Doctor Who - 73 Yards,Lowri Palin (MAXINE EVANS) Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON),BBC Studios,Photo by James Pardon
Doctor Who - 73 Yards,Lowri Palin (MAXINE EVANS) Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON),BBC Studios,Photo by James Pardon

73 Yards steps outside of Doctor Who’s comfort zone into an occult circle of unsettling strangeness. A mishmash of ideas largely done better elsewhere, it’s held together by Millie Gibson’s astonishingly good performance

 

It’s a familiar cliche to say that Doctor Who is the show that can go anywhere and do anything. The one TV series that can flip a switch from episode to episode to become a completely different genre entirely. Except… it’s not really true. There are some basic borders that Doctor Who tends to live within. Sometimes the guest cast are in glittery moon boots or Regency ballgowns. Sometimes it’s scarier or funnier or more adventurous in any given episode. But last week’s episode 73 Yards stepped on and broke the thin cotton line separating it from a world much stranger than anywhere it’s gone before.

 

Doctor Who. Roger AP Gwilliam (ANEURIN BARNARD) threatens nuclear armageddon in 73 Yards, BBC Studios, Photo by James Pardon ap Gwilliam, pumps his fist triumphantly at the podium during a campaign event
Roger AP Gwilliam (ANEURIN BARNARD) threatens nuclear armageddon in 73 Yards, BBC Studios, Photo by James Pardon

Doctor Who has rarely quoted other sources quite so directly before

The episode is a collection of influences from other sources. That’s nothing new for Doctor Who, of course, which has begged, borrowed, and stolen material from everyone from Mary Shelley to JG Ballard and Nigel Kneale. But here they seem somewhat haphazardly assembled together. More than that, these things are traditionally run through the show’s distinct filter. They’re ideas fuel for a story that could never be anything else but Doctor Who.

But tackling some of the references here is astonishingly brave. There’s The Dead Zone, in which a protagonist with knowledge of the future prevents the election of a nukes mad politician by making them appear a coward at a rally in a stadium. And also The Bent Neck Lady, in which the disturbing figure of a woman follows the protagonist her whole life. Only at the end does the followed woman discover it’s her own ghost projected backwards in time from the moment of death. Both are absolute classics. But 73 Yards neither matches their quality nor finds anything uniquely its own to add.

 

Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON), makes a critical error that will lead to 65 years of hardship in 73 Yards,BBC Studios,James Pardon. Ruby reads from a faded yellow scroll while standing on a grassy clifftop
Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON), makes a critical error that will lead to 65 years of hardship in 73 Yards,BBC Studios,James Pardon

73 Yards doesn’t create a world whose rules and structures are just beyond our grasp, but instead follows a disturbing nightmare logic

Another of the episodes issue is the particular way it uses the nightmare logic of folk horror. It’s not that the show hasn’t dabbled with folk horror before, as Blogtor Who’s own feature will attest. But previous examples generally have some underlying science fiction rationale below the supernatural facade. Even when stories keep such things vague, and they deal with forces so beyond us and weird that they might as well be supernatural, there’s still a strong logic and order underpinning them. But some of the most effective horror is when we enter a world seemingly beyond our control and understanding. A world governed by rules and laws we can only glimpse and never fully comprehend.

However, the best such stories, from the tradition of MR James to modern films like Hereditary, create a sense of a structure just out of reach. An impression that the protagonist, and us, are trapped in a maze. One that we could work out, if only we could see it from above. Meanwhile 73 Yards doesn’t quite succeed on that front. Rather than the answers seeming out of reach and unknowable, you may ultimately conclude that they simply don’t exist.

