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Doctor Who: The season's big themes are getting clearer in what might be the most misanthropic season of the show

Doctor Who salvages a disappointing episode with an unexpected twist, as powerful as it is depressing

Doctor Who 'Dot and Bubble'
Image credit: BBC/Disney+

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I’ll be honest; right up until the final five minutes of ‘Dot and Bubble,’ I was pretty disappointed in the episode — it felt not just like a minor episode of the season, but one that didn’t really have any connection to what looked like the larger themes of the season as a whole. 'People are so obsessed with social media that they’ve lost the ability to save themselves' is a fun enough idea, but also one that felt a bit… obvious, perhaps?

But, then again: that’s not what the episode was about after all, was it?

Spoilers for the Doctor Who episode ’Dot and Bubble’ follow. You really should stop reading now if you don’t want to have the episode spoiled for you.

Forward... forward...

Doctor Who 'Dot and Bubble'
Image credit: BBC/Disney+

I touched on this last week, but there’s something oddly compelling about the subtextual politics of the last few episodes - especially the fact that, well, the Doctor keeps on not saving the day, as you’d expect. If ‘The Devil’s Chord’ — which ends with the Beatles choosing the right chord, remember — and ‘Boom’ (the AI of the dad is the one who ultimately undoes the landmine), and ’73 Yards’ proved anything, it’s that sometimes you have to rely on yourself to get the job done. That’s pretty much explicitly the message of ‘Dot and Bubble,’ which is impressively unsubtle in condemning those who expect other people to take care of them. (Lindy is literally unable to take a step without someone telling her how to do it.)

As with ’73 Yards,’ this is another curiously Doctor-light episode, which makes me wonder how what to expect from the remaining three episodes this season, especially given that two of them are a two-part story centering around the ongoing mystery of Ruby Sunday. Will the Fifteenth Doctor be robbed of his chance to be ahead of the game the entire time, and knowing just what to say and do in order to outsmart everyone and lead us to safety, as had previously been a Doctor tradition? And if so, is this because the rules of the reality were rewritten as a result of last year’s special episodes, because bi-generation changed something about the Doctor himself, or merely a coincidence?

Whatever the reason: this is another episode where an overarching message is that it’s up to us to save ourselves. Well, kind of.

Fix your heart or die

Doctor Who 'Dot and Bubble'
Image credit: BBC/Disney+

What to make of the surprising — honestly, shocking, almost — twist in this episode? (There’s always a twist in the end, remember.) The reveal that Finetime isn’t just filled with rich kids, but racist rich kids who would literally rather die than let a Black man save them was genuinely jarring to me, and the Doctor’s response — the darkest humor; the most frustrated, angry reaction — something that almost makes up for the rest of the episode feeling so weak. For all that the show has downplayed race as a factor in the past (compare the Doctor’s reaction to Martha’s concern back in 2007’s ‘The Shakespeare Code’ to this episode!), it was surprising and, honestly, refreshingly bitter to see that the show isn’t ignoring the ugliness inside human nature entirely, especially now that we have a Black lead in the title role. (And, unfortunately, elements of fandom uncomfortable with that fact.)

It’s interesting to see how bitter the reveal really is: the Doctor doesn’t win over the racists with a passionate speech, as might also be expected in the traditions of the show as-was. Instead, their closed-mindedness leads them off to certain death, and he can’t do anything about it. It is, arguably, exactly what they deserve, but both that conclusion — and the fact that, hey, racism is still very much a thing in however far in the future this episode takes place — both feel at odds with the inherent optimism about the human race that the show had displayed since its 2005 revival… Of course, that might be another sign, along with the Doctor’s unexpected passivity, that something is different in the Doctor Who universe these days. Or, perhaps, that Russell T. Davies has just grown up when it comes to how he approaches the show.

Something to think about: not only is this the second Doctor-is-barely-around episode in a row, it’s also the second episode in which the real monster is humanity. Hmmmm. That might not be a coincidence, either…

Doctor Who continues next week with ‘Rogue,’ described by Disney+ with the following text: “The Doctor and Ruby land in 1813, where guests at a duchess's party are being murdered and a mysterious bounty hunter called Rogue is about to change the Doctor's life forever.” It’s the Bridgerton episode, as Ruby helpfully signposts in the teaser, but it’s also one of two episodes this season not written by Russell T. Davies. (Instead, it’s by Kate Herron and Briony Redman. Yes, the Kate Herron who worked on Loki.) I wonder if that’ll make a difference from what we’ve been seeing lately…?

If you want to start watching Doctor Who and don't know where to start, check out our handy Doctor Who watch guide. Or maybe you're already finished with the show - We've got the perfect Ten shows to watch when you're done watching Doctor Who guide for you too. If you're already heads over heels for the Fifteenth Doctor and want to learn more about the actor playing him, check out what he's been in before here. Or maybe you just need to figure out how the new series numbering is going to work (Are there really gonna be two series 1s? Yes.) - if so, this is the explainer you want.

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