Doctor Who: The Church On Ruby Road Review

Doctor Who
Abandoned in the snow as a child, bad luck seems to follow wherever Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) goes. But her fortunes change when, one Christmas, she meets the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) — and a band of baby-eating goblins.

by Jordan King |
Published on

Forget French hens, turtle doves, and partridges in pear trees — dedicated Whovians and newbies (Whobies?) alike have been treated to three Doctor Who 60th anniversary specials, two different Doctors, and a canon-changing big finale already this festive season. And now, having made a bold, Y-front-wearing introduction in ‘The Giggle’, Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor makes his debut proper alongside new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) in ‘The Church On Ruby Road’. Russell T Davies’ latest yuletide yarn — notably Who’s first Christmas special since 2017 — is a fantasy-inflected fairy tale for the whole family to enjoy, an hour of televisual entertainment tailor-made to cajole viewers out of their post-roast coma and into the evening’s festivities.

Doctor Who

After the increasing dramatic intensity of Who’s recent run of anniversary specials — the table-clearing, table-setting, Toymaker, and bi-generation of it all — there’s a satisfying simplicity to ‘The Church On Ruby Road’’s set-up. A foundling fable set to an enchanting Murray Gold score (with more than a hint of Labyrinth in its bones), the story follows the Doctor as he meets Ruby, a mishap-prone foster-child who was inexplicably left on the steps of a church as a baby. As an adult, we find her living with adoptive mother Carla (Michelle Greenidge) and grandmother Cherry (Angela Wynter), seeking out her roots with the help of Davina McCall (played by, err, Davina McCall). Matters complicate somewhat when Ruby discovers the source of her bad luck — cradle-snatching goblins (because of course!) — but thankfully a slew of ‘coincidental’ encounters with a mysterious stranger in possession of a big blue box ensure there’s never any doubt as to how things will eventually shake out.

The way Gibson’s Ruby and Gatwa’s Doctor are introduced here — both in their way seeking out their roots, first apart and then, chance encounter by chance encounter, together — is a clever move on RTD’s part. There’s a sense of almost Richard Curtisian fate drawing the duo into each other’s orbit, their instant bestie chemistry sparking across dancefloors and rooftops as Ruby’s bad luck and the Doctor’s impeccable timing intersect. Yet at the same time, crucially, space is given for us to meet these characters in their own lives and own world. Getting to feel Ruby’s warmth around and love for her foster family and friends — to see the Doctor’s characteristic protectiveness (beware giant inflatable snowmen!) and newfound youthful vitality as he dances and twirls in a tank-top and kilt — grounds everything beautifully before… well… y’know, goblins. In many ways, it’s an introduction of a piece with Rose’s and Donna’s once before. It’s a familiar approach that could come over as rehashing to dyed-in-the-wool Whovians, but it’s one lent a refreshing sense of newness by Gibson and Gatwa’s infectious energy.

It can’t be overstated how simply fun The Church On Ruby Road is.

As if there were any doubt, Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson’s arrival in the Whoniverse is a total breath of fresh air. Having spent several years lighting up the cobbles of Coronation Street, raising the bar for young actors as fan-favourite Kelly Neelan, Gibson — no stranger to taking a batshit-insane plotline and selling every line — takes to gadding about infiltrating goblin airships like a duck to water. Despite there being a touch of ‘Rose 2.0’ about Ruby as we find her here, there’s more than enough in Gibson’s performance to suggest far greater depths yet for her to explore with the character.

Gatwa, on the other hand, whose unique acting alchemy of luminescent joie de vivre and brooding emotionality made Eric the real star of Sex Education, is simply a revelation. Unencumbered by the Time Lord’s usual post-regeneration wobbliness (or indeed wibbliness), and having already made an impact with an extended appearance in David Tennant’s final(ish) bow, Gatwa’s Fifteen arrives fully formed. Here is a Doctor who can rock a cowboy hat like no other (sorry, Matt Smith), who’s unafraid to bust out a tune to get out of a tight spot, and who exudes an empathetic emotionality that draws no immediate comparisons to other incarnations of the character. Gatwa’s stylish fits, nifty gadgets, and all-action approach are, however, excitingly very Jon-Pertwee-as-the-Third-Doctor-coded.

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When Ruby and the Doctor’s worlds do fully collide, their rapid-fire repartee and complementary giddy energy is intoxicating. And, in making the pair’s status as foster children — albeit under very different circumstances — an emotional point of connection for the Doctor and Ruby, Davies creates a Doctor-companion dynamic we’ve never seen before. Its imposition also represents a neat way to reframe and reset the stakes for page one of the Whoniverse’s latest chapter. When first we met Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor back in 2005, we found someone haunted by guilt, PTSD-stricken by a war that had cost the lives of billions. In the years since, we’ve been generally introduced to new Doctors as they add new burdens to their load. Here, instead, we find someone simply trying to figure out who they are — trying to find their place in the universe alongside somebody facing exactly the same existential crisis. There’s time for grand mysteries and great enemies ahead — goodness knows, seeds have already been sown for those already since Davies’ return (and a couple such inclusions here do come over as somewhat clunkily bolted on) – but for now at least things are nicely centralised and easy to follow once again.

Beyond Gatwa and Gibson being great, though, it can’t be overstated how simply fun ‘The Church On Ruby Road’ is too. There are comedy pratfalls involving weaponised Christmas trees, smashed glasses, and dropped shopping. There’s a whopping big goblin airship that looks like it came from Stardust filled with demented-Grogu-looking not-pixies and intricately detailed prop-work. And there’s a full-on musical number about feeding tots to a goblin king (a practical-plus-CG creation that must be seen to be believed) that includes the frankly remarkable line, “Eat the baby / Add some salt”. (Noddy Holder, eat your heart out.) So basically just your standard hour of unhinged Russel T Davies Who goodness. Is it silly? Yes. Is it, on occasion, more than a little hokey? Absolutely. But would we have it any other way? Not at all. Spring 2024 can’t come soon enough.

Filled with fun, folly and festive spirit, Doctor Who’s Christmas return is a cracker. And, in their debut outing together, Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson are a real gift.
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