Doctor Who Brings Fresh Mysteries and Cosmic Energy to Its Third First Season

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Doctor Who Brings Fresh Mysteries and Cosmic Energy to Its Third First Season

Do you know when Doctor Who had its last non-special, non-Flux (if you don’t know what the Flux is, cherish that ignorance) episode? The year 2020. Like, pre-COVID 2020! Ever since then, Doctor Who has aired 14 episodes, many of which have been great, but few of which have been the kind of fun, low-stakes adventures the series is known for. Finally, after four years, we’re back to episodic hijinks—but that doesn’t mean something isn’t brewing in the background; a compelling and mind-bending mystery is on the horizon, with the potential to be as captivating as Bad Wolf. 

Kicking off Season 1’s (or 14th’s, or 40th’s) premiere, “Space Babies” is a bit of a debriefing session between the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and companion Ruby (Millie Gibson). It’s nothing we didn’t know before, but for the benefit of audiences jumping in for the first time (and Ruby herself), he goes through all the basics: he has two hearts, his home planet is Gallifrey; and the more recent lore bits as well: he was adopted by the Time Lords, and he doesn’t know his entire history. Later, in the second episode, “The Devil’s Chord,” he casually drops that his granddaughter, Susan, may have died with the rest of the Time Lords.

Although there’s often a silent grief, loneliness, or rage lying behind the Doctor’s eyes when he shares with Ruby, it’s shocking how fast he does so after keeping these details secret from so many other companions. It shows a more vulnerable, emotionally open Doctor who’s willing to show hurt in healthier ways than just screaming outbursts.

“Space Babies” is an unlikely but perfect marriage of Alien and Boss Baby, as the Doctor and Ruby find themselves on a space station full of abandoned babies who have grown in intelligence but stagnated in physical and emotional growth. On a floor below them lies the Bogeyman, a frightening creature who terrorizes the babies—sorry, space babies.

“The Devil’s Chord,” which, cards on the table, is one of the most engrossing episodes of Doctor Who I’ve seen in years, introduces a new antagonist, Maestro (Jinkx Monsoon), who has a fourth-wall breaking ability to capture and control music. Monsoon steals the episode in a performance that’s equal parts hilarious and upsetting, in a manic way reserved typically only for the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, the Master.

I don’t want to give away the twists of either episode, but the presence of fantastical creatures such as the Bogeyman and fourth-wall breaking definitely seems to carry forward the consequences of last year’s 60th anniversary specials. At times, reality seems to melt away, leading to scenes where it’s hard to tell what’s real or not. Some things are made clear, especially by the end of the second episode, but this only opens the door for more questions, sometimes even crossing the line from sci-fi to fantasy. It’s exciting, but also inductive of a sort of deep dread at whatever threat is big enough to make the Doctor scared.

It feels a bit redundant to say that Doctor Who is back. After all, it’s been about half a year and four specials since showrunner Russell T. Davies returned, and along with it a dramatic jump back up in the show’s quality. The first two episodes of the newest season are fantastic, but honestly, that’s what I expected.

There are a lot of different ways Doctor Who can be good, however, and it’s impressive how these episodes nail the different types of excellence the show has been known for. The episodes are really funny and just plain fun, especially “Space Babies.” There’s one recurring joke around censoring language that quickly got old, but many of the other baby-centric bits landed beautifully. The final sequence of “The Devil’s Chord” is pure joy as well.

As far as classically Doctor Who frights, the second episode offers that in spades. A lot of what makes it scary goes into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the Maestro fluctuates terrifyingly fast between being a fun, quirky villain to an incomprehensible force of evil.

Where the show truly exceeds any expectations, however, is its momentum. Doctor Who has struggled in the past to strike the right balance between isolated, one-off adventures and serialized plot, often leaning too hard in one direction or the other. Only a quarter through the series, it’s impossible to know how the overall balance will be, but so far, both episodes have had the perfect mix of both. Each episode focuses on its self-contained story, but cleverly incorporates overarching mysteries and character moments that tie into the story of the week.

What makes Doctor Who so special is its ability to be stupid and funny while simultaneously being deeply emotionally resonant. Davies was arguably the one who made the post-2005 version of the show what it was, and it’s clear he hasn’t lost his touch. (By the way, returning composer Murray Gold absolutely kills it in these episodes as well.) Combine that with new talent in the form of the cast and you have the best of both worlds. 

We already knew Doctor Who was back, but now we know it’s here to stay.

Doctor Who premieres Friday, May 10th at 7 p.m. ET on Disney+, and streaming on BBC iPlayer at midnight on May 11th in the UK. 

Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game InformerTwinfinite and Looper. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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