BBC's Doctor Who changed everything for the show with "Fugitive of the Judoon". It upended the show's lore and threw everything we thought we knew about it up in the air, just as it did to the Doctor. It put us in the Doctor's shoes and blew our minds. For once, the Doctor didn't have any answers, her entire world had been blown up. To the Doctor, this was devastating. For long-time viewers, this was exhilarating. It raised the stakes in the story and made the show exciting and unpredictable again.
Credit goes to showrunner Chris Chibnall, who planned and executed the episode with his co-writer Vinay Patel like a master. The script contained a whole series of Trojan Horses, starting with its title "Fugitive of the Judoon". That set up expectations for the return of the fan-favourite fascist space cop with the heads of Rhinos. They're a fun visual, and they're both dumb and menacing at the same time because of their fanatical devotion to rules.
"Doctor Who": Trojan Horses Within Trojan Horses
The appearance of the Judoon blindsided the audience from the first big twist or reveal: the sudden, unannounced return of Captain Jack Harkness to the show. Captain Jack is an even bigger fan favourite than the Judoon. He hadn't been seen since the last season of Torchwood, which was a US co-production with the cable channel Starz. That was 10 years ago. If you look at reaction videos on YouTube, you'll find at fans around the world going completely nuts. Jack was as crazy, flirtatious, reckless, funny and omnisexual as ever and fans loved seeing him back. This set up expectations that he would meet The Doctor by the end.
And Jack was just the second Trojan Horse. He was there to mask the big reveal that Chibnall was planning for the episode all along. He did it by hiding it under our noses all along, distracting the viewer with Judoon and Captain Jack. Ruth Clayton was a likable, unassuming tour guide in a small-town love triangle. The story led us to believe her shifty-looking husband was the fugitive the Judoon were hunting.
The Real Twist
Then this happened:
Ruth Clayton was another Doctor! A Doctor we never knew about! The Doctor was the fugitive all along!
And the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) doesn't remember her, so is she a future Doctor? But This Doctor doesn't remember the 13th Doctor, so is the 13th Doctor in her future? Is Ruth a regeneration from the 13th Doctor's past that she doesn't remember or know about? She and Gav are from Gallifrey and they don't know that Gallifrey has been destroyed. What is going on? Does it have something to do with The Master telling the Doctor that they'd been lied to their whole lives? And does this have something to do with the mystery of the Timeless Child?
This was exhilarating. It changes the lore of the show. The new Doctor sets up a series of questions and mysteries that could define the show for the next few years if Chibnall wanted to. It ups the stakes for the Doctor by changing everything she thought she knew. It puts her on the wrong foot and makes her the underdog in her own story. It's a masterful piece of storytelling.
"Doctor Who": The Fandom Factor
Chibnall can only do this on a show with a long history and lore and major fan engagement. All these twists only truly work when fans know about the history and emotionally invest in the story and the characters. A first-time viewer might wonder what the fuss was about, perhaps get confused about the big deal and not know how anything fit or made sense.
Chibnall played the fans like a fiddle. He knew exactly how they would react to every beat, every reveal as the hour unfolded. This is the mark of a showrunner who has developed an instinct for what audiences expect and what shocks them. He must have honed those skills when he ran three seasons of Broadchurch. That was the highest-rated show on TV during its run and made him the hottest showrunner in Britain. He counted on their knowledge of the Judoon, of Captain Jack, of regeneration, of Timelords' ability to hide themselves. Fans already remember the reveal of John Hurt as a hidden War Doctor, so yet another hidden Doctor popping up was part of the show's methods.
This was an exercise is deep fan service – and like it or not, Chibnall has become an expert at it.
"Fugitive of the Judoon" is a masterclass in how to surprise your audience. It give them things they wanted but in an unexpected way, and then uses that to hide more gifts to come. It's a fascinating exercise in screenwriting and storytelling.