A fan favorite returns, as the Doctor makes a jaw-dropping discovery about herself.

You’d be forgiven for expecting “Fugitive of the Judoon” to be just another alien-of-the-week adventure. At first, this mid-season episode seems like standard Doctor Who fare, as the Doctor and her companions race to outsmart the militaristic alien rhinos who’ve descended on 21st-century Gloucester, searching for an interstellar criminal. Instead, writers Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall delivered one of Jodie Whittaker’s best episodes yet, a jaw-dropping spectacle that upends decades of Who history.

We first met the Judoon back in the 2007 Tenth Doctor episode “Smith and Jones,” which also introduced the brilliant med student (and criminally underrated companion) Martha. And the first few moments of “Fugitive of the Judoon” feel like a rehash: Once again, we learn that the Judoon are the galaxy’s trigger-happy police-for-hire, mercenaries you recruit when you need to track down a target — civilian casualties be damned. It all feels familiar as the Judoon set their sights on Gloucester, scanning and cataloging human residents as they search for their non-human prey. (Tragically, this time they don’t transport the city to the neutral territory of the moon, but we do still get some rhyming one-liners like “Look at you and your platoon of Judoon near that lagoon.”)

Mandip Gill as Yaz, Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, Tosin Cole as Ryan, Jo Martin as Ruth Clayton, Neil Stuke as Lee Clayton – Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 5 – Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America
| Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

Caught up in the Judoon’s search is Gloucester resident and local tour guide Ruth Clayton (Jo Martin), who’s celebrating her 44th birthday. She’s married to Lee (Neil Stuke), and together, they seem like your ordinary middle-aged couple, living a quiet life. But this is Doctor Who, and it soon becomes clear that Lee may know more than he’s letting on about the Judoon and their…

Wait, where’d Graham go? And is that…?

And so the episode delivers its first twist: the return of Captain Jack Harkness. John Barrowman’s flirtatious time traveler has been a fan favorite ever since he first encountered the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler back in the first season of the reboot, and he later starred in several Tenth Doctor episodes and headlined his own spinoff show Torchwood. Barrowman hasn’t been shy about his hopes for the character’s return, and here, he finally gets his wish, as the Captain plucks Graham out of thin air, thinking he’s the Doctor and planting a looooooong reunion kiss on his lips. (So yeah, Jack hasn’t changed a bit.)

His return is short-lived, however, and he leaves Graham, Yaz, and Ryan with a message for the Doctor. (He’s stolen a ship, and the ship’s nanobots are attacking him — a fun callback to Jack’s first appearance in “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances.”) Jack’s warning to the Doctor is to “beware the lone Cyberman.” A teaser trailer previously revealed that this season will see the return of the Doctor’s metallic foes, and Jack’s parting words suggest that it’ll be a doozy. (Whether he’s Captain Jack or the giant floating Face of Boe, dude sure loves to deliver a cryptic message. As the Tenth Doctor would put it, “That is textbook enigmatic.”)

As for the Doctor herself, she’s still trying to unravel the mystery of Ruth. Lee sacrifices himself so that Ruth can escape, sending her a text message that allows her to take out an entire squadron of Judoon, much to the Doctor’s shock. Ruth retraces her steps to the lighthouse where she supposedly grew up, and there, the Doctor uncovers the episode’s final, most devastating twist: Ruth herself is another version of the Doctor.

Our Doctor doesn’t believe it at first, but a sonic screwdriver scan and Ruth’s buried TARDIS confirm that yes, Ruth isn’t just a Timelord but she’s our Timelord. And as Ruth comes swaggering out of the lighthouse, her memory and biology restored, she feels immediately Doctor-ish. She’s colder than Thirteen, and she immediately pokes fun at our Doctor’s sunny disposition and rainbow wardrobe, but there’s something familiar about her. Even the inside of her TARDIS feels like home, and the sterile white interior calls to mind William Hartnell’s original control room.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the Ruth revelation is that it casts the Doctor as a black woman, a historic move for the 57-year-old show. Whittaker’s casting made headlines as the first woman to take on the Doctor’s mantle but depending on when Ruth’s regeneration fits into the Doctor’s timeline, we may learn that the Doctor was a woman of color long before Whittaker even stepped on to the TARDIS. It’s always exhilarating when two Doctors meet, whether that’s Matt Smith bantering with David Tennant or Jon Pertwee, William Hartnell, and Patrick Troughton first crossing paths — but there’s something especially moving about seeing two women do the same.

