Six years and eight days ago, former A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps posted this review of “Voyage Of The Damned,” kicking off our site’s ever-expanding coverage of Doctor Who. Indeed, there now only remain two gaps in our coverage of the new series—at least until the Peter Capaldi-starring season 8 kicks off later this year—and so today we’ll take a look at the 2008 Christmas special “The Next Doctor,” while next Sunday will feature the 2009 Easter special “Planet Of The Dead.” But since it seems like a shame to skip right past what is arguably the best season of the Russell T. Davies era—the only real competition is season one, which means it’s definitely the best season of David Tennant’s tenure—without any additional comment. So while I definitely recommend you check out Keith’s reviews from way back in 2008, here’s an overall review of season 4. This is intended to complement the previous reviews, written as it is with an additional six years’ perspective and from my incorrigible, old-school fan’s perspective. I’ll warn you right now: This is going to be one hell of an intro box, even if I am saving the quotes until the end…
“Voyage Of The Damned,” “Partners In Crime,” “The Fires Of Pompeii,”“Planet Of The Ood,” “The Sontaran Stratagem,” “The Poison Sky,” “The Doctor’s Daughter,” “The Unicorn And The Wasp,” “Silence And The Library,”“Forest Of The Dead,” “Midnight,” “Turn Left,” “The Stolen Earth,” “Journey’s End” (season 4, Christmas special and episodes 1 to 13; originally aired 12/25/2007 and 4/5/2008 to 7/5/2008)
In the end, it was always about the companions. David Tennant’s third and final full season as the Doctor sees the return of all three of his main companions—Rose from season two, Donna from “The Runaway Bride,” and Martha from season three—and attempts to do right by all of them, not to mention ancillary companions like Captain Jack Harkness, Sarah Jane Smith, and even Mickey Smith and Jackie Tyler. For Martha, this season builds on the final scene of “Last Of The Time Lords” to offer much-needed emotional closure to her relationship with the Doctor; in particular, “Partners In Crime” sees the Doctor admit how he failed Martha, while her subsequent mini-arc affirms that she is the one companion capable of building a life after the Doctor. For Donna, returning as the season’s primary companion, the show crafts one of its most compelling companion arcs and makes the most of Catherine Tate’s wonderful chemistry with David Tennant, even if Donna’s story is forever complicated by its conclusion. And for Rose, this season gives her the happy ending she was denied in “Doomsday,” even if Doctor Who has to rip reality—and pretty much all narrative logic—apart in order to pull it off.
It’s telling that the two best episodes of season four—the pretty much universally acclaimed “Midnight” and the considerably more heterodox selection “The Fires Of Pompeii”—are the ones that most emphasize the importance of the companion; “The Fires Of Pompeii” reveals this through Donna’s presence, while “Midnight” does it through her absence. James Moran’s Pompeii-set story has its fair share of charmingly goofy Latin gags—Caecilius and his family are imported from a Latin textbook, for goodness’ sake—but it powerfully transcends its initial comedy as Donna challenges the Doctor to save the people of Pompeii, then helps him find the strength to bring about the city’s horrific, historically mandated fate. With its discussion of fixed points in time, the episode attempts to resolve a storytelling paradox that goes right back to “The Aztecs,” when William Hartnell’s original Doctor insisted, “You can’t change history, not one line,” despite the fact that the Doctor changes non-Earth, post-modern day history all the damn time. Moran’s script incorporates that tension into the larger cosmic burden of a Time Lord’s existence, and David Tennant plays the Doctor’s pained resignation to the hilt.
The key here is that Donna never lets the Doctor off the hook. For all their tenacity and their bravery, Rose and Martha were not always able to challenge the 10th Doctor when he needed to be, in part because of the complicated, ambiguous natures of their relationships with the Doctor. But the Doctor and Donna are always just mates—no, not mates, mates—and Donna isn’t the sort of person to be awed into silence. In “The Fires Of Pompeii,” Donna won’t let the Doctor abandon the people of Pompeii, nor will she let him destroy them alone. It’s a beautiful balance to hit in the character’s first proper trip into time and space, and it’s the first time a new series historical really feels like something more than a high-spirited, light-hearted romp through the past. That type of historical, incidentally, is rather ably represented by Gareth Roberts’ “The Unicorn And The Wasp,” a generally entertaining episode—even if it leans a bit too heavily on the Agatha Christie hagiography—that kills off one or two more characters than is really appropriate for something that primarily aspires to be the season’s comedic episode.
