Doctor Who | The Church On Ruby Road review (spoilers)

Doctor Who: The Church On Ruby Road
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Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson take the controls, as Doctor Who’s new era fully gets underway: here’s our The Church On Ruby Road review.

Doctor Who: The Church On Ruby Road review (spoilers)

“Merry Christmas, Davina McCall”

Here’s a thing I didn’t expect from Ncuti Gatwa’s opening episode as The Doctor: an opening that made be think of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Yet a baby being left behind at Christmas? And then a sequence later on as the camera follows a basket on its journey? Hey, sometimes you take from these things what you bring to them.

That baby, of course, turns out to be the Doctor’s new companion, Ruby, and we quickly get to see who she grew up into.

Played by Millie Gibson, she’s the missing part of the new Doctor Who’s team, and – unusually – by the end of this episode, she’s the one who actively chases the idea of travelling in the TARDIS, rather than the Doctor laying out an invite. That said, Davies keeps her and the Doctor pretty much apart for most of the episode, so we can spend a bit of time with them apart, before they come together.

Steven Moffat once said that of the episodes of Doctor Who he’s proud of, The Eleventh Hour stands up there, given just how much it had to do in one hour of television. Moffat had to bring in a new Doctor, a new companion, the start of a series arc, and a new era for the show in that particular case.

Appreciating we’ve already had quarter of an hour with Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor courtesy of The Giggle, and appreciating too that Russell T Davies II has already set the tone of his latest Doctor Who run, I still think The Church On Ruby Road gets – seemingly effortlessly – through an awful lot of business. This time, as Davies did before with The Christmas Invasion, in the midst of a jaunty Christmas adventure.

Much like 2005’s Rose, much time is spent here setting up the life and background of the Doctor’s new companion. In fact, the bulk of the episode opening – with a bit of help from Davina McCall (marking the second time Davies has used her in his Doctor Who) – focuses on Carla, the woman who adopted her and over 30 other children (how effective a visual cue is a fridge full of photos?).

Then there’s Carla’s mum, the tea-craving Cherry, stuck in bed but brain very much alert. And the whole introduction of the fact that Ruby herself is a ‘foundling’, a baby discovered at Christmas and made a crucial part of Carla’s family.

Going back to Rose again, what that episode did was introduce a working class family into the world of space and time travel. It grounded Doctor Who terrifically back in 2005, and it does so again in The Church On Ruby Rose. I already want to spend as much time with Carla, Cherry and their new adopted baby daughter. I suspect in the months ahead, I will.

Amidst all of this, there’s a threat to deal with, this time a bunch of CG goblins who are stealing babies, and taking them to their ship in the sky. At some point, I’ll stop babbling on about the influx of money that’s clearly made its way into Doctor Who, but not today: two years ago, Doctor Who couldn’t have done this. A ship packed with computer characters, a massive sing-song, and then a chief goblin who looks like Jabba The Hutt via way of a bit of Labyrinth.

It’s notable that in this era of Doctor Who, things are being shot a lot further ahead than when we get to see them. The series that screens in 2025 is already filming now, and we’ve not even seen the 2024 episodes. The reason? Well, partly because so much is being lavished on the stories in post-production. I don’t think there’s ever been a full-on song and dance number in Doctor Who before, and certainly not one that targeted the Christmas number one music spot. But here we are. It’s really rather new.

The actual underlying mechanics of the story don’t feel that new, though. The Church On Ruby Road – as had been pointed out by others better than me – does have a slight feel of a Rose revisited to it. I think that’s a bit unfair, but I do see similar building blocks.

Yet these feel like very different characters. I thought Millie Gibson shot out of the blocks, endearingly likeable, curious, and very much someone to root for. I warmed to the character, and to Gibson’s performance, instantly.

Meanwhile, one and a bit episodes in the Gatwa era, and I’m he feels like a radically different Doctor already. The man is having an absolute ball, whether he’s saving Davina McCall’s life, jumping along rooftops, or having a bit of a boogie. Christmas episodes of Doctor Who always have a slightly heightened feel to them – in fact, this is the first festive special for six years – and that’s the backdrop for Davies to let his characters have a play.

The goblins plot is eventually disposed of pretty quickly – there’s a run of villains who are in danger of become more easily defeatable than the Daleks – but their job is done. They didn’t even trouble the Christmas top ten chart in the end. But they and the episode are all about full-on fun, and it’s a blockbuster episode in that sense. Much to enjoy, and the best way to get the most of it is to sit back with a grin on your face, and just go with it.

In terms of deeper Doctor Who stuff, the Timeless Child is reinforced again here. But also, there’s the mystery as to why Anita Dobson knows all about the TARDIS. A small little detail dropped in at the end, but we’ve surely not seen the last of her in Doctor Who. Heck, bring on the Angie and Dirty Den crossover: I’m game.

I’d imagine too we’re going to see the slightly haunting image of Ruby’s real mother walking away revisited over time. That’s set up nicely for the future.

But for the now, The Church On Ruby Road – skilfully directed by Mark Tonderai, whose debut 2008 feature Hush is well worth seeking out – delivers. I think these are the kind of episodes where it’s not that easy to appreciate at first just how much work they’ve done. Sure, on the one hand the sonic screwdriver is established as a cheap wireless mouse from PC World. On the other, it’s put characters firmly on the board, and in a position for fresh adventures.

An adventure that Ruby, again, has absolutely sought out. Right through, the dynamics feel very slightly different here.

In four episodes then, Russell T Davies has poured rocket fuel into the TARDIS, upped the tempo of the show, changed it again, and left it in rude health. As always, not everyone is going to jump along for the ride. But those who get what he’s doing? In 2024, we might just be in for a blast…

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