HomeTelevisionDoctor Who Premiere Launches a Season Full of Potential

Doctor Who Premiere Launches a Season Full of Potential

Photo Credit: Disney+/BBC

Over the weekend, Disney+ dropped the two-episode premiere of the latest season of Doctor Who, starring Ncuti Gatwa as the titular Doctor and Millie Gibson as companion Ruby Sunday.

“Space Babies” and “The Devil’s Chord” are full of fun, drama, camp, foreshadowing, and Easter eggs. There is certainly a lot going on, and now the fandom has its hands full with debates about things like the “proper” structure and tone for a Doctor Who episode, the “proper” role of a companion, and the “proper” look for actors hired to portray legendary musicians. There doesn’t seem to be much room for the fans who simply showed up to have a good time and watch the season start to take form. We are here to put those hot takes aside and unpack what this two-episode premiere has to say about the upcoming season. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead.

In the first episode of the premiere, “Space Babies,” The Doctor and Ruby Sunday deliver a derelict space station full of little baby Einstein refugees to the welcoming shores of a new planet (harnessing the power of a cosmic fart, of course). In “The Devil’s Chord,” Team TARDIS manages to restore humanity’s gift of music with a little help from The Beatles in 1963. Of course, their foe, Maestro, is revealed to be  one of the children from the Toymaker’s pantheon of inter-dimensional gods teased at the end of “The Giggle” back in December. Notably, Jinkx Monsoon shows up to ace the assignment of matching the zany energy that Neil Patrick Harris established for this new collection of super-powered foes.  

In the days since the premiere, this reviewer has heard the full gamut of reactions from the fandom: everything from Russell T. Davies (RTD) superfans who’ve dubbed the showrunner’s return as the dawn of a new golden age for Doctor Who to dismissive media connoisseurs who desperately wish they were watching the show evolve into prestige television. Most fans are watching from a more open-minded perspective and simply hoping the show will do justice to their own favorite elements of the fandom.

At the end of the day, this show has maintained a fandom for 60 years (eat your heart out, Star Wars) against a chaotic backdrop of shifting political developments, business interests, distribution deals, and trends within the sci-fi genre. As a result, there will never be one brand of Who that pleases every fan all of the time. If you don’t believe that, just try to articulate which season we are watching right now. If you accept the Disney+ branding, we’ve just embarked on a brand new Season One. If you’ve spent the last twenty years embracing the twists and turns of “New Who,” you are probably inclined to call this Season Fourteen. If you are a Doctor Who lifer, you might say that we just saw the premiere of Season Forty. Good news. You’re all right. 

Hopefully this season will offer some wins for all of you; the premiere certainly sets up the potential for a rich text as we move forward.

Here at The Pop Break, we know that we can’t tell you how to feel about a topic this big. We are more interested in taking a long view of the upcoming season, so rather than review the premiere using a standard recap format, we are going to reflect on how well RTD and the rest of the creative team deploy  some of the key elements that have served the series well in the past. 

A DOCTOR WITH LAYERS

Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor is coming at us with a brand new type of origin story. He is the first new Doctor revealed through bi-generation (his previous iteration is still out and about having brunch with his found family), and we’ve had a sense of his personality from the moment he smiled at the Fourteenth Doctor and held David Tennant in his arms to tell him everything was going to be okay. He seems to be all about healing, and believes that his inner peace was thanks to the previous Doctor’s decision to take a rest.  

This energy is on full display in the premiere, and I’m not just talking about the hearts in his eyes when the space babies try to claim him as their father. No, he has replaced some of the brooding with hope: “I’m the last of the Time Lords, and I am so, so glad to be alive!” He also waxes poetic about the freedom that comes with being an undying time traveler and lets his companion know how much more beautiful those adventures are when he sees them through her eyes. 

