Doctor Who – “Wild Blue Yonder”
Doctor Who continues the 60th-anniversary celebration with an unexpected trip to a mysterious ship that presents a personal challenge for the Doctor and Donna.
Horror is a genre that Doctor Who frequently dabbles in. It began life as family entertainment so dreaming up something to scare the kids became one of the show’s pillars very quickly Six decades later it’s still a family show that tries to frighten the viewers. Previous examples like “Blink” took something people see every day and turned it into a terrifying threat and this episode makes the terror more primal and personal while also presenting something unique and complex for viewers to mull over.
As with so many Doctor Who episodes, the Doctor and their companion find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings without access to the TARDIS until the situation is resolved, an extra layer of fear is added by the TARDIS running away from what awaits them. Of course, the TARDIS will return and the episode doesn’t pretend that being stranded is even a possibility as the Doctor remarks that when there’s no danger, the TARDIS will return. This clearly outlines what the Doctor and Donna have to achieve in order to get on their way again so in a sense they are stranded as they can’t simply run away from the problem, not that they ever would.
Doctor Who episodes are often mysteries where the characters find themselves somewhere and have to understand the rules of their surroundings. In this case, they’re on a massive ship devoid of life running on low power that periodically reconfigures itself. Further investigation reveals that the ship is at the very edge of the universe with literal nothingness ahead of it. The Doctor takes a moment to address the sheer enormity of what he’s witnessing while pointing out that he can comprehend it because Time Lords are far more advanced than Humans and are able to wrap their heads around nothingness as a concept. He makes it clear it’s not an insult to say that Donna can’t conceive of nothingness, it’s simply a statement of fact due to Humanity’s level of understanding in the time that she’s from. Donna represents the viewers as they also can’t truly understand what that actually means. It’s a strong brief summation of how alien the Doctor is.
Despite being able to comprehend, it’s still beyond anything he’s seen. He has never been out this far and is visibly humbled by what’s in front of him. It’s the first example in the episode of the Doctor acting like he has seen and knows everything before shattering that perception. It’s a sign of the Doctor currently feeling very introspective after regenerating into an old face and not knowing why that is. He has an understandably strong need to know and understand himself as he feels uncomfortable in his own skin. Presenting him with a threat that mirrors him almost precisely is an excellent manifestation of his current emotional state. As he tries to know himself, a strange entity is working to know him at the same time and the entity reaching that understanding will destroy him. It’s the personification of his current existential crisis as if he ever gets the answers he’s looking for they may not lead to a positive outcome.
Some of this is presented comedically. The Doctor casually remarks that he freely admits that he doesn’t know everything and the copy points out that he’s always making things up. This comes during an exchange where the Doctor and Donna are trying to figure out whether they’re dealing with a copy so it’s built on how convincing the copies are. Even though the admission that the Doctor always makes things up comes from the copy, it’s accurate because it’s something the copy has learned about him and Donna isn’t certain she’s dealing with the real Doctor after hearing it so the accuracy of the statement isn’t in doubt. It doubles as an amusing exchange trying to root out an imposter and an exploration of the fundamental traits of both characters. One of Russell T. Davies’ strengths as a writer is keeping character at the heart of everything so that there’s always a reason to invest in the story as everything relates back to the people experiencing it.
The conversation the Doctor has with what turns out to be the fake Donna is very interesting as it forces the Doctor to open up about something uncomfortable to admit. Fake Donna references the fact that he actually has no idea where he’s from and has recently dealt with the Flux. One thing he’s struggling to process is that half of the universe was wiped out because of him and that he continues running because he sees no other option. This stands out for several reasons; chief among them is David Tennant’s raw and pained performance showing how impacted the Doctor is by the events of “Flux“.
He is a man in pain bouncing from one crisis situation to the next without being able to properly process everything that’s happened to him. His outburst suggests that not processing it is a conscious choice but his willingness to talk about it shows that he feels the need to deal with it. The fourteenth Doctor being more emotionally honest and expressive was introduced in the previous episode when he was so open with Shirley so it’s good to see that continued here and solidified as a defining trait for David Tennant’s second Doctor. It’s a measurable difference from the tenth Doctor and allows for moments like this.
Referencing “Flux” and the Doctor’s currently unknown origins acknowledges the previous era of the show under Chris Chibnall and shows that Russell T. Davies respects those who ran the show between his two stewardships. Indeed, “Wild Blue Yonder” is stylistically a lot like something Steven Moffat would write so there are many indications of respecting what came before. Regardless of the prevailing reaction to elements introduced by Chris Chibnall, Russell T Davies acknowledges them as part of the mythology and folds them into his narrative in his own way. In this case, he focuses on how this makes the Doctor feel and how those feelings inform his actions. It adds weight and potency to “The Timeless Child” idea and “Flux” because both have rocked the Doctor to his core.
Blurting out his feelings about it to Fake Donna seems to encourage him to open up further. Towards the end of the episode, he asks Donna how much she remembers from when she was the DoctorDonna and she tells him that she chooses not to access that part of her brain because doing so is difficult and painful. The entity duplicating her had no such trouble so freely made use of the information but Donna as a Human can’t go near it. The Doctor seems to be looking to replicate and expand the conversation he had with the duplicate with the real Donna so that she can be a friend and support him as he tries to deal with it. When he learns that she is unable to access that information he retreats into himself again and changes the subject. Donna presses him and asks what happened in the intervening years which is met with nothing more than “a lot” and the defeated admission that it will take him a million years to be ok again. The Doctor doesn’t see a way out of his current emotional state but he is very eager to discuss it with someone who can understand.
