I’ve had “Goblin Song” stuck in my head for two weeks now. The other day when I was just throwing songs on from my iPhone whilst we sat around making dinner I put it between They Might Be Giants and 100 gecs and it fit in perfectly logically. It was fun—a nice bit of time spent in the buildup to Christmas constantly anticipating the song because Murray Gold wrote a really solid novelty earworm. It was a provocation of course—all the publicity here focused on the goblins, starting from “he’s not a myth he’s an actual thing” in Doctor Who Unleashed, in an ostentatious “oh yeah we’re doing this now” swerve from two weeks ago.
By the time it hit within the episode (at the halfway point of course), of course, it felt perfectly reasonable. I mean, if nothing else we’re doing Labyrinth. Of course it has a musical number. Davies is nothing if not a student of television grammar. (See also the way the credits transition straight into Davina McCall interviewing Ruby in an entirely coherent rendition of Long Lost Family, delivering Ruby out of the TV schedule in a literal virgin birth.) Plus we had one basically last week. And then Davies flipped his second card—the entire second half of the song in which the Doctor and Ruby sing and dance their way out of the goblins’ web.
It’s great, of course. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before, luxuriating in the sheer libidinousness of Gatwa’s Doctor, smoothly transitioning out of the astonishing decision five minutes earlier to have him actively thirst for the Aristotlean coherence of the goblin tapestry. The Doctor learns the story he’s in and unstitches himself from it and it’s sexy as hell (and gosh has Davies decided to have fun with the fact that “hell” is allowed as a swear).
All of this makes the ending more striking. Because, of course, the episode doesn’t quite end. Indeed, its final moments are oddly broken things, not least because they’re a structural reprise of the horror scene of the Doctor’s subverted victory, We see the Doctor crying when he leaves Ruby at the church and declines to probe the mystery of who left her. Then there’s the slightly weird stretch of him popping in and out of Ruby’s flat where her little old lady neighbor watches on, and then there’s a scene mirroring the Doctor figuring out that Ruby was gone with Ruby figuring out where the Doctor has gone. But what’s really weird is that the ending is entirely on Ruby—a wordless “bigger on the inside” scene and perfunctory “I’m the Doctor” and that’s it save for the midcredit mystery. It’s jarring, especially with that vertiginous moment of the Doctor fretting that he’s the bad luck—a beat that never actually resolves except inasmuch as when we next see the old woman she’s complicit in the Doctor’s narrative, nodding Ruby into the TARDIS.
The problem, if you will, is that this ending doesn’t actually work with the logic of the episode. The goblins were just established as surfing the timestream back and kidnapping Ruby. And all that fuss was made about the Doctor being a foundling too, just like Ruby and how big a coincidence it was. By all rights what should happen is that they follow the timeline back and steal the third baby, i.e. the Doctor. I mean, any amount of this could be thematic reverb, and I’m sure some of it is. I’m not saying that Ruby is going to literally rescue the Doctor from the goblins at the gate where Tecteun left her. But there’s a wound in the episode at that exact point, and it’s used to set up the question of what this next season is going to be like.
Anyway, that’s how you can tell Mrs. Flood is Susan.
- If she doesn’t rescue the Doctor from the goblins my headcanon is that Clara does. Not least because Ruby feels so much like Davies writing a post-Clara character. The crucial beat of the episode—her finding that Lulubelle is gone and pursuing—is structured as her discovering in real time what she’d do if she were in a Doctor Who story, and specifically in a children’s storybook version of Doctor Who. Ruby is established at baseline as waiting for her life to begin, and with every new development we see her go from flummoxed to understanding what kind of person she is, all the way up to the musical number and her slightly desperate but still successful fill of “diddly-deet you.” One expects that Davies’ answer to the question “what would a person who is an ideal Doctor Who companion actually be like” is going to be something different than “self-destructive,” because that’s not the sort of story Davies likes to tell, but you can see the DNA.
