In Review: Doctor Who – 73 Yards

Review by Tim Robins

Landing on the Welsh coast, the Doctor and Ruby embark on the strangest journey of their lives. In a rain-lashed pub, the locals sit in fear of ancient legends coming to life.

Doctor Who – 73 Yards - Art by Fraser Geesin
Art by Fraser Geesin

Doctor Who, 73 Yards

Review by Tim Robins

“73 Yards” was a bit of a mystery. Not least, for me – why did Google Search keep directing me to sites selling wool? The nearest I got to Doctor Who was an advert for one of Sylvester McCoy’s knitted sweaters. Then I realised that my search was set to “Product”.

For the fourth episode of Doctor Who Season One, Russell T Davies had promised a story that was “hard to describe,” then described it as a work of “Welsh folk horror… it’s spooky, it’s strange, it’s genuinely unlike any other episode we’ve ever done before.”

But “73 Yards” only began as Welsh Folk Horror. The story, in a typically bravura move by Davies, soon turned into a troubling tale that confronted Ruby Sunday with her fear of abandonment, as she goes on to live her life with only a strange apparition for companionship. 

The story began with the TARDIS materialising on a cliff top in Wales. The Doctor and Ruby enthusiastically embraced the setting, until The Doctor stepped on what turned out to be a “faerie circle”, not unlike a dream catcher as the episode represented it. 

Ruby picks up a couple of small scrolls from the circle. One reads, “I miss you”, the other reads “Rest in Peace, Mad Jack”.   From that point on, the Doctor is nowhere to be seen. The TARDIS remains locked and stationary on the cliff top over the following decades. For the rest of her life, Ruby is ‘haunted’ by an elderly woman, who remained exactly 73 yards away from her, at all times.

Davies has said that he was precise about the exact distance (he discovered it is the distance that somebody with 20/20 vision can no longer distinguish details like what somebody’s face looks like) but, beyond precision, “73 Yards” seems not to have any further significance: it is two yards short of the width of a football pitch and 13 yards longer than the distance between the Globe Inn and the sea in M.R.James’s ghost story, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Boy”, to which “73 Yards” owes a debt.

The name “Mad Jack” does reoccur. First, he is mentioned by the mischievous locals of Glyngatwag – a village Ruby visits after losing the Doctor at the start of the episode. Incidentally, Glyngatwag may or may not translate as ‘Glen Empty of Cats.’ 

Later, “Mad Jack” is a nickname given to Gwilliam. I’ll admit to wondering if “Mad Jack” was an entity called from space-time, much like The Toymaker who was set free when yhe Doctor disturbed a circle of salt.

Davies has talked about moving Doctor Who’s adventures into previously unexplored areas of the supernatural, a smart move given the genre’s current popularity. There are events that take place that have no scientific explanations, although Doctor Who fans, being also science fiction fans, have tried to find them. There has been much talk on-line about parallel universes and time paradoxes.

Some commentators have compared “73 Yards” to the film, It Follows (2014), about young people being pursued by an entity only they can see. But it only took a long shot of a distant figure standing under a wind blasted tree, to be reminded of the BBC’s 1968 production, “Whistle and I’ll Come You”, an acclaimed adaptation of James’s ghost story. 

In James’s story, Parkins, an academic, discovers, then plays, an antiquated whistle only to find himself haunted by a figure that runs towards him on a beach but fails to reach him. In the BBC adaptation, director Miller makes full use of a bleak, apparently empty, beach emphasising how isolated and vulnerable the protagonist feels.

In “73 Yards”, anyone who talks to the apparition runs away screaming leaving Ruby shunned. This is a dramatic way of making the character relive her initial moment of abandonment by her mother. In the end, Ruby realises that, as many adopted children must do, she is never alone with herself.

In a twist taken from The Dead Zone, Ruby lives to see Roger ap Gwilliam become Prime Minister, a man that the Doctor had warned will lead Britain to the brink of nuclear war. When Ruby hears Gwilliam’s ambition to fire a nuclear missile (at whom is unclear), she weaponises the apparition to stop him. Forewarned is forearmed. 

