RECAP: “Doctor Who” Season 14, Episodes 1 & 2

May 11, 2024

BY Eric Rezsnyak

“Doctor Who” is back, and based on the first two episodes that dropped on Disney+ this week, it ‘s a return to form for the Golden Age of Nu Who. That’s not surprising, given that initial reboot showrunner Russell T. Davies is back charting the future of The Doctor. While I enjoyed the 2023 interstitial specials that brought back David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor (sort of) and Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, and was less enthusiastic about Fourteen’s debut episode, the 2023 Christmas Special, I thought the two-part premiere clicked almost immediately into gear. It’s a great jumping-on point for new viewers, or former fans who fell off in recent years. If you enjoyed the adventures of the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors, you’ll probably find a lot to like here.

Below find my take on the first two episodes of the new season. River Song protocols are in effect: Spoilers, sweetie!

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Episode 1: “Space Babies”

I suspect this will be a polarizing episode for many viewers. However! I think it does a great job of setting up the basic concepts of the series for new viewers (who is The Doctor, what’s a TARDIS, what are the vague mega-rules governing time travel), bringing lapsed viewers up to speed on The Doctor’s “Timeless Child” retcon (genuinely surprised they didn’t just throw that concept out entirely), and establishing the vibe between new Doctor Ncuti Gatwa and his Companion holdover from the 2023 Christmas Special, Ruby Sunday, played by Millie Gibson.

The overall conceit of the episode is that The Doctor asks Ruby to give him a time period — any time period — to show off what the TARDIS can do. She picks five numbers seemingly at random, throwing them into the far future. There they find themselves in an apparently abandoned space station, and immediately encounter a spiky-toothed, long-clawed creature haunting the lower level of the station. In the upper levels, they find things stranger still: the station is a baby farm, producing infant humans. And a gang of these babies are sentient, capable of speech, and appear to be running the station all by themselves. And the station itself is in danger of environmental collapse, all with seemingly no adults present whatsoever.

I assume that Russell T. Davies is a big fan of the E-Trade talking-baby commercials, because this episode feels VERY that. I’m sure a percentage of the viewership will find the inherent goofiness of the concept — and especially the dodgy SFX to make the babies’ mouths “talk” — offputting. But I’d like to remind you that 1) the “Who” reboot kicked off with an episode featuring killer mannequins; and 2) “Who” SFX have often been dubious. It’s part of the show’s charms. The snot, poop, and fart jokes are infantile, but…it’s an episode about babies. Space babies!

If you can get past the bonkers concept, there’s a lot to like in this episode. Most importantly, the chemistry between The Doctor and Ruby is significantly better than it was in the Christmas Special. I was frankly concerned after watching that, because while I enjoyed Fourteen, and I could see myself growing to appreciate Ruby, I didn’t think they played well off of each other at all. That’s totally fixed here. The two of them have an effervescent dynamic, bringing a real brightness to the proceedings that was, sadly, missing during most of Thirteen’s (and even Twelve’s) run. Ruby grew on me significantly in these two episodes, but I fully fell for Gatwa’s Fourteen. The charisma is off the charts, as is his ability to command the camera. Absolutely brilliant casting, zero notes. (Also, loving The Doctor’s 60s/70s throwback fashions.)

There was also some smart writing on display here. There was something quite lovely about seeing Ruby, a Gen Z-er, feel genuine relief to discover that humanity actually managed to survive in the far future; it speaks to the apocalyptic pall that has hung over this generation the entire time they’ve been alive. The concept of hope for them is revelatory. That’s as sad as it is, I fear, accurate. Davies also gets in some stinging social commentary via the space-babies plot. Without giving too much away, it’s a completely unsubtle allegory to increasingly restrictive reproductive health laws, with progressively less support for struggling families. On a micro level, we also got some genuinely clever dialogue, like the exchange between The Doctor (“it’s snot!”) and Ruby (“…it’s not!”).

The episode also gives Davies his opportunity to do an homage to “Alien,” with the lower-deck creature probably as close as we’ll ever get to a Xenomorph on “Doctor Who.” There’s a solid guest turn by “Bridgerton” icon Golda Rosheuvel. And we get to see babies using a flamethrower. “Spaceballs: The Flamethrower.” The kids love that one.

