The most traditional Doctor Who this season brings together Gatwa and Gibson’s superb comic sensibilities with a gripping love story and a commentary on toxic fans

 

The core problem with this season of Doctor Who has never been clearer than after a week of re-watching Rogue for this Second Sight review. It’s just too damn short. Not just because these seven weeks have gone by far too fast, either. Ever previous season has had a few episodes that stretch the show’s format in new and interesting ways, like Devil’s Chord and Boom. There’s also always been the one that’s creepier and stranger than normal like 73 Yards, and, usually in the premiere slot, something like Space Babies that’s funnier and sillier than usual. Meanwhile, the finale is a massive high stakes blockbuster movie, and there’s often one that dances around the Doctor’s unavailability in a compelling way, like Dot and Bubble and, again, 73 Yards.

However, the shorter season means that as great as they all are individually they’re rather cramped together. In particular, it’s left little space for the sort of story where the Doctor and Ruby just run around having adventures and enjoying each other company. The sort of episode that helps us get to know them better.

Rogue is the first time this year that you might call a ‘traditional’ Doctor Who story, in so far as that exists. It’s a lovely slice of comfort Who. Moreover, it’s such a breath of fresh air to see our leads for the first time as good friends, hanging out, having a laugh, a dance, and a good time. And running from monsters. Always, the running from monsters.

 

Honey, they're just here for fun. The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) & Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON), show off their comedic skills in their lightest and most fun outing yet. BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon Doctor Who Rogue. The Doctor leans in towards Ruby as they both look off across the ballroom. They're both in regency clothes surrounded by the other guests, and making thoughful "Hmmm" expressions
Honey, they’re just here for fun. The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) & Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON), show off their comedic skills in their lightest and most fun outing yet. BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon

Ncuti Gatwa cements his position among the great Doctors with a performance dancing from witty quipping to thundering anger to heartbreak

There’s an easy-going fun to the pair’s visit to Regency era England to indulge Ruby’s Bridgerton obsession. It’s our first real opportunity, too, to appreciate what fine comic actors Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson are. Gibson in particular is massively entertaining. Every facial expression as she moves through the story, throwing shade at bad boy dandies, eavesdropping on the hottest gossip, or realizing she’s in the grips of a killer alien bird, is meme worthy. Probably more than any other this season, Rogue will surely be the episode that launched a thousand reaction gifs.

Gatwa isn’t far behind her, either. He oozes charisma as he flirts and dances, smoulders with deliberately ironic intensity, engages in lively mocking banter, and competitively compares the size of his spaceship. “Honey, I’m here for fun,” he tells the eponymous Rogue. For most of the episode, he’s certainly having plenty of fun. He displays that key element of many of the best Doctors, too, with his mercurial ability to flip a switch in his performance. The Doctor laughs and dances to Kylie Minogue and then seconds later delivers a heroic speech, as holograms of all his past faces (and, cheekily, the Shalka Doctor) dance around him.

Yet, there’s absolutely no contradiction. Gatwa makes this the same man, whether fanboying over cotillions, embodying the Oncoming Storm, or having his hearts broken by tragedy. More, even while bringing his own confidence, even – whisper it – sexiness to the Doctor, this is also undoubtedly the same person who has giddy over meeting Charles Dickens, stared sadly at Reinette’s letter swearing he’s “always okay,” and told Me how dangerous the universe can be when the Doctor is angry at you.

 

Eavesdropping, scandal, and bad boy Lords, as Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON), says, it's all so Bridgerton! BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon. Ruby peeks between the shelves of a bookcase in a wood paneled room.
Eavesdropping, scandal, and bad boy Lords, as Ruby (MILLIE GIBSON), says, it’s all so Bridgerton! BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon

The Doctor Who/Bridgerton fusion is perfectly judged, delivering all the key elements from both shows viewers expect

At first glance this sparkling adventure might conceal just what a clever and precise bit of narrative machinery this is from first Doctor Who from writing team Kate Herron and Briony Redman.If this is comfortably familiar Who then it’s with purpose. Rogue presents itself as the Doctor Who invasion of Bridgerton, but a successful mash-up must contain all the key elements you expect from each.

