Dot and Bubble smartly uses the Doctor Who format to subvert expectations with an episode that demands repeat viewings

Are you sitting comfortably? Have you watched Dot and Bubble at least twice? Then we’ll begin. Because it needs to be watched at least twice. Once where you watch it as the story it appears to be. And once more after you’ve already watched that final scene. It makes Dot and Bubble probably the most perfect Doctor Who episode yet for a Second Sight review. After all, these reviews are about letting time and multiple rewatches help the deeper themes of an episode sink in.

Last week’s 73 Yards seemed to stop every step of the way and ask itself ‘What would a Doctor Who episode do now?’ and then deliberately do the opposite. This week, Dot and Bubble is subtler about it. However, it’s just as aware of the closest thing Doctor Who has to a ‘formula’ and of audience expectations. It makes those moments where it steps outside the box (blue, obviously) of the show’s normal way of doing things all the more stunning, in both senses of the word. It also effectively makes many members of the audience feel complicit in the story’s hidden conceit, in a way no towering speech by the Doctor down the lens ever could.

 

Lindy (CALLIE COOKE) navigates her apartment with the help of her Dot. Lindy walks across her apartment, furnished in pastel soft furnishings, and dominated by huge round windows, with a semi-transparent sphere of projected screens around her head BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Photo by James Pardon
Lindy (CALLIE COOKE) navigates her apartment with the help of her Dot, BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Photo by James Pardon

The story’s advertised premise of a society in thrall to a social media app would be compelling enough, but disguises something far darker and more interesting

When the episode opens on Finetime, a colony planet in thrall to an all pervasive social media app, most viewers think they know to expect. A dystopia disguised as a utopia where the Doctor’s arrival become a catalyst for change. Perhaps inspiring one person to uncover the dark secret at the heart of their society, before popping into the TARDIS to leave the survivors to build a new world. Ideally, with one last lingering look over their shoulder before they close the door. In a way, that’s exactly what Dot and Bubble delivers. Just in the darkest possible way.

A couple of weeks ago we described Boom as Steven Moffat successfully venting his fury about the state of the world without becoming an old Scotsman shouting at a cloud. When the concept of Russell T Davies’ episode was first announced as terminally online people living in a social media bubble divorced from real world problems, Blogtor was probably not alone in imagining a cloud hoovering into view while an old Welshman got ready to raise his fist at it.

Previews led to comparisons to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, though this being Doctor Who, an almost certainly gentler, fluffier version. But that was just a disguise.

 

The Doctor and Ruby hack into Finetime to try and save the residents in Dot and Bubble. Projected screens showing different faces, while two, featuring the Doctor and Ruby hover in front of them (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf
The Doctor and Ruby hack into Finetime to try and save the residents in Dot and Bubble (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf

For those who missed the many clues to the final twist, Dot and Bubble forces reflection on exactly why

Or at least, it was a disguise to some. The eleventh hour twist was a gut punch shock to many viewers. But for others it was the inevitable, inescapable conclusion. The difference between those two perspectives made for some of the most insightful and engaging viewing Doctor Who has ever produced.

To recap (and remember, we’re assuming you’ve watched the episode by now), Finetime is a white supremacist society. The reveal in the final scene is masterful, featuring something akin to directorial witchcraft from Dylan Holmes Williams as within a single shot, viewers suddenly realize between one frame and the next that every single person we can see is white. It’s why a second watch is so rewarding as all the clues, largely in the form of microaggressions by Lindy to the Doctor, are suddenly crystal clear. But for many other viewers those hints stood out from the very beginning, screaming their intent. Because for many of them, every cold look, lip curl, or dismissive remark she makes towards the Doctor, staring straight out of the screen, is their actual lived experience. They know Lindy. They recognize her instantly in a way even those that consider themselves allies mostly don’t.

 

We all know a Lindy, even if we don’t always recognise them

Doctor Who is generally thrilling. It’s usually pretty fun. At its best it can make you think. But Blogtor Who can’t think of a time before when Doctor Who has prompted this kind of self-reflection. It deliberately and surgically exposes a blind spot and forces you to ponder how you could still miss the signs of racism. A question not to be answered just in Finetime, but in your neighbourhood, in your office, among your friends.

