Doctor Who is back, louder and more chaotic than before

It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but you’ll have to have an opinion on it.

BBC / Disney+

Doctor Who is famous for constantly reinventing itself while remaining more or less exactly the same. The show has had a rough few years, which has led to some dramatic changes behind the scenes. Russell T. Davies, who was behind Doctor Who’s 2005 revival, has stepped in to rescue the show. What was historically an in-house BBC production is now being handled by a Sony-owned production company. And Disney has bankrolled it, with this new revival billed outside the UK as a Disney+ Original.

The dramatic behind-the-scenes changes prompted some fundamental questions about how Doctor Who would thrive in this new world. Would Davies be able to bring the show back from the brink a second time? And would the show appeal to Zoomers in the same way it found a devoted audience of Millennials? And would Doctor Who survive intact under Disney, which is used to obsessive levels of control?

It’s that last question I can already answer, having watched the first two episodes of this new eight-part season: Doctor Who hasn’t been watered down to suit its new paymasters or the broad international audience who will see this show pop up every Friday. In fact, Who '24 has doubled down on being weird, avant-garde, difficult to handle and harder to pigeonhole. It’s a little punk and a little rough around the edges which makes it all the more interesting compared to, say, some other Disney+ series I could choose to mention.

I’m not allowed to share much of what I saw, but episode one, “Space Babies,” features the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby (Millie Gibson) visiting a space station crewed by babies. As you can see in the trailer, there’s liberal use of unconvincing and creepy CGI mouths for said rugrats. “The Devil’s Chord,” meanwhile, sees the TARDIS head to Abbey Road to meet the Beatles at the dawn of their careers.

If this is your first experience of Doctor Who, please start with the Christmas Day special “The Church on Ruby Road.” These first three episodes are the jumping-on point, and form Davies' standard “Present,” “Future” and “Past” trilogy he uses to open his runs. All three are sold as fun romps, but there's a spikiness that stems from Davies’ underlying cynicism. As much as he may paint in primary colors, his worldview is a lot darker than some of his colleagues.

Davies is a strong advocate for better queer representation in film and TV and is arguably one of the most powerful gay men in media. Many of his shows, including Queer as Folk, Cucumber, A Very English Scandal and It’s a Sin center on queer narratives. Davies has made it clear he wants to foreground queer experiences in this season of Doctor Who and does so, proudly. He told Variety that the Doctor “chimes with queer energy” and that he’s not a “neutered Doctor.”

Some context: In 2021, Davies called out Disney+ for its lack of real representation in some of its other shows. During a virtual panel as reported by Pink News, he pointed at Loki’s single reference to the lead character’s fluid sexuality as a warning sign. “Loki makes one reference to being bisexual once and everyone’s like ‘oh my god, it’s like a pansexual show,” he said. Adding the single spoken reference was a “a ridiculous, craven, feeble gesture towards the vital politics and the stories that should be told.”

Davies returned to the job after the failure of his immediate predecessor, Chris Chibnall, who will likely go down in infamy. Chibnall inherited a successful show and opted to broaden its horizons by hiring a far more diverse crew both in front of and behind the camera. That included writers like Malorie Blackman and Vinay Patel and casting two women, Jodie Whittaker and Jo Martin, to play the Doctor. Chibnall also refused to bow down to culture war pressure when tedious people started screaming that the show had “gone woke.”

But for all of the goodwill the show had — and which Chibnall’s early decisions helped accrue — the showrunner quickly started to burn his own legacy as he built it. The quality of his episodes were never great and he wrote stories that were incoherent, or said some pretty awful things by implication. He then started using the show as a vehicle for his own fan theories, re-litigating niche matters of continuity so nit-picky even I rolled my eyes so hard my skull caved in.

And then he created a secret origin story for the Doctor that essentially overwrote much of the previous 60 years’ worth of character development. He turned the Doctor into some sort of Space Jesus and then set about destroying a significant amount of the series’ fictional universe. Audiences were not thrilled: 8.2 million people watched Chibnall’s first regular-season episode but, by the end of his tenure, the figure had tumbled to 3.47 million.

It would have been smart to ditch all of this and declare a fresh start but Davies took a different approach. He has opted to Yes-And Chibnall’s hamfistedness, incorporating the catastrophic events of the last season as a new backdrop for the series. The universe is now "knackered," which has led to the show’s fictional reality warping in new, weirder and more whimsical directions. Whereas before Doctor Who sat at the crossroads of science and fantasy, it has now become a soft fantasy show. Villains like the Toymaker and the Goblin King push the Doctor into a more mythic register than ever before.

The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby (Millie Gibson) examine a space station full of babies in 'Space Babies'
BBC / Disney+

CGI baby mouths aside, Doctor Who’s slick production values don’t work unless they're tied to great writing and great acting. Ncuti Gatwa had already become a superstar thanks to his work on Sex Education and Barbie and is a magnetic presence on screen. I struggle to take my eyes off him, but he’s clearly willing to cede space and time to his co-stars. Millie Gibson has the harder role as Ruby Sunday, having to keep her character grounded and believable in this fantastic world. The role of the Doctor’s traveling companion has minted many British A-listers since the show’s return and Gibson is clearly destined for big things.

If there’s one thing that comes across too much in these opening episodes, it’s that Doctor Who isn’t the same show from one week to the next. It revels in being chaotic, freewheeling through genres and styles with the freedom its lead character so relishes. So, if this is your first time on board the TARDIS, welcome, and strap yourselves in for some silly and serious fun.

Oh, and they fixed the title sequence.

The first two episodes of Doctor Who arrive globally on Disney+ on Friday, May 10 at 7:00pm ET and in the UK on BBC iPlayer at midnight on Saturday, May 11. One episode will arrive at the same time for the following six weeks.