‘Doctor Who’ Season Premiere Recap: Back in the Groove

Russell T Davies, the showrunner for the new season of “Doctor Who,” had a tough task ahead of him.

How do you convince longstanding fans that this British institution of a show is back in safe hands after several disappointing seasons, while also introducing a new international audience to a sci-fi series steeped in 60 years of history?

In the premiere double bill of “Doctor Who,” you can feel Davies grappling with these questions, with largely successful results. After the show was canceled in 1989, Davies rebooted “Doctor Who” in 2005, manning the ship during Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s tenures as the time-traveling Doctor. Under Davies, “Doctor Who” was not only popular, but, dare I say it, kind of cool.

We met Davies’s new Doctor, played by the Scottish-Rwandan actor Ncuti Gatwa, last year in the show’s 60th anniversary episodes (and somewhat confusingly, this new season’s first episode aired as a stand-alone Christmas special). This is also the first season to debut on Disney+ in the United States, and since the rules governing time and space in the “Whoniverse” are notoriously complicated, there’s a lot of world building to do in less than two hours of TV.

Typically, a “Doctor Who” two-parter would feature a shared story or location, but here we have two separate adventures. The first episode, “Space Babies,” does much of the heavy lifting to set up the season, so that by the time “The Devil’s Chord” rolls around, “Doctor Who” can do what it does best: take the audience on rip-roaring, high-voltage adventures.

“Space Babies” picks up where the Christmas episode, “The Church on Ruby Road,” left off. The Doctor’s new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) enters the TARDIS, his spaceship disguised as a police box, with lots of questions about where he comes from. It’s the Doctor’s job to take her, and any first-time viewers, through the basic Time Lord fact sheet: He comes from the planet Gallifrey and is the last of his species, an orphan like Ruby; he has been alive for thousands of years; and he spends his time traveling through time and space. As introductions go, it’s not subtle, but it gets the job done.

Following a short detour to glimpse some dinosaurs 150 million years ago — included, I would guess, to demonstrate what a Disney cash injection can do to the show’s famously shoddy special effects — the pair find themselves suspended on a space station in the year 21506.

Below deck, a fearsome, snarling boogeyman lurks, seen only in flashes of fangs and glitchy surveillance camera footage. Upstairs live a crew of abandoned, never-been-hugged infants — the titular “space babies,” as the Doctor won’t stop calling them — who bustle around in robotic buggies and speak with the voices of 6-year-olds.

The uncanny animation used to make the babies’ mouths move takes some getting used to, but the children themselves tug straight at the Doctor and Ruby’s heartstrings. When one baby asks the Doctor if she grew up wrong, you can see the heartbreak in his eyes. “Nobody grows up wrong,” he tells her, sweet and sincere. Being different is a “superpower,” he says.

The space babies run the ship with the help of Jocelyn (Golda Rosheuvel, who plays Queen Charlotte in “Bridgerton”), the one remaining crew member who now controls the onboard computer. At some point, the limited food and air supply on the ship will run out, and rescue from nearby planets is near impossible. “That’s the fate of every refugee in the universe; you physically have to turn up on someone else’s shore,” Jocelyn says.

For the Doctor, it’s too much of a coincidence that the TARDIS has brought the orphaned Ruby to the abandoned space babies, and he flashes back once more to her birth, on Christmas Eve, when she was abandoned at a church, and snow seeps through from the Doctor’s memory and begins falling in the space station. Ruby is human, TARDIS technology later confirms, but she remains a question mark we can expect the season to return to later.

In comparison to these heavy themes, the episode’s monster-versus-Doctor plot feels secondary. The boogeyman, it turns out, is just that: a “living sneeze” created from the babies’ boogers and worst nightmares. The puerility of the snot plot sands down the edges of the episode’s emotional climax, which sees the Doctor risk his own life to save the boogeyman from being blasted into space. (“That’s what you do,” Ruby explains, already sensing the Doctor’s altruistic tendencies. “You save them all.”)

