Doctor Who #1045: The Church on Ruby Road

"I’m trying to learn the vocabulary of rope!"

TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Dec.25 2023.

IN THIS ONE... The 15th Doctor meets Ruby Sunday and fights the goblins who have jinxed her.

REVIEW: A bit of fun for the Holiday season, it's hard to know if this is really the direction going forward, or if it's part of the Christmas vibe. I'm talking about the musical number and a character breaking the fourth wall here, but also the "magical" enemies unleashed by the Toymaker's shenanigans. Despite all that, it still feels like Davies has restrained himself and kept his ridiculous tics mostly in check, making them work for him rather than against him. There's absolutely no reason why you couldn't hand this episode to a complete n00bie as an introduction, and that's a win.

It's also a win for Ncuti Gatwa who has a great presence, some fun line readings, and natural athleticism, and oodles of charm. I know it's technically a kilt, but I like to think of him clubbing in a skirt, coding himself as non-binary (he clearly dances with a boy there). He has a bit inspired by the 1996 TV Movie where he "sees" a cop's future, but here based on Sherlock-like powers of deduction. He's mostly bright and energetic, but he has amusing moments of Doctorly outrage (a pram at midnight?!) and sad smiles when thinking of his origins (RTD once again references the Timeless Child, so he could be the man to take this to the next level). The Doctor's gadgets are neat and don't feel like they're breaking the world - a sonic that looks more like a tricorder, which helps sell those abilities better than the "wand", and gravity gloves (sorry - mavity gloves - fun call-back, but I hope they meet Newton at some point and fix it) with weak batteries, introduced early so as not to feel like a deus ex machina. This Doctor is just fabulous and we see him in different outfits even if he has a "standard" one. I see him as a bit of a clothes horse and can't wait to see the different looks. I'm sold!

As for Ruby Sunday, she's a little "generic" for me at this point, a bit like Clara with Eleven. I mean, she looks just like a blond Clara in most shots. Even has a similar dress sense. I also question how quickly she takes to this life, smiling even while a baby's life is on the line, like this is her umpteenth adventure. There's a big "arc" secret about her like Clara, Amy, Rose and Donna. She has a foster mom and doesn't know who her biological mother is, like Bill. Bit of a remix of past Davies/Moffat companions. I do, however, love her world. I love her mom who has fostered 33 children to date. I love her gran, Cherry Sunday. I love her flat, would love to live there. I like that she's in a band (whose front woman is Mary Malone who I thought was very funny in Natasha Rickman's Henry IV gender-bender The Prince). And Millie Gibson has good chemistry with her Doctor. I'm willing to be sold!

The Goblins make for a fun enemy who aren't that Giggle-dependent when you think of the Carrionites and even the Weeping Angels, creatures who SEEM to use magic, but are really just manipulating quanta in some way. The language of luck, the language of ropes, it's very interesting stuff that feels like the science fiction of the 7th and 8th Doctor novels. The Doctor notices Ruby because she's become one of those complicated events (a knot in time, which fits the rope motif), but perhaps he's only crossing paths with her because it's another coincidence the Goblins are trying to engineer to "fatten up" the baby ("Maybe I'm the bad luck). It somehow leads to a musical number that's very much a homage (if not a rip-off) of the Goblin King's song in The Hobbit, first by "Janice Goblin" (I see what you did there), then by the Doctor and Ruby themselves (see Theories for how this doesn't break the world). After they escape, the Goblins Plan B Ruby and change the timeline, leaving her mom crying for no discernible reason (à la Amy re: Rory). It's a quick jaunt back in time to destroy the Goblins there (a rather ghastly end for their King) and then back to 2023 to enjoy the fruits of one's labour.

Because it's a Christmas special, RTD of course has a famous British cameo: Davina McCall. I know the name because I've been exposed to a lot of British TV, but that's it. I guess she hosts exactly the kind of show she hosts here, reuniting families and such. When the Christmas tree falls on her, I thought oooh, nasty. It is thankfully undone - it had to because she's playing herself - but since that plays the same as if she were a fictional presenter to us non-Brits, it does cast a certain pall on the minutes following. There is darkness in the episode - I mean, it's about monsters wanting to eat an infant after all - but as it all turns out alright, and is filled with songs and smiles, I think it does what a Christmas special should. Bring you cheer.

First of all, it's too early to start postulating about just who Ruby's biological mother is. She seems alien, or perhaps taken out of time, given the total absence of a footprint in the world, but we have little to go on. In the narration, the Doctor does say that the mother was a complete unknown "until" a stranger (the Doctor) showed up that night, but we then don't see him follow or identify her. Is this a flash-forward to a DIFFERENT instance, as yet untold? Or just a blip in the script? Some are guessing that the old lady next door, Mrs. Flood, could be the mother (as she seems to have other secrets), but unless there's also time travel at work (and there may be), they cast too old an actress for that to track well. But who IS Mrs. Flood. That final moment where she prods Ruby into the time machine and later turns to camera (hey Hartnell and Capaldi did it) to ask "Never seen a TARDIS before?" seems like a promise. At least for some. It could just be a bit of Seasonal fun and not to be taken seriously. Many have taken this to mean that she's a Time Lord herself (say, the Rani, since it makes little sense to reintroduce Susan or Romana this way when the actresses are alive), or at least a time traveller. Davies, that interview imp (I swear, he's a menace), has indicated that we should come back and see, as if she really is part of the mystery. Looking at the episode again, we might note that in early scenes, Mrs. Flood doesn't recognize the TARDIS and is shocked when it disappears in front of her. In later scenes, she not only knows, but has also had an attitude adjustment (in her interactions with Abdul, for example). There are two possibilities: 1) She's a time traveller and is shocked that the police box is a TARDIS, she just didn't recognize it before; 2) Ruby and the Doctor meet her when she's younger and the temporal update has just hit her now that Ruby is making her choice.

