Radiant charm, scene-stealing tears and steamy kisses – Ncuti Gatwa is the new golden age of Doctor Who

As his first series as the Time Lord draws to a close, it would be possible to write an entire piece about Ncuti Gatwa that was just a plea for his skincare regimen because, truly, it may be the most miraculous thing that has appeared on any season of Doctor Who. But this outing has also showcased deep wells of charm and talent that radiate from within. It feels fitting that Gatwa first came to the screen via David Tennant – as the series harks back to his fellow Scot’s pitch-perfect debut, which saw that superb combination of pathos and infectious enthusiasm.

After being introduced in 2023’s 60th anniversary special, formed of a “bi-generation” that saw him emerge out of Tennant’s torso wearing little more than a shirt and a grin, Gatwa then took the reins in the charming Christmas special that paired him up with his companion, Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), and set up the series’ central mystery around her parenthood. Even when the show turned to scarier or darker subjects that left tears pouring down his seemingly poreless visage, Gatwa was always pure televisual dopamine. As the commander in chief of Unit reassures him in the first half of the finale: “For what it’s worth, I think you bring joy.”

Compelling relationship … Millie Gibson as Ruby Sunday and Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor. Photograph: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

Much as in Tennant’s celebrated tenure, the series is confident enough in its leading man’s presence to sometimes use him sparingly. The 10th Doctor barely appeared in one of the show’s best-loved episodes, which introduced the terrifying Weeping Angels. Though none of the episodes in this series quite reach those heady heights, the 15th Doctor is a fleeting presence in 73 Yards (episode four), a horror-tinged tale that saw Ruby being stalked by a sinister woman, who remains 73 yards away from her for decades, and is tasked with stopping the ascent of a populist politician that would otherwise come to power and start a nuclear war.

Similarly, in Dot and Bubble (episode five) he was largely absent when social media-based AI and slug monsters were being battled. In the small amount of screen time he did have, though, he still managed to steal the show with an incredulous monologue after the self-involved protagonist of the piece cruelly rejects him, bringing him to tears.

Gatwa was best of all when permitted to have a little fun, as in the Christmas special, featuring pop-singing goblins, and later on in the antepenultimate outing, Rogue (episode six), which goes into full Bridgerton mode. In 1813, he encounters Jonathan Groff at a regency ball complete with contemporary hits being performed by string quartets. Groff as the eponymous Rogue has a gorgeous frisson with the Doctor and much like John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness) who went on to helm Torchwood, he seems ripe for many future appearances.

While Gatwa could have chemistry with a lamp-post, he does have a particularly compelling relationship with Ruby, whom he refuses to sacrifice for the greater good. At this point, we have only spent a few hours with the pair, but the intensity of their bond rings entirely true even if it is devoid of romantic intention. Meanwhile, a blossoming romance with Groff’s Rogue is enchanting, featuring a steamy kiss that makes for queer Doctor Who history.

Legendary companion … Ncuti Gatwa with Bonnie Langford as Mel Bush. Photograph: Sophie Mutevelian/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

In the final episode, Empire of Death, the Doctor faces Sutekh, an ageless harbinger of death, who sends a wave of destruction across London with giant clouds spilling out that turn all those who encounter them into ashes. Ruby is still preoccupied with learning about who or what birthed her, which by fortuitous coincidence is also the key to stopping the apocalypse. We also see flashbacks to his previous incarnations and a return of the legendary companion Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford) who aided Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy’s Time Lords. We even get some brief moments flashing back to Tom Baker, complete with stripy scarf and head of perfectly tousled curls. These sweet moments further ground Gatwa in the series’ DNA. Even if he bears little physical resemblance to his forebears, he is always unmistakably the Doctor and one who could feasibly save the world time and time again.

In its final moments, when he turns to Ruby and tells her, “You’ve made my life bigger and better”, he seems to be speaking to the franchise as a whole, with Gatwa tangibly grateful for the opportunity to be at the helm of one of the country’s most beloved properties.

There are ample reasons to believe that Gatwa’s time in the Tardis, and the much-hyped return of Russell T Davies as showrunner, mark a new golden age for the series, which is sparkier, funnier and more innovative than it has been in years. While internet trolls and the shallow narcissists of episode five may have rejected him, they have only served to expose their foolishness and missed out on someone genuinely extraordinary.

With a further series guaranteed, the only hope is that the powers that be at the BBC have got their time machine and Gatwa returns to our screens yesterday.

The Guardian