We all know Lindy. We just don’t always recognize her in our lives until the gut punch twist…

 

Doctor Who - S1 - Dot and Bubble,Lindy (CALLIE COOKE), . Lindy squints slightly, looking out between the projected screens surrounding her head in a bubble BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Photo by James Pardon
Lindy (CALLIE COOKE) in Dot and Bubble, BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Photo by James Pardon

Callie Cooke as the vapid, entitled, and ultimately venomous Lindy, owns the episode

A lot of the episode’s success is down to Callie Cooke as Lindy. With filming overlapping both with Ncuti Gatwa’s commitments to Sex Education’s final season, and Millie Gibson’s virtually solo run on 73 Yards, no guest star since Carey Mulligan in Blink has had to shoulder so much of an episode herself. It’s a challenging role, too, which requires her to be superficially, well, superficial, while folding in layers of deeper characterisation beneath. Meanwhile, achieving all that with a camera often directly in her face, showing every square millimeter of her performance in 4K is a remarkable achievement.

In Cooke’s hands, Lindy is vapid, casually selfish, entitled and just a little dim. Yet she also appears basically harmless. So it’s a mark of how great a performance it is that when, late in the episode, she effectively murders Ricky September without a hint of remorse, it doesn’t feel like a villain origin story. Rather, it’s just an extension of the same character we’ve seen all along.

Who knows what the future holds for Callie Cooke. But she certainly deserves to follow in the footsteps of Carey Mulligan to great success.

 

Lindy (CALLIE COOKE) struggles to escape Finetime in Dot and Bubble, BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Photo by James Pardon Doctor Who. Lindy, walks down a street, straight into a lamp post
Lindy (CALLIE COOKE) sees the world as it really is for the first time in Dot and Bubble, BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Photo by James Pardon

Dot and Bubble’s final twist has split audiences into two camps: those it shocked, and those who knew it was inevitable

Russell T Davies’ deception also trades on our understanding of the shape of Doctor Who. When Lindy grudgingly admits the Doctor “isn’t as stupid as he looks,” it’s almost a quote of the type of remark thrown at his predecessors since the show began. When she instinctively assumes, contrary to all the evidence, that he’s responsible for the monsters munching their way through the Finetime population, it’s another standard Who cliche. People stupidly complaining about him breaking rules even as he’s saving their lives is also familiar territory. But her reasons for thinking he must be stupid, for thinking he must be a trouble-maker, for finding him condescending for knowing he’s smarter than her. Those are unlike to her in the Doctor’s experience so far.

But there are so many other clues too. Her instant blocking of the Doctor, compared to at least giving Ruby time to explain. Her initial confusion that the Doctor might be two different men who just look alike. The fact that Lindy appears to be named after Charles ‘Lucky Lindy’ Lindbergh, one of the 20th century’s most prominent racists. And above all, the incredible, overpowering, whiteness of Finetime.

 

Doctor Who - S1 - Dot and Bubble,Lindy (CALLIE COOKE), BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Photo by James Pardon
The whole white world of Finetime, BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Photo by James Pardon

The unconscious bias Dot and Bubble uncovers underlines the importance of representation in clever and thoughtful way

It’s this last which forces some viewers to confront an unconscious bias they didn’t even realize they had. How could we possibly have missed that? Is it because of being raised in decades when television, and Doctor Who, was incredibly white? Is it because when told these are the entitled, bratty, children of future 1%ers and this fits our impression of what wealth and power looks like? Or perhaps it’s because Finetime seems such an LGBT+ inclusive space, that part of our minds forgets that it’s possible to be progressive in some ways, yet utterly hateful in others?

Whether any individual viewer picked up on the clues or not, it speaks more to the importance of consciously championing representation in front of and behind cameras.

But the episode’s satire makes even deeper cuts than that. It doesn’t use its commentary on social media and classism as a disguise for its discourse on racism. Rather, it recognizes that they’re all the same thing. The highest levels of racist and anti-immigrant sentiment are almost invariably found in communities where they rarely even meet minorities. Meanwhile, the algorithmic bias in many social media platforms is a major factor in modern radicalization. The ever sliding squares of white faces in the Bubble is not far off many white teens’ For You Page.

