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Doctor Who review: a promising era, but a rocky start

The Doctor and Ruby Sunday stand in the TARDIS together in Doctor Who.
Doctor Who
“The exciting potential of Doctor Who's latest incarnation is on full display in its new episodes, even as the show itself struggles to find its tonal and narrative footing again.”
Pros
  • Ncuti Gatwa's charismatic take on the Doctor
  • The Doctor and Ruby's infectious chemistry together
  • A brighter, more polished look and style
Cons
  • A shocking number of clunky exposition dumps
  • Several moments of jarring tonal whiplash
  • A disappointing reliance on big-budget spectacle

No show in the history of television has embraced reinvention more fearlessly or successfully than Doctor Who. Ever since the British sci-fi series’ first lead, William Hartnell, stepped away from it in 1966, Doctor Who has gotten into the habit of resetting itself. Every few years, a new actor comes in, takes over the titular role of the Doctor, and offers their own spin on the beloved time traveler for a handful of seasons before eventually making way for another performer to take a crack at it. Sometimes, one actor’s departure is accompanied by the exit and debut of a new showrunner. Sometimes not.

Now, Doctor Who is back with its first full season since 2021, and things are, in typical Who fashion, both a bit new and a bit old. This time, Sex Education star Ncuti Gatwa is leading the series as the Fifteenth Doctor, and he’s joined by newcomer Millie Gibson as his first companion, Ruby Sunday. And Russell T Davies, who brought Doctor Who back after a 19-year hiatus and ran it throughout its Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant years, has returned as the series’ showrunner. With his return, Davies has put together one of the most promising Who eras in recent memory. If the first two episodes of its newest season are any indication, though, it may still take a bit of time for both Davies and Doctor Who to find their footing again.

Ruby stands behind the Doctor in Doctor Who.
BBC Studios

Doctor Who‘s new episodes begin immediately where its 2023 Christmas special, The Church on Ruby Road, left off — with Gibson’s Ruby stepping into the TARDIS for the first time. The first installment provided early to critics, titled Space Babies, follows Ruby and the Doctor as they embark on an adventure together to a futuristic “baby factory,” where they encounter — as longtime fans will be unsurprised to hear — a terrifying monster and a dizzying number of eccentric supporting characters. The episode is Davies-run Doctor Who through and through, which is to say that it is, above all else, playful and absurd. It’s so knowingly kooky, in fact, that it struggles to sell some of its more heartfelt moments.

Like so many Who season premieres that have come before it, Space Babies delivers all the necessary bits of exposition and backstory that first-time viewers will need to know if they want to keep up with the show. As they make their way up the ramparts of the Doctor’s practically sparkling new TARDIS interior and the corridors of the episode’s central baby factory, Gatwa’s hero explains to his new companion that he’s a time traveler from the now-destroyed planet of Gallifrey who was raised by a race known as the “Time Lords,” and yes, his name really is just the Doctor. Every new Doctor Who era has to deal with delivering these exposition dumps, but Space Babies handles them in such a blunt fashion that the episode’s first act comes across as clunky.

While Gatwa repeatedly proves himself capable of balancing both the lighthearted, adventurous spirit of the Doctor and the character’s intense loneliness, Davies — who penned all but two installments of the show’s new eight-episode season — struggles to do the same. That’s particularly true throughout the climax of Space Babies, which revolves around a sudden surge of empathy that is certainly in keeping with the Doctor’s nature, but isn’t set up nearly enough to land with the weight that it should. Longtime Doctor Who fans have gotten used to the show’s unique blend of earnest sci-fi comedy, but newcomers may find it difficult to look far enough past the absurdity of the episode’s plot to accept how seriously the Doctor takes the events of its third act.

The Doctor and Ruby stand near a piano in Doctor Who.
BBC Studios

The season’s second episode, titled The Devil’s Chord, is an improvement on Space Babies in many ways. With all of the necessary bits of backstory regarding the Doctor’s origins out of the way, the episode feels much lighter and zippier than its predecessor. Thanks to its villain, Maestro (a scenery-chewing Jinkx Monsoon), The Devil’s Chord is also able to pack in the kind of moments of genuine horror and spine-chilling danger that have long made Doctor Who a more interesting show to deal with than its kid-friendly sci-fi premise would suggest. From its use of music and sound to a few of its lighting flourishes, there’s a pleasingly experimental streak throughout The Devil’s Chord that makes it a whole lot more than just a standard time travel trip back to the early 1960s music scene.

While better than Space Babies, the episode isn’t a complete success. At times, it feels like the often form-breaking installment is throwing every idea that it can at the wall, whether it be fourth-wall breaks, choreographed dance numbers, or fights with musical instruments. It’s a startlingly loud episode — one that embraces Doctor Who‘s new, higher budget by going so big for so long in its second half that the overall effect it has isn’t thrilling, but exhausting. Had Davies exercised a bit more restraint throughout its runtime, he might have come away with one of the most memorable Who episodes in years, but The Devil’s Chord falls frustratingly short of that mark.

Fortunately, Davies’ new Doctor Who season isn’t the first to get off to an imperfect start. Its opening two installments may be disappointingly flawed, but they also boast a go-for-broke energy that helps make Doctor Who feel truly alive and new again. In Gatwa and Gibson, Davies has also found an immensely likable, visibly enthusiastic Doctor and companion pairing. Gatwa, in particular, manages to do in an extremely short amount of time what all of the great Doctor Who leads in history have, which is make his Doctor feel both inextricably tied to his previous iterations and entirely his own. One can only imagine the places that he’ll get to take Who‘s iconic protagonist moving forward, especially once the show surrounding him starts to come into sharper view.

The first two episodes of Doctor Who’s latest season premiere at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, May 10 on Disney+. New episodes debut weekly on Fridays. Digital Trends was given early access to the season’s first two installments: Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord.

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Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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