The new Doctor Who feels faster and more fantastical than before

Critics have great things to say about Ncuti Gatwa's performance as the Doctor, the bigger budget and the faster pace. The switch from sci-fi to fantasy may rub some long-time fans the wrong way.
The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) Credit: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios
The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) Credit: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios /

This Friday, two new episodes of Doctor Who — "Space Babies" and "The Devil's Chord" — will drop on Disney+, which is the long-running sci-fi show's new home outside the UK, where it will still air linearly on the BBC a day later. The show reboots itself every few years with a new star and new showrunner. It is happening again, but something feels different this time. Russell T Davies, the man who brought the show back for the "New Who" era after it had spent several years dormant, is back at the wheel. Ncuti Gatwa is playing the Doctor and Millie Gibson his companion Ruby Sunday. Thanks to a cash infusion from Disney, the show has a bigger budget than it's ever had in its 60-year history. Davies and co are so confident they're turning a new page that they're even branding the new season as "season 1," even though it's technically the 14th season since Davies revived the series in 2005.

Is Davies blowing hot air, or is this new new Who really all it's cracked up to be? By and large, critics are impressed with the energy, the production values, and Gatwa's turn as the Doctor. Let survey what they're saying.

Critics praise Ncuti Gatwa's energy as the Doctor

First things first: a lot of people are really loving what Ncuti Gatwa is bringing to the iconic role of the Doctor. "Gatwa's Doctor is a bit more reactive and cool than most of his predecessors, oozing with a sort of charm that can only come from someone who has traveled to the beginning and end of time," writes "It's amazing how effortlessly he's slotted into the role of the Doctor and made it into his own, and he'll likely be on the top of many fans' list of favorite Doctors before his time on the show ends. What I enjoyed most about Gatwa is how he acknowledges all of the pain, hurt, and trauma that comes with being the Doctor without letting it define the character. Honestly, he reminds a lot of David Tennant's 10th Doctor, but without the brooding that version of the Doctor was burdened with."

The Guardian was also impressed. There's agreement that Gatwa brings a youngful energy to the role, matched by the new fleet pace of the episodes. "Gatwa establishes himself as a cracking Doctor immediately," their review reads. "What an obviously perfect piece of casting he is: commandingly hench in his colourful costumes, and naturally able to express the dazzling extremes the Doctor has to embody. He glowers, and the end of the world descends; a nanosecond later, he grins and we’re having the most fun in the universe. He’s delightful, but he’s also consciously more delighted than some of his predecessors, skipping and dancing and, on a few occasions here, doing a sideways gallop when he enters a room, like Kramer from Seinfeld with springs on his heels."

But this isn't a solo act. The Doctor has always played off his companions, and Millie Gibson vollies back whatever Gatwa serves up. "More often than not practically shrieking their lines at each other with delight, the duo are even better in these two episodes than they were feeling each other out over the course of their first meeting at Christmas in, simmering with a gleeful potential that has the Doctor and Ruby practically pinging about the screen at all times," writes Gizmodo. "Even in the quiet moments, the more emotive and demure scenes, that chemistry is electric: the Doctor has had friends before, mates even, asthe 10th Doctor say. But the Fifteenth Doctor and Ruby have a casualness with each other that makes them effortless feel like equals—not in the sense that Ruby has something to prove to her new alien bestie, but in the sense they are immediately drawn incredibly close as peers that understand each other, and understand what each of them needs out of this shared adventure."

The Disney difference

Disney is a mega corporation with a reputation for gobbling up other studios and sanitizing their output. Has this happened to Doctor Who now that it's paired up with the House of Mouse?

According to critics, there are differences, but they're mostly for the better as the show tries to change for new, younger generations of fans. "Doctor Who hasn’t been watered down to suit its new paymasters or the broad international audience who will see this show pop up every Friday," Engadget writes. "In fact, Who ‘24 has doubled down on being weird, avant-garde, difficult to handle and harder to pigeonhole. It’s a little punk and a little rough around the edges which makes it all the more interesting compared to, say, some other Disney+ series I could choose to mention."

And one thing most everyone can get behind is that the show is a lot more visually impressive than it used to be, which will happen when you have Disney money to work with. "Doctor Who's best episodes have surprised me in many ways, but I can't say that the visual effects in any of them have ever looked as impressive as what we see in these first two episodes," writes CinemaBlend. "With the visual upgrade, the iconic series will definitely turn more heads and I believe re-enter the conversation as the best modern sci-fi series currently running."

The newest Doctor Who is feels more fantasy and less sci-fi

Some of the changes are driven by Davies rather than Disney. Back when he was running the show the first time, he always made sure to inject zippy humor into his scripts, something that could get lost as more dour showrunners took over for him down the line. Everyone seems to agree that the new episodes move at a lightning fast pace. "Where the show truly exceeds any expectations, however, is its momentum," writes Paste Magazine. "Doctor Who has struggled in the past to strike the right balance between isolated, one-off adventures and serialized plot, often leaning too hard in one direction or the other. Only a quarter through the series, it’s impossible to know how the overall balance will be, but so far, both episodes have had the perfect mix of both. Each episode focuses on its self-contained story, but cleverly incorporates overarching mysteries and character moments that tie into the story of the week."

The A.V. Club notes another important change: the show feels a little less sci-fi than it did before: "[A]s already hinted by showrunner Russell T Davies, the show takes a sly step towards the realm of fantasy, which is likely set to displease some hardcore sci-fi fans primarily because logic and scientific explanations (traditionally the bread and butter of the genre) aren’t always to be found in abundance."

To wrap up, IGN gives a bit more of an overview of both new episodes: "So far, the new season of Doctor Who is an accomplished escape into time and space. Its first episode, 'Space Babies,' is a time-traveling romp with an easy-to-follow plot, engaging character moments, and two leads who elevate the whole episode to great heights. The new TARDIS team is a dynamic duo that already feels at home and ready to take on the universe – and even though 'Space Babies' initially struggles to find its footing, both Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson make this episode endlessly entertaining. Its follow-up, 'The Devil’s Chord,' is an unapologetically camp zinger, in which Jinkx Monsoon gives one of the best villain performances we’ve ever seen in Doctor Who. While its depiction of The Beatles falls short, everything else about this episode screams fun. There’s a familiar feeling to this new era, but Episodes 1 and 2 still sparkle with ingenuity and embrace the changes at every opportunity. If that isn’t Doctor Who, then I don’t know what is."

Doctor Who is trying to expand its reach with his reboot, but as always, it won't be for everybody. But everybody may be talking about it, which is surely what Disney and Davies want. "All of this change was a lot to take in, and during the first two episodes of the new season, not all of it works -- but Whovians who've been skeptical or burned out have a reason to get excited again," writes CBR.

The first two episodes of Doctor Who season 1 drop this Friday on Disney+.

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