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Doctor Who goes full Black Mirror only to set up its most shocking twist

A sunny world, a bitter problem

A close up of Lindy, her face visible behind a bunch of transparent screens projected around her face in the Doctor Who episode “Dot and Bubble.” Image: Disney Plus
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

At first “Dot and Bubble,” the latest episode of Doctor Who, seems to be borrowing from Black Mirror’s bag of tricks. It’s set on Finetime, a planet where everyone is accompanied by a small spherical AI assistant called a Dot, which projects a “Bubble” around their heads. Within their individual Bubbles, people live their entire lives — group chatting, watching funny videos or performances by pop stars — and they do not seem to leave except to sleep. Even walking is mediated by the Bubble, telling them how many paces to move in each direction, guiding them to the office, back home, and to meals. It’s a very “kids these days and their damn phones!” kind of premise, but again: only at first.

The initially blunt metaphor only gets blunter when the monster of the week is introduced: terrifying slug aliens that are eating the denizens of Finetime alive, as they obliviously walk into their gaping maws because they can’t see past their bubbles. Our heroine for the week, the hapless Lindy Pepper-Bean (Callie Cooke), finds her Bubble’s feed intruded on by the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), who spend the episode trying to remotely lead her to safety, in spite of her skepticism.

It’s a clever setup, one that hearkens back to fan-favorite Doctor Who stories like “Blink,” and tropes beloved by writers like Steven Moffat (who, surprisingly, did not write this episode): horrible things at the edge of one’s perception, a hard limit on the Doctor’s ability to intervene, and a world engineered for conformity, with safety dependent on characters’ ability to escape societal gravity. This canny structure clashes with the painfully patronizing metaphor at the heart of “Dot and Bubble” — which writer Russell T. Davies exploits to obscure what he’s really doing.

Lindy, a blonde woman shot from behind, her face entirely surrounded by a globe of screens with faces on it, like an enormous Zoom call, in the Doctor Who episode “Dot and Bubble.” Image: Disney Plus

Because in between the seemingly lazy satire of the terminally online youth and the chilling thrills of its plot, Davies quietly drops pertinent details about Finetime and what is really happening here. Who are these people? What do they do? Why are they there? Each answer, delivered conversationally in an episode packed with a loud, candy-colored palette, louder social commentary, and one of the creepiest monsters of the season, barely registers. So when you finally get to the ending and the truth about Finetime is made clear, it’s like the floor opens out from underneath you, and “Dot and Bubble” immediately becomes one of the grimmest Doctor Who stories told in some time.

[Ed. note: This means spoilers for the very end of “Dot and Bubble.”]

In the end, there is no saving the people of Finetime. The first hint was in Lindy’s rapid dismissal of the Doctor’s warnings at the start of “Dot and Bubble,” and that she only began to listen when Ruby Sunday spoke to her. More hints piled up, leading to the answer of what brought the slug aliens to Finetime in the first place: the Dots. The Dots, in their algorithmic service to their users, learned too much about them, and grew to hate them. And it’s not because of their tech-addled brains blinding them to the real world; it’s because they’re fucking racist.

Lindy and the other Finetime survivors refuse to take the Doctor on his offer of safe passage away from Finetime, instead choosing to brave the wilds where they face certain death, just because of who the Doctor looks like. It’s here where the last tidbits fall into place: chilling glimpses of selfishness from Lindy, her lily-white friend group, the fact that Finetime is only inhabited by the young adult children of the 1%.

A bunch of sunny looking video chat windows filling the screen from the Doctor Who episode “Dot and Bubble.” Image: Disney Plus

Up until now, Doctor Who has been pretty unconcerned with how the Doctor taking on the appearance of a Black man might change the dynamic of the show. On the one hand, this is understandable, desirable even — it would be crass and arguably retrograde to immediately subject the Doctor to racism the moment it became a possible story outcome. It also feels intellectually dishonest to act as if it would never matter. Davies, as the white showrunner who engineered this situation, chose neither trauma porn nor avoidance. Instead he chose specificity: This is how the Doctor’s job is harder now. There are some people who don’t want to be saved by him. There are some problems that cannot be solved by cosmically deep wells of compassion and empathy. There are some people with hearts so mean they will not even save themselves.

“Dot and Bubble” argues that its hero’s role is to stand in the gap and help even in the face of such shocking contempt, because life is precious above all, even hateful little ones — presumably because life can be redeemed, and death is final. It’s hard to accept this, and Gatwa’s performance suggests that maybe such idealism isn’t deserved here. He laughs at the insanity of the situation, and then screams in anguish. Who knows if it’s the right call, but he made one. He tried.

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