Doctor Who- 73 Yards review


People often talk of the flexibility of Doctor Who and while its true to say that the series has always encompassed a variety of storytelling types its much rarer to see it taking an abstract route. Steven Moffat is usually most associated with non-linear temporal storytelling but with `73 Yards`, Russell T Davies shows he can do it just as well.


He manages to mesh Welsh folklore and modern politics in an episode that takes unexpected turns and one pivot after which is becomes clear we are following Ruby through decades. There’s a touch of Black Mirror and the writer’s own Years and Years about the episode yet satisfyingly for a show that is often over keen to explain itself some of the mystery remains just that even after you’ve watched it. It’s an absorbing piece of work that may not satisfy the fans who prefer action and a monster but it contains more than enough atmosphere to compensate.

Eschewing an opening title sequence, presumably to squeeze an extra narrative minute, we open right away with the Tardis arriving atop a picturesque Welsh coastline. All’s well till the Doctor accidently steps on a homespun arrangement of cotton and paper laid out on the ground. When Ruby next turns to look at him he’s not there and that’s the last we see of the Doctor till the very end. Yes, it’s the return of the Doctor lite story though this time not due to the series’ busy schedule but Ncuti Gatwa still finishing off Sex Education at the time. This leaves Millie Gibson to carry the episode which she does with aplomb. The mystery is a woman in the distance who is trying to communicate through hand signals but whenever Ruby moves closer or further away the woman remains at the same distance.  It doesn’t matter what she does the same result occurs. Furthermore whenever she gets anyone to speak to the woman they run away in fear. 

Ruby ends up in one of those small country pubs where everyone turns to look at the door when she enters. Its surprising how this still works. Here with dim lights and old fashion fittings, RTD plays with Welsh folk stereotypes then gleefully undermines them when the locals convince Ruby that she has accidentally awoke the spirit of someone called Mad Jack. This is played deadly seriously by all leading us to believe we’re settled in for a real horror scenario and builds to a moment where there is a heavy knocking on the door before the myth tumbles amusingly. I'm sure some fans might have preferred this plot to have played out for real and watch the pun under siege. I suppose that belongs to another era but I wish they'd had enough time to go with a little bit longer if only because the pub contingent are an interesting bunch as RTD’s supporting characters always are. Plus, one of them is Sian Phillips who, as you would expect, holds the screen imperiously while she’s on. 

Up to this moment I was convinced we were going to see `Midnight` but in a pub! However soon though we’re back in London and a plot that sees everyone Ruby turns to end up disappearing while the mystery woman remains at the same distance which she eventually works out is seventy-three yards. Her mother, Kate Stewart, successive boyfriends come and go as Ruby ages decade by decade still with her unexplained companion tagging along just out of focus. There’s aspects of the Watcher from `Logopolis` here which I’m sure some fans thought about. Is this a future Doctor or something?

The answer- well part of the answer- is something you should see because its one of those moments when the audience collectively goes “Ahhh, of course.” even though nobody had actually thought of it till the reveal. Even then however not every question is answered. So, we never learn exactly how the fairy circle causes the Doctor to vanish or even who put it there. I was sure it must turn out to be Sian Phillips! There’s already been a lot of speculation as to what the mystery woman was gesticulating about and I’d say it was `don’t step on that thing`.

In every scene alongside what turns out to be quite a large cast, Millie Gibson is superb. Natural and unforced she really shows a lot of skills as Ruby must react in different ways to many changing circumstances and she nails each one. Whether confused, angry, upset or determined and lots of other emotions a big part of the reason the episode works so effectively is we’re with her all the way.  It’s rare that a companion is given such a large amount of work – perhaps the closet antecedent is the equally accomplished performance of Catherine Tate’s Donna in `Turn Left`. The direction is excellent as well as Dylan Holmes Williams shifts from the mystical elements earlier on to the broader political ones later. 

It is a tad convenient that in his brief screen time the Doctor mentions the very person who will be pivotal to the entire plot. That person- a Welsh politician of the future called Roger Ap Gwilliam - also seems the least thoroughly written of the central characters. There are hints about his nature and ambitions yet it’s the one time when being less vague would underline why Ruby is taking the course she is. On the other hand, by pure chance the episode runs in the week a General Election is called so it suddenly seems topical to see manifestos and banners.

Oh, and there is Susan Twist again- this time playing a hiker- and for the first time fictional recognition as Ruby wonders if they’ve met before. I’m not buying RTD’s surely tongue in cheek suggestion that Equity was short of actors last year. I know the series has moved into more of a fantasy realm now but that is more unlikely than anything we’ve seen on screen!

I don't do scores out of ten but half way through the season I'd list the episodes in the order I've enjoyed them thusly-

1st Boom
2nd 73 Yards
3rd The Devil's Chord
4th Space Babies 


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