The following contains spoilers for “Boom.”

It should be borne in mind that any new series needs time to find its footing, even when it is a revival of an already released hit. The first three episodes of “new” Doctor who were fun, but not without their own idiosyncrasies that made them hard to love. Now it’s time for Steven Moffat, the greatest series writer of the 21st century, to show what this new season can do. There’s the usual degree of swagger and wit, but it’s hard to deny the man’s genius when writing the first true classic of the Disney+ era. damn it

Boom pushes the Doctor and Ruby into the tiniest corner of a war and lets it play out in microcosm. It’s an angry story about how money, power and cruelty make people inhuman, and it’s kind of an episode Doctor who excels in. This story is not about the futility of war and why money is the engine that keeps it going. Its framing may be modern—there are too many uses of the word “algorithm” here—but its central thesis is timeless.

Two soldiers on a battlefield.

The Bad Wolf / BBC Studios

In a wasteland battlefield on Kastarian 3, two militarized Anglican clergy return to base. Carson (Majid Mahdizadeh-Valoujerdy) brings his friend John Francis Vater (Joe Anderson), who was blinded in the battle, an injury that will take four weeks to recover from. They spot an ambulance in the distance, but seem to be afraid of it and look to go around it on the long road. Carson loses his footing and slides into a small crater, activating a land mine that instantly destroys him. The disturbance calls for an ambulance, tracked by a large-screen tank device with an apparently friendly avatar (Susan Twist), who injects her tentacles into Vater, identifying his injury. He decides that four weeks is an unacceptable recovery time and fires him instead. His scream is heard by the Doctor, who sprints from the TARDIS to help, only to find himself placing one foot on the exact same mine that killed Carson.

Ruby arrives to find the Doctor frozen in place, asking her to describe what she’s standing on: A Willengard mine. It’s an antipersonnel explosive made by a well-known weapons manufacturer that Moffat has mentioned several times before. The Doctor asks Ruby to find something heavy to hold so she can shift her weight and place her foot without triggering the mine. What she finds are the compact remains of Vater attached to an AI box containing a simulacrum of Vater. The Doctor asks Ruby to throw it to him, but she instead chooses to go into blast range and hand it over. It confirms the dynamic that as Gatwa’s Doctor has vacated the role of a big-breasted character, Ruby has stepped in to fill the void.

However, the mine is unsure if the Doctor is a viable target and so remains frozen on the brink of activation. Willengard’s weapons are notoriously vicious, and the company has created a warfare algorithm to limit the number of bodies in the combat zone at once, while dragging out wars profitably and indefinitely. This gives the company license to kill the wounded rather than spend the money on their treatment.

Image by SpliceImage by Splice

The Bad Wolf / BBC Studios

Before he died, Vater was talking to his daughter Splice (Caoilnn Springall), who was brought into the war because there was no one else to care for her. While her father was on patrol, she was left in the care of Mundy (Varada Sethu), a lower-ranking soldier in the army. But she pulls out her minder to get to her father’s last GPS-tagged location. She arrives, triggering the hologram attached to Vater’s remains that transmits his glorification to his daughter.

Soon after, Mundy discovers her wayward ward and manages to explain the rest of the plot to the TARDIS team. The Anglicans have been at war for six months against an enemy they have never seen or heard of. Mundy and the Doctor argue about the nature of religion and how belief – in more than a higher power – helps create willing material for the meat grinder of war. Mundy is skeptical of the Doctor and Ruby, but is quickly convinced when she scans the Doctor to see that he won’t just blow himself up in the mine. As a complex space-time event, activating the mine would not only kill him, but destroy half the planet. It gets even worse: the mine will expire and go out anyway after its stuttering activation.