We see his deep sense of compassion most clearly in “Space Babies,” when he shifts effortlessly into a place of deep and true empathy when one of the abandoned babies asks if they’ve been abandoned because they are “wrong.” Fifteen swiftly swoops in to tell the babies they are beautiful, and later offers that same love to a (very literal) “bogeyman.”

If that were all we had, it would be absolutely beautiful, but perhaps not enough to serve as the basis for a full season of television. Fortunately, The Doctor still seems to be grappling with some inner demons and control issues. While his affection for Ruby seems genuine, he also hasn’t let on that he is partly keeping her around as a sort of science experiment. In the closing moments of “Space Babies,” we see that he has fired up the ol’ full-body DNA scanner to inspect Ruby without her consent. We see The Doctor showcase a similar sense of ownership when he uses the TARDIS to show Ruby that time is in constant flux, and that one false move in the past could turn the world she knew into an apocalyptic nightmare. When she asks why she hasn’t faded away (à la Back to the Future), The Doctor says, “because of me.”

This may be a gentler, better-rested version of The Doctor, but we can still see the weight of impossible responsibility resting on his shoulders, as well as that desperate need for control that can often alienate The Doctor from his companions. It seems clear that we will get something more than just sunshine and roses moving forward.

COMPANION CHEMISTRY

The simplest answer here is: yes, yes, one thousand times yes. Of course these two have great chemistry. The smiles, laughs, and excited running are endlessly adorable. On top of that, our TARDIS team would never look out of place if a dance party spontaneously manifested around them. Ever since the days of the earliest press photos, we’ve known that Fifteen and Ruby are going to spend a lot of time playing dress-up together (and look damn good doing it!) and we got the payoff of those ’60s fits right off the bat. Honestly, how could you not love someone who is that eager to try out a beehive hairstyle?

While fans are sure to have some fun with every breathtaking costume change, we’ll need a better look at the emotional complexities of this relationship before we can see where it stands on the list of Doctor/Companion relationships. As a result, some fans are understandably worried at the steps we took toward further establishing Ruby as another “mystery box” companion who seems to be the physical manifestation of an upcoming plot twist.

In “Space Babies,” we see Ruby manifest a memory, and seemingly shift the events of that memory. She even summons up Christmas snow! Later, in “The Devil’s Chord,” her memory spontaneously erupts with a hidden song that unsettles the otherwise unflappable Maestro. This sort of magical MacGuffin character building doesn’t land with every fan. Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald character is the most hotly debated companion in the New Who era. Some fans found her identity as the difficult-to-define “Impossible Girl” both convoluted and frustrating, while others were willing to look past the timey-wimey framing and enjoy both the beauty and the messiness of her codependent relationship with The Doctor. This comparison between Ruby and Clara is something fans will be tracking closely as the season marches on. 

Of course, we did get a bit more out of Ruby than convoluted magical mysteries. Back in “The Church on Ruby Road,” Ruby was established as both a musician and as a thankful adopted child who has inherited her mother’s love for fostering children and putting compassion above all else. In the season premiere, Ruby slips into easy love and compassion for the “Space Babies,” but showcases a bit more nuance in “The Devil’s Chord.” Not only does she use her common sense understanding of a working class lifestyle to prove her worth and generate an excuse to access the Beatles recording session at EMI studios; but she also gets to reawaken the latent, human hunger for the music that Maestro has stolen from earth. It was a beautiful sequence with a standout composition. Ruby is a character with passions, interests, and talents that exist beyond whatever plot twist is on the way.

Yes, The Doctor has spent a lot more time in the driver’s seat so far, but we’ve certainly established that Ruby has something more to offer the team than her mystery identity. In fact, when he suggested a “random” destination for the TARDIS at the start of “Space Babies,” it felt a bit like a version of The Doctor who wasn’t ready to let his new companion know that it’s usually the TARDIS itself making the decisions about where to land next. It’s fun to see him so eager to impress her.

