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Doctor Who: Wild Blue Yonder

"Odds Bodkins!"

Doctor Who takes us somewhere we haven't been for a very, very long time. A completely unspoiled episode.


This was the best episode of Doctor Who that I've seen in thirty years.

When the specials were first announced, they made a bit of a thing about 'Wild Blue Yonder' being super extra secret. A lot of different theories were floated at the time as to why this was the case. Returning former Doctors? Some huge reveal about the Toymaker? Surely it had to be something big. Then came the statement that this episode was unlike any other previous one. That just added gasoline to the rumor fire.

I'm still not completely certain as to what was being referred to when they described it that way. At a guess I think it might be because it only has David Tennant and Catherine Tate in it, albeit doubled up in both cases, although we do have at least one precedent for that.

No, the real surprise turned out to be that it was unlike any other episode of Doctor Who since the advent of social media in that for the first time in decades we landed with the TARDIS and had absolutely no idea what to expect, what was happening, or what any of the random clues might be about. We were completely at sea, for the first time in the new series. Arguably for the first time since the JNT era. The man did love his pre-publicity.

It cannot be overstated how much the episode benefited from that level of uncertainty. That, coupled with the simply gorgeous sets, visuals, and sound design leave you with the feeling that literally anything could happen at any moment. It felt unsafe in a way no other episode has managed to achieve in the modern era.

I've seen a lot of people describe this episode as 'scarier' or 'creepier' than the show usually is, and I think it's that sense of unknown possibilities that's giving that impression. Having watched the episode a few times now, the creepy factor really isn't terribly out of line once you're comfortably familiar with what's happening. It's the not knowing that gets you. We've got shapeshifting aliens impersonating the Doctor and Donna in order to invade our universe. Which, when stated baldly like that, isn't breaking any real new ground, conceptually. But what they do with those beings, the way they undermine your sense of familiarity at every turn, and, crucially, the fact that the Doctor just straight up gets it wrong on two separate occasions when deciding which Donna is 'real,' leaves the viewer with a disturbingly untethered feeling.

We, like the ship, are just outside the space where we're comfortable. Where we understand what's going on. In these circumstances, even the robot walking very slowly down a very long hallway becomes indescribably sinister. Far more so than its frankly adorable design should be able to achieve.

Structurally, this episode couldn't be simpler or tighter. The TARDIS lands, the HADS system – let's circle back to that in a moment – makes the TARDIS take off along with the handy sonic get out of jail free card attached. Which means that the Doctor and Donna are alone, unarmed, and have no method of escape. We're handily told that the TARDIS will return as soon as the two of them have dealt with whatever the danger in the environment is, which is what they in the business call a 'bookend structure.' TARDIS shows up, TARDIS leaves until the plot has run its course, TARDIS returns to pick them up and move on to the next episode. All standard stuff, structurally speaking.

It's in the juicy, between TARDIS center that the structure of the episode really shines. There isn't a line or a character beat that isn't doing more than one thing, all in service of telling the same contained story. Actually, let's circle back to that in a moment as well, because there's a substratum of exceptions. They don't count against this specific story being magnificently tightly plotted, as they're clearly intentionally done with deliberate – if still mysterious – intention.

So, when they talk about Mrs. Bean the music teacher, they aren't just reinforcing the reference to the title 'Wild Blue Yonder,' with all that that implies. They're also foreshadowing the return of Wilf at the end. And introducing the idea that what qualifies as 'jolly' and what qualifies as 'military strike' largely depends on which side of the strike you happen to be on; a theme which they continue to dance around for the remainder of the episode. And also setting up the final choice that the Doctor gets wrong when trying to identify the 'real' Donna in what should be the final moments.

I'd genuinely forgotten how disciplined a script RTD is capable of producing when he puts the effort in, and they don't get much more disciplined than this. We're being told a story in which we have no chance of knowing in advance what's going to happen, by a storyteller at the top of his game, featuring actors who are firing on all cylinders. I haven't enjoyed watching an episode this much since I was a kid.

Circling back to the exceptions in the structure that I mentioned. There are two of them. And both are pretty obviously telegraphed as 'this is going to come back into play later.' First there's the meeting with Isaac Newton, with its subsequent update of the word 'gravity' to 'mavity.' Now, it's entirely possible that this is just an elaborate running joke, and we shouldn't pay too much attention to it, but I don't think that's the case.

