Doctor Who: Rogue review: Just kiss already!

The series embraces its slash fiction era.

Bad Wolf / BBC Studios

The following contains spoilers for “Rogue.”

Doctor Who has always been gay.

From the get-go, many of its key creative figures were queer, and a large proportion of its fans are too. As Tat Wood explained in his essays in show guide About Time 6, the mix of science, fantasy and camp offered subtextual solace for queer youth in less tolerant times. Russell T. Davies returned and pledged to start saying the quiet part as loudly as he possibly could. As it stands, “Rogue” is probably the overtly gayest episode of Doctor Who ever made.

“Rogue” was written by Kate Herron and Briony Redman, the former best known as the director and executive producer of Disney’s Loki. Davies was loudly critical of Loki’s single nod toward the character’s pansexuality, calling it a “craven, feeble gesture.” This, then, is a chance to make amends by embracing all of the modern-day queer-geek touchstones. “Rogue” is an episode that sprints through slash fiction, D&D, cosplay, identity and, of course, the simmering erotic tension generated when two hot dudes face off against one another.

Doctor Who 'Rogue'
Bad Wolf / BBC Studios

As for the plot, it’s another modern-day Doctor Who that is carried by performances and vibes rather than mechanics. We open in 1813 at a stately home where two “gentlemen” are arguing in the night over a Lady’s Honor™. But the heroic figure breaks character, annoyed that his wimpy part isn’t as fun as playing the conniving, libidinous villain. Turns out he’s an alien that can absorb other people’s identities, leaving nothing but a desiccated corpse.

Inside the building, the Doctor and Ruby are dancing along to the Bridgerton-esque party, indulging their love of the Netflix series. Ruby is wearing a pair of Sonic Earrings that either control or inform her movements (it’s not clear) letting her partake in the formal dances. The earrings pick up interference, sending the Doctor off to investigate while Ruby immerses herself in capital-S Society. The source of the disturbance is a brooding figure lurking on a balcony above the dance floor: Rogue (Jonathan Groff).

Rogue is a bounty hunter sent to apprehend the alien — a Childer — who transforms into other people at the cost of their lives. The Doctor and Rogue slink off to discuss the matter in private and find the remains of the Duchess of Pemberton (Indira Varma). The pair accuse each other of being the Childer but, since Rogue has a gun and the Doctor doesn’t, he wins the argument. He marches our hero at gunpoint to his spaceship and uses a device to trap him in place, planning to dump him in an incinerator. The Doctor, however, is more interested in flirting with Rogue and hijacking the ship’s sound system to play Kylie Minogue.

Once Rogue has scanned the Doctor and discovered he’s not a Childer (complete with fan-baity images of past Doctors) they agree to work together. They talk about their lives, and the fact they have both clearly lost people along their journeys. After the Doctor has toured Rogue’s ship (it’s messy, he leaves his D&D dice on his main console) they visit the TARDIS. Both offer each other the chance at a better, or at least different, life, although we know deep down neither of them could ever leave what they have now. It doesn’t stop them from getting ever closer, but never quite being able to act upon their obvious impulse to lock lips. Now, with the help of the TARDIS, the Doctor modifies Rogue’s trap to more humanely exile them to an alternate dimension instead of an incinerator.

Meanwhile, Ruby is watching some Bridgerton drama, making friends with a character who behaves like she’s drawn out of a Jane Austen parody. It turns out that she is also a Childer, one of a handful that came to Earth to LARP their way through the evening. The gag being that, much like the Doctor and Ruby, they’re all Bridgerton fans who came to indulge in some fantasy. The night will end with a grand wedding, albeit one that just happens to descend into homicidal chaos.

After a chase, the Doctor and Rogue return to the house to see Ruby, now apparently the latest costume change for one of the Childers. Ruby's apparent death unleashes the Doctor’s vengeful side, and he prepares to sentence all of the aliens to a long and painful exile as a consequence. But when he does trap the Childers, it turns out Ruby was just playing along and had actually beaten her would-be attacker. But once the trap is sprung, it can’t be undone, and so the Doctor is faced with no choice but to condemn his friend along with his foes.

As a payoff, Rogue passionately snogs the Doctor and takes the trap controls out of his hand. Knowing that the Doctor can’t decide what to do, he sacrifices himself to push Ruby out of the trap, taking her place in the process. He triggers the trap, imprisoning himself in the alternate dimension with the Chidlers. As dawn breaks, the Doctor talks a good game about moving on, as we all must do in times of loss, but Ruby sees through it. There’s no way for him to rescue Rogue, and so he must accept what has happened and move on to pastures new. Which, in this case, is the next episode, the first part of the series’ two-part finale.

Doctor Who
Bad Wolf / BBC Studios

One downside of Doctor Who’s abridged season is that we’ve been deprived of a lot of Ncuti Gatwa. He was absent much of the last two episodes and only at the end of “Dot and Bubble” did he get his first showpiece moment. Given Gatwa’s generosity to share focus with his co-stars, it’s gratifying to see him getting a chance to shine. And while Groff has to play Rogue as a stoic for much of the episode, the interaction between the pair is joyful.

I don’t feel as qualified to talk about the queer representation in the episode, but their chemistry felt believable and grounded. I’ll leave it to better, more qualified writers to expand on these themes, but I was urging the pair to kiss every time their faces came close. It’s funny how time changes your opinion on things: When the Doctor kissed in the doomed 1996 TV movie, I hated it. The idea of a sexy Doctor enmeshed in such human trivialities outraged my 12-year-old mind. Now, I just want the Doctor to bang whoever they want, whenever they want.

The nature of a guest-starring role in a running TV series means that there was no chance Groff would not die or be exiled into the ambiguous “if you ever fancy coming back” void. But it does mean Doctor Who’s loudly, proudly queer era has embraced the “Bury Your Gays” trope. It’s sad to see two men who are attracted to one another not get a chance to embrace that future, even if Rogue’s sacrifice is noble and well-telegraphed.

None of that should detract from the fact “Rogue” is a delightful way to spend an hour, and yet another welcome swerve both across genres and tones. It’s a gloriously slashy and fun romp that should help show that Doctor Who is a vehicle through which you can tell almost any story it’s possible to tell. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with it all those years ago, and I hope you have too.

Susan Twist Corner

I was on vacation and so couldn’t review “Dot and Bubble,” which was a magnificent episode of Doctor Who. Last week, the pair recognized Twist who was playing Penny Pepper-Bean, and the Doctor even took a picture of her face. They also both clocked where they’d seen her before, although Ruby’s memory was shakier given the time-bending weirdness of “73 Yards.”

Here, Twist is depicted in a portrait which, again, the Doctor notices and records. It does appear that the show has managed to find a way to balance the needs of each episode with the knowledge fans will scrub every frame for more meaning. But this isn’t Davies’ first time mining the show’s metatext and paratext to bait fans: 2008’s “The Next Doctor” played with audience expectations after David Tennant announced he would be leaving but information about his successor was kept quiet.

It might be nothing, but Rogue also mentions his bounty-hunting “paperwork” has gotten a lot more demanding since the “new boss” took over. Is that a hint about a big bad or just a character moaning about the admin side of their job?

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