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Doctor Who: 73 Yards

"I think, at the end, I have hope."

Well. That was very much not what I was expecting that to be. Because we were very deliberately misled about what to expect from this one.

How wonderful.

I want to be clear up front. Even more so than usual, if you haven't seen this episode you should absolutely stop reading right now, go watch the episode, and come back to read this later. Because so much loving care has been put into completely mismanaging viewer expectations, both in the promotional lead up and in the actual episode itself.

Seriously. If you still have the option, go into this one cold.

Here's a gorgeous picture of Ncuti Gatwa to block out some space to protect the unsuspecting from accidental spoilers. Plus, there wasn't enough of him in this episode, so here's a little more.

There is no outfit that this man cannot pull off.

Right, now that we're diving into spoilers, we all pretty much expected this episode to be entirely that one scene in the pub where the locals put the fear of God into Ruby by relating the horrifying tale of 'Mad Jack, now unbound!', right? We were all on the same page there? And then the knock on the door was just the friendly pasty delivery man and the entire meta-narrative turned to the viewer and said, 'Yeah, psych, we're not doing that at all. And also, it's a little racist to assume that everything Welsh is like that.'

And so we pivot to Ruby heading back home to her Mum and Gran and think, 'Oh, OK. This is going to be about Ruby and her family solving "The Mystery of That Woman Standing Over There".' OK. We're down for that. But then almost instantly Carla walks up to the woman, listens for two and a half seconds, and completely turns on Ruby in the coldest and cruelest way possible. Which is just unimaginable based on everything we know about her. Then Kate Stewart shows up with some UNIT backup and repeats the exact same thing.

We started out expecting a cozy, claustrophobic monster tale on the snowy moors of the 'We don't care for strangers round 'ere, boyo!' variety, and it just keeps deliberately undercutting our expectations; expanding out, both in terms of location and time. It turns out that the story's not about figuring out what the deal is with a creepy supernatural monster in one inn over the course of one dark night, however much that looked like it was going to be the case from everything we've seen up to that point. We gradually come to terms with the fact that it's so much bigger and sadder than that. The years just keep rolling by relentlessly.  The thirtieth and fortieth birthday cards for Ruby are sad enough, but once we get to the resolution of what we think the entire point of the story is (more on that in a moment) we get a title card announcing that the situation goes on for another forty freaking years.

The central concept here – that there's a mysterious woman just over there who never comes any closer or goes any further away from you and that anyone who walks over and interacts with her immediately abandons you and runs away – it's simultaneously scary and so, so sad. The way that the woman in the distance kind of becomes Ruby's only friend feels so lonely, and poetic, and fascinating.

Which brings us neatly to Roger ap Gwilliam, whose name and evil credentials were very nicely set up by the Doctor right in the first scene before he popped out of the episode entirely. In the moment it just feels like one of those cutesy Doctor Who dialogue things in which he mentions some crazy future event in the same way he'd mention Napoleon, or the invention of sliced bread. Of course, that scene happens long before we have even the smallest glimmer of the thought that this episode is going to span more than six decades of Ruby's life, so the thought that he would turn out to be 'the monster' that Ruby is tasked with defeating never crossed my mind. That was nicely played.

Also nicely played was the way that the central 'hook' of the episode was used to defeat Roger ap Gwilliam. The choice of having that showdown on a football pitch is also kind of inspired, since we're so used to those being measured out neatly in yards, so the concept of Ruby moving back to the precise distance is underscored aesthetically in a very pleasing way. Also, it's adorable that Ruby essentially beat the bad guy by ignoring a lot of people telling her to keep off the grass.

If this episode has a failing – and I'm genuinely not sure if this is a failing or a strength – it comes down to one thing:

What in the name of sweet glittery Jesus actually happened here? Because the episode doesn't ever feel the need to make that clear.

There's more than a little of both 'Turn Left' and 'The Girl Who Waited' baked into the DNA of this script. But both of those episodes went out of their way to be clear about exactly what was happening (diverging timeline and parallel timelines, respectively) and actively spelled out exactly what the underlying logic was and how the timelines ended up this way, and how they were resolved based on the logical underpinning of the mechanics of events. In this episode we get a line early on about how things up on that cliff are kind of a malleable grey area and that's it.

