Enter Number Fifteen

Doctor Who: "The Church on Ruby Road"

The changing of the guard, so to speak, is an important milestone in Doctor WhoThe longest running sci-fi franchise (at least in terms of sheer seasons), Doctor Who has seen cancelations, relaunches, and reboots, but the core of the series remains the same: a madman in a box traveling through time and space.. The regeneration from one Doctor to the next, the new stories that get to be told from the perspective of a refreshed character. And, of course, each new actor gets to make the role their own, taking the inherent “Doctor-ness” of the character and putting their own spin on the characteristics. That’s how you can go from the reserved performance of Eccelston to the manic, motor-mouthed deliveries of Tennant and Smith, and on down the line through the Doctors that followed. The transitional period is the chance for the audience to learn who this new Doctor will be, what kind of character they’re going to become as they set about their adventures.

Traditionally each Doctor exists in their own void, with one regenerating into the next, allowing us to only learn about the new guy when they take over in their first adventure. But the new era of Who is different from what we’ve seen before all thanks to bi-generation. That’s the process, introduced in the third holiday special of 2023, “The Giggle”, whereby the Doctor split into two beings during their traditional regeneration. Instead of Tennant’s 14th becoming Ncuti Gatwa’s 15th, both Fourteen and Fifteen get to exist at the same time. We don’t see Tennant during this fourth holiday special, but it’s important to note that during “The Giggle” we did get to see Gatwa’s Doctor interact, and introduce himself, during that adventure. That means that instead of finally learning who this Doctor is going to be here in “The Church on Ruby Road”, we already have an inkling of his character before even coming in. It’s just one of the many little, small ways that this new era is setting itself apart and making changes to our traditional view of the series. There will be more to come, as this episode already proves.

The episode itself is a traditional “Christmas Special” for the series. Ever since Russel T. Davies became the showrunner for the series back in 2005 (before leaving, and then coming back again) the holiday specials have been a part of the programming schedule for the series. We’ll get a standard season of ten to thirteen episodes followed by a holiday special. The holiday specials allowed for the series to transition and shift to new stories, new characters, and new ideas. But normally they existed as standalone adventures, self-contained stories that could work on their own. Heck, the previous three 2023 specials all worked as their own self-contained adventures. View them together, but you didn’t have to view them in the context of a larger season to know what was going on.

What’s interesting about “The Church on Ruby Road” is that it doesn’t really exist as a standalone episode. Instead of being a single, one-off adventure for Gatwa’s Fifteen, this episode functions as the first episode of the series to come. A series that, it should be noted, will start in May of 2024. We get the first true introduction of Fifteen, we meet his new companion (Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday), and we get a hint of the larger storyline that’s to come for both of them. Mysteries, curiosities, and larger plotlines; those are all things you’d expect from a season opener… or even a pilot episode. In many ways this first special feels like a true pilot. A reboot for the Who reboot that once again takes the series into a new era after the series lay fallow and ignored for a time.

That’s actually pretty apt considering where the series was at before Davies came back. Say what you will about Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor (I loved her performance but hated everything the series did with her) but there’s no doubt that her era of the series was trash. The fault for that, of course, lays fully at the feet of showrunner Chris Chibnall. His era drove down viewership and chased off longtime fans. The series was in a dire position and it required not only bringing back Davies, and then reviving Tennant’s Doctor, but then a full refresh and reboot of the series into a new era. The series had to be reset. This is the reset we needed.

The story for “The Church on Ruby Road” is actually pretty simple. Ruby Sunday (Gibson) is an orphan who never got to know her mother, having been dropped on the doorstep of a church one Christmas night (on the day of her birth). She was adopted by Carla Sunday (Michelle Greenidge) and grew up to be a happy, well adjusted young woman. And she brought light and life to Carla’s family, inspiring Carla to foster many more children over the years (well over thirty of them by the time we meet the Sunday family). Ruby, though, would love to meet her birth mother and discover just why she was left on that church doorstep all those years ago.

