Doctor Who review: The show is more frenetic, and more family-friendly on Disney+

The series returns with a new Doctor, a new Companion, and all the cash Disney can throw at it.
The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) Credit: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios
The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) Credit: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios /

Whenever a Doctor Who fan discusses the series to anyone interested in watching with their family, there’s a lot of waffling that goes on. Yes, it’s scary and full of monsters. But for the most part, the monsters aren’t scary. Unless they are. And it’s a family show, except that a lot of times it isn’t. In England, they like darker things, so it’s considered a family show there, but here in America…

Anyway, that goes on for a while, is the point, and it’s difficult to categorize whether the long-running series is for families or not. Particularly over the course of the past couple of seasons, Who has skewed darker, scarier, more complex, and much more adult – particularly with its relationship dramas that thrilled shippers but perhaps started at “teen” level and then went above.

Now, Doctor Who has come to Disney+ after three 60th anniversary specials that brought back one of the most beloved actors to play The Doctor, David Tennant, and his long-lost Companion Donna (Catherine Tate). This new era officially kicked off with the Christmas Special, “The Church On Ruby Road,” and stars Ncuti Gatwa (Sex Education, Barbie) as The Doctor’s latest regeneration, and Millie Gibson as Ruby Sunday, his teen Companion.

Including a “rerun” inasmuch as you can rerun things on streaming, three episodes of this revamped Doctor Who premiere on Disney+ on Friday, May 10, 2024. And happily, finally, at long last we can say without waffling: Doctor Who is a family show.

The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) in Doctor Who. /

This might irk some long-time fans of the series, but based on the three episodes provided for critics (including “Church on Ruby Road,” as well as “Space Babies” and “The Devil’s Chord”) the energy Gatwa’s Doctor and Ruby Sunday bring to the show is frenetic, energetic and more in line with a Disney Channel series than what fans of Who have come to expect from the show since it was initially revamped in 2005 by Russell T. Davies, who returns for these new episodes.

As a long-time fan of the series… I don’t mind it. In fact, after initially trying to share the show with my kids we ran into several episodes that were too complex, or too scary and they were put off, while my wife and I kept watching. These three episodes are the exact opposite. Not only are they new viewer friendly – basic concepts from how time travel works on the show, to what a TARDIS is and how it works, to who The Doctor is and how he works are simply and efficiently explained – but they also make sure there are plenty of Easter eggs and name-drops for the diehards to enjoy as well, without distracting from the action.

It’s a tricky line to walk, but exactly what the once-again flagging franchise has needed… A global showcase and the Disney checkbook to make sure the increasingly dicey-looking effects are several steps above what one might expect from a Doctor Who convention, versus a professionally produced TV show. While there’s a certain cheesy delight in seeing men in suits, that’s not what modern audiences expect; and the lack of budget was starting to show.

Here we’ve got singing and dancing goblins, talking babies, and the best special effect of all: Jinkx Monsoon as villain the Maestro, probably the best new creation the show has introduced in over a decade.

The Doctor ((Ncuti Gatwa) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special 2023. /

Does the show still flirt with the scary? For sure. “Church On Ruby Road” featured baby-eating goblins, “Space Babies” once again puts babies in danger in an episode that is like Baby Geniuses meets Alien, and “The Devil’s Chord” includes some sequences with the Maestro that will probably do for musical instruments what Jaws did for the ocean. But the non-stop “putting on a show” energy coming from Gatwa and Gibson immediately lets you know that even in the darkest moments, everything is going to be a-okay.

Yes, there’s the overarching mystery of Ruby Sunday’s mysterious birth, which was first set up in “Ruby Road” to provide a structure for the season. But unlike the convoluted plotlines of the recent “Flux” season (aka the one where my kids decided to peace out of the show entirely), the focus is adventures in space and time, while that plot will keep fans speculating and coming back for more.

“Space Babies” is a Doctor Who classic, with The Doctor and his Companion visiting a strange space station only to discover something is terribly wrong. Davies manages to hit the tropes of this type of episode that have been done a million times but keep it fresh thanks to a not-so-subtle metaphor about abortion that will fly over most younger viewers’ heads and probably inflame the Fox News crowd who won’t even bother to watch the episode.

Meanwhile, “The Devil’s Chord” takes the duo back to visit The Beatles as they record Abbey Road, only to run into the Maestro. Monsoon is thrilling in this episode, as mentioned, and the production gets a ton of mileage out of her enigmatic performance that ties into what’s going on with Ruby and The Doctor emotionally, as well as providing one of the best set pieces the show has done since they introduced The Weeping Angels in 2007’s “Blink.” It also features perhaps the wildest final act the show has ever produced. And while it doesn’t have the abortion metaphor to incense conservatives, it does have a drag queen villain in Monsoon, which is its own sort of provocation.

In that, perhaps Davies is making this show as family-friendly as possible to draw in the largest audience he can, to present ideas that are not actually transgressive – Drag Queens exist, anti-abortion laws make no sense and are based on bad faith – but are treated as such. By sneaking these into a Disney+ all-ages live-action series, those points will hit the widest target versus the increasingly narrow lens of the last few seasons of Who.

That all aside: Doctor Who is back, and now ready to join Marvel, Star Wars, and the rest in the pantheon on Disney+. Gatwa is a fantastic Doctor, Gibson is a great Companion with a slew of energy, and as a Doctor Who fan – and as a parent – I’m so glad the show is ready for the whole family to enjoy. No qualifications necessary.

Doctor Who premieres Friday, May 10, at 7:00 pm ET on Disney+.

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