‘Doctor Who’ Review: A Zany and Colorful Romp (With A Bit of Nightmare Fuel)

For better or worse, the new Doctor Who is firmly a family show—at least for the moment.

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson in Doctor Who. Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

When Doctor Who first hit British airwaves in 1963, it was considered an educational program, an adventure series that would use voyages into the past and future to teach children about history and science. Before long, the series took on a life of its own as a cultural phenomenon, and it grew up along with its audience over the course of its initial 26-year run. Its 2005 revival was aimed at all ages but found a rabid new fanbase of millennials who gobbled up its more complex character dynamics and weirder time-travel shenanigans. Now Doctor Who is receiving another soft relaunch that seems keen on recapturing its lapsed fans, particularly those who have since become parents. For better or worse, the new Doctor Who is firmly a family show, a zany and colorful romp with just a bit of nightmare fuel for the little ones—at least for the moment.

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For those unfamiliar with the basic concept, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a listless alien called The Doctor, who wanders through space and time with a parade of human companions solving mysteries, righting wrongs, and averting the odd apocalypse. When mortally wounded, the Doctor regenerates with a new body and a refreshed personality, allowing a new actor to assume the role and reinvent it in their own idiom. The Fifteenth Doctor—portrayed by Ncuti Gatwa of Sex Education fame—is the most bubbly and vivacious incarnation to date. Along for the ride is Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), a 19-year-old working-class Brit from our present who hopes that her journey through time will shed light on her mysterious past.

The Doctor and Ruby’s adventure began with last year’s Christmas special, “The Church on Ruby Road,” a fresh jumping on point for new viewers that was also an introduction to the tone of the upcoming series. Though still a time-travel story, “The Church on Ruby Road” was more fairy tale than science fiction, as Ruby and the Doctor chase after some singing, baby-gobbling goblins and their flying wooden ship. Hardly a departure from the fanciful adventures of Doctors past and the monsters have a Jim Henson horror to them, but definitely cutesy. The first two episodes of the new series follow along the same lines, balancing light adventure hijinx with storybook scares and bloodless death.

Gibson is a charming viewpoint character and a strong foil to the Doctor, but Gatwa is so charismatic he practically glows. His Doctor is a fountain of positivity, pleased to meet everyone and thrilled to be alive. This hasn’t always been the case with the Doctor, whose portrayals vary from crusty misanthrope to mad-eyed imp. Gatwa’s version—constantly in motion, unflinchingly compassionate, and unconstrained by gender norms—is squarely on the Chaotic Good end of the spectrum. He’s tremendously fun to watch, but his sunny disposition is so sincere that it makes his occasional flashes of melancholy reflection feel out of place. The Doctor is the last of the Time Lords, a foundling whose true origins are unknown, a traveler who has watched many friends die, but any time this gloomy history gets brought up it feels like the previous version of the show popping in to visit.

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson travel back to 1963 in Doctor Who. Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

This is also part of the deal in Doctor Who. The series has been reinvented numerous times, either gradually or drastically, but has never shed its continuity. Callbacks to classic Who in the more naturalistic early 2000s era could be jarring in their silliness, and now we’re experiencing the reverse. There’s also a strong likelihood that this latest saga will take a dark turn the moment its audience feels comfortable with the stakes. This is, after all, the work of showrunner Russell T. Davis, whose previous run on Doctor Who from 2005 to 2009 frequently brought fans to tears. The occasional reminders of galactic genocides and unstoppable evil will surely lead somewhere more serious.

For now, however, hamminess reigns on Doctor Who, beginning with an episode about a group of “space babies” who speak and roll around in motorized strollers, followed by a trip back to 1963 to visit the Beatles and save the world from an extra-dimensional being portrayed by Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon. Monsoon is terrific as the musical menace the Maestro, but thanks to the show’s playful heart, they’re not nearly as threatening as they could be. There are countless signals that the audience isn’t meant to take the show seriously, from the substandard kids television special effects (a Who tradition) to the occasional breaking of the fourth wall (a surprising new wrinkle). The new series requires the highest disbelief threshold since the days of the classic Who serials.

It’s likely that this won’t sit well with some adult fans who, like their counterparts in superhero comics culture, occasionally forget who this stuff is supposed to be for. Regardless, history has shown that Doctor Who is capable of traveling between tones as easily as the TARDIS spins through space and time. The Doctor and Ruby will almost certainly face a grave ethical dilemma or a tragic time paradox at some point on their journey, asking more of the audience as they adjust to the silliness of the premise, just as in previous versions of the series have done.

And Hell, if they don’t, there’s always the next Doctor.

The first two episodes of the new ‘Doctor Who’ begin streaming on Disney+ on May 10th. 

‘Doctor Who’ Review: A Zany and Colorful Romp (With A Bit of Nightmare Fuel)