Doctor Who series 14 episode 3 | Boom spoiler-filled review

Doctor Who Ncuti Gatwa in the TARDIS
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Steven Moffat returns to Doctor Who with Boom, and there’s much for Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor to ponder. Here’s our spoiilery review.

Final warning: this review contains spoilers.

“War is business, and business is booming”

Ncuti Gatwa has eyes. Big, brilliant eyes. After the bombastic two episode opening to Doctor Who’s season 14/series 1, the baton is handed to the word processor of Steven Moffat, for his first episode of Who since 2017. And boy, do those eyes get a workout.

Moffat then calms things down a lot by, within minutes, having Gatwa’s Doctor put one foot on a landmine. It’s a simple setup: take your foot off the landmine, as had already been established, and a sharp scratch follows. Look down, you risk triggering it. If an ambulance drone pops along with the face of Susan Twist on it – a dab of Silence In The Library there, I thought – then you’ve just got time for your next of kin to be informed, if you’re not deemed financially worth saving.

The narrative framework comfortably fits a single episode of Doctor Who, and there’s some stuff in there too – coming to it – that offers clues for where the broader story is going.

But what we also get in Boom is steely Steven Moffat. The futility of war is writ large by the time we get to the end of Boom, and the recurrence of the hollow phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ feels particularly pointed. Add in a few words about the state of artificial intelligence, and how it’s taking over what humans should be doing, and by the end I was happy to sign whatever Moffat would have put before my eyes.

It’s quite the story for Ruby’s first proper trip to an alien planet and, notably, she has her own TARDIS key too. Boom certainly has some sights to show her – a picturesque episode at times, appreciating most of it is a single location – and is willing to pause so she can take them in. Even if she and the Doctor are put in the midst of a bunch of priest-like figures fighting a way against an enemy they can’t see.

As we learn by the end of the episode, they can’t be seen because they don’t exist. It’s a haunting, angry conclusion to the story we get here, and strikingly powerful.  I thought there was a little bit of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four about it, the need to always have the population fighting someone to keep them under control. In the case of Boom, for the number of casualties of war to be algorithmically calculated to properly ensnare those on the front line.

But the immediate concern is the landmine that the Doctor is stood on (there’s a superb 2001 film No Man’s Land that takes a similar idea in a very different direction). If he moves, as is demonstrated right at the start of the episode, he’s gone. The lights on said mine gives us clues, and the camera isn’t shy about zooming right in on them. If said mine is fully triggered, a mobile ambulance will come along, inform whoever it gleams his next of kin to be, and his children – once again, fatherhood comes up in Boom – will get to watch an AI hologram to keep them calm. It’s all modern warfare: death by salesman.

Tautly directed by Julie Anne Robinson, there’s instant tension to the premise, even though we know the Doctor’s got five more episodes this series alone, so he’s going to get out of it somehow. The ultimate getting out of it is perhaps the least interesting part of it, but even then, Boom is already leading as the best episode of the series so far.

In the simplest sense, because it absolutely works. 44 minutes to explore one idea, one story really well, from a writer pretty much expert in the form. Undercut with sadness, too, with the lament that “everywhere is a beach eventually”.

Gatwa is terrific – those eyes! – and the supporting work of Caroilinn Springall as Splice and Joe Anderson as John Francis Vater is notable. And – hang on – who’s this? Varada Sethu had already been announced as a permanent member of the TARDIS crew for next season. But here she is, nice and early. Something quite Clara-ey about that.

Her appearance hints forward, inevitably. But as mentioned, there are already clear nods to the building threads of the series. We see Susan Twist in a role again, for one, the same face as a different character. The same actor is appearing, episode by episode, and it’s hardly to save on the casting budget.

We’ve got those snowflakes coming through too (snow isn’t snow until it falls, folks), not least one that sits as the last frame of the episode. The thinking – as we’ve been told – is they link to Ruby. We’re left to guess as to why for now.

The shooting of Ruby, incidentally: might we come back to that in the future? It doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that Doctor Who leaves behind.

One or two more things: there’s another song. Those seem to be popping up. There’s a moment near the end where it looks as though the Doctor is looking right down the barrel of the camera and talking to is. Is he? It would hardly be the first fourth-wall break we’ve had in the past four episodes. But the bit that really got me was the Doctor’s “dad to dad” speech. We’ve already had mention of Totters Lane and the Doctor discussing his family. Given that there are few coincidences in Russell T Davies’ era of Doctor Who, we’re surely coming back to that as well.

And one aside: there’s a slight irony to the algorithm-driven Disney+ funding Doctor Who, and Boom happily poking at its hull. I love the fact that – presumably not deliberately – the show is able and willing to rock the boat that it sits in. All while putting its lead in some very fine trousers. I’m fascinated too that there’s an exploration of faith going on here, and I can’t help but wonder how Boom is going to play out in some corners of America.

Still for me, Boom – in seemingly simple clothes – does a lot in its running time, and appreciating that it’s some meat thrown at more traditional Doctor Who fans (as opposed to those who might have discovered the show from its first two episodes of this series), I really warmed to it.

Thoughts and prayers then as we venture to the next episode, 73 Yards. I’m just off for some fish fingers and custard. I’ve missed that.

Our review of the previous episode, The Devil’s Chord, is here.

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