Still, even a lesser entry such as that has its charms, as does just about every story this season. Russell T. Davies’ last season as showrunner is, in some respects, the mirror image of his first. While the Christopher Eccleston year derives its high quality from its madcap sense of invention and discovery—the general sense that everyone involved was making it up as they went—this season projects confidence and control, the sense that Davies, Tennant, and company know precisely what they want to do with the show. Donna’s reintroduction, “Partners In Crime,” isn’t terribly ambitious, but it makes the most of its farcical conceit that the Doctor and Donna keep just missing each other until their big reunion, which just happens to occur on the edges of the villain’s big speech. Keith Temple’s “Planet Of The Ood,” on the other hand, falls just short of greatness—you could probably talk me into considering this one another classic, honestly—as its depiction of cold-hearted businessmen and sadistic security forces recalls “Dalek,” only this time the titular aliens are natural innocents. More than any story since “The Christmas Invasion,” this is the story that affirms the Doctor’s concern that humans are the true monsters; Solana’s petty betrayal of the Doctor and Donna is particularly crushing, while Blackadder veteran Tim McInnerny brings just enough humanity to the role of Mr. Halpen to make his odiousness and his cruelty all the more damning—although the whole hair tonic business does get a bit grating and silly, even given the audacious payoff.
Admittedly, the show does sometimes creak under its established, increasingly entrenched formula: Helen Raynor’s “The Sontaran Stratagem”/“The Poison Sky” tries valiantly to crowbar the honor-obsessed, eternally belligerent Sontarans into the role of behind-the-scenes manipulators, and the results are mixed at best. (In fairness, a weirdly high percentage of classic series Sontaran stories dofeature the monsters engaging in clandestine, decidedly un-Sontaran tactics, presumably because the Doctor Who budget can’t stretch to depicting all-out war.) But the story still works considerably better than Raynor’s previous entry, “Daleks In Manhattan”/“Evolution Of The Daleks,” because the plotting is much clearer, the story captures the crucial elements that made the Sontarans iconic (if second-string) monsters in the first place, Christopher Ryan and Dan Starkey are very good as the main Sontarans, the story does right by UNIT and by both companions, and there’s only one weird quasi-American accent on display, which counts as an improvement.
Some stories are nigh impossible to watch now in the same way as we once would have in 2008. Anyone who knows anything about David Tennant’s—or, for that matter, Peter Davison’s—personal life will find watching “The Doctor’s Daughter” a surreal experience, although this does rather distract from the fact that Stephen Greenhorn’s episode is quietly one of the season’s more ambitious stories, as it attempts to make grand thematic statements about the Doctor, his past experiences in the Time War, and his latter-day pacifism, something that comes back in a big way in the season’s concluding two-parter. There’s a lot here that doesn’t work—the absurdly compressed timeframe strains credulity, the episode tries just a bit too hard to make Jenny look cool and awesome, and there really is precious little point for Martha to be there—but the story digs into the 10th Doctor’s character in a way we so rarely saw in the preceding seasons. The Doctor condemns killing because he believes we always have a choice to be better, a fine sentiment that, to my mind, doesn’t line up with the climactic “Man who never would” speech, as it appears to suggest the Doctor is naturally a better man than Cobb, rather than someone who actively decides to be so. I’m more than prepared to acknowledge that likely isn’t the intention of the scene, but this is an instance where the more grandiose aspects of this era—both in the writing and David Tennant’s performance—don’t necessarily serve the objective the scenes.
As for Steven Moffat’s “Silence In The Library”/“Forest Of The Dead,” it’s hard not to watch it now as a part-prologue, part-epilogue to his ongoing tenure as showrunner. It’s the beginning of the Doctor’s interactions with River and the end of River’s interactions with the Doctor (give or take), and Matt Smith’s shadow retroactively looms large over this story. Restricting ourselves to what just occurs on the screen, this is a very good story, only a slight step down from Moffat’s previous three Doctor Who efforts. It’s a structural daring story, not only in terms of River but also in terms of its non-chronological reveal of Cal’s appearance in the “real” world. The Vashta Nerada might honestly be my favorite of Moffat’s monster creations, and not just because of that ominous musical sting that plays every time their (rather awesome-sounding) name is mentioned. The story is let down somewhat by the supporting characters, who tend to be either well-acted or well-written, but not both. The portrayal of Miss Evangelista, who is beautiful but stupid when alive and ugly but brilliant when dead, carries some rather uneasy implications; at best, there is a certain thoughtlessness in her characterization, as the story treats her more as a plot device and something of a narrative flourish than as a fully-realized person. The story as a whole is strong enough to compensate for these issues, but this isn’t quite the unqualified triumph Moffat’s previous three stories were.
