Doctor Who: Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord review – Ncuti Gatwa is the perfect Doctor with megawatt charm

The first two episodes are good, giddy fun, but there are indications that showrunner Russell T Davies hasn’t quite got back into the galaxy-hopping groove yet

Ed Power
Saturday 11 May 2024 15:04 BST
Doctor Who: Ncuti Gatwa's Sonic Screwdriver unveiled

Warning: this review is also a recap, meaning it contains spoilers for the episode

Fittingly for a series about adventures across space and time, the latest season of Doctor Who features an interstellar lead performance by Ncuti Gatwa. He’s a natural as the new custodian of the Tardis, both mischievous and mysterious, and is by far the best thing about the BBC’s biggest franchise as former showrunner Russell T Davies takes up the reins once again. In fact, Gatwa’s charm proves essential in two wildly uneven opening episodes, which suggest that Davies hasn’t quite got back into the galaxy-hopping groove yet.

Gatwa’s Doctor feels like a greatest hits of Time Lords past. He has inherited immediate predecessor Jodie Whittaker’s humanity and empathy. But he also has an air of fervent eccentricity that recalls the best of David Tennant and Peter Capaldi (and, if we’re doing a deep dive, Fifth Doctor Peter Davison).

The 15th Doctor also has wonderful chemistry with his assistant Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson). No matter how ludicrous the storylines are (they are pretty ludicrous in these instalments), they gel fantastically. Whovians will hope they continue to do so following the arrival of a second companion in the next series, to be played by Jurassic World Dominion’s Varada Sethu.

Above all, Gatwa has the crucial Doctor quality of being deeply enigmatic. You never know what he’s going to do next. Nor does Sunday. She is surprised to be whisked off to the age of the dinosaurs as she and the Doctor begin their adventures, having first met in last year’s excellent Christmas special.

It’s good, giddy fun and will go down well both at home and internationally, where Disney+ is handling distribution. Still, the two instalments that launch the new run aren’t perfect. The first, “Space Babies”, is a promising idea that never entirely comes to life on screen. Having zipped around space and time on a lark, the Doctor and Ruby end up in a high orbit station populated by babies who can talk (don’t worry, the script sort of explains it). But the station is also stalked by a “bogeyman” monster in the basement, which gives even the Doctor the heebie-jeebies.

There isn’t much more to “Space Babies”, sadly. The Doctor gives Ruby a quick recap of his origins, explaining that he is the only Time Lord left. “My world is called Gallifrey,” he says. “It’s gone Ruby, it’s gone. They died. There was a genocide and they died. I am the last of the Time Lords.”

There are also glimpses of the charming naffness that has been a signature of the series for decades. Even with Disney pumping millions into the production, it turns out that wonky special effects are still a Doctor Who staple – as we see when the Doctor and Ruby make their excursion to the age of the dinosaurs, and a Brachiosaurus is brought to the screen with appalling CGI, which looks as if it was churned out on an overheated Commodore Amiga.

The show has never hidden its influences, and “Space Babies” hits like a homage to Ridley Scott’s Alien mixed with one of those disposable nappy ads where the babies have the power of speech. Super-ancient viewers may be reminded of the old Bruce Willis chatty-baby franchise Look Who’s Talking.

There is a disgusting baby bombshell, too. Early on, we see the ship’s computer “wipe” the noses of the babies. All of the accrued waste has been dumped in the lower levels, where the bogeys have formed a “bogey-monster”. Eeeugh... how gross for tea-time viewing, particularly at the conclusion of a caper that otherwise has all the depth and complexity of a CBeebies marathon.

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Right on time: Ncuti Gatwa is already a natural fit for the Doctor, if these first two instalments are anything to go by
Right on time: Ncuti Gatwa is already a natural fit for the Doctor, if these first two instalments are anything to go by (BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/James Pardon)

More successful by far is the second episode, “The Devil’s Chord”, where the Doctor and Ruby travel back to 1963 and Abbey Road Studios to see The Beatles lay down their earliest tracks. Alas, someone has stolen the power of music from the world, and the Fab Four are a tuneless mess. “I’ve got a dog, he’s called Fred/ My dog is alive, he’s not dead,” sings Paul, when he should be belting out the first line to “Ticket to Ride”.

A universe without music is obviously a horrible concept – though on the upside, it would mean no more Ed Sheeran albums – and Davies has great fun setting our heroes against gluttonous baddie Maestro (Jinkx Monsoon). That said, it’s always slightly cringeful when TV shows and movies go back in time and bump into The Beatles. How is it that it’s always The Beatles (or Elvis)? Why has nobody ever put The Rolling Stones in a sci-fi adventure?

Mercifully, Doctor Who never quite falls into moptop hagiography – for one thing, the actors playing John (Chris Mason) and Paul (George Caple) look nothing like the actual musicians. Paul’s wig, meanwhile, could be a sentient lifeform all of its own.

The Doctor’s wanderings through Abbey Road – still called EMI Recording Studios at that point – also sees him bumping into a young Cilla Black (Josie Sedgwick-Davies), surely the first time the future Blind Date presenter is drawn into a multiverse-hopping science fiction story. And the Doctor shares more of his backstory with Ruby while scanning the London skyline, revealing that he once lived in Shoreditch.

But never mind about the Doctor’s biography – he and Ruby quickly work out that music has been filched by the Satan-like “Maestro” and team up with John and Paul to steal it back from them. Maestro (who is non-binary) is a formidable foe who spews up weaponised musical notes from their mouth and at one point traps Ruby inside an upright bass case. Still, they’re no match for Team Tardis and half of The Beatles. With the baddie finally dispatched, the Doctor explains to Ruby that, when you join him on an adventure, there’s “always a twist”.

The twist turns out to be a big song-and-dance number that feels sure to divide viewers. After the Goblin singalong in the Christmas special, this is the second time in three episodes that Davies has crowbarred in a musical performance. It’s well executed and there are cameos from Strictly Come Dancing stars Shirley Ballas and Johannes Radebe. Strictly fans will love it, no doubt – but what about Whovians?

The BBC’s pre-eminent sci-fi saga has always held up a mirror to its times (whether by design or accident). With this new season, Davies sticks with that tradition by applying some pointed commentary on current affairs. In “Space Babies”, we learn that the infants’ home planet is obsessed with bringing the children to gestation, yet couldn’t care less what happens to them after that – a clear nod towards the abortion debate in the United States. That they’ve been left to their own devices in the first place is, moreover, as a result of vicious public spending cuts – again, Davies is calling it as he sees it.

The big takeaway, however, is that Gatwa is already perfect as the Doctor. Some Time Lords are a work in progress. He’s the finished article right from the jump – quirky, nattily attired (though his vintage wardrobe never overshadows the performance) and brimming with megawatt charm. The stories aren’t entirely there yet but with Gatwa at the controls, it comes as a huge relief to report that the Tardis is in safe hands.

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