Doctor Who: The Church On Ruby Road – Written by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson & Audiobook Read by Angela Wynter (BBC Books)

The Church On Ruby Road was designed to be very much the start of a new era of Doctor Who. Even from his first full appearance in the Tardis, the Fifteenth Doctor, played by Ncuti Gatwa, is already dressed and in control of himself – no regenerational trauma here, as was suffered by so many other incarnations. So we expected the new Doctor to be able to hit the ground running in Ruby Road, and that’s what we got on Christmas Day, 2023 – a Doctor in full control of his Time Lord faculties, but learning new things about the universe and loving the process.

From the scene with Ruby Sunday in the nightclub, where he saves her drink and then tells her she’s not clumsy, that it’s worse than that, to the joyous scene with the police officer and the deduction of his would-be engagement ring, this is a Doctor fully up for whatever the universe has to offer, and fully switched on to all the wonders and dangers it can show him.

That’s why, for instance, the episode contains elements that would previously have been thought of as out of bounds: Goblins in a sky ship, bimbling through time; creatures that feed off coincidences (a magnificent cop-out for any writer, incidentally, previously used by Douglas Adams in his invention of the infinite improbability drive in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, turning a writing cul-de-sac into an active plot point), the language of rope, and an extended musical number that was either fabulous or fabulously naff, depending on your ability to embrace the premise of musicals (people suddenly bursting into song for no terribly good reason).

All these things made the episode very different to the era that went before it, while also delivering several elements of “traditional” Russell T Davies Who, that are either intriguing or tired, depending on your own levels of jadedness. Ruby Sunday is a young woman roughly the age Rose Tyler was when we first met her (though born in the year we first met Rose, just to make you feel old!), with seemingly no genetic past on the planet Earth, and a family legend of her abandonment, fostering and then adoption. A mystery that, ironically enough, could have been written by Steven Moffatt, but with the extended family that has so far been Davies’ trademark in Doctor Who companions.

A Tale Of Two Solutions

On screen, the story was comprised of two tonally different sections, joined together with a fairly large clunk. On the one hand, there’s Ruby and the Goblins, with occasional comedy violence towards Davina McCall. And on the other, there’s the aftermath of the Doctor’s supposed solution of the problem, which cracks time in two and necessitates a late, cheeky, Time Lord botch-job, involving time travel, techno-magic gloves, and impaling the goblin ship on the spire of the church on Ruby Road.

Really speaking, the storytelling doesn’t actually work. But the power and charisma of Ncuti Gatwa in their opening story is such that we grin along and go with it, from the funky new sonic to the rooftop chase, the extended karaoke session on the goblin ship and the sudden reference back to Chibnall-era elements like the Doctor being a foundling, through to the salvation of baby Ruby from the Goblins and the impaling of their ship.

Gatwa (and to some extent Gibson, who has perhaps the harder task of making another “mystery girl” seem fresh and interesting in Doctor Who) power the thing along, making meat out of what would otherwise be nonsense, and imbuing the whole thing with such a sense of positivity that we never end up feeling cheated.

Where The Trouble Starts

Which is where the problems for the novelization, and particularly the audiobook of this story, really begin.

When you have a central mystery written into the story by the showrunner specifically with the purpose of being a mystery and generating hype and speculation, you’re caught in the strings of a cat’s cradle in terms of what you can add to the story, so as to intensify the value to your readers of reading or listening to the story, rather than just watching the on-screen version.

Here’s the thing. In the days of the “Classic” Doctor Who novelizations, fans were justifiably grateful for a written representation of stories from the history of the show, because they were in some cases unlikely to have seen those stories on original broadcast, or, until some time in the Eighties, unlikely to have any way to rewatch the original TV versions, due to the blink-and-you-miss-it nature of TV in those days.

But what was good enough for legends like Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and Ian Marter is seldom good enough for fans in the days of instant streaming, extra content, and Behind The Scenes programming immediately after episodes, which make the whole thing a bigger experience than the once-a-week, 25-minute, maybe-never-repeated phenomenon that Doctor Who used to be.

That’s why for the most part, the 21st century novelizations have offered something extra than what was shown on-screen, from the likes of Robert Shearman’s Dalek to Steven Moffatt’s The Day of the Doctor to Russell T Davies’ own Rose, and on to the unputdownable triumph of James Goss’ The Giggle.

