Doctor Who: The Legend of Ruby Sunday review – Theresa May’s awkward dance enters the Whoniverse

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

Who’d be a showrunner for the BBC’s biggest global franchise? While giving every appearance of enjoying his return to the control room of the Tardis, Russell T Davies has nonetheless admitted viewing figures for the latest season of Doctor Who are lower than anticipated. “They might not be the ratings we’d love. We always want higher,” he said, before pointing out that streaming audiences were steadily building.

Hardcore Whovians are undoubtedly divided about the debut series of 14th Doctor Ncuti Gatwa – and it doesn’t help that the year opened with perhaps its weakest storyline in the twee intergalactic toddler vs snot monster episode, “Space Babies”. But there’s been lots to love since, and Who has been building at pace toward its two-part finale, which begins with instalment seven, “The Legend of Ruby Sunday”.

The episode digs deep into Whovian lore, by bringing back a baddie first encountered in the mid-1970s (this is your final spoiler warning). Yes, let’s warmly welcome Sutekh the Destroyer, the Egyptian avatar of death, with whom Fourth Doctor Tom Baker tangled in the beloved “Pyramids of Mars”.

But if the final reveal of Sutekh is fun and sets up a potentially thrilling finale, the journey there is convoluted and overstuffed. Not only is the show rewinding to 1975 – it is also going back, in spirit at least, to the perpetually baffling Chris Chibnall-Jodie Whittaker era, when curveballs were bunged in just for the sake of it, and the plot fell apart in the clear light of multiple rewatchings.

“The Legend of Ruby Sunday” is nowhere near as brain-shredding as prime Chibnall. Nonetheless, it does bump along a bit, and when the Egyptian dust has settled, it’s up for debate whether the previous six episodes adequately teased the arrival of Sutekh.

All of the attention ahead of the penultimate helping of Who had been on the silvered-haired character, played by Susan Twist, who we’ve seen pop up in multiple guises – the Orwellian Space Mum in “Dot and Bubble”, the killer ambulance AI in “Boom”. We meet her again as the Doctor and Ruby (Millie Gibson) take the Tardis to Unit HQ in Central London, where the Doctor tells Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and the gang that he needs help working out why Twist’s character keeps cropping up – and if there is a connection to the origin story of Ruby, abandoned as a foundling on those church steps in December 2004.

The first mystery is easily solved. The Unit crew immediately recognise Twist’s protagonist. She is Susan Triad, a tech mogul seemingly inspired equally by Elon Musk and Theresa May (an awkward dance she does before giving a big speech is 100 per cent May as prat-falling PM). The Doctor has a brainwave – S.Triad… is an anagram of “Tardis”. Well, duh, say Kate and the gang – they’ve already worked that out and have sent Bonnie Langford’s Mel behind enemy lines, posing as a Triad’s publicist.

 (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
(James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

The Doctor has another surprise. Susan is also the name of his granddaughter. Hold up, says an understandably perplexed Ruby. The Doctor… has a granddaughter? Yes, long-time Whovians will yell at the telly. Susan Foreman was both the Doctor’s original companion and granddaughter. The Doctor adds that he doesn’t actually have a daughter. Not yet, anyway. That’s time travel for you – always putting one thing before the other.

Kate and her pals have a shock in return. They had expected Susan Triad to be a conventional megalomaniac trying to take over humanity. It turns out she’s… “really nice”.

Will she stay that way after her upcoming address to the United Nations, at which she will unveil a new technology that promises to “change the whole world”? No time to dwell on that. The Doctor sends Ruby home to fetch a grainy CCTV tape of the night she was abandoned from that church. Thanks to a holo-deck-from-Star Trek-style device at Unit, they use the video to recreate that fateful evening.

This is where things go off the rails – both for the Doctor and, alas, for Davies’ script. Down in Unit’s “Time Window”, the magical snow that has been following Ruby about falls once again. Unit then turn on their time-hopping window, and presto, the Doctor and Ruby are back at that church in 2004. And lo! There is a mysterious hooded figure, Ruby’s mother.

But her image glitches – suggesting something is amiss. Never mind, says a chirpy soldier who has come along to help. He goes to investigate, only to disappear behind the Tardis that the 2004 version of the Doctor used to travel to the location in the Christmas special (like I said, confusing).

Seeing her mother shuffle away from the doorstep where she abandoned her daughter is obviously upsetting for Ruby – especially given that the parent she never knew is kitted out like a hooded Black Rider from The Lord of the Rings. No time for tears, however  – a huge scary CGI, er, something has just manifested. Oh, and that nice soldier is still missing. Then we hear his voice as he chirps in, “I am in hell.” No, not a Ticketmaster queue for a Coldplay concert. He’s been snatched away somewhere dark and deep.

Next, a huge, frightening, Marvel Movie-style energy pulse causes the Time Window to short-circuit. With that, the Doctor decides enough is enough. The moment has come for him to confront Susan. Off he goes while the Unit team investigates Ruby’s VHS tape, which now includes footage of that swirling hell cloud.

Only isn’t merely a hell cloud. It’s a hell cloud concealing a second Tardis from back in 2004. In the meantime, the Doctor tries to gate-crash Susan Triad’s big speech, which she is delivering remotely to the UN. She is approachable and reveals that she’s been struggling to sleep. The Doctor asks if she’s dreamed of the various planets we’ve seen in previous episodes. The look on her face confirms this is indeed so.

Shaken by the exchange, she steps before the teleprompter and begins her speech – only for a scary “Big Bad” voice to mimic her through the speakers. There’s lots of scariness at Unit, too. A black “Evil Tardis” has manifested, and we learn that a minor character introduced as Harriet is Harriet Arbinger – aka Harbinger… aka an advance party for… whoever/whatever is coming.

The Doctor has it cracked. Susan Triad doesn’t mean Tardis – it stands for “Sutekh” (if you squint and scramble the letters slightly). True to that prediction, Sutekh – a big dragon type beastie – materialises before the Tardis. “I am god of death, all shall perish,” he announces optimistically.

Meanwhile, Susan morphs into a mummy-type nasty with blank eyes and sunken features. She turns her PA to dust – it was either that or pay him a living wage – and then faces the Doctor. “Did you think I was family, Doctor?” she says mockingly. “I bring Sutekh’s gift of death!”

Hokey, cackling, over the top – these are the values Doctor Who stands for and it’s great to see the show go all vintage and 1970s. But you wonder if Davies isn’t contradicting previous statements to the effect that the BBC re-hired him to bring in an under-30 audience. Will younger viewers care about a Whovian hoodlum dating back to the Tom Baker era? All will be revealed when the ratings come out. Until they do, the ongoing worry for the BBC is that, in swerving from space babies to Baker-vintage monsters, Doctor Who is trapped in a vortex of its own making.