Doctor Who: Rogue review – Groundbreaking episode marks historic first for series

Warning: this review is also a recap, meaning it contains spoilers for the episode

The Doctor’s latest adventure starts as a fond parody of the Bridgerton/Jane Austen school of costume drama. We know this because someone – usually Millie Gibson’s Ruby – says, “Ooh, this is exactly like Bridgerton,” every 30 seconds. But just as it seems Doctor Who has settled for 50 minutes of well-intentioned but unspectacular homage, writers Kate Herron and Briony Redman do something unexpected – giving the Doctor a love interest in dashing anti-hero Rogue (Jonathan Groff, who should know his way around a ballroom, having played George III in the Broadway run of Hamilton).

They flirt, they dance. Finally, they smooch. The romance feels rushed – though it isn’t unthinkable that our emotional new Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) would fall in love at the drop of a period-appropriate top hat. Either way, it’s encouraging to see the BBC belatedly have the courage of its convictions and give the Doctor his first same-sex snog in the saga’s history.

“Rogue” is certainly an improvement on the Jodie Whittaker/Chris Chibnall years, which flirted with the possibility of the Doctor being attracted to assistant Yaz – but never had the chutzpah to go the distance. The kiss also marks a second milestone for writer Herron, who, as showrunner in year one of Disney’s Loki, confirmed Marvel’s Prince of Mischief as bisexual.

It’s just as well that there is a history-making tongue sandwich at the centrepiece of the instalment, because elsewhere the writers go overboard in their valentine to Bridgerton. Sure, the Netflix smash is a big show – but it is hardly zeitgeist-defining, and it feels a bit beneath Doctor Who to bend so far backwards to pay tribute (how weird would it be for Bridgerton to devote an entire episode to Doctor Who?).

Still, the episode is silly, pacy fun. And while “Rogue” breaks new ground in terms of representation, it also leans into what the franchise does best via a riotous sequence in which the Doctor and his new friend are pursued through an early 19th-century garden by owl-faced beasties who want to steal their identities and drain their life force. Monsters, time travel, sheer terror. Behold – Whovian perfection!

What’s great about the latest Who is that it doesn’t over-explain. Why are the Doctor and Ruby spending the evening at a ball held by the Duchess of Pemberton (Indira Varma)? We don’t know – but if you had the option of passing a night in a mansion in Bath in 1813… well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Alas, our heroes have bitten off more than they can quite chew. Along with the stereotypical assembly of dandies, debutantes, dowagers, etc., the house has been infiltrated by the Chuldur – “cosplaying” aliens who love to take on human form and play make-believe.

Gatwa and Groff in ‘Rogue’ (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
Gatwa and Groff in ‘Rogue’ (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

They aren’t shape-shifters so much as soul-snafflers. The Chuldur assume the likeness of a victim, whom they leave behind as a burned-out husk (feel free to make your own jokes about Manchester City and the Premier League). Alarmingly, it takes a while for the Doctor to twig something is amiss. He is finally tipped off when he spots bounty hunter Rogue, who, correctly deducing that the Doctor has changed shape in the past, incorrectly assumes he is the mighty morphin’ villain causing mischief.

He’s wrong on two counts. For one thing, the Doctor is… the Doctor. Secondly, there isn’t just one Chuldur – five of them have turned the Duchess’s ball into a personal game of dress-up. But more of that later. First, the Doctor and Rogue fall for one another. It must be love because the Doctor isn’t put off when he discovers his new squeeze is into Dungeons & Dragons – Rogue being a D&D character class (admit it, you knew that already).

Ruby, meanwhile, has made a new bestie in Emily Beckett (Camilla Aiko), only – oh no! – she’s one of the Chuldur, too, and wants to take on the appearance of her pal. Ruby sees off the shape-changer in a dance-off behind closed doors, soundtracked by a string version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”. She is then hauled away to be married to one of the disguised Chuldur (the aliens feed off drama – what could be more dramatic than a wedding at a country house?).

The Doctor assumes Ruby is dead and that Chuldur has stolen her identity. But when Ruby reveals it is really her, Rogue takes her place in the temporal trap he and the Doctor have set for the baddies (for plot reasons, it won’t work without the correct number of people within the forcefield). Chuldur and Rogue fall into the void. Later, looking to the stars, the Doctor silently vows to find his lost love again.

It’s an episode that yanks at the heartstrings even as it tickles Bridgerton fans under the chin. Amid all the mayhem, however, a final thread dangles. At one point, Ruby spots a creepy portrait in the corner of the room. It’s the late mother of the Duke of Pemberton, we are told.

But haven’t we seen her before? Yes, it’s the “face” of the killer med-bots from the “Boom” episode and the “mother” figure from last week’s “Dot and Bubble”. The woman (Susan Twist) has followed the Doctor from dimension to dimension. With this slow-burn mystery suddenly to the fore, it seems the series is set for an explosive concluding two episodes. That’s just as well. “Rogue” was fun and groundbreaking, but hardcore Whovians cannot get by on costumes alone. It will be a relief when the Doctor ditches the corsets and returns to whooshing across time and space.