Consider, for example, that we never, ever get even a hint as to what the mysterious woman 73 yards away is saying or doing to everyone that makes them instantly hate Ruby and abandon her. That's a hell of a big open question and they never even handwave to it. And what about the timelines? Is this a 'Turn Left' thing where in one future the Doctor breaks the fairy trap and causes all this, so Ruby has to age her whole life out until she's old enough to be the woman in the distance who has (somehow) gone back in time to try to shape events so that that doesn't happen?

Was it all about stopping Roger ap Gwilliam?

Did the fairy circle hear the Doctor mention Roger ap Gwilliam and use whatever power it has to set Ruby into a time loop to deal with the situation on behalf of Wales?

Why is she always precisely 73 yards away? Why was she able to get closer as Ruby got to her natural end of life? Why were there scrolls eulogizing Mad Jack in 2024 when he wouldn't even have been working his pizza delivery job yet at that point?

Looking at these and the 400 other questions that immediately jump to mind, this should read as an incomprehensible mess that makes no sense at all. And yet it does. Because it makes dream logic sense. It all connects because it 'feels' like it connects, and there are enough thematic tie-in points that it hangs together very much like that fairy circle made of string and skulls.

You could easily read that as a failing. But to me it feels more like a deliberate strength. It wants to be a tone poem; vague, and ethereal, and confounding, and sometimes beautiful, and sometimes sad, and always compelling in its mystery.

After some consideration, I'm calling that a strength.


Bits and Pieces:

-- Ruby has now officially begun to notice that a surprising percentage of the universal population is played by Susan Twist. Of course, that happened in a divergent future which now might not have happened, but still.

-- It seems pretty clear that Ruby knowingly allowed Monti to be repeatedly sexually assaulted by Roger in the interest of biding her time until she was sure she could take him down. That's pretty cold.

-- The woman who runs the Welsh pub early on actually turned out to be reasonably kind to Ruby, giving her spare clothes and whatnot. I liked that. It made her throwing Ruby out over what happened to what-his-name much harsher.

-- They're being deliberately playful about time period in this one. I was totally taken in thinking that Ruby was back in somewhere around the 90s when the innkeeper pretended not to understand what paying with her phone meant. But then the Coke was so expensive I was equally convinced she was in the future and was in for a surprise when she tries to go home to Carla and Cherry.

-- Did Millie Gibson pass for 40 during those scenes with Evil Roger? I honestly couldn't tell. I'm a terrible judge of age.

-- Ruby genuinely seemed to think that the Doctor might have jumped behind the TARDIS to pee. That's not something Ian or Barbara would have imagined, I hazard to guess.

-- Mrs. Flood literally walks out to check what's going on, says 'Oh, this week's plot doesn't have anything to do with me,' and then buggers off, never to be seen again this week. I respect that.

-- On the off chance that anyone isn't aware, this was the first episode they filmed and Ncuti Gatwa was still busy filming the final bits of Sex Education for Netflix. Sex Education is a great series, if you haven't watched it. Totally worth your time.

-- Are British football pitches marked off in yards? American football fields are. I might be showing my ignorance here.

-- It appears that all the time the Mysterious Woman was Ruby saying, 'Don't step.' I think. Again, vague.


Quotes:

The Doctor: "The war between the land and the sea. It never ends."

Susan Twist: "Oh, that’s Glyngatwg if you’ll forgive my pronunciation. Which they don’t."

Older Woman in the Pub: "In Latin it would be Semperdistans. Always Distant."

Carla Sunday: "That’s what men do. They go into their sheds and potter."

Ruby: "Mum! Don’t do this to me! Mum!"

Ruby: "I’m your daughter."
Carla: "Except you’re not, are you. Even your real mother didn’t want you."

Ruby: "And you work with the Doctor?"
Kate: "With him, despite him, against him sometimes. And I adore him."

Boyfriend 2: "It’s just, sometimes, I get the impression you’re not really listening. Drifting off. Thinking of something else. Well, like now, to be honest."

