The Next Doctor
2008 Christmas Special
Well, there's a natty idea for a Doctor Who Special. Have the Doctor minding his own business, then – whammo! – he bumps into a different Doctor. Even better, it's a future one. All at once, you've got the Doctor facing his mortality, plus the excitement of meeting another one. It's a win-win. And if the lead actor has recently announced he's leaving the show, some of the more easily-confused among us might think it's a glimpse into the future. That's more people talking about it, and more viewers. Win-win-win.
|The future's orange.|
Oh well: the story of a man who thinks he's the Doctor is worth telling, and as long as the genuine article believes it, you get all that facing his mortality/excitement stuff for free. The Next Doctor has a lot of fun with this in the opening twenty minutes, as the Doctor (David Tennant) plays companion to the Doctor (David Morrissey). It's a change of pace for Tennant, who gets to view his character from the outside and thoroughly geek out about it. Why not? He's the last Time Lord, so this is the only way he'll meet another one. He's tantalised by the idea of a guy who's had more adventures. He's excited, as are we, by the idea of helping a Doctor remember who he is. (The scene with the Time Lordy fob-watch is hilariously disappointing.) After two Christmas Specials where the ever-so-lonely Doctor makes a new best friend for an hour, a fake Doctor is certainly one way to change the record.
Shame it doesn't last. Granted, it's fairly obvious this isn't the real (Sylvester) McCoy. David Morrissey's Doctor is little more than a bunch of half-remembered catchphrases, the flimsiest bits of David Tennant's already-as-broad-as-possible interpretation watered down beyond recognition. He's got his own TARDIS and sonic screwdriver, but both of those are sight gags, and weak ones at that. It's a very fun character, and Morrissey gives it loads of levity and pathos, but he's really not much like the Doctor. In all likelihood, it was never meant to fool anybody. (Right? Right?)
Even so, the ruse is the most interesting thing here, and it's kaput before we even reach the halfway point. "The Doctor" is Jackson Lake, a man who narrowly escaped an encounter with some Cybermen and had his brain accidentally filled with The Doctor Files. (Which raises the question of why he doesn't recognise David Tennant.) Once that's out in the open – and it's a heartbreaking, well-played reveal, even if it is obvious – all that's left is the Cybermen and whatever daft nonsense they're up to this week. Settle in. At this point, there's still thirty minutes to go.
|Sod Jackson Lake. Kids, look! Proper Who!|
This all feels pretty random. Why kids? Are they known for being really great labourers, what with the no muscles and the tiny hands? And the Cyber King looks really, seriously awesome, but you've got to wonder... what? They have kings now? If the Cybermen are in the habit of building colossal robots that spit out thousands of other Cybermen, why are we only hearing about it now? Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the episode's budget, we have the the Cyber-Shades, a.k.a. blokes in woolly carpets with plastic Cyber-faces stuck on. It's unusual for an episode to feature one of the most impressive-looking special effects in Doctor Who ever, as well as one of the worst, but they manage it. These guys would have looked like total garbage back in the days of cardboard ant costumes. Even better, they're completely pointless.
The Cybermen are as dreary as ever – stomp-stomp, mumble-mumble, "Delete", etc. – but they're not exactly helped by having to play second fiddle to the villain-of-the-week. Russell dips into his Evil Diva bag to give us Miss Hartigan, a man-hating monster played by Dervla Kerwan. She's cold, amoral and (like the equally two-dimensional Miss Foster) enjoys pointing out what a cleverly-chosen name she's got. (I wish Russell would pack it in with the "literally" jokes. They're just wince-inducing.) She ends up in the Cyber King's hot seat because of her uber-amazing mind (which can't be that amazing since she didn't see this coming), but it's so strong it counteracts the Cybermen's control. However she's quite happy stomping around in it anyway, so that was pointless.
The dark hints about her life of abuse are vaguely interesting, and not bad motivation for wanting to stomp humanity into little bits, but I've no idea how any of that translates into Cyber-impressiveness. Perhaps they like her because evil people save you the bother of converting them? She makes the Cybermen seem passive and ultimately redundant, which is hardly a new experience, but jeez, when will these guys catch a break? (I should add that Dervla Kirwan is brilliant, and fortunately this comes as standard with Doctor Who guest actors. She doesn't write this stuff.)
|"Why do they not rejoice?"|
It's probably the big shooty robot monster putting them off, love.
In all the dashing about and explosion-dodging, he rarely gets a chance to show off his brain. Most of his problems are solved with the Cyber-gizmo du jour, "info stamps": a weird, retro way to gather information that is suicidally easy to turn into a weapon against Cybermen. (Even Jackson can pull it off.) The episode doesn't really say anything about the Doctor, although his ultimatum to the Cybermen raises questions. Move to an uninhabited (and therefore useless) world, or die? When they (entirely logically) don't agree to that, he takes it as cart blanche to zap them to death, even saying "You made me into this." Hmm. Friendly they ain't, but it would be nice if he'd accept that what he's really doing here is getting them to sign their own death warrants. Meanwhile, in the "characters telling the Doctor about himself" stakes, Jackson points out that no one ever thanks the Doctor for his good deeds. Ever. Is that a fact? If you can remember instances where people did just that – such as the endings to most episodes – you're wrong, apparently!
And another thing. Coming right after another traumatic companion departure, you might expect The Next Doctor to have an emotional undercurrent like The Runaway Bride. But no; the Doctor must have taken some time to deal with it, as he seems fine. (Although at one point he suggests he has nothing to live for, which is at odds with his cheery behaviour elsewhere.) Now, it wouldn't automatically make this episode better to have him sulking over Donna, and it would sail pretty close to plagiarising The Runaway Bride if he did, but when a plot deals with a character forgetting and remembering things, and the previous companion lost her memories under tragic circumstances one episode ago, it seems utterly bizarre to leave those dots unconnected. Once again, I wonder why Rose was worth so much histrionic foot-dragging, since apparently nobody else is.
The Next Doctor has one great idea in its head and makes a reasonable go of it, but it's too quick to get it over with. The rest is just the usual clunky bobbins, doused in naff Christmas Episode Victoriana. By the end, anyone still watching will be Christmas-drunk or Christmas-sleepy. Welcome to every Christmas Special, I know, but for once it feels as if Russell T Davies may have nodded off first.