Doctor Who: 73 Yards

Doctor Who: 73 Yards May 26, 2024

The Doctor Who episode “73 Yards” takes things further in the direction that Russell T. Davies has indicated he planned to. Spoilers is a theme of the episode and this post has them galore, so if you haven’t watched the episode turn back now. This is one to be experienced and not merely read about.

The Doctor steps on and breaks a fairy circle made of threadIt all starts with the Doctor stepping onto and breaking a fairy circle. There doesn’t seem to be a real world equivalent of the custom or activity depicted. (A fairy ring is something different.) Suddenly, the Doctor is gone and a mysterious woman is visible. The rest of the episode is Ruby Sunday living her remaining years in that situation, the Doctor gone and the woman always there at the same distance of 73 yards = 29 feet = 66.7 metres. Why that distance? Why does the Doctor vanish as a result of stepping on and breaking the circle? Don’t expect answers even of the Doctor Who sort. I’m not sure I like this new direction, and others feel the same. Martin Belam in The Guardian describes the episode as faltering in the final act. Yet this aspect is deliberate, as indicated by commentary from producer Russell T. Davies, which I am grateful that a commenter on this site pointed out to me, otherwise I might have felt more frustrated than I do.

I’m not sure I like this new direction, mind you. It feels a bit like the veer into pure horror in the last season of Black Mirror. To be sure, Black Mirror has always been horror, but apart from the brilliant “Joan Is Awful” and the premise to “Beyond the Sea” the series veered into the unexplained where previously it had consistently included possible future technology as a plot element, with the show’s story thus providing a basis for reflection on where we are heading technologically and socially.

Back to Doctor Who and “73 Yards” and what is perhaps my favorite moment in the episode. Kate Stewart shows up representing UNIT and at that moment I thought that we might finally get a turn in the direction of a resolution, some sort of explanation. Kate articulates the showrunner’s shifted focus when she says that UNIT investigates all things extraterrestrial, and “increasingly the supernatural” because “things seem to be turning that way these days.” Her commentary is almost like a producer’s commentary voiceover interjected into the show’s dialogue itself.

How so? Davies has indicated that he is not going to be trying to offer scientific-sounding “explanations” for all things spooky and scary that occur. Take the distance of 73 yards that separate Ruby Sunday and the mysterious semperdistans woman throughout the episode. Kate Stewart makes a comment that applies to it: “We encounter the inexplicable and invent rules to make it work. We saw the sunrise and invented God – or we saw the arrival of a Sontaran, one of the other.” As Louisa Mellor observes in her Den of Geek article about the episode, there have been arbitrary rules associated with the supernatural as far back as we have stories about such things. It is worth noting that the Doctor’s invocation of a superstition about salt in “Wild Blue Yonder” is accompanied by a hint that this action by the Doctor may have introduced an element of the magical-supernatural into the fabric of reality. Worth mentioning this for those who want there to be an explanation of some sort within the framework of the way the universe has worked thus far on Doctor Who.

I like the way that the conversation in the pub in Wales challenges the English view of the Welsh as witches and such, as a place wrapped in superstition. The hints that “Mad Jack” (mentioned on a note in the fairy circle) was the stuff of local legend, frightening Ruby as there is a knock at the door, only to discover that they are teasing her bigoted view of the Welsh. The pub owner also gets additional revenge by overcharging Ruby for a Coke.

In the end we discover that the mysterious woman is none other than the ghost of Ruby herself after she dies at the end of a long life. It isn’t clear why Ruby’s ghost would say something that would make people including her own mother cut her younger self out of her life. I have seen online discussion indicating that the people who fled after talking to her left notes in the fairy circle, which would be fascinating but not necessarily help make the episode any less puzzling.

I don’t think that the plot element of Ruby preventing Roger ap Williams’ nuclear action is supposed to be understood as the reason for her being in the situation that she is, although she interprets it that way as she grasps for explanations that can make sense of what is happening to her. When the timeline resets presumably those future events still happen.

There hasn’t been nearly enough attention to what Kate Stewart says at one point in her conversation with Ruby, “I think this timeline might be suspended along your event.” This too sounds a bit like writer’s commentary. Interpreted within the episode and the world of the show, however, it suggests that Kate and UNIT may be aware that they are dealing with a variant timeline that will eventually reset itself. It is presumably connected with awareness that the Doctor hasn’t reappeared since the fairy circle incident. I thought that Kate’s words about the Doctor reflect a quasi-religious outlook. When Ruby asks if Kate works with the Doctor, Kate says “with him, despite him, against him sometimes…and I adore him. I can only say that now he’s not here.” There has been ample exploration of the Doctor as a god on the show and while I don’t think that the show is headed back in that direction, I expect there to be nods to it in the context of the major plot arc of the Pantheon, of the Doctor’s experiences in this season being driven by and placing him in conflict with beings that are essentially gods.

What did you think of “73 Yards” and of the direction Doctor Who is taking this season more generally?

For more on the connections between sci-fi, the (seemingly) supernatural, and religion, see the conversation I had on the Genetically Modified Skeptic YouTube channel. You’ll need to be a paid subscriber to see the whole thing but I’m glad that there is a public video as well. I even get a variation of Clarke’s Third Law (partly) named after me!

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