The publicity surrounding The Next Doctor was all about David Morrissey: was he the next incarnation of the Doctor? It was a little disappointing to see this idea thrown away so soon in the episode. Even before the opening titles the cat is out of the bag, with the fake Doctor brandishing an ordinary screwdriver instead of a sonic. Tennant’s sideways glance is beautifully timed, but does not fit in well with the first half of the episode, with the Doctor painfully slow on the uptake. When he uses the name ‘John Smith’, Jackson does not react at all. Memory loss or no memory loss, that alias has been part of the Doctor’s identity since his second body. Later in the episode the Doctor checks Jackson’s heart and completely fails to notice that (a) it is beating at a human speed, and (b) there’s only one of them!
The other problem with this episode is the Cybermen. They are potentially the scariest monster of all time, but it is astonishing how many missed opportunities there have been. This particular version of them, the Cybusmen, although far better than anything post-Sixties, have never quite managed to have the same sort of impact as the Daleks. There have been several attempts to expand the concept of Cybermen over the years, with Cybermats, Controllers, Planners, etc. Here we have two new additions to the Cyber family: the Cyber Shades and the Cyber King. The Shades are a very good idea and are quite effective. Budgetary limitations aside, they might have worked better as CGI creations – lightening fast shadowy formless figures with Cyber faces – now that really would have been scary. Instead, the CGI budget is spent on the Cyber King. There’s no denying that he’s impressive, but he is so destructive that it stretches credulity to the limit. When faced with the reality of there being no historical record of the events of this episode, the Doctor just says, ‘yeah, funny that,’ as if it’s a mere curiosity that the destruction of dozens of buildings in London and the deaths of countless people under the feet of a giant robot has been completely forgotten. With every step it takes (let alone the weapon it fires) there must have been death and destruction on an epic scale.
Jackson Lake in his Doctor persona is a fascinating character. Oddly, he is almost a caricature of the Doctor people think they remember, or how the Doctor was perceived by the media before the new series. Unfortunately this does not reflect well on Doctor Who as a whole, not helped by showing us a version of the Doctor who is sexist: ‘this is hardly work for a woman’. It is a bit like a throwback to the First or Third Doctors, but even then it’s like a version of them the media might think existed but rarely did. ‘The Doctor’s companion does what the Doctor says.’ Since when? Just who is Jackson remembering, because if there’s one thing you can’t say about the companions, it’s that they are obedient!
If you can get past the flaws in the episode, there is still plenty to enjoy. Jackson’s TARDIS (Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style) is almost as magical as the real thing, and its description ‘the perfect escape’ is a lovely reminder that the real TARDIS was ‘the perfect escape’ for the Doctor as well (from Gallifrey). Better still is the info-stamp that shows us a little flashback of all ten Doctors. What a magnificent treat for the fans, and who would have thought it: 44 years after The Feast of Steven, William Hartnell as the First Doctor was back on TV on Christmas Day again!
Here are some bonus random thoughts about the episode, being as it’s Christmas!
- These Cybermen are the same type as we saw in Rise of the Cybermen and Army of Ghosts. The Doctor explains that they ‘must have fallen through the dimensions, back in time.’ So we have still not seen Cybermen from our universe in New Who at this point.
- ‘Sorry. Really I am so sorry.’ The Apologising Doctor strikes again, twice in this episode.
- The Doctor, being his usual fair self (or perhaps salving his conscience) offers Miss Hartigan a choice. What follows is fascinating, because the Doctor says ‘you made me into this.’ Not ‘do this’, but ‘into this’. So what does she make him ‘into’? A killer? The Oncoming Storm?
- ‘Not once has he ever been thanked.’ This is an exaggeration, but it is a good point. He has certainly never been applauded like this!
- Just what is that Cyberman doing in a cupboard? It is a complete copy of a scene from Terror of the Autons, in which the Doctor opens a safe to reveal an Auton inside. Very exciting, as long as you don’t think about it too much!
- There is a decidedly dodgy subtext concerning Miss Hartigan’s past: ‘yet another man come to assert himself against me in the night.’ We could do without this on Christmas Day, early evening.
- ‘I suppose in the end they break my heart.’ Shouldn’t that be ‘hearts’?
The view from across the pond:
Christmas 2008 saw the start of a weird season of Doctor Who. 5 episodes (or 4 stories, with one as a 2-part story) would be broadcast throughout the 2009 year but it would start with the 2008 Christmas Special, The Next Doctor. All the hype and speculation had us wondering, “Was David Morressey actually the next Doctor?” We knew that these 4 stories would be the end of David Tennant’s run as the Doctor so it was fair speculation. Russell T. Davies had an answer ready for us.
This will be tricky without spoilers and with so much hinging on a question of identity, I don’t want to give anything away.
The Next Doctor is one of my personal favorite Christmas episodes for David Tennant’s run. The Christmas Invasion comes in first, but with the Doctor out of commission for so much of it, it takes a slight “hit” on the ratings! This is an easy second favorite! (When Smith takes over, while his yearly episodes never felt as strong as many of Tennant’s, his Christmas ones seemed far more Christmas-y and rate at the top for me!) But The Next Doctor features the Doctor front and center. Potentially twice. And both versions are magnificent. If Morressey is to take over, he seems to be able to fit the role without any trouble!
Did Morressey do anything wrong? Well, he ruined the Governor for me when I was watching The Walking Dead. He’s so incredibly likable as the titular next Doctor, that I could not get my head around him being anything but magnificent. But while that may have shot down his credibility as a bad guy in The Walking Dead, it’s a testament to his portrayal in Doctor Who. He is utterly believable and that makes the episode. Tennant effectively plays the companion of this later Doctor brilliantly. Their interaction is classic. This is what made The Three Doctors so much fun all those years ago! And there is some physical comedy between these two that further enhances the episode, as they begin their investigation into a Cyberman threat. Translation: every moment these two are on screen together, it’s an utter joy. Sadly, what they are investigating leaves something to be desired.
Yes, the Cyber-story is the bane of the episode. The Cybershades make no sense and are never explained. What were they meant to be? Dogs? Cyber-rodents? Really hairy cyber-vagrants? The idea of the Cyberking is utterly ridiculous and best forgotten. And Miss Hartigan’s lack of conversion is in total contrast to everything we’ve ever seen of the Cybermen which leaves a hole in their plans that is not logical. And you know, Cybermen… logic… they should go hand in hand, what with being cybernetically enhanced people! And what the devil is a Dimension vault? If we can throw things into a dimension vault, why was there so much trouble about that damned Fendahl?? Why not just toss everything into the Dimension vault? It can be like an intergalactic vacuum!
As off the wall as all of that is, the sense of Christmas and the Doctors’ portrayal by both actors still allows this story to rise above the otherwise weak threat. Plus in the end the Doctor has a deeper discussion with his host about traveling alone and having dinner. Suffice to say, this episode is carried 100% by the excellent acting of both Davids.
I’ll compliment Russell for his work on this episode despite the Cybermen by quoting one of the Doctors: “Bravo, sir! Bravo!” ML