However, Ruby also has a much more current problem: she’s been experiencing a number of unlucky mishaps. She chalks it up to just being klutzy, but her string of bad luck is something more than just mere coincidence, and when a chance encounter with a dark and handsome man, the Doctor (Gatwa), leads to her being saved from more than one mishap, it comes clear that there’s something more afoot. This is driven home when a new little baby comes to the foster home… and then the baby disappears. Ruby is shocked by this turn of events, and even more shocked when she looks outside and sees a ship floating in the sky. Little creatures, goblins, have taken the baby, leading Ruby to chase after them across the rooftops of her neighborhood. And then she sees the Doctor again, who is also chasing the ship. The two will have to team up to stop the goblins from taking the baby… and just maybe from changing the whole timeline as well.

As far as introducing our new heroes, “The Church on Ruby Road” does everything it needs to. As with Davies’s first run at refreshing the series, 2005’s “Rose”, “Church” is all about the new companion, Ruby. This is her story, her adventure, her time to reveal who she is and what kind of person she can be with the Doctor. Gibson absolutely nails it, giving us a sweet, kind, and above all charismatic performance as Ruby. She has that spark of adventure, that fire to explore, and she’s willing to throw herself into danger. Gibson is a magnetic performer on screen, giving Ruby all the characteristics we need to enjoy our new companion.

That’s good since she has to compete with Gatwa’s 15th Doctor. And, man, does he ever light up the screen. Gatwa instantly, and completely, takes over as the Doctor (which we saw ever so briefly in “The Giggle”), and it’s clear right from the start that he totally inhabits his role. Like Tennant and Smith, Gatwa needs absolutely no time getting up to speed as the series’s lead Time Lord, being completely comfortable as the Doctor. He doesn’t make us long for any of the previous people, or wonder how he’s going to blend their personalities into his own. He is his own Doctor, a grand, kind, enigmatic person who throws himself into adventure with a wink and smile. It’s already obvious that Gatwa’s Doctor is going to be a delight to watch as he goes through his era with. He’ll sing, he’ll dance, and he’ll draw you in the whole time. However many series and years we get with his Doctor, I’m already on board.

But the special also makes it clear that there’s far more going on here than just another trip through time and space with the Doctor. This special sets up mysteries that we’ll explore later. Who is Ruby’s mother? Why was the baby left at the Church? Does this maybe tie into the Doctor’s own recent revelations that he’s not only an orphan himself but also “the Timeless Child”, the first Time Lord who had many lives he doesn’t even remember anymore? The special makes a point of touching on all these items, however briefly, to let us know all these plot points will come up again this series (and maybe in later years as well). The series is going hard on serialized storytelling, and this special sets all that up as any good pilot would.

And then there are the other twists that feel new for the show. For starters, the plotline of this episode hinges on the Doctor doubling back on Ruby’s timeline and making changes, something he’s expressly not done before. We also see him experience time distortion, seeing changes to the timeline happen around him, forcing him to make his own adjustments. Again, the Doctor has always said this wasn’t allowed (or even possible), except now he can. Clearly changes to the rules of time travel are coming down the line. And hell, we even get the hint that some people know who the Doctor is, what a TARDIS is, and might have more knowledge about the world of the show (from within the show) than we would expect. There are plenty of surprises and twists promised by this episode that declare this is a truly new era for the series going forward.

What this really is, then, is a declaration that Doctor Who is back. That era no one liked, where the fans started leaving and the viewership dropped precipitously? Yeah, that’s in the past. Gatwa’s Doctor is here to promise new adventures, new stories, and a new era that gets back to the core of what works about Doctor Who. The down period, when the show wasn’t working and it felt like Who had lost its way? That’s gone. The show is back on its feet and moving forward with boldness and style once more. If nothing else, “The Church on Ruby Road” does everything it needed to for the series. It’s the episode that declares that the show you loved is home again, so settle in because this is Doctor Who just like you want it: bold, fun, and delightfully enjoyable once more.