Sunday 7 January 2024

Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road

The Fifteenth Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) was introduced in the third and final 60th anniversary special, The Giggle.

In the wake of a bi-generation, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Doctors exist in the same Whoniverse. Perhaps the Fourteenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna Nobel (Catherine Tate) will return in a future spin-off series?

The Fifteenth Doctor's first solo story is in a Christmas special.

Does Nick Smith, our US-based veteran Whovian, find festive cheer in The Church on Ruby Road?

Guest post by Nick Smith

Doctor Who has riffed on movies before – Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Groundhog Day, to name a few. For the 2023 Christmas special, returning series showrunner Russell T Davies has chosen Labyrinth as his blatant inspiration.

Labyrinth is a 1986 Jim Henson film starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie, which tells the story of a kidnapped baby and a girl’s brave attempt to rescue the ungrateful little brat; along the way, she meets magical allies and comes a cropper of a goblin king and his cohorts. And there is quite a bit of singing.

While Labyrinth has an epic scope, a significant character arc for the heroine, and twists and turns befitting its title, The Church on Ruby Road does not. Its simple plot introduces a new Doctor, (Ncuti Gatwa in his first full adventure), Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), her family, friends and neighbours.

That’s a lot of introductions to make, so there isn’t much room left for a knotty plot.

However, the special is lavish and entertaining, with a delightful tone and charismatic leads. There are fun set pieces, including a giant snowman head crashing down on the Doctor in a Buster Keaton bit, and a rooftop sequence where the Doctor and Ruby defy gravity.

The threadbare plot is reminiscent of late ‘60s Doctor Who, where tight deadlines led to simple runaround stories with memorably eccentric characters, all glued together by the charm of the TARDIS team.

Unusually, this special is hooked around a musical number; Murray Gold’s Goblin Song is not strong enough to make a centrepiece, with garbled lyrics and an instantly forgettable tune. Spoiled by Gold’s immense talent, we have heard better in The Rings of Akhaten and A Christmas Carol, which both incorporated beautiful songs into the storyline.

The rest of the narrative takes its cue from the classic Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life, again (we experience a world without Ruby, instead of Jimmy Stewart), and an episode of Supernatural (in Bad Day at Black Rock, a calamity-causing curse impedes the Winchester Boys). Throw in an orphaned infant straight out of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and there isn’t much new to find here.

It’s as if RTD wants the main characters to be the only new elements in this special, giving it a lean, easily accessible quality that will hopefully suit the show’s new audience on Disney+ outside the UK and Ireland.

Luckily, Gatwa and Gibson are special enough to make The Church on Ruby Road a joy to watch. We care about the characters and when she enters the TARDIS, Ruby’s nuanced reaction bodes well for the forthcoming season. It’s packed with excitement, trepidation, happiness and anticipation – just like us viewers.

Doctor Who returns in May 2024 on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and Disney+ outside the UK and Ireland.

Have you seen The Church on Ruby Road? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Nick Smith's new audiobook, Undead on Arrival, is available from Amazon (affiliate link).

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