Posts Tagged With: reviews

Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

Warning: many spoilers below. Read at your peril.

There are some episodes of Doctor Who that, when you examine them under a bright light, actually aren’t terribly good. ‘Extremis’ is perhaps the most obvious contemporary example. ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ is another. ‘Utopia’ a third. None of these stories is particularly memorable, in the grand scheme of things. ‘Utopia’ sees the Doctor and Martha (with an old friend in tow) explore the end of the universe while being pursued by the carnivorous remnants of what used to be humanity. ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ assembles a ragtag bunch of waifs and strays and pits them against a silent religious order, in more than one sense of the word. ‘Extremis’ marks the beginning of the Monk trilogy – the low point for series 10 – in a story that is memorable solely because it pulls the rug from under our feet in its closing minutes. (Well, that and the scene with the Pope. That was quite funny.)

But they’re all stories we remember because Things Happened. ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ was event television. There was absolutely nothing special about it, in terms of the story it endeavoured to tell; it’s certain key moments that stand out. It starts innocently enough. Bereft and miserable, the Doctor is finally distracted from her hours of TARDIS console vigil by an alert from Gloucester: the Judoon have landed outside a cafe, and are in the process of throwing their monosyllabic weight around while they search for a dangerous fugitive. They’re still inflexible and brutal, and the Doctor is keen to intercede before things get too nasty – and intercede she does, although the can of worms she opens as a result is dark, slimy and full of entrails…look, basically it’s a complete dog’s breakfast. She should never have let them talk to Yas.

At first, it seems the Judoon are after an elusive, perenially nervous Stroud native called Lee (Game On‘s Neil Stuke, looking jumpy and perpetually hungover), nice enough but clearly hiding something. Lee is married to Ruth (Jo Martin, recently decorating the boardroom at Holby City), who is celebrating her birthday by handing out flyers for city tours that no one is booking – at least until the Judoon show up, all leather and pointed helmets, stomping through houses and cathedrals and killing anyone who gets in their way, while Whittaker makes awkward jokes about canals. That the fugitive turns out to be Ruth is no real surprise; that Lee meets an early demise twenty minutes in is predictable television; that Ruth is harbouring a buried past and hidden skills is more or less what everyone expected.

That she turns out to be the Doctor, of course, is something of a twist.

In a way, you have to hand it to Chibnall (the script is Patel’s, but this idea was almost certainly not) for actually surprising his audience. The buzzing about altered backstories has been an omnirumour since late 2018, but it wasn’t until last night that it appeared to actually have legs, and its unveiling was reasonably spectactular, Whittaker digging in the dirt for a buried TARDIS while Martin smashes the glass panel inside a lighthouse (the only thing that could have upped the symbolism levels would have been to make it a ceiling) and before changing her clothes. So catastrophic is the anticipated fallout from a move like this it’s tempting to disengage yourself from the fandom entirely: suffice it to say the decision to insert (or at least appear to insert) an earlier incarnation, with all that insinuates, and then cast a black woman in the role was not only a bold move but also an extremely savvy piece of trolling from the chief writer. Even if it’s not up there with ‘The Name of the Doctor’ – in terms of reveals, it’s more of a ‘Death In Heaven’ moment – it is, at least, guaranteed to get the internet talking about Doctor Who in a way that no one has for quite some time. I’d imagine it was a long night for bowlestrek.

At moments like these the temptation to shout “Bollocks!” (as I did during ‘Orphan 55’) is stronger than ever. But any doubts that Martin really is the Doctor (or at least a Doctor of sorts) are instantly dispelled by the synchronised, ‘Midnight’-esque conversation that follows – along with certain behavioural aspects that seem fairly authentic, albeit at the Colin Baker end of the scale. Acting is a big part of it: Martin’s demeanour change from human to Time Lord is powerful but understated; two halves of the same character, pompous and serious while Whittaker looks increasingly confused and out of her depth. It could still turn out to be an elaborate ruse, but honestly I’m not convinced that this current production team are capable of that sort of feint: this feels more like the sort of game-changing reveal that prompts an explosion of fan theory. She’s the Doctor from a parallel universe. A future Doctor with memory loss. A hidden incarnation sandwiched between Troughton and Pertwee. A buried secret past, Chibnall’s rumoured ‘Thirteen Previous’ cycle coming to fruition. Pick one.

It makes it a difficult episode to review. The story itself is bland and inconsequential, serving solely to advance the series arc: more than anything, ‘Fugitive’ feels not so much like the first part of a two-part story but a filler episode that we’ll revisit in a month or two, or perhaps even next year if the rumours have any substance. The TARDIS fam have next to nothing to do this week, to the extent that they’re removed from the narrative entirely by the most unexpected of guest stars, materialising in a gloomy spacecraft in the company of Captain Jack Harkness. Older, a little grizzled around the jaw but still as flirtatious as ever, Barrowman wastes no time in snogging Graham and complimenting him on his temples before evading a barrage of laser fire from the unseen monsters who want their ship back. As much fun as it is, the inconvenient truth is that Jack’s cameo serves absolutely no purpose, other than to have the fans squealing and jumping out of their seats, something I’ll admit I did. He’s there to deliver a cryptic message to the Doctor (disappointingly, the two never meet – perhaps they’re saving that for later), but surely he could have sent an email or something? On the other hand it’s lovely to see him, and it says something about the pace of an episode when a cameo from a long-departed guest actor is one of the least interesting things about it.