The Difficulty Of Addition

Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson is, absolutely, hamstrung in terms of adding much about the central dilemmas of The Church On Ruby Road – as a story, it depends for much of its dramatic weight on the gaps in the storytelling that allow things like “the language of rope” and the feeding on coincidence to pass muster in a Doctor Who setting that’s reinventing itself for the Ncuti Gatwa era.

And where there ordinarily might be some scope to add details of the Doctor and how he came to arrive in the life of Ruby Sunday – even frivolous things like the choosing of his outfit, what’s on his jukebox, and the creation of his startling new sonic, that would add nuance and colour to the characterization of the new Doctor – the viewpoint of the story closes down those avenues of opportunity.

Like Rose, Martha, and Donna before her, Millie Gibson’s Ruby Tuesday takes centre stage in her first story, which means it’s her life into which we delve more intimately, allowing the Doctor, when he does arrive, to be a streak of magical lightning with a grin – mad, and bright, and magnetic, and wonderful, but only barely in any sense knowable within the confines of the story. Not for nothing does Ruby ask, after all the adventure is over with “Who are you?” when she steps on board the Tardis. He’s the Doctor, sure – but what that means exactly remains a mystery throughout both the on-screen story and the novelization.

In a way that resonates with Matt Smith’s first story, The Eleventh Hour, the plot of The Church On Ruby Road revolves around a problem only the Doctor can solve, and shows us his new nature as he goes about solving it. And also like Smith’s debut, there’s an initial solution, and then a proper solution, and both actors knock it out of the park in terms of imprinting their new way of Doctoring on the screen and the audience.

Enter The Goblin King

In the novelization of The Church On Ruby Road, there are some additional stumbling blocks though, nailed into place by decisions of the production team.

That bloomin’ Goblin Song being one of the biggest of them.

Using songs as focal points in Doctor Who can be fun on screen, but can then become an absolute nightmare in novelizations, where it’s impossible to really render the moment of the music in anything like a successful way. James Goss got around that issue brilliantly in The Giggle – but he had the anarchic narrator of the Toymaker to help him.

Getting around the issue in The Church On Ruby Road is harder, because the song can’t really be substituted, but neither (in the audiobook version, for instance) can it be entirely replicated, meaning you simply have the lyrics (already the weakest part of the whole affair), half-spoken, half-sung to a notably different background tune, which leaves the listener with one cast-iron conviction – that it wasn’t an especially good idea to have the song in the episode at all.

Added Value

You do get a better, more explicit look inside Ruby Sunday’s head in the novelization than there was time for on-screen – where Jikiemi-Pearson delivers extra value, it’s in the emotionally crushing realization that Ruby’s parents appear to exist nowhere, on no database, and what that does to her sense of hope and self. And by focusing more on Ruby’s reactions to the brilliant stranger who arrives in her life and moves her, there’s more of a sense of that brilliant weirdness of the new Doctor coming through in this version of the story.

Added to which, Angela Wynter’s reading of the audio version is about as good as it can be, hampered as it is by the innate challenges of translating this particular story both to novelization and then to audiobook (that Goblin Song in particular proving a low point in proceedings). Certainly, she gives life and vibrancy to a lot of the characters, excelling in the three generations of the Sunday family particularly. Her Doctor works reasonably well, too, given the bright and bouncy nature of Ncuti Gatwa’s performance in his debut story.

So what you get in the novelization and the audiobook of The Church On Ruby Road is a fairly faithful rendering of the on-screen story, with a touch of extra emotional depth in Ruby herself.

But in the first place, whether that’s enough for modern-day fans who have the TV version available to them in a whole range of places is up for debate.

And in the second place, what the novelization does more effectively even than telling the on-screen story is to show the gaps, cracks, and tonal shifts that are present in the TV version, and how crucial the charisma of the central actors are in overcoming them in that on-screen version.

Without that nuclear-grade grin of Gatwa’s, and the twinkle-eyed, up-for-anything strut that Gibson brings to Ruby Sunday, the novelization and its audiobook feel just a little too ordinary to keep up. Tony Fyler 

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