3.5 out of 5 stars

There’s nothing traditionally “special” about the second of Doctor Who’s three 60th anniversary specials, as it’s even more of a regular story than last week’s “The Star Beast”. But that’s not exactly a bad thing. “Wild Blue Yonder” was a fascinating and unnerving hour of sci-fi horror — in the vein of Russell T. Davies’ spine-chilling “Midnight”, mixed with The Thing (1982) if written by Douglas Adams, set aboard an adrift spaceship evoking Event Horizon (1997).

The episode began with a frankly silly cold open involving the TARDIS crashing into Sir Isaac Newton’s (Nathaniel Curtis) famous apple tree, which unnecessarily changed the English scientist’s ethnicity. I’m sure the internet was ablaze seconds later and RTD was chuckling to himself at the furore, but I do wonder why Who courts avoidable controversy this way. I don’t see the point in altering the ethnicity of historical figures — from white to black, or black to white—although the latter would never happen for obvious reasons that should, if we want to promote equality, prevent the opposite from happening. It’s a difficult topic in general, trying to be inclusive by changing the facts of a real person’s identity, so I’d rather it only be done when it makes sense or there’s uncertainty about someone’s origins. On the plus side, I did enjoy the running gag that, owing to a mishearing, the timeline’s been changed so “gravity” is now known as “mavity”. I’m curious if that mistake will be fixed going forward!

After that pointless opening stumble, the TARDIS crash-landed inside an abandoned spaceship on the edge of the universe, only to dematerialise with The Doctor’s (David Tennant) sonic screwdriver, stranding him with Donna (Catherine Tate) as they’re forced to explore the ship and figure out what happened to the crew. Why was an airlock opened three years ago? What’s that banging sound? And why does it suddenly get cold sometimes? 

It’s a classic Doctor Who mystery, effectively done and with a screenplay that teased out the clues and weirdness brilliantly. They soon find a slow-moving robot straight out of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy inching along an impossibly long white corridor, only to realise the seemingly empty ship is inhabited by two alien entities attempting to copy them both physically and mentally. This leads to all manner of creepy moments with instantly iconic refrains (“my arms are too long”), as The Doctor and Donna aren’t sure if they’re talking to doppelgängers who have trouble with bodily proportions — often to hilariously eerie effect, with extended legs and oversized hands. It was a potent mix of comical and strange.

“Wild Blue Yonder” has been shrouded in mystery, as not much footage was released for it in the marketing materials, leading some fans to wonder if they filmed it behind closed doors because Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi had filmed cameos as previous Doctors. That turned out to be incorrect, as it was simply an episode that required a lot of interior sets for a story that was a two-hander between Tennant and Tate — or four-hander if you include their bizarre alternate forms. Both actors rose to the challenge and continued to show why they’re just a great partnership, even if Donna’s abrasiveness occasionally pains me.

I can’t say the story made perfect sense to me, by the end, but I appreciated the way it kept me guessing and on edge throughout. The inscrutable aliens trying to make their way back to populated space were genuinely frightening, and while the middle section got a little stuck in a loop with The Doctor and Donna having to keep finding ways to identify the duplicate (an overused sci-fi trope), for the most part, “Wild Blue Yonder” was decently paced and came together nicely with an edge-of-your-seat climax. I just wish more had been done with the moment when it seems The Doctor chose the wrong Donna to whisk away to safety in his TARDIS.

Russell T. Davies even took the time to have The Doctor reflect on the events of the divisive “Flux” storyline from Chris Chibnall, where half the universe was erased, which is something Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor didn’t deal with properly. It was a welcome sign that RTD isn’t going to ignore what happened on Doctor Who while he wasn’t the showrunner, no matter how widely disliked by fans. The idea of The Doctor not being a Time Lord, technically speaking, and thus not knowing where he truly comes from, was also alluded to— so even the highly contentious new backstory for The Doctor as “the timeless child” isn’t been quietly dropped as many have speculated it would be. I can only hope RTD finds a way to smooth out some of its rough edges, and maybe fix the plot holes inherent in the idea The Doctor once roamed Space and Time with a police box TARDIS for millennia before his regeneration into William Hartnell.

The production of the episode was great, even if Who’s slightly larger budget was strained a little during a few of its more ambitious sequences from director Tom Kingsley. I also wonder if RTD has been influenced by Rick & Morty (which is itself indebted to Who), as some of the episode’s crazier moments evoked that animated comedy in their wild tone and anarchic spirit — especially when The Doctor and Donna were speeding away on a futuristic rickshaw from two gigantic clones of themselves crawling on all fours.

“Wild Blue Yonder” will likely split opinion. I found it entertaining moment-to-moment, a bit repetitive in the middle, difficult to parse on reflection, and ultimately confused about why it forms part of Doctor Who’s big 60th anniversary. As a standalone episode, it offered solid entertainment, but as one-third of a major celebration event, it felt like a waste of valuable time. The same story could have been included in Ncuti Gatwa’s first season next year, and events don’t have any obvious bearing on next week’s “The Giggle”. It was just another bonkers adventure for a fan-favourite TARDIS duo, which wouldn’t have worked as a Big Finish audio play because the visuals are vital to the effect.

Still, a lot can be forgiven with a denouement that saw the welcome return of Donna’s sweet grandad Wilf (Bernard Cribbins), who was palpably overjoyed to be reunited with his Doctor after such a tragic parting of the ways. Bless him.

UK | 2023 | 54 MINUTES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer: Russell T. Davies.
director: Tom Kingsley.
starring: David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Bernard Cribbins & Nathaniel Curtis.