The other inconenient truth is that, despite its good intentions, ‘Fugitive’ wasn’t exactly a rug sweeper. It feels, more than anything, that those days are over: that the two-way feedback now supposedly deemed essential to the production process has rendered this a series of games and one-upmanships; television reduced to a series of “Gotcha!” moments. For all its jaw-dropping revelations (and there were several) it’s hard not to feel ever so slightly cheated; that this was an event, rather than anything of any substance. Moreover it was an event inserted purely for shock value, a cynical headline-grab in the manner of Moffat’s decision to tinker with the numbering (something no amount of garbage about writer’s block can ever really justify). Doctor Who isn’t produced in a vacuum, and while Whittaker maintains she doesn’t read the papers it should be fairly self-evident by now that Chibnall does. It is impossible not to conclude that this decision was made to deliberately upset certain people. And while I don’t object to big changes, as long as they work, and while I’d be happy to see Martin again on the strength of her performance this week, I’m not sure how I feel about the the BBC poking the fandom with a stick. Although let’s face it, that’s something the Doctor does particularly well.

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Alas, poor Yorick

In which the Doctor and Sarah encounter the Mandragora Helix, but sadly not Patrick McGoohan. Spoilers below.

One of the things I love about classic Doctor Who is the way it rips off the classics without ever actually saying it’s ripping off the classics. ‘The Brain of Morbius’ is an obvious example: it’s Frankenstein, and all the trademarks are there, but they never really talk about it on camera. The viewer is allowed to draw their own conclusions. The same may be said of ‘Planet of Evil’, which has obvious Jekyll / Hyde parallels that are never overtly dealt with or even mentioned. There’s a quiet sense of self-assurance about this, as if they weren’t afraid to dip in and out of great stories, and didn’t feel the need to point it out or justify themselves.

Post-2005, such literary comparisons must be signposted and pointed out with painstaking obviousness, typically by a companion. For example, look at this scene from ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’:

Donna: Yeah but think about it. There’s a murder, a mystery, and Agatha Christie.

The Doctor: So? Happens to me all the time.

Donna: No, but isn’t that a bit weird? Agatha Christie didn’t walk around surrounded by murders, not really. I mean that’s like meeting Charles Dickens, and he’s surrounded by ghosts, at Christmas.

The Doctor: Well…

Donna: Oh come on! It’s not like we could drive across country and find Enid Blyton having tea with Noddy. Could we? Noddy’s not real. Is he? Tell me there’s no Noddy!

The Doctor: [leans in close to her] There’s no Noddy.

You see what I mean. It’s a decent episode, and the Noddy gag (primarily thanks to Tennant’s delivery) is one of the highlights, but the whole scene jars. It’s the sort of self-conscious idiocy that is paramount these days, where the fourth wall is not so much broken as made momentarily transparent, in one of those shimmering, flickering effects. Followed by a few comments in a Confidential, and a paragraph of blurb in the ‘making of’ pages on the BBC website.

Back to Baker. ‘The Masque of Mandragora’ is Hamlet. With aliens. It’s not much of a spoiler to note that come the end of the story, the Doctor has acquired an enormous salami.

I know for a fact that Tom Baker's not a vegetarian. Don't ask me how I know. It's a boring story.

I mean look at it. Magnificent, isn’t it? It’s not even remotely phallic. I will, henceforth, be disappointed with all subsequent Doctor Who adaptations I watch that do not see him clutching oversized food. (That’s probably most of them.)

The story opens with Sarah and the Doctor exploring the TARDIS’s secondary control room (including a lovely moment where Sarah picks up Troughton’s recorder). After a gratuitous blue screen interlude, and a ‘psychic attack’  – psychic attacks are easy to do, you just have the afflicted characters put their hands to their heads, shut their eyes and grimace in agony, and then zoom in and out repeatedly – the narrative begins proper when the two travellers land in fifteenth century Italy, which looks suspiciously like Portmerion (known, of course, as the principal shooting location for The Prisoner). It all looks very pretty, but the peasants are revolting. Literally. Fortunately, the local military man, the violent Count Federico, is on hand with his iron fist and bad temper. We don’t get to see that much of him, of course, before the first spooky sci-fi thing happens, resulting in a mutilated corpse.

All things considered, the Blue Man gig could've gone better.

Besides the no-it’s-not-the-plague death, Federico has another reason to be grumpy: his brother’s the local Duke, and he’s not. Thankfully, the Duke is just about to suffer an untimely death, which was spookily predicted by Hieronymous, an astrologer who is revealed to be in league with Federico. Having disposed of his brother, Federico plans to seize the throne from its rightful heir, his nephew Giuliano. Is all this starting to sound familiar yet?