- Although perhaps more of the DNA is in Millie Gibson’s performance, which involves a lot of the same slightly incredulous microexpressions that Coleman made such exquisite use of, and a similar easy confidence and swagger. So yeah, I like her a lot. She’s solid on the commentary with Davies and producer Chris May too—those have frankly been three for three.
- The bit of Doctor Who Unleashed that can accurately be described as “Millie Gibson discovers her opinion on suspension bondage while Ncuti Gatwa pretends he does not have a pre-existing opinion on suspension bondage” is the greatest piece of Doctor Who content ever produced.
- Another thing that struck me while watching Unleashed is that Davies is getting a lot of mileage out of what high-end puppetry can do. First Beep the Meep, obviously, but now the Goblin King and also, frankly, the goblins themselves, who, while properly men in rubber suits, are still within the penumbra of puppetry. The guy they have operating the Goblin King facial animatronics is the same guy who did BB-8 for Star Wars, so they’re really pulling absolute top talent on this stuff.
- The beat that absolutely floored me was the decay of the world after Ruby is kidnapped. The turn of Carla into a, oh let’s just say it, qlippothic version of her character is properly chilling—It’s a Wonderful Life as horror, filtered through the guy who wrote the final episode of It’s a Sin.
- I also appreciate the handling of queer representation involved in having Ruby’s band have a trans woman singer, a fact that contributes to nothing, is not talked about, and is just there, a default level of queerness permeating everything. Also, I’m just really interested in the emergence of a clear trans female vocal style that doesn’t try to pass, but that’s not a Doctor Who thought.
- Obviously there’s some stuff to talk about and think through in terms of how this adoption/foundlings plot and Chibnall’s era. I’ll no doubt do some of it in the remaining Eruditorum posts, and some of it in the reviews of next season. I’m surprised that Davies is going there so directly, but unsurprised that what he’s actually doing is working.
- Mark Tonderai did a solid job here. Thinking about The Ghost Monument and Rosa, the direction was never their flaw, so I’m not surprised by that. There’s something a little awkward about the fact that “the Rosa Parks episode” and “the first Ncuti Gatwa episode” both ended up going to the same Black director, but he’s got a nice sense of pace and of visual reveals, and I really love some of his little close-ups—there’s a shot of Gatwa rounding a flight of stairs that centers his hand on a bannister as he turns, and jumps out at me on every viewing.
- More surprising to learn was that Davies kept on Gareth Spensley, the color grader from the Chibnall era, given that one of the things that most instantly improved when Davies returned was that the series stopped being a textbook example of intangible sludge. Look at the bright yellow and accenting blue of the Sundays’ kitchen for an example this episode. Or, for a comparison, look at the wide shots in the musical number—a set in which they’re shooting largely browns and grays—and how it’s enlivened by the lush orange light spilling out of all the lanterns. Then go pull up a daylit exterior of the Chibnall era and look at the flat palate. So it’s striking to learn that Spensley wasn’t the reason for this. It confirms that one of the problems with that era was that even the people who were doing good work were doing it in an environment where that wasn’t going to stand out.
- Gold rose to the occasion with “Goblin Song,” but I have to say Gatwa’s theme feels like a discount version of “I Am the Doctor.”
- MAVITY LIVES.
- Relatedly, apparently the woman who shouts at the stage when Ruby’s band is performing is played by the same actress as the woman who talks to Isaac Newton at the beginning of Wild Blue Yonder. The actress’s name: Susan Twist.
- And that just about wraps us up. I’ll be back for more of these in May, obviously, assuming the Patreon holds up. I’ll be getting a podcast out on this eventually, but I’ve not even managed to schedule it yet given the holiday madness. Oh, and I’ll be back here on Monday with “Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea: Star Trek Discovery,” the first post of the Whittaker era Eruditorum.
- The Giggle
- The Church on Ruby Road
- Wild Blue Yonder
- The Star Beast