Review: Doctor Who Christmas Special on BBC One — David Tennant who? Ncuti Gatwa is electrifying

Have we really said goodbye to David Tennant already? Three specials in, and the regeneration has finally happened: the shabby suit has given way to some flashy new threads, and now, it’s Ncuti Gatwa’s turn to inhabit the Time Lord’s body for the annual Christmas special.

But Whovians, rest easy: The Church on Ruby Road is a belter. Compared to Tennant’s tired old Doctor at the end of The Giggle, Gatwa’s take on the character is brimming with joy, the person who can wear a tank top and a kilt to a club night and have the camera linger over every angle of his body. And why not: he looks bloody great.

But every Doctor needs a companion, and this time it’s the turn of Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson, with the sharpest eyebrows known to mankind) to enter the Tardis. I know, she sounds like a Bond girl, or perhaps a stripper; she’s not. She’s actually a foundling who was abandoned at birth, using the time-honoured Victorian method of being left at the door to a church.

Still with me? Good. Because Ruby is also cursed with bad luck, which is following her around and infecting the people she’s with – including, bizarrely, Davina McCall, who appears as herself, hosting a TV show that reunites foundlings like Ruby with their birth parents. And sure enough, that bad luck is actually the result of some festive baddies seeking to ruin everyone’s fun.

Milly Gibson as Ruby Sunday, with the sharpest eyebrows known to man (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
Milly Gibson as Ruby Sunday, with the sharpest eyebrows known to man (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

Does the plot make sense? Not really. As much as the Doctor can try to explain it away, goblins eating babies and flying around in a wooden skyship screams fantasy louder than Gimli blowing the Horn of Helm Hammerhand – but that doesn’t matter in the slightest.

The real joy here comes from the electric combination of returning writer Russell T Davies’ pen and Gatwa and Gibson’s performances. If Davies' writing was good in the Tennant specials – a foot slipping back into a comfortable old shoe – this is more like a foot sliding into Usain Bolt’s zillion-dollar trainers and going hell for leather.

Both leads are electric. Gatwa, so good as Eric in Netflix’s Sex Education, radiates self-assurance from the very first frame and commands the screen like an old pro. Following Tennant must surely be a daunting task, but he doesn’t show it. His Doctor is wonderfully camp (that little moustache! That V-neck jumper!), but there’s also gravitas, there’s fun, there’s warmth; combined with Gibson’s sparky Ruby, the pair dominate the screen. And that's before we meet Ruby's family, who are guaranteed to melt the cockles of every heart in about two seconds flat.

Baby-eating goblins? Why the hell not (BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/Maxine Howell)
Baby-eating goblins? Why the hell not (BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/Maxine Howell)

There’s also a glorious sense of cheekiness in almost every line: at times, it feels like the show is going out of its way to surprise. Who else would have the gall to kill off a national treasure with a Christmas tree, or write an actual pop song for the hordes of goblin minions to sing with gusto as they get ready to feast on human baby (complete with “baby butter”)? Terrifyingly, this song also reached number one in the charts on the day it was released, which doesn’t say great things about the British moral compass.

That said, this is a Christmas episode, and as far Doctor Who specials go, it’s not the most festive. Aside from the dates that flash up on the screen, any mention of Christmas almost feels incidental; in fact, killer trees were done before, and in zippier fashion, in The Christmas Invasion. Traditionalists look away, for there’s not a flake of snow in sight.

But does that really matter? The Church On Ruby Road does its job and then some. By the end, I was champing at the bit to see more of both Gatwa and Gibson. They’re both live wires, with charisma to burn; a welcome jolt of energy for a show that’s sixty years young. David who?