Two Doctor Who characters talking with a blue sky in the background

Doctor Who’s Disney+ Relaunch is Swinging Big and Getting Weird (Review)

Warning: This review of the first three episodes of the new season of Doctor Who contains minor spoilers for said episodes.

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When it was announced that the BBC and Disney had entered into a partnership to produce the upcoming season of Doctor Who, with a brand new Doctor (Ncut Gatwa), a brand new companion named Ruby (Millie Gibson), and a returning show from Russel T. Davies, fans were very excited. It wasn’t clear, however, just what this all meant for the future of the series, which would once again be getting a soft reboot with a new Doctor and a possibly larger audience thanks to the show’s prominent presence on Disney+. It turns out, judging from the season’s first three episodes, it means that things are getting very, very weird as Davies takes Who to places it hasn’t gone in a very long time.

To be clear, this early review is based on the official first three episodes of Gatwa’s run as the Doctor: “The Church on Ruby Road” (which already came out this past Christmas), “Space Babies”, and “The Devil’s Chord.” However, it’s also heavily influenced by Gatwa’s first appearance as the Doctor in the third David Tenant-starring special “The Giggle.” The latter is because what is abundantly clear from this first slate of episodes is that the Celestial Toymaker, the villain of “The Giggle,” will dramatically influence the coming season of Doctor Who not just in terms of the story but in terms of the entire tone of the series.

overhead city view in Doctor Who

Wibbly Wobbly, Timey Weirdy Stuff

Before we dive into opinions on “Space Babies” and “The Devil’s Chord,” let’s take a look at what that means for the series as a whole. The Celestial Toymaker, a classic Doctor Who villain from the first Doctor’s era, was able to affect reality in any way he wanted, which made for some very strange and reality-breaking television – a place Doctor Who hadn’t been for a very long time. In fact, Davies, who wrote most of this season and every episode discussed here, went so far as to break the fourth wall and bring the audience into things both overtly and subtly. Well, he’s not stopping any of that. While not being able to go into specifics due to spoiler embargos, it is easy to say that this is the weirdest, most-fourth-wall-breaking, reality-bending series of Doctor Who episodes ever released.

Davies seems to be breaking reality to literally break Doctor Who and do whatever the hell he wants and it’s both strange and wonderful and immensely confusing. The showrunner/writer has always been a fan of jumping around with characters as if we’ve missed a bunch of time between episodes, which helped establish him as the perfect showrunner when Who returned in the early ’00s, but he seems to have gone off the deep end here, becoming the Celestial Toymaker himself and plopping the Doctor and Ruby into bonkers situations that don’t seem to follow any coherent rules. I’ve watched every season of Doctor Who, and it gets really strange sometimes. This is right up there with the strangest.

What isn’t determined yet is where this is all going but what is sure is that this new Doctor Who isn’t too concerned with canon, the previous rules of the show, or anything else that fans might consider untouchable. Is there some larger plan for all this that will play out over the season and explain the absurdity and meta-nature of the series now or is this just a new take? With only two new episodes to go off of, it’s hard to tell, but those two episodes sure send a message.

Babies and Beatles

Those two new episodes, landing when the series debuts on Disney+ on May 10 (and then later in the UK on the BBC), kick off with “Space Babies” an episode of Doctor Who right out of the early Davies era where a race of alien monsters who farted regularly were controlling much of the British government. The oddball episode features a space station full of talking babies, a bogeyman, and a sentient nanny robot. It is the kind of weird, off-kilter Who you’d expect to find midseason as a bit of fun, but here it stands as basically the season premiere given the gap in time since “The Church on Ruby Road” landed.

The entire premise is pretty flippant and feels like Davies saw those E-Trade ads with the talking babies in them and decided to make an episode around them. It doesn’t entirely work, especially as the gimmick distracts from us getting to know Ruby and this new Doctor better. The episode feels like a side when we’re all expecting a main course.

That quickly changes, however, with “The Devil’s Chord,” which catapults us back into continuity as the Doctor and Ruby travel to meet the Beatles but discover that music has pretty much disappeared from the world. This is all thanks to another reality-bending villain called Maestro who shares ties with the Celestial Toymaker. I don’t want to give away too much but much like “The Giggle,” the entire universe gets bent out of shape. It’s all very cartoony in many ways and this episode just takes it to a whole new level.

This isn’t to say that Maestro, played bombastically by Jinkx Monsoon, isn’t a blast to watch on screen but the adventure on the whole, much like “Space Babies” feels patently ridiculous. It’s like someone took the premise of Doctor Who and turned everything up to 11, removing any guard rails whatsoever. Thankfully, there is one thing holding everything together and making almost every moment fun to watch, the Doctor himself.

Trust Me, He’s the Doctor

For many viewers, it’s not going to matter how off-the-wall the new series is because there is one thing that is certifiably fantastic about the show and that is Gatwa as the Doctor. It was incredibly clear from his introduction that Gatwa’s Doctor was going to be different in a big, happy, wonderful way. That attitude carries on throughout, with the actor playing the Doctor as joyous to the hilt. Even during more somber moments, this Doctor doesn’t seem to be drowning in the sorrow of his predecessors.

However, it’s more than just that. Since David Tenant took over the role, it’s felt like each subsequent Doctor, though different in many ways, hasn’t been a drastic shift from the previous. Even when Jodie Whitaker took over with Chris Chibnall showrunning it felt like much the same. There was no hard shift like between, say, the Second and Third doctor or Five and Six. Gatwa, much like the series around him, truly feels like an entirely new take on the character. And that take is fantastic, fun, and… wears a variety of outfits. The latter part might not seem important, but each Doctor has at least had a “look” they stuck to but it appears that Gatwa’s Doctor will be dressing up in whatever he likes, a sign of his Doctor’s brash openness and joy.

Ruby smiling on the rooftop

Unfortunately, not as much can be said for Gibson’s Ruby, who feels more like a McGuffin at the moment than an actual character. As far as modern Doctor Who‘s young, female, pretty companions go, she doesn’t seem to offer anything that new. The mystery behind her birth will clearly be a throughline for the season but she feels more like another mystery-box girl than anything all that interesting. Hopefully her character opens up more as the season progresses.

What becomes immensely clear over the course of these four Gatwa-starring episodes is that Davies is not here to remake his previous run on Doctor Who but to do something entirely new. Doctor Who has always been weird, and it’s definitely done some strange stuff over the decades, but this feels like a new take on “NuWho,” as the early 2000s relaunch of the series is known. It is a big, bold different direction for the show, anchored by a Doctor who finally feels like he’s doing something drastically different from his predecessors. The question is if fans, both new and old, will embrace this new happy, wacky, third-wall-breaking, canon-shattering spin on Doctor Who – or will they simply stare at the screen in utter bewilderment at the insanity ensuing.


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Author
Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is a News Writer and film aficionado at Escapist. He has been writing for Escapist for nearly five years and has nearly 20 years of experience reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and video games for both print and online outlets. He has a degree in Film from Vassar College and a degree in gaming from growing up in the '80s and '90s. He runs the website Flixist.com and has written for The Washington Post, Destructoid, MTV, and more. He will gladly talk your ear off about horror, Marvel, Stallone, James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.