Despite some cringe, the new Doctor Who Christmas Special still has magic

Ncuti Gatwa has his first full outing as the Fourteenth Doctor and Millie Gibson debuts as companion Ruby Sunday. How'd they do?
The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) in Doctor Who.
The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) in Doctor Who. /

Last night, Ncuti Gatwa starred as the Fourteenth Doctor in his first full episode of Doctor Who, "The Church on Ruby Road." David Tennant is gone. Catherine Tate is gone. It's time for our new Doctor to sink or swim.

By and large, he swims. There was never much doubt that Gatwa would be able to summon the charisma necessary to play this iconic character; returning showrunner Russell T Davies chose him for a reason. As the Doctor, Gatwa is bubbly, bouncy and more than a little sassy, chastising new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) for doing something crazy like running across a rooftop to try and save a newborn baby from a group of goblin sky pirates. But his big smile and bright eyes reassure us that he's mostly about fun and adventure, with maybe a bit of melancholy hidden underneath.

By I swept right past the whole goblin sky pirate bit, didn't I? Considering all the heavy lifting this episode has to do -- giving us a proper debut for Gatwa's Doctor, introducing Ruby -- the plot may be a bit too wacky for its own good. In some ways, this episode reminds of "Rose," the episode that kicked off the Doctor Who revival way back in 2005. In both episodes, we spend the first chunk of the episode with our new companions -- Ruby and Rose -- before the Doctor arrives and the weirdness begins. But in "Church," the weirdness is weirder and starts earlier. Even before the baby-snatching goblins show up, Ruby is painted as exceptional and strange, an orphan with a mysterious past and a cool job playing keyboard in nightclubs. With its eye-poppingly bright walls, even her apartment looks hyper-stylized, like it's been plucked out of a cartoon. None of this is wrong or bad, but I wished the episode gave us more a sense of the ordinary before the extraordinary came to call.

And then the goblins started singing about eating babies

The low point of the episode for me came after Ruby and the Doctor boarded the sky pirate ship in an attempt to rescue Lulubelle, Ruby's new foster sister, from the baby-hungry goblins. There's a sequence where they spy on a roomful of goblins about to eat, and a lady goblin sings a song about how delicious babies are.

When the goblins are done singing, the Doctor and Ruby take up the tune, turning the scene into an all-out musical number. Call my a grinch, but it didn't work for me. Modern audiences are often uncomfortable with extemporaneous singing and dancing, so if you're going to do it, you have to make sure it's really spectacular. I don't think this cleared the bar. The lyrics to the baby-eating song are cute but not cute enough, the lip-syncing is off, the singer's voice sounds too clean, and the Doctor and Ruby joining in was a shade too odd this soon after meeting them. I cringed a bit.

And maybe that's on me. Sometimes the producers have talked about Doctor Who in the context of children's television, and indeed, I can see a kid enjoying this number. Then again, they've also talked about how "violent" and "scary" it can be; now that the revival is entering its 14th season, the has a lot of older fans who aren't happy with pure kids stuff. Doctor Who has an interesting balancing act to pull off.

I think this particular musical number falls into the category of "a kid might enjoy this, but an adult viewer probably won't." I think the show can do better.

The magic of Doctor Who is still alive

"The Church on Ruby Road" gets darker and better in its back half, after the Doctor and Lulu save the baby. Still hungry, the goblins travel back in time (or ride the waves of time, or however the Doctor put it) and abduct little baby Ruby instead, plucking her right off the church steps where she was left by her unidentified mother. This leads to a season-appropirate It's A Wonderful Life moment where the Doctor sees how much worse off Ruby's family would be had she never come into their lives. I also liked the long crack down the length of Ruby's ceiling that appeared around this point, evidence of the goblins breaking through time. That's the sort of mix of ordinary and extraordinary I was looking for.

Anyway, the Doctor goes back to the day when baby Ruby was left on the church steps and saves her, pulling the goblins' ship down onto the steeple and impaling the goblin king through the stomach. With everything set right, there's nothing to be done but for Ruby to join the Doctor as his new companion. The best moment of the episode comes right near the end, when Ruby sees the TARDIS in the street, and it opens just a crack. Endless adventure awaits.

Even after all these decades, there's still something magical about that: the Doctor Who is inviting Ruby, and us, to go on a fantastic journey. Davies, Gatwa and Gibson have the charm and imagination to take us there. Will you go with them?

Episode Grade: B-

Next. Silmarillion. Let's dreamcast a live-action adaptation of The Silmarillion. dark

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