The wonderful thing about ‘The Church on Ruby Road’, the first full episode of Doctor Who with Ncuti Gatwa as the title character, is how it manages to be both brilliantly new and brilliantly familiar all at the same time. Every face on screen is new to us: Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor, who we’d previously glimpsed for just ten minutes or so at the end of the recent 60th anniversary specials. Millie Gibson’s companion, Ruby Sunday, and her family. The goblin baddies. Anita Dobson’s nosey neighbour (Anita Dobson! On Christmas Day! I can’t be the only one thinking “Happy Christmas, Ange!” … ask your parents). Davina McCall. This is all new to us.

And yet? It’s a handsome, dashing man in a long coat, running around being far cleverer than everyone else. He’s thwarting monsters with his dazzling brain and quipping away, and he’s also warm and emotional and funny, and he’s making friends with a plucky young girl who he can explain things to, and he’s got a blue box that’s bigger on the inside and flies away toward adventure. It’s the same show it was last time you looked. In fact, swap some adjectives and pronouns around and it’s the same show it’s been for sixty years. In one sense, Doctor Who is back! In another, Doctor Who is still here and still brilliantly, well, Doctor Who.

Oh, and it’s Christmas. One of Russell T Davies’ greatest achievements, starting back in 2005, was making Doctor Who a Christmas Day tradition. For twelve years it was as much part of BBC One’s Christmas Day as The Queen, Top of the Pops and a beloved character being offed on Eastenders. For a whole generation, Doctor Who and Christmas were fundamentally linked. So it’s a relief, after six long years in the after-thought New Year spot, to finally get it back. A new Doctor. A new companion. All is calm, all is bright.

Doctor Who Christmas Special 2023,25-12-2023,Christmas Special,Picture Shows: Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson),BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon

And you know Davies absolutely lives for this stuff. Christmas specials are big, accessible, exciting adventures. No expense spared. All the trimmings. Allons-y. That’s what we get here: a snowy opening in a church. A dash across the rooftops. Mortal peril. Nothing too challenging for series newcomers and your granny in the corner, but not so broad as to shrug off its fundamental Doctor-Whoyness. It’s as good as Doctor Who Christmas specials get, really. And as good a “new Doctor meets new companion” story as we’ve seen.

That’s the old. But what about the new? If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have seen Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor dancing in a club with beautiful abandon, in a kilt and vest-top, and that’s a new note for the show, for sure. You’d never have caught William Hartnell doing that. Probably not even Matt Smith (though I wouldn’t have put it past Jon Pertwee). It works for this Doctor though. Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor, the Doctor lest we forget, despite that spare one still hanging around post bi-generation, is effervescent. A beautiful character. His hearts are on his sleeve in a way that, perhaps, some of his predecessors’ weren’t, and he plays some notes we’ve not seen before, while maintaining a core of Doctoryness. Some of his lines could have been given to any of the previous fourteen (give or take) incarnations of the character, and some are uniquely his, and that’s how it should be.

Doctor Who 1 The Church on Ruby Road

Millie Gibson is absolutely great. She’s got some grit to her, but there’s a lot of warmth here too. And she’s fighty and capable and smart, and feels like the real teenager she actually is. Pairing her with Gatwa is an absolute joy.

Tonally, Davies has hinted that the show will be sneaking in more fantasy amid the sci-fi, and that’s absolutely the case here. There’s goblins in a wooden ship, sailing through the clouds. Very little attempt is made to give them any cod-science grounding or realism. They’re weird little critters who eat babies. That’s it. Mid-season this would probably benefit from a bit of fleshing out, but at Christmas it really works. It means we get a lot less technobabble, too. It’s less “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” and more “undo that bit of rope there”. It feels more fairytale than the show has traditionally been, give or take a couple of Steven Moffat’s episodes.

This is also Davies at his most gleefully bonkers. It’s not just the sight of a goblin galleon sailing through the clouds, it’s the bursting into song and a character that’s basically just a giant, grotesque mouth. We’ve seen that in the 60th anniversary specials too – a sense of a writer let off the chain and forging forward with madcap confidence. It’s intoxicating.

Without getting into serious spoiler territory, that’s about all we can say. ‘The Church at Ruby Road’ feels of a piece with the history of the show and it has an identity of its own. It doesn’t get bogged down with the show’s past but doesn’t jettison it either (sorry ‘Timeless Child’ haters – that bit of lore is here to stay. Quite right too). Basically, it’s a cracking hour of Christmas Doctor Who that should get us rightly excited for the future. And the past. And the rest of time and space.