Doctor Who Series 14 Episode 1 Review: Space Babies

The new era starts with a goofy screwball comedy that sets up Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson's partnership in energetic style. SPOILERS ahead.

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson holding a toy in Doctor Who episode "Space Babies"
Photo: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

Warning: this Doctor Who review contains spoilers.

In the parlance of the times, we are so back.

After the three triumphant Tennant/Tate specials, I’ll confess that “The Church on Ruby Road” left me feeling slightly apprehensive. While an effective showcase for Ncuti Gatwa’s charisma, as a forecast for the new era I found it to be overly frenetic, bordering on slapdash. Christmas specials are always going to be broader affairs, but this one frequently felt like a first draft held together with little more than the raw enthusiasm of all involved.    

Happily, “Space Babies” is more solid in every respect. It’s well structured, economical and – crucially – very entertaining. And while I doubt it will be topping many all-time favourite lists, that’s fine, because that’s not really its job.

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A Doctor Who premiere, especially one doubling as the entry point into a new era, has a very specific set of goals to fulfil. It needs to establish something resembling the tone we can expect going forward (Matt Smith’s debut “The Eleventh Hour” is a great example of this – a comprehensive statement of intent that laid out a clear approach, even if certain elements ultimately didn’t stick). It needs to reiterate the core tenets of the show for new viewers, while simultaneously not harping on them too much in case veterans get bored. And it needs to show us why this Doctor and companion should want to spend the next however many episodes together – and why we should care.

In terms of setting up the premise, the opening of “Space Babies” is incredibly efficient. Picking up immediately where “The Church on Ruby Road” left off, the episode spends about five minutes setting the table, explaining the Doctor, the TARDIS and the Time Lords, while also whisking us off to a beautifully rendered prehistoric vista – mostly to show off the budget and bag some nice shots for the trailer, neither of which is a bad thing. It’s a sign of the show’s confidence that the gag with the butterfly and Ruby’s transformation, which could conceivably form the plot of an entire episode, is done and dusted inside of a minute. There’s even a mention of The Rani, for people who like that sort of thing.

And come minute six, we’re on the space station where we’ll spend the rest of the episode.

Efficiency really is the word here. This could have been a breathless jumble of continuity and exposition, but it’s delivered almost like screwball comedy, with Doctor and companion energetically bouncing lines off one another, Gibson’s mounting incredulity plays nicely against Gatwa’s easy confidence. Writer and showrunner Russell T Davies also takes a moment to set up one of the key themes of the episode (and, presumably, the season), that of adoption and orphanhood, seeding them as a handy means of connection for the Doctor and Ruby – and, later, the babies and the Bogeyman.

It’s an effective use of series 12’s Timeless Child revelation, and more emotionally resonant than the ‘Last of the Time Lords’ stuff, which Davies also gets out in the open pretty early. The Doctor emphasises that he’s “so glad to be alive”, but while it’s a smart choice to contrast this Doctor’s more philosophical perspective with the Ninth Doctor’s rage and the Tenth Doctor’s survivor’s guilt, it still feels somewhat like diminishing returns. Having already seen the Doctor dealing with the fallout of their people’s destruction for multiple seasons of New Who, it can’t help but carry less weight the second time round.

The efficiency continues once we land on the space station. As with “Wild Blue Yonder”, Davies shows how adept he is with this sort of setup, slowly piecing together what’s gone wrong, seeding little clues and details like the terrible smell and the Doctor’s unexpected fear of the Bogeyman. It works nicely on a structural level, but also in terms of character dynamics, giving Ruby the opportunity to ask questions and allowing the Doctor to fill her (and us) in on his two hearts, the broken chameleon circuit, the translation matrix, and so on. We also get some cracking dialogue, particularly from Gatwa – “No such thing as monsters, just creatures you haven’t met yet” and “Push the button” are vintage Doctor lines that you can fully imagine being spoken by previous incarnations, while “Most of the universe is knackered, babes” also feels very Doctor-y, but in a way unique to this one.

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You’ll notice that I’ve made it nearly 1,000 words without really discussing the babies (sorry, space babies. That was one running gag that probably didn’t need so many repetitions). I imagine they’ll be a deal breaker for some viewers, as they are extremely goofy – though very much in the Russell T Davies vein of goofiness that gave us the Adipose, so not unprecedented (series four opener “Partners in Crime” is probably the key blueprint for “Space Babies”).

Personally I’m fine with goofiness – Doctor Who contains more multitudes than most, which is why I love it – and while the decision to cast real babies and dub them over with zero attempt to sync the dialogue with their mouths is certainly a choice, uncanny CGI mouths (or god forbid entirely CGI babies, à la The Flash) would have been orders of magnitude worse. Ultimately it’s just one of those effects that you have to get used to, and the episode gives the babies and their world enough personality that I was able to look past it.

The actual story, once we get to the meat of it – baby making space station abandoned due to a financial crisis but not switched off because of some warped ‘pro-life’ philosophy – isn’t hugely consequential, though I welcomed the episode making it clear that this system is a problem. It’s more about interesting world-building, like the Bogeyman’s (enjoyably disgusting) true nature, and character beats – guest star Golda Rosheuvel doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time but she makes the most of it and gives us a sense of a real person under tremendous stress, which makes her tearful breakdown at the end feel earned.

In terms of showing us why this Doctor and this companion should go off and travel time and space together, it really works. Gatwa and Gibson both get lots of different moods to play, and both bring their A-game. Gatwa absolutely inhabits his Doctor, who is by turns playful, commanding, introspective, soulful and alien, and gives us lots of lovely little moments – I loved him weaponising his beaming, irresistible smile to distract Ruby from the mysterious snow. The character also felt consistent with previous incarnations while being very much himself – it’s hard to imagine Peter Capaldi hugging Poppy, for example, but Gatwa’s quietly empathetic response to her heart-breaking “Are we wrong?” is easy to imagine coming from Jodie Whittaker or Matt Smith.

Gibson, meanwhile, gets to be inquisitive, terrified, angry, sassy, maternal and melancholy, all of which she manages to weave together into a coherent personality. Ruby is also believably competent, and the first to start putting the pieces together about the nature of the Bogeyman with her observation that “it’s a children’s story come to life”. By the end of the episode, you can see why she wants to travel with the Doctor, and why the Doctor would want her to come with him.

And what of the signs for the season in general? Mostly positive. The editing is occasionally over-caffeinated – particularly in dialogue scenes, weirdly – and Murray Gold frequently does his Murray Gold thing of leaving zero ambiguity about the emotional content of a scene. I’m also not sure we needed all those repeated lines and flashbacks to tell us why the Doctor chooses to save the Bogeyman – there’s thematic clarity and then there’s unnecessary hand-holding.

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But it was good that the episode took some time to slow down for quieter moments, like Ruby’s awed reaction upon seeing space for the first time, and the pretty electrifying flashback with the snow, so if the production team can find a happy medium between these moods, we should be golden. The whole thing also looks gorgeous, and Davies is clearly having a lot of fun, teasing out some of the threads from last year’s specials about superstition and storybook logic intruding on reality (while also finding room for a fart gag). I’m also intrigued by the hints of conflict between Doctor and companion over Ruby’s desire to go back in time and find her mother. Did we need another Impossible Girl with a mysterious backstory to be uncovered? Maybe not, but the seeds are compelling enough that I’m happy to wait and see where it goes.

I’m pretty happy in general, in fact.

We’re so back.

Doctor Who airs on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK, and on Disney+ in the US and around the world.