Doctor Who: Dot and Bubble review – Russell T Davies goes all Black Mirror

Warning: this review is also a recap, meaning it contains spoilers for the episode

The latest episode of Doctor Who brings together two of the most repellent forces in the universe: social media influencers and giant bugs. They are horrifying, slurping and mindless – and the bugs are pretty disgusting, too, as we discover in a fun but icky outing for the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby (Millie Gibson).

The vibe is Black Mirror crossed with one of those David Attenborough documentaries you turn off because there are too many close-ups of slugs and insects devouring each other’s faces. Nor is there much subtlety: going quietly into the night has never been a critical attribute of showrunner Russell T Davies, and with his latest Doctor Who script, he doesn’t so much bang you across the head with his message as tie you to train tracks and roll over you with it at speed.

The big takeaway is social media turns us all into snarky dimwits who struggle to navigate the world without devices in hand. He’s not wrong – but is he telling us anything we don’t already know? Smartphones are bad – who would have guessed! On the other hand, “Dot and Bubble” scores douze Doctor Who points for giving us hordes of giant creepy crawlies who lurch around gobbling up unsuspecting civilians. Scary monsters eating unsuspecting peeps is a staple of the franchise – good on Davies for firing up the jukebox and playing the hits.

The action starts in Finetime – a curated Toy Town for young trendy folk who communicate exclusively via their “dot and bubble” devices. These are essentially a sort of 24/7 interactive TikTok feed. Our story begins with Lindy Pepper-Bean (Callie Cooke), an obliviously chirpy twentysomething woman who spends her day with her floating AI “dot” – which live-casts a virtual reality “bubble” around her head. It’s 21st-century social media taken a teeny step further: Lindy walks around surrounded by her bubble, nattering to her fellow influencer-like pals, who have hashtag-type names such as “Gothic Paul”.

But who is this… the Doctor? Dialling in remotely, appearing on her feed and telling Lindy she’s in danger?  She reacts with alarm and chucks him out, while noticing several of her friends are not responding to her messages. Never mind. Lindy toddles off to her office job, with her bubble providing precise navigation as she traipses through Finetime. People in the future will be so dim they rely entirely on their phones to complete simple, everyday tasks – what a dystopia, eh!

In the office, where she pretends to work for two hours a day doing data entry of some sort, Lindy is interrupted again. It’s Ruby, later joined by the Doctor in a separate window (but, in reality they are in the same room on the Tardis). This time, she listens to the warnings and, encouraged by Ruby, looks around and notices a giant slug eating her colleague. The bugs are everywhere, only Lindy hasn’t spotted any because she’s been looking at her phone… OK, her bubble (told you it wasn’t subtle).

Finetime, we discover, is a paradise for rich kids built by their parents bang in the middle of a planet otherwise brimming with dangerous forests. The Doctor tells Lindy there’s a way out via a tunnel beneath the city, but she’ll have to think outside the box by looking beyond her bubble. Along the way to the escape route, she meets Ricky September (Tom Rhys Harries) – a floppy-haired pop star and the only resident of Finetime who occasionally switches off his bubble and enjoys the real world. What a weirdo.

Lindy chats to the Doctor in her bubble (BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/James Pardon)
Lindy chats to the Doctor in her bubble (BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/James Pardon)

Ricky is a mix of Jason Donovan in Neighbours and Timothée Chalamet in Dune, and he leads Lindy down below as the Doctor and Ruby chime in with remote advice (Finetime’s shields prevent them from Tardis-ing in personally). Lindy is confident their parents on the homeworld will save them. But when Ricky places a call to the old sod, he discovers that the other planet has also been overrun by the slugs (a fact he keeps from Lindy).

In the bowels of an apartment block, Ricky, with the Doctor helping remotely via Lindy’s dot, begins to input the extremely long string of numbers required to open the door (essentially a stalling device by Davies to keep Ricky and Lindy in harm’s way). Still, there’s a mystery. Why are monsters picking off some residents of Finetime and not others? Finally, the Doctor and Ruby crack it: the killings are in alphabetic order. It’s as if the monsters are working from a list.

What sort of marauding slug uses a spreadsheet? Well, Elon Musk, presumably – but apart from him? Actually, it’s the dots – they have achieved self-awareness and, fed up of catering to an entire city of spoiled airheads (let’s hope they never end up at Coachella), are using the slugs to eliminate the kids. With its secret rumbled, Lindy’s dot goes on the rampage (having cut off the feed to the Doctor and Ruby). This is where our heroine shows her true colours. She blurts out that Ricky September’s real name is Coombes – he should be next on the kill list, as “C” comes before “P” for Pepper-Bean.

Fair enough, says the dot, which eviscerates Ricky’s head in a scene that surely bumps right up against Doctor Who’s PG rating (though we don’t see any blood, Ricky’s skull definitely evaporates).

While Ricky is going to pieces, Lindy opens the door and pegs it to the basement, where her fellow influencers are planning to leave Finetime. Then the Tardis arrives (unlike the rest of Finetime there is no protective forcefield in the basement) and the Doctor offers to take the survivors with him. It’s impossible, says Lindy. The Doctor is an outsider.  “We couldn’t travel with you because you, sir, are not one of us,” she says. “You are kind, although it was your duty to save me. Screen-to-screen contact is just about acceptable. In person – that’s impossible.”

It isn’t spelt out, but the implication is that Lindy and her companions are racist and see the Doctor as “the other” (Lindy is perfectly cool with Ruby). It’s a stark twist at the end of an instalment that floats along in a cloud of pulp bravura, and you do feel a chill as Lindy uncorks the hate.

What isn’t clever is the decision to have Gatwa gurn his socks off over the rejection.  He screams, he laughs, he goes complete matinee panto – to quote my notes, his precise response is “aaaah…..aaaaah…damn….damnnn…damnnnn....”

Fair enough – that’s how I behave whenever the wifi goes down. For the Doctor, though, it’s a whole lotta overacting that feels like a misstep, considering a more restrained response might have been just as effective. We know the new Doctor is emotional – even so, the hyperventilating does not resonate as true to the character. For one thing, Lindy and her crew are obviously idiots. Why should the Doctor care what they think? Still, no time to linger as Lindy and her pals set off into the wilds – and presumably to certain death. Roll credits.

Doctor Who has never functioned as cutting-edge satire. That isn’t its job. By suggesting influencers are dim, self-involved and spend too long online, Davies is hardly dropping bombshells. Still, “Dot and Bubble” is a generally fun episode, and the bugs are way out front for the prize of the season’s most disgusting villains. You’ll forget the plot in a heartbeat, but those chitinous monstrosities will be wriggling around in your subconscious for some time to come.