Doctor Who – Rogue Back

A dazzling ball, a brooding stranger, and a matchmaking duchess – perfect ingredients for a cosy Regency romance. Except that this is a Doctor Who episode, so some of the guests are secretly time travellers, the duchess is a shapeshifting extraterrestrial Bridgerton superfan, and the brooding stranger is an intergalactic bounty hunter. While previous Regency-era episodes have showcased specific historical events (Thin Ice, 2017; The Haunting of the Villa Diodati, 2020), Rogue is essentially an affectionate parody of the international phenomenon that is Bridgerton. Prompted by a love of the series, the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) have travelled to 1813 for a fun night out at a typical society ball. The evening is disrupted when it turns out they are not the only Regency-era fans gatecrashing the party: the birdlike Chuldur are a family of shapeshifters who are cosplaying their way from guest to guest, murdering people to steal their likenesses. Appropriately, the episode’s dancing was superintended by Jack Murphy (the Bridgerton choreographer) and is accompanied by classical covers of modern pop tracks in true Bridgerton style. There’s even a wisteria walkway in the garden where the Doctor enjoys a flirtatious stroll with the enigmatic Rogue (Jonathan Groff), despite the fact that the luscious climbing plant was not actually introduced into British gardens until 1816 (has the Doctor been meddling with time again?). Just in case the viewer still hasn’t made the Bridgerton connection, the name of the hit show is also mentioned twice.

With elaborate costumes, an opulent setting, and a starry cast, Rogue cannot help but sparkle, and the episode is arguably the diamond of this season of Doctor Who. It’s a refreshingly innovative concept to depict alien villains who are not trying to conquer the world for power but for entertainment (clearly Netflix has a wider reach than any of us suspected). Cosplaying communities often comprise some of the friendliest, most supportive and inclusive people you’ll ever meet, but even as cosplayers the Chuldur are cheating. They haven’t spent weeks hunting for bespoke suppliers online, or hours hand-stitching costumes and watching hair and make-up tutorials: they just kill and switch. The heartless villainy of achieving such perfect cosplay with absolutely no effort richly merits the punishment of being zapped to another dimension. Ironically of course, the characters the Chuldur find most exciting are those who are not genuinely from the 1810s – Ruby Sunday is interesting to them because she is from the future, and because both her vocabulary and assertiveness create social drama. It is this lust for drama that the Doctor uses to draw the Chuldur out, making himself a target when he invites Rogue to join him on the dancefloor. Even though gay sex was illegal in the Regency era, same-sex dancing wasn’t always taboo; however, there was a heteronormative insistence that it should only occur when there was a pronounced gender imbalance, and usually as part of a group dance.[1] In including a closed-position waltz in 1813 the Duchess of Pemberton (Indira Varma) is already being quite avant garde, since this dance had only just reached Britain from continental Europe and was considered shockingly intimate.[2] But despite their own waltz beginning as a ruse, the romantic chemistry between the Doctor and Rogue is undeniably the most genuine and nuanced aspect of the episode, ultimately resulting in an offered ring and a passionate kiss: not the first gay kiss on Doctor Who, but nonetheless a beautiful and powerful moment of LGBTQ+ representation.

Maintaining the unities of time, place and action gives pace and urgency to the plot, but allows limited opportunity for the script to fully flesh-out supporting characters, who are often only rescued from becoming two-dimensional stereotypes by the sterling efforts of an incredibly talented cast. The heavy reliance upon historic homophobic attitudes as a plot device makes it important that the construction of other aspects of the Regency setting should be authentic too, but here the episode rather disappoints and the absence of a historical consultant becomes painfully obvious. Not only does the Duchess amiably accept uninvited guests at what is clearly a private party, she is also surprisingly ready to discuss matchmaking with a young lady whose status has not been authenticated by a mutual acquaintance. Later, she accuses a guest of wearing the same gown she wore ‘so beautifully last season’, which makes little sense in an era when clothes were tailor-made rather than off-the-peg and when high-ranking nobility might both hope and expect to be trendsetters. Indeed, greater care here could have been used to contrast the Chuldur’s ignorance about the period they claim to be fans of: the impersonated Miss Beckett (Camilla Aiko) is supposed to love reading but never names a single favourite author; the Chuldur wish to usurp Parliament and start wars ‘with anyone who doesn’t look British’, but don’t seem aware that Britain was already at war in Europe and America. That this superficiality is part of the episode’s production rather than its plot is evident in details such as the guests’ reactions to the appearance of the party’s hosts sporting feathers. As Conrad Brunström notes, this would have been more likely to provoke applause than panic as it would just look like fancy dress.

In the depiction of the villains’ motivation too, there remains a sense that the full potential of this story was not quite realised. The Chuldur are clearly toxic fans, craving ‘authenticity’ whilst possessing little real understanding of the period they claim to love and achieving only destruction in their attempt to assert ownership over the object of their obsession. This kind of toxicity is distressingly prevalent in both period and sci-fi franchise fandoms alike,[3] but sadly there is little time given to exploring the metadramatic commentary here. As a Whovian I found much to enjoy in this episode, but as a historian I couldn’t help feeling that the lack of contextual engagement was a bit of a missed opportunity.



[1] Thomas Wilson, An Analysis of Country Dancing, 3rd edn (London, 1811), p.

[2] Mark Knowles, The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries (Jefferson, N.C.; London: MacFarland, 2009), p. 30.

[3] See for instance Amanda-Rae Prescott, ‘Race and Racism in Austen Spaces: Notes on a Scandal: Sanditon Fandom’s Ongoing Racism and the Danger of Ignoring Austen Discourse on Social Media’, ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830, 11: 2 (Fall 2021), Article 10