Ruby: "Semperdistans is the word. Look, you were sweet. And this was… ahh… this was nice, yeah? But you were right. It was never gonna work, and that is my fault. E-Except for the bed thing. ‘Cause that… that really was you."

Marti: "Oh, he is a monster."

Ruby: "I’m sorry it took so long. Because I think I’ll only get one chance, and I had to make sure I was right. But I wish I could have helped you."


An episode that's unexpected, and sad, and occasionally triumphant, and mysterious, and lovely.

I really enjoyed the hell out of this one.

Fourteen out of fifteen Doctors.

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.

8 comments:

  1. I loved it up until the ending that didn't make sense. I know it's not really supposed to, but I feel like it would have landed much better with just a BIT more logic and explanation. Not tons, but just connect a few more threads. I feel like it could have been close to Blink-level if they did that. I'm hoping a future episode gives us some clues, since Ruby remembers at least something about being in Wales before, and she met another Susan Twist character in the "erased" (?) timeline.

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  2. Love that picture of Nucti. Thank you for blessing us with that.

    I really, really wanted to like this episode. I did. I liked moments of it, such as how Ruby went to the window every birthday to toast her follower. I liked the darker implications involving Ruby and Monti simply because I enjoy it when this show goes a bit darker. I liked that Ruby had a moment of recognition with Susan Twist.

    But I'm such a horror fan that I really, really was looking forward to the 'locked down in a Welsh pub against a supernatural force' story. Kinda like a reverse "Midnight." Instead we got... this? Which felt way too vague and unexplained. Like where did the Doctor go? Why was Ruby the one stuck in a loop? Why 73 yards? What was the woman even saying? It seemed to imply that she was an old Ruby but then why was everyone running from her in terror? There's a line between something being mysterious and something being nonsensical. Even if this episode was clearly going for the dream-like, 'humans make connections where there are none' angle, it went too far for me. Least favorite episode this season by far.

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  3. Long time/First time. Really liked your take on this episode. I went in without any preconceived ideas about what to expect, and still had that repeated sense of “oh, now it’s this kind of episode” and was then surprised by all of the . . . left turns. (Sorry.) I’m not typically drawn into the more fantasy/magical direction most of these early episodes have gone, but I thought it worked really well here to help sell the very-much-intended sense of “don’t overthink this, just let it wash over you.” And it also led to a lot of great theories floating around all over the place last week, which made for very interesting reading. One I found really compelling (sorry, can’t recall the source) is that the old woman was a literal manifestation of the metaphoric weight someone carries after a life-changing tragedy or disaster or diagnosis - something Ruby had to learn to accept, and live with. With that in mind, whatever it was the old woman said could be read as causing some people to be scared, others to be scornful, others to be disgusted, just like in real life. Where this falls apart for me logically is that there was no one who felt sympathy or wanted to ease Ruby’s burden, not even her mother. That would have been a powerful ending - to a very different episode. I liked the one we got, with the focus on Ruby coming to terms with her lifelong companion, very much.

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  4. "What in the name of sweet glittery Jesus actually happened here? Because the episode doesn't ever feel the need to make that clear."

    This was what I liked best about it! I was actually hoping they weren't going to offer any kind of explanation for the mysterious figure. Some things just are.

    Then again I was someone who thought US was a pretty good movie until they actually felt the need to explain the doppelgangers.

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  5. I'm confused about the episode, and confused about how I feel about the episode. It was super super creepy in places and I think it just missed being excellent. Maybe it would have if the ending had made sense.

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  6. One more thing. Excellent, excellent review, Mikey.

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  7. I loved this episode. Including the ambiguity. Favourite episode of the whole series so far (initial viewing anyway). I don't know what happened, or why. But I'm quite okay with that.
    The episode kept pushing further, the next conversation, the next day, the next decade, the next lifetime. No answers. A bit like life itself really. Ruby had nothing, then one thing to hold on to, and she did - for as long as she could.
    I can only imagine that some of the unanswered parts will be answered eventually. However, watching it for the first time hooked me.

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  8. Best Dr Who episode for ages! I actually really like the fact I don't have a clue what's going on... Bit like real life for me!!

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