Episode 2: “The Devil’s Chord” 

Whovians: It’s Monsoon Season!

Listeners of our podcast/readers of our recaps will know that Great Pop Culture Debate is borderline obsessed with “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” So when we first heard that “Drag Race” icon Jinkx Monsoon — winner of both Season 5 and “All Stars” 7 — had been cast as a villain on this season of “Who,” we were thrilled. We knew Jinkx could nail the part. But would “Who” be a good showcase of her considerable comedic, acting, and musical talents?

The answer is a resounding, “Boy, howdy.” In Episode 2, Jinkx plays The Maestro, a music-obsessed entity of immense power and influence, and Jinkx devours every single screen time she is given, as well as most of the scenery. That is a compliment! “Who” villains are generally not known for subtlety — I give you the Daleks, who roll around screaming “EXTERMINATE” while wielding the universe’s most-threatening egg beaters — and Jinkx is fully committed to this bit. She’s an absolute hoot and legitimately threatening, a great adversary for The Doctor.

But who is The Maestro? That’s a bit tricky. Based on the name, I assumed this may be a new iteration of The Master — but it is not. The Maestro is actually the “child” of The Toymaker, played by Neil Patrick Harris, who recently bedeviled The Doctor in the 2023 specials featuring Tenant, and is the bad guy responsible for The Doc’s regeneration into Fourteen. Like The Toymaker, The Maestro is also unbelievably powerful, apparently some kind of cosmic entity more than an actual person, specifically an entity that controls and devours music in any form. And like The Toymaker, The Maestro is bound by a kind of metaphysical rulebook that The Doctor has to parse in order to stop her.

The Maestro first appears in 1927, but The Doctor and Ruby first discover the entity and its great plot — to rid the world of music, except for the sounds of post-apocalyptic silence — by essentially turning the populace against popular music. The Doctor and Ruby become aware of this when they journey back to 1963, where they mean to witness The Beatles’ record their first album. In addition to actors portraying the Fab 4 (whoever cast these actors seems to have something against Paul McCartney…), we also get a hilarious cameo from “Cilla Black.” Surprise, surprise indeed!

The rest of the episode is a rollercoaster that further helps cement the bond between The Doctor and Ruby, show us how clever and brave The Doctor is, and also establish that after his encounter with The Toymaker, The Doctor seems genuinely terrified of dying again. Interesting. Also interesting: The Doctor specifically mentions his granddaughter Susan, who was one of The First Doctor’s original companions back in the 1960s. I’ve been waiting for them to pick up that plotline for decades, so I’m begging Davies: please don’t let that be a throwaway line. We also get some additional insight to the mystery surrounding Ruby, which will clearly be a season-long arc. I still feel largely in the dark about what they’re suggesting here, but it does seem to tie in to The Toymaker and his associated cosmic conceptual beings (I believe The Maestro references The Old One? Who may or may not be the same as The One Who Waits?). Still too early to pass a verdict on this subplot, but boy Davies loves a Companion who is secretly cosmically connected.

I’ll confess that I couldn’t fully follow the logic around The Maestro’s music-based powers or the rules around what she can or cannot do. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. “Doctor Who” often requires the viewer to just go along with it, and I was fully engaged by this character and Jinkx’s portrayal. I am so proud of her and I hope she’s proud of herself. This was a literal tour de force, and I suspect that The Maestro will become an instant fan-favorite with Whovians. I hope we’ll see her again in the future. Or even the past!

And then the whole thing closes out with a cheeky song and dance number. Did I completely love the song? No. Did I still look to download it on Spotify? I did. Super fun dance montage though, and whoever costumed this episode did a brilliant job. Why are we not all still wearing mod clothing? It was so fun!

What did you think of the two-episode premiere? Are you enjoying our new Doctor and Companion? Do you have theories as to what’s so special about Ruby Sunday? Drop them in the comments!

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Bob
Bob
8 days ago

Spot on about Jinkx. Ruby…meh!