Doctor Who

Doctor Who: Ridiculous, Terrifying, Marvelous

The Doctor and Donna get themselves in trouble.
The Doctor and Donna get themselves in trouble. Screenshot from Doctor Who: Wild Blue Yonder
A willingness to be 100 percent ridiculous has defined this era of Doctor Who, and the show is far better for it.

“Wild Blue Yonder” is a classic adventure that calls to mind Tom Baker’s “The Ark in Space” and, to a lesser extent, David Tennant’s own “The Girl in the Fireplace.” The Doctor and Donna (Catherine Tate) land on an abandoned spaceship literally on the edge of the known universe. The Tardis disappears and leaves the two trying to figure out what happened.

The first 15 minutes of the episode are downright dull, save for some incredible set design for the ship and the inherent eeriness of the haunted house-like setting. Tate and Tennant, normally one of the tighter duos in Who history, seem almost to be limply improvising a bad comedy bit. I was ready to declare the adventure a dud until it shifted into horror so subtly that I didn’t even notice.

Having veteran horror director Tom Kinglsey aboard really paid off here. When the monsters make an appearance, it seems like more dismal writing. I just thought the editing was bad, but the whole thing was a feint to keep the viewer from seeing what was coming. Once you realize that the threat is right there in front of The Doctor and Donna, it’s too late for them to run.

“Wild Blue Yonder” pulls from a lot of classic science fiction films such as Event Horizon, Alien, and The Thing. Where it excels is in turning those inspirations into a proper Doctor Who adventure. The no-things (their word) try hard to manifest human shape, but keep messing it up. One minute, they’re perfect copies, and the next they’re the size of a small house with bulging eyes and twisted limbs.

The special effects used to bring these changes to life are intentionally hokey, much like The Meep in the last episode. Part of it looks like it was done on a computer from 2005. And yet it works so well. In the same way that old PlayStation polygon horror captures something lost in the modern pursuit of photorealism, the janky effects of “Wild Blue Yonder” are more frightening because of how good they are not.

Which makes sense from both a lore perspective and a branding one. Why would shapeless monsters from beyond strive for gritty realism when just stretching a mouth plasticly wide as a doorway will get the job done? If they are truly not bound to our meaty reality when it comes to shape and form, why not flow like cheap rubber?

As for branding, showrunner Russell T Davies (who also wrote this episode) seems to be trying to find a heart of Who buried back in the dark years. When the show was rebooted in 2005, most of the creatives were people who had worked on spin-off media following the original series’ cancellation. Those twisted novels and comics allowed The Doctor to do all kinds of wacky stuff that never would have made it onto the screen.

Davies is tapping that wellspring of creativity and dancing the line between silly and brilliant perfectly. “Wild Blue Yonder” is a tight dramatic character study and a Jordan Peele-esque horror outing all at once. Over the past decade, Doctor Who fell further and further into grimness. Episodes like “It Takes You Away” that reveled in wonder and outlandishness got fewer and far between.

That’s all over. It’s no secret that the final villain of this trilogy will be The Celestial Toymaker, played by Neil Patrick Harris. I’ve no idea what’s going to happen next week, but there’s no chance it won’t be whimsical as heck. This new Doctor Who isn’t shying away from that aspect and trusts its actors to bring dramatic moments around the child's play. Thus far, it’s more marvelous than it’s been in a very long time.
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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