitch and cut back to second plot: continue until all plots converge in one massive crisis. 

It has a central mystery: and each time part of the mystery is solved it reveals a deeper mystery beneath it. There is something a bit mysterious about Lee. The Judoon have come to earth looking for some fugitive. The fugitive is seems to be Lee: but what is he running from. The Judoon are interested in a box in Lee's possession, but why? The Judoon were hired by Gat, who has a former connection with Lee, but what? Gat kills Lee: it wasn't him she wanted, after all, it was his wife Ruth. But why?

And so on, until the great big question mark on which the episode ends, which I very much hope will never be resolved. (I am writing this review straight after watching the episode, and definitely have no idea what will happen in the Season Finale, oh no.) 

And the stuff which happens while the tension is being ramped up and the Russian dolls are being unpacked is great fun. We immediately like Ruth as a character. We care that no-one comes on her walking tour and Lee hasn't ordered her a birthday cake. (Is there really only one cake shop and one coffee bar in the whole of Gloucester?) We enjoy the scenes on the Judoon spaceship, with military music and marching boots and silly chants and figures in spacesuits silhouetted against bulkheads. They made me think of 1970s TV adverts for space-toys you were never actually going to be able to afford. Everyone falls in step with that sense of slightly retro generic skiffy, referring to the Judoon as "space-rhinos". The Judoon were created as a rather weak place-holder for the Sontarans: but they are silly enough to be fun and menacing enough to be exciting. A rhinoceros is an intrinsically silly beast. Rhinoceri in spacesuits are joyous. 

When I like a Chris Chibnall episode I often say that it felt like an episode of the Sarah-Jane Adventures. But then I frequently said that Sarah-Jane was more like Doctor Who than Doctor Who was at the time. It retained a sense of fun and playfulness and story and was not overwhelmed by Numan Interest. (But on I cared much more about what happened to Clyde and Luke than I ever have about Yaz and Ryan.) Doctor Who has BBC Children's Television in its DNA: there is something endearingly childish about Fugitive of the Judoon which puts us off guard for the big dramatic serious ending. 

So, Andrew, you might as well leave it there. "It was a good story. I liked it. I wish there were more stories like this." What else is there to say?

Before Fugitive of the Judoon was released, the BBC put out a short teaser trailer which made it clear that the big revelation that O was the Master in Spyfall was only the beginning: this weeks episode was going to contain an even bigger revelation. And that trailer totally changed how we experience the episode. Every plot twist—every red herring—makes us think "Is this the big revelation? I wonder what the big revelation will be? When will the big revelation come?" Telling us that there is a big surprise but not telling us what it is is almost as much a spoiler as if it the episode had been entitled "Day of Tour Guide Who Turns Out To  Be The Doctor." 

The guy in the coffee shop has been compiling a dossier on Lee. Is that the revelation? Is the revelation to do with Lee's identity?

It turns out that the Judoon have come to arrest Ruth—who seems to be completely innocuous— rather than Lee—who is obviously hiding something. "So" we can't help thinking "That must be the big revelation. The big revelation must be something to do with Ruth. What can Ruth's big secret be?" 

This is why John Bloody Barrowman is in the episode. The dreadful Torchwood turned Captain Jack into an annoying, camp Action Man, but I have to admit that this episode's digression restores the character to what he was in the Empty Child—a flamboyant polysexual Han Solo. He really shouldn't exist in the story, and he gets to comment on the narrative from the outside, rather as Missy did in World Enough and Time: 

"Listen, kid, working with some low-rent equipment here." 

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" 

"Oh, she likes them mouthy, then, huh?" 

"Yeah, one up from cheesy." 

"Okay, he's my favourite."

It's like two eras of the show are being allowed to comment on each other. Jack assume that Graham is the Doctor: and one suspects that in Jack's era, he would have been. 

Jack has nothing to do with the story: he is only here to deliver a message: "Beware the lone Cyberman"—presumably a set up for the season finale which I definitely haven't watched yet. It is quite fun that a flying saucer pops up in the middle of an already quite complicated narrative and quite convenient that Graham, Yaz and Ryan get beamed out of the story just at the point when the Doctor and Ruth need time for some quality exposition. 

But the main point of Captain Jack is to be a red herring. We have been told that there is going to be a really big revelation. A major, major character who we haven't seen in a decade pops up. Here comes the revelation, we think: Jack is going to tell us the big secret. But it turns out that his message has nothing to do with the revelation, or to do with anything else in the story. Which is kind of cool.

A heavily trailed revelation was always going to be about the format; about the mythos about, as we now have to say, the lore. "Yaz is pregnant", "Ryan becomes a Muslim" or "Graham's cancer comes back" would count as major revelations in a soap opera or drama, but in Doctor Who they would barely register as sub-plots. The twist has to be a twist about Doctor Who itself. Ruth as a secret. And within the rules of Doctor Who, there are really only three things it can be: 

1: Ruth is the Master

2: Ruth is some other Time Lord—the Rani or the Corsair or the Monk or Omega or Rassilon. 