So Herron and Redman give us the owl faced Chuldur, sourced from the same imagination factory as the rhino headed Judoon, feline Cat-Nuns and canine Lopari. They also centre their story around the Doctor falling suddenly and dramatically for someone before the inevitable tragedy and stoic moving on. In doing so they again call to mind past adventures, taking a flirtatious, charming, but morally grey space/time adventurer as a doomed love interest (Silence in the Library) and placing them in a historical setting of ballgowns, dancing, and monsters playing dress-up (The Girl in the Fireplace).

That ensures the Doctor Who side of this simultaneous equation is suitably balanced against the Bridgerton elements, which are no less less observed. These 19th century dances are done to 20th and 21st numbers beautifully reimagined as classical pieces, Billie Eilish and Lady Gaga by way of Rossini. Rakish lords seduce young ladies of uncertain prospects by firelight, and duchesses sweep through majestically, stealing scenes as easily as they throw poisoned barbs of wit into their unsuspecting prey. It’s all, as Ruby says, “so Bridgerton.”

 

Chuldur, BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon Doctor Who Rogue. The Chuldur leader pulls open the ballroom doors dramatically, her bird like face filled with malice and pleasure, two of the other owl-aliens flanking her, all in regency clothes.
Indira Varma’s Duchess leads the Chuldur, the ultimate toxic fans who don’t know how to love something without destroying it, BBC STUDIOS 2023,James Pardon

The Doctor and Ruby and the Chuldur illustrate different sides of fan-worship, those who let themselves get caught up in the fun, and those compelled to control and destroy the thing they love

There’s yet another layer to peel back, though. Because the use of Bridgerton as a touchstone isn’t just about updating from the traditional Jane Austen cliches for Generation Netflix. It’s vital to providing a contrast and comparison between the Chuldur and the Doctor and Ruby and make a point about toxic fandoms. Fundamentally, both groups have come to Bath in 1813 for the same reason. They’re Bridgerton fans who want to cosplay that world.

But the Doctor and Ruby are happy to embrace it and live in it. They dress in the beautiful clothes, trade quips with Lord Stilton the difficult cheese, watch scandalous liaisons from behind a bookcase, and sweep across the ballroom. The whole time they’re giddy with the joy of it. Unlike them, the Chuldur, led by the insanely brilliant Indira Varma, don’t know how to love something without destroying it. They’re not content to be guests at someone else’s ball, they have to take over, make everyone else dance to their tune, and ultimately burn it all down. Then they just move on to the next thing they’re going to love to death.

Co-writer Kate Herron surely knows her own share of real life Chuldur as Executive Producer of Marvel’s Loki series starring Tom Hiddleston. In these months of the first Black man as the Doctor and Star Wars: The Acolyte both hitting Disney+, the owl-monsters certainly seem out in force. They’re trying to burn down whole universes for the crime of not being targeted uniquely, and exclusively, at them and them alone. But with them impotent except for review bombs and angry reaction faces, the smart money’s still on the Doctor and Osha.

 

Rogue (JONATHAN GROFF) & The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) ,BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon Doctor Who. Rogue goes down on one knee, holding up a ring to the Doctor as they both stand in the middle of the ballroom, the onlookers shocked
Rogue (JONATHAN GROFF) & The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) ,BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon

Boy meets boy. Boys accuse each other of being murderous owl-monsters. Boy dances with boy. Boy loses boy to the interdimensional void. It’s the age old story.

It’s appropriate then to feature these ultimate toxic fans alongside the Doctor’s first on-screen romantic gay kiss. There may be an element of devilish mischief making, poking the owls for fun, but it’s so much more. So let’s concentrate on the vast majority who thrilled at the bittersweet kiss between the Time Lord and Rogue. Or even those who threw up their hands to say “Finally!” after years of the Doctor and Yaz’s romance never quite going anywhere.