 

Enid Meadows (SIAN PHILLIPS), Lowri Palin (MAXINE EVANS) & Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) discuss the curse of the Spiteful One in 73 Yards,BBC Studios,James Pardon. The three women stand in a dimly lit country pub with bare stone walls.
Enid Meadows (SIAN PHILLIPS), Lowri Palin (MAXINE EVANS) & Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) discuss the curse of the Spiteful One in 73 Yards,BBC Studios,James Pardon

Every shot in every scene fills the frame with atmosphere in a story more rewarding if you let it envelop you in its dark hug

Yet, almost none of that actually matters. These Second Sight reviews revisit this season of Doctor Who a week, and several rewatches, after each episode first airs. It means there’s plenty of opportunity for all the references, themes, and deeper meanings to sink in. But that’s not really how 73 Yards is designed to be experienced. And experienced is the word. It successfully draws you in so that for its 47 minute run time you feel almost as trapped in its strange cotton web as Ruby herself does.

All of its flaws aside, 73 Yards leans heavily on two things to become truly compelling television. The first is the atmosphere or dread created by director Dylan Holmes Williams. Without a Dalek, Cyberman, or even Slitheen to fall back on, the story makes an out of focus old woman in the distance the stuff of nightmares. Even on repeated viewings, that hospital room climax sets every hair on the back of your neck on full alert. And after the credits roll on a late night rewatch with the lights off, every curtain and every dark corner seems filled with terrible possibilities.

 

Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON is bereft as the curse leaves her abandoned by her loved ones over and over),BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon. Ruby kneels in the middle of a London street, crying.
Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON is bereft as the curse leaves her abandoned by her loved ones over and over),BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon

Everything revolves around Millie Gibson’s exceptional performance as she proves that Doctor Who has yet again captured a rising star

The second is 73 Yards’ greatest asset by far: Millie Gibson. It’s a fantastic performance by any measure, holding the entire story together. But it’s all the more remarkable for having been the first episode of the season she filmed. It’s a testament to Russell T Davies’ confidence in his new teenage lead that he places an entire episode on her relatively untested shoulders. She rewards that trust with an astonishing piece of acting that anchors the whole episode. The true measure of 73 Yards’ success is how wrapped up you become in Ruby’s nightmare. It’s thanks to Gibson that you can’t take your eyes off her throughout. Her heartache and pain at the loses she experiences is brutal, and her slow fading into a dignified, but emotionally closed off, acceptance, portrayed with uncommon skill.

Some fans have questioned, over the past week, the depiction of Ruby’s aging. Yet there’s much more to it than longer hair and a pair of glasses. But perhaps more make-up would have simply distracted from what a great job Gibson does through acting alone. Her posture is just that little bit stiffer, her walk has just a little bit less bounce. Meanwhile, young Ruby’s facial expressions are typically a fireworks show of emotions. So seeing her elder, more reserved, incarnation communicating just as much with a raised eyebrow of a smile playing a the corner of her mouth is incredibly impressive from the then 19 year old actor.

If there’s one thing that makes complete and total sense in 73 Yards it’s Ruby Sunday. The emotional truth of her journey is never in question as we’re compelled to follow her every step of the way.

 

The TARDIS becomes stranded in a remote Welsh village in 73 Yards (c) BBC/Bad Wolf Doctor Who
The TARDIS becomes stranded in a remote Welsh village for over six decades in 73 Yards (c) BBC/Bad Wolf

73 Yards is a story that fans will be returning to on late nights for decades to come

More than anything, it’s that which makes this which makes this an episode fans will revisit time and again in years to come. And that which will have each future generations of fan fall in love with its dark fairy tale.

 

Doctor Who,Jonathan Groff with Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON), The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) BBC Studios Photo by James Pardon
Doctor Who,Jonathan Groff with Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON), The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) BBC Studios Photo by James Pardon

Doctor Who continues at midnight Friday night BST with Rogue on iPlayer in the UK, and on Disney+ everywhere else except Ireland

1 COMMENT

  1. I know some are disappointed with the lack of a better explanation – any explanation – for the ending, but I suspect this was a solid bit of world-building for our new Companion…and setting us up for a better understanding of what Ruby is all about as we move forward. Regardless, I thought it was a brilliant concept. I think Gibson did a wonderful job. Looking forward to giving this ep another watch, and I suspect it will be on my list of all-time favorite episodes down the road…thought it was that good.

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