21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Next Doctor

And so it came to pass that in October 2008 that the end of the road was in sight for the Tenth Doctor.

The edict came from the man himself, David Tennant, speaking via a video link (and inexplicably flanked by two grim-faced reapers of death) at an awards ceremony. He'd be sticking around for a clutch of one-off specials but after that he'd be bidding adieu. Countless Tennant fans wept into their Tenth Doctor action figures. TVs were thrown out of windows. Riots broke out. Well, I exaggerate, but the feeling at the awards megillah was so full of disappointment that it wouldn't have been a big surprise if some rogue fan intruded on the broadcast and took Tennant's award away from him.

By 2008, Tennant was regarded by a good number of fans as one of the most popular incarnations ever, winning Best Doctor polls and earning numerous accolades for his portrayal. It helped that after a long period of history in which Doctor actors had either been forced out by unforeseen circumstances or had chosen to do just one season, Tennant had stuck around for a comparatively long haul. Time may not have been so kind to the Tenth Doctor – today, he's one of those incarnations who polarises the fans like no tomorrow – but back in the day (and it seems so long ago now), Tennant's popularity was at an all-time high.

It's appropriate that the next few specials will signpost the end of the Tenth Doctor more than ever before. It's a journey that had been hinted at since the Library two-parter, but it nears the end game with The Next Doctor, the annual Christmas feast.

2008's Christmas special is an odd one. For a holiday that's supposed to be about good cheer, the post-Christmas Invasion specials gradually got more and more downbeat. The Runaway Bride lamented the apparent loss of Rose. Voyage Of The Damned saw The Doctor fail in his promise to save the lives of various Titanic passengers. With that in mind, and also following the events of Journey's End, it's a safe bet that the viewer's not going to be presented with a fun-time party atmosphere full of balloons and mulled wine. Heck, even Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade isn't included. Things must be bad.

Instead, the Doctor's starting his Johnny No Mates phase. Travelling all by yourself can't be much fun. Picture the Doctor and his sad microwave meals for one. Or the sight of him rigging up a hastily assembled puppet of Donna so he has someone to talk to. His latest one-man trip of fun sees him travel to Earth (where else) back in 1851 where he apparently meets his future self. Already, Russell T Davies is heavily foreshadowing this incarnation's imminent demise, with the Doctor even wondering how he's going to buy it this time. “Hope I don't just trip over a brick,” he ponders. He obviously hadn't reckoned on the Deadly Phone Booth Of Doom when contemplating ways to go. Factor in a handy visual compilation of past Doctors and he might as well be starting to prepare his final farewell speech.

So just who is The Next Doctor? Is he for real? He certainly looks the part with his Doctor-ish costume, a garish ensemble that tips the hat to the Pertwee wardrobe. Heck, he even has his own Sonic Screwdriver and his very own TARDIS. Mind you, the tell-tale signs are there right from the start in his rather florid turn of phrase. “I'm the Doctor!” he booms, announcing himself to an incredulous genuine article. “The one, the only and the best!” Blimey, even Colin's Doctor didn't resort to such crass show-boating. The dialogue's way too theatrical, so it must be a matter of time before the mask is ripped away...

To reveal an ordinary man who's had the bad fortune to stumble across a wretched device called an Infostamp – a somewhat dubious looking gizmo that held every morsel of information about a notorious renegade from the planet of Gallifrey. Unfortunately, for Jackson Lake (yes, the Next Doctor is the apparently dead enigma), the Infostamp backfired, streaming all that knowledge into his head, causing him to think that he was the Doctor. Ah well, it ain't so bad. Presumably there's a race memory of the complete set of missing episodes tucked in there somewhere, the lucky son of a gun.

Instead The Next Doctor turns out to be an ordinary Joe who from now on seems to break out the crying towel every 30 seconds. This is a record. NuWho has had its fair share of blubbing jessies – and that includes Wilf and the Tenth Doctor, but Jackson Lake takes the cake. Every alternate shot seems to comprise a close-up of Lake's screwed up, contorted visage, looking a bit like a hapless X-Factor reject who's had the dream snatched away by a cruel mentor.