However, many commentators were left feeling that Ruby should have intervened sooner in the story. This is because Ruby learns that Gwilliam has abused a young member of his election team. Ruby apologises to the girl for not helping her. I suppose, one explanation is that Ruby couldn’t change the history the Doctor had outlined to her. Gwilliam had to become Prime Minister, after that he was fair game, but I’m not sure.

Millie Gibson’s performance is compelling. Her character is put through the emotional wringer while events flow by as if she is caught in a dream. The Doctor is hardly in the story. There is no clear explanation for his absence in the story itself. (On a practical level, Gatwa, was absent in order during the episode’s recording, to finish his commitments to season four of the Netflix series, Sex Education). 

There have been ‘Doctor light’ episodes almost since Doctor Who began, of course.  Back in the 1960s, when the show was on nearly every Saturday in a year, William Hartnell would be given an occasional, well-earned break or when he was suffering from ill-health. 

Since Doctor Who’s 2005 comeback, “Doctor light” stories such as “Blink”and “Turn Left’ have been among the most critically praised. It looks like “73 Yards” has already joined their ranks. However, there were some disappointments in the way the story was realised.

For me, the apparition didn’t look terrifying enough. I found its hand gestures irritating. Sometimes, the apparition placed its hand on its chest, once it even gave a shrug, but these gestures were unintelligible, rather than menacing. Perhaps the apparition should have reached out to Ruby, as it did in the episode’s final moments. 

Sometimes, the moments where characters screamed and ran away from the figure were comedic, although such moments became heartbreaking when one of the people who runs away is Ruby’s own, adoptive mother.  But the tonal shifts tended to undermine the terror. This was particularly true of the scenes in the village pub.

Davies seemed to want to say something serious about representations of the Welsh, but the characters kept undermining themselves with inexplicably cruel humour. In the end, I wrote them off as the worst representation of Welsh villagers since a 1966 episode of the action adventure series, The Saint, “The House on Dragon’s Rock”. That begins with footage of Welsh women running about in shawls and stove pipe hats. Meanwhile, driving his car through the Welsh countryside, Simon Templar (Roger Moore) intones, “Wales is…a land of brooding mystery, steeped in the past…”. Later, he is attacked by a giant ant.

For the record, I once totalled my car at night on a country road in North Wales. With no mobile signal, I walked back to the village’s only shop.  After I called the AA from a public telephone, the man behind the shop counter said, “They’ve all been talking about your car!” It turned out ‘they’ were customers who had entered the shop after me, and had been talking in Welsh, which I don’t understand! Needless to say, everyone was lovely, rather than menacing.

For me, “73 Yards”, much like Ruby, strove for a lot but didn’t entirely get there. But, although I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I should, there’s no reason why you won’t. In many ways, the episode is an example of Davies’ belief that the show can be taken in many different directions. And he has the confidence to do just that. 

Tim Robins

• “73 Yards” is available now on BBC iPlayer and, elsewhere, beyond the UK, on Disney+. Even in some alternate timelines, probably

Fun Fact No. 1: A QR code spotted in the episode takes you to the website of designer Stephen Fielding

Fun Fact No. 2 via Whoniverse Locations: The White Cross Inn, the pub which Ruby visited, was actually used for Torchwood‘s Countrycide too

Categories: Doctor Who, Features, Other Worlds, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television

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4 replies


    Could someone who paid more attention than I managed to explain (a) why people ran away screaming, (b) how the mysterious woman managed to live to about 140, by my reckoning, and (c) how events played out differently the second time around? Thanks!

    • I took it that she was a ghost and so time wasn’t affecting her, and she scared people for undefined “supernatural reasons”.

      But that’s guesswork rather than anything specific I can point to in the episode. Other people might have a better insight.

      • Thanks. It occurred to me that she might be “spread out through time” like the person in “Hide”, which might also mean she appeared ghost-like. But it didn’t seem to be just LOOKING at her, even from close up, that caused people to run in panic, so much as her talking to them.

        I think you’ve confirmed my suspicions that nobody knows why she had that effect on people, including Mr Davies. I guess she was a kind of updated version of “Bad Wolf” which didn’t really mean much in the end…

  2. Liz, happy to help. I know nothing!

    Enjoyable episode, whatever it was.

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