Warning: this Doctor Who review contains spoilers.
It’s the beginning, but the moment has been prepared for. The three recent Anniversary specials have eased us into another new era of Doctor Who more gently than we’re used to – yes, this is Ncuti Gatwa’s first time taking centre stage as the Fifteenth Doctor, but we’re at least a little familiar with him thanks to his bi-generational appearance in “The Giggle”. We’ve also already done the TARDIS tour, gotten used to the new title sequence, peeked at the latest sonic…
This is a Christmas present we’ve been well and truly allowed to shake ahead of time, in other words. This is most likely deliberate on Russell T. Davies’ part; in The Writer’s Tale, he discusses the different approach to making festive TV – when the entire family are likely to be in the room, stuffed and sleepy, with vastly reduced attention spans. There’s not much in this episode that’s likely to astonish or confuse, and that’s no accident.
Unless, that is, you find Davina McCall particularly startling. After a short cold open where we witness baby Ruby being left at the titular church, the omnipresent TV host makes her second appearance since Doctor Who’s revival, and this time she’s not even a droid. She’s here because Ruby Sunday’s taking part in what can only be an episode of Long Lost Family, though she nearly gets clobbered when an unseen mischief-maker arranges an on-set accident.
A succession of near-misses leads Ruby to encounter the Doctor, shortly after spying him with a thirst that’ll take more than a gin and tonic to quench. (Fifteen moves with such speed here, I even went back and checked his outfit in case there was something timey-wimey going on.) As Ruby and her mates pour themselves into a taxi, the Doctor gets an inflatable snowman dropped on him (not the worst peril he’s ever faced, honestly) then has a brief encounter with a young policeman.
As throwaway as this scene seems to be, it’s actually quite important, because it’s our first look at Gatwa’s Doctor interacting with a normal, everyday human. We learn he’s a bit impatient and still a bit of a show-off, but also that he’s willing to take the time to be warm and kind just because he can be. Whereas the Twelfth Doctor needed cue cards and the Thirteenth struggled with social awkwardness, Fifteen is clearly confident, relaxed, and not afraid to have fun.
This wouldn’t be a Russell T. Davies script if we weren’t extensively introduced to Ruby’s family, and the episode is more than comfortable putting the brakes on for a few minutes of sweet domestics; popping to the shops, bickering about who should make the tea, and learning that Ruby is just one of 32 foster kids that Mum Carla has looked after over the years. Well, now it’s really 33, as baby Lulubelle has come to stay.
Things take a darker turn when Davina is canonically murdered (at least for a while) while trying to warn Ruby about goblins, so this seems as good a moment as any to talk about them. Their malicious antics on Christmas Eve evoke the spirit of Gremlins, but they don’t feel anywhere near as fleshed out as their Mogwai counterparts. As threats go they’re pretty lightly-sketched, and it’s surprising that we never even get a proper conversation with them considering speech is the Doctor’s superpower.
More interesting is the notion that the goblins draw some kind of power from coincidences and luck – even bad luck, which is why they keep arranging these accidents – which harks back a couple of weeks to Fourteen invoking superstition at the edge of the universe. The fact that they’re presented as “just” goblins, not warmongering aliens from the Goblonian Empire or something, suggests the show’s going to be quite comfortable drawing on fantasy elements – not that that means much in a mythos where we’ve met quantum-locked stone assassins, evil fairies, parasite stars that feed on stories, forests that pop-up overnight to save the world… oh, and the moon’s still an egg.
Drawing Ruby into their web of coincidence has given the goblins the opportunity to swoop in on a skyship and make off with Lulubelle. Ruby gives chase, so does the Doctor, and thanks to the Doctor’s new ‘intelligent gloves’ (he said mavity!) they’re able to board the goblins’ vessel, and we get a great scene of Fifteen working out how the ship works pretty much from first principles.
