Review: ‘Doctor Who,’ led by Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson, ushers into a bright new era

A woman in an aviator jacket stands in a hallway facing  a man in a knit top and high-waisted pants.
Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) and the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) in “Space Babies,” the first episode of the new season of “Doctor Who.”
(Bad Wolf / BBC / Disney+)

After a transitional trilogy of specials that saw the return of popular Tenth Doctor David Tennant as the Fourteenth Doctor and introduced his successor Ncuti Gatwa, followed by a Christmas special that brought companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) on board, “Doctor Who” embarks Friday on its official new full season, the first on Disney+.

Gatwa is the first Black Doctor (and first openly queer actor to play him, and, for what it’s worth, the first to wear a mustache), and he’s indirectly following Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor. There have been expected cries of wokeness from change-resistant fans declaring the series is dead to them, but they have happily been drowned out by the huzzahs that have greeted the charismatic Gatwa (known from the series “Sex Education”) since his election.

Being a “Doctor Who” fan resistant to change is, to be sure, a contradiction in terms, given that 14 actors have canonically played the time-and-space traveler since 1963; I’ve liked them all, retrospectively or contemporaneously, whatever their shape, form, accent, costume or headgear, and am always happy to see the show back — and different. (And also the same.)


I may be easy, but I am not uncritical; not every episode is a winner. I thought Chris Chibnall‘s stint as showrunner might have better served Whittaker, to put it more mildly than many others have, and though Davies’ immediate successor, Steven Moffat, created some of the series’ best concepts and characters, the “Am I a good man?” existential breast-beating assigned to Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi I found tiresome. (Not that I didn’t love Capaldi.)

Executive producers Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner helm Bad Wolf, the production company working with Russell T Davies, Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson on the newer, bigger “Doctor Who.”

May 8, 2024

Most significant to the series going forward — apart from the visibly bigger budgets and global visibility afforded by the BBC’s distribution deal with Disney Branded Television — is the return of Russell T Davies as showrunner. It was Davies who revived “Doctor Who” for television after a 16-year hiatus, elevating the series from its low-budget, Saturday-afternoon 20th-century roots, making it more dramatically complex while preserving its lovable cheeky humor, provincial Britishness and sense of adventure. He writes as a fan, as someone who wants only the best for the Doctor, for you and for himself; he’s not afraid to get a little corny, a little fabulous, a little nutty, a little poetical. (Or, for that matter, a lot.)

Ruby Sunday and the Doctor walk in a crosswalk with the TARDIS behind them.
Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) and the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) in “The Devil’s Chord,” where they visit Abbey Road and the Beatles.
(Bad Wolf / BBC / Disney+)

Although one would certainly expect dark turns ahead — and every episode brings the danger of personal, global or universal annihilation — the second Davies era has been a sunny one. To begin with, he brought back Tennant’s Doctor and companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), whose knowledge of her time with him had been erased to stop her head from exploding. Davies restored her memory and — in a lovely case of having cake and eating it too — left the Fourteenth Doctor uniquely in place as a sort of decommissioned Time Lord, to enjoy the company of his favorite people on his favorite planet, while the Fifteenth got on with business. New rules may always overwrite old.

The brightness continues into the new season. “Space Babies,” the first of two episodes premiering Friday, features talking infants in an abandoned space station and is powered by booger and fart jokes. The second, “The Devil’s Chord,” takes us to EMI Studios on Abbey Road, where the Beatles are recording their first album and a flamboyant new villain, the Maestro (two-time “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner Jinkx Monsoon), is causing musical havoc. (Beatle-heads will appreciate the appearance of the “Mrs. Mills piano.” And naturally the Doctor knew Mrs. Mills.)

There is a bit of expository dialogue for the Disney-subscribing newcomers, who have not followed or even found the series at any of its previous stateside berths, including what TARDIS — the name of the Doctor’s police-box-shaped, bigger-on-the-inside time-space machine — stands for. (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). For initiates, there’s a callback to the very beginning, as the Doctor points across London to show Ruby where he once lived, in Shoreditch, with his granddaughter Susan. The TARDIS too recalls the original’s white with circles design.


As to our new heroes, it takes no time at all to accept Gatwa‘s Doctor as the absolutely genuine article. He’s a hugger, full of heart, and brings an energy not unrelated to his predecessors but amplified. He’s a dancing Doctor, a singing Doctor, a frisky, flirty, fit, stylish Doctor. (Unlike his predecessors, his costume changes often.) And as Ruby, Gibson is a good match; she’s young, bright and fearless — it’s amazing how quickly these kids can get used to running around the universe and through time. They’re fellow foundlings, and the question of her parentage is positioned to drive the season.

Of course, he’s a complicated figure, the Doctor, as anyone who has been alive for a thousand and something years and regenerates regularly (or at least since 1965 when Patrick Troughton replaced an ailing William Hartnell) would have to be. But he was also born as a kid-TV hero, and while revisionism in IP is all well and good, the Doctor also needs to be a madcap adventurer, fun for all ages. And this one very much is.

“I am the last of the Time Lords,” says the Fifteenth Doctor, “and I am so, so glad to be alive.”