Following last year’s frothy Christmas adventure, “The Church on Ruby Road”, the fourteenth series of the revived Doctor Who gets properly underway. (Or Season 1 if you prefer the Disney-dictated term, for fear of scaring away newcomers.) We’ve already had four episodes to acclimate to Doctor Who under Russell T. Davies’ second tenure as showrunner, of course, but it’s fair to say this is where it starts to matter.

Will a whole new generation of people be charmed by this soft reboot, enough to ensure it survives another 60 years on our screens? “Space Babies” follows the RTD formula of establishing the long-running show’s characters and premise for newcomers, by wrapping everything around a rather silly and lightweight premise.

‘Space Babies’

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Doctor and Ruby find a space station manned by talking babies, where a hideous creature stalks the lower decks...

There’s a lot of energy and fun in “Space Babies,” helped enormously by the Fifteenth Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) matching that vibe with his usual swagger and beaming smile. After briefly whisking new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) to 150,000,000 B.C. to see dinosaurs and establish the “butterfly effect” isn’t to be trifled with, the new TARDIS duo arrive in the distant future aboard a space station orbiting the planet Pacifico Del Rio.

Inside, a frightening creature is prowling the dark corridors. This isn’t anything new for Doctor Who, but what’s unusual is how the station is crewed by a gang of talking babies. The tots, who have unusually advanced intelligence, have been running the place independently for the past six years since the adults left, aided by the NAN-E computer system, which regularly cleans their noses and changes their nappies. Mistaken as “mummy and daddy” by the babies, The Doctor and Ruby must solve the mystery of the abandoned station and the origin of the ‘Bogeyman’ creature they’re all terrified of.

“Space Babies” isn’t a great episode of Doctor Who, but it’s entertaining fluff you’ll only watch again if you’re in the mood for something light and breezy. If films like Look Who’s Talking (1990) and Baby Geniuses (1999) make you smile, you’ll enjoy the screwy idea of babies zooming around in strollers (one with a flamethrower!) talking like adults, yet still behaving very much like infants. The fact that Ruby’s job is caring for orphans, and the Doctor is now grappling with the fact that he was abandoned as a child himself, also adds an emotional connection for our time-travelling heroes.

The story’s flimsy, but part of the fun is taking an ostensibly weird idea and making it work despite itself. It reminded me of previous RTD-written premieres like “Smith and Jones” and “Partners in Crime” in terms of its madcap tone. RTD is adept at plonking The Doctor into crazy scenarios and having it make enough sense by the end, so the literal explanation for what the Bogeyman is and how the adrift space station ends up finding a way to propel itself towards a new home worked for me.

You’re not supposed to take any of this stuff seriously, as Doctor Who is a show that frequently bounces between different styles and modes of storytelling. RTD tends to enjoy writing adventures like this, where it plays like a fast-paced children’s show for the younger end of Who’s fanbase to lap up, but teens and adults will still find enough to satisfy them with the creature design, fizzy dialogue, and comical moments along the way.

As an episode intended to introduce newcomers to the show, it does a wonderful job of answering the common questions Whovians know inside-out, without feeling like we’re stopping to play catch-up for newbies. What is the TARDIS exactly? What does that acronym stand for? Where is the Doctor from? Why is he called that? How can Ruby suddenly understand alien languages? The story breezes through the Who lore, so it remains to be seen if newcomers will embrace the inherent goofiness of “Space Babies,” or find it bewildering or too childish. There truly is no other sci-fi show like Doctor Who on TV, in terms of basing episodes around outlandish concepts like “What if we did the video game Alien: Isolation in live-action, but filled it with talking babies and gave it the vibe of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?”

In some ways, however, does the story even matter for a premiere like this? The charismatic performances will draw in most people, and Gatwa and Gibson are already a compelling double-act. They have undeniable brother-and-sister chemistry and a palpable zest for life, and Gatwa felt much stronger here than in “The Church on Ruby Road.” He’s still a more human Doctor than we’ve seen in a long time, which RTD seems to prefer. However, there are certainly moments of effervescence that make him feel like Willy Wonka on speed. He carries it off extremely well, and you can’t help but watch Gatwa and enjoy his mix of enthusiasm, introspection, playfulness, and leadership. I just hope future episodes delve into some of the darker edges of The Doctor and explore ways he’s more alien than his companion.

I’m also a little concerned that RTD already seems to be focusing on the “I’m the last of the Time Lords” mournfulness with The Doctor, which is coincidentally true again. This is well-trodden ground and informed much of David Tennant’s era, and I don’t want the show to repeat itself.

Gibson, meanwhile, is just as fun to watch as the sassy Ruby. However, I don’t yet see what sets her apart from many of the companions we’ve seen before. To me, she feels very similar to Rose Tyler, and not just in terms of her petite blonde appearance. Hopefully, we’ll see more to distinguish her, beyond her specific found-family background, without her character being entirely defined by the mystery of her parentage.

Overall, “Space Babies” is a lively start with some amusing ideas, which perhaps don’t cohere in a manner that I was delighted with, but the appeal of Gatwa and Gibson alone is enough to pull you through the rough spots. 