And then there’s “Midnight.” This story blew me away when I first watched it in 2008, and it’s only gotten better in the interim. This is the reckoning that this Doctor has been headed for since he first presumed to dictate terms to humanity in “The Christmas Invasion,” and certainly since he found himself unable to fully grasp the human tragedy unfolding around him in “Tooth And Claw.” What stands out about this episode is just how lean and economical it is, and how much it benefits from its lack of budget. The Midnight entity remains so unnerving because we come away from the story no wiser about what it actually is; the possessed Sky Silvestry claims the creature gets inside people’s heads and whispers, but that may actually be a charitable interpretation on the monster’s part. The Doctor suffers because he’s surrounded by a bunch of people who think they know more than they do—everything always gets worse whenever someone ventures an “expert” opinion—and try to order other about, but the Doctor is really the worst offender on that score; his decision to break the entertainment system and force everyone to converse seems charming in the moment, but it’s also a harbinger of his imminent undoing. Without a companion there to mediate between the Doctor and the terrified humans, the situation spins completely out of control; never is Donna’s presence more keenly felt than when she isn’t there. “Midnight” is a masterpiece, a dark and grim but absolutely necessary deconstruction of all that Davies and Tennant had to say about Doctor Who.
I’m less sanguine about “Turn Left,” which is often hailed in similarly lofty terms. Imagining a world without the Doctor is undoubtedly a fantastic premise for a story, although, in practice, the episode sometimes struggles to reconcile the grimness of this ravaged world with the goofiness of the scenarios that brought them about. Jacqueline King and Bernard Cribbins turn in astonishing performances as Sylvia Noble and Wilfred Mott, as the former’s gradual despair and the latter’s sorrowful defiance help anchor the emotional reality of the episode; Catherine Tate is also good, but she has to play the oblivious, obnoxious, pre-Doctor version of Donna, which generally does her few favors. The reintroduction of Rose is oddly handled, with the character largely relegated to delivering mysterious, almost mystical exposition that actually obscures the sharpness of the story’s initial premise. I do get why a lot of fans love “Turn Left”—this is unquestionably one of the show’s most audacious episodes—but it has just never quite worked for me.
For all this season’s considerable creative success, it’s still bookended by a pair of stories that represent Doctor Who—and Russell T. Davies’ conception of Doctor Who in particular—at its most unremittingly bonkers. “Voyage Of The Damned” looks great, and Kylie Minogue is way better than one might have expected her to be as temporary companion Astrid Peth, but rarely is the show quite so schizophrenic in its tone: The story seems to know it’s a Christmas special, so it should aspire to being a fun, family-friendly romp, but it also keeps killing off its supporting characters in increasingly horrific ways. Still, the Christmas special has nothing on “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey’s End,” a vast, freewheeling celebration of all things Doctor Who, including its spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. The story sometimes struggles to find enough for its huge guest cast to do—a shockingly high percentage of the first episode revolves around the characters making a phone call, even if it is a really important phone call—and this story again strands Martha in a rather unappealing solo subplot, but it’s hard to deny the giddy thrill of getting to watch all these characters interact. It’s a particularly nice touch that Dalek creator Davros acknowledges Sarah Jane, who was indeed there for “Genesis Of The Daleks.”
Davros’ attempted condemnation of the Doctor touches on some of the same points the Master raised in “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords,” though this is more directly accusatory. I’ll touch more on Davros’ arguments in next week’s retrospective on the Davies era, but it’s worth pointing out now that the Doctor’s pacifism feels particularly untenable here. Perhaps the clone Doctor was indeed wrong to wipe out the New Dalek Empire, but the story treats this as a given when it is, to say the least, debatable. There’s at least the question of what, precisely, the Doctor would have done with these supremely powerful Daleks if not for his clone’s intervention, but not even the clone mounts any defense for his actions. It’s a rather glib, even imperious dismissal of just the sort of moral dilemma the revived Doctor Who appeared interested in exploring, but then the clone Doctor’s misdeeds here are really just a pretext for his exile in the parallel universe.
