Doctor Who Goes Rogue

Doctor Who Goes Rogue June 9, 2024

“Rogue” is quite an episode of Doctor Who. We’ve gone from absolute silliness at the beginning of the season through the mysterious, spooky and frightening to now be offered a tale of romance set in the 19th century. As Ruby describes it, “This is so Bridgerton.” In the midst of this glimpse of the bygone Regency Era as it has become a familiar part of storytelling through period dramas, “Rogue” also offers viewers a romantic storyline, highlights but doesn’t address the huge disconnect between modern life and marriage and that of almost all human societies throughout history, and offers a poignant bit of symbolism. Spoilers follow!

The gist of the story is that alien shapeshifters called Chuldur who are cosplayers. They visit a planet in order to take the form of inhabitants (killing them in the process) and then play their roles, enjoying the emotion. That seems to me to be highly symbolic in an episode that explores romance, loss, love, marriage, and more. I think that we are supposed to reflect on the extent to which genuine love and friendship require allowing our true selves to be seen, yet so often our relationships with others are essentially cosplay. It is when the Doctor is honest with Rogue about his identity that their relationship can take a dramatic turn.

The character of Emily Beckett (who turns out to be a Chuldur cosplaying) is concerned about her prospects after having been seen alone with a man and there not having been a proposal. Ruby’s insistence that she doesn’t need him and can do whatever she likes is very modern, and highly problematic. While it is true that there is no obligation for the society and marriage to function as they did back then, culture is a shared agreement on values and procedures and one person alone cannot always successfully change that.

The Doctor is rarely flirtatious and even less frequently is it in a way that seems to involve genuine connection. This story is different and we are given a sense of the attraction between the Doctor and Rogue right away, which was crucial to make the emotional arc of the episode seem compelling. It is hard to have deep enough connection in a single episode for there to be a sense of genuine loss, but to the extent it is possible this episode tries to accomplish it. Indeed, this episode is more about loss than about love. Rogue had lost someone. The Doctor had lost everyone. Rogue asks whether the Doctor ever wonders why keep going, and he replies that you have to keep living precisely for those whom you’ve lost, to go on living precisely because they cannot and did not.

The episode “The Giggle” promised that the Doctor would be doing therapy out of order, that this new regeneration would be different and in a better place precisely because of the bigeneration providing an opportunity for slowing down and enjoying having a family. This Doctor may or may not be experiencing that, and that Doctor may or may not be experiencing what Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor is, although presumably they reconverge in some way if what was said about therapy is true. Either way, the current Doctor is about to move on to new adventures after losing Rogue because “that is what I do.” Ruby refuses to let him do it and provides a hug. From our perspective as viewers, it seems as though ample room has been left for Rogue to return.

Also great to have Dungeons and Dragons references in the show! Hard to know what to make of the glimplse of either to the Shalka Doctor or one from “The Curse of Fatal Death.” Probably just a tongue in cheek way of expressing that the Doctor has had more lives than we’ve seen, but who knows.

For Doctor Who to have this relationship the focus of its story on the same day as our local Pride Parade here in Indianapolis made it even more powerful and poignant. Those were incredible moments when Rogue proposed, when he tossed the Doctor the bouquet, and when the Doctor put on his ring. Let’s call it Pride meets Pride and Prejudice.

I will also of course highlight the character of the vicar, the one explicit presence of religion in the episode. The vicar tries to sneak away, but when made to come forward to perform a wedding for the Chuldur, he insists that it would be impossible to consecrate a marriage between creatures from hell. The Chuldur that kills him takes his clerical garb but not his human form, and unlike all the other cosplaying by them throughout the episode in this instance botches the wording of the marriage ceremony and treats them with disdain. As so often, Doctor Who pokes fun at religion on the surface level yet offers something more insightful and appreciative beneath the surface. Creatures that kill for their own entertainment would not be expected to value religion, and while the vicar may have assumed them to be creatures from hell in some more literal sense, metaphorically the phrase seems apt. There must be a basis for evaluating and critiquing those who place no value on the lives of others, who live only for their own pleasure.

We also glimpse the Doctor’s problematic ethics which I discuss in my book on the episode “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos.” He avoids killing but has no problem confining beings to suffer for centuries. As we see explicitly in this episode, the Doctor cannot sacrifice a friend even to save the world. It is a thin line that separates being willing to see a whole world sacrificed if it offers the prospect of saving one life of someone you hold dear, and being willing to take lives to protect the interests of one’s own group.

What did you think of “Rogue”? In particular, what do you think of Ruby’s insistence to a 19th century woman that she can do whatever she wants? Modern English speakers live in cultures that often claim that we can do what we want in life, from education to career to marriage and more. It isn’t true even today. We are all constrained in ways that modern freedom-loving individualists bristle at. Is it nevertheless more problematic for someone from modern British culture to assume that what is possible for them is possible for someone in a different era – or in another cultural context in their own era, for that matter?

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