3 out of 5 stars

Ncuti Gatwa’s first solo outing as the Fifteenth Doctor has the benefit of being a Christmas Special, following the playbook of David Tennant debuting in “The Christmas Invasion” after his regeneration. Indeed, a lot about this festive episode felt like showrunner Russell T. Davies reheating his old approach to the series, which I was hoping would be confined to the nostalgic appeal of the three 60th anniversary episodes with Tennant and Catherine Tate returning as a pallet cleanser. “The Church on Ruby Road” felt nice and comfortable, perhaps even dull in some respects, but a lot can be forgiven when these Christmas specials are partly designed to be as welcoming as possible for casual viewers struggling to stay awake after a roast dinner and glass of rosé.

Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) is an orphan introduced appearing on a TV show presented by Davina McCall (herself), hoping to find her birth parents, having been abandoned on the doorstep of the titular church 19 years ago. Ruby’s since grown up with her foster mother Carla (Michelle Greenidge) and grandmother Cherry (Angela Wynter), and is actively involved in their continuing acts of kindness in providing safe homes for abandoned children— including a new baby called Lulubelle, who has the misfortune of being kidnapped by goblins the day she arrives.

Fortunately, The Doctor (Gatwa) has already met Ruby at a nightclub and thankfully comes to her aide as she’s scaling a rope ladder dangling from a flying galleon where the Goblin King resides and is due another feed of baby meat. (Well, after listening to an Apple iTunes-charting musical number for charity.)

“The Church on Ruby Road” marks a spirited start for Ncuti Gatwa, whose performance is the main reason to watch. He’s unlike most other Doctors, certainly in recent memory, for being unencumbered by any sense of guilt over past traumatic events. He’s a clean slate, open-hearted and emotional, not averse to singing and dancing in public, armed with a sonic screwdriver that now resembles a TV remote, and effortlessly charming in his confidence and open-shirted sexiness.

This will either be a breath of fresh air, or a niggling concern, depending on what the character of The Doctor means to you. We’ve had confidence and handsome incarnations before —Paul McGann, David Tennant —but a core nerdiness or eccentricity usually counterbalances them. I didn’t detect any of that from Gatwa, which was a disappointment, mainly because I’m worried the Fifteenth Doctor will wind up being a version of Jack Harkness — another sexy time-travelling hunk with a similarly playful vibe. I await further episodes to see if Ncuti Gatwa is going to weave in some oddball tics, but I don’t see him as the kind of Doctor who’s going to be anywhere close to as “alien” as Matt Smith, or even Jodie Whittaker.

Millie Gibson is the second reason to pay attention, especially as RTD often focuses more on the companions than the Doctor himself, or at least tells stories from their perspective as an audience surrogate. Ruby Sunday, at first glance, doesn’t seem too far removed from Rose Tyler— another petite blonde teen with an offbeat family — only Ruby’s from the north and her working life is entangled with her home life. She also feels more social, or this is something RTD wanted to emphasise so it doesn’t seem like she spends every waking moment helping her foster family look after kids. It remains to be seen if Ruby’s going to fall in love with The Doctor as Rose famously did, but the absence of a romantic interest anywhere else certainly makes me worry that’s again on the cards.

And this gets to the heart of my issue with this Christmas Special: overfamiliarity. We have a new Doctor and a new companion, but the storytelling and style of the episode felt very much like RTD picking up from himself in 2010. He’s changed a lot as a writer in the past 13 years, creating several award-winning miniseries like A Very English Scandal (2018), Years and Years (2019), and It’s a Sin (2021), so I was hoping he’d return to Doctor Who with a new energy and a fresh way to approach stories. But this episode was instead almost exactly what one would have expected from him circa 2005, only with better production values.

A celebrity cameo nobody outside of the UK would understand? Check. A blonde working-class companion? Check. A relatively minor connection to Christmas and reason to set it then? Check. And, most worryingly of all, a few “mysteries” that will likely be teased all next season: who is Ruby’s birth mother seen leaving her at the church, and who is Ruby’s aged neighbour Mrs Flood (Anita Dobson) who seems to know what a TARDIS is? Check, check.

Maybe these questions will have satisfying and unexpected answers next year, but in 2023 the hive-mind of the internet has become incredibly good at getting ahead of shows with relatively simple mysteries like those. Heck, The Doctor could solve the first one in a heartbeat because he owns a time machine, and perhaps only doesn’t because he doesn’t yet care enough to know, values the mother’s privacy, or thinks Ruby should know before he does. 

The goblins weren’t the point of this special, but it was nevertheless disappointing to see them so poorly used. RTD has confirmed that the supernatural will play a larger part in his second tenure, as the Toymaker from “The Giggle” has opened the door to less pure sci-fi concepts and villains. I can see why RTD would want to shake things up like that, as there are plenty of new areas for storytelling that one can explore within the realms of the paranormal and magic. I hope it’s not going to dominate the show, however, as writers make up their own rules with magic (even more than sci-fi allows) and RTD already had a tendency of throwing a lot of mumbo-jumbo at audiences to resolve plots that were at least moderately anchored by the loose logic of sci-fi. I just don’t want The Doctor saving the day using spells, incantations, and arcane rituals.

Anyway, the goblins were brought to life extremely well and the look and design of their floating ship was marvellous. There was a nod to Labyrinth (1986) with a stolen baby having to be rescued from a Goblin King, but it felt like a misstep not to make this villain a character The Doctor and Ruby could engage with. He was just a low-rent Jabba the Hut. The concept of the goblins being attracted to coincidence and accidents, many of which they cause themselves, also felt interesting but wasn’t explored to any meaningful extent.

The fact the goblins could travel through time was also pure sci-fi, which flies in the face of RTD saying he wants to involve the supernatural more, and means they might as well have been aliens that humans have misinterpreted as “goblins” from folklore. And isn’t it gremlins that traditionally cause accidents and get blamed for bad luck anyway? The time travel element felt out of place and was just a way to explain how the timeline got altered so Ruby was never found as a baby, meaning her foster family became less caring because she never entered their lives.

However, as mentioned before, Christmas Specials march to their own beat and are rarely the best way to assess the state of Doctor Who. And RTD was always rather bad at these festive editions, even if “Voyage of the Damned” remains the highest-rated Doctor Who episode since its revival in 2005. “The Church on Ruby Road” is best seen as an appetiser of what to expect from Ruby and The Doctor, who make a fun duo and already have more chemistry than any of the TARDIS occupants from the previous run with Jodie Whittaker.

I remain worried that Ruby isn’t different enough to Rose Tyler, and her reasons for wanting to fly off in the TARDIS didn’t land nearly as well. Ncuti Gatwa’s take on The Doctor may not be weird enough for my tastes too. And RTD choosing not to overhaul the show in terms of its style and approach to storytelling feels like a waste. The three 60th specials righted the boat after a turbulent run with Chris Chibnall in charge, but now I want the show to move forward with a new plan about how to present Doctor Who to the masses almost 20 years after it came back from the dead. So I’m a bit disappointed that “Who is Mrs Flood?” and “Who is Ruby’s mum?” will be the big questions driving the next season’s arc along, even if the answers are miraculously satisfying.

UK | 2023 | 55 MINUTES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer: Russell T. Davies.
director: Mark Tonderai.
starring: Ncuti Gatwa, Millie Gibson, Davina McCall, Bobby Bradley, Mary Malone, Anita Dobson, Hemi Yeroham, Michelle Greenidge, Angela Wynter & Gemma Arrowsmith.