In Review: Doctor Who Christmas Special – The Church on Ruby Road

Reviewed by Tim Robins


Doctor Who - The Church on Ruby Road (2023 Christmas Special)

I must admit I watched the Doctor Who Christmas Special while imagining I had an account on ‘X’ and had a finger over the hashtag key ready to Xcrete “#notmydoctor”. But that’s part of the appeal of Doctor Who. It can be anything, even things that I don’t much like, such as, here, a massive international brand name stuck on some kind of all singing, all dancing variety show, with dramatic vignettes in between.

When it came to the battle for Christmas Day terrestrial TV ratings, the BBC cleaned ITV’s clock, occupying the top eight of ten places on the most watched broadcast TV shows. Doctor Who came in third, beaten only by The King’s Speech (which I missed) and Strictly Come Dancing (which I never watch). It is likely that Doctor Who attracted a younger audience than the top two programmes rather than geriatrics like me. Good. That’s how it should be.

Apparently, Disney are fretting over young children’s disinterest in the Star Wars universe and the impact of that on merchandise sales. In contrast, if this iteration of The Doctor is popular, I fully expect to see children pirouetting down the streets in gay fetish gear, much as they took to fezzes during Matt Smith’s time as The Doctor.

That was the way the story introduced the new Doctor to family audiences – dressed in a kilt, vest and boots and spinning like a Whirling Dervish around a night club’s dance floor. Actually brilliant. There are certain things only certain Doctors can and cannot get away with. Only Matt Smith’s Doctor could play football, whereas Stephen Moffat turned poor old Peter Capaldi into the Embarrassing Dad Doctor by giving him an electric guitar to play.

The story was this: a baby is left outside a church on Christmas Eve, taken in by a family and given the name of the Road the church was on. Little Miss Road grows up to be accident prone and lives a life full of coincidences that attract time-surfing goblins, hungry for babies. The Doctor intervenes to save both a newly adopted baby and Ms Road herself as a baby in the past. This involves, among other things, The Doctor joining a goblin disco in the sky, held to celebrate feeding a baby to the Goblin King. The Doctor, Ruby and baby escape, but only after performing a musical number. There’s more, but I can’t believe that I am even writing these words.

Doctor Who - The Church on Ruby Road (2023 Christmas Special)
Doctor Who - The Church on Ruby Road (2023 Christmas Special)

The plot may have been nuts, crackers, tinsel town etc., but Ncuti Gatwa took it all in his stride. Gatwa’s Doctor is the most flamboyantly gay Doctor since Jon Pertwee donned a velvet smoking jacket, frilly white shirt and a purple cape. And no one looks like they are going to turn down the volume. He’s one hot black guy, and he knows it. Fortunately, he has the acting chops to go with his bod . He totally owned the role of The Doctor. At last, someone who hasn’t been told to ‘be more like David Tennant’.

Personally, I would have held back the Doctor’s entrance to the moment we see him leaping over the rooftops to save Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), his new companion, who’s hanging from a rope ladder and being hauled up to a flying pirate vessel occupied by goblins, all eager to gobble up her newly adopted baby sister. At time of writing, I have been told that an earlier scene in which The Doctor saved a woman from a giant, falling decorative snowman was included at the behest of Disney (you didn’t seriously think Doctor Who’s new paymasters wouldn’t have input into the script?).

Once you know that, the whole ‘That’s-where-I-live’ dialogue with a policeman has an obvious expository purpose. As was The Doctor’s demonstration of his Holmsian powers of deduction, because he’s ‘special’. I did smile seeing the TARDIS just loitering on a pavement in the background, but then it kept popping up in other locations, too, for no apparent reason (chrono-tectonic drift?).

I had hoped to see ‘Rose’ Noble (Yasmin Finney) from The Star Beast, the first Doctor Who 60th Anniversary Special, as a companion, even though I knew that wasn’t going to be the case. Rose Noble was a more grounded character than Ruby Sunday who exemplifies a rather negative and well-worn trope of ‘woman-as-enigma’, a mystery to be solved. Oh well, one progressive foot forward, another step back. And a mystery foundling is a world away from showrunner Russell T Davies’ strength – everyday folk we can all relate to. Oh, I forgot, The Doctor’s a foundling too.

Listen up: I’m adopted and this story meant absolutely nothing to me. All the fawning over adopted children delivered to the door on Christmas Eve failed to pull a single one of my heart strings. That’s unusual for a Russell T Davies script, but there was too much exposition going on. And I don’t even understand The Doctor’s back story anymore. So the events of The Timeless Child happened, but the Toy Maker broke up The Doctor’s continuity. In the end, two or more enigmas aren’t that much more interesting than one.