Indeed, that brings us to the story’s weak link, which, oddly enough, is Rose. The show has always been so insistent that she’s special, so she can’t just be another member of the Children of Time; she must be by the Doctor’s side, but it turns out that position mostly involves standing around and very occasionally offering exposition. Rose helped build a damn dimensional cannon to get back to the Doctor, which actually does go some way to justifying the show’s high opinion of her. But that big development is relayed in a single line of dialogue, which rather blunts its impact. In practice, even Jackie and Mickey find more natural, active places in this story; Rose is only really there so that she can be paired off with the Doctor’s half-human clone. In isolation, I have no particular objection to that development, but the story doesn’t really lay the groundwork for it. Whatever the ultimate outcome, the Doctor initially requests Rose be his clone’s glorified jailor, asking her to take on the job of helping him atone for his genocide when it really feels like that ought to be the Doctor’s own responsibility. There’s a way that Rose and the clone Doctor’s pairing could work, but neither is given sufficient agency in the buildup to their big kiss. Ultimately, Rose’s return feels more driven by a need to give the character a happy ending than by Davies having anything new to say about the character.
And that takes us back to what season four was always about: the companions. It’s hard not to come away from this season with the sense that the show plays favorites, though I waver on how fair that assessment really is. The show does throw narrative caution to the wind so that Rose can get her heart’s desire—or at least a half-human clone of same—whereas Martha spends most of the Dalek invasion by herself trying to blow up the planet, but then this season as a whole does make such efforts to recognize her mishandling the previous year by having the Doctor better articulate his feelings of both gratitude and regret. The role Martha plays here still isn’t perfect, as her work with UNIT—even her non-Osterhagen activities—suggest someone who has lost her way; there’s a reason Captain Jack suggests she should find somewhere better to work, and not just because it was still hoped at that stage that she and Mickey would appear in the upcoming Children Of Earth miniseries. But even if Martha is often used more as a contrast to Rose and Donna than as a character in her own right, at least that’s because she remains the only one of the three to realize that all stories must end, and there are consequences to assuming travels with the Doctor can last forever.
And, on that note, Donna. She is such a wonderful companion throughout the season, someone whose natural brashness and complete romantic disinterest in the Doctor—seriously, the man’s so skinny, hugging him gives you a paper cut—makes her the perfect complement for this Doctor. After two seasons in which the Doctor and Rose and then the Doctor and Martha did such wonderful things but whose pairings sometimes brought out their worst qualities, the Doctor and Donna bring out the best in each other. That’s why I frankly try to forget that her story ends with her memories of traveling in the TARDIS—and, by extension, all her character development since “The Runaway Bride”—being forcibly removed by the Doctor in an effort to save her from the crushing weight of a Time Lord mind. Even before then, her initial transformation in the wake of the meta-crisis doesn’t quite sit right; I get that her newly unleashed genius is meant to stand in stark opposition to her previous lack of technical aptitude, but the development still feels like it undercuts her self-esteem issues throughout the season by just making her magically a genius, rather than definitively proving that she was good enough already.
That’s a finicky critique, I admit, and it’s her memory wipe that remains truly troublesome. Donna never explicitly says that, given the only two options before her, she would rather die as she is now than live as she once was, but her repeated cries of “No!” do rather imply that she would make that choice, but the Doctor makes the decision for her. “Journey’s End” manages to somewhat earn this brutal moment with the subsequent scene, in which the Doctor tells Wilf and Sylvia what has happened, with the latter finally making it clear just how much her daughter means to her. It’s a sad, tense parting, but it’s about Donna, whereas the final scene in the rain pivots Donna’s memory wipe so that it’s more about the Doctor. Admittedly, it’s not really possible to have a character whose memories have just been removed comment on the tragedy of their own situation, but that perhaps points to the fact that it was never really possible to end the season with an involuntary mind wipe that does right by both Doctor and Donna. Doctor Who’s fourth season really doesn’t end well—depending on which aspect I focus on, it might even crash and burn—but this is a run of stories where the journey is so much better and so much more important than the destination. As the Doctor tells the Donna, they had the best of times. I’m just not crazy about the moment when he chooses to say it.