Well that's not strictly fair – 'tis the prerogative of a stingy reviewer to make fun of such a hapless wallflower. But on a more serious note, this gloom is where The Next Doctor succeeds. Don't forget, a good number of people regard Christmas as a huge ordeal, whether they've lost a loved one or whether they've gone through a traumatic split from their partner. Thanks to a society that rams Christmas down your throats with all the brutal efficiency of a bulldozer tipping Tunis Cakes into your gob, you're seen as a grumpy killjoy if you don't play along. What The Next Doctor does is to turn all that creepily forced jollity on its head, by looking at how two crushed men try to make some sort of sense of their losses.

The real Doctor has just undergone yet another traumatic separation, having forced to wipe Donna's memory and leave her in her own time and place – not to mention leaving his beloved Rose with a consolation prize of a walking, talking Doctor doll. He's the ultimate loser when it comes to relationships, and what smarts is that most of the time, it's all his own doing. Throughout this story, we're seeing a different Doctor from what we've mostly seen before. This is a subdued, weary Doctor who's a little quieter than his usual happy-go-lucky self.

A good litmus test is to compare the big showdown speeches in the two lone Cybermen stories. As with Rise Of The Cybermen/Age Of Steel, the Cybermen rope a duplicitous human into becoming one of them. In this case, it's Miss Hartigan, the sultry villainess who sounds like she should be advertising food Nigella-style on TV. Hartigan pretty much suffers the same fate as Cybernazar John Lumic, albeit in the embryonic stages. However, whereas the Doctor confronted Lumic with the boundless energy of a chimpanzee on speed, this time around, there's a sombre, almost resigned attempt to reason with Hartigan. “What do you make of me sir, an idiot?” bellows Cyber Hartigan, to which the Doctor grimly muses: “No – the question is, what do you make of me?” before resignedly breaking the Cyber Connection and forcing Hartigan to realise what she's become. There's none of that impassioned determination here as there was in Rise Of Steel, just a tired “I'm sorry Miss Hartigan, but look at what you've become”. It's as if the Doctor has grown weary of his non-stop mission to save the world, particularly when people like Hartigan cause a situation that could have been avoided in the first place.

By the end of the tale, he frankly admits to Jackson that he's choosing to soldier on alone because somehow the loss of his companions is too much to put up with. “They leave,” he frowns. “Because they should, or they find someone else. And some of them – some of them forget me. I suppose, in the end, they break my heart.” Mawkish? Maybe. But somehow, even to this cynical old git, it's a strangely moving scene. The ever-reliable David Tennant sells the moment, and there's one point where he's channelling Lake by threatening to break out the crying towel. The Tenth Doctor really is starting to feel the weight of the world, and in the very near future, that pressure's going to cause him to break. It's a fascinating journey and an interesting choice to make. Tennant continues the good work, and superbly portrays an ages-old Time Lord who's finding that loneliness is a far deadlier threat than a horde of Cybermen. And considering he'd been filming for about 10 months on the trot, that's all the more impressive.

If the Doctor's the failed relationship expert, then Jackson's the bereaved man. As the Doctor explains, Jackson's entered a fugue state, a point where the mind shuts down over a particularly traumatic experience. In this case, Jackson's wife has been cruelly killed by those pesky Cybermen, who have also taken his kid to work on their latest pet project. “You wanted to become someone else because Jackson Lake had lost so much,” explains the Doctor. Despite the wholesale blubbing, guest star David Morrissey is excellent as Jackson Lake, bringing over that pathos and grief perfectly. He'd make a good Doctor actually – maybe if all that shouty bluster was turned down a dial... don't forget anything's possible in the world of Doctor Who. If a surly Gallifreyan guard or a friendly Roman can become a Doctor, then why can't Jackson Lake?

