The writers seem to be going out of their way to establish both their sci-fi and Whovian credentials, and I don’t mind one bit. This week was a fast-packed action adventure that riffed off Alien, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Hunger Games, Firefly/Serenity, Call of Duty, and probably half a dozen other things I didn’t notice.
I am in geeky glee. Squee, as we would have called it in the naughties.
We start off with our heroes being scooped up from the vacuum of space, just as the Heart of Gold rescues Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent after they are expelled from an airlock in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. The Doctor’s companions emerge from medical pods reminiscent of the cryo-stasis pods shown at the beginning of Alien. A strong link? No, but coupled together with the plethora of other sci-fi references, I’m sure it is intentional.
The companions are split between two space ships that are in a race. The Race. The last Race. And the pilots of those space ships are the last survivors of this very dangerous inter-planetary quest. One of the ships is clearly a piece of junk, owned by a taciturn fellow who swears that it is the best ship in the galaxy. There are definite notes of Millennium Falcon as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Yas (Mandip Gill) lift panels in the floor to try to fix this hunk of junk. As it goes in for a crash landing I get definite notes of the Serenity, the spaceship from Firefly… and the film Serenity. It’s not one simple reference, but an appeal to a trope of dodgy space-faring misanthropes and the ships they love. The appeal to the archetype will warm the hearts of older fans and introduce it to new ones.
Meanwhile, the pilot of the other ship is striking a definite Fury Road chord. In this shot the goggles and wild hair and dirt-smeared bandana combined with the vertical lines drawn by the chains the men behind her are clinging to cannot help but evoke Mad Max and the War Boys, and the presence of a strong female character in this context immediately draws connection between the female pilot, Imperator Furiosa, and the female Doctor. Women are powerful forces in this episode, although it is worth noting that they are again notably out-numbered by men, and the show really needs to address this.
Moving on, we learn the nature of the Race from a holographic projection who performs a similar function to Seneca Crane from The Hunger Games and the Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok. He is richly robed and carefully styled as he directs others to compete to their deaths. Although forbidden to directly kill one another, it’s clear that many have died along the way, and only one person is supposed to make it to ‘The Ghost Monument’ – the end of the race.
Again, the most obvious visual references are to The Hunger Games and Thor: Ragnarok, but this type of premise has a long tradition in science fiction, not just in explicitly violent iterations, such as Battle Royale and The Running Man, but also in perhaps the most direct comparison: The Long Walk, in which competitors simply have to outlast each other in a walking race – none directly killing each other, but all facing the prospect of death from exhuastion. It is worth noting, though, that all these examples are of spectator sports – it’s not obvious that anyone apart from Ilin, the games master, is watching. I think we’re expected to assume that they are, but this could have been more clearly articulated.
We also learn that the monument that marks the end of the race is (this isn’t a spoiler as we learn it very early on) the TARDIS. A little predictable, but it makes for a nice incentive for all our characters to keep going in the same direction.
The episode continues to hit us with visual references, with shoot-outs that reference Call of Duty (hat-tip to @richmondbridge for pointing that out); a green and black computerised map that, again, feels very like the Alien radar blips that track the alien hunting the crew of the Nostromo; and of course, Star Wars – another franchise with a long history that has taken a stand by centring female characters in recent years. It’s hard to see any desert planet and not think of Tatooine, and several moments seem to deliberately call this out, such as the spaceship that cuts a trail across the clear blue sky, which recalls the escape pod that R2D2 and C3PO escape in, and the fact that this desert planet has three suns. Of course, Tatooine has two suns, but it’s close enough that it was inexorably brought to my mind by the context.
There are also several call-backs to previous Doctors – again, establishing the Thirteenth Doctor’s credentials. She uses a Venusian Aikido move (the favoured martial art of the Third Doctor), and has a TARDIS that dispenses biscuits (the Eleventh Doctor famously squared off with a Dalek using only a jammy dodger). I am also fairly sure that the first exterior image we see of the TARDIS directly echoes one of the iconic early shots from either the first or second episode in 1963. I don’t have my copy of those episodes to hand and my GoogleFu has failed me, but I will update if I can confirm.
There’s also a direct call-back in that the words of the Remnants, who seem to see into the Doctor’s mind and mention a Timeless Child that the Doctor has abandoned and others have forgotten. This could either be Susan (the Doctor’s granddaughter and the original Unearthly Child) or Jenny, the Doctor’s child via DNA extraction, who the Tenth Doctor left for dead and we know to have regenerated. Either possibility has me very excited, especially as both are Time Ladies themselves and would be a great addition to this female Doctor Who – again, cementing her roots in Whovian history.
This episode is using the past not just as a reference point, but to drive us forward. It makes me feel like this is a season that is going to be both returning to roots and taking us somewhere new.
The fast-paced chase through ruined cities and desert lands kept me gripped throughout and once again the monsters were suitably scary. I loved the creepy cloth monsters and loved more that the Doctor was able to defeat them with scientific knowledge of the properties of acetylene. She also defeats robot guards with an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) – something she explains to the audience, again sneaking in a little science lesson in just the way I kind of think Doctor Who always should if it possibly can. Getting kids excited about science and history in an action-packed, alien-filled science-fiction plot that somehow involves a lot of running. That’s the Doctor Who I know and love, and a Doctor Who I am very much ready to see more of.
If you like my reviews, please consider buying me a coffee.