The Church on Ruby Road Promises Great Things
The Church on Ruby Road marks the beginning of Ncuti Gatwa’s tenure as the Doctor, and while the episode was a mixed bag, Ncuti did such a good job. The Giggle made it clear this was a version of the Doctor who was less focused on all the pain of the Time War and wanted to have fun—and that is the exact energy this episode has. The Doctor is making new gadgets, stopping to learn about individual people’s lives, and investigating things as they show up. I didn’t think of it much as I watched, but the scenes involving the Doctor studying the goblin ship and the nature of coincidences both mark them learning a new thing about the universe. It’s hard to describe and is arguably a little too subjective for a critical analysis, but I find certain episodes of Doctor Who to be energizing. That’s the best word I can come up with. A delight that may be the reason fandoms have the power they do. And this episode has dashes of that. There’s a scene with The Doctor hopping across rooftops, firing off minor sass, jumping onto an alien ship, and then—with an infectious smile—saying, “I’m The Doctor.” That’s it. That’s the character. Ncuti is going to be incredible.
Ncuti Gatwa Plays The Doctor Phenomenally Well
But on to the actual episode, The Church on Ruby Road. An episode that feels very short. And I don’t mean the pacing is breakneck—I mean, it’s mostly exposition by volume. Because we spend a fair amount of time setting up the new companion (assuming that’s still the term used), Ruby Sunday. Between telling us her history, about her family, and reintroducing the Doctor to any new fans starting with this season, the sci-fi plot doesn’t have a lot of time to establish itself—or explain itself. And this makes the viewing experience a little odd in hindsight. Much like The Giggle, we get a lot of concepts thrown at us, some of them with massive implications, and yet it’s all in the background. Without drifting too much into spoilers, the abilities and actions of the goblins introduce them as another “in the background” force like the alien species in “Listen” and establish another species that is capable of some form of time travel—which is a big deal, lore-wise. But it’s almost entirely that opening scene, the lyrics of a musical number, and a few Doctor monologues clarifying all of that.
The true center of The Church on Ruby Road is a storyline about a person who was put into the foster care system who wants to know their birth parents. A storyline that is eerily similar to, of all things, Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, even down to the time travel. And though I cannot speak for how well this episode handles the topics of adoptive families, the British foster care system, the emotionally complicated situation of wanting to find one’s birth parents, or really the entire scene where time was altered, I can say that Michelle Greenidge does a phenomenal job in her role as Carla Sunday. She and Millie Gibson as Ruby play mother and daughter with an emotional warmth that was perfect for a Christmas episode. And The Church on Ruby Road has many, many heartwarming moments in it. The recent episodes with Donna (played by Catherine Tate) reminded me how nice it is for companions to have families they regularly interact with, and I hope we cut back to Ruby visiting them often.
Speaking of Ruby, the not-so-secret reason Doctor Who is as good a show as it is, is the chemistry between the Doctor and whoever is riding in the TARDIS with them—and these two are already great. Ncuti and Millie seem to be having a blast playing their roles and have an infectious energy and enthusiasm that makes you want to see what they do next, regardless of what adventures await them.
It’s Already Obvious How Great A Duo They Will Be
But I did the thing, didn’t I? The classic critic move I use in seemingly half of all my reviews lately. I said it was “a mixed bag” and then didn’t elaborate. Well, now it’s time for the criticisms. The first of which I’m least qualified to talk about—but it’s always a concern when you’re dealing with goblins in any storytelling. I’m not going to get into it much, but goblins have been used in relation to antisemitic conspiracy theories for a long, long time, and this episode does evoke tropes related to that. I know goblins in folklore and fairy tales are traditionally tricksters or causers of chaos, and I realize using a mythological creature might be related to The Toymaker plotline, but surely Doctor Who could’ve invented some alien species with a unique look or something (and not been fatphobic). It didn’t have to be goblins to begin with. Surely, there was a better way to do this.
Secondly, The Church on Ruby Road has some odd pacing issues. There’s a lot of repetition: casual and important dialog alike get repeated at least twice. Cherry Sunday’s (played by Angela Wynter) quest for someone to get her tea was funny for a little while until the joke almost became her entire character. This wasting narrative time is especially annoying because, once again, there are a lot of plot points that aren’t explained much and could’ve been. I’d at least like a better reason for why no one noticed a massive flying wooden ship descending on Earth. Even an off-hand technobabble line would’ve helped a lot.
But we got what we got, I suppose, and my ultimate conclusion for The Church on Ruby Road is that its best parts are in establishing what we can expect. The enjoyment is had in its setup of these new characters. This is a season about found family, enjoying the universe, and having fun. I don’t know how I’d feel if this was the first episode of the show I’d seen, but as an entrenched fan, I am truly excited.
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