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Doctor Who Travels to Disney+ For a Lavish, Fun New Regeneration

One of the great challenges of a long-running TV show is finding ways to refresh itself. British sci-fi staple "Doctor Who" has long held the answer to its sixty-year longevity in regeneration: its title character, the Doctor, a swashbuckling adventurer through time and space, is an alien who can refresh his body when he dies, allowing a new actor to take on the role. But the show itself has been through quite a few generations, few more dramatic than its latest -- from its move to Disney+ (and the massive budget bump therein) to the casting of the first Black Doctor in the show's history (Ncuti Gatwa). After a few anniversary specials to set the tone and wipe the continuity slate clean (returning showrunner Russell T. Davies has dubbed this new season "Season One"), "Doctor Who" is ready for its latest reinvention.

It's funny to see a show barreling so ardently towards the new when its fundamentals, right down to its writing, hearken back to the last time the show was revived. The first two episodes of New-Who (well, New New Who) feel, more than anything, like a throwback to Davies' flashy, camp era of the series in the aughts. No more Steven Moffat mystery boxes, no more Chris Chibnall... whatever he was doing. This is old-school new-school Who, fixated just as much on formula as fun. The results are exactly what you'd expect from his era of the show: breezy, silly, and far more fixated on the emotional truth of the moment than anything resembling narrative heft.

The first episode, "Space Babies," is as goofy as its title implies: Fresh off the last shot of the Fifteenth Doctor's (Gatwa) inaugural adventure, "The Church on Ruby Road," he and newfound companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) take their first random spin in the TARDIS, ending up on a space station occupied (and run) by, who else, babies, and their computerized Nan-E. It's a cute visual, at least at first: The extraterrestrial toddlers wheel about in motorized strollers, performing their tasks and talking in a kind of erudite babyspeak. The mouth movements to match feel a little like you're watching a forty-five-minute E*Trade commercial, so it wears pretty thin.

But it does precisely what Davies loves to do with these early-season episodes: Introduce the companion to the Doctor's freewheeling life of adventure, and thus, the audience, to life in the TARDIS. Fancy wardrobes, monsters, running down corridors, the revelation that mankind reaches out to the stars in the future, and gets in a lot of trouble. 

The adventure itself is fairly naff, leaning so hard on its "babies in space" gag that it gets repetitive. (We get it, Doc, you think the phrase "space babies" is really cute.) But for new viewers, those who might not want to dive into all bajillion seasons of the show prior, it serves as low-stakes place-setting for the rhythms of the show itself, like that awkward period at the beginning of a complicated board game where the host reads all the rules. 

The real treat, though, lies in "The Devil's Chord," a decidedly groovy mystery that plops the Doctor and Ruby in 1963 England to watch The Beatles record their first album. There's just one problem: They suck. So does everyone else, really; they've entered a world where music is thought of as trivial, banal, not worth spending time on. Investigating further, they enter the compositional crosshairs of Maestro (Jinkx Monsoon), a maniacal music-based demon determined to steal the talent of the world's musical geniuses.

Where "Space Babies" feels like filler, "The Devil's Chord" sees the show in full gear, making use of every ounce of Disney's considerable budget and its actors' considerable talents. The show looks good, albeit a little streaming-show samey (some of the charm of Old Who came from its dodgy sets and flimsy bubble-wrap monsters; I miss when monsters looked naff). Returning composer Murray Gold plies his signature bombast to some period (and villain)-appropriate gags--Maestro can even manipulate the show's incidental score!--and drag legend Monsoon has a ball as the preening camp villain, all snarling, wild eyes and melodious cackles. 

Gatwa continues to grow nicely into the role, his Doctor feeling like a brand new man, more present and empathetic than previous Docs, without the social awkwardness. He's smooth, exuberant, effervescent, an incarnation that's canonically worked out all the baggage of his previous selves. (His prior version, David Tennant, is having tea and scones with Catherine Tate back on Earth.) There's a preening enthusiasm to Gatwa that befits the Doc's mission to travel the cosmos looking for adventure; "I don't have a job. I have freedom," he tells Ruby at one point. There's a sex appeal here, too, that would have seemed gauche for other Doctors. Gatwa wears it well; that's reflected in his outfits, which range from tight jumpers over leather jackets (very Eccleston) to a tight blue mod suit when jetting off to the Swinging Sixties. 

Ruby feels cut from the same cloth as Billie Piper's Rose Tyler, Davies' first companion the last time he took the show's reins. Gibson does an admirable job filling out the typical job description of the companion -- run fast, ask lots of questions -- but blends it with a breathlessness that matches Gatwa's energetic swagger. Together, they feel a bit like the David Tennant/Billie Piper dynamic from previous seasons, without all the obnoxious sexual tension. Fifteen and Ruby are just good mates, who've bonded over one adventure and decide to go on a few more together. (There's also the ongoing mystery of Ruby's real mother who abandoned her as a child on Christmas Eve, a thread that may well serve as a recurring element of the season.)

If this all sounds quite juvenile, that's because it kind of is. I don't know whether it's me getting older or the show getting younger, but this era of "Doctor Who" is more focused on the kiddies than ever before. Previous eras of the revival took themselves a bit more seriously, weaving in grim serialized arcs and letting its Doctor brood and grieve over the death of his people. This time around, there are extended gags about talking infants with flamethrowers and full-blown winks at the camera. Where previous versions of "Who" felt geared towards a broader family audience, Disney's take reads as more lasered in on the younger set peeking out from behind the sofa. That's not a bad thing, per se; I'll just be curious to see what complexity, if any, Davies and crew will pack into the season's scant remaining six episodes. 

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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