Giuliano is a self-assured, likeable hero – one whom you dearly hope will make it to the end of episode four. Open-minded to a fault, he welcomes the Doctor and the scientific field of enquiry that he represents, but he’s grounded and harbours no delusions about the danger he is in. He clearly has an unreciprocated crush on Sarah (along with most of the TV-watching public, I’d suspect), but he never allows that to get in the way of the work he has to do. Giuliano is assisted in his endeavours by Marco (Tim Pigott-Smith, looking here like the lovechild of Phil Davis and Chris Evans).

Giuliani. Something very wistful about that faraway look.

Marco. You see what I mean.

It’s nice to have a supporting character to root for, but as is customary, it’s the villains who are the most fun. Foremost amongst these is Hieronymous, who assumes the mantle of principal antagonist once he’s possessed by the invading Helix. He also has the most incredible beard in the history of the Fourth Doctor (and no, ‘The Leisure Hive’ doesn’t count).

Oh, facial hair of loveliness.

Hieronymous is scheming and gloating, while Claudius Federico takes the role of Brash Villain Whose Overconfidence Will Be His Undoing. He stomps and swaggers, and grabs all the best lines: he scoffs to Hieronymous that “You can no more tell the stars than you can tell my chamber pot,” announces that “before sunrise, I want to see Giuliano’s liver fed to the dogs”, and positively wallows in metaphors when giving orders to his second-in-command:

[Int. Federico’s chamber. A servant is putting Federico’s boots on him.]

Federico: Well?

Rossini: Nothing, sire.

Federico: Inept clod. What were my orders?

Rossini: We have searched everywhere.

Federico: Get out. [He kicks the servant.] I warn you, Rossini, fail me and you will breakfast on burning coals.

Rossini: Sire, we can only think that he has taken to the catacombs.

Federico: Catacombs.

Rossini: A thousand men might search those galleries for a month, sire, and still find nothing. They say there are places where the bat droppings are twice the height of a man.

Federico: They say. They say! The truth of the matter, Rossini, is that you have no stomach for the task.

Rossini: If it is your wish, sire, I will take the entire guard down there and begin the search immediately.

Federico: No. No, it is true. If he’s gone down into the warren, he’ll be harder to find than a flea in a beggar’s robes. But he must come out or die like a sewer rat.

Rossini: And when he does, we must be ready for him.

Federico: Of course you will, dung head.

They just don’t write Who like this anymore. They really should.

Federico, flanked by his flunky.

Elsewhere: Sarah gets hypnotised. Again. It’s no wonder that ‘The Hand of Fear’ was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In this instance, she’s instructed to kill the Doctor, who is one step ahead of her – he guesses she’s not herself when, prior to the attempted assassination, she asks why she can understand 15th century Italian, something she’s never asked before. (Never mind that; I’d like to know why the TARDIS translation circuits make the local guards sound like London cockneys. The scene where two of them have a conversation is like something out of Mary Poppins. It’s hysterical.)

Having rescued his best friend from the jaws of the eternal blank-eyed stare, the Doctor sets about putting things right. It’s not the first time he’s had to rescue Sarah; there is an earlier, mildly ludicrous scene in which he sneaks up to a sacrificial altar and grabs her just before the knife goes in, and NOT ONE OF THE MONKS IN THE CHAMBER NOTICES HE’S THERE. I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but seriously. It’s beyond stupid. I don’t care how deep your meditative trances go, you’d notice a six foot two man with wild hair and an enormous scarf. Particularly if he looked like Tom Baker, which the Fourth Doctor does. It is superseded in recent silliness only by the rescue sequence from ‘The Brain of Morbius’, which I have mentioned before.

Stupidest. Cult. Ever.

The monks are part of the Brotherhood of Demnos, a robe-wearing cult who absorb the power of the Helix, thus gaining the ability to shoot force lightning. Mostly off-camera. (Which is fair enough; they had no money, and there’s a nice big lot of it come the finale.) There’s double-dealing and double-crossing in the palace, various scenes in a dungeon, and the eponymous masque, which Giuliani debates cancelling, only to have the Doctor insist that it goes ahead – “Save me a costume; I love a knees-up!”. Meanwhile, down in the cave, Hieronymous quite literally loses face.

I'm Bobbin. Are you my mother?

It doesn’t all work. The ending is mildly confusing and slightly anti-climactic – it’s all over very quickly, with a quick denouement and no particularly concrete explanation, largely because most of the Doctor’s exposition takes the form of barely-heard mutterings to himself. The twist was effective, but the science behind it was initially impenetrable. Emily and I had no idea what was going on. I had to look it up. Perhaps we’re just thick. To save me having to try and explain it now, here’s a distracting picture of Stuart Fell dancing.

Apparently, Stuart Fell has a coat he borrowed from James Dean.

Despite structural flaws, it’s a fun, light-hearted story with a refreshingly low body count – one that can be watched in an evening and leave you wanting more. Good triumphs with minimal fuss, and the wicked are appropriately punished. Sladen doesn’t have much to do except sit around and wait to be rescued, but Baker is clearly having fun leaping on and off horses, laughing at the quaintness of fifteenth century astrophysics and wandering round Portmerion. And waving his sausage about, of course.

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