UK | 2024 | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

‘The Devil’s Chord’

3 out of 5 stars

The Doctor and Ruby arrive in 1960s London, to witness The Beatles record their first album, only to realise that music itself has been removed from everyone’s heart.

Slightly better is this second episode, which finds The Doctor agreeing to Ruby’s suggestion they travel back to 1963 to see The Beatles recording their first album at EMI Recording Studios (later Abbey Road Studios). However, upon arrival in the Swinging Sixties, they’re confused to realise the Fab Four have lost their ability to write catchy pop songs. The best they can come up with is an embarrassing dirge (“My dog is alive / He’s not dead”.) Indeed, everyone appears bereft of any musicality (no whistling, humming, or foot-tapping), which Ruby discovers will ultimately lead to the 21st-century becoming a nuclear winter…

“The Devil’s Chord” is the second instance of Doctor Who utilising more esoteric and magical villains, who are unbound by the constraints of sci-fi logic. “The Giggle” introduced this idea with the Celestial Toymaker, and now we meet his literal child, Maestro (Jinkx Monsoon). Summoned in 1925 by talented music teacher Timothy Drake (Jeremy Limb) through the titular chord on a piano, the malevolent Maestro proceeded to drain the world of all its melody.

The positives of this new approach are the sense of creeping dread a more supernatural villain can evoke in audiences. Maestro gave off chilling Pennywise vibes, especially with her appearances in reflections or when emerging from inside a grand piano like some heavily made-up beast. The Doctor also knows he’s in over his head when fighting “Gods” because they don’t obey the laws of physics, only yield briefly to his sonic screwdriver’s use, and don’t come from a time or place he has any experience with.

Drag queen Jinkx Monsoon (a former winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race) delivers a full-blooded, full-throated performance as Maestro. Playing to the back rows with unrelenting energy, Monsoon offered a face-pulling take on a character broadly similar to the Toymaker, but with an even greater abundance of camp excess. The character was genuinely creepy and unnerving, sometimes, but often wandered too far into the broad and ridiculous for my taste. I tend to find drag queens mostly utilize a similar schtick of overly feminised grotesques. As a result, the character of Maestro lost its early sense of threat for me, becoming too comical, not unlike what happened with Neil Patrick Harris’s Toymaker performance.

The fact that the episode was set in 1960s London, co-starring The Beatles, was sadly pushed into the background and didn’t factor into the story enough. There was a touching cafeteria moment with John Lennon (Chris Mason) and Paul McCartney (George Caple) explaining their loss of interest in music, and they came back to save the day at the end, but even that felt a little perfunctory. I’d have liked The Beatles to be more integral to the adventure, as you could have set this same episode in a different place and time.

This story is again highly indicative of RTD’s sensibilities as a writer. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. He enjoys big and bold storytelling, pantomime-level supervillains, and Looney Tunes ideas like visualised musical notes functioning as lassos. It’s bonkers and fun, but if you’re not on its wavelength, it will also seem like ludicrous nonsense. I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t dislike the show embracing its camp inclinations, but I prefer it when it’s a touch more serious. The best example of this is the denouement, where The Doctor breaks the fourth wall with a wink to the camera, triggering a song-and-dance routine (“There’s Always a Twist at the End”) that takes over the studios. It’s amusing and sure to put a smile on many faces, but it also leaves a nagging feeling that things have gone off the rails.

Taking a wider view, we hear a mention of the “One Who Waits” from Maestro, who the Toymaker also name-checked in “The Giggle.” I was also a little puzzled by the brief appearance of Maestro’s “son”, Henry Arbinger (Kit Rakusen), in 1963. Zapped out of existence during his 1925 piano lesson, could this be a hint that Maestro could somehow return through him? And then there’s Ruby seemingly conjuring snow into existence again, almost as if the memory of her being abandoned at Christmas is affecting reality. Is she perhaps from the same realm as this new breed of Who villain? Or her parents were? Or has reality itself become malleable now, as there have been many instances of characters breaking the fourth wall in this era? Maestro and The Doctor alone glanced down the camera lens in this hour.

Overall, “The Devil’s Chord” contains even more of the fizzy energy we’ve already come to expect from Gatwa’s Doctor. His bond with Millie Gibson is proving to be irresistible too. They have a natural way with each other, and the episodes already seem built around giving this pair as many opportunities as possible to look cool and have fun. The joy in both actors’ eyes as they exited the TARDIS in full 1960s garb, strutting down the glistening white walkway into another adventure… well, it’s been years since Doctor Who communicated that sense of glee and mischief.

UK | 2024 | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

writer: Russell T. Davies.
directors: Julie Anne Robinson (Babies) • Ben Chessell (Chord)
starring: Ncuti Gatwa & Millie Gibson • Golda Rosheuvel, Michelle Greendige, Angela Wynter, Mason McCumskey & Sami Amber (voice) (Babies) • Jinkx Monsoon, Jeremy Limb, Kit Rakusen, Ed White, George Caple, Chris Mason, Philip Davies, James Hoyles, Josie Sedgwick-Davies & Simon Jason-Smith. (Chord).