Oh, and I promised to talk about the singing. The Doctor is obviously playing to the Goblin crows, and with his transcendentally large brain, he can come up with the words easily (see also Doctor Who and the Pirates from Big Finish). Ruby is a musician and would have some chops in this area, possibly, even though she's on keyboards. As a long-time improv player and coach, I can confirm that people can make up rhymes on the spot like this, and it's even way easier if there's musical backing. BUT! What if it's more than that. The TARDIS's telepathic circuits "translate", and here the Doctor might have a little help decoding the languages of luck and rope, so while he's operating on a sort of askew level, how about singing as a language? He shares the ability with Ruby and voilà. Or, and this is in keeping with the internal rules of the episode, it's luck and coincidence at work. That one goblin who sings the last line is not on stage, so it's a COINCIDENCE that the band stops, and a random crowd member has the rhyme. Similarly, once the heroes start singing, they just "magically" find the right words. Reality is wonky around these guys. Extend that to the Doctor calling the singer Janice. Now, he thinks she sort of looks like Janice from The Muppet Show, but according to canon (a short story released prior), the character really IS called Janice. Here again, he coincidentally happens on the right word.

VERSIONS: I didn't mention this before, nor will I again, but just this once... The idents at the top and the end of the episodes is different on Disney+ and BBC outlets. The latter uses the Whoniverse ident, for example. In this particular case, the D+ version fits a quick preview in between the ending and the mid-credit scene. The BBC version has no preview and lets the cast credits roll before cutting to the mid-credit scene.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A good first outing for the 15th Doctor, with some amusing surprises and strong potential for family drama, which is one of RTD's strengths.


Mart said…
Nice review, I enjoyed this episode more than most from the last few years, being more an RTD person than a Chibnall (well, I liked Chibnall on Torchwood). Ncuti was brilliant, and I liked Millie - I'm fine for her to have a mystery arc, but please God let's not have Ruby be another Most Important Person Ever!

I don't think a skirt rather than a kilt is necessarily more non-binary, just less sexy. Kilts all the way (but not utility kilts)!

Did I miss something? The Goblins are linked to the Celestial Toymaker?

How I hate the Whoniverse branding!
Siskoid said…
The link isn't overt, but the Toymaker "broke" the universe, let all sorts of shenanigans in that seem more like magic than physics. That infusion could be responsible for creatures like Goblins whose abilities seem magical. Indeed, RTD said as much in an interview. I just wonder HOW MUCH "magic" we'll see in the upcoming series.
Mart said…
Interesting. I never thought about whether magic was a thing in Doctor Who, it seemed to be part of the overall fantasy package, which includes sci-fi... the goblins could be aliens as easily as magical creatures. And I know the old quote about advanced science seeming like sorcery, but the Toymaker is surely a Mxy/Q archetype ie magical.
Toby’c said…
"When the Christmas tree falls on her, I thought oooh, nasty. It is thankfully undone - it had to because she's playing herself ”

I don’t know, I’ve seen other shows get away with killing off guest stars playing themselves. Jean-Claude Van Damme in Las Vegas comes to mind. Also Ugly Dave Gray in Frontline.
daft said…
And so, Ruby is revealed to be yet another 'fated one' companion, groan. I get that RTD wants to keep the Disney reboot as light and lore free as feasibly possible, meaning that delving into the Doctor's own backstory/history, no matter recent Timeless Child revelations, considered to be counterproductive to that goal, and therefore, the companion's backstory has been suitably beefed up in due compensation, but such a phenomena has already become a troubling Nu-Hu cliché.

I found it difficult to care much about the fate of the returning companions presented in the Tales Of The Tardis series because as much as I have abiding affection for the returning actors, during the classic era these actors' were in effect mere bit part players, cypher characters and their backstories to be used and abused within the stifling context of the serialized weekly TV, second banana if you will to the invariably overstuffed, overindulged Doctor lead.

And we pass into the modern era, emergent TV conventions helped to ensure that the companion was suitably elevated to dual lead status. The Doctor though still effectively the central character, it's in the title, the residual, de facto superhero still present and always correct, showrunners therefore seemingly drawn into inevitable compensatory acts to help elevate the companion's status through backstory chicanery. Our everyday, seemingly naïve, but invariably plucky P.O.V. character saddled with added significance based upon mere happenstance than actual stated ability.

The showrunners, and indeed some fans, unable to let go of the mythic status of the Doctor, Nerd Excelsis, even if it continues to hinder the modern storytelling process. Yes, and I get that Ruby's arc will eventually dovetail neatly with the Doctor's own orphan status, but she will always therefore, in effect remain a mere 'companion'. If it requires the reintroduction of a Romana-like character, or Romana, in fact, fine, or alternatively, the script editor is given the express stated authority and indeed propriety mission to assiduously police the companion's character journey and motivations, fine, otherwise that dramatic tension and the compensatory acts will remain.