'Doctor Who' Does Regency Romance Right with"Rogue"

Ncuti Gatwa and Mililie Gibson in "Rogue"

Ncuti Gatwa and Mililie Gibson in "Rogue"

(Photo: Disney+)

Somewhat unintentionally, this season of Doctor Who has somehow managed to spin itself into the most timely thing on television. The Ruby-centric "73 Yards," whose primary villain was an aggressive nationalist and xenophobic politician with his hand on the nuclear trigger, arrived just as real-life Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a general election. (Showrunner Russell T. Davies knew this was an election year, but the episode debuting 48 hours after Sunak called the election was still Chef's Kiss.) Now the Bridgerton-esque "Rogue" arrives smack in the middle of the hiatus of the popular Netflix series' third season and features a fairly ground-breaking same-sex romance for the Doctor just in time for Pride Month.

Though "Rogue" is only the sixth episode of Davies' second tenure, it's another shining example of the ambitious nature of this incarnation of the long-running sci-fi series. Continually pushing boundaries about what the show is supposed to be and do, it abandons the subtext of previous iterations for a more straightforward and emotionally affecting queer love story (that also happens to feature some owl-like villains who enjoy cosplaying their favorite Earth-based television programs using the bodies of real-life humans). 

Coming on the heels of "Dot and Bubble," which saw the Doctor forced to confront the limits of his ability to save those he encounters — either from certain death or their own bigotry, "Rogue" is a complete tonal swerve into a softer, more traditionally entertaining time travel romp. A trip to the past undertaken seemingly solely because Ruby herself is a Bridgerton fan, the fancy frocks, glowing setting, and the much smaller stakes of scandal and gossip are a balm after multiple episodes that wrestle with everything from faith and loneliness to racism and hate. 

Indira Varma in "Rogue"

Indira Varma in "Rogue"

(Photo: Disney+)

Naturally, because this is Doctor Who, the stakes don't stay all that small for very long, and once again, our favorite Time Lord is faced with an impossible choice in the name of saving humanity. The villains of this piece, a birdlike species of shapeshifters known as the Chuldur, are perhaps the episode's least interesting element a doubly unfortunate fact given that Indira Varma (Game of Thrones) plays the group's monstrous ringleader, known as the Duchess. Also, much like Aneurin Barnard's (1899) guest turn as wicked politician Roger ap Gwilliam in "73 Yards," she's given almost nothing of substance to do. 

Luckily, the episode's other notable guest star fares much better. Jonathan Groff (Mindhunter) plays the eponymous Rogue, a mysterious, rake-ish type who skirts the edges of the ball, looking every inch as though he's stepped out of the pages of a Jane Austen novel. That he's more than he seems is instantly apparent, as is that he shares some seriously crackling chemistry with the Doctor. The pair banter, argue, flirt, and threaten one another as each assumes the other is responsible for whatever cosmic weirdness is happening in early 19th-century Bath. 

After several episodes where Gatwa's presence has been rather severely reduced, it's lovely to see him in his element here, and his performance runs the gamut between outrageous camp, flirtatious fun, and quiet heartbreak. (The scene in which the Doctor discovers Rogue not only took his name from Dungeons & Dragons but is a Kylie Minogue fan is one of the most charming things we've witnessed all season.) 

Ncuti Gatwa and Jonathan Groff in "Rogue"

Ncuti Gatwa and Jonathan Groff in "Rogue"

(Photo: Disney+)

In many ways, Groff's Rogue feels like a sort of Jack Harkness 2.0, reborn as a lonely alien bounty hunter tracking villainous creatures through the stars. Complete with a brooding personality, a vaguely tragic backstory involving an unnamed loss, and a spaceship that's far too big for one person; his character offers an intriguing mirror to the Doctor, a sort of cautionary tale about who he might become if he didn't embrace traveling with companions like Ruby. 

He also offers Doctor Who a chance to make much of the queer subtext of Davies' previous tenure explicitly apparent in a way the show hasn't attempted before. (At least, not with the Doctor himself.) Fifteen and Rogue's flirtation may move quickly from antagonism to something more, but there's no doubt that a genuine romance is developing between them. The episode makes it crystal clear for the slow people in the back well before the pair kiss, and one sacrifices themselves for the other. From their swoony extended dance routine to the fake proposal that follows, their story is painfully romantic in a way we rarely see on Doctor Who. (Think Season 2's "The Girl in the Fireplace" or Torchwood's "Captain Jack Harkness.")

But, unlike those stories, perhaps their romance is not entirely doomed. The show at least leaves the door open that Rogue might find his way back to the Doctor, and there's every reason to hope that his final plea for Fifteen to find him will fuel a long-term arc of some type. More importantly, Groff's too good an actor one of the best guest star performances Who's had in ages to let his character appear only once. (Could he be Fifteen's version of River Song? It's even odds, but I'm here for it.)

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson in "Rogue"

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson in "Rogue"

(Photo: Disney+)

Because the Doctor spends most of this episode bickering and flirting with a handsome stranger, "Rogue" is another installment in which Ruby is primarily left to her own devices. Her subplot involves befriending a wallflower and urging her to want more for her life than the marriage market. Sadly, it feels very B-plot in that it isn't all that interesting, save for the bit where she uses the Chuldur's love of cosplaying against them. But Gibson already has proven herself more than capable of carrying a story on her own, and she more than does her best with what little she's given. (The "battle mode" earrings are genuinely hilarious.) 

In such a short season only eight episodes down from Doctor Who's usual 10-13 it is admittedly a little strange to see the show's two leads spend so much time apart, particularly when it's their first season together. Multiple episode subplots have seen Fifteen confronted with the threat of Ruby's loss or death, and it's a credit to the onscreen bond that Gatwa and Gibson have built together that those scenes are as powerful and affecting as they are, given that we haven't spent nearly as much time with the two of them together as we had, say, Nine and Rose or Ten and Donna by this point. 

Don't get me wrong — the pair are utterly fabulous together. I'm just not sure we've seen The Doctor and Ruby have anything resembling a genuine conversation since "Boom." Here's hoping the upcoming finale, a two-parter, helps alleviate that problem.

Doctor Who Season 14 streams new episodes on Friday evenings on Disney+ in the U.S. and midnight on Saturday mornings in the U.K.


Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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