Photo Credit: Disney+/BBC

THREADS AND THEORIES

We’ve got quite a bit to work with here. Obviously, we will have to unpack the mystery box elements of Ruby Sunday. The Doctor’s fascination with Ruby’s status as an orphan, alongside his unsanctioned body scan, seem to support the notion that Ruby’s parents weren’t born on Earth. When you pair this with all of the talk about Time Lord naming patterns in the premiere episodes, it’s easy to theorize that Ruby could turn out to be a secret Time Lord, or perhaps  even another “Timeless Child” who shares the Doctor’s mysterious origins that Thirteen uncovered during the Jodie Whittaker run

Speaking of secret Time Lords, “The Devil’s Chord: brings us another reference to “The One Who Waits,” an unknown entity that can strike fear into the hearts of this new, threatening pantheon of godly foes. While this mystery will likely have an unexpected solution, we could get another Time Lord. Perhaps we’ll get another Classic Who villain like The Rani, another appearance from The Master, or perhaps The Doctor’s granddaughter Susan (who was conspicuously teased in “The Devil’s Chord”) will reemerge in a new form. 

On the other hand, perhaps “The One Who Waits” will turn out to be a creature or being of legend. Ever since The Doctor evoked a superstition at the edge of the universe by dropping a protective line of salt, fiction has been seeping into reality. This act allowed The Toymaker to escape into reality and it seems like it might have had something to do with those Christmas goblins that Fifteen and Ruby encountered on their first adventure. The Doctor even describes the bogeyman from “Space Babies” as “a children’s story come to life.” If this line doesn’t turn out to be a tease for some big mystery, it still works as a continuation of the series’ commentary on the limits of artificial intelligence that started back in “Wild Blue Yonder.” While not every fan was amused or impressed by the idea of a creature constructed by a machine using … boogers, the idea of an automated protocol constructing a clumsy, literal storybook monster for babies feels like another shot at AI’s clumsy attempts to translate human speech patterns into cohesive thoughts.

Finally, it seems like the premiere threw the door open to even more twists and turns this season. Doctor Who’s timelines have seemed particularly susceptible to change ever since The Doctor and Donna inadvertently replaced the term “gravity” with “mavity” during the 60th Anniversary specials. In this premiere, we see Ruby step on a butterfly and briefly transform into an otherworldly being named Rubathon Blue. Similarly, Fifteen warns Ruby that the pair could fall into the “deepest, darkest, paradox” if they change the wrong thing. Given this new context, it seems relevant that we still haven’t dealt with the drastically altered Mrs. Flood from “The Church on Ruby Road.” When the Doctor restored Ruby to reality in that storyline, Mrs. Flood seemed quite different. She also broke the fourth wall, much like Maestro in “The Devil’s Chord.” Fans, keep those eyes open for more subtle changes

Ultimately, the most foreboding change comes at the end of “The Devil’s Chord.” After a metafictional recognition that there is “always a twist at the end” of the Doctor’s adventures, we shift into a full musical number. While this may turn out to be nothing more than snappy, groovy fun – it reads as evidence that Maestro’s battle with the Doctor has rewritten history in a fundamental way. Only time will tell if that theory pans out, but this reviewer is excited to see how the pieces come together.

Well folks, we’ve set up a pretty complicated chess board. Now it’s time to sit back and see what RTD and the team can do with it. We may not be able to predict the final destination, but we can certainly choose to have fun and see what the latest TARDIS team has to offer. It’s just like The Doctor says, “There’s no such thing as monsters – only creatures you haven’t met yet.”

The Doctor Who Premiere “Space Babies” and “The Devil’s Chord” are now streaming on Disney+

Randy Allain
Randy Allainhttps://randyallain.weebly.com/
Randy Allain is a high school English teacher and freelance writer & podcaster. He has a passion for entertainment media and is always ready for thoughtful discourse about your favorite content. You will most likely find him covering Doctor Who or chatting about music on "Every Pod You Cast," a deep dive into the discography of The Police, available monthly in the Pop Break Today feed.
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