Doctor Who series 14 episode 4 | 73 Yards spoiler-filled review

Doctor Who 73 Yards
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Russell T Davies puts Millie Gibson’s Ruby centre stage for the latest Doctor Who series 14 episode, 73 Yards. Here’s our spoilery review.

Final warning: this review contains spoilers.

If you were looking for an instant clue that Russell T Davies is switching tones for the third of his self-penned Doctor Who episodes in this particular series, then note how he’s dispensing straight away with the title sequence for the show. We’re down to business fast in 73 Yards as the Doctor and Ruby find themselves landing on the Welsh coast. We don’t even get a chance to sing the theme tune. A shame, I’m word perfect these days.

Anyway, Wales. Bloody windy and cold looking too, but good fodder for dramatic shots of the TARDIS parked up on the edge of a cliff. There’s just time for Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor to tell Mille Gibson’s Ruby about a nuclear war in 2046, and a Prime Minister to be wary of, and then he’s gone. Pretty much for the entire episode, courtesy of a circle on the ground and a fetching red hat.

The spotlight goes over to Millie Gibson then, as we get a significant amount of time in the company of Ruby. And instantly, we know there’s something awry as her TARDIS key – presented to her with fanfare just a while back – isn’t working. In fact, things are really rather odd.

More worryingly – well, creepily – there’s someone 73 yards away from her. Never entirely in focus, and even if you buy a brilliant camera you won’t be able to get a closeup of her face. She’s standing there, watching. And if you send anyone up to talk to her on your behalf, they turn on you for all time. Even your own mother.

I love the primal idea here. That no matter where you go in life, and how long you live, this figure will be watching you, and will always be the same distance. It reminds me straight away of a horror movie that really got to me, It Follows. Davies gets through one logic gap with the idea too by having Ruby explain why she hasn’t gone on a flight to try and escape, and instead plays with and subverts the creepy undertones of the core idea.

Case in point, when Ruby finds herself in the local pub, and is treated – surely with a nod to An American Werewolf In London – as the outsider. Or is she? Davies is having little shrift with the idea that locals in a rural Welsh pub are people to be looked down on, pulling a delightful comedy rugpull here. But then reminding us that there’s still someone watching, still 73 yards away. Oh, and there’s this Mad Jack fella to worry about too.

The thing about coming up with a strong central horror idea for an episode is you then have to do something with it. Here’s where the script took on a little of the flavour of a different Russell T Davies show, Years And Years. I’m a big fan of Years And Years, and here, 73 Yards compresses decades of Ruby’s life into a single episode, perhaps inevitably going full circle for the inevitable reveal of who the mysterious woman is (which, in fairness, there was only really one candidate for once it became clear where the episode was going).

We get through a lot of business in the second half of 73 Yards, and I do wonder if two particular elements are going to be prevalent in the second half of this series.

Firstly, there’s the return of UNIT, with Jemma Redgrave’s Kate Stewart. At first, she seem to be just the person Ruby needs as she tries to piece her life back together, yet even though she doesn’t have direct contact with the figure in the distance, the message is relayed, and Kate scarpers. Why? And is there a ramification for that? She’s dropped perception filters into the mix as well, but then they’ve always been rather useful in the world of Who. Even so: why, in the end, did everyone peg it?

Then there’s the introduction of Roger ap Gwilliam, played by Aneurin Barnard.

We’ve seen the rise of a politician in modern Doctor Who before of course, with John Simm’s Harold Saxon going on to be revealed as The Master. Davies is unlikely to repeat the same trick, but he’s built Gwilliam up – with a name actor playing him – into a future threat for the world. Has he been disposed of altogether when he pegs it out of Cardiff City’s football stadium? Feasibly, but also, I wouldn’t be surprised if we got an encore somewhere.

Doctor Who the TARDIS

Time passes, and passes at pace in 73 Yards, a year here, a year there. Out comes the ageing make-up by the end (not bad, too), and it’s Millie Gibson’s best work in the show to date. The dynamic between Gibson and Gatwa hasn’t quite stuck for me yet, although I happily appreciate I’m in the minority there. Separate, they seem stronger, and Gatwa remains the star attraction. Credit to Millie Gibson here however, for really getting her teeth into an episode that hinged very much on her.

I thought the end result was smashing, too. I’m sure there’s a piece of graph paper to try and track the paradoxes of the episode that someone might make somewhere. I’m not entirely sure how the whole time loop thing particularly works with Ruby following Ruby, but in terms of the episode and the story itself, I took a Groundhog Day approach to it. The genius of the film Groundhog Day after all is it basically explains nothing, and asks you to accept the premise (rather than losing five or ten minutes explaining things). 73 Yards works to a degree to a similar ethos. As a result of that, it gets a hell of a lot done for 45 minutes of screentime.

In terms of the ongoing threads with this particular series run too, you can quickly tick them off. There’s the actor Susan Twist again, although this time she’s a hiker who interacts with Ruby and offers some assistance. The snowflakes are back too, although given how chilly the whole episode appeared, that’s no surprise. Does, too, Millie Gibson look down the lens of the camera again early in the episode to deliver some of her dialogue? The Doctor seemed to do that last week, and here we are again.

Welcome back too, out of the blue, to Anita Dobson as Mrs Flood. At the end of The Church On Ruby Road, she was the fourth-wall breaker of choice, knowing full well what a TARDIS is. It’s a brief reprise we get here, but surely not the last time we see her. Let the theories continue to build.

Oh, and one final thing: every time a show like this goes a decade or two into the future, it’s lovely that the graphics for BBC News have resisted change. I know that sounds pissy, but it really isn’t: it always makes me smile.

It’s already half time then with this latest run of Doctor Who, and we’ve got more questions than answers thus far. What the show has demonstrated though is its ability, and determination, to adapt each and every week. Look at the four instalments we’ve had so far – of which this is my favourite – and the range of them is quite something. I think 73 Yards has been the best of them.

Next week, it’s Dot And Bubble, again from the pen of Russell T Davies. I wouldn’t for a moment try and second-guess what he’s got coming up next time. But I would suggest it’s worth tuning in to find out. This new era of Doctor Who is very much finding its feet.

Here’s our review of the last episode, Boom.

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