My non-graded, highly scientific rankings of each story:
- Stone-Cold Classic: “The Fires Of Pompeii,” “Midnight”
- Not Perfect But Still Pretty Great: “Planet Of The Ood,” “Silence In The Library”/“The Forest Of The Dead”
- Solid Enough If Generally Unremarkable: “Partners In Crime,” “The Sontaran Stratagem”/“The Poison Sky,” “The Unicorn And The Wasp”
- Some Interesting Ideas But Seriously Flawed: “The Doctor’s Daughter”
- Totally Get Why People Love It So Much But It Just Doesn’t Quite Work For Me: “Turn Left”
- What Was That I Don’t Even…: “Voyage Of The Damned,” “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey’s End”
- Say what you will about the payoff to season three—I mean, that’s exactly what I did last week—but I do think that season was better than this one in how it handled its mysteries. Outside the Face of Boe’s cryptic message and the mentions of Harold Saxon, the setup for the Master’s return was laid in subtly, so that major plot elements didn’t appear to just be there to support later storylines. The significance of the professor’s work in “The Lazarus Experiment” or the subsequent importance of the fob watch in “Human Nature”/“The Family Of Blood” isn’t really even foreshadowed in the initial stories, with the puzzle only snapping together at the very end. This season, on the other hand, is dominated by prophecies and predestination; the mysteries of the disappearing planets is handled well enough, but the show crowbars in a few too many stilted references to disappearing bees, the thing on Donna’s back, and Rose’s return. All these early allusions place still more pressure on the finale to pay them off satisfactorily, which doesn’t exactly help the two-parter’s case.
- Rose rather notoriously doesn’t sound right in “Turn Left” and, to a lesser extent, the concluding two-parter. Billie Piper has since admitted she forgot how to do Rose’s voice after season two. While I do think this criticism is slightly overblown, I’ll admit that it does rather obscure what I think Piper was going for in “Turn Left,” where she seemed to be playing Rose as even more like the Doctor than ever before.
And now, relive season 4 with each episode’s chosen quote:
- “I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m 903 years old, and I’m the man who’s going to save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?”
- “I just want a mate!” “You’re not mating with me, sunshine!”
- “What’d he buy a big blue wooden box for?”… “Modern art!”
- “It’s weird, being with you, I can’t tell what’s right and what’s wrong anymore.” “It’s better that way.”
- “Listen to me. The killing. After a while, it infects you. And once it does, you’re never rid of it.”
- “With all this technology you could, oh, I don’t know. Move to another planet.” “If only that was possible.” “If only that ‘were’ possible. Conditional clause.”
- “Times like this, I could do with the Brigadier.”
- “But isn’t that a bit weird? Agatha Christie didn’t walk around surrounded by murders. Not really. I mean that’s like meeting Charles Dickens and he’s surrounded by ghosts. At Christmas.” “Well...”
- “Got a problem with archaeologists?” “I’m a time traveler. I point and laugh at archaeologists.”
- “Someone somewhere in this Library is alive and communicating with the moon. Or, possibly alive and drying their hair.”
- “Taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight: What could possibly go wrong?”
- “Well, I just have to run up to myself and have a good argument.” “I’d like to see that!”
- “Are you saying bees are aliens?” “Don’t be so daft! Not all of them.”
- “And for one moment, one shining moment, she was the most important woman in the whole wide universe.” “She still is. She’s my daughter.” “Then maybe you should tell her that once in a while.”
“The Next Doctor” (season 4, episode 14; originally aired 12/25/2008)
“Complete and utter, wonderful nonsense. How very, very silly. Oh, no. I can’t bear it. Oh, it’s causing my head to ache!”
That’s not the best quote from “The Next Doctor,” admittedly. The eponymous future Doctor who isn’t really a future Doctor gets his fair share of florid, ornate dialogue, all of which filter the Doctor’s core heroic qualities through the addled mind of a Victorian gentleman. The Doctor himself shows particular compassion, even kinship towards Jackson Lake, whom the Doctor recognizes as a worthy inheritor of the title, if only temporarily. And, silly a gag as it may well be, I’ll admit I’m rather fond of next Doctor’s TARDIS: “Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style!” But the quote up top, which Jackson delivers as he gazes upon the Doctor’s actual TARDIS, doubles as an apt summation of what “The Next Doctor” so often is. There’s a rather lovely, well-observed story to be told here about a man who loses everything he cares about and, through one hell of an unlikely turn of events, assumes the identity of the Doctor, heroic Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. At its best, “The Next Doctor” pulls off the tricky balancing act of using Jackson Lake to explore the iconography of the Doctor while still honoring his pain and his tragedy. Maybe this still wouldn’t represent Doctor Who at its very best, but Jackson Lake’s story is rather more ambitious than anything we’ve seen in the three preceding Christmas specials.
