Doctor Who series 14 episode 2 | The Devil’s Chord spoiler-filled review

Doctor Who The Devil's Chord
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Doctor Who heads off to The Beatles with The Devil’s Chord – and here’s our spoiler-filled review of The Devil’s Chord.

Final warning: this review contains spoilers.

At the UK premiere for Doctor Who season 14, or season 1 if you prefer, writer and showrunner Russell T Davies took to the stage after a screening of Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord. Chatting about the latter, he admitted he’d never really written anything quite like it before.

At heart, it’s simply a face off between two forces: the Doctor and Ruby on one side, and Jinkx Monsoon’s Maestro on the other. There’s barely any plot, Davies admitted, and it’s hard to argue with him.

The pre-credits setup – with a witty subsequent knock-on for the title music – takes us all the way to the 1920s, where a man called Timothy Drake seems robbed of his chance to be a music great. His decision to tinkle the chord of the episode’s title on his ivories proves unwise. In an episode not shy of people popping out of musical instruments, we meet the quiet, sedate Maestro emerging from Drake’s piano, and trouble is not far behind.

Post-title sequence, and we get to what The Devil’s Chord had been teased as: the moment when the Doctor meets The Beatles. The very question of why this hasn’t been done before is written into Davies’ script, and an answer is apparent, too: they’re not allowed to use the music. Well, they would be allowed to use the music if the budget was bigger, but as Davies as acknowledged, even Disney-funded Doctor Who has its financial limits.

The plot we get feels a little born out of necessity, then. Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor and Millie Gibson’s Ruby find themselves in 1960s London, and head off to Abbey Road Studios – not known as that at the time, of course – where The Beatles are working on music. But it’s not the music we know, and if anything, they’re struggling. Cue some fun moments, not least Ncuti Gatwa’s face when the tunes don’t sound as they should. Comedy is not in short supply in The Devil’s Chord.

This is the bit where the whole thing could have segued into Danny Boyle’s Yesterday film a bit, but instead, we see what the world is without music. Think the Doctor Who episode Turn Left, but instead of taking the Doctor out of the world, you’re taking every tune away, with disastrous consequences. We thus get a crumbling London, and everything falling apart. Nice bit of escapism, there.

The early stages in Abbey Road, wheeling around a tea trolley, I enjoyed a lot. A casual exchange with Cilla Black may be as niche to the young audience Doctor Who is trying to attract as the mention of The Rani was in Space Babies, but it’s fun. Lots of fun. The hat tip to Totters Lane, and the Doctor talking about the people from his very distant past was lovely. The continued acknowledgement of the lineage of the Doctor is very welcome.

As for Ncuti Gatwa’s Time Lord, things are deepening here, amidst the boss battle and the huge dance sequence.

It’s interesting: we seem to have a slightly weaker Doctor. In hindsight, the battle he had with The Toymaker in Giggle before Christmas felt done and dusted rather quickly, yet it’s having narrative repercussions (beyond keeping David Tennant’s 14th Doctor in the world of Who). That the Doctor has taken lasting damage feels important to the character. As much as Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor springs around the episode, we also see the shades of grey. It’s as if, when you scratch just a little below the surface, that his confidence is shot.

This is an alien creature who bounds out of the TARDIS each week and says hello to whoever he meets. Now? There’s self-doubt. And, granted, some smashing outfits.

Bit still: the centre of The Devil’s Chord was, for me anyway, where the air came out of it a little. Jinkx Monsoon is having a ball as the Maestro, and she has charisma in octaves. Magnetic on screen, missed off it, her character in the end had the job of turning up and doing battle. Not a lot more, although the dancing musical notes and the visual glitz of her presence did not shortchange.

In fact, a word about production design. Appreciating that Doctor Who spends much of its life as a heightened show, there are also moments when it really, really lets its hair down. The outfits, the staging, the sheer bravado of The Devil’s Chord really has to be commended. Granted, it’s very loud, and you could search with a microscope for a sign or two of subtlety when it gets going and struggle, but it commits. The actual music battle near the end had a dollop of Scott Pilgrim Vs The World about it, and that is not low praise.

Then there’s the twist at the end. Not for the first time in the two episodes we’ve seen of the new run, we’re looking at something Doctor Who hasn’t done before. It ain’t for the purists, perhaps, but then the continued theme here is that the show is recruiting. Part of that is going off in wild new directions, in a way that a show like Doctor Who can support.

It leaves is with a core idea or two to The Devil’s Chord that are serviced just about enough. There’s the germ of an idea – the loss of music from the world – which makes its point and then moves on at great speed.

Of course, the whole thing is mad again. Has there been a run of Doctor Who that’s opened with two such bizarre episodes before? When The Devil’s Chord knocked off a few minutes early just so we could get the dance, I wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised. Bonus points for the TARDIS doors joining in the fun at the end.

Much enjoyment, and many questions about where all this is going starting to form. Next week’s Doctor Who, Boom, looks a bit more traditional, although the way things have gone, I ain’t betting against an interview in the middle where the Doctor and Ruby sit and eat an ice cream whilst

For now, Doctor Who is utterly relaunched. If you watched the show in the 1980s, you may well be wondering what the hell is going on. If you switched it on for the first time, you may be having the time of your life. And that, I’d suggest, is just what Russell T Davies might just have been hoping for…

Our review of the previous episode, Space Babies, is here.

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