‘Doctor Who’ Review: Ncuti Gatwa’s Run Gets Off to a Peppy, Promising Start on Disney+

It’s my obligatory caveat that I am not a Doctor Who “fan,” per se. I’m much more Who-curious.

While I was traumatized by Tom Baker’s Doctor in childhood, I’ve happily sampled the introduction of each new Doctor since the Christopher Eccleston reboot in 2005. After two or three episodes, I tend to tune out, checking back in at key or particularly acclaimed installments. For those keeping score, David Tennant’s Doctor was the one I watched the most of in total, though I stuck with Matt Smith for the longest in the beginning (Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond was responsible for a lot of that). Peter Capaldi, probably the Doctor I was most excited for based on previous credits, did the least for me.

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Draw your own conclusions.

Based on his introduction in a pair of December 2023 specials and the first two episodes premiering on Disney+ this week, the Fifteenth Doctor — please don’t ask me to explain how or why David Tennant was both the Tenth and Fourteenth Doctor — is off to a lively and accessible, if not necessarily rousingly memorable, start.

Those looking to jump into Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor tenure could maybe watch “The Giggle,” which featured Fifteen’s “bi-generation,” which is different from a “regeneration” in ways that are either really obvious or really confusing, depending on how much you choose to care.

Much more necessary is the Christmas episode, “The Church on Ruby Road,” which is the first pure evocation of this Doctor’s personality and introduces the dynamic with new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson). It’s a generally fun episode, with lots of holiday spirit and a full-fledged musical number with goblins. I mean, what’s not to like?

Now normally, “jumping in” isn’t a thing that matters so much with Doctor Who. The show has been around since 1963; at this point, your average TV viewer with a vague interest in such things has long since determined whether Doctor Who is their particular flavor of British science fiction — and, more than that, if ever a show gave off vibes of impenetrability, it’s this one. But the casting of the past two Doctors — again, let’s ignore Tennant being both 10 and 14 — has illustrated a desire not just to attract potential new demographics, but also to display awareness that a constantly regenerating Time Lord who comes back each time as a different version of a slender white British guy is decidedly limited in imaginative scope.

So there’s no question that Russell T. Davies, who previously ran the franchise from 2005 to 2010, is introducing Gatwa’s Doctor in a way that’s designed to be welcoming to a demographic who fell in love with the actor on Sex Education, without catering to viewers for whom the idea of a Scottish-Rwandan Doctor is somehow a bridge too far.

The bottom line for this casual viewer is that Gatwa is a thoroughly likable addition to the franchise, fully capturing at least one plausible aspect of the Doctor’s personality. If it turns out that he doesn’t work, it will have much more to do with the series’ writing than his contributions, which has always been the case. Gatwa is a lively burst of energy, bringing back some of the wide-eyed, loopy enthusiasm that I enjoyed in Smith’s take on the role.

This is a character who has been traveling across time and space for countless generations, and one valid interpretation is to have him express familiarity and exhaustion with every new oddity that crosses his path. But my own preference is something closer to the sheer joy that Gatwa’s Doctor evinces at everything fresh, and the amazement with which he greets every cosmic coincidence. It feels completely dramaturgically valid to me, and it plays directly into the varied extremes of emotion that Gatwa is best at. This Doctor is funny and personable, and he may be the first Doctor to reflect that the Tardis comes equipped with a potentially infinite variety of costume changes.

For 800 episodes, Doctor Who explored the world of a character through the prism of only a single gender and racial identity, and it’s hard for me to fathom being a fan of the premise and not being excited to see all the ways a different type of Doctor could yield different types of adventures. Less immediately exciting is Gibson’s Ruby, a very middle-of-the-road companion, a “foundling” whose parental mysteries will surely play an important role eventually.

Now as for these first two episodes? They’re more matching Gibson/Ruby’s sensibilities than Gatwa/The Doctor’s. Doctor Who is a show that’s more than capable of going dark and twisty and mythological, but the first two episodes have easily digestible hooks and — perhaps out of an over-abundance of caution — keep their thematic underpinnings muted.

Is “Space Babies” a potentially provocative treatise on reproductive freedom, pointedly mocking societies that force babies to be born but don’t provide the necessary infrastructure to support them? Yes! But it’s also a very silly and slightly weird answer to what would happen if you combined Alien and Look Who’s Talking. So it’s a lot of adorable gabbing babies, some very low-brow humor related to bodily fluids and a man-in-a-suit monster. You can get more than that out of the episode if you choose to, but the point is “talking babies with British accents.” Sold.

There’s more happening in “The Devil’s Chord,” which features an outsized, genuinely unnerving guest turn from Jinkx Monsoon as Maestro, a dimension-hopping being whose plan to destroy the earth begins with devouring music. The episode is largely set in 1963 and posits a world without the Beatles — a hypothetical that pretends, as I so often attempt to do, that the movie Yesterday never existed. It leans into sentiment, and while it may be 10 minutes too long, it’s a better acting showcase for its two stars and its climactic musical number is a playful winner.

Some of the padding in “The Devil’s Chord” seems to be in service of setting up the season-long arc, and the trailer for the third episode suggests that a darker installment is coming next for those who find these openers to be too frivolous.

As for the biggest question for this Doctor Who tourist: Are Ncuti Gatwa’s first few Doctor Who installments good enough for me to watch at least one or two more? Yes, they are.

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