To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.
The Next Doctor originally aired in 2008.
Oh, goodness me. Well. But this is… but this is nonsense.
Well, that’s one word for it.
Complete and utter, wonderful nonsense. How very, very silly.
– Jackson Lake and the Doctor
The Next Doctor actually has a pretty audacious concept. It’s one gigantic tease that plays off the audience’s media savvy. Airing after David Tennant’s departure from the role had been announced, but before Matt Smith had been named as Tennant’s successor, The Next Doctor is one gigantic tease. Like the surprise “regeneration” at the climax of The Stolen Earth, it’s a shrewd attempt to turn the audience’s expectations against themselves.
After all, the gap between an announced departure of an existing lead and the point where he actually leaves is rife for experimentation – particularly in a show about time travel. Up until The Next Doctor actually aired, it was quite possible that David Morrissey was Tennant’s successor, and The Next Doctor was a rather clever twist on the classic “multi-Doctor” story by having the Doctor team up with his future self.
Of course, as with The Doctor’s Daughter, Davies was just teasing. It’s to Davies’ credit that The Next Doctor remains interesting even after the illusion begins to slip. The first half is actually a wonderfully solid mystery and character study, albeit one that descends into confusion and chaos in the second half of the episode.
One of the problems with The Doctor’s Daughter was that it never really did anything with its central concept. “The Doctor’s clone” might have been a compelling story hook, but the episode had too much going on to focus on Jenny as a character in her own right. Instead, the episode promptly killed her off so the Doctor could tidy away loose ends, reviving her just before the credits so that it might not look as cynical as it initially appeared. (Ironically making it appear even more cynical.)
Here, at least, the mystery of Jackson Lake is interesting. Once you get past the media-baiting title and the obvious attempt at misdirection, the core story of The Next Doctor works quite well in concept. It’s a very clever twist on a multi-Doctor story, with the Doctor meeting a version of him that isn’t actually him. It’s also a rather nice character piece, exploring the influence of the Doctor (and his monsters) on a world inhabited by ordinary people.
Jackson Lake’s story is wonderfully tragic. He’s a man who just happened to stumble into the wrong place at the wrong time, and got caught up in events so much larger than his ordinary life. It’s very much a staple of the Davies era, this idea of the collision between the ordinary world and the world inhabited by the Doctor. Jackson Lake loses his family at the hands of inhuman monsters and so tries desperately to reinvent himself as something strong enough to withstand that loss, something that can endure that suffering.
There’s the inference that the Doctor is a character who is informed and driven by his own losses and his own suffering. Lake is able to dismiss his own nightmares by projecting them onto the psyche of the Doctor, who must be used to such tragedies at this point. “With all the things a Time Lord has seen, everything he’s lost, he may surely have bad dreams,” Jackson assures Rosita when she starts talking about his night terrors. It’s a nice idea, the idea that the Doctor is driven to heroism by the horror he has seen and the losses he has suffered. The Doctor can’t just be a regular man, because a regular man would crack under all that pressure.
The Doctor, on the other hand, is larger-than-life, and has the capacity to escape even the most horrific of tragedies. “I can depart in the Tardis once London is safe,” Jackson tells the Doctor. “And finally, when I’m up there… think of it, John… the time and the space.” The Doctor recognises the escapism immediately. “The perfect escape.” Does he recognise it because he sees it in himself? Davies’ version of the Doctor is a version of the character constantly running from his past – so it makes sense that he should feel some measure of empathy with Jackson Lake.
And, of course, The Next Doctor reinforces the idea that the Doctor is a character who improves the people around him – that he’s a good influence, “the man who makes people better.” This is a recurring motif of the Davies era, where the Doctor inspired Rose to save the world, Martha to save U.N.I.T., Jack to save Torchwood and so on. The Next Doctor reveals that even the idea of the Doctor is enough to turn Jackson Lake into a heroic figure.
Granted, he might not be so good at the larger things. One wonders how he might have dealt with the CyberKing, for example. However, Jackson is undoubtedly a hero on a smaller scale. He saved Rosita from the Cybermen, and that act of heroism is enough to make a strong case for the positive influence of the Doctor. He inspires Jackson Lake to be a proactive hero working to save the city of London. And that alone is worth celebrating.
