Bet you didn’t expect that

Bet you didn’t expect that

The following includes spoilers for “Space Babies.”

You can’t help but admire Russell T. Davies’ audacity. He plucks the rights to make Doctor Who from the BBC. He gets Disney+ to write an enormous check to bring the show to life in a way never before attempted. Then, with so much money at stake and a months-long promotional campaign, he opens season one and the door to new fans with this.

We kick off at the end of “The Church on Ruby Road,” with the Doctor’s latest companion, Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), entering the TARDIS for the first time. The Doctor introduces himself and offers a quick run-through of the premise for the folks at home. They’re an alien, adopted by the Time Lords of Gallifrey who were then wiped out. That leaves the Doctor (once again) as the last of their kind; a quasi-immortal time traveler who can go anywhere in the universe.

To set the scene, the pair hop back to prehistoric Wyoming to gaze at a detailed vista of some CGI dinosaurs. This is the show boasting about what it can do even for a throwaway scene with its new bigger budget. And it helps banish the memories of some of the less successful attempts to do a dinosaur episode from way back when.

Ruby is already savvy to the conventions of the time-travel genre and asks about the risks to causality if she steps on a butterfly. The Doctor dismisses this idea out of hand before Ruby does and causes unutterable damage to the timeline. The butterfly is quickly revived and the Doctor nips back into the TARDIS to activate the Butterfly Compensator. Which is as close as this show gets to saying that it has never been a hard sci-fi show and it never will be.

Picture Shows: Episode 1

James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

For their next trip, they travel into the far future, landing on a space station that grows babies for colony projects. The bowels of the vessel are being stalked by an eyeless, teeth-heavy monster while the upper deck is crewed by talking babies. Mere seconds after proving the show can do decent-looking dinosaurs, it overreaches and adds an appallingly creepy CGI mouth to a baby. I’ve seen this done in movies, and commercials, and it never works, and please God stop trying.

The Doctor and Ruby encounter the crew, a bunch of babies with the minds of preschoolers and the mouths of adults, or something. They’ve been left to run the station, with pulleys and cables letting them control specific onboard functions, and smart strollers to carry them around. The only other presence on the ship is an AI, NAN-E, which acts as a comforting voice for the kids.

Ruby’s genre-savviness kicks in again here, and she notices there’s almost a storybook quality to the situation. A bunch of kids being menaced by an unwelcome, bogeyman-esque presence below, and the need for a hero to step in and rescue them. The pair give the babies some much-needed cuddles and are then invited to another part of the station by NAN-E.

On the way, the pair discuss origin stories and how Ruby, following on from the events of “The Church on Ruby Road,” wants to use the TARDIS to find out who her parents are. While they talk, snow — the same snow that fell when Ruby was left on the steps of the eponymous church — starts to fall inside the corridor. Ruby’s memories and history are somehow seeping through into the present, or she’s able to do something to alter the universe.

Picture Shows: Episode 1 (Golda Rosheuvel)Picture Shows: Episode 1 (Golda Rosheuvel)

James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

But they can’t focus on that too much, since they’re interrupted by NAN-E, who turns out not to be an AI, but a person. Jocelyn Sancerre (Golda Rosheuvel) is the last adult crew member, who stayed on the station to care for the children when everyone else was ordered to leave. The government of the planet below pulled funding for the stations and ordered the adults to leave, abandoning the children in place. But, because the planet is also anti-abortion, they wouldn’t terminate the as-yet unborn babies, preferring them to slowly die from external factors. Geez, do you think they might be talking about us?

Much as this will be framed as a post-Roe story by US audiences, it’s worth saying the UK’s Conservative Party has taken a similar approach. In 2010, the Labour government had worked to greatly reduce child poverty and homelessness with a number of targeted programs. These were quickly unwound by the incoming Conservatives, not only undoing all of those gains but making the issue a lot worse. So much so that the UN – the UN! – of all people upbraided the nation.

