In the words of Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a’changin,” a sentiment that rings true in Doctor Who. The series has always adapted and embraced change, as the show’s central pillar hinges on the baton’s passing from one Doctor to another. However, Doctor Who has gone through its biggest regeneration, as the partnership between the BBC and Disney has finally begun. Not only that, but fans of Doctor Who saw the return of David Tennant and Catherine Tate for three 60th Anniversary specials, before Ncuti Gatwa took over as The Doctor at the end of “The Giggle”. The anniversary celebration has now ended, and the Christmas holiday upon us. With the holiday comes Gatwa’s first full-length episode as the time-traveling alien with two hearts in the upcoming episode Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road.
What a way to signal a new era of Doctor Who, with a holiday episode featuring a newly minted Doctor and an introduction of his companion for the next season. “The Church on Ruby Road” is both a festive celebration and an important hour of Doctor Who, which establishes the next generation of the long-running sci-fi series.
Joining Gatwa’s Doctor is Millie Gibson as Ruby Sunday, the newest companion whose history is shrouded in just a bit of mystery. Her life will be changed forever by their chance encounter, and so possibly might the Doctor’s.
[Warning: light spoilers and impressions from Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road are below!]
A Doctor free from guilt and burden stumbles upon a mystery
When the 15th Doctor appeared in “The Giggle”, his arrival was something we had never seen before in the likes of Doctor Who. Bi-generation. Yeah, you read that right, the Doctor, instead of regenerating from David Tennant to Gatwa, split down the middle. Essentially, at least as far as we know from what we’ve seen on screen, two Doctors are co-existing at the same time. As the 15th Doctor mentions, Bi-generation is a myth, having never happened before as far as he can remember, and yet for these two Doctors it has.
This massive change to the regeneration lore has some huge implications for the Whoniverse at large. The first is that this is the first time two Doctors have simultaneously existed linearly, meaning that we can (and probably will) see both Doctors appear in separate series across the wider world of Who.
But fans also don’t know what this means in terms of future regenerations. There’s so much about the bi-generation in which to explore, but in terms of Gatwa’s Doctor, it proved one simple thing. The Bi-generation allowed for this new Doctor to adventure through space and time without the burden of his past. Because of the work that Tennant’s Doctor did and will continue to do, the 15th Doctor was finally free. And that is exactly where we find him when “The Church on Ruby Road” begins.
Back on Earth in the present day, The Doctor is having the time of his life. Dancing, being merry (after all it’s Christmastime), and shedding his protective layer which has pushed away so many over the years. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the scene I’m talking about, with the Doctor in a tank top and kilt and not a care in the world. This small snippet in the promotional material is the perfect amount to understand the position The Doctor is now in. It also is the perfect showcase of the energy this special has.
The Doctor and Ruby are magic in Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road
Since the 60th anniversary specials, Doctor Who has found new life, and that is carried on in “The Church on Ruby Road”, in large part due to the acting and chemistry between the two leads, Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson. Gibson’s Ruby is one of the central driving forces of this first episode, something I haven’t felt about a companion since Clara Oswald’s (Jenna Coleman) introduction in series 7. However, Ruby’s doesn’t derive from being a plot device, although a portion of this special is dedicated to her past.
Ruby is important in that she’s motivated to get to the bottom of the Goblin problem that is developing across London. Together with the Doctor, Ruby hopes to stop the Goblins from stealing babies throughout the city, which is both a selfless act and also motivated by her self-interest. As in true Doctor Who nature, everything is more interconnected than not, but diving any more into it will spoil a large part of this episode, and I think this is one that you have to experience for yourself.
That being said, what I can say is what Gatwa and Gibson bring to “The Church on Ruby Road” is nothing short of magic. Those who have been following along to my Doctor Who coverage know that Matt Smith is my Doctor in every way. However, he has a run for his money in the sweetly intoxicating Gatwa. His Doctor is sexy and cool, in a way that we haven’t seen since David Tennant’s early days on the series, but cranked up even higher. He’s smooth and charming in so many ways, and the carefree attitude does the character wonders. This new, younger Doctor invigorates the show in ways that it desperately needs. Gatwa has captured my heart quickly in the 55-minute special and has run away with it, and I’m sure others will feel the same way about his incarnation of The Doctor.
Gibson is the perfect foil for him, too. Her characterization complements the Doctor similarly to Rose (Billie Piper) and yet is something new. She’s a sweet woman who has this badass side to her. She jumps before she considers the consequences, but pushes on to help out others, even at the expense of herself. Gibson is an excellent addition to Doctor Who, and is also in the running for series favorite on the companion front. Where she’s left in this first episode gives her plenty of room to grow and stretch her acting chops, which is wonderful to see out of a companion role.
Other positives and negatives from the Christmas special of Doctor Who
Paired with Gibson’s Ruby is Michelle Greenidge’s Carla, Ruby’s mother. I don’t know what I was expecting from a character that is on the periphery of The Doctor and Ruby, but what we get is a stellar performance that fits in perfectly with Gatwa and Gibson. There are a few scenes with Greenidge that made me tear up. I hope there’s much more of her in the upcoming season of Doctor Who.
The writing by Russell T. Davies continues to be strong, continuing from the epic third special “The Giggle”. “The Church on Ruby Road” leans a bit more into the fantasy realm, which is a welcome change of pace from the sci-fi-heavy series. The Goblins are as cute as they are terrifying, the latter being an essential hallmark of Doctor Who. The story is beautifully crafted and serves as the perfect introduction to this new era of Doctor Who.
As well, the mix of practical and visual effects is done well in this episode. They are blended seamlessly, providing a realistic feeling world, unlike episodes from Doctor Who’s past. No longer does Who feel and look cheap, instead it feels so incredibly alive.
After watching the special, I do worry that Ruby will be made into a plot device, like Clara, the Ponds, or River Song. There’s enough of a mystery about her that she could easily cross over into that field, which feels like it detracts from the strong female character that should be important. Not that there can’t be a plot device associated with the character, but I don’t want it to become all Ruby is known for. I do think Gibson has a strong enough performance and personality that she’ll stay in the minds of fans for a long time, regardless of her backstory.
The only part of the episode that struck me as odd or off-putting is the stinger to the episode, which comes just before the credits. The additional season felt like something from the Disney Channel and detracts from the actual ending. I feel it would have been better to keep that off the episode and instead use whatever it’s hinting at more directly in an actual episode. I think you’ll understand more after watching it. Moreover, if this is my only nitpick, it shows that Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road is strong.
Final thoughts on Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road
I think if there was ever any doubt in the minds of fans about the direction of Doctor Who, there shouldn’t be now. “The Chuch on Ruby Road” proves that the series is back in good hands with RTD, and with the partnership between the BBC and Disney. The episode is fantastic, with a ton of laughs, a lot of heart, and some intense chemistry between The Doctor and Ruby. The potential for something fantastic is here, and I believe it will only continue to grow as the series continues in the spring of 2024.
Doctor Who: The Chruch on Ruby Road airs on Christmas Day on Disney+ across the world and on the BBC in the U.K.. Let us know how excited you are about this new special and the new Doctor on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord!