Doctor Who series 14 episode 1 | Space Babies spoiler-filled review

Ncuti Gatwa as Doctor Who
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Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson begin their excellent adventures in earnest: here’s our Doctor Who Space Babies spoiler-filled review.

Final warning: this review contains spoilers.

For those of us who grew up in the era of wobbly monsters, episodes of Doctor Who afforded one set and a bit of studio time, and the same corridor shot from multiple angles, this new era of the show still takes a little getting used to. To see Doctor Who able to segue into a side moment where there are convincing-looking dinosaurs roaming and for it not even to be the main thrust of the story is quite something really.

But here we are, and all power to it. I’m betting a pound that the butterfly effect at the start comes back towards the end of the series, though.

Space Babies, then, is set up as another recruitment episode of the show, a jumping aboard point with presumably one eye on the Disney+ audience around the world. Picking up – and a tiny bit overlapping – the Christmas special The Church On Ruby Road, here we see Ncuti Gatwa’s new Doctor, and Millie Gibson’s Ruby, off on their first proper adventure together.

What we get in Space Babies is a lot of explaining the rules of the show, a traditional Doctor Who monster in the basement, and, well, a lot of babies.

The explaining stuff feels like retreading ground that was covered in the 2023 specials, but it’s understandable why writer and showrunner Russell T Davies feels he needs to do this. Throwing in weightlessness in the TARDIS as something a little different – imagine them trying to do that in the 1980s, on a BBC budget – we’re left in little doubt that Gallifrey is gone, that the Doctor is alone, and that there’s a parallel between the two orphans who are at the heart of the show. It’s a bit of doubling down, but perfectly well done. All in the coating of what feels like a blockbuster movie lift-off for the new series.

Which is when we arrive at a spaceship. It could, in theory, be something out of Alien. It’s a seemingly abandoned spaceship too. Turns out it’s staffed by some of the deadliest creatures in the universe: human babies.

The first two episodes of Doctor Who season 14 are not shy of ‘they didn’t, did they?’ moments, and as a statement of intent, an episode with babies crewing up a ship is on that list. I confess I was a bit unsettled at first: there’s something inherently creepy about talking babies, but Davies is still mining the situation of a baby farm for humour and emotion. Alongside a nose blowing machine, there’s the simple wish for a hug. I like it when it takes things that small in the midst of so much noise and spectacle. Few manage it quite like him.

I did at one point stop to consider the logistics of shooting a scene with so many babies on a set, and concluded it was probably easier to bring a dinosaur to life.

The actual plot bit of Space Babies felt fairly routine in the end, albeit with some swipes at big business, and a comment on the refugee crisis. Then we get to the monster running around in the basement, one who happens to be made out of bogeys. It’s an instance of a piece of information revealed after the introduction of the character suddenly making it a lot grosser. I was surprised too at just how much the episode was willing to dial up the horror of a monster in a corridor. This is Doctor Who going for a PG-13 audience to my eyes. And also teaching kids to blow their nose properly.

First episodes of a series are notably a challenge. For a while, Steven Moffat reckoned The Eleventh Hour was some of his best work, given that it managed to introduce two new lead actors, as well as wrapping in a plot, and a narrative arc that would underpin the series. I think Davies’ best opener remains Rose, a piece of work that looks all the more impressive each time I revisit it. Space Babies feels solid enough, and a statement of intent. It also leaves hints for where we might be going.

The highlight of the episode for me is Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor, I’d suggest. Wildly charismatic, we wait to see if he can handle more of the quieter moments as well as a Tennant or Capaldi, but there’s a lot to work with here. He’s also just a joy to watch, a magnet for the show. Millie Gibson is fine too, although I confess I’m not yet convinced of the chemistry between the pair. Capaldi and Clara, Eccleston/Tennant and Rose, these are the high bars Doctor Who has managed to set. I don’t (yet) think that the Doctor and Ruby are at that level.

But there’s mystery in here to be explored, and hints that Ruby has a reason for being in the Doctor’s life. That’s not a fresh narrative strand for Doctor Who of course, but we’re at the infancy of that storyline here. I don’t get any sense that Davies is interested in a retread. Why has Ruby’s story brough them to a ship full of abandoned babies? How long can the Doctor go without a purpose, a cause, or a mission? And where does the Doctor get all his spectacular outfits from?

Davies is savvy enough to offer some meat to long term fans of the show as well, not least because he’s absolutely in that camp too. A namecheck of the Rani is wonderful, nice and appreciated for instance. Clearly too, he loves Doctor Who. His appreciation and care for it runs right through Space Babies.

But what also comes across is his appetite to change it. Only Doctor Who could do an episode like Space Babies, and yet I’d imagine for many who hold the show dear, it’s going to be quite a divisive one. Yet Davies is on a recruitment drive, and he’s able – more than ever- to do things his way.

What’s more, he just has…

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