Second Guessing the Next Doctor

It’s that time of year again: for the fourth year in a row, Christmas Day brings a Doctor Who Christmas special, where fans and casual viewers can sit back and enjoy a taste of the program without dipping into the season-long meal. Christmas specials tend to be fluffier than their seasonal counterparts. They’re usually stand-alone episodes, offering self-contained plots with plenty of spectacle. They can be a little silly at times, but the common reaction of the audience tends to be to shrug and say, “well, hey, it’s Christmas.”

This year’s offering, The Next Doctor, is no different. Here you have an interesting tale that entertains you for sixty minutes without demanding much in the way of understanding of the rest of the program. There’s good acting, great action, and a script that goes over the top a little ways, but it’s all in good fun.

Indeed, there’s more than just good fun, here. The guest star is top notch, there’s a decent mystery, and good moments of pathos. But while some of the story’s excesses can be excused for their Christmastime spectacle, I felt that writer Russell T. Davies missed a number of opportunities to create a special that was truly… well… special.

Read on past the break for the full, spoilery review of this episode. If you don’t wish to be spoiled, please stop reading here.

The Next Doctor

Still here? One further warning, then, as I am going to give away some key plot details in this story. I have my reasons. But if you don’t want to be spoiled, you should leave this post now, watch the episode, and then come back here, okay? You have been warned.

Anyway, alone following the events of Journey’s End, the Doctor lands his TARDIS in London, in 1851, Christmastime. He dashes around the seasonal frippery like a kid in a candy store, and I have to say that David Tennant’s sheer joy in this situation is positively infectious. But, just as we get the Christmas Carol reference out of the way, somebody screams, and calls for the Doctor’s help. The Doctor is only too happy to come running.

He sees a young African woman in period dress screaming at a set of locked doors that are bulging outward as the result of some attack. The Doctor says, “right! I’m here!” and springs into action, only to be rather nonplussed to have the woman scream for the Doctor again. “Yeah, that’s me! I’m the Doctor!” he says, but the woman isn’t buying it. And just then, somebody else who could pass as the Doctor at a convention comes running forward to take charge. The real Doctor is confused, until the doors burst open and a very cybernetic-looking furry creature charges.

The Next Doctor follows three basic plot threads. There’s the mystery of the “next Doctor” (David Morrissey in a wonderful performance), as the real Doctor befriends him and tries to suss out the truth. Then there is the story of Mercy Hartigan (well played by Dervla Kirwan), an angry street woman who has joined forces with the Cybermen to exact revenge on the snobbish city. And, of course, there are the Cybermen themselves: remnants of the attack on Torchwood (see Army of Ghosts/Doomsday) who have barely managed to avoid being sucked into the dimensional rift by travelling back in time, only to struggle with the inferior technology of the day in rebuilding the Cyber race.

The three threads come together at the end in a satisfying fashion as we learn the truth about the “next Doctor” (in truth one Jackson Lane, a young father who was blasted with a datastream describing the Doctor’s history just as he witnessed the Cybermen kill his wife and abduct his son), and as Mercy proves to be more than the beleaguered Cybermen can handle. The story tips over the top as the “Cyber King” is revealed, and an Iron Giant-esque cyber-monster rises from the Thames to do some stomping around Tokyo — I mean, London.

It’s all in good fun. The action is fast paced and well managed by director Andy Goddard, and everything is held together by the wonderful performances of Tennant, Morrissey and Kirwan. Most of the complaints I would have about this tale amount to nitpicking — such as the docile-rather-than-terrified children brought in by monsters for slave labour, or the Cyber “shades”. These creatures, which were converted on the cheap using cat brains, do have a nicely retro Cyber mask and are a good idea in principle. It’s a pity that more time couldn’t have been spent to make these creatures less obviously people in shaggy suits.

But though David Morrissey’s plotline is the most compelling, I spoiled it because writer Russell T. Davies left a number of golden opportunities on the table. Truth to tell, Kirwan aside, the Cyberman story had very little depth to it, and the action which backed it was of the sort that marked any of the action scenes in the revival in episodes past — which is to say, well done, but nothing that stands out from what we’ve seen before. No, the story of Jackson Lane working through his mental anguish, missed the opportunity of having him really choose between wallowing in his misery, or choosing to take some of the characteristics he displayed when he thought he was the Doctor.

Or, to put it more bluntly, why was it that the Doctor had to be the one to go all action-hero in rescuing Jackson Lane’s son? Wouldn’t it have been much more satisfying if Morrissey had stepped into that role? At the end of the story, the Doctor is cheered, yet again, as the saviour of England (a scene which Tennant plays very well, slightly embarrassed by all the attention he receives), and while the cheers are well deserved, it’s happened so often before that there’s little that’s special about it, now. If we could have had more of the Doctor convincing ordinary people to do extraordinary things, that’s something the audience would have responded to more resoundingly.

Similar missed opportunities exist in the character of Rositta (Velile Tshabalala) and in fleshing out Lane’s acquaintances. The set up of the TARDIS as a balloon offered plenty of potential for Lane’s assistant — possibly as a marker of where Lane’s character could develop in the future once the Doctor leaves (amp up the Jules Verne references, perhaps), but instead it becomes a mere plot device to allow the Doctor to save the day.

That’s the most serious gaffe, I think. Again, it’s the Doctor’s show, rather than a show focusing on the characters the Doctor touches. Fortunately, the episode still has much to recommend it — that, like Journey’s End, packs so much spectacle into its tiny frame, it’s amazing the whole thing doesn’t come apart. After initial skepticism, I warmed to the image of the Iron Giant Cyberman stomping around London, just as I loved the little steampunk touches which grace this episode. But better yet, the episode ended on its strength: David Tennant and David Morrissey sharing a quiet moment, exploring why the Doctor’s road was a lonely road, and resolving to fight against that loneliness.

So, altogether, The Next Doctor is a welcome return of Doctor Who to our screens this Christmastime, but one that could have been better. It whets our whistle for the next special, the Easter episode Planet of the Dead.

The Next Doctor Notes

  • One of the things I haven’t said enough about is the direction, which is really quite good. For the most part, it carries itself in the background, supporting the actors and the writer and not getting in the way. Where it decides to come out and shine, however, is in the graveyard scene, where both Ms. Hartigan and then the Cybermen emerge from the blowing snow to meet the funeral. The massacre itself is also very well handled. The whole thing could well have been the centrepiece of the production.
  • One of the things I can’t say enough about is the acting. Watching this story the second time around, keep an eye on David Tennant’s eyes as you try to figure out when he figures out Jackson Lane’s true identity. When the Cybermen attack (a nice bit of humour there, by the way), he has it almost figured out, but when Jackson destroys two of the creatures with the Infostamp, he’s no longer so sure of his conclusion. That’s when he takes out his stethoscope. Look at his eyes as he listens to Jackson’s heart. That’s when he knows. One of the things Davies and Tennant do well is leaving clues in what’s left unsaid over what’s said. It’s a pity we can’t have more of that.
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