It's a shame that the other strand of The Next Doctor gets in the way of this effective set of character studies. The young 'uns need the monsters, otherwise they'll switch over to the umpteenth repeat of The Sound Of Music on another channel. Having wheeled out the Daleks for the last season finale, it makes sense to bring their Number Twos (don't say anything) back for the Christmas special. The Cybermen are back and raising hell in a genteel 1850's village. Conveniently, they've managed to claw their way out of the Void (bet they didn't send Davros a thank you card, the ungrateful wretches) and plan to conquer the world as per usual. They've also roped in the services of Miss Hartigan, who's helping them in their latest dastardly scheme.

The problem is though that their plan doesn't quite ring true for some reason. For one thing, we're asked to believe that the Cybermen are planning to unleash their wretched piece de resistance, the CyberKing, on a quaking world. Quite how they've managed to do this is a bit of a mystery, given that they've been stuck in the Void – a netherworld that contains nothing. And yet, they seem remarkably able to produce this abomination with a little help from a motley collection of young urchins who look like they should be bursting into song (Where's Barrowman when you need him?). A little bit of Dramatic Licence goes a long way in this story, I guess.

Not that it's a particularly original one either – and from some angles, the CyberKing does look clunky. The literal Big Bad is probably the only mis-step in what's otherwise a polished production, but the problem here is that it's meant to be the big centrepiece of the story – and curiously, this time around, the effects aren't quite as hot as they should be. When you have a big finale that's bordering on risible, that's not good news.

It's a shame that the silly CyberKing is at odds with some of the darker undercurrents running through this story. Not only do we have two men trying to come to terms with their respective losses, we also have kids being abducted, pointless deaths of old codger undertakers, and also the implication that Jackson's friend Rosita is forced to pay her way by being a lady of the night. There's also a notably dark undertone to main baddie, Miss Hartigan. It's not explicitly mentioned on screen, but Russell T Davies has commented that Hartigan's ruthless side is motivated by terrible events that have happened to her in the past. I won't dwell on that grim back-story, but needless to say, it explains why Hartigan seems so hell-bent on relishing her power as a woman over the men, metal or otherwise. “Oh but they wouldn't hurt me, my fine boys,” she purrs about the Cybermen. “They're my knights in shining armour, quite literally.”

Hartigan's ultimate fate is interesting in that she's technically converted into a male of the species, but she helps to save the day with a very female scream (blowing herself up into tiny red fragments in the process). Make of that what you will – but Dervla Kirwan is perfectly cast as the icy villainess, and shows just what she can do with the right part. It's an excellent performance and shows off her acting chops far more than dull plod Ballykissangel ever did.

The production of The Next Doctor is well up to scratch, and director Andy Goddard shrouds the tale in a suitably bleak fashion. It helps that the story was shot in April rather than July, when, if memory serves me well, the country was hit by heavy snow. As well as being cold dust for rubbish clickbait newspapers, the April freeze was the frosty icing on the cake for this Winter's tale. Goddard shoots the episode in a creepy, unearthly style, from the ominous set-pieces of the funeral from hell through to the close-ups of the haunted undertakers. His casting choices are very good. Kirwan and Morrissey aside, there's Velile Tshabalala who's a fun sub-companion for Jackson, and also Neil McDermott as Jed. McDermott would go on to face a far more terrifying presence in EastEnders when he'd appear as hapless stubble face Ryan Malloy: the brother of panto villainess writ large, Janine. Mind you, she's positively subdued when compared to the current rubbish panto villain who looks like Uncle Fester.

At least The Next Doctor doesn't chart such crass levels of pantomime, and while the Cyber plan is a bit silly – as are the ridiculous Cyber Shades, who look like overgrown cuddly toys being pulled along on wires – overall, this Christmas special flows well. It's well realised and finely acted. Plus, there's notably dark stuff to be found here, which mixes well with the romp feel of the story. It's that edge which makes The Next Doctor stand out, and it also marks the start of a very rocky path ahead for everyone's favourite Time Lord.

* Recognise those past faces of the Doctor? I've written about them in some eBook guides!


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