The trouble is that the mystery of the next Doctor is, by itself, a relatively small-scale story, one that could perhaps sustain a regular-length Doctor Who episode but can’t stretch to a full hour. Indeed, the Doctor is more or less convinced that his apparent successor is an impostor about 15 minutes in, and he reveals the truth to the heartbroken Jackson before the 30-minute mark. That still leaves the second half of the episode, which really ought to be about something. The “something,” in this case, is the CyberKing, a gargantuan, Cyberman-controlled ship that rampages through Victorian London and looks worryingly like one of the final bosses in a ‘90s-era video game; my instinct is to say something out of one of the later Sonic The Hedgehog installments, but I’m no expert. In fairness, the production team does seem to recognize there’s no way to portray such a creature convincingly, so the design leans in to its inherent steampunk goofiness.
But this is where we get into the same kind of tonal whiplash that gave the previous Christmas special, “Voyage Of The Damned,” such trouble. “The Next Doctor” tries to take seriously the very real suffering of both the heroic Jackson Lake and the villainous Mercy Hartigan, but it also wants to tell a big, epic story about the Cybermen invading the London of 1851. The trouble is that the Cybermen of the new series are, if not exactly a big joke, then at least not monsters that are consistently taken seriously. The second season’s “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel” showed the full body horror of the Cybermen in a way that the classic series had never been able to, but the two-parter couldn’t entirely resist noting the essential ridiculousness of a bunch of humans turning themselves into robots and plotting to conquer the world. Their return appearance in “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” portrayed them as instant conquerors, but of an oddly clueless sort, apparently unable to understand why humans would not welcome conversion.
There’s a way to portray such reactions as a particularly sick manifestation of a kind of childlike innocence, but such disquieting inhumanity works much better with the cloth faces and singsong voices of the original Cybermen in “The Tenth Planet.” Here, when these Cybermen say things like “Diagnosis, system failure!” or “That was designated… a lie,” they sound rather like a bunch of robots trying to be deadpan, or like antivirus software in the midst of a midlife crisis. It’s all a little too silly, and the Cyberleader with the visible brain and the ridiculously puffed-out metallic chest doesn’t help matters. In their way, the Cybermen are the ideal Christmas foes; they can sustain a large-scale confrontation worthy of the episode’s hour-long running time, but they don’t present the Doctor with a real threat like the Daleks do. As with his two previous encounters with them, the 10th Doctor only takes as long as he does to defeat them because he wandered into this mess so late in the game. The Cybermen are troublesome, and their reputation as the show’s second greatest villains means the Doctor must speak of them in at least slightly hushed tones, but creatures of such pure logic never really stand a chance. Not on such a proudly emotional show as Doctor Who.
The assumption I keep making here is that a Christmas special is different from the typical episode; there are those like “The Christmas Invasion” that use its extended length to issue in major changes for the series, but the more typical Christmas special tries to tell a somewhat simpler, more family-friendly story that is mindful of the show’s expanded yuletide audience. On that point, I’m at least in line with the thinking of the production team when I say that. Russell T. Davies’ successor Steven Moffat summed it up nicely in an interview conducted in anticipation of the 2012 Christmas special, “The Snowmen,” where he observed, “You’re very aware of the time of year, and the noisy, sugared-up, slightly tipsy household. Sometimes we play along with something a bit frothier.” The challenge is that Doctor Who is already pretty damn frothy under normal circumstances, so how does one make the show even bigger, brighter, and bolder than it already is? Such consciously family-friendly storytelling can clash with the outsize stakes, and that’s what happens with Miss Hartigan.
In the podcast commentary for “The Next Doctor,” Davies explains that the character was the victim of sexual abuse, and that this trauma informed her anger at the world and her hatred of men in particular. Davies consciously downplayed this part of the backstory in the script—honestly, I didn’t pick up on it at all while watching the story, though it made perfect sense once I learned of it—out of deference to the show’s younger viewers. Based on what we’ve seen over the last four seasons, such tricky material could, at the very least, have been referenced obliquely in a regular episode, but Mercy’s past is inappropriate for a Christmas special. I don’t necessarily disagree with that decision, but it left Davies with practically zero margin for error in providing Miss Hartigan with some complexity, in making her more than just an irrationally hateful villain. Dervla Kirwan does what she can with the character, but, with such a vital aspect of her character’s past left undiscussed, Mercy too often veers into pantomime territory.