As the story advanced, my mind wandered. Part of the problem was the music. What in Santa’s name was composer Murray Gold playing at. His score was much like the TARDIS in this story – all over the place. I was trying to get into the naturalistic tone of character interactions in the attic flat, but Gold’s music was just plink plonking away in the background like something ‘wacky’ was going on – but nothing was. Gold’s worst stab at a tune was at the story’s end. A swelling Christmas choir, clanging bells accompanied nothing suggested by events on the screen, just a desperate need to end with a crescendo of emotion.

Doctor Who - The Church on Ruby Road (2023 Christmas Special)
Doctor Who - The Church on Ruby Road (2023 Christmas Special)
Doctor Who - The Church on Ruby Road (2023 Christmas Special)

Any hope of establishing an affecting emotional tone to the story was lost in the editing and the rather awkward pacing. A scene in which Ruby Road is interviewed by Davina McCall is supposed to be a comedic set piece, in which numerous small accidents build on each other. One problem was the accidents weren’t very interesting – really, the Final Destination movies have this kind of scenario down pat. Another problem was that the person I cared about was the young black woman who sets off events by tripping when she reaches for a glass that has been surreptitiously moved by a goblin. What happened to her? Did she fall? Was she all right? Never mind some TV celebrity! Also, the accidents were either repetitive, or visually dull.

I’ll stop there. It was clear a lot of energy was put into making this Christmas Special and a lot of money – although not enough to have the goblins actually rush The Doctor and Ruby when the pair boarded the ship. I’m happy the episode got good reviews in the press and among Doctor Who fans, many of whom seem to have worked themselves into a frenzy over a mid-end credit direct-to-camera comment made by Mrs Flood (Anita Dobson, who lives on Ruby Sunday Street). Who could she be? River Song? The Rani? (groan), a joke?

Doctor Who - The Church on Ruby Road (2023 Christmas Special)

I still believe Dobson’s direct to camera question, sarcastically asking the audience if they hadn’t seen a TARDIS dematerialising before, was aimed at new viewers because the answer, “yes”, is uninteresting compared to the answer “no”. If Disney has in mind people who haven’t seen Doctor Who, then the comment serves as a rather nice “hook” for the forthcoming series, and as a piece of albeit enigmatic exposition. Without the scene, newbies have not even heard the word TARDIS in the episode, nor, perhaps, had a chance understood that that was what it normally did, if their minds wandered during the Doctor’s earlier with a soon-to-be-engaged policeman.

“Perhaps they just realised at the end that they hadn’t used the word TARDIS yet, and needed to slip it in somewhere for the new viewers,” The Independent noted some fans had excreted on X. Maybe. Or maybe that explanation is a load of old excretia. Then again, there was, for me, a cobbled together feel about the script.

I was also interested in the way The Church on Ruby Road was received by some American YouTubers. Council of Geeks (subscribers 78,000-plus) were concerned that the little critters should be more accurately described as Gremlins than goblins. I beg to differ. Goblins have a rich mythology involving mischief making and Gremlins, a term invented during World War Two among members of the Royal Air Force, are not thought to have a King. In contrast, the Goblin King is well known to like singing, dancing and stealing babies, as the film Labyrinth attests.

In contrast, Jessie Gender (subscribers: 18,000) fretted over the use of goblins because of their recent negative associations with people of Jewish faith in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter movies. Gender felt the baby eating, in turn, fed into the Blood Libel of Jews as drinking the blood of children.

I think semantic chains are forged differently for different people in different situations. Harry Potter fans are still reeling from critiques of their beloved author and her dodgy world of fat shaming and quasi-shylock goblin bankers, while 17 per cent of Americans are reportedly QAnon conspiracy believers and still think Democrats are routinely feasting on pizzas topped with babies.

On second thoughts, this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special was less crackers than I thought.

Tim Robins

Doctor Who – The Church on Ruby Road is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Disney+ worldwide

Doctor Who - The Church on Ruby Road Novel

Doctor Who – The Church on Ruby Road has been adapted as a novel by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and will be released 25th January 2024

Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson is a science-fantasy author and co-founder of the organisation Impact of Omission, as featured in the Guardian, Huffpost, and the Channel 4 Documentary “Where’s My History?” with footballer and anti-racism campaigner Troy Deeney. 

Winner of the inaugural Gollancz and Rivers of London BAME SFF Award in 2020, now known as the Future Worlds Prize, her writing is invariably about Black people dismantling space empires, travelling through time, and saving the world – often simultaneously.

Further Reading… or Watching

Independent: Doctor Who fans left mystified by unexpected TARDIS revelation in Christmas special

The Council of Geeks: The Church on Ruby Road – Doctor Who review

Jessie Gender: Doctor Who “The Church on Ruby Road” 2023 Christmas Special Review

Categories: Doctor Who, Features, Other Worlds, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television

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