3: Ruth has some family connection with the Doctor: she is her child, or her former wife, or her mother. 

We do not see "Ruth is the Doctor herself" coming. And how could we? We were looking for a twist within the rules of Doctor Who. But the twist is that the rules of Doctor Who have been broken. Ruth can't be the Doctor. But she is.

I have used this illustration before. Children's riddles and cracker-jokes depend on a question being understood in a non-obvious way, or there being an equivocation about the meaning of a word. Why did the man throw his watch out of the window? In order to see time fly. What gets wetter the more it dries? A towel. So "Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side" is funny because it breaks the rules of joke telling. The joke is that it requires a perfectly ordinary answer: the joke is that it is not a joke. Many, many children's riddles are anti-jokes of this kind. What is white and can't climb trees? What is green and pear-shaped? Where would you find a tortoise with no legs? 

Ruth can't be the Doctor, because there is no Doctor for her to be. If she had simply been the fourteenth (or, depending on how you count, sixteenth) Doctor, it would have been quite surprising but not a major twist. "I am your next incarnation, but not for a couple of seasons yet". I have thought for a long time that it would be cool if the BBC could somehow spring a regeneration on us without the traditional eighteen month build up. But Doctor Ruth is not from the future (she doesn't remember having been Doctor Thirteen) nor is she from the past (Thirteen definitely doesn't remember being her). And there is nowhere else for her to be from.

It could all be sorted out very easily by saying that she is the Doctor from a parallel universe; or by saying that our Doctor had pre-Hartnellian lives but is for some reason suffering from amnesia. Neither solution would be nearly as interesting as the mystery. "There is another Doctor in the universe who logically can't exist" is quite an appealing addition to the mythos: particularly if the Doctor and the Other Doctor can be contrived to be at loggerheads. 

I can't help thinking — and I definitely, definitely haven't watched the season finale yet—that "logically impossible Doctor" is what Chibnall is driving at. Doctor Ruth very pointedly does not know what a sonic screwdriver is, which puts her pre-Troughton: but her TARDIS is already shaped like a London Police Box, which puts her post-Unearthly Child.

We see the Time Lords casting the Doctor out in the War Games; and we see the Doctor arriving on earth in Spearhead From Space: many fans have theorized that there could be any number of untold adventures in between. (The theory is well established enough that if you refer to "Season 6 B" Who fans generally know what you are talking about.) But there is really no scope for a Season 3 B in between the last William Hartnell story and the first Patrick Troughton one. Moffat's Twice Upon a Time rather ruled that out. 

Vinay Patel, who is credited with Chibnall as co-writer of the story, also wrote last year's Demons of the Punjab, as story which was greatly admired by people other than me. It is interesting that there are two writers; because it sometimes feels as if Fugitive of the Judoon is two different stories.

Is Patel a Doctor Who geek? Did he go to Chibnall and say "I've had a cool idea for a story in which there is an extra, impossible Doctor, in between Hartnell and Troughton?" Or did Chibnall go to Patel and say "Since we liked your very political historical story last season so much, we think you are the idea person to write a mythos heavy narrative which sets up a puzzle about Doctor Who continuity." Neither scenario is impossible. But I have this nagging feeling that maybe Patel pitched a clever character piece in which an ordinary lady and an ordinary man living ordinary lives in Gloucester turn out to be alien war-criminals hunted by the Judoon. And that Chibnall looked at the script and said "That's a cool script. But I want to incorporate it into my masterplan. I want the lady to turn out to be, not an alien war criminal, but a logically impossible Doctor." 

There is one very suspicious thing. In the very good cathedral scene, when the Doctor and Ruth are surrounded by Judoon, Ruth unexpectedly grabs a gun, threatens the Judoon, does Martial Arts and rips off one of their noses. This gives the Doctor the clue that she, Ruth, has a different identity hidden inside her. Ruth doesn't know what has happened; it is like someone else is controlling her. 

Now, if you wanted to give a clue that a Numan Bean is really the Doctor in disguise, is Martial Arts and mutilating bad guys what you would choose? Wouldn't you show that she has a knack for improvising plans, or impresses the Doctor by her understanding of super-advanced science. If in the original script Ruth had been, say, an alien ninja with an activation code; or a renegade space cop who had resigned from the force, the scene would have made a lot more sense. 

The second half of the story is very well done. The juxtaposition of Ruth breaking the glass and starting to "regenerate" and the Doctor finding the TARDIS buried beneath an unmarked grave is very powerful. And the final scene on the Judoon ship, when it transpires that Gat is taking her orders from the Time Lords and that the Doctor—Ruth—has always been her quarry is pleasantly surprising and interesting. There is a bit of chemistry between the two Doctors. And the aftermath, with the Doctor brooding about what has happened and the Famous Three promising to stick by her whatever comes next, is very well done. But I am terribly afraid that we are looking at two different scripts. And when you realize that it, it is not too difficult to see the join.

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