Now, fans of Labyrinth will already know that goblin kings have a penchant for kidnapping babies and then celebrating the occasion with an upbeat musical number. Fans of The Hobbit, on the other hand, will know these aren’t always a good idea. We’ve had several songs in Doctor Who Christmas specials by now, of course, and the tune here is catchy, even if the lyrics are a bit on the simple side. This is the first time the Doctor and companion have ever joined in with the performance, mind you, and a full musical episode feels inevitable now. (I mean, if even Star Trek’s taken the plunge…)
Escaping with Lulubelle now that he’s learned the vocabulary of rope – love that line – the Doctor and Ruby return to the ground, but we’re only at the halfway mark, so the goblins surely have more tricks up their sleeves. While meeting Carla and Cherry, the Doctor learns that Ruby was fostered and has no idea where she came from – both traits she and the Doctor have in common. As Carla remarks, that’s a huge coincidence…
Huge enough, it turns out, for the goblins to not just spirit Ruby away but also to wipe her from existence, as reality changes around the Doctor and he realises the goblin ship has bimbled back in time and claimed her when she was a baby. That’s no problem for a man with a TARDIS, of course, and the Doctor is able to use his intelligent gloves in heavy mode to drag the ship down onto the spire of the church, impaling the goblin king and presumably sending the other goblins back to wherever it was they came from.
I have two issues with this scene. The intelligent gloves being this powerful seems a bit too Tony Stark for me. I had similar concerns about Fourteen’s sonic screwdriver being able to throw up forcefields – can the Doctor now just have what amounts to super-strength whenever it’s required, or are these gloves another one-off gizmo that we’ll never see again?
My second gripe brings me back to how the goblins are handled. For all his talk of “no second chances”, we’ve always seen the Doctor show mercy, even to his worst enemies. He allowed the Sycorax to leave Earth in peace on Christmas Day. He was willing to sacrifice himself if it meant giving the Sontarans in “The Poison Sky” a chance to surrender. The goblin king got no such warning. Yes, the Doctor kills, but hardly ever in cold blood.
With baby Ruby saved, the timeline’s restored and adult Ruby begins to put it all together, realising that the Doctor must be a time traveller and racing after him. She’s ultimately ushered into the TARDIS by the enigmatic Mrs. Flood, who soon reveals she knows far more than she should, and we’re off into time and space! Well, we will be next year.
We’re left with plenty of questions to chew on in the meantime. For one thing, who was the hooded woman? My gut reaction was that it would turn out to be Ruby herself completing some kind of closed-loop paradox, especially since the character’s uncredited, but the Doctor did name the figure as Ruby’s mother and I’m not sure we’re due another “Impossible Girl” scenario so soon. Now that she’s got a friend with a time machine, it’s certainly a moment Ruby herself is going to want to visit. Mrs. Flood could be anyone from Ruby’s future self to the Meddling Monk, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
As for the Fifteenth Doctor, he’s as fresh as I hoped he might be. He’s still definitely the Doctor, but he doesn’t feel like a kit-bash of old Doctor traits being embodied by a new actor. He also doesn’t seem to have a catchphrase, which is a welcome change. Gatwa’s performance, the Doctor on the dance floor and the frequent costume changes that have been teased suggest that this regeneration may be less about stamping his personality on any given situation with an “Allons-y!” or a big speech, and more about immersing himself in what’s around him.
Ruby, similarly, is cut from companion cloth, but despite their similar ages, she’s more than just the new Rose Tyler. She’s got mates, she’s got hobbies, and despite clearly loving her foster family very much, the circumstances of her past are still haunting her and motivating her in equal measure, giving her a drive Rose lacked until she met the Doctor. A particular highlight for me was watching Millie Gibson wordlessly processing the truth about the TARDIS and the adventure she’s about to embark on before choosing to step back inside.
The goblins, then, remain the least-satisfying part of this episode, but it’s pretty obvious that they’re supposed to be treated as a problem to solve rather than villains to care about. Our focus is meant to be on the human characters (plus one Time Lord), their relationships, and the forming of a friendship that will light up our screens for many episodes to come. That, happily, is something “The Church on Ruby Road” accomplishes with aplomb.