Unfortunately, it’s also where The Next Doctor begins to fall apart. Jackson Lake is allowed to drive the action of the story until the half-way point. The Doctor himself is willing to sit back and play “John Smith”, occasionally steering the investigation from the background, but allowing Jackson Lake the chance to be the hero. This is a nice idea, and it allows the Doctor to witness his legacy first hand. At the start, he believes that he is watching his future self in action; later, he believes he’s watching some tribute to himself in action.
However, once the mystery of Jackson Lake has been solved, the character is pushed firmly into the background. The Doctor starts driving the action. The Doctor faces down the Cybermen, the Doctor confronts Mercy, the Doctor sends the CyberKing back into the Void. Jackson Lake is reduced from protagonist to cheerleader, leading the city of London in a round of applause for the heroic Doctor. Even the rescue of Jackson’s young son – which seems like a contrivance to prevent The Next Doctor from ever getting too dark – feels like an afterthought. The should be Jackson’s big heroic moment. Instead, it’s just something that happens.
Which is a shame, because there’s a lot to like here. David Morrissey is pretty great as Jackson Lake – both the broken man and the would-be Doctor. Lake’s back story is tragic and moving, and smart enough that The Next Doctor never really feels like a gimmick. For the first half of The Next Doctor, it’s a clever twist on an old idea, and it’s executed with enough skill that it doesn’t feel like a cynical gimmick on the part of Russell T. Davies.
Of course, the whole episode does fall apart in the second half, as Davies finds himself beholden to the rules of the Doctor Who Christmas special. Character-driven storytelling takes a back seat to spectacle, the darker story beats are pasted over, the plot becomes driven by familiar festive set pieces. So Jackson finds his son in a knock off of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Doctor faces a dodgy CGI robot over Victorian London. (The CGI is particularly ropey, with the robot clearly standing on the Thames.)
The second half of The Next Doctor loses the character hooks that helped keep The Christmas Invasion and The Runaway Bride reasonably grounded even amid the heightened spectacle. And the scale of the adventure can’t quite compete with the scale of Voyage of the Damned, even if Voyaged of the Damned never really delivered on its own sense of scale. As a result, the second half of The Next Doctor is the most disjointed and unsatisfying of the Tennant-era Christmas specials, barring The End of Time. It’s a shame that the first half is so strong.
The character of Mercy Hartigan doesn’t help matters. Again, there’s a lot here that could work. Davies writes a lot of ambiguity into the character, and Dervla Kirwan does the best that she can with the material. The scene where she shows up at a funeral dressed a vibrant red dress is quite striking. At the same time, she’s woefully under-developed. This isn’t a problem of itself, but it becomes a problem when Davies starts heavily implying sexual abuse in her history.
Hartigan is a misandrist, with a clear disdain for men. “The CyberKing will rise, indeed,” she muses. “How like a man.” She makes any number of sinister comments about how she hates men as a gender. Which is a little shallow as villainous motivations go, and perhaps a little heavy for what amounts to a light Christmas special. This by itself might be troubling, but then Davies begins to hint at possible explanations and justifications for Hartigan’s actions.
It isn’t just greed or resentment of the social fabric of Victorian London, as hinted at in her line about being the “humble servant” of wealthy patrons “visiting, smiling, bestowing [their] beneficence upon the poor while [she] scrubbed down their filthy beds.” It’s something deeper. “Your mind is riven with anger and abuse and revenge,” the Cybermen tell her. When the Doctor shows up to challenge her, Mercy has no patience for his intervention. “Excellent,” she remarks, cynically. “The Doctor. Yet another man come to assert himself against me in the night.”
While this is a Christmas special of a family television show, but the direction that Davies is hinting towards is quite clear. Hartigan is a survivor of abuse, and who has built up a massive amount of resentment and anger as a result of that abuse. It’s a rather nuanced and deep topic for any show to handle – packing it into an over-stuffed Christmas special in which your abuse survivor marches across London in a giant killer robot is asking for trouble.
The use of the Cybermen is interesting here. On the one hand, the Cybermen are very clearly window dressing here. They are a convenient returning adversary designed to add to the show’s steampunk aesthetic. Setting The Next Doctor in the Victorian era was an inspired idea, and using the Cybermen as villains is quite a clever idea on the surface. (Given how poorly “art deco Daleks” worked in Evolution of the Daleks, it’s understandable that the Daleks weren’t the first choice here.)
