Someone kidnaps the Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack and teleport them into the middle of reality TV shows where losing the game means losing your life! Also other, better things also happen in the episode, promise!
Of everything in this fairly ridiculous episode, the most effective is that we once more return to a place the Doctor has been before. He spends the episode on Satellite Five, last seen in “The Long Game”, and the most fascinating thing is that his actions in shutting down the news – fake as it was, and rigged to make humanity feed on itself – didn’t quite result in the clear-cut victory you might have expected. In fact, things have gotten worse, as now we have humanity taken over once more by TV: but this time it’s reality TV rather than fake news that’s the trouble.
The whole point of the episode is to catch people off-guard by the ending. You start off by thinking, well, yes, this is a silly idea for an episode, and the team commit to it for a longer chunk of time than you could have ever guessed. By the time it turns out there actually is a twist, most viewers will have already sunk into the expectation that all we were getting here was a slightly half-arsed satire. At the time that was the logic of the episode – but now, it plays to the same affect but in a different way.
More than most other episodes of the series, this one is dated. And perhaps deliberately so. The Doctor lands in a Big Brother house that plays continual techno in the soundtrack, has a design we’ve not seen in years, and is lectured by the unseen voice of Davina McCall – who doesn’t present the show anymore. The Weakest Link isn’t on TV anymore, and I can’t even remember the name of the fashion shows that Trinny and Susannah (who appear as robots intent on cutting up Jack) hosted. The side-characters were 2000-era clothes and have that sort of oily hair that everybody had at the time. This is an episode which firmly fits around a certain point in time.
For us now, that’s the main distraction. The idea that Doctor Who would get so invested in satirising shows which have now long-gone away in the form we see them here. And that’s how the twist catches newer viewers out. On the day it aired, at least the somewhat weak parody was timely – but for us now, it all seems like crazy madness, much like how the Doctor sees it. His exasperation is understandable, but actually now it’s actively recognisable. He’s been on a wave of success, but now he’s been trapped in a silly house with silly people doing silly things when he could be with his friends and saving the universe. He’s trapped through the episode, even when he escapes, and that’s his mindset throughout.
Jack is actually the more active protagonist here than the Doctor, with their contrasting escapes showing their different approaches to the problem. The Doctor outmanouvres his opponent into showing their hand, but Jack just shoots the robots approaching him. Jack figures out what happened to Rose, acts as the big heroic leader towards the end, and is generally dashing and charismatic. The Doctor, no less charismatic (as when he charms Lynda out the Big Brother house, in the first of his “trust me” speeches that the character will perform across the years), is more restrained and frustrated in his method.
The episode tries a lot of things but doesn’t manage to have many of them land, with one of them being the sequence where Rose is shot and disintegrated. The set-up of her game show (the Weakest Link) is the strongest of the three, and her arc of realisation what the game actually means is well performed. Patterson Joseph is particularly good fun as one of her fellow game players, all snide and tactical as he arranges her survival so he has an easier final opponent in the head-to-head round. The panic and scheming of the other characters around her helps build up the tension, and the most effective part is how Rose isn’t saved in time.
But the show doesn’t fall out from that moment very effectively. Rose is dead, and she’s been our point of view character, and the show doesn’t manage to quite convince us that she’s dead. It also doesn’t give a great idea of what’s going on in the Doctor’s head, as he moves on to other, related things in the hopes of finding a solution. Eccleston tries to keep a continuity and show some impact, but he’s not really got the time for it – because that’s when the big twist comes in, and we found out that the controller was not villainous like Simon Pegg was five episodes ago. In fact, she brought the Doctor onboard precisely so he could disrupt the plans of whoever is controlling HER.
She’s shot and killed, and we realise that the Daleks have formed everywhere. Again, though, it’s a big of a muted reveal, and I don’t feel the director manages to make it feel like a shock when we see the Daleks appear. The episode distracted us by being so middling for the majority of its runtime, but then the twist isn’t abrupt or harsh enough when we find out the Daleks were running a more sinister plot behind the scenes of the silly plot about reality TV. Rose is alive, nobody knows what’s actually going on or what they’re going to do next – and that’s where the Doctor sparks excitedly into life.
Everybody is on the same ground, and when you’re dealing with orderly villains like the Daleks, nothing is more effective than an element of chaos. That’s what the Doctor gets to represent here, right at the end, after an episode of being lost (slightly bored) and stuck running a maze. He escapes, and now we get to see what happens next. For an episode that starts with the Doctor being summoned to the diary room, thank god this is where we end up.
Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 12: Bad Wolf
Written by Russell T. Davies
Directed by Joe Ahearne