I think this for one main reason; the script brings the issue back up precisely three times. In a very deliberate way. First, it's brought up to establish the joke by having Donna cite that the 'mavity' feels normal. This tells us that the word has been changed in history. Second, the Doctor refers to the ship being stuck in a 'mavity well,' which tells us that the Doctor isn't immune from the change, which should be surprising. And third, the Doctor mentions 'gravity' later on, only to have Donna question it and then correct himself to 'mavity' which tells us that he's aware of the change but not addressing it.

All of that says to me that we're supposed to be aware of it but that we don't know the significance yet.

There's also, of course, the issue of Sir Isaac Newton's race as portrayed here, which may or may not be significant. Personally, I hope they just did it to piss off the usual internet trolls, because if that was their goal it is absolutely working and I'm here for it. You never know, though. Whatever the case, the entire Isaac Newton opening clearly has very little to do with the rest of this episode, so it must play into next week's in some way.

The other exception to 'relevant to the structure of this episode' is the entire 'line of salt' bit. You could cut everything about it from that scene without changing anything significant and the Doctor himself reflects back on it as 'Uh oh, I shouldn't have invoked a superstition this close to the mysterious edge of the universe. It'd be a shame if THAT became a relevant plot point next week.'

I'm more and more convinced that these three specials are going to be more of a single complete story than we're yet aware of.

Bits and Pieces:

-- The conceit that the Doctor had translated the written numbers but had no idea what they sounded like spoken was fantastic. And is another example of the script doing a lot of things simultaneously. The TARDIS being gone facilitates the Doctor and Donna being here, but it's also crucial for the numbers not being properly translated as they otherwise would have been.

-- I honestly think that about 87% of the creepy atmosphere of the episode comes down to the sound effect of the light bulb flickering and buzzing just before the TARDIS arrives. We're SO conditioned to hear that and feel insecure.

-- Speaking of, Disney Plus doesn't know how to capitalize TARDIS. The info says Tardis, which is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. You spend that much money on an intellectual property, learn how to spell it correctly.

-- I'm loving all the little differences between the Fourteenth Doctor and the Tenth. I'll own up to it, I'm on the record as the Tenth Doctor being my least favorite of the modern era. But I'm more than a little humbled to see how much of David Tennant's performance as Ten was deliberate character work on his part and not just 'David being David,' as I'd kind of assumed previously. He's just doing such good work differentiating it here. The way he takes Donna's hand. The way he expresses emotion more openly. This is amazing work, and I apologize for underestimating him before.

-- Turning the Doctor's typical strength into a weakness was a fantastic starting point for this episode. He thinks fast and reacts quickly. So, they make that a weakness here, since both feed this particular enemy and we get to watch the Doctor desperately try not to work quickly. So good.

-- It's a fun effect, but I really hope the TARDIS stops flying in and ramming into things now.

-- Seeing Wilf again is just wonderful. From what I'm reading, that might have been all that he was well enough to film, which is a shame if true.

-- The HADS system has been seen twice before, and it's never worked this way. Previously it just moved the TARDIS to a different location if things weren't safe. Here it appears to have the ability to sense when the danger has passed and return. I don't hate the change; I just want it clear that that's new. It did provide a lovely climax to the action here, so precedent, schmecedent.

-- Ultimately, the fate of the universe came down to a cute robot walking very slowly down a very long hallway. That's just wonderful.

-- I'm seeing a lot of people compare this episode to 'Midnight,' and I don't don't get it, if that makes sense. But this is so much better than 'Midnight' was. And I thought 'Midnight' was pretty good.

-- There were two recurring sci-fi problems brought up here. One was that changing size would require a corresponding change in mass (although they continued to ignore the problem of the discrepancy between three-dimensional mass with two-dimensional body joints.) It was a bit of a handwave, but it was a much-appreciated handwave. The second was that old favorite 'the edge of the universe.' This one was more of a technobabble handwave, but it knew that it was, so I respect it. My favorite explanation of the actual expanding shape of the universe is a blob of raisin bread dough. As the dough expands, the raisins get further apart. But then I don't understand Camboolian Flat Mathematics, so what do I know.

-- I loved that the captain's body showed that her species wasn't really humanoid.

-- The implication was very much that the fake Doctor and Donna were only nasty like this because they'd learned it by watching us. I wish I has a counter argument for that.

You can't tell me that that isn't a cute robot.


Donna: "Don’t worry. He has a time machine. Which means he can blame me for all eternity."