Really, “The Next Doctor” is a mess, a story undone by clashing tones and creative imperatives; I actually like this one considerably more than “The Runaway Bride” or “The Voyage Of The Damned,” but it’s a good illustration of why it’s so difficult to get right the “frothy” kind of Christmas special. (In nearly a decade of new Doctor Who, I’d say the show has only really managed it on one occasion, but that one occasion was enough to validate the entire form.) The very qualified success of this particular special is attributable almost entirely to Jackson Lake, played with considerable gusto by British television veteran—and future Walking Dead governor—David Morrissey. Watching “The Next Doctor” now with the full knowledge of the next Doctor’s true identity, it’s impressive to see how Morrissey plays the character leading up to the reveal. Borrowing some of David Tennant’s own approach to the Doctor’s duality, Morrissey drops hints pretty much from his first scene that the next Doctor’s seemingly uncomplicated heroism, even bravado, hides a terrible pain. It’s a consciously showy performance, but then the whole point of the character is that it is a performance, Jackson Lake’s way of avoiding having to face the truth.
Before we properly meet Jackson, the next Doctor looks and acts like a pastiche of what people think the Doctor is like, an amalgamation of characteristics and sartorial choices that are associated with the vague idea of the Doctor but don’t really line up with any specific incarnation. Morrissey is effectively asked to play a generic version of the Doctor, an incarnation that conveys all of the Doctor’s instantly recognizable traits without any of the specific quirks that would make him truly distinctive. After the damaged, leather-jacketed 9th Doctor and the mercurial, pinstripe-suited 10th Doctor, Jackson Lake feels like something both more recognizable and more boring: He’s just another Doctor. (Indeed, he’s actually not unlike Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor in that respect, but that’s more down to the rather thin character work of the TV movie than anything else.)
Not that any of that is such a bad thing. Much like his encounter with the 5th Doctor in “Time Crash,” the 10th Doctor displays such joy at the prospect of meeting his future self. Without a companion around to dig out the Doctor’s feelings—indeed, it’s technically the Doctor who is Jackson’s companion here—the audience is left to infer just what the appearance of this future incarnation means to him, but his few specific lines on the subject indicate a general happiness, perhaps even relief, that the Doctor’s story doesn’t end with him, that there’s still a whole new lifetime’s worth of discoveries ahead of him. After the Doctor reveals the truth to Jackson, it’s truly sweet how much pride he takes in this human who would be Doctor. As he points out, to be the Doctor is not simply to possess his memories. To be the Doctor, even if only temporarily, requires ingenuity and bravery, compassion and selflessness.
Jackson Lake has all these qualities in abundance, and he emerges from his experience not only able to recognize when the Doctor has used the dimension vault to transfer the wreckage of the CyberKing into the time vortex so that it can harmlessly disintegrate, but also when it is time to insist the Doctor take a break from his broken hearts and join some friends for Christmas dinner. For all the silliness and the strangeness of the preceding hour, that’s a sentiment that “The Next Doctor” earns. Or perhaps we were just overdue for a Doctor Who Christmas special that ended on an unreservedly optimistic note. Merry Christmas indeed, Doctor.
- While it’s probably gilding the lily a bit to actually call Jackson Lake’s companion Rosita, I do rather like Velile Tshabalala’s work in the role. Even more than Jackson himself, Rosita very much feels like a person of 1851, albeit one that has long since learned there is no nothing to be gained by her acting like a meek, retiring Victorian lady. There isn’t a ton to her character, honestly, but she’s still rather good.
- This Week In Mythos: This episode features the first archival appearance of the first eight Doctors in the new series, something that would become far more common during Matt Smith’s tenure.
- At the risk of a cryptic spoiler, I do rather wonder whether Jackson Lake remembered even more about the Doctor than even the Time Lord himself realizes, given the man’s decision to don a bandolier for the war with the Cybermen. Of course, that could only ever be a retcon, but it’s an intriguing thought.
Next week: It’s all gone much too quickly, but I’ll be finishing off the Doctor Who rewind with a look at “Planet Of The Dead.” This is one of only two episodes of the new series that isn’t on Netflix, for some reason, but you can still watch it on Hulu or Amazon. I’ll also have some closing thoughts on the significance of Russell T. Davies’ time in charge of Doctor Who, and I imagine I’ll also squeeze in a few quick thoughts on “The Waters Of Mars” and “The End Of Time.”