Doctor Who’s Ncuti Gatwa on Why the Doctor is “Scared of Ruby”

Exclusive: Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson talk fear, loss and series 14

Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa in 1960s costume for Doctor Who episode "The Devil's Chord"
Photo: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

This article is spoiler-free

A new chapter in Doctor Who canon history began with the first full episode of the Fifteenth Doctor’s adventures “The Church on Ruby Road.” Series 14 opener “Space Babies” takes the Doctor and Ruby’s travels to the distant future. The adventures that follow will also feature trips to the Swinging ’60s, to the Regency Era, and to faraway planets. 

While there will be moments of dancing, sightseeing, and meeting new people and beings, there will also be moments of danger. Whether from villains upset that their plans for domination are being challenged, or from extremes in the environment, there are plenty of things to trigger the Doctor and Ruby Sunday’s fight-or-flight instinct.

Den of Geek interviewed Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson about their character traits, what the Doctor and companion Ruby are most afraid of this season, and the importance of opening the TARDIS door to everyone.

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Millie Gibson describes Ruby as “feisty, optimistic, and hot,” but there’s also something unresolved inside her. “The Church on Ruby Road” revealed that Ruby cannot quite wrap her mind around not being able to find her birth parents, which comes to form a key part of her character arc.

Ruby still has a relationship with her adopted mother and grandma when she decides to hop aboard the TARDIS and that bond is both a comfort and a source of concern for Ruby in the episodes ahead. “I think Ruby is scared of losing her family because they’re her world,” says Gibson. “It’s a beautiful element in the show, that Russell [T Davies, showrunner] has kind of incorporated, that it’s not the family you have, it’s the one you choose, and the family that Ruby has chosen is so special to her.”

There’s some thematic overlap with the Fifteenth Doctor’s character traits, according to Gatwa. “My Doctor is confident, vulnerable, and flirty,” he tells Den of Geek, but like all Doctors, there’s also a point of vulnerability to which the character is reluctant to admit. Fear and facing those fears in various forms is often the bedrock of many a great Doctor Who story. 

The most obvious fear The Doctor carries through the entire series is the death of the current regeneration or losing a companion or friend who can’t regenerate. 

Death isn’t the only way to lose a companion. Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones chose to step away from the TARDIS and continue with her medical training before her luck with the Tenth Doctor finally ran out. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill’s Amy and Rory ended up stuck in the past where the Eleventh Doctor could no longer reach them (for timey-wimey reasons) in “The Angels Take in Manhattan.” Billie Piper’s Rose and the Doctor were separated by living in different dimensions at the end of “Doomsday.”

Millie Gibson as Ruby Sunday in a spaceship in Doctor Who episode "Space Babies"

Another foundational form of fear in Doctor Who arises from fear of the unknown or fear of losing control of a situation. This is particularly true in episodes set in outer space. Normal human fears such as heights, the dark, or being chased by a monster are magnified and brought to life in these new environments. So far the Fifteenth Doctor has shown the Goblin King who is the real boss but some future opponents will arise this season that will require more than confidence or on-the-run improvisation to defeat. The Fifteenth Doctor and Ruby will have to overcome their immediate anxiety over their adventures taking a turn for the worse by looking for clues along the way, tapping into their talents, and relying on technology to solve the problem.

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While Ruby’s motivation this season will be to keep the connection to her family going, some of the Fifteenth Doctor’s anxiety is based on his growing bond with Ruby. “He’s scared of Ruby,” says Gatwa. “I think he’s nervous about letting people into his life, who are the people that can challenge him. She might not scare him, but certainly he’s like, ‘I can’t mess around with you’ sort-of-thing.” 

The Doctor’s attitudes towards platonic, familial, professional, and in some cases romantic bonds with companions vary widely. The Thirteenth Doctor in her early episodes tried to keep her fam Yaz, Ryan, and Graham (Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh) at a distance emotionally out of fear of losing them, but failed. 

Catherine Tate’s Donna was quick to call out when the Tenth Doctor either underestimated her or the complexity of the villain of the week. Ruby is younger than Donna but she has the potential throughout the new season to point the Doctor in a different direction or offer a second pair of hands to solve the problem.

Fifteen’s hesitation to let Ruby in at first doesn’t at all signal the end of their characters’ development. The Doctor and Ruby as the season progresses will develop “a beautiful, platonic relationship,” Gatwa said. “They’re two best friends, that are both curious, and also have a cheeky streak in them. They’re the two kids that try to help or push the button when there’s a button that says ‘Do not press,’ and they’re like ‘we just have to do it.’ They both have that energy to them. They just can’t help themselves but get into trouble, but they’ve got hearts of gold.”

Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa hugging in Doctor Who episode "Space Babies"

There is another kind of fear altogether that the Fifteenth Doctor and Ruby’s adventures may inspire in some sections of fandom: the fear of change, despite some elements remaining the same. Russell T. Davies is returning as showrunner and yet Disney+ is now in charge of international promotion and distribution. Fans have already seen Jo Martin officially play the first canonically Black Doctor and now Ncuti Gatwa will be the first ever Black male Doctor. 

The series 12 tagline was “Space, For Everyone” and series 14 builds on that theme both in front of and behind the camera. “I certainly wanted to see a lot more diversity in the crew, when I arrived, and so I think we as a production tried to make that happen,” Gatwa said. “This initiative has allowed for new people to enter into the industry which can be a very closed-off place for new people to break into. A lot of this initiative is also coming from Russell in the show and, everyone on the crew wants to take it on. And so you know if you’re going to be in that sphere, that Doctor Who is going to be pushing things forward.”

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It’s now up to the fans who might be hesitant about series 14 to give The Doctor and Ruby Sunday’s adventures a chance.

Doctor Who will premiere on Disney+ on May 10th at 7PM ET/4 PM PT and on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK at midnight on May 11th.