Doctor Who, episode 3, spoiler-free review: Steven Moffat’s explosive return is a bit of a dud

Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa in 'Boom', episode 3 of series 14 of Doctor Who
Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa in Boom - BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/James Pardon

Episode three of the new Doctor Who (BBC One/Disney+) is called Boom, but a more accurate title would be Pffft. It consists of Ncuti Gatwa’s Time Lord standing on a landmine for half an hour while crying.

Boom is written by former Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, who has returned to the Whoniverse for one week only. It is an abrupt change in tone from the twee Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord – we’re on a grim, burning battlefield on the planet Kastarion 3. Moffat says in the programme notes that he wanted to write a story full of suspense and tension. But there is none, because they’re hardly going to blow up the new Doctor, are they? Consequently, Moffat is just filling time.

What does he fill it with? Well, there are Big Themes. One is that war is bad, and people who sell weapons of war are really bad. As Doctor Who is aimed at children, it’s fine to include this basic stuff. The battlefield is patrolled by “ambulances” run by algorithms and controlled by an arms-dealing corporation, which dispatch injured soldiers.

Theme Two: religion is bad. I’m going to hazard a guess that Moffat is an atheist, because the gun-toting soldiers here wear dog collars and are “ordained Anglican marines”. “Since when was the Church an army?” asks Ruby (Millie Gibson). “Since most of your history. You’ve been living in a blip,” replies the Doctor. When a little girl explains that her mummy “got gathered up by God”, the implication is that she’s fallen for all that nonsense about heaven. About 20 minutes later, this child is cheerily referring to her parent as “just dead”.

Moffat throws in little references for Whovians to pick up. So the Doctor sings The Skye Boat Song, which has featured in Doctor Who episodes long past. Tom Baker stepped on a landmine in Genesis of the Daleks. There are also cultural references, perhaps just to make the script seem clever, such as the suggestion that the Doctor has been hanging around with Philip Larkin. “A sad old man once told me: ‘What survives of us is love’,” he tells Ruby.

For most of the episode there are fat tears rolling down Gatwa’s cheeks. It is Russell T Davies’s professed aim to make Gatwa a more emotional Doctor, who wears his two hearts on his sleeve. Unfortunately, this also means the Doctor has some soppy stuff to deliver. “Snow isn’t snow until it falls,” he says, which alludes to the mystery surrounding Ruby’s parentage but is also completely meaningless.

You can’t escape the Disney influence, and not just with a set and costumes which look like Star Wars leftovers. There’s a cute kid and a cheesy ending. But it’s far darker than previous Gatwa episodes. His only joke comes when he says of the landmine: “I had to deactivate one of these once at a lesbian gymkhana. Underwater. For a bet.”

Boom is available on BBC iPlayer and Disney+ now; it is also on BBC One this evening at 6.50pm