 

The heroic Ricky September. Tellingly, we WANT to believe he's not as racist as the others. (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf Doctor Who Dot and Bubble. Ricky stands in a dirty metal corridor, looking over his shoulder as he enters numbers in a keypad.
The heroic Ricky September. Tellingly, we WANT to believe he’s not as racist as the others. (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf

Davies script draws a straight line from “Kindness every day!” to “That’s voodoo!”

Davies also subtly attack the ‘nice person’ defence. Many of us will have been in conversations where someone insists a comment or action couldn’t be racist because they’re “a nice person.” Therefore, not a racist. Therefore nothing they say or do could be racist either. QED. But the real world is full of people who always have a cheery smile and a bright “good morning” on their lips when pass by in the street, always giving back that borrowed lawnmower promptly, and always make sure to bring a nice bottle of wine when they come round for dinner. And when they borrow a jerry can to help get that cross on your neighbour’s lawn burning good and hot, they always make sure to refill it before bringing it back.

But at the end of the day, that type of nice? It’s not worth the scented Thank You card it’s written on.

The Coochie Pie who trills “Kindness every day!” at the start of the episode is the same woman who spits “That, sir, is voodoo!” at the end. There is no disconnect.

Dot and Bubble even tests the audience with the character of Ricky September. He’s the only person we meet in Finetime not caught up in the insipid self-absorption of the Bubble. He’s brave, heroic, smart, caring and hot. Ricky’s also the only Finetimer we spend any time with we don’t know for certain is a white supremacist. But that room for doubt seems perfectly deliberate. It creates a space to illustrate in real time how far viewers will go to make excuses for a character they happen to like. Even though, on all the evidence, he very probably chose to make this supreme gated community his home for the same reason as the others.

 

The Doctor and Ruby slowly realize why Lindy won't accept their help in Dot and Bubble (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf Doctor Who . The Doctor and Ruby stand on one side, facing Lindy on the other. Lindy looks smug and disdainful, the Doctor looks surprised but sad, and Ruby looks like she can't believe what she's hearing.
The Doctor and Ruby slowly realize why Lindy won’t accept their help in Dot and Bubble (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf

Ncuti Gatwa’s first filmed scene of his era shows exactly why he’s perfect for the role

If the episode belongs to Callie Cooke as Lindy, that than final scene belongs to Ncuti Gatwa. It’s testament again to the tremendous belief Russell T Davies has shown in his new cast this season. From Millie Gibson being thrown into the deep end of a Doctor-lite, Companion-centred story last week, to handing Ncuti Gatwa this emotionally powerful moment as his first day on set for his era.

But is so much more than just emotionally charged. It’s a scene that demonstrates Davies’ near perfect understanding of the Doctor as a character and lets Gatwa embody that with ever atom of his existence. The Doctor’s bewilderment at why they won’t come with him to a new world gives way quickly to frustration at their self-destructive ignorance and malice. But he’s not raging at them for being bigots. “Think what you like,” he pleads as he practically begs for permission to save their lives. His wounded howl comes from the same places as his desire to save everyone. He knows too well that choosing how deserves to live or die makes you a monster. But his pain at being able to save worlds from Cybermen, Daleks, and even giant man-eating slugs but not from their own hate is like a raw nerve being struck.

 

The Doctor tries to get the Finetimers to let him save their lives (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf. Doctor Who. The Doctor stands, hands extended, eyes fixed, in an impassioned speech. Behind him Ruby looks sad and hurt.
The Doctor tries to get the Finetimers to let him save their lives (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf

The Doctor’s final speech exposes the hero’s hearts and what makes him different from so many other lead characters

More than that, it’s a timely reminder to the audience of a fundamental truth of Doctor Who. The Doctor’s a better man that us. We love him for wanting to save them, even as Ruby looks stricken behind him, knowing that he’ll fail, and knowing how much that will hurt him. Even as we, like Ruby, can’t help but feel that these people unsalvageable, or even not worth saving.

Because that’s the Doctor. Every last bone of him. Every last cell.

 

 

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. If Ricky had survived, I think he’d have readily accepted the Doctor’s invitation to join him and Ruby in the TARDIS. I got the impression that taking time out of the bubble to do some reading had given him a more expanded understanding of the world than all the others. His reasons for going to Finetime in the first place could’ve been down to his parents’ wishes, as they believed that associating with other privileged white youngsters would teach him how to “fit in” …

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