Doctor Who season 1, episode 4 review: "A horror tour de force that will stay with you for years to come"

Doctor Who 73 Yards
(Image: © BBC)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

‘73 Yards’ continues Doctor Who’s streak of stellar episodes with an unsettling, Doctor-less horror story that will stay with you long after the iconic credits music kicks in

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Doctor-less episodes of Doctor Who are nothing new. ‘Blink’, most famously, took the safety net of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor away for an unnerving encounter with the now-iconic Weeping Angels. Weeks earlier in that series, the two-hander of ‘Human Nature/Family of Blood’ was a similarly unsettling affair as the persona of the Doctor was broken down and rebuilt as John Smith.

17 years on, ‘73 Yards’, the rural-set horror confidently led by Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday, plays a similar trick and approaches all-time classic territory – all without Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor. 

Showrunner Russell T Davies recently told sister outlet SFX magazine that it’s "most unlike any episode of Doctor Who ever before, and unlike any other piece of television." While Davies can often play hype man with the best of them, it’s safe to say he’s not far wrong in this case.

As the Doctor and Ruby drop into Wales, the Doctor – not long after ‘spoiling’ a major future UK event for his companion – trips upon and breaks a ritualistic circle of cotton, a tribute for a man known only as Mad Jack. 

After suddenly disappearing, it’s left up to Ruby to unravel the mystery, all set against the background of the peculiar folksy horror – think The Wicker Man – that us British tend to excel at: it’s all fog, gloom, and terror. But Ruby isn’t alone. In the distance, a woman perpetually follows her – first, into a quaint pub.

Keeps the Doctor away

Doctor Who 73 Yards

(Image credit: BBC)

It’s there at the Welsh local where ‘73 Yards’ really sets out its stall amid the rude pint-pulling barmaid and village regulars. As the woman waits ominously outside, it’s revealed that anyone who speaks to her will stare back at Ruby and flee. From here, the drip-feed tension all good horror stories exhibit rears its ugly head, with a splash of on-the-nose-but-always-right Russell T Davies political commentary for good measure.

It’s a well-measured, terrifying few minutes (ones that feel like hours in the best possible way), and it amounts to a breathless sequence that probably pushes Doctor Who to the absolute limit of its family-friendly(ish) image. 

I won’t be prudish or puritan about what younger audiences can and can’t watch, only to say that this episode would have seriously shaken me up as a young kid. This is about as close as the show can get to a horror movie without being one itself; it carries an uneasy feeling which courses through the veins of the entire runtime, never letting up for a single second.

While much has been made of the show’s bumped-up budget already, it’s the authorial intent – thanks to the expert guiding hand of director Dylan Holmes Williams – that shines brighter than any shiny CGI or broader special effects scope. 

Williams, who has a background in wickedly disconcerting horror from Apple’s Servant and his own short film The Devil’s Harmony, uses an intimate sense of place to get under the viewers’ skin. Everything feels lived-in but slightly off – with Russell T Davies’ script making delightful use of homely, offbeat Welsh stereotypes to dial up the tension further.

Doctor Who 73 Yards

(Image credit: BBC)

Of course, this episode lives and dies on Millie Gibson. Thankfully, she’s more than up to the task, grabbing center stage with both hands in a more nuanced, complex performance than the show has demanded of her so far. Whisper it, but it almost does enough to make us forget about the big ball of charisma that is Ncuti Gatwa. Almost.

Then… life goes on. For a moment, it feels like the Doctor truly has slipped away for good. It’s at that point, around half an hour in, that the penny drops: the current streak of stellar episodes is not only continuing, but we’re heading into all-timer Who season territory at this point.

If there is a fault with this outstanding Who entry, it’s that the final third stumbles slightly, losing the heft of horror and forward momentum the further it strays away from Wales. After such a strong start, it all appears to careen towards a slightly telegraphed ending.

But, as the closing number of 'The Devil’s Chord' tells us, there’s always a twist at the end. It’s one, naturally, we shan’t spoil here – but it caps off one of Doctor Who’s most deeply unsettling hours; this is a horror tour de force that will stay with you for years to come. Who needs the Doctor, eh?

'73 Yards' will be released on May 24 at 7:00pm ET on Disney Plus and at midnight May 25 on BBC iPlayer, before airing later that day live on BBC One.

For more great new TV, check out our guide to the best new shows coming your way in 2024.

Bradley Russell

I'm the Senior Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, focusing on news, features, and interviews with some of the biggest names in film and TV. On-site, you'll find me marveling at Marvel and providing analysis and room temperature takes on the newest films, Star Wars and, of course, anime. Outside of GR, I love getting lost in a good 100-hour JRPG, Warzone, and kicking back on the (virtual) field with Football Manager. My work has also been featured in OPM, FourFourTwo, and Game Revolution.