These moments, though rare, are far from new with the Time Lord snogging their way through time and space since 1996. It’s not even the first time they’ve locked lips with another man. Though the key difference is that when Captain Jack kissed him goodbye in The Parting of the Ways, it was a brief moment he meets with bemusement. Here they, he responds to Rogue’s kiss with passion, fireworks, and above all, tears. If nothing else, comparing the two kisses is a sign of just how far we’ve come since 2005.

But none of this high drama of the Doctor’s whirlwind romance and tragedy would work without the right man to look great in Rogue’s jacket. Casting Jonathan Groff is a real masterstroke. In his career he’s given us everything from the maddest of mad King Georges in Hamilton, a troubled FBI profiler in Mindhunter, and even an animated hunk with a heart of gold in Frozen.

 

Rogue (Jonathan Groff) (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf Doctor Who. Rogue leans on the lit up display control table of his spaceship, looking directly at us. wearing his regency clothes.
Rogue (Jonathan Groff) (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf

Broadway star Jonathan Groff imbues his space-age Mr. Darcy with a soulful humanity beneath the studied brooding

Rogue has a superficial similarity to Jack Harkness, particularly to Russell T Davies’ original “Captain Jax,” the time-travelling bounty hunter in the brief for what Steven Moffat would turn into The Empty Child. But Jack is arrogant, smooth, and rarely lets deeper emotions get in the way of business or pleasure. Rogue is far more like a blaster totting Mr. Darcy. He’s socially awkward, introspective, bad at expressing himself, and easily embarrassed. The idea of exposing himself to the scrutiny of a crowd by actually dancing rather than brooding from the sidelines, fills him with dread. In another parallel, Rogue is rather prone to snap judgements, though in Doctor Who style, it’s not the marriage prospects of a young woman he endangers, but the life of the Time Lord he almost throws in an incinerator.

But beneath it all is a deeply soulful man, like Jane Austen’s taciturn hero, he’s open to love the one who shows him he can be more than he thought.

Rogue’s deep brown eyes sell so much of the story, as he moves rapidly though weary detachment, fascination, surprise, and love. For his past, the Doctor has a track record for falling hard and fast. But it’s still remarkable how well Groff sells Rogue as a man willing to throw himself into Hell to save the life of a woman he’s spoken two sentences to, so the man he just kissed for the first time doesn’t feel bad about it.

 

Chuldur Lord Barton (PAUL FORMAN) & Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON),BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon Doctor Who Rogue. The Eagle Owl headed Chuldur, dressed in black and scarlet regency clothes, escorts Ruby, in yellow Regency gown, through the horrified onlookers in the ballroom
Chuldur Lord Barton (PAUL FORMAN) has his owlish eyes set on marrying Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) in Rogue, BBC STUDIOS,James Pardon

Rogue reminds us what breezy fun Doctor Who can be when it gets back to basics while teasing a possible return for a brilliant new addition to the Whoniverse

Rogue provides a delightfully constructed showcase for our two leads to show just what a wonderful Doctor and companion duo they are. In the titular bounty hunter it provides a fine new stone in the wall of the Doctor’s broken hearts. It’s sure to leave a life beyond the usual Whoniverse, too, with Bridgerton fans already flocking to check out the homage their mutuals are raving about.

However, it leaves Blogtor hungry for more. Let’s hope for more breezy adventures next year with the Doctor and Ruby in ‘best friends’ mode. But let’s hope too for more Rogue. “Find me,” he says before he drops into the void. You had better, Doctor…

 

 

The Doctor and Ruby enter the Remembered TARDIS for Tales of the TARDIS Doctor Who. The two stand in the Remembered TARDIS (a mismatch of panels from different eras) while Ruby looking curious and the Doctor annoyed
The Doctor and Ruby enter the Remembered TARDIS for Tales of the TARDIS

The Doctor Who finale story continues in the UK with special episode Tales of the TARDIS on BBC Four at 8pm BST on Thursday.  Meanwhile the final episode of the series proper, Empire of Death, will drop at midnight on Friday, on iPlayer in the UK, and on Disney+ everywhere else except Ireland

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