Donna: "Have you got the controls set to 'famous,' or what?"
The Doctor: "If I had controls."

Donna: "Is it bad?"
The Doctor: "Oh. It was brand new."

Donna: "Was it me, or was Isaac Newton hot?"
The Doctor: "He was, wasn’t he. He was so hot."

Donna: "I thought you knew 27 million languages."
The Doctor: "I know 57 billion, two hundred and five. But not this one. Unless that was Mr. Fenslaw saying his name?"
Donna: "It wasn't that."
The Doctor: "It wasn't that."

The Doctor: "Can you still hear me?"
Donna: "No."
The Doctor: "Good good. Won’t be long."

Not-The-Doctor: "The notion of shape is strange."
Not-Donna: "It limits. It’s very limiting."

Donna: "I was born in Southampton, 'cause my mum and dad were there for the weekend visiting my Auntie Iris. My mother was nine months pregnant. Would Iris come to her? She would not. So, I arrived in Southampton, which allowed my mother to say I was a problem from the day I was born. And I’ve not come to the edge of the universe to discover I’m still dealing with that."

Not-The-Doctor: "We drifted here. In the lack of light. Passing no-time. But we would feel it. From so far away. Your noisy, boiling universe. We want to travel there. To play your vicious games, and win."

If this is the last Wilf we get, we still got more Wilf than we deserve.

Wonderful. Just wonderful. I was a kid again, absolutely rooted to the screen, breathless and afraid to find out what happened next.

Fourteen out of fourteen Doctors. With just a hint of Ncuti Gatwa on top.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.


  1. A lovely, lovely review of a fascinating episode, Mikey. I caught the "mavity" thing and like you, I think they have something in mind for it in the longer story.

    Bernard Cribbins (Wilf) passed away last year, not long after filming this episode. Sigh.

  2. I enjoyed the episode to a point. I think I was "brought" out of it when Doctor and Donna first started exploring that very lonnng and creepy corridor. It was cool but the scene reminded me of the episode of when Bill, Misty and Doctor wound up and Bill was injured... I hated that episode because of what Happened to Bill and it made me have flashbacks...
    Now both CT and DT did a fantastic job with the material from start to finish, it was creepy. I also agree that mativity is going to come into play soon...I am also pleased to know that I didnt imagine that headshake issue of Doctor when he readjusts the word as mativity instead of gravity. I do have a question though..the capatain corpse that was out in space, did it look like a chess pawn to you? I dont play chess but my impression was of the one that is called a "rook" I believe. (Horse head shape).

  3. I am a weirdo who's watching these after seeing the first Jodie Whitaker season and nothing else of Doctor Who but I loved this! David Tennant and Catherine Tate were remarkable in all four roles.
    I'm not as convinced that the plot and script were as tight as you did (I was bothered that the Doctor figured out the final difference as a plot point, not a character point) but there were several very creative touches. The setting felt very rich and realized on a script level which is sometimes harder than getting the visuals right.

  4. I'm realizing that it really has been 15 years since we last saw Donna as a companion. I don't like that. It feels like a fake number.

    I loved this episode so much. It was so so good. I loved the creepy. I loved the tension. I loved all of the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not we were looking at the real Doctor and Donna or not. I loved how they got just a little bit better each time, starting with the stilted questions and graduating being an almost perfect mimic.

    I kept thinking about AI and AI art while watching this. Hands, arms, and knees are the best way to check if an image is AI generated, or at least it used to be. It's gotten better since. Probably just a coincidence, but I liked that potential angle.

    Also seconding how much I love the fact that Fourteen is more affectionate. I don't really ship anyone on Doctor Who, never have, but their interactions keep prodding at that button in my brain. Which is interesting because I've always read Donna and Ten are fully platonic, not a bit of shipping potential in them at all.

    ... I'm gonna miss Fourteen when he leaves. I don't want him to go.

  5. Loving, as you said, the differences between Ten and Fourteen. Fourteen flat out says "I love her [Donna]" in The Star Beast and even comments on how uncharacteristic of him it is to say that. The way he kissed Donna's hand too. I'm so happy to have them back even if it is for a minute run. Donna Noble deserves a happy ending. It never ever sat right with me what the Doctor did to her at the end of season 4.

    I wish they'd done more with the whole "yeah the universe can be nasty but the captain killed herself to protect the whole of existence." That was an incredible sacrifice that I don't think was given enough weight.


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