REVIEW – Doctor Who Christmas Special: “The Church on Ruby Road” (2023)

The Church on Ruby Road makes for a strong proper introduction for Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor but the unevenness of the Christmas special holds back what is otherwise a fun and delightful adventure.

I never had an issue when Chris Chibnall shifted the end of year specials from Christmas to New Year’s Day. Setting aside that we Aussies never got these exactly on the day of due to international time zones (therefore feeling somewhat incongruous) some of these holiday specials never specifically relied on the holiday in question to tell their story: Clara’s “space crab” hallucinations about Father Christmas having parallels to The Doctor are interesting but Donna getting married at Christmas is hardly vital.

So I was already coming into this one slightly perturbed at the positive reactions to the shift back to Christmas for no other reason other than nostalgia (which I thought we agreed that pointless referencing and nostalgia was a bad thing – I’m looking at you, Dave Filoni!). However, this was offset by how excited I was to see the Fifteenth Doctor in his own proper adventure.

There is so much to love about The Church on Ruby Road and overall it was a fun and delightful adventure, if nothing else it was a strong and wonderful look at Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor, a nice introduction for Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday as his companion, and a tone setter for the new era of Doctor Who (aka, season 1) going forward. Admittedly, I got wrapped up in my enjoyment but the more I thought about the few nitpicks I had the more the cracks started to appear.

There’s a lot of goofiness in this special to counter some of the more emotional and sentimental aspects of the story. I feel as though goblins being responsible for many of our little accidents and coincidences comes from Round the Twist or Goosebumps or some other supernatural kids show but it’s also an interesting idea. They were well depicted and a heap of fun to watch. Also the Doctor figuring out the “language of luck” was also another one of those fun and goofy elements I enjoyed. The Goblin Song was also fun but gets tired very quickly (I do not know how that’s charting in the UK right now).

Overall, I enjoyed and appreciated the introduction of Ruby, her tragic backstory, and also meeting her family. It’s a good set up, as it helps to establish and ground Ruby as we meet her adopted family (Russell T Davies seems to always introduce them early on and has a bit of “mother in law syndrome” methinks). They also help to establish the status quo and heighten the emotion and near-tragedy when that bit of time travelling happens (we’ll come back to that later).

I was already confident about Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor thanks to his brief appearance in “The Giggle” but he absolutely nailed it in this special. His has a sexy-cool presence and a confident swagger, much like the Ninth Doctor did, and similar to Christopher Eccelston’s introduction as the Time Lord, we’re meeting him after he’s already established his personality. Most of the figuring out happened either off-screen or quickly dealt with in the previous special. He’s also shown some of his range already going from bouncy to dramatic with utmost ease. I also love his outfit actually harks back to the costume Lenny Henry wore as the Doctor in a comedy parody back in the 1980s.

Sadly, I am somewhat torn when it comes to Ruby Sunday. On the one hand, there’s a vibrancy to Millie Gibson’s performance and she is utterly charming. But on the other, the performance feels somewhat uneven or inconsistent and I haven’t been able to parse why. When Ruby is tackling the more dramatic or emotional scenes I believe those moments. I also really enjoy the chemistry between her and The Doctor so far. But when she’s being a “young person” I don’t know if that’s Gibson’s performance (first episode teething issues?) or maybe it’s the writing. And even then, regarding the latter, is it a problem of Davies not knowing how young people talk or am I the one who’s out of touch?

Some of those uneven moments also seem to affect scenes that one would classify as “introducing the Companion 101”. Yes, there are tropes and traditions when it comes to meeting the new companion in Doctor Who but this very much reminded me of when Rose Tyler met the Ninth Doctor.

Yeah, this is “Rose” all over again. This is an updated version of the 2005 premiere episode that relaunched Doctor Who: replace the Autons with Goblins, the Nestene Consciousness with the Goblin King, Jackie Tyler with Carla Sunday, throw in Ruby’s grandma for good measure (because everyone loves and misses Wilfred), and it’s basically the same story updated for 2023. I was waiting for Ruby to have a deadbeat boyfriend to leave behind too.

I think that’s what was bothering me while watching this special because it’s not really a “special”, it’s a premiere episode for a new season of Doctor Who but because this is being considered another “relaunch” (which is kind of arrogant if you think about it) RTD has decided to dust off the old script template for the “new era”. I’m not saying the special was bad, far from it, but mainly we’ve been here before… and also, this didn’t need to be a Christmas special.

Without spoiling it for anyone else, there is a big action climax that no one in the surrounding homes seems to have noticed (maybe they’re fast asleep on Xmas Eve, sure), also there’s a ticking clock plot device counting down to midnight on Christmas. Why not just shift that to New Year’s Day and hide the “big spectacle” with NYE fireworks at midnight? That feels like an oversight just for the sake of having a Christmas special again for no justifiable narrative reason.

By the way, Davina McCall is a real television presenter in the UK. She hosts an actual show called Long Lost Family.

On another matter, it’s trendy of late to shit on Steven Moffat again (not saying his tenure and work is above criticism, it’s just that RTD seems to get a pass for similar offences), but one interesting accusation is regarding Moffat’s misogyny in making the companions from his era “important” because of their relation to The Doctor. It’s still early days but the set up for Ruby’s mysterious origins may go down a similar path and yet no one seems to be critical of it.

The one that’s only just occurred to me as I’ve been writing this, I’ve mentioned previously that Davies has had a few blind spots in the past when it comes to POC characters (Mickey is the deadbeat boyfriend that Rose abandons to go travel with the white older man, Donna’s ex-fiancé being pure evil, Martha’s middle class family being rather grating compared to the Nobles, bloody Chantho!) did anyone else pick up on the fact that Carla Sunday’s loving generosity was only because of the presence of Ruby in her life. And without Ruby, she was selfish and only fostering for the money. Russell T Davies wrote that and had a black actor perform it!

Benefit of the doubt, I’m not saying Davies is racist (yet) just that the optics of such a plot device are not great and is often the bad side effect of colour blind casting without careful consideration. Others also brought up the potential for the “Magical Negro” trope when Fifteen popped up in “The Giggle” (he’s the one with the healing answer to Fourteen’s pain and trauma). We’ll just have to see where this goes.

Setting aside those potentially egregious overthought nitpicks of mine, my overall enjoyment is partly a result of being here before. The old adage “if it ain’t broke…” and so forth seems to be at play here. To Moffat’s and even Chibnall’s credit, they seemed to have larger ambitions as well as an urge to do some things differently, and Davies exhibited that to some extent in the previous specials (bi-generation for example). But “The Church on Ruby Road” treads a lot of old ground with the exception of Gatwa’s wonderfully refreshing performance. And I think it’s that performance and freshness that truly carries this Christmas Special and tempers some of the problems I have with RTD’s writing.

Okay, I’ve even surprised myself in just how much I’ve been able to pick apart this special despite enjoying it.

The Church on Ruby Road makes for an underwhelming holiday-themed special but as an introduction to the characters, a fun little adventure, and a tone setter going forward, it’s an enjoyable enough relaunch for the new Disney+ era of Doctor Who.

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