The streak of saying the quiet part out loud continues when, while hatching a plan to save the babies, they opt to take them to another planet in the system. It’s a world that takes in refugees, but you have to turn up on the planet’s doorstep to get any help, because it won’t lift a finger to help rescue people in need from further afield. Again, this is a not-so oblique reference to the UK’s monstrous policy of attempting to block refugees from reaching the country via sea. It is a point of enormous pride for the Prime Minister that he has boasted about his work to prevent boat crossings.

This is made all the more painful as, for a brief moment, the country was reconsidering its approach following the death of Alan Kurdi, a two-year-old boy who drowned while attempting passage to Europe from Syria. The image of his body became a harrowing and defining image of the day, but the press quickly worked to stifle any pro-migrant sentiment, enabling the country to engage in an enormous boondoggle by spending millions of pounds building a detention center in Rwanda to forcibly-relocate people seeking asylum in the UK as a “deterrent.”

Picture Shows: Episode 1 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)Picture Shows: Episode 1 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)

James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

The grown ups can’t mull their problems for long as Eric, one of the babies (sorry, space babies) heads down to the lower level to tackle this bogeyman. There’s a telling moment where Ruby sprints out to rescue the child far ahead of the Doctor, continuing a thread from the Christmas special: Ruby Sunday is willing to throw herself head-first into the action rather than waiting for help, steel pipe in hand. Doctor Who has always thrived when the companions — a name we’ve been saddled with since 1963 — are active figures in the narrative. Every one of the show’s sidekicks, bar one, has their ardent fans, but commanding figures like Sarah Jane and Ace are always the most beloved.

Once the baby is rescued by the other babies wielding a gas pipe as a flamethrower, they’re sent back upstairs while the Doctor and Ruby take on the bogeyman. Ruby’s assumptions are proved further right when it turns out the alien is actually a bogey-man, as in made of snot. The station’s malfunctioning systems sought to build an appropriate environment for the kids, and used children’s literature as its template.

Jocelyn works out that she can force the bogeyman toward an airlock while keeping the Doctor and Ruby safe. She then exposes the monster to the void of space, but the Doctor can’t be so cruel to another lonely, misunderstood figure. He makes his way into the airlock room and closes the door to seal them both in to save the bogeyman’s life.

The episode ends with the Doctor realizing that the station can eject its six full years worth of soiled diapers to propel it towards the refugee planet. It’s entirely fair game to resolve a crisis precipitated by rogue bodily fluids with a poop joke.

Crisis averted, he and Ruby walk back to the TARDIS where he gives her a key and welcomes her to the team, before adding that, as much as she may want to, he can’t take her back to the moment she was abandoned. He covertly begins scanning Ruby to work out what exactly is her deal, and why she’s capable of bending the universe. (And yes, there are shades of the Impossible Girl arc in how this is playing out.)

The TARDIS lands back at Ruby’s home, smashing up the kitchen and the Christmas dinner therein.

Picture Shows: Episode 1 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)Picture Shows: Episode 1 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)

James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

I imagine it won’t be long after the episode airs that the usual corners of the internet will scream culture war. Davies was always a political writer and feels a duty to be unapologetic about his viewpoint on current-day matters. His original tenure on the show was rooted at the tail-end of the Blair and Brown years, fueled by righteous fury around the invasion of Iraq. This is, again, all the more surprising given it’s being broadcast on Disney+, the model of conservative restraint.

During his first tenure, Davies would begin the production of every episode with a tone meeting which outlined how each episode would maintain a consistent feeling in the writing, acting and direction. By comparison, “Space Babies” lurches wildly: Poop and fart jokes in one scene, unsettling horror in the next, weighty examinations of human morality between. The scenes of Jocelyn’s adult dialog being run through the “nanny filter” is a good source of comedy, it’s just odd that they’re juxtaposed with high drama.

But that’s more or less what makes Doctor Who one of the best shows on TV — its ability to do anything it damn well pleases. If the weirdness of what you’ve just seen appeals then you’ve just become a Doctor Who fan. If it didn’t, then you might find the next episode will serve up what you were looking for.

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