Doctor Who, episode 7 review: a properly scary baddie comes to town – after acres of bloated plot

Millie Gibson, Ncuti Gatwa and Bonnie Langford in BBC One's Doctor Who
Millie Gibson, Ncuti Gatwa and Bonnie Langford in BBC One's Doctor Who - Sophie Mutevelian/BBC

A lesson we can all learn in this age of is be careful when you look into your past. You never know what you might dig up. In the case of Doctor Who (BBC One), the first part of the series finale started out as a teary-eyed excursion into the lineage of the Doctor’s new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) but soon went spectacularly wrong.

It lead to a genuinely freaky, mummy-I-can’t-sleep ending, as everyone started turning into variations on Skeletor from He-Man and, finally, the very god of death himself made a memorable entrance (in the guise of a massive, flame-eyed, Psychotic Paw Patrol hellhound).

Unfortunately, the big reveal didn’t compensate for the previous 45 minutes. Up until then, The Legend of Ruby Sunday was a classic example of Doctor Who going Doctor Huh?

The set-up was standard A-plot – the mystery of Ruby’s parentage – meets B-plot – the mystery of Susan Triad (Susan Twist), the Musk-y tech messiah who happens to share a face with the middle-aged woman that the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) has been repeatedly seeing. The two seemingly disparate plots were then brought together, in the eventual reveal of Sutekh, a proper Top Trump Beelzebub who first cropped up in the Tom Baker years.

Alexander Devrient, Ncuti Gatwa and Lenny Rush
Alexander Devrient, Ncuti Gatwa and Lenny Rush - Alistair Heap/BBC

The way those plots were yoked together, however, was cumbersome in the extreme, as the episode lost all forward momentum in a sea of abstractions: the search for Ruby’s mother hinged on a VHS tape, which UNIT then ran through their “Time Window”, which itself was a form of holographic image creation… which then received further analysis by people looking at images on screens. When an amorphous dust cloud representing the big bad thing appeared on this image-within-an-image, it was just so many pixels, devoid of all menace. In fact, most of the episode was dark interiors, rooms without windows filled with a surfeit of supporting cast (Bonnie Langford, Lenny Rush, Michelle Greenidge, Anita Dobson, Yasmin Finney) who were all barely used. It reminded you most of a TV studio full of actors. Which, of course, it was.

This penultimate episode struck me as a prime example of untrammelled auteur syndrome – who in the Whoniverse would have the heft or courage to say to writer Russell T Davies, the bona fide genius who resurrected the whole franchise in the first place, and who wrote The Legend of Ruby Tuesday, “Sorry Big Man, but on this occasion what we have here 
is total plot Viennetta?” As a result, the longueurs, the wool-gathering and the people looking scared at things that aren’t there on screens stayed in the picture.

Episode seven of Doctor Who is available now on BBC iPlayer and Disney+ and will air on BBC One on Saturday 15 June at 6.30pm