Friday 31 May 2024

Doctor Who: 73 Yards

Doctor Who has explored folk horror in classic serials The Dæmons, Image of the Fendahl, The Stones of Blood, K9 and Company and more. 73 Yards leans into this with scares worthy of The Wicker Man.

Nick Smith, our US-based veteran Whovian, is on a timey-wimey adventure.

Taking the Short View's Andrew Lewin has materialised over from The WELL - we would be honoured if you would join us!

Guest post by Andrew Lewin

It’s been absolutely fascinating watching the reaction of viewers to the latest episode of season one of Doctor Who, which I think is fair to say has created something of a schism within the Whovian fandom.

Some think 73 Yards was magnificent, one of the best episodes of Doctor Who (or any other drama) in recent years. In contrast, others are acutely disappointed and dismayed, if not outright angered, by writer and series showrunner Russell T Davies’ wilful refusal to address or explain any of the questions seemingly raised by the plot.

Let me be upfront and say I’m in the former camp.

I loved this episode beyond reason! Every part of it, including the lack of answers to the puzzles it presents. It left me thinking about the story for days after transmission rather than forgetting about it five minutes after the end credits rolled in favour of whatever light entertainment format Ant and Dec were up to on commercial television.

Maybe the fact that 73 Yards requires us to come up with our own answers is what vexed so many fans, but for me, it’s the hallmark of the best quality drama.

It’s certainly true that Davies’ approach to writing is at right angles to that of Steven Moffat, who is obsessed with finessing a script's intricate details. I had no idea where 73 Yards was going, whereas it was evident in last week’s Boom that Moffat’s script ran on rails from when the Doctor charged out of the TARDIS and stood on a landmine.

Everything that followed was precisely structured, every line and action directing the way to the finish, a paragon of how to construct a modern TV script. With that said, when he wanted to insert the touchy-feely stuff about how a father’s love can conquer even the most sophisticated technology and how everyone needs faith at the end, it did come off the rails slightly and become a little eye-rollingly trite and clichéd reminiscent of the Moffat-era Closing Time written by Gareth Roberts.

But that’s because Moffat’s strength is always the logical construction of a situation, not the emotional side where he struggles.

Davies is his mirror image: he doesn’t worry so much about the details as long as the emotional truth of the story is served. So for him, it doesn’t matter who the Old Lady in 73 Yards is, or what she is whispering or semaphoring, or what she says to make people abandon Ruby, or what Roger ap Gwilliam is up to, because it’s all part of a deeper emotional truth. It’s an exploration of Ruby’s psyche away from the Doctor. Both we and she are literally finding out what kind of person she is when she’s stripped back and only got herself for company.

Her mother Carla walking out on her is clearly the worst moment of the story for Ruby, but for Doctor Who fans it’s probably UNIT’s betrayal that really hits hardest and brings home the reality of the abandonment Ruby feels. The rest of it – Mad Jack and ap Gwilliam and the threat of nuclear war – are mere distractions left over from Davies’ lauded Years and Years drama compared with the core emotional truth of this story. They don’t matter; they’re ornaments.

To get hung up on what the Old Lady is saying or the specifics of whether this is a parallel universe or a time loop is to completely miss the point of the story, at which point nothing I can say will bring anyone thinking along those lines back into the fold. Do people really watch films like Groundhog Day or It Follows and go away disappointed because it doesn’t provide a detailed scientific theory as to how the high concept worked? Of course not, they simply accept that this is how this cinematic world functions for 90 minutes and go along with it on that level.

But for some reason Doctor Who fans seem unhappy unless someone presents well-written but meaningless technobabble to justify what happened. Sometimes things are left better unsaid, more scary for not being dragged into the light of rational faux explanations.

As long as I feel the writer has a coherent grasp of the story's logic in their own mind – and/or that I can think of a workable explanation for everything myself – then I’m happy with ambiguity.

That’s not to say I’m a total RTD apologist: the ending he did for season three of NuWho (the Martha season) is an example of a train wreck that can happen when a writer loses their grasp on the plot. The Last of the Time Lords has the whole population of Earth wishing really, really hard altogether at the same time that the Doctor will be okay, and a satellite network called Archangel introduced for entirely different reasons suddenly facilitating a deus ex machina resolution to an irresolvable situation that RTD had clearly written himself into a corner with. But 73 Yards had none of that desperate feel, quite the contrary, and instead reminded me of two of his best scripts for the series from 2008 – Midnight (which again left everything brazenly unexplained) and Turn Left (which was a story about what the world would be like without the Doctor in it).

Whatever everyone thinks about this episode, the one thing everyone does agree on is how brilliant Millie Gibson is as Ruby Sunday.

The entire drama rests on her shoulders and she carries it with a flawless and mature performance, all the more remarkable for her age and for the fact that this was the first story she filmed for the show after leaving Coronation Street. She was moreover all on her own as Ncuti Gatwa was still contracted to finish work on Sex Education at the time, which is why the Doctor disappears just a minute in.

This necessity actually proves to be a masterstroke as it allows us to see Ruby (and Millie) without being blinded by Gatwa’s big ball of fizzing energy always standing two feet away.

The story gives us a snapshot of the things rattling around Ruby’s psyche at that exact moment – the hopes, fears, dreams, preoccupations, and nightmares – and shows us her mettle when dealing with what seems inexplicable, overwhelming and hopeless. She finally reconciles herself to being alone and having no one to rely upon other than herself and duly realises that wherever she goes, there she is.

So for me, this is a powerful, profound and moving piece of work that I’m going to remember for a long time to come. Whereas no matter how slick and enjoyable it was, Boom can only ever be ‘the one where Ncuti Gatwa stood on the spot for 40 minutes before the AI hologram of a devoted dead dad saves him.’ Sorry, Steven, but on this showing it’s Russell who takes the win in this latest round of the long-running showrunner duel.

New episodes of Doctor Who stream every Friday on Disney+ outside the UK and Ireland and every Saturday on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. Season one is available for pre-order (affiliate link).

Have you watched 73 Yards? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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