Nearly two decades ago a baby was abandoned at a church on Ruby Road. The foundling grew up, was adopted by the Sunday family and named after the place where she was discovered. Ruby’s been searching to clues about her heritage (even taking part in a tv show), yet answers are few and far between.
But recently she’s been having more than her share of bad luck and that anomaly has attracted the attention of a passing Time Lord who fears that Ruby’s problems are more than they appear. And when Ruby’s adoptive family begin to foster a new child over Christmas, it appears that sky-high trouble is sailing in everyone’s direction…
If the previous three Doctor Who specials were largely throwbacks to a previous era (moreso than actual anniversary celebrations), then The Church on Ruby Road is very much a statement of intent, breezing in a new era with references to the past and some familiar flourishes, but with wash and brush-up that suggests that it’s blueprinting itself to be relevant to a new generation.
As with quite a few Christmas outings, it’s largely a case of not paying close scrutiny to a flimsy frame-worked plot and more to the energy on screen and a general sense of fun.
I fully admit that the release of early footage and images of the Doctor twirling away on a dance-floor struck something of a wrong note for me, very much not your grandad’s Timelord and I’m somewhat glad that it’s confined to a brief scene where a clearly exuberant incarnation is mainly there to keep tabs on Ruby Sunday – somehow aware that the clumsiness and bad-luck surrounding her is a genuine cosmic anomaly.
Ncuti Gatwa grabs the title role with both hands and it’s clear he’s out to have some fun with it. Despite any of the recent bi-regenerational factors, this is clearly the Time Lord we know, but one slightly less weighed-down with recent baggage and ready to flex his muscles in a universe worth exploring. He writhes, jumps, dances and even sings and while one would hope that all those factors won’t be collectively part of the regular repertoire all at once, it definitely suggests amore tactile incarnation. It’s too early to fully judge the result, but Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday is also fun and flits around the screen promising much and like an obvious amalgam of Rose Tyler and Clara Oswald.
Who has a history of cameos and here Davina McCall is mostly around to provide some exposition for what we know (and don’t) of Ruby’s origins, though she’s gamefully employed so that she can be killed off then saved by the Doctor in one of the show’s other flourishes. Modern Who also offers familial connections and Michelle Greenidge (as Millie’s adoptive mother) and Angela Wynter as matriarch Cherry Sunday make good support and it’s likely they’ll be more developed as we continue.
The Church on Ruby Road won’t be for everyone and some may have already moved on as Tennant left and created as big a ‘jumping off’ point as one through which to enter. It’s certainly something of a shift into the fantastical rather than science-fiction – though there’s still that mercurial element needed within the show and Davies engages some Moffatesque nuances (the Doctor acknowledging ‘the languages of coincidence, luck and ropes’ is as silly as it is ingenious). There’s countless, obvious comparisons that can be made to Labyrinth – goblins stealing babies, a young woman needing to find said infant, musical numbers and even a Goblin King, though this sweaty prosthetic version is certainly no David Bowie and the impressive new budget for the show can’t quite reach such fantastical movie-levels (though it’s certainly ambitious with flying ships etc.). Gremlins is another unapologetic touchstone.
The goblin threat itself is largely a throwaway maguffin of an enemy, nicely-designed and technically-executed but flimsy in logic, handwavery in rules and remits and mostly designed for marketing purposes ahead of broadcast…even managing to sandwich-in a song subsequently released for charity. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously and very little of it makes sense at this point. However Davies drops a plethora of hints and moments that suggest that there’s more in this episode’s recipe for which he will be circling back when the next series debuts in May.
The ending sees the new Doctor heading off with Ruby for a string of new adventures (glimpsed in a ‘Coming this Spring…‘ trailer. But it also has a moment when Anita Dobson (playing neighbour Mrs Flood) answers another neighbour who has seen the errant police box disappear by looking straight into camera (technically, not the series’ first fourth-wall break) and saying ‘What’s the matter… you’ve never seen a Tardis before?‘. Dobson will be back later in the new run and this all suggests there’s far more to her than meets the eye. The rumours have already begun: Does the ‘Flood’ name have aquatic echoes of River Song and Amelia Pond? Is this a new incarnation of the infamous Rani or… dare we even think it, Susan?
Time, as ever, will tell… but there’s enough here to keep me around for a while longer.
- Production Design / VFX9