Doctor Who

Doctor Who: “Dot and Bubble” Breaks His Hearts

Gatwa nails this terrible moment in the episode.
Gatwa nails this terrible moment in the episode. Screencap from Doctor Who: "Dot and Bubble."
“Dot and Bubble,” the fifth episode of this season of Doctor Who, could have been a trite, ham-fisted metaphor for how we spend too much time on our phones. Instead, it was a razor-sharp look at colonialism and racism hidden behind a standard monster-of-the-week tale.

Spoilers Ahead. As always, some trivia in case you want to duck out but don’t want to feel you wasted a click. “The Devil’s Chord” was not the first time The Doctor and a companion have met The Beatles. The Tenth Doctor and Donna also met them. Donna promptly endangered the timeline by asking the Fab Four to sign her CD copy of their greatest hits. The Sixth Doctor has also jammed with them before they made it big.

Back to the episode.

“Dot and Bubble” takes place in a utopian city called Finetime where people literally walk around with a constant bubble of social media on their heads. It’s so immersive that the device tells them which direction to walk in. A citizen named Lindy (Callie Cooke) is interrupted during her two-hour work period by The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby (Millie Gibson). Slowly, they get her to realize that everyone in her city is being eaten alive by giant armored slugs. The rest of the episode is dedicated to getting her vapid, extremely online ass to safety as she does literally everything she can to avoid reality.

At first, Lindy seems like a pretty standard Doctor Who trope guest hero character, the system mouse that rises to the occasion, gets praised by The Doctor at the end, and then leads a more consequential, fulfilling life. It’s only as the episode progresses you realize that she’s more than unconcerned with the world; she’s an active villain.

The revelation is subtle. The Doctor is the only dark-skinned person in the city’s expansive social media network. Lindy initially blocks him without thought, but then listens to the blond, white-skinned Ruby. Halfway through the episode, we learn that Finetime is a place for rich failsons and daughters, the children of the wealthy, to pretend to be adults. They are given nominal jobs so they can justify spending 22 hours a day partying and texting.

Even after learning that the slugs are stalking people, Lindy does not help others while continuing to demand help for herself. The one person who steps up to fight the good fight, she betrays and leaves to die.

And then that ending . . . oh boy.

The Doctor guides a handful of survivors out of the city, where they plan to board a boat and conquer the wild as pioneers. The Doctor instead offers to take them in the Tardis to some place safe. That’s when the entire group turns on him and says he isn’t one of them. One woman even accuses the Tardis of being "voodoo." They will trek on without him, because conquering the planet and upholding the values of Finetime is their divine right.

In the 19th century, there was a guy named Gregor MacGregor, and he pulled off one of the greatest cons in history. Basically, he tricked a bunch of middle-class Victorians into thinking there was a country in South America with cities already pre-built and helpful natives just waiting to serve them. MacGregor sold land titles to the fictional country, and off they went.

When they got there, they realized it was a desolate plot of nothing. However, most of them could not actually carve out a living in the wild. They expected the wild to simply bow to their superior Britishness and civility. The wild and the local tribes did not, and most of the would-be colonialists died.

I thought about this bit of history watching the end of “Dot and Bubble.” The sin at the heart of Finetime is not disconnectedness and social isolation. We’re not watching Revenge of the Zoom Meeting. No, the sin is that when you build an entire civilization around telling thoroughly mediocre people they are stars by virtue of being inherently better than others, they don’t build a good sense of morality.

The realization that these people would rather die than go with him utterly breaks The Doctor. Set to some of the best scoring of Murray Gold’s career, he has a complete meltdown, laughing and then crying. He watches, tears in his eyes, as Lindy stares at him coldly while the boat pulls away. “But I could save you,” he says, almost like he’s convincing himself.

There has been a theme in Gatwa’s Doctor that all the past trauma is behind him now. He’s a new man, leaving The Time War and a billion unsaved lives in the past. This time it will be different, baby! Let his predecessor carry the guilt while he saves the world.

“Dot and Bubble” is the first time his Doctor learns one of the core truths all the previous ones had to face: some people can’t be saved from themselves no matter how kind or charming or right you are. That’s why Daleks still exist. He can lead them out of a city filled with giant slugs, but he can’t lead them out of the mindset that built that city in the first place.

It’s not that the people couldn’t understand why their digital servants rose against them and led them into the jaws of monsters. It’s that they refuse to.

That crushing realization gave Gatwa his finest moment yet as The Doctor. His performance was transcendental. It’s also a warning to us, the audience. Do not mistake malice for ignorance. Lindy got the answers to this test wrong on purpose, and even the Lord of Time can’t change that.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner