3 out of 5 stars

There have been a lot of “unusual” episodes this season, which go against the grain of what a typical Doctor Who story is; the limited locations of “Boom”, the almost Doctor-less “73 Yards”, and “Dot and Bubble” only having The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby (Millie Gibson) physically in a scene for the denouement. So it’s great to have an episode like “Rogue” shake things up, which was a fun romp of the type you expect from the show most weeks. It’s just a shame that only having eight episodes means these bread-and-butter episodes have become the exception, not the norm.

“Rogue”, written by Kate Herron (Loki) and Briony Redman, is a love letter to costume dramas, particularly inspired by the buzz around Netflix’s Bridgerton in recent times. The Doctor and Ruby are attending a grand ball in 1813, dancing the night away in their incredible outfits, mingling with English aristocracy like the Duchess of Pemberton (Indira Varma). Little do they know that shape-shifting aliens the Chuldur are also in attendance, gleefully draining guests of their life force and assuming their appearance. The motivation is to “cosplay the planet to death” as they feed on high drama, but the romance and heartbreak endemic to the upper classes in 19th-century England is just the beginning.

Frankly, it’s a silly premise that doesn’t bear much scrutiny  (and couldn’t the shape-shifting Zygons have been used instead? ), but it’s more of a framework to lay out a lot of fun ideas and performances. Primarily, this involves the titular Rogue (Jonathan Groff), a brooding figure The Doctor sees overlooking the ball from a balcony, who’s revealed to be an alien bounty hunter there to capture the Chuldur. Unfortunately, it takes a while for Rogue to accept The Doctor’s on his side, during which time there’s a lot of flirting between the pair.

Rogue is essentially the new Captain Jack Harkness, albeit in an era where the show has moved beyond the occasional cheeky innuendo about Jack’s possible attraction to David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. Rogue is smitten, and The Doctor reciprocates, with the highlight being their scene in Rogue’s untidy spaceship. As he scans The Doctor and prepares to eliminate him, Rogue is won over by the cheeky Time Lord’s impromptu Kylie Minogue mime routine. (One wonders if The Doctor thus knew Astrid from “Voyage of the Damned”, played by Minogue, looked like the pop star he seems to enjoy?)

Gatwa and Groff certainly have chemistry together, though I wouldn’t say it crackled with undeniable electricity. It simmered gently, perhaps because Rogue’s personality is more subdued than Captain Jack’s. This wasn’t a problem, as it lent the relationship a greater sense of plausibility. However, a later development forced their romance to accelerate rather suddenly. The same-sex kiss between them marks a groundbreaking moment for Doctor Who, but I don’t believe the writers had enough time to fully invest us emotionally in The Doctor and Rogue as a romantic couple. I did appreciate seeing The Doctor’s usually outgoing persona revert to something more nervous when Rogue began to reciprocate his affections. This felt somehow truer to the character than his moments of supreme confidence in his sexuality.

The Chuldur aliens looked excellent, with their avian makeup, each one based on a different species. It amused me that the blue Chuldur looked like an Angry Bird, too. The villains themselves weren’t particularly threatening and had no world-ending plan up their sleeves that could be taken seriously anyway, but sometimes the show needs antagonists that are just a bit of nonsense on the fringes of things. Aliens that feed on human drama fit the bill perfectly.

Ruby didn’t get much to do this week, though I enjoyed her friendship with young guest Emily Beckett (Camilla Aiko) — teaching her future slang like “okay” and the like. More could have been done with her side of the story, but the writers were seemingly more enamoured with the idea of giving The Doctor a romantic sparring partner, which is fair enough.

Overall, writers Herron and Redman did an excellent job capturing the essence of Russell T. Davies’ approach to Doctor Who. This episode felt exactly like something he would have done himself. I was quite surprised it wasn’t his work, given Rogue’s clear resemblance to Captain Jack. (During his original tenure as showrunner, RTD was known for extensively rewriting other people’s scripts, so perhaps that happened here too.)

Sadly, with a heavy heart, I can’t rate “Rogue” any higher. While everything surrounding The Doctor and Rogue’s romance was highly watchable, everything else felt trivial and underdeveloped. However, the episode looked marvellous! The orchestral versions of modern songs by Billie Eilish and Lady Gaga were brilliant and provided the kind of lighthearted entertainment that Who needs more of. This allows weirder episodes like “73 Yards” to have a greater impact. It seems likely we’ll see Rogue again, although scheduling Broadway star Jonathan Groff might be more challenging than John Barrowman. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Groff filmed scenes for the finale. Only time will tell…

UK | 2024 | 47 MINUTES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Kate Herron & Briony Redman.
director: Ben Chessell.
starring: Ncuti Gatwa, Millie Gibson, Jonathan Groff, Indira Varma, Paul Forman, Maxim Ays, Camilla Aiko, Debra Baker, Ashley Campbell, Nancy Brabin-Platt, Michelle Greenidge & David Charles.