The ending is just as tidily wrapped up. The Doctor offers Ruby a key to the TARDIS, with a caveat that almost certainly teases future plotlines: She can never go back to the day she was left at the church on Ruby Road,or she risks causing the “deepest, darkest” rupture in time.

Once the explanation of the basics is out of the way (for now at least), the next episode, “The Devil’s Chord,” can ricochet between hilarity and sinister nihilism.

It begins in the year 1925. In an attempt to invigorate a bored student, Henry (Kit Rakusen), the piano teacher Timothy Drake (Jeremy Limb) teaches him the episode’s eponymous note cluster, a chilling combination said to summon Satan himself. Instead, a dramatically dressed figure, played by the drag queen and Broadway star Jinkx Monsoon, bursts out from the piano and introduces themselves as Maestro in the luxurious rasp of a cabaret singer.

Maestro, who uses they/them pronouns, has one aim: to destroy music and set off a chain of events that will end in the destruction of life as we know it. Musical notation swirls through the air, and Maestro swallows it with a near-erotic groan. The villain then looks down the camera’s lens and drums out the rhythm of the “Doctor Who” theme tune on the piano.

Back in the TARDIS, Ruby and the Doctor get suited and booted in looks from the season’s promo images and emerge in London on Feb. 11, 1963. “Doctor Who” was first broadcast later that year, and the Doctor comments that he lived nearby with his granddaughter Susan during this period: a sweet Easter egg for longstanding fans.

Outside the TARDIS is the future Abbey Road Studios (then called the EMI Recording Studios). As Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul” plays, the pair dance across the famous crosswalk to find the Beatles recording their first album.

In the studio, the band isn’t laying down the classics, but making songs with uninspiring lyrics like “I’ve got a dog, he’s called Fred/My dog is not alive, he’s dead.” As posited by Richard Curtis’s 2019 movie “Yesterday,” a world without the Beatles looks very different, and with Maestro stealing music in a bid for total destruction, history has taken a “sour” course, the Doctor says.

The Doctor recognizes Maestro as an accomplice of the menacing Toymaker (Neil Patrick Harris) from last year’s anniversary specials — his child, it’s later revealed — and a one of the prophesied “vast powers beyond the universe” that the Doctor so fears.

If the archetypical relationship between the Doctor and his companion has the Time Lord careering around while the assistant struggles to keep up (and sometimes falls in love) with him, the dynamic here is more exciting. When the Doctor is frightened by Maestro, it is Ruby who comforts him. At several points in the opening episodes, the Doctor assumes Ruby will stay behind while he heads off to investigate, but she insists on joining in on the action.

There is only one glimmer of hope for humanity: A different set of musical notes could banish Maestro, but only a genius could track those down.

“You might be bright, and hot, and ‘timey wimey’ — but genius, I don’t think so,” Maestro flirtatiously tells the Doctor. Over the course of his career, in shows like “Queer as Folk” and “It’s a Sin,” Davies has brought many L.G.B.T.Q. characters to the screen, but Maestro — who Monsoon imbues with a grotesque sensuality and captivating sense of danger — may be one of his most memorable.

When Ruby starts singing “Carol of the Bells,” the Christmas song that was playing on the night she was abandoned at the church, snow falls once again and now it’s Maestro’s turn to be scared. “How can a song have so much power?” Maestro asks, “and power like him.” Like who? “The oldest one,” comes the cryptic reply — a mystery to be solved in a future episode.

In the end, it’s Lennon and McCartney (played by Chris Mason and George Caple) who save the day by playing the notes of banishment together on a piano. Maestro is banished, although not before offering the ominous warning that “the one who waits is almost here.”

They’ll worry about that in the future episodes. For now, the Doctor has a surprise for Ruby — and us.

“There’s always a twist at the end,” he says, looking straight into the camera with a wink, before launching into an original song and dance number with a 50-strong chorus line. It’s an unusual scene for “Doctor Who,” but undeniably spectacular, demonstrating the show’s rediscovered ambition and style.

After years of missteps, “Doctor Who” has begun to get its groove back.

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