The show has played with the Doctor’s regeneration chronology before, most obviously when the 50th anniversary special revealed that John Hurt’s “War Doctor” existed between the Eighth and Ninth. But the Ruth bombshell — I’m going to keep calling this new Doctor Ruth, just for clarity’s sake — is something new. Neither Ruth nor our Doctor recognize each other, which suggests that Ruth is neither an earlier regeneration or one to come. Instead, it seems like she’s something else. Some have speculated that Ruth might be a forgotten pre-William Hartnell version of the Doctor, a Doctor before the First. I’m not sure that would make sense, especially since we know the TARDIS got stuck as a blue British police box during the First Doctor’s run, and Ruth’s TARDIS has that familiar blue hue. My shot-in-the-dark prediction is some alternate-universe shenanigans: After all, our Doctor learns that Ruth is being hunted by Gallifrey, led by a Timelord named Gat (Ritu Arya). Both Gat and Ruth are shocked to learn that in the Doctor’s timeline, Gallifrey has gone up in flames, which to me suggests that timelines have been crossed or universes smooshed together. Remember in “Spyfall,” when we learned that the Kasaavin are from another realm? Between that and the Master’s cryptic message about the “Timeless Child,” it’s clear that there’s still a lot to uncover about the Doctor’s past and future.

Even with all the guest stars and new revelations, “Fugitive of the Judoon” still manages to be a Whittaker showcase. Whittaker has always imbued her Doctor with a sense of childlike glee and wonder, but here, she’s almost a sullen teenager as she mopes about the TARDIS, obsessing over Gallifrey and the Master. She’s at times angry, frustrated, and insecure, and although she’s been so good at hiding it, you can still see the weight of the centuries hanging on her shoulders. Whittaker’s acting has consistently been the best part of this recent run, and it’s a joy to see her finally get the material she deserves.

I’m a little hesitant to pass final judgment on this episode, especially since so much of it serves to set up things to come. The true test of its quality will be whether Chibnall and the writers stick the landing and if Ruth, the Timeless Child, and the Master manage to coalesce into a satisfying conclusion. But after the Thirteenth Doctor’s largely underwhelming first season, it’s a thrill to discover that there are still a few surprises hidden aboard the TARDIS. With “Fugitive of the Judoon,” Chibnall feels like he’s trying to merge the best parts of his predecessors: the wild, relationship-centric space adventures of Russell T. Davies and the big, shoot-for-the-moon plot twists of Steven Moffat. It remains to be seen whether he can take those elements and transform them into something all his own, but for the first time in a while, I genuinely don’t know where the TARDIS will go next — and I can’t wait to find out.

TARDIS log notes:

  • There are a loooooot of callbacks and references in this episode. We’ve got the Judoon! We’ve got Jack! We’ve got references to Gallifrey and the Master! We’ve got chameleon arches, which allow Timelords to rewrite their biology and appear human! It’s pure catnip for Whovian nerds like me, but it’s a definite shift after last season, which billed itself as a reset for the show. If Chibnall’s first season kept the decades of Doctor Who lore at arm’s length, this season is diving in headfirst. I’m curious whether new fans will find this episode as powerful as we old-timers do.
  • EW’s resident Who expert Clark Collis recently spoke to Whittaker, and she told him that yes, she’s definitely returning for at least one more season. So whatever happens with the Ruth plotline, it’s good to know we haven’t seen the last of our Thirteenth Doctor.

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