2.5 out of 5 stars

The focus is on Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) throughout “73 Yards” as she arrives with The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) on the picturesque Welsh coast, only to disturb an occult “fairy circle” of string and trinkets, prompting The Doctor’s disappearance and the arrival of a ghostly figure that haunts Ruby while remaining exactly 73 yards away from her.

Russell T. Davies has intended this new era of Doctor Who to contain more supernatural elements than ever before. But one issue is how unsatisfying stories can become if spooky things happen for very little reason or explanation. It leads to episodes like “73 Yards”, which was entertaining throughout and genuinely creepy for the first half, but ultimately fell apart once the narrative had to go somewhere and resolve itself. And, unfortunately, it didn’t do that very well.

Millie Gibson held the episode together admirably, even without Ncuti Gatwa’s energy and charisma by her side. If nothing else, it was a great showcase of what she brings to the role, though we’ve seen stronger examples of similar companion-centric episodes. The early stages of “73 Yards” were enjoyable, with Ruby forced to think for herself and figure out what’s happening without the Doctor spoon-feeding her information and answers. The ghostly figure was suitably unnerving, too, reminiscent of the various phantoms that stalked characters in the excellent horror film It Follows (2014), only less threatening.

RTD clearly enjoyed the premise and how it allowed for him to tell an old-fashioned M.R James-style ghost story, complete with a sequence where Ruby wandered into a local pub and had to contend with disbelieving locals slightly irritated by her Englishness.

The idea that others could see the ghost was also appreciated because it was unexpected. The development where anyone who approaches her is seemingly scared away by whatever she says adds an extra layer of menace to the ghost. It was particularly painful when Ruby eventually decided to abandon the TARDIS, travel home to Manchester, and have the ghost accidentally interact with her mum, Carla (Michelle Greenidge), who promptly left her own daughter’s life. Even the arrival of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and a highly-trained UNIT team couldn’t fix things, as the ghost had them running scared despite their psychic training.

The problems with “73 Yards” arose in the second half, after RTD decided to abandon the small-scale ghost story for a more epic narrative. Years passed as teenage Ruby entered her forties, unconvincingly aged with just black glasses, while coming to terms with the ghost’s constant presence. Then Ruby starts to theorise that the ghost exists to be weaponised against a dangerous mid-21st-century politician, Roger ap Gwilliam (Aneurin Barnard), whom The Doctor briefly mentioned becomes Prime Minister and triggers a nuclear war.

Ruby’s execution of a plan to join Roger’s political party to get close to him didn’t make a lot of sense based on what we’d been led to believe until then. Those who interact with the ghost seem to be scared away from Ruby, or at least compelled to leave her vicinity for some unexplained reason. Therefore, Roger talking to the ghost and it ending his political career didn’t make sense to me. RTD likely did an inadequate job explaining that the ghost just makes people go mad if they try to communicate with it.

The rest of the episode quickly unravelled. Ruby ages into an old woman in her eighties, compelled to return to the Welsh coastline to see the moss-covered TARDIS for the final time. She later dies in bed just as the ghost finally approaches and is revealed to be… Ruby herself at this same advanced age. Then, the story rushes to wrap everything up with no clear explanation. Elderly Ruby is whisked back to the moment she and The Doctor first broke the fairy circle. Only this time, the ghostly Ruby ensures the timeline flows differently, so The Doctor doesn’t accidentally break the occult circle and thus doesn’t vanish.

In my opinion, RTD isn’t a great science fiction writer, so it makes sense he wants to lean into the supernatural because you can be looser with that type of storytelling. However, even ghost stories need some kind of logic behind them, especially as “73 Yards” ultimately ends in a more sci-fi manner with a time-loop being closed. Sadly, the story crumbles the more you think about it. And there are far too many unanswered questions! Who created the fairy circle? Why did breaking it make The Doctor vanish and where did he go? How was an elderly Ruby zapped back in time by herself? And if she ultimately changes the past so none of this ever happens, then surely that means Roger ap Gwilliam will rise to power again with nothing stopping him? Why was the ghost making weird hand gestures all the time? Why was she only able to appear 73 yards away, and make people run away from her if they approached?

Ultimately, “73 Yards” delivered very little in the way of a satisfying conclusion. RTD wove a beautifully unsettling atmosphere for a brief time, and part of me wished the entire episode had remained confined to the Welsh pub and town. The dynamic of the characters, the claustrophobic setting, and the inscrutable monster lurking outside reminded me strongly of his own classic “Midnight.” However, the episode abandoned this promising parochial folk-horror vibe in favour of something grander, with nods to stories like Stephen King’s The Dead Zone where someone touched by the supernatural thwarts a psychotic political leader. This shift made the initially tight ghost story increasingly silly and unwieldy, ultimately forcing RTD to rush an ending that anyone paying attention would be picking apart as the credits rolled.

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

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Cast & Crew

writer: Russell T. Davies.
director: Dylan Holmes Williams.
starring: Millie Gibson, Ncuti Gatwa, Angela Wynter, Aneurin Barnard, Siân Phillips, Michelle Greenidge, Maxine Evans, Susan Twist, Gwïon Morris Jones, Graham Butler, Amol Rajan, Mikes Yekinni & Ali Ariaie.