The Church on Ruby Road
Making a gaggle of goblins the enemy for the special is in keeping with RTD's more fantasy-based direction for the series
Review by Daniel Tessier
Doctor Who returns with its first Christmas special since 2017, also serving as a second relaunch of the programme following the sixtieth-anniversary specials. While The Church on Ruby Road has a more magical, fantastical feel than most of Doctor Who previously, and the show has been modernised since Russell T. Davies first revived the programme in 2005, it still feels very much like his recognisable style of Doctor Who.
Ncuti Gatwa finally gets to have the role of the Doctor to himself in his first full episode, and he absolutely owns the role. Of everything in the episode, it's his Doctor that stands out as a new and exciting element. I can't say I'd ever expected to see the Doctor dancing with abandon in a club, but it fits Gatwa's version of the character, one who simply throws himself into every experience. It tells us that this is a brand new Doctor, unlike any we've seen before. (William Hartnell did go to a club back in 1966 in The War Machines, but he wasn't twirling around in his vest.) The new Doctor is charming, passionate, sexy, and full of the joy of exploration and discovery. As with Rose all those years ago, though, we learn about the Doctor through an ordinary girl, with the Time Lord kept at a distance for much of the episode until the plot cranks up a notch (the pacing is, admittedly, a little sluggish for the much of the runtime, with a great deal of time spent on Ruby's introduction and the Doctor's flitting about on the sidelines).
Millie Gibson (Coronation Street) is excellent as Ruby Sunday, our new companion. She's immediately a very likeable character, someone we're happy to spend time around on Christmas. Her character might have come across as a somewhat generic “plucky assistant” were it not for the additional detail of her status as an orphan and foundling, which itself could have been twee had it not been written and performed with such realism and nuance. A baby left outside a church on Christmas Eve is fairytale stuff, and while this fits with the festive setting and the magical nature of the adventure, it wouldn't have worked if Ruby's life wasn't so mundane and believable. Not that this translates as dull: her adopted life is clearly busy and very happy, but it's not the fantastical story her origins might suggest, and her tears when she learns there's no trace of her birth mother speaks volumes as to a deeper sadness she's hiding.
For all the claim that he was now over his baggage following The Giggle, the Doctor is also barely hiding a deep loneliness and isolation that comes out when he reflects on his origins. Davies continues to make a virtue of Chris Chibnall's new mythology of the Timeless Child, with the Doctor confiding in Ruby that he, too, was adopted after having been found, an important link between them that is bound to be explored further in the upcoming series. As both of them are searching for more truth about their origins, it's Ruby who we'll no doubt learn more about, with the identity of her mother and the reason she was abandoned surely to provide an ongoing mystery for the upcoming season. All of this is secondary, though, to the immediately tangible chemistry shared by Gatwa and Gibson when they're on screen together, and it's this that makes the episode work.
Making a gaggle of goblins the enemy for the special is in keeping with RTD's more fantasy-based direction for the series, picking up on hints dropped in The Giggle that all manner of things will be finding their way into the universe. The idea of goblins being behind accidents, nudging their prey into sequences of coincidence to bind them and season them, is a fascinating one, that at once feels straight out of folklore and part of Doctor Who's peculiar, time-bending universe. The goblin plot is very much a combination of classic fantasy films, with elements of Labyrinth and Gremlins (itself a Christmas favourite), although the Goblin King, in this version, is less David Bowie and more Jabba the Hutt. The goblins themselves are a stunning creation, a horde of creatures rendered with CGI and physical performances where required, while the King himself is a huge, physical puppet with real presence, a truly loathsome creature.
The goblins' ship is a thing of beauty, straight out of the highest fantasy but no more ridiculous than physics-defying spaceships. For all the Doctor enthusiastically refers to this as a new kind of science, Ruby's right when she calls it magic, and perhaps at this stage, there's really no difference.
Then we come to the most controversial element of the special: the Goblin Song. The inclusion of a festive song goes back to Davies's earliest Christmas specials, but then they were background rather than central to the action. Christina Rotondo provides the gorgeous voice of the wonderfully-named Janis Goblin, singing the gruesome song of baby-eating with goblins excitedly dancing around her. It's a show-stopper, and easily the most Labyrinth-like part of the episode (although the lyrics are a bit more Mighty Boosh). It also fits with the goblins own brand of magic, where story and rhythm seem to be the driving force. So it makes perfect sense that the Doctor, having learned the language of the goblins' science, launches into a song-and-dance number himself to fight them. Frankly, when you've actors who can sing and move like Gatwa and Gibson, you want to make the most of them, but it works with the kind of story Davies is telling this time round.
The supporting cast is largely strong. Michelle Greenridge (Afterlife, It's a Sin) is very good as Ruby' adoptive mother Carla, but the stand-out is Angela Winter (EastEnders, Death in Paradise) as Cherry, Ruby's bloody-minded, bedridden, wonderfully flirtatious grandmother. It's clear that they make Ruby's life a happy one, with Carla, foster mother extraordinaire, the rock on which the family is anchored.
All this shifts when the newest foster child, baby Lulubelle, is rescued from the goblins and Ruby is taken instead, written out of time as the creatures use the web of coincidence to go back and snatch her away as a baby. The episode shifts from Labyrinth-cross-Gremlins to It's a Wonderful Life, as Ruby's absence entirely alters the dynamic of the Sunday family's lives. The effect is immediate, with even the colouring in the scene shifting as their home becomes less vibrant and comforting. We don't see much of Cherry in this scene, but she's clearly deteriorating. It's Carla, though, who's most visibly changed, having shifted from foster mum to 33 to the reluctant carer for “five or six,” all her happiness and enthusiasm lost. Greenridge really is excellent in this scene, showing a complete change in her character who is just as forthright and outspoken, but now embittered and aggressive.
Of course, the Doctor goes back in time and puts it right, dealing with the goblins in a rather brutal fashion (he's lucky he doesn't kill the baby with his actions – or are the rules of storytelling and coincidence such that he knows his aim will be true?) Again, the pacing is odd here, with the story slowing down considerably, and while there's an emotional heft to these scenes in Ruby's past, it feels like an epilogue, rather than the climax to the story.
Some inclusions in the episode don't entirely work. Anita Dobson (EastEnders) gives a broad if entertaining performance as outspoken neighbour Mrs Flood, but her character is so obviously written as “the big mysterious guest star” that it's awkward overall. Already everyone is talking about who she's going to turn out to be, and how she knows what a TARDIS is. The best answer is that she's just a busybody who's seen Time Lords comes and go in London over the decades – it's not as if the Doctor or any of the other renegades have ever been subtle in their travels.
Davina McCall's inclusion is an oddity. While Davies has spoken about her series Long Lost Family as being a partial inspiration for the episode, her involvement as a fictionalised version of herself is clunky, and her acting ability is way behind everyone else in the production. Equally clunky is the scene with Barney Wilkinson as a policeman, which is clearly there because Gatwa was kept out of the main events for too long. It's a rather sweet scene, though, and worth including.
Mark Tonderai's direction is excellent, and the effects are uniformly impressive (you can see where that Disney money is going). While the pacing issues do impact it, there's plenty of incident and excitement, and yes, while it's often silly, it's Doctor Who on Christmas Day – silliness is the point. Altogether, it's a very fun introduction to our new Doctor-companion team. Based on this, they're going to be a lot of fun to watch together, which is the single most important thing to get right in this show.