Doctor Who Reboots Itself With Flair, But Not With Much Success

Doctor Who’s new era is for everyone and no one at all.

Inverse Reviews

If change is in Doctor Who’s DNA, then why is it trying so hard to sell its latest facelift?

That was the main question on my mind as I watched the first two episodes of Doctor Who Season 14 — or Season 1 — if you’re going by the BBC and Disney’s energetic push for a new reboot. “Space Babies” and “The Devil’s Chord,” the first two episodes of the newly christened “Season 1” following the season’s actual premiere, 2023’s Christmas special “The Church on Ruby Road,” are a mixed bag. Taken as an introduction to new audiences, the episodes are confusing and a little bit alienating — but that’s par for the course for Doctor Who, a sci-fi show that has made its brand out of being tonally bizarre and occasionally brilliant. But taken as a fresh start with a charismatic new Doctor and a beloved returning showrunner, the episodes (which were the only ones of the eight-episode season made available to critics) are frustrating — for both longtime fans and newbies alike.

Picking up immediately after the events of “The Church on Ruby Road,” this season follows the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) as they embark on their first adventures through time and space together. While “Space Babies” is an outrageously goofy sci-fi adventure involving talking babies and a terrifying creature that stalks an abandoned space station, “The Devil’s Chord” is an intriguing marriage of high-concept sci-fi with high camp that delivers a promising look at what this new era of Doctor Who could look like. And yet, both episodes are saddled with opposing problems: one aims for mass appeal, while the other is as esoteric as the show can get.

Right from the get-go, it’s wildly transparent that Doctor Who is trying to reach as many new viewers as possible. Under the stewardship of Russell T. Davies, who returns as showrunner after first reviving the show in 2005, Doctor Who now has the big-budget backing of Disney, which means bigger sets and bigger setpieces to offset the Doctor rattling off tons of exposition. He’s the Doctor, he’s a Time Lord, he’s the last of his kind, his planet is gone, and oh, he’s adopted! It’s the kind of exposition dump that longtime Doctor Who fans are used to by now; every new companion gets this spiel, and Gibson’s Ruby is no exception. And though Gatwa manages to charm his way through even the shaggiest of dialogue, this latest infodump feels more inelegant than expected. Is it because we’ve seen this all before? Or something else?

From the wildly oscillating goofy-to-earnest tonal shifts to the mysterious burden that’s haunting the Doctor, down to the season-long episode structure (a space adventure episode followed by an episode set in the past), Davies is retreading the formula that he established with his 2005 revival of Doctor Who. But he leans so much on the glossy new Disney-funded look of the show, that Davies might not realize that this formula doesn’t work anymore. Or, as one fellow critic told me after watching these episodes, “Maybe I’m just not 14 anymore.”

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson are an immediately winning Doctor-companion duo.


The most egregious problems stem from the first episode, “Space Babies,” an installment that is overloaded with as much exposition as it is jam-packed with far too many lines of the Doctor enthusiastically shouting, “Space babies!” (I counted: it was at least four.) It assumes a complete lack of knowledge of Doctor Who — which is a fair assumption to make for its Disney+ viewers — and spends much of the runtime establishing who the Doctor is and what he does, leaving longtime fans to basically twiddle their thumbs as they wait for the good stuff. But, because the episode goes out of its way to try to introduce the show to a new audience, it paradoxically forgets to make it appealing to that new audience. Part of what is fun about getting into Doctor Who is feeling like you’re constantly playing catch-up, that this a vast and charming world. So, by holding the viewer’s hand so much, the first episode is simply trying too hard. It’s still the silly, strange, campy sci-fi show that made its hardcore fans fall in love with it — a tone that is arguably engineered to ward off new viewers. But, by the time the second episode rolls around and the show is trotting out the deep deep lore, you start to wonder who this season is really for.

The first two episodes are the most successful when the show stops aiming for mass appeal, and just lets its characters — and us — have fun. Gatwa is incandescent as the 15th Doctor, all confidence and swagger, even if his Time Lord has lost most of the nerdiness that past iterations have had. Gibson is irresistibly likable as Ruby Sunday, whose mysterious origins become the driving force of the season-long arc. And when the two of them are playing off each other, it’s like two theatre kids have taken control of the TARDIS; their energy and joie de vivre giving the show a much-needed dose of sunshine. Paired with the truly impressive new effects of the show — which has never looked better — the duo really do feel like the breath of fresh air that fans have wanted. Hopefully Davies — who writes the majority of the eight episodes apart from one penned by fellow ex-showrunner Steven Moffat and another co-written by Kate Herron and Briony Redman — will start treating them more like flesh-and-blood characters and less like elements of a brand that need to be neatly packaged and marketed.

The show’s attempts at a reboot might be kind of a fool’s errand, but this is Doctor Who. Do a couple of clunky episodes stop us from obsessively watching the entire season? No. It just feels like Doctor Who is missing the forest for the trees with its fixation on a fresh start — in fact, for a show as convoluted and weird as this, a true reboot might be impossible. But what may be possible is for Doctor Who to maintain its identity as that weird little sci-fi show that wears its heart on its sleeve, and doesn’t think about how that looks.

Doctor Who Season 1 premieres on Disney+ and BBC on May 10.

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