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Doctor Who Review: Ncuti Gatwa's Debut Feels Fresh But One Thing May Wear Out Fast

  • Ncuti Gatwa is a great Doctor
  • That Disney money makes a difference for the visuals
  • Murray Gold's music can't be underrated
  • Jokes in the premiere skew very young
  • Hard to judge from two episodes, but an all-camp-all-the-time run could get exhausting

Like the Batman and James Bond movie series, Doctor Who continually reboots itself with different writers taking charge and new actors offering fresh takes on the central hero. Also similar to Batman and Bond, each new incarnation of Doctor Who exists as a reaction — often an overreaction — to the previous version.

When Russell T. Davies brought the sci-fi series back from the dead in 2005, first with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and then with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, it offered a fresh start, still in continuity with the classic series but unburdened from needing to know the details. The creepier and more complex episodes written by Stephen Moffat were fan favorites, so Moffat succeeded Davies as showrunner. When Moffat's ongoing storylines for Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor got too complicated, the introduction of Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor offered a smaller tonal reset. Responding to criticisms of all the Doctors so far being white men, the next showrunner Chris Chibnall not only cast Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor but introduced a whole bunch of secret past regenerations via the controversial "Timeless Children" storyline.

Davies returned to showrunning in 2023 with four specials bringing back Tennant as the Fourteenth Doctor and introducing Ncuti Gatwa as the Fifteenth, who stars in the new season labeled "Season 1" on Disney+. While continuing Chibnall's commitment to diversifying the series (Gatwa is the first Black and openly queer actor to play The Doctor), Davies' return has brought back the sense of silliness and unabashed fun that Chibnall's episodes often felt too self-conscious about embracing. But every era of Doctor Who has its flaws as well as its strengths, and while it's hard to judge after just screening two episodes of the new season, might some of Davies' corrections be overcorrections?

The Christmas special set the new tone

One thing Russell T. Davies clearly disliked about Chris Chibnall's run was the abandonment of the series' traditional Christmas specials. Ncuti Gatwa's first full episode last year was a Christmas special — "The Church on Ruby Road" (labeled "Special 4" on Disney+) — and though it's premiering in the summer, his first full season appears to be playing like an extended Christmas special. The season premiere, "Space Babies," starts exactly where "The Church on Ruby Road" left off (any new viewers jumping on this year should consider that special the actual start of the season). The next episode, "The Devil's Chord," takes place some time later, but Christmas remains central to the story of new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson).

Both of these episodes, it must be noted, are just as over-the-top campy as "The Church on Ruby Road" was. If you thought the goblins singing about eating babies were extra, prepare yourselves for talking space babies fighting a monster made out of ... I'm not allowed to say what it's made out of, but you'll see — and for "Drag Race" star Jinkx Monsoon as a magical non-binary terrorist forcing The Beatles to suck as part of a plot to steal all music in the universe. This shouldn't be too surprising coming from the producer who gave us the Slitheen and Torchwood, but Davies seems to be using this season's bigger budget to reach for even greater extremes of camp spectacle.

I hope this season might offer a bit more tonal variety in the coming weeks. For all its camp, Davies' original run could also be scary or sad or profoundly inspirational when the moment called for it, and working within a more limited budget often necessitated smarter storytelling. Last year's 60th anniversary specials showed Davies still has this range — "Wild Blue Yonder" worked great as a spooky smaller-scale bottle episode — and the brief preview shown for the upcoming Stephen Moffat-written installment "Boom" looks decidedly darker than the ones screened for review. And even these episodes, silly as they are, find room for enough little moments of poetry, terror, and political commentary to remind people what Doctor Who is capable of.

Finding heart amidst silly humor and big adventure

The best works of camp are the ones that are able to take themselves seriously even if audiences can't, and it's there where Ncuti Gatwa's performance as The Doctor really shines. He's playing a more comedic Doctor a la Patrick Troughton — even breaking the fourth wall with winks to the camera on multiple occasions — but also captures the grand romance, moral strength, and persistence in the face of unbearable loss that make The Doctor such an admirable hero. He's also the best-dressed Doctor there's ever been, with each episode promising new period-appropriate costume changes.

I also applaud how this new season is able to reframe the more questionable choices of the Chris Chibnall era in more positive lights. Instead of using The Doctor's altered backstory to make him a special "chosen one," Russell T. Davies' writing hones in on the more relatable aspect of this backstory: The Doctor as an adoptee. This is a clear point of connection between The Doctor and Ruby Sunday, a companion at the center of many still-unanswered mysteries who makes an endearing audience surrogate in the vein of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) from the first two Davies seasons.

Murray Gold's score is key to these episodes working as well as they do. In retrospect, the composer's absence during the Chibnall era might be the biggest reason for its relative lack of excitement compared to the first Davies and Moffat eras. When you hear Gold's music, it doesn't matter if you're being told the world's dumbest dad jokes or if the history-changing timey-wimey twists make little logical sense — you feel that you're watching the most epic show ever made. The best art direction and special effects work in the series' history also contribute to the sense of grand adventure.

Are the first two episodes of the new Doctor Who season the best the show's ever been? No. Will they be attractive to new viewers? It depends; Gatwa's charisma is undeniable and kids will absolutely love these stories, but one can easily imagine older viewers finding the overbearing energy and cheesy comedy to be off-putting. Yet it's the imperfection and inconsistency — the constant attempts to fix previous problems while creating new ones — that make Doctor Who what it is. If you love it, you love it in spite of that — or because of it.

The first two episodes of the new Doctor Who premiere on Disney+ on May 10, with new episodes following on a weekly basis.