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Doctor Who: The Next Doctor

This is nonsense.

That’s one word for it.

Complete and utter wonderful nonsense. Very very silly.

– The “Doctors”

The Doctor Who Christmas special is an annual institution on this side of the Atlantic. Every Christmas Day for the last five years, Christmas dinner has been followed by a sit down to catch up with David Tennant’s time-travelling hero in the yuletide season. These episodes are generally well-constructed popcorn fodder with huge setpieces, great performances, some clever ideas and fairly straightforward plotting – they generally can’t compare to some of the more adventurous episodes of the series. The Next Doctor continues this trend – while it lacks the blockbuster feel of The Voyage of the Damned or the intimacy of The Christmas Invasion, it benefits from added pathos. It isn’t the best episode the show has given us (it isn’t even the best of the season of ‘specials’ produced), but it is a solidly entertaining hour-long programme.

Do too many Doctors spoil a special?

The core concept of The Next Doctor is a copout. As anyone who has googled the show in the past year will know, David Morrissey is not – in fact – the next Doctor. He isn’t succeeding David Tennant. The show initially went out with quite a bit of speculation being that he would be the next actor in the role, unveiled in the special – basically that this would be part of the show’s long-term tradition of what are known as multi-Doctor episodes, but with the twist that one of the multiple incarnations of the character had not been seen yet, a future version rather than a past version.

This is clearly not the case – and the episode arguably works much better without that speculation riding upon it. Rather than serving as introduction to a version of the lead who would take the reigns in years to come, it becomes an interesting mystery. Just who exactly is this man who swaggers around London claiming to be the Doctor? Why isn’t his sonic screwdriver… well, sonic? How come he can’t remember anything? How come he doesn’t recognise the tenth incarnation of the Doctor?

This riddle is the heart of the episode. Even before the answer is offered halfway through, there’s a great deal of fun to be had with Ten meeting this strange, yet familiar, individual. Ten believes that he is partnered with himself. And there’s some well-deserved joy in that, particularly for a man who just had to abandon his last companion because she was incapable of being him – the ‘meta-crisis’ burned her alive. There’s a whole host of smiling and chuckling. Even as the facts of the situation come clear, both to the character and the audience, there is still a sense of hope and joy a rebirth. Afterall, this man has been inspired to build his own TARDIS. That’s got to be a slight ego boost, right?

Of course, a rebirth can only follow some form of death. In order to truly transform, we must change – and to change, we must die. That’s Christmas right there, a birth which is meaningless without the death. All tied together in a big bow. And then the pathos set in. Because this new Doctor is one borne of tragedy, as perhaps a Doctor must be. He too has lost his world, in a manner of speaking.

And that’s the real beauty of the episode right there. The heartbreak and the tragedy which sit right in the middle. The last half descends into typical bombastic fare (and, to be honest, the special effects don’t quite do the story justice at the climax), with its larger-than-life characters, its excuse to allow David Tennant to utter “I’m sorry” and an extravagant setpiece.

That isn’t to diminish any of these factors. It’s well-directed, well-staged and well-acted. In particular a well choreographed Cyberman-strike in a snowy graveyard looks stunning and the Cyber-King offers a wonderfully steam punk concept which perfectly compliments the setting. I’m not too sure on the special’s bad guy – Miss Mercy Hartigan. Dervla Kirwan gives it her best, but when her villainous dialogue devolves into statements like “… another man come to assert himself against me in the night” you get the sense that there’s really nothing that could be done to make the character workable.

Still, it isn’t Kirwan we’re here to see – it’s the ever-wonderful David Morrissey. He gives his character depth and feeling, managing the sort of scenery-chewing we imagine we need from the title character, but also provided a vulnerability and heart. He talks a good talk, but it’s really the subtle nuances of Morrissey’s performance which clues the audience into the fact that things just ain’t quite right. He has great chemistry with Tennant, but that seems to be something that could be said of any of his companions (save maybe Lady Christine, but we’ll talk about that when we get to Planet of the Dead).

Tennant himself is on flying form (is he ever not?) and it’s great to see him almost relegated to the companion role for the first half of the episode (even though he ends up steering their investigation any way), which offers a glimpse of the potential of the “no-companions” series of specials. Unfortunately it isn’t really developed much further in subsequent specials, but it is an interesting idea.

The Next Doctor isn’t a perfect episode. It isn’t an essential episode. But it’s a fun episode. It cleverly foreshadows the themes which echo through Tennant’s final year as the lead character, albeit in a subtle and unobtrusive manner. We can discuss elsewhere if that was the best way to do things, but it does do exactly what it set out to: it offers an entertaining sixty minutes of television with just the right balance of fun and pathos. What more could you want on Christmas?

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