After noticing the scandal, an ambulance arrives and sticks its threatening stinger into the Doctor. Ruby, once again refusing to let anyone else control the narrative, grabs Mundy’s shotgun and tries to create a distraction to no effect. Mundy tells Ruby to shoot her using the lowest setting on the shotgun, which will attract the ambulance without being fatal. But as Ruby takes aim, Canterbury (Bhav Joshi) arrives just in time to misjudge the scene and shoot Ruby to protect his fellow soldier. Ruby, on the brink of death, generates more snow, but fades quickly

The Doctor has worked out the problem, which is that the planet has no enemies at all – it’s barren. Willengard’s algorithm sends the soldiers to die with the traps they themselves bought and probably set. The only solution is to surrender, but that’s not something Mundy is willing or empowered to do, so the Doctor must find proof to show the High Cleric. He uses Vater’s AI, invoking his duty to a father and whatever humanity is left inside to search the military database for evidence that there is no enemy at all.

More ambulances arrive in an attempt to crush the people in the crater, towering over them all. As Mundy and Canterbury talk, the latter is suddenly crushed for reasons that boil down to… we’re in the last few minutes of the episode. In the chaos, all seems lost, but as Willengard’s AI projects a hologram, it is quickly taken over by Vater, whose love for his daughter has hopefully triggered some sort of feedback loop, ending the war and deactivating the mine. When the war is over, Ruby is resurrected by the ambulance and the four survivors can enjoy the beautiful view in the sky above Castarian 3.

There’s even time for the Doctor to mention an “embarrassed old man” who once told him that “what will survive us is love”. This is a reference to the works of the notoriously sharp poet Philip Larkin Arundel Tomb, referring to a long-decomposed sculpture of two people lying in state. The Doctor mentions that Splice may have a bright future ahead of her and prepares to head off on their next adventure.

Picture of The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)Picture of The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)

The Bad Wolf / BBC Studios

There is no good place to look at this later, so I will add that Varada Sethu has also been chosen as a new companion for Doctor Who is second season. Initial rumors suggested she would replace Millie Gibson, but the BBC said last month the trio will travel together. It is not uncommon for an actor to play a supporting role in one episode and then return as a member of the main cast. Peter Capaldi, Karen Gillan, Freema Agyeman and Colin Baker played one-off roles before joining as the Doctor or as a companion. I have no idea if Mundy will return or if Sethu will play a new character, but I’m not sure Mundy was a compelling enough character to be worth revisiting.

Picture of Ruby Sunday (MIllie Gibson)Image of Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)

The Bad Wolf / BBC Studios

“Boom” is a masterclass in steadily building tension in a way that Doctor who has rarely tried. I wouldn’t want to experience this level of stress every week, but it’s a nice change from the status quo. The only thing that doesn’t quite work with the episode is the uneven pacing. Despite all the effort put into building tension, the ending just happens.

I feel like Moffat was straining against time as the last few minutes were just thrown away without as much attention as I would have liked. Interestingly, on other occasions when Moffat has written stories this dark, such as The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances and The World and Time Enough / The Doctor Falls, both have been in two parts. I’m not sure Boom needed 90 minutes, but an extra 10 or so might have helped things breathe.

Despite being rooted in one place for most of the story, Gatwa’s Doctor still commands every frame he occupies. There is enough chemistry between him and Millie Gibson that the interaction between the two is completely believable. However, the rest of the cast doesn’t really get that much time to shine given the limited focus and main roles they play in the narrative.

It’s completely in keeping with Moffat’s style that he would return to a show now equipped with a Disney-sized budget just to make an episode that takes place in one location. As a writer, he’s always been happy to tie one hand behind his back and then let those limitations force him to be better. Its Swiss watch plot, intelligent storylines and snappy dialogue have always ensured that its episodes are events. History has also silenced his critics: last year, Doctor Who Magazine polled readers to rank each episode of the show made. Stunningly, from the top 10, Moffat was credited with fiveknocking Robert Holmes, the series’ greatest writer, off his perch.

And as I said at the beginning, “Boom” stands proud as the first true classic of the Disney+ era.

Susan Twist Corner

This week, Susan Twist played the avatar of the ominous Villengard ambulances that roam the battlefield. Several times the Doctor addressed Vater’s AI homunculus with the fact that they both are or were fathers. If it’s not clear, I think the show really wants the audience to know that the Doctor is a father with a child whose whereabouts are unknown. The hacker premise would be that Susan is the one who took up the mantle of The One Who Waits, or that she somehow is Ruby. Yes