Donna’s focus is on her family and getting back to them but she also cares deeply about the wellbeing of the Doctor because he’s her friend and she wants to do everything she can to help. The above-mentioned comedic exchange has her go into the circumstances of her birth and that it allowed a lifetime of her mother saying she “was a problem from day one”. Sylvia was characterised as a less than supportive parent who viewed Donna as a constant source of disappointment and Donna telling this story shows how deeply affected she is by the way her mother treated her. Being able to understand and articulate that shows how positive an influence travelling with the Doctor has been on her life. Having her memories restored seems to make her feel more complete and allows her to believe that she has immense potential.
This comes into play in another exchange built around rooting out the imposters. The Doctor states that she thinks she’s both stupid and brilliant. This is an obvious contradiction and ends up being the distinction between real and fake as such a contradiction doesn’t make logical sense. It’s a good summation of Donna as a character as her self-confidence was a persistent issue for her when she travelled with the Doctor. He would constantly tell her how great she was while she would talk about being unimportant. She would also constantly display immense confidence when standing up for what she thought was right or calling someone out on behaviour she deemed unacceptable so not having confidence in herself while conducting herself with unswerving conviction was a constant fixture of the character that continues to this day. It’s excellent consistency and expertly weaved into the situation at play.
There are other strong character moments such as when the entities first appear and talk to the Doctor and Donna. Both talk about wondering what happens -or would happen in Donna’s case- when they’re not there. The Doctor speculates about where the TARDIS goes when separated from him and imagines an entire civilisation living and dying with the TARDIS at its centre. He sees it as a fixed point that doesn’t change while a civilisation rises and falls around it. It’s a poignant account of how insignificant the passage of time is to a time traveller while being enormous to those who live each day as it comes. This also indicates that loss and destruction are on his mind while also highlighting how he feels about the TARDIS. It’s the one fixed point in his life that has never let him down and it’s something he greatly appreciates.
Donna wonders what her family will do if she never returns. She imagines Rose getting on with her life but returning to the alley once a year to pay her respects while Shaun never gets over the loss and goes to the alley every day in the hope that Donna will return. This and what the Doctor imagines feed into the constantly explored notion of collateral damage that modern Doctor Who has made part of its DNA. The Doctor impacts everywhere he goes and everyone he meets in ways they often can’t come back from. The Doctor understands this as evidenced by his talking about the TARDIS being worshipped by primitive people who happen to stumble across it. Donna talks about her entire family mourning her loss. The show constantly interrogates whether the Doctor is doing more harm than good travelling the way he does and there is yet to be a definitive answer to that question.
The entities that threaten the Doctor and Donna are conceptually excellent. Formless beings coming from the nothingness beyond the universe and working to understand existence by copying those they encounter is a brilliant sci-fi idea. The Doctor sets them up as being beyond Human understanding early in the episode which allows that air of mystery to surround them right up until the end. Touches like having trouble with the length of limbs and not understanding that discarded clothing continues to exist when not worn are excellent. Having them be a mirror of the Doctor and Donna that forces them to understand both themselves and each other creates a strong personal problem to carry the episode and is deployed wonderfully.
Unfortunately, the episode falters somewhat in its resolution. Up until that point, the pacing was deliberate and helped build an excellent mood and atmosphere. By contrast, the resolution was swift and messy with the Doctor putting the pieces together far too quickly. The shift to a rapid pace as the self-destruct countdown nears its end and the Doctor’s duplicate gallops down the hall to stop it is jarring. The TARDIS returning when it did was also an unearned contrivance adding to the confused nature of the climax.
A more fitting end to this story would have been the TARDIS returning and rejecting the duplicates as it would have tied into the theme of knowing yourself and those close to you while also providing a practical example of the connection between the Doctor and the TARDIS. The episode seemed to be building to the TARDIS reciprocating the affection the Doctor has towards it so it’s especially disappointing that there was no payoff to the setup. The actual conclusion to the situation was a muddled blockbuster scenario that didn’t fit the rest of the episode. It is a minor bump in what was otherwise a powerful and tense character-driven episode that acts as a shining example of the variety of stories Doctor Who can deliver.
A powerful and tense character-driven episode that acts as a shining example of the variety of stories Doctor Who can deliver.
- excellent mood and atmosphere
- highlighting the existential enormity of nothingness
- the Doctor being forced to confront uncomfortable truths about himself
- David Tennant’s performance when the Doctor talks about how the events of “Flux” have impacted him
- the Doctor’s excellent introspection as he struggles to come to terms with who he is
- Donna articulating how deeply impacted she is by her mother’s treatment of her
- consistent characterisation and making their growth part of the narrative
- the Doctor and Donna’s speculation about what might happen when they aren’t around
- the entities being an excellent sci-fi concept used brilliantly
- a muddled and messy blockbuster climax
- not capitalising on the setup of the Doctor’s connection to the TARDIS
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