Though Doctor Who technically introduced Ncuti Gatwa during its recent 60th-anniversary celebrations, it is the Christmas special "The Church on Ruby Road" that makes the official start of the Fifteenth Doctor era. Firmly established in its new streaming home on Disney+, the show has never looked more expensive or well made, now led by the first Black man to play the Doctor and a former-turned-current showrunner who has big ideas about where this franchise should go in its sixth decade. Maybe some people don't believe that lighting can strike twice, but I promise you in the world of Doctor Who, it absolutely can, as Davies not only delivers a cracking first adventure for Gatwa's Doctor but manages to craft an hour that feels both incredibly familiar and refreshingly new at the same time.
Christmas specials are always a bit of a ridiculous beast. The slightly over-the-top feel, the often very overt cheesiness, the in-your-face festive vibes, it can all be a bit much. But there's also something almost indescribably magical about these installments, a sense of unbridled fun and joy that Doctor Who dearly missed during the years when showrunner Chris Chibnall was at the helm. (For whatever reason, he preferred to air a "New Year's special," an hour that was essentially a regular episode that happened to air on a holiday rather than a holiday episode, if that makes sense.) But now that Davies has returned to the Whoniverse, Christmas specials are back — with the best sort of bang.
Like several episodes before it — Season 5's "The Eleventh Hour" and Season 11's "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" offered similar entire cast changeovers and fresh slates for new viewers — "The Church on Ruby Road" is something of a soft reboot for the series. There's plenty of fun for those of us who know our Whovian history, but it makes for an easy entry point for this new era of the show, which has so deliberately scrapped some of the trauma and baggage of previous incarnations.
Though we spent quite a bit of time with Gatwa's Doctor in the 60th anniversary special "The Giggle" — a great deal more than we usually see of an incoming Doctor in a regeneration episode — "The Church on Ruby Road" is the first time we get to see him on his terms it's honestly a blast. Thanks to the work done in that episode (and all the self-actualization Fourteen is busy working on while hanging in the Nobles' backyard), this Doctor arrives confident and fully formed, a Time Lord who knows what and who he is from his first moments onscreen.
He goes to the club, guys. He has fun. Sure, he's got a little residual emotional baggage. (I'm unsure how I feel about reframing the Timeless Child arc as a plain adoption story, but we'll see where it goes.) But the weight of the universe seems to have fallen from his shoulders, and even though this is the oldest Doctor we have technically ever met, this character has rarely felt this young in recent years.
Gatwa is instantly commanding in the role: utterly at ease, joyous, delighting in himself and the world around him in a way we haven't seen in a long time. Like virtually all Doctors, this incarnation is also fast-talking and delightfully nerdy, teaching himself the language of rope while in potentially mortal peril, philosophizing about the difference between luck and coincidence, and making weird technological arts and crafts projects like his new gloves that concentrate all his mass in one spot and allow him to perform some rather impressive feats of strength. Plus, his sartorial choices are all bangers—Doctor Who cosplayers will lose their minds over the sheer amount of outfits on display in this episode alone.
Ultimately, "The Church on Ruby Road" is an introductory adventure that brings Fifteen his first companion, the charmingly adorable Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson).
Abandoned as a baby on the doorstep of a church, Ruby has grown up loved and largely happy with her adoptive mother, Carla (Michelle Greenidge), and grandmother, Cherry (Angela Wynter). However, she remains curious about the identity of her birth mother and why she was left on her own. One of the best aspects of Davis's preferred brand of storytelling is how interested he is in his companions as characters in their own right and the remarkable level of detail and depth he ascribes to their lives. Ruby has starred in a single episode, and yet she feels as fully fleshed out and three-dimensional as some characters we spent multiple adventures, even full seasons with, and her relationships with her adoptive mother and grandmother are not just warm and rich but feel as though they exist well beyond the bounds of this particular story. There's history, hope, and all manner of life there, and I can only hope we get to see more of them.
As the episode begins, Ruby is plagued by an increasingly bizarre string of bad luck, which repeatedly puts her in the Doctor's path. When a supernatural enemy abducts Carla's newest foster child, they'll have to rescue the baby before she becomes a snack for some disturbingly creepy creatures. This episode introduces goblins to the franchise, complete with an in-episode song and dance number about feeding children to their Goblin King. It's all ridiculous in a way that Davies's Christmas installments tend to be, targeted entirely at the same sorts of kids who laughed at the fart jokes about the Slitheen all those years ago. While there's something quite appealing about the idea of expanding the Whoniverse in a more fantasy-based direction — a lot of this episode has real Labyrinth vibes — the goblins themselves aren't particularly interesting.
There's a nonsensical in-universe explanation for their behavior involving goblins being time surfers (not time travelers) drawn to confluences of coincidence and luck. You'd think a group of villains that could make flying ships and form bands with horrible puns in their various members' names would be more fun. Instead, they're just sort of mean. But, hey, at least Davies is trying something new in terms of onscreen villains, and the folklore-ish aspects of this plot are something I hope the season comes back to.
But despite the sort of take-it-or-leave-it aspect of their initial onscreen enemies, the chemistry between Gatwa and Gibson is wonderful. The pair sparkle together from their first interactions onscreen, radiating instant BFFs forever vibes with none of the various flavors of romantic pining that have colored a fair number of recent Doctor/companion relationships. (They have big Ten and Donna's bestie energy; honestly, I'm here for it.)
"The Church on Ruby Road" is also devoted to establishing a genuine emotional connection between the Doctor and Ruby (as well as between their characters and the audience watching at home), a refreshing change that will undoubtedly pay dividends as the season continues. It doesn't get bogged down in unnecessary lore or exposition either — no one even says the word TARDIS until the episode's last line — and although it's evident that the mystery of her birth mother is something we'll revisit, the hour is primarily focused on the ways this shared experience of not knowing where they come from brings the Doctor and Ruby closer together.
After multiple seasons of the Doctor shutting everyone out (Fourteen aside because he's working on it), it's lovely to watch a simple origin story of friendship, one that somehow both feels fully formed and like it has barely begun to plumb the depths of what they'll be to one another. Where will their adventures take them from here? That's a question only the season that's slated to arrive in the spring can answer. But it's sure going to be fun to find out.
"The Church on Ruby Road" is now streaming on Disney+. Doctor Who will return with new episodes sometime in the spring of 2024.