At the same time, The Next Doctor continually reaffirms the idea that the Cybermen are really just a crap knock-off version of the Daleks. They are Daleks without the back story. They are more convenient to use and don’t have the same narrative heft. Inserting the Daleks into The Next Doctor would distort Davies’ story too much. The Cybermen can be slipped in with a minimum amount of disruption, because… well, they’re really a bit crap, aren’t they?
Which is really the story of the Cybermen, isn’t it? They are handy to use in cases where it’s not feasible to use the Daleks. The Dalek cameo in The Waters of Mars only really works because it’s a flashback. The Moffat era features more than its fair share of Dalek cameos in episodes like The Big Bang or The Wedding of River Song, but these are very small appearances. In contrast, the Cybermen can be used a lot more freely because the lack the narrative weight of the Daleks.
The Daleks are a pretty big deal. You couldn’t use the Daleks as the villains in The Next Doctor or Closing Time, because they’d warp the narrative and become its focal point. The Next Doctor couldn’t be about Jackson Lake any longer and Closing Time wouldn’t be about Craig Owens. In contrast, the revived Cybermen are a bit pants. They are iconic bad guys who can be used in just about any circumstance without their return being “a big deal” of itself. There’s a reason that Army of Ghosts ends with the reveal of the Daleks rather than the Cybermen.
It’s worth making the point that this isn’t an unfair comparison. Despite the attempt to reinvent the Cybermen in Nightmare in Silver, the Cybermen haven’t really been effective antagonists with their own identity since early in the Troughton era. Instead, they’ve become monsters that are recognisable to the viewing public, but not as iconic as the Daleks. (In fact, what is The Invasion but an attempt to evoke the striking imagery – monsters marching on London – of The Dalek Invasion of Earth but with Cybermen instead of Daleks?)
The Next Doctor concedes this point. It makes it clear that the Cybermen invading Victorian London is just a hangover from the Daleks’ attempt to destroy reality in Journey’s End. This isn’t even a big threat on its own terms, it’s the aftershock from a much bigger confrontation. The Next Doctor is really the Doctor doing “mop up” work. The Cybermen aren’t a big enough deal to have returned from the Void on their own strength.
“A long time away, and not so far from here, the Cybermen were fought, and they were beaten,” the Doctor explains. “And they were sent into a howling wilderness called The Void, locked inside forever more. But then a greater battle rose up, so great that everything inside the Void perished. But, as the walls of the world weakened, the last of the Cybermen must have fallen through the dimensions, back in time, to land here.”
Quite a lot of The Next Doctor is built around reinforcing the idea that the Cybermen are really just less threatening versions of the Daleks. “The Cybermen’s database,” the Doctor muses. “Stolen from the Daleks inside the Void, I’d say, but it’s everything you could want to know about the Doctor.” They can’t even gather their own intelligence. “A Dimension Vault,” the Doctor assesses, examining some technology. “Stolen from the Daleks again. That’s how the Cybermen travelled through time.” Again, the Cybermen are just a wee bit crap.
Indeed, like their appearance in Closing Time, the Cybermen turn out to be exceedingly easy to defeat. The power of raw human emotions is enough to dominate and over-power them. Mercy Hartigan’s hatred and anger is enough to fry the entire Cyber consciousness – to the point where the Cybermen aren’t really the enemies of the episode, they’re just a convenient tool to set the Doctor against Mercy Hartigan inside a giant battle robot, as you do.
If the Doctor hadn’t been around, Mercy would still have dominated the Cybermen. In Closing Time, Craig has to let himself be captured and processed in order to defeat the Cybermen. For all that Moffat might argue that the Daleks are the most reliably defeatable monsters in the universe, at least their own plans don’t typically lead to their destruction. It’s no wonder that the Cybermen needed a solid reboot in Nightmare in Silver to try and make them scary again.
(It’s also worth noting that The Next Doctor demonstrates the absurdity of the Davies-era approach to recurring monsters. The Doctor’s tendency to wipe out every major threat that he faces means there always has to be an absurd contrivance to bring them back again – as they must inevitably come back. For all the problems with Victory of the Daleks, Moffat quite shrewdly avoids this. In the Moffat era, there’s a sense that entire Dalek and Cyberman empires span the cosmos again, making it less awkward to have the Doctor simply run into them for the umpteenth time.)
The Next Doctor is an episode with a great premise and some wonderful performances, but it’s let down by the fact that the second half must become a conventional Christmas special.
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