Hilary Hobson as foreboding woman standing under tree in Doctor Who, "73 Yards

Doctor Who Steps Into the Fairy Ring in “73 Yards”

How do fairy rings work when you’ve got a time machine? The same as always, it seems.


Hilary Hobson as foreboding woman standing under tree in Doctor Who, "73 Yards
Credit: BBC / Disney+

The Doctor and Ruby land in Wales, which Ruby says she’s been to a couple times before. The Doctor mentions that there was one really evil Welsh politician named Roger ap Gwilliam, but stops himself from continuing because that’s in the future. He accidentally stumbles into a circle that looks like a fairy circle and breaks the thing. Ruby reads one of the notes in it, which tells “Mad Jack” to rest in peace. An old woman (Hilary Hobson) appears at a distance, making a series of gestures that Ruby doesn’t understand and the Doctor vanishes. The TARDIS locks and she can’t get in, so she walks toward town. The old woman follows at the same distance away, and Ruby stumbles on a hiker. She asks the hiker to tell the old woman that she’s sorry if she upset her somehow. The hiker approaches the old woman and is told something that makes her run from Ruby in fear.

In town, Ruby heads to a pub and tells the locals what she and the Doctor accidentally destroyed. The group begins to tease her by suggesting that she did release a fairy spirit named Mad Jack, saying the old woman is his herald. After Ruby realizes they’re taking the piss, one of them goes to speak to the old woman: He also flees in fear. A couple days later Ruby is kicked out of the inn and decides she should just go home. The old woman follows, always at the same distance from her. She tells her mum (Michelle Greenidge), who insists that she’ll keep Ruby on the phone line when she goes to talk to the old woman. Ruby still can’t hear what she says, but it results in Carla running from her and then later changing the locks, leaving Ruby homeless.

Time begins to pass and eventually Ruby makes contact with U.N.I.T.: Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) believes this is some sort of branch in the timeline, but thinks they can help her. They’ve figured out that the old woman is always 73 yards from Ruby, and that she can’t be properly photographed. When the troops approach the woman, they all run away—and so does Kate. Ruby is alone again. Time continues to pass and she eventually sees the politician (Anuerin Barnard) the Doctor mentioned, who says on television that people used to call him “Mad Jack” when he was young. Ruby enlists in his campaign to keep an eye on him and sees how horrible the man is firsthand, but no one does a thing to stop him. He becomes prime minister and gets his hands on nuclear weapons. Ruby knows he’ll use them and finally figures out what to do; she enacts a plan that allows her to be 73 yards from him, and the old woman says something that makes him run away and resign from office.

Decades pass and Ruby grows old (Amanda Walker). The old woman is always there, and Ruby sometimes goes to visit the TARDIS and place flowers nearby. One night, as she’s about the die, the old woman finally approaches and when they make contact. Ruby wakes in Wales all those years ago and sees herself exit the TARDIS with the Doctor, in the place of the old woman now. She knows what must do this time, whispering a warning to herself not to let the Doctor step into the fairy circle. Ruby stops him just in time and the two of them observe the circle, but don’t touch it. Walking off, Ruby tells the Doctor that she’s been to Wales three times before, but after two examples she suddenly realizes that she can’t remember what the third was…


Amanda Walker as elderly Ruby in hospital bed in Doctor Who, "73 Yards"
Credit : BBC / Disney+

That was nearly brilliant, but it whiffed the ending for me. I might be alone in this, but I think the atmosphere’s didn’t entirely mesh by the end for lack of a little explanation. I love a good folk story, but then you need to actually tell the story? And this one doesn’t get there by the end.

I’m a little worried that pieces of this episode will come back up in later episodes to fill a few things in, but this one wrapped so abruptly that it’s hard to be sure what we’ve just seen. It’s fantasy now, yes, but fantasy has just as many narrative rules as science fiction! And if you’re not going to plant a few, then I’d like some extra grist in the seasonal mystery build as a distraction.

There are too many questions left hanging in the wind by the time we’re through. For instance, why does Ruby have to live out her entire life before the cycle resets and she gets a chance to stop what happened in the past? (Davies has claimed that the reason was her needing to live a “life of penitence” to earn forgiveness for the Doctor’s mistake, but there’s never any indication given that penance is a part of this.) Did they realize that it would be easy to assume that Ruby was the old woman giving herself warnings throughout life if you never see the figure’s face? What about our Mad Jack? Is that politician being subsumed by a malevolent fae, or is he the full entity magicked into being once the circle is disturbed? Are the two things technically unrelated for the purposes of the story? Why does everyone have to approach the old woman directly to hear her except for Kate?

I’m not saying that the episode couldn’t leave anything down to mystery, but it feels like we’re missing a step somewhere. Just a few more hints could have solidified this plot into something gorgeous. It was so close. I was enjoying myself thoroughly and waiting for the payoff, and then we got absolutely nothing. A whisper across a field is a letdown. Would I have liked it better if she’d shouted to them? Yeah, maybe! A little more real-world urgency would’ve helped matters.

There are a few other goofy conceits, like giving Millie Gibson ridiculous wigs in an attempt to make her look older (and that failing utterly). At the same time, the progression was there, the steps were in place, and Gibson did such a great job with the piece. It was nice to spend some time with Ruby and get to know her better. And she made an adorable old lady too.

Millie Gibson as Ruby Sunday and Michelle Greenidge as Carla Sunday standing in road in Doctor Who, "73 Yards"
Credit: BBC / Disney+

But I really don’t like that this is the second time Ruby has been robbed of her mother and grandmother. She’s already got a story wrapped up in despair over not knowing who her birth parents are, but we’ve been presented with this family as a counter to some of that pain, and then every time something goes squiffy, she loses them immediately. Keep them around! This episode would’ve been just as effective if they’d stayed a part of her life—it didn’t need to be total isolation in order to get the sadness across. There’s sadness in the people who love you being unable to help, and then we get more of their family dynamic, which I’m desperate for because no one is as good as that as Davies.

Also, I’ll say it: alt-timeline stories where everything reverts to square one should be banned at this point. Doctor Who (and plenty of other shows) has done far too many as is, and they’re cheap. If someone living out their whole life is forgotten in an instant, then what’s the impact for the viewer? It won’t have any bearing on the character going forward, so count me out. And if it is going to have an impact, you need to make that clear before the episode ends.

Part of the season arc mystery has something to do with Susan Twist, of course—she keeps popping up all over this place, last week as the ominous ambulance, this time as the hiker Ruby encounters. Ruby nearly recognizes her too, but she’s too distracted to put two and two together. And we see the mysterious Mrs. Flood again as well…

That said, I really enjoyed everything I watched up until the very end. With just a little more connecting the dots, this could’ve been a standout piece of television.

Time and Space and Sundry

Aneurin Barnard as Roger ap Gwilliam on campaign trail in Doctor Who, "73 Yards"
Credit: BBC / Disney+
  • This is few of the few episodes to not bother with the title sequence. There were a couple in Thirteen’s era and one in Twelve’s which was also notably more horror based. I’m not sure what it achieves? It’s fine.
  • We haven’t had a Doctor-lite episode in a long while, though. Thirteen didn’t really have those, which I appreciated because we didn’t get enough of her, but they’re fun for the show to do.
  • Okay, but during this whole affair, was the Doctor supposed to have been taken by the fae? (Presumably yes, since the TARDIS stayed put.) Because I would love the inverse episode here, with him tromping around fairyland, trying not to eat the food and getting increasingly annoyed that he can’t leave.
  • I kind of wish that we’d gotten more horror bits like the people down at the pub messing with Ruby. It was so effective, more of that would’ve been great. It also would’ve been a great place to seed the actual folktale aspect, like I mentioned.
  • There is a fun throughline here with Davies creating evil prime ministers that must then be erased from public consciousness via a timeline shift. (That “Albion” moniker is as hilariously over-the-top as the Master using Harold Saxon as his human name.) Will Ruby have to stop him all over again in the regular timeline? I guess we’ll find out…

See you net week! icon-paragraph-end

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